Saturday, August 08, 2009

What is a perfect song?

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.

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 1.

1. R.E.M.: “Nightswimming -- chosen by Mike
This was my first favorite favorite song once I had reached high school—a point in my life when I could finally and legitimately have a fave song, a song captured the hopefulness of my teenage solitude. The way “Nightswimming” navigates the tension of our innocence and our exploration of the way our physical and emotional selves entangle themselves with results euphoric and crushing is what the best songs should be about. To this day the opening piano line cues up a black-and-white movie in my mind that forces my brain to concentrate a little less on whatever I’m doing because the hopefully-never-gonna-die self-doubt and optimism of high school flickers again inside me.

2. The Cure: “Just Like Heaven -- chosen by Angela
It makes me feel like I’m in an ‘80s teen movie and the only way to dance to it is to jump around in circles.

3. Frightened Rabbit: “Fast Blood-- chosen by Amy
I picked “Fast Blood” because every time I hear it, I spaz out. It’s the perfect song for the blurry velocity of emotional and energy you get when you desperately want to sleep with someone and realize that it's going to happen, is happening, etc. I love love love it. Great song to run to. More succinctly: it sounds like sex.

4. Jeff Buckley: “Hallelujah -- chosen by Monika
“Hallelujah” is perfect because it is serene and beautiful and sad. And I like sad songs more than happy ones, what can I say?

5. Radiohead: “Planet Telex -- chosen by Christina
Perfection (imo) = playability + complexity + emotional impact. AND I can listen to PT on repeat 24/7.

6. The Beatles: “Blackbird -- chosen by Morgan
Not only is “Blackbird” the epitome of a simple—but not understated—song, it’s on The White Album, which changed my life and my outlook on music. “Blackbird” achieves everything a song should through melody, percussion and meaningful lyrics. It’s the perfect symbolism for the Civil Rights Movement.
My parents are big Beatles fans, so family road trips consisted of Beatles tapes and scanning the radio for oldies stations. As a child, I wasn’t aware of the meaning behind the song; I was more in love in Paul McCartney. As I grew up and really understood what Paul was singing about, I thought this was everything a song should be.

7. Indigo Girls: “Ghost -- chosen by Scott
So I’ve had trouble narrowing things down, but as of right now I think a perfect song is “Ghost” from Indigo Girls. It has a great melody, and is an example of perfect lyrics to me. There are no false rhymes, no skipped over syllables, everything locks together, just a perfect lyrical crystal. I first heard the song in a college class that was covering some mythology items and it was used as a pop culture reference for Ulysses.

8. Pulp: “Common People -- chosen by Andrea
This song is brilliant because it achieves perfection on two levels: musically and lyrically. The orchestration is full, layered and driving while still following a build-up. It never loses momentum, and not a single chord feels out of place. The music carries the story and its gradual emotional unhinged-ness right along with it. Jarvis Cocker's storytelling is frank and honest, but still eloquent. It’s perfect because it narrates a story while still being intimate and emotionally stirring; I feel that with most songs it’s either/or, not both. Most of all we can relate to—or relish in—what he’s singing about. Unless you’re a Greek heiress, of course.

9. The Beach Boys: “God Only Knows -- chosen by Kevin D.
I still think “God Only Knows” is too easy. although Pet Sounds was one of only 4 albums we had in my room when I was a kid, so I liked it before there was a VH-1 or Pitchfork ... Hell, it is my choice. It's a perfect song. Even if I didn't visit their boyhood home in Hawthorne.

10. Grizzly Bear: “On a Neck, On a Spit -- chosen by Sasha
My favorite songs are those that constantly evolve, that do not stay in one place but instead continue to unfold as a sort of reward for the listener. “On A Neck, On A Spit” feels grand and sweeping and epic, so much so that it takes my breath away. Although I've listened to it so many times, I still feel a wonderful tension followed release during its transitions and movements.

