Sunday, 8 February 2015

My 100 Favourite Songs (20 - 11)

We're nearing the end of this series and truthfully, I'm glad. It's taken me a lot longer to write this than I initially anticipated, but sometimes these descriptions are really hard to articulate. It can be difficult to dig deep and understand why you connect with something the way you do. Humanity's relationship with music is a mysterious thing and to try and analyse it is sometimes feels like biting off more than I can chew. But it's been a really worthwhile journey and I'll get more into the reasons for that next time. That being said, I am really looking forward to writing and releasing the final article.
I hope that as you're reading you're finding some new music to enjoy, or finding new reasons to enjoy the songs that you already know. Or maybe you think I'm insane for putting some of these songs on my list. Whatever the case, feel free to comment and I will definitely read what you have to say and will gladly take your recommendations for music that you enjoy.
This is a fun and diverse collection of songs today. We travel through many colours on the emotional and musical spectrum. Thanks again for reading.

20.) The Mars Volta – Cygnus... Vismund Cygnus (2005)
Before you listen to this song, do not be fooled by the quiet introduction. It starts off really quiet so that when the music explodes, so do your speakers. It's actually a very effective technique for adding some dramatic impact to the listening experience. The usage of volume as a song writing tool is something that is often overlooked, used mostly by progressive rock bands, such as The Mars Volta.
Sometimes through this list I find bands that I really enjoy and try and narrow which song of theirs is my favourite and sometimes it's a very challenging decision and other times I narrow it down pretty well. With The Mars Volta, there was no hesitation. I knew right away that “Cygnus... Vismund Cygnus” was the one. This may have even been one of the songs I had in mind that made me want to take on this series in the first place. It's just unbelievably good. Like, unrealistically good. It doesn't even make any sense. It's almost like a crash course in The Mars Volta. If you aren't sure if you can get into their music, and I understand if you can't, this is the ideal song to use as a sampler because it goes through so many movements that you get a real sense of what kind of music they make and the scope of that.
Frances The Mute is a fascinating album and has its flaws, but it is wise in delivering this astonishing opening track. You should listen to it four times. Listen to it to just experience the whole song. Just discover it and take it all in. Next listen to it just to listen to the vocals, lyrics and get sucked in by the guitar solos. Then listen to it again just to be blown away by the percussion and the bass. The drumming, compliments of Jon Theodore, is outrageously good and the bass, by Juan Alderete, is insane. There is a section where the bass and the guitar are played so quickly and aggressively, at at 3 minutes and 20 seconds in, that I often listen to it three times in a row before continuing with the rest of the song. And each time my jaw just drops at that 20 seconds of ridiculous awesomeness. And last, listen to it again just because you know you want to and hey, one more couldn't hurt, right?
I think, unlike most of the songs on this list, where I feel some emotional connectivity with them, I just go full fan boy on “Cygnus... Vismund Cygnus.” It just pleases me entirely on its aesthetics and that's just fine by me.

19.) The Cure – Pictures of You (1989)
If it's one thing The Cure know how to do right, it's make a love song based off of cat puns. If it's two things, it's also capturing the feeling of nostalgic love and sentimentality. One of their most famous songs is “Pictures of You” and rightfully so as it captures the very essence of lost love and reflecting on what was and what could have been. And with the reflecting comes, to some degree, acceptance of the situation. Maybe that's just me projecting my own feelings on it, because it is entirely possible that they just want to keep moping about the whole love thing. One can make a good career on that!
Disintegration is one of the band's finest albums and likely one of their most recognized and “Pictures of You” is one of their most remembered tracks. And I should stress that the full album version is far superior to the radio edit. At 7 and half minutes, it is an emotional journey that you must invest yourself into. You must allow yourself to be engulfed in the imagery and atmosphere.
What really works for me is how this is a universal break up song in that it is so easy to connect to empathize with, yet it feels very personal and specific so you never feel like it's just a generic sad song made to appeal to lonely teens. It is a beautiful lost love poem that just happens to appeal to lonely teens. And that's not even really giving it enough credit because I feel it delves deeper into love than that. It feels mature and refined, though not necessarily restrained.
But actually one of the things that I like about this song it on a technical level also. It's actually quite well written and it goes through a lot of interesting movements structurally. The vocals don't even start in the song until almost 2 minutes into the song, allowing the drama of the song to naturally build. This trend continues through the song as there are a number of long musical breaks between vocal sections. Brevity is dispatched for atmosphere. One of my favourite moments of the song is the key change near the end which adds an extra emotional punch, accentuated more the vocals and lyrics. All in all, it's just a really well rounded song that conveys exactly what it wants to. I just love it.

