Saturday, September 6, 2008

"Perfect" Songs

One of my favorite songs is R.E.M.'s "Nightswimming." A somewhat melancholy look backwards, the song includes the line "September's coming soon" which I've always seen as a lonesome statement of life's sands running swiftly towards - well, towards something that isn't quite certain.

So I started thinking. "Nightswimming" is a song I enjoy a good bit (in a certain mood, anyway), but it's not what I consider a "perfect" song. (Notice the quotation marks. I cheerfully accept that this is about to be a wildly subjective post.) I have a hard time explaining what makes a "perfect" song for me, but I think I've finally come up with a few criteria. Keep in mind that we're discussing perfection within the context of rock 'n' roll songs - I loves me a good piano nocturne, but that's off-limits for this discussion.

A "perfect" rock 'n' roll song must do the following, according the the Arbitrary Rules of Mockingbird:
  • Tell a story. Gotta love the narrative. The more universal, the better, but I'm a sucker for lyrics.
  • The story must be told from the perspective of looking backwards with knowledge gained over time.
  • Have a "hummable" hook - it's even better if it makes you want to belt out the lyrics.
  • Clearly capture a mood, time, season, etc.
  • Do the whole thing in under five minutes.
As you might imagine, I've found very few "perfect" songs. As is true of all art, most popular music is trash. A small percentage is good, a smaller slice of the pie is memorable, and a tiny sliver of the pie is transcendent. It's hard to find songs that fit that sliver, especially with my rules. As an example, the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" is fantastic, but I have to admit that it doesn't have the "looking backwards" part. Bob Seger's "Night Moves" fits my list, but it officially clocks in at 5:25. We won't even discuss Billy Joel's opus "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant."

So what should I add to my playlist? Are my criteria just random and wacky? What works for you?


amnbdad said...

I'm not sure it meets all your criteria but Billy Joel's 'You May be Right' is a great one. A newer song would be My Chemical Romance's 'Black Parade', talk about lyrics that make you want to sing along.. Well when I was a young boy my father took me into the city/to see a marching band/ he said my son I will ask you/if you will be a leader for the broken and the damned... it goes something like that.

Elizabeth said...

How about Don Henley's "Boys of Summer"? The narrative is implicit rather than explicit, which is part of why it's so great, and even though the narrator is warned "Don't look back, you can never look back," it's all about retrospection. I'm pretty sure it's my favorite song. That, and "Roland the Headless Thompson-Gunner," by Warren Zevon.

Mockingbird said...

Ah! Love for Warren Zevon!! If it were possible for you to ratchet up my list of people I admire, Elizabeth, you just did so! And I'm pretty sure "Boys of Summer" comes in at just under 5 minutes!

Lloyd said...

How about this?