The Alphabet Project: B
A while back, we started the Alphabet Project, with the goal of serially choosing our favorite songs by artists from A to Z. We’re up to B, and we all know what B stands for. And picking tunes for this list was exactly that, because when it comes to music, B may be the heavyweight champ of the alphabet, a letter that will likely go unrivaled until we reach R many months from now. We can’t believe some of the stuff we had to leave off to get down to eighty minutes each.
Chuck Berry – “No Particular Place To Go” – Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll.
James Brown – “I Got You (I Feel Good)” – While I only dip my toe in the funk, there’s no denying when James screams “Wooooaahhh – I feel good” , you believe him. Rest easy Soul Brother # 1.
Badfinger – “No Matter What” – The original “power pop” song? Great band, great band name and a clutch of transcendent singles. Extra props for the chills I got as this played at the end of Outside Providence (an overlooked fish out of water comedy with Alec Baldwin as a grizzled single parent – “What are you looking at dil-doe!”).
Buzzcocks – “Love You More” – There’s no way you can spend a more enjoyable 1 minute and 49 seconds. OK… maybe there’s one way.
David Bowie – “Suffragette City” - “Hey man I gotta straighten my face / This mellow thighed chick / Just put my spine out of place”. I have dreamt of this “mellowed thighed chick” often.
The Breeders – “Last Splash” – I used to have such a crush on Kim Deal. And as fuzzy and knee knocking as the Breeders could be, my favorite description of them came from my sister – “they sound like a punk Josie & The Pussycats”. Yes they do.
Lindsey Buckingham – “Countdown” – Pop genius writes alternate Teenage Kicks theme song and announces he’s ready for life after Mac… and then is subsequently reeled back in to their cash grab reunion tours.
The Beat – “Let Me Into Your Life” – Paul Collins’ apprenticeship with Peter Case in the Nerves served him well as The Beat’s debut had a dozen exhilarating power pop treasures bursting with gang harmonies, handclaps, and more melodies than today’s top 100 combined.
Buzz Zeemer – “Break My Heart” – It breaks my heart that this terrific little band remains unknown. Who’s in for the great Buzz Zeemer revival of 2007?
The Band – “The Shape I’m In” – Has feeling bad ever felt so good? The Band steps outside the lines with this rollicking, Garth Hudson fueled romp that seems to chronicle the band’s crossroads after the amazing success of their first two records.
The Blasters – “So Long Baby Goodbye” – A song to lost love? Or Dave Alvin planting the seeds that the Blasters weren’t big enough for both him and his brother. No matter, this 2:23 of blues inspired, harmonica driven rockabilly (dig that sax solo about 1:45) should be a bar band staple.
Beat Farmers – “Goldmine” - A great kiss off from the kissed off (“Baby you lost a goldmine when you lost me”), the Beat Farmers epitomized my version of a great rock band – greasy songs, an absolutely joyous drunkfest live, relentless enthusiasm and most of all, a sense of humor. And if it’s OK with Snow White, ask me and I’ll make you a copy of his stupendous Buddy Blue mix. We miss ya Buddy.
The Bottle Rockets – “Kerosene” – True story chronicling small town tragedy (“Fire started ‘bout 3 am you know none of ‘em would survive / They hated that goddamn trailer so it burnt ‘em up alive”), “Kerosene” and their first record established the BRox as a worthy Skynyrd heir. Brian Henneman’s straightforward, sympathetic everyman tales tab him as the most consistent songwriter to emerge from the Uncle Tupelo camp.
Blue Rodeo – “What Am I Doing Here” – Cross Gram Parsons with the Everly Brothers and you get the best of Blue Rodeo. These Canadian alt country vets could never consistently deliver the goods, but their best (like this one “Till I Am Myself Again”) scaled lofty heights.
The Bangles – “Manic Monday” – Written for the band by Prince, shouldn’t all top 10 singles be this sweet and buoyant? And… uhm… Susanna Hoffs – me likey.
