I've been way too busy to do much writing lately, so I thought I'd re-post a few of my old favorites. This one originally appeared here on March 1, 2009. I only edited it a little, I swear.
A friend of mine, who writes the blog All of It, recently posted an entry on his top ten songs of all-time, and encouraged others to contribute theirs. Well, it was a nearly impossible undertaking, but after much laboring over my decisions, I finally narrowed my list down to a dozen. Of course, the nature of an all-time best songs list is that it could potentially change weekly. That said, I decided, as I'm sure most music lovers would, that a major criterion would be that these selections not only are great songs, but also have special meaning to me.
In golf, a double eagle is three strokes below par. On a par four, that's a hole-in-one. In other words, virtually a perfect shot. In my opinion, these songs are as close to perfection as possible.
"Brass Buttons" - Gram Parsons
I recall reading somewhere that Parsons wrote this song as a memorial to his mother. I'm not sure where, though, as anything I've subsequently read about it assumes it's in reference to an ex-lover. Regardless, my first impression is what's stuck with me, and although my mom never wore brass buttons, green silks and silver shoes, the lyrics "And the sun comes up without her—It just doesn't know she's gone" will always make me think of her.
"Cortez the Killer" - Neil Young & Crazy Horse
I could easily do a similar list of all Neil Young songs, of course. What isn't easy is deciding which one I like the most, but Cortez has always been my unofficial favorite. It has that Neil Young guitar epic quality and covers the kind of lyrical territory that always drew me in with his songs. The entire song is written in the third person and seems to be about the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, who conquered Mexico in the 16th century. However, in the last verse, it becomes personal, as Young sings "And I know she's living there—and she loves me to this day—I still can't remember when or how I lost my way," the last line of which is a reminder of how quite often things don't turn out as we planned. Of course, that's not always a bad thing.
"Fight Test" - The Flaming Lips
The first track on the album that kicked off my love affair with The Flaming Lips—Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots—"Fight Test," to me, is about facing life's difficult decisions, and remaining strong in the face of adversity. "I don't know where the sunbeams end and the starlights begin, it's all a mystery. I don't know how a man decides what's right for his own life, it's all a mystery," pretty much sums up that sentiment for me.
"Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" - Bob Dylan
Not only is this my all-time favorite Dylan song, and that's an almost impossible decision in and of itself, but it also reminds me of a pivotal time in my music listening history. While attending a party in Albany in 1995, I made some stupid joke about how when "...gravity fails, negativity can't pull you through" in response to a keg malfunction. It was later that evening that I engaged in a conversation about my new-found interest in Uncle Tupelo with some guy I'd just met. He raved about the song "Box Full of Letters" from Wilco's forthcoming debut album, which I hadn't heard yet. We talked about other bands as well, and he made a few recommendations, but that night sticks with me as a reminder of the time when I transformed from being a pretty big music fan to an obsessed consumer of music. The following year, the tradition of ranking my top 10 albums of the year was born.
"My Life" - Iris Dement
I once said that this is the one song that I can't listen to without shedding a tear. It's a very personal song on a personal album for her, and it also has significant meaning to me. Particularly what gets to me is the refrain, "But I gave joy to my mother—and I made my lover smile—and I can give comfort to my friends when they're hurting—And I can make it seem better for awhile." The song kind of sums up a certain "comfort in being sad" vibe that Kurt Cobain wrote about on that Frances Farmer song on In Utero. Other than that, it's also the title track on what is possibly the first album that I turned my Dad onto. Believe me, I had tried before, but My Life was my first successful attempt.
"Northern Sky" - Nick Drake
Nick Drake's short-lived existence is heartbreakingly sad, as he died from an overdose of a prescription antidepressant. To me, this song is the ultimate representation of just how tragic a figure he was. His stature as a cult icon rose to the level of documentary treatment with the release of A Skin Too Few in 2000. That film produced a moment of beautiful sadness as the closing credits ran to images of Drake as a toddler playing on a beach while "Northern Sky" provided the background music. One couldn't help but think that we were viewing a time when his thoughts weren't tormented as they were later in his life.
"Ooh La La" - The Faces
It was Golden Smog's cover of "Glad and Sorry" that introduced me to the songwriting brilliance of Ronnie Lane. Overshadowed in The Faces by Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, Lane nevertheless wrote many of their finest songs, and "Ooh La La," the last song on the band's final album, was their absolute best. Co-written by Lane and Wood, it's actually the shining moment of Wood's career as a vocalist. The song's lyrics may be a little trite, but who among us can't relate to the sentiment, "I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger—I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was stronger."
"September Gurls" - Big Star
The ultimate power pop song by the ultimate power pop band, this is the only song to make this list without the benefit of lyrics that really resonate with me. Packed with loads of pure rock energy, and possibly the catchiest opening guitar hook ever recorded, I can say with almost absolute certainty that this tune has made it on at least 90% of the party mixes I've made in the last ten years. It wouldn't be inaccurate to say I've got it bad for "September Gurls."
"So Come Back, I Am Waiting" - Okkervil River
This is actually the longest song on this list, even longer than "Cortez the Killer," believe it or not. Black Sheep Boy was such a surprisingly brilliant album for me, and this song just sums up its somewhat schizophrenic nature. It's a dirge-like ballad that also packs an unbelievably powerful emotional punch, one that really strikes a chord with me. In 2005, I developed a strong friendship with a part-time co-worker who also happened to be a full-time amateur philosopher. One of the subjects we talked about frequently was my romantic past, and at one point she aptly pointed out that this entire album reminded her of one particular story I had related. Nothing reminds me of that time in my life—the subject of the story and the subsequent telling of it—than the final two minutes of this song.
"Still Be Around" - Uncle Tupelo
About half of Uncle Tupelo's songs are about drinking, or at least are stories of life's desperations that lead some folks to hitting the bottle. In the time we lived together in Albany in the mid-90s, my good friend Skip and I fully embraced the ideology of escapism, and although we knew we didn't have it nearly as tough as the characters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were writing about, we could still relate. There was no song that better epitomized Farrar's knack for clever wordplay that elevated his material beyond the trappings of cliché than this one, particularly with lyrics like "Alcohol doesn't have much that matters to say—Can't imagine where you and time to kill will stay" and "When the bible is a bottle, and the hardwood floor is home—When morning comes twice day or not at all."
"This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)" - Talking Heads
I actually first heard this song on Shawn Colvin's Cover Girl. I love her version as well, and her femininity may better capture the romanticism of the song than the original, but when I heard the Talking Heads' version for the first time, I instantly knew it was superior. Its blissful, light dance groove adds to the beauty of some of the most moving lyrics that have ever been sung, particularly on lines such as "I can't tell one from another—Did I find you, or you find me?—There was a time before we were born—If someone asks, this is where I'll be."
"Unsatisfied" - The Replacements
Paul Westerberg's ode to frustration and bitter disillusionment is one of the most passionate expressions of angst ever put to music. It also is practically the antithesis of every other Replacements song. Instead of Westerberg's vocals stabilizing the loose and sometimes sloppy dynamic of the band, on "Unsatisfied" he's the one who's out of control while the band holds it together. There is no better exercise in blowing off a little steam for me than belting this one out in the solitude of my own home, and maybe shedding a few tears—usually of determination—in the process.
Honorable mentions: "All the Wine" - The National; "Come Pick Me Up" - Ryan Adams; "Dry Your Eyes" - The Streets; "I Still Remember" - Bloc Party; "Romeo and Juliet" - Dire Straits; "Songbird" - Fleetwood Mac.
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