Twelve Songs

Another blog asked me to write a piece – it is below. The general idea is that you pick ten songs, not necessarily the best ten songs in the world, but songs that have an autobiographical significance. There are too many to pick so I painstakingly got it down to twelve – I could write hundreds of these.

1. ‘I’m still waiting’ – Diana Ross

When I was growing up in Ireland, my parents anytime we drove in the car would play either Garth Brooks or Diana Ross. Literally. Every. Time. So this could easily have been ‘Friends in Low Places’ by the Garth, but then Diana Ross was/is pretty much better in every way to that goatee wearing, Dr. Pepper shilling, Nickelback-inspiring, salad dodger (sorry, still bitter about the Dublin concert debacle, I’d got my mum tickets!).

From endless repeat listens through those journeys, I to this day know all the words to every Diana Ross song (a unique skill I grant you). How do I know I know every word? I was on a date a little over a year ago, and ‘I’m Still Waiting’ came on the pub’s jukebox and like a Manchurian Candidate I started unconsciously singing along out loud. The look of horror on the girl’s face meant, not surprisingly, the date didn’t go well.

But I disagree with that girl’s assessment because whether it’s death metal or bubblegum pop you like, talent is talent no matter what form it takes. And few pop singers have as much talent as Diana Ross, whether in the Supremes or solo, and ‘I’m Still Waiting’ is my favourite song by her.

It’s an extremely sad song about falling for your childhood sweetheart, and then them leaving causing an emptiness that can never be filled by any other. Ross sings it with tender soul, and with the right level of emotion. I honestly can’t say there are many songs about heartbreak better than this, and I can’t quite think of another song like it; it is unique.

n.b. as much as I like this song, this is not my favourite Diana Ross moment. That has to be the opening ceremony of the World Cup 1994. She was supposed to kick a ball in the net as she sang her song, causing the net to collapse into pieces. Instead, she completely misses the goal (despite it being 2 metres away), but the net still collapses anyway, then she runs away as the whole crowd boo. Smooth, Diana.

2. ‘Good Dancers’ – Sleepy Jackson

The Sleepy Jackson are, well, inconsistent. They could create songs of such absolute beauty, like ‘Sun Kids’, it felt like a religious experience and then do silly faux-country songs about going into town wearing a skirt (to be fair, I still love the song, but others like ‘Lung’ were absolute drivel). But when the guys were on their game, there was nothing better.

‘Good Dancers’ is their most well-known song, if you can call a song known by about seven people well-known, and it is beautiful. Frontman and song writer Luke Steele, who would later find bigger success with the excellent Empire of the Sun, was clearly hugely influenced by the Beatles. This song is almost a homage with chords reminiscent of Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ and harmonies like the Beatles’ ‘Because’. The song even ends by intertwining a sitar and guitar played backwards; two big Beatles’ signature sounds. But the song, despite its obvious influence, manages to sound fresh.

Sleepy Jackson wore their influences on their sleeve but had the talent and skill to modernise the old sound and make it something different the result is a song so pretty, so uplifting I contemplate it for my first dance at my wedding.

3. ‘Idiot Wind’ – Bob Dylan

(no youtube video to embed, crazy youtube)

Why is Dolly Parton’s version of ‘I Will Always Love You’ better than Whitney Houston’s? Because despite the more limited vocal range, there is genuine emotion in Dolly’s voice when she’s singing the song. She’s lived every word, every emotion, every heartbreak in that song. Houston’s version is like the snowy landscape in the video, beautiful but cold.

And this is why Bob Dylan’s ‘Idiot Wind’ is such a phenomenal song. At the time, he was going through a difficult divorce and streamlined every angst he had into his writing. What was created is lightning in a bottle, something no one can replicate; a document of a man breaking down.

It’s one of the best vocals of all time, not because of his singing ability, but because of the raw undiluted emotion, he means every word and every word is affecting him as he sings it. His voice rides the line between on the edge of full-blown anger or full-blown sobs. Every word is meticulously calculated but at the same time sounds as if it’s just coming out spontaneously as Dylan lambasts his critics, his woman, himself.

The album was called ‘Blood on the Tracks’, but Bob didn’t just leave his blood. He left blood, sweat, tears, dirt, vomit, self-loathing, outward-loathing, jealously, love, angst, shyness, heartbreak, shock, denial, anger, guilt, depression and acceptance – and no song shows that more than ‘Idiot Wind.’

4. ‘Invalid Litter Dept.’ – At the Drive-in

American punk in the 90s was shit. Bands like Green Day, the Offspring, Rancid and Sum 41 presented their interpretation of rebellion as all dressing the same and lacking any social conscience (or intelligence) in their music. They verged more on the pop of the pop-punk category they all boxed themselves into, catering to teenagers just getting out of the boy-band phase of their youth who thought the height of rebellion was wearing a hoodie, getting a lip piercing and dying their hair red. These bands of course made millions.