The Box Tops – “Soul Deep” – What do “The Letter”, “Soul Deep” and “Always on My Mind” have in common? They’re all written by Nashville songwriter Wayne Carson Thompson… just a fun fact. “Soul Deep” is a sweet slab of teenaged blue eyed soul sung by future power pop demigod Alex Chilton.
Bobby Bloom – “Montego Bay” – The 13 year old me loved, loved, loved this song… and it still has me in its sway. The best top 40 whistling this side of Otis’ “Dock of the Bay” also features a not-so sly drug reference that made it to the top 10 (“You ain’t been ‘till you been high in Montego Bay”).
Billy Bragg – “The Price You Pay” – Punk rock’s “new Dylan”, Billy Bragg made his bones as a one man agit rocker bashing out socially conscious broadsides. But I’ve always preferred the personal warmth of songs like “The Price You Pay” with its heartbreaking lyric and unforgettably melody.
T Bone Burnett – “River of Love” - Before he was the Americana uber-producer, T Bone crafted some gorgeous folk pop…this one from his self titled country record is among his best. Though if I had it on cd, I would have substituted “Power of Love” here.
The Bee Gees – “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You” – In 1977-78 I loathed (and still do) the entirety of the Saturday Night Fever phenomenon… just wanted to put that out there since revisionist history now celebrates it as some Rosetta Stone of pop music. But those earlier little poperatic slices of ball-less melancholy are great damn songs.
The Beau Brummels – “Laugh, Laugh” – I really only know two songs by these guys and yet these 2 songs somehow invented folk-rock.
The Byrds – “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” – In a band that featured Roger McGuinn, Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman and David Crosby, how could Gene Clark have the best songs? I don’t know either, but he did.
The Beach Boys – “Sloop John B” – There were about 50 choices I could have made here and this song isn’t even close to best one on Pet Sounds. But it’s my favorite and even though he didn’t write “Well I feel so broke up / I want to go home”, those lines could almost define Brian Wilson.
Big Star – “Thirteen” – Has teenage innocence and rebellion ever been rendered more beautifully than this? And this defines the essence of what drives teenagers (of all ages) to rock music: “Won’t you tell your dad , “Get off my back” / Tell him what we said ‘bout “Paint It Black”.
Jackson Browne – “For A Dancer” – Please play this one at my funeral.
The Beatles – “In My Life” – Elsewhere on this blog I called this the greatest song ever written. My opinion hasn’t changed.
The B-52’s, “Rock Lobster.” This isn’t a piece of kitsch. It’s a triumph of musical architecture, as Ricky Wilson’s blistering rhythm guitar supports Fred and the ladies’ loopy dissertation on the life aquatic. I was not yet twelve years old when I saw them play this on Saturday Night Live, and I’m not sure I’ve ever recovered.
The Band, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).” As much as any tune by the godfathers of Americana, this one sums up the entire band. It doesn’t evoke the past or the future, just a perfect present, with a concision and force rarely achieved thereafter.
The Bar-Kays, “Soul Finger.” A shimmering classic of gutbucket funk with horns, and a bittersweet one. Within months of the song’s release, most of the band’s members perished in the same plane crash that killed Otis Redding.
Bash & Pop, “Loose Ends.” Tommy Stinson’s first post-Replacements project, I saw the second show they ever played, in a room that theoretically could have accommodated 800 people, but which, in fact, held about fifteen that night. Despite what amounted to little more than an open rehearsal with beer, the guys rocked the joint, and this mid-tempo Stonesy number, which I heard for the first time that night, stuck with me over the months until the album finally came out.
Beach Boys, “Surf’s Up” (Brian Wilson solo demo). This isn’t just some rock-geek obscurity (and it’s really not that obscure; it’s on the Beach Boys box set, which is on the shelf at the big electronics store around the corner from where you live). It’s simply the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous pop song I’ve ever heard.
The Beat, “Workaday World.” The band whose existence caused an outfit with the same name to be known as the English Beat on this side of the Atlantic, Paul Collins and company specialized in a muscular power pop exemplified by this gem about the drudgery of the forty-hour week.
