I was discussing the art of the song today and thinking about it as well. To me, a great songwriter is part talented musician (no need for virtuosity, just skill), part skilled craftsperson and part poet. When you put the three together into one song, you get magic. Two of the three is usually enough to produce a great song or composition.
I started listening to my iTunes on shuffle and thought I’d randomize then re-order and just go through the songs that come up under shuffle as I take a listen to them. This isn’t random, mind you, but it’s close enough.
As – Stevie Wonder
Boy, the do NOT write songs like this anymore. It’s a brilliant combination of groove, hook and the complex structure of a jazz composition. Stevie was that rare guy who could sing lyrics that drifted into the cheese territory and made them completely believable.
Bought for a Song – Fountains of Wayne
I love how these guys put together songs. In some ways, it is very traditional. They tell a story and it is often pretty damn funny. In this case, the ballsy rock mixed with Beatle-y “la la’s” is good enough, but put in the hook line, “Before you get sold, you get bought for a song.” Perfect for a song about self-promotion on the road.
The Mayor of Simpleton – XTC
“If depth of feeling is a currency, then I’m the man who grew the money tree.” Yeah, incredibly simple. Andy Partridge was a pop genius.
How We Operate – Gomez
I first heard this in the background of a commercial for shows coming on TNT or HBO or something. I listened to it over and over to try and hear some decipherable lyrics over the noisy shows in the background (God bless my DVR). It’s just such an unexpected rock song with an amazing hook and a banjo. I immediately downloaded the whole CD.
Must Get Out – Maroon 5
This is one of those few bands I heard about before they got a hit. This was my favorite song on the CD just because the hook was so damn good. There is only so much white boy funk that I can handle before I go on overload. This was the perfect blend of their prior incarnation as, supposedly, an indie-ish pop band and their new decidedly funkier direction. The bridge and that big warm B3 and the string pads in the background is perfect.
I Feel Fine – Curtis Stigers
Maybe the most unique cover of a Beatles song I’ve ever heard. I caught this one night on KTSU and did that thing where you sit in your car and wait for them to give you the rundown of the last five songs they played. I had never heard of Stigers, but this has that cool, smokey lounge vibe and the re-structuring of the chords in the chorus is freaky.
St. Paul – The Rembrandts
I’ve been a fan of Danny Wilde since I saw him at the KLOL Rock and Roll Auction back in like 1987. He just has that rootsy pop thing down. This is from the Rembrandts CD, Lost Together, and is textbook American pop music. That first line, “St. Paul in winter…” tells you virtually everything you need to know about the song.
Life’s What You Make It – Talk Talk
This is one of my few indulgences of 80’s pop music along with Missing Persons, the Fixx and a couple others. Despite the electronic drums, over-reverbed guitars and synth sounds, this is just a great song with a slow, cool groove. Can’t sum up an idea any better than, “Baby, life’s what you make it.”
Sister Golden Hair – America
Quintessential 70’s. The guy leaves his girl standing at the altar and has the balls to ask if they can still have sex. It remeinds me of “I’d Really Like to See You Tonight” and it’s line, “I’m not talkin’ ’bout movin’ in and I don’t want to change your life.” Did guys actually get away with this back then? Seriously, this is just a great hook. Who can forget that acoustic guitar intro? The lost art of the musical hook is something I wish musicians would re-discover.
Rising Sun – Nuclear Valdez
A nearly unknown band from NYC that, as far as I know, only released a couple of CD’s. The first, I Am I, was a rootsy, dark, melody-filled rocker. Their follow up was as if they discovered keyboards and drum machines – or were forced to by their label. Whatever the case, this was a very cool band with a unique Cuban-American singer. This one is particularly haunting.
Run – Snow Patrol
You just don’t get much more dry and in-your-face than the vocals on this one, I just hate the way the drums sound and this repetitive eighth note thing gets so monotonous, yet I can’t seem to turn it off. It’s just impossible for me to get this moody-ass hook out of my head.
