Look. It’s cool. We all know it really, you’ve secretly been thinking it all along, and you know what? You’re totally right. A band, any band, is only as good as their bassist. There, we said it. Singers are too dramatic, guitarists are attention hogs, drummers are crazy, but from anchoring the rhythm section to bringing the groove, to looking mysterious on stage, a good bassist is worth their weight in gold.
Of course we like to encourage debates at Ledger Note, you know this already, and so we’ve taken a trip to the low end of the frequency to gather up ten basslines from across decades, and genres and present you, very humbly, with a top ten. Rather than focus on sales and charts, we’ve tried to pare this down to some of the most culturally significant bass songs of all time, and as ever we encourage you to get in touch and let us know exactly how you feel about the results!
#10 TLC – Waterfalls
Youtube Views – 155 Million
Imagine the scene, a group of journalists have been invited to the venerable Brian Eno’s home and private recording studio to discuss the influences behind his forthcoming album. The conversation is muted and somewhat awkward before Eno realizes that what’s missing from the situation is, of course, music. There is a slight intake of breath in the room as he reaches into his nearly incomparable record collection, wondering what obscure gem he might be about to unearth and surprise as he plucks out, TLC’s ‘CrazySexyCool.’ He then goes on to exclaim, in excruciating detail, why LaMarquis ‘Remarqable’ Jefferson’s, bassline on Waterfalls is one of the greatest of all time.
While this story may be apocryphal, it has been around for a while, and it is not the only record of Eno’s TLC fandom. True or not, it works for us because, even though Waterfalls is an absolute monster-hit, certified platinum and dominating the charts on its release, spending seven weeks at Billboard’s number one spot, it forces us to reconsider it. Take another listen to the song, and behind the earworm chorus and irresistible R’n’B production is a truly wild bassline, one that does absolutely everything except what you might expect, syncopated, complicated and frankly all over the place. File this one under unexpected classic.
Trivia: Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley member, and singer/songwriter and producer in his own right, Cee Lo Green provided backing vocals on the song.
#9 The Cure – The Love Cats
Youtube Views – 19.0 Million
Up next we have a slice of 80’s goth flavoured glam-pop weirdness from Robert Smith and The Cure. Released as a standalone single in 1983, this was the band’s first song to make a commercial impact, breaking the UK’s top ten for the first time and marking a staging post as the band found a more pop-friendly sound after three albums worth of ethereal gloom which helped to write the goth playbook. According to the band’s leader, Smith, the song is little more than an accident, written, recorded and promoted while drunk, a borderline parody that the band would eventually turn their backs on.
While it might not meet Smith’s exacting standards for his own musical output, for our purposes it deserves recognition for an absolutely unmistakable bassline. In a song that includes layers of instrumentation, from the chiming piano of the intro to the horn breaks from the second verse onwards, the whole thing is underpinned by an iconic, insistent repeated walking bassline played on an upright bass, lending the whole thing a smoky jazz club vibe. The song that taught a generation of goths how to be funky.
Trivia: The music video was filmed in a mansion that the band ‘borrowed’ for the evening, managing to convince an estate agent they were interested in buying the property.
#8 The Doors – Riders on the Storm
Youtube Views – 169 Million
Few bands do atmosphere quite as well as The Doors, who at their best managed to blend LSD tinged imagery, Jim Morrison’s bluesy drawl and Ray Manzarek’s jazz impulses into a dangerous, slinky and utterly unique sound. If snakes could write music, it would probably sound a lot like this. One of those special bands whose outsized story and reputation sometimes looms larger than the music itself, it can sometimes be easy to overlook the songs, which is unfortunate because they wrote and recorded some absolute classics in amongst the chaos.
The second single from their sixth album, ‘L.A. Woman’ released in 1971, the song is a murky, smoky story of a hitch-hiker killer, brought on by brooding keys and atmospheric thunderstorm sound effects. And bass. Lots of bass. As with many such performance pieces, it can be useful to have one thing to hold on to, and with this sprawling, addled, epic slice of Californian fug, you can trust in an insistent, repetitive bassline to carry you through the haze.
