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March 11, 2003

The Maroon's Top 5 Songs of All Time

Editor in Chief Pete Beatty

Depending on the sequencing of the various parts of this opus, I might be letting some sort of feline out of a pillowcase here, or I might be sewing that pillowcase shut long after the cat's been sent out to its reward. What I'm getting at is that this article is just a big up yours for everyone out there. We willfully chose a topic that can't be satisfactorily answered; of course there's no way to pick five songs as the best ever in the world. We're just being abstruse and silly here, and to a certain extent, that was the point. I mean, we're not out to give anybody a headache or trick people into thinking that Primus is actually responsible for one of the best songs in the entire universe. We're just doing our thing, we mean well.

O.K., some procedural notes. First point, fuck this list. Second, fuck it again. Three, this is not the top five rock songs of all time. I'm flooding the tubes, kids. Look out. This cow's head is getting scuttled at three songs, tops. Four: There will be cursing. I don't know if I'm in safe harbor right now, but if I'm not or you are less than 10 years of age, please leave the room.

"The KKK Took My Baby Away," The Ramones

Without pointing out the metaphysical peccadilloes the song's narrative begs pointing-out-of, this is clearly one of the five best songs ever recorded. Take this as proxy for both punk rock and the traditional, originary elemental boogie-woogie-stuff, from Bill Haley to Chuck Berry to the Blasters to the White Stripes, who, incidentally, are terribly overrated, through no fault of their own.

Well, I'm out of things to say, so I'll get back to those metaphysical peccadilloes.

So the narrator's lament in "The KKK Took My Baby Away" is that his baby was going to L.A., presumably Los Angeles and not the postal abbreviation for Louisiana, for the holidays. Unfortunately, she never got there. The narrator, without presenting any substantive evidence, accuses, indicts and convicts the KKK of "getting" his baby. Adding further confusion is that at no point in the song is the baby identified by anything other than the term "baby" or the pronoun "she," leading to severe conclusion whether or not we are talking about Joey Ramone's girlfriend or his infant daughter. It is easy enough to see that he would be upset were the KKK to "get" either of them, on the converse. Another problematic aspect of the narrative is the insinuation that the KKK is laying in wait for the babies of New York punkers somewhere on I-80, presumably. I was of the impression that the KKK was primarily active in the rural South, and primarily concerned with cross-burning and minority-intimidation. Joey, imagist that he is, has transplanted both the scene and dramatic motivation of the KKK. On these grounds alone, it's hard to not think of "TKKKTMBA" as one of the best instances of postmodern fiction, let alone rock music, in the Western artistic tradition.

"Sing Me Back Home," Merle Haggard

In which the Homeland Security Bund kicks down Johnny Cash's front door and finds him tinkering with a device that resembles the Weather Machine that KAOS might have used on Get Smart!, except there's a crudely lettered cardboard sign that says "Gestalt Manipulation Matrix" and Cash is dumping banana peels and old boots into the Mr. Fusion hatch on the top. Does the image really need to be that complicated? Yes it does. Johnny Cash has three good songs. Merle Haggard has 7,000. Now, the point of this selection is not as blunt as "I Like Merle Haggard More Than I Like Johnny Cash." No--Merle Haggard is quantitatively better than Johnny Cash. I have hard science to back this up. Let's go to the video replay.

Cash, Johnny

Suspected of starting forest fire in early '60s: Check, grudgingly.

Massive amphetamine use, likely closely related to fire-starting activities: Check, I guess.

Actually shot a man in Reno just to watch him die: INSUFFICIENT DATA

Is Merle Haggard: ACCESS DENIED

Haggard, Merle

Lived in converted boxcar as a child: Check plus.

Actually an Okie: Check me deadly.

Sentenced to stretch in Preston School of Industry for assorted criminal juvenalia: Check times ten million.

Sentenced to 15 years in San Quentin for attempted robbery: Checkity check checky check.

Ran a bootlegging/gambling ring out of his jail cell: Czech Republic.

Met spiritual guru in form of death row inmate in Q: BIG TIME.

Is Merle Haggard: ULTIMATE CHECK.

Now, I'm not one to pooh-pooh the criminality of arson, particularly forest arson. Starting wildfires is a felony. But Johnny Cash was merely suspected of starting one measly forest fire. Had forest arson occurred to the esteem'd Mr. Haggard during his "All I Do Is Commit Crimes" phase, which lasted roughly from 1937-1960, you can bet your patootie there wouldn't be a single fucking tree left on the West Coast.

