Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Top 5 Songs With Religious Subject Matter

I went through a lot of possible titles for this post: Top 5 Songs That Are At Least Vaguely About Christianity [rolls right off the tongue, right?], Top 5 Songs About Christianity, Top 5 Songs With Christian Subject Matter.  I came up with this idea after seeing the song "Jesus is Just Alright" by The Doobie Brothers on XM.  In essence, here's how I'm applying the ground rules for myself: songs that include Christian subject matter, with a little more importance in the song than just a throwaway line.  This excludes songs like "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" by The Smiths, as it just includes the word "heaven" and nothing else.

Go with me on this one.

Ryan's Top 5:

1. John Lennon - "God" - The song that really solidified his split from The Beatles.  In that context, this song can be really depressing to listen to, but it is, still, perfect in my mind.  Key religious lyric: "God is a concept by which we measure our pain."

2. The Rolling Stones - "Sympathy for the Devil" - I'm pretty firm on this being my favorite Rolling Stones song.  Key religious lyric: "And I was 'round when Jesus Christ / Had his moment of doubt and pain / Made damn sure that Pilate / Washed his hands and sealed his fate."

3. Morrissey - "I Have Forgiven Jesus" - I still feel vaguely sacrilegious listening to this song.  Key religious lyric: "I have forgiven Jesus / For all the desire / He placed in my heart when there's nothing I can do / With this desire" [this among many lines].

4. Billy Bragg & Wilco [lyrics by Woody Guthrie] - "Christ for President" - Satire at its finest.  I might try teaching this next year...every discussion I have with kids seems to get onto the subject of religious hypocrisy and the need for socialism, so it'd fit.  Key religious lyric: Well, all of it.  But my favorite is: "The only way we can ever beat / These crooked politician men / Is to run the money changers out of the temple / Put the Carpenter in."

5. Kanye West - "Jesus Walks" - This narrowly edged out Neutral Milk Hotel, mainly because it very definitely fits the criteria.  Anyway, this song kicks ass, and modern raps that actually have social/religious relevance are rare indeed.  (I'm sorry, there aren't nearly as many good popular rappers now.  It's okay, there are probably fewer good mainstream rockers.)  Favorite lyric [they're all religious]: "To the hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers, even the strippers / (Jesus walks with them)."

Honorable Mentions - Number 6 is "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2" by Neutral Milk Hotel, Number 7 is probably "Number of the Beast" by Iron Maiden, number 8 is "Big Sky" by The Kinks, and the rest I considered in no order are: "Spirit in the Sky," Norman Greenbaum, "Highway to Hell," AC/DC, "Devil Went Down to Georgia," Charlie Daniels Band, "Straight to Hell," The Clash, "God Knows I'm Good" and "Modern Love," Bowie, "Imagine," Lennon, "Vicar in a Tutu," The Smiths (bit of a stretch), "My Sweet Lord," George Harrison, "Personal Jesus," Depeche Mode.

Ashley’s Top 5: 

1. Norman Greenbaum – “Spirit in the Sky” – I’m a sucker for handclaps.  For all of the hokey lyrics and goofy rhymes in this song, it’s still so awesome.  I love the guitar, the handclaps, the background singers, and every time I hear it I get a huge smile on my face. Greenbaum is apparently a practicing Jew (strange, considering the Jesus references abound) and this song is almost enough to convert me.

2. The Clash – “Death or Glory” – One of my favorite songs by The Clash, this one makes the list mostly because it’s awesome and because it contains one of the best biting commentaries about religion: “And I believe in this—and it’s been tested by research—he who fucks nuns will later join the Church!”

3. Violent Femmes – “Jesus Walking On The Water” – Penned by devout Baptist (and son of a Baptist minister) Gordon Gano (who knew?) this song is such a jam by such a great band.

4. Modest Mouse – “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright” – This is the song that made me want to learn the banjo years ago.  From The Lonesome Crowded West, this song is apparently a crowd pleaser, according to YouTube, which I guess I never realized, and when I saw Modest Mouse in 2003 I really wanted them to play this jam but Isaac Brock was too drunk and too busy yelling at sailors at The Norva in Norfolk (they did play my other favorite, “Trailer Trash”).  It’s filled with religious references (feet floating like Christ’s, Saint Peter, etc.) and it segues into its companion song, which is also great.

5. Brian Jonestown Massacre – “The Ballad of Jim Jones” – The first time I watched Dig! I fell in love with this song, which has a dope harmonica and really gorgeous lyrics.  It’s a bit of a downer (compared to the rest of the list, I guess) but it’s been one of my favorites for years.

