Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wednesday Shuffle

Okay, I've got 5000+ songs on my iTunes -- a carefully culled selection, thanks to the limits of my hard drive. So every time I do a shuffle, it should be only great songs, right? Well, we'll see. Every Wednesday, I promise I will honestly record what comes up on a shuffle of ten songs -- no matter how embarrassing it turns out to be . . .

1. "Someone's On the Cross Again" / Al Kooper
From New York City (You're a Woman)
Why didn't I keep up with Al Kooper through all the twists and turns of his career? For a few years there at the end of the 60s and dawn of the 70s, this guy's smart, snarky, restless albums so spoke to my heart. Hadn't listened to him for years; thank God iTunes put him back into my life.

2. "Gospel Night" / Dave Alvin
From Blue Blvd.
I love the weathered, real-guy quality of Dave Alvin's voice. I mostly know his post-Blasters work, and it's so appealing. Saw him live a couple years ago, and man, that guy can play his beat-up old geetar.

3. "Honey Pie" / The Beatles
From The Beatles (the white album) One of my Greatest Life Albums
Oh, Paulie. Like thrift shop clothes, when you haul out the vintage music hall sound it's somehow so cool. Dig the ukelele in the instrumental break, and Paul singing in his
Tiny Tim voice, "I like that -- ahh! -- I like this kinda, that kinda music, hot kind of music, play it to me, play it to me Hollywood blues!"

4. "Here For You" / Neil Young
From Prairie Wind
Middle-aged Neil Young is still better than most young guys. In fact, middle-aged Neil Young is the Neil Young I like best. Rumpled, wrinkled, and unrepentant.

5. "Uncle Son" / The Kinks
From Muswell Hillbillies
My favorite Kinks album, hands down. And this song tells you why -- that vintage blues shuffle (dig the steel guitar), mixed with Salvation Army earnestness and a heady shot of socialist politics. Bless you, Uncle Son.

6. "Question" / The Old 97s
From Satellite Rides
One of my great finds of recent years. It amazes me how consistent their catalog is. Rhett Miller has a great voice, and a real knack for catchy tunes. If only all alt-country was this good.

7. "Run" / Vampire Weekend

From Contra
There's a reason why these kids burst out of the gate with a hit record -- talent up the wazoo. They've got such a great sound, mixing Afrobeat and world music with crisp alt pop, and their songs are just so damn savvy. This is from their sophomore album -- such a relief to find that they lived up to their promise.

8. "Hope For Us All" / Nick Lowe
From At My Age
The silver fox ages like fine wine. The only thing that could make this song better would be if Nick were singing it about me.

9. "Come Again" / Billy Nichols
From Selected Hits
One of the lost voices of the British Invasion -- pure quality British Beat pop, and yet how few people know his stuff? Makes ya think.

10. "I Melt With You" / Modern English

From After The Snow
* blush* Really, honestly, I only put this onto my iTunes because I was doing that Eighties Cheese Week. . .

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Don't Dream It's Over" / Crowded House

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of watching Hot Tub Time Machine -- a riotous goof of a movie in which three old friends climb into a hot tub that mysteriously transports them back to the Eighties. ("Why the Eighties?" moans one character. "The Eighties were my worst decade ever!") Relax, pal -- they were everybody's worst decade. That's the running gag of this film, and it never fails -- the garish fashions, the shallow fads, and most of all the cheesy music.

I knew at least one of the songs from my Eighties Cheese Week would make it into the movie, and indeed there it was: Bryan Ferry's "More Than This," accompanying a scene in which a stoned and self-pitying John Cusack parses the state of his broken heart. As for the rest of the film -- well, even with that magic John Cusack connection, it wouldn't make it onto my list of the best compiled movie soundtracks, but only because the filmmakers went for the most irritating songs possible. That was the whole point.

So maybe it's a good thing that "Don't Dream It's Over" isn't in the movie. God knows it has been in enough other TV shows and commercials over the years, not to mention how many times it's been covered by other artists. It has achieved a weird sort of out-of-time quality all its own.

I suppose I must have heard this song -- Crowded House's breakthrough hit -- in 1986, when it hit #2 on the US charts. And now that I look at the video, I realize I must have seen it a hundred times on MTV (remember MTV?). It's a sweet video, too, with Neil Finn strolling through a series of rooms representing the eras of his life. At the time, I just thought that it was set in a house because the band was named Crowded House. I had no idea that these guys were from New Zealand and Australia (unlike Men At Work, who couldn't let you forget they were Aussies) or that this band was sorta the second chapter of the Finn brother's previous band, Split Enz. (Split who?) Given the prog rock tendencies of Split Enz, maybe it's better that I didn't know that.

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To be honest, I always thought this song's title was "Hey Now," since that's what Neil Finn sings most clearly, over and over, in the refrain. When I heard it today in the dentist's office, it came on after Outkast's "Hey Ya" -- I'm betting that DJ made the same association. What a pity that the crammed lyrics of this song aren't always perfectly clear, because they're much more interesting than your usual Eighties love song.

For example, the opening line -- "There is freedom within, / There is freedom without" -- is the sort of Heavy Statement that John Lennon had taught up to expect in our rock songs, but the next line is much more intriguing: "Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup." (Okay, that just nails the Lennon "Imagine" reference.) Again, in the third verse this tune's Road Song credentials are proclaimed: "Now I'm towing my car, / There's a hole in the roof" -- an image which, I'm sorry, makes me laugh. But you don't know whether you're laughing with him or at him until you get the mumbled next line, "My possessions are causing me suspicion but there's no proof." And in the last verse, that self-effacing irony makes all the difference, as he announces, "Now I'm walking again / To the beat of a drum / And I'm counting the steps to the door of your heart." Despite the heroic ring of the verse-opening melodic phrase, he's not setting himself up as a sage and a poet. He's just a guy, a traveling man, who has to be away from his baby for a while and doesn't want her to despair.

Sure, the production values of this track are totally Eighties -- less a wall of sound than a wall-to-wall carpet of sound, with those baffled voices and an instrumental track so plush, it's more environment than backing. Apart from the metallic clang of the guitars (another Eighties trait) and the churchy organ in the instrumental break, you can barely decipher the separate instruments at all. And that falsetto jump on "Dree-ee-eam it's over" -- okay, there is a certain spangled Lycra quality there.

