67. Billy Joel - Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel)

Divorce is something that all of us have dealt with one way or another. If it wasn't you whose parents split up, it was your best friend, or your cousin. Divorce touches us all, even if it's not directly. I was lucky enough to have parents that were married for 41 years when my Mom passed away, but I've known divorce, first through friends, then with my own divorce. When kids are involved in the dissolution of a marriage, the bonds of marriage aren't the only thing that are broken. The family that was, that the children will always pine for, is gone forever. Luckily for me, my divorce was before we had children and my ex-wife and I were the only victims.

"Lullaby," by Billy Joel, is about divorce and the toll that it takes on a family, his family, and especially his daughter, Alexa. He wrote this song to her, trying to get her to go to sleep with a restless heart and a brain that's racing, thinking of the uncertain future ahead. For the moment, he just wants to sing his daughter to sleep, and they can talk about tomorrow, tomorrow. But before she closes her eyes, he makes this promise:

And you should always know
Wherever you may go, no matter where you are
I never will be far away.

Even though I may not be in the next room, or next door, you're never far from my heart and I'll always be there when you need me. It's a sentiment that many parents in a divorce say to their children. Then they hope above all hopes that they don't break that promise. It's a burden that weighs heavy on the heart of the parent that's not there every day, kissing them goodnight and tucking them in. And in the lyrics, the burden shows:

Goodnight my angel, now it's time to sleep,
And still so many things I want to say.
Remember all the songs you sang for me,
When we went sailing on an emerald bay.
And like a boat out on the ocean,
I'm rocking you to sleep
The water's dark and deep, inside this ancient heart

Of course, not too many of us have the talent to sing a song for our children in a perfectly toned voice, much less write one, but if you're a parent, you can empathize with Billy and Christie's plight. You still try to stay the devoted and loving parent that you've always been, but the job's made all that much tougher by the circumstances that you created. It may be what's best for the family, but you just can't help thinking that it's your fault and that your child is suffering not because of what they've done but because of what you've done. That's a tough rest-of-your-life type situation for someone and its toll shows. Just talk to your parents who split up when you were eleven, or your brother, who only sees his kids on the weekends and two weeks a year. Even if it's decades later, the burden is still there. It may lessen with time, but it never goes away. But in "Lullaby," Billy Joel just wants his daughter to have a good night's sleep and know that he loves her.

There's simplicity here that mirrors the music of the song. Musically, the song is extremely simple, like almost all lullabies. There's some strings for some extra atmosphere, but for the most part, it's just Billy with his piano and his voice. In many ways it feels like he just added words to a lullaby we already knew, but the composition is his. Some people may call it derivative to write a song that sounds familiar the first time you hear it, but I think it's a testament to the songwriter's ability to take that familiar notion and do something new and interesting in it. One of the interesting things Billy does in this song is near the end of the song. He takes "Lullaby" into a minor key for the bridge, giving the song a hint of the dark melancholy that everyone it the family must be feeling.

Billy Joel is a classically trained pianist who just ended up in the rock & pop music world. In this song, you can hear him kind of paying tribute to Chopin with his piano playing style, especially Chopin's piano concertos. At times, it's played in the rubato tempo, which gives the performer the flexibility to speed up and slow down the tempo of the piece as it goes along. There isn't a consistent beat, giving it a more improvised feel. So even though this is a formal, produced song, it still has that feel to it that Billy just sat down and this is what came out.

As a father of two, I hope I never, ever have to think about singing this song to my own children. I want to kiss them goodnight (as long as they'll let me!) for as long as I can and be able to walk back to the bedroom with my wife. That's the goal that we all have as parents and unfortunately, some of us don't make it. But never doubt, children, that we parents love you and will never be too far away. Goodnight, angels.

68. Simon & Garfunkel - Cecilia

My father-in-law is a big music fan, and a tremendous musician on top of that. He loves all kinds of music and was excited when I told him that I was doing this. He knew that a lot of the songs that I was picking were songs that he may not know and he was looking forward to being to exposed to new stuff that was cool. But as much as I know that he's interested in the "new stuff," I think he secretly wants me to pick a bunch of songs that he knows and loves as well. Multi-generational influence, that's what he'd love to see. Well, Dad, here's your multi-generational influence! (I'm not sure Neil Diamond counts, so I'll say this is the first one).

As much a fan of musical complexity and sonic lushness that I am, I'm also a sucker for great songs that are much simpler in their structure and performance. "Cecilia," by Simon & Garfunkel, is one of those songs. Acoustic guitars, simple drums & percussion (foot stomps & hand claps) & a xylophone to top it all off. Yep, a xylophone. But simple isn't bad if it's done perfectly. Tangent alert! It's like on Top Chef, when you get the cocky chef who thinks they need thirty-six ingredients with four different cooking techniques and a tartar foam for fish & chips. But then it's the chef who just makes simple, but really good fish & chips that are perfectly cooked and seasoned who wins the challenge. Fancy isn't always better. Simplicity has its place, and in most occasions, it's the simple songs that resonate through the years.

"Cecilia" starts off with an almost campfire rhythm to it. It starts with just a few percussive sounds - some hand clapping, foot stomping, kick drum, a quick hit of acoustic guitar, and then builds layers as the vocals come in and the acoustic guitar takes off. As the song continues, the sound becomes fuller and fuller, with more acoustic guitars and more hands to do the clapping - more vocals, too. For a simple song, the layers build and build and add a subtle complexity that you don't really hear unless you're listening for it.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are renowned for their vocal harmonies (I think if the Smithsonian could remove their actual vocal chords and put them on display, they would), and the harmonies shine in "Cecilia." Right from the start, they're harmonizing like it's against the law and the cops are at the door, and they won't stop. Their voices go so well together, it's almost as if it's two sides of the same voice. You hear one without the other and it seems odd. It took me a while listening to Simon's solo stuff before it sounded right to me (sorry, Art, never really gave your solo stuff a good listen).

So the vocals are soaring all over the place. More so than in almost any other Simon & Garfunkel tune, they really let loose with them. Hooping and hollerin', singing their hearts out. Then comes the xylophone. You don't hear too much xylophone in modern, non-polka music, but it works, doesn't it? I think they put the xylophone in there so while you were listening, you'd think to yourself, "Shhh.... What is that instrument that's in the background? Wait a minute. Is that a freakin' xylophone breaking into a solo? A xylophone?!! Awesome!!" So a simple song gives you that unexpected layer of strangeness that is just too cool for school.

