The Top 88

Deeply sorry to all the hip-hop, death metal and especially psychobilly fans out there. Just not my thang. Here’s the extremely backward-thinking (nothing here post-1990) list of my favourite popular songs ever recorded at the moment. Some are so good, they might even warrant individual posts. 88 is just a lovely, round number.

The Weight – The Band
When You Awake – The Band
Sloop John B – The Beach Boys
I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – The Beatles
The Ballad of El Goodo – Big Star
Don’t Fear the Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult
Suffragette City – David Bowie
A New Career in a New Town – David Bowie
Expecting to Fly – Buffalo Springfield
Draft Morning – The Byrds
La Princesse Perdue – Camel
Oh, Lonesome Me – Ray Charles
Suzanne – Leonard Cohen
Janie Jones – The Clash
Many Rivers to Cross – Jimmy Cliff
Ramble Tamble – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Layla – Derek and the Dominoes
Northern Sky – Nick Drake
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright – Bob Dylan
Visions of Johanna – Bob Dylan
Tangled Up in Blue – Bob Dylan
Born in Time – Bob Dylan
The Killing Moon – Echo and the Bunnymen
Stay With Me – Faces
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You – Aretha Franklin
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) – Marvin Gaye
Uncle John’s Band – The Grateful Dead
Forget Me Not – Roy Harper
Little Wing – Jimi Hendrix
Not Fade Away – Buddy Holly
Disorder – Joy Division
The Village Green Preservation Society – The Kinks
Waterloo Sunset – The Kinks
Tea for One – Led Zeppelin
When the Levee Breaks – Led Zeppelin
Ten Years Gone – Led Zeppelin
Strawberry Flats – Little Feat
Mercenary Territory (Live) – Little Feat
Alone Again Or – Love
Carey – Joni Mitchell
And it Stoned Me – Van Morrison
Hiroshima Nagasaki Russian Roulette – Moving Hearts
Personality Crisis – New York Dolls
Living Without You – Randy Newman
Rosemary – Randy Newman
Local Girls – Graham Parker
Hearts On Fire – Gram Parsons
San Tropez – Pink Floyd
Time – Pink Floyd
Elvis Presley – Treat Me Nice
Darlin Nikki – Prince
Hello in There – John Prine
Far From Me – John Prine
Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding
My House – Lou Reed
Radio Free Europe – R.E.M.
Replacements – Bastards of Young
Sympathy for the Devil – The Rolling Stones
You Can’t Always Get What You Want – The Rolling Stones
Loving Cup – The Rolling Stones
Graceland – Paul Simon
Family Affar – Sly and the Family Stone
The Headmaster Ritual – The Smiths
Cemetry Gates – The Smiths
Incident on 57th Street – Bruce Springsteen
Rosalita (Come out Tonight) – Bruce Springsteen
King of the World – Steely Dan
Aja – Steely Dan
As – Stevie Wonder
He’s Misstra Know-it-All – Stevie Wonder
Every Picture Tells A Story – Rod Stewart
The Rainbow – Talk Talk
See No Evil – Television
When I Get to the Border – Richard Thompson
Rock and Roll – The Velvet Underground
And You And I – Yes
Ambulance Blues – Neil Young
Lookout Joe – Neil Young
Powderfinger – Neil Young
Pocahontas – Neil Young
Lawyers, Guns and Money – Warren Zevon

Here’s Little Feat’s Mercenary Territory performed live. Wait ’till the 1:55 mark where things get truly eargasmic.

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Some Favourite Lyrics

Albertsthal Typewriter Regular

Albertsthal Typewriter Regular

Inspired by a recent post by the Music Enthusiast, (link to his blog here: https://musicenthusiast.net/) I decided to pick out some of my all-time favourite lyrics – some are humorous, some are cynical, some are beautiful, some are pot-induced and all are fantastic. Who says poetry can’t be musical?

Paul Simon: Graceland – Best ever lyric about America?
The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the civil war.

 

Bob Dylan: Tangled Up in Blue – Some sneaky existential relationship metaphors from America’s national bard…
She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best.

Joni Mitchell: A Case of You – One of the greatest love songs ever written.
On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh Canada
With your face sketched on it twice.

