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The greatest songs of all time (in my world, at least)

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.

Top Ten

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.   
  6. 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? 
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

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The Dexter Defense

Showtime’s Dexter is one of my favorite programs of all time. It is superbly written and acted, entertaining, intelligent, horrifying, comical, and most significantly, plausible. My toes curl in anticipation for the start of every season.

I figured it was only a matter of time before life imitated art. An Indiana teen was accused of strangling his 10-year-old brother to death. Andrew Conley, who was 17 at the time, felt that he “had to do it”. What was the impetus for this gruesome crime? You guessed it: Dexter made him do it. He so identified with the character that he finally acted on his compulsion that he felt since he hit his teens. Perhaps faced with life in prison, he grasped at straws there. Yet, I found out after reading the article about the case that this wasn’t a first. A 29-year-old Canadian filmmaker murdered a man in 2008 based on one of the storylines in the show. A filmmaker. He of all people should appreciate that despite the aforementioned plausibility of the idea, it is still indeed, fiction. What gives?

This is not an isolated incident. Since the concept of cinema was actualized, people have found their inspiration to act on their already existing pathologies. Yes, the desire to do the dastardly deed was latent, awaiting something or someone to stir the beast from its slumber. Even before that, troubled souls found ways to rouse their demons into action. How many Jack the Ripper copycats were there? Who knows, maybe Emperor Nero’s insane act of locking helpless citizens in Rome’s colosseum (or so the story goes) to force them to view his godawful performances led even the gentlest of characters to violent responses.

Call this human behavior what you will, for this writing I will coin it somewhat topically: The Dexter Defense, and it is a flimsy one, at best. While not historically apt, as evidence of this spans centuries, it is a good representation—an almagamation, if you will—of how far some people would go to make excuses for their actions.  Plus, I really dig the alliteration.

As an artist with little exposure, my only concern about creating something that could stir a violent response is offending my potential audience. Imagine successful entertainers with far-reaching influence doing the same. They not only have to deal with possible rejection, they also may consider the likelihood that there will be impressionable people who take their art just a wee bit too seriously. Does that mean they should keep it to themselves, or should they expect a modicum of objectivity from their viewership? Should the sins of a few ruin it for everyone else? While the collective intelligence can decrease as the group expands, can the actions of a few leaven the whole loaf?

Musical influence

While Doris Day’s beautiful rendition of Secret Love was somewhat marred by the rumor that Calamity Jane had syphilis (I don’t believe it!), my history need not go back that far. Where the tendency to attribute malevolent influences from music became prevalent is with the recording technique of embedding subliminal messages in music, called backmasking. The Beatles popularized it (really, was it “cranberry sauce” or “I buried Paul”?) and other bands like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC followed suit. A law was passed forcing record labels to add a warning message that this technique was used. It is akin to adding the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarettes. We all know they are horrible, but does that stop the addicts?

Who can forget the inspiration Charles Manson got from The Beatles’ Helter Skelter? As far as their songs go, it isn’t one of their best, albeit an interesting cacophonous experiment. I personally wouldn’t even put it in their top 20. Never mind that the song was not violent, per se, nor could any rational person infer evil intent from it. Yet, the song is now inextricably bound to the Manson murders, so much so that the infamous book about this nugget in history shares the title. Lest we pin the blame on Paul McCartney, we must realize that Manson was born with violent inclinations. While it can be argued whether he was a psychopath or a sociopath, the seeds of nature and nurture were planted long before that. What nurturing mother punishes her son by forcing him to go to school wearing a dress? While he was definitely genetically hard-coded towards a pathology, his abuse as a youth set the stage. The song played as a convenient excuse.    

Arguably, the most notorious case in recent memory involved the heavymetal band, Judas Priest. In 1985, two Nevada teens made a suicide pact after listening to their music all day while drinking beer and smoking pot. They went to a playground at a local church and aimed shotguns at themselves. The one died instantly, the other survived and was left with a severely disfigured face. He died several years later, even after numerous surgeries. The parents brought the case to trial in 1990. Rob Halford had to experience the ignominy of singing the offending lyrics from the album Stained Glass in court, and was specifically instructed to sing it in the same style as he did on the record. The prosecution claimed that it wasn’t just the words, but also how they were conveyed. The court ruled the band not responsible. The teens’ mental state was compromised with chemicals and existing depression. The album only reiterated an idea they already entertained. Still, the lack of precedent doesn’t keep others from attempting the same scapegoat defense.

