Saturday, November 20, 2004

I Can Hear Music

My husband, Luis, and I bonded over a shared appreciation for music and language. Our courtship song was Let the Cable Sleep by Bush (no relation). Luis is foremost a lyrics guy and favors songs that tell a story. I value music above all and consider appealing lyrics a bonus.

Obviously I adore language. I have been writing for my own pleasure (and discomfiture) since I was twelve. As I age (notice I didn’t say mature), I find that I enjoy writing more and talking less, but my inner voice is as active as ever.

I enjoy classical music, but popular music of the past hundred years is my particular passion, especially rock’n’roll. I don’t know how common this is, but I have a jukebox in my head that plays rock around the clock, although not necessarily that exact selection (guess what’s stuck in my head right now).

My invisible jukebox is triggered by what I hear, see, say and think. For example, the other morning I was pondering something Dennis Prager said that was typically optimistic and heartwarming. My inner voice pronounced it “the feel-good thought for the day.” So, for the next few hours, I had to listen to a couple riffs from Dr. Feelgood by Motley Crue. See how it works? During business calls, my friendly co-worker Steve sometimes plants a dreadful song in my head. What a brat.

My jukebox has been working triple over-time since Rolling Stone magazine released its latest list: The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The judges compiling the list include Brian Wilson, my musical idol, and I can sense his influence in some of the choices.

Musical taste is so subjective that it is pointless to second-guess any individual or committee who undertakes such a daunting task. The list could have been 50,000 entries long and still omitted songs that recalled a cherished moment in someone’s memory. I already perused the list in numeric order, but I decided to blog it alphabetically by artist instead. I’m picky, so I’ll limit my comments to the artists closest to my heart.

Abba: Dancing Queen, #171. I dare you to sit still during this song. Enjoying Abba was considered a guilty secret by those who disdained Disco, but their harmonies and production values evoked the uncomplicated joy of the Beach Boys’ early work.

The Animals: We Gotta Get Out of This Place, #233. I always preferred this song to House of the Rising Son, #122. But my favorite was Don't Bring Me Down, in which Alan Price’s performance on the opening and bridge proved that the organ can be gritty and soulful.

The Band: I think some of Bob Dylan’s work is admirable and some is too precious and precocious (“hey, ma, look what I can do”). But I find almost all of it musically uninteresting, even when backed by the Band. Out from under Dylan’s shadow, they wedded great musicianship with memorable lyrics. The Weight, # 41, is a true classic. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, #245, is the rare song whose remake is just as strong in its own right, although the lyrics were quite un-PC for the era.

The Beach Boys: Seven songs, including Good Vibrations at #6 and God Only Knows, truly a perfect song, at #25. Caroline, No was a welcome choice from Pet Sounds. Sloop John B was an unpleasant surprise from the same album, a jarring exception to Brian Wilson’s song cycle that was cynically inserted by Capitol Records management. I wish the judges had substituted Wouldn’t It Be Nice or I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times. I could go on, but I won’t.

The Beatles: Twenty-three songs (I appreciate their self-restraint), but no I’m Only Sleeping. Sigh.

Brook Benton: Rainy Night in Georgia, #498. Great voice, great choice.

Big Star: Alex Chilton of the Boxtops (The Letter, #363) and Big Star was always the critics’ darling, as were the Replacements who immortalized him in an eponymously titled single. Shockingly, the Replacements were omitted from this list. If you don’t know any of them, take a listen.

Blondie: Three songs, but not my favorite, Hanging on the Telephone.

Bobby Fuller Four: I Fought the Law, #175. A classic rock song in the genre exemplified by 1950s rockabilly, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and The Clash, who later remade the song.

David Bowie: Four songs, but not my favorites, John I’m Only Dancing, Sound and Vision and Stay. The Thin White Duke patented a chameleon-like cult of personality that the Material Girl copied on the cheap. Bowie's aspirations were arthouse while Madonna's were of a different house altogether.

Jackson Browne: Only Running on Empty made the list. I went through my Browne period and honed my teenage angst on his earlier albums, but in retrospect this seems about right.

Jeff Buckley: Only one, Hallelujah, #259. Hallelujah! I would have put Last Goodbye in my top 15.

