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Houston's Very Best Songs Ever

...otherwise known as the H-Town 20

When we originally set about attempting to catalogue a list of Houston's top songs ever, we thought it was a stretch. How could there be a list of ten, much less 100, world-recognized songs from this relative backwater of a music city? In fact, the exact opposite is true. The more you look back through our history, the richer it looks, and the harder it is to keep the list at a reasonable size. Few cities on earth have a more fertile musical heritage.

This was made abundantly plain when we blogged about the project on Houstoned Rocks last month. Debate raged for ten days over the course of a 100-plus-post Internet discussion. No two people hear the city with the same ears, and all have the makings of lists of their own in their heads. One reader wanted a few recent indie rock classics included; others stumped for 1990s punk classics they adored; still others touted cult classics of '70s blues, '50s rockabilly, '60s country and a bevy of Blue October tunes.

I got smacked around for favoring some superstars of 1920s blues over lower-­profile, more recent artists. Others feared the list would be overrun by rap songs and thought that "Bootylicious" deserved little more than scorn.

Let it shine on me:
Bobby “Blue” Bland in his early‑’60s heyday with guitarist Wayne Bennett.
Let it shine on me: Bobby “Blue” Bland in his early‑’60s heyday with guitarist Wayne Bennett.
Townes Van Zandt (left) chills with Lightnin’ Hopkins and wife at the home of Mimi Lomax (second from left).
Townes Van Zandt (left) chills with Lightnin’ Hopkins and wife at the home of Mimi Lomax (second from left).

But the crux of the debate boiled down to this: Would the list be about pure aesthetics — the songs we here at the Press liked the best, regardless of popularity — or would it be an attempt at gathering history?

And the answer is, a little of both, but much more of the latter. The songs had to have some measure of widespread popularity. Tempting as the impulse may be, lists like this are no place to try to spread the word about obscure works of genius.

Perhaps the best way to explain this is to use a sports analogy. This list is intended as a sort of Hall of Fame for Houston songs. In every sport, the Hall of Fame is reserved for those people who best combined talent, hard work and a not-­insignificant amount of dumb luck in their rise to and continued existence atop the very apex of their game.

Sadly, for every Babe Ruth, Earl Campbell or Michael Jordan, there are probably a dozen people just as talented who didn't make it anywhere near as far. Maybe they lost the desire along the way, or maybe they never caught the break they needed at the time it should have come, or maybe they were cut down by an injury.

The same applies to music. For every song on this list, I can think of five others I love just as much, if not more, by people who never sold more than a few hundred or thousand records, or who never played for an audience of more than 300. Of the top 20 in this article, perhaps five or six would make my own personal list. But it is my belief that if we tried to pass off my roll call of personal favorites as the definitive Best Songs from Houston Ever, we would be doing our readers and the music community of this city a disservice.

So, in short, the records on this list are not necessarily our favorite Houston songs, they are our ranking of the world's favorite Houston songs. And for those of you who want to see numbers 21-100, as well as our own self-indulgent lists of our personal favorite Houston songs ever, check out the blog. After all, blogs are all about self-indulgence.

And those of you tired of the relentless positivity in this issue of the Press might want to check out this week's Racket — a list of the ten worst songs in the history of Houston. John Nova Lomax

20."Before the Next Teardrop Falls"

Freddy Fender

Before the Next Teardrop Falls

1974

About ten years ago, Sonny Landreth told me the story of how Huey Meaux and Freddy Fender resurrected each other's careers. Landreth was then living at Meaux's Sugar Hill Studios, sleeping on a pool table and cutting some sessions that wouldn't come out for more than 20 years. The early '70s had not been a particularly fertile period for Meaux or Fender — most of the Crazy Cajun's gold records were behind him, and Fender's status as the Mexican Elvis was one stretch in the army and another in Louisiana's notorious Angola prison behind him.

According to Landreth, Meaux was working late one night when Fender burst in the door, a guitar strapped on his back, a jug of tequila in one hand and a bag of psychedelic mushrooms in the other, and all Meaux could do was wonder, "What de hell I'm gonna do wid Freddy Fender?"