Trivia: Somewhat fittingly, for a song with such a morbid fixation on mortality, this was the last song singer Jim Morrison recorded before he died.
#7 Rush – Tom Sawyer
Youtube Views – 80.7 Million
The ultimate power trio, Rush could lay reasonable claim to having both the best bassist, Geddy Lee and the best drummer, Neil Peart, of all time in their ranks, so we could have effectively picked any one of their songs. This, though, is possibly as close as the band ever came to a mainstream hit. It might not sound like it, but this is the sound of Rush at their most commercial, the second single from their 1981 album ‘Moving Pictures’. At over five million copies sold, ‘Moving Pictures’ is by far their best selling album, reward for a conscious attempt at writing more tightly constructed, radio friendly songs.
Naturally, this being Rush, the opening track of their most commercially viable album was named for the titular character of a novel released 105 years previously and based on a poem written by long time collaborator Pye Dubois, about a lawyer. Yes, well, that actually sort of tracks for people with even a passing interest in a band who’s lyrical concepts and references are almost as brain-mangling as their feted time signature changes. We’ve included this for an absolute textbook example of how a solid bassline can anchor even the most outrageous song, pay special attention around the two minute mark.
Trivia: Rush opened their 2006 tour by playing a clip of the four main characters from South Park trying and failing to play the song, before the clip of the boys arguing cut out and the band began playing.
#6 Stevie Wonder – I Wish
Youtube Views – 30.1 Million
Where do you start with a musician like Stevie Wonder? A man who had recorded and released two Motown albums by the time he was twelve, and please if you’ve never had the chance, check this out is not the kind of person you should spend your time trying to define in a couple of paragraphs. And yet here we are, discussing the lead single from Stevie’s eighteenth studio album, the diamond certified absolute classic, ‘Songs in the Key of Life’, Wonder’s best selling and most widely regarded album.
‘I Wish’ is a classic paean to lost innocence and the melancholy that comes hand in hand with the shifting sands of time. Well, yeah, except it’s also funky. There’s nothing especially groundbreaking about the bassline to ‘I Wish’, and it may well be that simplicity that makes it so effective. This is, at its heart, the sound of a historically gifted performer at the top of their game, letting their shoulders roll and getting down with it, we dare you to listen to it straight faced.
Trivia: The wistful nostalgia of the lyric was inspired by a Motown company picnic and family day, attended by Wonder, that reminded him of the joys of his own childhood.
#5 Iron Maiden – The Trooper
Youtube Views – 162 Million
If ever there was a band that, on paper, shouldn’t really work it would maybe, just maybe, be Iron Maiden. Hailing from a particularly unsexy part of London, formed by bassist Steve Harris, and singing songs about demonic possession and the horrors of colonial warfare all the while using a time-travelling zombie called Eddie as their mascot, Iron Maiden shouldn’t really work. The point is, though, that no-one ever stopped to tell the band that.
In a career that spans seventeen studio albums, and eighty million sales, it is an almost impossible task to narrow Maiden’s output down to one song. Fully aware that they boast one of the all time great rhythm sections with drummer Nicko McBrain rattling along behind Harris, Maiden’s trademark sound is full on, like a heavy metal take on Phil Spector’s wall of sound. We chose this one because of how prevalent the bassline is in terms of production, allowing us to fully appreciate the way it gallops along right along with melody. Just listening to the thing is a work out, never mind actually playing it.
Trivia: Bruce Dickinson, the band’s singer and lifelong ‘real ale’ enthusiast was delighted when English brewery Robinson’s created a beer named after this song, and featuring the band’s iconic mascot, Eddie, on the packaging.
#4 Fleetwood Mac – The Chain
Youtube Views – 211 Million
Even a passing examination of the life and strange times of Fleetwood Mac is enough to fill at least three biographies and at least one big budget biopic series directed by Baz Luhrmann. From founding member Peter Green being kidnapped by LSD fuelled anarchists in Munich, to original guitarist Jeremy Spencer meeting and subsequently joining up with a cult while he was out running errands between tour shows, there’s no end of wild stories. Amongst all that chaos, and more by luck than judgement, they came across musician couple, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.
