Continuing with my random top ten lists I’m listing ten of my favorite songs. They’re in no particular order, and again I’m listing them here rather than in Facebook, so I can share why I like them. These songs all have something in common. They’re the songs I’ve played a lot , that I sing in the shower or my car. Some of them evoke a particular emotion.
A couple of comments to preview this list. First, I make no secret of my age and likely influence it had on this list. I’m 58 and was very influenced by the music of the late60’s and 70’s. Lots of music here from that time. I am a firm believer that there is no good or bad music, just the music I like or dislike. I don’t think I’ll share a “music I don’t like list,” but I will share that I’m much more open to different kinds of music than I used to be. I used to be fairly dismissive, and while there are some genres and songs I don’t care for, I’ll at least usually give it a listen. The songs below appear in no particular order.
1. “The Waiting,” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers from the album Hard Promises (1981.) I love Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty is a gifted songwriter and his albums are packed with evidence of his craft. This song in particular is my favorite. I love the lyrics and Petty’s trademark howl. But it is the incendiary solo by lead guitarist Mike Campbell that completes the song for me. Campbell is a vastly underrated guitarist. A founding Heartbreaker, Campbell played with Don Henley on “Boys of Summer” and sat in on a pile of great records. He is a wonderful stylist. Never a wasted note, he plays just enough to let you know he’s there. I was fortunate to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 2009 at the Gorge on the Columbia River. It was a fabulous show I’ll never forget. And I was thrilled they played my favorite song.
2 “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones from the album Let it Bleed (1969). I love this song. I am not a huge Stones devotee, but what I like I really like. I love the opening Keith Richards guitar, the Mick Jagger lead vocals and the Merry Clayton backing vocals. It has a sort of muddy mix that makes the lyrics difficult to pick out, but it’s still fabulous. Recorded during the middle of the Vietnam War on the heels of the Altamont concert disaster, it is a song of warning, of dire and impending apocalypse, it is dangerous. It’s timeless, and I never tire of listening to it. I’ve never seen the Stones live. I wish I’d seen them in the ‘70’s during their run of superb albums-Exile on Mainstreet, Sticky Fingers, Black and Blue, but no such luck. I’ll have to stick to my recorded music.
3. “Desperado” by Linda Ronstadt from the album Don’t Cry Now (1973). I absolutely loved Linda Ronstadt during the 70’s, and I bought many of her albums from Silk Purse to Hasten Down the Wind. I was fortunate to see her with the Eagles in 1977 during the Hotel California tour. I always loved the purity of her voice and her willingness to cover the music of others during the ‘70’s when the singer/songwriter movement was in vogue. Of all her songs, I loved Desperado best. Let’s be clear, I think the Eagles original is great too, but there is something that Ronstadt brings to the song that is more plaintive and emotional that allows her to transcend the Don Henley vocals. And it’s more than just hitting the high notes. I love this song and will just lapse into singing it (badly) when the mood takes me. I was thrilled to see Ronstadt voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after so many years of eligibility, and saddened to hear her voice is stilled by Parkinson’s Disease.
4. Smokestack Lightning by Howlin’ Wolf from the album Moaning in the Moonlight (1959). In the 90’s I tried to get my head around more rock roots so I listened to Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. While I walked away appreciating it all, I can’t say it changed my life, except for this song. In my view, it’s one of the greatest vocal performances of all time. Soulful, plaintive, and sorrowful, the Wolf accompanies himself on electric guitar and with a howl so chilling it sends shivers down my spine. This is a magnificent song. Smokestack Lightning was covered by the Yardbirds and many other British bands during the invasion as they attempted to play American roots rock. Accept no substitutes, this is the real deal. You might recognize the tune, it was recently used as a theme for Viagara commercials . . .sigh.
5. Behind Blue Eyes by The Who from the album Who’s Next (1971.) For many years after college The Who was my favorite band, and I listened to it all from “My Generation” to “Eminence Front.” They made lots of great records, but my favorite is still Who’s Next from 1971. Packed with great songs that show up on oldies radio, covered by other artists, and, sadly, as bumper music for t.v. commercials it’s hard to miss “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” or “The Song is Over.” My favorite song is Behind Blue Eyes. A scorching critique of the phoniness of the ‘70’s after the idealism of the ‘60’s, the song pairs Pete Townsend’s brilliant songwriting with Roger Daltry’s superb vocals. The song allows us to see a fully formed Daltry, capable of carrying a tune nicely and in a second turning it into his trademark growl and scream, capable of burning the house down.
6. Better Man by Pearl Jam from the album Vitalogy (1994). I love Pearl Jam. I admit it. I love their older stuff from Ten and Vs., and their new stuff from Lightning Bolt. Their early mix was more accessible to me than Nirvana, with its mix of traditional arena rock, anger and angst, oh, and melody, which tended to be underappreciated in the grunge movement of the 90’s. Though I enjoyed almost everything that came out of Seattle during that wonderful musical decade, Pearl Jam remains my favorite. While I can’t say I know every song or every album well, I do know my favorite song is Better Man. Because Pearl Jam records all their concerts, and I’ve heard so many different versions of the song, it’s hard to know whether I like the version on Vitalogy best, or the acoustic live version at Madison Square Garden in 2010, or their versions at the Bridge School . The story of a woman paired with a man who treats her like garbage, and her reluctance to leave is one we all know in real life. While it is a pop song, the story-telling is so true and Eddie Vedder is so earnest and honest, I always come back to it.
