Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"G" is for Great

One of the stereotypes of critics is that repeated or more frequent connoisseurship makes them more jaded, harsher. I noted once that in the first five years I wrote movie reviews, I used the word "masterpiece" exactly once.

But I'm not a music critic, nor do I listen to music as often as some of my friends. So, by the stereotypical logic, I ought to be a bit less critical in my judgments--willing to give a nod to songs of a quality that I might poke holes in were they films.

The flip side of such an argument, though, is that it seems in music, even more than film, people want to get there first, be the discoverer, lead the backlash against that which is popular.

In my alphabetical trek through my I-tunes, then, I decided to take the 50 songs beginning with the letter "G" and apply to them one, (it turns out not quite so) simple judgment: which, if any, would I unreservedly call "great"?

A quick scan gave me one definite "yes" and an additional two "probably"s, as well as a hand full of "maybe"s.

A more considered response, then, yielded the following results, in order not necessarily of my liking them, but in the strength of my belief that they are great songs:

1) "Gimme Shelter" -- The Rolling Stones
Here's the thing, I'm not now nor have I ever been anything more than a lukewarm Stones fan. By any reasonable standard that I can think of, however, "Gimme Shelter" qualifies as great. Longevity, popularity, acclaim, replayability (i.e. standing up to repeated listenings without making you sick of it). There may be some who imitate Jack Black and try to lead a backlash against it for its association with movie soundtracks, but really, so what? That it fits so well in a movie soundtrack is in part due to its iconic quality, its capability of expressing a mood and evoking a time. The lyrics, while not complex, are meaningful, and I do like the shift from "war" to "love" in the final chorus.

2) "Girlfriend is Better" (Live) -- The Talking Heads
Okay, as far as lyrics go, I have no idea what this song means--and I have tried to decipher it many times. I keep thinking of a line from Claude Chabrol describing Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux: "It's hard to put into words, but extremely easy to feel." The gamut of emotions that the song evokes in me--from excitement ("its always showtime, here at the edge of the stage"), to constraint ("down in the basement, we hear the sound of machines"), to hope ("nothing is lost, everything's free / I don't care how impossible it seems")--is greater than just about any that I can think of. I usually feel better after listening to the song, and the energy with which the band has in the live performance is positively infectious.

3) "God Give Me Strength" -- Elvis Costello
From The Grace of My Heart soundtrack, this song combines some beautiful poetry that is made more complex through vocal performance rather than merely just disseminated by it. The transition from "I want him to hurt" to "I want him..." perfectly encapsulates the mix of hurt and desire that is true of the character who sings the song in the film but is also universal. There is some weirdness created by the gender pronouns of the lyrics (a female sings it in the film), so make of it what you will.

4) "Go Insane" -- Lindsay Buckingham
"Two kinds of trouble in this world: Living. Dying." The main reason I'm on the fence with this one is because it always feels a little short to me.

So, that's four out of fifty, or just under ten percent. The following songs get honorable mention...meaning I had to consider whether I would call them great, even if I couldn't quite give the nod:

"Greatest Discovery" (Live) -- Elton John. Really builds to a transcended final verse, but I wonder how much is created by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and how much by the song. On odd numbered days, I'd probably put this song in the "great" category. I wrote this on an even numbered day.
"Goodbye Stranger" -- Supertramp. You know, I think Supertramp is a bit underrated. They are like the perpetual B+ student or 10-6 football team. A lot of "good" but missing some element that separates the elite.
"Grease" -- Frankie Valli. A bit short. But man, it's fun.
"Grace by Which I Stand" -- Keith Green. I think there is some CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) that I think is great, and maybe even a few songs by Green that I would put in that category. This one ultimately feels more like a patter sermon than a song.
"Greenback Dollar" -- The Kingston Trio. Folk, like CCM, is a category unto itself, and I understand some won't like any of it. So I try to compare it to others of its category rather than simply measure crossover appeal. Not quite "Tom Dooley," though, is it? Just a tiny bit too much repetition in the chorus for me to put it in the "great" column.

1 comment:

peter said...

Ken,
Great list.
re: Girlfriend Is Better--if you've never seen "Stop Making Sense," the concert film from which that live recording is taken, remind me to show it to you next time you're over. It's the song where David Byrne breaks out his famous "giant suit." Talking of energy, that entire show is one of the highest energy concerts from start to finish that I've ever seen, surpassed maybe only by Springsteen in the 80's.
re: Supertramp--I totally agree. Except while "Breakfast In America," the album with Goodbye Stranger on it might be a B+, "Crimes of the Century" might merit your elusive "masterpiece" rating--a genuine A+