In the experience of a music listener, very few moments can compare to hearing a memorable solo, or an entrancing instrumental passage for the first (or thousandth) time, with them often having a much more profound effect on us than vocals and lyrics could.
Babylon looks at ten underrated solo and instrumental passages from songs which have not gotten their fair dues, either because they are not particularly well known, or are overshadowed by a more iconic solo/passage in an artist’s catalogue.
In order to keep the list as varied as possible, there are a number of provisions in place:
- The list is not merely restricted to solos; any section of a song which has a single instrument as the most prominent will be considered
- Any song from a studio album which was released as a single is ineligible, but live versions of said songs will be considered, as they can contain added passages or solos
- No more than three guitar solos can be featured
- No artist and/or performer of a solo/instrumental passage can be featured twice
“Dogs” – Pink Floyd (performed by David Gilmour)
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Unless you happen to be a Floydian diehard, “Dogs” will rarely enter that discussion. The only song on 1977’s Animals to credit Gilmour as a co-writer alongside Roger Waters (who wrote the rest of the album), “Dogs” contains three of Gilmour’s most venomous and underrated solos. The solo being singled out however, is the final one which starts at the 13:25 mark.
Defined by Gilmour’s renowned economic playing style and bends which end in descending augmented triads, returning to the gorgeous harmonized guitar motif in F featured earlier in the track.
In particular, this solo demonstrates all of David Gilmour’s best qualities as a guitarist, while adapting them to effectively communicate the scathing criticism of Water’s lyrics examining the socio-political climate of mid-1970s Britain with eviscerating potency.
“The Way Young Lovers Do” – Van Morrison (arranged by Larry Fallon)
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Often considered the throwaway track on Van Morrison’s folk rock masterpiece Astral Weeks, “The Way Young Lovers Do” was Van’s first foray into jazz and soul music, while also attempting to blend it with Astral Weeks’ folk rock style. While the track does not feel fully in place on Astral Weeks, it is a critically underrated moment in Van’s catalogue, especially when compared to songs such as the title track, “Ballerina” and “Sweet Thing”.
The trumpet solo which features on the three-minutes and change track (the brass and strings arranged by Larry Fallon), although reasonably simple on the surface, compliments the song’s triple meter and the popping double bass of jazz veteran Richard Davis immensely. While Morrison’s soulful vocal performance is the track’s best feature by some distance, the trumpet work serves its purpose of leading the instrumental break better than it is perhaps given credit for.
In addition, “The Way Young Lovers Do” was not only a vital indicator to where Morrison’s musical direction was going, but also laid the foundation to Astral Weeks’ highly influential follow-up, Moondance.
“Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” – Joni Mitchell (performed by Tom Scott)
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Released on Mitchell’s 1974 album For the Roses, “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” paints a portrait of the heroin addiction of her then lover James Taylor.
The key to communicating the dichotomy of Taylor’s lust for drugs at the expense of his career lies in the gorgeously serene folk rock instrumental with Tom Scott’s mournful saxophone passages lying in the background until the sax is allowed to take centre-stage in the outro, with its melodies sounding entrancingly unique, like many Mitchell songs (and albums) of the period.
“Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” in and of itself is an underrated song, as its parent album, For the Roses follows Mitchell’s quintessential masterpiece Blue (1971). By extension, the saxophone performance of Tom Scott is underrated.
“Bonzo’s Montreux” – Led Zeppelin (performed by John Bonham)
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Who said a song needs a drum solo, when the whole song can be a drum solo. This four-minute outtake from a 1976 recording session (which was eventually released on the 1982 rarities compilation Coda) is essentially a master class from the late John Bonham on how to make the drums sound interesting on their own. While there are electronic effects added by guitarist Jimmy Page, they are mostly placed in for colour, and tastefully complement Bonzo’s performance.
While many of Led Zeppelin’s most famous songs are proof enough of why Bonham is rightly considered among the greatest to ever play the instrument, this outtake is an unjustly overlooked piece, simply because it never made a Zeppelin studio album.
“Within” – Daft Punk (performed by Chilly Gonzales)
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Following the nine minute instrumental opus “Giorgio by Moroder”, the extended piano intro to “Within” from Daft Punk’s final album Random Access Memories (played by Chilly Gonzales) is a masterclass in how to transition from one disparate track to another. The first three songs on the album were in the key of A, with “Within” marking the first track to be in B flat
While it might be simple sounding, the unconventionality of the modulation (which is mostly seen in classical or jazz music) tugs hard on the heartstrings, which helps make “Within” a standout deep cut in the Daft Punk discography.
