This is part 2 of a two-part post. The first half is here.
Let’s continue, shall we? Things may get a bit rowdier here in the second half. But as before, there’s something for everyone.
“Need You Tonight” – INXS
Looking back to the decade that produced me, there was a point when all the ridiculous fluff of the mid-80s gave way to some really timeless, inspired tunes. I figure it was about the time Kick came out. Still one of the grooviest guitar riffs I know, this song was ultra-cool on arrival and still is. It makes non-dancers want to dance.
If you like it: The rest of Kick is worth a listen. Consult an INXS die-hard for further instruction.
“Jolene” – Dolly Parton
A heartbreaking song about a girl watching her man drift away to a woman she can’t compete with. There is something so refreshing and honest about a song that looks unflinchingly at personal powerlessness, without dolling it up by babbling about hope. We’ve all been devastated by a Jolene of some kind, in one way or another. Utter defeat is human too, and Dolly saw something meaningful in it.
If you like it: The White Stripes do a fantastic cover of this song, mercifully ignoring the obnoxious custom of changing the gender when a male sings it. Check it out.
“Kiss From a Rose” – Seal
You heard me. Overplayed, melodramatic and loved by all the demographics I am not, I still think this song has one of the most compelling and original melodies I’ve ever heard. It sucks me in. And a brilliant melody is truly, exceedingly rare, no matter how much music you consume. Even the most celebrated artists often excel at everything but melody, Bob Dylan most famously. That rare talent for melody is (for example) what the Beatles used to write so many dozens of devastatingly likable songs, with which they proceeded to conquer the earth. Kiss From a Rose, despite its clichéd floral theme, despite its over-the-top harmonies, despite its embarrassing affiliation with the worst of the Batman movies, features a verse melody so effortless and original that it probably gives Bob Dylan nightmares. I urge you not to watch the video at all, just listen. Ignore the words even, just follow the notes.
If you like it: I have no idea where to point you, for neither Seal nor co-writer Trevor Horn nor Batman himself will likely lead you to anything in the same league.
“Astro” – The White Stripes
Only bitter old men say rock is dead. This is an early one from the Detroit divorcees-turned-siblings. If you can figure out the bizarre innuendo in the lyrics, more power to you, but the saucy guitars should carry enough meaning for anybody. I love this band.
If you like it: See them live! In the mean time, check out Jimmy the Exploder, Offend in Every Way, or Black Math.
“Bulls on Parade” – Rage Against the Machine
If you don’t know Rage, they were (are?) a quartet of furious, rocking leftists, led by charismatic frontman Zach de la Rocha. Quite possibly the only rap-rock outfit that made any great music. Though political music is as old as music itself, no act ever achieved the same level of sheer, physical intensity with it. Bulls on Parade is a better-known track of theirs, and it still rocks my bones.
If you like it: Try Fistful of Steel, People of the Sun, Killing in the Name, or Freedom.
“Say it Ain’t So” – Weezer
Weezer’s first album is another one of those uncanny mid-nineties albums that are thoroughly, consistently exceptional. Say it Ain’t So is the standout on an album of standouts. The music is easy, catchy, and lighthearted even when it’s serious. In my humble yet coldly dismissive opinion, nothing they’ve done since has been as remarkable as any of the songs on this disc. Listing Say it Ain’t So here is really just a sneaky way for me to include ten of my favorite songs in the space of one.
If you like it: Get “the Blue Album,” as it is known.
“The Funeral” – Band of Horses
I was all over Band of Horses’ debut album when I first heard it, and this was the best track. It’s the song’s stoic refrain that gets to me: At every occasion I’ll be ready for the funeral. Read it any way you wish; I think it’s a powerful philosophy. To my horror, Funeral was used in a television ad by the Ford Motor Company. I know it shouldn’t matter, but it does.
If you like it: Band of Horses’ self-titled debut is solid, as I’ve mentioned.
