Even the classic albums have forgotten songs. We right those wrongs.
Matt Johnson/The The: “Another Boy Drowning” from Burning Blue Soul
Burning Blue Soul, Matt Johnson’s debut album from 1981, often slips behind the more accomplished successes that would both come to define The The and, eventually, lead to the exhaustion that Johnson has only recently emerged from. However, before the geopolitical critiques of “Armageddon Days (Are Here Again)” or “Sweet Bird of Truth” and the razor-sharp insights of “Slow Emotion Replay,” “Uncertain Smile” or “Heartland,” “Another Boy Drowning” offered an early and deeply personal manifesto, a larval indication of Johnson’s ability to shift focus from the social to the personal and find ways to examine the links between them.
The song mixes heavily reverbed and echoed guitar chords and notes, but is lifted from being simple bedsit fare by the addition of synthesized strings and tape loops, sustained guitar notes and layer-upon-layer of melody, all circling the song’s central motif and gently suggesting the hands of producers, Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis of the band Wire.
The song’s opening lyrics are as painfully intimate as anything Johnson would go on to write: “Monday morning, I looked the mirror in the eyes/ I think I’d kill myself, if I ever went blind.”
Here the observational slips into the histrionic, perhaps clumsily precocious, a form repeated when he observes “There’s people on the streets/ Throwin’ rocks at themselves/ ‘Cos they ain’t got no money/ And they’re livin’ in hell.”
Despite these lyrical stumbles, this song speaks to a constant fear that runs through Johnson’s works; the fear that for all of the big ideas, grand thoughts, lost loves and reading lists, none of it matters and we spend our time much as he does, “ … lying in my bed/ The window was open and raindrops/ Were bouncing off my head,” terrified that, “I don’t know nothing and I’m scared/ That I never will.”
Finally, after whispering that “Life just doesn’t seem that simple/ Anymore,” he sings what must be the most bleakly understated lyric in his canon: “And in case I don’t see you again/ I hope you’ll feel glad that you knew me/ While I was here.” Around him, heavily reverbed piano notes roll in like lost fragments from a Badalamenti score, crashing guitar chords over a woodwind-esque synth, descending guitar notes and loops, a collapse of the song that, like the protagonist, rails against the ending of the album but, with nowhere to go, struggles to keep up its efforts of meaningfulness and gently fades into oblivion.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: “Stanlow” from Organisation
After the Factory Records-endorsed electro-pop of their first album, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s second album Organisation, from 1980, surprised fans and critics with its maturity and, especially, its ability to conjure atmosphere and affect out of simplicity and consummate minimalism. “Stanlow,” ostensibly written about, and perhaps for, the Stanlow Refinery, is the album’s closing track and was immediately proof of the band’s weird fascination with history, modernity and technology, all of which would coalesce in the magisterial Dazzle ships from 1983. Later albums would see Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, post-break-up in 1989 and re-formation in 2006, fully embrace the aesthetic of modernism, burying somewhat the critical stance of the earlier albums.
Beginning with the mechanic clank and bellows-like breathing of the refinery itself, a rhythm that runs at roughly half the speed of Neu!’s “Hallogallo,” “Stanlow” slowly introduces an orchestral sample, simple slow musical phrases which end with a single held note against which McCluskey sings, “It’s our belief/ This field remains/ Stanlow.” At the second mention of the refinery’s name, for this is a song that eschews a verse/ chorus structure, a single synthesized bass note is repeated leading to a short arpeggio which, after settling into its rhythm, is followed by more cinematic orchestral phrases, at which point McCluskey sings “I see her face in every day/ The same routine along the way,” leading one to suspect that we’re not really talking about the power station anymore. Increasingly the song transforms into something different, a threnody to modernism, recognition of the fact that all the poured concrete in Western Europe might have given us Brutalism and the autobahn, but no amount of motorik and Krautrock will make everything okay.
“Stanlow” transcends its subject in the same way that “Joan of Arc” from 1981’s Architecture and Morality is both about Jeanne d’Arc and also every futile and unrealised possibility for love, a sentiment proved here when McCluskey’s final lyrics arrive: “And as she turned we all knew/ That her heart was never there.” In this single song, there’s no better sense of this band at their most refined and “Stanlow,” as it fades out to the sounds of the refinery, leaves behind a very English melancholy that remains devastatingly effective.
