Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Twenty Greatest Songs of the Millennium

One of my closest friends brought over a DVD the other day for us to watch, called "1000 Years of Popular Music," and then--poor fellow--he tried to watch it in my presence. The inspiration for the video was straightforward: journeyman guitarist Richard Thompson had been asked to contribute his own version of a list of the twenty greatest songs ever, for a compilation scheduled to appear in Playboy Magazine. Having taken the assignment literally, Thompson compiled a list that honestly (and earnestly) spanned the entire preceding 1,000 years--and then never heard from Playboy again. So instead he decided to play all twenty selections for an intimate house of paying customers, and film the whole thing for indie distribution to my cat-shredded living room. The film itself makes for a fine concert video--Thompson is by turns witty, sardonic, curious, thought-provoking, and then witty again--but the list of songs that he compiled struck me (at least) as nothing short of woeful. Too much attention had been paid to spanning those thousand years relatively evenly, and even more-too-much attention had been paid to "introducing" the audience to pieces with which they might not have been previously familiar. Neither of which was the assignment.

The obvious thing to do in response--as shouted to me at the top of his lungs by my exasperated friend at 0:53 into the film--was to make a list of my own. So here it is, folks: The twenty greatest songs of the past 1,000 years. Comments and controversy are, as always, welcomed and encouraged. (Note: In cases where the lyrics and music were written by different people, or the song was written by someone other than its most well-recognized performer, the two are separated by a backslash immediately following the title.)

20. Some Enchanted Evening (Rogers & Hammerstein, 1949). I'm an enormous fan of musicals, really can't get enough of them--provided that the musicals in question, are South Pacific. Sorry, Carousel fans; sorry, Phantom: there's really only ever been one musical, and that musical is, at the end of the day, a straightforward morality poem that could easily be summarized by the last two lines of its most unforgettable song. A lesson by which the rest of us could live the rest of our days and never be unhappy or conflicted, about anything, ever again, anywhere, ever: "Once you have found her, never let her go. Once you have found her. Never. Let. Her. Go." Take it from someone who knows.

19. Danny Boy (Rory Dall O'Cahan, 1622.) I've seen men who wouldn't cry if you dropped a ten-pound mallet on their pinkie-toe burst into tears before the lyrics of this song even get started. That alone would put it on the list, leave well enough alone the fact that its iconic power to evoke this very reaction, among these very such men, has become so ubiquitous that it has risen to the stature of a movie cliche. Trust me on very few things, but trust me on this: If you're watching a movie about a young guy trying to get a break, and there's a scene where some older guy is lying in a hospital bed, wanting to help the young guy get what he wants from some other old guy, rest assured that the healthy old guy will find himself in the next scene, standing beside the sick old guy's hospital bed, being serenaded with Danny Boy. ...And when the healthy old guy starts bawling like the fat sister at the wedding, that's your cue that the young guy will get his break. Roll credits.

18. All Shook Up (Elvis Presley, 1957). The King of Rock n' Roll actually has a bit of a problem when it comes to this list--and that problem is tempo. Google the phrase "greatest Elvis Presley songs," or "best Elvis Presley songs," or any other variant thereof, and what you'll soon discover is that the top place-holders in these amateur anthologies are songs that should be sad, but which Presley still had to sing at a pace you could dance to down at the soda fountain. Return to Sender would be a vastly superior song than All Shook Up, in almost every conceivable way, except for the nagging little detail that our desperately opining letter-writer is imparting to us his tale of woe in four-eight time! Presley sounds manic, indeed almost happy about the whole thing. (And who knows, maybe he was.) No such shoulda-been-sad song could possibly aspire to Millennial greatness. Toss out all the overwrought nonsense (Suspicious Minds and In The Ghetto, to name just a sampling), and you're left with All Shook Up. ...And here's the thing about that: It's still one of the twenty best songs of the last thousand years, without preface. That's how good this guy really was.

