Friday, 28 August 2009
While the 21st century didn't officially begin until 2001, everyone seems to be posting their list of favourite albums/songs of what they call the "first decade of the new millennium" now (encompassing the years 2000-2009).
Because the common and official understandings of when this century/millenium began clash with each other, I'll phrase it like this: here are my favourite songs from the decade of 2000-2009.
While the size of this list is pretty small compared to the previous decades, there was still a lot of great music released this decade. It's just that, for me, the music of this decade was significantly overshadowed by the music from past decades.
Augie March - Owen's Lament
This spine-tingling and haunting finale from their debut masterpiece Sunset studies stands out as a highlight on what is essentially an album full of highlights. At its core, it's the perfect vehicle for Glenn Richards' amazing vocal abilities, but saying that is underselling the delightful subtlety of the rest of the bands' performances here. Constructed in multiple parts, it begins in a very minimal fashion and builds and builds to an epic climax that makes you want to play the album all over again. While they have released many great albums and songs since, I couldn't imagine anything they do topping what they achieved on this stunning song.
Eminem - Stan
A perfect example of musical fusion -- take two artists who are decent at what they do in their respective genres (Eminem in hip-hop, Dido in folk-pop), combine their work together and watch the magic happen. Okay, so Dido's song Thank you is merely sampled in this song, but it's the magic ingredient which adds the haunting quality that lifts the song into masterpiece territory. Eminem steals the show with his fascinating portrayal of the titular character, an obsessive fan who only wants Eminem to acknowledge him. It all ends in tragedy, of course. A glorious piece of cinematic songwriting and performance, and proof that the art forms of music and film are not as different as we think.
Ben Harper - Amen Omen
Ben Harper has demonstrated his spark of song writing and performance genius on many occasions, but this song from his underrated Diamonds on the inside album is probably his most spiritual and fulfilling song. He reaches a level of transcendence and enlightenment here that is as good as anything Stevie Wonder released during his peak in the 70s. I can't see how anyone couldn't love this song -- a highlight in a remarkably accomplished discography.
The Soundtrack Of Our Lives - Nevermore
Noel Gallagher name-checked and hyped this Swedish group when Behind the music was released in 2001, but don't let that put you off. Nevermore is the centrepiece and highlight of the (very solid) album -- a perfectly constructed 3 minute "Britpop style" epic ballad that is as anthemic as a lot of early Oasis songs, but without a lot of the bombast which overshadowed their later work. Nothing deep here musically, but very enjoyable.
Spoon - The Way We Get By
You know how over-hyped "flavour of the month" bands are often referred to as the saviors of rock? Aren't you sick of hearing that? Well if I was to give any band that ridiculously silly title, it would be Texas indie rock band Spoon. They have the perfect combination of rock star integrity (Britt Daniel's amazing vocals), tight rhythms (courtesy of Jim Eno and Rob Pope) and piano-based melody (Eric Harvey). This little number from Kill the moonlight is a classic 2:40 contemporary pop/rock song that sounds like it has been around for a lot more than 7 years; it never fails to make me happy when I hear it.
Sufjan Stevens - John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
Much of his marvellous concept album Illinois consists of more upbeat pop numbers, but this emotionally haunting track comes up fairly early in the proceedings. Sufjan tells the tragic true story of the serial killer from Chicago who dressed up as a clown, raped and murdered young boys, and hid their dead bodies under his house. Sufjan's vocal delivery of the tragic lyrics is one of the most emotional I have ever heard -- I don't think a musical moment has ever moved me more than the part when he softly laments: "Even more, they were boys, with their cars, summer jobs, Oh my God". A wonderfully haunting tribute to the lost souls who died at the hands of this evil animal.
The Streets - The Irony Of It All
I was surprised at how much I loved the Streets' debut album Original pirate material, as its amalgamation of the UK garage, hip-hop and electronica genres is not something that I would traditionally listen to. But I loved it, and this character-based song is the pick of the bunch for me. Mike Skinner plays two parts in this song with considerably talent and conviction -- a laid-back pothead who wants to chillout, finish his PlayStation game, and be peaceful to all mankind; and a drunken thug who wants to start fights at the pub and cause trouble to everyone around him. It's a superb call-and-response number where the thug defends himself (and condones his behaviour) with the argument that his choice of poison is legal, while the pothead spends time discussing the calming virtues of his illegal drug and the...erm, irony of it all.
The Strokes - Hard To Explain
In many ways, the Strokes can be blamed for the overuse of the aforementioned "saviours of rock" phrase which is so casually bandied around the music press nowadays. This song was the highlight from their fantastic debut album Is this it; the production is delightfully raw and Julian Casablancas is in final vocal form, channeling Lou Reed perfectly. The magic moment in this song for me comes just after the 2 minute mark when everything goes silent for a second...and then it all comes back. French impressionist composer Claude Debussy once said that "music is the space between the notes". He was right, you know.
And that's the end of the list of my 100 favourite songs of all time.