What the two wound up doing was creating two of the most enduring classics of Gulf Coast music — the pop top ten hit "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and the chart-topper "Before the Next Teardrop Falls."

The latter had been a minor country hit for Charley Pride in 1968, and according to Meaux, it almost met the same fate again. In 1989, he told the Chronicle that he launched the record with a desperation $5,000 loan from a Spring Branch bank.

And what an unlikely hit it was. The Fats Domino-influenced swamp pop style had been all but dead and buried since its brief 1950s heyday, and silken-voiced Mexican-American guys from the Valley like Fender were never first and foremost among its stars. A record like this could only have come from Houston. — J.N.L.

19. "Just Dropped In (To See What ­Condition My Condition Was In)"

Kenny Rogers & the First Edition

First Edition

1967

Before he was the Gambler, and then the Roaster, then a freakish Botox casualty, Davis High School grad Kenny Rogers rediscovered Esther Phillips and played bass on one of Mickey Gilley's early singles (1960's "Is It Wrong"), and his brother Lelan owned seminal psych label International Artists. After singing with L.A. folk stars the New Christy Minstrels for a year, Rogers headed back to Houston and formed the First Edition, who hit No. 5 in spring 1968 with this slice of psychedelic weirdness brought on by author/Townes Van Zandt pal/fellow Houstonian Mickey Newbury's first (and only) acid trip. Try these on for size: "I tore my mind on a jagged sky...I got up so tight I couldn't unwind...I saw so much I broke my mind." If that's not enough, several of the guitar parts were recorded backwards. Duuuude. Nobody really takes acid anymore — do they? — but "Just Dropped In" is still hanging around. It was rumored to be Jimi Hendrix's favorite song, underscores The Big Lebowski's pivotal dream sequence and has been recorded or covered live by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Supergrass and Willie Nelson. The original version is still pretty groovy, too. Chris Gray

18. "Midnight Special"

Leadbelly

The Library of Congress Recordings, Volume 1: The Midnight Special

1937

Decades before N.W.A., Too $hort or Tupac, Leadbelly was as gangsta as they came. Already an escapee from an East Texas chain gang, in 1918 the man born Huddie Ledbetter was convicted in the death of cousin-in-law Will Stafford and "assault to murder" another man, earning a total of 35 years on the infamous Sugar Land prison farm. Due in no small part to his musical gifts — he was an early master of the 12-string guitar — Leadbelly was pardoned just shy of his sentence's seven-year minimum, leaving with both his nickname (for both his given name and his toughness in fights with other inmates) and rough sketches for several of his best-known songs, chief among them "Midnight Special." Though salvation-promising locomotives — here Southern Pacific's Golden Gate Limited, bound for San Antonio, El Paso and the Golden State on tracks that remain alongside U.S. 90 — had been common subjects in American folk songs for decades, "Midnight Special" is as much about Leadbelly's local experiences as any train. "If you ever go to Houston, you know you better walk right," he sings in the first verse. "You know you better not stagger [drink], you know you better not fight." Going on to detail his experiences with "little Rosie" and "jumpin' Judy," "Midnight Special" rapidly became a 20th-century standard, kept alive over the years by artists including Van Morrison, Creedence Clearwater Revival and ABBA. That's right, ABBA. — C.G.

17. "Killin' Time"

Clint Black

Killin' Time

1989

When "Killin' Time" appeared in early 1989, few people outside Oklahoma had heard of Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson's "Here in the Real World" was still several months away. So Katy's Clint Black briefly became big-time country music's flagship "New Traditionalist." The first of four No. 1 singles from Black's RCA debut, it's still one of his best, up there with "Nothin' but the Taillights" and "A Bad Goodbye." Cowritten by Black and longtime collaborator Hayden Nicholas, taken as a whole it's a classic midtempo yarn of barroom denial with a great turn of phrase in the chorus — "drinkin' myself blind, thinkin' I won't see" — and a perfect jukebox-born companion to another lonely last call. Broken down line by line, though, it gets considerably darker, especially in the second verse: "If there's an end to all my sorrow, and this is the only price I'll pay, I'll be a happy man when I go, and I can't wait another day." Black ain't talking about going home, either, except maybe in the spiritual sense — this may be the last time a song about someone contemplating suicide topped the country charts. — C.G.

