That Zen master who says that having favorites of anything prevents you from being alive to everything, maybe he's onto something. I feel dead. Still, some songs make you feel more alive than others do, and thinking about why brings up all kinds of socio-psycho-aesthetic questions. The songs may not answer them, but they give hints.
10. In Your Eyes (1986), Peter Gabriel. This song is welded to the iconic image of John Cusack in trenchcoat with boombox, but I don't have any trouble separating it from Say Anything (though I like the movie a lot, and hey how come this photo takes up so much space?), having swooned the first time I heard it, right before I took a trip to England in 1986. So I associate it more with Full Metal Jacket, on the set of which this album got a lot of play. Matthew Modine was a big fan, except compared to me. I'd been a huge, obsessive fan since Peter Gabriel's Genesis days, and then after that first solo album, my fandom turned more or less to idolatry. When I visited Bath, I knew he lived nearby. But I didn't stalk him, whatever the constabulary reports may say. I was listening to this album night and day, though, and this was the cut that I thought might trump "Solsbury Hill," the 7/4-time Robert Fripp wonder from the first album, and "San Jacinto," my fave from the Jungian-flavored "mask" or Security album. I remember driving through the English countryside at sunset, listening to this on a cassette tape, and marveling (still, after a zillion times) at the arrival of that first chorus, "In your eyes / I see the doorway to a thousand churches / The resolution of all the fruitless searches." That's what a decent British education'll give ya. By the time Youssou n'Dour takes over the singing at the end, I'm a goner. No wonder Rosanna Arquette slept with him. I probably would, too. Peter Gabriel, I mean. OK, I might sleep with Youssou n'Dour, too, if he'd sing me a lullabye.
9. Inca Roads (1973), Frank Zappa. My college years come back to me now like a wayward whiff of spilled beer and bongwater. The One Size Fits All album was an ear-opener for me, as a music student slowly realizing I'd be better off studying literature. I listened to George Duke's vocal and keyboard wizardry and Ruth Underwood's torrential xylophone on this record and despaired of ever attaining any real musical accomplishment. There are blistering Zappa guitar solos on several tracks, too, and the verbal ingenuity of "Evelyn, A Modified Dog." This is the opener, and it's so zippy and fun, you can't wait for the rest of the album.
8. This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) (1983), David Byrne. This is from Speaking In Tongues, the Talking Heads album with the Rauschenberg cover. I confess, I actually prefer Shawn Colvin's live acoustic version (from Cover Girl, 1994), because her guitar-playing is so freakin' good, and she's a better singer than David Byrne, which is like saying Shakira can out-dance Fat Joe. Shawn Colvin makes it slow and open, so it can really work on you. The Talking Heads original is quick and tight. I think David Byrne was suspicious of his own effusive sincerity on this, so he hurried it into a party tune. When you have a line as good as "You've got a face with a view," you should really give it some room. She does. But he wrote it, and I love it either way.
7. A Case Of You (1971 & 2000), Joni Mitchell. One of my college roommates and I had a huge crush on Joni. We wore out the grooves on Blue while staring dreamily at the naked photo of her on another album cover. In the three decades between the two recordings of this song, chain-smoking wrecked Joni's voice in an awful, beautiful, terrible, ravishing way. (She says she started smoking at age 9.) The original is pure, just Joni and a dulcimer, James Taylor on guitar and Russ Kunkel on hushed drums -- an archetypal '70s folk-rock trio. The Both Sides Now version from 2000 is dark and husky, orchestrated by Joni, and the strings make you want to cry before the woodwinds arrive to reinvent the original intro. And then her voice destroys you. A spectacular reimagining of the song, and by now, every note has really been lived. It's one of the richest odes to heartbreak ever created. "So bitter and so sweet." If only my roommate and I had gotten the chance to make her happy.
