A Listening Autobiography
The number one song when I was born. Alex Chilton would go on to make music that was more challenging and less popular, and I've followed a similar path.
This video blew my mind at age four, and it might be my biggest single influence.
Gordon Lightfoot - Don Quixote (1972)
On family trips my dad would play music on the car stereo, and this was my favorite of all those songs. Now it's Neil Diamond's Soolaimon
The first song I really loved. At the time I was drawn to the vocal melody of the chorus, and now I admire the crystalline soundscape of echoey low notes and high vocals.
The first band I really got into, and back then I liked their hits, but now I think this was their one great song.
This was the number one album of 1982, and when you like the same music as everyone else, it's easy to believe in objective quality. Now, not so much. Asia was my gateway from pop to the complexity of prog-rock, and soon I was listening to harder stuff like Genesis
I got obsessed with Rush around 1983 and bought all their albums. Now I think this is their best song, but at the time I thought it was another epic from the same album, Xanadu
Their Making Movies album felt like higher quality music than I had previously been listening to, and I got even more into Love Over Gold. This song has an incredible guitar solo at the end.
...but this guitar solo is the best, then and forever.
Their Call of the West
album was a new level of weirdness for me, and I loved it. Another gem from that album is Factory
, a massive upgrade of Machines
by Lothar and the Hand People.
It's too melodramatic for me now, but I listened so heavily to The Final Cut
that I knew all the lyrics. The only Pink Floyd album I still like is Meddle.
Blue Oyster Cult - Astronomy (live 1978)
At some point in high school I got into Blue Oyster Cult, and this song stood out, and still does, for its gothic poetry and hammering climax.
My perennial second favorite band for more than thirty years. Now I like their heavier stuff, but this smooth and catchy song from their Zones album was an early favorite. See the Hawkwind
section of my albums page.
My hipper friends were already into R.E.M., but I didn't like them until I heard this unearthly masterpiece. They're still one of my favorite bands, and I also love Belong
In college in Seattle, I heard this song when Beat Happening opened for Billy Bragg and immediately bought their Jamboree album, which was much weirder and more real than anything I'd heard before. I still love them, and this is still my favorite of their many great songs.
I had been following this band since their first album, and their fifth, Key Lime Pie, blew me away with its complex, luminous music and poetic lyrics. These two songs blend together, and All Her Favorite Fruit was my favorite at the time, but June was the one I played louder, and a bigger influence on my musical taste.
Nirvana's famous live version is basically a cover of this, which covers a Leadbelly version of an old folk song called In The Pines. At the time it was a radical sound, and a milestone in grunge. I played this and the next one loud and often...
The first heavy song with female vocals that I really liked. Compare it to Esben and the Witch's No Dog
from 2014, or Le Tigre's The The Empty
Chris Stamey was a huge follower of Alex Chilton, and this beautiful song helped me get into...
The bit starting at 1:25 is like nothing before and not much since. I wrote more about them in a February 23 blog post.
I heard Lucky Guy
on college radio, immediately bought their debut album, and became obsessed with the Muffs for years, for their catchy songwriting, tight fuzz guitar, and especially for Kim Shattuck's voice. Her best screaming is on Ethyl My Love
, and Upside Down
is a great song from their third album.
This was the only time I really liked a new popular song, and I like it even more now that I understand the lyrics, in which unrequited love is a metaphor for this entire world of dark surfaces with bright depths that we can't touch.
For years this was my number one, but it faded into the background when I discovered Big Blood
. Another great Jeff Mangum song is this informal live version of Little Birds
My first long-term girlfriend lived in Pittsburgh, where this band is from, and we listened to this a lot around 2006. I'm not a fan of heartland rock, but this is a profound and beautiful song about yearning for the undefinable. "Under an open sky, he stands with his eyes closed. If anyone asked him why, he would not know."
I'm not a fan of emo, but a friend stayed with me and introduced me to this concise and luminous breakup song. The lyrics are a subtle gutpunch, from the setup, "Don't forget to kiss me if you're really going to leave," to the climax, "Keep your eyes on the road." I interpret it in more detail here
I got into this band around 2012, and this song finally emerged as my big favorite. Drunk With The Only Saints I Know
and Phantom Fireworks
are also great.
