11. Marc Cohn - Walking in Memphis

If you haven't guessed it by now, I'm a pretty big fan of music.  When I'm listening to music, especially on headphones, I'm listening to the little nuances, the small sounds that the producer doesn't think I hear.  But I do.  That little wisp of hammond organ at the end of the first verse, barely a third of second long?  Yeah, I got that.  The doubling of the bass to give it that extra thump at the low end?  I heard it.  I'm not bragging, I'm just telling you how much I appreciate music and how it's put together.

When I listen to music, I'm not visualizing what the singer's trying to portray, I'm absorbing all of the music and the melody, bit by little bit.  That's why lyrics are often completely ignored by me, other than seeing them as a melody delivery device.  "Hey Jude" could've just as well been "Hey Dude" and I probably wouldn't have noticed.  It's not often that lyrics really catch my ear, much less cause me to put my metaphysical need to delve into the minutiae of the music aside and let a visual reference jump into my head.  Putting this list together and writing these essays on each song may have changed that forever to a certain extent, but that's still my disposition.  Paying attention to lyrics takes an effort.  Breaking down the music into individual elements is something that just comes naturally to me.

To steal a riff from the greatest comedian who ever lived*, "I told you that story to tell you this one."

Just like there are iconic guitar riffs, there's also the lesser-known, kid brother of the guitar riff - the awesome piano intro.  Played just right, an opening piano line can really catch your ear, pulling you out of whatever you were doing and making you listen.  #78 had one.  So did #67, #66, #63, #38, #33, #20, and #13.  #4 on this list has one (good luck Todd trying to guess it).  I like the piano.  Even though it doesn't get its just due in rock & roll for the most part, it does on my list.  But none of those other piano intros did what the piano intro for "Walking in Memphis" did for me.

It's a rainy night in the countryside.  You're not sure where you are, but you know you're in the South.  The rain started slowly - just a few drops to make you wonder if you were seeing things or not.  Before too long, it's raining just hard enough to bring that pleasant "it's raining" feeling to you, but not so much that it's going to be a big inconvenience because there aren't many street lights on this stretch of the highway.  You're going south from Memphis, where you had an amazing few days.  But real life beckons, and you're heading home.  But not just yet.

The song on the radio isn't doing it for you and you're a bit hungry, so you pull off at the next exit, chuckle at a sign that it actually says "Hollywood," and in less than a minute, you pull into a parking lot of one of those diner/juke joints that you only see in movies.  You smell frying catfish and hear the strains of good - no, great music spilling through the crack of the door that the fry cook left open while he finished his cigarette, which he prematurely snubbed out because the rain was really starting to come down now.  Without hesitation, you walk in.  Before long, you're best friends with a guy you just met named Rodney, who you're telling about your recent trip to Memphis.

That's the vision that jumped into my mind, fully formed, while I listened to this song for the first time.  The piano refrain was the rain, and the lyrics helped paint the rest of the picture.  It was like a dream that I was fully awake for, complete with soundtrack.  That kind of thing never happens to me, so that's why this song lands so high on my list.  Well, that and it's an amazing song sung by a guy with one of those great meaty voices.  Marc Cohn is one of those rare people who's both blessed with tremendous talent in his instrumental ability as well as his voice.

The song is full of tons of references to all things Memphis.  His "blue suede shoes" are from Carl Perkins' great song, Beale is the musical heart of Memphis.  WC Handy is a blues legend, while Union Street is the home to the legendary Sun Studio.  Graceland, of course, is Elvis' home, while the jungle room is where Elvis and his pals "took care of business."  I'll leave that last part to your imagination.

Marc puts it much more poetically, so I'll use his words:

Saw the ghost of Elvis
On Union Avenue
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
Then I watched him walk right through 

While the piano is the star of the show, without the rest of the music being strong as well, the song may have collapsed under the singular weight of just the one instrument.  The way he hits the keys with his piano, Marc is the first person who establishes a beat.  But drummer Steve Gadd then takes over, hitting the rim of his snare to maintain the beat but not to distract too much.  He lightly dances over his cymbals and toms, giving that off beat jazzy feel to the song while also keeping the actual beat to move the song forwar  d.  It's easy to write about, but much harder to accomplish. 

Guitar in this song is purely of the rhythm variety.  It adds nice atmosphere while it doubles the piano line, giving the song some extra sonic texture.  There's just the slightest hint of organ early in the song.  As the song progresses and the pace picks up, the organ pops through occasionally, unable to contain its enthusiasm.  When Marc sings about "gospel in the air" and mentions former soul legend turned Reverend Al Green, the church organ takes its brief moment in the spotlight.

It's at this point that Marc's lyrics perfectly sum up how gospel music has really permeated through to secular music.  The inspiration and enthusiasm of gospel music is so contagious that popular music just can't ignore it.  The influence is in countless soul, rock and pop songs.  When you see people play and sing with such vervor, you can't help but want to jump up, singing and dancing with them, even if you're a card carrying atheist.  Marc captures that scene:

Now Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would --
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
And she said --
"Tell me are you a Christian, child?"
And I said "Ma'am I am tonight"

I've traveled all over the US, been to 39 of the 50 states (including Tennessee), but I've never been to Memphis.  After listening to this song, I feel like I have.  And I want to go back.

*Bill Cosby - The line is from "Buck Buck," from his album Revenge - the first introduction of Fat Albert.

12. U2 - Sunday Bloody Sunday

"There's been talk about this next song.  Maybe... maybe too much talk.  This song is not a rebel song.  This song is "Sunday Bloody Sunday"*

Bono, you sir are a big fat liar.  Not a rebel song?  I hate to break it to you, but "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is all rebel song.  It's a sheep in wolf's clothing.  It takes the structure of your militaristic call-to-arms and turns it on its head.  It's a musical swords to plowshares.  While protest songs of the 60's and early 70's (i.e.  The Byrds' "Turn Turn Turn" and even John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance") called for the world to change its warring ways, they all did so with a reasoned calm, trying to get more flies with honey.  A few bands, like CSN&Y with "Ohio" and CCR with "Fortunate Son" definitely had anger in their songs, but it still came across as hippies preaching to the choir.  U2 took that motivation and took it to eleven - hell - fifteen.

"Imagine" is trying to change the world by inspiring you with a quiet restraint.  "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is trying to change the world by convincing you with a sledgehammer and a bullhorn.  U2 didn't have the patience or the inclination to tone down their message so they didn't piss people off.  U2 didn't care.  They did know, however, that they were putting themselves in a precarious position with the Irish nationalists back home.  Edge had written lyrics that were even more pointed (but not in support of his country's Catholic brethren, as you might think), but the band didn't want to take it that far.  But they were taking it farther than anyone else had ever done before.

Right off the bat, the song starts with Larry Mullen Jr.'s machine gun drum intro.  On the album version, the  drums were recorded in a staircase of their Dublin recording studio. Producer Steve Lillywhite was trying to get a full sound with a natural echo.  The Edge, the guitarist, plays a simple repeated guitar riff until Bono opens with the lyrics that spill out of his frustration.  He just can't contain it any more.  The lyrics go back to hearing about that afternoon's Bloody Sunday massacre.

I can't believe the news today
Oh, I can't close my eyes and make it go away
How long, how long must we sing this song?
How long? How long?
'Cause tonight we can be as one, tonight

The sad part is that Bono's fully away that although we can be as one tonight, we're not going to be - at least not any time soon.  You hear the frustration in his voice.  But it's more than that.  It angers him.  And it should.  There were no winners in the conflict between the Irish who wanted Northern Ireland to be a part of the homeland and the British who had come to call Northern Ireland home.

Sadly, Adam Clayton's bass line doesn't even enter the song until the first chorus.  And even though I'll sound like a broken record, to lay one's ego aside for the good of the song is something at which bassists are especially talented.  Adam just gives some low tones to hold the rhythm together and not to take away from Larry's stand out drumming.  There's a great fiddle part, played by a local violinist, Steve Wickham, who'd actually asked Edge at a bus stop if U2 needed any violin on their next record.  Turns out they did.  At times, it comes across almost as another rhythm instrument, while at other times it plays a plaintive wail, echoing the scream of sirens that must've filled the early-evening air.
As great as the album version is of this song, the definitive versions are ones that were recorded live.  Of those, the two most famous are ones recorded for concert films.  The first is the one that helped bring U2 to national prominence, the performance that was recorded at Denver's Red Rocks Amphitheater in 1983.  That's the one quoted at the beginning of this entry.  The second one was recorded (ironically, also in Denver) on November 8th, 1987, the same day as the Remembrance Day Bombing in Enniskillen, a northern Irish town, where 13 people were killed by a bomb detonated by the IRA.  It was at this performance that Bono's frustration and anger finally exploded.  He realized that they'd gotten no closer to a resolution.  He could contain it no more.

When they play the song live, the band often breaks the arrangement down, simplifying the music.  Edge lightly strums his guitar with muted strings, matched by Larry's martial drum beat and augmented with Adam's bass line.  It's at this point that if Bono has something to say, this is where he says it.  They can keep it up as long as he needs.  On that November night, Bono had much to say:

Now lemme tell you somethin'. I've had enough of Irish Americans who haven't been back to their country in twenty or thirty years come up to me and talk about the resistance, the revolution back home. And the glory of the revolution, and the glory of dying for the revolution. Fuck the revolution! They don't talk about the glory of killing for the revolution. What's the glory in takin' a man from his bed and gunnin' him down in front of his wife and his children? Where's the glory in that? Where's the glory in bombing a Remembrance Day parade of old-aged pensioners, their medals taken out and polished up for the day. Where's the glory in that? To leave them dyin', or crippled for life, or dead, under the rubble of a revolution.... that the majority of the people of my country... don't want. Sing no more!
Even though his anger is palpable, he won't let it get to the point where violence seems to be the only answer.  He's seen where that's gotten his country, and he addresses it in the lyrics:

But I won't heed the battle call
It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall

So Bono, and the rest of U2 as well, does the only thing they really know how to do.  They sing - and play.  They try to get people to realize the futility of violence begetting violence - the unending vicious circle that terrorism and its retribution reaps.

And while Bono knows that we may not be as one tonight, we will be.  It's inevitable.  We have to be.  And it's that optimism, cloaked in a song filled with anger and frustration, that is the lasting message of "Sunday Bloody Sunday."  So in taking a musical structure that has more in common with a rousing call-to-arms, U2 shouts a message for peace, shouting it so loudly that you can't ignore it.  "Sing no more!" Bono implores.  Tens of thousands of voices ring in agreement at every concert.  This is how the other side, the violent side, does it.  Get everyone shouting in unison about something in anger.  But in this case, it's a call-to-drop-arms.  And although sporadic violence still erupts, with the Belfast Agreement of 1998, which ended the hostilities between the British government and the Irish militants, U2 has proven their case.  We can be as one tonight. 

Go ahead Bono, you can say it.  To a certain degree, you've won.  I'll even give you the line:  "This song was absolutely a rebel song.  This song is "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

* There are two Bloody Sundays in Irish history. The first was in 1920 when British troops fired into the crowd at a football match in Dublin in retaliation for the killing of British undercover agents. The second was on January 30, 1972, when British paratroopers killed 13 Irish citizens at a civil rights protest in Derry, Northern Ireland. The song is more about the second Bloody Sunday.

Three videos for this one.  The first is the iconic live recording from Red Rocks, the second is the album version, and the third is the one from Rattle and Hum with Bono's speech about the bombing at Enniskillen.

Larry Mullen had a great quote that I thought was just a bit too long for the main body of my post, since I already had that long one by Bono.  It's kinda like a deleted scene in a movie.  I didn't want to cut it, but it just slowed things down a bit too much for my tastes.  But it's really insightful:

We're into the politics of people, we're not into politics. Like you talk about Northern Ireland, 'Sunday Bloody Sunday,' people sort of think, 'Oh, that time when 13 Catholics were shot by British soldiers'; that's not what the song is about. That's an incident, the most famous incident in Northern Ireland and it's the strongest way of saying, 'How long? How long do we have to put up with this?' I don't care who's who - Catholics, Protestants, whatever. You know people are dying every single day through bitterness and hate, and we're saying why? What's the point? And you can move that into places like El Salvador and other similar situations - people dying. Let's forget the politics, let's stop shooting each other and sit around the table and talk about it... There are a lot of bands taking sides saying politics is crap, etc. Well, so what! The real battle is people dying, that's the real battle."

13. John Lennon - Imagine

If ever there was someone with an ego big enough to think that he could write a song that could change the world, John Lennon was that person.  The main reason The Beatles broke up was because Yoko stoked John's ego to such a degree that he was convinced that he didn't need The Beatles to be great.  To a certain degree, she was right, because John did some amazing songwriting after the split.  "Imagine" was one of those songs, if not the song.  It wasn't a song that talked about how awesome or brilliant he was, though.  "Imagine" is a song that talks about a better world, a song that wants to inspire people to make a better world.  And in many way, it's succeeded.

At the time he recorded "Imagine," John Lennon could've recorded selections from Liverpool's phone book to critical and popular acclaim.  But one of the other reasons he left The Beatles is because he wanted to make his music, with his message.  And I hate to break it to you, millions of Beatles fans, that's okay.  John Lennon wasn't morally obligated to remain in The Beatles just because they made some of the best music ever or because you wanted him to.  In The Beatles, the "sit at the piano and sing a poetic song guy" was Paul, for the most part.  "Imagine" was John's turn to give it a try.

Musically, "Imagine" is very minimally constructed.  It's just John playing piano, backed by a nice string arrangement and a very simple drum beat.  Phil Spector, who was smart enough to know that his trademark "Wall of Sound" wouldn't work on a song like this, gave the song a sparse, yet powerful mix.  Instead of the fullness that so many of his productions had, he just added a simple drum beat and some strings, to add atmosphere.  Phil knew the message of the song and John's great vocals should be the main focus.  I've talked many times about bands' rhythm members putting their egos aside for the good of a song, but I never thought I'd write about a producer doing the same.  But that's what made Spector one of the greatest producers of all time - he knew what would make the song best, and just did that.

John was usually the Beatle that did vocals on the songs that needed an edge, or growl, to them.  The gentle voice was Paul's.  Playing again against type, John gives a vocal performance that's restrained in style, but supremely powerful in its simplicity.   It's conversational, the way he asks us to "imagine all the people, living life in peace."  Simple, yet powerful thoughts delivered simply, yet powerfully.

As simple as "Imagine" may seem, it's anything but, lyrically.  Look at the following line:

Above us, only sky*

In just four words, John encapsulates a universal vision.  The thing is, it differs in so many ways depending on who's interpreting it.  Some might interpret it as a world free of warplanes dropping bombs.  Another sees it as a clear sky, free from the choking clouds of pollution.  Ask a third person, they'd see it as a call to get off the couch and enjoy the allure of a sunny day outdoors, playing soccer with your kids or seeing shapes in the clouds.  Four words and countless interpretations.  That, my friends, is pure poetry.  Striking brevity, but boundless depth.  It's the stuff of Shakespeare or Frost.  I know words like that only confirm John's enormous ego, but when you're the best at something, you can be a little cocky.  Guys like John Lennon, Michael Jordan and Steve Jobs have that cocky swagger because they've earned it, as much as we hate to admit it.

In case you think he just got lucky with that one line, here's another:

Nothing to kill or die for

The implications of those six words are almost limitless.  There are so many things in life that we consider worth taking someone's life or giving up your life for it.  As much as martyrdom may benefit a cause, imagine a cause that doesn't need any martyrs.  People have been killing for money, sex, religion, power, hell, even sneakers for as long as there have been people+.  The thought of a world where none of that is necessary or even occurs is tantalizing.  Imagine...

So in ten total words, John Lennon inspires countless hours of discussions and sets the bar pretty high.  Everything ever conceived or invented started first with imagination.  We can fly across the world in less than a day because the Wright brothers wondered "What if....?"  Mother Teresa knew that the untouchables in Calcutta could be saved, one at a time, because she thought, "What if I can save just one life?"  After that, it's just one more, then one more, and before you know it, thousands of lives have been saved.  John Lennon is telling us, "If you can imagine it, it can happen."

Even though the thought isn't original, the packaging sure is.  Taking deep and complex philosophical ideas and wrapping them up in a pop song is brilliant.  There's an infinitely longer lasting impact from one song like "Imagine" than there would've been from ten thousand articles in the Journal of Philosophy.  Former President Jimmy Carter said, "In many countries around the world—my wife and I have visited about 125 countries—you hear John Lennon's song 'Imagine' used almost equally with national anthems."  That's some pretty lofty praise from a man who's become one history's greatest proponents for peace.

Sometimes when you're that good, it's okay to be cocky.  Go ahead and gloat, John, you've definitely earned it.

* There may be one unintended interpretation to that line that John never thought about.  They renamed Liverpool's international airport after John Lennon, their most famous favorite son.  Their new slogan became, "Above us only sky."  So I guess you can add airport slogan to the list of interpretations of that amazing line.

+ In the Bible, we didn't even get to five people total before someone decided to kill someone else.  Even though I'm a Christian, I have to admit that the plot holes of the whole Adam/Eve/Cain/Abel story are pretty huge.  So Cain must've slept with his sister (that we don't even know about)?  Ewww.  Hopefully, they just ran across some random lady that lived down the street that God created out of a pizza box** or something, because I don't have a sister, but, ewwwwww!

I picked this video because the lyrics play along with the song, so you can appreciate the poetry that I talked about.  They're brilliant.

** My wife was offended by the pizza box line, but I said that it was funny.  While she admitted that it was indeed funny, she said it was also offensive.  I said, "If you can give me a phrase that is as funny as pizza box and not offensive, I'll use it."  After a while, I asked her if she had a substitution.  She just shook her head and said, "It's not my job to make your job less offensive."  So pizza box it is, I guess.  And you know it's funny, don't you sweetie?

14. Aerosmith - Sweet Emotion

I turned forty last year and was often asked how I felt about hitting that landmark age - the precursor to being old.  My answer was simple.  Emotionally, I'm still pretty much a thirteen year-old, so adding another year to my age doesn't really mean much to me.  Age doesn't mean much to Steven Tyler and the guys in Aerosmith, either.  Even though he's sixty-two years old, he's perpetually lived the life of a sixteen year-old.  Drummer Joey Kramer said in an interview, "People always ask, why are you guys acting like kids?"  He paused for a moment, before saying, "We're not acting."  It's true.  They still write songs from the perspective of their young-at-heart mindset, which for a sixteen year-old boy, means sex, getting loaded, having fun, sex, having fun with your buddies, getting in fights, sex, petty arguments, playing in a band and, um, more sex.

The problem is that when you're adults and you add the extracurricular distractions and destructions that are available to adults with money and fame, it's often a recipe for disaster.  And with Aerosmith, at the time that they recorded Toys in the Attic and "Sweet Emotion," the storm clouds were not only on the horizon, but were steadily creeping into everyday life for the band.  The band's cumulative addiction to drugs and alcohol were becoming a major issue.  Bassist Tom Hamilton laughs at the thought that they experimented with drugs.  "[At first], for us, the experiment was a success."  After a long pause, he added, "For a while...."

But after that while, things got more strained. Arguments arose over seemingly trivial things.  Tension over spending too much time together, mixed with jealousy when they weren't spending too much time together, were taking their toll.  Guitarist Joe Perry:  "The ingredients that make up dynamite are benign on their own.  But you put them together.... and they explode."  And explode it did, with no one left unscathed by the damage from the emotional shrapnel.

Even amidst the strife, Aerosmith put together a song for the ages in "Sweet Emotion."  It starts of with Tom Hamilton's brilliant bass line, ambling along, making you wonder where this song was taking you.  If you listen really carefully, you'll also hear a bass marimba, which is like a big, wood xylophone, giving that awesome bass line some extra texture.  It's a beginning that's so memorable that director Richard Linklater used it to open his opus to 70's high school, "Dazed and Confused."  The line doesn't have that typical bass sound to it, which is what makes it so memorable.  You've never heard anything like this before, and you want to hear more.  After the first run-through of the bass line, drummer Tommy Kramer adds some extra percussive effects.  Joe Perry then brings in the talk-box*, adding some really cool atmosphere.  Finally, Steven and Joe harmonize on the iconic "sweet emotion" line, dragging it out and savoring every syllable.

The music throughout the song definitely shows the influence that the blues had on the band.  The casual nature that Joe and rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford play their parts is strongly rooted in blues structure, but they give it some extra rock punch during the verses.  Being a sucker for good talk-box work, Joe really helps set the tone for the whole song's bluesy feel.  If blues legends Willie Brown or Robert Johnson could've used a talk box, I assure you that they would have, especially if they'd had Joe's guitar line to listen to.  Steven Tyler's vocals also have a bluesy style.  His lyrics have that man on the prowl for some action feel that many blues songs have, and he spits out each line with the one line at a time cadence that's common with blues vocalists.  The only thing that doesn't ooze blues is Tommy Kramer's drums.  They're pure rock power drums, start to finish.  This gives the song its distinctive rock sound, with most rock fans not realizing that they're listening to a blues song.

In typical blues fashion, the lyrics are about a woman.  The first verse is all about Steven's animosity towards Joe's then-girlfriend, soon to be wife, not too long before ex-wife, Elissa.  It's textbook sixteen year-old rage directed at the girlfriend that's taking your best friend away.

You talk about things that nobody cares
You're wearing out things that nobody wears
You're calling my name but I gotta make clear
I can't say baby where I'll be in a year

The last line shows the uncertainty that Steven already felt about the future of the band.  The rest of the lyrics are Steven trying to drown that bitterness in the only elixir that works on the sixteen year-old boy, sex.

You stand in the front just a shakin' your ass
I'll take you backstage, you can drink from my glass 

Steven is the lyrical master of taking common sayings and turning them into clever puns.  Aerosmith songs are rife with them.  There's a great one in "Sweet Emotion," where he says that "My get up and go must've got up and went."  While some find them forced and corny, I love 'em all.  Keep them coming, Steven. 

Eventually, the discord and drug use led to the splintering of the band, and Joe Perry left Aerosmith.  After years of acrimony, they realized that they were better together, and reformed, finding huge success in the mid-80's on.  So even though they remain sixteen year-olds inside, they've grown emotionally and can keep their priorities straight.  Joe summed it up, saying,  "We still have the same arguments, we've just learned not to take it all personally."  It's too bad that other bands haven't reached the same emotional maturity of Aerosmtith.  And believe me, that's a sentence I never thought I'd write.

* For more on the talk box, read my post for #45, Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer."

    (Fun Fact #265:  After more than twenty-five years of playing together and writing hundreds of songs, Aerosmith finally hit #1 on the US pop charts with 1998's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing."  The only problem was that they didn't write the song.  It was written by noted songstress, Dianne Warren, who also penned Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me" and Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time."  If you're prone to calling Aerosmith sell-outs, this would probably be your Exhibit A.)

    Another break in the list, but this time it's for something awesome...

    ..... or at least something not nearly as tragic as my last break in the list.

    The next song on my list has an iconic bass line that is instantly recognizable to anyone who knows rock music.  A second and a half into the song, you already know that you're listening to something amazing.  More on that in a couple of days...

    Finding a rock/pop/soul song where the bass is the main musical focus is like finding that twenty bucks you forgot were in your jeans pockets.  It's that pleasant surprise that makes you smile, and smile big.  Bass players often get the short stick of having to hold the rhythm of a song and be that foundation that enables all the other band members to shine.  So when they get to show off a bit, it's always a welcome change.

    That got me to thinking.  What are those other iconic bass lines that show what a bassist with talent can really do?  It was slow going at first, but once I latched on to a couple, the floodgates really opened and the songs just poured out.  So here are my Top 20 bass lines of all time (that aren't already on my list, either already posted or to come).  I wanted to put them in no particular order, but found that more difficult than I thought.  Being an ubergeek, though, I found a website where you can enter a list of items and it will randomize them for you.  So thanks, Random.org!
    1. John Mellencamp & Me'Shell Ndegeocello - Wild Night (Granted, this is a cover of a Van Morrison song, but the way Me'Shell Ndegeocello makes this bass line her own just gets my body moving.  Every note has attitude to it, and you just can't wait for that bass line to come back.  And thank God it does, all throughout the song.)
    2. Primus - Jerry was a Racecar Driver (Probably the best bassist in history, Les Claypool does things that you just didn't think were possible with a bass.  He spends more time at the top of the neck than a horny vampire.  His enthusiasm is contagious.  He makes you want to pick up a bass and learn how to play it, and with "Jerry Was a Racecar Driver" he spazzes out all over his bass, bathing you with sounds that you're still trying to figure out.)
    3. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Higher Ground (Another cover version, sure, but Flea just assaults you with his bass.  He takes that funky Stevie Wonder keyboard riff and just kills every single note.  And to prove that this isn't a one hit wonder of bass playing, check out Get Up And Jump, Around the World, and the end of Coffee Shop,  Seriously, I could list fifty more.  Flea gives Les Claypool a run for his money on the greatest of all time bass player list.  For my money, I'm a Flea guy.)
    4. Alice in Chains - Would?  (Not enough bassists have utilized the ability of the bass to make, low, creepy sounds.  Mike Starr was able to infuse that deranged creepiness into his bass line to "Would?"  You'd think more bassists would take the natural low register of the bass and use it to their advantage in scaring the pants off you.  If you're walking down the street and you hear this bass line, then yes, a serial killer is just about to disembowl you.
    5. Rick James - Superfreak (Sure, you could blame Rick James for the whole MC Hammer thing, but you have to give him credit for one of the most iconic bass lines of all time, and maybe the most famous.  Who wouldn't sample that for a rap song?  It's irresistable.  I've never really met a super freak myself (my breakfast with Hillary Clinton got canceled), but I would imagine that bass line would fit the situation quite nicely.)
    6. Pink Floyd - Money (As if Roger Waters head wasn't big enough with the unstoppable force that is Dark Side of the Moon, he's got to top it off with an instantly recognizable bass line that may outlive the album itself, if that's even possible.  But you gotta give the guy credit.  Five seconds after you hear that bass line for the first time, it's imprinted on your brain forever, and not in that "Mmmm Bop" kinda way.)
    7. Curtis Mayfield - Pusherman (The smooth nature of both the bass line and Curtis's vocal style goes well with the subject matter.  You'd think drugs would pretty much sell themselves, but Curtis highlights the suave, yet cutthroat salesman aspect of drug dealers.  The bass line weaves through the song as Curtis breaks down the entire life of a drug dealer with authentic street poetry that's still completely foreign to a kid who grew up in the suburbs.  But I'm still listening.  I can't help it.)
    8. The Breeders - Cannonball   (I have no idea what this song's about, but that great loopy bass line just grabs you and doesn't let go.  And did you know that most of the band members were female?  I sure didn't.  A kick-ass female bass player is a fine thing indeed.)
    9. Joy Division - Love Will Tear Us Apart (Big fat bummer of a song, but a great bass line.  Bassis Peter Hook really gives his bass a moaning type sound that goes so well with the lyrical subject matter.  To prove how much of a bummer this song was, due largely to the dissolution of his marriage (the main subject of the song), Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide just two months after this song was released as a single.  Suck on that, "Mmmmm Bop"!)
    10. Chic - Good Times (Say what you want about disco, but that genre of music provided some of the most remembered bass lines of all time.  Bernard Edwards provides not only a great bass line for this song, but without "Good Times," there'd be no "Rapper's Delight," so they get credit for an awesome disco song as well as providing the main sample for one of the biggest rap songs of all time.  Not bad for a day's work.)
    11. Queen - Under Pressure (It was a toss up with Another One Bites the Dust, but John Deacon's intro to "Under Pressure" really shows what a simple, yet powerful bass line can do to impact a song.  Without that great bass, the song would still be awesome because it's Freddy Mercury and David Bowie singing together, for Christ's sake, but the bass line takes the song to that Hall of Fame level.)
    12. Elvis Costello - Pump It Up (While the rest of the band plays the more rhythmic parts of the song, Bruce Thomas gets to hog all of the spotlight, not only with that great intro, but all throughout the song as well.  It takes a great song and transforms it into an amazing song (pssst.... that came thisclose to making my list).
    13. Yes - Roundabout (Chris Squire is the Beethoven of bass players.  There's a classical beauty to the way he plays.  But don't be fooled by those statements, he can unleash some tremendously kick-ass bass lines that rock you to your core.  In "Roundabout," the entire band cuts loose, but it's Squire who steals the show, jumping all over his bass as if his life depends on it.)
    14. Rush - The Pass (Geddy Lee is probably the best pure rock bassist who's ever lived and he shows it in dozens of songs.  His talent knows no bounds.  At times in concert, he's singing, playing the bass while also playing the keyboards - with his feet!  I chose "The Pass" because the song is built around his exquisite bass work, rather than your normal rock song that's purely guitar driven.  And it's an awesome song that doesn't get its due.  Check out the classic "Tom Sawyer" for sure, but don't miss out on the lesser known, but amazing bass lines in  "Marathon" and "Where's My Thing?"
    15. New Order - Blue Monday (New wave music never got its just due, in my opinion, but some of the best bass work in the last thirty years has happened in new wave songs.  Until this very moment, I had no idea that Peter Hook was responsible for the awesome bass lines in both "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and "Blue Monday."  Holy crap!  Nice job, sir.  Anyway, back to "Blue Monday."  After the slow keyboard buildup, Peter plays a pretty stock dance bass line, but then gets to shake it up a bit with some more intricate work higher up the neck.  Two songs by the same guy!  I really am floored.)
    16. Chemical Brothers - Block Rockin' Beats (Another quasi-cover, this one of 23 Skidoo's "Coup," the Brothers take the original bass line and hit you over the f*cking head with it.  It's an aural assault and battery of your ears, but not an unpleasant one.  Relentless in its pace, "Block Rockin' Beats" hits you hard with the bass, the drums, everything.  You're spent when it's over, but you want to listen again, you glutton for punishment.)
    17. Steve Miller Band - The Joker (As an interesting contrast to "Block Rockin' Beat"s frenzied bass, Gerald Johnson shows that a great, slow bass line can work just as well.  It's a bass melody that is instantly recognizable and has an almost whimsy that matches the tone of the song so well.  So while the bass line does steal the show, it also serves the song, which is really impressive.)
    18. Duran Duran - Girls on Film, (Another band where I could pick a bunch of songs (including, "Rio" and "Planet Earth," both of which have almost equally amazing bass lines), "Girls on Film" shows John Taylor at his best.  His bass lines propel both dance songs and moody ballads with equal panache.  I said he was underrated in my Band Aid post and I completely stand by that statement.  Not only did he do great bass work for Duran Duran, but he also got to show some serious rock bass chops in Power Station.  Do yourself a favor - listen to more Duran Duran.  You'll be surprised at the high level of musicianship hidden behind those pretty faces.)
    19. U2 - 40 (In all fairness to Adam Clayton, who I think is a great bassist, he doesn't play bass on this one.  For some reason, The Edge and Adam switch instruments, with Edge delivering that great bass line that lays the foundation for Psalm 40, set to music, while Adam plays an atmospheric guitar which acts as the counterpoint to Edge's bass.  "40" shows that you don't need to jam in as many notes as you can in as short a time as you can to have a great bass line that can carry a song.  Since my conscience is bothering me, please check out Adam's performance on "Mofo."  He kicks ass in that song.)
    20. Paul Young - Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home) (Pino Palladino is probably the best bassist you've never heard of.  Although his performance in Paul Young's "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down" is his best flashy work, the way his fretless bass line carries all of "Wherever I Lay My Hat" shows how a great bass performance can carry a song on its broad shoulders.  He's gone on to be the bassist for The Who, carrying the sizable mantle left by John Entwistle's death.  He's a bassist's bassist - a background guy who constantly wows you, but shies away from the limelight.  That also makes him one of the best.)
    So I'll give you a couple of days to try and guess what the next song is.  Feel free to comment with what you think it might be.  And, no, it's not "Ice Ice Baby."  But that song did have a really great bass line.  I wonder where he got that from?

    15. Eminem - Lose Yourself

    When I first heard "My Name Is" in late 1999, I was instantly intrigued.  The vocal delivery was unlike anything I'd heard before.  The nasal whinyness* reminded me of the Beastie Boys' Ad Rock, but the delivery was different.  Couldn't be Beastie Boys, I thought to myself.  When I found out who it was, my first response was, "What a weird name.  M&M?  Isn't he going to get sued or something?"  Turns out he spelled it differently, and he was going to change the face of hip hop.

    The big, purple elephant in the room was that Eminem was white.  And historically, white men couldn't rap.  The statement might be racist, but since black rappers can use the "N" word and get away with it, I can say that before Eminem, almost all white rappers were not very good.  Don't believe me?  Vanilla Ice, 3rd Bass, Marky Mark, Stereo MCs, hell, even Rodney Dangerfield did a rap song.  The lone exception was the groundbreaking Beastie Boys.

    Eminem became the voice of white urban America.  He talked of hard times, really hard times, and not in the tongue-and-cheek way that the Beasties did with "She's Crafty."  He rapped of relationship troubles with everyone - his mom, fellow rappers, his ex-wife.  He was pissed off, and he wasn't afraid to let loose.  If Neil Young was thirty years younger and later, he might have been Eminem.  But it wasn't white urban America who made him famous.  It was the black urban hardcore hip hop fans who first brought him to the public's eye.

    He had the credibility and the pure talent to pull in a strong contingent of black rappers to collaborate and bring their followers.  Black hip-hop fans liked him because he worked hard and had the respect of the artists they loved.  "If he's good enough for Dre," they thought, "he's good enough for me."  White suburban kids liked him because he lived the hardcore, real life that they only read about in magazines in the back seats of their parents' SUVs.  It didn't even occur to them that most of them wouldn't have lasted a week in the same environment that Eminem grew up in.  He looked like them and acted like they wished they could, so it was easier for them to relate.  Unlike those kids who would be terrified to be in the presence of hip-hop god Dr. Dre, Eminem wasn't intimidated by working with Dre.  He knew he had to learn.  He was paying attention.

    "Lose Yourself" was Eminem's hip hop PhD.  Like any great doctoral student, he took something that existed, in this case his own song "Till I Collapse," and built on it, using his life's story as the lyrical basis.  Throughout the song he hits beats at different points in the lines, changing up the cadence to help intensify the feeling that his voice is an actual instrument.  While many, many rap songs are musically elementary, "Lose Yourself" builds layer upon layer of musical depth.  Most rappers have a beat that they rhyme to, but Eminem actually had his musicians frame the beat of the music around his vocals.

    Starting with a piano refrain that would normally sound like an accordion would in a metal song, in this case it works.  It helps build the complexity of the song, with a quickly added guitar riff, played much more like a drum beat.  That creates the tension that leads to Eminem's first, nervous lyrics:

    Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
    To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment
    Would you capture it? Or just let it slip?

    That's the theme of the entire song, and why it speaks to so many people.  There are certain moments in life that define it - where a choice made one way or the other will forever alter that life.  They only happen a few times in each lifetime.  Many people don't even realize the opportunity until it's already gone.  Eminem poses the simple question, "Are you or aren't you?"  But with any monumental decision, the fear and apprehension about the consequences often paralyzes someone:

    His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
    There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti
    He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready

    But he fails.  He fails horribly.  But like the Chinese proverb says, "Failure lies not in falling down. Failure lies in not getting up."  The music in the song adds a contemporary authenticity to the song that most hip hop songs not only don't have, but pride themselves in not having.  It has horns, strings, woodwinds, and rich keyboard sounds, giving the song a more mainstream pop/rock foundation than almost any hip-hop song before it.  Eminem wasn't afraid to throw the usual hip-hop conventions away and build a song for the ages, not just the latest fad of the summer.  Not only are the lyrics about taking your shot, but musically, it was a radical departure and a huge risk.  While the lyrics are a story about taking risks, the music was an actual risk, considering the audience that was his base.  But Eminem has never been one to shy away from a fight.

    I've got to formulate a plot or end up in jail or shot
    Success is my only motherfucking option, failure's not
    Mom, I love you, but this trailer's got to go
    I cannot grow old in Salem's Lot
    So here I go is my shot.
    Feet fail me not 'cause maybe the only opportunity that I got

    As much as he's been painted as an a-hole party guy who hates everyone (and while most of that may be true), Eminem is a tireless worker who is constantly not only working on his own music, but is often collaborating with fellow artists with vocals on records, but more likely the behind the scenes work of songwriting and production.  He heeded the advice of those who came before him, most especially Dr. Dre, and took it to the next level, transforming much of hip-hop in the way that Dre did.

    Back in the early 80's many people thought that rap and hip-hop would go the way of disco and other "fad" musical styles and die a none-too-quick death.  Now, almost thirty years later, it's apparent that hip-hop has not only lasted longer than the pop/rock people thought it would, but it's more than likely that hip-hop has supplanted pop/rock as the first music of choice in the United States, based on popularity.  The student has become the master indeed.

    * Go ahead, Webster's, put that in your damn dictionary.  (Whinyness. n.  The act of being whiny.)  It's not a word but it should be.

    16. Band Aid - Do They Know It's Christmas?

    I wrote the beginning of this post before my Grandpa died, so there is  no irony attached, it's just a coincidence, albeit a sadness inducing one for me and my family.  I thought about taking that first line out, but it conveyed so much in a way that another quote or something stupid written by me wouldn't have.  Besides, Grandpa wouldn't have minded.  He liked the way I wrote, and if I told him that the line needed to be there, he would've nodded with that smile of his.  Anyway, on to #16....

    "People are dying NOW.  Give us the money NOW.  Give me the money."

    Bob Geldof wasn't going to mince words.  After seeing a BBC report about famine wracked Ethiopia, he was spurned into action.  The cynic in me would point out that Geldof wasn't tirelessly fighting for justice his entire life, finding causes to throw his support behind - he just happened to be watching the news.  But while most of us would see a story like that and give a sad sigh before we took our next bite of dinner, Geldof immediately took up the fight against starvation in Africa.  He was convinced that while many musicians had said that music could change the world, he would actually do it.  He was cocky yet naive enough to think he could pull it off.

    And he did.  He pulled in all of his markers throughout the music industry in England and set out to gather as many of the hugest pop stars that he could to make a charity record to fight hunger in the forgotten continent.  The more popular you were, the better.  If you could actually sing, that was good, too.  But from the start, Geldof was smart enough to know that the publicity the event would generate, rather than the actual record sales, would be the difference.  He called the one-day supergroup, Band Aid, a straightforward pun acknowledging the fact that no matter how much they raised, their effort would most likely be a band aid to the deep cut that afflicted Ethiopia and the rest of Africa.  Also, it was a "band" of pop stars, you know, providing "aid."

    Band Aid was one of those classic "why didn't anyone think of this before?" moments.  Rock & Roll music had been around for almost thirty years, but it had never occurred to anyone to actually get popular artists together for the benefit of a needy charity and record a song.  Well, it may have occurred to someone, but they'd never actually pulled it off.  Bob did, and it inspired a plethora of other charity singles.  "We Are the World" is certainly the most star studded and famous of the charity singles that followed Band Aid, but there was also the lesser known Canadian artists "Tears Are Not Enough" and the underrated and awesome heavy metal bands single, "Stars."  It all started with Bob Geldof and Band Aid.  But it didn't end there.  Geldof went on to organize the worldwide concert Live Aid in 1985, raising millions of dollars, which led to Farm Aid and other charity concerts, raising millions more for other needy causes.  It all culminated with the gigantic Live 8, which had ten concerts across the globe going on simultaneously, raising awareness on third world debt and the crushing weight it put on countries that were barely standing, if they were even that lucky.

    But back in '84, it began with a gaggle of reporters outside of Sarm Studios in London, documenting huge star after huge star arriving to record their part.  Sarm had donated 24 hours of studio time, so the schedule was tight.  There would be cameras running the entire time, catching all of the performances, culminating in a choir of 45 of Britain's biggest stars in the music business singing the chorus of the song, titled "Do They Know It's Christmas?".  Verses would be sung by various vocalists, giving most every pop music fan out there a line or two from their favorite singer.

    Geldof co-wrote the song with Midge Ure, lead singer and songwriter for the band Ultravox.  Ure wrote the music - an almost haunting minor key melody that also had that instantly recognizable chorus that you'd find yourself singing moments after you first heard it.  Not only were there the vocals by hugely popular singers, but there was an all-star band behind the words.  John Taylor, vastly underrated bassist from Duran Duran, helped lay the rhythmic foundation with the help of Phil Collins on drums.  Yes, kids, before he became a pop superstar as lead singer of Genesis and then as a solo artist, Phil was (and still is) a world-class drummer.  Gary Kemp, guitarist and main songwriter of Spandau Ballet, handled the guitars while Midge Ure did the keyboards.

    Even though the entire world could have felt guilted into buying the record, they bought it because it was an amazing song.  Sure they had dozens of superstars in the music business, but if the song had sucked, it wouldn't have changed much of anything.  Starting with that haunting church bell and almost ghostly resonance of background vocals, signifying the ignored pleas of Ethiopians already lost, it's clear from the start that this isn't your normal Christmas song.

    Starting with the richly voiced Paul Young*, who sang the first two lines that were actually intended for David Bowie (who couldn't make it to the recording in time, but did record a message for the b-side), "Do They Know It's Christmas?" served as a lyrical indictment of the prosperity and complacency that the citizens of the richest nations have (including you and me).  He needed to shake us out of our normal routines of ignoring things outside of our back yard and subtlety wasn't going to do it.  He wasn't above using lyrics that would shame us into doing something to help. 

    But like any smart poet, you don’t start off with the “beat you over the head” message. You soften them up a bit.

    And in our world of plenty
    We can spread a smile of joy
    Throw your arms around the world
    At Christmas time

    So you’re feeling a bit better about yourself. We’ll just smile and things will be better. We’ll throw our arms around the world, metaphorically, and feel less guilt. Geldof has you just where he wants you. The gloves then come off:

    But when you're having fun
    There's a world outside your window
    And it's a world of dread and fear
    Where the only water flowing
    Is the bitter sting of tears
    And the Christmas bells that ring
    There are the clanging chimes of doom
    Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you

    Oh, man, are you an asshole. People are dying in Africa and it’s your fault. If you do nothing, thousands more will die. Deal with that while you eat that Snickers bar. The time for gentle prodding was over. Bob was going to do what he had to do to get people to react and help, and if it took buckets full of guilt, so be it. People were dying.

    His final message was simple:

    Feed the world
    Let them know it's Christmas time

    "You have to give something of yourself," Geldof said, "and what I do is sing and write songs.  So that's what I did."  And it worked. Band Aid raised awareness not only of the plight of the famine in Ethiopia, but raised all awareness in general. People found other causes and ended up doing greater good across the board. So it turns out that pop music can indeed change the world. It just took a man who was just watching the news and just had to do something. Top it off with the fact that it’s an amazing song, and that’s why “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is one of the greatest songs of my life.

    Below is the video that they shot at the studio.  Is it just me, or does Sting look kinda pissed off when he’s singing his lines “the bitter sting of tears?” He gives that look, like, “You had to give me that line?”

    *  Paul Young has always been a favorite artist of mine.  In the early 80's one of our friends, Joan, had a brother Leo who was into early British new wave music big time.  She borrowed his records and played them for my friends and me.  That began our love of British pop music, including the not yet humongous Duran Duran, the soon to be huge Depeche Mode, Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, Wham! and Paul Young.  I was always so enthralled by Paul's soulful voice.  There was a richness to it that no one else had.  Even though he had a huge hit in the US with a cover of Hall & Oates' "Every Time You Go Away," I highly recommend that you give some of his other stuff a listen that you might never have heard.  Some of his lesser known great songs are "Love of the Common People", "Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)", the underrated and provocative "Sex", and "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down."  But the one that always brings a smile to my face is the humorous ode to a breakfast staple that he did in 1978, "Toast."  I found a clip of it and wanted to share it with you.  Check it out.

    An Unfortunate Sober Break in the List

    Normally, you'd find the next in my Top 100 Songs of My Lifetime list here.  But I wanted to take some time to talk about something actually important.  As much fun as I've had writing these entries and as seriously as I've taken them, the whole thing pales in comparison to hearing that my grandpa, Joe Bodolay, died this morning at the age of 97.  I wanted to tell the world (or at least as much of the world that would actually read this) how much he meant to me and everyone else.

    He was born in Hungary, but his family moved to the United States when he was young so they could pursue their own American dream.  They were processed into the U.S. through Ellis Island, eventually landing in Ohio.  He met the love of his life, my grandma Winnie, and had three children.  My mom, Joyce was the first, followed by my aunt Barbara and finally my uncle Joe.  He worked as a mechanic for Greyhound bus, getting countless numbers of buses back on the street to take Americans from here to there.  He worked hard every day, but was also a kind and gentle man, who loved his family as much as any man could.  In a generation where men were told to hold emotion in and live a serious life, where smiles were hard to come by and compliments even rarer, Joe Bodolay bucked the trend with all of his being.

    A smile was always on his face.  A warm handshake soon followed.  Kind words then poured out, brightening your day.  If he knew you for longer than ten minutes, a hug wasn't far behind.  He was married to my grandma for 72 years, a lifetime in itself.  He loved her so much that he couldn't even contain it.  He was constantly holding her hand, smiling at her, throwing buckets and buckets of love her way.  So much so that it spilled over to the rest of us.  He raised his children to love life and everyone else, because to not do so was a waste of time.  Why be a jerk to people when you can make your day and their day better?  That was his driving philosophy.  My mom later boiled it down to what became her philosophy:  "It doesn't cost anything to be nice."

    The first game of real golf I played with my grandpa, a not very good golfer who taught me nothing about the game, other than to enjoy myself with every shot, good or bad.  He smiled when he hit a good shot, laughed out loud at the bad ones and I never, ever, heard him raise his voice in anger.  As a ten year-old, he let me drive the golf cart, where I felt like a real grown up.  He always treated us kids with respect, never talking down to us just because of our age.

    Grandpa Joe influenced me more than any other man in my life (sorry, Dad, but it's true).  He taught me how to be a great husband, father, but most of all, a great person.  If anyone has anything nice to say about me, the credit goes first to my mom, and then to Grandpa.  We took both of our sons to see Grandma and Grandpa very soon after they were born, and many other times, because I wanted some Grandma & Grandpa juice to rub off on our boys.  Whenever our boys were there, Grandpa just couldn't wipe the smile off of his face.  He just loved to watch them play with each other and hug their great-Grandma.

    I was able to tell both him and my Grandma that they were my inspiration as a husband and wife team.  If my wife, Jennifer and I were able to live our lives as they had, we'd both couldn't be happier.  I tell my wife at least a dozen times a day that I lover her.  With Ty and Ethan, it's even more.  And the reason I'm comfortable enough to do that is because Grandpa showed me how.  Most of all, though, he taught me not to be embarrassed to let people know that I loved them.  It wasn't a sign of weakness, it was the ultimate sign of strength.  He was so comfortable with himself and his feelings that he never felt the need to hold them in.

    Most of you never knew my Grandpa, and that's a real shame.  He made the lives of anyone who spent any real time with him better.  If the true measure of a life is whether or not the world was a better (or worse) place because you were in it, then Grandpa is a first ballot Hall-Of-Famer person.  I hope this might inspire some of you to know more about people in your lives who are committed to making the world a better place, one small act or interaction at a time.

    We'll all miss you, Grandpa.  You showed me how to live a life that's worth telling people about, so I'm going to tell people about yours.  For those of us who believe in heaven, enjoy your time there.  You've earned it in spades.  Give Mom, Dad & Aunt Barbara a hug and kiss for me.

    To steal that great line from Gladiator, I will see you again, but not yet..... not yet.

    I'll start posting more entries for my list in a couple of weeks.

     Here are some pictures.....

    Grandpa's birthday in 1987.  Right before this picture was taken, I told Grandpa that since I was a huge Dodgers fan, he'd better hold on tight to that jacket or else I might steal it (just in case you don't know me, I was kidding, you know...).

    July 2006.  This is Grandpa holding my eldest son's hand.  Ty was the first great-grandchild and Grandpa was so excited every time we'd visit.  Both Ty and his little brother, Ethan, got to visit Grandpa quite a few times since their births, which was great.

    May 2009.  Grandpa and Ethan.  Grandpa really loved Ethan's pretty blue eyes and couldn't stop smiling watching Ethan run around and play.

    May 2009 as well.  (L to R: Grandpa, Ethan, Jennifer (standing), Kent (kneeling), Todd (sitting), Joey (but he wants you to call him Joe now), Scott, Ty (sitting on Scott's lap), Margie, Joe & Grandma)

    17. Led Zeppelin - Rock and Roll

    Okay, let's get right to the controversy that's sure to be out there about my Led Zeppelin song choice -  "Stairway to Heaven" vs. "Rock and Roll."  For many rock critics, "Stairway" is the Citizen Kane or Godfather of rock & roll.  It's the best rock song ever, period.  The haters, though, say that "Stairway" is a bloated, pretentious excercise in fancy-schmancy songwriting.  "Stairway to Heaven" has been polarizing song for decades.  Since it's considered by many to be the best rock song ever, there's a fair amount of backlash of people who never want to hear it again. 

    My feelings are somewhere in the middle.  Although I can grant that "Stairway" is most likely is the most overplayed song in the history of rock radio, it's also an almost perfectly crafted song that shows the amazing breadth of styles that rock songs can contain (it's a ballad, it's a rocker, it's a greatest hits song all in one!).  But for me, it just doesn't do much for me, and I can't quite explain why.  I'm the same way with Casablanca, keeping with the movie analogies.  They're both good, but not nearly as good as everybody is telling me they are.  So that's why I went with "Rock and Roll," because, purely and simply, it's a kick-ass rock song that I've never tired of hearing.
    The criticisms of "Rock and Roll" are there as well, though.  Since it's based on the classic blues 12 bar blues progression and that drummer John Bonham's intro is basically a lift of the beginning of Little Richard's "Keep a Knockin," people claim that it's derivative and unoriginal.  Legions of people would say it's at best the third best song on Led Zeppelin IV.  But I just counter with, "Yeah, but it kicks ass."  That's all that matters to me.  A perfectly cooked steak can be a perfect meal with just three ingredients (steak, salt, pepper).  Same with a song.  Just because it's simple, doesn't mean it can't be perfectly done.  If anything, that makes it even more impressive.  And that's what "Rock and Roll" is.  It may be the most pure rock and roll song ever written.  No pretension - just an unadulterated tribute to the history of the music that they (and we) love.

    It all kicks off with that thundering drum intro by John Bonham.  And while it's true that the riff is almost identical to the one that starts "Keep a Knockin," Bonham adds a power and passion that's lacking from the original.  So like they do throughout the entire song, the members of Led Zeppelin take inspirations from the past and make them their own.  Jimmy Page's guitar may be with the blues progression, but it's cranked up, fuzzed out, and utterly his own - and fully rock and roll.  John Paul Jones' bass is what it was back in the songs they're paying tribute to, a strong rhythm that holds the song together, except Jones add quite a bit more thump in his low end.

    And then there are Robert Plant's vocals.  One of the reason I prefer this song to "Stairway" is Plant's vocals.
    Robert Plant has arguably the best rock and roll voice ever.  In "Stairway" he doesn't get to unleash it the way he does in "Rock and Roll."  He lets loose from the first word and never takes his foot off his vocal accelerator.  Every word he sings has force behind it.  He knows that if you're going to have the balls to call your song "Rock and Roll," you better put your voice behind that statement.  And boy does he.

    The lyrics are simple and without a deep storyline, like so many early rock classics.  For the original acts, the lyrics were pure escapism - hanging out with friends, having fun, and (hopefully) having sex.

    It's been a long time since I rock-and-rolled
    It's been a long time since I did the Stroll
    Let me get it back, let me get it back, let me get it back
    Baby, where I come from
    It's been a long time, been a long time

    When I heard this song for the first time when I was ten, I thought that this guy really liked music and missed it.  Then one day it hit me.  He's talking about sex!  It was scandalous to a thirteen year-old.  It was like the floodgates opened for me and all the other songs that I'd been listening to over the years.  "Love Gun" by Kiss?  Not about firearms, it's sex!  "I Want Candy" by Bow Wow Wow - sex!  "She Bop" by Cyndi Lauper - masturbation!  Well at lest "YMCA" by the Village People is a wholesome song about young men finding a decent place to stay and have a good meal. What?  It's about what?!  Um, anyway, moving on...

    While the mature me finds it hard to believe that Robert Plant ever had any trouble finding someone to have sex with him, the teenage me really felt bad for the guy.  He's basically begging.

    It's been so long since we walked in the moonlight
    Making vows that just can't work right
    Open your arms, open your arms, open your arms
    Baby let my love come running in

    Going back to the music, there are tons of other standout moments.  There's that awesome stuttering, start-and-stop Jimmy Page solo, as if he's trying to figure out if he really wants to unleash a kick-ass solo or not.  Yep, he does.  Beyond the lyrics, there's that trademark Robert Plant wail.  John Paul Jones' bass has that cadence of a heart that's about to explode.  Near the end of the song, there's that clinking piano that again pays tribute to the oldies.  And for those who criticize Bonham's lifting of the "Knockin" riff, he finally gets to let loose with some of this own tricks at the very end of the song, and it's worth the wait.

    Start to finish, "Rock and Roll" is not even four minutes long, but every band member tears through every single second.  Nothing is wasted.  While it's a simple arrangement for a rock song, it's also a perfect rock song.  And like that perfectly cooked steak, you're soon jonesing for another one.  So while "Stairway to Heaven" may be sautéed duck breast and foie gras with a cherry shallot reduction, "Rock and Roll" is that perfectly seared ribeye steak.  And between the two, I'll take the steak.  Be honest with yourself.  You would too.

    18. Alanis Morissette - You Oughta Know

    Shakespeare's* quote about a woman scorned is often used when talking about "You Oughtta Know" by Alanis Morissette.  And while that may be true, I think the song takes it to an even harsher level.  In this case, the song's subject is about the annihilation of a woman's self-esteem that's been replaced with a vitriolic rage that she can't control (nor does she really want to).  In other words, don't fuck with Alanis Morissette.  And although she's never confirmed it (much like Carly Simon and the supposed Warren Beatty dig, "You're So Vain", it's been confirmed by Dave Coulier+ that he's the ex-boyfriend in question.

    At the urging of her new producer, Glen Ballard, Alanis left her musical past# behind her and started writing songs from her life.  As they teach in Writing 101, write what you know.  And boy did she.  The song starts with her slow, but very deliberate lyric "I want you to know, that I'm happy for you" as she begins to unleash a torrent of hate in the general direction of, well, anywhere her ex-boyfriend might ever be.  And for those irony impaired, she's not really happy for him.  There's just a simple, quiet snare drum that's being played with brushes to keep the beat muted that goes well with her quiet opening lines.  As she builds melodic and lyric intensity in her vocals, the instrumentation tries to match it. 

    With the help of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Dave Navarro and Flea, the musical foundation that Alanis can build her vocals on is very strong indeed.  Although I didn't know that it was these guys playing on the track until recently, I always thought the bass line was awesome.  Now I know why.  Flea brings an intense funkiness to every bass line he plays, and it really works well in this song.  The fuzziness in Dave's guitar was a sound I hadn't really heard before and it really helped bridge the gap between Alanis' dramatic vocal pauses.  If you just listen to the instrumentation, you could easily fit a fun, poppy vocal performance around it, showing the versatility of their playing.

    But this is not a fun, poppy song.  You can definitely see the influence of Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville" all over "You Oughtta Know" and the whole Jagged Little Pill album.  They're both albums by women who are through with being screwed over by men and are taking things into their own hands - and not always in a positive way.  Alanis' biting lyrics in the chorus speak volumes:

    And I'm here to remind you
    Of the mess you left when you went away
    It's not fair to deny me
    Of the cross I bear that you gave to me

    But that's not all.  In the next verse, she really pulls all the punches with her accusatory words.  There's nothing left to interpretation.

    You seem very well, things look peaceful
    I'm not quite as well, I thought you should know
    Did you forget about me Mr. Duplicity
    I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner
    It was a slap in the face how quickly I was replaced
    Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?

    I asked my wife, Jennifer, (a big Alanis fan) why this song spoke to her and so many others.  "Because we've all been there," she said.  Almost every woman has been dumped by a guy who moved on to the new flavor of the month, either oblivious to or apathetic of the destruction he left in his wake.  When I told Jennifer that I thought it might be tough for Alanis to sing it now, after she's had some semblance of closure and years to put it behind her.  Jennifer told me of a quote she heard from Gwen Stefani, speaking about her hit with No Doubt, "Don't Speak."  Gwen said that even though the song wasn't an accurate portrayal of her current life, she still sang it on behalf of all the other women in the audience that were going through those things right then.  I imagine that Alanis does the same when she sings it now. 

    But the ultimate question is, why is this song #18 on my list?   Simply because it spoke to me, a man, so deeply about the amount of emotional damage we men can do to the women that we claim to love that I couldn't shake it for a week after I first heard it.  And I've never even treated a woman in such a cowardly way.   It made me really feel for the women who have been.  We, as men, have an obligation to treat women with respect, even when we don't want to be in a relationship with them anymore.  When we don't, we do so at our own peril, because one of them could write a song that makes you look like a hall-of-fame asshole.  And don't we do enough other stuff to make us look bad, guys?

    *The quote that I talked about at the beginning of this post is often attributed to William Shakespeare, with the dictum being, if it's old and famous, Shakespeare probably wrote it.  While that's mostly true, it's not in this case.  The quote is:  "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned.  Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned."  It's from the 1697 work "The Mourning Bride" by William Congreave. 

    + Yes, that Dave Coulier.  Uncle Joey from TV's "Full House."  Which begs the question, how could a humongous dork like that possibly hurt someone that bad?  Either she had the emotional stability of the San Andreas fault or he is one closeted mean motherfucker.  When you add the fact that she was sixteen at the time and he was thirty-one!, I'd probably bet on the latter.

    #Alanis Morissette had a secret from her past that she desperately wanted no one to discover.  Alanis is a talented singer/songwriter and is respected in her profession.  But her secret finally comes out.  Years before, she was Alanis Morissette, Canadian pop star.  But her shame is our glee, so please enjoy her music video** for "Walk Away."

    In the TV comedy How I Met Your Mother, one of the characters has a secret from her past that she desperately wants to keep.  Robin Scherbatzky is a TV news anchor and is respected in her profession.  But her secret finally comes out.  Years before, she was Robin Sparkles, Canadian pop star.  But her shame is our glee, so please enjoy her music video** for "Sandcastles in the Sand."

    **Alanis' video featured a pre-"Friends" Matt LeBlanc as her love interest.  Robin's video features a post-"Dawson's Creek" James VanDerBeek as her love interest, and 80's American pop icon, Tiffany, as her rival.

    19. George Michael - Freedom '90

    More than ever, popular American culture is obsessed with fame.  The goal to become famous is easier to attain than ever, but the cost is often high.  People mortgage their self-respect, body images and sobriety in order to have their pictures in magazines and faces on television.  And while getting famous may be an easier golden ring to grab in the digital age, the desire to become famous is nothing new.

    Back in the early 80's, George Michael wanted to be famous, badly.  He wanted to be the world's biggest pop star and prove his disapproving father wrong and that he could succeed in the music business.  He needed to prove himself.   The problem is, he did succeed.  He became wildly successful, first with Wham! and then with his gigantic first solo album, Faith.  He had millions of fans, was on dozens of magazine covers and basically co-opted MTV as his own personal cable channel.  For someone who wrote a lot of catchy danceable songs, he was also critically well received.
    George Michael was different from almost all of his contemporaries in the 80's.  Sure he sung pop songs, but he also wrote and produced them all by himself.  When he recorded the first Wham! album, he was nineteen!  I don't know about you, but I didn't have my stuff together nearly so well at nineteen.  Back then, I probably thought I did, but the old me realizes I was only kidding myself.  Sure, I thought I could change the world, I just never got around to doing anything about it, just like most of us.  But not George.  He wasn't going to waste any time.

    And he didn't.  After Wham!, he released his first solo record to critical acclaim and sales of over 10,000,000 copies.  But it didn't make him happy.  His fame, like it has for many, had become its own machine, with George being pulled along in its wake.  So although he helped build that machine, he consciously stepped back from it and decided to let his music speak for itself.  And boy did it.

    Starting off with that infectious drum machine loop, the stage was set for the song that would be popular for George based solely on its musical merits, rather than the attractive face with which it was packaged.  Then you add a just as catchy piano riff, and the song really takes off.  Although there are very few instruments playing in "Freedom '90," they way they're played is with a funky intricacy that builds a strong, if chaotic, foundation.  The song's disco'ish guitar break leading into the bridge may be my favorite musical part of the song, because it took such a dated sound and repackaged it in such a fresh sounding way.  Many singers could be overwhelmed by that much talented musical complexity, but George has a voice that can pull off almost anything.  The way George generally sings his vocals has a very breathy quality to it, but behind it all is pure talent.  There may be more talented pop singers than George, but none jump quickly to my mind.  So if he's not the best, he'd put up a hell of a fight for the title.

    Lyrically, the song was first and foremost in response to his fame and trying to deal with it.  Looking back on it now, it also was probably strongly influenced by his living his life as a gay man in private, but not in public.  Both of those were tearing at him and he wanted to fight back, to a certain degree.  Sure, both messes were ones he made himself, but he was trying to deal with them the best way he could.  He's less interested in making the rest of the world happy, he's just going to try and focus on himself and let the rest take care of itself.

    But today the way I play the game is not the same
    No way
    Think I'm gonna get myself happy

    But he also realizes that there's an obligation after you take steps to assure your own happiness.  You have to help others find their own happiness.

    All we have to see
    Is that I don't belong to you
    And you don't belong to me
    You've gotta give for what you take

    George also realized the chance he was taking with his new public persona.  It could have very well blown up in his face and his fame could have evaporated just as quickly as it had appeared.  He was unapologetic about how he was going to live his life, and for a man whose face (and ass) had become almost as famous as his music, it was a serious gamble to take.  But he didn't care, and that's probably why it worked.

    May not be what you want from me
    Just the way it's got to be
    Lose the face now
    I've got to live I've got to live

    It's hard to combine a danceable song with lyrics that are strong and provocative.  George wasn't going to write a lyrically disposable song like "Car Wash" that was seriously catchy but with all the lyrical depth of a piece of paper.  George wanted to mix the two and do it in a way that would still speak to people.  He succeeded massively and put together a song that will almost always get me bobbing my head and harmonizing along with him in the choruses.  And judging by its critical reception and record sales, there are about 10,000,000 others of you who agree with me.

    Two videos for this one.  The first is one of the most famous music videos of all time, while the second may be one of the best MTV Unplugged performances of all time.

    (Fun Fact #643:  The video for "Freedom '90" was directed by noted perfectionist David Fincher, who went on to direct some great movies, including Fight Club, Se7en, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the just released (and critically lauded) The Social Network)

    20. The Beatles - Let It Be

    Fresh on the heels of "Sugar Mice" by Marillion, a song that was released as a band was breaking up, comes "Let It Be," by the Beatles, released after the band broke up.  But let's get to the real question.  In response to those who might question how only one song by The Beatles made it on this list, it's an easy answer.  Only one Beatles album, Let It Be, was released* during my lifetime (released in May 1970).  There would undoubtedly be more Beatles songs on this list if I were older, but them's the rules.  Okay, let's get on with the entry for "Let It Be."

    Paul McCartney isn't your typical bass player.  He's not content to just sit back and lay the musical foundation for songs at the lower end of the sound spectrum.  Bass players are usually the guys in the band photo that look real familiar but you can't quite come up with their name.  They stand to the side of the stage, don't move around much, and usually provide solid backing vocals to go with their solid bass playing.  They're the consummate team players who do what's best for the band, sacrificing their own ego for the good of the band.  So again, Paul McCartney isn't your typical bass player.

    Paul McCartney threw all conventions of the "in the background" bass player out the window.  He was the sole songwriter on many of The Beatles biggest hits.  He sang lead vocals.  He played the piano on many of their songs.  When you add in the genius of John Lennon's songwriting, it's no surprise that The Beatles are considered by most as the greatest band ever.  They quote Shakespeare on Star Trek all the time to prove that genius knows no century.  I'm just shocked that they never quoted any Beatles songs, because trust me, we'll be singing "Let It Be" in the 23rd century.  
    Starting off with that simple piano refrain, Paul keeps things simple, from start to finish.  John plays a simple bass line, taking over Paul's instrument for a song.  Ringo plays some simple drums, but they're pretty prominent in the mix, so it comes through as a solid backing to the song.  Horns add a bit of punch, and the church organ gives it a bit of gravity.  George's guitar solo isn't flashy in the least, which for most guitarists is maddening.  But if it had been, it would've detracted from the song, so he made the right choice.  Although Phil Spector added his "wall of sound" production to the album version#, the song holds on to its core of simple melody with deceptively simple lyrics.

    When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me
    Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

    The "mother Mary" that Paul sings about isn't the Mother Mary (mother of Jesus), but rather Paul's own mother, Mary.  She died when he was fourteen and as any son would, he missed her terribly.  During the tense sessions around the recording of The White Album, Paul often had difficulty sleeping.  One night, however, he had a full night's sleep, where he dreamed of his mother.  It wasn't a sad dream, it was a wonderful, soothing dream.  Paul said,  "It was great to visit with her again. I felt very blessed to have that dream. So that got me writing 'Let It Be'."

    As someone who has also lost a mother (at least I had mine for twenty years longer than Paul), I've had the same dream.  It's the one where I'm spending quality time with my Mom and don't know that she's gone.  The few lucky times I've had these dreams, they've been just mundane settings, like eating at a restaurant and then walking down the street together with my wife and family, talking and laughing.  I can close my eyes and still treasure them.  When I wake up, instead of being depressed that my reality has been shattered from the reality in those dreams, I hold those dreams dear to my heart, remembering them with fondness, not sadness.  So "Let It Be" speaks to me on a deeper level than most, I suppose.

    The way Paul sings his lyrics, though, speaks to millions, not just me.  And although John Lennon didn't like the misconception that this song was talking about the other Mary and became associated with Christianity, even he had to admire the way Paul delivered the lyrics.  When a singer's story is actually his story, it's so much easier to sing it with conviction and emotion.  And that's exactly what Paul does.  With all of the times that "let it be" are in the lyrics, it gives him a chance to be vocally creative with each utterance.  It's not like Phil Collins' cookie cutter delivery of singing "One more night" twenty-six times in that song (yes, I counted).  Paul can let emotion overtake him as he sings his mantra, or can sing it with a more restrained plea.  Paul sings it as I remember my dreams, with optimistic fondness, even when things aren't going right.

    And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light, that shines on me,
    shine until tomorrow, let it be.

    When my Mom died, my night was indeed cloudy.  I grieved.  I was depressed.  I was in a dark tunnel without any light.  Luckily for me, my wife (who also loved my Mom and was grieving as well) stayed right by me and we made it to the end of the darkness together.  The light on the other side will never be as bright as the light before, but it's still light.  When tragedy strikes, you're given a choice.  It almost always plunges you into an uncertain darkness, and it's easy to just stay there, alone with your grief and sadness.  Escaping this darkness takes a monumental effort that's very difficult by yourself.  That's why many people stay there for a long time.

    But there are usually people around you who want to help.  In the dark, though, you can't see them, unless you let them touch you.  Then, if you truly let them in to help, they can lead you, step by step, out of the darkness and into a new light.  Like mine, it'll never be the same, but you'll be able to get on with your life.  So if you're in your own darkness, just reach out and touch someone you trust to lead you out.  No one can promise that there won't be other tragedies and tunnels in your life, but as long as you keep working your way towards a brighter day, your life will be all the better for it.  Mine is.

    *The Beatles album Let It Be was, for the most part, recorded in early 1969, before the recording and release on an entirely different album, Abbey Road.  So even though Let It Be was released almost a year later, some critics and fans belive that Abbey Road, and not Let It Be, should be considered The Beatles last album.

    +So I got curious.  Who wrote what?  How the heck can you find it out if it's all Lennon/McCartney?  Well, John did a verrrrrrry long interview with UK magazine Record Mirror in 1971 where they asked him about almost every Beatles song.  Luckily for me, somebody else did most of the work, I just cleaned it up and compiled the numbers.  Of the 169 songs John talked about, he wrote 75 of them (44%).  Paul wrote 70 (42%).  They collaborated on the final 24 (14%).  That's a pretty even split. The only other bassist who beats him in songwriting productivity is The Police's Sting, who was sole composer on an astounding 67% of The Police's songs.  Including one's he co-wrote, it's a staggering 80%.  Drummer Stewart Copeland once said, "It's not that Andy (Summers, The Police's guitarist) and I didn't write songs, it's just that Sting's were the best."

    #Since there was so much strife within The Beatles during this time, especially between John & Paul, there was no real agreement about how "Let It Be" should be produced and mixed.  Because of that, there are five official versions of "Let It Be" that The Beatles have released.  Check out the Wikipedia page on "Let It Be" to read more about it, if you're interested.  I found it fascinating. 

    (Fun Fact #9:  Paul McCartney wrote "Let It Be" early one day.  Instead of resting on his laurels and going to see a movie, reading a book or eating a salad, McCartney decided to ride the creative wave a bit further and buckled down to continue writing.  The result?  Just another little diddy, this one called "The Long And Winding Road."  On the same stinkin' day!  Genius, indeed.)