Friday, August 29, 2008

My Favorite Songs - #s 1-10

I was going to milk this, but I figured what better way to end the summer than by finishing this thing off. So - my ten favorite songs:

10. "One" - U2
When all is said and done, 25 or 50 , or maybe even a 100 years from now, I believe this will be the song that U2 is remembered for. Its prominence has come on slowly - it was not the first single from Acthung Baby and it was never a huge hit. But as the years have gone by, it's become more and more loved, and covered, and esteemed. It's a kind of remarkably simple song, at least as the chord structure goes - I can even kind of play the main chord progression on guitar (and I don't play guitar). But there's something in the way that progression moves and shifts, something in the way that the Edge plays it, that creates an indelible mood. It also helps that the lyric straddles a vanishingly thin line between too-specific and too-simple, letting multiple meanings coexist. I mean, this is a song that has been used as a wedding song and a funeral song.

9. "Jackie Brown" - John Mellencamp
This is not a big Mellencamp hit. But it may be his best story song. A simple yet powerful elegy for the poor in this country that uses one (presumably fictional) family to tell its story. The almost-buoyant guitar line is a wonderful counterpoint to the lyric, and the mournful instrumental solo in the middle does a fine job of keeping the sadness front and center. Hugely effecting for me, and always has been.

8. "Come Down in Time" - Sting
A cover from the Elton John-Bernie Taupin tribute album. I've never heard the original. But Sting's slow-jazz version, with just piano and bass, is as beautiful a thing as I've ever heard. I did a play in college once where I played a character who was sad and depressed and down, and I used this song to get into the right mindset every night. Gorgeously melancholy.

7. "God Only Knows" - Beach Boys
A thing of pure beauty, and already the song that I think the Beach Boys are being most-remembered for. What a pristine arrangement. Also - best use of sleigh bells in any song ever, right? I love the low piano figure that bridges the first two verses - so theatrical and music hall-y. And that schizo, staccato instrumental bridge! It really shouldn't work at all, and yet - it does!

6. "Please" - U2
In a pretty bad ABC special promoting the album in 1997, narrator Dennis Hopper has a line about how in 1997 U2 was still writing songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday," only now they were called "Please." True, actually. This may be U2's most musically sophisticated song - certainly Larry Mullen Jr. has never had a drum part as jazzy and slinky as this one. Pop is a pretty dark album, and this song is a big part of why. The music has a kind of haunted paranoia to it that is just delicious, and I love how Bono's impassioned delivery kicks up a notch at the end.

5. "When the Angels Fall" - Sting
A song you probably don't know. This is the song that ends Sting's best album, The Soul Cages. As I said when writing about "Island of Souls," this album could really form the basis of a fine musical. This is the finale. I can muddle my way through this on piano, and the chords and changes are just wonderful, full of unexpected tensions and releases. I love how damn slow he takes this song, how deliberately paced it is. It's also got a great subject and lyric - it's about letting go of your faith, which is a subject not many pop songwriters get around to.

4. "Check It Out" - John Mellencamp
I'm going to cheat an steal from myself. Here's what I wrote on this previously:

Back when I first started to get into music, when my music collection was still small but had started to gain some mass, I made a list of my 100 favorite songs (blogging impulses were clearly there long before there was blogging). And as time went on, I would periodically revisit the list, adding in new songs I had discovered and shuffling others as my tastes evolved. And yet every time I made my list, one song always took the top spot. Now, if I were to compile such a list today (and I just might!), I'm not sure that John Mellencamp's "Check It Out" would still come out on top. But it just might.

The Lonesome Jubilee remains, 20 years after its release, Mellencamp's best album. It's a distinctive, unified album that features a singular combination of county and rock elements that he's never since really combined in the same way. And "Check It Out," which was the second single released, I believe, is easily the album's highlight. The song starts with a crack of the snare a split second before the band comes in. We hear strummed guitar, bass, and drums, the meat and potatoes of rock music, but the primary element is not the electric guitar (which if it's present at all is doing rhythm work along with the acoustic) but an electric fiddle playing a high melody. It's this melody that forms the core of the song, and it's a gorgeous one - a sad, yet hopeful lyrical piece of music that speaks volumes in its quiet simplicity.

