“If You Love Somebody, Set Them On Fire”: 26-plus masters of clever/weird/cheeky song titles
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1. Robert Pollard/Guided By Voices
The remarkably prolific Robert Pollard has a seemingly inexhaustible ability to produce song after song, so it’s a good thing he has a gift for colorful titles to attach to them. While Pollard’s hit-to-miss ratio is famously variable, his gift for crafting songs that at least sound intriguing has never flagged. Beyond classic GBV albums like Propeller, Alien Lanes, and Bee Thousand, whose standout tracks include “Gold Star For Robot Boy” and “Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy,” there’s a series of side-projects and solo albums littered with memorable, possibly random, combinations of words like “Customer’s Throat,” “Motion Sickness Ghosts,” and “Trick Of The Telekinetic Newlyweds.” And that’s saying nothing of Pollard’s gift for naming albums and EPs, which is almost self-defeating. Can any collection called Standard Gargoyle Decisions live up to its title?
2. Anal Cunt
Seth Putnam of Anal Cunt—known as A.C. to more family-friendly publications—may be the only songwriter in history better known for the titles of his songs than his actual music. That’s partly because Anal Cunt’s tunes are mostly ruthless blasts of noise, and partly because its titles are deliberately provocative and sometimes horribly offensive. From the simply bizarre (“Breastfeeding Jim J. Bullock’s Toenail Collection”) to the very not-okay (“You Got Date Raped,” “Kill Women”) to the fantastically self-referential (“Song Titles Are Fucking Stupid,” “Having To Make Up Song Titles Sucks”) to the simply sublime (“Living Colour Is My Favorite Black Metal Band”), Putnam did it all. And then he died last year, not terribly long after releasing a promotional photo of himself, naked, simultaneously receiving a blowjob and injecting heroin.
3. Dillinger Four
Minneapolis punk band Dillinger Four specializes in intense, melodic, and deeply sarcastic punk rock. That last characteristic is especially reflected in the group’s song titles, which frequently have little to do with the actual content of the songs, often seeming like goofy titles a group of friends brainstormed for their imaginary band. But they work on their own, too: “A Floater Left With Pleasure In The Executive Washroom,” “Portrait Of The Artist As A Fucking Asshole,” “Get Your Study Hall Out Of My Recess,” “Contemplate This On The Tree Of Woe,” “He’s A Shithead (Yeah, Yeah),” “Define ‘Learning Disorder,’” “New Punk Fashions For The Spring Formal,” and many others.
4. Pink Floyd
After Pink Floyd’s founding frontman—the Mad Hatter of psychedelia, Syd Barrett—departed in 1968, the group found itself minus its main source of demented wit. Still, it was bassist Roger Waters who had come up with the weirdest, wordiest song titles of the band’s Barrett era, including “Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk” and “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun.” After replacing Barrett with David Gilmour, Pink Floyd tried to keep the strangeness coming, first with “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” and then with inscrutable titles like “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” “Mind Your Throats Please,” and “Wot’s… Uh The Deal?,” all of which belied the group’s growing moodiness and atmosphere. But the height of Pink Floyd’s logorrhea appears on 1969’s appropriately bloated Ummagumma: “Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict.”
The metal subgenre of grindcore is often fixated on the morbid and mortifying, a noxious aesthetic that Carcass helped pioneer with its 1988 classic, Reek Of Putrefaction. With songs that buzz through human tissue like a coroner’s electric saw, the album sports appetizing titles such as “Regurgitation Of Giblets,” “Microwaved Uterogestation,” and “Feast On Dismembered Carnage.” Carcass topped itself, both musically and title-wise, with 1989’s Symphonies Of Sickness, which hosts a gory litany of causes of death—“Excoriating Abdominal Emanation,” “Embryonic Necropsy And Devourment,” and “Crepitating Bowel Erosion” being just a few choice selections from an abundant menu.
5. Future Of The Left/Mclusky
Neither of Andrew Falkous’ bands—the now-defunct Mclusky and the still-raging Future Of The Left—is particularly well known, but that’s not for lack of trying in the song-naming department. If songs called “The World Loves Us And Is Our Bitch” (from Mclusky’s Do Dallas) and “Robocop 4: Fuck Off Robocop,” sound appealing, well, they are. It’s cheeky, angry fun, with cheeky, angry titles to match.