Lyrically, the song seems pretty straightforward. It's about a girl named Cecilia, who's broken the heart of our songwriter. He wants her back so bad, he's begging. Just when he thinks it's as bad as it can get and his heart can ache no more, it gets worse.

Making love in the afternoon with Cecilia
Up in my bedroom (making love)
I got up to wash my face
When I come back to bed
Someone's taken my place

But then, Cecilia changes her mind and decides to return. Hallelujah!

Jubilation, she loves me again,
I fall on the floor and I'm laughing,

But here's the twist. I've also read that the Cecilia in the song is actually St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. So looking at it that way, it's a song about writer's block! He wants the inspiration of his muse and she's abandoned him. He desperately needs her to come home so he can resume his calling as a songwriter. I love this interpretation, but the "making love in the afternoon" verse throws me off a little bit. Could be he's talking about making love being a distraction from the songwriting he's supposed to be doing, and Cecilia moving on to someone who's more serious about the craft. Hmmmm. It definitely gets you thinking either way.

Great melodies make you want to hear them again and again. When you layer great harmonies on top of that, it's almost an embarrassment of riches. So without all sorts of newfangled instruments and production techniques, Paul & Art take singing a song back to its roots. Sing a great song and there's a timeless aspect to it. That's why this song is on this list, 39 years after its initial release. It's just a great song that will always be great, no matter whenever you listen to it.

Here's a cool youtube video that's just the record spinning. Both Dad and my brother Scott will appreciate it.

Here's another video that I couldn't help put in. It's an L.A. band called Local Natives who're doing a cover of "Cecilia" outside their house. It's so awesome. There's a guy playing a tree, for God's sake! And another guy lets loose on the xylophone solo with a kid's xylophone and then tosses his mallets! Classic.

69. INXS - New Sensation

I listen to lots of music and lots of different kinds of music, so it's not often that I hear a guitar sound that I haven't heard before. Granted, I was seventeen when I first heard it in 1987, but it was a sound that immediately grabbed my attention. And over twenty years later, it still does. I hear that killer guitar riff and I know that I won't be able to rest until I hear the rest of the song. That's what great songs do. Just like in The Godfather, Part III, "Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in." My wife could be having a baby, and I hear guitarist/saxophonist Kirk Pengilly's opening guitar riff, we're finishing the song before we go into the hospital. And then, apparently, I'm getting a divorce. But anyway...

"New Sensation" comes off of 1987's hugely popular album Kick. Following the success of their Listen Like Thieves album, the band wanted to take their music to the next level. Saxophonist/Guitarist Kirk Pengilly said that they wanted to put out an album "where all the songs were possible singles." He wasn't just saying that. Kick churned out five singles, four of which made the US Top 10 (you could add another one with the awesome video for "Mediate" that tags the end of "Need You Tonight," an 80's take on Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video from the 60's.) Kick may just be one of my top 10 favorite albums of all time, so the fact that it spawned one of the greatest songs of my lifetime is no surprise to me.

"New Sensation" grabs you from the start with that great guitar, and then singer Michael Hutchence's voice keeps you. "Live, baby, live" is what he opens with, and the song's musical style follows that dogma. It's a song full of life, from the way Michael sings to the way everyone plays. Drummer Jon Farriss' drums are simple and crisp, adding a nice one-two punch with Kirk's guitar. Tim Farriss, the second of the three Farriss brothers in the band, puts his "I'm the lead guitarist" ego aside and let Kirk play the killer lick and rounded out the song with some strong rhythm work. It's musically an almost perfect pop song, start to finish. You even have Michael Hutchence yelling out "Trumpet!" right before the saxophone solo. It's a song that doesn't try to take itself too seriously, other than to tell you to live life to the fullest, and have as much fun as you can along the way.

Lyrically, the song is about the different stages in our lives and how we deal with them. There are different, new sensations in life and it's your choice on how to react to them. As the singer, Michael will help us through, giving us guidance along the way.

Cry baby cry
When you've got to get it out
I'll be your shoulder
You can tell me all
Don't keep it in ya
Well that's the reason why I'm here

Throughout the song, there are various situations, life in general, sleep, dreams, tears, hate and love. It's the gambit of human emotions, all covered in a catchy pop tune in less than four minutes. Michael wants us to try and get to the positive, bright side in any of those situations. He's definitely a "life is what you make of it" kind of guy. Me, too. Which is partly why this song resonates so much with me. As long as you have someone to help you along the way, you can make it through life. The tragic irony, of course, it that Michael Hutchence lost his life alone in a hotel room in Sydney.

It's trite to say that his inspiration lives on in the songs he left behind for us, but his songs do live on. I still hear "New Sensation" on the radio today, and on 2009 Top 40 stations, not "All 80's All The Time" stations. So there may not be a Nobel laureate legacy that follows him, but people will continue to listen to his songs for years to come. I know I'll still listen, and after listening to "New Sensation" about a dozen times while writing this entry, and it still sound fresh and something that I want to listen to again. That's the sign of a great song.

70. Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime

Even though this song has become famous in the years since its release in 1980. The video of the song, and particularly the video they released from their concert film, Stop Making Sense, helped launch the song into popularity years after its initial release. It goes to show you that great songs still have a chance at success and popularity even if they're virtually ignored when they're first released.

For the album Remain in Light, the song that contains "Once in a Lifetime," the band worked with Brian Eno, who exposed them to all sorts of new music, especially the music of Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti, and the polyrhythms of the African style rubbed off. So "Once in a Lifetime" has a complex rhythm to it, both in Chris Frantz's drums as well as the additional percussion they added to give the song an even more varied rhythmic sound. The bass line that Tina Weymouth plays is actually the heartbeat of the song, giving the percussion section a chance to play around with the African themes.

Even though I've listened to the album version of the song dozens of times, just now I realized that there's a few vocal punctuations of the bass line, giving it a fuller, cooler feel. And even though Jerry Harrison's keyboards are basically just a loop at the beginning of the song, he adds atmosphere and texture throughout the song via various synthesizer sounds.

