Every few years I like to remind myself of certain songs that I love; either because they hold personal meaning for me, they’ve been in my life forever, I simply cannot imagine life without them, or for all of the aforementioned reasons. For someone who loves music it is incredibly difficult, gut-wrenching and heartbreaking to place certain gems of songs over others in a list that is akin to a parent choosing their favourite child. But it’s been a while since I’ve done this, so here we go – to make it even more difficult, I’m going to do this in a particular order:
20. The Rolling Stones – You Can’t Always Get What You Want
This was the first song I ever sang alone while doing karaoke; I was terrified and one of my friends said to me, “Don’t you hate how you can be so terrified, about something that really doesn’t matter at all?” After singing the song, it became an instant staple in my life; at the time, I was dealing with this immense, heavy heartbreak and the upbeat melody which allowed me to prove something to someone, and the wry lyrics just all made sense in just eight drunken minutes.
19. Cat Stevens – Trouble
I was first introduced to “Trouble” because of a rather beautiful Elliott Smith cover of the song. However, the original is just as wavering and defenseless. It is an ode to Trouble as a disturbing and powerful force and Stevens asks when it will all just stop. At the most restless and uncertain times of my life, this song was my only comfort.
18. The Kinks – Strangers
There are a whole ton of great, worthy covers of this song but of course it’s the original that trumps them all. “Strangers” is one of Dave Davies’ best songs; it is an anthem of sorts, of relationships with people and with one’s coming-of-age self and it’s a tale told with a jaded understanding of the world and emphasizes a need to connect. The Kinks have a lot of songs – a lot of them quite odd ‘romances’ or on-the-road adventure stories – but this one is a straightforward ode. It was never a single but its resonance remains strong as ever.
17. Ben Folds – The Luckiest
What I’ve always loved about Ben Folds is how atypical and off-the-wall his lyrics are; even the most conventional tales of love and breakups are stories told in such a way that they are entirely unique, and “The Luckiest” is one of those songs. A simple piano ballad about everlasting love becomes a quirky personal story about wondering how everything would be different if two soul mates met at different times of their lives, observing everlasting love in an old couple who die one right after the other, and seeing your lover’s recognizable eyes in a crowd of strangers. Sure, it’s a tale of love like any other tale of love told in song, but it tells its love in little distinctive details.
16. David Gray – Foundling
To me, ‘greatness’ is what a song embodies, not what it is in the grand scheme of things. Greatness can be a grand song like “Black Dog” or “Gimme Shelter” but it can speak in whispers and even for that small handful of people who know the song, it can forebode and mean greatness, even to that small handful of people. “Foundling” is a song that has only been released for public consumption in the last couple of years. It is on a record of the same name, of B-sides – leftovers, essentially – from an official release that preceded it. It is a monstrous, soulful, mythic song that defines ‘greatness’ even though it remains tucked away in a rabbit hole of popular music.
15. The Beatles – Cry Baby, Cry
A record that spawned no number 1 singles that is also probably THE greatest experimental rock record of all time – that paved that way for generations of art-rockers in ensuing generations – also holds, on Disc 2, my absolute favourite Beatles song, the eerie narrative lullaby known as “Cry Baby Cry”; there is a moment in this song when something small and melodic breaks into a pounding rock epic. It’s one of the greatest and most appealing music surprises there is.
14. Ryan Adams – English Girls, Approximately
I’ve often said that “Love is Hell” is my favourite record of all time and this is absolutely the case; the interesting thing about “Love is Hell” though is that most of the songs don’t work without the other tracks on the album backing them up. “English Girls”, the folkiest song on the record, is one of few exceptions to the rule. It is a cutting, bitter, angry breakup song that, in its late bridge, turns suddenly into a wailing burst of pathos when Adams sings: “Just three words, my love: you meant everything.”
13. Elliott Smith – Waltz #2
Waltz #2 is one of the saddest songs I know, but it has this darkly bouncy melody that’s yes, a ‘waltz’ but also a sort of fight song. It’s impressive to me that even though ‘XO’ wasn’t crafted when Smith was entering his last of last days, it demonstrates that his death, mysterious or not, was imminent (“I’m here today, expected to stay on and on and on/but I’m tired”) and based on a cause-and-effect relationship between him and everyone and everything that failed him.
12. Nick Drake – Pink Moon
Clocking in at just a couple of minutes, this song has more ominous magic and finger-picking- good guitar than almost any song I’ve ever known. Nick Drake is one of those enchanted figures – tragic, forever young, and although he was on no one’s radar until very recently, he is a voice of something or somewhere long, long-lost.