Back to "Sing Me Back Home" and the Death Row Spirit Guide business. "Sing Me Back Home" is a song about a death row inmate being led to the execution chamber, with his last request, asking his guitar-playing friend to sing a good old gospel song, one his momma used to sang, &c &c with the primary thematic thrust of the song being the doomed inmate requesting that the anonymous narrator "sing [him] back home"?

Did it ever occur to anyone to undertake a roman a clef reading of this cut? Did anybody realize that when Merle Haggard sings this song, about his sentenced-to-die buddy asking that the narrator (Merle himself) sing a few old gospel songs that there exists an extreme likelihood that this actually happened? Holyfuckingshit.

"Suspicious Minds" by Elvis Presley

I don't have to explain this. There's a copy of the Encyclopedia of Popular Music for sale in the window of O'Gara and Wilson's. Go buy the "P" book.

Participant Ribbons Go To:

"Three Lions '98" by Baddiel & Skinner, any first-generation British punk song with a horn section, "Rocks Off" by the Rolling Stones, "Can't Hurry Love" by the Supremes, "Amazing Grace" by the Bible or something along those lines, "Song of a Baker" by the Small Faces, "Starry Eyes" by the Records, and "The Return of the Mack" by Mark Morrison. And the Pizza Hut jingles on the Audio section of Ween.com.

Managing Editor Whet Moser

These top five songs aren't my favorite five songs of all time, or the songs I'd take to a theoretical island, or the songs I'd choose to name my first-born from (current candidates: Cortez, Pancho, and Sue). These are more important than that--after the world is consumed and those of us in the Maroon office emerge from our basement with hard-bound archives to reconstruct world culture from, these are the five songs I'm going to be singing.

"Tutti Frutti," Little Richard

Snuck onto the radio by pretending to be a song about nothing--it's virtually beyond language--while actually being a song about most everything. Consider this dilemma: you're a horny, black, ambiguously gay, American Southern church kid who wants to announce yourself to the world during the 1950s. How do you do it? By turning the now-obscured obscene joke that makes up the chorus into scat and recontextualizing it as a goofy rave-up, the Dadaist project at its finest. Duchamp and Warhol never created a Trojan horse like this.

"Fillmore Jive," Pavement

Put briefly: "The Waste Land" : dissolution of world culture :: "Fillmore Jive" : dissolution of music culture. Which makes "Fillmore Jive" seem trivial, and it sounds trivial at first--the lament of privileged kids about the fragmentation of popular music. The opening isn't promising: Stephen Malkmus playing sloppy chords and mumbling about chalices and passing out on a couch. It builds into impressively messy solos, Messrs. Malkmus and Kannberg picking a gorgeous melody out of a chaotic two-guitar front. The drums, mixed way up in the front, keep the song together for the first two solos, as a ragged lament about the destruction of rock culture in urban bohemia--"See those rockers with their long curly locks/Goodnight to the rock and roll era/'Cause they don't need you anymore." About the time you get to the third solo, Malkmus and Kannberg can't play any faster or find any more notes they haven't played and are just trying to find the highest notes possible, and Steve West is trying every drum fill Keith Moon didn't copyright, and the melody is barely picked up by Malkmus's unintelligible childlike falsetto that Bryce Goggin has somehow mixed into the turmoil, and the song is so close to just falling apart, that's when everything stops being trivial and the end of rock 'n' roll seems just as terrifying as anything that Eliot came across.

1993-1994 might have been the high-water mark of indie rock--think Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville, Yo La Tengo's Painful, PJ Harvey's Rid of Me, Archers of Loaf's Icky Mettle, Radiohead's breakthrough Pablo Honey, Uncle Tupelo's swansong Anodyne, Pearl Jam's Vs., Nirvana's In Utero and Unplugged in New York. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain dropped in February 1994; two months later Kurt Cobain would take his life, second-degree crap like Nada Surf and grunge-lite would take over and radio deregulation after 1996 would destroy the remnants of rock. "Fillmore Jive" is, ultimately, five guys trying to hold this moment together with guitars, bass and drum, and succeeding within a six-an-a-half minute world where music is still as shabbily beautiful as it was in 1994.