But the harsh disco rhythms of the Eighties have no place here, only a fluid current of rhythm that bears us smoothly along. I love the fluttery meter of the verses, and how the tune seems to curl in protectively, as if the singer is cradling his girlfriend in his arms before hitting the road. And though the melody swells so dramatically in the chorus, there's just enough syncopation to keep it dancing instead of bombastic.

It's the sort of song that makes your heart leap, before you've figured out what it is. That's probably why so many soundtracks use it -- it telegraphs love, and tenderness, and melancholy. But I also get a certain existential poise here -- something that the frenetic Eighties rarely aspired to, let alone achieved. Mega-hit status may have prevented me from giving this song, and this band, fair dues back in the Eighties. But it's never to late to go back.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Cry Like a Baby" / The Box Tops

I might as well give in to it. The second wave of Alex Chilton nostalgia has hit, and I simply can't get this particular song to stop playing in my head.

Released in 1968, "Cry Like a Baby" only hit #2 on the charts, never quite equaling the chart-topping success of the band's debut single "The Letter" from the previous year. It was written by two stalwarts of the Memphis scene, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (for all you Lowe-aholics out there, the same guys wrote Nick's "Time I Took A Holiday" -- a lush groove indeed).



It begins urgently, with a drawn-out minor-key discord on the organ, joined by throbbing guitar notes, but when Alex Chilton's voice bursts in it switches to major key, as he declares, "When I think about the good love you gave me / I cry like a baby." That past-tense "gave" tells us that this is a break-up song, but "cry" is still present tense. There's lots of moping, but very little hoping going on here. He's not even pleading with her -- no, it seems that the axe has irrevocably fallen. You have to admire this girl for cutting him off this cleanly.

Given that major key and the energetic rhythm, I never really felt this was a Misery Song -- he's fretting and regretting, but not totally depressed. Still, Alex Chilton's rasp-edged voice adds a rawness and desperation the song really needs. Too late, he realizes his mistakes -- as he says in the bridge, "I know now that you're not a plaything, / Not a toy, or a puppet on a string." He's young, though, still learning about love, and those buoyant guitar licks tell me that he will survive. After all, how old was Alex Chilton when he sang this -- sixteen? Seventeen? Even as he mourns his loss, the music's charging him up for the next love.

Listening to this as a teenager, I remember wanting to dry his tears. What girl doesn't love a guy sensitive enough to cry? Almost as a throwaway, at the end he tosses of "You left the water running now / I cried like a baby." At last it's past-tense "cried" -- he's ready to move on. And all the teenage girls listening fluffed their bangs, adjusted their sweaters, sat up straight, hoping Alex would notice . . .

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"I Got the Love" / Nick Lowe

Happy 61st Birthday, Nick!

If you'll check the Labels section to the right, you'll see I've already written plenty about Nick Lowe -- thirty-two times, in fact. It's embarrassing, really, the depth of my devotion to this man I've barely ever even met. And yet here it is his birthday again, and somehow miraculously I've found yet another Nick Lowe song worth writing about.

Coming out of my month-long 100 Singles project, I've been thinking so much about The Big Hits lately, I've lost touch with the overlooked gems. Yet it occurs to me that the musicians I most love -- Ray Davies, Elvis Costello, John Hiatt, Marshall Crenshaw, Robyn Hitchcock, and of course Nick Lowe -- aren't the guys with the major hits. They're the ones with depth -- the one whose most obscure tracks are often my most favorite songs of all. And so why bother looking for a famous Nick Lowe song to write about, when just about anything he's ever done is worth a blog post?

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Nick was never much of a hit machine -- in forty-plus years as a professional musician, "Cruel to Be Kind" and "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding" are about the extent of it (and even "What's So Funny" only became a hit when Elvis Costello sang it). But "I Got The Love"? It isn't even on the short list of songs that Nick regularly pulls out in concert. You'll find it tucked at the end of Side One on one of Nick's least admired LPs, 1988's Pinker and Prouder Than Previous -- a record that's been out of print for ages, in CD, vinyl, AND audiocassette. Some would say it was the absolute nadir of Nick's long and checkered career. Hell, even I would say that. But that doesn't mean it was a bad album.

I'm glad I've figured out how to do videos, now, because -- along with all the lovely photos of Nick at various ages -- it gives you a chance to hear this track and make up your own mind. It's one of only two tracks on this album that were recorded in Austin, Texas, instead of London, and I definitely hear a country skip in its syncopated step. Stripped-down it is indeed -- there's nothing here but Nick's electric bass (lead bass!!!!), Bobby Irwin's minimal drums, and a few faint blushes of organ from the divine Paul Carrack. Oh, and every once in awhile there's a single piano key struck -- let's assume that's Paul as well. It's such a tiny thing, that piano accent, and yet that's the sort of detail that makes this track come alive.

Lyrics? The simplest possible. Nearly every line begins declaring "I've got the love," as if it's the only thing this singer has on his mind. Well, when you're really in love, it IS the only thing on your mind. "I've got the love and I'm gonna give it / I've got the love and you're gonna get it" -- that's about as complicated as it needs to be. It could be pure caveman grunt, if not for the prancing bassline and the light release of Nick's vocals. Joy is the order of the day, and that slouchy relaxed rhythm suits it just fine. It's not even clear how his sweetheart feels about it -- he's still pleading with her ("Don't make me wait no later than Monday," "Lay down your arms to my surrender"). But his love is a crazy itch he's GOT to scratch.

Dig the bridge -- it's "I've got the love" repeated FOUR times, almost like an obsessive fixation, before he pulls himself up abruptly to declare (a capella): "And if it don't stop -- I'm a-gonna pop!!" Gonna pop? He does pop.

All right, I'm willing to admit it's a bit of a throwaway track. There is nothing of any great social significance here, no stirring poetry, no heartfelt autobiographical confessions. It's just a song about a guy elated with desire (and the way Nick sings it, it is love, not just lust). But that's part of what I love most about "I Got The Love." It's just a pop song, a pure distillation of timeless emotion in two minutes and forty seconds. I'm guessing that he and Bobby and Paul had a great time laying down this track, and that copasetic groove comes right out of the speakers and into my heart.

