MUSIC: The Perfect Songs, Part VI
Man, it's been a while since I did this, eh? Well, anyway, this is the ongoing list of the songs I think are as close to perfect as a song can be – songs I never tire of, no matter how many times I hear them, songs that put it all together and spit it out in a sonic stew. As always, it's in the eyes of the beholder, caveat emptor, warranty not valid in Minnesota, etc.
The latest three:
16. "Let's Dance," David Bowie. Yeah, for hardcore Bowie-philes like myself, this pop hit is often called where "it all went wrong," leading to his mediocre slide through the 1980s and early 1990s. Bowie "sold out," "went pop," had the biggest hit of his career, and wouldn't Ziggy Stardust be ashamed? Nonsense. This is one of the finest pure pop songs you'll ever hear, love and lust given a Bowie skew. It may be romantic clichés, but man – does Bowie ever sell it all. Listen to this song like you haven't heard it a million times and you'll be astonished. There's that slinky horn-pulse riff, the slashing guitar licks of Stevie Ray Vaughn, the debauched club bassline from producer Nile Rodgers, and lording over it all, Bowie's anguished, overwrought vocals, wringing every syllable out of the lyrics. Bowie puts a slightly dark, haunted spin on it all – "let's dance / for fear tonight is all." Serious moonlight" – seriously, what a turn of phrase. It's no sell-out. Rather, it's Bowie showing he can do Top 40 pop as well as anyone in the business if he wants. The song's available in multiple versions – a nearly 7 1/2 minute jam on the "Let's Dance" CD, some quirky remixes on the rare "Club Bowie" CD, and a particularly strong "slowed-down" version Bowie did live for a while, captured on the "Bowie at the Beeb" CD set bonus disc. "If you say run, I'll run with you."
17. "Bad Reputation," Freedy Johnston. Freedy is a never-quite-was, a tremendously talented singer/songwriter from the early 1990s who had a passionate, quirky vision, who crafted glittering little songs like Raymond Carver short stories. "Bad Reputation" is perhaps his only real "hit," a minor success from the summer of 1994, when I discovered Freedy. It's a gorgeous, bittersweet lament, a tale of missed chances and too-short perfect moments, just a man singing his sad sad song. He sees the girl in a crowd, the girl he once knew better than anyone, and before he can react she melts away into the faces. Like all the best songs, it's heartache made palatable by a beautiful turn of phrase, a haunting melody. Yet Freedy never quite surpassed that song. He had two A+ albums – 1992's "Can You Fly" and 1994's "This Perfect World" (which "Bad Reputation" came from); then a half-great album, "Never Home," followed by two increasingly bland, mediocre albums and nothing since 2001 or so. But for a couple albums, this man had the voice of an angel and the stories of a journeyman. Hunt them down. "I know I got a bad reputation / and it isn't just talk, talk, talk."
18. "Monkey Gone To Heaven," The Pixies. Crunching down from the ionosphere, this song's just here visiting from another planet – huge sparkling guitar riffs, Black Francis's cool and self-assured lyrics, Kim Deal's sweet floating backup mantra. It's a song where all the pieces just come together – Black's deadpan voice, Deal's throbbing bass, David Loverling's steady drumbeat, "rock me Joe" Santiago's ace guitar lines propelling the song. It's not the most representative Pixies song ever, objectively – "Debaser" is more pure anarchy, "Gouge Away" more sinister, "Here Comes Your Man" cuter, "Gigantic" sexier – but most fans will say it's one of their best. The lyrics have a kind of jaded ease that'll make teenage potheads shiver at how "deep" they are, yet even stone-cold sober they have a kind of universal echo – "If man is five / then the devil is six." There's an unfathomable sadness at the core of "Monkey" that makes this song cut hard and fast, a buildup and explosion that makes the song never seem old to me. And you get that Black Francis scream at the end. What more does a Pixies fan need? Two minutes, 58 seconds of pure ecstasy. "…Then God is seven / then God is seven / then God is seven."