When Mellencamp comes in, after the fiddle has finished a complete rendition of this primary theme, it's over confident guitars and drums kicking out a steady beat:

A million young poets
Screaming out their words
To a world full of people
Just living to be heard
By future generations
Riding on the highways that we built
I hope they have a better understanding

This isn’t a verse, or early showing of the chorus, but rather a refrain that will reappear at the end of the song. The song, in fact, features no standard verse/chorus form – its structure is instead ABBA, with those central B sections comprising repetitions of the band-shouted phrase “Check it out!” with Mellencamp-sung pithy pictures in between.

The content here is familiar ground for Mellencamp – the changing of the guard that happens as one generation ages and another matures. My high school yearbook quote comes from Mellencamp, from the liner notes to Scarecrow actually, and it neatly encapsulates this recurring theme of his: “There is nothing sadder or more glorious than generations changing hands.” “Check It Out” is about this theme. That “I hope they have a better understanding” gets called back at the end of the song when Mellencamp repeats it five times, alternating the “hope” with “maybe.” The message is clear—while we all may like to believe that our children will learn from our mistakes and improve their lot and the world’s lot, that’s hardly a guarantee. You can hope for it, or look to its possible fruition, but you can’t bet on it.

The “verses,” for lack of a better word, paint a typical Mellencamp picture of lower-middle class life in the Midwest.

Go to work on Monday
Got yourself a family
All the utility bills have been paid
Can’t tell your best buddy that you love him

The music here is simple but effective, very American rock-based, with open chords and contented strumming. But after these lines the fiddle comes back and the chords darken, as Mellencamp questions the happiness of his typical family:

But where does our time go
Got a brand-new house in escrow
Sleeping with your back to your loved one
This is all that we’ve learned about happiness

Here that plaintive, searching fiddle theme repeats before we get to the second “verse” with middle-aged life being questioned. At the end of this verse comes one of my favorite Mellencamp lines: “Soaring with the eagles all week long/And this all that we’ve learned about living.” Here the strumming dies down and the guitar instead picks out an introductory bit of business that leads up to the fiddle reaching up to a high note, not once, not twice, but three times, each time it’s ascent halted by a gunshot drum blast. This leads into what in reality is a pretty conventional guitar solo that restates the main melody, but that in practice is actually very effective, this being the first time in the song we’ve really noticed any electric guitar. It’s also important to note that the tone of that solo is almost resigned, not triumphant at all.

After the break, we get that repetition of the A section again, with its final five-time repeat of the “understanding line.” And the tension Mellencamp achieves here, with each unresolved (lyrically and musically) “hope (or “maybe”) they’ll have a better understanding,” is quite effective. You can hear the weariness and the wariness in his voice as he keeps repeating the question, until he can’t take it anymore and the core fiddle melody returns to close out the song. That the question is never resolved is important, I think, and central to the song. After all, how well or not future generations fare is not something we really ever get to see for certain.

I still do love this song greatly, and while it’s “all-time top” spot would probably go to “Where the Streets Have No Name” these days, it’s still way, way up there.

I was right - it's not #1. But it's up there.

3. "Walk On" - U2
There's something about the piano that starts it and the triumphant and sad leaping guitar line that demand that the song be played at maximum volume for me. A great, impassioned vocal from Bono and some very simple but very inspiring lyrics about triumphing in the face of tyranny. I do find it amusing, though, that perhaps the song's mostly critical lyric gets obscured by sloppy scansion. At the end of the song, Bono sings, to a building, driving beat "All that you fashion, all that you make, all that you build, all that you break, all that you measure, all that you feel, all that you can leave behind." That "can" is the key to the lyric, contrasting the album's title and emphasizing the immateriality of our material lives. And yet the way it scans with the music, with the emphasis on the "can," it reads aurally as "can't." Nonetheless, this is a stellar, inspirational, emotional rock song. That ending guitar part is classic, getting across a lot in a very simple way. U2 does inspirational rock better than anyone, I think, and this song shows why.