I hope you have enjoyed reading it; I have certainly enjoyed writing it.
Please feel free to comment on any of the posts in the series.
Sunday, 23 August 2009
I spent my teenage years in the 90s, and the mid-late 90s was the time when I really started getting into music in a big way. Understandably, there are a lot of musical memories from these years. So let's take a lot at my favourite songs from the decade.
Air - J'Ai Dormi Sous L'Eau
French duo Air are generally the kind of band I can take or leave. I have no doubt that they are very accomplished at what they do, but find it very difficult to see their work as anything more than excellent background music. This song (from their Premiers symptomes compilation) is a perfectly composed instrumental. What makes this song very special to me is the magical chord change at the 2:50 mark. Both the anticipation and execution of this moment is simply glorious.
Belle & Sebastian - Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying
I talked about this song in a recent eye fillets post, so in the interests of not repeating myself (and laziness), please read about it there. One of the great songs from early, melancholic B&S, and the highlight of If you're feeling sinister, which is an album of highlights when all is said and done.
Ben Folds Five - Underground
I was never cool in school, so this song is like an anthem to me. This is a highly accomplished mid-90s alternative pop song with a great sense of humour. I don't think I'll ever grow tired of this song - it gets to the core of what makes music so great to me. None of their subsequent work (as a trio or Ben Folds solo) has topped this upbeat and catchy number from their debut album.
Blur - You're So Great
From their transitional eponymous album of 1997 (a great year in music) came this stunning, minimalistic Graham Coxon composition. Coxon also took lead vocals on this atypical Blur number, a gorgeous lo-fi love song which sounds like a lost White album outtake. Makes you long for the old scratchy days of vinyl.
Jeff Buckley - Last Goodbye
I only got into Jeff Buckley after he died (being the bandwagon jumper that I am). I first heard him via this song which was included on the Triple J Volume 3 double CD set. It pretty much blew me away on the first listen, and only a few days later I purchased Grace which is now one of my favourite albums of all time (and completely deserving of all the hype it has received). Many artists are put on a pedestal after they die, but Jeff Buckley is an artist who completely deserved it.
Nick Cave - (Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For?
Not the typical Nick Cave song choice, this is a perfect composition which illustrates what happens when a song is stripped down to its basic elements. While I have never been into its critically-acclaimed parent album The boatman's call in a big way (I find it lacking a bit in diversity), this song is a wonderful centrepiece which sounds great in the context of the album or on its own. Many prefer the (also wonderful) song Into my arms from the same album, but this song has always been more special to me.
Crowded House - Distant Sun
I recently read an interview with a musician (I can't remember who) where they were asked for a list of their favourite songs, and this one was on their list. They mentioned how amazed they were that Neil Finn was able to write such an amazing vocal melody over what was essentially a very simple chord progression. I agree -- there's not a lot going on in the bare bones backing track. Many of Neil Finn's best songs demonstrate the art of taking the simple and turning it into the universal, and this perfect song is my favourite example of his craft.
The La's - There She Goes
A master-class in how to open a song -- that riff never fails to catch the listener's attention, and it is instantly recognisable. Despite its ubiquity (there have many cover versions over the years), the old adage that "the original is the best" most definitely applies here. This is a universal classic for the ages, and it doesn't even matter that it's apparently Lee Mavers' love song to heroin. The joy of music is in personal interpretation.
Manic Street Preachers - Yes
The dark opening track on their haunting masterpiece The holy bible, this is early (Richey era) Manics at its best. Like most songs on the album, the lyrics are incredibly disturbing. How many songs do you know where they drop the c-bomb in the first line? The amazing thing about this song is that the rest of the band were able to write such an incredibly hooky song around these lyrics. Not for the faint of heart, but there's a deep message about consumerism underneath the adults-only exterior.
Massive Attack - Unfinished Sympathy
One of those songs that constantly shows up on "best songs of all time" polls, and for good reason. This is a stunningly structured and layered song, with just the right amount of elements that sit exactly where they are supposed to in the mix. Everything from Shara Nelson's soulful vocals, the haunting piano interlude, the breathtaking backing track and the amazing sense of space adds up to form an absolutely essential piece of 20th century music.
My Bloody Valentine - Sometimes
The highlight of their highly acclaimed Loveless album, this song was exposed to a much bigger audience when it was included on the soundtrack to Lost in translation. Like much of Loveless, it is composed of a dense wall of sound where it is pretty difficult to decipher even a single lyric. As fans of the band are aware, that was the intention -- they treated vocals as "just another instrument" in the mix, giving it equal billing with the layers upon layers of guitars. The end result is a song of ethereal beauty, with an absolutely transcendent moment just past the 3:30 mark where a perfect chord change sends the song up into the heavens.