The Rolling Stones: Rocks Off – How to sum up rock ‘n’ roll in one lyric from the Stones’ ‘fagged out masterpiece’.
The sunshine bores the daylights out of me.
Chasing shadows moonlight mystery.
Headed for the overload,
Splattered on the dirty road,
Kick me like you’ve kicked before,
I can’t even feel the pain no more.

Neil Young: Pocahontas – 1979 Acid Western starring Marlon Brando and Neil Young on a journey through America’s past, present and future. Rolling Stone says ‘Five stars!’.
And maybe Marlon Brando
Will be there by the fire
We’ll sit and talk of Hollywood
And the good things there for hire
And the Astrodome
and the first tepee
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me.

 

Nick Drake: Bryter Layter

I don’t usually take part in the trend of mythologising mysterious and troubled troubadours who died young. Heroizing chronically depressed introverted songwriters has almost become a cliché; when you ask the shy, misty-eyed girl at school who her favourite artist is, she’ll almost undoubtedly say ‘Elliott Smith’ or ‘Jeff Buckley’ and make some comment about their self-destructive genius.

Nick Drake, then, seems like the total embodiment of this. But there isn’t a hint of self-pity nor any delusions of grandeur disguised under a sheet of sensitive modesty. When you strip back all the myth and enigmatic photos (above), there is music of unfathomable beauty and a voice like pastoral English wind. Howzat for teenage poetry?

As for the albums (the best being ’71’s Bryter Layter), Drake never put a foot wrong. When he died, he left a small but completely perfect musical legacy, though some of his less interesting demos, cover versions and unreleased material has been procured and released later by industry execs scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Bryter Layter is his lushest, most musical album. It counters the underproduced fatalism of ’72’s Pink Moon with elaborate, flowing string sections and somewhat of a ‘pop sensibility’, if such a thing can be measured in someone like Drake. For a singer-songwriter well-read in Romantic poetry, these songs (and their lyrics) gladly lack any Absinthe grandeur. It also contains Northern Sky, arguably his most extraordinary record.

My 10 Favourite Songs (now)

I fully recognize that lists are inherently foolish, so this is more a record of some of the songs that I really love now, and of course some old favourites. All tracks appear on some of my favourite albums, and to avoid constant editing, they are not ranked. Ranking music is especialy foolish.

Tangled Up in Blue: Bob Dylan (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
The opening track of Bob’s break-up album (left) contains some of his best lyrics, as well as a wonderfully relaxed back-up. It’s filled with sneaky metaphors and all that, and Dylan’s stark humour prevents it from falling into the sop bin.

Thirteen: Big Star (#1 Record, 1973)
Few tracks capture so un-sappily the unique throb of the heart (hear me out) that comes with being teenaged. I’m awfully condescending of new teenaged idols whom singing about adolescent angst is part of the job application. Somehow these 20-something year-olds managed to get the full picture in 2 minutes and 35 seconds.

Rocks Off: Rolling Stones (Exile on Main St., 1972)
The Stones exercised their trademark uneasy sleaze on many tracks, but none quite do it for me with quite the same druggy punch of Rocks Off, the rocker that kicks off one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll albums of all time. Best line: the sunshine bores the daylights outta me”.

Fearless: Pink Floyd (Meddle, 1971)
Arguably the greatest chill-out song of all time (before that was ‘a thing’). The Floyd, while sometimes indescribably lower-sixth, could be the finest purveyors of a wonderfully British sensibility in their lyrics: ”I’ll climb the hill in my own time” still resonates with me. ‘Let me live my life the way I want to’, as one James Hendrix said.

Cemetry Gates: The Smiths (The Queen is Dead, 1986)
Along with Neil Young’s Ambulance Blues and possibly Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man, The Smiths’ song represents the very finest in musical critic-bashing. After all, there’s always someone somewhere, with a big nose who knows, who’ll trip you up and laugh when you fall. Is it plagiarism if I don’t use quote marks? Not in rock ‘n’ roll.

