I was thinking last night about one of the interactions that contributed to my deciding to start this blog. I had been thinking for a while that I wanted to force myself to do some music writing, when I happened to notice a contest in Sterophile (which I don’t normally read), inviting readers to submit a list of their top five “Great Art Songs of the Rock Age”. Of course I had to enter. Below is my entry which, predictably for a variety of reasons, was not chose among the List of Winners.
After the contest, however, I had a bit of a correspondence with John Marks about the contest. I’m sure I came across as slightly odd, but the whole exchange helped convince me that I was serious about wanting to do some writing about music. I do think that the entry holds up reasonably well, so I reproduce it here, with my thoughts after the fold.
The trick is limiting it to five. Though I was born in 1976 my musical center of
gravity, like yours, is in the 70’s.
To limit my list, I will focus on songs that’s virtues are emotional engagement
rather than cleverness or arrangement. These are all songs that bring me
instantly into their emotional space when I listen to them.
This does mean, inevitably songs that are somewhat tied to their performers,
hopefully this does not violate to strongly the rule “he nominated songs will
be judged … as songs, not as performances.” but some selection criteria is
In chronological order:
1) “Annie’s Going To Sing Her Song” — Tom Paxton, 1970.
Tom Paxton is largely ignored these days, partially because he wrote a lot of
topical songs which haven’t aged well, but this is one of the best songs from
the folk revival.
“A drink for me, a drink for you; / You’re going to need a drink or two: ”
The song is amazing in its combination of mixed emotion and genuine love.
2) “Maria Bethânia” — Caetano Veloso, 1971
“Maria Bethânia, please send me a letter / I wish to know things are getting
The soul of the song is in the musical and sonic shifts from the anxiousness of
the verses to then tenderness of the chorus, to the instrumental coda which
suggests both the distance of life in exile, hope, and, in the end, a sense of
ease in shifting from words to music.
3) “In The Back of a Car” — Big Star, 1974
“You know I love you a lot / I just don’t know should I not ?”
The best song about teenage love ever? About being alone in a car with a date,
struggling with one’s emotions, and not being able to figure out how to express
any of ones feelings.
I am fond of the demo recording released on the Beale Street Green collection,
which highlights the vulnerability in the song.
4) “Ain’t Life A Brook” — Ferron, 1980
“So I hope I’m not the kind / To make you feel obliged”
Emotionally powerful, and amazing handling of narrative. In a short song it
describes moods and experiences covering years.
5) “Love Among The Sailors” — Laurie Anderson, 1994
“and if this is the work of an angry God / I want to look into his angry face.”
Written in response to the AIDS crisis, it is both abstract and emotionally
powerful in its sense of concern and anger without either judgment or despair.
I wouldn’t have included on a list of top pop songs except, given the criteria
I have chosen, it is one best song that is most emotionally affecting.