A Baker’s Dozen of caithiseach’s Favorites

Originally posted August 24, 2008

(Our guest poster today is caithiseach, who generally hangs his hat at The Great Vinyl Meltdown.)

It must have been the frozen custard cake. We were eating it when whiteray asked me what my favorite single was. I thought for far too long, then I gave him an answer. A day later, with the custard still in his system, he invited me to guest-blog this Baker’s Dozen of my favorite singles. I could not pass up the opportunity to write in this blog, the first music blog I ever read, and the inspiration for my own blog, which deals with quirky old 45s I collected when I was a kid.

Today I have been set a different task: to write about songs that you probably know. I had made my job somewhat easier by adding a marker to the digital filenames of my favorite Hot 100 hits. So I sorted out the favorites, some 400 of them. Then, in order not to think too much or too long, I culled any song I thought might be one of my thirteen favorites. I may have missed some really good songs that I didn’t mark, and surely I am skipping some superb singles that I don’t own or have not digitized, but I used the Force and let it tell me what to do with the material at hand.

One thing I looked for was songs that truly were singles. Crisp story lines, nicely rounded finishes, no sense that the song was hacked out of a larger work, the way a Pink Floyd single would be. I see an artistry in a perfect single that matches the magic of an excellent short story. It’s satisfying in itself, not incomplete and co-dependent like a chapter in a novel. As Oliver Wendell Holmes might have said, I know a real single when I hear one.

By accident I pulled out exactly forty finalists, which suits my way of thinking about music – in terms of countdowns. When I was ten, I started counting down my ten favorite hits, playing them in my mind when I mowed the lawn each Saturday. That short music chart had as much fluidity as a Billboard chart, but it also had a consistency that reflected the amount of thought I put into it. I remember such momentous decisions as replacing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” at No.1 with “The Love You Save.”

Today’s Top Thirteen doesn’t have a lot in common with my final lawn-mowing Top Ten, because I stopped mowing the family lawn around 1982, when I graduated from college. But several songs from that era slipped into the forty candidates for this Baker’s Dozen, and I’m pleased that I still like the songs I enjoyed in my teen years. It would be awful to have outgrown myself completely.

I also started doing the DJ countdown thing on my record player when I was about eight. With just one turntable, that made for a lot of chatter between songs. That’s what you’ll get here; I’m going to explain my choices, rather than give valuable information about the artists, as whiteray does. And I’ll go bottom to top, so here goes:

13. “Solitary Man” by Neil Diamond [Bang 578, 1970]

As much as I like other early Diamond hits, this song about betrayal and the response to it stuck with me as a clean discussion of the topic, with no self-pity to muck it up. The delicious Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich production, with the acoustic guitar accented by somber horns, meshed perfectly with the message.

12. “Shattered Glass” by Laura Branigan [Atlantic 89245, 1987]

This cut climbed only to No. 48 on the Billboard Hot 100. What puts it here is ninety percent appreciation and ten percent desire to share a song you probably have never heard. I was rolling into Bloomington, Indiana after a very long drive, and I got stuck at a very long light at two a.m. This song, new to me then, came on the radio, and I cranked it to stay awake. My car was rocking on its springs already when Laura hit the climax notes of the chorus. The tsunami of sound left my brain unable to process all of the sound in real time. If you play this song loudly enough, her voice at that point will leave an impression on you that will never fade.

11. “No Matter What” by Badfinger [Apple 1822, 1970]

The story of Pete Ham and Tom Evans is tragic, and their band’s output was inconsistent, but they worked magic several times, most notably here. I am a sucker for songs that go silent abruptly and use a drumbeat to pull the music back in. I love the guitar work. I don’t tire of listening to Pete Ham singing. It’s a song about hanging in there. I wish people had hounded these two guys less relentlessly.

10. “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” by the 4 Seasons [Warner/Curb 8168, 1976]

Three of my forty finalists were on the same chart in March-April 1976, and two of them are in the final thirteen. This song’s bass line has whiteray’s blessing as perhaps the best bass line ever, and that is what drew me to the song in the first place. An amazing piano part carries the song into the second vocal phrase, where the bass kicks in, and Gerri Polci’s turn as lead vocalist gives welcome respite from Frankie Valli. Apart from the message that not learning a lover’s name is an okay thing, the song chronicles a wondrous event without getting tacky. And you should fiddle with your graphic equalizer and isolate that bass line. Mmmmm.

9. “Lucky Lips” by Ruth Brown [Atlantic 1125, 1957]

The year of 1957 was very good for me, musically. I wasn’t born yet, but Pérez Prado recorded “Why Wait” then (had it been an A side, it would be No. 2 here), and Ruth Brown gave us this bright shuffle that rolls along like a diesel engine with a hundred cars behind it. Any song that starts with a long, growly sax note gets my vote, and this one boasts the “No Matter What” silence as well. It would be a good song with anyone else singing it, but no one could put joy into a vocal the way Ruth Brown did.

8. “No One Is to Blame” by Howard Jones [Elektra 69549, 1986]

Almost an answer to No. 4 below, now that I think about it, I found this song heartbreaking at a time when I was heartbroken. Singing about the unattainable, Jones doesn’t get all of the words right, says I, but the melody, his soulful delivery, the percussion – it works for me in inexplicable ways.