"Jumpin' Jack Flash," The Rolling Stones

Unfairly ghettoized as a redux of "Satisfaction," whereas it's actually a distillation, which is its brilliance--how can you distill "Satisfaction" even further than it's already distilled? Bill Wyman and/or Keith Richards stumbled onto the greatest chord in rock history, a single B that starts off each line and is so famously held over the bridge. Then, recognizing its greatness, Richards just strums it again. Fuck it: why play another chord when there's no better one than this? There's not much to it--but there's not too much to rock 'n' roll, which values swagger over virtuosity, attitude over training. Of course rock 'n' roll seems democratic when the discovery of one chord is enough to build a song that stays in the collective heads of two nations for 40 years running. At this point it's too late to figure out how many bands were started and how many babies were made because Keith Richards--maybe I'm speaking metaphorically here, or maybe I'm not at all--decided to hit a B chord and call it a riff?

"Blind Willie McTell," Bob Dylan

Still hasn't appeared on any album except the first volume of the Bootleg Series, which is a damn shame--it's Dylan's finest hour. You might recognize the name from the White Stripes' popularization of "Your Southern Can Is Mine"; Blind Willie McTell is a reasonably well-regarded blues guitarist known primarily for his charming, goof-off songs. Which makes the song all the stranger--Dylan's paying tribute to a relative lightweight (compared to, say, Robert Johnson) with the saddest song of his career. Justifying the first verse is the hardest challenge Dylan ever set for himself: "I traveled through East Texas, where many martyrs fell, and I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell."

At the height of his most bleak Christian disillusionment with the world (he wrote the famously bilious "Foot of Pride" the same year), he finds transcendence in silliness, a silliness he wouldn't achieve for himself until, maybe, Love and Theft. Whether or not Dylan can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell is a tension that's never resolved in the song, and it's a tension worth resolving. He's trying to laugh through tears, and it's not working--demonstrating how hard it actually is, and asking whether it's worth it at all.

"God Save the Queen," Sex Pistols

No song has ever asked for as much as "God Save the Queen." Think of the usual rock tropes: I Want You, I Want You to Want Me, I Want You to Leave Me Alone, I Want to Get High, etc etc. Instead, "God Save the Queen": I WANT TO DESTROY HISTORY AS CONCEPT AND AGENT.

John Lydon is, simply, the best apocalyptic writer since Jonathan Edwards; every line in this song is better than anything that's ever been written about politics. Every line is out to destroy British culture, and every chord is struggling to keep up with the weird Situationist insanity that Lydon's channeling--"God save history, God save your mad parade, the Lord God have mercy, all crimes are paid."

England wasn't ready for it, music wasn't ready for it, and certainly Lydon's bandmates weren't ready for it; the sound of the crazed drum fills and noisy Chuck Berry ripoffs are the sound of marginally-talented rock junkies trying to comprehend the most conceptually challenging vision that anyone's ever put forward in three-and-a-half minutes, and just coming up with noise. They can't come close to containing Lydon's vision, in which England explodes and consumes history--as an idea and as a tangible thing that we live within--in its shock wave.

Voices Editor Yoshi Salaverry

O.K., so the other writers may not claim superiority of opinion outright, but their top five songs do not match with mine, so claims of superiority are implicit. Nevertheless, I would like to assert that if a numerical value were assigned to each song on the basis of its length in seconds, then my list would surely rack up the most points. To demonstrate this, I have printed each song's score alongside its title. My grand tally stands at 2462 points plus infinity.

"Icefall," Nobukazu Takemura (634)

Glitch, the aesthetic parameters of which were set early on by Markus Popp and his comrades in Oval, reached its peak of beauty in this song. Much of the song's structure was apparently determined randomly, by a computer program Takemura was using at the time. The result? An immense gem of a song, every facet sparkling with colored light and folding its reflection into the next. I know that this is the best song ever made because I feel that it is true.

"Kicking a Dead Pig (remix)," My Bloody Valentine remixing Mogwai (972)

This remix has five or six different, distinguishable sections, but not in a prog kind of way. Kevin Shields takes Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Mogwai's formula of buildup-crescendo-slowdown-crescendo and tears it a new asshole. This song is the one that finally sent my speakers to the grave. You can't possibly play it loud enough. My life's sole purpose for some time was to find someone with big enough speakers to blast this without seriously damaging their system. Stick your head in an exploding neutron star and you will begin to understand.

"Eureka," Jim O'Rourke (551)

Not only is "Eureka" a stunning, epic pop song, but it inspired my favorite film ever, Shinji Aoyama's Eureka. To give you a sense of how I adore that film, it lasted three hours and 37 minutes, and I wish it had been longer. O'Rourke's plaintive voice asks us "Hello, hello, can you hear me? Are your skies clear and sunny down there?" referencing David Bowie's "Space Oddity," but by my measure surpassing it.