Buffalo Springfield: Only one, For What It’s Worth, which seems paltry for such a seminal band. I would have added Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing and Mr. Soul.

The Byrds: Only three entries for the band that made Dylan’s songs listenable. Like Buffalo Springfield, one of the most influential American folk-rock bands ever. Roger McGuinn’s 12-string guitar and focus on jangly chord strumming over melody lines were the inspiration for the 1980s guitar pop revival.

The Carpenters: My high school chorus teacher was their friend and we had the honor of singing back up for them at his church. Like Burt Bacharach, in recent years their catalog began to receive the respect it deserves, although it’s a crying shame Karen did not live to see it.

Johnny Cash: Three songs from Johnny Cash, but not Hurt, a testament to his enduring relevance. My husband’s happy anyway.

Tracy Chapman: Fast Car, #165. One of the best one-hit wonders ever. It always takes me back to November 1988, a special time.

Cheap Trick: Surrender, #465. Cheap Trick Live at Budokan and Heaven Tonight are great albums by the godfathers of power pop known for their unique visual gimmick (two nerds, two pretty boys). Check out On the Radio and then compare it to Big Bang Baby by Stone Temple Pilots.

Chic: Good Times, #224. Another talented band that avoided the stigma of Disco. The cleanest engineering since Pink Floyd and the Alan Parsons Project.

Eric Clapton: Tears in Heaven and Layla (credited to Derek and the Dominoes) are worthy, but why not Bell Bottom Blues? Trivia note: An uncredited Clapton played lead guitar on the Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps, #135, while an uncredited George Harrison played lead on Clapton’s The Badge.

The Clash: Five songs, including Train in Vain, #292. I’m happy.

Eddie Cochran: Two songs, including the legendary Summertime Blues, #73. See my comments about the Bobby Fuller Four.

Elvis Costello: Three great songs, Alison, Watching the Detectives, and Nick Lowe’s What’s So Funny ‘bout Peace, Love and Understanding. Excluding Accidents Will Happen and Pump It Up was a disappointment, but I could go on and on.

Cream: Three songs for Clapton, Bruce and Baker. Good enough.

Creedence Clearwater Revival: Four songs to put a smile on my husband’s face.

The Crystals: Three songs, classics all. Producer Phil Spector revolutionized studio craft and, with Brian Wilson, opened the door for artists to take creative charge of their product. He went from control freak to deadly freak, but he remains one of the few legends on this list who deserves to be called genius. Why is it that the artists who create the most amazing music for the masses tend to be screwed-up recluses?

The Cure: Two songs, including the aptly titled Just Like Heaven, #483. Purists prefer the earlier, more melancholy Robert Smith, but I like him happy and poppy, too.

Depeche Mode: Personal Jesus, #368. My husband prefers the Johnny Cash version, naturally. I sat in the Rose Bowl in the rain for the 1988 concert documented in the film 101. I would choose some of their others, Blasphemous Rumours and especially People Are People, which even a bleeding heart conservative can appreciate. Lyrical highlight: Now you’re punching and you’re kicking and you’re shouting at me. And I’m relying on your common decency. So far it hasn’t surfaced, but I’m sure it exists. It just takes awhile to travel from your head to your fists. I don’t understand what makes a man hate another man. Help me understand.

The Doors: Two songs, including the ubiquitous Light My Fire, which proved that Jim Morrison, like James Joyce, badly needed an editor. Oh, how I loathed interminable solos in the middle of songs. My sister gave me some Doors’ albums, which I got to play at our Lutheran dances. Our pastor actually let us hold dances inside the darkened church with strobe lights and 14-minute songs. Amazing.

Bob Dylan: A dozen. We own Don’t Look Back on DVD, which captures his charisma and arrogance. Shame on him for breaking Joan Baez’s heart. By the way, why wasn’t Diamonds and Rust on the list?

Earth, Wind & Fire: That’s the Way of the World, #329. One of my all-time faves. I’m a sucker for songs that start slowly but build to a thrilling finish, like The Whole of the Moon by the Waterboys, which should have been on the list, too.

The Five Stairsteps: Ooh, Child, #392. Another wonderful one-hit wonder with effective buildups and letdowns, plus a nice key change near the end.

The Four Tops: Four for four, including the epic Reach Out, I’ll Be There, #206. Levi and the boys were the class of Motown.