Oasis - Live Forever
I was almost going to put Slide away here, but I changed it in the last minute to choose another (more well-known) song from their classic debut album Definitely maybe. While Oasis have (almost) completely lost their songwriting ability over the course of the last decade, this song is a textbook example of why they were so deserving of the praise and hype in those early days. This is anthemic songwriting at its absolute best, and combined with the passionate performance from the Manchester lads, it is perfectly deserving of its place in the best songs of all time.
Pearl Jam - Black
Although I had heard Pearl Jam's debut album Ten when it first came out (through my brother who was a big fan), I only bought it myself this year. Talk about coming to the party late -- about 18 years too late in this case. This is the emotional highlight of an album full of highlights. The whole song is fantastic, but the magic moment for me is the ending where Eddie Vedder sings the "Why can't it be mine" part with such conviction that you can really feel his emotion.
Portishead - Roads
Possibly one of the most haunting songs ever released, this is the highlight of their debut album Dummy, which was one of the pioneering albums of the trip-hop genre. I have always considered Beth Gibbons' vocals on the album to take one of two personas -- the bluesy temptress (Strangers), and the more pure angelic vocals (It's a fire). This song definitely falls into the latter camp. This song is an exercise in purity and minimalism.
Pulp - Common People
Another song I discovered via the Triple J Volume 3 double CD set, this is both a classic slice of Britpop and a 90s anthem which has managed to outlive that scene. Its parent album Different class is also one of my favourite albums of all time. This is an epic, intelligent song and the perfect showcase for Jarvis Cocker's witty lyrics. That they were able to turn it into a song you want to dance to is the icing on the cake.
Radiohead - Paranoid Android
It's become a bit of a cliche to call this song the Bohemian rhapsody of the 90s, but it's true. An epic 3-part beast of a track, this song (and the album OK computer) helped elevate Radiohead to become one of the most talented and innovative bands of the decade. It starts out disjointed and cryptic ("Unborn chicken voices"), becomes funky and cryptic in its mid-section ("Gucci little piggy"), and ends on an emotionally cryptic note ("Rain down"). Did I mention the video clip? Yep, that's pretty cryptic too.
Elliott Smith - Waltz #2 (XO)
Elliott Smith was never known to write many happy songs during his too-short life, but musically he did start a subtle move from folk to pop on his post Either/or albums. This is probably the best melody he ever wrote, but as usual there are dark undercurrents to his lyrics. For a man who was such an amazing songwriter and performer, picking a favourite was difficult. I have always had a personal connection to this song, which justs rises it to the top.
Suede - The Asphalt World
I have always thought that if I was going to write or direct a movie, I would love this song to be on the soundtrack. The emotional climax of the challenging Dog man star album, this is the payoff from all the ambition that was demonstrated on the rest of the album. An epic song that doesn't outstay its almost 10 minute running time, this was a great farewell from guitarist Bernard Butler before he left the band due to creative differences between him and frontman Brett Anderson.
Super Furry Animals - Hermann Loves Pauline
Similar to the Belle & Sebastian track earlier, I talked about this song in a recent eye fillets post. You can read about it there, but in a few words -- this is genius psychedelic Welsh indie pop, and the highlight of their almost-perfect Radiator album.
Teenage Fanclub - Sparky's Dream
The melody of this song is so familiar and catchy that you wonder how it wasn't written before 1995, when Teenage Fanclub released it on their fantastic Grand prix album. This is another track that I would give the coveted title of perfect pop song. I'm not exaggerating here -- from that opening guitar riff, to Gerald Love's classic lead vocal, to those gorgeous harmonies, to that stupendous chorus ("Need a crystal ball to see her in the morning") -- music doesn't get a lot better than this.
U2 - One
U2 have copped a lot of flack over the last decade, quite understandably at times. First there's Bono, who's horse is so high from sitting up on it all the time. And with the exception of the underrated All that you can't leave behind (2000), they haven't released anything particularly notable this decade. You can't help but think that they are a band who probably should have thrown in the towel a long time ago. There are lots of songs by U2 that have been killed by overplay, that I'd be quite happy to never hear again (With or without you, I still haven't found what I'm looking for, Pride). But One is a song I will never tire of -- it's just a great composition with a universal message, and the highlight of Achtung baby which was the best album of their 30 year career.
The Verve - On Your Own
A beautiful ballad from their 1995 album A northern soul, this is a great showcase for Richard Ashcroft's vocals. Many fans would point to the epic string-drenched History as the highlight of the album, but this song has always done it for me a lot more. Not as well known as the singles from Urban hymns, this is an incredibly underrated number which deserves a lot more recognition.
Weezer - Across The Sea
Weezer's masterpiece Pinkerton was an incredibly cathartic album for frontman Rivers Cuomo. Each song reads lyrically like a diary entry from his disturbing life, while the often upbeat music provides an ironic counterpoint to the dark content. It took me a while for the lyrics of this song to hit me, but it's written as a response song to fan letter received from an 18 year old Japanese girl to Rivers. In the song, Rivers pours his heart out as he reveals that he is lusting after this girl but there's nothing he can do about it because he feels it would be wrong, and she lives in Japan (across the sea). An incredible piece of emotionally honest songwriting from a man who was clearly troubled at the time.
