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Songs in the Key of Time

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A time-themed pop playlist from WatchPilot

What are the best pop songs about? Big themes of love and loss, heartbreak and desire, evolution and inspiration run through most of the greatest, most thrilling songs in popular music history. But time is important too. The time signature, the drummer keeping time, the stories playing out over time. So, as lovers of all things time related, we have curated a special playlist of songs.

The words, titles, lyrics and sometimes even songwriting techniques are themed around time (as well as love and loss, heartbreak and desire. Oh, and trains…). Songs In The Key Of Time is, quite simply, a celebration of time in popular music. Across genres, across eras, across styles. So take some time out and check out these classic songs…


1. Bill Haley and His Comets: Rock Around The Clock

The original and best. A classic rock and roller by one of the pioneers of the genre. Bill Haley and His Comets topped the charts in the USA and the UK with Rock Around The Clock, which became the biggest selling record in the UK in the 1950s.

The song is credited with bringing rock and roll into the mainstream – paving the way for Elvis, The Beatles, almost everyone you’ve ever danced to... although, of course, all the elements of rock and roll had been around for a decade before this was recorded.

2. Irma Thomas: Time Is On My Side

This classic version was released by underrated soul singer Irma Thomas in 1964, before The Rolling Stones recording became their first single to hit the Top Ten in the US. Though even this was a cover – albeit with the full lyrics for the first time – of an R&B song by Philadelphia songwriter Jerry Ragovoy, released by Danish jazz trombonist Kai Winding with great backing vocals by sisters Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, and their aunt Cissy Houston.

It first appeared as the B-side to another classic Thomas tune – Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand), which fans of Netflix hit Black Mirror may recognise – and caused quite a stir. Where have you heard it before? Maybe on the soundtrack to 2019 superhero drama, Watchmen.

3. Gladys Knight and the Pips: Midnight Train To Georgia

Fun fact: this song was inspired by a phone conversation between former Charlie’s Angels star Farrah Fawcett, and The Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors. Oh, and it was originally written and performed as Midnight Plane To Houston. Just imagine.

Luckily, because Cissy Houston recorded it a few years before this definitive version, the lyrics were adjusted. So by the time Gladys Knight made the song her own, it had switched both location and mode of transport – but the time remained the same. What a voice. What a recording. An R&B classic that became Gladys Knight’s signature tune.

4. The Beatles: One after 909

John Lennon wrote this song when he was not old enough to vote. Or even drink. But after trying to record it in 1963, The Beatles shelved it for six years until the Let It Be sessions (as documented in Peter Jackson’s astonishing documentary series – The Beatles: Get Back).

Looking for a fast rocker to liven up their planned rooftop concert, Lennon revisits one of his oldest songs and the group played it, in their final concert, on the roof of the Apple Building at 3 Savile Row, for an audience below that ranged from bemused shoppers and neighbours to thrilled Beatles fans – to appalled passers-by and police officers.

If you’re reading this site, it’s likely you have – or will soon have – a new watch that will ensure you never miss a train. This song, in the vein of an early blues-rock freight train song a la Rock Island Line, popularised by Lead Belly – and which, fittingly, was rerecorded by Lonnie Donegan to kickstart the skiffle craze in the UK, leading directly to The Beatles – suggests a lover leaving on the train after the 9.09.

Did they miss the planned train? Were the fares cheaper then? Who knows. But revisiting this classic blues-rock song with a skiffle edge was one of about a million highlights for Beatles fans of the lovingly restored, impeccably selected, and incredibly intimate Get Back footage released in November 2021.

5. Blondie: 11.59

“It’s 11.59 and I wanna stay alive.” One of the finest new wave songs, from one of the greatest bands of all time – Blondie’s Debbie Harry sang with urgency and style over one of the most insistent, propulsive back beats since records began on this incredible song, which opens side two of their classic 1978 LP – Parallel Lines.

6. R.E.M.: Time After Time (Anneliese)

Full disclosure: R.E.M. are my favourite band. And this is from their second album, Reckoning, which is a sublime LP from start to finish. Not their most celebrated song, not their best, but a beautiful one nonetheless – with Peter Buck’s understated guitar, Bill Berry’s busy percussion and Michael Stipe’s off-kilter lyrics held together by a classic, solid Mike Mills bass line. “Ask the girl, of the hour, by the water tower’s watch”. What a beautiful, poetic opening line. And it only gets better.

Check out the live medley that features Peter Gabriel’s Red Rain tucked between this song and the classic So. Central Rain. Further listening: Pavement’s early song, Unseen Power of the Picket Fence, in which Stephen Malkmus detailed his love of R.E.M. and declared: “Time After Time was my least favourite song.”