2. "Sugar Baby" - Bob Dylan
Dylan stares mortality in the face and converses with it. The song alternates between a verse and chorus that really don't sound like verses and choruses. The recurring "Sugar baby get on down the road/You ain't got no brains now how/You went years without me/You might as well keep going now" is just haunting in the bitterly resigned and tired way Dylan spits it out. This is probably my favorite vocal performance of Dylan's - I love the weariness and age in the voice, the way he trails off at the end of phrases, and the way he's constructed the song around these big mid-phrase pauses - he sometimes sounds like a forgetful old man trying to remember a word - "I got my back - PAUSE - to the sun 'cause - PAUSE - the light is too intense." And what a devastating phrase that is. Really, I don't know that anyone has written about death as well as Dylan. Just listen to that last verse:

Your charms have broken many a heart
And mine is surely one
You got a way of tearing a world apart, love
See what you done
Just as sure as we're living, just as sure as you're born
Look up, look up - seek your Maker
'Fore Gabriel blows his horn

1. "Where the Streets Have No Name" - U2
This is it. The one. My favorite rock song, by anyone. I love every inch of it, from the marvelously solemn and hushed series of keyboard chords that ushers the song in; to the faint ringing guitar figure that drifts in slowly, gaining strength throughout the intro; to the way the drums kick in with power and an urgent drive partway through; to the impassioned and open-throated pure singing Bono indulges in throughout, to the perfect, symmetrical ending. And live, as anyone who has attended a U2 show could tell you, the song takes on added power and urgency--see the Rattle and Hum film for a stellar example.

Until Whenever

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My Favorite Songs - #s 11-20

20. "The Show Must Go On" - Queen
My favorite Queen song, and my favorite Freddie Mercury performance. As I have said many times, the power of the song lies in its intersection of subject matter and circumstance - the song, about defiance in the face of death, is sung by a Freddie Mercury who knows he will soon be dying from AIDS. And he is pissed. It's that reality which makes this song an impossible one to cover in any way that approximates the power of the original.

19. "City of Blinding Lights" - U2
U2 digs deep and manages to come up with as inspiring bit of anthemic arena rock as "Where the Streets Have No Name." It's just remarkable to me how much genuine heart-pumping feeling these guys can get into a song without being overly cheesy. That moment in the intro when the piano and drums and bass build and build and finally give in to that exultant Edge guitar riff gives me goosebumps every damn time.

18. "Fast Car" - Tracy Chapman
I like Tracy Chapman's career and output just fine, but it must be said: Her best song was her first song. She's never gotten a hold of a riff as simple yet indelible as the one that anchors this song - it's just one of those simple riffs that sounds like it has always been there.

17. "What’s So Funny (About Peace, Love, and Understanding)? " - Elvis Costello
Just a great energy song, full of anger and despair and rage. As I have said before, it kind of makes me sad that my favorite Costello song is one he didn't write, but you can't argue with what moves you.

16. "Brilliant Disguise" - Bruce Springsteen
Elvis Costello does a cover of this on one of the Rhino B-Side discs (for Kojak Variety I think), and when I first cued it up I expected to be blown away, so much do I like Costello, and so good a fit he and this song seemed to be. I wasn't. There's something about Springsteen's original version, and delivery, that make the song, and it's easily my favorite of his. I love the line "We stood at the alter/The gypsy swore our future was right/But come the wee wee hours/Well maybe baby/The gypsy lied" a lot, but "God have mercy on the man/Who doubts what he's sure of" may be my favorite closing couplet ever.

15. "No Cars Go" - Arcade Fire
This is the kind of theatrical, epic, joyous, exuberant, and uplifting rock that is my favorite kind of rock. That big crescendo at the end, with the singers and instruments just getting bigger and bigger tears me up every time I hear it.

14. "Philadelphia" - Neil Young
As I've said too many times before, the wrong "Philadelphia" song won the Oscar. Young's closing piano ballad is one of the most poignant, heartbreaking songs I've ever heard.

13. "Won’t Get Fooled Again" - The Who
Can any other rock song plausibly claim to contain within it three legitimate "bests?
Best use of synth in a rock song - "Won't Get Fooled Again"
Best rock scream in a rock song - "Won't Get Fooled Again"
Best fake-out ending in a rock song - "Won't Get Fooled Again"

12. "Like a Rolling Stone" - Bob Dylan
There was a time when I didn't quite get all of the hype around this song. I do now.

11. "Tangled Up in Blue" - Bob Dylan
The ambiguous narrator, the aggressive acoustic guitar strumming, the snarled upward leaps in the singing - this is quintessential Dylan.

Until Whenever

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


What have I eaten (stolen from the SamuraiFrog)?

