|11/2/2003 – Philadelphia/Atlanta/Memphis|
This is an old blog entry of mine from 2003 of which I wouldn’t change a word in 2014.
It is impossible in a seventy minute, twenty-song CD to encompass all of the incredible pop music I have loved in my life. I have always had a weird and eclectic taste in music, but while watching an episode of a cable television show in the late 70’s (Night Flight?), I was first introduced to the amazing Punk and New Wave music scene that was taking over Britain. The show introduced me to artists like Throbbing Gristle, XTC, Joy Division, Squeeze, The Clash, Tubeway Army, Gang of Four, Japan, and Boomtown Rats; finally I found the music of my generation! Therefore, a majority of my selections hail from that era or were bands and artists that sprung from its roots. But not all, as you shall see.
Listening to music is a very personal experience, every person has his or her taste that greatly differs from mine, and I’m certainly not one of those dorks who thinks the music I listen to is the hippest or coolest. To be honest, I haven’t listened to many of the selections on this list in the last few years, but I still hark back to them when I’m in the mood. Moreover, I could name hundreds of classical music pieces I’d rather recommend than boring old pop music, but I thought it would be fun to list a pop music compilation I’d recommend to the world. This took me over a week to write, as I was constantly adding and removing songs from it in a furious attempt to list my twenty absolute pop favorites. Tomorrow I will probably wake up and want to change the entire list, so I’d better post this now or I’ll go mad trying to change it.
Here’s my perfect pop mix, in no particular order, although the last three are my sentimental favorites.
- Whenever You’re on My Mind by Marshall Crenshaw (1983). This song takes me back to 1983 and all the incredible memories of that pivotal year in my life. Marshall Crenshaw was a pop artist extraordinaire who burst onto the scene in 1982 and brought back Buddy Holly’s long-lost mojo to the airwaves. I could probably place on this list four or five songs from his first two records, Marshall Crenshaw and Field Day, and not disappoint the listener—dude was that awesome. This song has a sweet and perfect melody that’s timeless and will yank even the most miserable and depressed person out of a funk. This guy should have been huge, but his idiot record company had no idea how to market him. Thank God some of us were conscious enough to enjoy Crenshaw without being prodded.
- While You See a Chance by Steve Winwood (1981). This is one of the finest pop songs ever recorded, a song so beautiful and spiritual that it uplifts my mood every time I hear it—and I’ve heard it many times since its release in 1981. I had never been a big fan of Winwood (or Traffic or The Spencer Davis Group) before or since he released Arc of a Diver, but this song remains a favorite of mine after all these years. If this song cannot make you smile and sprout goose bumps, then perhaps you should seek professional help.
- Iceblink Luck by The Cocteau Twins (1990). The most amazing aspect of Elizabeth Frasier’s singing voice is that you don’t care you cannot understand the lyrics she sings. Do words have to mean anything when sung this beautifully? On the entire album Heaven or Las Vegas, Frasier sings like she’s stoned out of her mind and having one long, toe-tingling, breathless orgasm, and after listening to it so do you. There are few records better suited to play while making love or just lying on the floor late at night, stoned, snuggled next to the one you love, savoring the beauty of breathing.
- Dancing Barefoot by The Patti Smith Group (1979). A really cool girl I met in my high school painting class turned me on to Patti Smith in 1979. I have forgotten her name, but she was definitely not your typical girl from Terre Haute, Indiana. She was an equal parts punk/hippie, beautiful beyond belief, and a talented and brilliant artist and poet; she was very shy and reserved and had few friends, and spent most of her time listening to music and painting. I loved her about as much as a 15-year-old, testosterone-drunk, knucklehead boy could ever love a girl. She had a look and style about her in 1979 that many young “hip” girls have today, which proves what an original she was back then. Sadly, she dated much older guys (in their 30’s) and treated me like her retarded kid brother, but we became pals and she was always turning me on to cool music. Her favorite was Patti Smith, who wrote two of my favorite songs of all time, this one and “Because the Night.” Choosing which one to include on this collection is like choosing which twin child to keep and which to give away. When I hear “Dancing Barefoot” I always think about that goddess from my art class who moved away after our sophomore year, and all the yummy fantasies I had about her for the next twenty years. I traveled back to my hometown recently to visit my mother, and while there I went to the public library to look up this girl in my high school’s old yearbooks, but the copy they had for the 1978-1979 school year was missing from the library’s collection. I’m sad because I cannot even remember her name, and now I can’t even remember exactly what she looked like. But her spirit lives on when I hear this song.