Aretha Franklin: Four for the Queen of Soul, too, but Natural Woman, my favorite, is missing.

Al Green: Four from the Reverend of Romance. I actually prefer the Talking Heads’ hiccup-y remake of Take Me to the River.

Guns N’ Roses: Sweet Child o’ Mine, #196. I liked this song better when it was called I’d Love to Change the World by Ten Years After, which is not on the list.

Jimi Hendrix: Seven cool songs, but not Fire, my favorite.

Buddy Holly: Five songs from the legendary Texan. In La Bamba, he was portrayed by Marshall Crenshaw, another talented singer-songwriter who disappeared too quickly.

The Isley Brothers: Three fine songs, with one glaring omission: This Old Heart of Mine, which I would have placed in the top 10 (another epic slow-build song).

The Jam: That’s Entertainment, #306. Paul Weller of the Jam and Style Council was one of the trendsetters of 1980s Britpop, the Ray Davies of his decade.

Jefferson Airplane: Two songs, a brief nod to the band that helped define the San Francisco scene. Surrealistic Pillow was considered one of the best albums of 1967. I really like their song Today, not on the list, although it reveals a band that took itself way too seriously and was due perhaps for its mighty fall as Jefferson Starship.

Billy Joel and Elton John: I play piano and always appreciated good piano rock, but Ben Folds, not on the list, does it better.

Joy Division: Love Will Tear Us Apart, #179. The song that heralded the advent of New Wave by the band that became New Order after lead singer, Ian Curtis, hanged himself on the eve of their first American tour. Foolish idiot.

Carole King: It’s Too Late, #469. To the women’s movement, the album Tapestry was the aural equivalent of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book Gifts from the Sea. Before and since, King has been one of our most gifted songwriters.

The Kinks: Three songs, could be more. The music speaks for itself, but the brothers Davies may have begun the tradition of public family dysfunction made notorious by Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis.

Love: Alone Again Or, #436. When I was in junior high school, my sister gave me a copy of Forever Changes. This song became one of my all-time favorites.

The Lovin’ Spoonful: Two songs, neither of which is Full Measure, my fave. Another influential folk-rock band my sister introduced me to when I was too young and na├»ve to understand naughty band names and lyrical double entendres.

The Mamas and the Papas: California Dreamin’, #89. John Phillips may be more famous for his ex-wives and offspring, but he was a legend on the folk-rock scene and the driving force behind the Monterey Pop Festival.

Joni Mitchell: Three entries, including my favorites, Help Me and Free Man in Paris, a song about David Geffen. Mitchell was a singer-songwriter known for her personal storytelling and quirky phrasing. She also served as one of the judges who compiled this list.

New Order: Bizarre Love Triangle, #201. One of my favorite dance songs from the 1980s. See Joy Division.

Randy Newman: Sail Away, #264. A haunting song about slave ships. Like Warren Zevon, Newman was considered a songwriter’s songwriter and achieved fame with a silly song, in his case I Love L.A.

Nirvana: Four songs from three years - should have been more. Kurt Cobain was a gifted songwriter, mediocre guitarist and foolish idiot. He went missing and was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound as my mother was dying slowly of kidney failure. Did I mention Cobain was a foolish idiot?

Paul Revere & the Raiders: Kicks, #400. One of the first anti-drug songs and a darn good one, thanks to ace producer Terry Melcher, who happens to be Doris Day’s son. The band known for their Revolutionary War era attire appeared regularly on Where the Action Is, Dick Clark’s weekday music show in the 1960s. [11-22-04 update: Today it was announced that Terry Melcher lost his lengthy battle with cancer on Friday, November 19. Melcher was one of the unsung heroes who performed with and produced some titans of rock music, including Brian Wilson, John Phillips, and Gram Parsons. R.I.P.]

Pavement: I consider this alternative band noteworthy only for the single Plant Man by their former drummer, Gary Young. Plant Man was surely the worst song and video ever, so I-can’t-believe-they-let-him-do-that awful that it has achieved cult status.

Tom Petty: Free Fallin’, #177. Petty lost me when he broke up the Heartbreakers, but for six years his talented band made the best American folk-rock since the Byrds. He deserves credit as a songwriter and for making the most of a pinched, whiny voice. His guitarist, Mike Campbell, is one of the best in the history of rock.

