Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[A note about the embedded player below. You can only listen to full versions of about half the songs via this player, but you can click through to IMEEM to hear the rest, should you so desire. We're working on a better solution for the future.]
This week’s question, which was actually e-mailed in via the proper channels:
Hey you hipster assholes,
What’s your favorite song? No hedging with three or four. What’s your favorite song? You are allowed to say, “It changes all the time.” But I’m asking you right now. What’s your favorite song, A.V. Club?
What a rude question, so rudely phrased. I would expect nothing less from The A.V. Club. How can you expect music junkies to pick just one song? But I’ll bite, with the caveat that it changes all the time, and this is one I just always come back to: “Crawl” by The Wedding Present. They’re one of my favorite bands of all time, from their early, fast-strumming days to their pinnacle, 1991’s dark and wonderful Seamonsters and beyond. This song was, for some strange reason, not released on an album—it was recorded with Steve Albini prior to Seamonsters, and released as part of an EP cleverly titled 3 Songs. But clearly Wedding Present main man David Gedge knew he had a great song here: The band (still a going concern, though with a rotating lineup) still plays it, and it’s more widely available on an excellent singles compilation cleverly titled Singles 1989-1991.
Oh Josh, you’re just doing this to be cruel to all your 50-gigs-of-music-hoarding fellow critics. Still, most days, I’d have an instant answer for you—there’s almost always some song I’ve fallen wildly in love with and am listening to on infinite repeat. For some reason, though, I haven’t done that in a couple of weeks. [Editor’s note: Famous last words. A couple of days after writing this response, I fell for Mike Doughty’s “Tremendous Brunettes,” which I currently can’t get enough of.] So I’m going to haphazardly fall back on my favorite sing-along song, and one that never fails to bring up happy, goofy college memories: They Might Be Giants’ “Birdhouse In Your Soul.” It isn’t nearly as lush and orchestrated and harmony-heavy as the songs I usually get addicted to, but it has the benefit of being breezy, bouncy, fun to sing, and crammed with the weird references and complicated metaphors that first made me really pay attention to TMBG’s lyrics. Also, it reminds me of various road-trips where various groups of people sang it in chorus at the tops of their lungs, and one theater rehearsal where someone brought in Flood and we played it over the theater’s giant sound system and danced on and around the stage, Charlie Brown Christmas-style. No other song in my life has been keyed to so much childish fun, while still having so much bizarro depth in the form of references to Longines Symphonettes and Greek mythology.
Without a doubt, my favorite song is Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” I’ve never had a convertible and I don’t spend much time at the beach, but every time I hear this song, I want to put the top down and soak all the sunbathers in its propulsive, joyous glory. I’ve always had an uncritical love of R&B and dance music, and for a while in graduate school, I claimed Junior Walker and the All-Stars’ “Gimme That Beat Part I” as my all-time favorite song because of the miraculous perfection of its rhythmic interplay and multiple instrumental hooks. “September” is a shinier, summer-ier incarnation of that same passion. Listening to the way its many parts weave together and reach for the heights of memory and happiness is like participating in an unbridled celebration. Its only flaw is that it only lasts for three and a half minutes; I could soak up its warmth for hours. What can I say? I like to be happy.
Without reading too much into the meaning behind the lyrics themselves (or overthinking the question), I have to go with Jude’s “I Do.” It’s a pretty simple song that spans only a few chords, so a buddy of mine taught me how to strum it on guitar when I was a kid at summer camp, and it became one of the first songs I could sing and play in its entirety. But it wasn’t until I saw Jude play the song at my college’s coffee shop that the song hit home. This wasn’t one of those “cool” coffee shops where singers want to be seen by a college crowd; no, it was campus-owned, had the worst acoustics known to man, almost no seats facing the “stage” (just some open space between booths), and the constant whir of a smoothie machine. I couldn’t believe Jude had agreed to come here, and judging by the most awkward “taking of the ‘stage’” I’ve ever seen, it’s clear he felt the same way. But in spite of all the obstacles, and the crowd of dozen (singular), he belted out the song—which is about the love of his life marrying another man—and the accompanying falsetto, like no other. To this day, it’s still a great tune to dust off the ol’ Fender to.
My favorite non-techno song is “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” which seems to me a pretty perfect demonstration of all that pop music stands to do well in the world. And then, like Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” (another one I like a lot for similar reasons), it’s one of those songs that exists pretty much entirely on its own terms. I don’t attribute liking it to any specific time or place or phase in my life. I don’t attribute it too much to B.J. Thomas (though he sings it really well). And I don’t even attribute it to Burt Bacharach, who knew a thing or two about writing pop songs that stick. It’s just “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” no matter why or where or how it gets trotted out. Plus it’s fun to play on ukulele.