Lead singer and lead songwriter David Byrne's voice is perfect for a song like this. It's a song about a man's midlife crisis. Byrne talk-sings the verses with the desperation of a man who is questioning the direction his life has taken. So many men in my generation and older have felt this pressure. Our friends have a bigger house, so we need a bigger house. We need more stuff because we have a bigger house. I need a new car, right? To pay for all of this stuff and the newer, bigger house, I need a job that pays me more money. A job that takes me away from my family more, but it provides the lifestyle that we've all become accustomed to. But do I even know my wife anymore? My kids? Is this American dream my dream?

And you may ask yourself

How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!

The choruses are musically lifting, and Byrne abandons the talk-sing style of the verses for an almost wail. The desperation takes a new, more frantic feel, so the way he sings matches the lyrics:

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money's gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

David Byrne has always been the thinking man's musician. Throughout the stuff he did in the Talking Heads and even more so in his solo career, he's wanted to expose us to new musical styles and older ones in a newer way. That's why it amazes me that this song is almost 30 years old. Listening to it, the lyrics may be even more relevant than they were back then. Musically, the song still has a fresh sound that doesn't sound dated.

In the song, Byrne sings, "My God what have I done?" Well, David (and Tina, Chris and Jerry), you've made a great song that's still relevant 30 years after you recorded it. That's a feat that many musicians and lyricists aspire to, but so few actually achieve. The Talking Heads were always a band that weren't going to "let the days go by" without achieving something. No midlife crisis for this band.

(Fun Fact #64 - The concert film that the band made in 1983, Stop Making Sense, was a seminal film that really brought the band's live energy and skillful performance to an audience who had maybe never heard them before. The video below is from the film. The fun fact? It was directed by Jonathan Demme, who went on to win an Oscar for 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.)

Okay, I couldn't help myself. I found this parody while trying to find the original video of the song. I thought it was pretty damn funny. I hope you enjoy.

71. Barenaked Ladies - One Week

I'm a fan of wit. Mark Twain? Genius. Dennis Miller (before he got all political and weird)? Brilliant. So I love it when people are funny without beating you over the head with it. The kind of funny that makes you work a little bit to get the most out of it. And I'm a pop culture nerd who loves the inside jokes that populate so much of the best movies, music, TV, etc. That's why "One Week" by Barenaked Ladies was made for a guy like me.

It's filled with so much lyrical pop-culture fodder that there's even a website devoted to all of the references in the song. It's also a song that the band did almost as a throw-in. Ed Robertson, guitarist and co-lead singer of the band, wrote a song that he thought "might be a cool b-side." (For those younger readers out there, a b-side is a... oh forget about it. I feel old enough already. Go look it up on your internets out there, with your googlums and wahoo.) Instead of a cast away that wouldn't even make the album, it became their greatest hit and one of my very favorite songs.

So many parts of this song throw convention out of the window. Firstly, it opens with the chorus, right out of the gate. There's no slow, acoustic opening that builds to a crescendo of a chorus that is both uplifting and profound. The chorus, lyrically, is the only part of the song that really makes any sense. It's about a man who's had a big fight with his significant other and knows he's wrong, but just wants to save face. Like so many of us, even when we know we're just as much at fault, we don't be the one to apologize. So, we, like Ed says in the song, "sit back and wait till you say you're sorry." But it's not the chorus that brings us to the table here. It's the improvised verses that Ed rap-sings with a nonsensical, yet deliciously funny, abandon.

Musically, the song isn't as musically complex as a lot of BNL songs. Give credit to the band, though, because they knew that the lyrics were the star of this one and didn't want to get in the way too much. So in the verses the music is very sparse, just adding atmosphere to Ed's rap. During the choruses, though, the band lets loose quite a bit more and gets to release some of their pent up energy. The chorus groove is so catchy that the band often just jumps up and down in place during it at their concerts. Even when I'm listening (and no one's watching) my head and shoulders bop up and down with them. Bassist Jim Creegan probably gets to have the most fun musically during the song, but drummer Tyler Stewart gets to shake up his playing style throughout the song.

There are so many interesting and fun lyrics that I could quote, but I'll try to restrain myself. Here are some great samples:

As I make you stop, think.
You'll think you're lookin' at Aquaman
I summon fish to the dish,
Although I like the Chalet Swiss
I like the sushi 'cause its never touched a frying pan
Hot like wasabe when I bust rhymes
Big like LeAnn Rimes
Becasue im all about value

Then, later, Ed delivers what may be the coolest adlib ever:

Chickity China the Chinese chicken
Have a drumstick and your brain stops tickin'
Watchin' X-Files with no lights on
We're dans la maison
I hope the Smoking Man's in this one
Like Harrison Ford I'm gettin' frantic
Like Sting, I'm tantric
Like Snickers, guaranteed to satisfy
Like Kurasaswa, I make mad films
Okay I don't make films,
But if I did, they'd have a Samurai

I have no idea what made his brain jump from a subject like Asian bird flu to the X-Files, then back to Asia with a killer Akira Kurasawa lines, but I wish I could have been there to see it. It's a lyrical mish-mash that makes almost no sense, but it's all so fun to listen to. In the past few years, the band has been doing a fun bluegrass version of it in concert that slows it down and is much more of a crazy barbershop quartet version of the original.

It just goes to show you musicians out there that you shouldn't abandon a song idea that you may think doesn't quite work or is too quirky for the general public. The bottom line is, if it's good, we'll listen, for the most part. Sure, some great music never reaches the ears of the general public, but to crib a line from the lottery, "Why not you?" So keep it up and keep writing those quirky songs, because at least in me, you've got a fan.

(Fun Fact #617: While Wikipedia does a quick version of the references in the song, this one is a more comprehensive one. (http://www.davidrickard.net/bnl.org/html/one_week_references.html).)

I'm going to post a bunch of videos for this one. First is the official video of the song, the second is the bluegrass version that I talked briefly about, and the third, just for fun is a Morgan Freeman impersonator (I checked and it is NOT Morgan Freeman, but man, does it sound like him) doing the second group of lyrics from my post. It is so funny, I couldn't help it.)

