Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Mr. Jones" by Counting Crows (1994)

1994. My last year of high school and first year of university. "Alternative" music is as popular as it has ever been and ever will be. Kurt Cobain has just killed himself but Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and God knows who else from Seattle are still there to keep up the overly serious moping.

I had spent my whole life listening to 'alternative' radio stations and watching 'alternative' video shows (yes, there was a time when non-music TV channels had 'video shows', just like they'd have a 'news broadcast'). This was a time for redemption! A time when my musical tastes were vindicated!

I was bored out of my mind.

Stuck in my university dorm with whiny white males shrieking at me on all sides, I became about as contrary as I could be. I responded by blasting out Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash - before they became cool, mind you, before Rick Rubin had 'rehabilitated' both of them in the minds of 'cool kids'.

I get no credit for my progressive music tastes...

Anyway, I was still very much into new music. There was a lot of new stuff I was digging and exploring at the time - both inside and outside the mainstream. Well, in any case, the 'mainstream/alternative' spectrum had been altered, and first-year university students are obsessed with being as 'alternative' as they can be (not just musically, of course), yet within that range I found myself with pretty catholic musical tastes.

Adam Duritz has found plenty of ways in the years since to annoy the bollocks off of me (dating Jennifer Aniston, for example). Yet this initial volley still inspires me. It's almost Dave Matthews Band or even Spin Doctors, and sooner or later it's bound to soundtrack a beer commercial, yet there is something real and genuine here. Wikipedia claims that Duritz suffers from dissociative disorder. I would have no idea about that, but if it's true, it would make a more than a little sense - or rather, this song might make a little more sense. I've never seen Counting Crows live, and if I've seen a video for this song it doesn't stick in my mind, but I imagine Duritz singing it in a kind of spaced-out reverie. He seems to be well in his own world here, emoting to and about his Dylan-rip-off acquaintance (note: if you're stealing your signature song's archetype from a Bob Dylan song, you might not want to actually say "I want to be Bob Dylan" in your lyrics). He doesn't quite take flight, but you sense that he performs this song without really any awareness of the people around him.

If it's so, that might be creepy, but it taps into something transportative about the best music that I constantly find myself looking for. Music should send the listener somewhere. It needn't send the performer somewhere, but if it does, it can create a bond between listener and performer - a bond, of course, later undone if the performer happens to be kind of a wanker. Adam Duritz is, clearly, speaking a load of rubbish here about whatever comes into his head ("Grey is my favourite colour; I felt so symbolic yesterday. If I knew Picasso, I would find myself a grey guitar and play") and I imagine listening to a dozen songs just like "Mr. Jones" would be a fresh hell. Yet as a one-off, as a novelty, "Mr. Jones" still works.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Marquee Moon" by Television (1977)

Have you ever met the kind of music obsessive who seems dedicated to liking whatever critics like and hating whatever they don't? I've met a million of them - gritting their teeth while pretending to love Ornette Coleman, instinctively dissing anything by Britney Spears (some of whose songs are, in my opinion, great). I don't really get it, to be honest. I mean, just like what you like, right?

Having said that, however, I've been guilty in the past of taking critics too seriously - on more than one occasion buying an album without having heard a note just because critics seemed to like it. I have my requisite Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth CDs as well...

So, even though I would have been an infant and/or foetus at the time, I had, by my teenage years, educated myself enough about the CBGB 'scene' in New York to be able to fake it. I allowed myself to truly believe that a band like Blondie were in any way 'punk' (because CBGB was a proto-punk scene, right?)

I heard and loved the Talking Heads. I heard and liked Blondie and the Ramones. I heard and tried to like Patti Smith. I got the "New York 1970s" badge sewn onto my hipster-cred blanket. I knew, man.

Yet somehow Television eluded me. I mean, I'd read the magazines, so I knew who they were, but I'd never heard a song by them. Not until just a year or two ago, when finally I had the chance to hear this song.

By that point in my life, I was feeling rather bored with a lot of music. I found that, among current music, very little outside of the most mainstream pop moved me at all, and I found that I had pretty much no patience whatsoever for two-guitars-bass-and-drums - whatever the genre, if that was the instrumentation, it bored me.

Long wanking guitar solos bored me. Adenoidal male singers bored me.

Frankly, I wouldn't have expected to do anything but hate Television, even though the knee-jerk impulse to respect them because they were 'formative' or 'seminal' or whatever still remained. I won't say anything as banal as "they showed me the light" or whatever. After all, it was still just a song. Yet somehow, "Marquee Moon", two guitars, bass, drums, bad male singer, eleven minutes long, guitar solo more than four minutes long... somehow, unlikely as it is, moved me. Thirty years old, yet it still felt new. Seemed to suggest to me that you can do different things with two guitars, a bass and drums.

I'm not sure what it is actually. I'm not sure what seems so new or fresh. Perhaps it's the lack of pretense: the guitar solo goes on for minutes, but you never sense that the guitar player is arching his back and scrunching up his face like guitarists who are just so into the moment do. Perhaps it's the song's dynamics: the way it builds up and breaks down in a way that makes the minutes seem way, way less agonising than 10 minutes 40 seconds of, say, Phish would be. It could very well be that bass, flying all over the place unexpectedly (I love creative bass lines). Whatever it is, it hooked me. And it had been a long time since anything, especially guitar-based 'rock', had done that.

Although I still can't even begin to comprehend what on earth this possibly has to do with 'punk'.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

"Groove is in the Heart" by Deee-Lite (1990)

In deciding to make this list, I had originally toyed with the idea of itemising the 500 best songs ever, or something like that. I soon realised that that was a pretty bad idea, since it would involve major planning and organisation, and in the end, who cares if a song is 172nd best or 173rd best, right? So I decided not to list them in order.

Having said that, though, for this, my inaugural entry, I am including what I believe to be, without hyperbole, the best song ever. In any case, I’ve come to realise it’s my favourite song. And, at the end of the day, those are synonymous, right? I mean, you can’t really consider art and entertainment ‘objectively’ (try as you might). Roger Ebert may be able to justify his decisions till he’s blue in the face, but in the end a ‘thumbs up’ really just means that he liked the movie.

I like this song. Very, very much. For me, I think what is most wonderful about the song ‘Groove is in the Heart’ is its very generosity. There was something very giving and genuine about this song; not just the message of its lyrics but the ‘message’ of its music, its ‘feel’. The song, the band, the video… everything just seemed so completely accepting and open-minded. So much music, particularly ‘cool’ music, is filled with sneering and exclusion. With Deee-Lite, it really seemed like ‘coolness’ was being redefined to be as inclusive as possible. To cite a cliché, it was a party and everyone was invited.

And literally everyone… The band themselves were a slightly geeky Japanese-American, a slightly geeky Ukrainian-American and a glamorous American-born American. At a time when both Japan and the decaying Soviet Union were being cast by many Americans in the most xenophobic fashion possible, the simple image of these three people mixing it up together, not political in the ivory-tower sense but completely political in the personal-is-political sense. Special guests at their party included Q-Tip, leading light of the positivity style of hip-hop at the time and Bootsy Collins, funk bassist and over-the-top dresser extraordinaire. Special guest appearance, of course, by Herbie Hancock on exquisitely-utilised sample.

Except among true club kids and devotees, Deee-Lite were, for all intents and purposes, one-hit wonders. It’s amazing to shine this brightly this briefly. But perhaps it’s to be expected: they truly did throw everything they had into a single track. What remained to be said after this?

Defiantly optimistic, defiantly open-minded, defiantly sincere and defiantly ‘progressive’, I don’t think it’s possible to listen to this song and not feel uplifted. It’s 18 years later now, and the future they appeared to embody… well, it doesn’t really seem to have arrived yet. Still, though, listening to this song or watching the video gives you the sense – or perhaps merely the dream – that the better world they seem to represent is still coming. Sooner or later. One day…

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

God the Musician

It might be said that the vast majority of music is neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad: most of it is merely mundane. What really matters, of course, are those songs that truly stand out - the ones that make a difference in your life.

Can a song really do that? I believe it can. This blog is a testament to those songs that have made a difference in my life, and as such have the power to make a difference in other people's lives too.

Pretentious? Well, yes. Guilty as charged... But pretentions are born of convictions. And it is my personal conviction that these are the best songs ever since Thomas Edison first scraped "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into a wax cylinder.
  1. "Everyday" by Buddy Holly (1957)
  2. "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" by the Shirelles (1960)
  3. "You Don't Own Me" by Lesley Gore (1964)
  4. "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians (1966)  
  5. "Tomorrow Never Knows" by the Beatles (1966)
  6. "Hot Burrito #1" by the Flying Burrito Brothers (1969)
  7. "Lodi" by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
  8. "If I Were Your Woman" by Gladys Knight and the Pips (1970)
  9. "A Case of You" by Joni Mitchell (1971)
  10. "Thank You for Talking to Me, Africa" by Sly and the Family Stone (1971) 
  11. "Curley Locks" by Junior Byles (1974) 
  12. "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" by Elton John (1975)
  13. "Marquee Moon" by Television (1977) 
  14. "Brass in Pocket" by the Pretenders (1979)
  15. "Funkytown" by Lipps, Inc. (1980)
  16. "High School Confidential" by Rough Trade (1980)
  17. "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins (1981)
  18. "Come On Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners (1982)
  19. "Temptation" by New Order (1982) 
  20. "They Don't Know" by Tracey Ullman (1983)
  21. "Birthday" by the Sugarcubes (1987) 
  22. "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues (1987)  
  23. "Luka" by Suzanne Vega (1987)
  24. "Pump Up the Volume" by M/A/R/R/S (1987)
  25. "Troy" by Sinéad O'Connor (1987)
  26. "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" by Public Enemy (1989)
  27. "Fool's Gold" by the Stone Roses (1989)
  28. "My Jolie Louise" by Daniel Lanois (1989)
  29. "Being Boring" by the Pet Shop Boys (1990)
  30. "Groove is in the Heart" by Deee-Lite (1990)
  31. "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" by P.M. Dawn (1991)
  32. "Mr. Jones" by Counting Crows (1994)
  33. "All that I Got is You" by Ghostface Killah feat. Mary J. Blige (1996)
  34. "Born Slippy .NUXX" by Underworld (1996)
  35. "Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space" by Spiritualized (1997)  
  36. "Präludium" by Jay (1997)
  37. "Ojos Asi" by Shakira (1999)
  38. "Can't Get You Out of My Head" by Kylie Minogue (2001) 
  39. "Crazy in Love" by Beyoncé feat. Jay-Z (2003)
If your particular take on the nature of the universe happens to include God, it just might be that you can find the Big Man himself located somewhere within these particular tracks.

Note: I also keep a blog devoted to the worst songs ever: the yang to this blog's yin. Its hall of shame smells like this:

  1. "Johnny Get Angry" by Joanie Sommers (1962)
  2. "Barbara Ann" by the Beach Boys (1965)
  3. "Iko Iko" by the Dixie Cups (1965)
  4. "Helter Skelter" by the Beatles (1968)
  5. "Young Girl" by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap (1968)
  6. "Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow" by Funkadelic (1970)
  7. "Coconut" by Harry Nilsson (1971)
  8. "Mercedes Benz" by Janis Joplin (1971)
  9. "My Ding-a-Ling" by Chuck Berry (1972)
  10. "Squeeze Box" by the Who (1975)
  11. "Lay Down Sally" by Eric Clapton (1977)
  12. "Dreadlock Holiday" by 10cc (1978)
  13. "No One is Innocent" by Ronnie Biggs and the Sex Pistols (1978)
  14. "What's Your Name?" by Depeche Mode (1981)
  15. "China Girl" by David Bowie (1983)
  16. "Born in the U.S.A." by Bruce Springsteen (1984)
  17. "Illegal Alien" by Genesis (1984)
  18. "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer (1985)
  19. "Tears are Not Enough" by Northern Lights (1985)
  20. "Walk of Life" by Dire Straits (1985)
  21. "Hip to be Square" by Huey Lewis and the News (1986)
  22. "Don't Worry, Be Happy" by Bobby McFerrin (1988)
  23. "I Love You" by Vanilla Ice (1990)
  24. "Barbie Girl" by Aqua (1997)
  25. "Hollaback Girl" by Gwen Stefani (2005)
  26. "We are the World 25 for Haiti" by Artists for Haiti (2010)