"Aquarius," Boards of Canada (Infinity)

Of course the best album of all time must be represented on the list of the best songs of all time! I used to listen to this in bed with my huge headphones on and the volume turned up until everything else was drowned out. I would lie back and shut my eyes and be amazed on a nightly basis--how could I manage to lose count every time? Because this song is infinity; it just does not end.

"Joga," Björk (305)

I was conflicted as to whether I should print "Joga" or "Hyperballad," but I am running with the theme set up by the last four: songs which convey/create a sense of vast space. In this case, with the power of her own voice and the swirling strings of the Brodsky quartet, Bjork achieves what so few others are able to achieve: intimacy and immensity at once.

Sports Editor Ben Adams

I can only assume that both contributors and readers to/of this article realize that it's impossible to name the five best songs ever and be right. In the same way that it's impossible to say "concerts come in two types" or "I remember that you loaned me money and am paying you back."

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three different categories of best songs ever, and you can't really mix them freely. You might offer those songs during which, if you were sufficiently immature, you might say something like "this is the best song ever," and proceed to get upset if and when everyone else didn't either say "yes, it is," or just start freaking out and dancing around and headbanging and stuff (à la Jack Black in High Fidelity, I suppose).

Or you might pick out the songs that kind of, in some incredibly loose metonymous way, symbolize the different kinds of music that are good, or something along those lines. Or theoretically there might be a whole list devoted to songs that everyone really respects but doesn't necessarily like to listen to. This would be the list that reaches back to Beethoven and the 13th-century compositions of Hildegard von Bingen, and whatnot.

Actually, now that I mention it, I'm not really sure which category my list falls under. I think it's mostly the first one, since I am immature enough to do the whole admit-that-my-song-is-awesome thing. But it might not be. It's sort of the second one and the last one, too, except my taste isn't necessarily diverse enough to merit representative choices, and I don't have much of a working knowledge of von Bingen's earlier works. If it seems like one of my choices sucks, you can assume that it's because I'm gesturing at something greater, so that I don't come off looking like a jackass.

"Hey Hey What Can I Do," Led Zeppelin

Maybe this should have been on the love songs list of three weeks ago. Robert Plant circa "Fool in the Rain" is feeling anguished because he finds love at first sight but then goes to meet her and waits on the wrong street corner. Now he has fallen in love with a girl and can't spend time with her because her ravenous sexual appetite keeps her walking street corners when she could be inside with him. Which is a nasty little fix, needless to say. There's something quaintly amusing about Plant's titular response, which goes a long way. And then Plant just wigs out at the end: "Yeah/No/Yeah/No...ahhh!" The lyric sheet doesn't really do justice to it, but this marks the only occasion I am aware of in which a more or less sane narrator completely breaks down and loses his mind during the course of a four-minute song. Maybe it was worth it to write the song?

"Rudie Can't Fail," The Clash

Generally speaking, I don't truck with songs that are really just anthems for specific groups of people or activities--the Ruff Ryder theme song and "Sippin' on da Syrup" by the 3-6 Mafia spring to mind--but it gets easy to make exceptions when the participants have a sense of humor about it. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones woke up one morning after writing a series of relatively angry and polemic songs and realized that they aren't geniuses. Paradoxically, I'm canonizing them here as geniuses for doing it. The world is a crazy place, it seems.

On the other hand, I might just like this song better than its peers because I like sitting around and drinking and I don't like riding motorcycles or trying to get wasted on cough syrup. Whatever. It's cool to be self-referential.

"Lookin' Out My Back Door," Creedence Clearwater Revival

Might actually be about the exact same thing as "Rudie Can't Fail," which might impugne certain claims made by certain authors that "Rudie" is an exception to some rule. Doesn't matter. Of all the hallucinations to have, John Fogerty's vision of "tambourines and elephants...playin' in the band" is easily the happiest and most welcoming. Its effect is echoed by Fogerty's claim, a bit later in the song, that, "Doo doo doo lookin' out my back door." If there was ever a defining CCR vibe, Fogerty summed it up in that line. Also, the song gestures in the direction of saying that Illinois sucks, which is, you know, kind of hip.

