The Best Songs Ever

September 24, 2015

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This list is really in no particular order, it can’t be. Yes, my all-time favourite is Wanderer’s nachtlied, but the others are all just about as good and only reflect my preferences so there’s no ranking.

The usual caveats apply; it’s about the songs, not records or performances.

Wanderer’s nachtlied (Uber allen gipfeln) by Franz Schubert.

The peace that this song expresses is utterly transcendent.

Why melody?

September 15, 2015

I have another essay titled ‘Tune, Melody and Note-row’ where I distinguish between these terms, and in that writing I explain why. I take my ideas mostly from Imogen Holst’s little book Tune (1962), one of those great obscure classics that has slipped entirely from view. But the truth is, most of us don’t distinguish between them, and even classically-trained people often just plain don’t know the difference. So I suggest readers also look at that piece as well as this.

Syd Barrett

October 15, 2015

Syd Barrett was the founding force and primary inspiration of the early Pink Floyd. He wrote their first two unique hits Arnold Layne and See Emily Play. Legend has it that he got part way through recording the follow-up – Scream thy last scream – when he had a nervous break-down of some kind, couldn’t really go on, and that song remains in the vaults, although there’s a bootleg CD called Magnesium Proverbs which has a half-finished version of it that is extremely promising; it almost certainly would have been another distinctive psychedelic hit. He was then fired from Pink Floyd and became a recluse; they of course went on a had a few hits themselves.


September 26, 2015

This lyric is reproduced here because it is so fine and I can’t find a good audio of the song on Youtube, though there are a couple of not-so-good ones, including one by the composer himself. The tune is very nice too, but it’s the remarkable lyric that always grabs me. It was written by Hugh E Wright and T C S Bennett, and was released in 1926 by Harold Williams. But the Frank Muir version, still somewhere in the bowels of the BBC, is the definitive version.

Sowin’s pretty good
Reapin’ ain’t so bad
Scarin’ off the crows
Suits a farmer’s lad


Joni Mitchell

September 24, 2015

Ah, Joni! So great for so long, and then…?

The facts are well-known: six great albums, a hiatus, a change of style, then thirteen modest albums.

Appearing at first like a typical folkie-waif, Mitchell soon revealed herself as an extraordinarily multi-dimensional talent and musical authority. A fine voice, remarkable guitar work with innovative tunings, effective piano work, amazing song-writing skills, and she did most of her own production. We’re getting up around Brian Wilson’s level of multi-talentedness here, admittedly without the parade of hits, but only because a somewhat different direction is pursued. This staggering creativity!

The act of listening

September 15, 2015

Many years ago – at least 30 – I read a study from the early days of the psychology of music, I’ve forgotten whether it was theoretical or empirical, where an academic identified what happens inside a person’s mind when they listen to a new piece of music. S/he claimed to have found five operations that they undertake. (This is from memory and I don’t recall the details accurately, or their order, but I still think of this study often.)

Seminal Musical Experiences

Seminal Musical Experiences 1

It was about 1953-4. I was probably about five or six, in Primary School, and for some reason we had a relieving teacher for a few weeks. He was a big roly-poly Maori guy, Mr Pohutu, and we all came to love him. He was always laughing. But he came to mean something very special to me.


Paul Simon

Paul Simon has said in an interview that he only feels the need to write songs occasionally, and that when he does he uses most of the material he composes. I’m really not sure what to make of this statement. I accept it; there’s no reason he’d lie. But there’s such a vast distance between his best material and his next level down.

Leonard Cohen

I was first introduced to the music of Leonard Cohen by a lady. This was entirely appropriate; I never realised until I read Sylvie Simmons’ biography I’m your man, how much Cohen oriented his writing, and indeed, seems to have oriented much of his life, towards women. From his deep voice he sounds very masculine, but without that voice I believe that he would have about the same status as, say, Townes van Zandt, that is, hugely respected by other song-writers, but still relatively unknown. Instead he has become an icon.

Henri Duparc

The ‘greatest’ song-writer?

How can anyone say any individual is the ‘greatest’ composer of any genre? Part of the definition of true greatness is that while one is listening to a work one becomes temporarily convinced that the composer is the greatest of all; the ability to sweep one up in their consciousness is part of whatever it is that greatness constitutes. Only by stepping back can we get a bit of distance on the matter, on the relativities between composers, and then discover that each is actually quite different, that some of the differences are incomparable, and that at the very top it’s really just a question of personal preference.