Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Best Song Ever: May 2013 (Round 1 Part 1)

Unexpectedly, last month's Best Song Ever tournament had a beneficial outcome besides giving me a way to wring a few more drops of precious content onto this site. It caused me to start thinking about songs in a new way. What started as an idle exercise, the kind you do when you're a teenager hanging out in a basement ("Zeppelin or Who?") caused me to really think about these songs and what their respective merits were: what I wanted out of them, and what it means for one to be "better" than another. As I said last time, it's pointless to rant works of art and entertainment: ideally, they all succeed on merits that have nothing to do with each other. It's not a competition. Or at least, it's not supposed to be.

But it is. It's a competition for your attention, your interest, your passion. Every song you've got in your library is fighting with every other song to be your go-to tune. Every album vying to for that first position. Whether it's because of brilliant lyrics, catchy hooks, artful arrangement or nostalgic memories of a time and place (never take that out of the occasion) every song has something going for it against all the others.

These tournaments are obviously far from definitive, and there will always be a chance that the winners only correspond to "this day and time." That yesterday I might have put one song over the other instead. Indeed there are many close calls here, and as I'm writing this, several that I'm undecided about.

There are a couple of notable changes from last time, besides the fact that I've expanded out to 64 entrants (because I hate myself.) There are no duplicate artists: I wanted to get the playing field as wide as possible, so if an artist was selected by the randomized playlist more than once I simply chose which song of theirs I wanted in. No songs from last month's tournament were included either, for obvious reasons, although I would have included one that didn't make it out of the first round if it came up. Like I said, it's a random selection from my personal playlist, so there will be songs I have covered in the 2.5 years of SOTW, or intend to cover in the upcoming, as well as many great tunes you may or may not be familiar with, and random bits that either you didn't know I was into, or mean absolutely nothing to you. I hope some of the dialogue on these songs, even the losing ones, inspires you to check something out, because in general I think it's fair to say I don't listen to anything that isn't awesome. That's what makes it so much fun to do this, in the end.

It's always hard to pick these things, but the funny thing is that when the time came to crown last months' Best Song Ever, "Once in a Lifetime" by Talking Heads, I don't for a second doubt that it deserved it. "Behind Blue Eyes" maybe could have won, too, both were worthy opponents, but I wound up with a song that could genuinely be called the Best Ever. This tournament served its purpose.

I also learned not to post videos from songs that won, since hey, they'll still be around. So intermittently, we'll be taking a look at the songs that didn't win.

Oasis, "Wonderwall" vs. Arctic Monkeys, "From the Ritz to the Rubble"

I hate this tournament already.

I love the Arctic Monkeys. I do, and this song flipping rawx. Not to mention, "Wonderwall" is more than a little bit of a cliche, played out over the years to the point where it's shorthand for "douchey faux-sensitive acoustic guitar playing hipster." But I myself once made the argument that the song had indeed made its impact, and that cliches become cliche for a reason, and listening to it, or attempting to, with fresh ears, bears this out. Every inch of fame and infamy this song has, it's earned. It has a place in the culture that this particular Arctic Monkeys tune doesn't quite (although the album it's on certainly does.) This is enough to send Oasis through to the next round, but maybe not much further. We'll see.

Winner: "Wonderwall"

Aerosmith, "Hangman Jury" vs. David Bowie, "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)"

And now I really hate this tournament. Because it's so easy to say "Oh, this is a new Bowie, it hasn't had time to ingratiate itself, especially compared to this Aerosmith song." And don't let me be misunderstood, this is quite the Aerosmith song. This is Aerosmith channelling the bluesmen of yore and covering Lead Belly, with flourishes of the 80s pop-metal that they were peddling at the time to show why exactly they were so great at what they do, why they were allowed a type of comeback that few bands have ever pulled off in history of pop music. That slide guitar, that swampy vocal, that voodoo mystique... it all adds up to a handy explanation why I initiated a side-project extolling this band's virtues last year. Although Permanent Vacation, their 1987 comeback that featured this, was an imperfect album, this was a pretty perfect Aerosmith song.

But the new Bowie is a pretty goddamn riveting listen and this is one of the best songs on it. It's a searing, rage-choked indictment of celebrity culture, a piece of mini-drama that is a worthy addition to the Bowie canon. It's classic Bowie. It's excellent. And while the Aerosmith song looms large in my head, and maybe a year from now I won't be so hot on the new Bowie, I have to give it the nod.

Winner: "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)"

Hüsker Dü, "Something I Learned Today" vs. Black Keys, "Howling For You"

I could be cheeky and just pick the Black Keys so I don't have to use the umlauts on Hüsker Dü in future articles, but that's not a dealbreaker really. While "Something I Learned today" has that great, fiery garage punk lo-fi sound, "Howling For You" is a classic slow burn. Like the Oasis, above, it's become something of a cliche now, in ads and movies, but there's a reason why things become that way. Because they just flat out do something right. And The Black Keys became popular for all the right reasons. They were doing something nobody else was doing as well as they were.

Winner: "Howling For You"

Toadies, "Possum Kingdom" vs. Zeus, "Heavy On Me"

"Heavy On Me" is a pretty laudable song, but everything about "Possum Kingdom" is transcendently awesome. "Do you wanna die? / Do you wanna die? / Do you wanna die? / Do you wanna die? / DO YOU WANNA DIE? / DOOO YOU WANNA DIEEEE? / DOOO YA WANNA DIEEEEE???? / DOOOOOO YAAAA WANNNNAAAA DIEEEEE?!?!?!?!?"

