What I've really liked about making this list so far is that, the more I listen to and work out why I love these songs so much, the more I find I love them. It's almost as if the conscious decision of calling them my favourite songs has cemented them into that position. But one thing I can say for sure is that, no matter how many times I listen to them, the novelty does not wear off and they do not become boring. I'm am happy with the songs I've picked and this experience has made them more dear to me. It is as if we've gone on a long journey together. That being said, I still wish I could have put some more songs on here, but that's just how it goes.
And I think because I had such a rough Summer, dealing with possibly my first real depression, taking on this project helped me through it simply because it was a chance to focus on something positive. Negativity fuels negativity, so it must work the other way too. Thinking of anything in such a positive light can only fuel positive emotions and thoughts. Also, working through the memories that these songs have attached themselves too also lends some reassurance. Yes, life has had great times and those memories will stay with me. And new good memories will form and new amazing songs will be found.
So, thank you if you actually took the time to read it all and listen to all of the music. I hope you found songs that you enjoy and I hope that maybe you got to know me a little better through this.
10.) The Alan Parsons Project – I Robot (1977)
As far back as I can remember, this song has fascinated me and been a defining marker in my evolving musical taste. Both my parents were big fans of The Alan Parsons Project so I had a lot of exposure to their music growing up. In a sense, they are my Beatles. While so many people grow up knowing Beatles songs inside and out, I did not, but I know every note in so many Alan Parsons songs. There is a slight connection in that Alan Parsons was the engineer on The Beatles Abby Road and runs Abby Road studios, but that's neither here nor there. They also marked my introduction to Progressive Rock, as I heard their stuff long before I heard any Pink Floyd, Yes, or Genesis. I remember sitting by my Dad's stereo, plugging in the cassette tape, and listening to I Robot, their second album built on the concepts from Isaac Asimov's series of books, exploring the philosophical ideas of artificial intelligence. Man, they sure don't make music like this any more. The album is extraordinary and I would recommend it to anyone who even has a mild interest in progressive music.
And the song that always enraptured me the most was the self-titled opening track. “I Robot” is one of the finest ways to open an album, starting with a quiet drone, with small electronic elements fading in. You must listen to the opening with headphones on in a silent room. It is an experience like no other. And it perfectly encapsulated the vision of the album... a science fiction world of synthetic beings rising to consciousness. And as the song develops, it's almost as if it is painting a picture of Asimov's universe through music alone, an auditory portrait of machines, like cogs in a wheel, working succinctly and endlessly. There are very few songs that capture my imagination like “I Robot.”
9.) King Crimson – Neal and Jack and Me (1982)
On the subject of progressive rock, this is the second song on my list by the guru's of prog themselves, King Crimson. This time it's their 1980's incarnation, from their album Beat, a theme album around the works of the beat poets, including the famous Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, hence the title “Neal and Jack and Me.” This song captured exactly what that 80's band set out to do and did so well. Essentially, they made pop music, but with a progressive mind. They brought in catchy hooks, accessible melodies and reasonable run times for their songs, but melded them with the technical intricacies of prog rock. And few songs do this as well as “Neal and Jack and Me.”
Adrian Belew's curiously quirky lyrics suit the music well and all throughout you just hear all four of the musicians at the top of their game. You will never hear all the layers of the song in a single sitting. I often find that I need to sit and concentrate on a particular section in order to appreciate it fully and that really is something special. I like trying to figure out which guitar parts are the work of Robert Fripp and which of Belew's, but that's me being a music geek. They blend seamlessly, but you can still take the time to enjoy the song by listening to its various segments, or, of course, listening to it as a whole.
And the part of the song that really sells the song is the final minute and half, which has so much body and depth. It really takes the song up several notches. Plus, Belew singing “absent lovers” is infectiously memorable.
Admittedly, “Neal and Jack and Me” is a little bit dated, very obviously created in the 1980's, but perhaps the sound of that decade is what helps define the song. The way the guitars are processed sounds strangely heavenly to me and I can't imagine that working in any other decade.
8.) The Dears – Lost In the Plot (2003)
And apparently this is the highest ranking Canadian song on my list. I didn't even realize this until now, but it looks like The Dears' “Lost in the Plot” is my favourite piece of Canadian music. And that seems about right to me. Their album No Cities Left is a masterpiece of rock music and this has long been my favourite track from the bunch.