7. The Lemonheads: It’s About Time

When you are the handsome indie goofball of the year, as Lemonheads singer Evan Dando was for most of the 1990s, you can get away with a lot. Dando perhaps felt it was cute to write and release a song imploring his then girlfriend Juliana Hatfield to lose her virginity. Presumably to him. They’re still pals, though, and toured together last year – so Hatfield is clearly cool with it. And it’s a classic indie slacker tune.

8. The KLF: 3AM Eternal

A vocal house anthem from Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s influential, self-mythologising and game-changing acid house super group. The song was released in multiple versions but became a worldwide smash in 1991 – topping the charts in the UK and reaching No5 in the US. The KLF were fans of time-related dance music – What Time Is Love was another 1991 smash hit.

The group announced their departure from the music business in typically confrontational style at the Brit Awards the following year, but Drummond and Cauty continued to make art and mischief together. 3AM Eternal had earned them a fortune – and they famously burnt £1million in crisp £50 notes on the Scottish island of Jura in 1994 in a famed, still shocking, act of performance art.

9.  Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry: 7 Seconds

This beautiful, slow and soulful synth-pop ballad was an unlikely worldwide smash in 1994, reaching No3 in the UK and spending 16 weeks at the top of the French charts. The combination of N’Dour and Cherry’s voices – different languages, styles and feelings coming together so hauntingly – makes it one that stays with you. Anyone near a radio in 1994 would have heard it a million times anyway.

And the lyrics are deep – imagining the blissful first seven seconds of a child’s life, before society’s failures and divisions bring a lifetime of complications. How would you react to situations if you didn’t know what you were ‘supposed to think’, weren’t aware of concepts of race and gender and religion, the reality of wealth and poverty. Idealistic and harmonious…

10. So Solid Crew: 21 Seconds

In August 2001, So Solid Crew topped the UK charts with UK Garage song, 21 Seconds. The title relates to the amount of time each member of So Solid had to make an impact with their individual rap, with 12 bars allotted to each of the 10 rappers on the track. And boy does it stand the test of time. A classic, urgent, strident, vital, both reflecting and informing the thriving Garage club scene of the time.

11. Coldplay: Clocks

Just as clocks are like watches, only bigger… Coldplay are like an indie band that might be playing in your local pub, only bigger. Much bigger. This song was recorded 20 years ago in May 2002 but still sounds fresher than almost anything Chris Martin and co have produced since.

Clocks chimes with guitarist Jonny Buckland’s trademark arpeggios, strikes at the heart with rare intensity, ticks along with real momentum. A classic for the ages. A song about time, but only in the sense that its lyrics hint at racing against the clock, a relationship running out of time, an urgent need to get on with things.

12. Mark Owen: Four Minute Warning

Who doesn’t love Mark Owen? Okay, don’t answer that. But this song is a classic of the songwriting-exercise-that-went-way-too-far genre. Run out of ideas for your new LP, Mark? Don’t want to ring your Take That buddy Gary Barlow for more top tips? Well, how about this – write a song that is exactly four minutes long. Make the tempo, the lyrics, everything, all about time. Heck, even if it doesn’t make you want to dance – that tempo isn’t very dancefloor – it could help you boil an egg…

13. Gillian Welch: Time (The Revelator)

Eagle-eyed and sharp-eared readers will know that this is the title of the 2001 album by Gillian Welch, a modern alt-country classic. This song is merely called Revelator, but I’m including it anyway. A mournful, lilting slow acoustic country song about love and loss, with searching lyrics that suggest time will reveal all – about a lover, about a person’s intentions, about a relationship’s future. Which it will.

14. Jeffrey Lewis: Time Trades

Jeffrey Lewis is one of the most entertaining live acts around. Gig goers can expect his cartoon artwork to feature alongside the smart and oh-so-catchy anti-folk tunes for which he is rightly loved – either on a flipchart or, more recently, on Powerpoint.

However noisy the crowd is, though, and however much laughter and interaction has preceded this song, Time Trades has everyone thinking about the meaning of life. It’s a whip-smart, profound lyric reflecting on how we can make the inevitable passing of time positive, meaningful, valuable.

15. Jay-Z: 4.44

The lead single and title track from Jay-Z’s 2019 album, 4.44 refers to the time in the morning that the hip hop GOAT woke up to write the song. It’s a song of apology (to Beyoncé), a song of acknowledgement of failures, a song of exploration of fatherhood and relationships. This was new ground for hip hop and for Jay-Z. And guess how long the song lasts? You got it: 4mins 44seconds. Time it if you don’t believe us…

16.  Clean Bandit plus Mabel ft. 24kGoldn: Tick Tock

Trying to take advantage of the TikTok boom? Maybe. But cynicism has rarely sounded so catchy. A song of obsessive love, a video revisiting childhood obsessions – this is clearly a song to obsess over. Written and recorded just before lockdown, this was a 10th Top 10 single for Clean Bandit and their electronic dance pop, while singer Mabel is not the first member of her family on this playlist – look out for her mum Neneh Cherry further up the list.

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