The 100 Best Singles In My Head
These five songs aren't quite guilty pleasures -- though they're all by artists that some rock snobs spurn. I'll defend them to the death, though, and not just because of nostalgia for the time in my life when I first heard them.
[Click on the highlighted links to read my earlier posts on those songs]
81. "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" / Gerry & the Pacemakers (1964)
In 1964 we were all waiting to figure out who the next Beatles would be (turns out it was more of the Beatles). Even then, though, I'm pretty sure I knew it wouldn't be Gerry & the Pacemakers, despite the fact that they were also managed by Brian Epstein. Still, Gerry Marsden had a soulful pop voice, well suited to ballads, which soon replaced perky numbers like "How Do You Do It" in their repertoire. As a coda to the whole Merseybeat phenomenon, 1965's "Ferry Cross the Mersey" was poignant, even for us who'd never been to Liverpool. But my vote goes to "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying," which came out a year earlier. It was the Pacemaker's first U.S. hit, and amid the tsunami of other British Beat bands frantically trying to cash in on the Beatles' US success, the tenderness of this song really stood out. I'll admit, that arrangement was totally movie-music schmaltz -- those quivering strings, that oboe counterpoint -- but still it comes off as totally sincere. I've read that Marsden wrote it after breaking up with his girlfriend; after she heard the song, apparently, they got back together and eventually married. I don't know if that story's true or not, but I desperately hope so. I remember watching Gerry sing this on Shindig, adoring his Liverpudlian vowels, taken in by his huge puppydog eyes. Ultimately, I just couldn't work up a crush on Gerry Marsden -- not with Paul McCartney around -- but this song still brings a lump to my throat.
82. "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" / Steely Dan (1974)
You either get Steely Dan or you don't. Plenty of other cheesy jazz-rockers came along later to muck up the waters, but these guys invented the sound -- the dense aural environment, underlaid with a slapping, commanding groove. I loved Donald Fagan's nimble and intelligent keyboards, but what really spoke to me was Walter Becker's snarky lyrics. It's toss-up between this number and "Reeling in the Years" ("those weekends at the college never turned out like you planned / The things that pass for knowledge I don't understand"), but in the end I vote for this on the Spookiness Quotient -- that ominous ticking bass line, the faintly scolding lyrics, the lapidary call-and-response of the chorus. The singer's pleading with a girlfriend -- not even that, a girl he's briefly dated; with a whiff of desperation, he reminds her of "our little wild time" and going "out driving on Slow Hand Row" (that's some evocative name for a lover's lane). "Rikki don't lose that number," he entreats her -- I picture something scrawled on a matchbook or a cocktail napkin -- adding, "Send it off in a letter to yourself" (mnemonic tips from Dr. Becker!). Chords falter and diminish as he speculates, "You might use it if you feel better / When you get home . . . " He knows she won't, but a guy can hope, can't he? ("And you might have a change of heart . . . " the line wanders upward, followed by a twiddle of piano). I've always thought that it was his phone number he wanted her to keep, but just today it occurred to me that it could be something else -- an abortion doctor, maybe? Whatever. It's like being thrown into a Raymond Carver short story, and scrambling to figure out what's going on. One thing I knew for sure: if I was Rikki, I'd keep that number.
83. "Smooth Operator" / Sade (1985)
Jazz again -- really smooth jazz, in fact, sizzling over a Latin beat. When this song came out, mind you, we were in the throes of MTV's glory days of video; the sound is inextricable from the exotic vision of gorgeous Sade, with her skimmed-back hair and luscious red lips, poured into a cocktail dress. She was so poised, so reserved, so elegant -- more Audrey Hepburn than Debbie Harry -- I instinctively identified with her. The wary, wounded quality of her voice fit perfectly with this allusive story about a jet-set wheeler-dealer ("diamond life, lover boy"). Not that we get many details, though -- he could be a pimp, a drug lord, or James Bond for all we know. She doesn't trust him, and I'm guessing it's from bitter firsthand experience, as she croons: "A license to love, insurance to hold / Melts all your memories and change into gold / His eyes are like angels but his heart is cold." (Dig that icy quarter-note pause before "cold.") Sade's voice is like satin, like honey, her diction crisp, her phrasing sensuous yet delicate. Congas thump, maracas sussurate, a sax moans in the night. "Coast to coast, LA to Chicago, western male / Across the north and south to Key Largo, love for sale" -- it's so Eighties. But delicious.
[And by the way -- how cool is it that Sade's brand-new album just zoomed to number 1? The lady takes a decade off from performing, and her audience is right there waiting for her to return. No crazy promotional blitz (take note, Madonna and Lady Gaga), just a solidly crafted set of songs with her long-time loyal band. It proves that when the older audience respects and cares about an artist, they'll buy records in droves. So how come the record companies waste so much time and money only wooing the fickle youth market?]
84. "I Don't Want to Go Home" / Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (1976)
Warning: You won't find Bruce Springsteen anywhere on this list. But I've got nothing against Jersey boys -- and here's a selection to prove it.
85. "Maggie May" / "Reason to Believe" / Rod Stewart (1971) Hey, I didn't know better. And even if I did, I'd probably still fall for this gravelly debut by whiskey-voiced Rod Stewart.