6. The Locust
Prankish and costumed, arty grindcore band The Locust has long specialized in music that’s impenetrably abrasive. The same goes for its song titles. Almost every track the band has ever recorded is a perfect, sparkling gem of cut-up, skull-fucking surrealism—not to mention a sidelong parody of ridiculous grindcore titles as a whole. A small sampling of The Locust’s greatest hits include “Stucco Obelisks Labeled As Trees,” “Siphoning Projectiles During Selective Amnesia,” “Spitting In The Faces Of Fools As A Source Of Nutrition,” “Earwax Halo Manufactured For The Champion In All Of Us,” “Captain Gaydar It’s Time To Wind Your Clock Again,” “Gluing Carpet To Your Genitals Does Not Make You A Cantaloupe,” and the Easter-time classic “Get Off The Cross, The Wood Is Needed.” Seeing as how most of The Locust’s songs clock in under 60 seconds, it takes almost as long to read their titles as it does to listen to them.
7. The Dead Milkmen
Starting out as a joke on a series of homemade comedy tapes, The Dead Milkmen morphed into a real band by the mid-’80s. But they never forgot their roots in snotty, juvenile humor. The band’s 1985 debut, Big Lizard In My Backyard, set the tone for an irreverent career with tracks like “Right Wing Pigeons” and “Takin’ Retards To The Zoo.” Soon, many mini-masterpieces of punky, nerdy humor had entered the group’s setlist: “Vince Lombardi Service Center,” “(Theme From) Blood Orgy Of The Atomic Fern,” “Sri Lanka Sex Hotel,” “My Many Smells,” “Everybody’s Got Nice Stuff But Me,” “If You Love Somebody, Set Them On Fire,” “Methodist Coloring Book,” and the anti-Baby Boomer anthem, “The Thing That Only Eats Hippies.”
8. Atom And His Package
Adam Goren doesn’t need his status as a high-school science teacher to prove he’s a geek. Better known as the one-man band Atom And His Package (his “Package” being his bandmate, a sequencer), the bespectacled rocker spent the late ’90s and early ’00s performing a breathlessly high-pitched selection of dorky synth-punk songs. Among the many winners: “Anarchy Means I Litter,” “If You Own The Washington Redskins, You’re A Cock,” “Dear Atom, You Do Not Want Children, Love, Atom,” “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Lib,” and “Possession (Not The One By Danzig).” But Goren’s affably satirical egg-headedness is best summed up in this title: “(Lord, It’s Hard To Be Happy When You’re Not) Using The Metric System.”
9. The Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips have long been known for their expansive music. The group’s song titles, though, are just as sprawling. Even on the band’s corrosively psychedelic debut, 1986’s Hear It Is, “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” hinted at the brain-fried oddness to come. From there, frontman Wayne Coyne let his freak flag fly: Among his many playfully bizarre song titles are “One Million Billionth Of A Millisecond On A Sunday Morning,” “Talkin’ ’Bout The Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants To Live Forever),” “Oh, My Pregnant Head (Labia In The Sunlight),” and “Psychiatric Explorations Of The Fetus With Needles.” As The Lips’ music has mellowed over the years, though, so have Coyne’s titles. Tracks like 1988’s “Hari-Krishna Stomp Wagon (Fuck Led Zeppelin)” have given way to gentler, dreamier ramblings like “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion (The Inner Life As Blazing Shield Of Defiance And Optimism As Celestial Spear Of Action)” and “The Wizard Turns On… The Giant Silver Flashlight And Puts On His Werewolf Moccasins.”
10. The Fall
Most of Mark E. Smith’s song titles (and lyrics, for that matter) sound like something the Fall frontman blurted out in a drunken stupor and that some bandmate then copied down incorrectly. From “No Xmas For John Quays” on The Fall’s 1979 debut album Live At The Witch Trials to later songs like “Who Makes The Nazis?,” “Gut Of The Quantifier,” “Mollusc In Tyrol,” “The Birmingham School Of Business School,” “Paranoia Man In Cheap Shit Room,” and “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man,’” Smith has long lived up to his reputation as an eccentric crank.
As young fans of punk, funk, jazz, and prog, Minutemen’s principal songwriters Mike Watt and D. Boon learned how a good title can lend form and weight to the improvisatory. Early Minutemen song titles were short and punchy, but as the trio expanded its sound, Watt and Boon started righteously sloganeering, with titles like “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs,” “Dreams Are Free, Motherfucker!,” “If Reagan Played Disco,” “Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing,” “The Roar Of The Masses Could Be Farts,” “There Ain’t Shit On TV Tonight,” and the sublime statement-of-purpose “Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want The Truth?”