But the rage, hatred and pure noise of 70s and 80s punk was lost. Thank god At the Drive-In existed. They were the real successors to bands like the Stooges and an absolute force of nature. They were the craziest, most out of control and incoherent group of oddballs to ever form a band, with added afros, but strangely it worked.

Their live shows were a wall of sound mixed with parkour; like balls of energy they jumped and danced on every part of the stage lost completely in the moment with a refreshing disregard for keeping melody or playing their songs correctly and a constant added threat it would all fall to pieces any second. But in every way it was spectacular. This Jools Holland clip shows what I mean and Robbie Williams’ face of utter bewilderment at the end is just fantastic.

These guys had passion about their music, what they were saying and how they expressed it. ‘Invalid Litter Dept.’ is the perfect example of this and one of the best rock songs of the past 30 years. It was a song about the Juárez murders, a series of rapes and murders in Cd. Juárez of young women who worked in factories in northern Mexico. An absolutely horrendous lose of life that never truly saw justice.

Lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s vocals mix anger and sarcasm that bring forth the desperation of these horrifying crimes. It’s a hugely emotive and powerful song that showed the band’s skill in creating an image of very real events. For me, punk was about the individual expression and an angry intelligence to articulate society’s flaws. The Clash had that, PiL had that, and At the Drive-In too.

Omar and Cedric from the band would later form Mars Volta and release ‘Deloused in the Comatorium’. If you haven’t heard it, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Other than Kid A, it’s one of the best experimental rock albums in decades.

5. ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ – The Avalanches

If I was to pick my favourite album of this century, it would probably be ‘Since I Left You’ by the Avalanches. It didn’t start that way but its an album that grows with every listen. The mixture of absolutely beautiful and thrilling musical moments require exploration and reassessed multiple times. Every song melts into each other under a vague concept of the sights and sounds of a cruise. The fact the album stands alone without a follow-up remains the most frustrating thing in music today (their mix tapes on youtube are absolutely phenomenal however).

Their use of retro sounds and samples mixed into contemporary beats strived more for the beautiful than the crazy, but ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ is the exception. An absolute clusterfuck of samples from old tv shows, movies and radio plays that explode together in the most trippy and bizarre narrative since John Lennon decided to be a walrus.

In the hands of lesser artists (or indeed anyone else), this would just be a mess but the Avalanches managed to take all the random samples and turn it into an exploration through the mind of a fictional psychopath called Dexter. And not only that, amazingly, make it a song you can sing along too and even dance to.

Music can be surprising, the Avalanches were just mind-boggling.

6. ‘Oh Baby Baby’ – Smokey Robinson

I can’t comprehend why Smokey isn’t spoken of in the same way the Beatles, Elvis or Chuck Berry are. His greatest 30 songs are better than anyone else’s best 30 songs (pretty much most of the Beatles first three albums are admitted by Lennon and McCartney as just attempts at writing Smokey songs.)

He has one of the most affecting and beautiful voices in the history of the music industry and he could can fill any listener with pure warmth and a happy feeling. ‘Oh Baby, Baby’ fully showcases the brilliance of that voice.

A beautiful chilled background of soul and RnB mixed in with one of the most beautiful, soothing and soulful vocals that has ever graced this earth. If I ever had to describe love, it’s that voice, this song. Smokey was never going to reinvent the musical wheel and ‘Oh Baby Baby’ certainly doesn’t do that, but it is the most perfect wheel ever made.

7. ‘Miles Away’ – Yeah Yeah Yeahs

When the ‘New Rock Revolution’ as it was called happened in the early 00s, I was out going to gigs all the time, with a new band popping up every 5 minutes. It was a great time for music, but memory fades and only a few stand-out to me these days. Seeing Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the Barfly in London around 2002 is one of them.

Alongside about 15 other people in a cramp little room, one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to took place. The band were a complete unknown to me at the time, but Yeah Yeah Yeahs soared in front of my eyes. Brian Chase smashed the drums like they’d slept with his girlfriend, Nick Zinner created waves of sound with his guitar an orchestra couldn’t reach and Karen O was immediately and completely a fully-formed rock goddess.

In my life, I’ve seen hundreds of bands live without having heard their records before, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs stand out as the best of the bunch. Instantly loveable tunes, instant charisma, and the perfect front woman – a lovechild of Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop – Karen O.

‘Miles Away’ is from their awesome first EP and perfectly captures that early, dirty raw sound they had. I’ll be the first to admit their albums were disappointing and never quite got to the level set by the EP, but the Yeah Yeah Yeahs initial explosion on the scene was unforgettable.

8. ‘Bus Driver’ – Flight of the Conchords

Talent comes in all forms, different artists have mastered pop, rock n roll or rap. Flight of the Conchords mastered the comedy song. And while laughter is their main intention with these songs, they are able to go beyond that to create coherent narratives and affecting characters you care about.

