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My Top 25 Songs: An Exercise in Futility

Have you ever tried to come up with your top X of any given thing? If you don’t keep up with it in some small way all along, it can be a brutal experience to generate it from scratch. You’ll start off strong, but eventually trail off. You’ll get derailed by the ranking, waylaid by long-buried sentimentality. Doubt will set in. The reality of your shifting priorities over the years will play a major factor, so you’ll have to make hard decisions (about this trivial and pointless exercise).

Fortunately for me, I do these kinds of dumb, unnecessary rankings from time to time. I also still scrobble to Last.fm, though the largely-unsupported software struggles to perform as it did in the good ol’ days. I had a starting point, if not the entire thing ready to go when I came up with this idea. It still took some work to get this list into shape.

The first thing you have to wrestle with is finding out that your most played songs/albums/artists aren’t necessarily your favorite. One thing Last.fm users find out pretty quickly is that a short but intense obsession can really skew your charts. I believe that a favorite album has to stand the test of time, at least to some degree. It’s highly unlikely that an album released this year, for example, would rank. Some albums take time to break in; an album you hated at first may later make your list because it required careful consideration and wasn’t instant favorite. It goes the other way, more often than not. Albums that enjoyed a hot streak when you first discovered them usually cool down with time, and are sometimes relegated to the parts of your library you don’t revisit very often.

By way of example, I’ll start this blog not with the list of the top 25 albums, but by first talking about my top 25 songs of all time. This is in part because the groundwork vetting for these was done long ago when my good friend Desi and I were bored at work one day. But it also helps illustrate something else: a favorite song may bear no connection to your favorite artists or even albums. It could be something out of the clear blue, your own personal one-hit wonder.

If you compare the list below with my top songs on Last.fm and in iTunes, there’s only some overlap. There are a few reasons for this, key among them the many, many plays lost to digital record keeping because I couldn’t scrobble from CDs or records at the time. Sometimes I just get stuck on a thing, but six months later, I’ve stopped listening to it altogether, while my favorite songs may languish for a chunk of time without getting played at all.

This also gives me a chance to set some ground rules for my albums list. The first and most important being that artists/musical groups can’t have two entries. Individuals can appear more than once, but they must be in different incarnations. This, of course, begets some hard decisions, but limitations and editing breed quality. Another rule, as I touched on, is that they have to still sing to me after years of hearing them and after encountering other material. My feel-good jam of last summer is not going to make the list. (Incidentally, my last feel-good jam of the summer I can remember was “Coo Coo” by Weaves.)

Finally, sentimentality counts. I won’t cut something just because my tastes have moved on from centering that kind of music, or because it might be embarrassing. Loving something isn’t conditional upon it being objectively good. Despite my considerable hours spent analyzing music, I’m neither a musicologist nor talented enough a musician to comment on how objectively good something is. If it sucks but I love it, it’s on here. Same goes for ignoring that it was a ubiquitous MEGA-HIT that everyone else is sick to death of hearing. Thems the breaks.

So then, here are my top 25 favorite songs of all time:

1. Short-Haired Girl by The Water Section (from ...and Then the Hum of the American Diesel Engine)
2. This Tornado Loves You by Neko Case (from Middle Cyclone)
3. Hey, Johnny Park! by Foo Fighters (from The Color and the Shape)
4. Farewell Transmission by Songs: Ohia (from The Magnolia Electric Co.)
5. Maps by Yeah Yeah Yeahs (from Fever to Tell)
6. Baby Birch by Joanna Newsom (from Have One on Me)
7. Oh Mandy by The Spinto Band (from Nice and Nicely Done)
8. Evil Urges by My Morning Jacket (from Evil Urges)
9. The New Year by Death Cab for Cutie (from Transatlanticism)
10. Velvet Waltz by Built to Spill (from Perfect from Now On)
11. Perfect Disguise by Modest Mouse (from The Moon & Antarctica)
12. It Will Follow the Rain by The Tallest Man on Earth (from The Tallest Man on Earth EP)
13. Quiet by This Will Destroy You (from Young Mountain)
14. Scatterheart by Bjork (from Selma Songs)
15. Ashamed by Deer Tick (from War Elephant)
16. Splitter by Calexico (from Algiers)
17. How Even the Sky Thought to Rain by Pilot to Bombardier (from Juliet On Fire Keep Clear)
18. Please Don’t Give Me What I Want by Kat Frankie (from Please Don’t Give Me What I Want and Ramen Music #11)
19. Can’t Make a Sound by Elliott Smith (from Figure 8)
20. Failsafe by The New Pornographers (from Challengers)
21. Reckoner by Radiohead (from In Rainbows)
22. Glasshouse Tarot by Sparta (from Wiretap Scars)
23. Rapunzel by the Sea by Almanac Mountain (from So Many Seas)
24. Say It Ain’t So by Weezer (from The Blue Album)
25. Ex-Hive by Tom Thumb (from The Taxidermist)

