As a 'songwriter', I attempt to convey emotion through a combination of tones of words. This isn't rocket science per se, at least in its most rudimentary form. Strum a minor chord and growl "Someone is going to die tonight." There you have it. I've conveyed some emotion, whether it be vengeance, menace, ominousness, or anything else one can draw from those few words paired with that dreary chord.
So it's that easy, but...gah, it's so hard to get right. I've come to the conclusion that songs don't just fall onto the page. Not often, anyway. The best songs are contemplated at length before they are manifested into a finished work. When I plucked tunes from my record collection to form my elite canon, the unifying feature of the bunch was depth. Lyrical depth, mostly, but also atmospheric and musical. There won't be any three chord punk songs, despite the fact they can occasionally be effective, I admit. It's not so much that I have an affinity for the complex; rather, for the subtle. Cases in point will abound, but to present an example of the opposite: Take anything on the radio. Mostly overproduced songs with lyrics that are about as thought provoking as a popsicle stick joke. These songs are churned out in an attempt to provide background music to MTV reality shows, university gyms, and house parties. Music that, to be sure, no one is actually listening to.
I decided to pull 10 tunes (although certainly more are worthy) that I consider especially elite, and give each a short-to-medium length defense. 10 songs that shed light upon what I consider to be a brilliant song. Some won't surprise you, some might. I don't really have a conclusion written for this piece yet, but I'm looking forward, through my analysis of these songs, to be able to decipher what commonality these songs share; what it is that makes a song especially brilliant in my mind.
UPDATE: I found videos for all but Cruiser and San Antone. I will work on getting those up too, for those of you who can't download that zip for whatever reason.
In no particular order.
The Rain Song - Led Zeppelin
(from Houses of the Holy)
As the story goes, George Harrison chided Zeppelin for not writing enough ballads. Page responds by writing the finest guitar progression I've ever heard. Plant's lyrics, paralleling the seasons by stanza, are among his most universally resonant and affecting. It's a song that proved Zeppelin were more than mindless, drug-addled rock gods. John Paul Jones' mellotron-created string arrangements expertly complement Page's mellow guitar work. Bonham's drums are largely absent but, when they do emerge, manage to perfectly texture the song. Has long been what I consider to be my favorite song ever, although these days it's too hard to say.
Time - Tom Waits
(from Rain Dogs)
I doubt I've ever heard a more perfect couplet than "The things you can't remember tell the things you can't forget/that history puts a saint in every dream." Such is the theme of this song, populated by sailors and carnival workers like many Waits tunes. The effects of time are always evident and never ignored, and so eloquently is this addressed in this sparse, hushed anthem, which serves as a humanizing apex to a perfectly bizarre album.
Carry Me Ohio - Sun Kil Moon
(from Ghosts of the Great Highway)
No song in my collection so purely reflects on feelings of regret, desire, depression, and withdrawal. "Carry Me Ohio" strikes me as such a sincere statement, and elicits empathy from any listener with a heart. Kozelek's rich, sorrowful vocals deliver his pained lyrics over a determined guitar lick. Lines like "Can't count to/all the lovers I've burned through/so why do I still burn for you/I can't say" fall on my ears with such a genuine bittersweet grace, it's hard for me to disagree each time I hear the assertion that this song might be one of the best ever written; a claim I've heard several times from some of my more respected musically inclined peers.
Poor Places - Wilco
(from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)
Two guitars roar as the cold, synthetic female voice chants "Yankee...Hotel...Foxtrot" again and again. It seems like a coded message, but for what? Maybe nothing. Maybe it's representative of the chaos swirling in the character's mind; that is, the character who occupies the entire Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album. This song is so contextually important to the brilliant record that documents the turmoil of a profound mind trapped in middle America (or so as it is congruent with my interpretation.) The song begins innocuously, with lyrics alluding to comforting memories such as a father's voice, a bow in the backyard, and "really (wanting) to see you tonight."
But, besides that last bit, the only lyrics of the song that allude to the present are sinister and foreboding: "And they cry all over overseas/and it makes no difference to me/'cause it's hot in the poor places tonight/I'm not going outside." Whatever was so peaceful and harmless is now gone. The sad reality that a tormented mind can't have the capacity comprehend or empathize with the struggles of the world when its own struggles are so burdensome. And so the ominous piano keys plink as the words "I'm not going outside" are repeated, and eventually give way to the eerie refrain of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" while the waves of distortion storm against one another. Perhaps a descent into madness, or a horrible epiphany. Whatever it is, it's one of the most climactic moments in my entire collection.
Weird Fishes (Arpeggi) - Radiohead
(from In Rainbows)
I like a song that sonically creates a vivid environment, open for some interpretation, but not completely eschewing contextual cues. Such is "Weird Fishes". I listen to this song and imagine myself plummeting into the depths of the Marianas trench, whizzing past sleek, shiny fish and sharks and whales, the sun an ever shrinking glimmer in the distance. After a while I'm surrounded by--well, weird fishes, glowing strange and unwelcoming. And let's face it, this is probably exactly what the band was going for. Thom's lyrics allude to falling off the edge of the earth, the bottom of the sea, and being picked over by worms and weird fishes. So, like I said...it's open for interpretation but chances are I'm thinking along those lines that they intended. And what a job they did in creating that environment, a trick that Radiohead always does so well.
