I wish there was an objective standard to measuring the quality of art. There is not, so we are left with subjective opinions, and popular music is no exception. While I acknowledge what I call the Citizen Kanes of contemporary music, such as Stairway to Heaven, Imagine, Purple Haze, etc., they don’t stick with me quite like some other lesser-known, but equally as relevant, works. In compiling my best of list, I focused on what incites passion and other intense feelings in me, as well as containing technical brilliance. This is what I found.
- Ballad of Casey Deiss, Shawn Phillips He may be one of the most accomplished songwriters whom very few know exist. He had his heyday in the 70’s when he penned this masterpiece, and faded into semi-anonymity recognized only by a small, devoted following. His work was never radio-friendly, nor did he aspire to that. His arrogance in floating somewhat sanctimoniously above the fray was a double-edged sword: His songs are brilliant and timeless, but he never achieved success in the traditional sense. This song is considered amongst his fans to be his opus, and rightly so. It was inspired by the true story of a man who was struck by lightening, but Phillips wove it into an epic fantasy tale. The music accompanying this allegory on the surface sounds complex; I was surprised to discover that the lead guitar is a simple rolling Am-C-G-Am progression. It was how he layered it with other instruments and his multi-octave vocalizations that keeps this listener coming back for more. I never tire of it. I saw him perform it in a small tavern years ago with only his acoustic guitar. At age 60+, he still reached the highest notes as if 30 years passed for all but him. He got a standing ovation, and I was moved to tears.
- Breakthrough, Shawn Phillips This sycophant can’t help herself—this guy was that good. This song is achingly gorgeous with arpeggiated guitar, orchestral accompaniment, and heart-felt lyrics sung so wonderfully and passionately, a surge of cool energy travels up my arms every time I hear it. He ended the song with soft, ascending notes that he sustained for an eternity. The soaring orchestra beautifully compliments his gentle falsetto.
- Children’s Crusade, Sting He is my top songwriting influence, and this song is a perfect example why that is the case. While the Children’s Crusades historically marked the march for Christianity back in the 13th Century, Sting poetically drew parallels to other wars: We send our children to fight for a cause they are too young to understand. He grabs the listener instantly after a spare musical introduction: Young men, soldiers, nineteen fourteen. Marching through countries they’ve never seen . . . Then reels them in as the music crescendos passionately to belie his resigned disgust: The flower of England face down in the mud, and stained in the blood of a whole generation. Gah! Here come the goosebumps.
- The Priest, Joni Mitchell Why does no one refer to this song when reminiscing about Joni? The artist herself didn’t even include it in her Hits and Misses album. Hell, I’d be satisfied if she considered it a miss. Just acknowledge it, for cripe’s sake. It is from her masterful Ladies of the Canyon, and like the other tunes on that album, it is just her and one instrument. Her quick finger-style guitar playing is the perfect backdrop for the setting of a Priest who is having a lapse of faith. He is resigned to the loneliness of an airport bar to contemplate the Father to whom he devoted his life. He took his contradictions out and splashed them on my brow. That line is beautiful in its simplicity. There are no complex words or references, but the symbolism speaks volumes. Her lovely soprano is the cherry on top; it makes the hair on my forearms stand at attention.
- Carry On/Questions, CSN&Y I must dance in glee every time this song comes on. Stephen Still’s song about moving on after his relationship with Judy Collins ended, is one of most uplifting tunes I have heard, ironically enough. His acoustic guitar starts the song full-throttle, with a forceful and frenetic strumming. The alternate tuning is ambitious with four strings at E and two at B. I’ve tuned my guitar to that at the risk of busting a couple strings, and did what I could to mimic his playing style. I turn to the quote in the liner notes of their boxed set: “Anyone who says Clapton is god has not heard Stephen Stills play acoustic guitar.” Carry On is the first part of the song; it seques to the second part—Questions—speculating on the how and why of their parting ways and if it was a wise decision. Both sides of the song could stand alone, as they are different musically, but still compliment each other as a natural transition to different phases of heartache.
- Scarborough Fair/Canticle, Simon and Garfunkle Paul Simon is a brilliant storyteller and narrative songwriter. He took a traditional folk song and made it his own. Truth-be-told, I never completely understood the original lyrics, but when he wove his own words into it, it shed light on an interesting interpretation. Canticle seems to speak an anti-war message—And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotton—made me scratch beneath the surface. Is a soldier lamenting the loss of his love as he had to leave her to go to battle? With Simon’s one guitar, a soft, chiming bell, and Art Garfunkle’s beautiful harmonies, this song speaks passionately but elegantly. Are they singing for the voices that can not be heard?
- Soul Cages, Sting Another masterful storyteller, Sting fashioned a mythical tale out of the hardship of the fishing industry. At least, that is the way I interpreted it. A boy challenges a fisherman to set one of the souls free that are locked in a cage. Are we imprisoned in our trades to eventually die soulless with only a shell of what we once were? Sting sang the song with a rasp, as if he was a hardened sailor, himself. Personally, this song would have been a far superior and apt theme for The Deadliest Catch, as opposed to the godawful tune that the producers of the show chose.
- Needle and the Damage Done, Neil Young I don’t get any arguments when I state this is Neil Young’s most accomplished piece. It just is. Besides his signature rhythmic guitar work with the descending bass notes, the lyrics brilliantly depict the pervasiveness of drug abuse. An underrated singer, he made the disgusting practice of milking blood to clean out the syringe sound touchingly poetic.