Orphans & Vandals - Argyle Square (2009)
My girlfriend has highly developed taste in music, which sometimes overlaps with mine, and nowhere more than this beautiful song from an obscure one-album project by London singer-songwriter Al Joshua. Again, here's her top 100
from a few years back.
Joanna Newsom - En Gallop (2004)
I heard this in 2013 and fell in love with Joanna Newsom's voice, which put me only one step away from...
Extremely raw, extremely schmaltzy, and extremely epic, with my favorite singer's most intense performance and lyrics like a fairy invocation, this song owns me. I discovered Big Blood in 2014 through Graceless Lady
, and have since decoded and devoured much of their massive and varied discography. See my Big Blood fan page, Ecstasy and Doom
Only after deep immersion in psych rock, and marijuana, did I understand how good this is. The peak of SFB is a mile-high cracked glass spire, and the peak of Space Is Deep is a filthy supernova.
Exuma - Baal (1970)
The gold standard for rawness, Exuma was an influence on Big Blood, and this is his masterpiece. My second favorite is 22nd Century
Nisennenmondai - Mirrorball (2008)
With support from cannabis, I've been exploring increasingly challenging psychedelic jams, and this one is on another level. While the hypnotic riff takes front and center, the drums, bass, and second guitar flutter around it like birds.
The Light Behind The World
Big Star - Kangaroo (1974)
The Garbage and the Flowers - Carousel (1992)
Exuma - Baal (1970)
Witches of the Pinspecked Void Soundtrack
Read it here
Hawkwind - Infinity (1979)
The Creatures - Pluto Drive (1989)
Big Blood - Sequins (2007)
Orphans & Vandals - Incognito (2009)
Camper Van Beethoven - Surprise Truck (1986)
Windhand - Orchard (2013)
The "song from space" was inspired by another song, but this is way more accessible.
My favorite lyrics.
Space Elf Convergence
Cocteau Twins - Pandora (1984)
Joanna Newsom - En Gallop (2004)
This is the twee Stairway to Heaven.
Leigh Ann helped me put this together for the blog and I archived it here. My favorite argument against suicide is that certain moments are worth staying for. From a 2016 reddit thread
: "A sunny spring day, and the rain clouds were moving in. I went past a daycare where a little girl was dancing around, away from all the kids, by herself. You just never know, I thought to myself. What if I had killed myself, all that long time ago."
Nothing here about dying, but it's very sad, and it leads into the next song, by a band that sounds a lot like Big Star's third album.
Benjamin Clementine - Cornerstone (2015)
Again, the lyrics don't mention a suicide, but I like that interpretation.
That edge in her voice is so unsettling.
The band has said that the lyrics are a suicide note from a mother to her son.
The best known version is not on YouTube, but this is pretty close.
This is so similar to Ballad of Hollis Brown that it's almost a cover, and a really good one.
Clearly about a suicide, but I can't imagine the Decemberists ever being that unhappy.
About the poet John Berryman, incorporating the traditional song Sloop John B, made famous by the Beach Boys.
I love that weird crescendo.
Band of Horses - The Funeral (2006)
About living on the edge of death as a heroin addict.
Orphans & Vandals - Terra Firma (2009)
A long and challenging song that I didn't appreciate until listening several times.
This must be the saddest song possible, because it also has so much beauty.
The conventional wisdom is that music from all times is the same quality, and old music only seems better because we forget the bad stuff. But I remember the bad stuff, and even the Captain and Tennille were better than 90% of recent popular music. Somewhere in the late 20th century, culture, economics, and technology converged into a golden age of music. Of course there's always good stuff, and these are my favorites from this decade, excluding Big Blood.
Red Fang - Wires (2011)
Moon Duo - Mazes (2011)
Diane Coffee - Green (2013)
Esben and the Witch - No Dog (live 2014)
Play it loud.
