Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Okay, I have a new blog activity (see: blogtivity). A while back, my brother obtained mp3s of the Top 100 Billboard Hits from every year since 1951. Contained within these classics are many classics, as well as not a few surprises and songs I've certainly never heard of. Anyway, I thought maybe I'd pick a year arbitrarily and listen to ten songs at a time from it and post some thoughts. Clearly, the first ten in any given year will mostly be huge songs everyone knows, and as the count goes on, the songs will likely become more obscure.

We'll start with 1970, because, well, I really don't have a reason, but why not.

#1: Bridge Over Troubled Water - Simon and Garfunkel

Wikipedia has a compendious entry on this one, and notes that this song is considered (officially?) Simon and Garfunkel's "swan song" - even though there are other singles afterward (Cecilia), perhaps because it was their last #1 hit. Apparently the song could be viewed as one big proxy for the falling out between Simon and Garfunkel as there was a bit of a fight over who got to sing, even though according to facts laid out later on in the entry, Simon wanted to sing, and Garfunkel also didn't want to sing it solo, yet somehow he ended up singing it that way. The best quote over the entry is the random assertion by Art that singing it in Madison Square Garden in 1972 felt "almost biblical." The other interesting (at least mildly so) fact is that apparently the first two verses were recorded in New York, while the last one was recorded in LA for some reason.

Not to be outdone, allmusic has an outrageously long entry for the song, adding another seemingly silly dispute which led to the breakup - the dispute over whether Bridge Over Troubled Water was the best song Simon had ever written (Simon said yes, Garfunkel no, for the record). In addition, allmusic writes a litany about Simon's influences (the Reverend Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones), describes Garfunkel's tenor as "angelic" and notes that piano player on the song was the replacement bassist in Bread (after If and Make It With You, but before Baby I'm a-want you), and that's just the second paragraph of three. The third mostly talks about similar songs, cover version, and every retrospective of Simon and Garfunkel's the song has ever appeared on.

Interestingly, both wiki and allmusic make references to Let It Be, which will appear soon enough.

Anyway, I have to stand with Garfunkel in that it is not the finest song Garfunkel
Slightly more sparse production I think would have highlighted the song's heartstring pulling qualities further I think, particularly in the third verse where the song adds a "The Boxer"-like strangely out of place drum sound, and a string section that I'm trying to think of a way it could have been used better, but all I can come up with is that the song would have been best with nothing but Garfunkel's aforementioned angelic tenor and Larry Knechtel's fine piano work. That said it's still sufficiently heartstring-pulling, and I like it very well. The lyrics are nothing brilliant, but nothing stupid either - standard-y stuff about helping down and out friends, and what could ever be wrong with that. Except for the "sail on silvergirl" part of the third verse, though allmusic has ideas about that, spanning all the way from a reference to the Swan Silvertones, to a reference to his prematurely gray fiancee to a reference to heroin. Crazines.

Okay, there's no way the other entries will be this long, so let's move on.

#2: (They Long to Be) Close to You - The Carpenters

Sadly this song makes me think of the Simpsons episode Maximum Homerdrive in which Marge insists on buying a doorbell that plays the first eight notes of (They Long to Be) Close to You. It's a Burt Bacharach and Hal David tune which was first recorded (as I assume, right or not, every Bacharach and David song written in the '60s was) by Dion Warwick, but wasn't a hit til Richard and Karen came along. In addition, this is just another song of many that makes the Carpenters seem creepy, sung by a brother and sister team.

The lyrics are a little sappy (you end up going this way anytime you start describing how angels created a person's features: "sprinkled moon-dust in your hair of gold and starlight in your eyes of blue") though I appreciate the song is also an explanation - because of these angelic features is why "all the girls in town follow you around" - it's purely superficial. I also love that it’s they, not she, who longs to be close to you. It seems more like infatuation than love.