Strawberry Flats: Little Feat (S/T, 1971)
The 70’s were a time of urban paranoia (am I right?), and Little Feat’s Strawberry Flats, from the album I detailed in my very first post, expresses this with a wonderful mordant humour and a killer guitar solo to boot.

Deacon Blues: Steely Dan (Aja, 1977)
If anything exemplified what Robert Christgau called ”Beautiful loser fatalism”, it’s Steely Dan’s jazzy ballad from one of pop’s sneakiest masterpieces. The Dan’s reflective protagonist is their favourite kind of person: A whiskey-soaked, New York apartment-dwelling jazz enthusiast. Somehow this type of character has become an essential part of American urban folklore.

The Weight: The Band (Music From Big Pink, 1968),
I don’t usually like biblical references, but when I do, they’re in a Band song. Though their greatest album came afterwards, the Band’s definitive moment is on this simple song of unparalleled folky beauty. Straight out of the basement with Bob Dylan, these uncomplicated troubadors crafted what Roger Waters’ called the ‘second most influential rock album’. Make of that what you will.

Powderfinger: Neil Young (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)
Here is my list of the top ten Neil Young tracks, where I place Powderfinger at No. 1.

When the Levee Breaks: Led Zeppelin (IV, 1971)
A phenomenal rock song, When the Levee Breaks has all the roots of great hard music in its soul: the Blues, the rock, the roll, and the sound of a truly great band exercising their momentous thunder on record. The closest rock ‘n’ roll has ever come to armageddon, with John Bonham’s much sampled beat seeming to encapsulate every single rhythm of rock past in one neanderthol thud with an eternal echo. The lyrics actually refer to the great Mississippi flood of 1927, which flooded a space the size of Scotland. The entirety of Scotland under thirty feet of water. Dwell on that. Displacing hundreds of thousands, and killing hundreds. That’s some serious shit, and part of me likes to think that the largely unreported primal destruction of that event is frozen in the many grooves of this song (and of its original source); a group of white guys paying majestic tribute to an entire penurious culture of sadly forgotten American blacks; to whom Led Zepplin owe their blues roots.

Mississippi, 1927

Here’s a performance from The Band’s The Last Watz which features two artists on this list. And a certain artist hiding singing backing vocals. From behind a curtain.

From ”The Last Waltz”, 1978: United Artists

Old Shakey: Neil Young’s Top 10 Songs

To celebrate After the Gold Rush’s recent 45th anniversary, here’s a list I made earlier of Shakey’s most memorable tunes. Neil Young’s constant unpredictability and uncontrolled range of aesthetics means there always be a mix of modesty and majesty; his earnest folkie-ness and harness of the wild powers of electric rock ‘n’ roll. And of course, the stuff that’s just plain weird.

10: Don’t Let it Bring You Down (After the Gold Rush, 1970)

From the desolate chord clash at the start, its hard not to let Don’t Let it Bring You Down bring you down. The track is halfway between his affected folkie leanings and the mid-seventies alcoholic with-out-a-damn aura. After the Gold Rush is one of Neil Young’s most humble and unassuming records. It’s also arguably his most accessible (in his own roundabout kind of way) and coherent.

9: Old Man (Harvest, 1972)

Whether you think it’s overplayed or not, Old Man is the most consistently enjoyable and evocative song on the slightly hit-and-miss Harvest. Though he says it’s about an old ranch-hand, and definitely not his dad (or yours), it’s hard not to sense a kind of unspoken father-son relation between the two characters. Accompanied by James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and some absolutely gorgeous pedal steel licks from Ben Keith or Jack Nitzsche (who knows?), Old Man remains a signature Neil Young tune.

8: Alabama (Harvest, 1972)

The song that made the Skynyrd double-take is one of the few occasions on record that Neil Young strikes his electric guitar thoughtfully, with earnestness (with the addition of a raw tone) rather than in a soaring haze of uninhibited passion when accompanied by his deranged stallion. The lyrics may seem a little ‘history class’ now, but I’m sure that sound of a liberating crash cymbal resonated throughout folkie-town Nashville like an amplified fart.

