Rule number one in songwriting for dummies is to craft a good chorus. In fact, they are pretty much the defining feature of pop music. A chorus, after all, is where listeners live and breathe, they are the moment that the ball hits the back of the net. Then why is that some of the greatest and best-loved songs of all time are devoid of something as seemingly essential as legs on a chair?
The answer is simple; there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Great songs are great songs because they seize upon something unique, this takes courage from a songwriter, but it means that rules aren’t stringent.
As Bruce Springsteen once said, “Why songs are good is because one add one makes three. If you’re writing and all you get is one add one makes two, you fail. […] You’ve got to find that third thing that you don’t understand but is truly coming up from inside of you.” The point being, that a song should be governed by creativity not structure and if a tune rises up from the ether that doesn’t find a chorus to fit, then so be it, it can still be a masterpiece. These are the songs we’re taking a look at below, ten gems that avoid the singalong and deliver brilliance all the same. And we’ve wrapped them all up in a playlist below.
Ten of the best songs without a chorus:
10. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen
In a musical sense, a ‘rhapsody’ is defined as a piece of music of indeterminate length and no formal structure, comprised of a number of different musical ideas. Thus, you would have to say that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ follows that definition almost to the letter.
It is an example of an episodic piece of music whereby it can be compartmentalised into different discreet sections. In this case that creates a classic. Its sonic journey is spellbinding, like a rock opera in miniature, it condenses the wonders of music down into an everchanging journey without losing the edge of any the components or coming off as an annoying mishmash.
9. ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ by The Beatles
The Beatles are masters at using the full scope of musical techniques out there to colour their kaleidoscopic hit-laden back catalogue. Even ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Long and Winding Road’ follow a chorus-less AABA form, whereby A is a verse and B is a middle eight where the melody changes.
However, for ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, they took the rhapsodic approach and broke the song down into three distinct sections. John Lennon referred to the brief intro as “the Dirty Old man”, the middle period of the song as “the Junkie” and the kitschy second half that parodies 1950s rock ‘n’ roll as “the Gunman”. Together it makes up one of the most intriguing entries to their oeuvre and signifies their songwriting depth.
8. ‘Stardust’ by Nat King Cole
When a song opens with the gorgeous poetry of “And now the purple dusk of twilight time / Steals across the meadows of my heart,” it would seem kitsch to cheapen it with a singalong chorus, and fortunately, why bother was the answer.
Like a lot of songs from the era, this revolves around an American Songbook 32 bar form, whereby the notion of movement and progress that a chorus brings about is replaced by a middle eight-bar section that contrasts the rest of the song. In the case of ‘Stardust’, this joyously allows for the words to simply flow on in a soothing unspooling reverie. And how about that vocal take from Nat King Cole? Scintillating stuff…
7. ‘Tangled up in Blue’ by Bob Dylan
‘Tangled Up in Blue’ is a song that can be musically referred to as a strophic song, which essentially means that a conventional chorus is replaced by a short, repeated refrain. In this case, the phrase ‘Tangled up in Blue’ concludes each verse, but it’s far from a separate chorus either.
Bob Dylan uses this style many times throughout his work, in short, to allow him to cram in as many words as he can while still giving the illusion of a chorus to break things up. The pace in this track never lets up as a result and the listener is gladly whisked into the narrative.
6. ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes
When it comes to ‘Seven Nation Army’, memory plays a trick in making you think there is a chorus… and that’s because there is, technically. The reason it sits on this list though is that the chorus in question is instrumental. It’s a wordless riff so catchy that it has become ubiquitous as a chant.
The song itself comes from a wordless tradition as it bears a striking resemblance to the classical ‘5th Symphony’ by Anton Bruckner. The White Stripes’ modern interpretation is an anthemic masterpiece that gives rhythm the lead over words.
5. ‘Sound of Silence’ by Simon & Garfunkel
Just like ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, Simon & Garfunkel’s folk classic is a strophic song with the title repeated as a refrain at the end of each verse. In this case, this helps to imbue the song with an epic hymnal feel. The lack of chorus creates anticipation as you don’t know what’s coming next, and what’s coming next is another spellbinding verse from Paul Simon.
If ever a song can be said to be greater than the sum of its parts, then this is it. ‘Sound of Silence’ captures something implacable and vital that can only really be referred to as spiritual. It stands out from the counterculture songs as something forged in the fires of its time but transcends the happenstance of history, and, in an odd sort of way, the structure is vital in achieving this.
4. ‘White Rabbit’ by Jefferson Airplane
‘White Rabbit’ is a unique song in many ways. It not only avoids a typical chorus, but it has none of the usual other techniques like a middle eight or instrumental chorus, it simply builds and builds monotonically until it reaches its thunderous crescendo and can’t build anymore.
The song is one that defined the psychedelic tail end of the sixties and in a weird way almost encapsulates the era better than any others. It couples mercurial bravura with introspective spiritualism and results in a roaring maelstrom of sound. ‘White Rabbit’ is utterly unique and entirely brilliant.
3. ‘Elephant’ by Tame Impala
‘Elephant’ by Aussie psych-rockers Tame Impala features a repeating verse broken up by an extending instrumental. Much like the aforementioned White Stripes’ Kevin Parker’s group let rhythm dictate the song over words, crafting the illusion of a chorus that exists lyrically as hummed “dun dun dun dun” and an air guitar.
By ditching the chorus Tame Impala are able to let a wall of sound build uninhibited. The result is a song with such an inherent hair swinging melody that it could snap your neck or knock off a loosely secured toupee.
2. ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers
Few songs have harnessed such a unique sound that the instruments featured become synonymous with it. The opening chime to ‘Golden Brown’ is one of the most instantly recognisable of the era and the visceral sonic edge that this singularity lends the song is profound.
The harpsichord riff effectively takes on the role of a chorus in an instrumental sense, breaking up the verses, but in a rather unique way even that riff flows and slushes about like liquid gold, resulting in an amorphous musical masterpiece that stands alone.
1. ‘Up The Junction’ by Squeeze
Avoiding a chorus can sometimes be hugely beneficial. The beauty of ‘Up The Junction’ is that you’re not listening along waiting for some singalong exultation or an air guitar solo to join in with, it’s akin to a short story that you want to get to the end of but savour as you go along.
The track is an opus of narrative songwriting crafting a tale as old as time with humanised flourishes of realism. There is simply no place for a chorus within it, it would be like breaking up a book with a short, repeated chapter, thus the group favour key changes and melody shifts to break up the flow and give movement to the story.