Beach Boys, “You Still Believe in Me” — from Pet Sounds (1966)
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I just had a conversation about this album, and this song, a few days ago, the gist being that I can understand why people dismiss a lot of what the Beach Boys did before and after Pet Sounds…but if you can’t understand what makes this group of songs so great, then you and I might as well live in separate universes. I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite from Pet Sounds, but if it was a matter of life or death, I think it might be “You Still Believe In Me.” There’s something a little subversive about the way it starts — the gently undulating vocal melody, and lyrics about breaking up to make up, didn’t represent a significant leap for the group. But then Brian Wilson comes right out and says “I wanna cry,” and takes his keening falsetto on a solo run all the way to the ceiling of heaven and back. It’s no big deal today, but that was a pretty bold statement for a putative rocker in ‘66; for better or worse, Wilson helped usher in a new, more articulate wave of pop sensitivity. I’ve listened to this song countless times, but when the whole group comes back in at 1:57, I still get chills. (download)

Tears for Fears, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” — from Songs from the Big Chair (1985)
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You know, it isn’t like I’m a big Tears for Fears fan. I doubt I could listen to any TFF album front-to-back without falling asleep, except for maybe Elemental, which doesn’t really count. They’re singles artists, ideally suited to “hits” compilations; though a lot of what they do is thematically constructed, you don’t need to know it to enjoy the songs: “Head Over Heels,” also from Big Chair, was supposed to be part of a suite-ish thing, but I thnk it holds up better on its own.

Nothing they ever do will be better than “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Musically, it’s pretty bare-boned; just a handful of chords repeating throughout the song, framed by a two-fingered bass line and a drumbeat the Energizer bunny could appreciate. But it works. The way the guitars ping-pong over the beat, and the way the synths hover in the background, helps create a mood both dreamy and slightly menacing — a mood perfect for the slightly silly (and yet disturbingly prescient) lyrics. The overall effect is of a song that’s somehow floating and marching at the same time. Pretty fucking cool. Plus, it has two guitar solos. Here’s the studio version (download)and, for good measure, a live acoustic performance (download).

Lyle Lovett, “Nobody Knows Me” — from Lyle Lovett and His Large Band (1989)
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“I like cream in my coffee, and I like to sleep late on Sundays, and nobody knows me like my baby.” Seems like a strange way to begin a song about the depth (and depths) of love, but it makes perfect sense. Lovett’s protagonist is as matter-of-fact about his breakfast (”I like eggs over easy with flour tortillas”) as he is about the object of his affection. The song’s gently rolling cadence and quiet underpinnings — crystalline piano, a tick-tocking acoustic guitar, a mournful violin — set the template for every gorgeous ballad to come out of Austin for the next hundred years.

But it isn’t a lovely ballad, not really; as Lovett’s narrator reveals halfway through, knowing him like nobody else isn’t always enough (or everything it’s cracked up to be). “Nobody knows me like my baby,” he says, “But it was a dream made to order, south of the border.”

It was a decision that might have been as simple as breakfast: “She cried, man, ‘How could you do it?’…and I swore that there weren’t nothin’ to it, but nobody knows me like my baby.”

He’d already established himself as an artist you couldn’t pigeonhole, though he was still being referred to as a country singer. But I think “Nobody Knows Me,” more than maybe any of his earlier stuff, shows that Lovett, as a songwriter, had more in common with Randy Newman than Johnny Cash. But where Newman has always struggled with his limitations as a vocalist, Lovett is gifted with an instrument both powerful and unusual. Listen to the way he communicates weary regret here: There’s a lifetime of mistakes packed into his delivery, but it’s all in what you don’t hear. I’d compare it with Lowell George’s “20 Million Things” — he makes you believe he’s lived every foolish mistake he’s singing about, and makes it sound pretty damn cool in the bargain. (download)

Van Morrison, “Into the Mystic” — from Moondance (1970)
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I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love this song, so I’m tempted to cross it off the list, but that’s silly; of course everyone loves it. It’s a great fucking song. Nominally, it’s a sea shanty, but Morrison wasn’t overly concerned with the lyrics, and you shouldn’t be either — they exist mainly to help frame the mood. And what a mood it is: I think “Into the Mystic” is one of the most gloriously evocative songs of the rock era. Morrison was holed up in upstate New York and in love with Janet Planet, and it suited him — if pastoral, bucolic love has a sound, this is it. The guitars sound like warm sunlight; the piano is a breeze; the strings and horns are a mad rush of emotion. Goddammit, this is a perfect song.