16. "White Freightliner Blues"

Townes Van Zandt

Live at the Old Quarter Houston, Texas

1977 release of a 1973 recording

"It's bad news from Houston, half my friends are dyin', White Freightliner won't you steal away my mind."

Is there a better line containing the word "Houston" in any song? And who among us has not felt that way at some point?

Others who evidently can relate include one-time Houstonians Billy Joe Shaver and Steve Earle, as well as Jimmie Dale Gilmore, New Grass Revival, Bobby Bare, J.D. Crowe and the New South and even the String Cheese Incident, all of whom have recorded the song.

For this list we selected the version Van Zandt recorded in 1973 at the late, great Old Quarter bar, which still stands down by the courthouse. (It's now a law office.) Though the studio version was recorded in 1974, it did not surface until 1993's The Nashville Sessions, and even when it came out it did nothing to diminish the definitiveness of the live recording. The enthusiasm of the crowd hand-clapping along and the way Van Zandt's falsetto almost careens out of control when he sings the "Bad news from Houston" lines see to that. — J.N.L.

15. "Guyana Punch"

The Judy's

Washarama

1981

The pride of Pearland, the Judy's carried the banner for Houston's punk/new-wave scene in the early '80s, and "Guyana Punch" was their showstopper. Even today, it sounds as snotty, fresh, danceable and eternal as ever. And austere — aside from backing vocals, the music is comprised of nothing more than bass, drums and singer David Bean's quintessentially bratty voice.

What's more, it remains hard to believe that a guy in his teens could write with such mature black humor and a well-developed sense of enigma. He took as his inspiration one of the more bizarre events of his childhood — the religiously inspired mass suicide of more than 1,000 followers of cult leader Jim Jones in Guyana — and turned it into a bleakly comic post-punk masterpiece. (Other grist for Bean's twisted mill included killers such as Gary Gilmore and the Son of Sam, girls, and TV.)

The Judy's almost made it. They did open for like-minded contemporaries Talking Heads, the B-52's and Devo, conquering Houston, Dallas and Austin along the way, and seemed singularly poised to break nationally. It didn't happen, in no small part through lack of interest from the band members themselves. The band wasn't joking when they named their label Wasted Talent. — J.N.L.

14. "Bootylicious"

Destiny's Child

Survivor

2001

Song titles become pop-culture catchphrases all the time — remember everyone walking like an Egyptian? — but precious few get bumped up to full-fledged dictionary definitions. Now, a reading from the Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English, via Dictionary.com: "Bootylicious, adj. Sexually attractive, esp. in the buttocks." Cowritten by Beyoncé, Falonte Moore and Rob Fusari, with a generous assist from Stevie Nicks's 1981 hit "Edge of Seventeen" — Nicks appears in the video playing guitar — "Bootylicious" hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August 2001. Two years later, Soulwax's splicing the "Bootylicious" lyrics onto the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music, for the brilliantly titled "Smells Like Booty," was one of the first widely circulated examples of the hybrid genre known as mash-ups. Beyoncé said the word meant "beautiful, bountiful and bounce-able" to her — not quite the same as Snoop Dogg's "the rhymes you were kickin' was quite bootylicious," meaning lame, on 1992's "Wit Dre Day." Even better, the trio's assertion "I don't think you're ready for this jelly" mirrors bygone vaginal blues terminology like Bessie Smith's "No One Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine" — thus one of this decade's biggest hits owes its existence to the bawdy slang of a century ago. — C.G.

13. "Treat Her Right"

Roy Head & the Traits

Treat Me Right

1965

In 1965, the same year as Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour," the Supremes' "Back in My Arms Again" and James Brown's double shot of "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Feel Good (I Got You)," Three Rivers native Roy Head and his San Marcos group the Traits wanted to tell you a story. A fast-paced, horn-charged tale about the proper way to treat a lady: "If you want a little lovin' you gotta start real slow, she'll love you tonight if you just treat her right." Gulf Coast R&B mogul Don Robey printed it up on his Back Beat label, and America loved it: "Treat Her Right" spent a solid month atop jukebox tracker Cash Box's R&B chart, the same span as Junior Walker & the All-Stars' "Shotgun" and only seven less days than the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself" and Fontella Bass's "Rescue Me." On the pop chart, only the Beatles' "Yesterday" kept it out of the top spot. Not bad, and as Head proved earlier this month at the Continental Club's Superstars of Soul revue, both he and "Treat Her Right" are as dynamic as ever, and may have even gained a step or two over the years. — C.G.

