Glorified Love Letters to my 5 favorite songs for (almost) every letter in the alphabet, with a bonus number round.
1. Big Love (acoustic) — Fleetwood Mac
Once, my uncle Al asked my dad if it was because of him that I liked Fleetwood Mac so much. “No,” my dad said, “it’s all her.” My dad liked Fleetwood Mac well enough to have a handful of albums (all in the Stevie/Lindsey incarnation, none of the early stuff), but I don’t remember them being played all that often. Honestly, I’m not sure what made me give the band a good solid listen. When they reunited, I remember complaining that the concert was all that was on TV. Maybe something grabbed me when “Silver Spring” and “Landslide” were on the radio a lot, but I found myself picking up those old albums and eventually buying The Dance, that reunited live album. I finally watched the concert when PBS reran it during a pledge drive.
The original version of this song, a single from Tango in the Night, makes me giggle a bit at its 80s-ness. However, the re-tooled acoustic version that Lindsey Buckingham now plays just leaves me in awe that anyone can play the guitar like that. I don’t know how anyone can get that many different notes and sounds out of one instrument and only two hands. The song serves as proof that Buckingham is continually underrated as a guitarist. I’m not sure that I’ve seen him mentioned more than once whenever a roundup of ‘Greatest Guitarists’ is published, and it’s really too bad. Sure, there are times when Buckingham can be a bit indulgent, dragging the guitar solos out a bit too long, but at least while he’s doing it, he’s doing so with actual talent. “Big Love” is song that builds and builds to the point where even the odd grunts at the end do not seem all that out of place in the emotional release. This song always get huge cheers from the audience, as it did when I had the chance to see them live in 2004. It’s one of those songs that you have no idea how he begins to play it, yet you leave feeling like you’ve been trying to keep pace right along with him. It’s one of those rare songs where I barely consider the lyrics — the appeal lies entirely in the unrestrained acoustic arrangement. “Big Love” is part exorcism, part primal scream, and lives entirely up to its name.
2. Bittersweet Symphony — The Verve
I love strings in rock. My opinion of song will rise with the well-placed violin or cello (bonus points if you actually use a viola, the most unloved of the string instruments), and although I know that “Bittersweet Symphony” samples a Rolling Stones song, I use that as further proof that the Rolling Stones are usually much better when their songs are not actually being played by the Rolling Stones. When this song came out, it sounded nothing like anything else on the radio, and like any American fan in the Britpop era, I fell in love within the first measures. Prior to that point, The Verve were mostly unknown in the US, of course. The benefit of that, however, was that I now had a back catalog to accumulate. My grandma was actually the one to buy me Urban Hymns (on the same occasion she purchased for me Ani DiFranco’s Little Plastic Castle. Yay for grandmas), and even she commented on how much she enjoyed it.
My friend Amanda and I had repeated conversations on how odd Richard Ashcroft looks. The Rolling Stone cover only encouraged us at the time. This was not a case of looks being enhanced by music or vice versa, but when the music is good, that hardly matters. Still, the best description I’ve heard describing Richard Ashcroft’s face is that it’s “trowel-shaped.” I suppose that face makes the video all the more memorable.
I love how big this song arrives. The strings take hold of my attention and then when the drums kick in, if the volume is set at just the right level, I feel no different than being in the middle of a symphony hall with the best acoustics. It is the sound of a band announcing their big arrival, about breaking free from every single thing that ever held them back, though recognizing the costs along the way. “Bittersweet Symphony” is nothing short of liberty.
I don’t know if “Bittersweet Symphony” is The Verve’s best song over their entire catalog, but I never tire of hearing it. It’s a great album opener and a great introduction to the band.
3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s — Deep Blue Something
I began taking dance classes in 1987, at 4 years old. For the first four years or so, we just did whatever tap and ballet numbers our teacher, Kathy, wanted us to perform at our Spring recitals. Then bit by bit, we would start requesting certain songs or would choreograph one song ourselves. At a certain point, my friend (and Kathy’s granddaughter) Marlena was so good at choreographing us that Kathy just made sure the studio attached to her house was unlocked and trusted that we’d have something for her by Spring.
