I know…who cares what my favourite all time songs are? Well, to tell you the truth, I saw somebody else do a similar list so I decided why not me? The interesting thing about going through my lists and lists of songs was in realizing how each one represented a different time in my life, but they also reflect how my tastes changed. As a songwriter, you realize the value of writing something that will stick with your listeners, and I decided to evaluate each one for that special something that made me shiver.
The first in my list had to be the very first song I fell in love with, “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe. Go ahead, laugh :-). Dizzy became a huge hit for Tommy in 1969, so that means I was 12 years old when I first heard it. It so happened that I picked up a guitar for the first time at the same age, and I was exposed to this new and crazy thing called radio around about then too! You can listen to the song first, if you like, and then I’ll tell you what that special something was in this song for me:
The chorus modulating in the second line was the little musical bit that was, at that time, magic to my ears. And the idea of being dizzy with infatuation was also pretty appealing. What can I say? I was 12.
The next song is probably on a lot of songwriter’s lists simply because it was written by songwriting guru Jimmy Webb. Glen Campbell had a hit with “Witchita Lineman” in 1968, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear it until later than that. Other artists have also covered this song, including one of my favourites, James Taylor. When I saw JT live here in Victoria a couple of years back, I nearly fell off my chair when he performed this song! Here is Glen Campbell’s version:
There are a gazillion things I love about this song. The Glen Campbell version was pretty 60’s-sounding with its string section prominently coming in at the beginning and throughout the recording. And of course, there was Glen’s little guitar riff at the beginning, and his solo half way through mirroring the melody is just magic. His voice was beautiful and plaintive, perfect for the subject of this song. An interesting thing about this song is that it has no chorus, but a repeated phrase or refrain “and the Witchita Lineman is still on the line.” The chord changes are gorgeous and unpredictable, especially in the 3rd line of the verses when, having come from a Gm7 in the previous, it changes to Dm7, Am7 and then comes back to a G major. That’s the part that gives me shivers.
Listening again to James Taylor’s version gives it a whole new feel. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of James, and his voice, again, is just perfect for this song.
And speaking of James…
I have to add a James Taylor song, and there are so many obvious ones, so rather than being predictable I’m going to introduce you to a song from his 1997 album called “Hourglass“. James’ brother Alex died in 1993 and this song is really about him. I read an interview with James about this song, and he said that he decided to change the character to a female “Alice” and give his personal connection to it a little distance. Here is “Enough To Be On Your Way“:
Here’s the first verse:
The sun shines on this funeral
The same as on a birth
The way it shines on everything
That happens here on earth
It rolls across the western sky
And back into the sea
And spends the day’s last rays
Upon this fucked up family
So long old gal
The 2nd to last line made me laugh out loud when I first heard it. Don’t we all have f***ed up families? The song itself is a kind of sentimental send off to a real character by the name of Alice.
The last time I saw Alice
She was leaving Santa Fe
With a bunch of round-eyed Buddhists
In a killer Chevrolet
Said they turned her out of Texas
Yeah she burned `em down back home
Now she`s wild with expectation
On the edge of the unknown
Nobody can write like James Taylor, and this whole song gave me shivers, but the chorus does it especially:
Oh it`s enough to be on your way
It`s enough just to cover ground
It`s enough to be moving on
Home, build it behind your eyes
Carry it in your heart
Safe among your own
The kicker is the phrase “so long old gal” . I want this song played at MY funeral!
Another band that I was turned on to in the 70’s was Steely Dan. I played in a cover band then that had a brass section and we were always looking for songs with brass parts, so the first Steely Dan song I learned was “Pretzel Logic“. A few years later, Steely Dan had a big hit with “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and that’s what started my love affair with their music.
My all time favourite Steely Dan song is Deacon Blues. All of their songs all have a sophisticated jazz style of music married with irreverent lyrics, but the lyrics in Deacon Blues somehow seem more personal. Maybe I’m wrong…who knows what Donald Fagen was thinking when he wrote it…I’m sure I don’t! For me personally, this is a perfect example of how I stamped my own meaning on a song lyric. Somewhere between the music and lyrics, I found something of myself, even though I know it has nothing at all to do with me. And that is the “shiver” quality that I get from Deacon Blues:
I can throw a CD (or iPod) full of Steely Dan songs in the car and drive for hours.
I have to include a Joni Mitchell song and again, there are so many to choose from. “Court and Spark” was the first album of Joni’s that I purchased and I loved every track on it. And what I ended up picking here was a song of hers that was released commercially, “Help Me“. Joni was one of those rare writers who could put poetry to music and make it work wonderfully. There’s a simplicity to these lyrics, however:
I think I’m falling
In love again
When I get that crazy feeling
I know I’m in trouble again
I’m in trouble
‘Cause you’re a rambler and a gambler
And a sweet talking ladies man
And you love your lovin’
But not like you love your freedom
Of course, Joni’s guitar playing was something else again. Being a guitar player myself, I was fascinated to learn that she hated the “F” chord (I always tell my students that “F” has its name for a reason!), and that’s one reason why she started using open tunings. Opening tunings are more common now, but she made an art of them and at one point she had 50+ different tunings.
