Relative to the other woodwinds, the saxophone is pretty damn cool. I know this because I played clarinet in middle school, and clarinets don’t get to do anything that looks even a little bit like rocking out. But outside the band-hall context, saxophones are rarely something to get excited about, unless you have an irrational fondness for yacht rock and smooth jazz. Sax solos are sleazy and insinuating; we associate them with Kenny G and Bill Clinton for a reason. But I guess no one told Lady Gaga that, because, whoa-oh, here she comes with a new song called “The Edge of Glory,” which prominently features a sax solo from E Street band member Clarence Clemons. While the song mostly has me lowering my expectations (again) for Born This Way, Clemons’s solo is admittedly a high point, and one of the more original ideas that Gaga has had of late. So I salute Mama Monster with this list of 10 pop-rock songs with completely awesome sax solos.
10. DJ Kool, “Let Me Clear My Throat.” Hip-hop has been especially unkind to the saxophone, and even today DJ Kool’s banger remains a notable exception. The baritone sax line in “Let Me Clear My Throat” first showed up on funkstress Marva Whitney’s “Unwind Yourself” before the 45 King fashioned it into a break beat for “The 900 Number.” Ultimately, credit should go to the solo’s original performer: St. Clair Pinckney, baritone sax man for the inhumanly tight James Brown Band. He never went on to bigger things, but with that one killer riff he’s been packing dance floors for more than 40 years.
9. Cut Copy, “Hearts on Fire.” Sax solos would eventually become a cliché in the house music scene, but half the fun of Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colours was how it could make the most tired of dance-floor tropes hit you like you’d never heard them before. The solo on “Hearts on Fire” isn’t long, but it gives the track its most ecstatic moment, fading in from the background to unleash a torrent of wailing high notes while the beat chugs on behind it.
8. Aretha Franklin, “Freeway of Love.” Turns out Gaga isn’t the first diva to recruit Mr. Clemons for an epic single about freedom, love, and running away from it all. The Queen of Soul isn’t usually one to be upstaged, but she wisely allows Clemons to steal the show with an ebullient solo. For her part, Franklin sounds lively and energized. Even if this vocally slight number is a bit of a mismatch for a singer of her stature, hearing the legendary diva belt goofy lines about pink Cadillacs and bad traffic is shameless fun in its own right.
7. The Rolling Stones, “Rip This Joint.” One of the fastest songs in the Stones catalogue, “Rip This Joint” is a breakneck rockabilly bar jam wherein all of the band’s legendary swagger and filthy carnality is blasted out in the form of a Bobby Keys sax solo. Exile on Main St. actually features a handful of great performances from Keys; in some cases, as with his mournful playing on “Let It Loose,” he even manages something like subtlety. But “Rip This Joint” is all about honk-tonk hedonism, and as is only appropriate, Keys tears into the track like he’s soundtracking a cartoon bar fight between Mick Jagger and an army of Gallagher brothers.
6. David Bowie, “Subterraneans.” Bowie’s mawkish sax interludes have provided an almost equal number of hits and terribly distracting misses over the course of his career. The just reissued Station to Station could be pop music’s greatest sax album, but I don’t think the Thin White Duke has ever made his horn sound more haunting or evocative than on the closer to Low. Emerging in the final minute of the song, the sax acts as a coda on the ambient dirge, bringing the curtains down on the frequently abstract album with a brief foray into unadulterated melody.
5. Pink Floyd, “Us and Them.” Dick Parry has contributed a number of excellent sax solos to the Pink Floyd discography, but I’ve always preferred his playing on “Us and Them,” though that might just owe to the fact that his great solo on “Money” is immediately followed by an even greater David Gilmour guitar solo. By contrast, his furious second solo on “Us and Them” injects the sedate psyche-rock epic with some much needed delirium, probably the only time in rock history where a saxophone has registered a cry of horror at the misery of war and poverty. Existential sax? Apparently a few million Floyd fans were high enough to feel it.
4. 808 State, “Pacific State.” I mentioned above that languid sax solos became a cliché in house music. This song is why. A classic of the late-’80s acid-house scene, “Pacific State” dismisses the apparent contradictions between ambience and funkiness in one breezy masterpiece fusion of sax, synth, and distorted bass. It’s a lush instrumental rave track that perfectly captures the nocturnal spirit of the U.K.’s underground dance culture, genuinely entrancing without succumbing to the blandness typical of “trance” music. Later remixed for radio and club play as “Pacific - 707” and “Pacific - 202,” it’s the longer, original version that is most undeniably hypnotic.
3. Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run.” Marshaling the full, glorious bombast of the E Street Band to what stands unchallenged as the finest song the Boss ever recorded, “Born to Run” combines rock-n’-roll abandon with Wall of Sound production for a song that sounds, approximately, like freedom. Or as Greil Marcus put it, like “a 57 Chevy running on melted-down Crystal’s records.” Mr. Clemon’s delivers the iconic rock sax solo about halfway through. It comes in just as Springsteen hollers, “I want to know if love is real—well, can you show me?” The solo is Clemons doing his best to do just that.
2. Stevie Wonder, “Sir Duke.” Maybe the most straightforwardly joyous song in Stevie’s repertoire (and that’s saying an awful lot), “Sir Duke” pays homage to the great Duke Ellington with an absolutely giddy succession of horn breaks. Stevie sings, “You can feel it all over,” and there’s no denying that when Hank Redd and Trevor Laurence lay into their two-tiered alto-tenor sax attack. The song ranks, deservedly, among Stevie’s most widely acclaimed and commercially successful—and if the comments appended to various performances on YouTube are any indicator, it’s certainly a favorite among aspiring saxophonists.
1. The Stooges, “Fun House.” An eight-minute marathon of relentless proto-punk assault, “Fun House” is the Stooges at their most gleefully anarchic. Credit for the song’s unhinged horn soloing goes to Steve Mackay, who sounds like he’s trying to launch bombs out of the mouth of his tenor sax. His jazzy runs might not be immediately ingratiating, but by the end of the song they’re the only bastion of melody left standing, as the guitars have devolved into distended squelching and Iggy Pop has taken to howling and screeching like a feral Mick Jagger. For the especially adventurous, Fun House’s 2005 reissue comes with alternate takes running out to nine and 11 minutes each.