Before I compile my Top 25, I should address the question, Why Bother? Cuz it’s self-revealing, which is kind of the point of bloggery. As we learned in "High Fidelity," you are what you like. So any list like this is a bit autobiographical.
Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” (not on this list, but great) says “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” I think music both cracks you open and then shines the light. That’s why it means so much in adolescence. The cracks are the cocoon of childhood opening up, identity morphing. Music moves you, and then shows you where you went and who you'd were by the time you got there.
The first song that ever did this to me was “The Sound of Silence” (also not on this list). From “Hello, darkness, my old friend” to the cryptic line about a sign that said “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”), it just blew my little mind. I turned ten the year it was a hit, and I was trying to teach myself to play guitar on my Sears Silvertone. I couldn’t really play the song, but I remember trying to figure it out, singing the phrases, and feeling that I’d discovered a huge secret.
Anyway, this is all popular music from my lifetime -- no Nessun Dorma, no Ella in Berlin, no Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I am the Casey Kasem of my castle, counting down to #1:
25. American Pie (1971), Don McLean. It’s easy to forget the impact this song had when it came out. There’d been nothing remotely like it since "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and I didn’t even make that association. Everybody else did, though. Don McLean was the next Bob Dylan. No, he wasn’t, but even if you think this song is ridiculous, you can’t deny its ambition and the combination of verbal and musical ingenuity it took to go after it. So many mysterious references! If you have a spare weekend, make your way through the Wikipedia entry.Few songs provoke that kind of curiosity and speculation. And let’s face it, Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” would never have gotten radio play if this song hadn’t proven that a single didn’t have to be three minutes short. American Pie is 8+ minutes of amazing songwriting. Don’t miss it. Don’t diss it. Just dig it.
24. Brown Eyed Girl (1967), Van Morrison. This was the song my wife and her dad danced to at our wedding. Had to get the band to cut out the “behind the stadium with you” verse, but it was perfect. Everybody sang along to the “La la la la la” part. It’s just a glorious tune. I was completely into The Beatles when it was a hit, so it didn’t mean much to me until later. But I always liked it. It seems like the perfect song of its kind.
23. Brand-New ’64 Dodge (1996), Greg Brown. See previous blog entry.
22. Purple Rain (1984), Prince. In which the little fellow is revealed as the most enormous talent of the ‘80s. I’m not saying that Paul Simon and Sting and Springsteen weren’t writing better songs or that Michael Jackson wasn’t still doing remarkable stuff. But nobody else at that time (and maybe before or since) combined so many talents into one unique persona. To confirm this, look over a list of music from the mid-eighties, and then rent the movie again. “Purple Rain” is unto itself as a song and album -- and as a movie, well, the lame bits are even lamer now, but the performance of this song is one of the great movie moments of the 20th century.
21. Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes (1986), Paul Simon. An irresistible groove from an album that completely shook up pop music, waking it from the Reagan-era delusion that America was the only place where anything of value existed. Remember how new this sounded, with that propulsive guitar (Ray Phiri) and fluid fretless bass (what’s-his-name Khumalo) and of course, the voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo? This is the kind of song that lifts spirits in the way that hymns should and hardly ever do. If listening to it doesn’t make you happy for at least four minutes, see a psychiatrist.
20. All This Time (1991), Sting. This came along as my interest in authentic spirituality swerved into a new obsession with masculine psychology and father issues of various kinds... OK, I was in the middle of a divorce. I just remember thinking, no pop song has ever dealt with death in such an interesting way. It pays respects to his dying/dead father (as the rest of the album does), looks askance at religion, throws in a little local history, and wraps a kind of philosophical resignation with a ribbon of buoyant tunefulness. When the Soul Cages tour came to K.C., he opened with this at a breathtaking clip, about half-again as fast as on the recording. He was all muscled-up in a black t-shirt and he just blew the roof off the place. Wait, it was Starlight Theater, so no roof. But he kicked ass. That was the first time I ever saw Dominic Miller play guitar. Who knew we'd be bosom buddies years later? See photo in October 2006 archives.
19. Birdhouse In Your Soul (1990), They Might Be Giants. I wonder if Sting was listening to this before he wrote “All This Time”? Both have the same kind of bounce. But this is more circular, less narrative. Who writes better melodies than They Might Be Giants? They’re almost a throwback to Tin Pan Alley, and if they were more interested in commercial success, they’d be zillionaires, because their hooks are better than any mainstream band’s. They’re just too weird. Most of their songs outweird this one considerably, although the VIDEO makes up for it. It’s surely the only song ever written from the point of view of a nightlight.