(Yep, I listen mostly to, as it was explained to Evan, “sad white people music.”)

This list is more or less in definitive ranked order. That said, this is merely a snapshot of the current status, as must be the case for all such things. A few thoughts:

  • “Short-Haired Girl” and “Failsafe” are the only songs from which I have lyrics tattooed on me. “This Tornado Loves You” and “Failsafe” are the only songs from which Evan has lyrics tattooed on her.
  • “Evil Urges” might be the only MMJ song I know. “Please Don’t Give Me What I Want” by Kat Frankie is definitely the only song of hers I know. That’s sort of an odd facet: You’d think this list might only be comprised of my favorite bands, or at least tracks from my favorite albums, but when making lists like these, you quickly find that what makes each of those great has somewhat limited overlap.
  • “Baby Birch” gets something of an assist from the fact that the guitar tone in it reminds me of “From Here to Ear” by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, which I unabashedly love more than a lot of things. Not that it needs the help.
  • Some of these songs remain on the list long after I’ve fallen out of love with a band as a whole (looking at you, Weezer [!!!!], Death Cab, Foo Fighters, and Modest Mouse [my former undisputed favorite band]). “Say It Ain’t So” was my favorite song for probably ten years before the band tainted my memories of them so badly, I could no longer defend even a top ten ranking for any of their music. I can’t bring myself to cut it completely, though.
  • Speaking of favorites, Joanna Newsom is far and away my favorite artist and would have multiple entries on this ranking if not for the rule to limit it. Same with Neko Case.
  • The Moon & Antarctica just barely missed a spot on my top albums list, but I never, ever get sick of hearing “Perfect Disguise”.
  • “Reckoner” battled its way onto the list against two of its Radiohead stablemates, “Exit Music (For a Film)” and “Airbag”, both of which spent time as my favorite from that band.

Most of these songs seem to occupy two categories: 1. Longish, epic, building songs with multiple movements or 2. Very tightly composed, relatively static tracks with minimal instrumentation. What’s more, there’s virtually zero overlap with the kind of music I like to make. This poses something of a problem when it comes to composing my own music, since my influences have tenuous connections to the types of sounds and textures I want to hear in my own music. Go figure.

Some notable misses that are probably in the top 50: “Wolf Like Me” by TV on the Radio, “Plug-In Baby” by Muse, “Backwards Walk” by Frightened Rabbit, “Confessions of a Futon-Revolutionist” (or, like, five others) by The Weakerthans, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon, “Bulletproof” by La Roux, “July Flame” by Laura Veirs, “Hey” by Pixies, “Wildcat” by Ratatat, “Life on Mars” by David Bowie, “Highway Patrolman” (or “Atlantic City”) by Bruce Springsteen, and so on. “Heartbeats” by The Knife (and/or Jose Gonzalez’s excellent cover) was a difficult cut; I prefer the slower live version on which Gonzalez’s cover is based, but I like the original, too. It should probably be in the top 25, but I’m conflicted about it.

If you know me and my tastes, feel free to comment what I might have missed in my considerations. Once you get beyond the top ten, it feels increasingly prone to shorter-lived love affairs. Also comment if you have your own top songs list because I need to know.

Next up: Favorite albums.

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