The Best Songs Ever
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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.
Fallen angel by Victor Young and Edward Heyman (sung by Ketty Lester).
Surely the ultimate jazz song. Victor Young got 21 Academy Award nominations – the record – but only one Oscar, and that posthumously! This song isn’t even listed on his Wikipedia page. Well, it doesn’t get any better than this! Perfect, perfect, perfect!
Mandoline by Claude Debussy.
This is my model for how I’d like my own songs to be, with distantly related keys and constantly shifting foregrounds and backgrounds, rhythmic highs and lows. Sheer magic!
Golden Brown by The Stranglers.
An incredibly sophisticated song from a supposedly “punk” band. Mesmeric.
Hard times come again no more by Stephen Foster.
An exquisite melody, understated at first, then gradually developing into a huge anthem-like chorus. This song allows maximum room for interpretation. It can be sung as a spiritual or an art song or a folk song, and everyone finds their own twist on it and most seem to work. Just about the ultimate social justice song; nothing from the recent decades of protest really compares with it. No taint of bitterness or anger, just very compassionate. Heavenly, heavenly heavenly!
The dangling conversation by Paul Simon.
Art Garfunkle has said that both he and Paul Simon slightly favoured this over their other songs, and despite the immense appeal of Sounds of Silence, it’s not hard to see why. From the opening lyric “It’s a still-life water colour…” the song is consciously literate and artsy, determinedly high-brow, but utterly convincing. Ostensibly it’s about an unbreachable distance between two smart, worldly and aware people, but there are elements of fragmentation in the song too, of alienation from one’s own Self, and of the impossibility for the intellect to ever compensate for emotion and connection. A true masterpiece.
Invitation to the voyage by Henri Duparc and Charles Baudelaire.
The second verse concludes with a stunning line by Baudelaire: “the charm, so mysterious, of your treacherous eyes shining through their tears.” Sheer, sheer perfection. Sung by Jonas Kaufmann.
September song by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson.
From the musical Knickerboker holiday. An unbelievably beautiful, yearning, resigned love song.
As time goes by by Herman Hupfeld.
Simple and enchanting, showing again that a song doesn’t need a really great melody or high poetry to be great. The perfectly matched melody and lyric of this song where everything is understated yet with a striking central concept – the enduring universal appeal of love-songs (so this is really a song about songs) – shows that in principle at least anyone ought to be able to do it. But will we?
Mondnacht by Robert Schumann.
This thing just glistens out at you. Luminescent! Also check out the Peter Schrier version; it’s one of the panels that comes on the screen at the end of this version. In some ways even better.
Stardust by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish.
This song is generally acknowledged as the high point of the Great American Songbook. Apparently it took him years to finalise it. Through-composed at first, with subsequent re-cyclings back and forth, and lots of melodic twists and turns. The lyric is okay-to-good-ish, and everything fits appropriately. The book Stardust melody: The life and music of Hoagy Carmichael by Richard Sudhalter (2002), discusses the composition process of this song at length; there’s a chapter mostly on this song.
The Estuary by Michael Head and Ruth Pitter.
This is an extraordinary, complex, shifting, sublime achievement, utterly, utterly beautiful. Apparently Head is not held in high regard in the UK., his songs being thought to be perhaps a little too traditional. Well, this one is as good as song gets. It should also alert us to his other gems such as Mamble, Sweet chance that led my steps abroad, and Money O!, among others. Mamble is irresistible, delicious!!! Money O! is the kind of song they should be playing on ABC FM daily.
Porgy, I’s your woman now, by George and Ira Gershwin.
It’s a bit of a toss-up between this and Summertime, both from Porgy and Bess. I prefer Porgy because it’s more complex whereas Summertime is just a tune, but what a great one!
Johnny I hardly knew ye by J. B. Geoghegan.
The origin of this song is quite complex; there is a book by Jonathan Lighter (2012) titled The best anti-war song ever written, on the subject that I won’t dip into for now. It was first published in 1865. Speaking musically, the use of repetition and simplicity are right to the fore; this clearly isn’t an art song in any high-falutin sense, but it’s devastating in its effectiveness. It is a series of immensely powerful descriptive repeating lines (“with guns and drums and drums and guns, haroo, haroo…”) and heartbreaking images (“without an eye, without a leg, you’ll have to be put with a bowl to beg”), with each one culminating in the repeating title refrain “Johnny I hardly knew ye.” My God, such power! Such hypnosis. (And you heard it from me: the banjo was invented just for this song!)
Miserere my maker by Anonymous.
Sung by Alfred Deller with Desmond Dupre on lute. This song is from about 1615, and is an extended, through-composed plea of shattering intensity, culminating in the phrase “…I am dying.” I had this in mind when I wrote my Miserere which will appear on my 3rd album.
She’s leaving home by Paul McCartney.
The best thing he ever did, and perhaps the best performance the Beatles ever did – their harmony singing on this track is truly amazing. The lyrics are tight and descriptive, the story-line is very well told, and the melody is beyond praise. I really do rate this as one of the ten, perhaps even five or six, best songs ever!
En sourdine by Reynaldo Hahn.
This song is a bit like one of Bach’s cello suites; there are numerous ways of performing it and one can bring out this or that and it seems there is no single best way of doing it and most performances sound “right” which is very strange actually. But most take it way too fast; if you do that you start to struggle with it, and it shows because this is a song that rides on calm. The ‘kick’ occurs at 2.14 and only lasts a few moments. Just for a time we’re in quite a different place, then back home again. Gorgeous!
Sefronia by Tim Buckley.
Truly, truly unique, transcendent, luminescent, his masterpiece. I really can’t talk much about this song; it overwhelms me.
Sorrow stay by John Dowland.
I first heard this sung by Alred Deller with Desmond Dupree on lute; shattering. The sheer number of pauses in this song make it extraordinary, and with each pause comes a re-focus and a new direction, slightly different from the last but yet also continuing it. An amazing balancing act of connected mini-forms and melodic phrases, emotional segments of the most heart-rending kind, and that plaint “pity, pity, pity…” followed by “alas I am condemned.” Richly extravagant!
Waiting for the moving van by David Ackles.
Of all the simple, straight-forward, sincere and honest songs of love and loss, of which there have been very many highly effective and deeply moving examples, I choose this as the exemplar. Warm, sincere, gentle, accepting, down-to-earth, a truly humane and human expression. Beautifully, beautifully sung, with real love in his voice. His usually masterful arrangement. And even that line “No, I won’t get maudlin…” Oh, go on mate, you’re okay, don’t worry about it, we’ve all done maudlin.
Die Baches Wiegenlied by Franz Schubert and Wilhelm Muller.
There is a great version of this sung by Peter Schrier with Konrad Ragossnig on guitar. This is the song that concludes his cycle Die Schone Mullerin. Schubert concluded both of his cycles with very special songs. This song of peaceful death is equalled only by the even sparser Die leiermann that concludes the Winterreise cycle.
Cold blue steel and sweet fire by Joni Mitchell.
A torrid song of drug addiction. By turns acerbic and gentle, with sublime onomatopoeia in the phrase “down, down, down the dark ladder…” Filled with squalid images and hellish psychological allusions, through which her ethereal voice wisps and waves as if calling the victim back to home and safety again. Immense.
Ave Maria by Franz Schubert.
Although performed much too frequently it still retains its irresistible allure.
Surf’s up by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks.
The final of Brian Wilson’s triumvirate of Good Vibrations, Heroes and Vilains, and then this, the less impactful but more reflective and personal of the three. At its centre is that unforgettable, incandescent line by Van Dyke Parks, “a choke of grief, heart-hardened I, beyond belief, a broken man too tough to cry…” and Wilson pulls out all stops melodically! My God, what an expression of pain and loss. I’ve put Wilson’s solo version up because it is so poignant but the original contains so much more. Go check it out.
Little Green by Joni Mitchell.
The song of her giving up her baby for adoption at the height of the free-love period. “Just a little Green like the colour when the Spring is born…” This song never fails to bring tears to my eyes.
Die leiermann by Franz Schubert and Wilhelm Muller.
Here sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The really striking thing about this song is that – effectively – it is all in one key. Yes, it moves around a little, but still the feeling is of just one key. Utterly unforgettable!
