10 Best Kinks Songs
The Kinks are one of those special British bands that have influenced practically every guitar group covered on this site. Think of them as a Rosetta Stone for what's good about rock music. Like heavy shredding? Check out the guitar riff that leads off ‘You Really Got Me,' courtesy of Mr. Dave Davies.' (Van Halen dig it). And then there's the simple pop perfection of Ray Davies’ ‘Waterloo Sunset,’ a tune covered by loads of great artists, Elliott Smith included. And who can forget the powerful, energetic glee that courses through ‘Till the End of the Day,’ which power-pop pioneers Big Star covered and included as a bonus track on latter-day pressings of 'Third/Sister Lovers,’ their greatest artistic achievement? What follows is a list of the 10 Best Kinks Songs -- give these them a listen, and then tell us these lads didn't set the stage for country rock, punk and numerous other styles.
‘20th Century Man’ is from possibly the Kinks most underrated ’70s album, ‘Muswell Hillbillies’ (1971), a funny little assortment of choice cuts touching on such topics as paranoia, alcoholism and the simple pleasure of enjoying a good cup of tea. The greatest moment on the album, however, is the lead track, sung in a way that suggests Ray Davies is taking the piss. As he sings, he chugs along happily on a meaty, bluesy, chunky acoustic guitar line.
Released as a single in the U.S. and on a British EP in 1965, ‘A Well Respected Man,’ No. 9 on our list of the Best Kinks Songs, smacks of the best early moments from countrymen the Who, whose ‘My Generation’ came out that same year. Lyrically, Ray Davies delivers some of his trademark stiff-upper-lipped, tongue-in-cheek British class warfare, while the band supplies a herky-jerky beat. 'A Well Respected Man' also has one of the catchiest and best-phrased choruses of all time: “He’s a well re-spec-ted man a-bout town / do-ing the best things so con-ser-va-tive-ly.”
One of the many great aspects of Ray Davies’ songwriting is his ability to marry complex, almost orchestral arrangements with the simplest of lyrical ideas -- in this case “lazing on a sunny afternoon.” Everyone has had the experience of lounging in a hammock or on a beach towel and doing exactly what Davies sings about, and ‘Sunny Afternoon’ is as essential a Kinks tune as it is a universal one.
Following their landmark 'Village Green Preservation Society,' the Kinks were apparently so enamored of the "concept album" format that they returned with 1969’s ‘Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire),’ a record originally meant to be a TV show’s soundtrack. The show wound up getting cancelled, but Ray Davies again hit one out of the park, turning in an LP packed with delicious interrelated nuggets like opening track, ‘Victoria,’ about the famous British queen. Sung in Davies’ tongue-in-cheek vocal timbre (it’s equal parts braggy and manly), which he’s seemingly using to make a sonic statement (like Bob Dylan on ‘Nashville Skyline’), the song includes an opening riff that's unmistakable. It's one of the better late-’60s Kinks kuts.
Before there was an ‘OK Computer’ or ‘Suburbs,’ there was ‘The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society,’ one of the premiere concept albums of the '60s. Telling interconnected tales of small-town British life, ‘Village Green’ should be required listening for all British literature classes in college. It’s just that historical and great. Not to mention its title track, No. 6 on our list of the 10 Best Kinks Songs, another light-on-its-toes number about the album’s theme. (Check out this rare, live-on-TV version of the song below.)
If the Beatles were all about holding chicks’ hands and needing eight-day weeks to love them -- the Kinks were all about telling it like it is. ‘Tired of Waiting for You’ (1965) is basically a primitive text message that reads: "WTF, bitch, I’m not going to stand around waiting for u any longer. Not being on time is a deal-breaker. -- Ray." It’s got that great sneering vocal performance from Ray Davies and was one of the first tunes to feature a droney, Eastern raga sort of guitar line -- predating Beatle George Harrison’s sitar-saturated rock by at least a year.
As noted in the intro, Big Star paid tribute to the Kinks with a fantastic cover of this tune as part of the sessions for their third album. It's got a simple theme: being carefree, young and not giving a crap -- and maybe, just maybe, running the hell away from it all and joining the circus. It’s the ultimate rebellion song. (Again, notice that how it predates a similarly themed song by the Beatles, ‘She’s Leaving Home,’ by two years.)
The follow-up to ‘Arthur,' 1970’s ‘Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One’ is yet another loosely conceptual album. (Notice a pattern forming here? An amazing album every year? Who does that these days?) The disc's centerpiece, ‘Lola,’ may be one of the Kinks' most widely known tracks, given its regular rotation on classic-rock radio. But it’s also one of the band’s most misunderstood, as it details a homosexual encounter. Lola is a dude that looks like a lady, and s/he gives the song’s narrator a lesson in sexuality. You’ve got to hand it to Ray Davies for (a) breaking ground on the queer side of rock and (b) making the tune so listenable that even those Westboro Baptists Church idiots might be fooled into singing along. (Actually, anything could fool them.) Also appearing on this album is one of Ray’s brother and Kinks lead guitarist Dave Davies’ finest songwriting moments, ‘Strangers,’ which comes in at a very close second to ‘Lola.’ Check out this great cover version of the song by alt-country supergroup Golden Smog.
This is pretty much where it all started for the Kinks. It was the band’s first single from its debut album, ‘Kinks,’ and it introduced U.S. fans and future rockers the world over to power chords. Dave Davies played the super-sick four-note opening riff through an amp with a cut-through speaker, basically inventing distortion. The song also features a bonkers solo, which goes down as one of the only times a guitarist has recreated the feeling of a grand mal seizure. As rock buffs know, there’s a rumor that Davies didn’t play the solo, and that Jimmy Page -- then a session musician and later a member of the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin -- is actually responsible. Page has denied it.
No. 1 on our list of the 10 Best Kinks Songs might be the greatest pop tune of all time -- greater than the Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows,’ the Beatles’ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ and the Rolling Stones’ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.’ Really. At the very least, it’s the best album-closing song of all time. The album it ends is 1967’s unassumingly titled ‘Something Else by the Kinks.’ But as rock history has shown, it was anything but a simple album -- and ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is the crown jewel of the set. The song tells the story of Terry and Julie, just two normal British kids watching the world go by as the sun sets at Waterloo. There’s something so poignant and so sad about the song that despite its catchiness, it brings a tear to the eye.