Honorable mentions: I was committed to putting my favorite gospel song on the list but decided against it at the last minute because it wasn’t quite fair to pull something from that genre; anyway, it is this version of “I Can't Feel At Home In This World Anymore,” by Edith & Sherman Collins (“This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through, my treasures and my hopes are all beyond the blue...”) Other runners-up are: Neutral Milk Hotel–“King of Carrot Flowers pt. 2,” and The Vaselines–“Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam”.

Tim's Top Five:

1) I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For - U2 - the song is entirely about Jesus, but you don't really even think about it that way. That's a feat in and of itself that warrants its placement atop the list. But most of all, it was the ship that launched a thousand good songs -- the first two reputable albums I ever owned were U2 - The Joshua Tree and R.E.M. - Out of Time (though I will defend my choice to buy the Spin Doctors - Pocketful of Kryptonite to the day I die). It's simple, it's quiet, and it's powerful stuff, and it's songs like this that make U2's concerts almost as spiritual as Springsteen's -- and when this one's absent, you feel you've lost something.

2) O Mary Don't You Weep - Bruce Springsteen (or Pete Seeger, if you prefer) - this song epitomizes just how phenomenal an achievement Springsteen's Seeger Sessions album was. I had never considered buying it, why would I? Then you hear the kind of fun they're having on the album, a real big band sound, and the fact that it's "Seeger Sessions" that sound like the exact opposite of Pete Seeger -- explosive and potent.

3) Jesus Christ - Big Star - One of the real revelations of the mostly unnecessary Big Star box set was the stereo version of this song, which completely reinvents it and makes it the kind of perfect power pop that laced their first two albums that is lost in the brooding and haunting nature of Third. It gleams brand new, like the last thing Alex Chilton ever recorded. The original (which is captured on youtube here) is still fantastic (though marred by the circus intro for 20 seconds), but the song really makes the best use of an echo chamber I've heard post-Buddy Holly without being Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes-level indulgent.

4) She Left Me For Jesus - Hayes Carll - Well, ignore the cheesy music video that interrupts the song repeatedly, but this is what country music should be, alcohol-soaked, bitter and funny from start to finish.

The chorus really does it justice: She left me for Jesus/And that just ain't fair/She says that he's perfect/How could I compare/She says I should find him./and I'll know peace at last/But if I ever find Jesus/I'm kickin' his ass.

5) Spooky Mormon Hell Dream - Book of Mormon - Well, congratulations, Ryan. You've made me look like I'm a touch flamboyant, since this is my second straight list involving Broadway musicals. For those unfortunate enough to have not seen The Book of Mormon, there are at least a couple songs worthy of mention here, but Spooky Mormon Hell Dream is the winner here for its inclusion of Johnny Cochran. You lose most of it when you don't actually see it on stage, particularly Jesus telling Elder Price that he's a dick, but it's fantastic.

Honorable Mention: Gotta Serve Somebody - Bob Dylan - really the highlight of his brief born-again period, Tears In Heaven - Eric Clapton, Knockin on Heaven's Door - Bob Dylan, Light Up Ahead - Further Seems Forever, Living Proof - Bruce Springsteen, I Believe - Book of Mormon - it's not as good a song as Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, but it has the greatest line in musical theater history -- all I will say is that it refers to 1978; All-American Prophet - Book of Mormon; Spirit in the Sky - Norman Greenbaum - loses points because I spend my time wondering why Norman has a friend in Jesus, given that he's Jewish?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Top 5 Interrogative Songs

Tim's Top 5:
I blame Dan. He posted a reference to this blog today. So I'm posting, because I came up with something that I think would make for a good sporcle quiz -- providing answers to songs ending in question marks. So that's what this is for me -- you could choose to pick songs that are phrased in the form of a question if you prefer, but I'm sticking to something easy to search for in Itunes -- and the only other songs I can think of are "Are you gonna go my way", "Are you gonna be my girl," and "Do you want to know a secret" none of which would make my list anyway. The fascinating thing is that this is a list where the Jimi Hendrix Experience, CCR, Elliott Smith, John Lennon, R.E.M. and The Clash would have qualifiers, and I didn't pick any of those. (I also forgot the first song that sparked the category -- Elvis Costello's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding", although it apparently doesn't have a question mark)

1. Life on Mars? - David Bowie - This is far and away the winner here, although if I'd gone with songs phrased in the form of a question, I wouldn't be able to count it. It's one of my favorite Bowie songs, which means it's one of my favorite songs period. The vocal jumps are matched perfectly by the mostly nonsensical lyrics and the music is just soaring. I can't think of a whole lot of songs that do so much with vocal dynamics, but it's fantastic here.

Answer: possibly, frozen under the water.

