The absolute definitive list of the greatest rock n roll French horn
The French horn. A bizarre mess of tubing, valves, and saliva that nobody seems to know what to make of and fewer still seem to care about. Doomed to the rear of band class but too distinct to hang with the trumpets and too regal to slum with the saxophones, and usually played by a lone musician or a tight-knit group of French horn players1 who seem to have gradually numbed themselves to the suggestive role of the human fist within the recesses of the French horn’s bell.
It doesn’t help that the horn usually sounds like an unholy cross between the last quavering breath of a dying whale and a finely-pitched fart.
Perhaps not surprisingly, while most classical instruments have been invited into the cool kids club of rock n roll, the French horn has been all but banished to the nerd table. The saxophone’s always been a rock mainstay as has the horn section, strings keep popping up from time to time in Radiohead albums and Kanye West tours, and Jethro Tull would unleash a burning flute solo now and again. But the French horn has mostly stayed put on the sidelines, left to drain its spit valves and play its whole notes in peace.
That being said, the French horn has had a few moments to shine, from blaring away in the background of the mix for the Beach Boys to meshing perfectly with Keith Richards’ guitar on one of the greatest Rolling Stones track ever made. Some of the best songs featuring the French horn may not be obvious about the presence of the horn, but it remains essential nonetheless to the entire vibe.
So here, without further ado, is the absolute definitive list of the greatest uses of French horn in rock music. The only criteria is that the songs could conceivably fit within some broad conception of “rock” music.2 All fifteen songs were judged, not according to how great the song in question is, but how well the song used the French horn.3 Because this is what the world needs right now:
- “Victoria,” by The Kinks
“Victoria” is an awesome song that just kind of happens to have the French horn in the background, making it a great example of how essential a horn can be without having any discernable role besides fleshing out the horn arrangement, especially during the goofy horn flourishes that every group seemed compelled to put into their late-1960s concept album, Sgt. Pepper’s-style.
- “Handbags & Gladrags,” by Rod Stewart
There seem to be two strains of rock French horn style: One that pierces and soars, the other that’s subdued and melancholy. The horn on “Handbags & Gladrags” squarely fits within the latter, providing swells and fills that mirror the tone and emotional progression of Rod the Mod’s ballad.4
- “Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” by Belle and Sebastian
Nerds play the French horn. Nerds listen to Belle and Sebastian. It’s a no-brainer.
- “Whiskey Man,” by The Who
The Who are probably the only rock band to keep a French horn player on the payroll, their renowned bassist John Entwistle. Entwistle blasting away on the horn on a song about alcoholism feels just right.
- “Shades of Gray,” by The Monkees
The Monkees got super serious, and nothing says super serious like a French horn to go along with lines like “There is no black or white, only shades of gray.” That said, it’s a nice solo, even if it’s just a lesser version of the horn feature on The Beatles’ “For No One” recorded a year earlier.
- “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” by The Beatles
The song that kicked off the late-1960s trend of including a horn breakdown in the middle of a perfectly fine rock song, the French horns on “Sgt. Pepper’s” are a goofy, if quintessential, part of a goofy, if quintessential, song. It’s not that the horns on “Sgt. Pepper’s” are used well, but rather that they played a crucial role in one of the most important opening tracks ever made.
- “Space Oddity,” by David Bowie
The horn on “Space Oddity” isn’t particularly discernible,5 but it fits perfectly into the atmosphere Bowie creates.
- “Out of Limits,” by The Marketts
Combining surf rock with the French horn is the clearest example I can point to that people did so, so, so many drugs in the 1960s. Bonus points for the song’s use in Pulp Fiction, even if the movie doesn’t get to the part where the horn player unleashes drone after drone like he was a western government with nominal congressional oversight operating in the Middle East.
- “Comfortably Numb,” by Pink Floyd
Like Bowie in “Space Oddity,” Pink Floyd uses French horns in the orchestral arrangement to develop their particular atmosphere, building along with Gilmour’s guitar to raise tension and blare their way to the climax. Rumor has it that, if you play this track backwards and at 45 RPMs, you can hear a French horn player losing their semi-virginity during a bout of heavy petting in the marching band locker room.
- “For No One,” by The Beatles
“For No One” is the greatest McCartney song ever, and anybody who says otherwise is either a fascist idiot or, worse, a Wings fan. The French horn solo absolutely kills, perfectly matching the understated wells of emotion of Paul’s baroque piano and vocals in just a few short bars.
- “Holocene,” by Bon Iver
By the 1970s French horn all but disappeared from the pop music landscape. It was just way too mushy and schmaltzy, qualities that could work for The Beatles or Rod Stewart but didn’t really jive with later popular genres like electronica, hip hop, or country. But all of those qualities that led to the disappearance of the already sparse use of the French horn in pop music fit perfectly with Bon Iver’s vibe, especially on his orchestral sophomore album Bon Iver, Bon Iver that all but defined “melodrama.”
- “Pictures of Lily,” by The Who
A French horn going balls-to-the-wall ballistic on a song about masturbating to a WWI-era pin-up? Say no more.
- “After the Gold Rush,” by Neil Young
“After the Gold Rush” is a perfect song from a perfect album, and features a perfect use of the French horn. The track is just piano, horn, and Neil Young’s cocaine-laced nasal vocals, and the mellow horn solo makes you feel all the feelings as it darkly warbles along to Neil’s keys.
- “God Only Knows,” by The Beach Boys
Probably one of the most iconic uses of the French horn in pop music, if such a thing actually exists. The horn is rousing and goofy and moves emotions in me at the end of Love Actually that I think we can all agree would be better left unturned.
- “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” by The Rolling Stones
The French horn on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is the gold standard by which every other use of the horn in contemporary popular music should be judged. It goes riff-to-riff with Keith’s guitar and comes out on top, giving the instrumental start to the track that beautiful yearning intro right before the rest of the band kicks things into gear. It’s the best use of a French horn in the history of ever, and anybody who tells you otherwise is probably a flugelhorn-blowing jackass who wouldn’t know a trombone from a fleshlight.