1. Bob Dylan | Visions Of Johanna
I could easily fill this list with Bob Dylan songs. When I was 10 or 11, my parents, having moved on to cassettes, gave me all of their neglected vinyl, including tons of early Dylan. There's nothing I can write about Dylan that hasn't been stated a million times already, but hearing those songs definitely gave me a sense of the horizon. If you're a songwriter who cares about lyrics, the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face is an impossible bar for which you must vainly reach.
2. The Rolling Stones | Jumpin' Jack Flash
Jumpin' Jack Flash is pretty much the perfect Rock And Roll song. All the menace, lust and thrill you could ever want from a Rock song is wound up in one tight wad of id. The main riff returning after the first chorus is pretty much the greatest thing ever. There are no seams, no corners, no weak points - it's evergreen, indestructible.
3. Lou Reed | How Do You Think It Feels
How Do You Think It Feels is a quiet revelation - it just does so many things as a Rock song. It's moody and venomous, expanding thematically on the how does it feeeeeel? refrain from Like A Rolling Stone. It's also marked by a certain grandeur and care, likely thanks to genius producer Bob Ezrin. The song boasts swirling virtuoso guitar, tightly arranged horns and a melodic, bouncing bass part. How Do You Think It Feels isn't about Nihilism, just theatrical decadence. Duly noted.
4. Liz Phair | May Queen
I came across Exile In Guyville when I started College and it dominated my CD player for about a year. The follow-up, Whip-Smart, doesn't quite stand up to Exile (what does?), but it has May Queen on it. May Queen is impossibly catchy and sweet, clever and wily. You pine for this girl who's out of your league and here she is ripping on some guy who blew her off. She's much smarter than you and, even if it were to happen, it wouldn't end well for you. And yet you pine.
5. Luna | California (All The Way)
Like May Queen, California brings on crazy Proustian memories. Both songs instantly conjure up the taste of shitty beer in plastic cups, the sounds of old girlfriends' voices and sub-tragic scenes of heartbreak. Years later, when I started writing songs and formed Morning Spy, Luna was a constant touchstone. Our guitar player James loved them, inevitably pulling our sound in that direction which was fine by me.
6. Silkworm | Couldn't You Wait?
Couldn't You Wait? is a monster of a song, pummeling you with one amazing verse after another. Like Positively Fourth Street or Elvis Costello's Blood And Chocolate, it elevates the kiss off to high Art. It effortlessly shifts from vulgar - and you go happy as a clam in a pair of tight 501's to funny - is your French-faced neighbor any fun at all? to the sublime - the taste of troubles in my mouth is like a candy cane.
7. Cat Power | Colors And The Kids
For six and half minutes, Chan Marshall sings over basically two clumsily played chords on a piano and breaks you down. No recess of sadness or loss is spared. Colors And The Kids is a noble savage of a song, impervious to guile or pretense, tapping into things deep in our lizard brains and simian hearts that we try to shrug off with cleverness and distraction. When we were teenagers we wanted to be the sky... Now all we wanna do is go to red places... And try to stay outta Hell is a devastating line.
8. Destroyer | Makin' Angels
At a time when The Strokes, The White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were anointed Rock's redeemers, Destroyer's Dan Bejar asserts Hey, Rock And Roll's not through... I'm sewing wings on this thing on Makin' Angels. And he does - This Night is a masterpiece and Makin' Angels is a humid slab of decadent genius. The instruments collapse around each other in fit of revelry - guitars dick around gloriously, drum fills fly all over the place, someone tinkers on a glockenspiel and voices na na na na and bada bada ba their way to salvation. Bejar trades in elegant, Malkmus-ian word salad, he just serves his atop a musical bed more informed by Mott The Hoople than The Fall.
9. Nina Simone | Suzanne (Judy Collins Cover)
It might be cheating to pick a cover song and, not to slight Leonard Cohen in any way, but, holy shit, Nina Simone. In her interpretation of Suzanne, Simone is the burning bush. When she sings He said 'All men will be sailors then... Until the sea shall free them'... Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, tingles shoot up the back of my neck. By the time Simone reaches the heights of there are heroes in the seaweed I am converted. Whatever you say, Ms. Simone. I will follow.
10. Joanna Newsom | Good Intentions Paving Company
For a songwriter, Good Intentions Paving Company is a terrifying listen. For just over seven minutes, Newsom unfolds a Baroque Pop tour de force befitting the best work of John Cale or Kate Bush. The song's sophistication gets into your head. Are the sparse percussion parts tapping out some sort of a complex clave rhythm? How does she sneak both banjo and mandolin into the song without sounding in anyway like a song tainted by banjo and mandolin? Wait, is the vibrato in her voice meant to echo the syncopated octaves played on the piano? There's an extended trumpet and piano jam at the end that feels inexplicably indispensable. It's amazing. The song's internal logic and craft never undercuts its longing or sweetness, however. It's a gorgeous, moving song.