17. Hava Nagila (music: Bukovina trad./words: Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, 1914). You can have fun at just about anybody's wedding. Some are more sombre than others, some are more formal, some are just turgid and nutty. But if you've never sat in the audience while persons of the Jewish faith sang this song and danced around a bottle on the floor at the reception, well, sorry, you've just never really been to a wedding. By the way, as soon as the song is over the father of the bride is put in a chair and hoisted high over the heads of the four strongest young men in the room, who then proceed to twirl the old guy like the pull-string on a children's toy. Somebody pass the Digitalis before the staff has to dial 9-1-1.

16. I Feel Fine (Beatles, 1964). Simple messages are often the best, but sometimes those messages aren't as simple as they first seem. Norwegian Wood, for example, is widely thought to be a play on words; the listener is apparently supposed to hear it as, "Knowing she would." Other times, the message has no hidden meaning beyond that which the listener brings--and occasionally those songs rise to superlative stature for that very reason. With the line, "I'm in love with her, and I feel fine," we are meant to think nothing in particular. And then we go away for a while, we shave, we do the dishes--and finally it hits us: No, actually, those two sentiments don't constitute an automatic redundancy. Yes, I'm in love with her. And, yes, I feel fine. Not like those other times, when being in love with "her" made me feel like a stooge.

15. I Hear a Voice a Prayin' (American Spiritual, c. 1860.) First of all, I have a confession to make: I didn't want this song, in this slot; I wanted Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Trouble is, after watching a couple of hundred YouTube videos of Swing Low, I finally gave up. All the easy-to-find renditions are either way too fast, way too affected, sung in way too high a register, by people way too white, or some combination of all of these. All of this rocking back and forth and clapping hands has about as much business in Swing Low as would an accordion and a kazoo. To do this song justice it must be sung as if its performance were the only lingering distraction from a daily routine so horrible as to make untimely death (which is what the singer is hoping for, make no mistake) seem like a breath of fresh air. In the meantime, it's probably the fifteenth-greatest song of the past thousand years, but I'm not going to put it in the list if positively nobody on the face of God's Green Earth can pull his head out of his insecurities long enough to stop trying to be smarter than the songwriter and sing the damn thing right. ...What was I talking about, again?

14. I've Got You Under My Skin (Cole Porter, 1931 / Frank Sinatra, 1956). Yeah, yeah, yeah--You would've picked New York, New York. You would've picked Lady is a Tramp. You would've picked My Way. Thing is, if you're looking for the quintessential Frank Sinatra experience in a single song, you'll have to find three things in it when you get there: First, it has to have those big, brassy backup players that swell up halfway into the song; the trademark instrumental interlude that must have made the early years of Las Vegas seem like a children's theme park for adults, back when it wasn't just a children's theme park for children, the way it is now. Second, you've gotta have fun listening, instead of wading chest-deep through Frank's unflattering (and undeserved) overwrought self-celebration. And third, the song has to be an intimate picture of Frank, saying just the right things--a dash of vulnerability, a hint of smug self-confidence, just a smidge of driveway stalker tossed in on a larf--to get some smoking-hot showgirl to take her pants off. This would be that song, folks.

13. Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones, 1969). I'm a sucker for big emotional shifts in my music, especially if the stylist has managed to front-load the shift, turning it into a piece that's all about anticipation--not unlike the rickety death-march to the top of an old wooden roller-coaster. There's something coming, it's big, and we're just along for the ride. Paint it Black by the Stones does this. Eminence Front by The Who does this. John Lee Hooker's Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom does this. But by far and away my favorite example is Gimme Shelter. By the time Mick starts singing, the fact that he's finally delivered on the promise of the lengthy and yet at the same time palpably nervous introduction means we don't actually have to care whether we can make out what he's saying, or not. Which--admit it, now--you can't, anyway.