Cabaret Voltaire: “Spies in the Wires” from Micro-Phonies
For Cabaret Voltaire, 1984’s Micro-Phonies was a liminal album; midway through their tenure at Virgin after an initial productive period at Rough Trade, the band were shifting from the noise/ dada/ collage experiments of the earlier years and heading, however slowly, towards the house-inflected electronica of their final outings. And while Micro-Phonies would give the duo of Richard H. Kirk and Stephen Mallinder their highest chart placings to date, it’s also an album that further refines and stabilizes the sense of threat and malice that became such a presence in Voice of America (1980) and Red Mecca (1981) and which started to emerge as a more concretely mobilised aesthetic on The Crackdown (1983).
“Spies in the Wires” is the fourth track on the album, easily dismissed as mere filler between the album’s opener “Do Right” and closer “Sensoria,” conjoined twins of songs that are still startling in their efficiency, layered production, stuttering percussion and, as always, Mallinder’s breathy and slightly sinister voice. Here, though, we enter the song through a conceit that has since become an industrial-electronica standard; the found sample. A male American voice advises us of how bafflingly easy it is to access automatic weapons before the rocksteady and zen-like 4/ 4 drumbeat by Roger Quail pushes us forward through a soundscape of synthetic bass pulses, sampled voices and thin, tinny horns. Throughout, Mallinder intones, at the end of every verse-like fragment, “Like spies/ Like spies in the wire/ Dark eyes in the wire/ Like spies in the wire.” There might be some kind of narrative sense to be made here, but it’s less important than the pervasive sense of dread and surveillance, supported by Mallinder’s monotonal chanting: “Catch a mirror, the lines are dancing/ Like a mirror, it’s growing faceless/ Find a way, the special service/ Keep it down, keep it harmless.” Most pleasingly, “Spies in the Wires” emerges from the dust of the song that preceded it and is truncated by the kettle drum blow that marks the start of “Theme from Earthshaker.” “Spies in the Wires” is no mere exercise in cliché. Instead it’s a summary paragraph of the manifesto that starts with “Do Right” and climaxes with “Sensoria,” a restating of terms to ensure we know what the landscape of this album holds and that there’ll be no relaxing just yet.
XTC: “Another Satellite” from Skylarking
The lyrical landscape of Skylarking is dotted with umbrellas and teacups, grasses and bonfires. But in this album overstuffed with earth-bound pleasures, the band pauses to look to the heavens in “Another Satellite,” wherein the vast expanse of outer space is not a source of wonder but rather the setting of an eternally unwelcome pursuit. “My heart is taken it’s not lost in space/ And I don’t want to see your mooney mooney face”; Andy Partridge wrote the song as a rebuff to a woman who was seeking his attention, and even the oft-acerbic singer thought he went a bridge too far, calling the song “rude” and expressing regret that it earned a spot on the album against his (and producer Todd Rundgren’s) wishes.
And yet the song is brilliant despite (and because of) its sarcasm, the lunar metaphors maxed out and, as one expects from XTC, too clever by half (“Abort your mission, let’s just say you tried/ Before you glimpse I have a darker darker side”). Bass beats and rim clicks suggest a celestial SOS, isolated xylophone pings are dispatched to a faraway receiver. The melody is deceptively major-key until the chorus-ender “Don’t need another satellite” veers astray, landing on a discordant note that evokes a sudden case of space nausea. Andy’s echoed vocals are framed with arcs of a guitar effect set to sound like a Martian sitar; this is the desolation of alien territory, and still the subject resists a companion.
But satellites forever circle, and back here on Earth, Partridge ultimately left his marriage to partner with the very woman who inspired this song. Gravity is a force that pulls bodies together, after all.
R.E.M.: “Untitled” from Green
Green’s sweetest little offering came to bloom as the bandmates experimented with trading off their usual instruments. The album memorializes a band in transition; it was the first release under the Warner Bros. label and a mid-point of sorts in their evolution from inscrutable to poetically direct. In a concerted effort to switch things up on this major label release, guitarist Peter Buck composed the drum pattern of the album’s final track, a beat some called “shambolic,” but, to paraphrase its creator, was more like a mistake you keep making for four minutes. Joking aside, there’s something to that notion of naiveté that soaks into the song.