7: Ambulance Blues (On the Beach, 1974)

Technically Young’s farewell to his stay at the side of the road, Ambulance Blues, the tune nabbed from Bert Jansch’s Needle of Death, is a very enjoyable and very high 9 minutes of Neil Young hypnotically singing about critics, Nixon, hippies, and hippies and critics and Nixon, and, Nixon, critics and hippies. The ambulance is a metaphor for salvation and time. You’re all just pissing in the wind.

6: Lookout Joe (Tonight’s the Night, 1975)

Lookout Joe epitomizes Tonight’s the Night, with its alienating sleazy characters and rough-around-the-edges sound. A hazy story of a veteran of Vietnam returning to find an unfamiliar land; What must those drafted flower children have thought when they returned to see all the casualties of their mind-altering revolution back home? The slightly out of tune guitars eventually turn triumphant, as Tonight’s the Night melts your mind.

5: Welfare Mothers (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)

With Welfare Mothers, we get a true sense of what an absolute shot out of nowhere his Rust Never Sleeps shows and tours were. Neil Young, with punk burgeoning and a couple of underwhelming albums under his belt, realized he had to make a drastic move. It was only then that he realised that he was completely compatible with punk. Godfather to the Sex Pistols, no! Congruent with the Sex Pistols, yes! In electric form, anyway. Of course, in the lyrics of Welfare Mothers, he takes a more mature and seasoned, humorous glance at today’s issues; Welfare mothers make better lovers!

4: Cortez the Killer (Zuma, 1979)

Originally appearing on Zuma, Cortez the Killer is one of the definitive Crazy Horse guitar workouts. Young’s guitar plunges more than it soars, and the whole 7 minutes and 29 seconds flows like molten lava, while he waxes angry lyrical about Hernán Cortés and Monteczuma. Cortez the Killer is a lasting fan-favourite, and a fittingly incendiary version appears on Live Rust.

3: Pocahontas (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)

One of the tracks from Young’s aborted Chrome Dreams LP (Wer’e still waiting…), Pocahontas is a tragedy coated in shadowy humour that defined his dabbles with the Ditch, and a rather stunning acoustic ramble. The only available iteration is satisfyingly deep, part of the majestic acoustic set that comprises the first side of 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps. Complete with tribal drums and roadie Jawas.

2: Like a Hurricane (Live Rust, 1979)

This is Neil Young’s ultimate electric masterwork, played on every tour since its glorious live inception at the Palladium in 1976. The most easily accessible version appears on Live Rust, his 4-side document of the ’79 Rust tour. Like Child in Time, Achilles Last Stand or Whippin’ Post, Like a Hurricane’s length and ragged scope morph into something magical and euphoric, able to take you into a hazy state of joy at the ”googlefritz”, as Christgau would say.

1: Powderfinger (Live Rust, 1979)

Powderfinger is one of the few songs where a feeling of despair and nihilism soars, rather than descends, just as the violently splattered brains of the protagonist ”splash in the sky”. With more hooks than PirateCon 2015, Powderfinger manages to create an awe-inspiring build-up and climax with a relatively short run-time. Burning out and fading away means so much in this song, as Young puts it in typically weird storyline context. His guitar skyrockets, and Crazy Horse provide a suitably savage and unfettered backup. A more stripped back and raw version appears on the ‘true’ live album Live Rust. On no other song has Ol’ Shakey managed so perfectly to mix his naturalistic folk side and the rusty titanium squeal of Old Black as on Powderfinger.

I like ‘Birds’ as well…

Cahoots! The Band’s Top 10 Songs

Whenever I stick on a Band album, It puts me completely at ease. They were treated as legend in the music press; while it seemed the ‘thing’ at the time was to ‘take LSD, hate your parents, and don’t trust anyone over 30’, The Band’s image was that of a virtuous group of guys out in a cabin in the country, making music that brought listeners back in touch with an older, simpler vision of America (the primary theme of the Brown Album), for people who, as longtime engineer John Simon put it “felt so out of touch with their country and culture, they felt like strangers even when they were in it”. This is surprising, seeing as the Band was all-Canadian, with the exception of Levon Helm, drummer, who also juggled lead vocals with pianist Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. Their often cryptic lyrics, packed with images of nature and often biblical references, also helped create this iconic image.