Your Friend - Bangs (2014)
Her most distinctive song, but Tame One
is also great, and the band Living Hour has a similar sound.
Benjamin Clementine - Cornerstone (2015)
This will stand the test of time.
Heimat - Pompei (2016)
Unlisted Top Tier
The rest of this page is mostly for my own reference.
This makes ordinary music sound like it was recorded with a cat sitting on the microphone. Every sonic texture is sharp-edged and beautiful, the mix is airtight, and the high keyboard and electric guitar, at 2:30 and again at 4:00, are brighter than the sun.
Neil Diamond - Holly Holy (1969)
It's not about a chick named Holly -- it's about the plant, and the earth, a perfect crescendo about the unity of nature and the divine.
A little better than Tracey Ullman's famous cover, this is just a perfect pop song.
Corndolly - Come Out (1992?)
unknown - Misirlu (1927?)
OOIOO - Ina (1999)
The Kinks - Strangers (1970)
By Dave Davies. Ray is the brains of the Kinks but Dave is the heart.
In the blend of sounds, this is like practice for their greatest song, Belong.
"September's coming soon, I'm pining for the moon, and what if there were two, side by side in orbit around the fairest sun?"
This has even happier music and sadder lyrics than "Tom Dooley". The narrator is unreliable: his hometown is the depressing place and it's his life that's being wasted.
Orphans & Vandals - Metropes (2009)
This is like an old Kinks song that cynically mocks the elite, but it's darker and stronger. The bit from 3:30-3:42 should last five minutes.
This makes Bohemian Rhapsody sound like children's music.
Sigur Rós - Svefn-g-englar (Sleepwalkers) (1999)
My favorite foreign language song, except for this
This is like the definition of psychedelic folk, unless it's Secret Garden
To my knowledge, the only song with this stunning symmetrical structure: first verse, different verse, chorus, solo, chorus, different verse, first verse.
Harriet Wheeler was the hottest woman who ever recorded a great song. "The only thing I ever really wanted to say, was wrong, was wrong, was wrong."
Dean Wareham sings like Adam Sandler but in this song it somehow makes a guitar inferno even better.
Instrumentals and Jams
Yo La Tengo - Spec Bebop (1997)
Is it pronounced Space Bebop? If you think it's boring, try it on marijuana.
Moondog - Torisa (1995)
I named a character after this hypnotic crescendo. This and the next are from the Rare Material double CD, the first half of which was a 1995 album called Big Band.
Ten minutes of primal space rock with a barrage of low horns playing the same two notes over and over. These remind me of two Hawkwind songs -- Invocation is like Space Is Deep and Torisa is like Wind of Change.
Rachel Flowers - Piano Phase (2011)
The best performance of the most hypnotic composition ever.
With inspired sonic layering and Nik Turner jamming on oboe, this is what the climax of Space Oddity might sound like stretched out to four minutes.
No other instrumental is this pretty and this raw.
The Velvet Underground - What Goes On (1969 live)
The first part with vocals is nothing special, but the jam for the last six minutes is unprecedented and all-important in the history of my favorite music.
Sort of a cover of What Goes On.
I love Bob Dylan's voice, and somehow he also did one of my favorite instrumentals. From the soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
The Voyager space probes recorded electromagnetic signals from around the solar system, and back on Earth these were converted into sound. Collages of these sounds were released as NASA Voyager Space Sounds, separated into ten 30 minute tracks from different places, and also as Symphonies of the Planets, with different planets blended into five 30 minute CD's. All the prettiest and spookiest stuff, mostly from the rings of Uranus, is on CD 1.
Godspeed You Black Emperor - Gathering Storm (2000)
GYBE took the slow buildup to a whole new level. My other favorites include East Hastings and Moya.
Sting's songwriting was a trick to get people to listen to the genius of Summers and Copeland, which was never better than this.
One of the deepest roots of my favorite newer jam music.
Too Many Zooz - Dima (2014)
Have you ever seen a band complain that the audience wasn't giving them enough attention? The Beatles didn't do it so nobody should. Too Many Zooz started out in NYC subways trying to earn the attention of distracted listeners, and their music never wastes a second.