The Whitlams - Following My Own Tracks
I've said it before on this blog, but I'll say it again -- early Whitlams were brilliant. This is a classic song performed with emotion and honesty by the late Stevie Plunder. Musically, the song is quite joyful and bouncy like a lot of early Whitlams songs, but there is a darkness to the lyrics sung by a man who clearly had his fair share of problems. Some of the lyrics ("Well self-destruction's kinda dumb") became sadly prophetic when Stevie died less than 2 years after the album's release from an apparent suicide.
You Am I - Hourly, Daily
Remember when You Am I were this good? It seems like an eternity now. This is the opening title track from their superb 1996 concept album about suburban Australian life. It's a lovely string-drenched ballad which sets the scene of the album perfectly, despite the fact that most of the album is a lot more upbeat and rocky in sound. Tim Rogers' vocals are in fine form throughout. A beautifully understated song.
Saturday, 15 August 2009
Next we move on to the 80s. It was decade of excess and self-indulgence for many musicians, but it was also home to lots of fantastic music if you dug a little deeper than what was in the pop charts. Of course, there's a few guilty pleasures too.
Before I go on, a few people have questioned my "one song per artist/band" rule. They have a valid argument; If I didn't have this restriction, there's a good chance that A day in the life by the Beatles would place higher than most of the songs in this list. But I stand by my rule -- as I said in the first post of the series, I made this rule to keep it interesting and to stop it becoming a love letter to my favourite musicians. So while the title of this series is "Top 100 favourite songs of all time", feel free to read it as "Favourite song of 100 different artists/bands". Not as catchy, and definitely wouldn't get as many google hits now would it?
The Bangles - Eternal Flame
Yep, this is one of those trademark guilty pleasures. There's a few readers right now who are probably laughing that I included this song in the list. Put it down to nostalgia if you will, but I loved this song when it came out, and it has sentimental meaning to me as well. Just a great love song, all said and done.
Kate Bush - And Dream Of Sheep
There's about 5-6 tracks from her masterpiece Hounds of love which I could have put here, but the opening track from the side B musical suite The Ninth wave just edged its way to the top. I remember the exact moment when I first heard this song - when Brett Anderson named it as one of his favourite songs on the J-Files Suede radio special. It's an enchanting number with a wonderful lullaby-like quality that always pulls me into the emotional core of the album.
Elvis Costello - Indoor Fireworks
It's not one of his most well-known songs, but this gorgeous dark country ballad from his superb 1986 album King of America is one of his finest compositions, both musically and lyrically. It took me a lot of convincing to get into Elvis Costello -- my friend Adam lent me both his Very best of CD and Brutal youth but neither grabbed me. Then one day I found myself humming the melody to this song and couldn't get it out of my head. I bought Very best of shortly after, followed by King of America. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Echo & The Bunnymen - The Killing Moon
This song received a second chance at international acclaim when it was featured at the start of the cult classic movie Donnie Darko. It encapsulates that dark 80s indie goth pop sound that was perfected by fellow British bands The Smiths and The Cure, and at the individual song level, it is perfection of the genre. I have subsequently tried to get into the highly acclaimed parent album Ocean rain, but can't quite understand what all the fuss is about. Maybe it's because the rest of the album pales in comparison with what they achieved here.
Peter Gabriel - Don't Give Up
A wonderful duet between the former Genesis frontman and quirky chanteuse Kate Bush, I adore the lyrical message of this song. While its message is hardly subtle (the title of the song pretty much sums it up), I'd like to think that this song has helped to save at least a few lives in its time. Musically it is quite minimalistic, which has made it age pretty well and sound a lot less dated compared with some of his other songs from the period like Sledgehammer.
The Go-Betweens - Quiet Heart
It begins with an intro that is quite reminiscent of With or without you, before the late Grant McLennan enters with one of his finest vocal performances. The song is embellished with emotional strings and a harmonica solo in the middle section courtesy of Robert Forster. Much of 16 Lovers Lane consists of love songs with dark undercurrents, and has often been called the indie Rumours. This song stands out from the album, because there doesn't seem to be anything sinister going on -- it's just a pure, unabashed love song, and all the better for it.
Michael Jackson - Billie Jean
I'm not just jumping on the MJ death bandwagon when I say that he was a pop genius, completely deserving of the King of Pop title that was bestowed upon him. This one is probably his finest song, just edging out a few close runners-up. While he didn't write all of his classic songs, he did write this one which gives it bonus points. And any song which introduced the moonwalk to the world has to be a certified classic. And what a killer bassline!
Billy Joel - Miami 2017 [Live]
This is the definitive version of this song (from 1981 live album Songs in the attic) which was first released in its studio version on his 1976 album Turnstiles. It's an exhilarating live performance which is definite proof that there was a lot more to Billy Joel than his overplayed MOR radio staples. What makes this song one of my absolute favourites is the atmosphere generated by the audience's response to the lyrics. The rest of the album is pretty amazing too.