“Help Me” was a perfect falling in love song for me…I understood every second of it:
Again, I think I was most attracted to her chord progressions. “Help Me” modulates from one key to another effortlessly and naturally and just kind of floats musically. Once I figure out what tuning she used, I’ll tell you what the keys are :-).
“Hello Goodbye” is a Beatles song I’ve always loved. It’s that one line especially where the bass descends…”hello, hello, I don’t know why you say goodbye I say hello” and then it repeats. The lyrics are just a play on opposites but work perfectly with the idea of a difficult or troubled relationship. “You say yes, I say no, you say why and I say I don’t know”. Perfect.
I can’t imagine that any band or musician will ever be as big or as influential as the Beatles, not because there aren’t any other great bands, but because of the timing. The Beatles simply hit the right note at the right time and it’s not possible to do that in the same way again. For those of you who don’t know this song (I can’t imagine you don’t!), here is “Hello, Goodbye”:
A songwriter I very much respect is Mary Chapin Carpenter. At a music conference years ago, I heard John Braheny use Mary’s song “This Shirt” as an exemplary example of object songwriting and I couldn’t agree more. However, one of my all time favourite MCC songs is called “Come On, Come On“. If you’ve never heard it, here is a live performance of it:
I truly can’t decide if it’s Mary Chapin Carpenter’s delivery that packs the real punch or the song itself.
Some people remember the first time
Some can’t forget the last
Some just select what they want to from the past
It’s a song that you danced to in high school
It’s a moon you tried to bring down
On a four-in-the-morning drive through the streets of town
Mary came out with this gem smack in the middle of my songwriting frenzy in the 90’s. I couldn’t aspire to anyone more intelligent and insightful. The whole song was moving for me, but so was the idea that somebody could come up with a song so beautiful. I wish I wrote that! She has also collaborated with the next songwriter I’ve got on my list.
I discovered Shawn Colvin in the 1990’s after a friend of mine suggested that, vocally, I sounded a lot like Shawn. So I bought her CD “Fat City” out of curiosity and ended up falling in love with her music. Again, her guitar playing and performance was a big sell for me since that’s what I was out there doing a lot of at the time. In 1998 she had a breakthrough hit with “Sunny Came Home“. I love the acoustic guitar and mandolin in this song…in fact,the whole production is fabulous:
The chord progressions are just wonderful in “Sunny”, the bass line on the guitar keeps changing, first down and up and then down again in the verses. Shawn and a few other songwriters started this very percussive way of strumming that I tried to emulate a few times in subsequent songwriting. The melody in the chorus of Sunny Came Home is beautiful and stands out…Shawn has a fabulous voice, much more versatile and controlled than mine ever could be. She has written some great songs on her own, and has also collaborated a lot in her songwriting career, which I’m sure has stretched her beyond her own songwriting boundaries, and which is something I never did enough of.
Even though the 70’s were sometimes written off because of disco, I liked a lot of the songs that came out during that time. I was not a KC and the Sunshine Band fan, and there was plenty of music that I thought was fluff, but I did enjoy quite a bit of it, including the next song by the Commodores called “Brick House“. Why, I like it so much that my daughter has it as the ringtone on her cell when I call her :-). What is it about this song?
It’s just sexy. And funky. The odd thing about “Brick House” is that the verses have only one chord. Everything is about the lyrics and the funk, no fancy chord progressions involved. In fact, even the chorus is limited in terms of chords. But it doesn’t get boring, does it? So what does that teach you?
Okay, my last choice is a reflection of the love and respect I have found for jazz, especially earlier jazz. I didn’t appreciate it at all until I was an adult, but I can’t for the life of me tell you why. I’m thinking that Woody Allen‘s movies are probably what brought me to jazz. He used to have jazz or dixie music in a lot of his movies. It’s not that I didn’t hear it or know of it before then, it’s just that I was too caught up in acoustic and singer/songwriter and old pop music to hear anything else. I am amazed that my 22-year-old daughter has already developed a taste for it.
When I listen to Louis Armstrong singing “A Kiss To Build A Dream On“, it just makes me swoon. It’s romantic, it’s happy, it’s simple and it’s not simple at all. I picked this song as a kind of representative of what I have learned to appreciate in my middle-aged years.
There is SO MUCH music out there and I know I’m missing about 99% of it these days. I plan to make a concerted effort to LISTEN MORE and hopefully find some gems out there that I never would have heard otherwise.
I’m also realizing that 10 songs is only the tip of the iceberg. Stay tuned for the next 10 :-). You can purchase some of the albums here: