100 Greatest Songs - #s41-50
Been a while since I did one of these. Today we get into the bottom half.
50. "The Boxer" - Simon & Garfunkel
This is one of those songs you hear too much. It actually takes a little effort to stop hearing the song as something familiar and stale, and to hear the beauty in it again. I mean (I've got it playing now), I'm listening hard now and noticing the Jew's Harp sounding instrument that does some almost country/bluegrass-feeling riffing during the first and last verses. This is easily one of my favorite Simon lyrics too, just perfectly pitched melancholy. Legend has it that great *boon* sound after the "lie-lie-lies" in the chorus is not a drum of any kind, but a car backfiring.
49. "When I Look at the World" - U2
This U2 song breaks my heart. A completely underrated gem from All That You Can't Leave Behind, never released as a single, that's got a great driving, never-really-resolving pulse that completely complements the questioning, desperate lyrics. Another Christian U2 song, this one is about how hard it is for a Christian, or any human, to live up to the example Jesus expects us to. "So I try to be like you/Try to feel it like you do/But without you it's no use/I can't see what you see/When I look at the world." You don't have to be a believer (I'm not) to be moved by the feeling of helplessness at the fact that mankind will never live up to its potential.
48. "Rockin’ in the Free World" - Neil Young
Electric or acoustic? Not sure. Either way, this is a great piece of angry, three-chord songwriting, with an undeniable passion and desperate vibe. Elvis Costello should totally cover this. Come to think of it, the overall sensibility here is similar to "When I Look at the World's" - a sense of helplessness and disappointment at the world.
47. "America" - Simon & Garfunkel
A purely beautiful melody. So wistful, and pensive, and I love the way the melody moves up and down, just like the bus going up and down hills as it drives across America. "Kathy, I'm lost I said/Though I knew she was sleeping." What a great line. The production here is great too, with those deep bass drum beats, and the subtle woodwinds. I wonder sometimes why we don't get the kind of achingly pure and simple two-man harmonization these guys perfected anymore. It's a great sound that you can't get any other way.
46. "Innuendo" - Queen
A lost Queen song, as theatrical and dramatic as anything they did early in their career, with a sinister martial drumbeat anchoring the minor-key, ominous music. I love the release in the chorus - "Yes, we'll keep on trying." You get a sense in the music that Mercury knows that the trying won't succeed (he knew he was dying at this point), which of course makes the song all the more powerful. There's also a gorgeous Flamenco-bit of guitar virtuosity to be savored during the odd, yet effective, bridge.
45. "Little Wing" - Steven Ray Vaughn
As pure and emotional a piece of guitar playing as I've ever heard. Just a masterclass in how to wring real emotion out of an electric guitar.
44. "Between a Laugh and a Tear" - John Mellencamp
Not a hit, but as sweetly revealing a meditation on life as I've ever heard put to song. "Between a laugh and a tear/Smile in the mirror as you walk by/Between a laugh and a tear/That's as good as it can get for us/And that ain't no reason to stop trying" Doesn't that just sum life up so well? The song also features what may be my favorite line from any song ever - "I know there's a balance/I see it when I swing past." Mellencamp isn't usually thought of as a great lyricist, but he wrote some very, very underrated stuff.
43. "Sultans of Swing" - Dire Straits
Dire Straits came pretty close to their best song on their first try. A great blend of jazzy blues and rock, with one of my all-time favorite guitar solos. One of the things I like most about this song is the subject matter - not many bands write these kind of short story-esque character studies, and when they do they're usually a bout a girl, or someone going through hard times - not about a well-oiled band playing a gig.
42. "For You" - Tracy Chapman
Acoustic guitar and Chapman's voice. One of my favorite combos. Just a simple picking figure and a hushed, delicate melody, interrupted by a strummed, urgent bridge. Elegant in its simplicity.
41. "Brothers in Arms" - Dire Straits
This is the song that keeps "Sultans of Swing" from being Dire Straits' best. Knopfler's solo guitar lines, which punctuate the lines of the verses, are like another voice singing with him. The mood the band creates here is remarkable. Usually I'd find sound effects in a song kind of cheesy, but the thunder in the opening works so well it's impossible to begrudge it.