Paul Kelly - To Her Door
Picking a favourite Paul Kelly song was difficult. For those who haven't heard of Paul Kelly (presumably because you are not from Australia), he's one of our national treasures -- no singer/songwriter has been able to capture the essence of Australiana like this man has. He's the Australian Bob Dylan. While he has tens of songs which could be considered classics, there's something special about this catchy tale of a dysfunctional family (and marriage breakdown) that I'll always come back to.
Bob Marley - Redemption Song
Let's begin with some useless trivia -- for many years, I thought the opening line of this song was "The pirate's just a rabbi". Bob Marley is another one of those genius singer songwriters, and his Legend compilation is the token reggae album in thousands of households who want a nice and concise way of appreciating the genre. Luckily, this song is included on there, so even the casual reggae listener is able to appreciate his finest song -- a politically inspiring masterpiece with arguably his finest vocal performance. It was also the last song on Uprising, the final album released during his lifetime. Which makes it a pretty poignant epitaph as well.
Metallica - Fade To Black
I'm not a huge fan of the heavy metal genre, but I do enjoy some of Metallica's early work (Ride the lightning, Master of puppets, Metallica). This is the token power ballad on their 2nd release, Ride the lightning. It's an epic composition from beginning to end, starting out delightfully subdued, and eventually rocking out in a blissful metal climax of sound. Listening to this song makes me upset about the lack of dynamics in modern music - they don't write 'em like this anymore.
New Order - Temptation
This would be on my shortlist of the most blissful, uplifting pop songs I have ever heard. Another great song I discovered via the superb Trainspotting soundtrack, this is early New Order (circa 1982) at their very best. It's a superbly constructed song from beginning to end, from the delicious fade-in, to Bernard's fantastic vocal performance throughout, to the delightfully lovesick lyrics. It doesn't matter if you've got green eyes, blue eyes or grey eyes -- this is pop music at its finest.
Pet Shop Boys - It's A Sin
From one perfect pop song to another. Pet Shop Boys do have a bit of a daggy reputation, and I'm definitely destroying whatever street cred I have (not much, mind) by saying how much I adore this song. From the moment that synth riff kicks in at the start, to the gloriously uplifting chorus, this song makes me smile. What's wrong with music that makes you happy? The difference between this song and more contemporary pop music is that this song is over 22 years old now and still sounds amazing. There's not many pop songs released these days that have a shelf life of a year, let alone 2 decades.
R.E.M. - Fall On Me
In what seems like an attempt to buy back some street cred after a few guilty pleasures, I've chosen an obscure R.E.M. track from the early "indie" part of their career, before they joined a major label with 1988's underwhelming Green. While debut album Murmur is their vibe-inducing album-length masterpiece, this beautiful ballad from 4th album Lifes rich pageant is their finest song to date. The harmonies and vocal interplay between Michael Stipe and Mike Mills is out of this world, and the middle 8/bridge section with the "Well I could keep it above, but then it wouldn't be sky anymore" part is quite simply one of those perfect musical moments.
The Replacements - Unsatisfied
The 'Mats captured that undeniable feeling of teenage angst better than any other band, and this song is their finest moment. An emotional and epic anthem, it covers similar lyrical territory to the classic Stones number Satisfaction, but while Mick Jagger and co. were difficult to relate to (being massive rock stars and all that), Paul Westerberg and co. were guys that you could imagine living next door to. And that makes the emotional impact of this song all the more powerful.
Bob Seger - Against The Wind
Another song I got into via a soundtrack, this time the excellent double CD compilation for Forrest Gump. I'm a sucker for nostalgic, country-influenced heartland rock -- and this song ticks all of the emotional checkboxes for me. It sounds like simpler times, and it's sung with such conviction and honesty from Mr. Seger that I can't imagine ever growing tired of it.
The Smiths - There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
Oh my. Does music get any better than this? Exhibit A in the case of Morrissey being labeled as a morbid, depressing, lyricist -- but real fans of the Smiths know that there's a witty irony to his lyrics which makes most of their songs appealing on multiple levels. This is a masterpiece of musical composition, where all the elements are in place for maximum emotional impact. What other band can make an accident involving a double decker bus sound so goddamn romantic?
Split Enz - Message To My Girl
Nice segue from a morbidly ironic love song to this beautiful heart-on-the-sleeve number. Neil Finn had certainly written and performed his fair share of classic new-wave songs with the Enz before this (I got you), but this was a real crossover song which could appeal to almost any music fan. In many ways, it hinted at the direction he would take with his new band Crowded House several years later.
The Stone Roses - I Wanna Be Adored
I bought the eponymous debut by The Stone Roses on a whim many years ago, having never heard any of their songs. It was one of the greatest risks I ever took, as the album is now in my top 3 albums of all time. The album works on many levels; as a cohesive time capsule of late 80s "Madchester" guitar-based pop, and as a collection of individual masterpieces like this opening number. All the elements are in place here -- the atmospheric fade-in, that opening guitar riff, the groovy rhythm section, and Ian Brown's perfectly-matched vocals. A song (and album) to make you fall in love with music all over again.