Jesus, could we have one of these where my answer isn’t Talking Heads? While on my giddier days I’d probably say it’s David Bowie’s “Young Americans” (yes, Josh, kick-ass sax solo and all), I’ve often believed that if I were stuck in some sort of bizarre time-warp where I was forced to listen to the same song on repeat for the rest of my days, I would like that song to be “Once In A Lifetime.” (Though, given that this is ostensibly a “cosmic punishment” scenario, it would more likely be Tonic’s “If You Could Only See.”) It’s the first pop song I can remember truly noticing when I was a kid, and it’s held my attention ever since, through thousands upon thousands of spins, without ever becoming anywhere close to tiresome. What’s more, it’s the rare song that only burrows deeper the older you get: Who among us hasn’t stopped to look around at their job, their spouse, their friends, their kids, their whole life leading up until now, and wondered, “Well, how did I get here?” True, it isn’t a particularly deep insight, but that’s what makes it so universal—and mutable. My guess is even when I’m 60 (I should be so lucky), it’ll still hit me where I live.
My favorite song is probably Ella Fitzgerald’s exquisitely world-weary version of “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered.” It’s at once fucking epic and beguilingly intimate. (All right, I will stop abusing adverbs now.) Just as Citizen Kane succinctly captures all the phases of a man’s life, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” captures the totality of romance, from the tingly, life-affirming exhilaration of young love to the uncertainty and doubt of realizing that your current partner might just be another stop in a long, open-ended journey to the gut-wrenching despair of breaking up. Fitzgerald doesn’t just sing; she turns “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” into a three-act musical comedy/tragedy in song form.
“Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered” is fundamentally about the agony and the ecstasy of loving someone who will never make you happy. It’s wantonly sexual in a subversively cerebral way, as Fitzgerald lays out her romantic bona fides in a slyly casual way (“Men are not a new sensation / I’ve done pretty well, I think”), or quips about a man who inspires sleepless nights and bottomless agony, “Horizontally speaking, he’s at his very best.” My favorite song of all time is naughty and nice, happy and sad, romantic and quietly despairing as well eminently quotable. If I ever write anything half as brilliant as “Vexed again / Perplexed again / Thank God I can be oversexed again,” I will die a happy man. On “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered,” Fitzgerald tears lustily into “oversexed,” stretching it out deliberately in ways that border on obscene. Christ, how I wish someone other than Stephen Merritt wrote songs that rhymed SAT words like “dyspeptic” and “antiseptic” with such unselfconscious grace. I can listen to “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered” when I’m heartbroken. I can listen to it when I’m deliriously happy. It really is the perfect song for any occasion, in addition to being just about perfect.
When I want to have my already-healthy sense of skepticism validated, I turn to Steely Dan’s “Only A Fool Would Say That.” When I want to tap into a sense of world-weary romanticism, I listen to “Waterloo Sunset” by The Kinks. But, push come to shove? It’s “American Girl” by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. A song so mighty that countless barroom sing-alongs can’t wear it down, “American Girl” has everything that makes a pop song transcendent. With just a few concrete details, Petty brings his unnamed subject come to life. (Short of Stuart Murdoch, is there a male singer-songwriter better at capturing the emotions of women than Petty?) It’s a bittersweet sketch of someone who never gets what she wants, but remains determined to keep wanting it, balancing the drag of reality with the possibility of rock ’n’ roll escape. After all, it is a great big world. Plus Mike Campbell’s Byrds-inspired guitar jangle is one of my favorite sounds in the world, which doesn’t hurt. (And don’t bother commenting that it’s really about that. It isn’t.)
Maybe it’s because I’ve been ridicu-busy lately, but the song I keep coming back to is Drive-By Truckers’ “The Living Bubba,” which Patterson Hood wrote in 1996 from the point of view of his country-rock acquaintance Gregory Dean Smalley, who’d recently died of AIDS. The song is simple and powerful, describing the effects of the disease and Smalley’s efforts to overcome them by playing as many gigs as he could. “I can’t die now / ‘Cause I got another show to do,” Hood sings over and over on Smalley’s behalf, and every time he does I feel my own little surge of strength. (For more on the song, read Hood’s recollections of its origins in Paste.)
It changes all the time, but right now it is, without a doubt, my favorite song of 2008: “Empty Legs,” the opening track to Thank You’s Thrill Jockey debut, Terrible Two. I hadn’t heard the band previously, and I’m a notorious crank when it comes to most new music, so it was with perceptible disdain that I put the promo CD into my desktop’s disc drive after reading the label’s one-sheet. But what a wonderful, welcome surprise the Baltimore trio had in store for me. The six-and-a-half-minute-long song is composed of three basic parts—each about two minutes long—that are played one after the other, never repeated, and constantly evolving. The first section opens with a skittering, tom-heavy drumbeat filled with slight shifts and variations that reward careful attention; an extra high-hat accent here, one less snare hit there. Drummer Elke Wardlaw is clearly in charge; Jeffrey McGrath and Michael Bouyoucas fill in the gaps with blaring whistles, fuzzed-out synths, and rolling “la-la-la-la-la” vocals before a pair of abrasive guitars kicks in. It ends on what feels like a climactic note—but from the moment the second part kicks in, it’s apparent that the introductory section was nothing but musical foreplay. Wardlaw’s second beat is more straightforward and compact—but no less rhythmically driving—as her first, and it frees up significant musical space for McGrath and Bouyoucas’ angular guitar work. And it’s at the 3:05 mark that “Empty Legs” begins the ascent to its highest peak: Over the propulsive drumbeat and guitars, a pair of echoing, ethereal voices emerges—the first panned to the right, the second to the left—wailing “Ooooh” while a third barks a staccato “ha ha” in the background. (The band, obviously, doesn’t spend a lot of time on lyrics.) And when Wardlaw wavers her voice for the first time at 3:58—well, it’s as subtly beautiful a moment in indie rock that I’ve heard in longer than I can remember. The remaining portion of the song is a much-needed comedown punctuated by snare hits and sparse, scratchy guitars—a welcome respite after close to five minutes of aural overstimulation.
