1. Pearl Jam, “I’m Open”

Nothing rides the pretentiousness line for rock bands quite like a spoken-word track, but Pearl Jam’s “I’m Open”—from 1996’s widely underloved No Code—falls mostly on the right side of it. Eddie Vedder, in his distinctive mumble, describes a man lying in bed, trying to regain his own sense of childhood wonder, and it’s only when the sketch is almost finished that he sings a few words: “I’m open / Come in.” It’s slow, pretty, and just weird enough to stand up to repeated listens. [Josh Modell]


2. The Doors, “Horse Latitudes”

Considering that Jim Morrison (and legions of acolytes since) insisted he was more of a poet than a rock ’n’ roll singer, it’s surprising that The Doors’ catalog isn’t more overloaded with spoken verse. Aside from the infamous, Oedipal outro to “The End,” and the posthumously recorded An American Prayer, “Horse Latitudes” stands alone as the one time Morrison shut the music off so he could bum everyone out with his poetry. Over discordant shrieks of piano and distant howls of wind, Morrison bellows some faux-Rimbaud romantic nonsense about stallions charging forth from the sea “in mute nostril agony,” their legs pumping as furiously as Morrison’s artistic pretensions. As was so often the case with Morrison, as a collection of words, “Horse Latitudes” is symbolist to the point of being gibberish (And what the fuck does “True sailing is dead” mean?), even as it retains a certain disorienting allure. But “American Poet” or no, your stuff still sounds better with the music, Jim. [Sean O’Neal]


3-4. The Velvet Underground, “The Gift” and “The Murder Mystery”

Because of the poppier, quieter direction the band took after his departure, John Cale is most often cast as the main source of The Velvet Underground’s avant-garde impulses. But that doesn’t account for the fact that the group recorded one of its most adventurous tracks, the stereo-spanning nightmare “The Murder Mystery,” on its first album without Cale. Like the great rock ’n’ roll song Lewis Carroll and Ogden Nash never could’ve collaborated on, “The Murder Mystery” places the listener between two competing narrators, their nonsensical patter in sync with the beat but never in sync with one another. It’s one of the most disorienting songs the Velvets ever put to tape, as much of a puzzle as any mystery story that doesn’t feature Maureen Tucker’s persistent pounding. But the band still tried this type of thing while Cale was around, too: That’s his soothing Welsh telling the tragicomic tale of Waldo Jeffers on “The Gift.” The track’s literary roots and “little rhythmic arcs of red” are all Lou Reed, though, as the VU’s primary songwriter originally penned “The Gift”’s shaggy-dog story while he was a student at Syracuse University. This makes sense, since Cale’s experimental contributions to The Velvet Underground catalog are largely sonic in nature; any group of pretentious assholes can record a spoken-word track, but only a group of pretentious assholes that includes John Cale could conjure the screeching, lumbering, off-balance-washing-machine groove that occupies the right channel of “The Gift”’s stereo mix. [Erik Adams]


5. R.E.M., “Belong”

“Belong,” the murkiest song on 1991’s Out Of Time, was openly inspired by the speak-sing vocal style of British rock band the Blue Aeroplanes, a late-’80s R.E.M. tour mate. In practical terms, Michael Stipe’s low, serious intonations on the song’s verses—which detail the moment when someone is finally set free from an oppressive relationship, both physically and emotionally—hewed far closer to his naturally baritone speaking voice. Honorable mention: The artsy B-side “Chance,” which matches charming nonsense about interactions with strangers to kicky electronic programming. [Annie Zaleski]

6. Galaxie 500, “Fourth Of July”

Dean Wareham did some speak-singing throughout his career in Galaxie 500 and Luna, but never more effectively than on “Fourth Of July,” the opening track to Galaxie’s 1990 album This Is Our Music. There’s nearly as much singing and speaking, but it’s the latter that makes the song, with Wareham’s deadpan lyrics (“I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit / and your dog refused to look at it”) setting the tone for the rest of the record. (Which is excellent, but never matches “Fourth Of July.”) [Josh Modell]