Richard & Linda Thompson - Walking On a Wire
I discovered the folky genius of Richard & Linda Thompson a few years ago when I picked up their final album Shoot out the lights (from 1982). It was one of those albums that I appreciated at the time, but it didn't blow me away. Then a few months later I decided to revisit it, and when the groove of Don't renege on our love blasted out of the speakers of my car, I realised that I had significantly undervalued this gem of an album. Walking on a wire is the second track on the album, and the best song they ever released -- the combination of Linda's emotionally-affecting vocal performance and Richard's spine-tingling guitar work is a match made in heaven.
Traveling Wilburys - Tweeter And The Monkey Man
The debut album from this super-group (George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne) could quite easily have drowned in its own excess, if the "too many cooks spoil the broth" theory applied to putting too many musical geniuses in the studio together. Luckily, for the sake of music listeners everywhere, it worked remarkably well. While there are some moments of collaboration on the record, in many ways it can be looked upon as a collection of individual contributions like this little number, which could have easily been released on a Bob Dylan solo record. Ironically, it was one of the best Bob Dylan songs since his mid-70s work on Blood on the tracks and Desire.
Weird Al Yankovic - Good Old Days
I've talked about this song before, and I'm sure some people will laugh at my inclusion of a Weird Al number in my list of 100 favourite songs. But I don't see any reason why this hilarious James Taylor/Warren Zevon satire can't be recognised for what it is -- a wonderfully written and performed song. Weird Al is an incredibly versatile musician and songwriter, and this song is a perfect example of his immense talent.
Gheorghe Zamfir - The Lonely Shepherd
Yet another song I acquired through its inclusion on a Tarantino soundtrack -- this time Kill bill. While not my favourite Tarantino soundtrack, it is home to this beautiful pan flute instrumental. As the other songs in this list probably indicate, I generally prefer my music with vocals. An instrumental has to be something pretty special for me to rate it so highly. This is a special song, and it's one of those songs that you probably don't recognise by name but will find instantly familiar the first time you hear it.
Tuesday, 4 August 2009
Next we move on to the 70s. At 29 songs, this is the decade which most of my top 100 comes from. This surprised me quite a bit when I was compiling the list, but there you go.
Badfinger - In The Meantime/Some Other Time
Tragic British power-pop band Badfinger have many well-known songs that have received a lot of radio play. Not this one. Like other songs on Wish you were here, this is a multi-part song which sounds like it could have been on Abbey road. In the meantime is pretty standard power pop fare, there's this weird psychedelic bit in the middle, and at the 4:20 mark the climactic finale begins where riffage and the "I can remember" refrain collide in 2 of the most glorious minutes of music I have heard. It stills gives me goosebumps after more than 10 listens.
Big Star - The Ballad Of El Goodo
More goosebump-raising power-pop from this cult 70s band from Memphis. This is a delightfully gorgeous Alex Chilton ballad from their overrated debut album, #1 record. Most people cite Thirteen from the same album as the apex of Big Star ballads, but this one has always done it for me a lot more. It has a wonderful Byrds-esque jangle, glorious harmonies, and an unforgettable refrain "And there ain't no one gonna turn me 'round". Indeed.
The Cars - Just What I Needed
So many contemporary bands have based their entire career on the sound that The Cars achieved on their first few albums from the late 70s. This song, with lead vocals by the late Benjamin Orr, shows off these copycats as the poseurs that they are. This song was the perfection of the Cars "formula", if you will. Riffage, a steady back beat, keyboard flourishes for a bit of colour, all topped by a wonderfully melodic vocal performance. The call-and-response chorus is the final ingredient which turns this into a modern pop classic.
The Clash - The Guns of Brixton
I love it when one of the best songs by a band is not sung by the regular lead singer. This song, the undeniable centrepiece of the classic London calling, was both written and sung by bass player Paul Simonon. You can tell that it's the bass player who wrote it as well, because it has an absolutely glorious bass line at its heart. Combine that with a wonderful and menacing vocal and lyric courtesy of Simonon, and we have proof that not only could he match the genius of band mates Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, but he could beat them at their own game.
The Cure - Boys Don't Cry
I was pretty tempted to choose Just like heaven as the definitive Cure song, as I would argue that there are very few pop songs that are as perfectly composed as that one. But there's something about this 1979 single which just edges it out for me. There's certainly a nostalgic element to it as well -- I remember borrowing the Standing on a beach CD from Pete and getting really blown away by it, at a time when discovering music like this was truly exciting. And it has a great video clip as well.
Derek & The Dominos - Layla
This song (and its unplugged version released in 1992) have been played to death on the radio, but it's still a classic oldies station staple that will never grow tired for me. The classic riff sets the scene, the gloriously bluesy chorus keeps the momentum going, and the extended coda (which takes up more than half the song) cements its place on the rock walk of fame.
The Doors - L.A. Woman
The title song from their final album, this is late-period (bluesy) Doors at their very best. Many Jim Morrison detractors are put off by his poetic pretensions, but only the most narrow-minded music listeners would deny that this is a perfectly constructed rock 'n roll song. And if there's a better song to drive along the highway to, with the windows wound down, I have yet to hear it. Mojo risin'.
Nick Drake - Northern Sky
Some have criticised his second album Bryter Layter as being a tad over-produced, a little too much studio polish. Maybe it is a tad, but in fairness it is probably judged that way relative to the subtle folk of its predecessor and the raw acoustic nature of its successor, rather than a criticism of the album itself. Northern sky will always be the definitive Nick Drake song to me, and it provides a glorious climax to this album before the instrumental finale Sunday. Wistful, breezy and evocative -- and the "Would you love me?" part is one of the most beautiful moments in music I have ever heard.
Al Green - Let's Stay Together
I have a sentimental attachment to this song. I first heard it in Pulp fiction, and subsequently bought the soundtrack. When Lorin and I started seeing each other, it became one of our songs. When we got married in 2006, it was the song the band played while we did our bridal dance. It might just be my favourite love song. Quentin Tarantino is the master of soundtracks!
The Jam - Down In The Tube Station At Midnight
It starts with the sound of a train entering the tunnel, before a jerky bass line kicks in, and finally Paul Weller's vocals. He tells a story about a man who is on the way home to his wife, take-away curry in hand, who is violently assaulted by a group of thugs. The delivery of this song perfectly captures the fear that the man must have felt at the time of the attack. It all ends suddenly with the sound of the train leaving the station, before the music comes in for a final curtain call.
Elton John - Someone Saved My Life Tonight
Delightfully over-the-top in the way only mid-70s Elton John could, this is a touching and epic autobiographical story about how lyricist Bernie Taupin saved Elton's life in 1969. It's one of those songs that builds and builds...and then builds some more. The "sugar bear" chorus is one of the true feel-good moments in music.
Led Zeppelin - When The Levee Breaks
The story behind the recording of this song is as interesting as the song itself. John Bonham put his drum kit at the bottom of a stairwell at Headley Grange, where the song was recorded. Microphones were put at the top of the stairwell, capturing the fantastic booming drum sound as it reverberated up towards the roof. It's one of those classic bits of recording trickery which paid massive dividends. Oh yeah, and the rest of the band play pretty well too.
John Lennon - Jealous Guy
This song perfectly encapsulates the songwriting style of John Lennon, and how it differed from his former band mate Paul McCartney. While McCartney generally wrote in the third person talking about other people and characters, Lennon succeeded best when he wrote introspective gems like this one. Reading like an apology to his wife Yoko Ono, this is at its core a very simple song. That Lennon was able to turn the simple into the sublime was one of his many talents.
Nick Lowe - Rollers Show
I only recently picked up his debut album Jesus of cool, after reading many rave reviews about it. There are many highlights on the album (So it goes is catchy beyond words), but my favourite is this one -- the final track on the album (technically a bonus track, because it wasn't on the original vinyl). It captures the anticipation of going to see a gig -- in this case, the Bay City Rollers. You only need to hear this song once to have that melody forever stuck in your head. Gonna see the Rollers!
Joni Mitchell - River
It starts with the Jingle bells melody on piano, setting up the Christmas theme of the lyrics. This song is the undeniable highlight of her masterful Blue album. It's a story about wanting to escape from whatever situation we have found ourselves in, and surely something almost any listener can relate to. The imagery of the line I wish I had a river I could skate away on, combined with Joni's fragile delivery, elevates this song into my all time favourites.
Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here
Picking a favourite Pink Floyd song was not an easy task, but this stuck out for me for several reasons. Firstly, there's that quiet opening riff which is instantly recognisable and makes me happy whenever I hear it. Then there's the minimalism of the rest of the song -- while many other Pink Floyd songs tend to be more about show-off guitar solos and pretentious noodling, this one impresses quite happily with the most simple musical elements. And it has a stunning vocal melody to top it all off.
Iggy Pop - Lust For Life
No other musical moment makes me want to get up and dance like the opening drum beat of this classic Iggy number. I first got into this song through the superb Trainspotting soundtrack. According to my iTunes stats, I have listened to it 22 times since I got my iPod. I think that I can honestly say that I won't ever get tired of this song. They don't write 'em like this anymore.
Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody
So many musical memories with this one. There's the infamous video clip of course. There's the scene in Wayne's World where they go off to this song in the car. There's the excitement of listening to it when I first got Queen's greatest hits on CD. There was the great stress relief of my friend Simon and me singing along to it in year 12 information systems while we were working on one of our final year projects. Then we all sung along to it at Sheri & Rob's wedding. Memories are one thing, but they wouldn't be anything if this wasn't one of the greatest songs ever written.