Old Man by Bryan McLean and Love.
Such unexpected melodic invention. What a perfectly naive song. So, so hopeful! And such triumph! This guy could have been so, so great.
Delancy Street by John Braden. John Braden was a musician and producer who in 1969 put out an eponymously titled album that went nowhere, and he never did that again. He died at age 41. There is a Wikipedia entry for him that lists the tracks on his album. The song Delancy Street is an absolute stand-out and then some, every bit as good as the Beatles’ She’s leaving home or Brian Wilson’s Don’t talk – put your head on my shoulder. If I ever get comfortable with the technology I’ll risk being sued by putting this song up on the net. It’s an absolute masterpiece.
The girl from Ipanema by Antonio Carlos Jobim.
This is surely the ultimate tune of seduction, a gorgeous confection. Everything about it is gentle, soft, wispy, warm and caressing. To paraphrase Lou Rawls, it is sweet on sweet in sweet!
Imagine by John Lennon.
It seems to me that there are three levels in art. The craft level, which is just the skill of putting paint to canvas or words to music or whatever. Then the art level, which is the ability to do so in a way that others find meaningful or beautiful. And finally the message level which is the ability to reveal us to ourselves, to open our eyes in ways we haven’t seen before, or to advance the human project. The greatest artists have always had such agendas, and in Imagine John Lennon reveals his. Beautiful.
Phidyle by Henri Duparc and Charles-Marie-Rene Leconte.
This song contains a phrase that may be the most beautiful melodic fragment ever written. It culminates the first verse and is repeated again later; it occurs on the words ‘Repose, o Phidyle? (‘Rest, o Phidyle’), and in the clip provided here it’s at about 46 seconds, after which the melody takes a surprising change of direction, before building towards another round of the whole thing. Some say the song loses its way a bit after that, which perhaps it does, but like everything by Duparc it remains utterly tuneful, and the second and subsequent repetitions of ‘Repose, o Phidyle’ add to the magic. As it builds there is a sense of waves crashing over one in the throes of ecstasy, like the kiss scene in From Here To Eternity with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. See also my separate essay on Duparc.
Blowin in the wind by Bob Dylan.
So much comes together in this song; simplicity, sophisticated use of repetition, understated ambiguity contrasting with concrete specifics, and much more. It’s the perfect protest song.
I’ll see you again by Roy Harper.
There is a somewhat indulgent book with all of Harper’s lyrics titled Roy Harper: The passions of great fortune, (I suspect it’s self-produced) that reveals him to be committed to every fashionable cause going, often in the most literal way, resulting in songs like I hate the white man. And that’s all okay of course, he’s basically, sort of, mostly kind of correct in his concerns. But this song is just warm and simple and unpretentious, authentic and compassionate. A grand gem. Beneath the entry (in the book) for this song he wrote: “I used to spend more than minutes on technical problems… silly boy.” Hmmm.
Standchen by Franz Schubert and Ludwig Rellstab.
This is one of Schubert’s last songs. It shows him continuing to experiment, taking a bite here, then backing away, taking another bite, and working up to the climax gradually. Very fine indeed!
Guess who I saw in Paris by Buffy Saint-Marie.
The tenderest of feminine love songs. She tell us coyly that she “fell asleep in his arms.” Well, yes, I guess I’ve heard it called that before. And of course he calls her up the next day, as a Gentleman must!
Strawberry Fields forever by John Lennon.
For some this will only ever be a tune about a place in Liverpool, an orphanage where Lennon and his friends used to play as children, and not a particularly good tune at that. Except of course it really has very little to do with the location and a hell of a lot to do with LSD. Effectively it is about the contingencies and possibilities but also the disappointments and alienations that the psychedelic experience opens up. The song touches on conformity (“Living is easy with eyes closed…”), life is largely a rat race (“It’s getting hard to be someone…”), awakening shows that “nothing is real…” and can lead in turn to a sense of isolation and loneliness (“No one I think is in my tree…”), genuine communication is near impossible (“That is you can’t, you know, tune in…”), but despite all of this disillusionment and all the confusion that comes from working through the process (“I think I know, I mean, ah yes, but it’s all wrong, that is, I think I disagree…”) such expanded awareness as the drug brings is well worth having, because really there is “nothing to get hung about,” and “it all works out” and “it’s all right,” but yes, you do lose a certain innocence. The tune is unusual but undistinguished, though sufficiently striking to signal that he knows what he’s doing with all the semi-nonsense lyrics; it’s all quite intentional. And like Lennon’s other song mentioned herein, Imagine, the message is radical indeed, revealing us and the world anew to ourselves. Unforgettable!
