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These are the top ten songs — in no particular order save for number one — ever recorded by anyone. If a song is not on the list, it undoubtedly was a good try, however, I feel your pain. None of the songs I wrote were ever even in the running. But those are the breaks, and here they are. The Top Ten Songs Ever.
1. “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)” by Talking Heads (from Speaking in Tongues)
This is my all-time favorite song ever by anybody. It’s just amazing. Such a simple riff, but it becomes something absolutely gorgeous. Lyrically, it’s so sad, touching and moving. I don’t typically go in for love songs, though this one is note-perfect; the perfect blend of sadness, fear, happiness, disbelief and amazement truly accurately represents what it is to be in love. And, in Stop Making Sense, David Byrne sings it to a lamp. That is one lucky lamp.
2. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Pest Control” by The Young Fresh Fellows (from Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest)
How many bands are there that can do one of the best songs of their careers as the very first song on their very first record? Not many, but the Young Fresh Fellows did it. The bass riff (by Scott McCaughey before he moved to guitar) and lyrics are great and nonsensical. The title of this song is also an apt descriptor — this song is amazing for dislodging other songs that get stuck in your head. And it has the decency to move its way on out after a couple times, freeing you from itself AND the original song you had in the first place. How polite.
3. “Watermelon In Easter Hay” by Frank Zappa (from Joe’s Garage)
Frank Zappa wasn’t often known for writing beautiful music. Most adjectives that come to mind are “satirical”, “scatological”, “silly” and “‘spirimental”. However, of course, some of Zappa’s pieces can move me to tears; “Strictly Genteel” is wonderful, as is most of the Burnt Weeny Sandwich album, but this one takes the cake. Joe’s Garage is the (somewhat meandering) story of a man in a garage band in a future US where music is soon to be outlawed. Joe gets arrested, and after a terrible time in prison, he has basically shut down to the outside world and does nothing but make up music and guitar solos in his mind. “Watermelon in Easter Hay” is Joe’s last imaginary guitar solo, as he realizes that nothing he’s creating is real, and it’s his last creative act before getting a dead-end job in a muffin factory. Even without the context, the music would be gloriously sad — but with the context, it is positively aching. An amazing piece of music.
4. “Sugar Coated Iceberg” by The Lightning Seeds (from Dizzy Heights)
Ian Broudie is an outstanding producer and pop songwriter. The first time I heard this one, I was absolutely floored. It reminds me somewhat of the work of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, one of the best songwriting teams, up there with Goffin and King. The strangest thing about this song is that it was co-written with the guy from Baby Bird… who are absolutely terrible. Strange. I don’t know if he was having an off day and ended up creating a jaw-droppingly perfect pop song, or if Ian Broudie just brings out the best in people. But in Ian Broudie’s career of amazing pop, this one is the best — which is saying something about a man whose misfires (“Three Kings”, the soccer single) aren’t even all THAT bad.
5. “American Pie” by Don McLean (from American Pie)
This is one of the first songs and albums I ever really, really loved. I’d always loved hearing the song when it came on the radio — the full version, please — any edit is just pointless; and when my parents fixed our turntable for me when I was in seventh grade, I listened to this album at LEAST once a day. For a while, I knew every song by heart. I no longer do, but I still think I could sing this one all the way through if asked. Lots (no, really, LOTS) of great lyrics and imagery. I’ve had a few of Don McLean’s other albums on old cassettes (the utterly depressing Tapestry comes to mind) and while I enjoyed them, none of them seemed to resonate with me as much as the full American Pie album did.
6. “Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mammy” by DEVO (from Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO!)
After discovering DEVO in high school, I don’t think anything was ever really the same. Ben and I had been working out an art troupe/band/something not long before, and once we’d discovered DEVO, we found they’d said everything we were saying, and better. And, well, DEVO continue to be right — De-Evolution is real, spuds. This one’s probably my favorite DEVO song, though — I love the way the intro builds and builds and builds with more and more layers and more and more speed. Listen to the drumming on it as well — while this isn’t one of Alan’s more complex tracks (try “Timing X” for that!), it’s not exactly a straight-forward thud-thud-thud-thud beat either, and the way he speeds up and up is great. I also love the electric piano sound on it and, well, just about everything. There’s a reason this is one of the first songs I ever learned how to play on the guitar. (Also, the fact that it’s actually pretty easy helped.)
7. “When Harpo Played His Harp” by Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers (from Modern Lovers 88)
Of all things, I was first turned on to this song by a comic strip. When Stephen Notley posted this one, he realized that not all his audience would get the joke, so he posted an mp3 of the song — noting that the album was also out of print. I downloaded it (hey, free music) and fell in love with it immediately. I must have listened to it about five hundred times on repeat. It’s such a beautiful, sweet song… and I don’t even particularly care much for the Marx Brothers! I finally found a copy of the full album, and it’s amazing. Every track is almost as good as this one — which is still the best. Jonathan Richman is one of our national treasure songwriters — often simplistic, but he always brings truth and beauty.
8. “Retrieval of You” by The Minus 5 (from Down With Wilco)
I waffled a little bit about including this song on the list — after all, I already did have a Young Fresh Fellows song on, but, danged if I couldn’t leave this one out. Perhaps my soft spot for it is based at least partially that the ending reminds me a lot of “Western Union” by the Five Americans — another of my favorite pop songs — only a bit better. The lyrics (often a strong suit of Scott McCaughey) are so cinematic as well. If only all songs about abductions were as well composed as this.
9. “Twisting” by They Might Be Giants (from Flood)
I have to admit I was surprised that I went with a track from Flood for my TMBG song, but I think it’s probably my favorite song (though there are a LOT of contenders). TMBG were the first band I really became a die-hard fan of, and I almost went with “Don’t Let’s Start” — the first song of theirs I’d heard — instead. But the organ riff on this one just really did it for me. I’ve always loved rock organ, and this is so well done.
10. “Wrapped In Grey” by XTC (from Nonsuch)
This is the song that caused XTC to go on strike from Virgin Records until they were released from their contract five years later. Andy Partridge was inordinately proud of this song and wanted Virgin to release it as a single. After some hemming-and-hawing Virgin scheduled it for release, pressed them up, sent some of them out… and promptly recalled them and threw them in the crusher. Andy was enraged, and vowed never to record for them again. And since he was on contract with them, ANYTHING he recorded would belong to Virgin, so, well, he didn’t record. There were a couple of exceptions done under pseudonyms, but that was it. Most people thought the band had broken up — they hadn’t, but without any new music, it was as good as if they had. They eventually got freed, formed their own label, released a couple records… before the first of these, Dave Gregory left after recording on some tracks, and recently, Colin Moulding left the band as well, saying he wasn’t into music anymore (and hasn’t apparently spoken to Andy since, including moving away and not giving him his new number), and so, well, XTC did break up — but about 15 years after this. So, they did stick with it for a while, anyway.