6. Take It With Me (1999), Tom Waits. Tom divides his work into "Bawlers, Brawlers, and Bastards." This is a Bawler, a heartfelt valentine to his wee Irish bride Kathleen Brennan, although she helped write it. On the album (The Mule Variations, my fave Tom record to this day), it follows a raucous barbecue holler called "Filipino Box Spring Hog" (definitely a Brawler). When the blurry little piano intro of "Take It With Me" starts, it's like a shock to the system after that wild thing. In as profundo a basso as Tom has ever sung, the words offer intimacy, history, hope, faith, the works. It's not a perfect song -- you can hear the creak and thump of the piano pedals (Tom prefers "the pulp and rinds and seeds left in") and the lyric drifts a bit in the middle -- but so much the better. A lot of my favorite art insists that romantic love is the royal road to spiritual truth, and in this song, Tom Waits reaches (strains, even) for something absolute and transcendent: "There's got to be more than flesh and bone / All that you've loved is all you own." Slays me every time.
5. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (1987), U2. This song helped me survive the five years between the end of my first marriage and the actual divorce. There were stretches in there when I played nothing but The Joshua Tree and Springsteen's Tunnel of Love album. That Cowboy Junkies debut crept in there, too. But this was my backbone. Has an album ever opened with such mind blowing tracks back-to-back? As much as I love this song, I never jump past "Where The Streets Have No Name" to get to it, because then you lose that chiming guitar outro that this seems to grow out of. I'd always found Bono a little off-putting before this album, because my image of him was based on some concert footage that seemed pretentious. The Joshua Tree made a believer out of me. This song was the spiritual anthem of my thirties.
4. Visions of Johanna (1966), Bob Dylan. I'm talking about the live version from Biograph, not the Blonde on Blonde. In a previous post entitled "Bob, Bob, and Bob," I described the organic unity of guitar, harmonica, and voice on this enigma wrapped in a shadow stuffed in a Symbolist knish. It's one of the most sublime mysteries of folk music. What the hell is he singing about? Thank God he's never explained it. The song simply Is, like a mountain -- in this case, one made of images and characters and associations that triangulate your ass into a sling and fire you like a stone at the foreheads of Philistines, laying waste to every other songwriting giant via killer rhymes, elaborate stanzaic structure, and the most expansive musical ambition since, I dunno, Leonard Bernstein's. I vote this song most likely to win over a Dylan skeptic, because that's what happened to me. A virtuoso piece without being show-offy, it's funny as well as deadly serious. "The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face." When you can write like that, you don't have to explain a goddamn thing.
3. A Day In The Life (1967), The Beatles. I called "All You Need Is Love" a John Lennon song, because it was something he cooked up with George Martin. Here's a true Lennon/McCartney, but as with most of my favorite Beatles stuff, it originates with John. One common thread between these three songs at the top is an absolute mastery that gives way to wide-open, child-like, creative innocence -- almost as if the creators had no idea how songs were written, so they just followed every worthwhile impulse that came along. When my dad brought Sgt. Pepper's home from a business trip in the summer of '67, my brother and I put it on and listened, spellbound, from start to finish, looking at that amazing cover and rummaging through the little cutouts and album extras. I'll never forget, having listened to all but the last song, hearing John's echoey opening words: "I heard the news today, oh boy...". I was only eleven, but even then I knew something vast and completely unique was unfolding for me. The Beatles had opened a door to another world.
2. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (1969), Crosby, Stills & Nash. If I had been a couple of years older, I'd have heard this at CS&N's first performance together. As it was, I was 13 and couldn't run off to join the Woodstock Nation with all the freaks from the head shop where I had my first job. Then again, if I'd gone, who'd haveswept the floor by the bulk organic grain bins? Who'd have handed out the burlap bags to people who wanted to ride the giant slide out back? Who'd have sat around staring uncomprehendingly at the hookahs and Kama Sutra oils, waiting for everybody to come back and tell me all about Woodstock? My Day In The Life point about creative innocence goes double for this song. It's like Stephen Stills grew wings. Has the illusion of unbounded spontaneity ever been more convincing in a pop song? Intricately constructed as it is, you feel it's being written as you listen. It's that free. Want to throw in some Spanish? Bueno. Want to meander through a guitar interlude with David Crosby? Why not? And if marrow must be thrilled, then by God, just build up to a crescendo and hit the most glorious series of vocal triads in history on the phrase "thrill me to the marrow." The song is about the demise of Stills's relationship to Judy Collins, but it's effervescent. I challenge any songwriter to Beat This Song. Or just try to come close. Write something this adventurous, playful, fiercely joyful, regretful, multi-layered, wild, free -- something this singularly, fabulously alive. I dare ya.