7. Madonna, “Justify My Love”

Madonna was never the greatest singer, technically speaking, but her voice still has an attractive, distinctive sound. And in the years before she acquired her British accent—that’d be around 2001—she leaned heavily on rhythmic spoken words. It all started with the 1990 hit “Justify My Love,” whose words actually began life as a poem by songwriter and Prince protégé Ingrid Chavez. Madonna really only offers a vocal melody on those three words in the title, which actually makes them more effective than they might otherwise be. [Josh Modell]

8. Minutemen, “History Lesson—Pt II”

The Minutemen weren’t known for earnestness, but “History Lesson—Pt II” from Double Nickels On The Dime is one of the most emotionally bare songs in all of punk rock, or even pop music. In it, D. Boon lays out the history of his band, and his friendship with partner in crime Mike Watt. They were just fucking corndogs from Pedro, but when they played they became the rock stars that they worshiped. “This is Bob Dylan to me,” Boon says, because punk rock is his poetry. Boon opens the song with the immortal line “Our band could be your life,” because so many bands before the Minutemen made Boon and Watt’s worth it in the first place. [Molly Eichel]


9. Iggy Pop, “A Machine For Loving”

Iggy Pop has gone out on a few musical limbs over the years, and none is weirder than 2009’s Préliminaires album, which was inspired by a French novel. “A Machine For Loving” features Pop simply reading a passage from the book over some light instrumentation; what makes it weird is that the passage is about the joy of pet ownership. “What is a dog but a machine for loving?” it asks, and you can’t help but picture Pop curled up next to the fire with an Irish Setter or some other equally skinny, wiry companion. [Josh Modell]


10. The Shangri-Las, “Past, Present, And Future”

The best part about the Shangri-Las has always been the drama. Take the bridge of their most famous song, “Leader Of The Pack,” where our nameless narrator (who is also prone to speaking during songs) literally screams to save her motorcycle man Johnny (they’re all named Johnny, aren’t they?) from certain death. But the drama is probably best felt in “Past, Present, And Future,” where the teenage angst is laid on thick over Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Group leader Mary Weiss relays a story of past hurt that marred her childhood innocence. What heartbreak she experienced is never explained. While Weiss admits she may love again, there’s a greater possibility that she will live out her days in solemn sorrow. [Molly Eichel]

11. James Brown, “King Heroin”

It’s hard to believe that even a performer as dynamic and incredible as James Brown could make a top-10 hit out of “King Heroin,” which consists of the Godfather Of Soul reading a poem about the evils of the drug, set over some light jazz. Forty years after the fact, the song sounds pretty silly, with Brown delivering lines like “So be you Italian, Jewish, Black, or Mex / I can make the most virile of men forget their sex” in his raspy, slithery voice. To top it off, the song is spoken from the perspective of the drug itself, making it feel even goofier. [Josh Modell]


12. Morrissey, “Sorrow Will Come In The End”

Morrissey has never been shy about expressing himself, but rarely has he come across as legitimately threatening, which is clearly what he was going for in the next-to-last track on his 1997 album, Maladjusted. Written in response to the judgment in former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce’s lawsuit over performance and recording royalties (as you may have guessed from the title alone, things didn’t exactly play out in Mozzer’s favor), “Sorrow Will Come In The End” features melodramatic strings, the sound of a gavel being pounded, and—oh, yes—Morrissey menacingly intoning, “A man who slits throats / has time on his hands / And I’m gonna get you,” and the song closes with the words, “You think you’ve won / Oh, no.” Island Records, Morrissey’s label at the time, opted to avoid the possibility of a libel suit by dropping the track from the U.K. release of Maladjusted, but Joyce expressed amusement rather than alarm over the lyrics, writing them off with the one-liner, “If Lemmy had written it, I might be concerned.” [Will Harris]

13. The Cribs, “Be Safe”

In the process of putting together their third album, 2007’s Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever, the members of The Cribs decided to try thinking a little bit outside the box with their music, and with “Be Safe,” they received considerable assistance on that front from Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo. Although Ranaldo had originally been interested in producing The Cribs, they’d already secured Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand for that task, so they decided to pitch Ranaldo on doing a bit of spoken word. With only one day available, Ranaldo’s recitations were effectively done live, which meant that, per Cribs singer Ryan Jarman, “It was really a case of, if it fucks up, it’s not going on the album.” As history reveals, it did not fuck up: “Be Safe” has gone on to become a fan favorite that still features regularly in the band’s set, albeit with The Cribs handling the vocals. [Will Harris]