Moon Hooch - Bari 3 (2014)
Yes - Würm (1970)
The last section of Starship Trooper. It's no Space Is Deep, but it's still the best jam in prog rock.
Ludwig van Beethoven - Great Fugue (1826)
I'd like to get more into classical music, but so far this is the only thing I've heard that I love, both densely creative and so wild that it almost sounds like free jazz
Retro Remix Revue - Gerudo Valley (2009)
The best version of my favorite video game track.
Dick Dale - Misirlou (1962)
The 1927 version above is the original or close to it.
Also the guitar solo covers and improves the Our Man Flint movie theme.
R.E.M. - Crazy (1987)
Originally by Pylon.
Originally by Yoko Ono.
Loreena McKennitt - Greensleeves (1991)
Improvised in one take, and its rawness makes it sort of her best song.
Big Blood - Vitamin C (2007)
Originally by Can.
It's easier to unlock genius by trying to be bad than trying to be good, and this masterpiece of badness must be what Song For Baltimore sounds like to other people.
Joanna Newsom's "En Gallop" is sort of a cover of this. They have the same theme, the conflict between the world of spirit and the money economy. They use the same uncommon meaning of the word "flesh" for how your body chains you to an unpleasant material world. And the riff near the beginning of "En Gallop" is almost the same riff that starts at 2:09.
Their happiest song.
Camper Van Beethoven - Lulu Land (1986)
Their best written song was written by David Lowery's otherwise unknown roommate, Paul McKinney. "In Lulu Land the walls are soft and dark, in Lulu Land your secret heart is in command, in Lulu Land."
A weird brief epic about the eternal feminine.
Joanna Newsom - Sadie (2004)
"And all that we built, and all that we breathed, and all that we spilt, or pulled up like weeds, is piled up in back; and it burns irrevocably."
Best breakup song ever. Check out this interpretation
I love the verse about the birds.
Bob Dylan - Idiot Wind (1975)
I can never resist singing along with this. YouTube only has the New York version that was correctly cut from the album.
Bob Dylan - Visions of Johanna (1966)
Like many of my favorite songs, this is about the tension between the world of spirit (Johanna) and the world of flesh (Louise).
Bob Dylan - Girl From The North Country (1963)
On a good stereo the final harmonica solo is the heaviest thing Bob Dylan has ever played.
Bob Dylan - One More Cup Of Coffee (1976)
After REM's Belong, this is the song I'd play to convince aliens to not exerminate humanity. (If I wanted them to do it, I'd play We Are The World.)
"Sting me, queen me, queen sting dream me, dream queen sting me, sting queen!"
One of my favorite songs to dance to.
Beat Happening - Tiger Trap (1992)
Dire Straits - Skateaway (1980)
Their most magical song.
Like Skateaway, this is a beautiful song about the divine feminine. It's not as precise or complex, but the whole sound on Communique has a depth that's not on any of their other albums.
Sultans of Swing has a great guitar solo, but otherwise this leaves it in the dust.
Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)
You have to go back to "Like a Rolling Stone" for a song that's both this good and this influential. After listening to 90's rock inspired by Nirvana, it's incredible to listen to this and hear how much better it is.
Nirvana - untitled (1993)
Eventually titled "Sappy", it was untitled in its original release (on the No Alternative compilation) and there was no title consistently attached to it from the beginning. Great metaphysical song.
Red House Painters - Katy Song (1993)
I don't like Mark Kozelek's lyrics or voice as much as I used to, but this song is brilliant, and someone should cover it.
Not a fan of their sound, but these are great lyrics.
Weird song about the ancient conflict between sedentary and nomadic culture.
U2 - Bad (live 1985)
Originally from his tinny-sounding first album, Gary Numan's best written song sounds
much better live in the movie Urgh! A Music War
Bob Mould's best songs are the saddest, and Grant Hart's best songs are the happiest...
Galaxie 500 - Flowers (1988)
This is what reverb was invented for.
Bone Cellar - Dryrot (1994)
Great obscure Seattle band, with one of my favorite guitar solos.