Book burning

How many books have been destroyed in an effigial attempt to banish violence from our society? What, outside of a waste of resources, does it accomplish? Even Reverend Terry Jones’ recent showboating plans to burn the Quran were misguided. Yes, there are many fundamentalists who take a literal and/or incorrect interpretation of the work and wreak horrible havoc on those with dissenting opinions. My own views of religious persuasion aside, burning a book that can easily be reproduced and not abused by the majority, does nothing but incite further violence. It is laying the blame on the printed word instead of the individual. Sticks and stones and all that.

Mark David Chapman claimed that he re-enacted scenes from Catcher in the Rye when he fatally shot John Lennon. While Holden Caulfield was a dark character experimenting with rebellion, I personally focused on the symbolism of watching children on the carousel grab the brass ring that gave me hope that there was salvation in his future. How did Chapman devise such sinister machinations from this classic piece of literature?

Really, unless bookmakers can create a technology that will cause the reader’s hands to blow off if the story is not acted out, there is no one to lay blame on but the criminal. There are a bunch of Humbert Humberts running around deflowering nubile girls because they are compelled to do so, not because they were inspired by Lolita. Who reads about pedophilia and thinks, “Hmm, interesting concept, I think I’ll give it a whirl,” and then later blames Nabokov for corrupting them with his beautiful literature? Ridiculous.

Film noir

It only takes a modicum of common sense to intuit that thrusting two fingers at someone’s eyeballs will never end well. Yet, impressionable people tried that after watching The Three Stooges. It doesn’t matter that upon closer scrutiny, it is obvious that Moe Howard aimed at his brother Curly’s eyebrows. We are just such curious creatures that sometimes, we can’t help ourselves.

Filmmakers recognize this, and in fear of the consequences that could arise in our litigious society, they make allowances for that via disclaimers. The Mythbusters remind the audience every episode that they are professionals and since the average viewer is not, they are ordered to “not try this at home”. Does that stop everyone from trying to blow up Buster, as an example? Of course not, but it does remove the show’s culpability. My question is this: Should they be held responsible when their efforts to entertain result in criminal acts?

John Fowles The Collector was made into a movie in 1965 about a man who kidnapped and imprisoned a woman he was obsessed with, and held her until a relationship developed. She died, and he blamed her for it and looked for better ways to hold a woman captive and improve the experience for himself. Robert Berdella, a.k.a. The Kansas City Butcher, credited the movie version for planting the seed of fantasies about his subsequent acts. While he admitted that it just laid the foundation for the feelings that were already there, it seems fiction always must play as fodder.

Supposedly, Mark David Chapman’s obsession with killing John Lennon was assuaged temporarily by watching the movie Ordinary People. It was an emotional movie that inspired a lot of people in different ways. There hasn’t been an issue with crediting positive influences to any art form. Should there be a double standard applied?

But of course!

Don’t shoot the messenger

There is a precarious balance that faces artists in providing necessary escapes in entertaining ways and with giving fodder to disturbed viewers. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, humans are fascinated with violence and the ability to inflict it on others, thus determining their fate. It gives us the control that we feel we don’t have over our own destiny. Most of us are content with experiencing it vicariously, and there are plenty of opportunities out there to do so. From slowing down to check out car accidents, restraining ourselves from asking a soldier if he or she has killed people, flirting with road rage, and more to the point of this writing, immersing ourselves safely in pure fantasy. It’s there, and we are drawn to it. Like screaming at the plants, it shouldn’t hurt anyone, and it is a great stress-reliever.

We are born with a survival instinct, and it is manifested in a fight or flight response. When crimes are committed, we want to know why it happened. This provides an opening, and some are inclined to take it to save their own asses. In the movie Primal Fear, Edward Norton’s character faked a stutter and dissociative identity disorder, i.e., multiple personalities, to avoid the death penalty. That is not a stretch by any means, nor is blaming actions on works of fiction. Remorse can result in sincere apologies, attrition, retribution, as well as accusation. Apparently, the first three are more daunting and difficult than sitting back and pointing the finger. It is a convenient and alluring escape hatch.  The fight is owning up to one’s actions; the flight in laying blame on outside influences.

The show Dexter is a brilliant tour de force. The actors, writers, and directors succeed where many fail—they make an otherwise reprehensible character not only sympathetic, but also likable. We root for him, even though in reality, it would be the opposite. If faced with that character in our world, we’d be horrified and humiliated that we were so duped. We know this to be true, so we are free to embrace this alternate reality. Leave it to a few bad apples to spoil it for the rest of us.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must gaze at Piss Christ, then punch a priest for bastardizing religion. That is what Andres Serrano wanted me to do, right?