"Book of My Life", Sting: From the "Sacred Love" album, Sting's lyric captures a bevy of universal human experiences. I love this tune.
"Cathedrals", Jump Little Children: There is a LOT of good music in this world that goes undiscovered by the masses. I have a feeling this may be one of those situations. This band was from the town 30 minutes down the road from where I grew up, so this tune was always a beauty I took for granted, but in researching what happened to Jump Little Children it appears they never made it and are no longer together.
"Eleanor Rigby", The Beatles: There can be no greater example of collaboration bringing art to a higher form. Paul McCartney tells the story of all the people we never notice, and George Martin adds the urgency of "the lonely people" with a string arrangement that stands well on it's own (if curious, the string tracks only are available on Beatles Anthology 2)
"What Sarah Said", Death Cab for Cutie: The power of the coda! It's a little used technique in pop music, and works so well in this tune to turn a deathly sad story into an action item for our lives. I love it. Not to mention the subtlety of the drums as the coda builds. Wrenching!
"Ghost", Indigo Girls: The greatest encapsulation of what it's like to be young and have lost love. Through high school (and even once or twice in college) I can remember riding in late 80's model Hondas, every person in the car singing this song in perfect harmony as we let loose the feelings we didn't yet know how to handle but nonetheless found enthralling.
"Take Me Out the Ballgame": With lyrics by Jack Norworth and music by Albert Van Tilzer, this is a classic from old Tin Pan Alley. It is the score to the happiest moment in sports, the old seventh inning stretch, and I hear it as a testament to the timelessness of the game of baseball. It wasn't until 20 years after the writing of this song that EITHER of the composers actually attended a baseball game; yet on a subway car in Manhattan it took just 15 minutes to pen a lyric that stands for all the joys of America's game. (are you convinced that this is my list yet?)
"Hide and Seek", Imogen Heap: This song turned me around on electronic music. I'm a fan of lines in music, and though this sounds quite chordal I find it a stunning marriage of classical writing techniques and electronic music. To me, this is what beautiful electronic music can be.
"Things We've Handed Down", Marc Cohn: The honesty of this song is disarming. It's a perfect pairing of gentle musical questioning and a deep sense of awe-struck wonder. I love Marc Cohn's approach to songwriting.
"Cry On Demand", Ryan Adams: Geez, this is the saddest song ever written. It's so simple and deeply personal in Ryan Adams's rendering of the lyric. I can't avoid feeling the pain that inspired this song, and that is the beauty of music.
"With or Without You", U2: An entire song that is, essentially, a crescendo. And when the fortissimo arrives it's with such restraint that the tension is hardly released . . . just three notes from the guitar and a screaming lead singer. Add a live performance with a crowd of thousands unanimously and cathartically belting a non-sense syllable and you've touched upon genius.