Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Stories Behind The Songs, Part I

I was planning on moving to 30 Rock first, but I have to figure out exactly which episodes are my favorites before I do that. So it's music first!

Rolling Stone recently came out with a list of the Best 500 Songs ever. Somewhat expectedly, it was heavy on rock and roll, but especially on classic rock (Rolling Stones, Beatles, U2, etc.). I can appreciate some of the selections (Top 10 placement for John Lennon's "Imagine" and Aretha Franklin's "Respect"? Hell yeah!), but others (why does "Paint It Black" not even break the Top 100? Why doesn't "Yesterday" break the Top 10?) really frustrate me.

Thus, I've formulated this theory: it is impossible to compile a subjective list of best songs ever. Each person has different memories of different songs, has different tastes, and therefore no one will be able to create a rubric for grading every song ever written and deciding which is "best."

What is possible, however, is to compile a personal favorite playlist: 20 songs one likes the most. They don't even have to be good songs, really: what is important is the emotion behind the song. What connection does one have to the song? What's the story behind the song?

In these two posts, I'll detail my favorite 20 songs of all time, as well as explain exactly why each of them is so important to me personally. Readers, I don't expect you to agree. You shouldn't agree. But I challenge you guys to come up with your top 20 (or 10, or 5) songs not from a technical level, but from a personal level, and post them in the comments section. You can explain them or you can not explain them, but make sure each song means something.

One note: not everything below is going to be super deep, but there will be some that are pretty personal. I'll do my best to not name names when the explanation is sticky.

20. "Russian Roulette," Rihanna
I absolutely hated how the press handled the Rihanna/Chris Brown incident. It was like they were afraid to pick a side. Like Brown somehow wasn't completely in the wrong. Jesse James cheats on Sandra Bullock and he's a sub-human, but Brown beats his girlfriend and we should "hear both sides of the story." It was sickening. This was Rihanna's first single off her fourth (and best) album, Rated R, and it is by far the most emotionally-loaded song she's ever written. Love is, for her and for all of us, a sick game, one where we never know what is right behind the door. Is it safety or is it jeopardy? The song is beautifully orchestrated and layered. It inspires an emotional reaction at each bated breath and especially at that first cold gunshot.

19. "The High Road," Broken Bells
I can't stand people who follow indie music just so that they can say they follow indie music. (People who legitimately enjoy indie music, however, actually compose a good portion of my best friends, so don't read that wrong. I hate the posers, not the true indie fans.) While I like some independent artists here and there, I would never consider myself an "indie kid" or anything in that vein. (The last song was Rihanna, for crying out loud.) However, a friend introduced me to this song, and I fell in love with it. The first part is just goofy enough to be a blast, like the intro to a Mario game, and the softer outro is a brilliant choice to end it. After hearing this song, I bought the album, and am still to this day the only person I know who owns the Bells' album. So no, I'm not an indie kid, but this is one group I cop to being a fanboy for, and this is the song that started it all.

18. "Don't Rain On My Parade," Barbra Streisand
Admittedly, the Streisand version isn't my favorite version of this song. There's no doubt she has the raw emotion in her voice, but it's always struck me as a little too grand. No, my love for this song first started with Lea Michele's cover version in the midseason finale of Glee, "Sectionals." It's a brilliant song and a brilliant performance, but it's the story I really relate to. Rachel, Michele's character, is the most talented singer on the show, full stop. Yet other characters and fans alike reject her because she steals the show too often. Then, when they most need her, she pulls this out of her hat and kills it. There's a central truth there that the best will be the best no matter what, and just because they're overexposed or too self-aggrandizing doesn't take that away.

17. "Like a Star," Corrine Bailey Rae
Rae's soul-filled waltz about a broken relationship that's just so damn addictive is absolutely beautiful, and especially meaningful since the death of her husband between her two albums. Her British croon is certainly popular elsewhere (Duffy, ADELE, Amy Winehouse), but she does it better than any of her more popular contemporaries on this track that taught me that every relationship has its ups and downs, but for true love, you can live with the annoyances and irritations.