California girls by Brian Wilson.
If ever there was a masterpiece of sheer unreflective joy and hopeful young romance this surely is it.
Gute nacht (Good night) by Franz Schubert and Wilhelm Muller
This is the opening song in Schubert’s 24-song cycle Die Winterreise and it sets the scene for the story to follow. Basically he’s been thrown over after high expectations, and the cycle tells the story of his decline and death for love. Ah… This version is by Peter Schreier.
Sniper by Harry Chapin.
This song is a staggering achievement. Despite its lurid topic it has a psychological insight and a musical intelligence that are only equalled in Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Well worth studying in detail and at length; the biblical culmination of “I was, I am and now I will be” reveals a sophistication far beyond that of his musical peers. But it’s far too complex to discuss here. An intriguing aside, Chapin was an exceptional humanist, giving away much of his earnings to various causes, and his two big hits WOLD and Cat’s in the Cradle are also character portrayals (and in terms of popular song, damn near as good as it gets). He was a phenomenal talent and person, who tragically died young. Make sure you listen to the production version also; it’s really worth it.
Take five by Paul Desmond.
The melody (and structure) was originally written by Paul Desmond and performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and only much later sung by Carmen McRae with lyrics by Dave Brubeck and his wife. This is in 9/8 time. To me this song suggests a vast hinterland of melody that is seldom explored, in all sorts of timings and contexts – jazz, classical, folk (the song is in so-called Bulgarian time) and pop, and with phenomenal effects and surprises. It’s not just a matter of setting the electronic metronome to some utterly implausible metre like 11/4 or such absurdity and then vamping over it; rather, it’s the ability to do so convincingly, seemingly simply, as if quite naturally, and Take Five does all of this in spades! Carmen McRae is generally thought of (among aficionados) as the doyen of female jazz vocalists, and this performance is perfection!
Chanson du pêcheur (Lamento) by Gabriel Faure.
Gabriel Faure’s favourite among his songs was for Le Parfum Imperissible but I’m not quite there yet. There is a wonderful album by Janet Baker and Geoffrey Parsons titled La Chanson d’Eve which highlights his songs in a superb performance. I tend to think he lost his way a little in some of his later “melodie,” a specifically French term for art-song akin to the Russian “romance” which has a somewhat similar meaning.
Light flight by Pentangle.
This song is credited to the members of Pentangle – Bert Jansch, Danny Thompson, Jacqui McShee, Terry Cox and John Renbourn. This very unusual song is surely the ultimate jazz/folk fusion. The metre varies between 5/8, 7/8 and 6/4. It has an adequate lyric, with a few subtle overlaps and extensions giving it an element of surprise without making any bold statements or drawing attention away from the rhythm and melody. And McShee sings wonderfully. And please be amused by my little friend in her white knickers [actually a Youtube file I just happened upon].
Anything goes by Cole Porter and sung by him on Youtube.
It’s those many little syncopations that make the song, but the witty lyrics really add a gloss to the whole thing. Surely one of the happiest tunes ever written!
Leanin’ by Hugh E Wright and T C S Bennett.