12. "Merry Christmas from the Family"

Robert Earl Keen

Gringo Honeymoon

1994

For the purposes of a Houston list, this one edges out the more famous "The Road Goes on Forever." There's something about Keen's droll description of Christmas that seems ineffably H-Town.

There's the incessant trips to the Stop N' Go (lyrics now need to be changed to Valero, but still...), the relatives, from chain-smoking new wife Kay who talks all about AA to electrically competent cousin David to Fran and Rita, the mystery kin from Harlingen, and the drinking — lots and lots of drinking, cut with plenty of football on TV. There's no snow save for the fake stuff on shelves at the Quik-Pak store, and nobody knows what to think of the Mexican boyfriend little sister brought to dinner until he sings "Feliz Navidad."

It's easily the greatest Texas Christmas song ever written, but it transcends the season and stands as a great slice-of-life depiction of suburban Texans handling stress as only they can — by stocking up at Spec's early and often and then filling in on accessories like celery and lemons as needed later. — J.N.L.

11. "Damn It Feels Good to Be a ­Gangsta"

Geto Boys

Uncut Dope

1992

"Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta" isn't the Geto Boys' best song, and it's sure as hell not their most violent, paranoid or depraved, but you can bet all three copies of your TPS report it's the one most white people know. In Mike Judge's 1999 cult comedy Office Space, this handy guide to everyday gangsta do's and don'ts — remember, "real gangsta-ass niggas don't flex nuts" — its brooding beats, unhurried Dirty South tempo and cocksure lyrics form a menacing backdrop as that trio of white-collar Initech geeks Peter, Samir and Michael Bolton implement their ill-­conceived embezzlement scheme. The song fits the scene as perfectly as fellow Houstonian B.J. Thomas's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" in Goodfellas. "Gangsta" has since been reimagined as "Damn It Feels Good to Be a Yuppie" by downsized Austin GOP punks the Yuppie Pricks and straight-up covered by Waco native Carter Falco for last year's I-35 Texas Country compilation. Now that's a crossover. — C.G.

10. "You're Gonna Miss Me"

Thirteenth Floor Elevators

The Psychedelic Sounds of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators

1966

Without these two-and-a-half driving minutes of barely suppressed agony, kicked off by Roky Erickson's unearthly Janis Joplin-like wail, the '60s would have sounded mighty different. Its lyrics are as simple as any blues — "I gave you the warning, you never heeded it, how can you say you miss my lovin' when you never needed it?" — but it's Erickson's urgent delivery (and bitter harmonica in the outro) that really sells it. Recorded here in Houston — not Dallas, as has long been circulated — it was a smash in the Southwest, a No. 55 hit nationwide and longtime favorite of Doug Sahm, who recorded it with sons Shandon and Shawn for landmark (and shamefully out-of-print) 1990 Erickson tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye. More than 40 years later, while Erickson's recent comeback reaffirms just how true his lyrics really were — and are — "You're Gonna Miss Me" still has the power to blow your mind. Seek out the Elevators' Halloween 1966 American Bandstand performance on YouTube for proof. — C.G.

9. "Whiskey River"