Murray Lightburn is one of the most soulful singers of our generation. He could have been in the classic Motown crew if he were born years earlier and didn't have an obvious talent for writing rock music. His songs can range from catchy, to edgy, to melancholy, to downright innovative. And interestingly enough, “Lost In The Plot” to some degree, captures all of those aspects. As such, the tone is rather hard to peg. Perhaps that's what makes it so compelling; it is an emotionally complex love song. While the lyrics aren't too complex, the notes behind the words speak volumes and the way he sings them speaks even more.
That's what separates the great artists from the mediocre ones. If you handed this music and words to Hedley or Marianas Trench, the result would likely be completely underwhelming. But in the hands of the The Dears, it is a rich and spiritual experience. The lyrics are a bit odd at times and shouldn't work, but again, in this context everything seems right. And all in all, it's not a fabulously produced song. It's very raw. But that just emphasizes the strength of the song writing.
I want to say more about this song... like this isn't enough to express my feelings for it. The moment it begins with that synthesizer, I get that feeling. How do I describe it? Like my body is preparing for something great. I suppose it's kind of like a drug. My brain gets an indication of a reward and begins to crave it. This is a drug I can get behind.
7.) Minus The Bear – Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo (2002)
This was another case where I wasn't expecting this song to be this high in the list, but I just kept thinking that it deserved to be higher and now here we are near the end of the list. I guess I underestimated this song. This somehow feels right.
Minus The Bear's Highly Refined Pirates is a brilliant debut album from a band that have remained high on my interest radar for many years. But nothing beats that first album. And one of the best selling points is this track, “Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo.” The other songs are just as equally ridiculous in how they're titled, so this track isn't special in that regard. But it does have many other elements that make it work.
Structurally, the track does some interesting things, including having a long introduction as well as an extended finale. This is one of the only songs of theirs that has a female background singer, and it works strangely well. There is something about those little touches that add a lot to the overall song. But by far, one of the best aspects of this song are the lyrics. They are quotable and catchy and even offer some insight into life and the bizarreness of it sometimes. I actually once wrote a short story based on some lyrical bits of this song, so it actually really inspired me. The line is “Don't say no to pills, atavan won't kill.” And from that I build a short story about a patient in a mental ward.
The unique guitar sound featured in this song, as well as most of the others in the album, is a result of their double tapping technique which actually services the song fairly well, giving the band another memorable feature, setting them apart from many of their peers.
6.) Interpol – PDA (2002)
Interpol are one of the best rock bands to come out of the 2000's. And even if they only had one album, I feel that statement wouldn't lose its validity. They crafted a rock masterpiece with their debut album Turn on the Bright Lights and it has remained a prize in my music collection.
My favourite track is the finely tuned and intricate “PDA.” It is amazing. It has a tight, raw energy to it, an intensity like you're strapped into the passengers side of a speeding car on a highway. There is a compelling dark undertone to during the verses that contrasts the slightly lighter chorus. The lyrics imply that you should sleep tight, but the energy of the song provides unrest. There is also something great about the voice of singer Paul Banks. His voice is very raw which is quite different from most of his work in future Interpol songs. I think that he underestimates how good that unprocessed sound is. It does make for an amount of ambiguity as to what the lyrics actually are in the chorus (“sleep tight, grim right?”), but the sound matches the music perfectly.
Not unlike “Neal and Jack and Me,” the highlight of this song is the final two minutes. It's a great song from the start, but the song takes a musical turn and becomes an instrumental that just builds and builds. The guitar chords and riffs that they link together fit so well and just sound magnificent. And the best part is the background synthesizer that adds that extra amount of depth as well as the background vocal part that's difficult to make out, but brings an extra emotional element to the music. It all works so well, I could just listen to that last two minutes (One minute, fifty to be exact) over and over again. And I often do.
Watch out for the music video of this song because, for whatever reason, it cuts out that last finale to the song. It might seem like a logical end point to people who don't know the song, but anyone familiar might find themselves unfulfilled and wanting more. I don't believe in breaking up a masterpiece. They go it right the first time, dammit.
5.) Tears For Fears – Head Over Heels (1985)
It's hard to go wrong with Tears For Fears, a duo of hit makers in the mid-80's, best known for “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” I do enjoy those hits, particular the latter, but it wasn't until much later that I heard another single from the same album, Songs From The Big Chair. And I really enjoyed “Head Over Heels” and the more time I take with the song, the more I enjoy it. In fact, I loved it more when I heard it in context with the album. I wonder why this one never got the same long lasting attention as the other two when it's clearly just as great a track.