1. Venison: Once, I believe. I remember liking it fine.
2. Nettle tea: No.
3. Huevos rancheros: No. At least I don't think so.
4. Steak tartare: No. Would like to.
5. Crocodile: Yes. Well, alligator. In nugget form in Florida. Not that good.
6. Black pudding: No.
7. Cheese fondue: Yes.
8. Carp: No. Not that I can remember anyway.
9. Borscht: Yes. I stayed with a host family in St. Petersberg while on a Glee Club tour of Eastern Europe in college, and I'm pretty sure she served us borscht. Heavenly.
10. Baba ghanoush: Yes. Quite yummy, but not as good as hummus.
11. Calamari: Many times.
12. Pho: ?
13. PB&J sandwich: Of course. These days it's only a few times a year though.
14. Aloo gobi: Yes. I like Indian food, but don't love it.
15. Hot dog from a street cart: Too many times!
16. Epoisses: No
17. Black truffle: No.
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes: Nope; I'm a teetotaler.
19. Steamed pork buns: I once wrote airline menus for a living, and we had in-house translators, which meant lots of ethnicities. A Chinese (?) woman the next cubicle over made the most remarkable pork buns.
20. Pistachio ice cream: Not in years. Oddly enough, though, this was my favorite ice cream when I was a kid.
21. Heirloom tomatoes: No.
22. Fresh wild berries: Yes.
23. Foie gras: No.
24. Rice and beans: Yes, but mostly mall food court places.
25. Brawn, or head cheese: No.
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper: No.
27. Dulce de leche: No.
28. Oysters: Yes, a long while ago.
29. Baklava: My sister-in-law makes it. Not a huge fan.
30. Bagna cauda: ?
31. Wasabi peas: No.
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl: One of my favorite things.
33. Salted lassi: No, but I've always wanted to try it (it was always on the menus for Indian flights)
34. Sauerkraut: Sauerkraut on a grilled kielbasa on a good roll. Perfection.
35. Root beer float: Many.
36. Cognac with a fat cigar: A teetotaler who doesn't smoke? No.
37. Clotted cream tea: Yes, on a British Airways flight. Was buttery goodness. I'll have to see if I can get some here, now that I think about it.
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O: No.
39. Gumbo: No.
40. Oxtail: Yes. Meaty and tender.
41. Curried goat: No.
42. Whole insects: No.
43. Phaal: ?
44. Goat's milk: I don't think so.
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$130 or more: No.
46. Fugu: No.
47. Chicken tikka masala: Probably.
48. Eel: No.
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut: Yes, but never hot out of the oven, damn it!
50. Sea urchin: No.
51. Prickly pear: No.
52. Umeboshi: ?
53. Abalone: No.
54. Paneer: ?
55. McDonald's Big Mac Meal: Yes. And I, to my shame, enjoy them.
56. Spaetzle: No.
57. Dirty gin martini: No.
58. Beer above 8% ABV: No.
59. Poutine: No.
60. Carob chips: No.
61. S'mores: Yes, but never authentic campfire ones.
62. Sweetbreads: No.
63. Kaolin: ?
64. Currywurst: ?
65. Durian: ?
66. Frogs' legs: No. Keep emaning to.
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake: Yes, including fresh beignets in Nw Orleans.
68. Haggis: No. If given the opportunity, though, I would try it.
69. Fried plantain: Delicious!
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette: No.
71. Gazpacho: No.
72. Caviar and blini: Yes. Just a kindof salty mush, though.
73. Louche absinthe: No.
74. Gjetost, or brunost: ?
75. Roadkill: No.
76. Baijiu: ?
77. Hostess Fruit Pie: All the time as a kid. Not in ages though.
78. Snail: Yes. Kind of flavorless.
79. Lapsang souchong: ?
80. Bellini: Yes.
81. Tom yum: ?
82. Eggs Benedict: Very good.
83. Pocky: ?
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant: No, alas.
85. Kobe beef: No.
86. Hare: No.
87. Goulash: I think so.
88. Flowers: Yes. Not bad.
89. Horse: No.
90. Criollo chocolate: I don't think so.
91. Spam: No.
92. Soft shell crab: Yes.
93. Rose harissa: ?
94. Catfish: Many times. I've made it as well.
95. Mole poblano: No.
96. Bagel and lox: No.
97. Lobster Thermidor: No. Just broiled and baked.
98. Polenta: Yes - kind of mushy and flavorless.
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee: Yes.
100. Snake: No.
111. Elk: No.
112. Ostrich: Many times, in burger form. Pretty good.
113. Moose: I've had moose balls. (cue rim shot).
114. Whole hog BBQ: Yep. Amazing.
115. Wine @ >$400/bottle: No.
116. Home made bacon/sausage: Yes. My brother-in-law-s father makes his own sausages. To die for.
117. Chocolate and chilis: No.
118. Chittlins: No.
119. Moonshine: No.
120. Quail eggs: No.
121. Monkfish liver: No.
122. Live scallop: No.
123. Fried chicken giblets: No,.
124. Duck cracklings: No, but sounds gooood.
125. Grappa: No.