- Fantasy by Earth, Wind & Fire (1977). Philip Bailey’s finest singing performance is on this ethereal funk classic from one of the greatest bands of the 70’s. This is a song of hope and unity, and for a kid like me—who at 13 moved to a racially mixed town and attended a mixed school—I took this song’s message to heart. I remember the black and white kids would razz each other about music. The white kids would brag about Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith and dare the black kids to name one black band that cool, and some black kid would say, “Earth, Wind and Fire,” and the white kids would mutter, “Oh, yeah, they are cool.” And that was that because everyone knew a higher percentage of white kids dug EWF than black kids dug Led Zep. After all, no self-respecting dude ever slow danced with a cutie to “Black Dog” or “Stairway to Heaven.” Hell no. Even the most racist redneck or longhaired head banger slow danced to “That’s the Way of the World” because it was sexy and romantic and put her in the mood to make out. You can’t do a bootie grind on the dance floor to “Dream On,” now can you? So ultimately it was music that brought us all together, black and white kids, in 1977 in that small town in Indiana. We white boys turned our black friends on to Yes, Rush, and Thin Lizzy, and they turned us on to Parliament, The Commodores, and LTD. A pretty good trade, eh?
- In God’s Country by U2 (1987). Can most people remember in vivid detail the greatest day of their life that did not involve getting married, having a child, or some other significant life ritual or event? What if the greatest day of your life involved nothing more than riding the German Bundesbahn Intercity Express train from Kaiserslautern to Duisburg, and on that train you met the most beautiful girl you’ve ever met, talked with her until she got off in Koblenz, and never saw her or heard from her again? What if the kiss she gave you as she left was the BEST kiss you ever had in your life? What if you were listening to The Joshua Tree—not one of your favorite records, but still a pretty good one from a band of pretentious drips you barely tolerated—on your Walkman, and when the train stopped in Mannheim she got on the same train, entered the same compartment, and sat in the seat facing yours right at the moment this song played? What if from the moment she sat down, the almost magical juxtaposed sound of the Edge’s acoustic and electric guitar strumming at the beginning of this song sounds like trumpets from heaven announcing an angel was in your presence? And she smiled at you? And you smiled back? And then she got up from her seat and sat next to you? Then she pulled off your headphones and asked, in German, what music are you listening to that makes you smile so much? Then she tells you her name is Tanya, she’s 19, and can she sit next to you? And that she held your hand almost immediately and told you she’d never talked to an American GI before, and then asked all kinds of questions about America? How you told her you hadn’t been home in two years, you could care less about what was happening back in America, and that you probably knew less about America in 1987 than she did? How that news made her laugh and hug you? How you shared the Fanta soda she brought with her and you both munched on the Oreo cookies and Triscuits you brought? Could you imagine that being the best day of your life? It was mine.
- What Difference Does it Make? (The Peel Sessions Version) by The Smiths (1985). This version was released on the compilation A Hatful of Hallow and is my favorite Smiths song. The version on their eponymous debut album sounded overproduced and muddy; this was recorded live in the studio for the BBC’s John Peel Show and is tight and spare, which gives it a punk edge. Either one loved the Smiths deeply or hated them with every fiber of one’s being; there was no in-between. The fact they didn’t make videos was cool, and Morrissey was a delightful antithesis to the Led Zeppelin/Aerosmith/Van Halen crotch rock god archetype—plus, let me tell you, the Smith’s music was fucking amazing from 1983-1987. When they broke up in 1987 it was as devastating to their fans as it was for the general public when the Beatles split in 1970. I loved the Smiths from the first moment I heard them, and although I rarely listen to them these days, I still smile when I do. Great moments in my life happened while the Smiths were playing on my Walkman, boom box, or stereo. Great, great moments.