This song was released in 1926 by Harold Williams. I heard it sung by Frank Muir in the British radio show My Music, and it would be hard to top his performance then, crinkly crackly voice and all. It is of a man mourning his dog, and is so remarkable and obscure that I’m going to reproduce the lyric in full here (see separate post). It can be accessed on Youtube in two versions, one by a man who obviously relates strongly to the song but whose performance is not strong, and the other by the composer I believe, but it doesn’t really do the song justice either. The melody is very fine also. It needs someone sufficiently in touch with the rustic feelings and details while also possessing a sophisticated sense of musical nuance, and able to develop and bring out the structure of the song, and Frank Muir was able to do that. The structure is perhaps the most remarkable thing; the main topic doesn’t even enter until the second verse. The entire first half of the song really just sets the scene and mood, then WHAM! The image of the fellow leaning on the fence looking at his dog’s grave beneath a beautiful tree on a sunny day, remembering the times they played together and even poached a little, well, I don’t know how others feel about pet bereavement but this always chokes me up. Beautifully crafted, spanning both rustic and universal sensitivities – utterly, utterly poignant!
Putting on the Ritz by Irving Berlin.
Originally written with Fred Astaire in mind, it was revised several times to accommodate changing sensitivities. Like Anything goes, it marks a high point in the great American songbook when changes in rhythm, tempo and timing were experimented with. Such sophisticated fun.
Miss Mary by Vic Chesnutt.
This is a re-working of the Christ myth of immaculate conception, and it comes from his West of Rome album. It has to be close to being just about the deepest popular-song lyric ever, with a lovely tune too, appropriate to the subject matter. Just take a few minutes to think about it. A wonderful achievement. (There is also a gorgeous version by Elle Belga on Youtube.) I would really have liked to put his song Woodrow Wilson up also but there’s not a good version of it on Youtube; it’s so, so poignant.
Extase by Henri Duparc and Jean Labor.
I’ve written another post about Duparc; please read that. Extase is his most erotic song. I can’t help but wonder sometimes how the classical people feel about performing such songs with straight faces. It seems to me that here Laurence Malherbe is also unable to avoid a little knowing smile at appropriately delicious moments.
Swift as the wind by The Incredible String Band.
From their The Hangman’s beautiful daughter album. Ostensibly a song about childhood innocence misunderstood, but lending itself also to a much darker interpretation – the grandiose, pre-psychotic hallucinatory fantasies of a troubled child. A deeply disturbing piece.
To know him is to love him by Phil Specter.
The ultimate cream-puff song of young love, and the reason no one else has covered it (hardly) is because it’s impossible to do better than he did with The Teddy bears! Though admittedly, as cream-puff songs go, Come softly to me by The Fleetwoods is damn near as good; just doesn’t quite have the substance of To know him is to love him, which I believe was the epitaph on Specter’s father’s grave.
Le secret by Gabriel Faure and Armand Silvestre.
Faure is spoken of as the French Schubert because they both seemed to have a talent for spontaneous seemingly effortless outpourings of melody. Knowing a little bit about both Schubert and Faure gives the lie to this nonsense – they both worked bloody hard to get that spontaneous and natural-seeming ‘effortless’ skill, and even at their peaks it wasn’t always there. The lyric here is very curious; he wants the morning to not know the love of the night, for the day to proclaim the love he hid from the morning, and then for the evening to forget the love that the day proclaimed. Silvestre was a pre-symbolist poet, and frankly, the meaning of this poem escapes me, perhaps because I don’t know much French, although it feels symbolist (hence perhaps it could mean almost anything). But there is progression and development within it so maybe it makes a different kind of sense if you know French. And yes, this is a most natural-seeming outpouring by Faure.
Jolene by Dolly Parton
How the hell do you write a song like this? Dearest Dolly absolutely flew right up out of the square old country music box with this soaring melody and powerful lyric. It was written in 1973 after a bank teller flirted with her husband not long after they’d wed. The name came from a fan who sought her autograph after a show.
Fly by Nick Drake.
From his Bryter layter album. A song of disturbance, disguised by beautiful lyricism, but really portraying that moment of insight when the dysfunctional youth recognises that he hasn’t got what it takes to live a ‘normal’ life. “For it’s really too hard for to fly…” Tragic and beautiful. Autobiographical in that Drake had only a little while to live after this. No one should ever be allowed to imply that popular music cannot scale the heights and plumb the depths of more ‘serious’ music.
Maggie by J. C. Butterfield and G. W. Johnson, and sung by Foster and Allen.