“This world is big and so-awake/ I stayed up late to hear your voice.” It’s a simple melody that Michael Stipe sings, Mike Mills trickling an echo back to him from on high. There are just a few lyrics, as wishes aren’t wordy. “Hold her/ And keep her strong/ While I’m away from here” – these instructions for caretaking emphasize warmth of sentiment over complexity. Mills’ callbacks braid together melodies, countermelodies and guitar lines; it’s not quite a round, but the structure is cresting and cyclical, complementing the motif of departure and return. Interstitials are spangled with chimes and sleigh bells, sounds that make us think of high-anticipation arrivals. Is it war? A business trip? The separation that comes as we each drift off to sleep? The fact that this song slips through without a formal title somehow speaks to the universality of its message. This is a song we all have lived.
Certainly an outlier among Green’s cynical back half, “Untitled” is an undervalued curiosity that is more often treated as a footnote. R.E.M.’s catalog is full of entries devoted to the intricacies of longing, but “Untitled” is a bittersweet reminder that love will find safe passage.
Hole: “Olympia” (a/ k/ a “Rock Star”) from Live Through This
It doesn’t even get proper credit as the final flip-off of Live Through This. The artwork had already gone to print when track #12 “Rock Star” was swapped out in favor of “Olympia,” as unspecified powers-that-be concluded the lyrics were too perilously tetchy, even by Courtney Love standards. Pause for a minute to consider that “How’d you like to be Nirvana?…/ Fucking barrel of laughs in Nirvana/ Say you’d die” might’ve been the closing lyrics to this album that was released one week after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Instead of a poison pill, we’re treated to a black eye, the kind of exit injury you get stumbling out of this record that is majestically outsized in trauma and vengeance alike.
On its face, “Olympia” is a screed against homogeneity; remember that circa 1994, conformity was a cardinal sin and selling out was the capital offense. “Well I went to school in Olympia/ Everyone’s the same/ We look the same/ We talk the same/ We even fuck the same.” Grunge historians will tell you that this is all about Courtney hating on Olympia native/Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna and/or the riot grrrl in-crowd, the giggly false start of the song an impersonation, and Love’s blistering shriek “What do you do with a revolutionnnnnnn???” an existential dart thrown her way. Honestly? That’s such a small reading of the song. Fuck all that.
Actually, don’t. It can be true that Love was both being a mega-bitch and was embodying the maturation process of adolescent rage all at the same time. “Olympia” begins with performative hesitation, only to intensify almost immediately into a wild diatribe set to slam dance riffs. “Make me real/ FUCK YOU” is a perfect encapsulation of the feminist complaint, the purest expression of plea, command, accusation, spellcasting and threat. She dissembles into heaving gasps as the song unspools into discord, leaving a trail of decompensated “goodbye”s to the album’s end. The status of the revolution though, that’s always an open question.
Big Star: “Watch the Sunrise” from #1 Record
It’s important to remember that, despite its current status as a beloved cult album, #1 Record was meant to breakthrough on national radio and climb the pop charts. As such, the album is front-loaded with the songs most likely to make the album a hit, with hard rockers and indelibly melodic pop numbers all on side one. Naturally, these are the songs celebrated as the band’s finest; any Big Star fan can wax lyrical on how beautiful “Thirteen” or “The Ballad of El Goodo” are. The second half of the album, though, is notable for how low-key it is. It’s here that the band slows down and indulges in their folkier side, and it is here where Big Star decided to hide one of the most breath-taking compositions in their catalog.
Unlike the other folk-tinged numbers that populate the end of the album, “Watch the Sunrise” feels more like a collaborative effort. Instead of a single strumming guitar throughout, the song interweaves strummed acoustics and fingerpicked twelve-string. The combination of the two results in something earthy and organic, yet it never falls into hippie anachronisms. Chilton stays in his lower register as he marvels at the promise that a new day brings. On an album that often indulges in adolescence, it’s a moment where the teenage angst is dropped, replaced by the sort of childlike wonder one can rediscover once the ravages of puberty have long since passed by. It never sounds as if Big Star were looking to write a hit with “Watch the Sunrise,” and it’s a better song for it.