Winner: "Possum Kingdom"

Arcade Fire, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" vs. Black Lips, "Bicentennial Man"

Although not necessarily my favourite Arcade Fire song, "Neighborhood #1" contains all the elements that makes this band great: obscure, poetic, whimsical lyrics, unusual yet affecting instrumentation, a classic indie rock sensibility. Black Lips' psychedelic surf punk is pretty fun to listen to as well, and was one of the real finds of 2011. I am, however, unsure what if any connection this has to the Robin Williams film. Long story short: AF nearly went all the way last time, it looks like they might go even further this month.

Winner: "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)"

Beatles, "Happiness is a Warm Gun" vs. Death from Above 1979, "Blood On Our Hands"

As much as I love the raucous madness of DFA1979, this would be the Beatles' to lose. I happen to have a lot of affection for this White Album curio, which sort of embodies the whole spirit of the album.

Winner: "Happiness is a Warm Gun"

New York Dolls, "Personality Crisis" vs. Gary Clark Jr., "When My Train Comes In"

As I certainly don't get tired of pointing out, Gary Clark's guitar work is absolutely thrilling to listen to. As much respect as I have for the Dolls in the full flight of their mad glam days, I'm going with the new guy.

Winner: "When My Train Comes In"

Marble Index, "I Die" vs. Lissie, "Record Collector"

Here we have two competitors from the early days of SOTW: the intense conclusion to the Marble Index's first album, and the stellar opening to Lissie's. I took issue with it at the time, in the sense that it was a bit less raw than her live covers, but it suits her well, shows off her skills and her band.

Winner: "Record Collector"

Strokes, "Reptilia" vs. Sheryl Crow, "All I Wanna Do"

Perhaps the biggest mismatch of this entire bracket? I probably have an irrational love for "All I Wanna Do." It has a consummate 90s vibe, the idea of throwing your cares away and escaping to a dingy bar and meeting crazy characters and making observations. It's gentle fun. "Reptilia" is just as much a product of its time, a polished early-2000s "don't give a fuck" rocker. Everyone in the band is at their best in this one.

Winner: "Reptilia"

Hollies, "Bus Stop" vs. Rolling Stones, "Gimme Shelter"

I might be the only person who would even have to think twice about this one (the Hollies are underrated!) but I don't think I'm going to lose any sleep over it.

Winner: "Gimme Shelter"

Sam Roberts Band, "I Feel You" vs. Radiohead, "Let Down"

The best song off Sam Roberts' 2011 Collider album is, in its way, Radioheadlike, but maybe a bit more radio-ready, using a towering, inhuman riff to call for human compassion and interaction, with razor sharp, vaguely disaffected lyrics. "Let Down" is an excellent song, too, probably one of my favourites off OK Computer, with its languid, sedated, despairing tones... it sums up the joys of listening to Radiohead as much as "Paranoid Android" or "Karma Police."

Winner: "Let Down"

Nirvana, "Heart Shaped Box" vs. Clash, "Wrong Em Boyo"

The Clash's London Calling is a bewildering, great, varied, globe-spanning album that integrated punk rage into the voice of history and geography: "Wrong Em Boyo" is a ska experiment that tells the American folklore story of Stagger Lee. It's a pretty great song. But "Heart Shaped Box" is one of those quintessential Nirvana tracks for a reason, expressing all the angst and anxiety of love and parenthood (and childhood) in that brutal Cobain imagery. And it's got that great chorus.

Winner: "Heart Shaped Box"

Belle & Sebastian, "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John" vs. Metric, "Black Sheep"

"Black Sheep" is Metric at the height of their powers, (right before people started hating them apparently?) with all the gripping, pulse-pounding synth-infused rock that entails. Brie Larson performs it as Envy Adams in one of the showstopping moments of the the Scott Pilgrim movie. "Little Lou..." is an intimate ballad where Stuart Murdoch duets with Norah Jones. It contains the line "What a waste, I could have been your lover / What a waste I could have been your friend." It never fails to kill me.

Winner: "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John"

Exploding Hearts, "Sleeping Aides and Razor Blades" vs. Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Walk on the Water"

I think, first off, that CCR gets too little credit for their trippy, psychedelic funk exploits: Fogerty's voice in particular seems to carry a weightier, out-of-reality tone than the stereotypical "Looking Out My Backdoor" image people have of them. Nobody ever thinks of this song and I only first heard it a few years ago in the form of a cover by Richard Hell & The Voidoids. I bet this one was incredible live. However, in the last tournament, Exploding Hearts did pretty damn well with the brashness and charm, and this is my favourite song by them.

Winner: "Sleeping Aides and Razor Blades"

Led Zeppelin, "When the Levee Breaks" vs. Pixies, "Debaser"

The best Led Zeppelin song over 6 minutes, or an icon of 80s alt rock? Either way I lose. Or win, because I get to keep listening to awesome music no matter which way I go. As much as I approve of the Pixies' shout out to Un Chien Andalou, it's those John Bonham drums that keep me up at night. This is why Led Zeppelin is Led Zeppelin.

Winner: "When The Levee Breaks"

Walkmen, "Love is Luck" vs. Joel Plaskett Emergency, "Somewhere Else"

All due respect to the Walkmen and this very good tune off their 2012 album Heaven, but Joel Plaskett forever.

Winner: "Somewhere Else"

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