If Nick Lowe could turn out a charmer like this at the rock bottom of his career -- well, that's a musician I'd follow anywhere. Happy birthday, Nick!!!

Monday, March 22, 2010

"Hooked on a Feeling" / B.J. Thomas

Yesterday, as I was dropping off my son at his college dorm, a long-haired student on a bicycle pedaled past me, softly singing to himself, "I-I-I, I'm hooked on a feeling . . . . high on believing . . . " It warmed the cockles of my heart to think that anybody under the age of 40 would even know this song. Now I realize that it was probably a later version that this kid first heard -- the hideous 1974 remake by the Swedish band Blue Swede, underlaid with its menacing "ooga shocka" tribal chant. In fact, to be precise, the kid probably knew the song only because Quentin Tarantino used the Blue Swede version in Reservoir Dogs. How debased our culture is.

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Well, I'm here today to resurrect the real deal. In the winter of 1968-69, I didn't have a driver's license yet, but my older brother did, and for the first time we could drive around town without adults in the car, singing full blast along with the AM radio. We'd never heard of B.J. Thomas before, and for a few weeks that winter, this song played constantly, peaking at #5 on the charts in November 1968. We cheered every time it came on the radio. It may not be on my 100 Best Singles list, but it's still an instant ride on the way-back machine for me.

"Hooked On A Feeling" was B.J. Thomas' first hit, soon after signing to the Sceptre label, home of the Shirelles and Dionne Warwick. That's not such a contradiction as it seems -- though Hank Williams was one of Thomas's first musical heroes as a kid growing up in Houston, he also adored Jackie Wilson and Little Richard, and his emotive singing style owes more to those R&B models. (Just listen to all the melisma* in "Hooked On A Feeling").

Of course, B. J. was just the singer; "Hooked On A Feeling" was written by Mark James, a fellow Texan (real name Francis Zambon) who worked in the stable of Memphis producer Chips Moman -- the same guy who crafted Alex Chilton's early hits with the Box Tops. James's other hits included "Suspicious Minds" for Elvis Presley and "Always On My Mind" for Willie Nelson, so he was clearly a top-drawer pro, though I'd say melodies were his strong point -- the lyrics for this song are at best generic. (Come on -- "Lips as sweet as candy / The taste stays on my mind / Girl, you keep me thirsting for / Another cup of wine"?) It only rarely gets really sexy, when the slight huskiness of Thomas's low register switches on in the bridge: "All the good love / When we're all alone / Keep it up girl / Yeah you turn me on . . ." That's a real bachelor-pad moment.

But the one notable gimmick of this song is pure 1968, when you couldn't have a hit record without at least a few hippie touches (notice the groovy sitar intro and outro). Catch all the drug-culture phrases sprinkled throughout this song -- "hooked" on a feeling, "I'm high" on believin', "I'll just stay addicted," "yeah you turn me on," et cetera. I suppose this might even have been intended as a reactionary anti-drug song -- who needs drugs when you've got love? -- though I always heard it as a simple "high on life" anthem. This hardly registered with me in 1968, as a disaffected adolescent who had a better chance of scoring drugs than of falling in love.

B. J. Thomas's songs were always a little too upbeat for me -- "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" is the classic example -- and as the rest of the music world went darker and more cynical, his career arc dove from pop to soft rock to country and gospel. But here's a nugget of info I just learned that makes me fonder than ever of "Hooked on a Feeling" -- only a couple of weeks before the record was released, B.J. had just gotten married to his girlfriend Gloria at a chapel in Las Vegas. They're still married, 42 years later -- how's that for true love? There's no denying the exuberant romantic conviction of Thomas's singing on this track; he's almost giddy with it. How could Blue Swede ever have hoped to copy that?

* My new word for the year -- it's a vocal embellishment where the singer changes notes while singing the same syllable.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Quiet Life" / Ray Davies

I'm shocked to realize that I left one essential film out of our recent discussion of movie soundtracks: the Julian Temple film Absolute Beginners, a musical adaptation of Colin McInnes' novel (itself well worth reading) about 1950s London and the birth of British rock 'n' roll. If you haven't seen it, check it out -- it's one of my special little guilty pleasures. The story rambles more than a bit, but it's visually stunning, and it's appropriately packed with musical guest stars: David Bowie, Sade, Sandie Shaw, Zoot Money, Tenpole Tudor, and -- my primary reason for seeing the film in the first place -- the ever delicious Mr. Ray Davies.

I was reminded of this because, in my role as house historian for the Kinks Fan Club forum, I just posted that the Absolute Beginners soundtrack album was released 24 years ago today. Here's a clip of Ray's scene in the movie (hang in there, there's a minute or so of dialog before you get to the song itself).



Unfortunately this is only part of the movie in which Ray appears, but it's beyond wonderful. Playing the much-put-upon father of the main character, young photographer Colin, Ray doesn't exactly look glamorous in his undershirt and braces, his hair slicked back and grayed at the temples. (In contrast, Bowie is glam-tastic in his big scene). But Ray's bit is much more entertaining, and his dancing is simply to die for.

Anybody who was ever in doubt about Ray Davies' fondness for English music hall tunes only has to listen to "Quiet Life." Underlaid with Dixieland horns and jazzy percussion, it's a classic softshoe, tripping lightly along. Yet while the sound of the song is like Noel Coward champagne, the storyline is more Ealing comedy slapstick, with a Monty Python nudge-nudge wink-wink thrown in for good measure.

"Something's happening, but I'm just gonna turn a blind eye," Ray begins the patter, in his breathy, earnest innocent-bystander voice. "If I see no evil, I ask no questions and I hear no lies" -- his whole existence is a masterwork of self-protective denial. In low, confiding tones, Ray keeps suavely declaring that he's not such a fool as everyone thinks -- "Confidentially between these walls / I'm on top of it all." And indeed, he does see all the salacious shenanigans in his household -- it's like a saucy seaside postcard come to life. But he shows no intention of doing a bloody thing about it, so what's the point of knowing?

Listen to how Ray's voice trembles and squawks on the high-pitched refrain -- "All I need is a QUIET life!", like a blowsy trombone wail. Keeping his head in the sand takes every ounce of energy this hapless bloke has. It's a lovely little comic portrait, and Ray hits every mark. Oh, the rest of the soundtrack has some other gems -- I particularly love Bowie's rendition of the theme song, Style Council's "Have You Ever Had It Blue?", and Sade's "Killer Blow." But in the end, there's one reason I go back to this film again and again. Ray.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Back of a Car" / Big Star

R.I.P. Alex Chilton 1950-2010


I'm pretty good at resisting the knee-jerk commemoration posts (how long did it take me to get something up on Michael Jackson?). But fer chrissakes, this is Alex Chilton we're talking about. Only a few days ago, I anointed his first hit single, "The Letter," as my favorite 45 of all time. And now he's dead of a heart attack, at age 59. I'm in shock, and I see most of my fellow bloggers are as well.

I've certainly given Alex his due here. Besides gushing over "The Letter," I've written about another Box Tops number, "Sweet Cream Ladies," as well as one song by his second band, Big Star -- "I'm In Love With a Girl". But in this hour of mourning, let me offer one more Alex Chilton gem: Another Big Star track, also from their second album, Radio City.

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Part of Alex Chilton's genius -- whether he had any control over it or not -- was the raw emotion of his voice, a perfect vehicle for expressing the inchoate passion of teenagers in love (or at least in lust). Has there ever been a teenage necking song so steamy as "Back of a Car"? He gets it exactly right, all the surging hormones and messed-up feelings. Without bothering with an intro, he launches right into things: "Sitting in the back of a car / Music so loud, can't tell a thing" -- and indeed, the metallic tangle of guitars creates an immediate wall of sound. (I'll bet the windows are fogged up too.) There's no scene setting, no pretty description, no romantic speeches -- he can't tell the girl what he feels because he doesn't know himself. "Thinkin' 'bout what to say / And I can't find the lines . . . ."

There's no doubt he wants sex -- that's written all over those woozy swoops of melody, the churning chord changes, the swelling crescendos of volume -- but he does love her, or at least he thinks he does, as he declares in the second verse. Yet he's afraid, and indecisive, and, well, all mixed-up. After all, there's the future to consider ("waiting for a brighter day") and he's longing to escape ("trying to get away / From everything").

As the song morphs on, though, I get the idea that desire is going to win the day. Listen to the earnest, yearning harmonies of that bridge -- "I'll go on and on with you / Like to fall and lie with you / I'd love you too" -- it's almost as if he's talking himself into it, never mind convincing the girl.

So do they or don't they? The last verse isn't at all clear: "Why don't you take me home / It's gone too far inside this car / I know I'll feel a whole lot more / When I get alone." Maybe that's the girl talking, wanting to flee back to her pink bedroom to sort out her emotions. But surely a boy can feel that way too. (Exhibit A: Brian Wilson singing "In My Room.")

Of course it's murky. Teenage love is always murky. In less than three minutes, we've been pulled so deep inside this heavy petting, we don't know where we are either. That's some songwriting, eh?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"Who Loves the Sun" / Velvet Underground

There's got to be some reason why I only have one Velvet Underground track on my iTunes. I mean, I've got Lou Reed solo stuff; I've got John Cale solo stuff. But the fact is, I was way too young and mainstream to listen to Velvet Underground when they first came out in the late 60s. Come on, I was listening to the Monkees then! I didn't have a single friend who followed that band; I didn't even know who they were.

Later on, when I started to listen to Lou Reed, someone told me Lou had been in Velvet Underground, as if that was all I needed to know. I wanted to seem like I was in the know; I just nodded and said, "Really? Cool." Even after that, I constantly confused the Velvets with the New York Dolls -- you know, underground NYC band, avant garde, they're all the same. Oh, the shame of it.

If I had to have only one Velvet Underground song on my iPod, you'd think it would be something more iconic -- like "Heroin," maybe, or "Sweet Jane." (I've heard Lou Reed sing both at various times.) My dim notion of VU's music was that it was snarly and surreal and dense. Imagine my surprise when someone gave me a mix tape with this Beatle-y, bright pop confection. That was Velvet Underground? Maybe I should reconsider . . .

So I listened to more of their stuff. Still no go. I know that their debut album is supposed to be one of the great records of all time, but come on -- Nico's vocals are like fingernails on a blackboard to me. I don't even care if Robyn Hitchcock is a huge Velvets fan. Sorry, but if rock snob status depends on pretending to like this band, then I'll just have to pass.

"Who Loves the Sun," though? It is absolutely delicious.

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While many VU purists scorn their 1970 album Loaded as a crass bid for mainstream airplay, the fact is it's the Velvets' only really accessible album. Once John Cale and Nico were out of the picture, Lou Reed was determined to show the world what a versatile songwriter he was. (Then of course he left the band before Loaded was even released -- go figure.) "Who Loves the Sun" is the opening salvo in this campaign, the first cut on the album. It isn't even sung by gravel-voiced Lou, but by Doug Yule, VU's bassist.

The tempo is bouncy, the lyrics simple. "Who loves the sun / Who cares that it makes plants grow / Who cares what it does since you broke my heart." That's a classic romantic literary conceit, seeing oneself as out of step with nature when love goes wrong. Yet it's hard to totally believe in his heartbreak, what with that major-key melody, the boppy backbeat rhythm, and those cheery background harmonies. I hear the Beatles here, even the Beach Boys or the Mamas the Papas. It's a happy song.

Here in the Northeast, the sun is finally out again after a week of dreary rain. On days like this, I have to burst into song. There's "Sunny Afternoon" by the Kinks, and then there's "Who Loves the Sun." No matter what the lyrics say, it's still my go-to song for the first day of spring, a total charmer.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Saturday Groovers" / Robyn Hitchcock

In the midst of my 100 Singles project, I didn't have time to report on my latest fangirl pleasure -- seeing Robyn Hitchcock play at the City Winery at the end of February, with my friend Rebecca. Soon after, I also discovered this clip of Robyn performing "Waterloo Sunset" back in London at a concert called Songs in the Key of London. Naturally, I've now got Robyn on the brain, even more so since he's got a new album, Propellor* Time, due at the end of the month (guest appearances by John Paul Jones, Morris Windsor, Johnny Marr, and -- what a coincidence! -- Nick Lowe). You can imagine that I've got that thing on pre-order.

