By Gavin Richardson, Professor of English
So Jerry Seinfeld has this comedy routine in which he states that a man’s fashion sense is defined by his last good year. You can walk down the street pointing out men, saying, “1989, 1994, 2002, 1981…” Reflecting on my song selections for this week’s Music Monday, I suspect that this Seinfeld principle can be extended to music as well. Most of my picks come from the 80s and 90s, when I was in my teens and twenties, though a few classic and contemporary tunes make an appearance.
In devising this playlist, I wanted to include songs that interested me with no preconceived rationale, later hoping to see selection patterns emerged. As I review this eclectic list, the pattern still eludes me. However, if I were to suggest one principle that seems to mark the selections, it would be the concept of craft. Few songs are here because they simply “have a good beat and are easy to dance to,” as the old American Bandstand cliché went. For me, these songs derive their effects from some sense of techne or artistry, whether it be the shifting time signatures of Camper Van Beethoven or the verbal gymnastics of Elvis Costello.
It is craft that I admire, and artists who write songs the way a woodworker might turn a lathe. My appreciation of craft derives in large measure from being a musician who still plays in a band. You only really appreciate something when you try to do it yourself. So here are 25 songs that come from musical artisans I admire, and a few comments explaining why they’re here:
Another New World – Punch Brothers
Often I find the Punch Brothers’ music too clever by half, though I always admire the high level of virtuosity that marks everything they do. Obviously Chris Thile is the star of the show, but the way that Noam Pikelny rattles off banjo triplets like machine gun rounds groups Pikelny with Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck as true innovators of a very old instrument. This cover of a Josh Ritter tune is brilliant. When was the last time you heard a minor-seven-flat-five put to such good effect?
Man Out of Time – Elvis Costello
The first few weeks after starting college, I found myself, like most college freshmen, a little bit homesick. I knew I probably shouldn’t go home on the weekends, but I wasn’t really clicking with anybody in college. So I wandered down to 21st Avenue in Nashville to the Great Escape to flip through their vinyl collection. There I encountered Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom. I’m not sure why I bought it; I don’t think I had ever heard anything from him before. But I wore that record out. He was the most interesting and creative musician I had heard since encountering the Beatles—an assessment the jarring opening and closing of this tune, “Man Out of Time,” will confirm. And while his lyrics can be overwrought, you will not find any Moon / June rhymes here. In fact, I remember thinking to myself, “You mean you can use big words like that in a pop song?” This is the album that got me through the first rough weeks of college.
She Bangs the Drums – The Stone Roses
So in 1989 I went to England to attend Leeds University for my junior year. Unbeknownst to me, a new sound was exploding out of the industrial English north that would become known as the trippy “Manchester Sound.” The Stone Roses were the best exemplar of this new sound. My dormitory complex had a fully functional disco—yes, a disco—which held dances every weekend. The Stone Roses, the Waterboys, the Wonderstuff and the Inspiral Carpets were all in heavy rotation.
She Divines Water – Camper Van Beethoven
“She divines water by dancing a jig.” This song reels between a straightforward 4 / 4 verse and a waltzing 3 / 4 chorus. Eventually the tension is too much; the center cannot hold, and when the song does break, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
The Concept – Teenage Fanclub
How can a simple Am7 / D verse progression break your heart? In 1991, Teenage Fanclub found a way.
The Whole of the Moon – The Waterboys
Another song from the Leeds disco days.
Fairytale of New York – The Pogues
Shane McGowan has a face for radio and a voice for newsprint. Nonetheless, his Irish punk band The Pogues was a mighty force to be reckoned with in its prime. Here, the juxtaposition of the ragged vocal with the elegant lilting melody creates lovely music as paradoxical as its title.
The Mayor of Simpleton – XTC
What is the best power pop of the eighties? This song by XTC.
Hey Jude – Beatles
I have avoided listing multiple Beatles tunes here because they are ubiquitous; their influence runs through virtually every song on this list. Few people realize that before the Beatles, artists did not typically write their own music. The Beatles changed everything. So consider “Hey Jude” a place holder—a simple reminder of their signal greatness. Here is the most perfect studio recording of the 1960s, and one of the great vocals of all time. How can you hear a song over a thousand times and not tire of it? Only if that song is “Hey Jude.”
God Only Knows – Beach Boys
What possessed Brian Wilson to sit at a piano in 1966 and move from an E to a C diminished for a pop song? God only knows.
Getting Closer – Paul McCartney & Wings
In 1970 the Beatles broke up. Paul McCartney was the most famous songwriter—perhaps person—in the world, and he had been a part of the greatest band in the world. Now it was over, and he was 28 years old. If you are a musician, how do you follow the Beatles? While no one would argue that the solo McCartney catalogue rivals the greatness of that first band, I believe history will be kind to the work McCartney did in the seventies by himself and with Wings. So here’s a deep cut from a late seventies album demonstrating that McCartney had, without question, the most versatile rock voice of the twentieth century.