It's a pretty solid song over all, very touching - we don't get an upbeat song til #3. And another song that gets tons of orchestration – starting with just the piano, we get plenty of strings, horns, and backing vocals repeating the chorus right after Karen sings it. It also probably goes on a minute longer than it needs to, and I would through into the garbage that part in the last minute where the chorus sings “why-yyyyy(this probably isn’t why actually, it’s probably just some sort of non-word sound I don’t know how to write)….close to you)

#3: "American Woman/No Sugar Tonight" - The Guess Who

Both our first Canadian group and our first double A side all at once! What a celebration.

American Woman is the real driver of the single here, but let's not give short shrift to No Sugar Tonight, even though I seem to be the only one amongst my friends who likes it. In fact what makes the No Sugar Tonight of the double A side version better is that it does not include the "New Mother Nature" part at the end which is not bad but drags down the song every time; I need to see if I can find this version or somewhere or cut it off myself.

American Woman is of course in the great tradition of Canadians bashing America, and according to Wiki, Randy Bachman claims the American Woman is the Statute of Liberty (lest any metaphor not be grounded strictly in reality). Apparently when the Guess Who played in the White House, Pat Nixon explicitly requested that they not play American Woman because of it's, true or not, anti-American sentiment (Why the Guess Who were playing at the White House is not answered).

Anyway, it's a pretty good song, far better than the Lenny Kravitz cover in the second Austin Powers, and I'm probably the only person on earth who actually likes No Sugar Tonight better than American Woman (It's good, really! Plus, it's probably a metaphor for not getting laid, and that's pretty rocking). But American Woman is good too, it’s got a great guttural grunt before the lyrics, and a righteous anti-American rant as only someone from Canada could do. I also enjoy a song that says “bye bye” four times.

Of course I knew several other Guess Who hits, but I did not realize they still had hits long after two-band chart topper Randy Bachman departed the group, included the #6 American hit "Clap for the Wolfman" that I look forward to coming upon in 1974.

#4: Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head - BJ Thomas

The second Bacharach and David composition in the top 4 of the year, apparently the song was first offered to Ray Stevens, whose "The Streak" prevents me from ever taking him seriously. The song of course also won the Oscar for best song from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

It sounds kind of like it’s from before 1970 (maybe hence it’s placement in a Western?), very old timey. It’s good, and sends a good message, though I one I don’t often subscribe to – so relentlessly optimistic – no matter how much rain comes down, BJ won’t complain – so utterly convinced is he that good things are on their way. I actually really like the first few guitar strums before the vocal comes in, though I don’t really care much for the “But there’s one thing I know” part.

Also the thirty second instrumental outro is entirely unnecessary, though aside from that the brevity is appreciated.

#5: War – Edwin Starr

All anti-war songs should be as straightforward as this and maybe there would actually be some change.

Actually a few interesting tidbits from the wiki page on this one. First, apparently the song was written and recorded for the Temptations, but their version was not released as not to alienate their possible more conservative fans. Damn politics. I guess these conservative fans were too stupid to get the more subtle statements of Ball of Confusion. Backing on the Starr’s version was The Undisputed Truth, best known for their own Temptations cover and psychedelic soul masterpiece Smiling Faces Sometimes. Apparently Starr also released what became a minor hit the next year, “Stop the War Now,” building on the theme. I did not know that the song was covered on Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” or that the Small Soldiers soundtrack featured a remix of War by Bone Thungs-N-Harmony, Henry Rollins, Flea and Tom Morello. I’ve also never heard the Bruce Springsteen version which was a top 10 hit, which I probably should, and may even have on my computer somewhere. Sadly, I also remember that War was the theme to the short-lived CBS legal show Family Law starring Kathleen Quinlan, Dixie Carter and Christopher McDonald.

Til this day, Starr has set the bar for musical self-righteous anti-war rage, with the “good god y’all” in every other chorus being the finest moment. Great drum roll to lead into the song, letting the vocal really have a stunning effect when it comes in. Unfortunately, the verse is nowhere as good as the chorus, though lyrics as mentioned continue the most straightforward anti-war song that exists to this day, with the best lines being “the point of war blows my mind” and “Induction then destruction; Who wants to die”

Alas, more later (I know, I said 10, but, close enough)

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