Sunday, February 12, 2012

Best songs ever

No one wants to know my favorite songs, and they might change tomorrow, but here they are anyway (not in any real order):

"Song to the Siren" by This Mortal Coil, a sort of supergroup made up of artists on the 4AD label. The singer is Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, who also sang later with Massive Attack. She has a beautiful voice.

"The Passenger" by Iggy Pop. I don't understand why this isn't (even) more popular than it is. The feeling of life as triumph is wonderful.

"Sweet Jane" by the Velvet Underground. Probably the best song ever (and, yes, I know that's a stupid, or at least naive, claim--I'm embracing the naivete). A celebration of love and faith in all things good that perhaps only a bunch of despairing junkies could get away with.

"Southern Mark Smith" by the Jazz Butcher. The Jazz Butcher did a great cover version of "Sweet Jane," but this is his best song. "Girlfriend" and "Big Saturday" are worth tracking down too. The Mark Smith in question is the singer from The Fall, known for his cantankerousness, nonconformity, and way with words.


"Head Full of Steam" by the Go-Betweens. Not much of a video, I'm afraid, but a song good enough to make up for that (the official video is unwatchable). Guest vocals by Tracy Thorn. "Just to chase her, a fool's dream..." 

"Two Star" by Everything But the Girl. (Two star is the lowest, cheapest grade of petrol/gasoline.) Just about any song sung by Tracy Thorn would do, but this one is lovably despairing, rhyming "disarray" with "hey!" It's the most "I'm not OK/You're not OK" song I know, by the woman who once managed to write a terribly sad song about being too happy. 

"It Can be Done" by the Redskins. Turns out it can't, but it's still a moving ideal, and the catchiest Marxist propaganda you'll ever hear. "Look to Petrograd/Look to Petrograd, look to Barcelona/Fight against the land-/Fight against the land- and the factory-owners." 

"Pressure Drop" by Toots and the Maytals. Feels a bit token here, but I love it. Best played very loud.

"Fade Into You" by Mazzy Star. If you've got this far through the list then you probably know this already, but it's hard to leave it off the list. Not a band I know at all apart from this song though.

"Rusholme Ruffians" by the Smiths. Hard to pick just one song by this band, and it could have easily been "Miserable Lie," "Pretty Girls Make Graves," "Jeane," "Cemetery Gates," "Handsome Devil," etc., etc. "Handsome Devil" is great for its observation of the world as experienced ("All the streets are crammed with things/ Eager to be held..."), "Miserable Lie" has great unconnected couplets ("What do we get for our trouble and pain?/ Just a rented room in Whalley Range" and "I know that windswept, mystical air/ It means I'd like to see your underwear"), and "Pretty Girls Make Graves" has good jokes (the woman's voice asking "Oh really?" after the title is sung, the reversal of familiar gender roles ("she's too rough and I'm too delicate"), and my favorite joke about free will ("I could have been wild and I could have been free/ But nature played this trick on me")), but "Rusholme Ruffians" wins because Rusholme is very close to where I went to high school and I like the line "I might walk home alone/ But my faith in love is still devout." Not very funny, but far from despairing.

That's ten, so I'll stop there. But I might also have included "New Dawn Fades" by Joy Division, "Marble Lions" by Saint Etienne, "Love Song" by the Damned, "Big Sky" by the Kinks, and many more by others. I'm tempted to do a top ten albums and favorite bands as well, but I'll try to resist being quite so self-indulgent. At least for a while.  


  1. From the above list I would estimate your age at 43. Here's my (equally ad hoc) list, which tells its own story:

    1. Lie Dream of a Casino Soul - The Fall
    2. Warning Sign - Talking Heads
    3. No.13 Baby - Pixies
    4. Evidently Chicken Town - John Cooper Clarke
    5. I Heard Her Call My Name - The Velvet Underground
    6. Sugar n Spikes - Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band
    7. Rain - The Beatles
    8. Means to an End - Joy Division
    9. Kid Charlemagne - Steely Dan
    10. Spirit Ditch - Sparklehorse

  2. 45 actually. Well played!

    Your list is a mix of songs I know and like a lot (1, 3, 4, and 5), songs I must know but can't remember (7 and 8), songs I've never heard of, and one song I don't like. Steely Dan have always been a closed book to me. But I'll try again, and definitely check out the others. Thanks!

  3. i've never been able to do this. when i try and devote some effort to deliberating, reminding myself of my candidates, and so on, i can pull together maybe around a dozen before i start to lose all sense of how to compare anything to anything.

  4. You have to be able to give up in the middle, and hope that when you do so you'll have already picked a round number like ten or twelve. That's what worked for me, anyway. And I ruled some things out because I couldn't find a video, which narrowed my options down. Perhaps I'll do a completely different "best ever" list every month or so.

  5. I must admit, the Dan sit rather incongruously amidst the post-punk angst and 60s weirdness of my musical taste, and yet I do love them so.

    For me, they take an abhorrent genre - "soft rock" - and polish it into something remarkable. Few bands manage to combine so much musical talent with so much restraint. They take "middle of the road" so far that it ends up as something extreme. And, on top of that, they add lyrics that are so subversively sour and dripping with irony. In that respect they're a kind of Trojan horse. They are inside the tent, pissing in.

    Kid Charlemagne, for example, is about a once-revered 60s radical who's sadly lingering on beyond his epoch. His condition is bitingly summed up in a terse couplet: "You are obsolete; look at all the white men on the street". I think most indie bands would kill to be able to write a line that great.

  6. I think it's the genre (words like "jazz fusion" make me cringe) that puts me off, but I can respect musicianship and good lyrics. I will try again to like them (seriously).

  7. I'd be chuffed if you came over to The Dan Side ("Can't Buy a Thrill" and "The Royal Scam" are the two albums I'd particularly recommend). But sometimes one can have all the reasons in the world to like something and yet still refuse; what's missing is the unreason. I'm like that with Bob Dylan. Despite several efforts I've never been able to manage more than a grudging respect.

  8. I'm with you on Dylan, although I like the versions of his songs that The Byrds did. I'll try to work my way over to The Dan Side this weekend.