Johnny Bush/Willie Nelson

Whiskey River/Shotgun Willie

1972/1973

Willie Nelson was doing all right before he recorded "Whiskey River" for 1973's Shotgun Willie, but the ode to the ­memory-erasing properties of a good sour mash sent the Red Headed Stranger's career into a completely different orbit. It's become as much a signature song as "Night Life" or "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," and he's opened every concert with "Whiskey River" for decades now. Over the years, it's even lent its name to a Dallas nightclub and a brand of bourbon, both partially owned by Nelson, and is still a saloon in several states. However, "Whiskey River" was never selected as a single from Shotgun Willie, perhaps because the previous year it was a top 15 country hit for its author, Kashmere Gardens-raised Johnny Bush. A longtime friend, fellow alumnus of Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboys, and Nelson's RCA labelmate at the time, Bush had several hits of his own ("You Gave Me a Mountain," "I'll Be There") in the late '60s and early '70s and was poised for even greater stardom before his voice gave out. He thought it was God's punishment for his promiscuous lifestyle, but it turned out to be a rare vocal-cord ailment called spasmodic dysphonia. Bush sought the help of a vocal coach in the mid-'80s and began a lengthy comeback that crested this year with the excellent Kashmere Gardens Mud CD and an autobiography entitled — what else? — Whiskey River. — C.G.

8. "Please Send Me Someone to Love"

Esther Phillips

Burnin' (Live)

1970

Percy Mayfield, "the poet laureate of the blues," was born in Louisiana and died in California but spent his formative years in Houston. Mayfield penned dozens of great songs — most notably "Hit the Road, Jack" for Ray Charles — but none surpassed "Please Send Me Someone to Love," one of the most-covered blues/R&B songs of all time. Everyone from Count Basie and Etta James to Fiona Apple and Jeff Buckley has taken a crack at it.

In words direct and simple as a child's Christmas prayer, Mayfield begs a higher power to send love to all: "Heaven please send to all mankind, understanding and peace of mind, and if it's not asking too much, please send me someone to love." The melody matches this exquisiteness. While it is resigned enough to lead you to believe that love is in the cards neither for the world nor the singer, a faint glimmer of hope remains on the final stanza: "Show the world how to get along, peace will enter when hate is gone, but if it's not asking too much, please send me someone to love."

Few versions surpass this one by Esther Phillips, a singer who shouldn't need any introduction to modern audiences but probably does.

A native of Galveston who spent much of her too-short life shuttling between her father's house in Houston and her mother's in Los Angeles, Phillips dominated the R&B charts in 1950, when she was all of 15 years old. Her biggest pop hit came after her rediscovery (by Kenny Rogers) 12 years later, when she scored big with her lush, majestic rendition of the country standard "Release Me."

By that time the pint-size dynamo was already grappling with joneses for both heroin and whiskey, twin monkeys that never left her back until her death of liver failure in 1984. But along the way she would leave behind some of the finest recordings of the '60s and early '70s, and stake a strong claim as the greatest female vocalist Houston ever produced.

Philips ran the gamut from gutbucket blues to big band jazz to soul-country to pure pop to British Invasion rock — both the Beatles' "And I Love Her" and the Stones' "As Tears Go By" were in her repertoire. She was at her best when, much like Ray Charles, she combined all that in one song.

And there was that voice. Man, that voice, equally capable of Lady Day vulnerability, Etta James fire, and the sophistication and hard-bitten diction she learned from her heroine Dinah Washington. Like Nina Simone, Phillips had the rare ability to match a nasal, razor-sharp edge with supple, full-throated phrasing, albeit without ever sounding as kittenish as Simone. (There's an echo of that style, albeit a faint one, in Amy Winehouse.)

Atlantic Records honcho Ahmet Ertegun called Phillips a singer of "extreme soul" who "thrilled you no matter what she sang." When Aretha Franklin edged out Phillips for a Grammy in 1972, legend has it the Queen of Soul deemed Phillips the more deserving of the two and handed the statuette over. One day Phillips will be rediscovered — mark our words. — J.N.L.

7. "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me"

The Geto Boys

We Can't Be Stopped

1991

In 1991, in the eyes of then-young Hip-Hop America, rap was still a bicoastal game. Sure, Miami's 2 Live Crew had enjoyed a couple of hits, but those nasty party jams were mere novelty records.

The Dirty South had not yet begun to truly fight. "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me" would change all that. Not only would the song top the Billboard rap charts and crack the top 25 in pop, but it would also demonstrate that Southerners could rap about something other than sex.