Overused? Certainly. Abused? You bet. I don’t think I’m the only one who winced when they heard The Wallflowers’ inept cover a few years ago. But none of that has dulled the song’s beauty. (download)

Billy Joel, “The Night is Still Young” — from Greatest Hits Vols. I & II (1985)
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I may catch hell from Carl at Cahl’s Jukebox for including this, but I can take it. You’ll be reading a full-fledged Complete Idiot’s Guide to Billy Joel in this space in a week or two, and if that makes you roll your eyes or believe every bad thing you’ve ever suspected about my taste in music, so be it; he’s been responsible for his share of crap, but shit, so’s Dylan. When he wasn’t too worried about being clever to be effective, Joel managed to scale some pretty impressive heights for a pint-sized working-class schmuck from Long Island, and I believe “The Night Is Still Young” to be among the highest.

More than perhaps any other songwriter, Joel, at his best, managed to fuse the eclectic optimism of the Brill Building with the desperate ennui of the Baby Boomer generation. Though he had an annoying tendency to rely on the pastiche to get his message across, he was capable of doing so on his own. Greatest Hits Vols. I & II included two new songs, “The Night Is Still Young” and the grating, gimmicky “You’re Only Human (Second Wind).” The latter was the big hit single, naturally, while “Young” has gone on to be one of the lesser-known entries in Joel’s catalog, which is a shame; it seemed to point the way toward a new direction for his music. Faced with middle age, a new marriage, and fatherhood, he reached down and came up with that rarest of commodities: A rock song that acknowledges youth’s ephemerality, reaches open-handed for commitment, and manages to be effective at both. It’s actually pretty stirring stuff, and if he didn’t quite live up to its promise with what came after, I suppose what really matters is that he made that promise in the first place. (download)

Bob James & David Sanborn, “Since I Fell For You” (featuring Al Jarreau) — from Double Vision (1986)
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I imagine there are probably thousands of serious jazz musicians who would like to have Bob James silenced, and who despise David Sanborn for the way he lazily exploited his talent in the ’70s and ’80s, and I don’t disagree; those recordings mostly run the gamut from dull to revolting. Similarly, Jarreau has been little more than a smooth jazz/vocal pop punchline since the late ’80s. And “Since I Fell For You”? The hoary old Buddy Johnson standard that’s been covered by everyone from Cannonball Adderly to Michael frigging Bolton? Surely this wasn’t necessary.

Maybe not. But it works. Matter of fact, Double Vision as a whole pretty much represents the acme standard of this type of jazz. Is it Coltrane? Of course not. But James’ somnolescent arrangements are pleasantly offset by Sanborn, who — for possibly the only time in the entire decade — played with a little fire under his belt. It’s mood music with a purpose, and it’s almost enough to make you think that smooth jazz as a genre has any reason for being. They sound like they’re having fun.

Especially on “Since I Fell For You.” Mock Jarreau if you will, but he fucking nails this; he goes from making love to the song to all-out wailing on it, and then even treats us to a little of his trademark scatting on the fadeout. A person could be forgiven for thinking Jarreau wrote the song himself, and for a chestnut this gold-plated, that’s high praise.

Sure, James’ synth strings evoke unpleasant memories of Eddy Arnold, but when Jarreau snaps “Well, play this!” and Sanborn peels off his glorious solo, and Jarreau comes back with “And now I’m/Black and blue/Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiince I fell for you” — well. Maybe this is dentist’s office music when all’s said and done, but it’s almost good enough to make going to the dentist sound like fun. (download)

The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” — from Who’s Next (1971)
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Like “Into the Mystic,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is such a widely acknowledged classic that I don’t need to say much about it, or probably even put it up for download — surely everyone has it by now. It’s the textbook definition of a rock anthem; really, it’s about the disillusionment felt by Pete Townshend’s generation after the failure of ‘flower power’, but the sentiments are expressed so universally that it almost doesn’t matter what inspired him. This is the gist, and anyone can identify with it: “Yeah, you got me. I fucked up. I was wrong. But the hell with it, and the hell with you. Here I come again. No matter what.” Daltrey’s singing “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” but his resignation is tempered by determination and rage. What could possibly be more rock & roll?