The rest, as they say…within two years of recruiting the pair to the band, and in amongst an almost unfathomable amount of interpersonal tension and drama, they were locked into the studio working on one of the single biggest albums of all time, 1977’s ‘Rumours’. The Chain was not released as a single, instead opening the side two of the album. But, of course, none of that quite matters really when this is potentially the only bassline in the world that the majority of music fans will recognize, even when performed a cappella. Go on, try it, we’ll be here when you get back.
Trivia: speaking of that iconic bassline, it wasn’t initially intended for this song! The version that was released was actually cut together from three different studio sessions, with John McVie’s bassline added later.
#3 Black Sabbath – N.I.B.
Youtube Views – 35 Million
The year is 1970. The first British invasion of America has finished, the Beatles have split up, the summer of love is over, the world is still a few years away from disco. The ground is set fair for something new to take the attention of the listening public. Finally, crucially, somewhere in England’s Black Country, a young Tommy Iommi has an unfortunate and pretty gruesome accident in a welder’s shop, removing the fingertips of his playing hand. As a result, and after some experimentation in trying to fashion his own prosthetics, Iommi first bought much lighter strings and then worked on a playing style built around riffs and chords that he could pick out whilst wearing thimbles to protect his fingers. The result was a down and dirty sound that served as the blueprint for heavy metal.
The incredibly named Geezer Butler matched his bass sound to Iommi’s growling, gloomy guitar, further emphasising and defining the sound. The result has influenced literally millions of players in the decades since and is probably best defined by the fourth song on their debut album. N.I.B, a song about the devil falling in love, of course. It opens with an almost forty second bass solo that sounds a lot like it was left on the record by accident, whatever the meaning behind the odd production choice, we, and a generation of doom-tinged metallers, are grateful for it.
Trivia: The song is actually titled for Bill Ward’s beard, which the band had decided looked like the nib of a pen after Ozzy Osbourne claimed that he thought Ward was turning into a fountain pen while, ah, under the influence.
#2 Liquid Liquid – Cavern
Youtube Views – 2.3 Million
The origins of hip-hop have been well documented elsewhere, but are always worth revisiting. The story goes that impoverished black inner city kids who couldn’t afford traditional instruments took to using turntables and old records to make music. The result, a sample heavy style of music involving lots of scratching and increasingly obscure sampled records captured the imagination first of a generation of black youth and, subsequently, the world. It was only a little over ten years after Sugarhill Gang’s release of Rapper’s Delight, that artists like Notorious B.I.G, Tupac, Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre were beginning to challenge the mainstream and position hip-hop as the most popular genre in the world, a position it still hold today.
The early days of sampling threw up some odd connections, Afrika Bambaataa and The Soulsonic Force reworking Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans Europe Express’ is a standout. But this is our favourite cut, a mysterious, commercially inviable, no-wave band from New York, Liquid Liquid released a series of EPs and then disappeared for almost thirty years. On one of them, 1982’s Optimo, they released a song that would be repurposed, without permission, by the Sugarhill House Band for Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s 1983 extremely funky public service announcement about the perils of drugs, ‘White Lines.’ There are few better examples of the ingenuity and creativity that went into crafting the early sound of hip hop than this.
Trivia: Liquid Liquid’s record label, 99 Records, actually took Sugarhill to court over their house band’s unauthorized sampling of this song and won, although Sugarhill folded before settling.
#1 Sly and the Family Stone – Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again)
Youtube Views – 6.5 Million
The funk scene in the 1970’s was dominated by some outsized characters and bassists including Bootsy Collins, of Parliament and Funkadelic, and Louis Johnson who worked on some of the biggest albums of all time, including Michael Jackson’s Thriller. With that being said, it’s a thankless task to pin down one funk song as being the all time best, and again we always encourage you to contact us if you feel aggrieved in any way. But, come on, listen to this thing, with four bars and a relatively simple slap and pop riff, Larry Graham did the almost unthinkable, and condensed an entire musical subculture into about five seconds. Genius.
