Thursday, November 17, 2011

The No-Skip Songs (Part 3)

And finally, Part 3...(go here for Part 1 and Part 2)

But before I go on, since Part 2 was posted Mrs. Keatang has challenged the notion of this list.

"So it's a list of your favorite songs," she said.

"Not exactly," I replied. "Double Trouble isn't my favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd song. It's Gimme Three Steps or The Ballad of Curtis Loew or live Freebird. They are all better songs."

"So, then, it's a list of your favorite songs right now."

"Well, no," I stammered, "these are songs I don't skip."

"You don't skip them because you're sick of those other songs, so these really are your favorite songs."

"Um, not exactly..."

"So you're saying, you skip songs you prefer in order to listen to songs you don't like as much."

"That's not what I'm saying!"

"This list makes no sense," she concluded.

And I have to admit, she's probably right. On to Part 3!

Yellow Ledbetter, Pearl Jam, Jeremy [US]
This tune (which probably isn't as good as Black or Even Flow or Alive) fits into two interesting categories: great songs that never made it onto an album (it's an outtake from Ten), and songs that sound meaningful and profound even though you have no idea what the vocalist* is saying.

* Speaking of Mrs. Keatang, Eddie Vedder is on her Top Five To Do list (a list that shrank with the passing of Heath Ledger). I'd feel jealous but as I said in Part 1 I don't experience jealousy.  Plus, I admire her good taste.

Anyway, I've purposely avoided looking up the lyrics for this song because, as an old college friend said about R.E.M. back in 1985, "I like them because you can make up your own lyrics."

How Blue Can You Get?, B.B. King, Live in Cook County Jail
If you were to create the perfect blues song, you might start with a guitar intro that prowls and pounces like a tiger. Mix in a vocal performance packed with pathos and bravado. Sprinkle in a wicked sense of humor. And of course it would have to be live, ideally in a prison yard.

B.B. packs all of that into this masterpiece.

Mr. Bojangles, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy
Pop music is great at evoking feeling, but terrible at creating characters. How much do we really know about Angie, Barbara Ann, and Sweet Caroline - indeed, every woman who has had a pop song named for her? They are ciphers who exist merely to explain how they make the narrator feel.

Mr. Bojangles is as quirky as any of the menagerie that passes through a Bob Dylan song, but as fully realized a character as you're going to find in a four minute song. And this cover by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band gets me every time.

Levon, Elton John, Madman Across the Water
If pop music is bad at character, it really sucks at plot. Which is understandable, given space limitations.

In this song, it's as if Bernie Taupin said to himself, hmm, I wonder how much of a sprawling family saga I can pack into a few verses. We learn a surprising amount about three generations of Tostigs.

But that's not why I love this song. I love it for the same reason Levon calls his child Jesus: because I like the sound of it.

Landslide, Dixie Chicks, Home
This Fleetwood Mac cover is the first song in Part 3 I'm a little embarrassed about.

First of all, I have no actual Fleetwood Mac songs on this list, and I love Fleetwood Mac, or at least I love the album Rumours. So how did this cover of a non-Rumours song get on here, but no actual Mac recordings?

Second, my favorite Mac* songs are the Lindsey Buckingham tunes, not the Stevie Nicks ones, so how did a cover of a Stevie Nicks song get on here?

* Is there a more curiously named band than Fleetwood Mac? For any song, one of three people - Buckingham, Nicks, or Christie McVie - is the frontman of the band, singing a song of their own composition. So naturally the band is named after the other two guys.

Third, while I think anyone - including dopey actors, singers and other celebrities - can make any kind of political statement wherever and whenever they want, it irritates the hell out of me when they act like martyrs because some people are pissed off about it. In Soviet Russia, when you spoke truth to power you got sent to the Gulag Archipelago; in America you get put on the cover of Rolling Stone with no clothes and treated like an (anti) war hero.

And finally, I couldn't tell you a single other Dixie Chicks songs.

Still, I don't skip this song, and it makes me wonder why I don't actively seek out more country music with great harmonizing. I was kind of blown away by Lady Antebellum's National Anthem during the Jets-Cowboys 9/11 game. Maybe I should get a record from them...

Hey Hey What Can I Do, Led Zeppelin, B-side of Immigrant Song
Like Yellow Ledbetter, this song was deemed unworthy of inclusion on an album. But it made the FreeTime No Skip list!

As I wrote in Part 2 (or was it Part 1? I've dragged this thing on for months...) I don't have much use for The Who or Led Zeppelin anymore. But then this song doesn't contain most of the things that people associate with Zep; there is no pounding Bonham drums, no Page guitar solos, no references to Lord of the Rings.

It's just a lovely little ditty about the perils of loving a drunken slut.

Finnegan's Wake, Tommy Makem & the Clancy Brothers, Irish Drinking Songs
This song has everything for me: nostalgia (my parents used to sing it in the car); a literary heritage (James Joyce based his novel of the same name on this Dublin street ballad); a raucous sense of humor (it's about an Irish wake with, as Tommy Makem says in this live introduction to the song, "dancing, drinking, fighting, everything"); and some great Irish slang (Shilellegh law, welt the floor). Oh, and it's just a blast to listen to.

The Boy in the Bubble, Paul Simon, Graceland
If I compiled a list of songs I wish I'd written, this would certainly be on it.

Simon has always been the most exquisite of lyricists; you'd never catch him trying to rhyme "Texas" with "facts is". This is not always a plus, as sometimes sloppiness can be a good thing in music. But this song is a lyrical gem.

1952 Vincent Black Lightning, Richard Thompson, Rumour & Sigh
I'm not the sort of person who laments the fact that our culture celebrates trash, while some of our greatest artists labor in obscurity. It makes sense that James Patterson sells more novels than Jonathan Franzen. Kids should prefer Spongebob to Stravinsky.

But the obscurity of Thompson is, if not a crime, a cultural misdemeanor. His guitar playing alone should have put him among rock royalty, and songs like this should be played on the Memorial Day 500 Best Songs of All Time marathons.

Any number of Thompson tunes could be on here but this one about a boy, a girl, and a motorcycle, gets the nod.

St. Dominic's Preview, Van Morrison, St. Dominic's Preview
Despite what I said earlier about Tom Petty, Van Morrison would be my desert-island artist. I don't think there's a performer with a greater mix of lyrical and vocal virtuosity, nor one who travels across genres as effortlessly as Van Morrison. Mrs. Keatang turned me on to this song years ago, and it has remained a favorite, though I can't quite state why. It's an impressionistic song with a lot of imagery adding up to....well, I'm not quite sure. (In fact, more than any other song I've ever googled for lyrics, there is little agreement on some of the lines.)

But Van infuses the vocal performance with such meaning that I end up singing along to such lyrics as "Safeway supermarkets in the rain" and "Edith Piaf's soul" as if I know what he means, when in fact I have no idea.

Hallelujah, Rufus Wainwright, Shrek soundtrack
There are a surprising amount of covers on this list. And there have been some embarrassing songs on this list. So what better way to wrap it up than a song from kids movie soundtrack that has become the most over-covered song on the planet?

Written by Leonard Cohen, over 200 versions of this song have been recorded, and it's nearly been destroyed by its overuse in movies and television. But this version by Wainwright, to a simple piano arrangement, is nearly a perfect song.


That's it, the FreeTime No-Skip Song list. If the artists on my iPod could actually talk, I'm sure there'd be bitching and moaning. I can almost picture Bob Dylan's shocked disgust ("Landslide? The Dixie Chicks' Landslide?"). Gregg Allman is mournfully playing the organ. Eddie Van Halen is whaling on his guitar, trying to capture my attention. Tom Waits is lighting a cigarette, telling me to fock off. Wilco's thinking, hey, I thought we had a good thing going. R.E.M. and U2 think the whole thing is a farce.

Hey hey, what can I say?

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