Aside from the Score/Song article for my film awards, I haven’t talked much about music on here. Part of that’s because I’m not very musically literate–no musical training and no real musical education. I can’t easily articulate why I think a piece of music is good, beyond describing the emotions a given piece inspires. But a couple of months ago, a friend of mine challenged me to list my top 10 songs, and after some soul-searching, I came up with the following. First the top 10, in alphabetical order, then 10 runners-up.
“Apple Honey”, Woody Herman
I love jazz, and this undersung masterpiece is one of the greatest big-band pieces I’ve ever heard. Every instrument gets a chance to shine–including the vibraphone, which I love dearly. It crackles with energy, and the rising horns toward the end engender a sense of excitement and anticipation like few other pieces do in my heart–I’d love to use it as an overture to a play or film someday. The version above, it should be noted, is slightly different from my preferred version, which I couldn’t find on YouTube. For those of you with Spotify, the best version is linked below. But it’s a great piece any way you hear it.
“Chicago”, Sufjan Stevens
What a beautiful, hopeful song. Like all good favorite songs, I have an emotional connection to it; I first heard it as a freshman in college, at a time when I was still adjusting to being on my own, a bit afraid, but incredibly excited, and this song evokes perfectly that feeling of adventure in the face of uncertainty, of the willingness to cast off the extraneous and set oneself free. Plus, I love Chicago itself (my family has lived there for well over a century). If “Apple Honey” would be a great overture, this would be a great closing-credits song.
“Eleanor Rigby”, The Beatles
If “Chicago” captures my hopes, this song–in my opinion, The Beatles’ best–captures my fears. The fear of loneliness, of toiling in futility, of dying and being forgotten..and that violin just cuts through you like a knife. And the questions of the chorus “Where do they all come from? Where do they all belong?” remain unanswered, in despairing perfection.
“Gax”, Boys Noize
This techno masterpiece is for me a perfect example of how music can go far beyond words in expressing emotion: like “Chicago”, it suggests to me excitement, uncertainty, and fear, yet it does so with no recognizable words, moving from its eerie opening, to its pounding first movement, to its ethereal midsection, finishing with a reprise that gradually intensifies until we are left with the ether once again. I also associate this song with the friends who first introduced it to me, so…in this case, the nostalgia is the cherry on top.
“It’s Your Touch”, The Black Ghosts
I should never have heard this song. It’s by a group I otherwise have barely heard of, and I’ve never otherwise heard it played on the radio–I just heard it at a Taco Bell in, I’m pretty sure, the suburbs of Boston. It was by pure chance that I heard it and was able to find it. But find it I did. It’s a great love song, at once retro and of its time–it feels kind of timeless to me. And, if anything, its very obscurity is an asset: it’s a yearning voice crying out from the void, an anonymous message left for me and me alone.
“Night Rider”, Stan Getz
As I mentioned, I love jazz, and I especially like cool jazz. And this…this is something special indeed. It’s the use of strings alongside Getz’s sax that really make it; they give it a unique, cosmopolitan attitude–almost classical. The title is apt, as the piece captures the atmosphere of a journey by night. Getz, according to Wikipedia, considered this album his favorite of his own recordings, and I can see why.
“The Sound of Philadelphia”, MSFB
This is another song that took me forever to find. I heard it on the radio, but since it’s mostly an instrumental, I had only a few scant lyrics to go on, “Let’s get it on/It’s got to get down”. Initial Google searches proved fruitless, and it wasn’t until a year or two later that I was able to find it. Disco may have a bad rap, but who couldn’t appreciate the blending of funk and strings, the perfectly judged use of the horns, or just how fun it is to listen to? I believe this was the opening song for “Soul Train”, which should tell you something.
Now, let’s get it on. It’s got to get down.
“Stress”, Organized Konfusion
One of the most lyrically brilliant rap songs ever written. The use of Mingus for the chorus just makes it all the better. I defer to Pharoahe Monch:
You will now consider me the apocalyptic one
After this rhyme, henceforth, there is none
No more will exist, when I emerge
From the mist in whence I was born into, scorned
Most of you can’t even comprehend what I am saying to you
Even in my human form, the message I’m relaying
Why do you choose to mimic these wack MCs?
Why do you choose to listen to R&B?
Why must you believe that something is phat
Just because it’s played on the radio
Twenty times per day?
My perception of poetical injection
The Immaculate Conception
The hall-walker, who stalks bodies in Central Park
Soon emergency services’ll outline that body in chalk
Then I begin to walk away and spit
And when I walk away I talk shit!
Huh, a driver sprayed my face with Mace
She didn’t know that I enjoyed the taste
Of radioactive waste
When I’m in the backseat
Of your midtown taxi
Don’t even ax me for the cash, G
The four cabs before didn’t pick me up
Now ask yourself, who the fuck’s gonna stick me up?