Downed – Cheap Trick
Cheap Trick, in addition to being just loaded with great hooks, may be one of the coolest bands ever. A seriously zany rock guitarist, a converted jazz drummer, a bassist playing 8 strings and a soaring pop/rock singer – how could that NOT be cool? More than anything, they were able to remain rock and roll for a long time while still delivering some incredibly memorable hooks. This one goes from the jangly pop of a D chord to the middle rock groove in E minor effortlessly. One of my all-time favorite bands.
Blurry – Puddle of Mudd
I heard this on the radio a number of times and had no clue who it was. I don’t think I know another song by Puddle of Mudd, but this one is just so groovin’. It’s got that 90’s grunge thing vocally and the groove is very reminicent of Pearl Jam or Soundgarden. I tend to really like dark, textural stuff and the funky guitar harmonics during the verses really add to that hypnotic groove.
Love’s in Need of Love Today – Stevie Wonder
Again, Stevie pushes right up against cheese and comes out the other side completely unscathed. What an incredibly beautiful hook and just a wonderful lyrical sentiment. That odd change from major to minor in the verses is something you NEVER hear in music today, where safety is valued above all else. Nevermind that we’ve heard all that sameness before. I have a version of this in iTunes done by Joan Osborne that is pretty cool as well, but Stevie is the man.
Girl Anachronism – The Dresden Dolls
First, to put the word “anachronism” in a song takes some serious work. This is just a really inventive duo that, to me, is so superior in so many ways to the White Stripes. It’s so chaotic but at the same time makes so much sense. Uncomfortable but familiar and just blistering. “The attention just encourages her…” is genius.
Throw It All Away – Toad the Wet Sprocket
This is another band for whom I have a great deal of respect. Singer Glen Phillips has a magical ability to craft a dense lyric that means something without being overly complex. I wish he could deliver as a solo artist in the way Toad delivered when they were together. Hard to recapture that I guess. This has one of my all-time favorite lyrics both in how it was written and in how it is performed. More down-home and rootsy than most Toad songs, it just really fits from start to finish. This would make a good cover. Hmmmm…
Breakfast in America – Supertramp
Speaking of covers…this is one I’ve wanted to do for a while. Supertramp is a terribly underrated band. They were a gifted group of musicians who knew how to put together a great SONG. Who puts tuba and clarinet in a pop song? Well, besides the Beatles. I’ll admit the voice can get annoying after a while, but the hooks are just so damn good.
Eye in the Sky – Jonatha Brooke
Speaking of underrated, how about the Alan Parsons Project? Ok, they were cool for a short time and this was one of their best. Jonatha Brooke is a FANTASTIC singer and her minimalist piano/acoustic guitar version of this song is absolutely beautiful. If you haven’t listened to Brooke before, do yourself a favor. She is better than most of the Lilith Fair crowd and fits perfectly in with some of my favorite female artists like k.d. lang, Suzanne Vega, Rosanne Cash and the Indigo Girls.
Everybody Loves a Happy Ending – Tears for Fears
From their most recent CD, this is clearly Roland Orzabal’s homage to the Beatles “A Day in the Life” complete with the dramatic change from one part to another. This is a rock song with movements, yet it clocks in at only 4:23. Impressive. As usual, the hooks are just sickly perfect and the music is dense, layers and pure pop perfection. I wish more pop bands would take these kinds of chances.
Pink Moon – Nick Drake
This is often the last song I listen to before bed. It’s so quiet and peaceful. Yet, that piano and minor change in the hook is haunting. It’s pretty obvious how Drake inspired a pretty big batch of indie artists today. They could do a lot worse.
Who Did You Think I Was – John Mayer Trio
I was marginally interested in Mayer’s first CD, but this trio record is terrific. Pino Palladino is one of my all-time favorite bassists and Steve Jordan is a legend on drums. While his first record may have helped him gain some acclaim as a pop singer, the Trio CD cemented him as a legitimate musician. He said it best on the video that accompanied the download of this saying that this new music was not meant to disparage anything that came before it or suggest that this was in some way better but, as he so honestly put it with a smirk, “C’mon!”