Until Whenever

Monday, August 25, 2008

Two Thoughts

I finally saw Atonement last week, and liked it very much. rather than do a three-by-three, or any kind of review, though, I thought I'd post about two things that have been in my thoughts since I saw it:

Dario Marianelli's score is brilliant, and very inspired by The Music Man. The Music Man, which, lest we forget, beat out West Side Story for the Tony in 1957, builds its score around the idea of found sounds that become full-fledged song. So, the chug-a-chug rhythms of the train in the opening scene become a kind of rhythmic rap song:

Or the pecking and clucking of hens becomes a gossipy songlet for the ladies:

Similarly, Marionelli's score takes its cues from real sounds on the soundtrack. So the rhythmic typing out of a story on a typewriter becomes the basis for the score.

Or a solo harmonica played by a soldier becomes the basis for the main melody, or a solo note tapped out in boredom by a character segues directly into a piece of scoring:

In theory, it sounds like a hokey device, but in practice it works extremely well.

The second thought that keeps occurring is the majesty of that infamous 5-minute tracking shot at Dunkirk. I've read numerous critics take that shot to task (even as they acknowledge its technical artistry and bravado) for being too show-offy a thing in the middle of a film that doesn't otherwise make much use of long takes. And what I keep coming back to is what they are missing - that a typical audience member (i.e., not a film buff or critic)is not going to notice the long take. It's only after years of listening to commentary tracks and reading more in-depth criticism that I've come to notice such things, and I'm certain that the vast majority of people who watch the film don't notice that there are no cuts in that shot. So, for most audiences, the shot doesn't take them out of the story at all. That only happens for critics.

Until Whenever

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Last Third

As the summer winds down (sigh) and the new Fall Preview stuff starts trickling in, here is what I am most looking forward to in the Fall from the world of pop culture:
  1. No Line on the Horizon - U2 - This is widely rumored to be the title for the new U2 album. Yes, that's right, a new U2 album. Be prepared for me to talk about nothing else for a good two weeks or so around its release.
  2. Just After Sunset - Stephen King - King's first short story collection since Everything's Eventual. Actually, I have a hunch I'll have read a few of these in magazines already, but as a completist I must have it.
  3. Road Show - Stephen Sondheim - Sondheim's first new musical to play New York in 14 years (!) is a new reworking (the third major one) of his Wise Guys/Bounce musical about the Mizner brothers. I may have to get off of my lazy ass and actually go see this one!
  4. The Office - With Lost and Battlestar Galactica not coming back until 09, this is probably the TV show I'm most looking forward to the return of.
  5. Tell Tale Signs - Bob Dylan - The 8th in the Dylan Bootleg Series is a two-disc set that will feature cut songs and live tracks culled from Dylan's last four studio albums - exactly the period I was hoping against hope they'd focus on next. Excellent!
  6. Secret Invasion - The finale of the very enjoyable and epic Brian Michael Bendis miniseries should finish up in the Fall and I'm very excited. This has been a well-told tale of alien invasion so far, and I have a hunch Bendis has a few tricks still up his sleeve.
  7. Doubt - I never saw John Patrick Stanley's much-lauded play about molestation accusations in a Catholic church, but have read it and am very curious to see the film version.
  8. Pushing Daisies - The new show from last year I'm most excited about seeing again. The delightfully pitched fantasy fairy tale had a precariously balanced tone I'm not sure I've ever seen before, and I'm looking forward to seeing where they take it next.

Until Whenever

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Favorite Songs - #s 21-30

Because Roger now has me excited to finish this!