7. “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies [Calendar 1008, 1969]

We’re getting to writhe-on-the-floor-in-ecstasy territory now, at least in the case of the upbeat songs. I blogged about this song, which was my one source of joy in 1969, a year that beat me to a pulp. I admire Jeff Barry beyond words, and if you forget the reasons why this song is so gentle, you’ll be able to appreciate the genius he injected into every beat.

6. “Honky Tonk Women” by the Rolling Stones [London 910, 1969]

Charting simultaneously with “Sugar, Sugar,” this song gave my appreciation of music new range. Until then, I was too young for the Stones, but I figured them out here. The recurrent caithiseach theme of a horn section helps to reel me in, but I also love suspended fourths in any song, and the unified vision the guitars give to the subject matter round it all out. I always think about this being Brian Jones’ last work, and it tears me up.

5. “Misty” by Johnny Mathis [Columbia 41483, 1959]

The song is amazingly evocative poetry, and this arrangement, with artfully understated vocals, is the only version anyone needs to hear. Even so, I didn’t become familiar with “Misty” until 1984, when I waited table at the Raging Bull, a fine-dining establishment in Merrillville, Indiana, that provided music by pianist-singer Tony Liggins. He turned me on to the song, then I found the Mathis version on a Time-Life CD of 1959 hits. From there, the recording crept into my mind to the point that, after a bit of meditation, it wound up at No. 5 here.

4. “Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez [A&M 1737, 1975]

As much as I enjoy her singing tunes by The Band, and as much as I could enjoy her singing almost any song, Joan accomplished something here that almost defies description, so forgive me if I fail you: She should be as bitter as Alanis Morrissette in these lyrics, but she is so graceful with her condemnation of Dylan that she soars above the situation and avoids sounding like a bitch. Start there, and add a chord progression that is as memorable (and inspired) as what Hoagy Carmichael came up with for “Stardust.” But “Stardust” does not have the eerie, haunting resonance of this song, of course. I don’t know how she could use any major chords in this song, but she chose exactly the right ones, at the right moments. I would crawl to where she is to thank her for the song, if I thought I could get past her bodyguards.

3. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen [Elektra 45297, 1976]

I can explain this one. Freddie Mercury trusted his audience to be able to handle big words and big sounds. I enjoyed his work when he was alive, and I ache to have him back now that he’s gone. As a polar opposite to its fellow 1976 chart hit “December, 1963,” this song provided gravity without being maudlin or unlistenable in its pomposity. I think the song must have been a lot of fun to write and record, and I have always found it fun to listen to. My big problem with it came when my sister borrowed my single and scratched it in such a way that you could hear the entire song except for the gong, which is where it skipped. Thanks, Lisa.

2. “Take a Chance on Me” by ABBA [Atlantic 3457, 1978]

In 1977-78, on Friday nights I watched Midnight Special. About two a.m., a truck would drop off Saturday newspapers for me to deliver. If I felt like it, I delivered the papers after the show rather than get up four hours later to do my job. Apart from almost getting shot once, it worked out fine. And one morning, I delivered my seventy-five papers with one song stuck in my head. Wolfman Jack had just played a string of ABBA promo clips, and he ended with their “new single,” which was three months away from its U.S. release. I had never heard an intro like the one to “Take a Chance on Me”: an a cappella female lead with male chant underpinning? Then the synth comes in, and finally the song explodes. A sweet message of at-some-point-to-be-requited love, the song is boundlessly cheery but not cloying. Another time, I was sitting in a disco in Salzburg, Austria, drinking expensive imported beer (Budweiser, their only beverage). The dance floor was empty. The DJ tossed on this song, the locals screamed, and before the chant started, there were a hundred couples grinding away. As they say, two hundred Austrians can’t be wrong.

1. “He’s a Rebel” by the Crystals [Philles 106, 1962]

The vocalists are actually Darlene Love and the Blossoms. Phil Spector needed a Crystals record, and they weren’t available, and a voice is just a musical instrument, right? Well, I don’t think so. Gene Pitney’s composition captured the tug-of-war between leather-clad surly teens and frightened parents, with a girl’s arms as the rope, as succinctly as could be done. The girl’s choice is clear, which makes the song scarier for “adults” and an anthem for teens who want to push the envelope. Spector recorded some of his other songs very well, but this one includes a wistful piano, hot horns, a tasteful sax solo – and Darlene Love. She appeals to me more than any other Spector girl singer, and she took control of this song to a degree the actual Crystals might not have attained. From the time I became well-aware of this song, around 1970, it has ranged from first to third on my list of favorites. It’s time I admitted to myself that I don’t think any juxtaposition of lyrics, melody, vocals and arrangement tops this one.

Thanks, whiteray, for giving me this chance to think about the concept, and for the space to publish it. Thanks to you for reading what I wrote.

Some of the other songs I considered were:

“Theme from A Summer Place” by Percy Faith

“What’s a Matter Baby (Is It Hurting You)” by Timi Yuro

“Yakety Sax” by Boots Randolph

“Washington Square” by the Village Stompers

“Java” by Al Hirt

“Downtown” by Petula Clark

“Bus Stop” by the Hollies

“Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison

“Love Is Blue” by Paul Mauriat

“Cecelia” by Simon & Garfunkel

“The Love You Save” by the Jackson 5

“Be My Baby” by Andy Kim

“You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon

“The World Is a Ghetto” by War

“ I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” by ABBA

“ Just Between You and Me” by April Wine

“Rosanna” by Toto

“Hello” by Lionel Richie

“Cherry Bomb” by John Cougar Mellencamp

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