1. Pirates Of Penzance Original Broadway Cast | With Cat-Like Tread, Upon Our Prey We Steal
Off of the Pirates Of Penzance soundtrack by Gilbert And Sullivan. This is, hands down, my favorite song. Ever. And, incidentally, also my favorite movie and album ever. I realize that seems a little odd, and I guess it's mostly for nostalgic reasons, but I feel like the King of the World when I listen to this. When I was younger my parents listened to a lot of Broadway shows and my father occasionally did community theater. At some point when I was super young he auditioned for The Pirates Of Penzance and rented the 80s movie (starring Kevin Kline and Linda Rondstadt) and for whatever reason it just stuck with me. I rented it every single weekend (I've since asked my mother why she never just bought it, and she shrugs and says she always assumed that I'd get bored of it so she never bothered) and used to listen to the tape constantly. In fact, I had two versions of the tape -- the Broadway soundtrack with Estelle Parsons as Ruth, and the movie-adaptation soundtrack with Angela Lansbury as Ruth. I think I wore them both out. I can't say this has any influence on my music as Leonard Friend, but I still think it's incredible. The huge orchestral hits that start it off, the pounding energy of the A section, the gorgeous melody in the Come, friends who plough the sea chorus section, the absurdly bombastic ritardando-plus-key- change at the end. It's just so awesome. An interviewer recently asked me who my dream duet partner would be, and I answered Linda Rondstadt because it'd be like living out a childhood dream.
2. Michael Jackson | Dangerous
This one is difficult to explain. Michael Jackson is easily my favorite recording artist, and as a whole, Thriller is definitely my favorite album of his. If I had to pick a song that I thought was his best song, I'd choose Billie Jean or Wanna Be Startin' Somethin, both of which seem to defy Pop logic (and each for different reasons) and both are just staggering in general. But for whatever bizarre reason, the song that makes me want to dance more than any other song ever is Dangerous, off the album of the same name. I have listened to this song a thousand times and I still want to dance every time it comes on. I love the structure of it -- there's a mostly-instrumental outro for nearly a minute and a half at the end! You can tell that it was a matter of him loving that beat and wanting room to dance to it after the song had finished. Dangerous was the album that came out when I was a kid, so it was what turned me on to MJ in the first place, and I think it's severely underrated. It's flawed like crazy, but the strong parts on it are really strong. I also directly associate the song with an amazing performance he did at the MTV Video Music Awards in the 90s. It was one of his best performances ever. If you haven't seen it, I strongly recommend checking it out.
3. Beyoncé | Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)
This song is absolutely fascinating to me. On one hand it's so minimalistic -- for most of the song the only instrumentation is a lopsided drumbeat and that Frogger-esque synth sound -- but the hooks are just nonstop. Every single section is catchier than most choruses could ever dream to be! And when that unexpected chord change comes in in the chorus it just gets out of control for me. This song is exactly what I love about Pop Music and the opportunities it allows you: by all accounts, everything about this song other than the vocals is just straight up weird. But because it's contained within this bouncy beat and floating beneath those brain-snaringly catchy vocal hooks (not to mention a killer vocal performance by Beyoncé), they were like Fuck it. Let's just do whatever we want. I wish all Pop Music was like this. And don't even get me started on the video. I actually first started loving this song when I saw her perform it on SNL. To me it was a real moment. EVERYBODY was talking about the video and that dance by the next week. I love that it's so simple: no special effects, no fast cutting, no explosions. Nothing. Just Beyoncé and two dancers. People really need to learn a lesson from this song and video. I just find it all so so impressive.
4. Minor Threat | Straight Edge
I've never been a big drinker, and the whole Straight Edge thing really appealed to my rebelliously-square sensibilities in high school and early on in college. It felt good to have such an angry battle cry for the Non-Partying crowd. I've definitely loosened up about partying as I've gotten older, but it still doesn't really appeal to me. Whenever I'm in situations where I feel pressured into having a drink (which happens surprisingly often these days. I'm not sure what the motivation is! It's a really singular phenomenon. If I told somebody I don't like milk, would they ever be like COME OOOOON! DRINK SOME MILK! But somehow I think all alcohol tastes like piss doesn't seem to fly. Oh well), I'll usually crank this for a few days afterwards to get the frustration out of my system. Also, I grew up in Maryland right outside DC, so there's a certain DC Pride thing with Minor Threat, Fugazi, etc., which brings us to my next song...
5. The Dismemberment Plan | The City
This song is so stunning and honest to me. Very few songs embody the lonely feeling of city life in your confused 20s the way this does. It definitely perfectly encapsulates a specific DC feeling, but when I was living in New York I felt the emotion to be very applicable. It's strange, because it's up tempo and has that fast, skittering drum beat, but it's such a lonely song. Not much else to say about it! I feel an extremely personal connection with this whole album, and this song in particular.