The G. W. Washington who wrote the poem is not the G. W. Washington who was the first black recording star in the U.S.A. He was a Canadian teacher, hence although this song is often considered to be Scottish it isn’t. The history of the poem is of him falling in love with his student who presumably reciprocated (today he’d probably be fired by the education department) but they never got to be married because she died young. However the central topic that emerged is of growing old. Perhaps the lesson here is that while it is a truly fine tune and lyric, it is the extraordinary subject matter that really lifts it. Beautiful.
Believe me if all those endearing young charms by Traditional and Irish poet Thomas Moore.
The story runs that Moore’s wife became terribly scarred by smallpox and thought that he’d not love her anymore. So to rekindle their love he took a folk tune and set these words to it. Again it testifies to the value of a striking central concept, and what a beautiful melody. There’s a little background spoken in the clip too.
The beast in me by Nick Lowe.
This song was chosen by the makers of The Sopranos to express the psychopathic mentality of members of the Mob. It was covered by Johnny Cash and certainly is very much a Johnny Cash song (remembering that Cash wrote the line “But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”) Fine tune, exquisite lyric, universal sentiment, chilling.
When an old cricketer leaves the crease by Roy Harper.
This is Harper’s great art-song, a masterpiece. One listening is all it takes to become quite addicted. It has some gorgeous lyrics: “And it could be Jeff and it could be John with the sting of the new ball in his tail. And it could be me and it could be thee, and it could be the sting of the ale.”
The Pearl Fishers’ duet by Georges Bizet.
This is from Bizet’s early failed opera The Pearl Fishers composed when he was only 25. He subsequently went on to compose Carmen, which also was a failure at first. He died two years after the premiere of Carmen at age 37, not knowing that he would become one of opera’s brightest stars. The Pearl Fishers also eventually entered the repertoire, albeit in a somewhat changed form because the original manuscript was lost. The storyline is that the two friends had fallen out but now vow to be reconciled to each other for good. It’s a magnificent evocation of brotherly love. This is spine-tingling stuff!
Wuthering heights by Kate Bush.
I have to admit that I no longer like this song quite as much as I used to, and I’d rather not say why because it won’t win me any friends. I will just say that I’ve never really understood how she has achieved the fame she has, and I really don’t like little-girl voices; once was enough! But there can be no reservations about this song; it’s an absolute masterpiece, and the rest of that album, her first, was very fine too. So I wish her well.
The City of New orleans by Steve Goodman.
Ah, three chords and the truth! Well, actually there’s a couple of extra chords thrown in there, but you get the spirit. A beautiful, compassionate, warm and tender, loving country tune of observations of daily life. And that imagery: “The sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers ride their daddies’ magic carpet made of steel. Mothers with their babes asleep rocking to the gentle beat and the rhythm of the rails is all they dream.” This guy really loved life! Unfortunately Goodman died young, but on the strength of this song he seems to have been a happy fellow with a great heart and a sharp eye.
An die Musik by Franz Schubert and Franz von Schober.
This is Schubert’s testament to the spiritual healing power of music. The lyric runs: You, lovely art, in how many grey hours, when life’s mad tumult wraps around me have you kindled my heart to warm love; have you transported me into a better world! Often has a sigh flowing out from your harp, a sweet, divine harmony from you unlocked to me the heaven of better times. You, lovely Art, I thank you for it! Divine!
Mad World by Roland Orzabal of the British band Tears for fears
It’s now clear that Orzabal didn’t appreciate the scope of this song when he first wrote it; the original version by Tears for Fears is fairly dismissable. But many years later Gary Jules resurrected the song for the film Donny Darko and its full possibilities were realised. With a beautiful understated tune, the topic is youthful disturbance and it contains that unforgettable line “the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had…” Heartbreaking!
Erbarme dich mein Gott by J. S. Bach.
I’m almost breaking one of my own rules here. This is an aria – strictly speaking not really a song, although I’ll bet that no one who hears it really cares about the difference – from J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It’s a stunningly beautiful melody with exquisite counterpoint, perhaps Bach’s finest moment (now that’s bought into a fight!) Another striking thing about this ‘song’ is the paucity of the libretto. In translation it is: “Have mercy my God, for my tears sake. Look hither. heart and eyes weep before thee bitterly.” The title phrase “Erbarme dich” is repeated numerous times and reinforces the message again and again and again and again (long before the learned dismissed rock ‘n roll because it was too repetitive). Intriguingly the metre here is 12/8. Perhaps one of the lessons for song-writers here is that if you stumble upon a good melody you might do worse than doubling it in an instrument or having the various parts of it have a kind of dialogue with themselves in various instruments as Bach does here in this piece. And isn’t Damien Guillon’s singing fantastic!
