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Mood music to both stoke your fears and quell them, while giving your ears one last treat before the man comes around.
10. “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Etta James, 1968.
When James passed away in early 2012, most tributes went straight to “At Last,” But “I’d Rather Go Blind” is a better piece of music by most measures. Aside from being one of the best soul songs ever written and a masterpiece of lyrical economy and suggestion, James turns in a vocal so raw and exposed it practically quivers. This isn’t a song about the apocalypse, but rather a song about how the end of a relationship can feel like the end of the world. It’s a hopeless cliché tackled here with such breathtaking honesty that it reinvents itself.
9. “Sign O’ The Times,” Prince, 1987.
“Sign O’ The Times” is among the most “political” songs Prince has ever written, but it’s more lament than protest. It’s a vision of the 1980s cribbed from tabloid headlines and filtered through paranoia, Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” updated for Reagan, crack and AIDS. “Sign o’ the times, mess with your mind, hurry before it’s too late / let’s fall in love, get married have a baby / and call him Nate (if it’s a boy).” Well, when you put it that way.
8. “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” Jimi Hendrix, 1968.
“I don’t need you no more in this world / I’ll meet you on the next one, so don’t be late,” sings Hendrix, a line frequently heard as foreshadowing his own demise. I take one listen to the guitar on this track and can’t help but feel like he’s foreshadowing everyone else’s. Scorched earth via Fender Stratocaster.
7. “Ain’t The Devil Happy,” Jeru the Damaja, 1994.
Jeru the Damaja’s 1994 album The Sun Rises in the East is an unsung masterpiece of 1990s East Coast hip-hop, one that found an eccentrically cerebral MC teaming up with the peerless DJ Premier to make music that was both staggeringly creative and serious as a heart attack. “Ain’t The Devil Happy” features Premier transforming a sample from Lee Oskar’s schlock instrumental “Our Road” into one of the most ominous beats in all of rap while Jeru turns end-of-days pessimism into poetry.
6. “Written on the Forehead,” PJ Harvey, 2010.
Among the many haunting elements of this stunning track from Harvey’s most recent studio album, Let England Shake, is the strange exuberance with which it greets its themes of destruction and decay. Watching the world crumble with tender indifference, all against a shimmering electro backdrop: “Eyes are crying out for everything / Let it burn, let it burn.”
5. “When The Levee Breaks,” Led Zeppelin, 1971.
The final track on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album is simply one of the most inimitable pieces of rock music ever recorded. Zeppelin’s blues excursions could be notoriously hit-and-miss, but here they explode Memphis Minnie’s classic 1929 flood blues into an epic of fear, churning guitars and the greatest kick drum in recorded music. If aliens ever invade and demand that you explain Led Zeppelin in seven minutes, play them this and watch them run back to their spaceship in terror.
4. “Two Sevens Clash,” Culture, 1977.
The title track to one of the greatest reggae albums ever made, Culture’s Two Sevens Clash is basically a concept album about the apocalypse, based on Marcus Garvey’s prediction that July 7, 1977 would see chaos unleashed throughout the world. The album was so popular in Jamaica that the city of Kingston actually closed down on the day in question, and rightfully so: the end of the world never grooved this hard.
3. “Welcome to the Terrordome,” Public Enemy, 1990.
Imagine Sherman’s March to the Sea but replace Sherman with Eldridge Cleaver and set the whole proceedings to the hardest beat the Bomb Squad ever produced and you’re only just starting to get the idea. This is not music to be argued with.
2. “1 + 1,” Beyonce, 2011.
Written and produced by The-Dream, the only artist to appear on this list twice. Apocalyptic love songs are a rich genre (“Stand By Me” could have gone on this list as well), but the ferocity of Beyonce’s vocal matched with The-Dream’s songwriting and production make this one hard to top. A melodrama of ravishing beauty and a masterpiece of subtle evocation and strange menace. “I don’t know when I’m gonna die / but I hope I’m gonna die by you.” Yikes.
1. “High Water Everywhere, Parts I and II,” Charlie Patton, 1929.
While popular mythology has crowned Robert Johnson the King of the Delta Blues, the designation really belongs to Patton, a figure of similar mystery (only one photo exists) whose legend is nearly as rich. According to lore he was a five-foot-five dynamo whose voice could carry five hundred yards without amplification, a guitar player of such charisma he would sometimes play a single song for an hour straight because nobody listening could stop dancing.
For all we’ll never know about Patton we thankfully still have his recordings, a handful of scratchy 78s that reveal one of the most extraordinary artists in all of American music. Perhaps the greatest of these is “High Water Everywhere,” a flood blues that stretches over two parts and runs six minutes long. Like “When the Levee Breaks,” “High Water Everywhere” was written about the Great Misssissippi Flood of 1927. It’s one of the most viscerally angry pieces of music ever made, Patton’s intensity rising with every devastated Delta town he name-checks: Sumner, Leland, Greenville, Rosedale, Vicksburg, a raging travelogue of lives laid to waste. At its core “High Water Everywhere” is a song about being poor, desperate and forsaken, picking up a guitar and screaming into the face of God. Patton stares down the apocalypse with a steel-eyed, unchecked fury; as last best hopes go, you can’t do much better.
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