The Clash: “The Card Cheat” from London Calling
This won’t have been the first time that someone has seen fit to draw comparisons between the Clash’s two main songwriters and the Beatles, but the similarities are fairly evident. Sure, there are discrepancies based around the times that each group was writing in, but there is still that sharp divide between the agit-prop truth-teller (Lennon and Strummer, in this case) and the pop omnivore (McCartney and Jones). Things fall apart when one considers that Mick Jones would never write something as dumb as “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” but his experiments with dancehall and more sophisticated styles of pop don’t always come together. And on paper, a song like “The Card Cheat” should be a disaster. A song on the greatest punk album of all time about a shifty gambler’s last big score with a backbeat borrowed from the Ronettes shouldn’t work at all. And yet, this glorious three minutes of pure bombast is one of the best songs on an album that also has “Train in Vain” and “The Guns of Brixton,” among others.
Here, Jones delves deeper into the sort of American tradition of rock ‘n’ roll outlaws that he tended to avoid in his other songs. As this is the Clash, there’s no wink to accompany the nods to rock’s lowlifes here, and the heart-on-sleeve passion with which Jones delivers his lyrics recalls Springsteen at his most theatrical. It’s the sort of tale that Phil Spector would have turned into high drama, albeit filtered through the perspective of someone who likely admired those songs from a distance. As a genre exercise, “The Card Cheat” is near-perfect; as a song on its own, it’s irresistible.
Jay-Z: “Never Change” from The Blueprint
To be fair, there are so many beloved songs on this, Jay’s best album (yes, it’s better than Reasonable Doubt) that it would be hard to call any of them “forgotten.” The man had gotten so good at writing and recording hit singles that he managed to make a whole album of them. There’s a greater purpose to The Blueprint beyond chart domination, though; this is the moment of Jay-Z’s coronation, the moment when he stepped into a greater spotlight and became the undisputed king of New York’s rap scene while simultaneously achieving pop stardom. What “Never Change” does, hidden away in the middle of the album immediately following the soul-funk bombast of “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” is disguise a reassurance as a boast.
The “keep it real” song is a time-honored tradition in rap. It assures the fans that the artist is still speaking their truth even as while achieving more and more success. Jay flips the trope around a bit with “Never Change,” though. On an album celebrating his ascendance to rap royalty, Jay includes a track that brags that he’s always going to be himself. From his beginnings as a drug dealer to his breakthrough into the music industry, Jay-Z’s real ethos is his single-minded desire for success. That’s what he sees as his true self, regardless of his circumstances. In that sense, he never did change, and he probably never will. Not only is it what people love about him, it’s what Jay-Z loves most about himself.
The Who: “Sally Simpson” from Tommy
When the Who’s Tommy came out in 1969, the idea of a rock opera was still novel. The album told a single story across two records, with each song contributing a piece to the narrative (more or less). While the work was intended as a single extended piece, many of the songs worked on their own; even unmoored from the opera, cuts like “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free” and “We’re Not Going to Take It” stood out and remain staples on classic rock radio. “Sally Simpson” got lost as the fans and critics stuck to other songs. It suffered for at least two reasons. First, it feels inessential to the plot. Second, the song never stuck as a live staple, and its tale of an injured fan became less palatable in a live setting after the Who’s tragedy in Cincinnati in 1979 (though the song had largely been forgotten by that point anyway).
The song still shines, though. The little tale in this track serves as a vital reminder of some of the album’s key themes, developing ideas about celebrity, the dangers of false messiahs and the corrupting influence of power. Sally’s injury and Tommy’s inattentiveness put concrete details on a story that nearly spreads too thin in the ether. Even on its own, it’s a great track, a piece of pop music that uses a fluffy verse to represent the innocence of teenage fandom and an unforgettable bridge that matches the intensity of the crowd experience. No one – whether the Who after 197n or Broadway in the 1990sn or recent recreations – have quite known what to do with the song, but the most direct performances (like the original) work best: play it as pop with a dark edge that works on its own and elucidates a complex narrative when put back into its original context.
