Friday, June 29, 2007

10 Perfect Pop Songs

I could take today's post as a chance to comment on the news of the day, but the news of the day is so relentlessly bad on so many fronts, I decided to spend the time talking about things I really like. Instead of a Random 10 from my iPod, here's a list of 10 Perfect Pop Songs, examples of the songwriting (and recording) craft that produced absolute gems.

Three Little Maids from School by Gilbert and Sullivan, from The Mikado. If you saw Topsy Turvy, you know some of the stories from the original production of this play, which was then and still is one of G&S beloved works. I heard an apocryphal story that when this song was first performed, the crowd went ape and stopped the show with applause, forcing the performers to do the song a total of three times. I've looked for confirmation of this story on the 'net, but haven't found it yet. Still, it's fun to think of an audience of Victorian theatregoers being turned into the Teletubbies by this spritely tune.

Where or When by Jerome Kern. Of all the highly regarded writers of Broadway tunes, Kern is the earliest. nearly a generation older than Berlin, Gershwin, Porter and others. Where or When is a great example of craftsmanship given a particular limitation. The song was written for an actor who didn't have a very large vocal range. The whole tune builds very simply to a crescendo, but all the notes are close to each other on the scale, and some passages have the singer singing the same note for almost an entire bar. (The smile you were smiling you were smiling then...) You don't have to know this to love this song, but it makes it more lovable when you do.

Sugar Rose by Fats Waller. I've made no secret of my love for Fats Waller. As songwriter, musician and performer combined, he is at the very top of my list for the 20th Century, even beating out the next songwriter on this list by a smidge.

If you've listened to many of Waller's performances, there's a little figure he throws into his piano solos in many of his tunes. It sounds like Waller the performer is trying to help Waller the composer find a good home for this little two bar tune. The good home it finally found is as the first line of Sugar Rose. (I found a rose among the blossoms, where the cotton grows.)

There are a lot of great songwriters who are also accomplished musicians, of course, but what puts Fats at the top of my list is how easily he writes and performs happy tunes. For me, many happy tunes are also sappy tunes, but Fats is having so much fun himself, throwing away little witty gems, both verbally and musically, there's nothing sickly sweet about him. He had the persona of a clown, but for me there's nothing degrading about it. I don't feel manipulated into being happy listening to Fats Waller. I just feel happy.

I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good) by Duke Ellington. I have two different recordings of this song on iTunes, one recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, accompanied by Ellington and his orchestra, and the other a remarkable reworking of the song by Nina Simone, who was also a pianist as well as a singer. (She often took Ellington's music as a departure point and created something very different.) Like Where or When, the melody is as simple as can be, but in this case it feels like Ellington wrote it with the full intention that the simplicity was just a starting point for a great singer to make the song her or his own. (Guys sing this sometimes, but it's a gal tune for the most part.)

Never treats me sweet and gentle, the way he should.
I've got it bad and that ain't good.

Elenore by The Turtles. Jumping ahead a few decades and switching styles, we have The Turtles' second best known song, Elenore. They recorded Battle of the Bands at a time when concept albums were all the rage, and their concept was that each song was recorded by a different band, though it was always the same five mooks you see on the album cover. This song is a great exercise is building on a simple verse-chorus-verse-chorus pattern, adding ideas in the second installment, with great mix of starting quiet and getting all bombastic. With only two times through the song, the big ending is a bit of a surprise. For me, I want to hear more when it's over. I often go back and listen again.

Also, the song rhymes etcetra with betta'. I'm guessing you lyricists out there among my readers didn't do that this week. Kinda wish you did, don't you?

I Want You Back by the Jackson 5. Look at these guys, will ya? Perfect teeth, perfect Afros and a perfect pop song right out of the gate. Padre Mickey is of the opinion that I Want You Back is a perfect pop tune ruined by too many options in the recording studio; he hates when they add the strings. But even he would agree it is a textbook example of the hook building art. There's the bass line hook. There's the Morse code guitar hook. There's Michael screaming his little heart out Oh, baby, give me one more chance and his brothers answering back to show you that I love you. The song gets broken down to a little guitar figure in the middle and gets built back up. It's genius.

And look at that happy little kid in the middle of the picture! What could go wrong?

Oh, yeah, I forgot for a second. Sorry.

American Squirm by Nick Lowe. Just to show that hook building is not an art only practiced by American blacks, I include American Squirm on this list. While the tip-top of my favorite modern songwriters' list are Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, I have immense respect for Nick Lowe. When I hear a song by Waits or Costello, I think "I could never have written that." When I hear a Nick Lowe tune, I often think, "I could have written that, but Nick beat me to it." This sumbitch beat me to a whole passel of great songs.

Nick's song What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding was on the soundtrack album for that Whitney Houston-Kevin Costner movie The Bodyguard. Nick made a boatload of money for songwriting credits, and used it to get out of his big record company contract and find a little label who will let him record the songs he wants to record. Good on ya, Nick!

Raspberry Beret by Prince. While I don't own as many Prince albums as I own Elvis Costello or Tom Waits albums, I am not blind to the fact that Prince is one amazing songwriter. Lots of people have recorded his stuff. Before The Wonders of Science had enough original material to play a whole set, we sang Please Please Me by The Beatles, Burning Airlines Give You So Much More by Brian Eno and When You Were Mine by Prince.

Like many Prince songs, this one is about meeting a cute girl and having sex with her. Like many Prince songs, every instruments' part is brilliantly well thought out. What puts Raspberry Beret over the top for me are these rhymes at the beginning of the song that explain racism perfectly without banging you over the head.

I was working part time in a five-and-dime
My boss was Mr. McGee
He told me several times that he didn't like my kind
'Cause I was a bit 2 leisurely

And then Prince sees the girl and they go off somewhere and have sex. He hasn't forgotten what's important.

Strangers When We Meet by David Bowie. I put in this picture of the more mature Bowie because Strangers When We Meet is from one of the albums he recorded in the nineties, Outside. He takes a few well known hooks from other places, inlcuding the bass line figure from Gimme Some Lovin' and mixes it with the bass from Time is Tight, slows it down and puts it all into this great song about the regret and eventual relief of a jilted lover thinking back on an affair gone bad. I like the album very much, but it isn't all pop; there's a lot of weird experimental stuff and spoken word mixes. He ends this unusual story telling mix with this song, which stands very well on its own.

Bowie had a string of albums that I didn't find very interesting in the 1980's, but he did a great job of reinventing himself once again. Also, my sister Jenny was once at a dinner party with him and said he was a lovely person with excellent conversational skills. I'm happy to hear this.

Let Down by Radiohead. This is another great piece of work in the recording studio, a perfectly crafted collection of parts. It's a song about waiting in an airport lounge, fantasizing about growing wings and being able to fly without all the mundane crap. There's also a part of the fantasy about a plane crash. The lyrics are unusual for a perfect pop song, I'll grant you, but I promise it still belongs on the list.

Well, I have been a Chatty Cathy today, haven't I?


Karla said...

Very cool info about Where or When. It's one of my favorite songs to sing. It's like buttah on the throat!

happy weekend!

FranIAm said...

Oh Matt- I love my husband but I think I love you too! (now let's nto forget that whole irony thing i also love, 'kay?) Perfect post, perfect songs - chatty Cathy perfect!