Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Top 5 Songs About Death

Ryan was watching High Fidelity on the road to Virginia, and felt the need to text this topic to me so we wouldn't forget to do it. For me at least, it wasn't hard at all to leave off any songs from the aforementioned list now immortalized in literature and film. So without further ado...

Dan's Top 5:

1. "Keep Me In Your Heart" - Warren Zevon - The rare case (actually, I'm unsure if there's ever been another case) where the songwriter himself knows that he hasn't got much longer to live. Sadly, I remember that at the time the song was released, I didn't know who Zevon was. I thought he might have been one of those "boring" songwriters that the 70's produced far too many of. Only after I got hooked on Excitable Boy did I realize the connection. To this day, one of the very few songs that can get me choked up.

2. "Do You Realize??" - The Flaming Lips - Very cheery-sounding for a song about death (really, there's no death occurring, but it is a reflection on mortality) To quote the lyrics: "Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die? And instead of saying all of your goodbyes - let them know you realize that life goes fast. It's hard to make the good things last" It does what I like death songs to do - focus on the good parts of life. And how can you not do that on an album featuring pink robots?

3. "Thoughts of a Dying Atheist" - Muse - I'm really surprised that this song has such a happy-sounding chord progression in the chorus. The music seems in direct contrast to the feeling of the lyrics. I mean, such an upbeat chorus doesn't sound like it fits with the lyrics "eerie whispers trapped beneath my pillow" and "Are you afraid to die?" But hey, I don't question Matt Bellamy, and neither should you.

4. "I Grieve" - Peter Gabriel - I remember being shocked seeing a new Peter Gabriel with no hair and a white goatee when he released his 2003 album, Up. After hearing that this was his darkest album ever (I disagree - that accolade goes to PG III) I always skipped this song out of pure fear that I would be too depressed. However, it surprisingly has an uplifting section towards the middle/end of the song. Do yourself a favor and don't just read the lyrics though.

5. "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" - Radiohead - Widely considered Radiohead's first really good song, and off of what is probably my personal favorite album. More haunting than anything, I don't know of any Radiohead fan who doesn't like it. (Then again, most Radiohead fans are so in love with the band that they call you an infidel if you even state you're open to the possibility that there can be a greater band on the face of the planet. That's my only worry about claiming to be a Radiohead fan - that I'll look like an asshole.) Anyway, this song is a solid choice to round out the Top 5, and I don't think I've given Radiohead a shout-out lately.

Ten honorable mentions in no order: "Don't Fear The Reaper" - Blue Öyster Cult, "When The Man Comes Around" - Johnny Cash, "I Don't Like Mondays" - The Boomtown Rats (regarding a senseless school shooting in America), "American Pie" - Don McLean, "Paint It, Black" - The Rolling Stones, "Eleanor Rigby" - The Beatles, "Candle In the Wind" - Elton John, "A Day In The Life" - The Beatles, "Tears In Heaven" - Eric Clapton (probably number 6 - a song about his four-year-old son is pretty powerful.), "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life" - Monty Python

Ryan's Top 5:

"The night Laura's daddy died. Sha na na na na na na na na! Brother what a night it really was. Mother what a night it really... angina's tough! Glory be!"

1. "Casimir Pulaski Day" - Sufjan Stevens - Sufjan Stevens is a Christian, and this is a song written from a Christian perspective. That said, this song reflects loss on a personal level, without espousing any view of Why Death Happens To Who It Does; on the contrary, the speaker of the song is at a loss for understanding. The singer can't understand why "He takes and He takes and He takes..." The music is beautiful and sounds almost optimistic (the lyric "Oh the glory!" begins new verses). I don't know, the disparity between music and lyrics gives me the sense that there is, in fact, an understanding of death to be had, it's just impossible to realize it when someone close dies. Who needs a drink?

2. "A Minor Incident" - Badly Drawn Boy - The concept of this song alone is brilliant. Written by Damon Gough for "About a Boy," this is supposed to be the suicide letter Fiona writes to her son Marcus, put to music. You've got to appreciate the verbal irony of referring to the event as a "minor incident." (I'm a big fan of irony.) And it's just Damon Gough, acoustic guitar, and harmonica. Excellent.

3. "Five Years" - David Bowie - The lyrics are pretty epic.  "Five years--that's all we've got!"

4. "Eleanor Rigby" - The Beatles - Where do all the lonely people belong anyway? Asking questions that don't have answers seems to be a trend on this list...

5. "Hurricane" - Bob Dylan - I was obsessed with this song for a brief period in high school, and it feels like I haven't played it since. Anyway, here's Dylan the storyteller on display. And I really, really like the way he sings, "pool of bluuuud."

Honorable mention: "Let It Be," by The Beatles; "Brick" by Ben Folds Five; "Don't Fear the Reaper" by BOC; "Not Dark Yet" by Bob Dylan; "Mack the Knife" by Bobby Darin; "Five Years" by David Bowie; "Hey Joe" by The Jimi Hendrix Experience; "Shortly Before The End" by OK Go; "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life" by Monty Python.

Tim's Top 5:

I had started a list like this that was limited to songs about murder, so my list is kind of guided in that direction, though I'm generally happy with it anyway.

1. "O Valencia" by The Decemberists - The Crane Wife is an awesome album if I recall correctly. Unfortunately, I never have a chance to recall correctly because I'm so enamored with this song that I never make it much beyond The Perfect Crime 2 before I have to go listen to it again. It's on the hyper-literate side, having been lifted pretty directly from Romeo & Juliet (Valencia is pretty much in the place of Mercutio). But it fits the category, given that Valencia utters a dying cry with her blood still warm on the ground.

2. "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin-To-Die Rag" by Country Joe and the Fish - My parents had the Woodstock 3LP set, this was about the only thing from it that I find essential to this day. It's stretching a bit to put it in the category here, but it is an entire song themed on the death of people in Vietnam and the title eliminates any lingering doubts I have about putting it in here. One of the most bitter, but brilliant, sets of lyrics after concocted, it was Dead Kennedys before Jello Biafra.

3. "Lucifer" by Jay-Z - Again, this is a song that's themed on murder and revenge, rather than strictly death. But it's one of Kanye's best use of samples and it's a fantastic song even out of context, which is the reason I was reminded how awesome it is (it plays over the end credits of an episode of Entourage in season 2 or 3).

4. "Not Dark Yet" by Bob Dylan - This song is a stretch to include because it's more about dying rather than death. But it's Dylan at his creative pinnacle in Time Out of Mind and was used beautifully in Wonder Boys, which is itself a masterful elegy.

5. "American Pie" by Don McLean - This song may be the only reason ordinary people remember Buddy Holly in another 20 years. His music has largely fallen into the void along with pre-sequined jumpsuit Elvis Presley so that it's just not heard on the radio. But Don McLean created a song that's about Buddy's death but also about most everything that happened for the next ten years that doesn't wear out its welcome at over 8 minutes. And he had the prescience to do it several years before hating on Vietnam became politically necessary.

Honorable mention: "Murder Was The Case" by Snoop Dogg; "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" by The Killers; "Traditional Irish Folk Song" by Denis Leary; "What Sarah Said" by Death Cab for Cutie; "A Fond Farewell" by Elliott Smith

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