The Jayhawks: “Pray for Me” from Tomorrow the Green Grass
After Hollywood Town Hall, the Jayhawks took three years to respond with their best album, 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass. The album built on their country-rock template, but expanded the instrumentation and varied the sound. If the group had already become an alt-country standard-bearer, they now found themselves in a select group of the genre’s elite. (Unfortunately, Mark Olson was about to leave, taking his half of the band’s harmonies with him.) The album opened with “Blue,” the most memorable track the band would record, and it hardly lets up from there.
“Pray for Me,” deep in the second half of the disc and following one of the album’s less energetic moments, didn’t receive much attention at the time and hasn’t found better status in reconsiderations. The song, though, stands as another one of the band’s best. It may suffer in the public mind from a certain joyful straightforwardness, but it’s a perfectly constructed pop song. The guitar riff is unforgettable, and it articulates the song’s well-being precisely (and, of course, well-being is never a popular rock concept). Olson and Louris mine an idyllic landscape to capture an unguarded heart.
The non-specific appeals to God probably haven’t helped its standing, but the request for prayers for monogamy center the song not only in a heartland swath of corn but in a seriousness belied by the lightness of the music. The singer can peacefully absorb the beauty around him, but he knows he’ll need both earthly and transcendental help to remain in this place of joy (and he trusts in both). We don’t get an answer from either God or the singer’s beloved here, but the guitar solos tell us all we need to know. It might be ephemeral or even imaginative, but the place the Jayhawks find on “Pray for Me” persists as a locus of hope, free of irony or anxiety.
The National: “Ada” from Boxer
It’s less of a question of “Why is ‘Ada’ overlooked?” and more “Why isn’t ‘Ada’ the National song?” All the Wes Andersons and mumblecore directors of the world couldn’t replicate this ideal of a platonic, perfect National song. Matt Berninger murmurs sad nonsense (“Stand inside an empty tuxedo with grapes in my mouth/ Waiting for Ada”) the Dessner brothers flourish with blossoming strings and swooshing horns, and Sufjan Stevens makes an appearance with a characteristically devastating piano line.
What makes “Ada” remarkable beyond that is a deep well of empathy that Boxer’s other songs often eschew in order to let the alienation seep all the way to the marrow. “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Fake Empire” were both Berninger’s signature therapist-side confessions gussied up in a humming baritone. The former gives way to barely concealed contempt, the latter hidden behind drunken nostalgia. On “Ada,” Berninger barely brings himself into it, ghosting his way through the life of a well-to-do but trembling socialite. Berninger, for once, is the one attempting to lift the veil.
“Ada, don’t talk about reasons why you don’t want to talk/ About reasons why you don’t wanna talk,” he murmurs, like they’ve been through this a thousand times. But he’s still by her side, watching as parties disintegrate into panic attacks and soft nights of red wine. “I think everything counts a little more than we think,” he sings as a bouncing guitar line rumbles through. And, somehow, in a catalogue brimming with awe-inspiring beauty, “Ada” might have a beam of light that outshines them all. The music drops out, leaving only Berninger and Stevens, Berninger cooing “Ada I can still hear the sound of your laugh through the walls” before strings usher in a sparkling bridge of chiming piano. It is otherworldly in its beauty, ascending from the stained carpets of New York apartments and missed appointments with the counselor into something breathtaking.
Songs: Ohia: “The Old Black Hen” from Magnolia Electric Co.
Jason Molina’s keening wail is as key to Songs: Ohio as the pervasive sense of depression. But for his greatest album, he briefly ceded vocals to two close friends, English song-writer Scout Niblett and American washboardist Lawrence Peters. Niblett took the stark devastation of “Peoria Lunchbox Blues” and Peters crooned across “The Old Black Hen.”