2. What Do You Want Me To Say? - Dismemberment Plan - I had actually stumbled onto listening to this album (Emergency and I) today and never once thought to connect this song to the list until I ran the ITunes search. It has a similar sort of emphasis on explosions of sound, but ties in some occasional spoken-word sort of lyrics. I've never listened to anything but this album, but this album is fantastic enough to deserve the hype it gets.

Answer: that you're coming back to DC and will be playing the Black Cat on a Saturday or Sunday night.

3. Isn't it a Pity? - George Harrison - This is a very simple song that goes on for a very very long time, but it doesn't feel that way at all. Another masterpiece from what is far and away the best solo album any Beatle ever released. Yes, I said that. Suck it, Imagine (which had a song that narrow missed this list). This song is also noteworthy because IT includes a question mark in the title, even though the next track (What Is Life) does not. Get with the program, Harrison!

Answer: Yes. 'Tis. You're missed, George.

4. What Difference Does It Make? - Sensefield (cover of The Smiths) - I'm sorry, but I just really don't think that highly of the Smiths song (like most Smiths songs, I can see how someone who is not me would like it, but that person is not me). Jon Bunch's vocaqls are meant for this sort of thing, and Morrissey's spoken-word vocal here doesn't carry the same force. This is a pretty good straight rocker, and I am a sucker for Sensefield.

5. What do you do with a B.A. in English? - Cast of Avenue Q - this is the perfect start to a fantastic show that was even better than I had ever figured possible when I saw it live in London. RIP, Sir Gary Coleman.

Answer: Good luck figuring that out. That's why the song is so perfect.

Honorable mention - there'd be plenty, including the only Alice in Chains song that I like (Would?), but how about: CCR - Have You Ever Seen the Rain?; Elliott Smith - Wouldn't Mama Be Proud?; R.E.M. - What's The Frequency, Kenneth?

Dan's Top 5:
1. The Pixies - Where Is My Mind? - I gained a newfound respect for The Pixies (not that I never had a period of any disrespect) after recently visiting Seattle and the Explore Music Project's exhibit on Nirvana. Yes, Nirvana is worthy of a (fairly well-curated) museum exhibit. One of the pieces was a collection of records from artists that had adopted the punk, do-it-yourself, underground approach, including what sounds like an obvious influence, the Pixies' Surfer Rosa. Though you could argue for "Gigantic" as well, this song stands out as the best on the album, and maybe of The Pixies' career. It employs one of my favorite lyrical techniques, describing a specific event (scuba diving) and projecting upon it deeper meaning (an epistemological investigation of consciousness and thought.) Very easy guitar riff to learn, too.

Answer: Floating (and possibly sleeping) with the fishes.

2. The Smiths - How Soon Is Now? - Being a fan of production value more than lyrical content, I love this song. For me, it exists purely as a vehicle to showcase Johnny Marr's genius for creating cool effect. Two different tremolo effects are used here. One twice as fast as the other, and both on opposing stereo channels. The result is a swirling, lush guitar sound that—while playing minor chords—just puts you in a dark, yet enlightened mood. Oh yeah, Morrissey sings, too.

Answer: Well, you're never going to meet a girl if you don't stop acting so depressed all the time. Sheesh.

3. ABBA - Does Your Mother Know - I'm allowing this song for myself even though the official track name doesn't have a question mark. Why? Because it's my favorite ABBA song. I think I actually didn't get into ABBA until after our last post, so you might be surprised to see them appear in my list. Perhaps the greatest band to fall into the "guilty pleasure" category of many, I think this song in particular demonstrates why I have their catalogue on my hard drive. It's pop music both at its most basic and its most engaging. In other words, it's got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Answer: If no, then it's likely you'd be in a lot of trouble. If yes, then she must be OK with you being a slut.

4. Rockapella - Where in The World Is Carmen Sandiego? - Most people know it simply as a theme song to a kid's game show that aired on PBS. That's exactly what it is. And it fucking rules. "Monday through Friday at FIVE!" (Have you listened to the full version of the song? Very inventive lyrics.)

Answer: Always two steps ahead of you and your grade-school knowledge of geography.

5. The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Are You Experienced? - The title track to Jimi's debut album isn't particularly well-known outside the group of people who are pretty familiar with his work. Most people would probably draw the line at knowing "Foxey Lady" or "The Wind Cries Mary." It's a shame, because this track features fantastic time-reversed guitar snippets throughout, including the main solo. It remains especially hard in this song, however, to divorce Jimi's immense talent from his psychedelic image.

Answer: Well, I have. Let me prove it to you.

Honorable mention: The Beatles - Why Don't We Do It In The Road?, Duran Duran - Is There Something I Should Know?, The Flaming Lips - Do You Realize??, Oasis - Who Feels Love?

