Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 16-20

This high on the list, we should have nothing but Major Artists, right? Wrong. Beatles, yes, Beach Boys yes, but those other three? Well, this is MY list, and I'm happy to tell you why those three belong so near the top. For one thing, notice their distinctive intros -- you could easily name that tune in four beats or less. That may not be the only mark of a great single, but it's a pretty persuasive start.

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

16. "Strawberry Fields Forever" / "Penny Lane" / The Beatles (1967)
Hard to imagine that the Beatles captured this much genius on one seven-inch disc of plastic. Shrewdly, they marketed this as a double-A single -- there was the John side and there was the Paul side, and they were as different as could be.

17. "Good Vibrations" / The Beach Boys (1966)
This record was released the week I turned thirteen. You remember what it feels like to be thirteen: Everything inside you and around you is changing; you don't know who or why or where you are. And suddenly here was this song that totally captured that shape-shifting state of mind -- not only that, it made it seem mysterious, exciting, and cool. "Good Vibrations" is a truly astonishing track, a perfect little "pocket symphony." It starts out with Carl's sweet anxious tenor, soon joined by Brian's falsetto, on the ballad-like verse. (Any time a song starts out with Carl Wilson singing, you know I'll love it.) Then we switch into a more traditional Beach Boys sound for the chorus, Mike Love booming in his low voice, "I'm picking up good vibrations / She's givin' me excitation," while the others chant "um bop bop good vibrations" in their trademark close harmonies. But what is that whiny space-age sound floating over their voices? I had never heard a theremin before, but it was a genius move to throw it into the mix, adding an other-worldly dimension to this song about finding your soul mate. And just when you think you've got the pattern -- verse, chorus, verse, chorus -- after the second chorus the song suddenly transmogrifies, each "good good GOOD" rising in pitch and volume, chords shifting upward until it achieves lift-off. There's a jangly little interlude, a meteor shower of overlapping vocals, and at last we hit cruise altitude in the bridge, with a mellow organ and creamy call-and-response vocals -- "got to keep those good vibrations a-happening with her" -- all soft rock, L.A. style. But wait! Just when you least expect it, we break on through to the other side, with that magnificent wall of sound: "AAHHHHHHH!" Then we go into warp drive, tempo faster, chords shifting, voices crossing, drums jingling -- and finally burst into a new galaxy entirely, with a shimmering cascade of vocals in counterpoint, a rock madrigal, with nothing but a tambourine for accompaniment. By the time the theremin whizzes in again, like a rocketship to bear us away for the fadeout -- WHEW! I suppose you're gonna tell me now that the song was meant to replicate a drug trip, or the act of intercourse (that orgasmic AAHHHHHH!!). But what did I know at the time? I was only thirteen. And YET it spoke to me, in an ecstatic musical language all its own. It certainly wasn't the words ("She goes with me to a blossom world"?) Mike Love lyrics never did the trick for me. But who cares?

18. "I'm a Believer" / The Monkees (1966)
One day one of my older brother's friends -- maybe it was Skip Keene -- told me that the Monkees were fakes. "They don't even play their own instruments!" he sneered. I knew he was only saying it because he knew how much I loved Davy Jones. But still, it made me cry because I loved the Monkees, and I'm not afraid to admit it. (Click here for my "Last Train to Clarksville" squeal of fangirl devotion.) Glued to that television set every week, I knew all their songs, but like everyone else I was swept up in the triumphant success of "I'm a Believer" -- their great #1 hit, and the US's top-selling record for 1967 (click on the 1967 label to the right to see what other amazing songs it beat out). Take THAT you scoffers! Though the Monkees had only released their first album in September 1966 -- timed to coincide with the debut of their TV series -- they were such an instant hit that a second album was rushed out in December 1966. Compared to their carefully assembled first album The Monkees (a surprisingly fine LP), More of the Monkees was, er, kinda spotty. The Monkees themselves were so busy filming, music director Don Kirshner only had them drop by the studio to record vocals; the compelling guitar hook here was played by the song's composer, none other than Neil Diamond, and other session musicians did the rest. (I'd love to know who contributed that distinctive calliope organ riff.) Still, there were some excellent tracks on the LP -- not only this but also its B-side, "I'm Not Your Steppin' Stone" -- and it wasn't just Monkeemania that made this single a hit. It fairly bursts with youthful high spirits, and that toe-tapping beat is irresistible. One of the Monkees' first acts of rebellion was to override Kirshner's choice of Davy Jones as the band's main lead vocalist; listening to this, even I have to admit that Mickey Dolenz was the right man for the job. There's something boyish and tentative about his voice at first, as he recounts, "I thought love was only true in fairy tales / Meant for someone else but not for me." But he gathers intensity in the chorus, declaring, "Then I saw her face / Now I'm a believer! / Not a trace / Of doubt in my mind." He's a convert, testifying and bearing witness for all he's worth, building to a groan of slaked lust: "I'm in love, Ummmmm! / I'm a believer, I couldn't leave her / If I tried." As the song spun off in its own orbit with the fadeout, Mickey scatting away, we legions of Monkee fans were like the children of Hamelin town -- ready to follow that pied piper anywhere.

