10. The Stranger - Billy Joel (1977)
The man with the piano gets all Camusian and the result is something that really makes you think - in a Rodin's Thinker kind of way, as opposed to the way people really think, which is by staring into space. Good momentum-laden melody too.
THERE STILL IS NO NUMBER 9
8. You Were Right - Badly Drawn Boy (2002)
This song about mortality aligns the nostalgic longing for an expired love with the untimely deaths of beloved musicians. The way Damon Gough carries the awkward melody merely by stretching his voice and carrying his heart forward is inspiring. Plus, any song that gives you one more verse than you're expecting is a winner in my book.
7. (tie) Black Coffee in Bed - Squeeze (1980)
I should be opposed to this song for two reasons. One, black coffee is disgusting. Pour some milk in it dude! Two, what's this about a "stain on my notebook"? The singer (or his bedmate) puts the black coffee mug on a notebook and the sickly black liquid condenses or spills out to the point that there's a stain on the notebook? Huh? Notebooks are sacred. Treat them with respect. Great song.
7. (tie) The Birth of the True - Aztec Camera (1985)
The only song on this (or any other) list where the singer/narrator references his butler and sings the word "gratuitously." But Roddy Frame nails young love with this song and one must give him his props. Actually, maybe it's the girl's butler.
7. (tie) I'm the Man - Customer Parking Only (1981)
Here, a legendary garage duo predates and surpasses the White Stripes aesthetic by dropping the guitar entirely - all drums and vocals and visceral teenage rage! In this cover of the Joe Jackson non-classic, the drummer (currently a New Jersey bar band legend) keeps perfect time while the now-forgotten singer struggles to keep up, catching up to the beat with guttural but lovely forced screams in an available-only-on-cassette kind of way.
6. Work It - Missy Elliott (2003)
A political parable for the modern era. Missy flips it and reverses it, "saying yo George Bush what's up with the war and hey Rumsfeld tell us the truth!" Or it's about sex in multiple settings/positions.
5. Drift Away - Dobie Gray (1971)
I have nothing to add here.
4. (tie) Toolmaster of Brainerd - Trip Shakespeare (1988)
The Toolmaster held a job at the Buckeye Creamery in Brainerd. He had a way with the old machinery. When the shutdown came, he rumbled down to the Twin Cities for a change of scenery. Eventually he came back. An anthem for an era that never existed and a disparate place that never congealed. If you ever saw them sing this song live, you'd not only know why it made my list but you'd ask me why the hell it didn't make the top 3.
4. (tie) The Hula Hula Boys - Warren Zevon (1982)
Seemingly a throwaway song by a great singer who threw nothing away, this little ditty about a woman who dances with the Hawaiian natives while her man stews in the background is seemingly slightly naively racist too. But seemingly is just seemingly and things are never what they seem (e.g., this song is actually about teenage lust.) What the hell did I just write?
3. Maple Leaves - Jens Lekman (2004)
"She said it was all make-believeAnd they that the Swedes can't write poetry! I just heard this song for the first time on Sunday. Two days later, it makes my Top 10. I may be impulsive but I can back it up.
But I thought she said maple leaves
And when she talked about a fall
I thought she talked about a season
I never understood at all"
2. When Doves Cry - Prince (1984)
Sometimes you gotta go with the obvious.
1. Johnny Mathis' Feet - American Music Club (1992)
When Mark Eitzel (my favorite singer, regardless of the song) sings "A real showman knows how to disappear in the spotlight" after peppering a mythical pop legend (Mathis) with frustratingly unanswerable questions about his (Mark's) career arc, a chill rises within me. This song inspired my own spell of celebrity poems, in which fame-addled mid-career pop and film icons grapple with their place in the world (metaphor for my own place in the world of course). Besides all that, it's a shambling pop cabaret masterpiece.