The Beatles, “And Your Bird Can Sing.” Picking a Beatles tune is like picking between children (that is, if you’ve got, like, a hundred kids), and so I go with this rockin’ guitar pop masterpiece that I first heard on the Fabs’ old cartoon show before I ever owned the British version of Revolver.
Chris Bell, “I Am the Cosmos.” Founding father of Big Star, who left that band too soon and this earth too young, Bell’s lasting achievement is this slice of power pop perfection, which evokes massive feelings of loneliness and despair with its devastating opening line: “Every night I tell myself ‘I am the cosmos, I am the wind.’/But that don’t get you back again.”
Chuck Berry, “Little Queenie.” The distinguished gentleman from Missouri codified rock and roll’s sound, and he never sounded better than on this one. The fact that “she’s too cute to be a minute over seventeen” seems not to have dissuaded him in the least.
Big Country, “Chance.” My affection for this band, and especially their debut album, is well-documented. They garnered attention with mammoth rockers “In a Big Country” and “Fields of Fire,” but this gorgeous mid-tempo affair, with a palpable sense of longing and some vaguely Asian melodic counterpoint, ranks among that first record’s high points.
Big Star, “Back of a Car.” While “September Gurls” is the obvious (and a perfectly good) choice, this one rocks it up a bit more, with Jody’s splashy drums punctuating Alex’s perfect melody.
Blondie, “Dreaming.” Included for the enormity of its sound, and the audacity to rhyme “restaurant” with “debutante.”
Blur, “Charmless Man.” “Educated the expensive way, he knows his claret from his Beaujolais.” A perfect update of the Kinks’ 1960s English character studies with hooks galore.
Bow Wow Wow, “I Want Candy.” By surfing up the guitar and buffing up the production, Malcolm McLaren’s protégés improved on the Strangeloves’ classic original, emphasizing the Bo Diddley beat and delivering a confection that’s sticky sweet and reet petite.
David Bowie, “Heroes.” Remember when long album tracks were edited to lengths palatable for radio and released as singles? No song ever got butchered worse than Bowie’s lush, poetic classic. With the first two verses deleted, the single begins in the third verse, well on its way to the climax, without benefit of foreplay. A disorienting experience for anyone familiar with the album version, which is included here in its full six-minute glory.
Billy Bragg, “A New England.” “I saw two shooting stars last night/I wished on them but they were only satellites/Is it wrong to wish on space hardware?/I wish, I wish, I wish you’d care.”
James Brown, “Hot Pants, Pt. 1.” As with the Beatles, there are dozens of worthy choices here, and so instead of going with the obvious “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” or “Sex Machine,” I’ve picked one of the most elemental and potent slabs of funk the Godfather ever created. The bass and guitar aren’t just hard, they’re physical, things you can feel as much as hear.
Jackson Browne, “Late for the Sky.” The opener and title track to what is, perhaps, his finest album, “Late for the Sky” distills the best of Browne’s work – his warm tenor, his elegant dissatisfaction, an inviting melody, and David Lindley’s sheer grace on guitar – into five and half minutes. A song for the quiet of the night.
Jeff Buckley, “Last Goodbye.” I was going to pick “Hallelujah,” but I switched to this one in part because it’s two minutes shorter, but mostly because this song is more representative of Buckley’s brief career, and because, for me, it’s tied so directly to a sense of place. Shortly after this album came out, I was in New York, a city that was very foreign to me at the time, and this song was on my mind. For me, it’s forever connected to the dusky twilight of the caverns of the city, and the powerful feelings of disorientation and excitement they – and this song – convey.
The Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” OK, so this list is heavy with New Wave-era offerings, but how could I exclude this one? Not only emblematic of the time with its MTV connection, it’s also a fine pop song, one of the best of its time.
Solomon Burke, “Got to Get You Off My Mind.” I had never paid this finger-popping 1960s soul chestnut any mind until I read Nick Hornby’s enduringly brilliant High Fidelity. The central tune in a book bursting with music, Burke’s shuffling lament puts up a brave face even as the protagonist dies a little inside.
Buzzcocks, “Ever Fallen In Love?” This is perfection perfected. Guitar pop as high art.