In the meantime, I can feed my Hitchcock jones with the plethora of other RH tracks I have acquired over the past few years. (Mr. H is nothing if not prolific.) This one came up today on a playlist on my iPod (the theme was Friends), a track from Goodnight Oslo, last year's outing with the Venus 3, a.k.a. Peter Buck, Bill Rieflin, and Scott McCaughey. The first time I listened to this CD, I heard "Saturday Groovers" as a throwaway track -- and maybe it is. But that's a large component of Robyn Hitchcock's charm, his ability to spin songs out of nothing.

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Loose-limbed, raucous, uptempo, "Saturday Groovers" is ostensibly sung by a crew of wastrels who hung out smoking together when they were young. (Smoking what? You may well ask...). The vibe is totally genial, a dense clutter of vocalized fanfares, rambling repetitions, jangly guitars, and sloppy backing vocals. The melody seemed instantly familiar to me, and eventually I put my finger on it: He's ripping off the tune of John Lennon's "Crippled Inside." (The similarity may be unconscious -- I know Hitchcock's a huge Lennon fan.) But whereas Lennon's song was taunting and critical, there's no ill-will in this song, just rollicking good-time charm.

Somewhere in the middle of the song, the young good-for-nothings turn into old good-for-nothings, almost as if they haven't noticed their lives slipping past. "Emphysema, heart disease and gout / Nothing will move us," he rambles, joshing affectionately, "I heard you cleaned your act up / You old trout." In the second bridge, another cryptic set of lyrics: "Come on down the battered cross / Eno's got some mental floss." (Eno as in Brian Eno?) For some reason the phrase "mental floss" makes me think of Frank Zappa, always a good thing.

It reminds me of songs like the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann," the Lovin' Spoonful's "Nashville Cats," or the Tremeloes' "Even the Bad Times Are Good" -- they're like outtakes, or late-night studio improvs, the very opposite of a polished crafted track. It's an inside joke, but we the listeners are in on the joke, part of the charmed circle. It's the sort of goofy song you would want to sing on a Saturday afternoon with folks you've known, like, forever.

* My on-line dictionary tells me this is a bona fide variant spelling of "propeller." Trust Robyn to go for the oddball spelling.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"Somebody Else" / Jeff Bridges

Here's the post I was going to write a week ago, before we got distracted with all this chat about movie soundtracks. Thanks to you all, I have a lot more movies to listen to now, and I'll probably get distracted even more by all the songs in them. So before I forget, here's a little sample that will explain why Crazy Heart deserved its Oscars.

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Oh, I know this isn't the theme song, that wistful Ryan Bingham ballad that was played by the orchestra every time Crazy Heart was announced. (And by the way: Who is this Ryan Bingham and why isn't he more famous?) But "Somebody Else" tells you a lot more about Bad Blake, the hard-case country singer that Bridges played so well. Listen to its honky-tonk Western two-step -- that hasn't got a trace of Nashville sentimentality about it. As Bad himself would make the distinction, it's "real country" as opposed to "fake country." And as such, it stands up honestly alongside the vintage country tunes on the soundtracks, tunes by folks like George Jones, Kitty Wells, the Louvin Brothers, Buck Owens, and Waylon Jennings.

"Somebody Else" was written by this film's tutelary spirits, musical director T Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton. Burnett, who also did the music for The Big Lebowski, was responsible for convincing Jeff Bridges to do the film -- he was Bridges' guarantee of musical authenticity, which the story absolutely required. But let's not ignore the contributions of Stephen Bruton, a longtime mainstay of the Austin music scene, who was dying of throat cancer as the movie was being made -- I suspect that may have lent a subtext of fragile mortality to the proceedings. It even haunts this song, in its relentlessly ticking tempo, in the way the singer sweeps past loss and regret and sails headlong into the great unknown tomorrow.

You can just picture the sort of fifth-rate venues where Bad would sing this song -- roadhouses and small-town bars and (yes) bowling alleys, where there's always a patch of scuffed linoleum for dancing if the spirit so moves you. Hearing this song would definitely make the spirit so move you, especially if you throw in some Lone Star beers, or a few shots of Bad's favorite McClure's whiskey.

But as the song scoots nimbly along, the guitars scrambling to keep up, I get a real sense of the singer's restless, reckless soul. "I used to be somebody / But now I am somebody else," he proclaims over and over. Though it sounds like a tautology, it's actually a profound insight into the adaptability of human nature. "But who I might be tomorrow / Is anybody's guess." Is he boasting, or mourning his lack of a compass? I'd say both.

Life is so damn slippery, and that's a fact. He admits he's made mistakes -- in verse two, the "right way" morphs easily into "the wrong way" -- and in verse three, he even claims "I used to be a preacher / With women, fame, and wealth" (the natural accouterments of any clergyman, right?). He may have reformed (oh, that cryptic line, "I was cleared of all the charges with money, women, and my health"), but he lost the girl he truly loved to another man. Yet he's such a chameleon, he's already moving on, keeping the wind at his back.

It's an unusual melody, and a test of Bridge's not inconsiderable singing talents. Though the first line of each verse is repeated, the notes are subtly different, with odd intervals that Bridges hits just right. Even better is the way he lags just before and behind the beat, giving the whole song a flippant, not-quite-raunchy defiance.

Now, I won't pretend I'm strictly objective here; I've been nuts about Jeff Bridges ever since he played Dwayne in The Last Picture Show. (I've even got a few songs from Jeff's solo rock album on my iTunes.) In a way, I see Crazy Heart as a grittified country-music sequel to The Fabulous Baker Boys, with Colin Farrell substituted for brother Beau and alcohol thrown into the mix. As with Jack Baker, the thing that saves Bad Blake is the vestiges of charm he can still pull out on occasion, and he pulls out charm aplenty in this rollicking little number.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Music for Movies

Still recovering from my 100 Singles project -- but while I take a breather, a few thoughts about the nature of music in films, inspired by Nat over at Another Aging Hipster. . . .

Watching the Academy Awards telecast last night -- the one annual ritual that I hold sacred, no matter how dimwitted and flatulent and ostentatious the whole exercise can be -- I was thrilled, of course, to see my old boyfriend Jeff Bridges win the best actor award (about time!), and to see T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham pick up another statuette for the theme song to Crazy Heart. As the schlockfest lumbered on, between trips to the kitchen to refill my popcorn bowl, a thought occurred to me. Why don't they have a category for best compilation soundtrack? You know, as opposed to the best score category, which rewards only original composers, or the best song category, which is just for a single theme song. A great "various artists" soundtrack can totally sell a picture to me. In fact, I've often thought that that would be my dream job: To assemble songs for movie soundtracks. (Any studio honchos out there reading? You know how to reach me. )

As a music lover, I often pick my movies according to their music. Musical bio-pics are an easy sell for me, even for artists I didn't particularly like. (By the movie's end, inevitably I've become a fan.) We've had a string of good ones lately -- Cadillac Records, I Walk the Line, Ray -- but I'll go back farther. Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in The Doors. That Jerry Lee Lewis thing with Dennis Quaid. The divine Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline (Sweet Dreams) and Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter. I even liked Lady Sings the Blues, and usually I can't stand Diana Ross. Done right, a good bio-pic is like a greatest hits album come to life, with really good liner notes.

Now, I would never buy the soundtrack CD for a movie like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings -- who buys those ponderous instrumental things? But I have been known to buy the soundtrack CD if the movie features a series of original songs, especially if they're performed in the movie, not just in the background. My favorite movie soundtrack of all time is Alan Price's 1973 songs for the Lindsay Anderson movie O Lucky Man!; that one's in a class by itself. But I really enjoyed Glen Hasard's soundtrack for Once -- I loved how the songs were worked into the story -- and thinking of Glen Hasard throws me back to another favorite soundtrack, for his first film The Commitments, an intriguing mix of scene-setting classic recordings and the actors performing other classic songs. If we're talking great original movie soundtracks -- again, songs, not just background score -- you have to mention the Bee Gees' triumph, Saturday Night Fever. I don't even like disco or the Bee Gees, and I get thrilled when the songs break out in that movie. How essential to The Graduate were those melancholy, satiric Simon & Garfunkel songs? And then of course there's one of the greatest rock soundtracks ever, A Hard Day's Night, which is so much better than all those other early 60s rock movies (ever see the Dave Clark Five's Having a Wild Weekend?), that it effectively killed the genre.

But I digress. As I work my way down my shelf of movie-related CDs, what I'm really thinking about today is those soundtracks that assemble already-existing songs slotted in to underlie the movie's story. Certain directors have a genius touch with this -- Oliver Stone, Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and John Cusack come to mind (John Hughes could pull a few rabbits out of this hat too). All these guys are music lovers themselves, who bring that love to the films they direct. They know how a familiar song can establish the era, telegraph mood or character, and punctuate the story line. Back in the dinosaur days when they invented Oscar categories, popular music wasn't used in the same way, but pop culture has so come of age, that in the right hands music is as effective a tool as editing or visual effects for conveying a story. Using a song the audience already knows is more bang for your buck. Just think of how Scorsese used the songs in Mean Streets, for example -- the opening riffs of "Be My Baby" or "Jumping Jack Flash." You don't have to be a Kinks fan to love the use of "Nothin' in This World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'Bout that Girl" in Anderson's Rushmore, or "This Time Tomorrow" in The Darjeeling Limited.

In the right hands, music can define time with surgical precision. Think about the Coen Brothers' brilliant O Brother! Where Art Thou?, the soundtrack of which had my head ringing with Depression-era music for months. Half the reason Forrest Gump was so much fun was because its soundtrack swiftly pinpointed each year of Forrest's march through history. American Graffiti would have been nothing without its nonstop stream of vintage rock and roll hits. I didn't even see the movie Bobby, but I've got the soundtrack -- as an aural portrait of 1968 it can't be beat.

Even more so lately, it's become a reliable index to the hipster quotient of a film to have a witty soundtrack compiled of alternative tracks mixed with lesser-known album cuts from classic artists. The Zach Braff film Garden State had a brilliant soundtrack that introduced me to tons of cool indie bands. Go back a couple of years farther to Empire Records, which assembled a great bunch of songs for its story about a day in the life of an indie record shop. Even better is the soundtrack John Cusack put together for his record-store geeks in High Fidelity. (And even better than that was Cusack's soundtrack collection for Grosse Pointe Blank.)

Just in the past year, I loved the soundtracks for (500 Days of) Summer (cool use of the Smiths!) and the deeply evocative period piece Taking Woodstock. The charming little film Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist was so totally about music, and what it means to certain kids, that it absolutely depended on having a killer soundtrack. Same with Pirate Radio -- you can't tell the story of the UK's 1960s offshore radio stations without a stream of the kind of music that those stations championed.

But it's late, and I'm sure I'm forgetting some. So tell me -- what are YOUR favorite music movies and movie soundtracks?

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The 100 Best Singles in My Head

THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

Here it is in full, my totally subjective fangirl list of my 100 favorite singles -- to quote the Beatles, "in my life, I've loved you more." (And no, that song isn't on here -- picking just 100 is HARD!). In case you're tuning in late, here are the criteria I've imposed:

*** "Singles," not "songs" -- they must been released on 7-inch 45 rpm vinyl.

*** A track I myself owned, if not as a 45 then at least on an album.

*** A song I remember hearing on the radio or on the dance floor.

*** Soundtrack to special eras of my life

*** "Earworm" power -- unforgettable melodies, hooks, riffs, refrains, or vocal embellishments

*** Guilty pleasures, come on down!

Each song title is embedded with a link to the post where I wrote about it originally. Click on the title to jump to that blog entry -- but don't forget to hit the back button afterward to come back and sample more from the list.

Who knows, you may even want to make your own playlist from this. (I've already created a mix CD for my next road trip.) Of course, everybody's subjective choices will be different. Once you've finished reading, I'd love to hear what you'd have picked instead. Operators are standing by . . .

1. "The Letter" / The Box Tops (1967)

2.
"Happy Together" / The Turtles (1967)

3. "She's Not There" / The Zombies (1964)

4.
"If I Fell" / "And I Love Her" / The Beatles (1964)

5.
"Wouldn't It Be Nice" / "God Only Knows" / The Beach Boys (1966)

6. "The House of the Rising Sun" / The Animals (1964)

7. "Tired of Waiting For You" / The Kinks (1965)


8. "Summer in the City" (1967)

9. "Walk Away Renee" / The Left Banke (1966)

10. "Along Comes Mary" / The Association (1968)

11. "California Dreamin'" / The Mamas and the Papas (1965)

12.
"Bus Stop" / The Hollies (1966)

13. "Jet" / "Let Me Roll it" / Paul McCartney and Wings (1973)

14. "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" / The Kinks (1966)


15. "I Put a Spell On You" / The Alan Price Set (1966)

16. "Strawberry Fields Forever" / "Penny Lane" / The Beatles (1967)

17. "Good Vibrations" / The Beach Boys (1966)


18. "I'm a Believer" / The Monkees (1966)


19. "Dancing Queen" / ABBA (1976)


20.
"96 Tears" / ? and the Mysterians (1966)

21. "Pump It Up" / Elvis Costello (1978)

22. "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" / "There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards" / Ian Dury and the Blockheads (1978)

23. " A Message to You Rudy" / The Specials (1979)


24. "Rock the Casbah" / The Clash (1982)

25. "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" / Dusty Springfield (1964)

26. "Space Oddity" / David Bowie (1969)

27. "Walk on the Wild Side" / Lou Reed (1972)

28. "Sweet Dreams / The Eurythmics (1983)


29. "Layla" / Derek and the Dominos (1970)

30. "Mr. Dieingly Sad" / The Critters (1966)

31. "The Sounds of Silence" / Simon & Garfunkel (1965)

32. "Wild World" / Cat Stevens
(1971)

33. "Fire and Rain" / James Taylor (1970)


34."It's Too Late" / Carole King (1971)

35. "American Pie" / Don McLean (1972)


36. "Steppin' Out" / Joe Jackson (1982)

37. "Psycho Killer" / The Talking Heads (1977)


38. "Love Shack" / The B-52s (1989)

39. "Whip It" / Devo (1980)

40. "Roadrunner (Once)" / Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers (1976)

41. "Get Back" / The Beatles (1969)

42. "Message In a Bottle" / The Police (1979)

43. "If This Is It" / Huey Lewis & the News (1984)

44. "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat" / Herman's Hermits (1965)


45. "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing" / Stevie Wonder (1974)

46. "Moondance" / Van Morrison (1977)

47.
"Jack and Diane" / John Mellencamp (1982)

48. "Someday, Someway" / Marshall Crenshaw (1982)

49. "Sultans of Swing" / Dire Straits (1978)


50. "Come Dancing" / The Kinks
(1983)

51. "We Ain't Got Nothing Yet" / The Blues Magoos (1967)

52. "She's About A Mover" / Sir Douglas Quintet (1965)

53. "98.6" / Keith (1967)


54. "One on One" / Daryl Hall and John Oates (1983)

55. "Leader of the Pack" / The Shangri-Las (1964)


56. "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" / The Animals (1965)

57. "Sunshine Superman" / Donovan (1966)

58. "Time of the Season" / The Zombies (1969)


59.
"Concrete and Clay" / Unit 4 + 2 (1966)

60. "A World Without Love" / Peter & Gordon (1964)

61. "To Sir With Love" / Lulu (1967)

62. "Georgy Girl" / The Seekers (1966)

63
. "A Summer Song" / Chad & Jeremy (1964)

64. "Michelle" / David and Jonathan (1967)

65. "Yeh Yeh" / Georgie Fame (1965)

66. "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy" / Manfred Mann (1964)

67. "I Think We're Alone Now" / Tommy James & the Shondells (1967)

68. "Come and Get It" / Badfinger (1969)


69. "Love Potion No. 9" / The Searchers (1964)


70. "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" / The Righteous Brothers (1964)

71. "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" / Bill Withers (1971)


72. "Standing in the Shadows of Love" / The Four Tops (1966)

73. "Tears Of A Clown" / Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (1970)

74. "Come On Eileen" / Dexy's Midnight Runners (1982)

75. "Wrap It Up" / The Fabulous Thunderbirds (1986)

76. "Killer Queen" / Queen (1974)

77. "Build Me Up Buttercup" / The Foundations (1968)


78. "Girl Don't Come" / Sandie Shaw (1964)

79. "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)" / The Rolling Stones (1974)

80. "Kind of a Drag" / The Buckinghams (1967)

81. "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" / Gerry & the Pacemakers
(1964)


82. "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" / Steely Dan (1974)

83. "Smooth Operator" / Sade (1985)

84. "I Don't Want to Go Home" / Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (1976)

85. "Maggie May" / "Reason to Believe" / Rod Stewart (1971)

86. "Have I The Right?" / The Honeycombs (1964)

87. "You Were On My Mind" / We Five (1965)

88. "Killing Me Softly With His Song" / Roberta Flack (1971)


89.
"Tempted" / Squeeze (1981)

90. "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" / John Lennon (1974)

91. "Cruel to Be Kind" / Nick Lowe (1979)

92. "Hungry" / Paul Revere and the Raiders (1966)

93.
"For Your Love" / The Yardbirds (1965)

94.
"I Can See For Miles" / The Who (1967)


95.
"Heart of Glass" / Blondie (1979)


96. "Spinning Wheel" / Blood, Sweat & Tears (1969)

97
. "When A Man Loves A Woman" / Percy Sledge (1966)

98
. "Losing My Religion" / R.E.M. (1991)

99
. "Show Me The Way" / Peter Frampton (1976)

100.
"Different Drum" / Stone Poneys (1967)

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 1-5

AND THE WINNER IS . . .

[ . . . drum roll, please!]

Well, I told you it would be subjective. These are not the top five singles of all time on Rolling Stones' list, or Mojo's list, or any other list put together by rock snobs or music pundits. I haven't jiggered it to showcase my favorite bands (look, no Kinks! no Nick Lowe!) or to make a political statement or to show off my superior taste. You'll notice I've already written about all of these songs -- BUT OF COURSE!! These are simply the five singles that knocked me hardest off my feet in the course of my life.

And yeah, they're all from the 1960s, because that was the decade that made me the music fan I am. Or more importantly, that made me the person I am. Which is really what the music's all about, isn't it?

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

1. "The Letter" / The Box Tops (1967)
I hear those knocking lead-in drum beats, and I am GONE. When all is said and done, the essence of rock and roll is nothing more or less than hormonal teenage cravings, and nobody has ever expressed that randy yearning better than an absurdly young Alex Chilton, fronting this seminal Memphis pop group.

video

2. "Happy Together" / The Turtles (1967)
They were hardly one-hit wonders, but even the Turtles never again hit such a sweet spot, a magical convergence of lilting melody, playful rhythms, and intimate vocals that will forever be the soundtrack of my eighth-grade nirvana.

video

3.
"She's Not There" / The Zombies (1964)
The first 45 I ever owned -- if only my taste had always been this impeccable!

video

4. "If I Fell" / "And I Love Her" / The Beatles (1964)
Desperately in love with the Beatles -- okay, okay, in love with Paul McCartney, who was in 1964 the most beautiful man on the planet -- of course I had both of these tracks on the Hard Day's Night album, the first LP I ever owned. But I simply had to buy the single too, so smitten was I with this matched set of John/Paul declarations of love.

5.
"Wouldn't It Be Nice" / "God Only Knows" / The Beach Boys (1966)
Honestly, I wasn't a Beach Boys fan, not really. And by 1966, I already had the Beatles to keep me warm -- what did I need with these clean-cut California boys in their squaresville striped shirts? But then they unleashed this pair of gloriously inventive tracks, back and front of one 7-inch vinyl masterpiece, and set a new gold standard for rock-pop brilliance.

And now, YOU tell ME -- what would your #1 be?

Friday, March 05, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 6-10

Still stuck in the 60s -- not that I'm complaining. Looking over today's list, I realize that these songs all tend towards the dark-and-brooding end of the spectrum. When I first heard them, I had no idea why they moved me so. But over the years, as I learned more of life, these are songs that have continually deepened for me. They have more than stood the test of time.

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

6. "The House of the Rising Sun" / The Animals (1964)
I'll admit it, in 1964 I wasn't ready to appreciate this haunting, dangerous bit of music. Hey, I was only a grade-school kid, what would you expect? But even then I made a mental note to store it away for later. I must have known someday it would all make deep, dark, sinful sense.

7. "Tired of Waiting For You" / The Kinks (1965)
Why, what a surprise! Again I have room to expound at large on a Kinks song -- this primitive early track, my personal favorite of all those 1964-65 breakthrough Kinks singles. Of course "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night" were astonishing and new -- I remember hearing them on the radio and being deeply disturbed. But personally? This February 1965 hit was the one that stole my heart. (It wasn't just me -- this song is tied with "Come Dancing" as the Kinks' highest-charting US single ever.) No other song, except maybe the Beatles' "I'm So Tired," has so perfectly captured the feeling of being bone-weary and fed up to here. When "I'm So Tired" came out, however, we were all hip to the knowledge that it referred to drugs. "Tired of Waiting" belongs to an earlier, more innocent era -- it's all about emotional exhaustion, with just a hint of post-masturbatory letdown. Not that I would have known that in 1965, but -- well, I have to assume something in its oozing chord changes subliminally warned me there was (shhhhh) S-E-X involved. Listen to the groaning edge of Ray Davies' vocal as he complains, "I'm so tired / Tired of waiting / Tired of waiting for you!" I love the lapidary effect of that, how each line builds on the previous one, dazedly adding the next word or phrase to that long sinuous melodic line, while the rhythm moves fitfully in starts and stops. We back up for a little character establishment: "I was a lonely soul / I had nobody till I met you" (the woefulness of Ray's vocal here cracks me up.) The rhythm seems aimless, relaxed, like freeform jazz -- until he ups the ante with a key change: "But you / Keep-a me waiting / All of the time / What can I do?" You can just hear the frustration underlying those surging short phrases, like a ticking time bomb. Now comes the genius part: a swift-kick major key change for the bridge, and the mellow assertion, "It's your life / And you can do what you want." (Note how the key darkens into minor on "life." Do we really believe that he's just going to step aside?) A quick scuffle of drums and guitar, and then Ray -- such a feminist, so enlightened! -- loftily repeats, "Do what you want," before diving fiercely back into his own agony: "But please don't keep-a me waiting!" The guitar churns, drums whack, volume builds, chords shift, and he urgently repeats, "Please don't keep me waiting, 'cos I'm / So tired," and we relapse into his listless cycle of fatigue. All of those early Kinks signature songs were about being run ragged by obsession: the inescapable clutches of "You Really Got Me," the 24/7 lust of "All Day and All of the Night," the begging for release of "Set Me Free." By the time he'd got to "Tired of Waiting," however, I sense that Ray Davies himself was feeling strung out and worn out. He's not even beginning for release anymore, just staggering through a limbo of unslaked desire. Because there's no question about it: We all knew what the singer was waiting for. I was only twelve years old and I knew. It terrified me. And yet -- god help me -- I wanted more.

8. "Summer in the City" (1967)
The antithesis to everything I loved about the Spoonful's rollicking jug band sound, "Summer in the City" was like a gritty slap upside the head. Admit it: whenever this track comes on, don't you brace yourself for the blackout?

9. "Walk Away Renee" / The Left Banke (1966)
This is what pop does best -- distill love into two-and-a-half minutes of longing and heartache.

10. "Along Comes Mary" / The Association (1968)
Edgy, wordy, and faintly mysterious, this quintessentially West Coast track teased me with its coded references to a much cooler lifestyle than anything this junior-high kid had ever known.