Lately I’ve been thinking about that rare moment of genius and beauty in a song. There is something either delightful or tragically unexpected in its delivery, and it evokes an intense emotional response. I’ve decided to compile a list of a 5 songs I believe achieve that level of genius and/or beauty in their own unique way. I’m not going to be pretentious and analyze them. Instead, I’ll just give you the songs and my random thoughts on them:
“Hey Jude” by The Beatles
“Hey Jude” is my earliest memory of music. I remember being three years old and sitting on the floor in my family’s house in Bristol, CT. My dad asked if we wanted to hear my mom’s “song,” and he pulled out a record with a big green apple on the label. The needle was placed on the record, and I was instantly mesmerized. When the song climaxes with the “na na nas,” I remember hoping the song wouldn’t end any time soon. I asked my dad if we could listen to it again. McCartney’s melody is magical.
When I think of “When Doves Cry,” my mind immediately goes to the opening – the wild guitar virtuoso accompanied by smooth drum beats; 10 seconds in and the song is already dripping in sexuality. In my mind, I can still see the video: the double doors open, and Prince is rocking the scarf in the bathtub. See, all due respect to JT, Prince doesn’t even need to utter a lyric to bring the sexy. When I talk about geniuses in music, I’m talking about people whose minds are operating in a place you or I cannot comprehend. They can see and hear things in a way that I cannot. Not only can they envision on a grander scale, they can actually execute the vision. Where we dream of stylized images, they dream of the veins in each leaf on a tree. Long story short? I would love to vacation in Prince’s brain when he created the music for “Purple Rain.”
“The Flat Earth” by Thomas Dolby
While “When Doves Cry” has surprisingly little instrumentation, “The Flat Earth” is conversely rich in texture. It’s loaded with samples, keyboards, and backing vocals. Most songs are portraits; “The Flat Earth” is a landscape. It is a Miyazaki landscape, animated and fluid, where every detail is carefully drawn regardless of whether or not the audience will even notice. I chose this particular link because I think it’s really cool watching Dolby reconstruct the song live. You don’t get to hear the harmonies of the original recording, but I still really like this version.
“Lover, You Should Have Come Over” by Jeff Buckley
When I close my eyes and listen to this song, I think of when I was 19 and lying on the cold tiled floor of my dorm room. It was the moment after I cried as hard as I ever cried. The choking and sobbing stopped, and I silently stared up at the fluorescent lights above me. Depression tore me one way, anxiety tore me the other, and I was left with nothing to tie my tiny shred of hope to. I didn’t listen to Jeff Buckley until long after that moment, but somehow, this song places its fingers over that memory and gently tugs it out from under the rafters. Even though the song is about his lover, the loneliness in the song feels like something no one person could possibly cure.
“A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
It amazes me to think how many pop classics Sam Cooke wrote in such a short time – “You Send Me” was released in 1957, and he died in 1964 at the age of 33. In only 7 years he had 29 top-40 hits. The album “Ain’t That Good News” was the last album released in his lifetime, and contains some of my favorite songs of his – the title track (which has a great banjo part), “Meet Me at Mary’s Place,” “Good Times,” “Another Saturday Night,” and this song.
When I was in high school, my music teacher knew I was a fan of Sam Cooke, and let me borrow the CD “Sam Cooke: The Man and His Music.” There were a number of songs I never heard before, including “A Change is Gonna Come,” which closed the album. His first three notes gave me chills, and I immediately knew I was listening to something extraordinary. So much of Sam Cooke’s music is pleasant and innocent. On the “Ain’t That Good News” album, and on this song in particular, there is an incredible honesty and soulfulness in both his voice and his lyrics.
One more thing about this song – I feel it is one of those songs that 99.999% of the population should not even try to cover. When I hear someone cover it, I typically get Bad Cover Rage. At one point in college, I was in the middle of a pleasant make-out session with a boyfriend and the Roger Clinton version of this song came on the radio. I tore away from my boyfriend mid-kiss, and exclaimed, “what the f— is this!?!”
“But…it’s just awful! Who the hell does he think he is?”
“Let it go…”
“He has no right to sing this!”
Needless to say, Roger Clinton killed the mood, and to this day I have not forgiven En Vogue for their participation in that atrocity.
On Facebook, I asked people to name a few songs that blew their mind. Here’s what they came up with:
“Linger” The Cranberries
“First of the Month” Bone Thugs N Harmony
“Wuthering Heights” Kate Bush
“Holiday in Cambodia” The Dead Kennedys
“Signs” Five Man Electrical Band
“Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” Elton John
“Eternity Road” Moody Blues
“Silence & I” Alan Parsons
“Just What I Needed” The Cars
“Forever Lost” God is An Astronaut
What about you? What songs blew your mind?