18.) M83 – Kim & Jessie (2008)
Wow, do I love M83! Probably one of the finest electronic artists to come out of France, which is actually saying a lot because the French basically invented the genre and perfected it, M83 crafted a very particular sound in which the chords of the song are distorted and selected to be almost contradictory to themselves. The notes, when put together, shouldn't work, but they do. And not only does it work, but it is incredible sounding.
But more specifically, “Kim & Jessie” is one of the finest singles released in 2008 that was tragically overlooked. There is a beautiful uplifting energy throughout the song; a sound of triumph and majesty contrasted with moments of a solemn contemplation. And what's interesting is that behind it there is a hidden darkness behind the music that is difficult to pinpoint. There is a strange emotional complexity and tone to this song that probably adds to the replay value. I think my brain doesn't always know what to make of it so it remains fascinated.
All the while M83 embraces a retro sound, calling back to the synth pop of the 1980's, but with slick modern production and an extra dramatic sting. It, at first glance, seems like a simple enough song, but there is actually a lot going on in it. And something about the high pitched howling is oddly pleasing to me. I feel like I shouldn't like it, but I really do.
Also, worthy of note is their almost hit song “Midnight City” which only really lost to “Kim & Jessie” because I've known this one longer. They're both amazing and picking between the two was very difficult.

17.) Xiu Xiu – I Luv The Valley (OH) (2004)
Much like mewithoutYou, a friend (same friend, actually) sent me Xiu Xiu's fan favourite track “I Luv the Valley (OH)” and at first I hated it. It was edgy, abrasive, avant-garde, and the guy literally screams in my ears at one point. But, truthfully, it's hard to find music with this much raw emotion packed into it. And something about that, with a little bit of patience, becomes quite endearing and even beautiful.
The album Fabulous Muscles is a strange and eclectic album and is a bit of a mixed bag for quality. This song started off and remained my favourite of the bunch, if not simply because it's the best written song in the collection and the most musically pleasing (believe it or not). It's full of unbridled passion, to the point where it is stripped of its dignity and clothed with honesty. I suppose that's where I find the beauty, in the complex and broken humanity of it. Never before in a song has a “la la la” bit sounded so scornful.
Seemingly simple in construct, there is more going on in this song musically than at face value. The bass line and the higher guitar plucking seems almost joyful in design, but the drum beat has a militaristic rhythm to it. The guitar in the chorus is gritty and dark and various noisemakers rattle, creating a feeling of chaos.
What a strange song. It remains compelling no matter how often I hear it.

16.) Talking Heads – Once In A Lifetime (1980)
Talking Heads are known for being eccentric art rock geniuses and that is well represented in their hit track “Once In A Lifetime,” one of their most well remembered songs. And for good reason too; it's infused with David Byrne's outrageous personality and quirky, quotable lyrics. And right from the start we get treated to a chaotic, yet entrancing, synth loop that seems to almost lack a straight forward musicality, yet it gently pulls you in and never ceases to be captivating. It is a completely indispensable part of the song and when placed next to the thumping drum and thick bass, it makes for an interesting contrast.
Byrne creates a sense of confusion, both in his singing style and lyrical choices, but there is a joyful aspect to the music also. It shows that confusion and feeling lost is not always something to lament, but perhaps to celebrate! While it seems like a song commenting on the monotony of life and getting caught in the daily grind, there is a sense of wonder that implies you can find something to love in that too. You just have to know the right answer to the questions perhaps?
This song wasn't a huge hit when it came out initially, but gained notoriety through its music video, putting it in regular rotation on MTV. And as a result it seems to have really stood the test of time. Also, it doesn't really feel like a song that is a product of the 80's... or perhaps it's that this song helped define the 80's rather than being defined by the 80's. That's how you know you're writing songs well; you become a staple piece of art that represents an era.

