Monday, August 10, 2009

What is a perfect song? Part II

What is a perfect song? I've spent the last six weeks trying to get a better sense of the answer to that question.

It all started a few months ago when during a random IMing session with one of the L.A. Youth alums, I mentioned that I love The Elected's "Not Going Home" and when Angela asked me why, I said, "it's perfect." I hadn't really thought about why, but I was addicted to that song during that time and so rather than try to ad lib a Pitchfork-worthy reason I used the ultimate superlative. But that in-the-moment throwaway comment, stuck in my brain. What is a perfect song?

Is it one's favorite song? Must it meet any objective criteria, like lyrical depth, a certain musical complexity, or infectiousness? What are the criteria?

To get an answer I sent an e-mail to 15 friends with whom I've talked a lot about music over the years. I asked them ...

what is a song that you consider perfect?

It doesn't have to be your absolutely favorite song, if you could even have one of those, though I can't see how it would not be on your very short list. Now there's no definition of perfect that I'm going to set, because I'm sure we all would have many different and unique criteria.

But if each person could send me one or two songs (but preferrably one) that s/he considers perfect, that would be awesome. You're the people whose musical opinions I most value. This will lead to a CD that I want to burn and will happily send a copy of, if requested.

I quickly got great responses and realized that even more fun than collecting great music (any song not in my library I bought except for a couple which I had to have emailed), was learning why my friends chose these songs.

The only problem with the project was that I forgot to send the initial e-mail to some very important musical friends and once I did that the number of tracks and length of tracks exceeded what would fit on a single CD. So I added a few more people to the project and voila ... the Perfect Song Project double CD. Click here to get templates for making CD liner notes. Note: you gotta have Adobe InDesign.

Of all the places I've lived: Amherst, NY; Tucson, AZ, Syracuse, NY; Albany, NY, Los Angeles, CA ... L.A. had by far the greatest representation. This makes sense in that I live in a city in which I can immerse myself in music. And I also get to talk music with high school students and the way we connect to music in high school is with an unspoiled soul. Ironically, though, my former students often had the shortest explanations (but generally impeccable taste). I think though the greatest irony (on an objective scale) is that zero college friends were included. Honestly, I just didn't explore music much in college. Oh well. I don't think the list suffered for my lack of college music experimentation.

Without further ado here is Disc 2. There's not really a priority in terms of songs I like better than others (though Disc 2 has a few of the alternates), but instead it's based much more on how the songs worked together sequentially.

1. Pitchfork: “Rana -- chosen by Kevin W.
The layers of guitar are near perfect, and the lyrics are great, if a bit simple. All in all, my favorite hard guitar song of all time. It also is very unique, and I think it’s difficult to place in a musical category, which makes it all the more intriguing.

2. blur: “Coffee and TV -- chosen by Andrea
There's just something about Graham Coxon’s voice on this track that’s like curling up under a blanket. He’s not angry about the quotidian and the mundane, but comforted by it, and for some reason that makes the song full and satisfying. The way it’s structured, musically, is also satisfying. You have the mellow march of the guitar to complement the verse, then a little bit more honesty and rawness with the falsetto chorus. The guitar solo before the last chorus adds the perfect amount of recklessness, hinting that maybe everything is “not OK” after all. Complacency never felt so good. Mike’s note: an alternate selection from Andrea.

3. Neko Case: “Deep Red Bells -- chosen by Connie
After a long day’s work I light candles, park on my couch and take deep breaths listening to Neko Case. I find her distinct voice and dark lyrics soothing. The tempo is both passionate and delicate, and when Case belts, “Where does this mean world cast its cold eye?” during the last verse, I get the chills and am in love.

4. Donny Hathaway: “A Song For You -- chosen by Laura
This song makes me cry. Sob, with a snotty nose. I can't think of another song that has had that effect on me. It’s not perfect. The music is dated with an arrangement from the 1970s that can be at times trite. But his voice and the lyrics overcome all of the song’s problems. I've always thought that Donny Hathaway had the voice of an angel. The note at the end of this song may be the most perfect note ever sung. I can feel it in the center of my chest. The lyrics are heavy and sincere. The song is about a close relationship, perhaps romantic, maybe not. But he's singing to a person he cares about deeply. It's incredibly sad and beautiful. It makes me feel OK to acknowledge how much I love my friends and how important they’ve been in my life. It reminds me that we shouldn’t wait to tell the people we love, that we love them.

5. Joan Osborne: “Spider Web -- chosen by Claire
When I was pregnant with my first child in 1996, I found out that he had Down’s syndrome and a related heart defect. It was a struggle coming to terms with who my child was, and with the terrifying realization that I actually had many prior expectations about who he would be. I played this song over and over, letting Osborne remind me that my son would have his own unexpected gifts, and attempting to channel her powerful energy. He did not survive, but I still consider this “his song” and I still listen to it when I need a reminder to embrace my own talents and flaws. And besides, the song rocks, in that soulful, courageous Osborne way.

6. Creedence Clearwater Revival: “Green River -- chosen by Angela
I chose Green River because it makes me feel like I’m a hippie in the late '60s. It is SO TOTALLY TOTALLY on the playlist whenever I go up to NorCal. Mike’s note: Angela’s second choice.

7. Kirsty MacColl: “The End of a Perfect Day -- chosen by Diane
It’s a bright, beautiful, wise song that reminds me that there is and always will be life after love. Mike's note: I'm a dope. On the liner notes her name is misspelled as Kristy. I'm a dope.