- More than This by Roxy Music (1982). I have had sex to Roxy Music’s masterpiece, Avalon, more than any other record (Heaven or Las Vegas comes in a close second, REM’s Murmur third). Back in the 80’s I usually always played Avalon on the first night I slept with a girl. You might say it was my gettin’ nookie modus operandi to slap this on the turntable, turn down the lights, and work my super sexy moves on the babe du jour. The girls I was with back then might not have considered that first night of passion with me memorable, but damn near every one of them wanted to go out the next day and buy Avalon. I think Brian Ferry should pay me royalties for all the copies of his record I sold to my assignations.
- Shiver by Coldplay (2000). This was the first song I heard by this magnificent pop band from London, and for me it was like the first time I heard REM or The Smiths—instant love. By 2000 I was listening to very little pop music, but that summer and fall I was dating a much younger woman (she was 21, I was 37) who introduced me to tons of new and cool music, and in turn I introduced her to all the cool music of my younger years. So she introduced me to OK Computer by Radiohead and she got Ocean Rain by Echo & The Bunnymen; I got The Foo Fighters and Sublime and Beth Orton and she got Joy Division and The English Beat and Patti Smith; I got Fuel’s “Shimmer” and she got Kissing the Pink’s “Certain Things are Likely.” And we both fell in love with Parachutes by Coldplay, which is the first great pop record of the new millennium.
- Caravan of Love by Isley/Jasper/Isley (1985). Pure magic from a family that has been making Soul magic since before I was born. I was tempted to include this version and the A Capella version by the quirky English lads from Hull, The Housemartins, because both are beautiful and moving. Pop music styles have come and gone since 1960, but the Isley Brothers have made gorgeous and moving music that transcends the fickle trends of any given era.
- Turn It On Again by Genesis (1980). I have never been a fan of Genesis or Phil Collins, but this song mesmerized me when I was 17 and it has been one of my all-time favorites. I think to a certain extent Collins, Banks and Rutherford could feel the New Wavers breathing down the neck of all the pre-Punk art-rock bands, so they jumped on the bandwagon a bit on Duke and Abacab, but of course added their lofty art-rock pretensions. With this song it worked beautifully.
- Pilgrimage by REM (1983). Just a great song: perfect, timeless, strange, sublime, beautiful. Say what you want about REM (even I agree they became insufferable wankers after 1986), but from 1981 to1986 they were the best band in America, certainly the most creative, exciting, and important new artists to hit the scene since the New York Punk/New Wave bands like The Patti Smith Group, Television, and the Talking Heads. In the late 70’s and early 80’s nearly all the best and most creative bands and music came from Britain. Then came Murmur, probably my second favorite record of the 80’s (London Calling was number one—but wasn’t it released in ’79?). I cannot even remember how many times my friends and I listened to Murmur in 1983, but I do know we played it more than any other record that year. Every song on Murmur is bold, new, different, brilliant, quirky, and gorgeous. You listen to the record fifty times and hear something new every time. REM’s next two records, Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction, were great records, although not quite as perfect as Murmur, but head and shoulders above most of the horrible crap that AOR radio was playing in ‘84-‘86. The sad irony of REM is that they started selling records and became a household name long after they were good.
- It’s a Shame About Ray by the Lemonheads (1994). It’s a shame about Evan, ironically. This darling of the 90’s “Alternative” scene (oh, how I hated that term!) wrote a few lovely pop tunes, then disappeared into a drug haze for the rest of the decade, never again to fulfill the massive promise he displayed on this gem of a pop tune. I have always been a sucker for a simple, Alex Chilton-like jingle-jangle guitar pop song (just look at this list), and Evan definitely wrote and performed a classic song in that vein here. It’s so perfect and sweet that I feel like I need a shot of insulin to bring me down when it ends.