19. "Dancing Queen" / ABBA (1976)

I defy ye, rock snobs! (Yes even you, Ray Davies, making fun of ABBA at your concert last Saturday night. . . what have you got against Sweden these days?) I refuse to apologize for loving ABBA. At the height of ABBA's fame, I was living in the UK, and although I had missed the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, when "Waterloo" swept the top prize, most of my English friends were confirmed ABBA addicts, and I quickly caught the bug. In 1976 this hit single was an absolutely essential part of every night out at the disco. When I say disco, I don't mean Studio 54 -- I mean some drafty little community centre in a small town on the Kent coast, with watery drinks and a dodgy PA system and warps in the lino floor. But when "Dancing Queen" came on, a cry would go up, and the dance floor filled in an instant. You immediately know it's "Dancing Queen" from that long downward keyboard glissando, followed by a sheer wall of ahhh'ed vocals and synthesizers -- production values to the max -- punctuated with Liberace-style hammered piano chords. Then in swoop the girls, wasting no time; they START with that frantically emotive chorus: "Yooo-OU can dance, yooo-OU can ji-ive / Having the time of your life / See that girl, watch that scene / Digging the dancing queen." The mix of Agnetha and Frida's voices always sends a shiver up my spine, and recently I learned why: Their voices were recorded at slightly different speeds, then one was sped up, to create a whisper of dissonance when they were played together. That gives their doubled vocals a hard edge, and a melancholy that always seems to me to be peculiarly Scandinavian. Gently rocking verses set the nightclub scene (memorable phrases: "Friday night and the lights are low . . . Anybody could be that guy / Night is young and the music's [beat] hi-igh. . .") -- just a beguiling hint of scuzziness. Then it's back to the chorus to celebrate our heroine: "Dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen (ahh ooooh) / Dancing queen, feel the beat of the tambourine (yea-ahh)." (Do I hear an echo of the Beatles in that "only seventeen" line?) The whole thing dances on the cusp of moral ambiguity, innocence and depravity held in the balance. Is the "queen" a woman, a drag queen, or the female monarch of Sweden? IRRELEVANT, I tell you! It's all about that crisp, taut dance beat, and how it can take over your cerebral cortex for three minutes and 52 seconds. (Check out this link to the invaluable Songfacts site to sample critical opinion.) If you can sit in your chair while this thing's playing, I FEEL SORRY FOR YOU.

"96 Tears" / ? and the Mysterians (1966)
Now THIS is what I think of when I think of a radio hit classic -- 2:57 of swampy fun, with an organ riff you cannot get out of your head.


The Modesto Kid said...

I love "96 Tears" -- and I never knew until today the name of the band that sings it. Too many teardrops, for one heart, to be cryin'.

The Modesto Kid said...

Wikipedia says of their frontman, "He claimed (and still claims) to be a Martian who lived with dinosaurs in a past life, and he never appears in public without sunglasses."

Bob in CT said...

Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane, one of the great two-sided singles of all time. The revolutionary Strawberry Fields and the beautiful Penny Lane both look back to the past, but in very different ways. This 45 really showcased how John and Paul were growing apart, and later when the divergence continued they never again reached this amazing level.

Good Vibrations, a true classic, a mini symphony that showcases Brain Wilson at his best. Somehow the dopey lyrics don't take anything from the overall feel of this incredible work.

I too am a Monkees fan and I'm glad to see their inclusion so high up on your chart. The other two songs you mention - Last Train To Clarksville and I'm Not Your Steppin Stone - are both great songs.

96 Tears is a fun hit from the mid-60s, not a top favorite of mine but always enjoyable to hear.

As far as ABBA goes, I'll let Ray Davies do the talking.

Vivalabeat said...

I won't say anything about the Beatles because you've said everything. I may listen to other bands but they'll always be my first love.

It's great to see The Monkees on the list. I've been told that I'm their biggest fan in Russia. ;) No one seems to know them here (well, almost no one) and that makes me sad. Still, I once got to see Peter Tork and he's a very nice and kind guy. And I saw Micky Dolenz the other day. He's now part of the Hairspray cast here in London. I didn't have a chance to talk to him though, but I know when the show ends and I can come to the stage door around the time. ;) They've always seemed to be so far away and it would be lovely just to say 'hi', wouldn't it?

Bob in CT said...

I went onto the Songfacts site through your link, and the comments about Dancing Queen are a riot. Among my favorites:

> Another fact about this song: it is the greatest piece of music ever produced by mankind. I brought this to the attention of the website's moderators but they said, "That's not a fact, that's just your opinion," but I still think I'm right.
- arthur, what cheer, IA <

> dude man this song blows
- joseph, Alabama, AL <

> I love this song...also I think it made me gay after listening to it over and over when I was 10 yrs old or so...
- Bernard, Caracas, South America <

nat said...

I still remember riding the school bus the day after The Monkees aired every week. The girls talked about NOTHING but Davey and Mickey, Mike and Peter. We all LOVED them!! I was always defensive about the band, too.

But I dislike that ? and the Mysterians song. Always have. We disagree for once!LOL.

Holly A Hughes said...

96 Tears is a litmus track -- you either love it or you hate it, I think. Still, I'm glad to see the Monkees finally winning the credit they deserved. Against all the odds, they and Herman's Hermits defied the teen idol stigma. I can't believe you met Peter Tork and saw Mickey, Viva. That's so cool!

So glad you followed that ABBA link, Bob. Prime stuff there, eh?

Alex said...

Abba's an interesting case -- it's easy to forget some of their amazing songs because so many of their songs were played to death (and a few are so dopey that it's painful).

Uncle E said...

A comment on the last three posts: who are you and how the hell did you get a hold of my ipod!!

Holly A Hughes said...

:D I did think of you on that New Wave cluster.

I also think Abba was unfairly judged for sartorial reasons. White polyester trimmed with silver nylon is never a good choice.

Anonymous said...

I´m a believer! YES!!!!! MrL

Holly A Hughes said...

What, no ABBA raves, MrL? ;) I thought every one in Sweden was supposed to love ABBA!