Last week was numbers 10 through 6. And now, my five favorite songs ever.
“Us And Them,” by Pink Floyd
I know. I know.
Look, I’m aware that I’m not the most versatile or original of music lovers. If you guessed from my song choices that I was a white boy from the suburbs, you’d be correct. I’m not going to apologize for it. Recommend songs to even out my palate, and I’ll listen to them. I will not deny what I actually think, even if it means carving out a space on a “favorite songs” list for one of the greatest albums made by one of the most celebrated bands ever.
Like a lot of people, I listen to music to amplify whatever mood I’m feeling. But a song is great if it puts me in its mood, regardless of where I am in life. That’s “Us And Them.” The organ and saxophone bring you to the same contemplative state one encounters in church. And yet, despite the obviousness of the “war is pointless” message, this isn’t a sermon. You’re being told the truth. “Us And Them” is simple in the way an adage like “This Too Shall Pass” is. You have to live it, not just think it.
If I get any more pretentious here, I’ll start lambasting people for not listening to the original vinyl. We all know it’s great. Let’s go with something much less revered than it should be.
“Bulletproof Heart,” by My Chemical Romance
Some songs just have that “favorite song” quality. When someone tells you about their favorite song, there’s a good chance their beloved tune elicits the sensation of soaring, evokes young love, and evolves from a humble beginning to a grand statement. The Foo Fighters’ “Everlong”; The Hooters’ “And We Danced“; Walk the Moon’s “Anna Sun”: Queen’s “Somebody To Love”; when people claim one of those as their favorite song, I get why. At least, when it comes to rock and roll.
So, in that sense, it’s obvious why I put “Bulletproof Heart” on here. It’s “Born to Run” with some of my personal interests mixed in, like science fiction and existential despair. For some reason, other music-lovers decided to make the perfectly fine “SING” the most popular song from this album. I’d like to rage against that, but this works out fine. A “favorite song” song should feel like you’re the only one who appreciates it. Each time I hear “Bulletproof Heart” is like the first time again. I imagine I’ll feel the same way 50 years later, when I’m rocking out to this and my kids associate my music with stuffy old people.
This isn’t a choice I can articulate that well. If you think My Chemical Romance is exclusively an emo band, or you want to feel young again, give “Bulletproof Heart” a try.
“Come On Up To The House,” by Tom Waits
I’ve made it clear in the past that Tom Waits is my favorite musician. And yet his best work only made it to #3. Go figure.
Like with “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Come On Up To The House” was the first Waits song I loved, and got on this list, amidst tough competition, because it came first. But as opposed to the other artists here, I’ve listened to a good chunk of Tom Waits’ discography. For the majority of his songs, “Come On Up To The House” is the perfect compliment. There are no woes so great in his albums that can’t be cured by this house, whether the place is a bar or heaven or whatnot. Although it’s not heaven, for certain, since this song rejects any clichéd attempts at cheering up. It’s against self-pity in all forms. For the record: “come down off the cross, we can use the wood” is my all-time favorite lyric. Those words must be from some forgotten, thousand-year old proverb. Even musical genius Tom Waits had to steal from something to craft that.
The mere idea of community in “Come On Up To The House” is enough to counter the broken moons and mountains of woe in that song. All the tangibles in life are awful… but this narrator, he’s just a passin through. It’s the intangible things that make life bearable. Hey, remember when I called My Chemical Romance “emo” a few paragraphs ago? I guess that’s the kind of stuff I’m into. Not “emo” in the traditional sense, but the macabre and depressed and the grim on an epic scale. Maybe it’s because my problems in life don’t come from anything outside of my own mind (white guy from the suburbs, remember?). “Come On Up To The House” both reaffirms those angsty feelings of mine, and wakes me up from them. I get the best sense of community through songs. This one’s an old friend of mine.
“Helena Beat,” by Foster The People
While “Come On Up To The House” is about seeking solace in tough times, “Helena Beat” is about pushing through those tough times. It’s the song you play when you’re looking in the grocery store for gluten-free chicken noodle soup ingredients in the midst of strep throat. It’s the song you play when you stumble to class unshowered and unprepared and as depressed as you were yesterday. It’s the song you play when you wolf down a pizza so you have the energy to meet a friend later, only the friend cancels on you and you spend the rest of the day in bed, glued to your website of choice. It’s the song I play.
Despite my preference for angsty music, I ultimately move to music that, well, makes me move. And the dance beat coupled with the video-gamey chords and the driving melody underneath would push anyone to sacrifice today for tomorrow. The fact that it’s not a great song to dance to makes it all better. Because, hey, if you were in this guy’s position, why would you dance, unless you felt like you had to?
This is the best representation of a mental illness struggle I’ve ever heard. It’s not that such sufferers don’t try to improve their life… they try too hard, and in all the wrong ways. You can’t whine and think that whining alone will render you sympathetic— you have to externalize your condition, speak from a place of wisdom and experience. Or do what you need to anyway, your cross be damned. “Helena Beat” is the most personal song on this list. It was a part of my personality for a long time, and I still love it even though I moved on from (most) of that part of my life. What could be better?
“Dancing With Myself,” by Billy Idol
Great works of art have a way of being appreciated in some form, at some time, even if just as a hit song for a few months in the 80s. I would not want to live in a world where “Dancing With Myself” didn’t become huge at least once.
The last two songs were about seeking solace in tough times and forcing your way through tough times. This song does both, simultaneously, effortlessly. “Helena Beat” is personal, sure, but how many other songs exist out there about taking extra drinks to avoid embarrassing yourself on the dance floor? This is, without any trace of irony, my jam. And yet the singer doesn’t mind that he’s alone inside, at least on the surface. Everything he does for intimacy, he’s doing for relief. Everything excuse he makes for relief, he’s asking for intimacy. There are a lot of places you can take the lyrics, such as self-delusion, loneliness, narcissism, and, as many Internet dwellers are fond of suggesting, masturbation (my response to the dancing with myself is a euphemism crowd: are you sure you don’t mean “Flesh for Fantasy”?).
And even if you don’t care for lyrics, this song kicks ass. The guitar riff is the song’s best singer, the drums and bass maintain an invincible beat, it’s manic and restrained, it’s classic and fresh. And it keeps going! When it’s about to end, it kicks things up for one final round. With my favorite songs, I don’t notice individual instruments until many years later. Like, I wouldn’t pick up on a song’s use of organ or tambourine or whatever, unless I went listening for it. Great songs feel like they burst out of their creators heads fully-formed. Even today, it feels weird to pick out certain elements, like complementing a hero of yours for their beautiful fingers, or for a particular tooth. That’s not where true power lies.
I’m the kind of guy who will find one song he’s into, and then play it on repeat for a day. “Dancing With Myself” is something special. I listen to it once, and it’s all I need. You’d think that would make a song less good for me. I say, why revisit something that’s already perfect? One listen, and I’m satisfied. One listen, and I scratch the fever that a thousand renditions of any other song on this list couldn’t touch. I couldn’t give a better honor to any other piece of music. “Dancing With Myself,” by Billy Idol, is the best song ever.
What is some of your favorite music? Do they have that “favorite song” quality to them? And what songs of yours could challenge this best-of list of mine?