- Dog’s a Best Friend’s Dog, Tears for Fears I can bet my next paycheck the majority of readers have never heard of this song. It is Roland Orzabal sans his usual mate Curt Smith, in his album Elemental, and collaborated instead with Alan Griffiths. I read the lyrics as suggesting that many of us prefer to live life with the path of least resistance. It is alluring but does not accomplish much. What can feel like more of a pointless exercise than walking the dog around the block? Round and round we go without purpose, to just go to bed to prepare to do it all over again the next day. Tell Mr. Godot I’m walking the dog. Godot is thought to represent the Apocalypse. The life we live is boring, but strangely, we don’t want to leave it. Orzabal demonstrated here what a terrific singer and guitar player he is. He ends up screaming the title at the end to his fast-paced strumming on muted strings. He is defending his best friend—ignorance—as he is backed against the wall.
- A Christmas Song, Jethro Tull Ian Anderson is know for his caustic views on society (think of Sossity You’re a Woman). This song is a bonus track on This Was, and the gentle flute introducing the gorgeous mandolins is deliberate in misleading the listener. We think we are getting a folk Christmas carol, even with the biblical references in the first two lines. But then, the cynicism is revealed. We stuff ourselves at parties and celebrate the Christmas spirit by getting plastered. The song is short, but packs a wallop. It almost seems like the singer was sanctimonious, then caved to the social pressure to embrace the commercialism of the holiday. Hey! Santa! Pass us that bottle, will you?
Honorable mentions (in no particular order):
- I’ve Been Waiting for You, Neil Young This is another really short tune that packs a punch. The lyrics are spare to not detract from the hypnotic and compelling music, juxtaposing a distorted, fuzzy guitar with a beautifully chiming one. David Bowie’s cover is arguably just as good, albeit more complex.
- Woodstock, Joni Mitchell This one is iconic. Enough said.
- Daylight Again/Find the Cost of Freedom, CSN Stephen Stills did it again, and added Art Garfunkle as a guest singer, and threw in a banjo, to boot. Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground. Can the Republicans come up with as compelling poetry to speak in support of the war?
- Woman King, Iron and Wine Sam Beam has a high regard for women in his lyrics. Women are often relegated to thankless tasks, and are not rightfully praised for their work. I always picture a black country woman in her backyard, beating the clothing dry that hangs on a line. She is utterly fatigued, but guided by obligation and duty. Even if the words don’t move you, the music is transfixing.
- The One I Love, REM This selection is based purely on raw emotion. The song had heavy radio play during a painful time where my own mortality became aware to me when an 18-year-old coworker/friend was struck and killed by a drunk driver. Every time I hear it, I am pulled back to that intense period of reflection.
- God, Tori Amos While musically she hits the nail on the head 99% of the time, her lyrics tend to fall short. This song was an exception. Voicing her dissatisfaction with her god along with the discordant electric guitar created the perfect marriage to convey her message that perhaps, we shouldn’t blindly put faith in a deity.
- When the Levee Breaks, Led Zeppelin I can’t think of any band that combined blues with rock better than Zeppelin.
- Tomorrow Never Knows, The Beatles Yeah, this song is trippy, but I can’t picture a better way to deliver it. Although, Genesis and Our Lady Piece did kick-ass covers of this tune.
- Black Queen, Stephen Stills See #5 above. He is one of the best rock/blues acoustic guitarists alive.
- Badge, Cream The lyrics make little sense, and the title came from Clapton misreading George Harrison’s note indicating “bridge”. I don’t care; Clapton’s solo is pitch-perfect.
- Eleanor Rigby, The Beatles The anxious strings and lamenting background vocals contrast a story of an old woman who is waiting it out as she is destined to die alone. This clearly is their most accomplished piece. Who would have thought something with such classical influences would be radio-friendly?
- The Mummer’s Dance, Loreena McKennitt This Canadian singer continues to write timeless songs that are perfectly performed with traditional folk instruments, such as harp and violin. I don’t know what a Mummer’s dance is, but I have a clear vision of the choreography when I listen to this song, and am compelled to move to that rhythm.
- Temples of Syrinx, Rush This is why they are one of the best progressive rock bands of their era.
- Fanfare, Eric Matthews He is not well-known, and his lack of inclination to perform live does not help. However, this song grabbed me right away when I first heard it, and I could not wait to acquire the CD. He plays his own fanfare horn to his spine-tingling electric guitars as he sings his characteristically enigmatic lyrics.
- Optimistic, Radiohead This is classic Radiohead, with the ironic title and Thom Yorke’s bitterness showing through in what is, to me, their most engaging song.
- Possession, Sarah McLachlan The synthesizer, distorted guitar, and her lilting soprano, combine into one of the most compelling songs I’ve heard. She is in rapture over the object of her obsession. This song does indeed, take my breath away.
- Jeremy, Pearl Jam Eddie Vedder’s intense lyrics, brilliantly setting the stage by describing an angry child’s drawing using the all-familiar Crayola names, e.g., lemon-yellow sun, are perfectly matched by Jeff Ament’s music. As it crescendos to the climax, Vedder emulates the child’s journey down the bottomless well with frantic “oohs”. What can he do but thrash around like a bug on its back? Plenty. He breaks into a growling wail as he executes his final solution.
I wonder if ten years from now, this list will at all change. Not from the current state of music, unfortunately. These songs take me back to the times before Auto-Tune. Those days are gone. Alas.