The Pixies: Monkey Gone to Heaven, #410. A musical tribute to the style of Neil Young and one of the most delightful surprises on this list. The Pixies was one of the most beguiling bands to come out of the 1980s, but I never understood their lyrics. Was this about an addict who overdosed? I don’t know, but I always crank up the volume when I hear it.

The Police: Two songs and a great career ruined by a self-important singer. Stewart Copeland may be the best drummer in rock history.

Elvis Presley: A founding father of rock who squandered his gifts. Like Rick Nelson, who did not make the list, some of his best work was with legendary guitarist James Burton. Paddy McAloon, singer/songwriter extraordinaire of Prefab Sprout (please check out all their recordings), included a suite of odes to Elvis on their Jordan: The Comeback album.

The Rascals, aka The Young Rascals: Good Lovin’, #325. They enjoyed a string of hits, all distinguished by professional vocals when the industry was dominated by charming amateurs. My favorites were A Girl Like You and Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore.

R.E.M.: Losing My Religion, #169. Absolutely amazing song by a great folk-rock revival band with strong songwriting, arranging and harmonizing.

The Righteous Brothers: You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, #34. Another Phil Spector Wall of Sound gem. I would add my personal favorite, Just Once in My Life, which was co-written by Carole King.

The Ronettes: Walking in the Rain, #266. Just ahead of Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Shirley Manson of Garbage, I rank Roni Spector as the best all-time female vocalist in rock. Mix in great songwriting and Phil Spector’s trademark production values and you get a song that I would have ranked in the top 15.

The Shangri-Las: Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand), #395. If you want to know what great AM radio sounded like in the mid-1960s, this is it. I played my sister’s 45rpm copy of this song so often that I warped it. This was Shadow Morton’s response to Phil Spector’s girl bands.

Sly & the Family Stone: Six excellent songs from the first funky band to hit it big. Hot Fun in the Summertime remains a seasonal classic.

The Smiths: Only two songs from the most acclaimed band of the 1980s, William, It Was Really Nothing at #425 and How Soon Is Now at #486, which is shockingly low for a song whose influence I cannot overstate. Johnny Marr and Morrissey were treated by the British press as the second coming of the Beatles. At a minimum, I would have added There Is a Light That Never Goes Out and ranked them all in the top 100.

Bruce Springsteen: Three songs, with Born to Run registering at #21. I remember the jolt I felt the first time I heard the anthem, which was so chock full of musical goodies that it was almost too much for the scaled-back 1970s. I still think his first three albums were the best.

Tina Turner: River Deep, Mountain High, #33. A grand, soaring song that Phil Spector envisioned as his crowning achievement was a commercial failure. The effect of this disappointment on Spector’s mindset is legendary. Still Tina’s best performance.

U2: One deservedly at #36 plus five others. I would add Two Hearts and In God’s Country. Bono is only a smidge less self-important than Sting.

Dionne Warwick: Walk on By, #70. Burt Bacharach is one of our finest songwriters and no singer has benefited more from his largesse than Dionne Warwick. My favorites of their collaborations are Anyone Who Had a Heart and A House Is Not a Home, which choke me up every time.

Stevie Wonder: Four songs, not nearly enough for the wunderkind of Motown who dominated R&B in the 1970s. I would add If You Really Love Me, Golden Lady, Superwoman, Creepin’, Isn’t She Lovely, Knocks Me Off My Feet.

Neil Young: Three songs, not enough for my husband or any true fan.

Here are some artists omitted from the list and their songs that I would select for my list.

America: Tin Man

Tori Amos: Silent All These Years

Aztec Camera: Oblivious

Joan Baez: Diamonds and Rust

The Beautiful South: My Book, Song for Whoever, A Little Time, Let Love Speak up Itself, Old Red Eyes Is Back

Ben Folds Five: Where’s Summer B, Alice Childress, Underground, Fair, Brick, Don’t Change Your Plans, Army, Your Redneck Past, Jane

The Blue Nile: Downtown Lights

Bread: It Don't Matter to Me

Kate Bush: Running up That Hill, This Woman's Work, Sensual World

The Cardigans: Carnival

The Cars: My Best Friend’s Girlfriend, Just What I Needed, Bye Bye Love, Good Times Roll

