This list mostly comprises songs that I never get tired of listening to. In some cases I’ve had to choose a single song to represent an artist or genre. While this list doesn’t fully reflect the range of music I enjoy listening to (I’m no muso, by any means, I just like a slightly eccentric list of artists) I’m happy that it includes Leonard Cohen alongside a-ha, Patti Smith with John Barry, Neil Diamond and Primal Scream.
Gloria (Patti Smith)
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine ….”
I was introduced to Patti Smith via U2’s cover of Dancing Barefoot (which would have been on this list had it been on Spotify). I can’t claim to be a huge fan – I find vast swathes of her music tedious and borderline unlistenable – but Gloria is one song that grabbed me from the outset and has never really let go. Some of the reason for this is that it’s, in part, a cover – which is almost always a winner for me. It comprises two distinct songs, which is something else I’m usually a sucker for (c.f. Scenes From An Italian Restaurant by Billy Joel). Finally, it starts off so, so softly and then builds to a thundering, enraged critical mass.
I like the original, but I’ve specifically chosen this live version (from the 20th Anniversary release of Horses) because it actually manages to take the original, already intensely powerful track and turn it up to 11. The first time I played this at home my four-year-old son was listening in and by the time it finished he was running and bouncing around the room, completely energized by the song. The fact that it can have this sort of impact means I love it even more.
Better Things (Splendid)
“I’ve got bigger things to lie about than you …”
I discovered Splendid through Buffy The Vampire Slayer (which, incidentally, is also how I discovered my wife, but that’s a whooole different story). Anyway, Buffy proved a surprisingly good source for independent, undiscovered and often very cool music. As soon as I’d heard a few Splendid tracks I decided I had to get the album. Unfortunately the album was only released in Australia (since record company execs don’t actually know anything about music) but, fortunately, it wasn’t long before I happened to end up in Australia (which, appropriately enough, was entirely because of my wife and, therefore, entirely because of Buffy The Vampire Slayer – again: different story).
So, every time we saw a record store I’d go and look for this Splendid album. Couldn’t find it! Eventually, of all places, I picked it up in a tiny record store in a tiny shopping mall in Kalamunda. I think it probably went on constant repeat for several months after that and, while most of the songs on the album are great, it was always Better Things that we came back to if we needed a quick fix of Splendid.
I considered including Splendid’s beautiful cover of Love And Other Bruises on this list, but it’s not on Spotify. In any case, Better Things earns its place here because it always takes me back to just getting married and being in Perth for the first time. It’s no exaggeration to say it harks back to a time when my life completely and irrevocably changed (for the better).
Of course, I like the song on its own merits as well (I could never quite understand how no one had grabbed it and made a huge hit out of it) – it’s beautifully sung, very bittersweet, and has a great build up from the opening to the closing notes.
I’ve Been Losing You (a-ha)
“Yet I did it all so coldly, almost slowly … “
This song doesn’t really have any special meaning for me. It’s true I was sufficiently into a-ha to buy their first album when it came out, and that was around the time that I started doing all the fun things like going out with girls and drinking, so there’s doubtless an element of nostalgia to this one.
However, it was years later that I discovered this particular mix, thanks to the combined forces of a friend at a former job and Napster. I like the original song, naturally, but this version gives the guitar some extra prominence in the intro which I find irresistible. It’s not only a brilliantly crafted, perhaps slightly unusual pop song; it’s not only got Morten Harket’s trademark operatic vocals (I’m a sucker for operatic vocals); but it also hints at something really dark and violent which gives me a whole extra layer of enjoyment when listening to it.
The One I Love (R.E.M.)
It was Orange Crush that really got me into R.E.M. but somehow it’s this song that made it onto my 20. Like Orange Crush it’s got an immortal guitar hook, it’s got particularly striking vocals from Michael Stipe and the fact that it’s actually an anti-love song is an added bonus.
My memory’s a bit fuzzy on this, but I have vague impression of hearing it for the first time and thinking something like: “OMG there’s music like this out there?!? What is it? I must have it!” To paraphrase Obi Wan: I’d just taken my first steps into a larger world.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (John Barry)
Back in England I used to work for Our Price (essentially the UK equivalent of Sanity). One of our favourite albums to listen in the shop to was a collection of all the James Bond theme songs. Having never seen OHMSS I’d never heard that particular theme before and now I think it’s actually better than the regular James Bond theme.