Songs: Ohio had a strange relation to country. Much like their peers Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Neko Case, there was too much indie, too much rock, too much else floating around in their little section of alt-country to be accepted as anything mainstream. But “The Old Black Hen,” is a country tune; a folk song in the oldest sense. Though Molina was constantly able to convey an untimely sorrow, this was one of the few songs that seemed truly unmoored from any era. Despite Peters’ bass-baritone, “The Old Black Hen” sounds like a lost gem from Townes Van Zant. And from the tear-in-your-beer lyrics “We’ll all sing to the bad luck lullaby” to the streaky fiddle, it seems to be reaching back even further, the song a dustbowl rambler might have sung, a song that might’ve scored The Grapes of Wrath and matched it in scale and empathy.
The Black Hen holds the same stature as Death or Coyote, a force taken mortal shape. From Molina’s lyrics of submission, it seems likely that the fowl is an omen, foretelling the coming of the Grim Reaper and all sorts of other sorrow. When Peters welcomes the Hen into his home, he seems resigned, asking for it to sing a song “It’s the same one you sung/ When you worked on the Revelation” and with the gravity he produces, it seems to imply the “revelation” might be “the book of.”
And Peters sees a darkness. Babes born silent, watching futures of broken hearts and homes, loves lost and never recovered and the devil himself dancing to the festivities. But it ends in thrilling, sobbing catharsis. The strings and bass are doubled, sounding like they’ve filled up a ballroom, a voice adds itself to Peters as he carries himself through the last chorus. All of it begging to be recognized. If nothing else, we tried. But goddamn did they do a sight more than that. If there was any honky-tonk justice, “The Old Black Hen” would be next to Blaze Foley and Van Zant.
Massive Attack: “Group Four” from Mezzanine
There’s no such thing as too much Elizabeth Fraser, but that’s the only theory behind why “Group Four” didn’t become the defining song of Massive Attack’s landmark Mezzanine. Or perhaps it was just too much to take in after an album of genre warping and hallucinations. Fraser’s angelic soprano had already lifted the hypnotic “Teardrop” and added poisonous dread to the druggy “Black Milk.” But to close a monster like Mezzanine, you need something equally monstrous.
Robert “3D” Naja started “Group Four” as a lyrical exercise, trying to get into the head of a security guard or nightwatchman, flipping through CCTV screens in a secluded, black room. He and Fraser sent notes back and forth, expanding the song to a surreal eight minutes. The end result was a Matrix-worthy theme song fed through an industrial furnace. It was sexy and horrifying in equal amounts. And much like the rest of the themes on Mezzanine, the original idea evolved to grasp at a larger cultural paranoia. “Group Four”’s unnamed guard seems to be seeping into the electronics around them. “Buzz surrounds, buzz surrounds,” mumbles 3D while Fraser coos “My sixth sense peacefully placed on my breath/ Flickering, I roam.” Massive Attack captured the growing worry of the surveillance state and the blurring line between man and machine. Each a problem in its own right, combined a fully existential quandary. And that’s just the first half, before a seismic baseline kicks in and Fraser starts singing like she wondered into a Dead Can Dance album. It was never going to become a pop hit like “Unfinished Sympathy” or “Teardrop,” but “Group Four” embodied the paranoid thesis of Mezzanine better than any other song.
Sunny Day Real Estate: “Pheurton Skeurto” from Diary
And here’s a little piano ditty in the middle of a post-hardcore album. Despite American Football’s study of Steve Reich, Sunny Day Real Estate was undoubtedly the weirdest of emo’s second wave explorers. The faded-out sorrow of Diary flipped from raging to comatose in seconds, leaving behind ragged beauty and massive choruses that seemed liable to collapse in on themselves. But between the crushing roar of “In Circles” and the speedy pop-punk of “Shadows” was the nugget-sized weirdo “Pheurton Skeurto.”
Jeremy Enigk’s lyrics could be charitably described as enigmatic, but sometimes he just made them up on the spot. He occasionally landed on sad-boy gold “December’s tragic drive/ Where time is poetry,” and “Pheurton Skeurto” finally matched his sing-song/creepy lines with a mischievous grin. Nearly vaudevillian in degree, a waltzing piano and Nate Mendel’s noodling bass snake around Enignk’s hums, turning from a coo to a snarl. “How will they know just where to find?/ Under this bridge I lie down,” walks the line between sad and serial killer as the song unfolds into an eerie lullaby. It’s easy to imagine the grey snow of “Charlie Brown Christmas” taking an even darker turn with Linus suddenly pounding this out. It could just be put aside as a quick bout of fuckery to leave the listener unnerved. But it added to the surreal, wintery trek of Diary wonderfully.