15.) New Radicals – You Get What You Give (1998)
Truly this is one of the finest pick-me-up songs ever written. In fact, I was feeling pretty down tonight and I already feel that this song has boosted my mood a fair bit. New Radicals are known for this song; their only hit before front man and chief songwriter, Gregg Alexander, decided he didn't like the rock n' roll life of publicity and endless interviews and called the band quits. But some one-hit-wonders are known for having hits that are puzzling in their fame, or something that is strictly a product of its time. Like, most of the 80's New Wave hits are what they are and it's understandable why the bands didn't make it out of the decade. “You Get What You Give” however, is timeless and has completely understandable universal appeal. Well, there are a few lyrical moments near the end that date the song a bit, but you know what, it doesn't really matter. The music speaks for itself.
The chords are quick and catchy, the lyrics are fun and memorable, and Alexander sings with passion and poise. The energy of this song is explosive, infectious and captures a sense of being a young adult and learning to care about political issues, art, culture and self identity. In some ways it's a perfect pop song. It's an intellectually stimulating party song: catchy, celebratory, relevant. If pop is typically junk food, this would be a full meal, both delicious and nutritious. And hey, how can you not be pumped when he sings “You've got the music in you, this world is gonna pull through”? Or even better, the introductory “1 2 3, OW!” Makes you just want to kick your leg in the air with your best rock n' roll kick.
Gregg Alexander has an unusual voice, but displays a fair bit of range, deliciously diving into shameless falsetto near the end of the song and holding some impressive notes that could have sounded really bad, but work quite well. He's a singer who loves what he's singing. And you really get a sense that New Radicals were a band who believed in the music they made.
And hey, if you want to hear them get even more political in just as catchy a fashion, you should check out their awesome opening track from Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too called “Mother, We Just Can't Get Enough.” The one-two punch of that song and “You Get What You Give” gave the album an amazing start, but the heights couldn't be maintained through the whole record. But hey, when you have a hit that's this good, maybe all you need is the one.

14.) Elliott Smith – Waltz #2 (Xo) (1998)
Elliott Smith's brilliant album XO took him into new territory as an artist, just in that it was far more produced and less gloomy acoustic work. Not to say that this was a bad thing, and I think some identity could be lost with other artists, but Smith used this finer production to write some of his finest and richest songs. I don't feel that any of his strengths as an artist were compromised and that shows very clearly in the deep and emotional “Waltz #2 (Xo).”
First thing I want to mention is how beautiful and raw Smith's lyrics are. They convey emotion, paint a picture, and take you through a piece of his life. And what a brilliant hook line: “I'm never gonna know you now, but I'm gonna love you anyhow.”
Though, one thing that is interesting is that, when you listen to the music, there is a strange playfulness to it, but that's juxtaposed next to Smith's tragic sounding vocals and, of course, lyrics. It gives the song a unique tone, and a lot of musical meat to bite into. And I have to admit that something about this melody just hits me the right way. He has an ear for catchy hooks, but never let them control the song. Rather, they just enhance a story that's being told naturally through music.
I remember when I first heard this song. I was chatting over MSN and trading songs with a girl I liked, trying to get to know her better through music because I guess I thought that it would somehow reflect my character in a positive way. I don't know, asking her out didn't work... I don't know why I thought there was anywhere to go from there... but I digress. I sent her “Two Way Monologue” by Sondre Lerche (earlier in the list) and she sent me this song. I was instantly struck by the genuine song writing and the absorbing hooks and it remained a favourite of mind for years to come.

13.) U2 – The Fly (1991)
U2 are my favourite band. The truth of the matter is that at this point, it seems unlikely that anyone will overtake them. It's just that their music has the perfect blend of nostalgia, innovation, and variation for me. But much of what they are now would not be if not for their sensational album Achtung Baby, in which they made the decision to reinvent themselves for the 1990's. And the track that always stood out to me the most was “The Fly,” an edgy hard rock song that was unlike anything U2 had made before. And what made it even more bold was that they made it the album's opening single as if to show audiences the audacity of their new sound. No gimmicks. Nothing misleading. This was the new U2. I think in retrospect it can be difficult to understand the complete turn around this was for the band, not only musically, but in their image as well. The track did alright, but was soon overshadowed by bigger hits from the album starting with their famous “One.”
But enough of the history lesson, what does this song mean to me? Well, in grade 9 I started to rediscover U2. They were a band I always knew because my dad was a big fan and I remember a few of their albums from when I was quite young, but it wasn't until that year that I really delved into their music and started to appreciate them on my own terms. Achtung Baby was one of the albums in that initial phase. And to this date, it packs a punch.
But as for “The Fly,” I find myself often in awe with the lyrics. They're very introspective, clever, and insightful, but in some ways they're foreboding. It points out the flaws of humanity, as if witnessing us “like a fly from the wall.” And it explains the weakness of men; we buckle under love. It's fairly potent stuff actually.
Musically the band are on the top of their game. Bono sings in a deep voice in the shadows and then in the chorus switches to a gospel-like falsetto, its smoothness contrasting the thick guitar and thumping bass. On top of it all, the song features one of The Edge's finest guitar solos, thick with reverb and countless other effects I'm sure. “The Fly” remains a potent staple in any U2 fan's diet and is in the very heart of one of their finest releases.