Part of the reason it’s here is because I love instrumental tracks and I wanted to ensure at least one was included, but it’s also here because every time I hear it I get the almost irresistible urge to start making ridiculous secret agent style moves, and you just can’t ignore a song that compels you to make an ass of yourself whenever you hear it
Fortunate Son (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
“Some folks are born silver spoon in hand – Lord, don’t they help themselves…”
This is one of those songs that I’ve liked for a long, long time but never really thought about much. Then the Iraq war happened and this song (written abut the Vietnam war) suddenly became massively relevant again. In fact, I listen to it today and it seems like nothing has changed. It’s lucky that, for a song that reminds me of so much that’s wrong with this world, it rocks so hard you just never want to stop listening.
Cracklin’ Rosie (Neil Diamond)
“Have me a time with a poor man’s lady …”
My Dad used to listen to Neil Diamond a lot when I was growing up and, like Billy Joel (another near miss from this list), the music kinda stuck with me. I rediscovered Neil around my late teens/early twenties and have regularly dipped into his catalogue ever since (seeing Will Ferrell’s outstanding Neil Diamond Storytellers sketch some years back only made me enjoy the music more).
I remember always being a bit put out that Neil Diamond would get filed in the Easy Listening section back in UK record shops. Nowadays he’s moved out of that ‘uncool’ area into the ‘beyond-cool’ stature that a lot of retro artists dwell in – the incredible reception his 2008 Glastonbury set received confirms that.
There are a bunch of Neil Diamond songs I could have included, but Cracklin’ Rosie is and always will be his foot-tappin’ greatest signature tune. I have a fondness for songs that are upbeat in tune, but have somewhat downbeat elements in the lyrics, as well as songs from popular artists that hark back to (possibly mythical) harder times – as far as I know Cracklin’ Rosie is an ode to getting absolutely hammered on cheap bourbon, and you don’t get much more down and dirty than that.
Ashes To Ashes (David Bowie)
“I’m happy, hope you’re happy too …”
I probably first discovered David Bowie through Top Of The Pops – I certainly have vivid memories of watching the Ashes To Ashes video when it first came out (and I would have been about 9 then). I feel like I’ve been discovering Bowie music all my life; point in case – I only listened to Station To Station for the first time last year (I now love that song so much it almost made it onto this list) but Ashes to Ashes must surely be one of the first Bowie songs that I remember from when it was brand new and in the charts.
This is one of those songs where I could happily listen to an instrumental version – that deranged, distorted intro riff gives me chills every time. However, this is Bowie, and if you’re not listening to the words you’re getting less than half the song. This one is surreal, haunting, poetic … falsetto. Just like some of the other songs in this list, it’s a tense mix of sometimes contradictory elements that, for me, means it never, ever gets boring.
Head Over Heels (Tears For Fears)
This is simple: Donnie Darko. Also, this song brings back similar memories to Better Things (above).
I Was Wrong (Sisters Of Mercy)
“In a bar that’s always closing …”
I went through a bit of a goth phase back when I was working in Our Price, listening to All About Eve (who are more folk than goth), The Mission (who were and always will be a little bit shit) and Sisters Of Mercy (who apparently prefer to disassociate themselves from the whole goth thing anyway).
I like this song mostly because it’s simple yet dark, gentle yet nihilist, and doesn’t really sound like the sort of thing you’d expect from Sisters Of Mercy.
Everybody Knows (Leonard Cohen)
“Everybody knows the good guys lost…”
My first proper introduction to Leonard Cohen was in an awesome film called Exotica, which used this song for a striptease routine. Yeah, they really did that.
I went out and bought I’m Your Man pretty soon after and found at least four songs on there that could be candidates for this list. I won’t say I tirelessly explored every word that Cohen’s ever written, but I was enough of a fan to pay to see him when he came to Perth a few years back and, boy, am I glad I paid those bucks! (That said, this is one of the few songs where I actively prefer the studio version to any live recordings).
Kelly Watch The Stars (Moog Cookbook Remix / Air)
I really like the original version of this song, but this Moog Cookbook remix will instantly put a skip in my step – it’s one of the funnest songs I know (and, yes, funnest is totally the word I’m sticking with). I have a fondness for cheesy listening music (sound samplers from the seventies, etc) and this also fits that bill.
Karma Police (Radiohead)
I worked in Our Price when Radiohead were really starting to hit. I had a really good friend who was a huge Radiohead fan. I then married someone who is also a huge Radiohead fan (no, not the same person). Despite all that it was only a few years ago that I really started paying Radiohead any attention, and I think this is one of the songs that helped kick that off (as well as Just).
Don’t You (Forget About Me) (Simple Minds)
This is my guilty pleasure, I can’t deny it: I love this song and will probably never ever get tired of hearing it. I’ve specifically chosen the extended version for my list because it has a similar (yet still not identical) opening to the version that plays at the start of The Breakfast Club, which anyone growing up during the 1980s is contractually obliged to have as one of their favorite films.