On one of these unsupervised afternoons, Marlena’s roughly 18 year old aunt, Elizabeth, came in to see what we were up to, and somehow this song came up. It was on the radio all the time, and an argument ensued over the lyrics. I don’t remember what Elizabeth insisted the lyrics were — incorrectly — but she was adamant at trying to get Marlena and another girl, Deirdre maybe, to say she was right. I’m fairly convinced she was just screwing with us, but every time I hear this song, I think of that day. Sometimes a moderately enjoyed song is magnified by the funny story surrounding it. I know that it probably doesn’t seem all that funny to anyone who does not know Marlena and Elizabeth, and I know this is one of those songs to which no one gets particularly attached, but it stuck. It’s pop, it’s one hit wonder, and that’s all right with me. This one of the few songs in this series I don't actually own, but I do smile when it comes on the radio.
4. Bonedriven — Bush (the album version or, for humor value, the ‘Mekon/Beat Me Clever’ Remix)
Speaking of funny stories, there’s one for this song too, but not without a little preamble. After seeing Bush on Saturday Night Live (more about that when we reach the letter S) and of course cementing my love forever, MTV ran a special about their upcoming second album, Razorblade Suitcase. (I know, try to recover from the novelty of MTV still giving a shit about music, but I suppose 1996 was the beginning of the wind-down into Sweet 16 hell.) The band recorded their album at Abbey Road, and in some of the footage, they showed Gavin singing along with the string quartet featured on the song. Like I said, strings in rock make my heart go a’pitter-patter, especially when the sound goes beyond the violin. I’d already prepared my very best “Dad, please buy me this CD” speech, but now I had it polished.
“Bonedriven,” the album version, is just beautiful, though a bit heartbreaking. Gavin’s voice aches with despair at the demise of a relationship and the depression that follows. “I was wrong and I will wait” grabs me on such a literary level, and it is one of those lines that is a story in itself. The song captures the contradictory state of feeling so empty and yet being so consumed by emotion that identifying a single one feels impossible.
Now, the remix — Well, the story with that is considerably more light. My friend Kristen and I had and still have a tendency to go through odd and (what we think is) funny trains of thought, particularly if we have some time on our hands. In the course of listening to Deconstructed some time during high school, we started dancing, and came up with this funny foot-hopping, arm-circling move that was intentionally reminiscent of the Elaine dance from Seinfeld. Doing it in unison (harder than you’d think) added to the comedic effect, so of course we had to show all our friends. It didn’t catch on like my dad’s “Old Man Shuffle,” but I bet a few people still remember it. I get the urge to jump up and do it every time I play the song.
5. Brass in Pocket — Pretenders
Recently, I read an article about picking a song to play in your head when trying to psych yourself up for a big moment. The song is supposed to give you that all-powering, fist in the air growl, “Yeah! I can do this!” With the lines, “I’m special/ so special/ I got to have some of your attention/ Give it to me!” this song could be that big motivator for me. The song is one huge “I’m awesome, I’m attractive, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll do exactly what I say!” Who can argue with that?
One of my main memories associated with this song is being home by myself during the summer after 8th grade, grounded. I spent a lot of that summer grounded. I wasn’t supposed to be on the phone, nor was I supposed to be touching my dad’s records without asking, but there I was talking to Kristen and putting albums on the turntable. Kristen and I would occasionally play songs that had caught our attention over the phone to one another. Earlier in the conversation, I’d played the original “Iron Man” from Black Sabbath, as we’d only heard it from The Cardigans. Then in the process of putting The Singles on to play this song, I knocked the needle out. I looked all over the shelf and the floor, but I could not find it. Last thing I needed was to be grounded longer, so I put the record back and said nothing. My dad would obsessively vacuum, so when he discovered the missing needle, he assumed that he’d inadvertently sucked it up while cleaning. And really, I bet he did, but I never told him that it was me that knocked it out in the first place. Eventually, my parents replaced the needle, and my mom still doesn’t know this story.
“Brass in Pocket” has always been my favorite Pretenders song. I don’t know when I heard it the first time — probably on the radio — as I don’t think I was all that old when it originally came out. However, if I’m being honest, when I sing along, I’m pretty sure I’m not getting the words right, and I am probably really off key. It’s one of those songs that if you were to hear a recording of yourself singing it, you’d be horribly embarrassed. No matter though, I’ll still sing, and maybe one day I’ll be bothered to definitively know the words. I suppose it’s more about feeling than accuracy.
Honorable Mention: Beyond the Sea — Bobby Darin
Featured in the trailer for the movie A Life Less Ordinary, this song stuck in my brain enough to inspire me to rake leaves and crab apples in the backyard for 4 hours so that my dad would buy me the soundtrack. I think for the approximately $14 price tag, my dad got a deal on labor, but I still love this song.