Blur – The Universal
I heard this song once and remembered it for years. The swell of the chorus, the sweetness of the melody, the lyrics so strange, so specific, so slippery, meaning the universe but also maybe nothing, other than the joy of music, sweet music, perfect for the soundtrack of the movie of my life. But 1995: No downloads. No money. All I could do was love it unrequitedly, waiting to hear it one more time. Finally, I found it, in 2003, a bootlegged cassette to rewind and play again, twice and thrice and hundreds of times. I didn’t love in vain.
The New Radicals – You Get What You Give
The artist and title are trivia answers, one more wonderful one-hit wonder. The song itself is a series of questions: What does the perfect pop song sound like? Can humans capture joy on tape? How many synonyms can Matthew Webber use to describe how this song makes him feel? (Effervescent, jubilant, ultraviolet, toothy…) Do words even matter when the music’s so… good? I’d give my fingers and larynx to have written this, as long as I could keep my ears, so I could enjoy its perfection again. (Buoyant, zippy, maniacal, darling…) Did the artist get as much as he gave?
Guns N’ Roses – November Rain
Sometimes rock stars understand. When art and ambition align in their heavens, when poems and pianos pour out of their hearts, when used-up illusions – delusions? – of grandeur trick them into thinking they know what we want, sometimes they give us the music we need. Especially if you’re young, and you think you’re in love, but your candle is out, and you can’t stand the rain, and you can’t stand November, it’s not a cliché. It’s new and specific and written for you. It’s epic, mythological, from time immemorial. And when that solo kicks your ass, you understand what love is.
Brandi Carlile – Fall Apart Again
Many lines glance, but this one’s a gut punch: “I think the world of myself, but the world doesn’t think much of me.” If, on paper, it doesn’t steal your breath, listen to it in her own breathless voice, choking on fear and swallowing pride. Listen to the other lines of friendship, falling, failing. Listen to me as I chronicle the damage, in 100-word reviews that nobody reads, in three-minute tunes that nobody hears, while slaving in an office reading other people’s words, flailing again and again. I used to think I’d beat the world, until it beat me bloody.
Fiona Apple – Shadowboxer
This is the sound I’ve chased ever since: Pounding piano, almost percussive. Sultry voice, her lips, my ears. Lyrics that catch in my throat when I sing them, line after line I’d love to have written – the imagery! the wordplay! the metaphors! the heartbreak! – but still love to hear in my home, in my car, especially from the stage with the singer almost bleeding… I stalk this sound in stores, on the Internet, especially when talking and sharing and stealing… What do I listen to? What do I like? What enraptures? What beguiles? No wrong answer, but this comes close.
The Notorious B.I.G. – Gimme the Loot
This song scares the shit out of me. It isn’t the topic, the stuff of gangsta fantasy. It isn’t the beat, so ominous, so menacing. Instead, it’s the glee with which Biggie narrates, the obvious pride in his murderous flow, the laughter that threatens to puncture the shell. It’s an epic poem of vengeance and vast ultraviolence, with Biggie making villainy vicarious and loveable. He raps in different voices from different points of view. He drops the all-time baddest boast: “Stepping to your wake with your blood on my shirt.” Truth or fiction, this story kills. I’m lucky I’m alive.
The Carpenters – Superstar
Did anyone ever love you so much, their mouth so full of desperation? Did anyone ever call you “baby” – and “baby, baby, baby, baby, oh baby” – so many times it scared you, yet soothed you, fearing your aloneness was perpetual, yet mutual? How could you sound so much like a woodwind – rich, symphonic, blustery, beautiful – and still sound like a human being – fragile, needy, defiant, contradictory? How can your voice – and you – seem so huggable? Surely someone sang for you, just as you sang for everyone else, just as you still sing out to me. Baby, baby, baby…
The Smiths – This Charming Man
1) The guitar lick is…
2) “Punctured bicycle, on a hillside, desolate” is…
a) an image so tangible, I want to reach out and touch it…
b) …and yet it remains just slightly out of reach, spinning like a movie reel.
c) a metaphor for loneliness. Duh.
d) the all-time best opening line. Don’t argue.
3) This song is about…
a) child abduction and Stockholm Syndrome.
b) a curbside pickup, not of trash.
c) the wit and wisdom of an older man, possibly ironic.
d) anything; whatever; you tell me.
Kermit the Frog – The Rainbow Connection
1) The music begins. The boy starts to dance. He doesn’t move his feet, but he sways in one spot. He shakes his knees, his hips, his butt. His parents record this, blackmail for later.
2) The man flips through his record collection, seeking a dog-eared, musty sleeve, the only album saved from his parents’ collection. He finds the familiar picture of a rainbow, wipes off the dust, and anticipates the magic: the needle, the crackle, the banjo, the frog. Gentle and dreamy, nostalgic yet now, the music overtakes him as it’s done for 30 years. Is he swaying? Maybe.
Salt-N-Pepa – Shoop
Clearly, these aren’t the all-time best songs. They’re merely my favorites, my personal bests. So, when I insist this is my best karaoke jam (“the cutest brother in here” doesn’t need the lyrics), my best wedding rap-along, and apparently one of the best ways to remind people of me when they hear it, all I’m asserting is, hey, I like it. Scratch that. I love it! It’s not a guilty pleasure; I don’t feel any guilt. It’s merely a pleasure. It’s fun. It’s catchy. When it’s on, I forget to be critical, cynical. I sometimes giggle. I always feel alive.