This was actually one of the first vinyl records I owned. I was just starting to get into collecting records and I just stumbled upon it in Value Village. I looked it over and it was in good condition and I picked it up for $2.00. I was pleased as punch and taking it home and dropping the needle on the record was a strangely satisfying experience. And it was the first time I heard “Head Over Heels” in this context. It follows a track called “Broken” which shares a lot of melodic elements as this song so hearing them side by side made for a new and exciting experience. And then, to cap it off, “Head Over Heels” had a Coda of “Broken” at the end to sort of round out the songs and unify them. It was a really interesting way to structure the album and it made me appreciate the song that much more.
The selling point to this song is the bass which carries the song from beginning to end. It is just a delight in its groove and light-hearted charm. I just want to bop my head to it every time... and by want to, I mean that I do. I can't help it. It is well balanced with a piano ditty, glossy synth, and that great Tears For Fears vocal performance from Curt Smith. It's a well written, sharply produced, and full realized song that builds perfectly on great musical ideas.
4.) Daft Punk – Digital Love (2001)
Surely you must have known Daft Punk was going to be on this list at some point. Truth is, their album Discovery, is one of my favourite albums ever and picking a single song off of it was actually surprisingly difficult. It raised the bar of electronic music and everyone has been trying to meet that marker ever since. Hell, even Daft Punk haven't really been able to best themselves, which is probably why they never really tried and took their music in a decidedly different direction. There really is something magical about that album.
So, why “Digital Love” out of all the tracks? Well, one reason is that it was one of the first tracks I heard from the album and really pushed me to buy it. But ultimately, I went with the song that I had the most emotional attachment to. So many other songs are just as amazing musically, but not many of them have that emotional punch to them, and maybe they're not supposed to. But “Digital Love” tells the tale of a man waking up from a dream where he found love on the dance floor, only to feel lost without that love when it turns out never to have been real. And while the story is surprisingly simple and may even sound cheesy, I connect with it all too much. In fact, around the time that I found this song I actually had the very dream he described. I was a a school dance and found myself dancing with a girl I really cared for. It felt real and wonderful. And I remember waking up and the great disappointment and sadness that fell on me. I'm sure most lonely men feel it at some point; I doubt I'm unique. But I feel that adds legitimacy to the song's simple tale. It something we can connect to.
Of course, it also doesn't hurt that this is also a pretty cool dance song. It samples an old lame disco track and makes the best of the best part of that song. And it builds into something really cool. And near the end it breaks into an excellent electric guitar solo which is still something you don't hear too often in electronic music. It also leaves the song on a more positive note, giving the feeling of excitement and optimism.
“Digital Love” is just a magnificent song that takes you on a dream like journey, through sad memories into musical bliss.
3.) Depeche Mode – Enjoy The Silence (1990)
Back in the late 90's, I went through a phase where I would listen to the radio on my newly acquired CD player and use the cassette deck to record songs to listen to over and over. I still have most of these tapes somewhere in a box and I still use the CD player because miraculously, 15 years later, it still works great. How many iPods can you say that about?
One day I stumbled upon this song on the radio and I promptly recorded it, but never caught the name of the artist. I think I caught the title though. But it was a favourite to listen to for quite a while. It was unlike anything else on the radio at the time, likely because it wasn't really current for the year. I don't even remember how I figured out this was Depeche Mode, but at some point my brother picked up the album Violator and this was on it. And that album shows them to be a band capable of so much greatness, but at times settling for less. And that's how I feel about their career as a whole. Some wonderful highlights, but some fluff to sift through. It goes without saying that “Enjoy The Silence” is one of the high points and was one that just continued to stick with me. It's as good now as it was when I was 12 years old.
“Enjoy the Silence” is carried by a throbbing electronic beat, with layers of eerie synthesizer on top. The guitar is thick with reverb, and moves through an ingenious riff. Dave Gahan's vocals are deep and wavy, and service the song in its solemn objective. He is joined by female back up singers during the song's chorus, which shows that well placed back up vocals can go a long way, just as they did in the Minus The Bear song earlier. The music builds as the song moves into its finale and horn parts are incorporated, which is another extra touch that sets this song a few notches higher. I really enjoy the long conclusion.
But what I love the most about this track is the sentiment it carries. Sometimes it is just nice to enjoy the silence. There are times where I find myself in a situation where it's eerily quiet, which is something I'm not very used to as I live in a big city. And when that happens, the line “enjoy the silence” plays in my head and that encourages me to absorb the quiet atmosphere and revel it in a bit more. The song is more about getting entangled in words that can do harm in a relationship, and I appreciate that too. Sometimes I need to know when to shut my mouth or at least choose my words very carefully. Surely we've all found ourselves lost in our own words.