- Best Friend by The English Beat (1983). This song is the definitive English Pop moment when the Mods met the Rude Boys, created the 2-tone sound, and wrote the perfect pop song. The Specials were cool and definitely have a special place in my musical heart, and other bands that mixed Ska and Reggae with Rock were super-duper (The Police, UB40, Madness, The Clash, etc.), but the Beat had a tighter and more danceable and fun sound than all those bands. The Police had quite a few great songs (but ultimately more annoying ones than good ones) and one great album—Zenyatta Mondatta—but by the time they released their wretchedly grandiose swan song, Synchronicity, Sting had become the most self-absorbed, laughably pretentious, and overrated artist in the pop universe. Don’t get me wrong, I was a huge Police fan back in the day and once admired Sting, but after Dream of the Blue Turtles I’ve ignored him and his music. The Beat’s “Mirror in the Bathroom.” is the one song most people remember from the Beat, but “Best Friend” was always my favorite Beat song, a peppy and spirited feast for the ears that literally forces you by its brazen exuberance to get off your ass and “oscillate wildly” like a Rude Boy in a porkpie hat and retro-Mod suit. It’s a shame that Wakeling, Steele, and Cox—the artistic heart of the English Beat—could not keep this incredible band together, because they broke up right around the time they were beginning to get attention in America, and all three proved how great they were by forming new bands that did quite well on the charts; however, together they were often brilliant, while apart they were merely good and quickly forgotten. What General Public missed was the Cox/Steele ska-boppity bass and jingle-jangle guitar hooks; what the fine Young Cannibals missed was Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger—Roland Gift’s voice was incredibly annoying, and Cox and Steele just couldn’t write a pop song quite like Wakeling. The English Beat, The Clash, and REM were my favorite bands in the early 80’s, but in retrospect the Beat have held up better twenty years later. They still make me want to oscillate wildly.
- Physical Attraction by Madonna (1983). Hey, I am president of the Madonna haters club, folks. But I fucking love this song. Yes, go ahead and laugh at me if you want, you turds. Then go find a copy of this song and play it; if you’re not up off your ass dancing after the opening bars, then I bet you are deaf and stupid—or just a loser. This was the best song Madonna ever recorded (which ain’t saying much, but whatever). I loved it in 1983 and I love it now. I’m not gay, but a couple of my gay friends swear my love for this song proves I’m obviously blocking my gay side from coming out. I don’t know about that (like, come on, I pop a major woodie over Anna Kournikova pics, for crying out loud!), but I certainly adore this song. Yes, it has those laughably silly, “I’m a naughty slut, use me, boy” lyrics. Yes, Madonna’s singing voice has a Jewish American Princess, all nasal and atonal and whiny sound to it. All I remember is that I lived in a coed barracks at Fort Sam Houston when Madonna’s debut record came out in ‘83, we’d throw huge parties at the EM club and play the motherfucker straight through, and everyone—girl, guy, African-American, Jewish-American, Italian-American, Mexican-American, Chinese-American, Puerto Rican-American, Korean-American, Indian-American, Samoan-American, Cuban-American, lesbian-American, gay-American, straight-American, bi-American, redneck-American, and me, who everyone in my class called “Abdul” because when I first arrived at Ft. Sam I told everyone I was converting to the Nation of Islam—would dance his or her fucking ass off to it. Never had I seen such an awesome mélange of beautiful young people hooking up than I did at medic school at Ft. Sam—I mean, everyone was fucking everyone in a giant Rainbow People orgy, it was insane, we were right out of Basic Training and the horniest bunch of dorks ever assembled on one dance floor—and we owed it all to that naughty boy toy, Madonna, and her naughtiest of naughty songs, “Physical Attraction.” There HAS to be something subliminal in this song that drives me crazy, I dunno. So laugh at me, I don’t mind.