"Southbound Pachyderm," Primus

Obviously the only song ever written on this topic; let no one ever accuse Les Claypool of being trite. The idea is so incredibly cool that it almost doesn't matter what the song sounds like. And you cannot put a price on the fact that Les Claypool is observing the elephants (who have created propellers and are using them to fly towards more forgiving climes, for mysterious reasons) from a picnic table where he is eating pie. T.S. Eliot's career was a fruitless search for details of that caliber.

"Living for the City," Stevie Wonder

It still stings me to the quick to listen to the part where the protagonist agrees to carry the evil New York guy's drugs for him. This might not be the most incisive social message ever put to music, but it's still pretty poignant at the critical moments, with the haunting "things are starting to go awry" synth chops backing up the balladry. You have to love Stevie for meaning it when he belts out that last verse.

Voices Editor Emeritus Tom Zimpleman

The more you listen to music, the more indecision begins to plague you. I can draw up a list of the top five songs of all time, but those will be in no particular order, and my list will change drastically throughout the course of this Monday evening, and in the days and weeks to follow. I'll stumble onto something that belongs on the list, I'll finally listen to something on this list so often that it ceases to hold its fascination, or I'll just remember a song that I'm overlooking at the moment. Having sufficiently copped out of this exercise, then, I can offer a (provisional) list.

"Last Dance," The Mekons

Fear and Whiskey was the first alt-country album, and it came from a punk band in Leeds trying to reinterpret the work of Hank Williams as a criticism of the Thatcher government. Sure, the politics were a bit strained (although they were right to point out that early country music was much closer in spirit to punk rock than to the hyper-patriotic New Nashville bullshit) but the music was good enough to inspire legions of imitators. "Last Dance," Tom Greenhalgh's ode to a beautiful girl on the dance floor, might be the album's best moment, and it's shouted refrain, "I wanted to say 'fall in love with me!'" captures how we've all felt, at one point or another.

"A Worrying Thing," Yo La Tengo

After making my list of the top five love songs with "Our Way to Fall," I don't think I could draw up a list of top five songs of any variety without including at least one Yo La Tengo song, even as an honorable mention. Asking me to pick the top five non-Yo La Tengo songs will elicit a blank stare. Considering the top five songs of all time, "A Worrying Thing" gets the nod, probably because it best combines the band's quiet and noisy poles: while the accompaniment is just a simple drum beat and light acoustic strumming, Ira Kaplan's voice manages to provide more shading to the song than any amount of feedback and guitar swirls. Throw in Yo La Tengo's trademark witty lyrics, and you have a grand tour through the best parts of pop music history.

"Lost in the Supermarket," The Clash

Joe Strummer once said that London Calling worked so well as an album because the members of the Clash didn't try to make it a great piece of art; they just tried to put together the best songs that they could. "Lost in the Supermarket" is such a simple composition that I doubt anyone working on it would think that it's great art; step back for a minute and you can see that its so much better than they might have thought. A lot of people have taken on consumerism in their work, but few have had the subtlety of Mick Jones, who evokes both humor and sympathy with his lyrics. Paul Simonon saved one of his best bass lines for this song--listen to the way it carries the whole thing--and Joe Strummer's counter-point vocals at the end managed to explode that trick for all future bands (I'm looking at you, Halo Benders).

"Get Off of My Cloud," The Rolling Stones

Not just a distillation of everything good about the Rolling Stones, this song is a distillation of everything that's good about rock and roll. This song was produced by good musicians who were too distracted to put their musicianship to good use. The result was that Keith Richards sat on his favorite guitar chord for three minutes, Mick Jagger yelped out the lyrics in a halfway-futile attempt to be heard, and the producer had the (possibly unintentionally) brilliant idea of making it all sound like it was recorded in a cave somewhere in the Ozarks. Music is energy, my friends, and "Get Off of My Cloud" has plenty of it.

"Respect," Otis Redding

Don't get me started on where the Aretha Franklin version of this song began to go wrong. First of all, this song is supposed to be painful, OK? Goddamn it, the man wants some respect. He thinks his girl is sweeter than honey, he's about to give her all his money, and what does he want? Just a little respect when he gets home. But the slow-burning qualities of this song - as well as the trumpets, which are awesome - gets thrown out in the more popular version. But this is clearly a top-five caliber song, and it's a lesson in what two minutes of good music can do.

Honorable Mention: "Of Information and Belief," June of '44; "Walk Away Renee," The Left Banke; "The Needle and the Damage Done" Neil Young; "Gloria," Them.