12. Fall Out Boy
Fall Out Boy liked to slip pop-culture references into its song titles, such as “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose (But I’m Gonna Give It My Best Shot),” “Tell That Mick He Just Made My List Of Things To Do Today,” and “Get Busy Living Or Get Busy Dying (Do Your Part To Save The Scene And Stop Going To Shows),” “Coffee’s For Closers,” and “Nobody Puts Baby In The Corner.” But the band also just liked long titles: “I’ve Got A Dark Alley And A Bad Idea That Says You Should Shut Your Mouth (Summer Song),” “I Slept With Someone In Fall Out Boy And All I Got Was This Stupid Song Written About Me,” and “Champagne For My Real Friends, Real Pain For My Sham Friends.”
13. Captain Beefheart
Singer, songwriter, painter, and all-around absurdist maniac Don Van Vliet applied his God-given naming skills most deftly to his own moniker, the one and only Captain Beefheart. But there are plenty of other strokes of Dadaist genius scattered in the track listings of his convention-shredding albums. Consider these gems from 1969’s landmark Trout Mask Replica: “When Big Joan Sets Up,” “My Human Gets Me Blues,” “Hair Pie: Bake 1,” and “Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish.” Rarely has nonsense been so profound.
14. Kinky Friedman
For 40 years, Kinky Friedman has carved out a niche in the space between country music and comedy, and his song titles telegraph that: “Get Your Biscuits In The Oven And Your Buns In Bed,” “Asshole From El Paso,” “Something’s Wrong With The Beaver.” Friedman has also written prolifically about the otherwise neglected subject of Jews in country music, most memorably in “Ride ’Em Jewboy,” a surprisingly reverent tribute to Holocaust victims.
15. Shabazz Palaces
Seattle hip-hop collective Shabazz Palaces only has one album—2011’s excellent Black Up—and two EPs to its credit, but the group already belongs in the company of prodigiously convoluted song-titlers. Some of the titles on Black Up take nearly as long to say as they do to play, including monsters like “A Treatease Dedicated To The Avian Airess From North East Nubis (1000 Questions, 1 Answer)” and “Endeavors For Never (The Last Time We Spoke You Said You Were Not Here. I Saw You Though.)”
16. Minus The Bear
It should come as no surprise that a band that surreptitiously named itself after a blowjob (it’s a reference to ’70s TV staple B.J. And The Bear, get it?) would also come up with some clever, silly song titles. These Seattleites don’t play particularly jokey music, but their early song titles include “Hey, Wanna Throw Up? Get Me Naked,” its sequel, “Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo,” “Let’s Play Guitar In A Five Guitar Band,” and “Booyah Achieved.” They gave up the practice later, unfortunately.
17. Panic At The Disco
Panic At The Disco hasn’t been as frequent an offender in the field of über-lengthy song titles since original guitarist/primary songwriter Ryan Ross left the band in 2009—shortly after the group dropped the extraneous exclamation point from its name, perhaps not coincidentally. But Ross’ decision to kick off his band’s career by composing catchy ditties with titles like “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom And Suicide Is Press Coverage,” “Lying Is The Most Fun A Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off,” and “There’s A Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered, Honey, You Just Haven’t Thought Of It Yet” is the sort of creative decision not soon forgotten.
18. Cobra Starship
Given that Cobra Starship is proud enough of its connection to Fall Out Boy to name a song “Pete Wentz Is The Only Reason We’re Famous,” it’s hardly surprising that the band begun by former Midtown bassist Gabe Saporta would follow in Wentz’s footsteps with its lengthy, creative song titles. The trend begins with Cobra Starship’s debut, While The City Sleeps, We Rule The Streets, which kicks off with “Being From Jersey Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry,” but the group’s discography is littered with similarly unusual titles, including “It’s Amateur Night At The Apollo Creed,” “Prostitution Is The World’s Oldest Profession (And I, Dear Madame, Am A Professional),” and “Don’t Blame The World, It’s The DJ’s Fault.”
A sharp and witty a lyricist like Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner could probably whip up a clever, or just weird, song title for every track in the Nashville band’s catalog. He doesn’t, but that only makes names like “My Face Your Ass,” “I Sucked My Boss’s Dick,” “Two Kittens Don’t Make A Puppy,” and “National Talk Like A Pirate Day” stand out more, often in contrast to the intricate, elegant beauty of the group’s songs. A band this good has every right to take itself seriously, so Lambchop’s choice to name the two discs of its fantastic 2004 double album Aw C’mon and No, You C’mon serves as proof of a sense of humor to match its skill.