72. Dixie Chicks - Not Ready to Make Nice

The process for picking which songs I was going to put on this list is a strange one, even to me sometimes. Unlike Rolling Stone's list, I didn't want any single artist to dominate my list so if some band or some artist was going to have more than one entry, they better well have deserved it in my mind. For this entry, I hemmed and hawed over this song and another one off of their Taking the Long Way album, "The Long Way Around." Even though I'm a fan of the Dixie Chicks, they weren't a more than one selection kind of band, so I had to choose one. I was talking to my wife about it and she wondered if I was picking this song more because of the subject matter than for the song itself.

I thought about it and reminded myself of putting the Ramones where I did. I wasn't going to put a song where it didn't belong just because of the circumstances surrounding it or the influence it may have had on future generations of musicians. So I listened to both songs a few times each and came to this conclusion: "Taking the Long Way Around" is the kind of pop (and in this case, country-pop) song with a great hook that I'm a sucker for. "Not Ready to Make Nice" doesn't have nearly as much pop sensibility to it, but it's just a perfectly crafted song. I'll probably listen to "Taking the Long Way Around" more in my lifetime, but I came to the realization that "Not Ready to Make Nice" is just a better overall song, and one that deserves its place.

It starts with a simple acoustic guitar, which is augmented with some extra bass to give it an ominous tone. This is going to be a serious song and they want you to know it from the first note played. The Dixie Chicks have done serious songs before, but this song, according to violinist (and much more if you check the credits) Martie Maguire, is "the most emotional song on the record, for me. It took about 100 listens before I didn't get choked up."

Even if you're not a Dixie Chicks fan or even a country music fan, you've probably heard about the controversy that was the lyrical inspiration for the song. But to sum up, in 2003, while in the UK, lead singer Natalie Maines said that she was "ashamed that George W. Bush was from Texas," and that she didn't agree with the pretext for the war in Iraq. What followed was the shit storms of all shit storms. The country music world felt that what Natalie said was an act of treason that showed no support for the very popular W. or the troops that were in harm's way. Almost unilaterally, their songs were pulled from the play lists at country radio stations, and there were countless protests all over the country. There was even a death threat on Natalie that the FBI took extremely seriously (so seriously that at their concert in Dallas, every single person entering the arena was wanded for weapons). The response from the Dixie Chicks was clear: if you turned your back on us, we're done with you. If you supported us, then you are forever a friend.

The song starts sparsely, and ends the same way:

Forgive, sounds good
Forget, I’m not sure I could
They say time heals everything

But I’m still waiting

As Natalie reaches the end of the first verse, the anger that has been building and building inside just has to tear itself out and be heard:

It’s too late to make it right
I probably wouldn’t if I could

Cause I’m mad as hell

Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should

This is a woman, and a band, that have been forever changed. Before "the incident," they were your normal band with normal problems, but who loved what they did and loved their fans and their life. But the betrayal and hatred that were hurled at them were almost too much to handle. They closed ranks and realized that they could become the band that they wanted to be, rather than the one they were expected to be. That freedom gave them the opportunity to craft what ultimately became a Grammy winning album, with the help of producer, Rick Rubin. As scared as they were that Rubin could turn this into a rock album, they still took a chance and climbed out on another limb and gave it a shot. The result was a spectacular album that has a richness and emotional complexity that the Chicks couldn't have been capable of had they not gone through what they did.

That thought is even echoed in some more lyrics:

I know you said
Can’t you just get over it
It turned my whole world around

And I kind of like it

Kind of liked it. That line really hit home with me. Natalie realized that she now could do the kind of stuff, both musically and lyrically, that she and the band had never felt like they could do before, because they were the corporate entity known as the "Dixie Chicks." She wanted to care more about writing songs that they felt like writing, regardless of style or subject matter.

I've talked a lot about the lyrics and the situation surrounding the song, but haven't gotten too deep into the music behind this great song. Rubin and the Chicks fought the inclination to fill this song with loud instruments that echoed the loud lyrics. But Natalie's vocals build in anger, giving the words she sings have even more punch than if she had just been screaming from the start. So the music is restrained a bit. There's some nice violin work in the choruses and even some cello, giving certain sections a more symphonic feel, belying the intensity of the vocals and lyrics.

Once the last couple of choruses get started, the restraint is abandoned and Natalie can just belt it out. Even her bandmates, sisters Emily and Natalie, give their harmony background vocals all they've got. It's a cathartic release of all the pent up feelings that they have to get out. There's even a sense of urgency in the string playing that is missing earlier in the song. I'm not saying it's like they're thrashing on the cello, but you can definitely hear it.

It occurs to me that I've written more words about this song than probably any other thus far. But that's what great songs do. They make you want to talk to people about them about why they're great. And if they don't agree with you, even better, right? You get the chance to win them over to a song that they either didn't know or didn't even really like. That's what's great about music. It's so subjective, giving each of us a group of artists and songs that we're passionate about and want others to be passionate about. So give this song another (or fist) listen, and see if I've done my job.

(Fun Fact #41 - I swear I didn't do this on purpose. #73 was by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who's drummer is Chad Smith. Since the Dixie Chicks don't have a drummer "in the band," they use different drummers for different albums. The drummer they used for Taking the Long Way? Chad Smith.)

(Not so much a Fun Fact but a recommendation. There's a documentary that covers this entire chapter in the life of the Dixie Chicks, beginning with Natalie's statement in Britain, going through the whole controversy that followed, as well as the recording of Taking the Long Way. It's a phenomenal film called Shut Up and Sing. If you have any interest whatsoever, I heartily encourage you to watch it. Here's the trailer.)

73. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Subway to Venus

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have put out two different "Greatest Hits" albums. The first was 1992's What Hits, while the other was 2003's Greatest Hits. Between the two, there are thirty-four tracks (with a few double ups). "Subway to Venus," one of the best songs of my lifetime, is on neither record. Apparently, the Red Hot Chili Peppers don't agree with me. And judging by the fact that it wasn't a hit record off of 1989's Mother's Milk, not too many other people do either. There are other more popular songs that would make other people's lists: "Under the Bridge," "Scar Tissue," "Give it Away" just to name a few. And I love all of those songs. There's only one problem. They're just not as good as "Subway to Venus" in my mind.