The Notorious B.I.G.: “Everyday Struggle” from Ready to Die
On “Everyday Struggle,” the Notorious B.I.G. asks us to imagine waking up with no food in your belly and no money in your pockets, unable to have either until you’ve moved enough product. The life of a drug kingpin sounds harsh and stressful on this sad song buried deep in Biggie’s monumental debut Ready to Die. There’s always something to worry about: court cases, cops, the two pounds of hash he trusted his girl to carry on the train with her. When Biggie insists she’ll never snitch, it sounds like he’s reassuring himself. If one thing’s certain about the life he describes on “Everyday Struggle,” it’s that nothing’s certain—not even his survival, which he doesn’t seem to care much about anyway.
Biggie’s larger-than-life badassery and braggadocio are so pervasive in his post-mortem cult of personality it’s easy to forget how gutted he sounds on so many of his best songs. The robbery on “Gimme the Loot” is a disaster that ends with Big fleeing from the cops. “Things Done Changed,” which opens the album, makes clear that he does not enjoy this lifestyle at all. Big is a miserable man, and Ready to Die is an amazingly sad album even if it knocks hard enough to sound good at parties. Maybe “Everyday Struggle” is lesser-known than it should be because it’s buried so deep in the album’s sprawl. More likely it’s because the fear and trembling Big’s persona does such a good job of making us forget about is on such terrifying, naked display here.
The Flaming Lips: “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” from The Soft Bulletin
Dave Fridmann’s production embellishes and comments on every line of “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton.” Triumphant horns when Wayne Coyne sings “being drunk on their plan.” A cute pit-pat of drum machine when Coyne describes a swinging trapdoor. In one of the most grin-inducing moments in the indie rock canon, a cartoonish swell of Hawaiian steel guitar to illustrate the lifting of the sun. Dripping strings everywhere else, the musical equivalent of a sigh of relief, that make “Spoonful” something of a space-opera answer to Etta James’ “At Last.” It’s possible the slow, deliberate baroqueness of “Spoonful” is what keeps it from the ubiquitous status of the songs that bookend it: “Race for the Prize,” whose story it possibly continues, and “The Spark That Bled,” which attempts something similar with much higher stakes. It lacks a beat, except briefly as a diversion, and might not work as well live as it does as the second track of the Lips’ masterpiece The Soft Bulletin. But few songs in the Lips catalog so well demonstrate the band’s ability to make psychedelic nonsense sound devastating.
Coyne’s fearsome admiration of goodness is the throughline in all the Flaming Lips’ work. He respects no one more than those who put their life on the line for the betterment of humanity, be it the scientists working tirelessly for “the cure” on “Race for the Prize” or the beleaguered hero of “Waitin’ for a Superman.” It manifests most recently in this year’s sloppy but poignant King’s Mouth, where Coyne is stupefied by the heroism of a king who sacrifices his life to save his subjects from an avalanche. On “Spoonful” he tasks a ragtag team of scientists with saving the earth, and he wants us to celebrate them, remember them, be inspired by them. “And even though they were sad/ They rescued everyone,” he sings in that trembling voice of his. It’s a line so simple a child could write it, but there’s something childlike in Coyne’s belief that the universe is essentially positive, and it’s that conviction that makes the greatest Flaming Lips songs so powerful.
Iggy & the Stooges: “Penetration” from Raw Power
If “Penetration” is not one of the most beloved songs on the Stooges’ Raw Power, it’s probably because it’s not much of a song. It’s more of a mid-album morass to make you feel like you’re descending deeper into a fucked cenobite nightlife where junkies submit to the extremes of sadomasochism so they can get something going in their netherlands again. It’s a 12-bar blues, basically, relying on the substitution of words rather than changes in instrumentation for its forward momentum (when he starts singing “every night,” we know we’re deep in the song). There are no quotables about street-walking cheetahs, just Iggy drooling on the mic until we feel the wetness dribble onto the floor. It’s like a lot of other Stooges songs: the band kicks up a monotonous racket while Iggy has all the fun.