2.) Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart (1980)
I first heard this song in the movie Donnie Darko and, like many of the songs on the soundtrack, I fell in love with it. (“Head Over Heels” was also in that film.) But I don't think I fully understood how much I would connect with the song for a while. I liked it, but every time I heard it, I would like it more and more. And to this day, it remains ever potent and ever relevant. I even have found new things to love about it. Only while writing this review for it I realized that Ian Curtis had a very odd voice. He's not particularly 'good' singer, but man, he sounds so real and honest. There is something so compelling about his strange vocal choices. He never really tries to be a 'good' singer. He just sings.
And that must be part of the appeal behind this song. It seems relatively unambitious, but feels so raw genuine. That being said, there is still much to admire in the music. It starts off with a grand, exciting introduction and just keeps the energy high from there. The way the haunting synthesizers pair with the fast strumming guitar is mesmerizing.
The song feels like a punk dance number, but the lyrics are actually quite sad, chronicling a cold and distant relationship. In some ways it's like a bad relationship in that it keeps up a façade; the beat is fun and catchy, but there is a darkness to the music and a sadness at its heart. This is perhaps amplified by the knowledge that Ian Curtis took his own life before the song was even released. I think that adds some credibility to his sorrowful lyrics as tragic as that is. You know, not that you have to end your own life to be taken seriously as an artist, but in retrospect it does shed light as to why there was something so genuine about the melancholy of Joy Division.
1.) Peter Gabriel – In Your Eyes (1986)
“Love... I get so lost sometimes.”
Sometimes dismissed as a pop songwriter and compared to his genesis peer Phil Collins, I feel that often the genius of Peter Gabriel's music is overshadowed by his bigger pop hits, even if they're good pop songs. But he is a song writer of unparalleled power and capturing a genuine depth in many of his songs that most song writers wish they could convey. Peter Gabriel is the real deal. Keep in mind that he started in Genesis, a progressive rock band, and allowed himself to stretch when he left his band and explore almost every avenue of music going from world music to folk to orchestral. And somehow through his incredible career, many people only talk about his album So. And perhaps that's because that's where his big hits came from. “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time” were big pop hits, and revolutionized music videos on a visual level, and many people connected the emotional “Don't Give Up” a duet he sang with Kate Bush. But I think the song with the most impact is “In Your Eyes,” his most timeless love song.
I used to describe it as the best mushy love song ever written, but the more I hear it, the less accurate that feels. Rather, now I find it to be the most genuine love song ever written. It's not mushy at all. This is the real gut-wrenching stuff. This expresses the kind of hard love that many of us choose to ignore. This is a love that is heartbreaking. It's even sadder in retrospect actually, now that we know that the marriage he was in when he wrote this song ended a year later. That's what his next album, Us, focused on. Peter Gabriel describes a love that hurts so much, yet he can still find solace in the comfort she provides.
From the first word, this song already speaks more than most other love songs. The way he says “love” in the very beginning is more raw, beautiful and broken sounding than any other lyric I've heard uttered. You hear that and you know, this is a man who knows love deeply and understands the sacrifice that must come for it. I listened to so many cover versions of this song to see if anyone can capture that same genuine expression and no one gets it! No one can sing this song like Peter Gabriel. Just as I said with The Dears; that is what separates the greats from average.
Musically this song is brilliant as well. There is a certain extra richness to the song, like most of So's better songs, that gives it more weight. Much of that is from great production by Gabriel himself and Daniel Lanois. Gabriel plays the synthesizer, which thankfully has aged very well unlike many songs of the era akin to this one. The bass section is performed by prolific studio musician Tony Levin, and I have to admit that the bass is an unsung hero of the song. Particularly during the chorus, the bass just adds so much depth to the music. And the guitar, by David Rhodes adds a wonderful subtle touch to the arrangement. The song in general is just a really well rounded, smartly written, wonderful piece of adult pop music. A masterpiece. A truly memorable gem of a song.
I know you've probably heard this song dozens, if not hundreds, of times on the radio, but take this opportunity to listen to it with fresh ears. Listen to it as if it is your first time. And listen to the music. Listen to his voice. You can hear his soul on his sleeve, exposed, stripped down, and it's beautiful. You can hear it. It's there.
“In Your Eyes” was not originally going to be my #1 song, though I didn't know what would be, but as my marriage began to really come undone, I came to understand the true sentiment of the song and realized I underestimated it before. Then after my wife left me, I understood it so much more and found myself listening to it constantly. He and I fought the futile fight of a love that couldn't take the weight of the hurt it produced. For five and a half minutes, Peter Gabriel and I are brothers.
Thanks everyone for reading! Let me know what you think of my list in the comments or in person or whatever. And please, feel free to share some of your favourite songs with me.