20. The Mountain Goats
Chief Mountain Goat John Darnielle is known for his lyrical complexity, so it follows that his massive catalog of songs is full of intriguing titles. Earlier works had a bluntness to them, like “Running Away With What Freud Said” or “Standard Bitter Love Song #7.” Later releases had more evocative, if cryptic titles, like “Absolute Lithops Effect” (referring to an African pebble plant) or “Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into The Water, Triumph Of” (from an appropriately obscure Biblical parable). The band’s masterpiece Tallahassee, about a crumbling marriage, is a mix of enigmatic titles (“Oceanographer’s Choice,” “International Small Arms Traffic Blues”) and straight-ahead descriptive ones (“No Children,” “First Few Desperate Hours,” “Have To Explode”).
21. Yo La Tengo
Named for, as the Trouser Press Record Guide memorably put it, “the cry of the Spanish-speaking outfielder,” indie-rock mainstay Yo La Tengo likes to leave some of the translation to its listeners. The band’s song titles are littered with slightly tweaked cultural references, like “The Crying Of Lot G,” which nods to Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying Of Lot 49, or the Simpsons-riffing “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House.” Sometimes, as when Yo La name-drops its favorite long-term parking lot, the titles seem like in-jokes that have escaped into the real world, likely by way of temporary names slapped onto as-yet untitled jams. Other times, the adaptation is more pointed: “From A Motel 6” converts Bob Dylan’s revved-up “From A Buick 6” into a lament about the dislocations of life on the road, while “The Story Of Yo La Tango” takes the edge off its epic self-mythologizing by subbing in the frequent misspelling of the band’s name.
22. Mark Kozelek
Mark Kozelek began his career in Red House Painters with titles as austere as the songs to which they were attached, like “Down Colorful Hill” and “Dragonflies.” After launching Sun Kil Moon, he stretched a bit, naming songs after Judas Priest rocker Glenn Tipton and South Korean boxer Duk Koo Kim. But the latest Sun Kil Moon disc, Among The Leaves, finds him full-on silly: “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman Vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man” and “Not Much Rhymes With Everything’s Awesome At All Times” nestle with more simple titles like “Red Poison.”
Morrissey is one of the cleverest lyricists in pop-music history, and he backs up his sung words with terrific titles. Who could resist a single called “Shoplifters Of The World Unite” or “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”? In his solo years, Moz got a little less subtle, with “You’re The One For Me, Fatty” and “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful.” The weaker the titles got, the weaker the songs got; maybe he just needs to start coming up with better titles again!
24. Blue Öyster Cult
Blue Öyster Cult’s songwriting duties were spread out among the band members, with noteworthy contributions from rock critic Richard Meltzer and Patti Smith; but all of the band’s material was shaped to reflect its mythology as an icy, sinister force, literate and oblique, as if the horror movie it was scoring in its head was more of an arthouse picture. On the band’s earliest albums, this image was reinforced by wordy, suggestive, often impenetrable titles such as “I’m On The Lamb But I Ain’t No Sheep,” “Before The Kiss, A Redcap,” “She’s As Beautiful As A Foot,” and “Mistress Of The Salmon Salt (Quicklime Girl).” As the group matured, the titles of its midnight movies in sound became punchier and more marquee-friendly: “Tattoo Vampire,” “The Revenge Of Vera Gemini,” and “E.T.I.,” which features one of mainstream pop culture’s earliest appearances by the Men In Black.
25. Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens has since claimed that his so-called “50 States Project,” which he ostensibly kicked off in 2003 with the album Michigan, was merely a promotional gimmick. Perhaps it was (even if he did follow it up in 2005 with Illinois), but either way, Stevens’ song titles on the record felt like a gimmick unto themselves, with tracks like “For the Widows In Paradise, For the Fatherless In Ypsilanti” and “Oh, God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)” all but begging potential consumers to listen and hear if they could possibly be as pretentious as those titles suggested. (They weren’t.)
26. David Cross
David Cross doesn’t write songs, but he definitely deserves a place on this list for the track titles he makes up for his stand-up comedy albums. Instead of going the simple route, he pokes at hacky comedians with track titles that have nothing to do with what he’s talking about, such as: “Spiderman Vs. Batman Vs. Wonder Woman On The Rag,” “Diarrhea Moustache,” “If Baseballs Had AIDS On Them,” and of course “When All Is Said And Done, I Am Lonely And Miserable And Barely Able To Mask My Contempt For The Audience As I Trot Out The Same Sorry Act I’ve Been Doing Since The Mid-Eighties!”