30. "Romeo & Juliet" - Dire Straits
On a recent edition of Coverville, host Brian Ibbitt declared this to be his "favorite song ever." Well, it's my 30th. Just a beautifully romantic, courtly song, with a deeply felt guitar solo at the end. One of those songs I'm surprised isn't a much bigger hit.

29. "Short Supply" - Tracy Chapman
The urgency and insistence of this acoustic gem always surprises me. The preachy environmental song fairly drips of nature in summer, of grassy fields, blooming flowers, and clear, flowing streams, but it's pretty open-hearted politics are nothing in the face of the sublime feel Chapman manages to capture. And let me take a moment to again opine on the remarkable beauty of Chapman's alto voice - so rich, and pure.

28. "Not Dark Yet" - Bob Dylan
Dylan in end-of-life mode, contemplating death, as has been his wont on these last few albums. Check out the sweetly slow and patient melody, though, and note how well it matches the resignation in the singer's voice. "It's not dark yet/But it's getting there."

27. "Simple Twist of Fate" - Bob Dylan
I've always adored that big jump at the end of each verse, before the "simple twist of fate" part. I love it because it's a "big voice" move, something to show off a singer's technical ability, and of course Dylan just kind of shouts it. Works though. And the guitar part is one of his best, just a simple stepping-down thing that speaks volumes about regret and lost opportunities.

26. "Wise Up" - Aimee Mann
In Magnolia this is sung by each of the primary characters, in a stunning scene that surprised me when I first saw it (Magnolia not being a musical). It's a great hushed prayer of a song, with a quiet, insistent melody, tentatively gesturing upwards over and over.

25. "Harvest Moon" - Neil Young
Young at his most elegiac. This is the song that really turned me on to Neil Young, and the album it comes from (which is filled with similar quiet acoustic songs almost as good) was my first Young album. There are none on the track, but you can hear the cicadas in the background, so redolent is this of a late-summer night.

24. "True Love Waits" - Radiohead
An acoustic live track that I don't think they've recorded in studio. A sweeping romantic song, full of yearning and sadness, anchored by a simple yet extremely effective guitar.

23. "Mercy" - U2
A cut track from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, this may well turn up on the new album slated for November (rumored to be titled No Line on the Horizon.) This is pure, distilled, uncut U2, full of ringing guitars, an insistent beat, and a slowly building feel. This may just be the track I'd give to someone who wanted to get what U2 was about in one song. It's quintessential.

22. "Acrobat" - U2
Another dark Achtung Baby song that never took off, possibly because they never performed it live. It's got an almost Philip Glass feel, with a repetitive, driving, relentless guitar part that never really resolves. Musically one of my favorite U2 songs, and one I have a hunch is doing something interesting, theory-wise, but that I'm too ignorant to pick up on.

21. "Overkill" - Colin Hay
Yes, it's Scrubs' fault. But I can't get over the nagging catchiness and beat of this song. I don't think I've ever heard the original, but Hay's acoustic version is just one of my favorite things. And I love that spiky solo at the bridge, and the way it starts out simple and then adds complexity a it goes along.

Until Whenever

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

My Favorite Songs #s 31-40

Because Roger is guilting me!

40. "All This Useless Beauty" - Elvis Costello
This song, a kind of forgotten Costello number, is nearly my favorite Costello song, and definitely my favorite Costello ballad. It comes off of his album of the same name, which comprises songs he originally wrote for others. Not sure who did this, or was meant to do this, originally, but Costello's version is a quiet powerhouse, just a devastatingly beautiful ballad that hints of courtly feelings and misty castles. This song was the inspiration for a short story I wrote several years back.

39. "Bohemian Rhapsody" - Queen
Part of me is surprised this didn't end up higher - surely some of that is attributable to just how insanely overplayed the song is. Still, no one before or since has done this kind of epic theatricality as well.

38. "Beautiful Day" - U2
I suspect that when all is said and done, this will be one of the three or four U2 songs that people really remember and love. It's just such a perfectly simple evocation of the kind of foolish hope and anticipation we all feel now and then as we contemplate our future. That part of the human condition that insists on enthusiastic optimism? This song is its theme song.