11. The Rolling Stones: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash -- chosen by Dave
If there's a sonic heaven, it exists within the 3 minutes and 41 seconds of The Rolling Stones' 1968 return to their roots, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” If the Stones recorded nothing else, this song would still earn them their title of “greatest rock ‘n roll band in the world.” Every element works in unison to kick the living shit out of the listener—in a good way. The protagonist of the track triumphs over the bleakest of circumstances. “I was drowned, I was washed up and left for dead. I fell down to my feet and I saw they bled. I frowned at the crumbs of a crust of bread. I was crowned with a spike right through my head, but it's all right now ...” growls Mick Jagger in what is, for all its perfect flaws, his finest vocal performance. This song makes you cheer for the underdog; the Rocky Balboa’s of the world who, against all odds, survive the 15 rounds. A little history ... This song followed the Stones’ creative nadir, 1967’s “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” which was a pale imitation of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It all began when bassist Bill Wyman was fooling around on a piano, waiting for the rest of the band to show up for a recording session. Wyman receives no songwriting credit, but none is probably deserved since “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is only a slight variation on the “Satisfaction” riff, which is entirely Keith’s. Its name traces back to Keith Richards’ gardener whose footsteps once awoke Jagger. Richards explained to him, “That’s Jumpin' Jack.” The main guitar riff of the verses is actually an acoustic guitar inside which Richards placed a cassette recorder microphone, overloading it to achieve a unique distortion, creating one of the meanest “electric” guitar sounds to ever leave its footprints on magnetic tape. There's still debate about Jagger's vocal entrance, some people believe he shouts “one, two,” while others hear “watch it!” The song also features a catchy bass lick, which is also supplied by Keith. This also represents one of his first uses of open tuning, which has since become his trademark. Interestingly, the best live version of the song is in standard tuning. Here's a YouTube link to it (watch for Jagger signaling in vain to an offscreen soundman to fix his monitor):

12. Guns N Roses: “Sweet Child O' Mine -- chosen by Rich
OK, so after much deliberation, here’s my answer to your impossible question. Without picking some seminal blues song that spawned everything from James Brown to Zeppelin, or a Beatles song, or some hipster choice like Nick Cave or whatever, I’m representing for straight-up rock and roll. I give you “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and here’s why:

• It’s one of the all-time most recognizable riffs in rock history. Still gives me chills when I hear it.
• Vocals like these would be savaged on American Idol, and that’s exactly what rock vocals should be—imperfectly perfect for the song they’re paired with.
• ”Jungle” put GNR on the map, but “Sweet Child” made them a phenomenon.
• It’s a love song with balls. Guys love it and girls love it. If ever there was an anthem for drunk couples who like to drunkenly dry hump at rock shows, this is it (“This Love” by Pantera is the metal version of the concert drunk-hump anthem).
• Starts out gently, takes you on a journey (“where do we go, childe” indeed) and ends with a bang—the most dynamic song on “Appetite,” which itself is one of the best rock albums ever.
• You can sing every note of the guitar solo.
• Guns and fuckin’ Roses.

13. The Who: “Baba O’Riley -- chosen by Stephanie
When you first sent out that email, I thought crescendo; mixology; total rock out music, but good, meaningful rock out music. I thought The Who and then I thought “Baba O’Riley” because in the first two seconds you automatically know that for the next five minutes you'll be in total and complete bliss. It’s an ode to the angst, the stress, the “I don’t give a damn” feeling we all feel at 17, 20, 35, 56, and on. The intro is so powerful, so moving, it's the perfect lead in to an even more perfect song. I still get goosebumps when I listen to it.

14. Bob Marley and The Wailers: “Jamming -- chosen by Guianna
Mike’s note: Guianna originally selected Ben Harper and The Relentless 7’s “Up to You Now.” After extensive review of my iTunes, I’ve decided to submit a different perfect song. The Ben Harper is my current favorite song but it's not perfect. It reflects more of what I’m feeling than what I consider to be perfection in a song.
I’ve decided to submit “Jamming” by Bob Marley and The Wailers. my criteria for the perfect song: simple, catchy tune; in my experience brings people of all types and backgrounds to the dance floor; has had a broader impact than your typical top 40, whether it be in terms of play in films, pop culture or innovations in lyrics. “Jamming” is simple and catchy; always gets people up to dance; and has had a well-recognized influence on reggae artists. My close second was “Bohemian Rhapsody” but I didn't choose this one because it doesn’t get people to dance as much as to sing the lyrics (pretty awesome in my opinion ... I’ll never forget that scene in Wayne’s World).

15. Cocteau Twins: “Pandora -- chosen by Wayne
Language-less yet still evocative words mean anyone can sing along to it equally well. It’s lush, almost orchestral, still-edgy sounding (hence timeless) and has a classic song structure.

16. Peter and the Wolf: “Safe Travels -- chosen by Machiko
Tried to choose a song I thought no one else would know/send ... which also happens to be my most played song on my iTunes: “Safe Travels” by Peter and the Wolf from Lightness.
The play count on my iTunes only takes into consideration songs I’ve started listening to from the beginning of college, and I’ve deleted some albums already ... so not as accurate. So in this case, my definition of perfect is one that I can listen to over and over and over again.

If I were to set an arbitrary criteria:
1) not depressing/downer
2) singable!
3) simpler the better

Disc 2 coming tomorrow. 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.

[Mike's note: This clip, which I found after the initial blog post and well after making the CDs, resolves the what does Jagger say to open "Jumpin' Jack Flash" debate once and for all.

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