OH MAN! This took TWO days! My next list is going to be simple as dirt... Top 5 Grilled Cheese Cheeses or something.
25. Train in Vain - The Clash
from the album London Calling.
I was in a bar one night, getting a drink with an ex, and this song came on. No one says it like fuckin' Joe Strummer, man... ("Well, some things you can explain away / But my heartaches in me till this day"). That really killed me dead. To be honest, this track feels a little weird coming at the end of this particular album--after all the jazzy, angry, socially conscious punk, here comes this heart-broken gem. But they're The Clash, man; they're the only band that matters.
24. Lawyers, Guns, and Money - Warren Zevon
from the album Excitable Boy.
Here is my unabashed declaration that Warren Zevon is the most underrated musical artist of all time, beyond The Mountain Goats, The Replacements, and Frederic Chopin. (Okay, Chopin's pretty rated.) His songs work because they are experientially layered. You listen to it once because it's got a catchy melody. You listen again because the lyrics are witty and the general vibe is fun. You listen again because you've formed a bond with the characters. You listen again because you've come to identify with the ebulliently dark (or darkly ebullient?) themes that run through Zevon's lyrics. You come back and you come back and you keep coming back because these are not songs, they are brilliantly crafted novels set to music.
23. It Ain't Hard to Tell - Nas
from the album Illmatic.
Rob and I were having a mini-debate (read: gchat conversation) about what the greatest hip-hop album of all-time is, and Rob brought up Illmatic. (Actually, I think he led with Illmatic and the discussion sprang from there. Anyway.) It's a pretty worthy submission, eh? Now, I know people complain about rap songs that exist solely to extol the lyrical virtues of the artist, but when done right, it's hard to argue. Plus, the placement of this song at the end of the album justifies all of Nas' comparisons (beginning like a violin, ending like Leviathan, deleting stress like Motrin, etc.); after hearing now-classic tracks like "NY State of Mind", "The World is Yours", and "Life's a Bitch", well... you kind of have to agree!
22. Reservations - Wilco
from the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
This from Rob Trump (because he is awesome and I am lazy): "When you wind up at the end, at "Reservations," it's not unreasonable to feel like you've been put through about everything a relationship and life can put you through. So when Tweedy expresses his inability to adequatly express himself--"How can I convince you it's me I don't like"--it's relatable. And when he expresses his inability to even make sense of himself--"I'm bound by the feeling so easy to fake"--it's even more relatable. But when he lets us know that no matter how arch- or meta-analytic he's going to be, that "None of this is real enough to take me away from you," that is beautiful and cathartic. And next are the best lyrics on Yankee and some of the best he's ever written: "I've got reservations / About so many things / But not about you / But not about you." To go through everything that Yankee signifies and end on this statement...that's one of the strongest declarations of the power of love in any art I know."
21. This Is Not What You Had Planned - The Wrens
from the album The Meadowlands.
On a purely elemental level, this probably isn't a great song. I never find myself saying, "Um, shoot... I really want to listen to 'This Is Not What You Had Planned', that great, good catchy tune. It is probably the perfect pop song!" But on a purely performative level, this song does what every song should do: it crystallizes the artist's emotions and superimposes them into the consciousness of the listener. It's like forced empathy. According to an interview in Stylus (seriously one of the best interviews I've ever read), the track was the product of the bassist breaking up with his girlfriend, getting drunk as a cougar, and stumbling into the studio, ready to improv.
20. Sleep of the Just - Elvis Costello
from the album King of America.
I was really tempted to put "What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding" on instead (and not just because it's my karaoke song!), but I like to take every chance I get to pimp King of America. This is the most criminally underrated album of the 1980s. You simply will not find a better appropriation of the country western ethos.
19. Play Your Part (Pt. 2) - Girl Talk
from the album Feed the Animals.
This is kind of cheating, but maybe not? Like "Faithfully" and "International Players Anthem" are both great songs, but I dunno if they'd make this list if they were last tracks. (Okay, they totes wouldn't.) But, man... mash 'em up and Jesus God it is bombastic brilliance.
18. How a Resurrection Really Feels - The Hold Steady
from the album Separation Sunday.
The Hold Steady are the hardest-working, hardest-rocking, hardest-drinking band in the world. They come from Minnesota and love baseball and America and adolescence. Stay Positive is my early favorite for album of the year, by the way. This song, the closer to the quasi-concept album Separation Sunday, is what I listen to when I think about going to church. In this album, a Minnesota heroine (Holly, short for Hallelujah) falls in love with the wrong crowd, does a bunch of drugs, has sex for money (?), falls in love, listens to some tunes, gets born again by the Mississippi River, and ends up in Ybor City, FL. She may or may not die at some point, she ping-pongs between Hold Steady regulars Charlemagne (her sometime pimp, sometime lover) and Gideon (sometime lover, sometime cowboy skinhead?), and finally, in the end, finds God. She literally climbs a church crucifix and finds him. Fuck the perfectly crafted pop song. Give me a story like that.
17. Videotape - Radiohead
from the album In Rainbows.
I had no expectations for this album, I'll be honest. I wasn't a huge Hail to the Thief fan, I heard the early buzz and was ready for a letdown, but then, after 2 of the best dollars I've ever spent, I ended up loving every minute of In Rainbows. Looking back, this track is probably 65% responsible for that adoration. It's an acknowledgment that all things, good and bad, come to an end, and that in the final moments, all we have are, well, moments.
16. The Band Played Waltzing Matilda - The Pogues
from the album Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash.
If I was writing a list of story songs, this would be near the top. A harrowing depiction of the Australian involvement in the Battle of Gallipoli, this song has probably my favorite lyric about war ever... "I looked at the place where my legs used to be / And thank Christ there was nobody waiting for me / To grieve and to mourn and to pity". Though the lyrics are borrowed, Shane MacGowan's bitter delivery puts a dour, decided cap on the greatest Irish punk-folk record ever recorded.
15. Is This Music? - Teenage Fanclub
from the album Bandwagonesque.
This popped up on the AV Club's list of the best instrumentals by mainly non-instrumental bands and I think it was their best inclusion. This is a ballsy song, full-stop. Eleven glowing, fluorescent, Alex-Chilton-on-ecstasy tracks and then... bam! You get this electric elegy that feels like it's about to burst into more poetic lyrics but never does. In fact, it's somehow distant and withdrawn; it manages to undercut the cheer of the previous songs, but still brings a smile to your face.
14. Scenario - A Tribe Called Quest
from the album The Low End Theory.
Hahahahahah... I love this song. I love Tribe. I used to this while mowing lawns all the time. This is probably my favorite hip-hop album, too... so there's that. There that is. Yeah, yeah, it's about how good they are at what they do, and about what sorts of things their raps are like, and who they are better than, and what kinds of unpleasantries and unmentionable acts they will perpetrate on your person if you step to them, but come on... this shit is as fun as it is sophomoric, as funny as it is scatological.
13. Butterfly - Weezer
from the album Pinkerton.
There's a great moment in one of my favorite films, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, where the narrator (Robert Downey Jr.) is talking about the author of a pulp crime serial, who is quoted as saying that his creations were just bullshit. RDJr responds to this sentiment bitterly: "What did he know; he was just some writer." That's how I feel about Pinkerton and about Rivers Cuomo selling his heart-on-sleeve paean down the river. You made yourself vulnerable and it was beautiful, dude. Deal with it. Yeah, songs like this one make you sound like a stalker, a sketch, even a misogynistic bastard--but that's the hard part about love. It's a bold statement, be proud of it.
12. Say Yes - Elliott Smith
from the album Either/Or.
Rob said he'd kill me if I didn't put this on... want to know a secret? I KIND OF DON'T BELIEVE HIM, BUT I LIKE THIS SONG ANYWAY. My roommate for the first two years of college would play this whenever he broke up/was falling for a girl. Somehow, it really does manage to capture both feelings. Also, and this is amazing, check out this quote from the Wikipedia article: "In an interview, Smith said that the song was written about 'someone particular and I almost never do that. I was really in love with someone.' It is also the greatest song ever written. Ever." If they said it, it's true!!!
11. Come On Up To The House - Tom Waits
from the album Mule Variations.
Far and away my favorite Tom Waits song. (And I have many, many runner-ups.) The album positively tornadoes upwards into "Come On Up to the House". Triumphant and yet damned, this is a shining moment in career full of shining moments. (Aaaah, I am talking about moments again!!! Why can't I be more like Rob and write about stuff I don't like! Um, here's one... rap skits! Como te fuck, man? Way to break up the flow of your album with "humor"... it is in quotes because it's actual funniness-content is dubious!)
10. Desolation Row - Bob Dylan
from the album Highway 61 Revisited.
This was my favorite song in the 8th grade. My mom made fun of me because it doesn't really make sense, but I didn't listen. Like a lot of Dylan story-songs, he rambles through characters and images as though he's lost in a museum, but he sure isn't looking for the exit. You catch vague whiffs of an arc, you get the sense that you're supposed to identify with certain characters, but by the end, you don't really know what happened. What matters is that the song has happened to you; you are left living in some emotion.
9. Darkness on the Edge of Town - Bruce Springsteen
from the album Darkness on the Edge of Town.
I would listen to the Boss sing the phonebook. Actually, I bet that'd be amazing. "Adams, Amy... whoa-whoa-uh-oh! Adams, Andy... Andy and Amy... woo-oo-oh-oh!" But this song chilled me to the core when I heard it for the first time. It has all the escapist fantasy of "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run", but it's got a brutal defeatist streak, too. Perfect for night-time drives.
8. Rock N' Roll Suicide - David Bowie
from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Sometimes, this song is too painful to listen to, frankly. It peels all the braggadocio of the previous tracks and reveals a shaky, vulnerable Bowie/Ziggy, too famous to live, too young to die. This is what a good closing track should be, both a commentary and an expansion on the rest of the album. Here, it's perfectly executed.
7. Here Comes a Regular - The Replacements
from the album Tim.
Rob was telling me about how he thinks this should be the theme song for How I Met Your Mother and THEN it showed up in the season three finale. How is that for the universe speaking?! I was telling Eva earlier about what it's like to live in Buffalo, about high-schoolers drinking in parks, about the smart kids growing up and leaving, and the rest taking over the family businesses... about long weekend days spent in bars, thinking about being back in high-school, drinking in the park. Maybe this song should be the theme song for Buffalo.
6. Party For Your Right to Fight - Public Enemy
from the album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
What up, titular line. What up, battle-cry. This song is a call to arms. This song doesn't pause to crack wise or to ref the rapper's lyrical prowess, and the only names it drops are slain Black leaders. This song is determined to burn a message into the auditory cortex of the listener, and to prevent it from fading into obscurity as you go searching for the next tape to play.
5. This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) - Talking Heads
from the album Speaking in Tongues.
So, you might be wondering, "Hey Peter, why is your favorite song number five and not number one?" Thanks for asking, faceless internet person! Well, I don't know. What I do know is that this a seriously sick top five. Is there a better portrait of longing than the lines "I'm just an animal looking for a home / Share the same space for a minute or two"? Well, sure, maybe you could find one, but goddamn, that's timeless.
4. You Can't Always Get What You Want - The Rolling Stones
from the album Let It Bleed.
This is hardly just a song anymore. I can't listen to it without seeing that scene in The Big Chill, the subsequent discussion in High Fidelity, the opening/closing scenes of Californication, or, y'know, every time someone says "you can't always get what you want." But stripped away from all of that, this is song, in its heart of hearts, is still a fucking carnival. It's such a simple sentiment, but it still manages to be both a tribute and a death-knell to the 1960s. The party's over, the 70s are here, the war is still on, we've got each other, and yet...
3. Two Headed Boy, Pt. 2 - Neutral Milk Hotel
from the album In the Aeroplane Over The Sea.
I know a guy who can only listen to this album once a year. I have to say, I totally understand. Most of the album is obscured by a Dylanesque haze of half-images and amorphous narrative, with modest smatterings of WWII/Anne Frank references and then, all of a sudden, out tumbles the closer. I don't want to break it down too elementally and miss the beauty of the forest, here... but just take a look at the closing lines of the last three verses: "I’m still wanting my face on your cheek", "God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life", "But don’t hate her when she gets up to leave"... in the midst of the other (sometimes inexplicable) imagery, here are perfectly condensed statements on the truest pains/pleasures of life: love and loss, faith and disillusionment, companionship and loneliness. I know I'm not saying anything new, but when you listen to this song, especially when it follows the other ten tracks, you will need a moment to recuperate.
2. A Day in the Life - The Beatles
from the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
On any other list, this would probably be number one. This was my first favorite Beatles song. Unfortunately for those guys, I am a bigger Pavement fan than I am a Beatles fan. (Sorry, America!)
1. Fillmore Jive - Pavement
from the album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.
When I get to the end of an album and things kind of fall flat, I usually think to myself, "Well, they can't all be Fillmore Jives." I sincerely hope I'm not stealing that from somewhere, because I really, really like it. I heard this song for the first time while sitting in the back row of a bio class in a big, collegiate lecture hall. (Shame on me for not getting to this sooner.) It is the first and only time I have ever cried during a lecture on gas exchange.