055. David Bowie “Aladdin Sane”
Aladdin Sane, 1973
The piano. The piano. The piano! There are lots of reasons to pick about ten or fifteen different David Bowie songs for a list like this, from sugar-rush pop immediacy to Eno-macking avant-garde cred, but ultimately, I had to ask myself what Bowie song I’d be least willing to live without, and the question answered itself. Because while Marc Bolan might have invented glam’s androgynous stomp, and Roxy Music melded high-camp imagery to avant-pop to create a new kind of sleekly seductive art-rock, ultimately it is Bowie the wily, cunning, and visionary pop Proteus who struck glam’s varied threads (fey homoeroticism, space-age metaphorics, Gene Vincent revivalism with a souped-up, ballsy crunch, and the sound-based, essentially unmeaning lyrics that borrow equally from Dylan and the psyechedelic Lennon) into a lasting form, or at least something bigger than its constituent parts. And while there’s a wobbly 50s boogie-woogie rumble at back of this song, it’s the insanely atonal, Cecil Taylor-derived piano solo that drives home Bowie’s — and glam’s — precisely nuanced fusion of pop with the cutting edge. It’s a torch song for an androgynous alien (yes, another one), invoking Broadway and Hollywood shibboleths, the dead glamour of black-and-white movies, and a playful pun on “a lad insane.” It retains even more meaning for me, however, in a post-AIDS era; without getting all Angels in America, it reads to 2006 ears like a prescient lament for a devastated gay culture.
054. Donna Summer “I Feel Love”
(Pete Bellotte/Giorgio Moroder/Donna Summer)
I Remember Yesterday, 1977
The most important thing about this song may be the experience I had when I first heard it. I’d burned it to a compilation CD without listening to it first (a bad habit for a downloader, yes), and was turning onto the freeway when the first synth line washed up, and then the sequencer rhythms hit. “Aw shit,” I said out loud as I banged the steering wheel, “I downloaded a techno remix.” It sounded exactly like last month’s Italian 12”. But no; this was the real thing, the first all-synthesized disco hit, the missing link between disco and techno, between funk and electronica, between Kraftwerk and Derrick May. Donna Summer’s mostly remembered in my whitebread only-dances-at-weddings world for “She Works Hard for the Money,” which is false street-drama, brassy, sassy, and not terribly classy: Bruce Springsteen on the dance floor. I’d had no idea she could also do this lovely post-coital coo, which sounds more like post-millennial trance than anything I’d ever associated with the intervening years of disco, techno, and dance-pop. And there is a slow, seductive drama to it, a rise and fall that is distinctly coital, but also very, very modern, urban, technocentric, and — in that sense — distanced from actual human contact. It’s a lovely, literary idea of sex, much more than the sweaty reality. So in that way, it’s dancefloor romanticism at its peak, and very human indeed.
053. Bob Marley & the Wailers “No Woman No Cry”
Natty Dread, 1974
It’s time someone took Bob Marley back from all the ganja-loving dormrats at the local state university. Because he wasn’t just a quasi-mystical religious prophet, a dynamic and divisive political figure, a deeply-conscious spiritual leader, a passionate protestor against injustice, or a spokesbrand for an alternative lifestyle without any actual commitment to ideals outside the self: he was also a great soul singer. And a writer of great soul songs. It’s unfortunate in many ways that the commercial divide between the United States and Jamaica never allowed Marley space on black radio, where he would have fit in much better with the Marvin Gayes, Stevie Wonderses and Curtis Mayfields of the socially-conscious 70s soul generation than he did with the increasingly-lame hippies of dinosaur-rock radio like Peter Frampton and Eric Clapton; but that’s the market that embraced him (which means that for all their sins they did get something right), and even square old Time magazine eventually named Exodus the album of the century. But this is from before he took on rock production and before the white audience flocked to him, when a naked cry for justice and against oppression could be heard as great pop music as well, without all the circus and boomer-ego hubris of the Live Aid generation getting in the way. It’s a great soul song, nevermind the one-drop and the patois. It’s even — dare I say it — old school.
052. Wreckless Eric “The Whole Wide World”
For all the empty rhetoric spewed about the rejuvenation of rock & roll idealism, about anger, nihilism, indie credibility, and the society-changing effects of noise, punk’s great and lasting legacy has been the same as that of every great musical genre: it opened up doors to the hitherto-voiceless and allowed them a place at the pop-music table. One of the least-likely candidates for pop-music immortality, one of the most unreconstructed, and unreconstructable, voices in all of British song, is gutter-poet Wreckless Eric. In a different, significantly worse, world he never would have stopped busking on the Tube; but punk allowed him to score a record deal (with the heterogenous Stiff Records, who else?), a hit single, and a career. This is that hit single, his first and in many ways his finest song, a one-chord pounder that’s structurally primitive even by punk standards, almost tribal (or infantile) in its thudding attack, and one of Nick Lowe’s rawest, bravest productions. It’s long been an idle fantasy of mine that with the right glossy pop-punk production this song could conquer the suburban American charts, that’s how primally urgent (and almost unintentionally witty) its cry of unrequited romantic fantasy-love is. But of course, nothing could improve on the original, with its tremendous dynamic sweep, Eric’s gobbed-up throaty roar, and the barest contrapuntal pattern in the song’s final moments. As always, Lowe knew what he was doing.
051. Fleetwood Mac “Gold Dust Woman”
The apotheosis of cocaine-pop. (I almost feel I don’t need to say anything else about it, but of course I will.) Fleetwood Mac were one of the bands most frequently namechecked by the likes of Joe Strummer as the Enemy, the destroyers of the good, the true and the beautiful in pop music, and which punk had a manifest destiny to destroy in turn, thereby saving the world for rock & roll. While it makes for great rhetoric (and a few aging British critics still wave the punk-rock flag, bless ’em), as history recedes into the distance it’s all pop music. And this is — and always was — very good pop music indeed. Of course Rumours is one of the all-time great records, a SoCal fantasia of optimistic heartbreak, lonely friendship and exquisitely polished fragments of whatever image comes handiest, elegantly country-flecked and despairing, a beautiful comedown from the least satisfactory decade in public memory. The intricacies of the relationships between Mick, John, Christine, Lindsey and Stevie don’t interest me, but their vacant romanticism is a perfect metaphor for the slow crash-and-burn of the dregs of Sixties idealism. This song, naturally, is more or less a Stevie Nicks solo tune, and it’s appropriately narcissistic, apparently about herself (self-mythologizing, to use the kindest interpretation), and also, inevitably, about cocaine, the drug that turned the 70s into the 80s and turned this mush into perfectly-sculpted nostalgia, flash-frozen for maximum eternal appeal.
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