Chicago: Questions 67 & 68

The Church: Under the Milky Way, Feel, Reptile

Jim Croce: Time in a Bottle

Crowded House: Don’t Dream It’s Over, World Where You Live, I Feel Possessed, Into Temptation, Never Be the Same, Love This Life, Sister Madly, Fall at Your Feet, Weather with You, Whispers and Moans, Four Seasons in One Day

Duran Duran: Save a Prayer

Ian Dury and the Blockheads: Sex and Drugs and Rock'n'Roll

Echo and the Bunnymen: Killing Moon

Walter Egan: Magnet and Steel

Electric Light Orchestra: Can’t Get It Out of My Head, Strange Magic

The Foundations: Baby, Now That I've Found You

Garbage: Special

The Grays: Very Best Years

The Guess Who: These Eyes

Richard Harris: MacArthur Park

Heaven 17: Let Me Go

Human League: Don’t You Want Me

Janis Ian: At Seventeen

Chris Isaak: Wicked Game

Joe Jackson: Right and Wrong, Steppin’ Out

Jellyfish: Bedspring Kiss, That Is Why, Ghost at Number One

Kansas: Dust in the Wind

King Crimson: Heartbeat

Nick Lowe/Rockpile: Cruel to Be Kind, I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass, Marie Provost, Switchboard Susan

Don McLean: American Pie

Rick Nelson: Traveling Man

Oasis: Wonderwall, Live Forever, Don’t Go Away, She’s Electric, Acquiesce, Don’t Look Back in Anger

The Outsiders: Time Won't Let Me

Pet Shop Boys: West End Girls, Love Comes Quickly, What Have I Done to Deserve This

The Power Station: Some Like It Hot

Prefab Sprout: When Love Breaks Down, Appetite, Horsin’ Around, Desire As, Life of Surprises, Pearly Gates, Tiffany’s, World Awake, Looking for Atlantis, Wild Horses, Machine Gun Ibiza, Jordan: The Comeback, Moondog, Ice Maiden, Michael, Mercy

The Pretenders: Brass in Pocket, Stop Your Sobbing, Message of Love

The Psychedelic Furs: Love My Way, Pretty in Pink

The Replacements: I’ll Be You, Alex Chilton, The Last

Todd Rundgren: I Saw the Light, Hello It’s Me, We Gotta Get You a Woman

Seal: Crazy, Prayer for the Dying

Siouxsie and the Banshees: Spellbound, Cities in Dust

The Smashing Pumpkins: 1979

The Smithereens: Blood and Roses, Only a Memory

Split Enz: I Got You, One Step Ahead, Message to My Girl, Dirty Creature

Squeeze: Tempted, Last Time Forever

Steam: Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye

Steely Dan: Dirty Work, Only a Fool Would Say That, Any Major Dude, Through with Buzz, My Old School, Doctor Wu, Any World That I’m Welcome to, Kid Charlemagne, The Fez, Haitian Divorce, Peg, Deacon Blues, Josie, FM

The Stray Cats: Stray Cat Strut

The Sundays: Here’s Where the Story Ends

Supertramp: Logical Song

Talk Talk: It’s My Life, Life’s What You Make It

The Talking Heads: Take Me to the River, Psycho Killer

Tears for Fears: Pale Shelter, Mad World, Change

10CC: Cry, I’m Not in Love, Things We Do for Love, Dreadlock Holiday

The Trashcan Sinatras: Only Tongue Will Tell, You Made Me Feel

The Turtles: Happy Together

The Waterboys: The Whole of the Moon

XTC: Dear God, King for a Day, Mayor of Simpleton, Cynical Days, Chalkhills and Children

The Yardbirds: For Your Love, Shapes of Things

Afterthoughts. How could I have forgotten?
Phil Collins: In the Air Tonight
Peter Gabriel: Solsbury Hill
Icehouse: No Promises
Kajagoogoo: Too Shy
k.d. lang: Constant Craving
Muse: Time Is Running Out
The New Radicals: You Only Get What You Give
Jimmy Ruffin: What Becomes of the Broken Hearted
Toad the Wet Sprocket: All I Want
Pete Yorn: Come Back Home

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