50. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
Lost Weekend (1985)
Poor old Lloyd went to Amsterdam and all he got was double pneumonia in a single room. And, by the sounds of it, his love life is going horribly wrong. Just don’t ask him about the price of medicine (obviously he didn’t get his European health insurance card). It’s enough to make anyone go No Deal, really.
49. Peter Hammill
German Overalls (1973)
More continental misery from the never knowingly cheerful Peter Hammill, who’s on tour in Germany and not enjoying it. At all. In Mannheim, “on a rainy Saturday with no money nor friend / Only tequila can end the boredom”. Worse still, he can only find old copies of the Sunday Times to read. Well, it was 1973.
48. Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé
You might think it a silly piece of fluff (and so might I), but the Spanish newspaper El País calls Barcelona “iconic … a musical masterpiece”. The pairing of the Queen singer and the Spanish opera star certainly created a wedding cake of a song. And as all visitors to Barcelona now observe: “Such a beautiful horizon.”
One of the greatest entries in the folder labelled “indie bands who’ve listened to Neu!” comes from the London quartet who cleverly matched the motorik to a song in which Thomas Sanders bewails the fact that “the girl from Düsseldorf has gone”. It doesn’t quite sound like a motorway, more like the racket of a really great motorway services.
46. Peggy Lee
Autumn in Rome (1964)
It could perhaps do without the chirruping birds (aren’t they more of a springtime thing, anyway?), but once Peggy Lee starts singing – that smoky voice deployed with perfect restraint – you can forgive them. It helps that Paul Weston and Alessandro Cicognini had concocted the perfect piece of musical melancholia to go with Sammy Cahn’s lyric.
45. Jason Isbell Stockholm (2013)
Another one from the on-the-road files, though Isbell isn’t as miserable as Peter Hamill was, not least because Stockholm is evidently quite nice, what with “ships in the harbour and birds on the bluff”. The problem is that he’s fallen in love back home, and he just wants to get back there. Poor love.
44. John Cale
Paris 1919 (1973)
Take the placing with a pinch of salt; this is a great song. But there are two problems: first, there are so many great songs about Paris that there’s a risk of bunching them at the top; second, if Cale hadn’t explained it was about the treaty of Versailles, no one would have a clue what it was about.
43. The Clash
Spanish Bombs (1979)
I can take or leave the Clash’s revolutionary sloganeering, but Mick Jones didn’t half know his way round a tune. The linkage between the fighters of the Spanish civil war, English package tourists in the late 70s and ETA bombing campaigns doesn’t make a lot of sense, but then the Clash often didn’t make a lot of sense.
42. Fleet Foxes
The second most seductive portrayal of a Greek island (after Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals) came from some Seattle longhairs half in thrall to the Beach Boys and half to folk music. Their version of Mykonos doesn’t sound much like the one of “pumping clubs, bars open until dawn” that Expedia offers.
41. Suprême NTM
Paris Sous Les Bombes (1995)
A landmark in Parisian hip-hop, Suprême NTM’s vision of Paris is not one of pavement cafes, chic boutiques and grand boulevards. It’s an ineffably creepy overview of their own Paris – one of graffiti crews and grim suburbs. More La Haine than Amélie.
40. Mieczysław Fogg
Piosenka o Mojej Warszawie (1944)
A pre-war star, Fogg stayed in Warsaw throughout the second world war, where he played concerts to raise the morale of the Poles and hid a Jewish family in his apartment. This postwar song declares his love for the city: “I know that you’re not yourself today / That you survived bloody days.”
39. Parquet Courts
Berlin Got Blurry (2016)
A rather different set of concerns occupied the minds of Parquet Courts on their visit to central Europe, on a song that sounds as blurry as the title suggests, as if everything has just taken too much effort. “Funny how it charms you, that Teutonic frankness,” they sing, a line that would have horrified Mieczysław Fogg.
38. The Beautiful South
Rotterdam (Or Anywhere) (1996)
When life is desperate, it doesn’t matter where you are in Europe: “The whole place is pickled / The people are pickles for sure.” Rotterdam becomes indistinguishable from Liverpool or Rome because loneliness feels the same in any surroundings.
Bedlam in Belgium (1983)
If you can show me a better song about crowd bedlam at a heavy rock festival in Belgium – indeed, any of the low countries – I’d like to see it. AC/DC have recorded 23 songs in which the word “rock” or one of its derivatives appears in the title, but only one in which either “Bedlam” or “Belgium” appear. This is a collector’s item.
36. Jens Lekman
Wedding in Finistère (2017)
So many Jens Lekman songs take place in specific European locations – from anti-capitalist riots in Gothenburg, to having to pretend in Berlin that he’s going out with his friend Nina so her dad doesn’t guess she’s gay. This account of playing a wedding in Finistère and watching the kids is one of the loveliest.
Belsunce Breakdown (2000)
Marseille has its own hip-hop culture, distinct from the Parisian one – less angry, despite it being France’s most dangerous city. Belsunce Breakdown is a sketch of a neighbourhood from the rapper Bouga, with music supplied by IAM, the originators of Marseillaise hip-hop (more from them later).