11. Wilco – Jesus, Etc.
If you’re unfamiliar with Wilco, chances are, this is probably the one song of theirs that you know. Perhaps because of its odd title, its iconic viol-intro, and that it’s made so many ‘Best Songs Ever’ lists, it’s difficult to pinpoint where you first heard of “Jesus, Etc.” Or maybe it was on a mix tape from a friend. In any case, the reason for its accolades is just. Jeff Tweedy seems to have a knack for bringing religious iconography down to a human level and saying a line like, “Jesus don’t cry/you can rely on me honey” does just that, albeit in an odd, sad and life-affirming song.
10. Coldplay – Yellow
The first time I (or anyone else, I guess) heard of Coldplay, it was this song I knew first. I have that image of a very young, squirrely Chris Martin walking along a rainy beach singing this song emblazoned into my memory forever. “Yellow” was one of my first-ever favourite songs that took me from that little girl boy band-crazy phase, into the realm of slightly more sophisticated pop/rock. And in my humble opinion, it is one of the most beautiful songs ever to grace a chart’s presence.
9. The Eagles – Desperado
I don’t like Don Henley very much at all; in fact, I don’t like The Eagles very much at all. But the way this song is sung; with such hefty, vulnerable heartbreak; and that gorgeous piano intro – is, and always will be, a priceless and poignant ode to how it feels loveless and wandering the world because it’s you that won’t let other people in.
8. Train – Drops of Jupiter
Train gets such a bad rap, and I get it; they are about as bad as ‘dad rock’ gets. They are M.O.R. defined and the very antithesis of anything creatively alternative, outside the box, or on the fringes of required soccer mom listening. I get it, okay? And I don’t really care what people think of them. “Drops of Jupiter” is the radio ballad to end ALL radio ballads; 1 part bizarre to 3 parts romantic-verging-on-ridiculous, it carries magic from that lovely piano riff, all the way to the elaborate string-infused outtro. The impassioned way in which Monahan sings in the bridge: “Can you imagine no first dance, freeze dried romance, five-hour phone conversation, the best soy latte that you ever had . . . and me” is enough to fool me into believing that ludicrous, manic love exists, and I’ll find it.
7. Josh Ritter – Girl in the War
It has been said by many critics that Josh Ritter is one of this generation’s greatest songwriters and I subscribe to this whole-heartedly. His opus, “The Animal Years” which is, for the most part, out of print and not sold in stores as sad as that is, features this song which represents a singer/songwriter in the right place at the right time creatively and showcases a cheeky and dry sense of humour, and a profound inner knowledge and sensitivity to the way a folk song is supposed to sound without even trying to be a ‘folk song’.
6. Ryan Adams – Karina
A very little-known (except among other huge Ryan Adams fans) unreleased tinny B-side indeed makes my list of my twenty favourite songs of all time. Simple in arrangement, lyrics and melody, this song says so much with just bare bones and a rousing chorus. “If it were easy/you wouldn’t need me.” Ain’t that the truth.
5. Joni Mitchell – A Case of You
One of the reasons I like music – especially music written at another point in history when I wasn’t even born – is because it makes me nostalgic for something I’ve never even been a part of. This song is sort of the epitome of that, and the reason I love it is because even though I wasn’t displaced and yearning for someone or something, the line “I drew a map of Canada – Oh, Canada – with your face sketched on it twice” tells me, ‘this is what it was like; this is what it is like.’
4. Wilco – Theologians
Tweedy is well-known for indecipherable, off-the-wall lyrics; “I’m a notion/I’m all emotion/I’m a cherry ghost” is a line in this song that is indeed baffling. And yet, I relate to it so, so deeply and I don’t even know why. And this is the magic of Wilco and more specifically, the electrifying soulful depth of “Theologians”.
3. Elliott Smith – Twilight
“Haven’t laughed this hard in a long time/Better stop now before I start crying”… has there ever been an artist so seemingly wrapped up in so much misery who could turn it into something so beautiful? Reading Autumn DeWilde’s stunning book about Smith, the man himself was a joker apparently, who loved basketball and had a joyful presence. Maybe he left it all on the floor in his music. I don’t know if I’ve ever been moved by a song as much as I was moved by “Twilight.” It’s the kind of song I can remember really hearing for the first time, forcing everything, good and bad, to be illuminated.
2. Neil Young – On the Beach
It wasn’t until I heard the record On the Beach that I fully grasped Neil Young as an artist. The whole record is a brooding, heavy-handed piece of Gothic art – sparse, spaced out, solitary and sinister. No song embodies the mood of the record like the title track; Young sings the lines, “I went to the radio interview/and ended up alone at the microphone” as if he’s lying on his death bed.
1. Ryan Adams – When the Stars Go Blue
Despite countless cover versions by everyone ranging from Whats-his-Name who won World Idol to Bono and the Corrs, this song for me has never lost its meaning. I once described it as a modern-day Big Yellow Taxi; meaning, it is a modern-day classic, spurring countless covers, probably because of the flawlessly romantic lyrics combined with a simple, memorable melody; the song is practically perfect in every way. I’ve heard it probably THOUSANDS of times by now but it means just as much to me now as it did the very first time.