Over a melancholy, insistent jazz guitar riff culled from "Hung Up on My Baby," an Isaac Hayes instrumental, the paranoid, borderline psychotic rhymes of Bushwick Bill, Willie D and Scarface set a new standard in true gangsta poetry. Often tabbed by national critics as one of the top rap songs ever, "Mind Playin' Tricks..." surfaces often in the work of other masters. The Notorious B.I.G. would nod to the song in the lyrics of his hit single "One More Chance," while Scarface's "I had a woman down with me..." lines bubble up in the effervescent mix behind Andre 3000 on OutKast's "She Lives in My Lap." — J.N.L.

6. "Turn On Your Love Light"

Bobby "Blue" Bland

Here's the Man!!!

1961

Joe Scott, Duke-Peacock's in-house conductor/arranger /music director, epitomized the word "sublime." There's never so much as a sixteenth-note out of place in his creations, and "Turn on Your Love Light" is a flawless example.

The up-tempo gospel-drenched rave-up erupts out of the blocks with a trumpet fanfare over drums and Teddy Reynolds's prominent piano riff; seconds later Wayne Bennett's electric guitar interlocks with Reynolds's keyboards and Bland comes swooping in with his alternately scratchy and silken baritone, singing blue words that don't jibe with the joyous abandon of the music: "Without a warnin', you broke my heart, you took it darlin' and you tore it apart."

At about the one-minute mark, all falls away save for the sanctified funky beats of not one but two drummers who pop and crash away as Bland, by now pleading, croons that he gets a little lonely in the middle of the night, and he needs you, darling, to make things all right. An impeccable sax solo leads into Bland's trademark "squall," and he roars, redeemed on the fade-out "I feel alright!" Rarely can two minutes, 40 seconds be better spent. — J.N.L.

5. "La Grange"

ZZ Top

Tres Hombres

1974

Marvin Zindler's passing this summer raises an interesting question about ZZ Top: If the flamboyant newsman's investigation hadn't led to infamous Fayette County brothel the Chicken Ranch's August 1973 closure, would "La Grange" have still appeared on the Lil' Ol' Band from Texas's 1974 album Tres Hombres? Maybe, even probably, not. And then what? No Worldwide Texas tour... no Degüello... no "Legs" video? Though other Tres Hombres songs are better — "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers" rocks harder, and "Waitin' for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago" is a better blues — "La Grange" was the first domino to fall, the song that made ZZ Top's bones, so to speak. It quickly became a staple of the emerging FM radio format known as Album-­Oriented Rock and reclaimed the blues for American rock bands when Brits like Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones had all but stolen them away. Said to be lifted wholesale from John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun," "La Grange" is in fact unique to ZZ Top, if only for the trio's vacuum tightness and Billy Gibbons's leering vocals. Honestly, it can be worked up by reasonably talented musicians in a couple of hours — which some band out there is probably, hopefully, doing this very moment. — C.G.

4. "Pancho and Lefty"

Townes Van Zandt

Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas

1977 release of a 1972 recording

An enigmatic tale with a more or less clear story arc, Van Zandt's tale of two bandits and their respective demises seems likely to become an American standard. Over a gorgeously simple, achingly sad melody, Van Zandt spins an epic in which just enough detail is omitted to eternally tantalize all who fall under the song's spell. What did Lefty do to Pancho? Why did the Federales let him get away? Why did Lefty go to Cleveland, of all places? Is the song about Pancho Villa and Lefty Frizzell, as I thought as a kid? Van Zandt himself declared often that he knew the answers to none of these questions, save the last. (The answer is no, it is not about either of them.)

A Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard duet took the song to the top of the country charts in 1983, and the song has been recorded by Emmylou Harris and dozens of other artists of lesser fame.

More than that, the song has infiltrated the world's psyche. A few years ago, a Pancho and Lefty's Sports Bar stood on a barrio corner on the near north side, and Rodney Crowell recently told me several hundred Swedes sang along on the chorus when he performed the song there. Van Zandt himself once had a close encounter with his own brainchild on the outskirts of Houston, decades after it was released. Pulled over for speeding near Brookshire by Anglo/Mexican-American highway patrolmen, Van Zandt's ticket was summarily dismissed when his authorship of the song was discovered. Turns out that the two cops were known as "Pancho and Lefty" back at the station house. — J.N.L.