8. The Tragically Hip: “Nautical Disaster -- chosen by Kevin W.
Nautical Disaster is all about lead singer Gord Downey. While the music is excellent, the conversational aspect of the lyrics sets this song apart from anything else in the Tragically Hip catalog. And lines like “Anyway Susan, if you like, our conversation is as faint as the sound in my memory, As those fingernails scratching on my hull.” Evoking the feeling of paddling away from other shipwreck victims is very, very powerful. You can take any line form the song. They are all equally as poetic. Mike note: Kevin’s second choice as well as Jon’s.

9. Al Green: “Love and Happiness -- chosen by Katie
Because it's the best “driving on PCH with my boyfriend” song.

10. John Mayer: “St. Patrick’s Day -- chosen by Quing
I like it because it has really simple and beautiful lyrics, and it’s slow with a constant beat. And obviously that John Mayer has an amazing voice.

11. Michael Jackson: “Billie Jean -- chosen by Mike
Degrees of perfection aren’t supposed to exist. It’s a paradox to even consider them. That this song obliterates the paradox is why it’s the best pop song EVER written and a Mike wildcard for placement on the list. Most famous bass line of modern pop era + an imminently singable chorus that forces one to dance + socially pointed lyrics based on a crazed fan who claimed Michael Jackson was the father of her child = wow.

12. Norwegian Recycling: “How Six Songs Collide -- chosen by Mindy
I knew I discovered a perfect song when I couldn’t pick out a favorite part from the song. Whenever I think I got to the best part, another one of the six songs enters and the mix only gets better. I especially like the song now because it reminds me of the view of my college courtyard from my suite. Unfortunately, you don’t get that kind of courtyard surrounded by Gothic architecture in Beijing. Mike’s note: These are the songs: 1. Jason Mraz - I’m Yours; 2. Howie Day - Collide; 3. Five For Fighting - Superman; 4. Angela Ammons - Always Getting Over You; 5. Boyzone - All That I Need; 6. 3 Doors Down - Here Without You.

13. The Shins: “Sleeping Lessons -- chosen by Jon
I chose “Sleeping Lessons” by The Shins for the song’s spirit of ascent. I’m lousy at describing music, but if I had to … It begins with a synthy, teeter-tottering arpeggio. And then it builds and builds. Toneless chika-chika strumming quickens it. Deliberate, spare bass notes anchor it. A few measures later, as the new rhythm establishes itself, the guitar and drums arrive. The tempo increases more. And the song, now cloaked with chiming guitars, seems to just take off. There’s an undeniable lift to it.
It’s fun to list activities that song could “describe” sonically, like: A shuttle launch (“Mission Control, permission to use iPod.”); Hang-gliding; Summiting Everest (“H-h-h-ard to s-s-select song while wearing g-g-gloves.”). Less fantastic purposes include: listening on a lazy weekend morning when you’re slow to get moving, and reinvigorating a long car trip—when some vague ache in the joints reminds you of a teen-age injury (or the onset of age) and the trip’s original spirit of adventure has, for the moment, faded.
Re: listening while driving though, Sleeping Lessons weights a pedal-foot. So maybe set the cruise (assuming you’re not in a rental car whose wacked-out dash delays your discovery of cruise control until the last day of the trip).

14. The Velvet Underground and Nico: “Sunday Morning -- chosen by Jane
There is no such thing as a perfect song. That being said, taking into consideration composition, melody, lyricism and presentation, of the songs I can call off the top of my head, I’ve narrowed it down to these, and you can do what you wish with this list because I just can’t pick:
“Sunday Morning” - Velvet Underground (Mike's note: I chose this based on how it starts, but it was a HARD choice)
“Gold” - Interference
“I Will Not Forget You” - Sarah McLachlan
“Piece of My Heart” - Janis Joplin
“Everybody Knows” - Leonard Cohen
“The Sunny Side of the Street” - The Pogues

15. Rilo Kiley: “Pictures of Success -- chosen by Mike
This has become my favorite song, so much so that I have some of the lyrics tattooed on my right arm. It came down to this song and “Nightswimming” when I was first choosing. Do I go with the song that defined high school and college or the song by the band that makes me (an early 30s person) feel about music the way that I did back in high school? Like the best songs, the opening notes immediately put the part of my brain that loves music into a suspended animation, in which exists only the song. Musically, it’s simple but the lyrical and vocal vulnerability as Jenny Lewis contemplates the future and laments the possibility of living a meaningless life ... it coalesces into something that absolutely hypnotizes me. It’s every moment of my youth that I wondered whether there was something beyond Amherst, NY and every moment since that I’ve understood that there is and that I can’t waste it. In short, the purest example in my life of William Blake’s concept of higher innocence—seeing with the unfiltered wonder of a child and understanding with the wisdom of those who have learned to value the fleeting nature of our time.

16. Ludwig van Beethoven: “Ode to Joy -- chosen by Claire and Mike
Claire: So I was really stuck on the word “perfect” last night. All I could think of was Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Because at heart, of course, I’m a geek. As for "Ode to Joy," it is so perfectly what it says it is. Can you feel sad after you’ve heard that music? Mike: Seriously, it was such a “Why didn't I think of that” choice! I love it. And it’s totally genre-busting, which is always a good thing.

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