Lou Reed - Perfect Day
Another song I got into through the stupendous Trainspotting soundtrack, this song is used in a wonderfully ironic fashion at a pivotal moment in the movie, when the Ewan McGregor character is high on smack. A wonderfully wistful ballad with an uplifting chorus, I don't think Lou Reed ever topped this song in his earlier recordings with the Velvets or his later solo work.
Rodriguez - Rich Folks Hoax
There's about 5 or 6 tracks on Cold fact which are stone-cold classics, but this one just rises to the top for me. Not as critically revered as his more famous numbers Sugar man and I wonder, this one is inconspicuously tucked away as the penultimate track on one of the greatest albums of all time. Lyrically, it would have fit in well with other "Summer of love" hippie anthems in Haight-Ashbury circa 1967. Musically, it's something you'll be humming after one listen.
The Rolling Stones - Let It Loose
This song encapsulates for me why I find Exile on Main Street such an engaging listen. It's all about the vibe of that album, and this amazing gospel-tinged epic drags me into the depths of the record every time I hear it. It also has arguably Mick Jagger's finest vocal performance. The Stones certainly have many more well known ballads (Wild horses, Angie) but don't overlook this underrated classic.
Bruce Springsteen - Thunder Road
Kicking off the Boss' breakthrough but (in my opinion) overrated album Born to run is this sensational rocker of epic proportions. It's been almost 35 years since this song was originally released, but I don't think the Boss has ever bettered it. Perfect for a road trip, I recently read an opinion on a forum which stated that the "Roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair" is one of the greatest moments in music in the past 50 years. When lost in the pure adrenaline of that moment, I tend to agree.
Cat Stevens - Father And Son
A masterclass in character-based songwriting, the singer-songwriter now known as Yusef Islam never bettered this song from his 1970 breakthrough album Tea for the Tillerman. Basically a conversation between a father and son at what appears to be a juncture in the son's life, it's a familiar theme which many can probably relate to: the son wants his independence, but the father tries to convince him using his many years of wisdom that he knows best. Cat Stevens plays both parts remarkably well, adapting his voice to suit each character.
Television - Marquee Moon
I gained even more respect for Richard Kingsmill when he placed this song at the top of his personal hottest 100 of all time. Quite frankly, there is no finer piece of mind blowing guitar virtuoso rock music than the ten minutes and forty seconds of this song. The guitar interplay between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd is nothing short of astonishing, while the rhythm section of Fred Smith and Billy Ficca is perfectly understated. There are too many goosebump-raising moments in this song to mention here, and it is criminal that this song isn't bigger than it is.
Thin Lizzy - The Boys Are Back In Town
A classic rock staple of oldies stations, this is one song that never gets tired for me. As catchy as the song is, it's the late Phil Lynott's wonderful storytelling which elevates this song into the realms of greatness for me. When he sings about the chick at Johnny's place slapping Johnny's face, you can almost smell the cigarette smoke and taste the whiskey. The best Bruce Springsteen song that the boss never wrote or performed.
Tom Waits - Martha
For an artist as eccentric, eclectic and innovative as Tom Waits, choosing a relatively straight-forward ballad from his relatively normal sounding debut Closing time may seem like a bit of a cop-out. But I couldn't go past the tragic romantic imagery of this song. The lyrics tell a tale of a man named Tom Frost calling up Martha, one of his old flames, after 40 years. Martha has since been married and had children, and so has Tom. While Martha has understandably moved on in her life after such a long time, Tom is still carrying a torch for her. Tom (Waits) was in his early 20s when he wrote this song from the perspective of an old man with a broken heart. While his late-career songs are an acquired taste, on this tragic tale of unrequited love he proved that he could write torch songs with the best of them.
Stevie Wonder - As/Another Star
I'm cheating here a little by including 2 songs - but I simply couldn't separate them. Together, they form the climax of his remarkable double album Songs in the key of life. They are also 15 minutes of the most life-affirming pop/soul/R&B music you're ever likely to hear. Stevie interweaves themes of love, gospel and the universe, but the net result is a suite of music that sums up the title of the album perfectly. This is music to live your life by.
Bobby Womack - Across 110th Street
Another Tarantino soundtrack, another classic song. This time it's his 1997 movie Jackie Brown, and this was the trademark slow-motion opening credits number. Originally from the 1972 blaxploitation movie of the same name, it works wonderfully in Jackie Brown, but even better as a song on its own merit. This is a superb epic soul ballad which never fails to put a smile on my face whenever I hear it.
Neil Young - Powderfinger
The opening number of the "rock" side of 1979 album Rust never sleeps, this is an incredible song which doesn't outstay a moment of its almost 6 minute running time. It has great harmonies throughout, a wonderfully nostalgic (and at times disturbing) lyric and a very catchy wordless riff-based chorus after every verse. It also has (count them) 2 solos! An underrated Neil Young classic.