The full-length version totally rocks!
The Flaming Lips edge out Neutral Milk Hotel in the category of best band worst name.
I like the KEXP live version best, and made the video with a camera toss image I found on the internet years ago.
The Velvet Underground - Candy Says (1968)
Their best written song. Sung by Doug Yule.
This is like Space Is Deep backwards, with an incredible rising jam in the first half, and pretty good vocals in the second.
This song has never been released or even bootlegged -- you can only hear it by watching the movie Cutter's Way
, and only the first verse plays clearly. I bought the dvd just so I could extract it for the video.
The second best song title ever, after Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun".
I love the structure of this song: a simple 18 note vocal melody repeated 16 times with changing lyrics.
The most mature breakup song I've ever heard. (lyrics)
The superior Gord's Gold version of this song was cut from the CD and to this day has not been offered for sale in digital form. But it has been ripped from vinyl and it's on YouTube now.
Violent Femmes - Never Tell (1984)
More like a collection of scraps than a song, but every scrap is intense and inspired.
The Beatles - Rain (1966)
My favorite Beatles song and Ringo's best drumming. I write more about the Beatles here
Did ZZ Top take their whole sound from this?
Neil Young - Helpless (1970)
Neil Young - The Needle and the Damage Done (1972)
A perfect song, and I love the unexpected quick ending.
Neil Young - Powderfinger (1979)
Screamin' Jay Hawkins - I Put a Spell on You (1956)
The songwriting is nothing special but the performance is one of the most interesting things in the 20th century. Instead of covering it, other artists should try to play their own compositions with this kind of wild intensity.
The Old 97's - Valentine (1999)
Loudon Wainwright - New Paint (1972)
The best version of Kris Kristofferson's best song.
The best classic punk song.
The second best classic punk song, and my favorite band name.
The third best classic punk song.
Flying Burrito Brothers - Sin City (1969)
The original alt-country band.
It's like a post-punk When The Levee Breaks.
Their purest love song, from their brilliant second album, Leave Home
This would make an awesome country song.
Donovan - Atlantis (1968)
The first half is an embarrassing spoken word bit, and the second half, a fourteen syllable repeating chorus, is one of the best things ever.
There are heavy bands that have great soft and pretty songs, but how often does a soft band make a great noisy song?
The Shins - New Slang (2001)
Here's another video
showing the album cover references in that video.
This is like the new wave Space Is Deep.
Have A Nice Life - Earthmover (2008)
Again, pretty good song, great jam.
The live version from The Secret Policeman's Other Ball
Forgotten political song about how people are tricked into believing in the system that feeds on them.
Antenna - Snakes (1991)
This has everything my favorite songs have except an edge.
under construction: best videos
- Hawkwind - Space Is Deep
- Red Fang - Wires
- Rush - No One At The Bridge
Appendix: top by letter of the alphabet
- Argyle Square - Orphans and Vandals
- Belong - R.E.M. (Baal - Exuma)
- Carousel - The Garbage and the Flowers
- Destin Rain - Big Blood
- En Gallop - Joanna Newsom
- Fade Into You - Mazzy Star
- Grosse Fuge - Ludwig van Beethoven
- Haystack - Big Blood
- Indian Summer - Beat Happening
- June - Camper Van Beethoven
- Kangaroo - Big Star
- Lost In America - The Gathering Field (Lulu Land - CVB)
- Mirrorball - Nisennenmondai
- No Gravity Blues - Big Blood
- Once In A Lifetime - Talking Heads (Oh Country - Big Blood)
- Piano Phase - Rachel Flowers
- Questioningly - Ramones
- Rise of Quinnisa Rose, The - Big Blood
- Song For Baltimore - Big Blood (Space Is Deep - Hawkwind)
- They Don't Know - Kirsty MacColl
- Untitled - R.E.M.
- Visions of Johanna - Bob Dylan
- When The Levee Breaks - Led Zeppelin (Wendell Gee - REM)
- Xanadu - Rush
- Yearning - Mono
- Zero - Yeah Yeah Yeahs