The latest single from the German band for whom no gesture is too overstated is just as berserk as you might expect. And just as uncomfortable – what with its references to a Germany that is “über alles” and video featuring one member in Nazi uniform. Though, to be fair, he does get shot by a concentration camp prisoner. So we think they’re on the right side.
33. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers
Give Paris One More Chance (2001)
A change of mood with Jonathan Richman, who is intensely concerned that you really didn’t make enough effort to fall in love when you were in Paris: “Maybe your heart needs a telegram from up above / If you don’t think Paris was made for love.”
32. Amália Rodrigues
Cheira Bem Cheira a Lisboa (2008)
Why do so few songs about cities talk about the smells – the good ones, rather than the drains and traffic fumes? Here, the queen of fado is exploring her city through scent – the rosemary, the wine, a carnation, strong coffee and roasted chestnuts. As the title says: smells good, smells like Lisbon.
31. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci
Spanish Dance Troupe (1999)
“My conclusion this summer / Was there was much too much rain / So I ran off on Thursday / With a dance troupe from Spain,” sings Euros Childs, a sentiment that seems completely reasonable. This 1999 single is perfect: not a second wasted and the burst into the Iberian-flavoured trumpet break is a glass of cold white rioja for the ears.
30. St Vincent
Paris is Burning (2007)
From 2007, when she was still St Vincent, rather than the Famous And Revolutionary St Vincent – which proves only that brilliance doesn’t always get noticed immediately. It’s the end of the second world war in Paris and an American soldier is not finding any romance in the city: “We are dancing a black waltz / Fair Paris is burning after all.”
29. The Associates
White Car in Germany (1982)
The early 80s was British pop’s Mitteleuropa period. Possession of synthesisers and raincoats led a generation of musicians to believe they were consumed by Germanic angst and embodying cold-war paranoia. With some of them, including the Associates, it worked.
28. Regina Spektor
Regina Spektor escapes sounding like a musical gap-year postcard in her European travelogue, thanks to her exuberant delight at her surroundings and her self awareness. It might have been the tulips and canals that made her crazy in Amsterdam, “or it might have been all that hash”.
27. Robert Wyatt
A Sunday in Madrid (1997)
It sounds like a Sunday; lazy and meandering. And it reads like magical realism, as the Spanish capital shuffles past in a haze of imagery: “Elsewhere, bare buttocks wait their turn in vain. No guides available. All busy in the Prado.”
Je Danse le Mia (1993)
Back to Marseille, for a breakthrough hit from 1993. Watch the video – directed by Michel Gondry – rather than just listening to the song (unless your French is fluent). It’s a portrait of Marseillaise jack-the-lads and it’s hard not to think this is what a French Del Boy would be like.
25. Django Reinhardt
Echos de France (1947)
A violin picks out La Marseillaise, and the king of gypsy jazz cuts it off with a flourish of notes, before resuming the melody, then taking it across several borders. Reinhardt is as much a key voice of French music as his fellow Belgian, Jacques Brel.
24. Tangerine Dream
Late in 1983, the German synth rock pioneers crossed into Poland for six shows, recording them and releasing a double album. Poland, recorded live in Warsaw, was suitably icy and ascetic, but filled with hope, too.
Zoo Station (1991)
In which U2 got out their Build Your Own Bowie kit and headed over to Hansa Studios to make Achtung Baby. It’s easy to mock – fun, too – but U2 created something extraordinary, even if Bono’s claims about it being a metaphor for German reunification are a bit “You what, mate?”
22. Scott Walker
The American who was more European than the Europeans paid tribute to the Danish capital on Scott 3: “Copenhagen, you’re the end / Gone and made me a child again.” Might not have been as effective had it been entitled Basingstoke.
21. The Divine Comedy
In effect, Scott Walker with a sense of humour. Neil Hannon wants to go and live among the “tall and strong and blonde and blue eyed / Pure and healthy, very wealthy”. The likes, he explains, of “Ingmar Bergman, Henrik Ibsen, Karin Larsson, Nina Persson”. Wouldn’t we all?
20. David Bowie
Where Are We Now? (2013)
Bowie’s 2013 comeback single gained its power not so much from the melody as from revisiting his old Berlin haunts. When someone so resistant to nostalgia seemed to want to cast an eye over his past, it had meaning greater than old holiday snaps.
19. The Prodigy
Sleaford Mods join the Prodigy for a night out. It doesn’t sound like fun. The music is a pneumatic drill, the lyrics a stream of scabrousness: “Plug it in, pre-mixed, all bought in / It’s all about the gear / Bleached-hair wanking mates / Just flown in on the Lear.”
18. Ute Lemper
Streets of Berlin (2000)
Originally sung by Mick Jagger in the 1997 movie adaptation of Martin Sherman’s play Bent, but Lemper’s version is rather better: you might expect a Kurt Weill specialist to wring rather more out of a lyric about Berlin in the 1930s than Jagger, and so it proves.
17. Etienne Daho
Week-end à Rome (1984)
The chassis for Saint Etienne’s He’s on the Phone, Daho’s electropop wisp sounds as optimistic as the first coffee of the morning, with the heat not yet settled over the city. You can cram a lifetime into a weekend, after all.
16. The Pogues
The Broad Majestic Shannon (1988)
Shane MacGowan was, more than anything, a London songwriter who took excursions. On the third Pogues album he went over to the west of Ireland for one of those bruised, romantic pieces of confected nostalgia he managed to make sound true.
15. Edith Piaf
L’Homme de Berlin (1963)
Don’t talk of Berlin, because it is nothing to Edith Piaf. Or perhaps it’s everything. Even under the dirty Berlin sky, she found an eternity in a moment with one man. And then, because she’s Edith Piaf and she doesn’t live happily ever after, it ends.
Just Like Christmas (2004)
More commonly found on lists of great Christmas songs, but really it’s the greatest on-tour-in-Europe song, right from the awry, distorted musical backing, which sounds like extreme fatigue. It’s snowing in Scandinavia and it’s the oddness, not joy, that makes it feel like Christmas.
13. The Fall
Bremen Nacht (1988)
Mark E Smith makes feeling ill at a gig in a German college sound like the worst case of paranoia. He later suggested his maladies were caused by the ghosts of Nazis who had died in the allied bombing of the city.
12. Neutral Milk Hotel
Holland, 1945 (1998)
The strangest, most joyful meditation on the Holocaust and the death of Anne Frank: the only song to describe a girl being buried alive that makes you want to throw your hands in the air and sing along. It never sounds unremarkable.
11. The Sex Pistols
Holidays in the Sun (1977)
From the opening borrowing of the situationist slogan about Club Med (“A cheap holiday in other people’s misery”), Holidays in the Sun is a deep dive into horror, though John Lydon actually enjoyed Berlin: “I loved the wall and the insanity of the placing.”
10. Joni Mitchell
Free Man in Paris (1974)
Paris as symbol of liberation (part one): Joni Mitchell imagines being David Geffen, escaping from California to somewhere he can be an out gay man rather than just a record company machine: “I was a free man in Paris / I felt unfettered and alive / Nobody calling me up for favours / No one’s future to decide.”
9. Jacques Brel
Such a persuasive song that both David Bowie and Scott Walker would cover it. Jacques Brel slowly peels back the layers of the port, getting seamier each time, from the sailor singing of the sea, until we reach “the whores of Amsterdam … their virtue long gone / For a few dirty coins”.
8. Roxy Music
A Song for Europe (1973)
One side has won out now, but there was a time that Bryan Ferry embodied so many cross-cutting personalities: the English gentleman; the fashion dandy; the continental sophisticate. The latter sings this one, yet he also sounds adrift, unanchored.
7. Jay Z and Kanye West
Niggas in Paris (2011)
Paris as symbol of liberation (part two): From Josephine Baker onwards, Paris became a place where black American artists could find freedom. Kanye West embraced the city and he and Jay Z turned their experiences there into a triumphalist centrepiece of the Watch the Throne tour.
6. Grace Jones
I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango) (1981)
What an extraordinary record: tango, reggae and chanson wrapped up in one, and Grace Jones singing about the man she sees on every street corner in Paris: “Like a hawk stealing for the prey / Like the night waiting for the day.” A reminder that the darkness is not necessarily a time for freedom.
5. Lou Reed
You can have either the Berlin album version, or the one from Reed’s first solo album. That’s the one I prefer, largely because you know it doesn’t prefigure what sounds like a suicide note set to music, which rather changes the context in which you hear it.
4. Ella Fitzgerald
I Love Paris (1956)
Oh, Cole Porter! When you pair one of the greatest writers of all with one of the greatest singers of all, you do tend to get something approaching perfection. So it goes with Ella, who loves Paris both in winter (“when it drizzles”) and in summer (“when it sizzles”). So why does the song sound so sad?
It is, clearly, complete nonsense. It is also, clearly, nothing to do with Vienna. But there is a generation of Britons for whom this is the defining song of European identity, although that’s largely down to the video, which brought the aesthetics of The Third Man to provincial shopping centres.
2. Randy Newman
In Germany Before the War (1977)
An extraordinary song, sombre and foreboding, alluding to both a serial child murderer in Düsseldorf in the early 1930s and to the rise of nazism. Its very restraint makes it all the more chilling, before the ghastly final lines: “We lie beneath the autumn sky / My little golden girl and I / And she lies very still.”
Trans Europe Express (1977)
In the past, the future looked thrilling. Kraftwerk signalled the way towards it, both musically and lyrically. Trans Europe Express was to be one of the most important pieces of electronic music ever made: its central motif became the spine of Afrika Bambaata’s Planet Rock; its Mitteleuropean chilliness was the model for those Brits in raincoats. But what seems most appealing is its vision of a Europe open to all, where you can rendezvous on Champs-Élysées, go to a late-night cafe in Vienna, then return to Düsseldorf to meet David Bowie and Iggy Pop. The same 1977 album also offered the hymn to “parks, hotels and palaces / Europe endless”. Oh, for the possibilities!