Last weekend our friend A, in between playing board games, told us how he and his wife regret that no one had asked them to compile a list of their top ten songs of all times. But luckily they thought to ask each other this question and are in the process of compiling the list right now.
A is very serious about music but R and me somewhat less so and, as it looked like our kind of challenge (one which doesn’t involve stripping or singing in public), we adopted the idea and have already completed the lists. I know you’re dying to hear all about it so here, without further delay, it goes.
No, wait. First, there have to be rules. So, one spot per one artist or it would be all taken up by Dylan. Also, I pay a lot of attention to lyrics and it affected many of the choices. Finally, after much (some, passing) internal struggle I decided to focus on oldies rather than anything from after 2000 because I just can’t tell if I will still even remember most of those newer artists in another ten years. It made sense when I decided that so here goes the list now.
1. Bob Dylan “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” Because of the one song per one artist rule, of all the brilliant songs I pick this one because it’s the brilliantest. It tells a story and the story is interesting, rich and well-constructed, it has a plot, memorable characters and a surprising reveal and please show me another song by anyone that does that, no, I know you can’t. Also, it’s the best attempt at the redefinition of the ballad tradition, not that you care.
Favorite bit of lyrics: “She slipped in through the side door lookin’ like a queen without a crown / She fluttered her false eyelashes and whispered in his ear / ‘Sorry, darlin’, that I’m late,’ but he didn’t seem to hear”
Runners-up: “To Ramona” (powerful and atmospheric, it touches upon some undefined mystery; or I’m just being pretentious) | “Love Minus Zero” (Dylan’s best love song) | “Like a Rolling Stone” (it just might be the best song ever written) | “Visions of Johanna” | “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (for early-Dylanesque humor) and so on.
2. Patti Smith “Kimberly.” I love Patti Smith dearly but more for her overall feel than for individual songs so this was a bit of a challenge but “Kimberly” has a lot of magic.
Favorite bit of lyrics: “Oh baby, I remember when you were born / It was dawn and the storm settled in my belly”
Runners-up: “Because the Night” (played to death and still lovely) | “Redondo Beach” | “Till Victory” (because Patti is a rocker).
3. Tom Waits “Hold On.” I guess I might choose a different song from today’s standpoint but I definitely listened to “Hold On” the most and I love the lyrics. Also, it might not be cool to admit but I much prefer Waits that’s actually listenable than when he starts doing what one of my online friends once called “vocal torturing” and I never heard a better description of that thing he does sometimes.
Favorite bit of lyrics: “Everyone’s looking for someone to blame / And you shared my bed, you shared my name / Well, go ahead and call the cops / You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops”
Runners-up: “I Hope that I Don’t Fall in Love with You” (when a bar story becomes a human story) | “Time” (surrealist charmer) | “Tom Traubert’s Blues” (messy but gripping) | “Long Way Home” (a hymn for a rebel-without-a-cause kind of romantic interest – was that complicated?).
4. Leonard Cohen “The Stranger Song.” Cohen is mostly about the lyrics and I had a problem choosing my favorite song based on that so I chose on the basis of replayability. “The Stranger Song” is nice to listen to.
Favorite bit of lyrics: “But now another stranger seems to want you to ignore his dreams / as though they were the burden of some other”
Runners-up: Quite a lot, including “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” | “Tonight Will Be Fine” (so much fun, especially for Cohen) | “Famous Blue Raincoat” (so much lyricism, and it’s like a puzzle, trying to identify the pronouns) | “Chelsea Hotel #2” (probably closest to making it to the actual list, what with that famous third line and the fact that I sometimes try to translate the lyrics into French when I really need to occupy my mind with something, it helps that I’m so bad at it; It even deserves a favorite bit of lyrics mentioned: “And clenching your fist for the ones like us / who are oppressed by the figures of beauty”).
5. Dire Straits “Romeo and Juliet.” Sometimes I feel like people don’t appreciate this song, how it’s not silly and meaningless (the way most love songs are) and that’s why it’s so popular. But it has lovely lyrics full of subtle humor and not so subtle heartache and Knopfler plays guitar just so well (I don’t know anything about guitars).
Favorite bit of lyrics: “You can fall for chains of silver / You can fall for chains of gold / You can fall for pretty strangers / And the promises they hold”
Runners-up: Not really.
6. Cornelis Vreeswijk “Veronica.” When I tried to learn Swedish my teacher would sometimes make me fill in the blanks to Swedish song lyrics. I didn’t get that much better at Swedish from that (though it was a lot of fun) but I found this gem of a song, proving that American-styled folk is not exclusively American.
Favorite bit of lyrics: “Veronica, Veronica släpp ner ditt långa hår / Och se din vän i ögonen och säg att han får / Och somna i hans armar och vakna lycklig sen / När det dagas.”
Runners-up: Hardly applies.
7. The Velvet Underground “Pale Blue Eyes.” Simplicity makes this song. Unlike the previous ones it has fairly simple lyrics but the delivery makes it very emotional.
Favorite bit of lyrics: “The fact that you are married / Only proves you’re my best friend / But it’s truly, truly a sin”
Runners-up: I like “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Sweet Jane” and others but there’s really no competition.
8. Marc Cohn “Walking in Memphis.” One hit wonder that is really wondrous. Possibly my favorite singalong song that is not terribly embarrassing to speak of in public (hello, Gloria Gaynor).
Favorite bit of lyrics: “And I sang with all my might / She said, ‘Tell me are you a Christian, child?’ / And I said, ‘Ma’am, I am tonight!'”
Runners-up: Not really by Cohn, just other one hit wonders, such as Merrilee Rush “Angel of the Morning” (love the unidentifiable instrument – I must tell you one day the story of my lack of musical education, it’s colorful – and the corny lyrics) | Free “All Right Now” (I always liked the cynicism of the lyrics, for some reason) | and especially covers; I’d really love to put covers on this list but it doesn’t feel exactly right, with their being so obviously covers.
9. Having said that, Jeff Buckley “Hallelujah.” I can’t help it, it’s my favorite version. It has a sort of middle-of-the-night focus that gives Cohen’s lyrics the power that his delivery denies them. And these are shockingly good lyrics.
Favorite bit of lyrics: I can hardly choose, but I’ll go with “But all I’ve ever learned from love / Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you”
Runners-up: Beth Orton “Sisters of Mercy,” another cover that is better than the original and delivered in a breath-taking manner.
10. “Piece of My Heart” Janis Joplin. This is really a group spot for this song with other runners-up because it includes songs that I no longer listen to very often but once they were so important to me that they shaped my musical taste forever, pushing me towards older music and making me uncool in the eyes of all the Nirvana fans (yes, it’s been a while since I was in school; and I did have a passing Nirvana fascination, to be honest, but it was no longer so cool then).
Favorite bit of lyrics: Eh, these are not great lyrics, to be honest, but let’s say “And baby deep down in your heart I guess you know that it ain’t right / Never, never, never, never, never, never hear me when I cry at night / Babe, and I cry all the time!”
Runners-up: Jefferson Airplane “Somebody to Love” and The Doors “Light My Fire” (songs that really showed me what music could be and started my music quest) | “Me and Bobby McGee” if we’re speaking of Janis (another favorite singalong).
And there we went. The hardest thing when making such a list is definitely elimination and I feel bad about all the newer stuff I excluded (not that I had any spots left): these songs might even deserve another list and if I get another free Friday night (and yes, this is what passes for fun around here) I’ll think about drawing one.