“Tell Me When to Go”, E-40, feat. Keak Da Sneak
Originally I was going to put “La La La” by The Bird and the Bee on the Top 10 instead, but I decided this edges that song out, albeit narrowly. Both songs have great personal significance for me, this being the song that really ignited my love of rap. And I still like it. The beat is energetic and the lyrics are deft and witty, with E-40 in particular pulling off lines and rhymes you wouldn’t expect, some of which I didn’t even fully get until I read the lyrics:
Jesus Christ had dreads, so shake ’em
I ain’t got none, but I’m plannin’ on growin’ some
Imagine all the Hebrews goin’ dumb
Dancin’ on top of chariots and turnin’ tight ones…
And then Keak Da Sneak, with as gravelly a voice as I’ve heard, launches in, with some of his words fading away into raspy nothingness, and other rhymes being expertly growled out:
I slid past on the gas, bitches looking at me
It’s good, it’s good like the granddaddy
Cross game, you get flipped like a burger patty
Or zig-zagged… pass me a big old fatty…
It’s just as great and vibrant as it was when I first heard it some 8 years ago.
“You Only Live Twice”, Nancy Sinatra
I’m a huge fan of the Bond series, and by extension, of Bond theme songs. “Goldfinger”, “Live and Let Die”, “Nobody Does It Better”, “A View to a Kill”, “The Living Daylights”, “Skyfall”…all incredible. But this may be the most beautiful of them, a song that gets me right here (I’m pointing to my heart), telling of the brevity of life and the need to seize the day while we still can–a theme which resonates very deeply with me. It’s also far better than the film it was written for.
And now, some runners-up:
“Blue Rondo a la Turk”, Dave Brubeck
This might be top 10 if it didn’t lag a little in the middle. But the beginning and end are sublime, as the piano rises to the top and thunders out the notes with operatic vigor. “Take Five” is also incredible. Dave Brubeck was pretty incredible.
“Clint Eastwood”, Gorillaz
I’m not sure what to say about this song. It’s just awesome. Del the Funkee Homosapien’s lyrics are brilliant, the chorus is one of the most droningly catchy ever created…if you love this song, you really love this song. Like, “memorize the lyrics” love.
Just remember that it’s all in your head.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, Marvin Gaye
I admit, this one I’m a little torn on. Once upon, I’d have said it was my favorite song. And I confess I’m not 100% sure if I keep it here out of genuine appreciation, nostalgia, or as a representative of Motown, a genre I’m quite fond of. I could reasonably put “I’ll Be There”, “The Tears of a Clown”, “War”, “What’s Goin On?”, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”, “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted”, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”, or “Never Can Say Goodbye” here. But this song has the long-term connection with me, and it is a great song. So it’ll stay for now.
“Kashmir”, Led Zeppelin
Yes, the original is awesome. We all know this. But I have to highlight the orchestral version, which turns the electric original into a haunting epic, reminiscent of Eastern European and Middle Eastern (and to a degree Chinese) music. It’s Led Zeppelin meets Doctor Zhivago (maybe not totally accurate, but…it works). Maybe it’s just a personal preference, but to me, it’s just that little bit greater. (For the record, I don’t like “Stairway to Heaven”. I don’t care how awesome it sounds when you’re high.)
“La La La”, The Bird and the Bee
Part of it is sentiment. I heard this song at a restaurant in Oklahoma City (or was it Tulsa?) and couldn’t hear enough to identify it, but I retained the melody, and it was in the process of asking dormmates just what the song was that I met one of my closest friends. So I owe this song a fair amount. Plus, it’s a haunting little bit of neo-psychedelic pop, like “Chicago” suggesting a kind of letting go, of being all right with the uncertainty of the world. (Great video, too.)
The lyrics are partially by Don DeLillo, from his novel Cosmopolis (the song was written for the film adaptation), but the rest of it is pure K’Naan. And it’s just magnificent. The lyrics speak of religious transcendence, and the melancholy (yet light-footed) instrumental evokes both this transcendence and the gloomy vastness of the urban setting. This might be top 10 in years to come. Also, see the film. It’s absolutely incredible.
“The Peter Gunn Theme”, Henry Mancini
Just a badass piece of music. Mancini is great, and the Blues Brothers are men among men. (Remember, The Blues Brothers is one of my favorite films.) I really have no words other than “badass”.
“September”, Earth, Wind & Fire
I took a road trip with a couple of friends in college, and this was basically the theme song to that trip. At the time, it was a song that reflected how excited we all were. Now it’s just a great song that brings back memories. Sentimental? You bet it is.
“Shame on a N****”, Wu-Tang Clan
Three minutes of pure energy by some of the greatest rappers ever. “C.R.E.A.M.” is amazing as well, but I have to take this one. It’s just too brilliantly insane.
“Twisted Blues”, Wes Montgomery
Make sure you listen to this version. There are other, longer versions out there–don’t listen to them, at least not first. Listen to this and hear how much Wes Montgomery can cram into four minutes. “Explosive” is the word. My dream is to someday be able to dance to this and actually do it justice. This is to electric jazz what “Apple Honey” is to big band.