Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Best Songs of All Time (Of All Time!)

I've been thinking a lot lately about what are the best songs ever written.

Obviously, this a pretty subjective question. My favorite song is certainly not your favorite song, isn't likely some dude in Arkansas' favorite song (but man, if he is a Matt Good fan, what are the odds?). But still, within the threshold of our western culture, in our shared language, is there one song or some songs that stand head and shoulders above, that EVERYBODY agrees are pretty fantastic pieces of craft, their favorite or not?

The kind of song that you never turn off if it comes on the radio, whether you've heard it a hundred times or the first in a long while. A song that gets stuck in your head and won't go away - but not in an annoying 'god save me from my brain' way, but a hummable friend keeping you company? A timeless song - not connected to a specific era or genre, though it may be a product of both, but who's resonance comes from the simplicity, power, and beauty of the music itself, not it's cultural contextualization. A song that never loses the poignancy of it's lyrics or feels musically out dated - that stays relevant because it has perfectly tied into some basic human truth through words, rhythm, and melody. Songs that cross taste, genre, style - that a fan of rap, rock, country, or classical can all still enjoy and feel connected to.
A perfect song.

A song like that is few and far between, but I have some suggestions - songs that may earn the title of the actual best ever written.

Maybe a perfect song, from opening to end. A wistful tune that has just enough nostalgia to feel comfortable and familiar, but enough momentum to push forward. A brief pause of reflection before the next chapter, and one of the catchiest tunes ever commited to recording. As Otis whistles off, his character walks away onto the next stage. Both relaxing and active, it's pretty perfect, and just pretty in a simple way.

Similar to the song above, Ain't No Sunshine just gets in your head. Reflective, sad, and true without ever being emo - the way Otis perfectly captures wistful, Bill does melancholy. Poetic lyrics, a slow measured build and a subtle crescendo to the breakdown with a tune that comforts even as it takes stock of your broken heart. That last vocal flourish lingers like the adult love this song is about.

And what Bill Withers does to melancholy, Van Morrison does to romance. From the deft touch of every note to the unrefined sensuality of his absolutely expressive voice, this is a song for lovers, building to the moment where the mood changes. What it lacks in overt sexuality (it's not the song for the actual act) it revels in flirtation, touch, and a journey of attraction. The ensemble is tight, the tune captivating - this is a song to listen to, dance to, experience.

Those are my three perfect songs, according to the criteria I laid out for myself. They may not be my favorites, but they are flawless songs that I think can strike a chord in any listener.
Other strong candidates I've heard include The Cure's Love Song and/or Just Like Heaven, or Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here, and I'm still thinking about those - they just might make the cut, especially listening to Floyd while I write - but these are the three I stand by now.

- Jason


nevie said...

ohhhh man. i LOVE "ain't no sunshine"

Dialectric said...

Nice. I applaud your choices and your backups. I have been for some time, struggling with a meme from FB, "30 Songs I Can't Live Without" and it has been kicking my A**, and NOT only because I was tagged in it by an ex-. I thought I would contribute some of my choices, because I have discovered that (besides being older than most of your readership - and don't think I didn't notice the vintage of your first choices, you old softie) that I have some predilections I hadn't really noticed before, including what I think of as "magic hour music." Wistful, almost-folk, maybe western tinged rock that sets a perfect mood, especially at the end of a summer's day. (Dock of the Bay is a perfect example...) So, as offerings: 1) The Who - Behind Blue Eyes. Always gathers a little lachrymal push right behind my eyes. Speaks of great loneliness, and the longing to be with another. And like Morrison, you've gotta love Daltrey's voice. 2) Sarah McLachlan's cover of Tom Waits' Ol '55. Technically a sunRISE song - but I always imagine it in the evening, 3) The Moody Blues - Nights in White Satin. I admit it - I am an art rock fan, and "Days of Future Passed" was as arty and pretentious an album as anyone kicked out in the late '60's, early '70's, but this song ranks right up there with "Moondance" for me. 4) Dire Straits - Romeo and Juliet. I know Neil M. loves the Indigo Girls cover better, but I think Knopfler's vocals and guitar render a MUCH more poignant mood. And, finally 5) Lieber and Stoller's Stand by Me, as sung by Ben King. OK, I have to go put some more music on... thanks for the mood lift - I am sick as a dog.

Blogden Nash said...

Three words: Don't Stop Believing.
You think I'm joking, but you're wrong. I dare you to find me someone who will not sing along when that song starts playing.

ali d said...

Okay. It's time. I've kept this a secret for a long time.


I've been ashamed to tell anyone. I finally was able to tell David a few months ago, but now I feel ready to let the world(/blog) know.

I didn't know Don't Stop Believing until I was a sophomore in college. I was at the Theatre Banquet and it came on and EVERYONE freaked out and started singing along, and to fit in, I faked it and pretended I had ANY sort of clue what the hell song they were singing. I had heard of Journey, and I'm sure at some point I'd heard DSB on the radio, but I didn't know it was anything special until that moment.

Whew. That was easier than I thought it'd be.

I'm glad I can stop living the lie.

David Pratt said...

Tom Sawyer - Rush
Dust in the Wind - Kansas
Superstitious - Stevie Wonder

I'll have to go back through the barrage of texts I've sent you the last few days to find some more. I also wholeheartedly agree that Behind Blue Eyes deserves a spot on this list.

This gives me an idea . . .

Max Nova said...

And people think I'm an old fogey...

Also JJ redick killed don't stop believin. Its dead now, let it go.

Jason Heat said...

See, I would definitely turn off Tom Sawyer more often than not - good song, but I don't think it's universal in this sense.

I need to re-listen to Behind Blue Eyes a few times now.

I love Journey. I love Don't Stop Believing. LOVE it. but I wonder if some people don't like it for that very reason - because it so somes up a style/time that is very polarizing musically.

Jason Heat said...

I am aware I spelled 'sums' wrong there.

nevie said...

"both sides now" - joni mitchell
"freebird" - skynyrd

i have a hard time narrowing down. so i'll also say that i totally agree with the suggestions of "superstition" - really much of stevie wonder - and "stand by me."

i also happen to think "can't help falling in love" and "unchained melody" rank as the best love songs of all time for their simple beauty.

Brett said...

Having attended a karaoke last night, there's definitely a few songs that get everyone happy and singing along:

My Girl
Build Me Up, Buttercup
Get Up (Sex Machine)
Proud Mary [Tina Turner's version]

I might also add Wonderful World [Sam Cooke, i.e. "Don't know much about history"]

and also, who honestly dislikes any of these three incredibly obvious and overplayed songs:
No Woman, No Cry

and though Don't Stop Believing came on at the karaoke and got everyone else goin', I am that one person who won't sing along to it, Mr. Nash; I'm not much of a fan of it. Neither am I a fan of those three other karaoke-favorites, Livin' on a Prayer, Total Eclipse of the Heart or The Final Countdown.

Jason Heat said...

Build me up Buttercup is a FANTASTIC call.

nevie said...

omg sam cooke. "you send me." that should have made my list.

Q said...

Have you ever heard the Lynn Collins version of "Ain't It Sunshine?" Smoking.

"Don't Stop Believing"? "Knights In White Satin"? "Dust In The Wind"? Motherfucking "Freebird"? Somebody's gotta say it. Are you fucking serious? Easy on the cheezy, guys!

A couple of my own, songs that for me feel timeless and unimpeachable. As for a couple of iconic tracks:
1. "A Change Is Gonna Come" - performed best, in my opinion, not by Sam Cooke but in the apocalyptic rendition by Baby Huey and the Babysitters.
2. "Walk On By" - Isaac Hayes, which turns a Burt Bacharach song into the baddest thing ever put to tape.
3. "Baby Please Don't Go" - Written by Big Joe Williams, performed by just about everybody. I dig the version by Them, and Mississippi Fred McDowell's droned and drifting take is pretty spectacular too.
4. "Tumbling Dice" by the Rolling Stones, which is the perfect blend of tough, worn, dangerous, tender, mean, and sexy.
5. "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" by Willie Nelson, which balances the eternal mystery and utter simplicity of a sad love song in perfect measure.

And a couple of personal favorites that have everything I want to hear just like I want to hear it:
1. "Shame On A Nigga" by the Wu-Tang Clan. Good beats, good rhymes, it's like bananas in your cereal!
2."Field Commander Cohen" by Leonard Cohen, which manages to contemplate just about all the big questions in a couple minutes time. "Diamonds In The Mine" and "The Sisters Of Mercy" are some runners up.
3. "I've Got A Thing, You've got A Thing, Everybody's Got A Thing" by Funkadelic, broadcasting cosmic beams of liberation and truth through a mist of savage and funky noise.
4. "Fantastic Voyage" by David Bowie, which I believe is in the end a song about dignity in the face of tribulation, a struggle which I suspect being alive is really about.
5. "Move Over" by the Soul Children, which is just the most heart breaking thing I've ever heard.

Jason Heat said...

I'll have to check those out, Q

as for my list, I think I have a forth - Rebel Rebel by David Bowie is pretty perfect.

Q said...

Q is JM, by the way.

Jstone said...

I just want to be a curmudgeon here and say that there is not one song on any list so far that I would not turn off pretty much every time it comes on because I have heard them all far too many times.

But there is not a song in existence that I think would and will always keep my attention.

Ozkirbas said...

"Ain't No Sunshine" is a brilliant song. However, I have a particular aversion to "Build Me Up Buttercup." Not a fan.

Jordan Levine said...

Let it Be
Hound Dog
Ring of Fire
Tiny Dancer

I think it's also worth mentioning the observation that the songs named here all considered classics, which really begs the question, "is there a modern day perfect song?"

I spent a few minutes thinking about a specific Chili Peppers song to insert for this but could not come up with anything.

ali d said...

Actually, Jordan, I was just thinking about that today while working at Imagination. Wonderwall came on the radio, and I was one of the three people who immediately started singing along, and the first thing I thought of was this post. I definitely think it makes the cut, even though Oasis might not initially come to mind when making this list.

Alex said...

Ha, I was just thinking about Wonderwall today. Not because it would make my list, but because I would expect it to come up as a potential modern song to fit this.

Stephen said...

The Star Spangled Banner

nuf said

Dennis said...

Total Eclipse of the Heart