Some songs are better than others, and some are just off. But specks of golden nugget shine from these piles too. To find what I mean, throw out the music with any ironic or pure nostalgic appeal — Poison, Britney Spears, “Material Girl,” “We are the World,” Cyndi Lauper — and sift through those musicians that tend to take themselves a bit to seriously, put a little too much spice in their mustard. They aim for Dylan, but end up a bit south of Joel. And I love them for it.
If you read this list, and say, ‘hey that’s actually really good.’ Well, yeah, you’re right. But know that you/we are are bonehead wrong too. Because we shouldn’t like them.
Don Henley, “The Heart of the Matter.”
There is no songwriter in the history of music that is harder to blare on your car speakers at intersections than Donald Henley. Look, he’s good (and don’t pretend you don’t like “Desperado,” plus his worst is much better than that Eagle dufus Glen Frey), but he’s too uppity and chumpity to take too seriously. Plus he drums. This song — from “End of the Innocence,” an album where he actually stooped to collaborate with Bruce Hornsby — is deceptively good, with a tolerable bridge (the ’80s were hell on bridges). And I like how you never know who cheated on who, and how he says “I think it’s about forgiveness,” but not sure.
Oasis, anything Oasis.
I once dared a friend to walk down St Marks Place in the East Village with an Oasis shirt on. He didn’t do it. And I don’t blame him. Oasis are kings of songs you shouldn’t like, but you do — and yes, you do like them. The reason? Because Oasis are very very good. And the more they try to be serious, the more delirious the guilt is. Plus their haircuts are cute.
David Gray, “The Other Side.”
David really really wants to be taken seriously; he has that little head bob when emotion gets the better of him, as his fingertips pepper the piano keys in his aim to heart-break a sad-eyed lass of the Midlands. But that head-bob, seriously, I have to look the other way every time he does it. But dammit, the guy’s good. This song is as embarrassing as any song I’ve heard over 10 times, willingly. And I’m charmed by the tenacity (couldn’t quite say “specious”) of the line “love is a raven when it flies.” Um, no David, it’s not.
Jefferson Starship, “Find Your Way Back.”
The Bay Area is a hotbed of musical mediocrity. I don’t care about Metallica and CCR — or rather not enough to change my mind — but it cannot make up for a city built on rock’n'roll, Huey Lewis’ sax solos, the kneel-down cries of “you’re motoring!” at the end of “Sister Christian” or anything Steve Miller. But this — sung with a dandy of a moustached singer — is just good. The 12-string acoustics, the Ramones-like chorus progression freckled with unnecessary organ. Listen in during the second verse for that tacked-on, scaled-down segway (“you got no place to be/still you wonder where you’re going”) with all sorts of bearded NoCal bandmates chipping in on the vocals. Well done Jeff Star.
Stevie Nicks & Don Henley, “Leather & Lace.”
Henley, I’m telling you — he just crumples all he touches. This little tender one from 1981 doesn’t seem to get the airplay it once did. Expect a revival soon. But you shouldn’t like it for a very clear reason: the image of Stevie letting her lace down, with Don — bearded, hairy Texan Don — leaning in towards her, covered in LEATHER (!?), then giving that long, meaningful pause in his second verse after he sings “and sometimes I cry…” He lets that hang for a while. Giving you the chance to just imagine him — a serious Texan — putting his hand down on his leather chaps and looking up to reflect, with mirrored tearways equally running across both of his bearded cheeks. Don, and I mean this, thank you.
Collective Soul, “December.”
Oh, this one hurts. There has never been a bigger group of posers than Stockbridge, Georgia’s C-Soul. For proof, just listen to their first big song “Shine,” and how Ed Roland — apparently in all seriousness — pops in that affected “yeah” at each pause of the inevitable testicular riff (children, don’t do what I’ve done). But “December.” Despite the break into occasional palm-to-forehead-slapping Eddie Vedderish growls, easier-going “December” bubbles with violins, Byrds-y guitars with nice guitar crescendos and air-conditioned backing vocals layered on top of the building outro. OK Roland, you win.
Elton John, “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues.”
Elton, you had me as soon as you had that overly earnest, possibly English-as-a-second-language backing chorus echoing you at the end with overly enunciated lines “laugh-ing like chil-dren, livv-ing like luvv-errrs.” Not to mention that fake Stevie Wonder harmonica solo. Rule: Never do that. But Elton did, and in the end some songs are better without rules.
Ringo Starr & the All-Star Band, “Love Me Do.”
This is very simply the best song of all time — and I sort of mean it. Adding an extra minute to a song he never sang for a 1998 VH1 special, Ringo and his cast of almost-huge bandmates (including Jack Blades of Night Ranger) try to fill every possible gap, with oversung vocals, ‘oh yeahs,’ and guitar trills that had no part, with reason, in the original. It’s overstuffed with effort, and love, and for some reason it absolutely works. Perhaps just because Ringo makes everything happy. Actually I DO play this loud at intersections.