Top Five Songs ... 01.01.2019
DFM Masthead Disenfranchised FM Cuckoo's Eleven Top Five Songs Armchair Producer Music MD Tin Cans Scratch Take Life and Times Input


It's been 2,866 days since I've written my quickie column, and it's about goddamn time I fix that problem.

Back when my friend Bryan and I co-wrote the original running debate on Most Important Artists of the Aughts, we agreed that neither of us (nor our careers) could afford to write 25,000-word pieces on a frequent basis. We settled in on the idea of polling each other for our five favorite songs for various situations. That way, we wouldn't have to agonize as much over our picks; somehow, choosing songs under certain situational settings seems like less of a risk to swing and miss. But then, as my family expanded to five and Bryan globe-trotted on a quest for brand enlightenment, the idea that we'd be writing ANYTHING soon became laughable. We actually did write another column together, but I'll talk about that time in about three months. [No, really!] After completing a very overdue site refresh, it now feels like the right time to give this a go.

Here's how this is going to work: at the beginning of each month, I'll post my Top Five Songs for a given situation or theme. Yes, this is a blatant rip-off of High Fidelity. For this, I'll do penance by not copying (many) picks from their lists. Also, because I am a classic overachiever and enjoy making things difficult for myself, I am excluding songs by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones from my lists. Please just go with me on this. It will make more sense later ...

What better way reboot Top Five Songs than on New Year's Day with the theme of lead-off songs. Side One, Track One. There are dozens of songs that could make the list, so I'll need to add some parameters beyond the Beatles/Stones exclusions:
  • First, albums still matter: by this I mean that there are hundreds of killer songs that happen to be lead-offs, but in order to be a great lead-off song it needs to create a compelling urge to run the album front-to-back;
  • Second, bonus points are earned for songs which signal a shot-across-the-bow, whether it be introducing a new band, a new sound, or highlighting the changing of the guards. In the spirit of keeping things as simple as possible, let's stick with those and get this going already. Away we go ...

    HONORABLE MENTION - N.W.A, "Straight Outta Compton"

    "You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge."

    I know. I'm already bending the rules by including an Honorable Mention, but this song needs to be included. Think about how much has changed in thirty years: this was so raw when it was first released that the Los Angeles Raiders opted to blur out their logos. Many lumped N.W.A in with the likes of Menace II Society as shock value entertainment. As the movie of the same name has explained, this is a group that ushered in more than just aggressive lyrics with the up-tempo Hip-Hop beat of the late eighties. Thirty years removed, there's a collective appreciation that Ice Cube and The D.O.C. were defining a voice for the oppressed decades before body cams and live streaming social media appeared.

    NUMBER FIVE - Prince and the Revolution, "Let's Go Crazy"

    "If you don't like / The world you're living in / Take a look around / At least you got friends."

    Prince had already gone platinum five times over, and the listening audience was already aware of his ability to fuse various genres, so this wasn't about an unknown artist breaking through. With a feature-length film and accompanying album dropping simultaneously, to say this album was hyped would be an understatement. It would need a lead-off of epic proportions, and from the opening notes of the church organ, you know immediately that this is an album you would love. What's more, even thirty-five years later, the urgency and passion of youth remains timeless. That's why it didn't feel stale at the Super Bowl XLI halftime show, and it still doesn't feel stale in 2019.

    NUMBER FOUR - U2, "Where the Streets Have No Name"

    "The city's aflood, and our love turns to rust"

    Another act from the eighties that was already on top of their game, and venturing into more spiritual reflection in their lyrics. The first one hundred seconds or so have now become instantly recognizable, but back then it was a watershed moment for the band. Bono once acknowledged that they had almost sold the rights to one of their songs, but then ultimately declined the offer, explaining, "when we play that song, God enters the room." I can only believe he was referring to this song.

    NUMBER THREE - Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" [1991]

    "With the lights out, it's less dangerous / Here we are now, entertain us."

    Much can be said about the I/IV/III/VI chord progression that sparked a new era of music, but it's Butch Vig's work fortifying the sound through double tracking and mixing that contributed to its groundbreaking success. But the E-flat tuning was a trend brought back by another band, which brings us to number two.

    NUMBER TWO - Guns N' Roses, "Welcome to the Jungle" [1987]

    "You can taste the bright lights, but you won't get there for free."

    Hair Metal was king, with the likes of Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, and Poison playing the role of Rocky Balboa in Rocky III. They had no idea what was coming. L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose disliked each other but respected each other as the best in the LA music scene. By merging the best of their collective bands, they became Hair Metal's antagonist, their Clubber Lang. Hedonism, rebelliousness, danger ... not in the Sixties' danger of The Rolling Stones. Danger, as in, the-lead-guitarist-just-flatlined-in-the-elevator-and-is-there-a-doctor-who-can-resuscitate-him kind of danger. An attention-grabbing riff. A howl. We all collectively agreed with Axl when he opens their album career with, "Oh my God ..."

    NUMBER ONE - Led Zeppelin, "Good Times Bad Times" [1969]

    "In the days of my youth, I was told what it means to be a man / And now I've reached that age, I've tried to do all those things the best I can."

    Yes, this song doesn't have the shock and awe that we now know of Nirvana and Guns N' Roses, but it's important to hear this song in the context of 1969. This was before the Summer of Love and only six months after Jimmy Page quit The Yardbirds. From the opening bar, the listener understands this is something very different than "For Your Love". It pounces and never relents. Even if you're listening for the thousandth time, Bonham's work on a single bass pedal is jaw-dropping. This didn't just introduce what would become the biggest band in the world; it ushered in a harder, faster sound, ascending just as The Beatles and Stones were cresting. Without "Good Times Bad Times", there would be no "Whole Lotta Love" or "Immigrant Song". And, let's face it: both of those songs could arguably be in the top five lead-offs as well. There would be no Metal. There would be no Grunge. It's a lead-off for the next fifty years of music, so it earns the top spot.

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