Flightless Bird, American Mouth - Iron & Wine
(from The Shepherd's Dog)
An absolutely perfect finale to what has become one of my most cherished albums. The chord progression is quite standard--I, vi, IV, V for you musicians out there (sort of your standard doo-wop progression, although the song shares few other characteristics with the genre.) But lyrically, it makes several references to earlier songs--cutting off hair, diving for coins--and unfolds into a triumphal coda, a symphony of folk instruments blasting out the finest song Sam Beam has ever crafted, in my mind. It's a final flourish of a conceptually rich album, and it's the kind of tune that shows off all the strong points of the artist.
Revelator - Gillian Welch
(from Time (The Revelator))
Gillian has the Midas touch. Each of her four albums (a fairly scant catalog for someone whose been on the scene for over a decade now) is an absolute gem. I think it's hard to argue, however, that this song isn't her finest moment. It's got an absolutely captivating feel to it, a song that seems so epic despite featuring little more than two acoustic guitars and a pair of vocal tracks. It's a lyrical masterpiece to boot, and boasts a line that resonates with me pretty hardily: "Watch the waves/and move the fader." What a brilliant parallel of imagery. For those of you who don't know, the 'fader' to which she refers is the piece on a mixing board in a studio that you slide up or down to control the volume of a particular track. Usually they're shaped as a sort of sinuous plastic piece:
Which one could feasibly liken to a wave:
And of course, this allusion to movement and change harkens back to the ultimate theme of the song, that time is the ultimate revelator, the ultimate catalyst for change.
Cruiser - Mark Kozelek
(from Little Drummer Boy - Live)
"Cruiser" initially shows up on the album Old Ramon by the Red House Painters, Kozelek's former band. It's a classic RHP song. Over seven minutes long, played at a very slow pace. A very mellow affair, good for a slow walk on a warm summer day perhaps.
But the song takes new life on this live album. It steadily churns along, two acoustic guitars playing counter melodies while Kozelek's vocals soar above. The song is very repetitive, but the subtle increase in intensity expertly builds the song, as it cascades beautiful and proud from the stage. The lyrics are much simpler than Kozelek's other entry on this list ("Carry Me Ohio"), but the song delivers the same results: raw emotional power with that certain imprint of palpability that Mark leaves on every song he writes.
Still Be Around - Uncle Tupelo
(from Still Feel Gone)
I truly believe this song to be one of the finest alternative country tracks I've ever heard, and perhaps the definitive Tupelo tune. Sacrilege from a staunch Tweedy supporter like myself, you say! Perhaps so. But early on, it was Farrar who was writing the more impassioned tunes, tinged with sadness and soaked in whiskey. His delivery is inimitable and his lines are direct: "If I break in two will you put me back together/if this puzzle's figured out will you still be around?" I can't tell if it's a twelve string guitar or just a very airy acoustic, but the shimmering chords create a meek melancholy and a feeling of acceptance; the kind of tune Tupelo became known for.
San Antone - Whiskeytown
An unreleased track by Whiskeytown, but perhaps their finest song. Ryan Adams, in his lyrics, always seems to have such strong associations with places. In his album Heartbreaker, we hear about his sweet Carolina. In his one and only radio hit, we learn about his undying love for New York. One of his best songs (and one that certainly could have made this list) is a sort of confessional letter to Chicago. So it's not hard to believe that Ryan was able to craft a beautiful set of lyrics for San Antonio, which is actually one of the great cities of this country if I do say so myself. His lyrics and the overall feel of the song evoke the image of Texas at morning's first light, when it's barely bright enough to see the refinery but dark enough to see the lights. He is clearly comforted by Texas and the city ("To lie in the arms of Texas tonight/abandoned by things that possess me") and is attempting to "shun away demons from angels". And then, in one of his more declaratory statements, claims "What do you expect? There's only one kind/I know when a heart and what's in it ain't right."
It's those kinds of lines that affirm Ryan as one of the all time great lyricists in my book. Some of his recent work has been a tad underwhelming, sure, but his aptitude for the songwriter's craft is undeniable. This comes off so well in "San Antone", musically as well as lyrically. Whiskeytown was such a well-rounded rock band and no song is finer evidence than this one. Driving guitars, weaving violin, galloping 3/4 time drums; and therefrom came a perfect synergy that yielded an absolute gem like "San Antone".
So what's the common thread here? Well, thematically it's difficult because many of these songs are so contextually important to their respective album. Tom Waits' "Time", for example; of course "Poor Places." These songs are key pieces of brilliant albums, so to compare them individually would be doing an injustice to the greater work. However, there does seem to be a generally trend of stoicism; power, beauty. These traits can mythologize a song, can cause it to become more than just a track on an album. They become touchstones for certain feelings, certain emotions or stimuli that I can associate with. And, really, that's why I listen to music in the first place. So I guess these songs have exactly what I'm looking for. And it should be noted that I'm perfectly fine with a simpler tune that has no vast implicit aspirations, no purpose beyond being a nice little song. Sometimes that's all I want to hear.
But, again, it strikes me as an incredible achievement to evoke the sort of marked response that these songs do, in me anyway. I can't listen to "Carry Me Ohio" without stopping what I'm doing and hearing Kozelek out. I can't hear "Weird Fishes (Arpeggi)" without losing myself in the ocean a bit. Again, these songs--and several others, to be sure (paring this list down was certainly a test of my will)--whittle down my multi-faceted passion for music into a few basic core values, most of which I touched on throughout this piece.
Draw your own conclusions...here's a zip of all ten of these tracks:
The ten songs you just read about.