3. "I Can See Clearly Now"

Johnny Nash

I Can See Clearly Now

1972

Big Pharma should bottle this song and sell it; shrinks should prescribe it to all those who have the blues. This is one tune with optimism enough to put Prozac out of business. The pop-reggae gem passes like a giant sigh of relief; it's plain from the hard-won calm obvious in Nash's angelic, Sam Cooke-style tenor that he has indeed been truly delivered from some very dark places.

Native Houstonian Nash has had one of the oddest careers in American pop history. After stints as an actor and a billing as "America's First Black Teen Idol," Nash's career took off after he moved to Jamaica in the late '60s. There he befriended the not-yet-internationally famous Bob Marley and started incorporating rocksteady and early reggae into his gospel-tinged R&B.

"I Can See Clearly Now" was the most famous and best result. Up until its release, no one reggae song had captivated mainstream listeners with as much force, and Nash belongs right up there with artists like Marley and Desmond Dekker as one of the music's foremost early popularizers. Not bad for a guy who only a decade or so before had been humping golf bags in Hermann Park. — J.N.L.

2. "Night Life"

Willie Nelson

The Essential Willie Nelson

circa 1960

As the '60s dawned, Willie Nelson was fresh out of the Air Force and living in Pasadena with his first wife and three kids. He worked six nights a week backing local star Larry Butler on bass and DJed the seventh day.

Meanwhile, he was writing a few songs on the side in his car, while commuting between his digs in Pasadena and his gigs on the Hempstead Highway. He got hot one week and wrote three of the greatest songs in country music history: "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "Night Life," perhaps the most covered country song of all time.

And deservedly so. Lovable losers and no-'count boozers could hope for no better anthem than this resigned statement of near-suicidal intent. Sure, the barrooms might be full of people dreaming of old used-to-be's and reenacting scene after scene from the world of broken dreams, but just listen to the blues they're playing. The night life ain't no good life, but it's my life, indeed. — J.N.L.

1. "Tighten Up"

Archie Bell and the Drells

Tighten Up

1968

The very best song from Houston has to do it all. It has to be a great piece of music made by Houstonians still based in town, it has to mention Houston and it has to draw on native musical traditions. It also is known all over the world. And just for good measure, "Tighten Up" is also preeminently danceable and stands as one of the greatest party records ever put on wax.

"Tighten Up" does all that and even more. Somehow, it can almost make you feel our climate. Think about it. The way the timbre of the band — the T.S.U. Toronados — seems to breathe in and out. The balmy, sighing horns, the funky little electric guitar riff, the sweaty organ and a loping bass guitar with a tone so warm it seems to be grinning.

It's all as gracious and hospitable as springtime sunshine: The music on "Tighten Up" sounds the way a sunny April day in Houston feels. Playing it in your car can carry your mind from an exhaust-choked stop-and-go pileup on the Katy Freeway in the gray December twilight to a beery beach blanket picnic in the noontime sun on West Beach in May. Like Archie says, "Now make it mellow!"

Note: There's some controversy about Bell's intro, to wit, does he say, "We can dance just as good as we walk" or "We can dance just as good as we want"? I'm siding with "want," for two reasons. One, it makes more sense, and two, it is clearly what he actually does say. — J.N.L.

Criteria

Songs were selected on several criteria. First, there's "Houston-ness," by which we mean an indelible tie to the Bayou City. Songs composed by Houstonians are all eligible, though natives and long-term residents of the city scored higher than transients in this regard. For example, two-thirds of the principal members of the Geto Boys were born and raised here and remain in the city, while Willie Nelson spent three short, though creatively productive, years living in Pasadena. Thus the Geto Boys are more "Houston" than Willie.

Other ways to qualify include being signed to a Houston label (the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, for example), if the song is about Houston no matter where the author came from or if the song was recorded here. If a song combines several factors, it obviously scores higher in ­Houston-ness than those with fewer.

As for the aesthetics, this was not strictly a popularity contest, of course; it isn't merely based on what Houston songs sold the best. It also had to be both a great tune and at least somewhat historically important. And finally, to make the top 20, a song has to be at least five years old. True classics need at least a little time to prove themselves as such. — John Nova Lomax

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