Come Together (Primal Scream)
One of the best things about working somewhere like Our Price is that it massively broadened the range of music I listened to. I know Come Together was a reasonably big hit for Primal Scream, so it’s unlikely I’d have missed it, but this track heralds from a time where indie music was becoming something really exciting in the UK. I used to have a handful of 12″ singles that I would play on constant repeat (The Storm by World Of Twist is another) and remember just really, really starting to enjoy an ever increasing set of songs, artists and genres.
I hadn’t actually listened to this track for years until I rediscovered it more or less by accident the other week. For that reason I debated whether or not it belonged on my list, but after hearing it again I just wanted to keep playing it over and over. This track is a great listen, but it also represents a significant period of my life, musically, and stands in for that indie/dance/psychedelia genre that’s otherwise not really represented on this list.
Born Of Frustration (James)
“Show me the movie of who you are and where you’re from …”
I’m not a big James fan but I’ve been hooked on this song ever since it came out (I had it on 7″!). I’m not sure what it’s all about, but in recent years I’ve started to appreciate the lyrics as much as the composition.
All Of My Heart (ABC)
ABC’s first album, The Lexicon of Love, was one of the very first albums I owned but I only had it because I liked Poison Arrow (a song that my son really likes now). It was yeahs and years later before I ever gave the album a proper listen and it’s now one of my favorites – a perfect slice of lush, stylish pop. I really have no idea when, where or how this song grabbed me but I could listen to it endlessly.
In The Meadow (All About Eve)
All About Eve were probably one of my favorite bands for a year or two (beloved enough that I had much fun trawling record fairs so I could collect as many of their 12″s as I could afford). In truth I think the song December, from their second album, is a better song – and it also closes with an incredible, iconic guitar solo. However, this one gets my vote because it feels so much darker: it always gives me the image of black, threatening clouds gathering on the horizon – then you get hit with the blazing, apocalyptic guitar solo that wraps up this track.
The Kick Inside (Kate Bush)
‘Oh, by the time you read this …”
Looking back I must have been a fan of Kate Bush for almost as long as I’ve been listening to music. I like almost all of her work, but it’s probably her first album that I would take if I had to choose only one. I was leaning towards Them Heavy People for a while, but I opted for this because I think it’s possibly the most beautiful song Kate Bush has written (more so that This Woman’s Work).
Once again it fits that bill of sounding lovely, but being incredibly dark and desperately, desperately sad: the song (apparently) is about a girl who commits suicide after an incestuous relationship with her brother results in a pregnancy.
And the way the song just stops …
Torch (extended) (Soft Cell)
“I wanted to grab you and kiss you but I thought you’d hit me…
… too right, baby!”
This was a very late addition to the list – in fact, I’d completed my list when my wife reminded about this one and I hurriedly went and placed it at the end. I had every intention of placing it elsewhere in the order (and having my list conclude with Kate Bush), but the way it starts up after The Kick Inside just seemed too perfect.
I got into Soft Cell during my Our Price years and this song, with its flugelhorn hook, always jumped out at me whenever. I particularly like the extended mix (more so than the single mix) because of the alternate intro (which tantalisingly withholds the main riff for a verse or two) and the bizarrely flat singing from Cindi Ecstasy, which contrasts perfectly with Marc Almond’s especially powerful delivery. If you’ve read my notes for Come Together above, this is another one of those 12″ singles that I used to play on constant repeat. (And here’s an interesting article I stumbled across all about the recording of the song.)
It’s very obvious that there’s not much in the way of recent music in this list. That’s not because there’s no recent music that I like, I think it’s simply to do with timing. It’s no secret that as you get older you tend to get set in your ways – especially if you have a life that’s as happy as satisfying as mine (I have no overriding need to search for new and shiny experiences – I don’t ignore them when they come along, but I don’t always seek them). This inevitably means that the fundamental changes in life happen less and less often as you make your way through the whole shebang.
For most of us music is linked to key, formative moments in our lives – those fundamental changes, or turning points. While the songs above are not always connected to specific memories, most represent various phases in my life: times when I was discovering music, starting something new, or just learning how to grow up (work in progress). Several of the songs are not ones I liked when they were first around, but ones that I learned to love much, much later – arguably for reasons of nostalgia.
It’d be interesting to try rebuilding this list in a few more years’ time – to see what stays, what drops off, and whether any more recent music manages to earn its place in there…
(FYI I planned to do a list of near misses, but since this is so long already I’ll do that as a separate post!)