Una furtiva lagrima by Gaetano Donnizetti
From a song-writing perspective, the problem with a lot of operatic arias is that the libretto is often used, at least in part, to further the story-line, which works well in the opera but which introduces extraneous material into the song – hints of events still to come or echoes of events just gone. Hence they don’t really stand alone, except to opera lovers of course. This one is an exception, and it contains some absolutely exquisite libretto lines: “Just for an instant the beating of her beautiful heart I heard, and my sighs became as one fleetingly with her sighs… Heavens yes, I could die…” Yes, it’s over the top, but that’s what opera is meant to be. It also shows Pavarotti at his youthful best; those beads of sweat on his forehead at the end were not merely the result of standing under the lights. Wonderbar!
Writer in the sun by Donovan Leitch.
Again a striking central concept, a retired writer sitting in the sun “…and I’m blue.” A fine melody though not great, but a wonderful lyric, probably his best, and everything perfectly matched (except the arrangement unfortunately; a tad over the top). But such rich images: “The magazine girl poses on my glossy paper aeroplane…” And that wonderful, wonderful last verse: “I bathe in the sun of the morning, lemon circles swim in the tea, fishing for time with a wishing line and throwing it back in the sea…” Rapture!
Owed t’ Alex by Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart)
This song came some years after his first successes with albums such as Trout Mask Replica, and as great as that earlier material was (Big eyed beans and Blows and stacks and all the wonderful rest) I think he excels them here. This song builds and changes and has more variety and density to it than the earlier material. The lyrics are superb as always and there is his usual fine intelligence. There is also genuine humour, something quite rare in the self-consciously ‘avant-garde.’ And the instrumentation is phenomenal! Magnificent!
I saw the light by Hank Williams
The best hymn of the last hundred years. Written in 1947 from a line spoken by his mother. Williams famously drank and drugged himself to an early grave. He was once told by country star Roy Acuff “You’ve got a million dollar talent son but a ten-cent brain.” Legend has it that his intended last audience, after discovering him dead in the back of his limousine, spontaneously broke out into this song.
Killing me softly by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel.
This is a beautiful song that deserves all the fame it has garnered – Grammy’s and other awards. But perhaps the biggest lesson to take here is that it only ranks #360 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” and #82 on Billboard’s “Greatest Songs of All Time.” The confusion of records with songs, and commercial success with aesthetic values, shows that song-writing can be a lonely art. The lyric is stunning, with lines like “I felt he found my letters and read each one out loud…” that beautifully express that sense of exposure that comes from feeling aroused and excited by a prospective partner – it’s so undignified! But this song has enormous dignity. I think that combination of naturalness with dignity is what is meant by “class.” The vocalist here, Roberta Flack, was classically-trained and probably deserves much of there credit for the arrangement (an earlier version by Lori Lieberman made little impression).
I wanna go to Marz by John Grant.
Proof yet again that the simpler kinds of melodies are far from exhausted, this absolute gem from gay songsmith John Grant is as gorgeous as any folk or pop melody ever. It is from his 2008 album Queen of Denmark.
Bronco Bill’s Lament by Don McLean
Just about the most evocative and powerful expression of masculinity there is. McLean became famous for American Pie but it’s not his best song and it put him in a niche that limited him.
I heard the bluebirds sing by Hod Pharis.
Sometimes a simple verse-and-chorus tune has such intrinsic sweetness and light that we overlook its simplicity and take it to heart. We say it is “infectious” because its appeal seems to go beyond its limited musical resources. This is one of the best and performed here with sheer magic!
Cowboy by Randy Newman.
Newman has been highly influential in popular music, but to my mind his best material is under-appreciated. This is from his first album and is his most evocative song ever.