Monday, February 15, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 96-100


I'm going to start at the bottom of the list and work my way up, five songs a day. Down here at the end of the list, I'll admit, guilty pleasures rule -- they're on here as much for nostalgia as anything else. But before I hang my head in shame, I ask you, if you're really being honest -- What's on your list?

[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]

96. "Spinning Wheel" / Blood, Sweat & Tears (1969)
In 1969, both Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago hit the airwaves, a jolt of contrast to the reigning vibes of acid rock. Instinctively I knew they weren't my kind of music -- I loved the funky horns and riddling lyrics, but their sound was too big and glossy for me. (I see an arc here leading directly to the Eagles.) But on this second album, their big breakthrough, the musical genius of the recently departed Al Kooper still invigorated BS&T, now sweetened with David Clayton Thomas's juicy vocals, and for a season -- when it was being played everywhere -- I couldn't help succumbing to this song's slouchy beat -- "What goes up must come down / Spinning wheel got to turn round." How did I know that Clayton-Thomas's lyrics were meant as a put-down of psychedelic rock? In short order, BS&T churned out more hits -- we'd already had the ingratiating "You Make Me So Very Happy," to be followed soon by the faux-folk "And When I Die" and an overbaked rendition of "God Bless The Child," both of which horrified me later when I discovered the Laura Nyro and Billie Holiday originals. In the course of one album, the band had already jumped the shark for me. But could I leave "Spinning Wheel" off this list? I could not.

. "When A Man Loves A Woman" / Percy Sledge (1966) No special stories here, just a vintage soul classic that's too great to be denied a spot on my list.

. "Losing My Religion" / R.E.M. (1991)
Another band that eventually jumped the shark for me, as their songs became too samey and were grossly overplayed, not just on radio but on MTV as well. And yet, and yet, and yet . . . in the 1980s R.E.M. were the standard-bearers for that endangered species, intelligent rock music, with their oddball blend of hooky Southern rock and cryptic New Wave lyrics, and I can't deny I was seduced. In 1991 I couldn't take my eyes off this video, set in a gauzy side-lit bare room, Peter Buck plucking a winsome mandolin while Stipe sat morosely on a hard-backed chair, pining for love. What a poetic figure he cut, in that white linen shirt, sleeves rolled up, long arms crossed, the fine-boned hands drooping. (Despite all the shots of falling angels and stigmata, we could tell this song had nothing do with actual religion, although of course the Catholic Church protested like crazy.) "That's me in the corner / That's me in the spotlight, I'm / Losing my religion" -- it's like an updated version of "Tears of A Clown," only ten times more neurotic. Obsessive, vacillating, self-conscious, despairing -- here was a love song all us losers could relate to. "Oh no, I've said too much," Stipe agonizes; or, wait, "I haven't said enough." And then Stipe starts to dance, all spastic and geeky -- somehow that endeared him to me even more.

. "Show Me The Way" / Peter Frampton (1976) My ultimate guilty pleasure.

"Different Drum" / Stone Poneys (1967)
Okay, so Linda Ronstadt squeaks onto my list. I'll confess, I was an early Ronstadt fan, snapping up this 1967 hit single from her original band, an L.A.-area folk-rock trio called the Stone Poneys (mid-60s cute misspelling and all). The Stone Poneys weren't long for this world, as the record execs were already pushing her bandmates out the door to highlight the girl singer, with her bold, expressive contralto. Linda was a great popularizer of other people's songs (how I wore out my audiocassette of Linda Ronstadt's Greatest Hits until I discovered the original artists' versions!), and this one's no exception. It was written by Mike Nesmith, who'd become famous a nanosecond later when The Monkees blazed onto television. But when a guy sings about needing his freedom, it's not the same as when a girl says the same thing. "Don't get me wrong, it's not that I knock it, / It's just that I am not in the market / For a boy who wants to love only me" -- that was practically radical feminism in 1967 pop music, and something about it plugged right into my little pre-teen heart. "Yes, and I ain't saying you ain't pretty / All I'm saying is I'm not ready / For any person place or thing / To try and pull the reins in on me." Reins, get it? Stone Poneys? I really thought that was clever. And who knows, maybe the girl-power oomph of this song is what eventually sprung me out of Indianapolis years later. We are the music we've listened to, and when all's told, even "Different Drum" accounts for at least a few sinews and corpuscles.


Bob in CT said...

Excellent choice with "Different Drum", it would make my list. Nice picks with R.E.M. and Percy Sledge. Thumbs down though for "Spinning Wheel", an annoying, overplayed lump of a song that I instantly turn off when it comes on the radio.
This countdown is a great idea, I can't wait for the rest of your selections.

Debs said...

Love BS&T, but Spinning Wheel, not so much..carry on Ms Holly, and we hope to see Mr Cooke along the way.

Holly A Hughes said...

Clearly "Spinning Wheel" was a minority choice! But I dunno, it sounded great pouring out of the car speakers as we cruised the Steak 'n' Shake...

Ted said...

Glad to see Different Drum make your list, an all time favorite of mine as well.

A minor insignificant point--the Monkees became big in '66, before The Stone Pony's made it a hit. A Monkees TV version was performed once, but it was not really a serious attempt. Nesmith later recorded this on one of his studio albums and on a live album, but the SP version is still my fav.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks for jiggling the chronology for me. Ted. I suppose in those innocent days, I simply never looked at the label of "Different Drum" to see who'd written it. (Back then I tended to believe every artist wrote his/her own material -- just goes to show what a sea change the Beatles wrought in pop music.)

wwolfe said...

I've always figured I must not be a big REM fan if my two favorite records by them are "Together" and Raspberry Beret" - the former with Reg Presley of the Troggs on vocals, the latter with Warren Zevon, and neither written by the band. So maybe I'm just not a big fan of Michael Stipes' lyrics and vocals. My problem with Blood, Sweat, and Tears has always been that David Clayton Thomas sounds like he's in desperate need of a big bowl of prunes. Linda Ronstadt almost always failed to convey the emotional heart of a song, with one exception: whenever the lyrics focused on a "Don't f*** with me" message, she was terrific. (You're No Good, Tumbling Dice, When Will I Be Loved.) "Different Drum" falls in that same category, and once again she gets to the heart of the matter. Re: "Show Me the Way": we all have guilty pleasures - ask me about the five Archies albums I own. Finally, I think my favorite thing on the Percy Sledge single is Roger Hawkins' drumming - you could never get such a great feel from a drummer playing to a click track.

Holly A Hughes said...

Well, that comment about the prunes has pretty much finished off David Clayton-Thomas in my book!

Omigod yes, that lascivious slow shuffle of the drums on WAMLAW -- I'm so glad to know the name behind it.

Beat Girl said...

I thought I was the only out there who embraced "Different Drum" as an anthem. Girl Power, indeed. I look forward to seeing the rest of your list.

IƱaki said...

I know most Kinks fans don't but I have to admit I actually like Blood, Sweat & Tears. I'd never consider them between my favourite bands and their music has aged very very badly, but they were the first concert my father went to so they have a special meaning for him and by extension for me.

Holly A Hughes said...

I think BS&T were one of those bands that changed radically when the personnel changed. It's always important to know which of their albums a song is from, and who was playing on it. They did record a fair number of stodgy, self-important songs, but that doesn't mean there aren't some other good ones in there.

Anonymous said...

I saw Blood, Sweat, And Tears in St John's Arena in Columbus, Ohio, in the fall of 1969, and even then I got the distinct impression that they were "phoning it in." Ten thousand fans and they were slightly inconvenienced to be there.

Like Holly, I also like "You've Made Me So Very Happy," which I believe was written by the black couple who actually had an MTV smash in the eighties called "Solid As A Rock."

I think if you poked Clayton-Thomas in the ribs at 4:00 AM his first uterance would be as soulful as would Ned who lives across the street in the yellow cape.