1. “Time” by Sly & the Family Stone
There’s A Riot Goin’ On is one of the best albums ever made. It sounds like it’s from another planet, but it’s also uncannily familiar. There are no hints of the chaos in which this was recorded on “Time.” As the music uncoils, the lyrics convey a cosmic insouciance toward love, life, and death. In other words, it’s one of the sexiest songs ever recorded.
2. “Digging in the Dirt” by Peter Gabriel
No one has a voice like Peter Gabriel. It evokes vulnerability of a child, and the wisdom of someone who’s been alive for 1,000 years. In the chorus of this song, an this explosion of rage, there is still a yearning for connection and understanding that gets you right in the gut. And I don’t know of any songwriter who can do more with a 2-3 chord progression.
3. “Baltimore” by Randy Newman
4. “Baltimore” by Nina Simone
“Baltimore” is a gut-wrenching song, but so beautiful. I don’t think Randy Newman gets enough recognition for his lyrical prowess. He can seamlessly turn from aching tenderness to vicious resentment in the span of two lines. Here, manages to make your heart ache for a seagull. Nina Simone’s cover is legendary, of course. Apparently, she was recording it for an album over which she had little creative control. She must have channeled everything into her singing, which is unsettling and searing.
5. “The Words That Maketh Murder” by PJ Harvey
This is not my favorite song on Let England Shake, but it came out at a time when she had sort of fallen off my radar. It gripped me like a bulldog. I’ve spent many hours in vain trying to understand how she puts chords together, and no one does it like she does. And the sarcastic use of Eddie Cochran’s “Summetime Blues” at the end – so brilliant it seems obvious – is a masterstroke.
6. “1-800-Suicide” by Gravediggaz
I catch a lot of flack from friends when I try to explain my feelings about how brilliant this song is. But it’s okay, because I’m right. This song is about the Big Yes to Life. It mocks people’s futile refusal to see the world as it is. It is about unconditional, absolute acceptance of the reality of your situation – and the liberation that follows. In other words, Gravediggaz are exhorting you to reject nihilism. That it’s done with so much humor just makes it that much greater.
7. “When Will I Be Loved?” The Everly Brothers
Plenty has been said about the Everly Brothers’ harmonies, and rightfully so. In this song, it sounds like their heart is breaking in real time. What is often less discussed is their guitar playing. Underlying the mournful harmonies is swaggering guitar, with all the danger of rock n roll. They’re as nasty as Dale Hawkins, and it’s clear they paid close attention to their Bo Diddley records.
8. “Danny Carslile” by Vic Chesnutt
I recently read Elizabeth Grace Hale’s Cool Town (it rules), about the music scene in Athens, GA. Someone remarks that Chesnutt was like the town crier. There is no moralizing in his storytelling. No condemnation, no praise. He’s simply telling you how it was. The chorus of this song always gets me, where he juxtaposes the anonymous life of this young boy to world events. Bleak, but you can see his wicked grin as he sings.
9. “Happy Nightmare Baby” by Opal
It often gets said that The Velvet Underground & Nico didn’t sell well, but everyone who heard it started their own band. And while that record did, in fact, sell relatively well, the same could be said about Happy Nightmare Baby by Opal. Listening to the title track, you can hear where bands from Ween or Pavement learned a few tricks.
10. “In the House Blues” by Bessie Smith
I think that in blues lyrics, you’ll find the most evocative and beautiful turns of phrase. The specific historical-cultural contexts are always relevant. But they also convey, in a few seemingly simple lines, a yearning that cuts across a shared humanity. “Sitting around the house/ Everything on my mind/ Looking at the clock but can’t even tell the time” conveys more existential anguish, more dread, more desperation and resignation, than catalogs’ worth of clever wordplay or reams of continental prose. And it doesn’t hurt when Bessie Smith is singing it.
11. “Parking Lot Pirouette” by Amanda Shires
To the Sunset is one my favorite albums from the past few years, and this is the song that hooked me. In moments of heartbreak, we all revert to teenagers. The apocalyptic overtones of someone walking out of your life come roaring back. In the chorus, Shires is unafraid to give this feeling its fullest measure. And her delivery of the line “And I was underneath you” – worthy of Dolly Parton herself – gets me every time.
12. “Stop It” Pylon
For a high-anxiety person, there is something soothing about the music of Pylon. Yes, it’s fun and endlessly danceable. But it’s like they somehow instinctively get the feeling: omnipresent, but obscure danger of living with anxiety. They laugh at it, but they still take it seriously. Get some sleep, eat well, watch your step and rock n roll now now now now!
Listen to The Stars of Disaster’s new single: https://open.spotify.com/track/2Rnf4h8YJnLrAOFeIx0ZSC?si=CvBlSuQZRB-dYoXq3yLINQ