Yep. U2 has been releasing a steady stream of material for almost 25 years, and though it would surely get me drawn and quartered in some neighborhoods I’ll go ahead and say that I don’t think it gets any better than I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. That’s not to say it’s anything less than brilliant, in fact, every time I hear it I know I’m listening to one of rock’s greatest anthems.
If you like it: Reintroduce yourself to U2’s other early hits: One, Where the Streets Have No Name, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Mysterious Ways. If you’re looking for obscure U2 songs you’re definitely asking the wrong guy.
“Fast Car” – Tracy Chapman
Saddest song in the list, no question. Read verbatim, the lyrics appear to profess hope, but something — in Chapman’s voice, in the guitar riff, some subtle note of pleading somewhere — betrays a sinking doubt through all of the pair’s talk of better days to come. We’ve all done it: talked hopeful talk when we just don’t buy it, and nobody else does either. Fast Car is a song about people who are broken, and know it.
If you like it: I always loved the title track off of New Beginning.
“Brother Down” – Sam Roberts
Brother Down is probably his best-known song, but I’m not so sure Sam Roberts is known outside of Canada. It is enormously catchy, and seems to have stayed fresh after hundreds of listens. Catchiness is a virtue in my books, evidently. But the lyric is really something too: a highly quotable speech about finding principles you can actually live by.
If you like it: You may just be a Sam Roberts fan, and if so you’ll like almost everything of his. But probably not. Try Bridge to Nowhere, to start.
“March of the Pigs” — Nine Inch Nails
Not for the faint of heart. I was scared of this kind of music as a pre-teen. Nine Inch Nails, particularly on their 1994 masterpiece, The Downward Spiral, is hellishly dark. My friend, upon first hearing it said, “I’ve got to buy up everything of theirs before he [NIN mastermind Trent Reznor] snaps and shoots everyone.” Now in his forties, he has calmed from his early suicidal/homicidal subject matter, and as much as I hate to say it, the music has lost something. March of the Pigs is an intense, raging tune that will leave you no doubt as to what I’m talking about.
If you like it: You wore lots of black in high school. The Downward Spiral is must-own for you. So is its predecessor, Broken. Listen to them in the dark on headphones.
“Cherub Rock” – The Smashing Pumpkins
The Pumpkins are a rather polarizing band. Perhaps as a testament to their creativity, their material is all over the map in terms of style, and most people either love them or hate them, or both. Some of their stuff is ugly, boring or worse. Just about everyone agrees, though, that 1993’s Siamese Dream was their stroke of brilliance, and leadoff track Cherub Rock is one everyone loves. For best results, listen at loud volumes.
If you like it: Try Soma, Geek U.S.A., or Rocket. Venture into the rest of their catalogue at your own risk.
“I Feel it All” – Feist
Feist always makes me smile, but especially on this track. To me, I Feel It All is about throwing yourself headlong into whatever fate your desires will bring you, only acceptance and curiosity rather than ordinary foolishness. The perfect soundtrack for one of those rare days when wake up knowing exactly what you want in life, and it happens to be sunny. And what a line: I’ll be the one who’ll break my heart.
If you like it: Try So Sorry, Mushaboom or Let it Die.
“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” – Jimi Hendrix
I didn’t know what awesome meant until I heard this tune. I remember the day too. I was thirteen when my friend called me and said “David! My brother’s having a sixties flashback! Come over quick!” When I arrived they were knee-deep in Beatles, Doors, Hendrix and Stones. I had never heard Hendrix before, and it blew my mind in the best way. That whole mid-nineties summer was like our very own 1968. Voodoo Child‘s first solo break was unquestionably the coolest thing I ever heard in my life, and I don’t think anything’s topped it since.
If you like it: You have probably liked it for a long time. If not, lucky you.
“Isis” – Bob Dylan
My favorite Dylan tune is actually A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, but I already included it in my Six Amazing Songs post. Isis is a close second. Sit back and listen to Bob tell you one of the strangest travel stories you’ve ever heard. In less than fourteen verses, he covers it all: romance, adventure, comedy, poetry and history.
If you like it: Consult your local Dylan nut for further recommendations. In the mean time, try Tombstone Blues if you want to keep laughing.
“Mutilated Lips” – Ween
What to say about Ween? If anyone is doing their own thing with abandon, it’s these guys. No style or subject matter is taboo for them. Pick a random Ween track, and you could get a straight-laced country song, a psychedelic soundscape, a bitter acoustic breakup song, or an Irish drinking song. And those are only the songs that lend themselves to description. Behind all the weirdness is some top-shelf musicianship that most people probably don’t stick around to discover. Mutilated Lips, though plenty weird, is a seductive song with an extremely unattractive title. Words fail me, give it a listen.
If you like it: Ween is a real grab bag; try Beacon Light, The Mollusk or A Tear For Eddie.
“No Way” – Pearl Jam
Non-Pearl Jam fans often scoff that the Seattle veterans have released little of spectacular quality after 1991’s debut Ten. Even my friend, a musicphile and fellow Pearl Jam lover admitted, “They do have a lot of forgettable material.” I don’t necessarily disagree, but all their fans know that they’ve lain a steady trail of gems all the way through their 18-year career. They also remain one of the best live acts around. No Way is a standout from their late-nineties comeback album, Yield.
If you like it: Try Corduroy, Brain of J, or Tremor Christ, assuming you already own Ten.
“D7” – Nirvana
The “band that saved rock” left such precious little material before Kurt Cobain’s death that virtually every other notable song is too well-known to be worth mentioning here. D7 did not appear on any of the band’s releases, and hopefully you’ve never heard of it. It’s unreleased status is not much of a mystery — it’s a cover, so it lacks Cobain’s genius with melody, and the beginning is quite dry and plodding. But D7‘s glory comes in its second half, when the trio kicks in the distortion and lets it rip at speed. Suddenly the same words take on a riveting intensity, not that they make any more sense. The shrill guitar solo bumps it up another notch, followed by yet another when Cobain brings the “vocals” back in.
If you like it: You probably know the multi-platinum Nevermind inside and out, so try these lesser-known, equally raging Nirvana originals: Negative Creep, Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, and School.
“Tiger Woods” – Dan Bern
I urge you to give this one a fair listen, even if the opening few lines offend your sensibilities. It’s a ridiculous song with a rather rude central metaphor (you’ll see), but one with a rare earnestness to it. As silly as it appears on the surface, it is indeed a passionate song about wishing for greatness. I hate to have to mention that this song was written long before Tiger Woods was a symbol of anything except undisputed superiority in one’s chosen pursuit.
If you like it: If you investigate Dan Bern you may find his huge catalogue is preoccupied with politics and religion. God Said No is worth a listen and will give you an idea of how he reconciles his faith with his wild imagination and racy lyrics.
Oh, Me – Meat Puppets
Another song that is probably best known by its inferior Nirvana cover. Idols of Kurt Cobain, the Meat Puppets are a supremely talented band who never made music that was quite accessible enough to rise beyond a comfortable level of obscurity. Every time I hear this song, I feel like I’m hearing my own story. If, for whatever reason, you ever want to understand me, all you have to do is understand this song. I don’t have to think / I only have to do it / The results are always perfect / But that’s old news. The beautiful guitarwork on the Nirvana version is actually not Kurt Cobain but Curt Kirkwood, the Meat Puppet who wrote it.
If you like it: The Meat Puppets have a wild and extensive catalogue to get lost in; start with the other songs of theirs Nirvana covered (Plateau and Lake of Fire.) See whose version you like better.
It Girl – Brian Jonestown Massacre
Couldn’t leave this one out. I don’t know what to say about it, but I love it. You will too.
Photo by Clearly Ambiguous