Listening to the Fleet Foxes song White Winter Hymnal the other night in my car on the 10 freeway, I had a realization. Well first I had the continued realization that it's an awesome song. Then, I realized that this song has no chorus. Now this may not mean much to you but if you're as obsessed about music and song structure as I am, you'll notice that almost all songs have choruses.
The verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure is such a staple of all forms of popular music that some artists will NEVER budge from it. Listen to every Steely Dan song (as I did one weekend in 1996) and you will notice that they all have choruses. Yes, even Through With Buzz! More recent favorites of mine from Andrew Bird to M.I.A. to The Hold Steady to Vampire Weekend to Jenny Lewis stick with the structure. Yes, there are variations: sometimes they'll start with the chorus, sometimes they'll throw away the bridge, sometimes the chorus will consist of one line or one word or no words (the rare instrumental chorus). But for the vast majority of songs, the chorus stays.
But there are a few exceptions. And some of these are among my favorite songs. And for the past few days I've been obsessed with getting to 10 good ones. I think I'm there. I think I'm at 11 actually. Let's start the list.
11. Gold Soundz - Pavement (1994)
Yes, this is a controversial one. The second best song from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, the fourth best album of the 1990s is one I will never stop listening to. But...doesn't that line "We need secrets-crets-crets-crets-crets-crets back right now" count as a chorus? No it's fully part of the melodic structure of everything in the verse that precedes (and includes) it. There's no natural break or thrust from verse to chorus. Besides, I'll stop at nothing to include in this list a song that has the line "they're coming to the chorus now" right before you expect the chorus. But it doesn't come.
10. Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School - Warren Zevon (1980)
When I was a boy in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, I played the album of the same name on my bedroom record player. I was always obsessed with the title track, with Warren repeating the same verse three times, punctuated by non-chorus overly aggressive guitar solos and preceded by an odd classical music intro. Then it fades out. It's interesting though: no pubescent immigrant boy should be that obsessed with a drug addict's sad lament of drug addiction. Sure, I should have been into the goofy Zevon songs with the gorillas and the werewolves but this song? Hmm. Interestingly, I was listening to this at about the same time, in the same bedroom.
9. Chopsticks - Liz Phair (1994)
Of all my favorite artists, Liz has probably written the most chorus-less songs. Most of them were the one verse sexual manifestoes from her first album. This one is the first song on Whip-Smart, the follow-up album (and my favorite album of all time). You could make the case that Chopsticks transitions so well into the song that follows it, Supernova, that Supernova acts as the chorus for Chopsticks. But no. I like to listen to this album on shuffle and I hear the two as separate songs; this songs stands well enough on its own. It's evil and mysterious. It mentions summer camp and sex, two things that will go together until the end of time. (Note: I never attended summer camp.) So many amazing lines in 2 minutes and 6 seconds but my two favorites are the classic "we can fuck and watch TV" line and the one where she says "'Cause secretly I'm timid." The latter is when I fell in love with her just a little. MP3 link here.
8. Alexandra Leaving - Leonard Cohen (2001)
Being a poet as well as a singer, Leonard knows structure. And he's a stickler to it, preferring rhymes to the lack of them, preferring air-tight themes to rambling free verse. But twice in his career - this song and the much earlier Who By Fire- he throws structure into the wind and performs just one song-length verse. Interestingly, both of these songs were adaptations/translations of other people's poems. This is one of my favorite songs by Cohen (someone I admire so much I wrote an ill-received screenplay that was loosely based on his early-90s life as a reclusive monk). It may be his most beautiful melody. And when he sings "Do not say the moment was imagined / Do not stoop to strategies like this" I get shivers.
(Brief aside: Since we used to listen to this album when we played Scrabble back on Longfellow Ave., this is as good a place as any to say Happy Birthday Laurel)
7. Lake Street Is For Lovers - Lifter Puller (2000) Before Craig Finn created the world's greatest rock and roll band, The Hold Steady, he fronted the Twin Cities' seventh best ever rock and roll band, Lifter Puller. And in the middle of the impeccably/deceptively structured chorus-filled anthems that dotted their albums (only one of which I've actually listened to), there's this song. I know Lake Street well. It goes from the beautiful lakes of Minneapolis to the majestic river that borders St. Paul. In the middle (basically between Garfield and Hiawatha), there is the vast swath of Lake Street that this song is really about: the dealers (of drugs and pagers), the sticky-slow crowded bus stops, and the beautiful messy city. It's another short song (1:07) but it's got enough greatness to make the list. Spend 99 cents on it here.