You’re Heart is an Empty Room – Death Cab for Cutie
This is a band that I really wanted to like. I really, really did and I’m not sure why. There are times when I just can’t listen to them. Some of their stuff is just hard for me to digest. Maybe it’s the vocal or the odd approach to musical structure that puts me off. I don’t know exactly. But, this song is beautiful. “And all you see is where else you could be” is a brilliantly thoughtful lyric. I love the slow push of the song from the droning acoustic guitar and repetitive bass drum. It’s just perfect.
Passing By – Zero 7
Man, can anything be more chill than Zero 7? Good grief. It’s so soft and cool and lazy and sexy.
Long Way Around – Chris Whitley
I have a hard time believing I saw this guy the last time he performed. As George said to me, he was barely able to hold his guitar, his body ravaged by the cancer that would soon take his life, and he could only manage to get through 30 or 45 seconds of one song, yet those few seconds were better than most bands’ entire shows. The guy was flat out brilliant. That is one of those things you aspire to be when you are a musician – captivating.
Homesick – The Finn Brothers
What great careers these guys have had and they are still putting out fantastic music with great hooks and interesting lyrics. I hope that when I’m in my 50’s, I’m half that good.
Magazine – Duncan Sheik
“It’s not really you I see when I look real close. You’re a little bit different.” Of course, Sheik being the wordsmith he is, gives us all a double meaning here both talking literally about the airbrushing done to his former girlfriend in one of “those” magazines and the idea that seeing that tiny difference is a reflection of how we are as people – not exaclty what we seem on the surface.
Houses of the Holy – Led Zeppelin
Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme did a guitar clinic at the music store where I worked years ago. He talked about trying to write great guitar riffs for songs until he realized that Jimmy Page had already written them all. Ain’t it true. That art of the great musical hook is completely missing from today’s music. Page, lake the Motown musicians, was a master of the musical hook and Houses of the Holy is a great example.
Careful – Guster
It’s hard not to like Guster. Songs like Careful are so incredibly singable. Plus, their harmonies are a great way to warm up for a show. Such an interesting mix of indie rock, 60’s pop music with some 80’s alt-folk mixed in for good measure. Being odd can also be incredibly musical.
The Unforgettable Fire – U2
I remember hearing this record for the first time when I was in high school. Despite being such a different band that featured a dreamy, effect-laden guitarist and an almost overly-simplistic rhythm section, I recognized a great rock band almost immediately. It’s amazing what great songs, a unique approach and an incredibly dynamic frontman can do for you. No way they should still be one of the best bands on the planet and yet…
The Consequences of Falling – k.d. lang
lang has one of the most incredible voices ever gifted to music. It’s silky smooth and pitch perfect. I remember reading an engineer saying that, unlike the vast majority of singers he had worked with, you could set up virtually any mic for her and it would immediately sound perfect. When I first heard this record, I loved the groovy instrumentation and the beautiful melodies. But, it wasn’t until about the 10th listen that I realized the songs on this CD weren’t just written around the arc of a summer romance, but one between two women. lang is, after all, openly gay. Interestingly, I never even thought about it. The whole thing is so natural and well written, who cares who it’s about. It’s just great.
Sleeping in Paris – Rosanne Cash
A perfect song for winding down for the night. I first heard Cash’s “The Wheel” back in the mid-90’s and immediately was drawn to the interesting musical textures created by her husband/producer John Leventhal. The whole record is so incredibly SOFT. It’s as if every instrument was played with a feather. They don’t often make records this well-produced, but Leventhal is a master of blending complex instrumentation all the while making it seem subtle and right in place.
Late in the Evening – Paul Simon
Seeing him this summer and waiting around until the last encore to hear him perform this with the brilliantly talented Steve Gadd on drums was worth every penny paid for the tickets. Simon is so great at trying on different styles of music while retaining his identity. It could be Brazilian, salsa, folk, African or straigh up American rock and roll and it all sounds exactly like him. That’s the mark of someone who both knows who he is and is willing to stretch himself.
“It was late in the evening and I blew that room away.”
Amen and goodnight.