One of my earliest (and to date most successful) posts was Six Songs that Illustrate What it Means to Be Human. Many readers said they hadn’t heard some of these tunes before, and really liked them. I’ve since received a number of requests to post a list of my favorite songs.
So here it is. But first a few quick things:
- Choosing my forty outright favorite songs is not really possible. I can’t recall every song I love at any given time, so I can never be sure I’m not omitting something. Therefore this is a list of forty of my favorite songs.
- Some songs are very well known. Most aren’t, but I didn’t take the indie-snob route and give you forty small-time artists you’ve never heard of and won’t “get” because you aren’t cool enough. I happily included songs and artists that are decidedly uncool. (You’ll see.)
- You’ll find this list to be a bit 90s-heavy, which just reflects my age and tastes. But there’s something for everyone.
Each song links to a place where you can listen to it. Most point to Youtube, and some are on Mp3Raid.com. On the latter site you just have to enter the code they show, no need for signing up or anything. Let me know if any links are broken.
This is part one of a two-part post. Part two will be posted on Monday.
“Grandma’s Hands” – Bill Withers
An unbelievably catchy tune. Members of my generation might think they’re listening to Blackstreet for the first few bars. It will get stuck in your head, beware! You’ll be snapping, clapping, head-bobbing or shoulder-dipping to Billy’s vivid memories of his sweet old grandma.
If you like it: go find Bill Withers’ version of Use Me, probably better known as an Aaron Neville song. I think Bill did it best.
“The Seeker” – The Who
The taking-life-back anthem of Lester Burnham, the pot-smoking, career-ditching mid-life revolutionary from American Beauty. It’s a straight-laced rock tune, with a comedic take on the biggest of all human themes. It characterizes the search for life’s meaning as a mocking, hopeless conundrum, through the eyes of a regular joe who sees no reason why it shouldn’t make perfect sense. And with a guitar riff like that, it’s hard to see it any other way.
If you like it: I’m no Who expert, but you could do worse than giving My Generation (the album) a good listen.
“Ragged Wood” – Fleet Foxes
Fleet Foxes is one of those young bands whose first release is so remarkable and original that the mind goes wild in anticipation of what they’ll come up with next. As for Ragged Wood itself, all I can say is that I love it through and through, and it makes a perfect soundtrack for overland travel. Might make you feel like hitting the road.
If you like it: There is probably no Fleet Foxes you won’t like, and there is precious little of it at the moment. Listen to anything you can find.
“Pig” – Dave Matthews Band
A pretty, little-known song with an ugly name, Pig is all about our recurring, inane wish for life to be better, when we’re so fortunate to be alive at all. It’s not just the song’s sweet message that gets me, it’s how convincingly it’s delivered. This song inspired periods of bliss and ease in the middle of some of my worst times. Well done, Dave & Co.
If you like it: Try The Dreaming Tree, Don’t Drink The Water, or The Stone, from the same album.
“In the Pines” a.k.a “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” – Lead Belly
The only recording from the 1940s on the list. While best known from Nirvana’s flawed live rendition on Unplugged in New York, the Lead Belly version is much more haunting, in spite of its smiley, bluesy vibe. It plays on the age-old theme of relationship troubles, but with unusually sinister undertones. Leadbelly’s delightfully lazy style almost makes the listener forget that the song is essentially a death threat.
If you like it: You may want to check out other Lead Belly tunes. I’ve looked a bit, but haven’t found one this good.
“Missionary Man” – Eurythmics
This is one of a handful of songs that would completely take over my Dad when it came on. He would squint and nod his head to every beat. “So good!” he would say, like he was tasting a delicacy. I see what he saw: the same infectious energy you’d find in the other songs that did that: Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock n’ Roll, and Mellancamp’s Paper in Fire. Annie Lennox is in top form, and Dave Stewart rocks an electrifying harmonica solo. It’s hard to listen to this song without moving.
If you like it: If you aren’t familiar with the Eurythmics’ other hits (Sweet Dreams, Here Comes the Rain Again) they would be ideal starting points.
“Ahead by a Century” – The Tragically Hip
Few non-Canadians know the Tragically Hip, and few Canadians don’t. They are the quintessential Canadian rock band, still going strong after twenty-some years. Though their sound has evolved from rather twangy country-rock to become more modern and poppy, It has always been the lyrics that make it so special. Ahead By a Century “explores the realm of catharsis” according to lead singer/bard Gord Downie. To me it’s a celebration of the lightness of the present moment, despite how the weight of everything in our lives must fit inside it — but I think too much sometimes.
If you like it: Their music is so diverse, it was difficult to pick just one track. Try Scared, Locked in the Trunk of a Car, Bring it All Back, or Bobcaygeon. Oh so good, all of them.
“Apparitions” – Matthew Good Band
I have no idea if Matthew Good Band is known outside of Canada, but they had a good run of hits around the turn of the century, before their headstrong frontman left the band to write angry books and terrorize coffeehouse poetry readings. At the time I was rather dismissive of them as a little too mainstream, but in hindsight I see an earnest band with heaps of talent. I never thought Apparitions was anything less than damn brilliant though. I love this song, and feel lucky that I never owned it, because if I had I would have played it again and again until it lost its edge like most of these other songs.
If you like it: Matthew Good Band’s hits are worth exploring if you are unfamiliar: Everything is Automatic, Load Me Up, and Indestructible.
“Planet Telex” – Radiohead
Radiohead is the best in the business, and it’s a big business. These guys are professionals. I am not exaggerating when I say I could have made this a list of my 40 favorite Radiohead songs. So, naturally, recommending one above the others wasn’t easy. I chose Planet Telex because it has a certain uplifting, youthful quality that has since evolved its way out of Radiohead’s sound — not that I don’t like where they are today. I love the way this band has evolved; they’ve gone further and further from convention yet they’ve gotten better and better. So exceedingly rare. Planet Telex is a flashback to a simpler, brighter time.
If you like it: I envy you, for you’ve got one of the richest catalogues in modern music with which to acquaint yourself. Some of their work is a tad inaccessible to the casual listener, so start simple. Easy: Letdown, Bulletproof; Moderate: Exit Music, Nude; Challenging: Everything in its Right Place, The National Anthem.
“Pushit” – Tool
Tool changed my life. Good music has the ability to transport a person, and I’d never been taken for a ride like this. Pushit is an enormous, challenging song that descends to realms of intense introspection where most people probably don’t want to go. This 10-minute opus arrived when Tool’s creative talent was peaking; every track they did was unpretentious and epic (this was before the word “epic” was pretentious) and its mother album is a masterpiece. As good as it is, Tool is certainly not for everyone. Like most Tool tracks, it builds to a climactic “toolgasm” near the end.
If you like it: I envy you too. I would kill to listen to this music for the first time again. Tool is best absorbed in albums, but if you want a few songs to try out… Easy: Sober, Stinkfist; Moderate: Eulogy (so good!), The Patient; Challenging: Third Eye, Right in Two. And find their incredible videos!
“In the Air Tonight” – Phil Collins
The atmosphere of this song is something else. It sounds as if you’ve somehow slipped past the edge of the universe, floating alone in total blackness, with Phil Collins’ disembodied voice singing to you a cryptic poem about your sins on earth. Or something. However you try to describe it, this song seems to come with its own unique, alien emotion that you’ll find nowhere else.
If you like it: Well, there is nothing out there quite like this song. But you can revel in its famous climax with this fantastic Cadbury ad.
“She Said She Said” – The Beatles
Of course the Fab Four had to make an appearance here. Yes, I’m one of those people. Out of the Beatles’ entire catalogue, I chose this one because it represents my favorite point in the evolution of their sound. She Said She Said is the precisely the sound of that precious little gap between the ditsy love tunes of their early years and the enigmatic anthems of their later ones. It’s full of youth and life, and it shows the whole band at full stride — as a unit. In fact, it’s one of the last Beatles releases humble enough to sound like it was played by a straight-up four-piece band, rather than a magic walrus on a harpsichord tanning in an English garden. Brilliant, but proudly smaller than Jesus.
If you like it: Go get Revolver.