10: Last of the Blacksmiths (Cahoots, 1971)

Last of the Blacsmiths is a cold, cold song. Nothing like it exists on any other Band album. Thunderous piano and Rick Danko’s prominent bassline is broken up by a very strange bridge (you have to hear it to believe it), making this an interesting example of Robbie Robertson’s idiosyncratic songwriting. The pessimistic lyrics could also be an illustration of the frosty dynamic in the group at the time. A very interesting song from a somewhat forgettable album.

9: The Shape I’m In (Stage Fright, 1970)

The Band’s greatest albums were their first 2, but Stage Fright, while it doesn’t hold the same legendary status, is still a fine album. The Shape I’m In is a frantic, anxious songs, and is an example of their transition from a wholesome, rootsy rock band, to a more cynical, slick studio group. One of the best songs from their later era, supposedly about Manuel’s growing dependence on drugs and alcohol, and a great live version appears on Rock of Ages (1972).

8: I Shall Be Released (Music From Big Pink, 1968)

Originally written by Bob Dylan, the first recorded version appears on The Basement Tapes, but the band’s solo version is beautiful. A slow, soulful tune featuring stark, echoey piano and acoustic guiar, and Manuel’s charming high vocals penetrating the mix. A perfect end to what Roger Waters of Pink Floyd considers the “second most influential record in the history of Rock and Roll.” But who really cares what Roger Waters thinks.

7: When You Awake (The Band S/T, 1969)

The 4th track from probably the finest roots record cut, The Band’s self-titled from 1969, is one of the songs that is explored in most depth in the Classic Album documentary for it’s parent album (highly reccomended). It’s a story about things and ideas that are passed down in a family, and is a refreshingly relaxed follow-up to the Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, a more intense and impassioned track.

6: Stage Fright (Rock of Ages, 1970)

Bassist Rick Danko’s powerful, yet plaintive voice (which Eric Clapton supposedly found inspirational) fits the title track perfectly, without doubt the best on the whole Stage Fright album. The most enjoyable version, however, appears on Rock of Ages, the band’s 1972 double live album, where they’ve rarely been a tighter rock unit. Check out ‘Ol’ Brother Garth’s’ gliding keyboards on this one.

5: Jawbone (The Band S/T, 1969)

Richard Manuel’s Jawbone is one of the few tracks in their catalogue to be performed in an uncommon time signature, 6/4, making it an interesting transition from the energetic rock and roll of Look Out Cleveland towards Unfaithful Servant on the second side of The Brown Album.

4: Acadian Driftwood (Northern Lights – Southern Cross, 1975)

Chronicling the ”troubled history of Nova Scotia and Acadia” this absolutely sublime Robbie Robertson-penned song from the Band’s album from 1975 following a short hiatus, is an example of the laid back feel of Northern Lights – Southern Cross, due to their relocation to Malibu. “We had to escape Woodstock…”, says Robertson in the liner notes of my Capitol reissue CD. A good choice it was, too. According to the Rolling Stone Record Guide (Yep, that’s right), Acadian Driftwood ‘reaffirms Robbie Roberton’s status as one of rock’s greatest songwriters.’

3: To Kingdom Come (Music From Big Pink)

To Kingdom Come is one of the band’s least-known songs, packed with cryptic biblical references, it’s the exemplary example of their brilliant lyrics and songwriting. It sums up what Big Pink was all about.

2: Genetic Method/Chest Fever (The Last Waltz, 1968)

Garth Hudson, the secret weapon, is unleashed on this cracking rock song, his growling organ being the highlight. The lyrics make no sense, as the band are willing to admit, but it’s the lo-fi driving force of this track that makes it so special.

1: King Harvest (Has Surely Come), (Rock of Ages, 1972)

The final song on one of the greatest LPs of the 60’s is one of the funkiest in The Band’s catalogue, a story of a farmer frantically trying to save his crops, proud to be a ”union man” but ashamed of his current status (“just don’t judge me by my shoes…”). King Harvest is an impressive rock song, growing increasingly desperate as the song reaches its climax. The most fully realised version of the song appears on Rock of Ages, where Robertson’s guitar solo absolutely pops. Pure genius.

The Weight’s pretty good as well.