1. Little Wing (1967), Jimi Hendrix. I'm surprised to find this at the top. My favorite song? Yep, it feels true. Nothing like it anywhere in music. There are other good versions of it, though. Sting takes it for quite a ride on Nothing Like The Sun. His voice soars in a way that Jimi's never could, on a song that's all about soaring. Nobody can play guitar like Jimi, but My Best Friend Dominic Miller gives him a run. Still, my first taste was Jimi's, about a year after it came out, when I was getting my first taste of girls. The idea of this fantasy woman kind of freaked me out. "Take anything you want from me"? Uh...I'm 12 and I don't know what that might actually mean, but I'm willing to learn.... Turns out, he wrote it about his dead mother. But still. I love the carefree way he piles up the words up over a guitar phrase that he knows is going to extend over a couple of bars, so it's "Butterflies and zebras..." but there's still room for more, so he adds "and moonbeams...and fairy tales...are all she ever thinks about...riding with the wind..." OK, he was high as Halley's comet -- but free within the cosmos of his musical imagination. The "circus mind" was his, and his mother is the eternal feminine, inside, pushing this song out, newborn and screaming like feedback. It's a pure product of America, going crazy (to steal from William Carlos Williams) and a pure expression of the Muse. What would Jimi be doing today, if the Muse had vanquished the demons? Three years later, he was dead at 27. Which reminds me: Where are the 24-year-old artists now working at this level of originality and virtuosity? Who are the Mozarts of pop?
BONUS TRACKS: Here are others that vied for the top 25 but were ultimately pushed off the list. HONORABLE MENTION (in no particular order)...
1. I'm Gonna Be (1990), The Proclaimers. Well, you gotta have your double shot of Scotch. Here's the finest pair of hard-drinkin' twins ever to bellow a love boast from the British isles. What a great little thumper of a song.
2. Hallelujah (1984), Leonard Cohen. Like many people, I'd really rather listen to Jeff Buckley's cover than the original. In fact, why is there no Jeff Buckley on my list? Or Tim Buckley, for that matter? Or Tiny Tim? Something has gone terribly wrong. And how do you pick a favorite Leonard Cohen song? I could put "Anthem" or "If It Be Your Will" or "Famous Blue Raincoat" or Willie Nelson's cover of "Bird On A Wire" here and be equally sure (not) that I'd made the right choice.
3. Save It For Later (1982), The English Beat. I can't listen to this without thinking of my little brother Kip, who turned me onto the album (Special Beat Service) and my friend John Dill, who revels in the occasional Tourette's burst of '80s Britpop. This whole record is habit-forming, and Save It Fellater (alternate spelling on the lyric sheet) puts the dic in addictive. It's the quintessential English Beat number, with an infectious guitar, thumping rhythm section, and horns that pop out of a trap door somewhere between the Mos Eisley cantina and a ska sockhop. It's as queer as a three-dollar bill, and twice as rare.
4. The Mayor of Simpleton (1991), XTC. Another fine Dillio, an anti-intellectual apologia from one of the smartest songwriters ever, Andy Partridge. Basically a list of all the stuff the song's narrator doesn't know, it features one of the cleverest run-on couplets in pop music: "And I don't know how many pounds make up a ton / Of all the Nobel Prizes that I've never won." Smiles guaranteed.
5. I Can't Make You Love Me (1991), Bonnie Raitt. A crushing blow of romantic resignation, actually written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin. But it's all Bonnie. And Bruce Hornsby, whose massive chords are like a battering ram to the heart. If you've recently been dumped, this song could literally kill you.
6. One Mo' Gin (2000), D'Angelo. Voodoo would be on my list of top 25 albums. I think of this song as the best of the bunch, but it could as easily be "Devil's Pie" or "Send It On."
7. I Want You (She's So Heavy) (1969), The Beatles. Forever imbued with the memory of deflowering a splendid girlfriend in Denver back in 1976. This is the simplest, most relentless piece of altered blues erotica ever wrought by the hand of man.
8. If These Old Walls Could Talk (1987), Jimmy Webb. A note of apology and gratitude, strictly for long-time lovers. No teenager could ever fully understand it. For years, I myself didn't understand that it was not a John Prine song. Shawn Colvin also does a great cover of this. Jimmy Webb is a tower of talent.