6. Janet Jackson | Love Will Never Do (Without You)
Growing up there was a local pop station called WAVA (which then turned into a Christian station), and I distinctly remember listening to this song when it came out and thinking it was beautiful. I used to record mix tapes of the top 10 countdown at night and then bike through my neighborhood listening to them. A few years ago I reconnected with this song and haven't really stopped listening since then. I love those oversized Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis drum sounds. And the whole song is just like one hook after another, but it's all so simple. Janet had this specific THING in her prime that I can't quite put my finger on. Her vocal delivery was super light and straight-forward, almost a pre-cursor to that kinda Ciara/J-Lo type delivery, but with a lot more weight to it somehow. I read somewhere that the song was originally supposed to be a duet, with a male singer singing the lower-octave first verse. I actually think it would have come off really great, though I love the song so much as it is that I don't feel like Man, if only!... This and Escapade are my jams.
7. Bruce Springsteen | Darkness On The Edge Of Town
This is certainly not the most epic Bruce song, and I'm not sure it'd make most peoples' Top 5 Bruce Songs list, but it's been my favorite for a long time. This song and its lyrical tone influenced the lyrics for the songs on my album more than any other. There's this lonely, heartbroken, post-breakup/divorce thing to it, this unsettling feeling of Adulthood Gone Wrong, of dreams unrealized. There is just SO much raw emotion in his vocal delivery, and the quiet-to-loud transitions give me chills every time. Whenever that snare gives a huge CRACK leading into the prechorus and he starts shouting, I basically feel like I could take over the World.
8. The Righteous Brothers | You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'
There's a lot I could say about how remarkable this song is, but I'll cut straight to the chase: I cannot get over how incredible the bridge is. A while ago I started an email thread with some of my Music Nerd friends asking if they could think of another example of a song where the bridge is hands down the best section. Personally I can't really think of one other than this one. That call and response build at the end is so gut wrenching and awesome, it's almost (but not quite) anti-climactic when it leads into the chorus, which speaks volumes because the chorus is AMAZING! A while ago I wrote a song that tried to capture a similar holy sh*t, check out the bridge thing. I actually think I managed to pull it off, but I've tried and tried to record it and thusfar haven't been successful. Maybe one day I'll capture it properly and have my Lovin Feelin' moment.
9. Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell | Ain't No Mountain High Enough
A lot of the classic Motown songs are tough because you hear them so much growing up -- being butchered by wedding bands, on Oldies radio, in cheesy commercials, in movies, etc. It's very easy to lose sight of just how remarkable a song like Ain't No Mountain High Enough is. I think it was Sister Act 2 that killed this one for me for a while. But a few years back I got two Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell duet albums, including United which features this song, and holy jeez has Sister Act 2 done me a great disservice. I used this song to practice singing for a year straight, and after digging into it I kind of feel like every single line that Marvin Gaye sings on this song is the best vocal performance anybody has ever sung. Tammi Terrell is also such an interesting singer, because she has this kind of regular ol' girl vibe to her delivery, there's no flare or flash, she just straight up SINGS a song and it sounds totally right. It really is the exact perfect compliment to the consistent ache in Marvin Gaye's voice. As always, Ashford and Simpson wrote the heck out of this song, and when you hit that key change in the third verse and Tammi says "Our love is alive" and Marvin replies with a big "WOOOO!" it's one of the best moments in recorded Pop history.
10. Wu-Tang Clan | Shame On A Nigga
I used to hate Wu-Tang because I thought their music was totally hookless, and as a songwriter I just couldn't get into it. But at some point I forced myself to dig into this album and now it's one of my favorite albums of all time. RZA's production is just unreal, because at first listen it just sounds like some weird loop over and over with no real change, but the more you listen the more you pick up on his subtle shifts under each verse. He shifts the beat just enough to help the verses have real cadences, pulling elements out and bringing in subtle hits that match the flow of whoever's rapping at the time. It's all very minimalist, but it's so musical despite seeming very unmusical at first. My brother is a big fan as well and always points out that he likes that back in the day specific producers would serve as the primary (or often lone) producer for a group -- Dre with NWA, RZA with Wu Tang, The Bomb Squad with Pubic Enemy, etc. -- it gave everybody a more specific voice than things are now where a producer will make beats for every different MC, and every different MC has a ton of producers producing different songs on the same album. Anyway, it's tough to pick a favorite song because each of the members shines in different ways on different songs (except I've never really gotten into U-God), but I pick Shame On A Nigga for two reasons: First, I think Method Man completely destroys his verse. His Yo RZA, yo Raaaaza, hit me with the major intro just has such a badass feel to it, and the I'm betta than my competta, you mean competitor whateva, let's get togetha is one of my favorite lines of his ever. And second, ODB is always insane (it's not often you hear diarrhea rhymed with gonorrhea), but when he's on I think he's ON. That Hut one hut two hut three HUT! Ol Dirty Bastard live and uncut, much like Method Man's Yo RZA, is such a totally badass first line to his verse. I like Raekwon's forming like Voltron line, but I think he generally gets outshone on this one.