12.) Radiohead – There There (2003)
My feelings toward the Hail To The Thief album is complicated as it's a strange collage of ideas, not all of which fit well together, but as a whole it remains quite fascinating and mostly enjoyable. But 2003 was a great year for me if not simply because it was the year I found Radiohead who would very quickly become one of my favourite bands and keep that spot to this very day. If I had to put a number on it, they would be number 2, with U2 as 1, as mentioned before.
“There There” started this beautiful love affair with Radiohead. But that's mostly on a personal note. I imagine for long time fans of the band, this was a chance for them to hear that Radiohead could still rock after their previous two albums departed from rock music into a more experimental direction. Although in more familiar territory, “There There” still feels like a unique entity as I can't see it working in the mix with songs from OK Computer, The Bends, or any other album of theirs. It works in Hail To The Thief only, and is one of the focal points of the album, a vital part of the fine thread of that album's schizophrenic identity.
The album opens with a drone and a deep drum beat and I find a strange amount of comfort from that beat. Perhaps it is that it reminds me of a beating heart, or perhaps it's there is something naturally soothing about the deep tone of it. The guitar chords they pick are interesting and sound almost like they shouldn't fit together, but they do and sounds really great. And while it's not a particularly innovative song as far as structure goes, this song formula is a great one. It goes through the verse, chorus, verse, chorus motions for a bit and then builds into a bridge and then a big climactic finish and I feel that that's where the song really takes off. It's just a great gritty guitar part that makes you just want to take off on stage, rocking out. It's terrific! I absolutely love it.
So, don't take my pointing out that this song follows a formula as a negative thing. In fact, it may be more bold for a band that spent the first few years of the new decade breaking every rule in the book to fall back on a familiar rock format. And why not? They're Radiohead. They can do whatever they want and somehow it still sounds amazing. They take that formula and make it the best it's ever been.

11.) Moby – God Moving Over the Face of the Waters (1995)
After listening to Moby's Play and falling in love with the album, I was interesting in digging into some of his earlier works. I remember I was at school during an improv team practice and at some point I mentioned Moby. One of the girls on the team said that she loved his song “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” and found it to be one of the most beautiful pieces of music she ever heard. So, not long after that I took a trip to A&B Sound (RIP) and started looking through Moby's catalogue. I came across the 1995 album Everything is Wrong and saw the aforementioned song on the back. I bought the album and gave it a spin. Now, all in all, it's a very strange, eclectic album, but not without some truly amazing moments. And one of the finest moment on it, and in Moby's whole long career, is his emotional epic instrumental track, “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters.” My teammate was right; it is absolutely beautiful.
And it's not an overly interesting song as far as structure goes. It's actually relatively simple. Moby takes a piano part, loops it, builds on that with more piano, loops that, brings in a synth loop, and then another and so on, then he takes away certain tracks at certain times and puts them back for dramatic effect. It's a fairly typical layered song that just builds and builds with more tracks... but everything fits together so well. The loops and beautiful, the chords are majestic, and everything moves, builds, takes away, at the perfect pace. I really can't say how much work went into this song simply because I am not Moby, but I imagine that once it started to take shape, he felt truly inspired and moved by the music.
And that's how I feel when I hear this song. I feel inspired. I feel emotional. I feel warmth. I feel sadness. I get so much out of this song, the whole time Moby never says a word. And I think that there is something to admire in that. Many of the songs on here I find a lot of emotional connectivity through the words sung or the voice of the singer, but here, all is conveyed through notes and chords layered on top on one another.

Moby has continued to be one of my favourite artists. He is earnest, intelligent and prolific and truly believes in the music he makes, all while remaining humble and grateful for his level of success. And I am also grateful for Moby's music as it has helped enrich my life though the years.  

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