‘Bus Driver’ is a beautiful example of story-telling that would have even Paul McCartney impressed. The song about an aging bus tour guide showing tourists around a small town in New Zealand manages not only to be full of laughs, but also capture the man’s entire life of unrequited love, missed opportunities and remorse that is both touching and heartfelt.

It’s an immense skill to bring this level of depth to a character that would, in other hands, be a complete stereotype. The fact that I care and feel bad about this completely fictional bus driver in the space of a few minutes of a song highlights why the Conchords deserve not just immense comedic recognition but musical recognition too.

9. ‘In the Fade’ – Queens of the Stone Age

Queens of the Stone Age are the best band of this century in my opinion and ‘Rated R’ and ‘Songs for the Deaf’ are two of the greatest albums ever made; if you haven’t heard them I couldn’t recommend them more.

‘In the Fade’ is from ‘Rated R’ and shows QOTSA at their most philosophical. Bringing in many-time guest vocalist Mark Lanegan always added something to these slower songs. His deep weathered voice wraps around perfectly with the repeated ‘live till you die’ theme. The guitar work creates perfect layered riffs the band is known for, alongside strong harmonies surprisingly more reminiscent of the Beach Boys rather than any contemporaries. All these elements added together and seamlessly combined to create something really special.

Josh Homme is to me one of the most important music maker of my generation and this is the perfect example of why.

10. ‘Hey’ – Pixies

The Pixies to me feel separate from everyone else. There is just nothing like them, they may have inspired aspects of grunge but nothing in the grunge scene was like the Pixies. ‘Hey’ is from their ‘Doolittle’ album, and perfectly encapsulates what the Pixies are. Frank Black yelps out incomprehensible nonsense that some how makes complete sense, Kim Deal’s effortlessly cool baselines intertwined with a golden guitar riff by Joey Santiago to create a sound entirely their own. No one sounds like the Pixies and no one ever will.

They inspired everyone from Kurt Cobain to Thom Yorke to form a band and while every band in the world tries (and usually fails) to be cool, the Pixies did it effortlessly and ‘Hey’ is a Fonz of a record.

Here is David Bowie articulating their greatness much better than I could.

11. ‘Good Fortune’ – PJ Harvey

Underrated is a weird word to describe PJ Harvey, but appears somewhat apt. She may have had a 25 year career, with brilliant album after brilliant album, and created great collaborations with Josh Homme, Thom Yorke and Bjork, but yet the Daily Mail and its readers still ask who the hell she is when she beat Adele to the prestigious Mercury Music Prize a few years ago (incidentally, she is still the only artist to win the award twice.)

‘Good Fortune’ is a highlight from her album ‘Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea,’ an album I’d judge as the best British album of the 21st century so far. The song is stream-lining her inner Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith as Polly-Jean sings happily about being in love – a real rush of pure optimism celebrating love and its positivity in a great joyous way. Music doesn’t have to be depressing or cynical to be meaningful and this song shows that perfectly.

12. ‘Hard to Explain’ – The Strokes

I still remember the first time I heard this on the radio. It was a very dark time for music in the UK, with Garage and Nu-metal (my two least favourite music genres) dominating the charts. Every one I knew either had some decks and wanted to be a DJ or thought nu-metal was as important as grunge. Fred Durst, someone who should’ve been thrown out on his ass from the music industry after continuing to sing ‘I did it for the nookie” at Woodstock ’99 as his fans gang-raped a girl in the moshpit, was the biggest rock star on the planet and being romantically linked to Britney Spears and making millions. Daniel Bedingfield was considered talented. There was no hope.

In those days, I was broke so there was no buying CDs, and no Spotify or youtube to find and listen to alternate stuff. I was trapped listening to what the radio had to offer, and unfortunately it didn’t have much, but by godsend I found escape in nighttime shows like Steve Lamack and John Peel, which were the only real places to find rock or punk on the radio.

It was here that I heard ‘Hard to Explain’, and it was the breathe of fresh air I and the rest of the music industry needed. This wasn’t a brit-pop attempt, a grunge attempt, a rap-metal hybrid attempt; this was pure rock n roll. It sounded old, new and timeless. The sound of a voice almost bored with it all, but one singing about normal love, normal drinking, normal nightlife. The Strokes weren’t trying to give grand gestures, to define love, hate or heartbreak in a single song. They were trying to tell you about a funny story that happened to their pal Johnny last night, about taking shots with a hot girl in a club last thursday, or that time the cop didn’t find the weed in their back pocket when searched.

If I did another list of songs, it would have probably had the White Stripes, the Libertines, Interpol, The Vines, The Hives on there, or Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys, Eighties Matchbox B-line Disaster, Franz Ferdinand, Har Mar Superstar, Peaches, the Kills. All these bands appeared, and probably most got signed, because the Strokes blazed a trail. If my music taste had a ground zero, it was that moment in my room in 2001 listening to The Strokes’ ‘Hard to Explain’ for the first time on the radio.

For that, Julian, Nick, Nikolai, Albert Jnr and Fab I thank you.

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