14. David Bowie, “Future Legend”

When putting together a concept album, it’s always advisable to indulge in a bit of stage-setting, if only to save the listener some time in grasping the concept at hand. As such, those listeners who gave their copy of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs its first spin without a frame of reference to Hunger City, “Future Legend” proved invaluable. After kicking off with a howl, the track finds Bowie introducing a locale filled with rotting corpses, red-eyed mutants, fleas the size of rats sucking on rats the size of cats, “and 10,000 peoploids split into small tribes, coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue.” It’s not the most upbeat introduction in rock history, but it definitely serves to establish that Diamond Dogs is not destined to be a happy-go-lucky pop record. [Will Harris]


15. Talking Heads, “Seen And Not Seen”

The lyrics in Remain In Light, the Talking Heads’ landmark 1980 album, are just as much a musical instrument as they are a part of each song’s meaning, but “Seen And Not Seen” has one of the clearest narratives of any song on the record. In it, a man wonders if he is able to change the way his face looks based on his own ideals, not in an instant but over time. This ideal could reflect his personality, while his personality may change to reflect his ideals. The paranoia inherent in the Talking Heads’ lyrics is at present at the end of “Seen And Not Seen.” With all of these changes going on, the man wonders if we all haven’t made a huge mistake. [Molly Eichel]

16. “Weird Al” Yankovic, “Albuquerque”

Only “Weird Al” Yankovic could set out to write a song that would deliberately annoy his fans, have that song stretch on for 11 minutes and change, and then see that song become a wildly popular part of his live set. “Albuquerque,” the final track on 1999’s Running With Scissors, is less a song than it is an epic poem, the Homeric odyssey of a man who went from humble beginnings being force-fed sauerkraut to become employee of the month at the Sizzler for putting out a grease fire with his face. Even by Yankovic’s oddball standards, “Albuquerque” is bizarre, less a song than stream-of-consciousness rambling about getting into a vicious fight over his lucky snorkel, buying a box of starving weasels when the doughnut shop is sold out of everything else, and violently responding to sarcastic compliments with chainsaws. Yankovic told The A.V. Club in a 2011 interview that he looked to the “hard-driving rock narrative” of The Rugburns and Mojo Nixon for inspiration, but that he treated it with much less seriousness than his more “semi-cohesive” tracks. “A lot of people actually liked it,” Yankovic said, “but I would hope that at least a few people were annoyed.” [Les Chappell]


17. The Hold Steady, “Positive Jam”

Craig Finn’s natural delivery is something of a speak-sing, and this is especially true on the early Hold Steady albums. But “Positive Jam” doesn’t have much singing at all—not even the speak-y kind. The first track on the first Hold Steady record introduces the band and its mission statement with pure spoken narrative as Finn barks out a rhyming catch-up from the roaring ’20s to the post-’90s economic downturn over a murmuring guitar. Even after the louder guitars kick in, Finn doesn’t really sing; he hollers what will later become familiar refrains about starting off with a positive jam and ordering the sniffling indie kids to hold steady. It functions as a transition of sorts for Finn, from the rantier, more spoken sound of his old band Lifter Puller to the more anthemic mixture of punk and classic rock that would come to define The Hold Steady. The very next track on the album, “The Swish,” finds Finn, if not full-on singing, at least ranting in closer rhythm with the song’s guitar lins—setting him on a path towards the more melodic singing of the band’s later years. [Jesse Hassenger]

18. Sonic Youth, “In The Kingdom #19”

The line separating “spoken word” and Sonic Youth’s normally restrained vocals is thin, but—much like the breaks in its walls of noise—the band typically threw in enough of a chasing-the-guitar-line lilt to differentiate the songs from the storm. “In The Kingdom #19” is the rare exception. Lee Ranaldo’s contribution to 1986’s EVOL is a prose poem vividly describing a car crash, punctuated by wordless screams, screeching tires, and the shrieks of distorted strings mirroring the doomed auto’s “scraping along the guardrail.” Poignantly, the song features Mike Watt on bass, who joined Sonic Youth for his first recording since the Minutemen’s D. Boon died in a van accident. “In The Kingdom #19,” though spoken word, had the effect of reinvigorating Watt’s interest in music. [Sean O’Neal]