- Are Friends Electric? by Tubeway Army (1979). This song was the opening volley of the Techno attack in pop music that continues today in its many wonderful forms; what an amazing and original song this is! Tubeway Army’s Gary Numan was the original cyberpunk, and his cool and detached approach to beautifully written and highly danceable pop songs took electronic music out of the hands of boring and faceless German experimental bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream and turned it into a pop and dance club revolution that is still around in 2003. The Germans were making cool music, but Numan gave it a post-punk edge and look. He trumped all his contemporaries by being SynthPop’s first mega-star—remember how huge Numan’s 1980 hit “Cars” was in America, the land of Journey and REO Speedwagon and the Eagles?—and the SynthPop artists that followed in his massive wake (Depeche Mode, Heaven 17, Human League, Yazoo, OMD, Thomas Dolby, Talk Talk, Eurhythmics, A-Ha, Berlin, Book of Love, etc), while great, could never match the breathless originality of this 1979 Tubeway Army classic. SynthPop died quickly, but from its smoldering ashes Techno—a mix of SynthPop and Chicago and Detroit House music—arose and still remains, in its numerous hybrid forms, the preferred dance club music of the cool kids. Numan was to Techno what Elvis was to Rock and Roll; this song is Techno’s “Jailhouse Rock.”
- Live Forever by Oasis (1994). Noel and Liam Gallagher are assholes, yes, but Oasis had a four-year run in the mid-90’s when they were untouchable, easily one of the best bands of that era, if not one the best ever. I knew after the first time I played Definitely, Maybe that I was going to love this band as much as I once loved the Smiths, Buzzcocks, Clash, or early REM. They had all the swagger and crass arrogance of the late 80’s Manchester scene, but were better because Noel was peerless when it came to writing brilliant pop hooks, plus he didn’t destroy his mind with drugs like the Happy Monday’s Sean Rider or the lads in the Stone Roses. What killed the Manchester music scene was what killed the Seattle sound: smack and too much fame too soon. The one Manchester scene survivor was Noel Gallagher, who was a roadie of sorts for the Inspiral Carpets and who, it turns out, was the most talented pop music songwriter of all the Manchester lads, maybe better than Morrissey and Marr or Pete Shelley. “Live Forever,” “Supersonic,” “Don’t Look back in Anger,” “Wonderwall,” and “Champagne Supernova” are five songs that would make any songwriter other than Dylan, John, and Paul green with envy. No, I am not kidding.
- Senses Working Overtime by XTC (1982). A masterpiece of New Wave pop by one of my favorite bands. This song breaks every pop rule—it’s weird and goofy sounding, it changes tempo continuously, and Andy Partridge sounds like a barking seal when he sings—yet it succeeds brilliantly because of all the rules it breaks. Partridge and the other genius songwriter in XTC, Colin Moulding, wrote at least ten songs (this one, Dear God, Making Plans for Nigel, Love on a Farmboy’s Wages, Mayor of Simpleton, Are You Receiving Me, Grass, Life Begins at the Hop, Great Fire, Generals and Majors) that should have been huge hits, but sadly were not. They were too weird for radio and too ugly for MTV in the early 80’s, so they toiled in relative obscurity and had a little fame in the college radio/Alternative scene, but never sold many records. What a shame. “Dear God” and this song are as good—maybe better—as any song by The Beatles. C’est la vie.
- In Between Days by The Cure (1985). This is my favorite pop song of the 80’s, hands down. Robert Smith was a silly geek and had a fairly annoying voice, but he managed to produce great song after great song throughout the decade. Just when I thought I was sick of The Cure, they’d put out another amazing record and I’d fall in love all over again. I haven’t paid much attention to them since Disintegration, but for many years they were one of my favorites.
- Train in Vain by The Clash (1979). This is the greatest band of my generation—the only band that mattered—at its artistic peak. I thought it was cool that the best song on London Calling was the “hidden” track not listed on the record’s jacket sleeve—they didn’t list “Train in Vain” because they felt it was too commercial and were a little embarrassed about that; how fucking Punk is that? This is their greatest song and their finest pop moment, and they wouldn’t even acknowledge its existence on the record! You had to find it. Imagine Nirvana hiding “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Nevermind. Yeah, right. In the last twenty-four years I have owned four copies of London Calling, three on vinyl and one on compact disk. It remains my all-time favorite record, although I hardly play it any more. When Joe Strummer sacked Mick Jones in 1983, I was so furious I quit listening to The Clash for many years out of protest, but of course I’ve long since forgiven Joe and they’re back on my play list. When Joe died last year I was deeply saddened.