66: Pixies – “Where Is My Mind?” (1988)
There’s a beautiful, melancholic piano melody that’s been making the rounds on television singing competitions in recent years. It’s also appeared on a number of dramatic TV series aiming to convey a deep sense of sadness. It’s Maxence Cyrin’s cover of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” The original had run that course already, its prevalence in pop culture bordering on overuse. There’s a whole new generation who hear the piano cover version and never really get introduced to the less accessible but haunting original, but the popularity of this instrumental cover is a testament to the strength and timelessness of the melody and the dark fever dream it conveyed.
The Pixies tower among other legends of the late ‘80s alternative music scene. They made their name on simultaneously bizarre and emotionally affecting songs that drew from a variety of influences but didn’t sound especially similar to them. “Where Is My Mind?” is battered with an almost offensively loud drum hit. The production seems to isolate every instrument, including the voice of Black Francis, each shining like a star in the emptiness of space. The guitar winds along loudly but alone, as if arguing with the angelic and peaceful female backing vocals. Francis sings simple and whimsical lyrics about swimming in the Caribbean—which he would later reveal was not just poetic metaphor but a very literal inspiration for the song. He had in fact been swimming and watching the fishes. Nevertheless, the expression of the feeling of floating weightlessly and the lamenting“Where is my Mind?/ Way out in the water/ See it swimming” just begs to be reinterpreted by anyone who’s ever felt a little unhinged or offset from the normal course of events or otherwise nudged outside the mainstream.
The song soared to popularity again when it was featured at the close of Fight Club, not surprisingly a movie about a man who loses his mind trying to deal with the existential angst of modern life in a consumer culture. No matter how many times it’s been covered, it’s important to remember how and why that inspiration arose in the first place. The original touched Maxence Cyrin enough to write his own incredible interpretation of it. That’s an important legacy for a song that remains as timeless and haunting in 2017 as it sounded in 1988. – Darryl G. Wright
65: Michael Jackson – “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” (1982)
It’s hard to imagine a world without Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Pop music’s magnum opus, Thriller immediately launched into classic status, selling a million records around the world per week for months on end. While “Beat It” and the album’s title track were the two hits that really catapulted the album to pandemic levels of sales, “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” ensured that Thriller’s success didn’t simply rely on a couple of singles but that the album was a cohesive and enthralling listen through and through.
However, that isn’t to say “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” wasn’t a hit in its own right: it ranked as Jackson’s fifth consecutive top 10 hit in America on its release, with a remix sending it into the charts again in celebration of Thriller’s 25th anniversary.
Much like Off The Wall’s hyperactive “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” kicks Thriller off with a ping-ponging percussion-like melody, this time with tight synths and drum machines replacing strings, and finds Jackson in a particularly sassy mood. Originally written for sister LaToya, Jackson twisted the song into an upbeat tirade against the trappings of stardom – namely, obsessive, privacy invading fans and controversy seeking journalists.
Never one to be bashful in his music, Jackson immediately begins by calling out his perceived enemies, claiming that “Someone’s always trying/ To start my baby crying,” with motormouths and razor-sharp tongues getting up into his face. Meanwhile, the beat goes on, relentlessly driving a tight groove until everything drops out for the insanely catchy refrain: “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah.” Jackson was later sued for borrowing the lyrics and melody for the refrain from Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango, but that certainly does not diminish his ear for a catchy, attention grabbing melody.
It’s almost impossible to talk about Thriller without using purely hyperbolic language, but if there’s one album that deserves all of the high praise that is constantly heaped upon it, it certainly would be a top pick. Jackson and producer Quincy Jones set out to create a pop album that would dazzle his disco-leaning fan base while still appealing to a rockist perspective on life. “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” is a prime example of this cross-over appeal. With a sound that leaned more towards dance, but an aggressive and fierce delivery that was more in line with a rock star’s attitude, Jackson bridged the gap between two seemingly different worlds. – Edward Dunbar