6. White Winter Hymnal - Fleet Foxes (2008)
It's difficult to resist playing this song over and over again and ignoring the rest of this fine album. But that's whats been happening to me lately. I can't get past it. I spent six listens trying to figure out the exact lyrics, of which there are very few. And the first time I deciphered "strawberries in the summertime" in a song about the joy of winter, I got real happy. One of my favorite songs of this decade.
5. Another Morning - American Music Club (2004)
American Music Club disappeared for 10 years before resurfacing in 2004 with the Love Songs for Patriots album from which song originates. In the intervening years there were a whole bunch of great Mark Eitzel (AMC lead singer/songwriter) solo albums that helped pass the time. Anyway this isn't a history lesson. I'm here to write about the lack of choruses. This song doesn't have one. It's a sad song (not rare for Eitzel), one of many where he sings about a real/mythical creature named Kathleen. In real life, Mark Eitzel loved Kathleen and Kathleen may have killed herself. In this song, I think Eitzel skips the chorus because he has so much to get out and he can't stop because it's too important not to go on. Still, he acknowledges the (possible) joy: "There must have been a short five minutes in your youth when you laughed like water breaking over the broken land." That line is like sugary lemonade for a sentimentalist like me. Everyone has laughed at least once, right? Free download here.
(When I saw AMC at the Echo in Echo Park last year, Eitzel dedicated Another Morning to this woman:
which pretty much blew my mind. And there she was standing next to me. (Related note: New season of Big Love on Sunday!)
One more note: I once knew a Kathleen who loved the Kathleen songs. I may still know her. She may still love them. Don't know)
4. Raining in Darling - Bonnie "Prince" Billy (1999)
I debated including this song on the list because for a while I thought that it was criminal that this song builds and BUILDS to a chorus and just ends. It just dies. It's the last song on the desperately sad album (I See a Darkness), the title track of which Johnny Cash so memorably covered. But I think that the energy Johnny put into that song may have contributed to him dying a month or so before he otherwise would have died. Anyway, as I listen to this song at this very moment, I realize it belongs on this list and it belongs high on this list. It's his most Springsteen-esque song (and the two have more in common than you think). You want the chorus. You imagine the chorus. You thirst for the chorus but it's not there and it never will be and when he says "I know you do" the song just ends. MP3 link here. That's really the whole song.
3. You Were Right - Badly Drawn Boy (2002)
Okay I like Damon Gough aka Badly Drawn Boy well enough but how much better is this song than everything else he's put out? Hugely better. I've written about this song before but two things jump out: One, he gives you that one extra verse at the end, possibly to make up for the lack of a chorus. Two, it's a song about choosing music over love and though I've never actually made that mistake, I sometimes I wish I would have.
2. Thunder Road - Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (1975)
I've also written about this song pretty extensively before. I'm shocked that it isn't number one. Because for a while this was my favorite song ever - chorused or otherwise - up until about 1994. And it's always been in my top 10. But I made the decision and must stick with it.
I love escape songs and this is the greatest escape song ever. I love screen door songs and this is the greatest screen door song ever. And yeah I may be cheating because the explosion of guitars and multiple keyboards and drums and the saxophone at the end could be considered a chorus to some. Or maybe when he repeats "Thunder Road" you could call that a chorus. But considering the clear v/c/v/c/b/v structure Springsteen employs in every other song he's written, I'll say this is chorusless. Besides, if this song had a chorus, I would imagine something else entirely being the chorus. A new set of words. Words we've never heard. A higher level of longing (if that could be possible). A torn screen door on the hood of a speeding car, heading south and west from the town full of losers, toward that beach Patrick and I went to in '82.
Oh and this live performance from 1975 might be the greatest thing ever, despite the darkness:
1. Maggie May - Rod Stewart (1971)
One-hit wonder Rod Stewart was a hack British rocker from the 1960s through the 1980s. He is currently a tired old singer of tired old "standards." He's responsible for some of the very worst songs of my childhood and adolescence. Revisionists have tried to paint some of his older songs as "classics" worthy of acclaim. They are wrong. But then there's Maggie May. What a fucking amazing song. And if you listen closely you will discover that there is no chorus. Nothing even close. I remember discovering this lack of a chorus about 10 years ago and nearly jumping out of my car seat with clever joy. And no song better uses the lack of chorus to its own benefit than this one: Chord changes that match the heightened anxiety in Stewart's (perfect for this one song) voice; mandolin and piano fills that fit better than chocolate and more chocolate. And those words. Wake up - the kid's got something to say, he thinks. His heart was stolen by a head-kicker whose age is shown by the morning sun. Yeah. If it wasn't for the horrible jokes/coax rhyme, this might be my favorite song ever. