Monday, March 01, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 26-30

Looking at today's list, I'm struck by one similarity -- when each of these songs hit the airwaves, they sounded so new, so original, even so bizarre. These aren't necessarily artists I've clasped to my inmost heart of hearts -- they're not My Major Artists -- but I can't deny they are all brilliant. As evidence, I give you these specific singles, each of which galvanized a certain moment in my life in some weird and wonderful way.

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

26. "Space Oddity" / David Bowie (1969)
Always ahead of the curve, Bowie was. The thing was, he was so damn clever, such a showman -- you could never have a fangirl crush on a guy this elusive, but you could certainly dwell within his fantasy worlds.

27. "Walk on the Wild Side" / Lou Reed (1972)
That same first trip to Europe, summer 1973: Leaving London and "Space Oddity" behind, my college friend Debbie and I headed for the Continent, armed with our Eurail passes and ready to see the "Wild World" that Cat Stevens had warned us about. HA! From predatory lechers in Italy to drug-infested hostels in Amsterdam, culminating in a student riot one afternoon in Paris -- store windows shattered, overturned cars set on fire, masses of gendarmes with nightsticks -- it was WAY more than we expected. Forget Cat Stevens; what we needed was Lou Reed. (Even better, Lou Reed as produced by David Bowie -- though it was years before I learned that connection.) We kept hearing this song in shops and cafes, instantly recognizable from that low, funky, boozy bassline. Bit by bit, we pieced together the gallery of misfits Lou described in his gravelly croak. We guessed that if we were Warhol insiders, we'd have recognized them -- Holly, Candy, Little Joe, Jackie, and (our favorite) "Sugar Plum Fairy came and hit the street / Looking for soul food and a place to eat." But whereas we'd felt we HAD to decode "American Pie," with "Walk On the Wild Side" it just didn't matter. We were venturing out of our comfort zone for the first time in our sheltered lives, and it was daring to sing along to a song that mentioned giving head and taking Valium -- or, most shocking of all, that referred to "colored girls," when we'd been schooled for years to say "black women." But hey, we didn't want to change genders or score drugs or become prostitutes. We just wanted to shuffle along those cobbled European streets to an American rhythm, singing along with the colored girls -- "Doo doo-doo doo de-doo-doo doo doo de-doo doo de-doo-doo doo dooooo." That hot sax solo, the surge of gospel choir -- it was the sound of America, like an anchor, keeping us tethered.

28. "Sweet Dreams / The Eurythmics (1983)
Ten years later, another song that dominated the airwaves, this time -- it being the 80s -- driven along by an obsessively repeated synthesizer riff. You KNOW that riff. It was mechanized, soulless, and yet it functioned perfectly as a bass line (Dave Stewart in fact invented the riff by playing a bass line backwards), stalking the underbelly of the song. Melody? Not much of that, just Annie Lennox's hard mannish voice toggling between the notes of a minor-key chord. "Sweet dreams are made of this / Who am I to disagree? / Travel the world and the seven seas / Everybody's looking for something" -- a scenario of hope and aspiration, turned to despair by that relentless automaton beat. A few whip-slap drum beats, and Annie's ravished wail floating in the background -- it was dark, haunting, anything but sweet. Even in the bridge, when Annie delivers advice ("Keep your head up, movin' on / Hold your head up, movin' on" -- is that Dave or just Annie's low voice on the call-and-response?), it's hardly cheery; I picture robots on an assembly line, hustled heartlessly along. Then there were the S&M overtones -- lines like "Some of them want to abuse you / Some of them want to be abused" -- even if it wasn't promoting kinky sex, it certainly held out a pessimistic view of human relationships. But it was a killer dance track, and a mesmerizing video (gorgeous androgynous Annie, with short red hair and a man's dark suit). And in the Eighties, that was what mattered. Compared to the frantic sex-drive and cheesy emotion of most disco tracks, the taut tension and jaded world-view of "Sweet Dreams" were downright bracing. With Annie in charge, the New Wavers could take over the dance floor for four minutes at least -- that was something.

29. "Layla" / Derek and the Dominos (1970)
Was Clapton God? I never thought so, until this song began to make me wonder.

30. "Mr. Dieingly Sad" / The Critters (1966)
Maybe producing a pop song this perfect required that this band should afterward simply disappear. . .


Bob in CT said...

Your last two choices of the day are particularly interesting, two songs that I really like, both haunting yet so different from each other.

"Layla" is a classic rock staple now, but few people remember that the album did not receive good reviews when it was released. I was blown away when I first heard it, particularly this title track, so I immediately wrote a glowing review for my college newspaper and gave the album an A+. I still love hearing "Layla", despite the fact that it's been played billions of times. The song is a true rock classic of epic proportions.

"Mr. Dieingly Sad" is a pop classic that I love hearing whenever it's on the airwaves, a real mood setter. As you've stated before, it's filled with pop cliches and lush dopiness, but it all works perfectly.

Holly A Hughes said...

Yeah, I'm always surprised that Mr Dieingly Sad doesn't usually make it onto lists like this. Yet when you mention it to people, if they've ever heard it at all they LOVE it!!