In Daft Punk’s Collaborators’ series which promoted RAM, Gonzales explains how the transition between the two tracks came to be (found at roughly the 4:20 mark).
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“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” – Talking Heads (performed by Adrian Belew)
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The opening track to 1980’s Remain in Light, “Born Under Punches” (like its parent album) is a new wave/avant funk/post punk masterpiece which still sounds ahead of its time more than four decades later.
Essential to the sound of this song in particular, is Adrian Belew (renowned for his work with Frank Zappa, David Bowie and King Crimson, among others), who warps and glitches his guitar solo into a small slice of musical futurism within the span of a thirty second period. All the while, a Fela Kuti influenced groove (which lasts the entire six minute runtime), punctuated by Tiny Weymouth’s hypnotic bassline (whose performance is also key in preventing the song’s tightly constructed chaos from collapsing on itself), dominates the soundscape.
Often overlooked ahead of iconic singles “Once in a Lifetime” and “Houses in Motion”, “Born Under Punches” not only rivals such songs, but is arguably Talking Heads’ greatest deep cut.
“Masseduction” (Live) – St. Vincent (performed by Kamasi Washington)
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A hybrid of glam rock, new wave, and electropop, the title track to St. Vincent’s (Annie Clark) fifth album makes this list due to the guest performance by jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington (who played on the Masseduction track “Pills”) during a recording of BBC’s Later… with Jools Holland in 2018, despite the track being released as a single.
On paper, a smooth, soulful, and melodic jazz solo should not fit alongside the abrasive outro, which is dominated by Annie’s alternate tuned slide guitar.
However, considering that the mix on the Jools Holland performance is not as visceral as it is on the original recording, in addition the guitar being deliberately buried back in the mix at around the 3:00 mark (quite subtly too might I add), it gives Kamasi’s saxophone enough room to leave an impact.
“As I Am” – Dream Theater (performed by Mike Portnoy)
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A balls to the wall progressive metal number which opens Dream Theater’s Train of Thought, the highpoint of “As I Am” is arguably the short drum break from Mike Portnoy following John Petrucci’s rapid and technical guitar solo, which ranks among his finest recorded moments with the group, and is an example of why he is considered alongside John Bonham as one of the greatest drummers of all time.
Portnoy literally does not miss a beat, matching the syncopated main riff in a demonstration of his immense technical prowess, especially considering the Train of Thought album saw Portnoy play in a more straightforward manner than most Dream Theater albums while he was in the group.
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“Close to the Edge” – Yes (performed by Rick Wakeman)
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An eighteen and a half minute prog rock odyssey which touches on almost every genre imaginable, the title track to Yes’ Close to the Edge has notable solos and passages in abundance.
However, if a standout were to be chosen, it would have to be the church organ motif performed by Rick Wakeman starting at the 12:11 mark (the main theme of the track’s third movement), which was recorded on the pipe organ of London’s St Giles-without-Cripplegate church.
Pun fully intended, it literally sounds like a religious experience, albeit a highly sinister one. The sudden modulation in key from major to minor should sound jarring, but to the ears, sounds gloriously emotional, and that can only be down to Wakeman’s otherworldly penchant for working melodies into a chordal framework, even if it is not the most manic or technical moment on the track.
To provide one other example, Wakeman was responsible for the melodic development of the progression to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”, on which he performed piano.
“I Appear Missing” (Live) – Queens of the Stone Age (performed by Josh Homme)
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The emotional climax of 2013’s …Like Clockwork, “I Appear Missing” is without question one of the great guitar moments of Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme’s career, rivalling that of the band’s most iconic single “No One Knows”.
A track which is a proggier take on Queens’ desert rock sound, Homme’s solo feels like the embodiment of a pained cry for help, to the point where his existential crisis has him with his “toes on the edge” of no return. It should be noted that Homme’s brush with both death and depression in 2011 were the main influence behind the music and lyrics of …Like Clockwork.
While the solo album version is memorable in and of itself, live versions of the song often extend the solo by at least a minute, which allows for the desperation communicated in Homme’s lyrics and vocals to really shine through, which is arguably best shown in the nine minute version of the song performed at the Open’er Festival during …Like Clockwork’s promotional tour.