My favorite song is “Caught Up In You” by .38 Special. As soon as you get done laughing, please never talk to me again. I have no time for people who can’t appreciate the blistering songcraft, the soaringly lyrical solos, and the hair-farming magnificence of the fucking Special. I grew up in a strict Southern-rock household among bikers and drug-dealers on the ass-end of Florida, and .38 Special was a staple on my mom’s radio alongside Charlie Daniels, Molly Hatchet, and, of course, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Donnie Van Zant—brother of Skynyrd’s legendary Ronnie—is .38 Special’s frontman, but his songs are Southern rock by association only. 1982’s “Caught Up In You” is a perfect example of the group’s hard-on for power-pop: pure, tight, wimpy, catchy, and played without a wasted note or ounce of fat. If only they’d dressed as sexy as Loverboy or something, they might have done better in the MTV ’80s. Watching the video for “Caught Up In You,” I can’t help but feel kind of embarrassed for them: Here are these scruffy, Vietnam-vet-looking dudes trying to pass themselves off as pop stars in the new-wave era. But the modest amount of success they did manage to achieve is just more proof of how ballsy and awesome they are.
When we discussed this in a meeting, my colleagues prompted me for my answer, asking, “What Hüsker Dü song is it?” then “What Jawbreaker song is it?” and finally, “Fall Out Boy?” Yuk it up, fuckos, because you’re all wrong: If you put a gun to my head, “A-OK” by Face To Face would just barely nudge out “I’m Not Afraid” by the same band. I was obsessed with Face To Face in the early and mid-’90s. I basically journo-stalked singer-guitarist Trever Keith as a budding reporter, and their 1992 debut, Don’t Turn Away, still ranks as one of my top five all-time favorites. “A-OK” was originally a B-side on the “Disconnected” 7-inch, and I was practically paralyzed by its hooks when I played it for the first time in the summer of 1994. The guitar still kills me: It’s just a simple series of individually picked notes and power chords, but the melody nails the lyrics’ sentiment—which is basically “Fuck off, things aren’t cool, and I don’t care what you think.” It’s nothing revolutionary, but the way all the elements cohere just slays me. The band later released “A-OK” on their second full-length, Big Choice, but I think the definitive version lies on 1998’s Live, when the band was a quartet and at the peak of its powers. Although I’ve listened to it a few hundred times over the course of 15 years, “A-OK” hits me in the gut every single time.
My favorite song is an easy one: “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” by The Vulgar Boatmen. It’s also my favorite song title, with that “yet” hanging there at the end like a hopeful promise that one day, a prospective lover might be charmed into submission. And who wouldn’t be charmed by the subtle, enchanting, unforgettable guitar line and the sweet, plainspoken vocal harmonies, all coalescing into a song that represents folk-pop at its most intimate? As with all favorite songs, there are personal associations that give it a special place among the thousands of other songs I’ve heard in my lifetime. For me, it evokes boozy late-night conversations with a good friend during my lonely three-year purgatory in Miami, Florida, sitting on the back porch of a shitty apartment with a bird’s-eye view of the parking lot. The whole album, Please Panic, was great music to wind down an evening, and that “yet” held assurances of better days ahead.
Asking for my favorite song is like asking me to pick a favorite molecule in my body, or the best second I ever had while having sex. The only honest answer is “I don’t know.” But I have no problem coming up with a decent lie in the interest of pop-culture sport. So I’ll go with “Rock With You” by Michael Jackson. I’m a big believer in durability signifying greatness, and the only other song I can remember loving as much for as long is “Photograph” by Def Leppard. (“Rock With You” won the coin toss.) A partial list of things I love about “Rock With You” includes: 1) The kick-ass opening drum roll, which immediately tells me that I’m about to hear my favorite song ever; 2) The backing vocals on the chorus that go “all night” and “sunlight”, because they’re easier for me to sing than the lead vocals; 3) The part where Michael sings, “Girrrrrrl, when you dance, there’s a magic that must be love,” which is the most purely joyful moment I’ve ever heard in a pop song; 4) The awesome instrumental solo that sounds like a dolphin singing into a vocoder; 5) That the song is so sexual and yet, at the same time, so innocent, and not in that icky Michael Jackson way, either. You know what? I think I’ve talked myself into believing that “Rock With You” really is my favorite song. Until the next time I hear “Photograph,” anyway.