September Girls – Big Star
If you don’t know anything about the legendary 1970’s Memphis area rock band Big Star, do yourself a favor and watch Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, a documentary that periodically airs on Netflix. Thanks to the genius of Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, Big Star made some of the greatest pop music of the 1970’s that no one ever heard. Only in the past two decades have people paid attention, and attention must be paid.
Sir Duke – Stevie Wonder
In 1976 I was 8 years old—not really old enough to know or care who Stevie Wonder was. Fortunately, my two sisters and brother (17, 14 and 13) were old enough; hence, the eclectic sounds of this brilliant album shaped my impressionable aesthetic. In today’s world of marginally talented, autotuned pop stars and singing cowboy hats, I miss the horns and moving bass that mark Stevie Wonder’s funky ode to Duke Ellington. You had to be a musician to play with Stevie, and there are musicians on this album.
Spanish is the Loving Tongue – Bob Dylan
Dylan is justly famous for his lyrics. But in this track from the bootleg series of Another Self Portrait (1969-1971), he gives us a different reason to care about his broken and brilliant artistry, as he sits at a piano and intimately plays a folk song for no one, likely not imagining it would ever be heard beyond the moment.
When I Paint My Masterpiece – Tim O’Brien and Del McCoury
I was fairly late to the Bob Dylan party—so late, in fact, that much of what I knew about Dylan came from covers. This may be one of the best by one of my favorite bluegrass artists, Tim O’Brien, and one of the great traditional vocalists, Del McCoury. Originally from O’Brien’s album of Dylan covers, Red on Blonde.
Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen
I was also late to the Bruce Springsteen party. I made up for lost time, however, by incorporating some of The Boss’s songs into gig set lists and by attending one of his legendary 3-hour-plus concerts. In Nashville he ended his show with a solo acoustic version of this tune. When he was finished, a 50-something man in front of me was crying. That sounds pretty cheesy, except it wasn’t. How can a singer tell a girl, “You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re all right” and make it sound like a compliment? Bruce can.
The Last of the American Girls – Green Day
Green Day can try your patience with fake British accents and easy lyrical targets such as the institutionalized Church. However, “She puts her makeup on like graffiti on the walls of the heartland” is a Springsteen-worthy lyric. This band never fails to get an awful lot out of three chords.
Precious Lord, Take My Hand – Mike Farris
Let Mike Farris take you to church. The bassline on this tune alone is an epiphany.
Real Live Bleeding Fingers – Lucinda Williams
The combination of Lucinda Williams’s broken beer bottle voice and some of the greatest guitar tones ever recorded makes this a standout track in a career of standout tracks. One of my fondest musical memories is enjoying a backstage chat with Lucinda and her father, the poet Miller Williams, thanks to Professor Roger Stanley’s friendship with the artist.
The Way You Look Tonight – Frank Sinatra
This may be a strange choice given other tunes on this list. But it’s Frank. And what is his craft? Phrasing. I fancy myself a bit of a crooner at times, but whenever I try to cover Frank’s stuff and nail his phrasing, I’m always off. His sense of vocal phrasing is perfect, and yet it’s very difficult to imitate. No one swings like Frank.
Panama – Van Halen
There are plenty of guilty pleasures in my song closet. At some point it became too cool for school to like arena rock bands such as Van Halen, Journey, Boston, etc. But who doesn’t turn these songs up when they come on the radio? Especially if there’s no one else in the car? I was 16 and a sophomore in high school when 1984 came out. Every song on that album is good, and “Panama” may be the best.
Cover Me Up – Jason Isbell
America has produced some great songwriters of the past half-century. Bob Dylan. John Prine. Joni Mitchell. Bruce Springsteen. There aren’t many working musicians today that merit mention in such rarefied company. Jason Isbell is one such musician. His guitar chops are as good as anyone’s, and his lyrics are better than everyone’s. Jason Isbell is William Faulkner with a Les Paul. On this tune, however, his acoustic songcraft, voice and lyric are highlighted.
Chief – Patty Griffin
I’ve noticed that there are few women in this setlist, which is strange because I very much like female artists. I suspect this imbalance relates to the juvenile fantasy of placing myself in the role of the artist, and this is easier for me to do if that artist is male. But “Chief” is a song I wish I had written; in the middle, the song opens up like an Emily Dickinson poem, becoming expansive like the inimitable voice of Patty Griffin herself.
The Most Beautiful Girl in the World – Charlie Rich
My dad is a bluegrass and country music enthusiast, even playing five-string banjo. This song reminds me of childhood and the era of classic country that Dad enjoyed so much.
Push Your Button – The Kernal
The Kernal (aka Joe Garner) is a Union alumnus currently finishing his second album. But “Push Your Button” is not on this list out of mere tokenism; it really is a great song that can hold its own with other great songs.