37. "I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying" - Sting
Sting's chameleon-like abilities as a songwriter are not really appreciated enough. Here, he's crafted a country song authentic and good enough to have become a country hit in its own right. I've never heard the topic of divorce's effects when kids are involved portrayed so elegantly or accurately. My parents divorced when I was young, and parts of this song his me harder than I realize. Maybe no line in music kills me as much as, in context, "Everybody's got to leave the darkness some time."

36. "Island of Souls" - Sting
In the age of jukebox musicals, it saddens me that there is no Sting musical, as I've been insisting ever since this album came out in the early 90s that it could serve as the foundation for a damn good musical. This is the opening number, a haunting and salty tune about a death in the shipyard.

35. "Love Is Blindness" - U2
U2 gets pegged as the big, hopeful, anthemic band they often are, so it's easy to forget their dark side. This somber, monochromatic, relentless song about suicide is the one they ended their shows with on the ZOO TV tour. This is what they sent audiences off with. Astonishing.

34. "Kite" - U2
There's that hopeful U2. This decade has seen the subject of parenthood become a common theme, and this song about letting go of your children as they grow is just a gorgeous piece of writing that demonstrates so aptly that the simplest of chord progressions, when handled right, can say so much.

33. "Kathy’s Song" - Simon & Garfunkel
My favorite S&G song. Something about the simple accompaniment and the quiet, subtle, yearning melody just do it for me. And the lyric. God, the lyric. "And so you see I have come to doubt/All that I once held as true/I stand alone without beliefs/The only truth I know is you." Wow.

32. "Hearts and Bones" - Paul Simon
Neat, somehow, that this ended up next to "Kathy's Song." My favorite Simon song, a bruised and somehow spiritual skipping ballad about love. "The arc of a love affair" is an all-time favorite line.

31. "Minutes to Memories" - John Mellencamp
An old man give a young whippersnapper advice on a train. I turn to this song over and over again when I feel like i need reminding of how to live life. Mellencamp's very underrated knack for delivering eternal truths in shorn-bare phrasing is exemplified here. "There are no free rides/No one said it'd be easy/The old man told me this my son I'm telling it to you/Days turn to minutes and minutes to memories/Life sweeps away the dreams that we had planned/You are young and you are the future/So suck it up and tough it out/And be the best you can" Yes, sir.

Until Whenever

Friday, August 08, 2008

Doin' the Friday Shuffle

When was the last time I did one of these?

1. "Matamamaros Banks" - Bruce Springsteen - Devils and Dust
This is one of those albums I always forget about. It's actually quite good, if a tad one-note.

2. "To America I sailed on a ship called Hunger" - William Bolcom - A View from the Bridge
An aria from Bolcom's quite good opera. I have to admit that I haven't delved into this one as much as I'd like yet. It's a bad habit I have with operas - getting them and never listening enough. A function of the need to really sit and listen to a 2-3 hour opera.

3. "Myxomatosis (Judge, Jury, and Executioner)" - Radiohead - Hail to the Thief
I for some reason never really got into this album. That said, I like the drive of this song, even if I wish that primary riff were a little less distorted.

4. "There'll Be Some Changes Made" - Dave Brubeck - Dave Brubeck - Vocal Encounters
Not sure who is singing, but this is a classic swinging jazz piece.

5. "Ain't Misbehavin'" - Louis Armstrong - The Essential Louis Armstrong
Louis on vocals and trumpet doing a classic song. What could be better?

6. "Oh, Im Agoin' Out to the Blackfish Banks" - George Gershwin - Porgy and Bess
Plot-moving short choral piece.

7. "Only a Pawn in Their Game" - Bob Dylan - The Times They Are-A Changin'
This is almost boilerplate early Dylan - acoustic guitar, repetitive verses, openly political story song.

8. "Dear Old Shiz" - Stephen Shwartz - Wicked
Short "school song" from the musical. Nice pastiche. Word is that a film has been greenlit. Who will star??

9. "How Am I Different" - Aimee Mann - Bachelor #2
Plaintive, subdued, mid-tempo - yep, this is Mann.

10. "The Scientist" - Coldplay - A Rush of Blood to the Head
I like Coldplay, and this song, but don't love them. Which is odd, because they should be up my alley, what with the U2 influences, use of piano, and anthemic, theatrical quality. Can't figure it out.