16. "Is That All There Is?," Peggy Lee
"Then one day, he went away, and I thought I'd die. But I didn't. And when I didn't, I said to myself, 'Is that all there is to love? Is that all there is?'" The speaker in Lee's fatalistic anthem doesn't see a point in, well, anything, even death. Everything is a disappointment. I know that I have had, and I'm sure others have had similar, thoughts that life isn't worth living if there's no joy or fun in it. (See also: Jenny in An Education.) Here's the truth, however: life is worth living when you surround yourself with loved ones you can trust. In fact, life can be beautiful. You don't ask, "Is that all there is?" but rather, "What's next?" That's an important lesson for anyone. It certainly was for me.

15. "All Alone," Chris Richardson
We've hit the first song absolutely no one will know! (It's actually probably the last one too...) Richardson was a finalist on Season 6 of American Idol, and was generally considered a lightweight by, well, everyone, including me. However, his debut single (which woefully underperformed) showed up on a recommendation from iTunes. It was only $.99, so I went ahead and bought it. Thank God I did. I take back anything I ever said about Richardson: his tone is great, his lyrics aren't too deep but they're decent, and the song is infinitely listenable. It's Justin Timberlake-esque pop, but unlike the far too ubiquitous former *NSYNC member, Richarsdon can keep me hooked. I just wish he'd release more music!

14. "Paparazzi," Lady Gaga
Trust me, it was not easy to decide whether it would be this or "Bad Romance" that made it onto the list. (I almost put both.) Some like to dismiss Gaga as nothing but a one-trick pony. I would like to ask those people exactly when they stopped paying attention/started smoking hallucinogenics. Gaga has more than a few tricks up her sleeve, and "Paparazzi" was her first reinvention. She transformed from the party girl to an introspective pop star looking at the photographers who follow her around in a completely different way: instead of scorning them, she inhabited them and made herself her man's stalker. The video was her first insane one (starring True Blood's Alexander Skarsgård), setting the stage for "Bad Romance," "Telephone," and most recently, "Alejandro." When you think about it, "Paparazzi" is the reason why we, and especially I, hang on Gaga's every movement. She's not just an artist: she's a pop culture phenomenon. (If you want a cover to check out, try Felix Theis' acoustic cover. Find it on YouTube.)

13. "My Funny Valentine," Frank Sinatra
Here's a little O'Keeffe family trivia: this song was my mom's first Valentine's Day gift to my dad when they were engaged. Two years ago, as a harkening back to that, I burned a CD of twenty different "My Funny Valentine" covers for my parents for their 20th anniversary. There's something so sweet about the song, and I consider it the anthem of my parents' incredibly strong marriage. My favorite cover is Carly Simon's quieter, more lovely than loving version, but I also love the R&B-twinged Melinda Doolittle cover and Sinatra's original, though I do think it's a song for a woman to sing to a man, not vice versa. (Saying a woman's figure is "less than Greek" sounds significantly more sexist than saying it of a man's figure.)

12. "Say My Name," Destiny's Child
Two artists have two entries each on this chart. Beyoncé is the first: one as a solo artist, one as part of Destiny's Child. (There would have been a third if I could have decided on a Regina Spektor song, but they're all too evenly matched for me to pick a favorite.) "Say My Name" had a striking video that I still remember to this day: that may have been because this was the first music video I ever saw. The then-four members of Child were positioned around an apartment, each member in a differently colored room and dressed to match. The action then shifted to a garage-esque setting, and the singers did a rotating dance that would become iconic. The song is super-catchy, with just the right amount of sass. I smile instantly when the song comes on, remembering all the times I listened to the song as a kid and watched the video. It's the ultimate kiss-off song, and one that I will probably remember the words to forever.

The final song of the lower tier is...

11. "You Oughta Know," Alanis Morrisette
This was not an easy one to remove from the Top 10, but I couldn't find one to drop in its favor. My science teacher once referred to Morrisette's music as being "angry lesbian music," which is incredibly true. However, this song is also a beautiful testament to exactly how thin that line between love and hate really is. Personally, I have hated people I knew I loved. Neither of those emotions is illegitimate: when love is unrequited, hate is born. This passionate rant of a woman scorned may be a tale of hatred, but there is also no doubt that she loves her ex-lover as well. Love is too complex to be trivialized as a one-emotion issue. It is incredibly complex and incredibly passionate, and that's what I love most about this song.

Part II will be up in a little over an hour, so stay tuned for that. It gets loads more personal, I can guarantee you that.

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