12. Lorena (Henry D. L. Webster, 1856). I could've picked a bluegrass song for this list. I could've picked an iconic song from the American Civil War. I could've picked a song with haunting simplicity and a touching, un-selfconscious affection--a song in which a man shows no qualms about pining for his departed love. I could've picked a song that had drifted slowly across moaning battlefields of unspeakable carnage at nightfall, or one that had careened across crowded, dirt-floor taverns full of men of low character in the small hours. I could've done each of these things. So I did.

11. Subterranean Homesick Blues (Bob Dylan: 1965). Best. Music. Video. Ever. Oh, and the most-copied, into the bargain. I remember seeing Dylan (on television) playing at the Live Aid concert in 1984, and thinking, "Wow! That guy's still making music???" Point being, it'd only been twenty-one years since he started at Newport, at that time; it's been twenty-four years, since. And he's still making music. I'm just gonna say "yikes," to that.

10. Carmina Burana: O Fortuna (Anon., early 13th cen. / arr. by Carl Orff, 1803). What makes a great song, anyway? I suppose it has to have a memorable tune, at the very least. It has to be efficient--though not necessarily short--and it has to carry at least the potential to appeal to a wide range of audiences. No polkas will ever show up on anyone's list of the twenty greatest songs of all time. But really, how many thousands upon thousands of musical selections would pass such a coarse filter for selection? To qualify as a truly great piece of music, it would seem, the song in question has to be inescapably evocative, in some way: There must be no doubt, whatsoever, that what you'll be doing for the next four minutes is sloshing around inside whichever subset of yanked heartstrings the song-stylist had in mind for you. And you will travel a long way through your local used-CD store before you get lucky enough to find a single piece of music as inescapably evocative as O Fortnua. Even now, after it's been done to death by Hollywood, I defy you to listen to it without getting goosebumps.

9. Truckin' (The Grateful Dead, 1970). Your choice of the ninth-best song of the past thousand years may be better than my choice of the ninth-best song of the past thousand years. But my choice of the ninth-best song of the past thousand years has extra pot, and she's passing it around. End of argument.

8. Shenandoah (American traditional, early 19th cen.). Dancing around the living room in your sock feet is fun; locking arms with three drunk buddies in a bar and spilling your beers all over the place as you sway back and forth is fun; sometimes even crying your eyes out is fun. But every once in a while, you gotta put on your black tails and stand on a riser and do your tiny little part in producing something that's both achingly beautiful and has nothing to do with you. Shenandoah is an amazing piece of music, to be sure, but that isn't what it's about. It's about being a part of something bigger than yourself. It's about excellence. It's about dressing up and doing your job. Call me a dinosaur, but it seems to me we could use a little more dressing-up and doing our jobs, these days. And when it's just right--when the parts come in at just the right moment, with just the right dynamics, it's one of the most excellent creations mankind has ever conceived. Mark this down as a bankable statement of fact: On the occasion of my memorial service, if four people should bother to show, I want them to come dressed-up and ready to sing this song.

7. These Boots Are Made For Walkin' (Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra, 1966). There weren't a lot of strong female role-models in 1966--certainly not strong enough to threaten to "walk all over" a cavalier boyfriend, and certainly, certainly not whose last name was Sinatra, growing up in that house. Never mind the paralyzingly seductive vamp, never mind Ms. Sinatra's ingenious flattening of the key phrase--tossing it away as the matter-of-fact observation that it surely was. Never mind the song's ability to burrow deep into your brain and squat there, more or less forever. These Boots is, for its time and place and the brutally womanizing patriarchy in which its singer grew up, nothing short of miraculous. I don't remember off the top of my head what was the unofficial theme-song for the entire feminist movement but, gosh, those bra-burnin' sandal-wearerin', Bella-Abazug-votin' mamas sure could've done worse. Walk all over me all you like, ladies. I promise I'll be good.