18. Mad Mission (1996), Patty Griffin. This concludes our upbeat, buoyant program, at least for the moment. In the middle of Patty’s grimly brooding first album, Living With Ghosts (mixed straight off her demo tape, goes the story) comes this splendid little jewel of a song about how love is worth the risk. Like the rest of the album, it’s just her and a guitar. I love her hardheaded optimism, and I even stole an idea for a card I wrote from the opening stanza, where Casablanca is playing on a bar television and all the patrons get caught up in the poignant drama. A little masterpiece.
17. If I Should Fall Behind (1992), Bruce Springsteen. Out of all the great love songs I could have had a burly trio of gospel-inflected soul singers perform at my wedding, this was the one I chose. It’s one of the greatest statements about commitment ever set to music. Springsteen’s approach is almost country-sounding, and I love it. But you should hear the a capella version arranged by my guys (see Shane Evans link in sidebar for a taste of how good the singing must be, and indeed was). You’d cry, like everybody at the wedding did. And then you’d go off to get married or renew your vows or maybe eat some cake. The song’s on the Lucky Town album.
16. Wildflowers (1994), Tom Petty. (I know, that's not Tom Petty there on the left. It's the late, great Michael Kamen, who in addition to many notable film scores, wrote the beautiful orchestral arrangements for this album.) The title song was written for my daughter. Well, that’s how it felt to me when I first heard it. I think Tom actually wrote it for his own daughter. And I wrote a little essay about my daughter after this song got under my skin. I always resisted Tom Petty because he looked so white-trash and his band seemed lackluster. But the guy can write. I think I only own three rock & roll t-shirts. One is from the Wildflowers tour, even though I didn’t go to the concert (my son did and gave me the shirt). The others are from one of U2’s tours, and then a John Lennon shirt I never wear because it’s, y’know, sacred.
15. Tangled Up In Blue (1976), Bob Dylan. How can anyone not have this on their top 25 list? It’s a short story with a soundtrack, and surely one of the best-structured refrain lyrics ever written. I have a long live version on my iTunes, and it’s kind of a mess, shifting back and forth between first and second person. But it’s still great. You kind of can’t ruin a song this good.
14. Old Soul Song: New World Order (2005), Bright Eyes. This is maybe my favorite song of the 21st century, despite Conor Oberst’s quavery voice getting on my nerves. I do like it when he goes apeshit at the end. The song describes walking 40 blocks to a New York political protest, taking pictures as cops try to contain the crowd, and then coming back to develop the film in a darkroom. A simple, guileless idea, just about perfectly organized into a three-minute story. The end of the song takes the top of your head off, with one of the most amazing similes ever written by a Nebraskan -- that's Ted Kooser country, so you know it’s a good simile -- delivered in a hysterical shriek. Anyway, Conor Oberst reminds me a little of Kurt Cobain, except I think he’s a drinker instead of a shooter. He’ll probably die young, but man, he can write him some songs. The album is I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning.
13. America (1968), Simon & Garfunkel. So Paul Simon makes the list twice. This whole album would make my list of top 25 recordings. I could probably endure a desert island if I had nothing but Paul Simon songs to listen to, and this one's a national anthem like no other. I love the mix of loss and hope and playfulness and utter desolation in it. The words are so perfectly fitted to the tune, you don't even notice that there's no rhyming. The guitar part, according to friends of mine who have tried, is surprisingly hard to play. The guy is a master.
12. Me & Bobby McGee (1971, since the version I love is not the original Kris Kristofferson, and certainly not the Roger Miller, but...), Janis Joplin. From the Pearl album. The older I get, the more I realize how hard it is to achieve the kind of simplicity that makes this song great — and the more I appreciate how rare a gift like Janis Joplin’s is. Nobody ever sang like her, and nobody ever will. Freedom’s just another word for never having to hear Joss Stone try.
11. All You Need Is Love (1967), The Beatles. How do you choose your favorite John Lennon’s songs? He remains the greatest rock star of all time, in my book. Here you get shifty changing time signatures, George Martin’s wacky orchestration, lyrical playfulness like nobody else’s, and an unimpeachable philosophical credo from a guy who, through the sheer magnitude of his personality and the titanic achievement of his artistry, earned the right to tell it like it is to everybody. Somehow, it all goes down like candy. It’s nothing short of a cultural miracle.
Next, the Top 10. I'm going to work on this awhile, though, and load some pix 'n links 'n stuff. Meanwhile, based on this list, are there any predictions about what might be at the top?