Ryan's Top 5:

There'll be some crossover here.  That's what I get for putting this off till today.  [Note: I'm going to exclude songs that apparently lack question marks, so I'm not considering such songs as "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "Who'll Stop The Rain."]  [Double-note: Fuck note 1 re: my #1, which I can't verify has a question mark.]

1. Velvet Underground - "Who Loves the Sun" - I've always considered this maybe the most perfect pop song ever written, according to my rigidly subjective criteria and considered lack of broad consideration.  Anyway--this song is perfect.  Simple and fun lyrics that have real depth.  Beautiful music.  I sincerely think this song is perfect.

Answer: Apparently not enough people.  Nice work, everyone.

2. The Kinks - "Do You Remember Walter?" - The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society is one of the greatest novels ever written.  If I did my top 5 favorite albums, the first 17 albums would be TKATVGPS (followed by The Clash, London Calling, and Give 'Em Enough Rope 7 times each.  I'm too busy to calculate the math on that one.)  Anyway, I love The Kinks' style--fairly simple lyrics with a nice gut-punch at the end.  "Yes people often change / But memories of people can remain."  

Answer: I do but then I'm an Anglophile.  

3. The Smiths - "How Soon Is Now?" - I think the general opinion among Smiths fans is that this song is overrated, as it's one of very few that actually got radio airplay (and gets radio airplay today).  Anyway, I'd slot this in my top 15 Smiths songs (hello new Top 5 list?)--the guitar is haunting, and I am in love with the line, "You shut your mouth / How can you say / I go about things the wrong way / I am human and I need to be lo-o-oved / Just like everybody else does."  Morrissey has a way of drawing out his lines so uniquely ["lo-o-oved"].

Answer: A bit too soon, I'm going to grab a snack first.

4. The Smiths - "What Difference Does It Make?" - Hi.  I'm Ryan.  I am a Morrissey fanboy.

Answer: Not a damn bit.

Answer: Nah.

Honorable Mentions - Where Is My Mind?, Life on Mars?, Why Don't We Do It In The Road?, Are You Experienced?, Have You Ever Seen The Rain?

Ashley’s Top 5:

I am honored to be included in this Top 5.  Here is my humble contribution.

1. R.E.M. – “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” – I’ve never gotten sick of this song, even after excessive airplay when Monster came out.  So while other R.E.M. songs always beat this one for me in terms of all-time favorites, this one is still legitimately awesome.

Answer: My guess is that everyone knows the story behind this song and the attack on Dan Rather and the dubious connection to Donald Barthelme (incidentally one of my favorite writers) so I’ll leave it at that—it’s either a nonsensical question, or one to which Mr. Rather apparently didn’t know the answer.

2. The Ramones – “Do you Remember Rock ‘n Roll Radio?” – End of the Century was a radical departure in sound for the Ramones and this song is pretty indicative of that fact.  You can hear the Phil Spector influence on this track especially and more than anything, it’s pretty relevant based on the shit that gets played on the radio these days.

Answer: Not the radio that the Ramones are talking about, but I remember it sounding a whole hell of a lot better when I was younger. 

3. Superchunk – “Does Your Hometown Care?” – I had forgotten that this song was on the SubUrbia soundtrack, which I thought was a good movie in high school but may very well not be since I haven’t seen it since.  Fun fact, in an Intro to Theatre class in college we read the Eric Bogosian play on which the film is based.  The Superchunk song is great even though it’s from their softer years, which honestly are growing on me as I get older. 

Answer: Yeah. Norfolk cares. Norfolk loves me.

4. Slant 6 – “What Kind of Monster Are You?” – Slant 6’s seminal record Soda Pop * Rip Off actually has two interrogative songs on it—the blistering opener “Don’t You Ever?” and this one, and though it’s really close, “What Kind of Monster Are You?” wins for me.  This was one of my favorite albums years ago when I lapped up everything Dischord records had put out in the early nineties, and this is one of the few from that phase that I still listen to.

Answer: I hope I’m not a monster at all, but if I am I bet I’m pretty benevolent.

5. The Promise Ring: “Is This Thing On?” – In some ways I’ve never gotten over this band. From another album with multiple interrogatives (“Why Did Ever We Meet?” is the other one, and it almost won because it has what I thought was a great video in high school, probably because of the rollerblading and the animal suits), this is the opening track to 1997’s Nothing Feels Good and it sets the tone for the whole album. Not only is the song good, but it contains a puzzling interrogative in the lyrics: “Delaware, are you aware of the air supply?”

Answer: Yes. Yes it is.

Honorable mentions: Rilo Kiley, “Does He Love You?,” The Promise Ring, “Why Did Ever We Meet?,” CCR, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” Jawbreaker, “Do You Still Hate Me?” The Buzzcocks, "Ever Fallen In Love With Someone You Shouldn't Have?"