Thursday, May 16, 2013

Best Song Ever: May 2013 (Round 3)

Here we are with our third round of trying to answer the unanswerable, trying to compare the incomparable, trying to do the undoable. No, wait, I mean impossible. This was not an easy round to judge, but I felt like each of them came to a definitive clear-cut conclusion. In a couple of cases, though, it wasn't the one I thought I'd get going in.

Sloan, "The Answer Was You" vs. Van Halen, "Running With The Devil"
Winner: "Running With The Devil"

Who, "Love Reign Over Me" vs. Barenaked Ladies, "The Old Apartment"
Winner: "Love, Reign Over Me"

For Sloan and BNL, it looks like quirky, observational, albeit sincere and often sweet, power pop just reached its limit against the classics. "The Answer Was You" is one of the most heavenly cuts off The Double Cross. And "The Old Apartment" is welcome on my radio or iPod anytime. But ah, the bombast, the pathos, the old workhorses, those direct statements, deep in their own right and towering in their power.

Weezer, "Say It Ain't So" vs. Temptations, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"

Here we have a last-minute reversal. Originally we had three power pop gems falling to classics of the 60's and 70's, and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" is one of the best of the Motown canon, built on a rollicking piano and a sweet and sour vocal. But it's just not enough for this heavily 90's rock-leaning blog. I love the sonic atmosphere of this song, as if inviting the intended subject, an estranged lover, back to a party she has walked away from.

But, man, I love the contradictions in "Say It Ain't So." That opening riff is so funky and assured, but it also bears well the menace and suspicion and fear and betrayal and hurt in the lyric. Again, it's like a party, but not one that anyone wants to still be at. It's a song that is about, in an elliptical, pop songwriting way, the cycle of addiction and the toll it takes on loved ones. Headier stuff than "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," and executed in a spot-on way that reveals that Rivers Cuomo used to have some nuance, some sophistication in his songwriting. I still like a lot of post-Green Weezer stuff, but very little of it is at this level. Little of anything is.

Winner: "Say It Ain't So"

Belle & Sebastian, "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John" vs. Led Zeppelin, "When The Levee Breaks"

In deference to the above, I actually kind of wanted Belle & Sebastian to win. Unlike the above matches, they came at the legend with not mere pop hooks and crafty cleverness, but with sincerity, melody, and heartbreak, three facets that I find truly underrated. I wanted that to be enough because this is such a sweet, sad song, so vulnerable and wounded. But then two bars of John Bonham drumming into "Levee" and I forget I ever felt anything. Rock can be such a powerful anesthetic.

Winner: "When The Levee Breaks"

Hold Steady, "Lord, I'm Discouraged" vs. White Stripes, "Stop Breaking Down"

Probably the easiest call of the round, I hate to say. Much respect and love for Jack White, but what he's doing here, this electric blues freak-out, still can't quite measure up to the ballad of its generation. In the context of this tournament, this Hold Steady song is a steamroller.

Winner: "Lord, I'm Discouraged"

Oasis, "Wonderwall" vs. Toadies, "Possum Kingdom"

Early on in the tournament I wondered how far the venerable dormroom classic "Wonderwall" could go based on its reputation, its aura. It makes you feel good to hear it and be part of it. That's sort of the appeal of Oasis. It drove them past an excellent Arctic Monkeys song and a very, very good new David Bowie one. So you might be surprised to see the buck stop here, with a piece of genuine brilliance in Toadies' "Possum Kingdom."

I don't have even half a clue what either song is about or how I'm supposed to feel about either of them, quite honestly, but the beauty of pop music is that it hits you and you take what you can from it. Whether or not "Possum Kingdom" is indeed about a murder, a vampire, a ghost or an alien, I know it's amazing to listen to. I know that staccato guitar riff grabs my attention immediately, and I never wander all the way through the end, once he has declared, emphatically, cathartically "I WILL TREAT YOU WELL, MY SWEET ANGEL, SO HELP ME JESUS!" It's a statement unlikely to be found anywhere but a hip rock song, and thus its power.

Winner: "Possum Kingdom"

Arcade Fire, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" vs. Gary Clark Jr., "When My Train Pulls In"

Let me establish off the bat that I really do believe in the Arcade Fire. This is a pretty fantastic composition, and they have behind them the strength of an army of sound and the whole orchestra put-togtherness of Funeral. Sometimes we end up thinking of indie rock musicians as false idols or charlatans, who tricked us into feeling something just by being different. But every time I listen to an Arcade Fire song it comes utterly to life. Every track on Funeral offers a window into a new world, one I had never encountered before that album and have never encountered outside of it. "Neighborhood #1" is no exception and that was almost enough. Almost.

But much like the Led Zeppelin example above, just a few opening seconds of that riff, shuddering like Atlas under the weight of the world. Hot dusty blues. For a few listens, I thought it was a done deal, like "Okay, it's just a cool blues song, it's not Arcade Fire." But the point of this dumb little exercise is to prove that, all things being equal, an excellent example of one thing can be on equal footing with an excellent example of something else. Indie rock isn't inherently better than a hardcore blues R&B jam. And there was a moment beginning in he midst of those transcendent solos that I was reminded of that. With no words but six strings, Gary Clark takes his song form to the limit and comes out the other side.

Winner: "When My Train Pulls In"

Rolling Stones, "Gimme Shelter" vs. Nirvana, "Heart-Shaped Box"

Two different models of rage. There's the outward, personal 90s histrionic, and the slow-burning simmering 1969 protest. My track record suggests I go for the 90s, and I very passionately argued in favour of "Heart-Shaped Box" last week.

But ladies and gentlemen, here's Merry Clayton to show you why the Rolling Stones take this one.

It's a tough call, man. In many ways, "Heart-Shaped Box" would be the easier pick. It is loud, it is angry, it is hateful, it is choked with bile and rage that feels earned, as Kurt channels all his stress and disillusionment with rock stardom and retreat into parenthood. It's probably one of the best songs he wrote.

The Nirvana song is so appropriately disruptive, but the Stones one is so sinister. It has takes Sixties try-anything spirit and applies it to the suffocating, stifling apocalyptic panic that must have been the Vietnam era. "War, children, is just a shot away." That was not an idle lyric, there was a real-ass war on, and it could have gotten a lot worse if either the States or the USSR decided they didn't like the looks of their opponent. To take that and try to stuff it all into a 4-minute song for the radio... it's a daunting task, and I think Jagger and Richards never quite did a better job of it. Clayton, for her part, hammers it all how, squealing unabashedly, "RAPE! MURDER!" disappearing into the din, the crushing smog of this song.

And then Mick gives us something Kurt doesn't: a bit of relief. Pop hadn't quite outgrown the need for something sweet, or maybe he just sensed the song was incomplete, leaving off with "Love, sister... it's just a kiss away..." Is it cold comfort, or genuine naivety? Or is is true? Is love enough? Could Mick Jagger possibly have believed it, or did he just want to?

There are no two better-matched, complementary songs in this tournament. You have to be really good to make it further than this.

Winner: "Gimme Shelter"

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