6. Empty Chairs (Don McLean, 1971). This was a tough one for me, for some of the same reasons that I had trouble picking a Sinatra song, or a U2 song, or a Rolling Stones song. Clearly McLean is a virtuoso song stylist but, equally clearly, neither one of his two most iconic songs is this one. Granted, Empty Chairs isn't a spontaneous elegy to Vincent Van Gogh. Granted, Empty Chairs isn't a sprawling, almost impossibly expansive fever-dream about the untimely death of Buddy Hollie, either. On the other hand, the very thing that frustrated me about Thompson's list was its insistence on paying tribute, and not so much on actually picking those that he felt were the best. And Empty Chairs is the best Don McLean song, period. What it lacks in complicated time-signatures and florid impressionist imagery, it more than compensates for with its de facto preeminence in a strangely under-utilized subgenre of love song: the I-wish-I-hadn't-taken-her-for-granted song. "And I wonder if you know / that I never understood," pines McLean in the chorus, in strains so chastened and heartsick that you can't help wonder who the inspiration was for the whole thing, "that although you said you'd go / until you did / I never thought you would." We should all be so lucky to hit on an idea so simple and yet so desperately important in our everyday lives. Once you have found her, never let her go.

5. Poliushka Pole (Lev Knipper / Viktor Gusev, 1934). During his concert, Thompson told a joke about the difference between heaven and hell: "In heaven," he grinned, "the British great you at the door, the French are the cooks, the Germans are organizing everything, and the Italians provide the entertainment. In hell, the French great you at the door, the British are the cooks, the Italians organize everything, and the Germans provide the entertainment." It's a good joke, to which I offer this friendly amendment: In hell, the Soviet Government would sanction the music--while in heaven, choruses of ordinary Russian soldiers would sing it all. Forgive my pink diapers, do, but every time the swell comes in at the end of the twelfth measure of this ode to the joys of collective farming, the hair on my arms still stands straight up. It's just an amazingly stirring piece of music, made incomparably more so by the fact that we don't know the dreadful lyrics. Of everything on this list, from the Rolling Stones to Irish folk tunes and back, Poliushka Pole was the very first song I thought of when I set about to tackle this project. That's not hyperbole, folks. Oh, and if you're looking for an honorable mention in the department of stirring Russian folk tunes, you could do a lot worse than this.

4. The Christmas Song (Mel Torme and Bob Wells, 1944 / Nat King Cole, 1946, 1946, 1953, 1961). So, why this song and not White Christmas? How could a list of the twenty best songs of the past millennium not include anything sung by Bing Crosby, or written by Irving Berlin--much less snub a song that happens to be both at once? Because this song is better. To begin with, White Christmas is an utterly depressing song. Most people don't know that, because most people don't really bother thinking about the lyrics--but in fact, the premise of the song is that a young man is stuck someplace far away from his family and friends over the holidays, and doesn't even have the literal cold comfort of snow, to brighten his spirits. It's no accident that White Christmas was the song used by Armed Forces Radio to signal the remaining American servicemen in Vietnam that Saigon was about to fall. (Excuse me while I slit my wrists.) The Christmas Song, by contrast, evokes every last one of all our most cherished and heartwarming holiday images--through a device no more clever or mysterious than simply listing them, one at a time. Oh, and something else: Nat King Cole was a vastly better singer than Bing Crosby could've been on the best day he ever had. There, I said it. Sue me.

3. Bad (U2, 1984). Not everyone is a fan of U2, especially now that they've put themselves through the license-induced shredder of half a dozen reinventions in the past ten years. "They've gone from being U2," a friend of mine once wrote, in a music review, "to being a parody of U2, to being a light-techno ripoff of U2, to being a U2 retrospective, to being a U2 cover-band." But love 'em or not, this raffish lot from Dublin has done as much to place their stamp on modern popular music as any single act in the history of modern popular music. They've sold more records than the Beatles. They play to bigger venues than the Rolling Stones and they've somehow managed to become more sanctimonious than Crosby Stills and Nash. But as with so many other acts listed here, it is this very success that sows within itself the seed of a genuine quandary: How to pick just one U2 song? It had to be ubiquitous, which ruled-out One Tree Hill (my first choice), and its lyrics couldn't openly invite ridicule among the non-believers, as in With Or Without You--which, I just have to say this, is quite possibly the stupidest set of song lyrics in the history of number-one records. It couldn't invite pretension from its audience (Sunday, Bloody Sunday) and it didn't want to be a Jimmi Hendrix tune before it grew up (Bullet the Blue Sky). It had to be stirring, in only just that very particular way that Edge's borderline wacka-chicka guitar playing manages to be, making the hair on your arm stand straight up in spite of itself. It had to be a full-on, adult-portion U2 experience. It had to be a great tune, it had to have a great concept (okay, I get it now, so don't leave?), and it had to have one of those classic, out-of-breath-but-not-energy denouements that Bono loves so much, at its end. I don't know about you, but me, I'm wide awake in America--and I'm not sleeping.

2. Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd, 1975). I'd argue for this song if all it had going for it is the clever radio-then-with-us introduction; I'd argue for it if all it had were the lines, "Did you exchange / a walk-on part in the war / for a lead role / in a cage?" And I'd go straight to the mat for it, and argue all night on its behalf, if all it had to show for itself was that tendency among single men of a certain age to start locking arms in the back booth and swinging their beer mugs when Gilmour finally finds his way to the title verse. Call it a three-for-one sale, I guess.

1. Funiculi, Funicula
(Peppino Turco/Luigi Denza, c.1880). The act of listening to modern popular music is very often little more than exercise in pretending to be miserable about the problems of the world. Teen angst, a relatively new staple in American bourgeois culture, has taken on a marketing mystique all its own--leading to the improbable image of fabulously wealthy musicians in their early twenties, sitting in semicircles on MTV soundstages and acting as if their lives couldn't possibly get worse. But in all our lives, there comes a moment when depressing music no longer seems quite so grown up, anymore. Yes, the world has troubles--yes, people have been and will continue to be unkind to us. But in the end, most of us come to accept that the true sign of maturity isn't so much in being able to diagnose the wrongs of the world, as to steer a center course between apathy and self-destruction. Il faut cultiver nos jardins, as Saint-Exupery would have it--we must all plant our own gadens. That's why the top spot on my list is reserved for a song so joyful that I cannot imagine anyone listening to it without smiling, regardless of whether he knew the words. Regardless of whatever else was going on in his life at the time. Regardless of whether it would make him look uncool to smile, or not. Only one song I can think of manages this: Funiculi, Funicula. And that's what makes it my choice for the single greatest song of the past thousand years. We must all plant our own gardens; why not sing a happy tune while we do it?

So, there you have it. The twenty greatest songs of the past thousand years, according to your humble columnist. Post whatever comments you may have without sanction or abridgment, please-- or, send me a private message to author@escapeclause.net if you'd like to submit an entire list in reply. And despair not: if nothing else comes of all of this, at least my friend may finally look forward to being able to see his movie.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florid
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3 comments:

Joe said...

This was a most enjoyable read--one that I am immediately forwarding to all my friends!

The Key Grip said...

Something funny that happened to me while I was compiling the assorted drafts of this thing: I kept tripping over ballads and then crossing them off -- not wanting the entire list to be eighteen ballads, Poliushka Pole, and Funiculi Funicula. ...So then I didn't end up with *any* ballads.

Zot Lynn Szurgot said...

i can't imagine agreeing with you on any of these. i can't imagine making any of the arguments you make to back up your choices. i can't imagine reading an annotated list and digging it more than i just dug reading this sparkling gem, this introduction to an alien land lush with alien logic, this map to a landscape i don't want to visit (yet i grin and nod as i peruse with pleasure the map as drawn). Never mind that you make me want to be instructed by Thompson rather than join you in springboarding away from him, never mind that i would rather chew through the straps than be forced to actually hear your list of songs, i am just so enthralled at your presentation that the blog entry itself is the thing for me, today's medicine for melancholy, the music to my ears. Two Dethclöck metalhands up! \m/ \m/ !