Ben Folds Five, 1995
A different look at Muhammad Ali, from later in his life. This is a poignant imagined conversation between the Champ and Howard Cosell as Ali's career is winding down: "My intention's become/Not to lose what I've won/Ambition has given way to desperation." "Boxing might have been a strange subject for a romantic waltz," says Folds. "But when something that's not normal gives me a chill while I'm writing it, even now, I don't question it—I'm thankful."
BONUS TRACK: Check out Bette Midler's cover.
17 SPEEDWAY AT NAZARETH
Mark Knopfler, 2000
A surprising tribute to Indy car racing from Knopfler, who said the song arose from his friendship with Stefan Johansson, a Swedish driver on the Formula 1 and CART circuits in the 1980s and '90s. It chronicles a fictional CART season: The narrator gets put into the wall at Phoenix, drives with three cracked vertebrae in Long Beach and barely qualifies at the Indy 500. His season is finally redeemed with a victory at Nazareth, Pa., the home of Mario Andretti. The song is only inspired by Johansson, though: He never won in more than 75 starts in F1 and CART.
18 FUGUE FOR TINHORNS
Guys and Dolls, 1950
"I got the horse right here/The name is Paul Revere/And here's a guy that says if the weather's clear/Can do, can do." There's never been a better tribute to the degenerate horse player and never will be. Based on the short stories of Damon Runyon and with marvelous music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, the Guys and Dolls classic (best when performed by Stubby Kaye) nails the gambler's perpetual—or is it misguided?—optimism.
19 TOURNAMENT OF HEARTS