But then there’s that celesta. Why? What deranged spirit seized Iggy Pop and producer David Bowie and told them the best thing to add to one of the most unhinged songs by one of the most unhinged rock bands ever was an instrument most commonly associated with Christmas, then let it tinkle cluelessly in the background as Iggy Pop pants about either shooting up or getting fucked in the ass? If “Penetration” came out today we might think a hopelessly incompetent AI, trying to generate a Velvet Underground song, swept up spare parts from “Sunday Morning” and “Sister Ray” without the intelligence to separate the Velvets’ dream-pop shit from their bleeding-on-the-corner shit. Certainly the celesta works so well because it doesn’t understand its own predicament, repeating incessantly like someone forgot to shut it off. It’s like a household robot that’s been trained to give head to its owner. It’s unbelievably perverse. It’s one of the most brilliant production decisions in the history of rock ’n’ roll.
Prince: “Take Me With U” from Purple Rain
It’s easy for a pop trifle like “Take Me With U” to get lost on a record as risky, rule-breaking, and forward-thinking as Prince’s Purple Rain. Aside from its clattering, revving intro, there’s not much to sonically separate the Apollonia duet from something like Elton John and Kiki Dee’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” And that Apollonia—one of dozens of Prince protégés, better-known for playing the Prince character’s love interest in the film than for anything she’s done on record—makes such a prominent appearance here makes it easy to dismiss “Take Me With U” as a leftover from the film rather than a great song in its own right. Love duets get a bad rap too. They’re sappy, guileless, and often cloying, and “Take Me With U” is no exception. It’s a little like one of Paul McCartney’s granny songs, the “Honey Pie” or “When I’m Sixty-Four” of the Prince catalog.
It also proves that when the Purple One isn’t commanding his underlings to take out the bass on his next single or programming Seussian forests of LinnDrum sound design, he can write a hell of a classic, no-innovations-needed pop song, and that’s what “Take Me With U” is. Songs in this vein just don’t get much better than this. And though poor Apollonia seems like a martyr in the movie to Prince’s petulant “Kid” character, here the two can’t contain their excitement at the prospect of a night together. When they sing “I don’t care if we spend the night in your mansion” while strings chirp and flutter like Disney bluebirds buttoning their coats, they’re beside themselves with ecstasy. There’s as much erotic heat here as on any Prince song, but of a sweeter, older kind—a Hollywood kind. No wonder Tipper Gore wasn’t prepared for “Darling Nikki.”
Radiohead: “Black Star” from the Bends
Facing the possibility of stalling as a one-hit wonder, Radiohead put out The Bends, a stunning record that managed to feel of a piece with the grunge that preceded it even while breaking away from everything around it. The disc contains a string of unforgettable songs, with shifts from inner turmoil to cultural struggles. Overshadowed by the album’s anthemic numbers, “Black Star” has never gotten the attention it deserves. The slight’s at least a little understandable; while the rest of the album found space between grunge, Britpop and something new, “Black Star” fit in more sympathetically with its pop surroundings. And maybe even in 1995, we were still too close to Milli Vanilli for anything with the lyrics “blame it on the” to take off.
The song utilizes the band’s smart sense of dynamics and structure, succeeding especially when it opens into the chorus, a sound the looks upward even as everything crumbles. Thom Yorke’s lyrics stand out 25 years later. The opening image of a romantic partner “still standing in [her] dressing gown” immediately finds the heart of the song. Yorke’s narrator suffers under the weight of his partner’s suffering. The relationship falls apart and both people fall apart, and all they can think to do is blame their hurt on superstitious causes, in this case ancient symbolism mixed with modern technology. No matter how expansive the music, the trap shrinks continuously, a mental breakdown in a society predisposed to break down its members, Yorke riding a train in denial with no way out of his isolation, the lyricist’s awareness bringing the character’s closed nature into sharp relief. Everyone needs help, and no one gets it. Blame it on natural and man-made satellites.
Contributors: Nathan Stevens, Stacey Pavlick, Daniel Bromfield, Scott Wilson, Kevin Korber, Justin Cober-Lake