9. Beautiful Boy (1980), John Lennon. If you're a John Lennon fan and also a parent, you probably have a soft spot in the exact shape of this song.
10. Sultans of Swing (1979), Dire Straits. Remember what this was like, after that wretched stretch of the '70s when progressive rock grew ridiculous and disco almost made us commit suicide and A&R cokeheads ruined everything at major labels? And then this, like a pint beer glass full of wonder thrown at your head? Mark Knopfler will forever be enshrined in the afterlife as the guy who saved pop music in 1979. Nobody else plays guitar like he does, and we knew it the first time we heard it, on this ripping tune. I mean, it's no "Three Times A Lady," but it's pretty good. (Actually, I kinda like the Commodores, but I don't like to admit it...)
11. Little Red Corvette (1982), Prince. Is "I guess I shoulda known by the way you parked your car sideways that it wouldn't last" the greatest opening of a song ever? Maybe. And of course, once you've seen him perform, you can never get the image of Prince out of the music. Bob Dylan was once asked what he thought of Prince, and he said, "I think he's a wonderboy." What Bob says, that is what I say.
12. Open (2003), Bruce Cockburn. I almost listed "Lovers In A Dangerous Time" in my top 25, so why this instead on the H.M. list? Because I saw Bruce live last fall and he opened with "Open" and it cracked me wide open. But it's too new for me to trust it to the top 25. It's from You've Never Seen Everything, which is not the best of his 30 albums, but this song is a knockout. Did you know that Bruce's old band opened for Jimi Hendrix and Cream in the '60s? See, it all comes back to Jimi.
13. Good Vibrations (1966), Beach Boys. I never much cared for the Beach Boys back in the day. They seemed so clearly a second-class act compared to the Beatles, I sort of felt sorry for them. But this is one of those rare songs that you just can't wear out. Has it ever been sampled by a hip-hop artist? Somebody should take that wild Theramin siren at the end and build a song around it.
14. Lose Yourself (2002), Eminem. The most thrilling, inspiring, grab-you-by-the-throat, Oscar-winningest rap song of all time. "Cleaning Out My Closet" may be better-written, but the power of this song is undeniable. He says he wrote it during a quick break on the set of 8 Mile, a brilliantly edited (my pal Jay Rabinowitz at the Avid) movie about rappers rapping 'n shit. Only three songs from the 21st century made Rolling Stone's list of 500 greatest songs, and this was the highest-ranked of them. (Yay, Wikipedia.) It's kind of pathetic, isn't it, to have only a couple of hip-hop/R&B songs anywhere on my list -- and one is by a white guy? Let's amend that...
15. Love Rain (2007), Jill Scott & Mos Def. This is from that album of collaborations the divine Ms. Scott did with a bunch of guys. Mos Def has never seemed like a great musician to me, but he's actually one of my favorite actors, and there's nobody except maybe Tom Waits with a cooler stage persona. Plus, if I may quote Burt Reynolds from "Boogie Nights"... what a great name! Anyway, this is an amazing collage of sound and words, and The Chick Can Sing.
16. What I Be (2003), Michael Franti. His band is Spearhead. This song is splendid. My son Oliver treated me to it. "If I were the rains, I'd wash away the whole world's pains and / Bring the gift of cool, like ice cream trucks on sunny days..." It'll make you glad to be alive.
17. Out of Range (1994), Ani DiFranco. I tire quickly of Ani's gasping delivery, but gee whiz what a musician, what a personality, and what a writer. That thing I said about the opening lines of "Little Red Corvette"? Maybe I mean it about this song instead: "Just the thought of our bed makes me crumble like the plaster where you punched the wall beside my head...." Ani's a feisty little righteous babe. My daughter Emily turned me on to her. Speaking of which....
18. I Do (2006), Emily Howard. My daughter wrote it and traveled to India to sing it at the wedding of two college friends. "It's the secret we're all in on / On the brink of the beyond." The first time she played it for me, I was a puddle by the end.
So, it's really a top 40. Or 43. But that's the list. Despite my dissatisfaction with its mainstreamness, mostly-maleness, and Anglocentricity, it feels pretty much like my aesthetic on parade -- as of this week, anyway. Comments? Quibbles? Derision? Addenda?