I’ll tell you what: that scream at 7:42. As good as the rest of the song is, that’s the moment I’m waiting for whenever I hear “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (and it seems like I’m always fooled by that little tease around 4:30). That howl should send righteous shockwaves of pure joy through anybody with a soul. That’s rock & roll right there: Promise, fulfillment, alpha, omega. Turn up the volume and say goodnight. (download)

The Doobie Brothers, “What A Fool Believes” — from Minute By Minute (1978)
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I don’t know anyone who agrees with me about this song’s greatness, and I’ve grown accustomed to taking flak for it, so hit me with your best shot; I don’t care. At the end of the day, “What A Fool Believes” is a great song. It’s really more of a Michael McDonald song than anything a Doobie Brothers fan would want to admit to owning, and that probably has a lot to do with its stepchild status — that, and the fact that you can’t hear the opening notes without imagining hairy-chested, gold-chained swingers snorting lines in the fern-bedecked bathroom of a singles bar. But try to separate the song from its baggage and dated production. I admit, it’s easier for me to do this, since I was only four the year Minute By Minute came out, and was only minimally aware of music during the years when Michael McDonald was inescapable on the radio. But has a song ever captured the foolish persistence of unrequited love better than this?

What a fool believes he sees
No wise man has the power to reason away
What seems to be
Is always better than nothing

Yeah, I’ve been there, and you probably have too (and if you haven’t, you’re obnoxiously lucky).

McDonald’s vocals are like nails on a chalkboard to some (like my wife), but to me, he’s one of those “phone book” vocalists — I’d listen to him sing almost anything. (Sadly, “almost anything” does not include many of the songs from his oft-misguided solo albums.) Again, I know his tenure with the Doobies is a bit of a sore spot for many fans of the band, but I tend to think something sort of magical happened when his blue-eyed soul got mixed up with their boogie rock. Listen to the way McDonald’s piano bounces on top of an uncredited Ted Templeman’s wobbly, floppy drums; even with the cheesy synths, it’s a powerful combination — almost powerful enough to wipe out the mental image of McDonald accepting his Song of the Year Grammy in a corduroy tuxedo. (download)

Suzanne Vega, “Gypsy” — from Solitude Standing (1987)
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For a lot of people, a song like “Gypsy” represents the absolute worst of modern folk music (or folk-pop, or singer-songwriter, or whatever you want to call it, you hairsplitting pain in the ass) — it’s effortlessly pretty, with a melody that’s as basic as it is ingratiating, and lyrics that rely on a series of similes and metaphors that are either meaningless or so open to interpretation as to seem that way to anyone without a literary degree. And honestly, I confess I haven’t listened closely enough to whatever it is she’s saying to build any level of personal certainty with regards to Suzanne Vega’s actual meaning here. It all sounds good, though — even if (to give just one example) “You have hands of rain and water and an earring on your ear” has no literal meaning, it’s the right phrase in the right spot. Its lack of obvious focus lends to its ethereal beauty, in my opinion; in a long line of sweet-sounding Vega songs, “Gypsy” is among the best. It’s sort of a dysfunctional lullaby for the Gen X set. (download)

the Rails, “Far & Wide” — from Wonderfull (1992)
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I was publishing a music newspaper in the fall of ‘92; at the same time, the Rails were recording their debut cassette (my, how times have changed). We had some friends in common, so on their recommendation, singer/songwriter/Rail Fred Wilhelm sent me a copy of Wonderfull for review. I’ve worn out several copies since then, along with signing the Rails, and then Fred as a solo artist, to the label I ran for awhile. Even if I didn’t know Fred, though — matter of fact, if he wasn’t one of my closest and dearest friends — “Far & Wide” is a song I’d carry with me wherever I went. I even covered it (to greatly diminished effect) on my solo album (all proceeds still going to the American Red Cross). (Aw, hell, you might as well [download].) I was hooked from the opening lines of the first verse:

Where you lead, I will follow
And the clues you leave I will find
But I guess I’m always a step behind
And I realize that I once had it all before my eyes
Had I known then, I would have opened them

It’s about mistakes and letting go of them, dreams and chasing after them, limitations and reaching past them:

Sometime long ago, I
Stepped into a shadow
It’s followed me ever since then
But like a plant that bends and
Strains to find the light again
I’m going, I’m growing

Themes that resonate with me as strongly today as they did when I was a messed-up eighteen-year-old kid. (download)

About the Author

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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