7. Wonderwall by Ryan Adams from the album Love is Hell (2004.) I am not an Oasis fan. When I heard the original Oasis song I didn’t give it much thought. I am not a Ryan Adams person though I’ve heard a dozen or so of his songs and generally like them. I listened to this version of Wonderwall late on deadline with my students in 2008 and I was very taken with it. I was struck by the genuineness of the lyrics and Adams’ performance, and the sentiment it inspired in me. Whenever I listen to this song, I am reminded of how much I love my wife and how I could never be what I am or who I am without her, and I thank God every day that I’m with her and that she puts up with me. Damn I love this song, even though it’s slow and sappy.
8. Crazy on You by Heart from the album Dreamboat Annie(1975.) I’m convinced that if record companies were more interested in selling music than image or sex, Heart would still have a big contract and be making music readily accessible to a big audience. Ann Wilson can still sing, and Nancy Wilson can still play guitar. Somehow during the 80’s it became more about supplying the band with songs and Ann’s weight. Oh well, rant off. Dreamboat Annie is a good album and Crazy on You is a great song from the opening guitar solo to Ann’s fevered chorus. It’s what got them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’ve also got an interesting interesting acoustic version of Crazy somewhere and I like that too. What’s really fascinating is that the band is in demand again. They’re touring and playing lots of shows. Ann is 63 and can still flat belt it. She’s the best female rock vocalist there ever was, period, the end.
9. Cinnamon Girl by Neil Young from the album Everybody Knows this is Nowhere (1969.) When Neil Young emerged from the wreck of Buffalo Springfield, he was already a fully formed songwriter, guitar stylist and singer. All that remained was for him to carry off the role of leader. Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969) is his first album with Crazy Horse, the band he still tours with and is most comfortable with. Though the album has three superb songs, “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Down by the River,” and “Cinnamon Girl,” my favorite is the last. “Cinnamon Girl” has the virtue of being fairly short, and previews the vocal and guitar style Young has used on his electric stuff throughout his career. It is a powerful and catchy tune, with relatively simple and straightforward lyrics. When I saw Neil in 2012, “Cinnamon Girl” was on the rather short playlist, but he jammed on it for some twelve minutes as opposed to the original that was less than three. That made it far less interesting.
10. Moonage Daydream by David Bowie from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972.) I came to some things late in life. David Bowie is one of those. While I am still picking at his catalogue, I can honestly confess that Ziggy Stardust is one of my favorite albums ever. With tons of just great songs including the title track, “Starman,” and “Suffragette City,” it’s an absolute classic and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I got a good listen to Moonage Daydream when my son Patrick performed it at a coffee house in an acoustic set a year ago. I’m sure I heard the song before, but it just seemed to breeze past me. Since Pat played it I can’t hear it enough. It is really special. Full of declarative statements in degrees of sci-fi oddities, it should be the definition of awesomeness.
11. Racing in the Streets by Bruce Springsteen from the album Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). I am not one who loves everything the Boss has ever done. I don’t really care for his acoustic music and I think his voice is an acquired taste. But I do believe some of his albums, like Born to Run, are among the best rock albums ever made. Born to Run is such an upbeat. joyful album. His follow-up album, Darkness on the Edge of Town is such a contrast. Issued in 1978, three years after BTR catapulted Springsteen to stardom and after a long legal battle over contractual rights, the themes of this album are dark and somber. In no song is this truer than Racing in the Streets. Told in the first person, it is the story of a street racer the excitement and centrality it has in life, but also the danger and uncertainty. It’s slow, mostly just Bruce and a piano, but it is magnificent storytelling. Great song from a great album.
1 Message in a Bottle by the Police from the album Regatta de Blanc (1979). Because Sting is ubiquitous and a little overwhelming, I think we’ve forgotten the Police a bit. Yes, we hear “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger” on oldies radio, but I think we’ve forgotten what a unique sound the trio had when they appeared in the late 70’s during the New Wave. A jazz-influenced reggae band, that’s what they were and remained through Regatta de Blanc, their second album. This was a tough choice for me, because I love two songs on this album, “Walking on the Moon” and “Message in a Bottle.” But I went with Message because it is wonderfully up-tempo, I love the universality of its message, and the awesomeness of its chorus. I love to sing “Sending out an SOS.” I think we forget what accomplished musicians these guys were, playing as a trio. Stewart Copeland may be the greatest rock drummer ever, and I don’t think guitarist Andy Summers gets enough credit for his talent and creativity in filling the space between Copeland’s drums and Sting’s big bass sound.
So that’s my list. I know what you’re thinking–hey Smyth, no Beatles, no Led Zepplin, no whatever else. Beatles are hard because there are so many great songs it’s hard to choose one. Twist and Shout? Eleanor Rigby? Back in the USSR? Not this time, sorry. I have the same difficulty with Led Zepplin, but I also rarely find myself humming a Led Zepplin tune. Full disclosure: Black Dog is the ringtone for my phone.