At first I had "Give It Away" as my Red Hot Chili Peppers selection, but then I got in the mood to listen to all sorts of Chili songs and "Subway" just bubbled its way past all the others to the top. "Give It Away" was a huge hit for the band, and there are those of you out there who are completely befuddled by my choice. You might say, "It's like choosing some lame song off of Pop as U2's greatest musical contribution." (Don't get me started, but "Mofo" is one seriously underrated song...) But that's what's great about music. It's what you like. If a song's great to you, then go ahead and make the case for it and maybe you can change some minds. So here's my case for "Subway to Venus."

First off, the song is played at the frenetic "If we don't play this song as fast and as hard as we can our heads might just explode" pace that is typical of so many great Chili Pepper songs. It's got that punk-funk-rap-rock fusion that they basically invented because they couldn't settle on just one style. The blistering pace is kicked off with drummer Chad Smith and Guitarist John Frusciante, both new members of the band for this record. Frusciante replaced original guitarist Hilel Slovak, who died from a heroin overdose after the band's Uplift Mofo Party Plan album, while Smith replaced drummer Jack Irons, whose grief just overwhelmed him and resulted in his departure from the Chili Peppers. Smith plays his snare drum as if each hit was a gunshot (give kudos to producer Michael Beinhorn for this). Frusciante plays with a souped up, acid-rock sound that is completely infectious. When you see him play the song live, you can see in his movements that he's trying to transfer the energy from his body into his guitar.

While the new guys on the block shine in the song's introduction, they're quickly joined by the speedy fretboard boogie of bassist and founding band member, Flea. I could go on for a few pages about Flea and his bass playing. I'm so enamored of it. He not only plays it faster than almost anyone on the planet, but there's a musical complexity that can be easily overlooked since he's "just the bass player." But Flea doesn't let you off so easily. In almost every song, he plays so fast and hard that it's almost like he can't stop it from coming out of his body and fingers. He plays so hard, in fact, that due to the repetitive slapping of his bass (no using picks for Flea), he's worn a deep impression in his thumb that he has to fill with super glue to protect him from working his way down literally to the bone. Singer Anthony Kiedis does his usual rock-rap during the verses, but adds a kind of growl to his style. He sings his way through the choruses while backed up by John & Flea. Then there's the blasting of the trumpet and saxophone throughout, giving the song some extra punch. Overall, everyone's giving a strong and complex musical performance.

Lyrically, the song is all about having a fun time with music. No deep, life-changing platitudes or psychological investigations of childhood. Anthony just wants you to enjoy this jam and help you think about better things. Having the Red Hot Chili Peppers inside your brain can't be a bad thing, and Anthony thinks it's just what you need.

Open your bashful mind
Let my band step inside
and take you on a cosmic ride
With honest sounds i'll paint your brain
For in this song i do proclaim
that once aboard this moving train
I'll do my best to ease your pain

So many of us use music as an escape from parts of our lives that we don't (or can't) deal with. The Red Hot Chili Peppers offer a psychedelic reprieve from the harshness, or maybe just boredom, of daily life. Some bands shy away from that, feeling that they have to "make a difference" for their fans. The Chilis are doing just that, just without pretentious lyrics and that sad bastard serious attitude that so many musicians cling to. Life should fun, they're saying. Why would you waste your time with anything else?

(Fun Fact #42 - The great brass work on this song includes the stellar work of a former trumpet prodigy. That prodigy? Flea. Many experts who heard him play as a youngster thought he could've been a world-class jazz trumpet player if he'd decided to go down that route.)

(Fun Fact #18 - Both Anthony and Flea have dabbled in acting. You can see some of Anthony's finest work as a hostile locals-only surfer in Point Break. Flea does some Oscar-caliber work in Back to the Future II & III, and he was nice as a nihilist in The Big Lebowski.)

Here's a video of the album version of the song.

Here's a great live video from 1989 where you can see the amount of energy the Chilis put into their performance. Also, you can't beat Flea's pants made out of stuffed animals.

74. Dave Matthews Band - What Would You Say?

I've praised some of the songs on this list for their musical simplicity. "What Would You Say?" is not one of those songs. If "Nobody Loves Me" by Lyle Lovett is the Ronald Reagan of musical simplicity, "What Would You Say?" would be Che Guevera. There is not a simple musical construct within 10,000 miles of this song. It begins with a frenetic acoustic guitar opening and never slows down.

Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds both played all of the acoustic guitar parts for the album Under the Table and Dreaming, from which "What Would You Say?" was the first single. So it's not clear who's dancing all over the fretboard throughout the song, but they both make an acoustic guitar sound much more complex than I've ever heard anyone else do with one. The sheer number of notes per second must be astronomical. Every single member of the band gets their moment to shine and show what they can do. Drummer Carter Beauford probably plays the simplest part, but he still shakes up the timing in the preface to the chorus and I just love the "knock, knock" of his snare drum to echo the lyrics of the song. The winner of most notes played in the song may just go to bassist Stefan Lessard. He just takes every bass beat and plays four notes all around it, giving the bass line almost a disco feel. I love complex bass playing (bass players too often have to be the musical foundation and so they don't get to have much fun) and this is some of the best. Saxophonist LeRoi Moore even gets in on the action, playing a preamble solo that transitions into a blistering harmonica solo from John Popper of Blues Traveller. Popper plays the harmonica like he's the Kirk Hammett of harmonicas. Why play four notes in a bar when you can play forty? The production by veteran producer Steve Lillywhite (who produced U2's first three albums) is so crisp and clean that you can differentiate all the parts, even though there's so much going on.

So although I enjoy musicians who can convey powerful feelings with a minimum of musical fuss and production, I have to say that a musically complex song really gets my heart pumping. I love listening for all the intricacies and layers, breaking each part down in my head and then putting it all back together again and enjoying the songs as a whole. For this song, I'd listen to it once and focus almost completely on the bass line. It's almost as if it was its own song. Then the drums, the guitar, etc. It lets the music geek in me have my own little Comicon going on in my head. As much as I love "Nobody Knows Me" by Lyle Lovett, there's not a whole lot for my music geek brain to chew on. This song is a Vegas buffet. I'm gonna eat 'till I can't eat any more. And then I'll go get another dessert plate.

Lyrically, the song is definitely confusing. The lyrics remind me of some of Duran Duran's lyrics. The phrases in themselves make sense, but put them all together and I have no idea what they're talking about. Here's an example:

I was there when the bear
Ate his head, thought it was a candy
Everyone goes in the end
Knock knock on the door
Who's it for, there's nobody in here
Look in the mirror my friend

I was still in lyrical confusion until I did some research and found out that Dave Matthews' older sister, Anne, was murdered by her husband, who then committed suicide. In the aftermath of such an astounding tragedy, I'm sure Dave was filled with all sorts of uncertainty about life, but left with the unwavering conviction that you need to make the most of the time that you do have, because you never know what may happen next.

I don't understand at best
And cannot speak for all the rest
In the morning rise
A lifetime's passed me by

He doesn't want to wake that one morning and realize that he's wasted so much of his life. And he's warning us, too. To crib a line from the philosophical treasure chest that is Kung Fu Panda, "There is a saying: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called"present." I know it's super corny, but it's true. Dave thinks so, too.

No video clip that I can embed for this one, but here's the YouTube link:


75. Lyle Lovett - Nobody Knows Me

I praised the last song on the list, #75's "Wonderwall" for starting simple and then building complexity on top of it, all the while remaining the original strong foundation of the song. This one, Lyle Lovett's "Nobody Knows Me" is like the anti-"Wonderwall." It starts simple and stays simple. The song is a painful lament full of guilt about a man who cheats on his significant other.

In just a few lines, Lovett establishes such a rich depiction of a strong, comfortable relationship:

And I like cream in my coffee
And I like to sleep late on Sunday
And nobody knows me like my baby
And I like eggs over easy
With flour tortillas
And nobody knows me like my baby

It all looks so wonderfully normal. It's your standard relationship that many have. Maybe the comfort of it is what causes the infidelity. Who knows. But infidelity ruins the relationship, as it often does, and our singer is left to ponder the consequences of that affair "south of the border." Again, with painful brevity, Lovett sums up his regrets:

And I like cream in my coffee
And I hate to be alone on Sunday
And nobody knows me like my baby

He knows he's blown the best thing he's ever had. But that's what he's left with: a future of solitary Sunday mornings with a cup of coffee and no eggs over easy. As a writer, I can really appreciate the ability Lyle has to sum up a relationship (and the destruction of that relationship) in just a few lines of verse. It's a simple song that cuts to the core.

Usually I have a kind of template about each of these entries. Talk about the artist, talk about the music, sum up, hopefully be funny somewhere in between. For this song, though, the lyrics are the core of why I love this song so much and that's why I address them first. Musically, it's extremely simple, maybe even deceptively so. There's the simple finger-picked acoustic guitar. Session keyboardist Matt Rollings plays a melancholy piano with an almost tentative, embarrassed feel to have interrupted. It's really nice. It's kind of like the feeling that we're kind of embarrassed as listeners to have interrupted the relationship in the song. There's some cello as well that gives a little bit of sonic depth to the song, but never too much.

Lyle sings the song with his earnest tenor, evoking an almost overwhelming regret when he sings, "Nobody knows me like my baby." He's singing with a broken heart, even more broken by the fact that he broke it himself. There are songs that are fun to listen to again and again, and other songs that are meant to move you, or at least provoke you. This song is definitely in the latter camp, and it touches me and makes me think every time I listen to it.

(Fun Fact #146: Not only is Lyle Lovett a great singer/songwriter, but he dabbles in acting as well. He's been in over a dozen movies, including many of Robert Altman's. His performance in 1992's The Player, alongside Whoopi Goldberg, as Detective DeLongpre, was his first, and he's actually pretty good in it.)

No video for this one other than the official one, so here's the link:


76. Oasis - Wonderwall

The acoustic guitar refrain that starts this song seemed comfortable and familiar the very first time I heard this song, but I mean that in a good way. It's simple in the way that so many songs from the 60's were. There was just a guitar and vocals, with nothing else to get in the way, but also nothing more to hide behind, so you'd better be good. As the song progresses, the song adds layer after layer. There's a single cello weaving in and out of the melody. Then that almost hip-hop drum beat that might detract from the song, but I think adds a welcome layer of unpredictability and complexity to the song.

"Wonderwall" really does have that sound that you think The Beatles might have had in the 90's. The comparisons to The Beatles were abundant back in the 90's, especially in the UK and the band itself, especially guitarist Noel Gallagher, did nothing to diminish them. He even said that he was obsessed with The Beatles and compared every song he wrote to The Beatles standard of excellence. Liam even named his son Lennon. There are a couple of problems with those comparisons. Firstly, and obviously, Oasis isn't as talented as The Beatles were (but then again, who is? But most of the others don't go comparing themselves to The Beatles). Secondly, Noel Gallagher wrote almost every single Oasis song, so there was no McCartney to his Lennon (or vice versa, depending on whether you're a John guy or a Paul guy). Thirdly, Oasis, however popular they were in Britain, had only one Top 10 US hit, and this was it. One similarity, though, is that the two leaders of the band, Noel and his brother, lead singer Liam, hate each other, which mirrors Paul & John's out of the spotlight relationship. There are so many examples (and so many of them public) of their fractious relationship that I couldn't even begin to do it justice here.

But contentious relationship aside, they have put out some great records and songs, with "Wonderwall" being, in my opinion, their best. Holding yourself up to comparison to The Beatles may be a fool's folly, but they are definitely a talented band. I love songs that have different layers of musical complexity in them, and this song executes that at an extremely high level. There's the drum beat I mentioned earlier and also the piano that plays its refrain through the last part of the song, adding a musical partner to the earlier cello phrasing. The bass line does what bass lines do best, give the song a foundation to weave other song elements around. Bassist Paul McGuigan does get to have a little fun with the bass line, though, and it adds yet another layer of interest to pay attention to. And don't forget the tamborine!

Lyrically, the song's brilliance lies in the fact that the lyrics are open to the interpretation of the person who listens to it. Now most songs are like that, but this one, in particular, covers two of life's most precious relationships, your best friend and your significant other. Depending on how you're feeling at the time, the song can be seen as one about how much you care for someone else and want the best for them. It's a love song that never mentions the word. The lyrics are fraught with insecurity, with the singer wondering if his love is matched on the other side. The confusion shows in these lyrics:

And all the roads we have to walk along are winding
And all the lights that lead us there are blinding
There are many things that I would
Like to say to you
I don't know how

"Wonderwall" does a great job of having the lyrics play to your life. Like most great songs, it feels as if it were written about your or a specific relationship in your life. Great songs are relatable, and "Wonderwall" has so many interpretations that its lyrics have almost universal appeal. When you feel so strong about your emotions in a relationship, who hasn't felt like this?

I don't believe that anybody
Feels the way I do
About you now

Emotions can run so strong that all of us at some point have probably felt that way about someone.

So even if they fall short of the ridiculously high bar of The Beatles, Noel has written a fantastic song that engages you both musically and lyrically, which is quite a feat. Even I, who still doesn't pay much attention to lyrics, can realize that doing both at an extremely high level is an accomplishment that needs recognition. So that's why "Wonderwall" is, without a doubt, one of the greatest songs of my lifetime.

(Fun Fact #635: There are so many examples of the Gallagher brothers' hate/hate relationship that you can Google, but here's a nice little blurb from ninemsn.au:

The rat-bag Manchester brothers who ruled the '90s Britpop scene. Each had one talent: Noel could write brilliant Beatles-inspired anthemic pop songs. Liam could sing them. Brit Pop was all about big hits, big egos and big opinions — three things the Gallaghers had no trouble delivering.

The pair transformed the music scene through touching and eloquent songs such as 'Wonderwall' and 'Champagne Supernova'.

They also managed to capture the public's imagination through their colourful social commentary, for example Noel's delicate assertion that: "People ****ing hate ****s like Phil Collins, and if they don't they ****ing should."

Family feud
The Gallaghers are the yardstick to which all rock sibling relationships are measured. Their disagreements and feuds have become legendary, at times being included as tracks on bootleg albums.

In the early days of the band, during a US tour, Liam decided to ad-lib the lyrics to the songs in order to both offend the audience and Noel. While the audience got over the insult, Noel was not as impressed and a post-gig discussion worthy of a Jerry Springer Show episode ensued, with a chair thrown and everything. Noel walked out on the tour, though rejoined the group later.

Liam may have learnt an important lesson from this incident, but it wasn't evident. During a European tour six years later, Liam had an interesting theory about Noel not actually being the biological father of his daughter, Anais. Noel, in homage to the world of professional wrestling, punched Liam and knocked him down. Once again Noel walked out on the tour, only to return again later.

Fame hog
It would be difficult to say one brother is more famous than the other, primarily due to fear of one of them finding out they're considered less famous and taking violent head-butty retribution. While they are a set, each of them has their own niche. UK music mag NME has claimed Noel is the wisest man in Rock, which, considering the monumentally stupid things rock stars do, may not be the biggest accolade. Meanwhile Liam is part of another rock sibling couple, the Appletons, having had a child with his partner All Saint Nicole Appleton. )

77. LL Cool J - Going Back to Cali

I heard the wail of the muted trumpet and looked at the cassette cover again. Side 1, check, track four, check. Yep, it says LL Cool J, "Going Back to Cali." What the hell is going on? A few more seconds, and then the scratching comes in. That definitely sounds like a rap song. But then the trumpet continues, trading jabs with the DJ's scratching. A final round of scratching and then LL starts his rap, "I'm going back to Cali, Cali, Cali. I'm going back to Cali. Hmmm. I don't think so."

With less than forty seconds, James Todd Smith (LL's real name) changed the way I looked at rap music forever. It was 1988 and this song was on the soundtrack to Less Than Zero. Having been a big fan of Bigger And Deffer, LL Cool J's breakout album, I was looking forward to hearing this song. It confused me, but in that "Holy crap, this is really awesome!" way. The trumpet, the scratching, the lyrics, all of it. For the next few days, with probably a dozen listens, I never even made it to Side 2 of the cassette.

The song appears to be so very simple when he gets to the first verse. There's a drum machine with a high hat & bass drum beat and the scratch insert of a guitar chord as LL raps with an almost lackadaisical and conversational cadence. The video captures this style perfectly, with LL cruising along in a convertible, turning to us and just rappin'. It's like the simplicity of some songs in the 60's, with the acoustic guitar and simple beats. This one's just done in the hip-hop style. But there's this cool, intermittent "boing" sound that pops up throughout the song, especially in the instrumental break two minutes in. I don't know what it is, but I find myself listening for it as I'm listening. And any rap song that uses trombones, trumpets and saxophones has to be pretty awesome.

Rick Rubin did the production on this one and you can tell he really wanted to push the envelope with the style of the song. In fact, the whole album has a schizophrenic stylistic feel that many reviewers complained about. But I think that Rick and LL were trying to get all of their ideas and influences on one single album. That's why the album has "Going Back to Cali" as well as "I'm That Type of Guy," "I Need Love" and "Big Ole Butt." There's a musical buffet that would go on to be continued on with other albums like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique.

Lyrically, the song's all about returning to California, because as cool as New York is, there are things that you just can't get there. So back LL goes to the Golden State, looking for beaches and babes. There are great lyrics all around, but this verse is the best:

I'm going back to Cali, rising, surprising
Advising realizing, she's sizing me up
Her bikini - small; heels - tall
She said she liked the ocean
She showed me a beach, gave me a peach
and pulled out the suntan lotion

Lyrically, they're very cool, but the way he performs them is even cooler. The way he does "She said she liked the ocean" is just perfect. With the music not being overly complicated, the rhyming and the lyrics really need to stand out. And in "Going Back to Cali," LL Cool J brings it. More than just the usual "I'm so great and you suck" lyrics that lots of raps songs have as their base, he paints a real lyrical picture of hanging out in L.A. and soaking it all in. And the "Hmmm, I don't think so" line is classic as well. He doesn't want to do the normal Cali, he wants to do it on his terms. White wine and shopping on Melrose? Hmmm, I don't think so.

Rap music changed for me that day in late 1988. That's the day that I realized that rap could be more than drum machines, samples and boisterous lyrics. It meant that rap (and later hip-hop) was not just a fad that had overstayed its welcome, but a legitimate music genre that was here to stay. And thank God for that.

(Fun Fact #83: Not so much a fun fact as much as an endorsement. The soundtrack album that I mentioned earlier is definitely worth seeking out. It's got a great mix of all kinds of music. You've got Aerosmith kicking it off with "Rockin' Pneumonia & Boogie Woogie Flu." There's Poison covering Kiss' "Rock N Roll All Night," Public Enemy's original "Bring the Noise" as well as The Bangles doing a kick ass version of Simon & Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter." Check it out. It's a great cassette. Oh, I guess you could get the CD if you must.)

(Fun Fact #16: Most rap fans know this, but for the uninitiated, LL Cool J stands for "Ladies Love Cool James." If you could find a lamer origin for an MC name, I'd love to hear it, because this one is ridiculous!)

78. Vanessa Carlton - A Thousand Miles

It starts off like a piano concerto that you walked into that you didn't mean to. I wanted to listen to this song that everyone's talking about and I get some Chopin that someone did at an allegro tempo? But then the melody the piano plays starts to get you. Then the drums kick in and Vanessa starts singing. End of lesson. Let the fantastic song begin.

Vanessa Carlton grew up in a house where her mother loved the piano and classical music, while her father was a classic rock fan. So in this song, she takes the classical music sensibilities of her mom and adds the rock/pop influence of her dad and blends them perfectly, so both mom and dad are undoubtedly proud. Getting pop music fans to listen to classical music is a tough sell, much like vegetables and children. So like the moms that add shredded carrots to brownies, Vanessa exposes us to music that we wouldn't normally listen to and makes it sound so great that we're thirsty for more.

Vanessa came up with the piano intro and played it for her mother, who called it a hit, but then she hit some writer's block and shelved the idea. A few months later, she finished the basics for the song in a whirlwind hour session. The song she came up with at that session, however, wasn't the one that ended up released on her album, Be Not Nobody. It took lots and lots of work to get it to work just right. With all the disparate elements that the song had, a lot of production and tweaking was needed to make it sound cohesive. This is one of those times where lots of hard work paid off. The result is a great pop song, from the unlikeliest of inspirations, classical music.

With as much work as they had to do on it, there's none of the overproduction that lots of songs that are worked on this much can fall prey to. Musically, the piano is the star and Vanessa knows it. There's some nice drum work and simple, but effective, guitars, but they are supporting players and they know it. There are some additional violins for punch in some spots, atmosphere in others.

Lyrically, the song is pretty simple. She's rushing home to be with her love. The only problem is that she's not sure whether the feeling is mutual or not. She's willing to "walk a thousand miles" but fears that it may all be wasted effort.

It's always times like these
When I think of you
And I wonder
If you ever
Think of me

The not knowing is the hardest part. Is he thinking of me? Does he love me as much as I love him? This song's upbeat styling belies the uncertainty of her future with her boyfriend. Many women sympathized and it became a kind of anthem for the romantically unsure.

Since this has been her only Top 20 US hit, some may consider her a one hit wonder, but if you listen to her albums, you'll see that there's lasting talent there. From her second album, Harmonium, check out the song "San Francisco." It's one of my favorites by her.

So even though it's referred to in the Wayan Brothers movie, "White Chicks," as "like, the whitest song ever," it's still a great song, and one that I could probably listen to once a week for the rest of my life.

Here's her video link from Youtube:


And this is one that you can see with the lyrics:

79. OutKast - Hey Ya!

I would’ve posted this one sooner, but the Blogger site apparently has it in for OutKast. This is the fourth time that I’ve done this post. The Blogger interface wouldn’t autosave and would just delete my entire post without warning. You’d think I would have learned after the first couple of times, but I tend to trust technology more than I should. So who wants my ATM PIN number? Anyway……

Before I get into the specifics of “Hey Ya!”, I wanted to talk about the album that it came from, because that’s a cool story, too. “Hey Ya!” comes from the 2003 double album by OutKast, Loveboxxx/The Love Below. But it wasn’t really an album by OutKast. It was solo albums by each member of the band, Loveboxx by Andre 3000, and The Love Below by Big Boi. They said they wanted to release it as an OutKast album to keep the songs under the OutKast umbrella. Stephen Thomas Erlewine, of allmusic.com (a great music site) compared it to if the Beatles had released The White Album as a double album with a Paul record and a John record. Interesting argument, but let’s get back to “Hey Ya!”

Dance songs tend to have two strikes against them when it comes to calling them musical genius. It’s as if the mere fact that they’re dance songs remove them from the discussion. It’s much like comedies in the Academy Awards. But genius this song is. I would normally just point to the fact that it won a Grammy, but I’ll give you more. With the exception of the female voice saying “Yeah?”, every single voice you hear is Dre’s. He recorded many of the lines up to forty times to get different feels and takes on each. I listened to the song five times in a row and discovered something new in the vocals each time. There’s also the kid’s keyboard sound that you can’t help but love as well as that great bass line (that was actually recorded with a synthesizer). So even though it's a dance song, it's a audiophile's dance song. There's lots of musical meat on the bones.

The lyrics are about having a great night with a woman, thinking you might be falling in love, and then wondering if you’re the “falling in love” type of guy. Andre tends to not have concrete ideas down when he starts doing lyrics for a song, and this song was no exception. Don’t get me wrong, he has a solid idea of what the song is going to be about and how he wants to get it there, but there’s just no wrenching over individual words in order to create lyrical poetry, a la U2’s Bono. So as he’s at the microphone, he just lets it fly and sees what happens. For Andre, it works, and in this song, works brilliantly. Here’s a sample of what he came up with:

And we goin' to break this thing down in just a few seconds
Now don't have me break this thing down for nothin'
Now I wanna see y'all on y'all’s baddest behavior
Lend me some sugar', I am your neighbor
Shake it, shake, shake it, shake it (OHH OH)

Shake it like a Polaroid picture

The “shake it like a Polaroid picture” line is genius (and the one everyone quotes), but the one I really like is “lend me some sugar, I am your neighbor.” The Polaroid line is cool, but the sugar line is FUN. Most people like to be cool, but I’m much more of a fun guy than a cool guy, so Andre’s got something for all of us.

Fun Fact #642 (When asked about his taste in music, presidential candidate Wesley Clark said in 2004, “I don't know much about hip-hop, but I do know OutKast can make you shake it like a Polaroid picture." I couldn’t talk myself into basing such an important vote on something this silly, but I came this close to voting for Clark just for that.)

Fun Fact #124 (In the last ten years, of the fifty nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture, only two have been out-and-out comedies. The two? I’ll give you a second to think about it…….. Juno (2007) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006))