Until Whenever

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Three by Three
Three things I liked about Charlie Wilson's War

  • The performances - Hanks, Roberts, and especially Hoffman are all great here, giving generous performances that come close to winking but never do. That Tom Hanks, in particular, is perfectly suited to deliver Aaron Sorkin dialogue is in retrospect pretty obvious.
  • The Sorkin script - the dialogue is as witty and sharp as ever, while not calling attention to itself in the way that his dialogue sometimes can. Very nicely modulated. I did laugh at the obligatory "Character A says something isn't true," Character B asks if it is," "Character A says it is" exchange.
  • The story - what I'm sure is a much more complicated story is told clearly, economically, and without any fat. I'm sure the book has about ten times the detail and happenstance, but for a film, this streamlined version works.

Three things I did not like about Charlie Wilson's War

  • The overall effect - as much as I liked the pieces, they didn't add up to what they wanted to. That is, the whole point of the movie is to give the viewer a swelling sense of joy when we see the Afghans win, when we see Wilson and his friends' efforts win out. And it just wasn't there - I didn't get that swelling sense of emotion I get at the end of Schindler's List, for example. And I'm not sure why. As I said, the pieces are there. But they don't add up the right way.
  • The portrayal of Wilson. His rogueish, caddish qualities were there, but in a perfunctory kind of way. He came across as too much of a Sorkin hero, and not as flawed as the screenplay seemed to think he was.
  • The framing device. The film opens with Wilson receiving an honor from the military, and then flashes back to tell the story. It didn't really add anything.

Until Whenever

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

It's Science

I know that when I come across "Top X of X All Time" lists, I invariably get annoyed at how opaque the rationale and criteria is behind the list. Witness Entertainment Weekly's recent lists of the best 100 movies, books, TV shows, and albums of the last 25 years, for just one example. So seeing that the Yahoo! music blogger (who knew such a beast existed!) has published his list of the 20 greatest albums ever, as determined by a, if not unassailable, at least fair and rigorous statistical analysis of sales figures, critical acclaim, staying power, and Grammy love, kind of makes me happy.

Here's his list:

#20. Faith - George Michael
#19. Appetite For Destruction - Guns N' Roses
#18. Purple Rain - Prince
#17. Houses Of The Holy - Led Zeppelin
#16. Born In The U.S.A. - Bruce Springsteen
#15. Nevermind - Nirvana
#14. Van Halen - Van Halen
#13. Rumours - Fleetwood Mac
#12. The Wall - Pink Floyd
#11. The Joshua Tree - U2
#10. Metallica - Metallica
#9. Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin
#8. Hotel California - Eagles
#7. The White Album - The Beatles
#6. Led Zeppelin IV - Led Zeppelin
#5. Abbey Road - The Beatles
#4. Physical Graffiti - Led Zeppelin
#3. Thriller - Michael Jackson
#2. Dark Side Of The Moon - Pink Floyd
#1. Songs In The Key Of Life - Stevie Wonder

Do click over though and take a look at how he compiled it - the approach seems pretty fair and comprehensive to me.

Until Whenever

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Good 'ol Willie

I'm not a country music fan - it just doesn't float my boat. What that means though, is I've been mostly ignorant to the awesome power that is Willie Nelson. I knew the basic pop culture osmosis stuff about Nelson, knew "Always on My Mind," "On the Road Again," the pot. I also had fond, if distant and hazy, memories, of listening to the Willie Nelson Christmas album as a kid. But in the last few months I've started to develop a real appreciation for Nelson's voice, and his supremely deceptive way of singing so simply and yet with so much emotion . From that, I've developed an addictive habit - finding Willie Nelson doing covers of songs I like.

It all started with the discovery of his expectations-shattering, moody take on "The Rainbow Connection." I wrote about that one here.

Since then, I've discovered a few others, including:

  • A good, if a little too modern-sounding, take on Dave Matthews solo "Gravedigger.

  • A wonderfully lived-in rendition of Bob Dylan's "What Was It You Wanted?"

  • An older, near-operatic take on Procol Harem's "Whiter Shade of Pale." This song, in particular, clued me in to how strong a singer Nelson was - his most recent stuff shows his voice's age, but back in the day he could belt a clear, powerful tone like a more laid-back Roy Orbison

  • A serene and softly expansive take on Elvis Presley's "Blue Hawaii"

So that's the new game. Hunting Willie Nelson doing covers. Anyone have any offerings?

Until Whenever

Friday, August 01, 2008

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.

Until Whenever