It may have happened again as recently as 2004: the release of a perfect track, “Miracle Drug” by A. C. Newman. (I am trying to make this sound like “The last perfect game was pitched by Mark Buehrle in July 2009.”)
Do you know what I mean by perfect? Don’t you agree that, even though “Gimme Shelter” is greater than “Honky Tonk Women,” “Honky Tonk Women” is perfect? Am I right that even though “Strawberry Fields Forever” is greater than “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” it’s “I Want To Hold Your Hand” that’s perfect? What would be on your perfect list? (It should be a fairly short list.) “Feel a Whole Lot Better”? “Pinball Wizard”? “Middle of the Road”?
Whatever the songs may be, what I want to know is what makes the bell ring, the aura shine, the definitive judgment of “perfect” clunk into place. Criteria might include:
1) Strong hooks working together, reinforcing each other. (Best of all, slightly surprisingly: the Rolling Stones that country? The Pretenders that retro?)
2) Clarity, tact, efficiency: nary a false move.
3) Strong physiognomy: whether in verse or chorus or instrumental break, it always sounds a lot like itself.
4) Exemplifies one of the strongest underlying forms of the rock single. Is paradigmatic without being predictable. We recognize the paradigm, are intimate with the song in a more perceptive way than merely by following the beat, the words, or the guitar licks. It becomes a Platonic experience.
I think the four criteria are each necessary, and jointly sufficient: no track satisfying them all would not seem perfect. (But have I left something out?) “Miracle Drug” has all these attributes in spades, especially #3. There is a kind of spasmodic vigor in the delivery of the verse that is not forgotten in the relatively more constant chorus. Then you hear the kinetic signature of the song more intensely than ever in the guitar solo.
As for #4, the experience of a paradigm, “Miracle Drug” clearly marks off the major parts of a pop song—it’s like looking at a giant model of an ant, with head, thorax, and abdomen superdistinct. I particularly enjoy the elegant drum part that takes me over the boundary between the end of the verse and the beginning of the chorus.
The trouble with deciding that a song is perfect is that then you start listening for flaws. Right now I’m a little concerned about “Miracle Drug’s” ending: is it wonderfully to the point, or is it almost perfunctory? But I shouldn’t have said that!
 Newman was involved in an earlier perfect track as well, “Mass Romantic” by The New Pornographers. This is a distinguished track record.