“The World I Know” – Collective Soul
I don’t know why I still consider this one a guilty pleasure. Maybe it’s Ed Roland’s histrionic singing, or the too-casual cello lines in the background (but everybody was doing it back then, even Nirvana.) Even with the pretentious bits, this is a song that still, to this day, makes my lungs swell with gratitude. You have to like life to like this song though, so depending on your disposition, the emotional component may not work for you. But you may still enjoy the beautiful guitarwork.
If you like it: Most of Collective Soul’s inspired material is on the same album, namely December and Collection of Goods. Their first hit, Shine, is still their best song.
“Nitemare Hippie Girl” – Beck
From what could be my favorite album ever (1993’s Mellow Gold) this is a quirky, hilarious love song that could make anyone smile. With his outlandish words, Beck paints a picture only he could paint, and a vivid image of a skinny-fingered, perfectly imperfect girl emerges. She’s a whimsical, tragical beauty / Uptight and a little bit moody. Don’t you love her too?
If you like it: Listen to Pay no Mind or F*ckin’ With My Head, from the same album.
“Kitchenware & Candybars” – Stone Temple Pilots
For all of Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s ambivalence about being in the spotlight, fellow hard rock outfit STP just couldn’t get enough of it. They carried the Motley Crue-esque lifestyle of excess well into the grungy 90s and made some awesome music while they were at it. 1994’s Purple is one of my favorite discs, and largely because it combined rude, indulgent rock with a sentimental, ballady side. Kitchenware & Candybars is the last proper track on the disc, and it’s a beautiful, sensitive piece for such an unapologetic band.
If you like it: Try Creep or Still Remains.
“Pedestal” – Portishead
Another avant-garde act caught in a passing storm of brilliance, 1994’s Dummy is through and through a spectacular album. I could have picked any of the tracks off of this deep, sexy record, they’re all that good. Better make-out music you will not find.
If you like it: Get the whole album, dummy.
“Don’t Look Back in Anger” – Oasis
Somewhere along the line — maybe during one of the extremely well-publicized childish bickerings between the band’s sibling frontmen — it became very uncool to like Oasis, at least in North America. I’ve always thought their music ranged from solid, straight-up rock to sheer genius, and Don’t Look Back in Anger is my favorite. Much like (dare I say it) certain Beatles tunes, it almost sounds as if the song wasn’t written by a lowly working band but had already existed in its own right, complete and beautiful, before anyone ever played it aloud. Or something. Suffice it to say these guys know what they’re doing.
If you like it: Give Oasis another chance. The Brits recognized their genius a long time ago, and not just out of national pride.
“Televators” – The Mars Volta
Completely out there, and completely beautiful. With regular instruments and plenty of effects pedals, The Mars Volta is able to create an utterly alien soundscape. Televators is one of the more accessible, less schizophrenic tracks on TMV’s best effort, Deloused in the Comatorium. This song and its mother album will create pictures in your mind you’ve never seen before.
If you like it: You are probably in a minority, and you should be proud of that, for you are capable of enjoying modern music all the way to its ragged fringes. The rest of Deloused would definitely interest you.
“Limo Wreck” – Soundgarden
By far the most inventive and ambitious of the grunge bands, Soundgarden blessed us with a small but wildly original catalogue of heavy (but pretty) opuses before packing it up in 1997. They remain one of my favorite bands. Limo Wreck is a towering piece about hubris and humility, and makes a great showcase for Chris Cornell’s unbelievable voice.
If you like it: The album it came from, Superunknown, is a one of those rare albums where everything seemed to go so perfectly, magically right, that the record is so good it leaves you in disbelief that it was actually human beings that created it. Go get it.
It is unlikely you’ve heard of this song unless you’re either a mad English townie who already owns all things Blur, or you bought their yellow self-titled album because it contained their international mega-hit, Song 2. While the rest of the album features nothing remotely as catchy as Song 2 (if you don’t think you know Song 2, believe me you do) it is a suprisingly inspired collection. It might be partly the intriguing title, but Strange News From Another Star sweeps me away to another place and time, David Bowie-style.
If you like it: From the same album you’d like Beetlebum, Look Inside America, and possibly some others.
Part 2 of this post is here.
Photo by Nikki Varkevisser