Also considered as the first time the slap technique had been employed with an electric bass, the song rightly has a place in history all of its own, released as a double A-Side in 1970 and included on the band’s five million selling Greatest Hits collection. The song itself is excellent, a calling card and celebration of the band’s career to that point, with the lyrics in the third verse referencing the band’s previous hits. It’s braggadocious, joyful, and more than a little catchy, but that bass! If you can make it through this entire song without it troubling your neck, please, seek help.
Trivia: Larry Graham’s innovation in playing style was born of playing in a duo with his mother, an organist, in which he felt like he need to replicate some percussion by thumping the strings of his bass.
Parliament – Give Up The Funk (Tear the Roof of the Sucker)
Youtube Views – 5.4 Million
You surely don’t need us to tell that Booty Collins is an absolute icon but here he is in full flow, special attention for the way that the bassline seems to be locked into a call and response with the vocal throughout.
The Stranglers – Peaches
Youtube Views – 3.5 Million
The Stranglers are one of the stranger bands to emerge from the London 70’s punk scene. They very rarely played or wrote punk songs for one thing, The fantastically named Jean-Jacques Burnel ensures that this grubby, intentionally crude ode to lechery is suitably funky, with an absolute mother of a bassline.
Metallica – Orion
Youtube Views – 20 Million
Recorded and released not long before his untimely death, this is Cilff Burton’s finest hour, and what a piece of work to leave behind. Not many songs have room in them for three bass solos, but, then, not many bands are Metallica. This may be an eight and half minute essay on thrash metal excess, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t very, very, groovy.
The Who – My Generation
Youtube Views – 19.6 Million
Proto-punk, youthful snarl with a whole heaping helping of snotty attitude, this 1965 statement of intent from Roger Daltry and the boys also finds time to put the bass front and centre, an almost unheard of choice at the time as John Entwistle lays down a rumbling four part solo, as well as riffing like his life depends on it throughout.
Chic – Good Time
Youtube Views – 53.6 Million
Proof, if ever it were needed, that the very best basslines are at the disco. Bernard Edwards was responsible for classics for everyone from Sister Sledge to Debbie Harry, but this for our money, is his finest work.
Oh, you didn’t think we were done, did you? Oh no, we wouldn’t let you leave without a few more choices, bass heavy cuts. Here are five songs that maybe don’t warrant the same discussion, or hold the same reputation, but are still absolute killers for any bass lover:
- Muse – Hysteria, although their late career reinvention as some sort of sci-fi Coldplay covers band still rankles with some fans, the bassline on this song is a classic.
- Red Hot Chili Peppers – Give it Away, no, of course we couldn’t get through this without giving some props to Flea, this from their breakout Blood Sugar Sex Magick album introduced the world to Southern California’s most toplessest man and his slap/pop antics.
- Bill Withers – Lovely Day: Lovely Day, this one needs no introduction or explanation, 100% that listening to it will in fact cause a lovely day.
- Queen and David Bowie – Under Pressure, along with The Chain as mentioned above, the other bass line that is almost universally recognisable after even the most tuneless a cappella rendition.
- The Clash – London Calling, Paul Simonon, at a stroke, demonstrating that punk was capable of so much more musicality than anyone had previously realised.
There you have it, a rundown of some of the biggest and best bass songs of all time, plus more than a few honourable mentions and runners up to keep you grooving that much longer. Whether you need to blow off some steam with some artfully curated aggression, or you have an unignorable desire to get up and get moving, something in here is exactly what you need. For more legendary bass inspiration, check our list of top 10 bassists of all time.
Get your best bass snarl ready and loosen up, with the greatest bass songs of all time. And if that is not enough for you, feel free to review our best dance songs of the 80s or our list of best songs of all time.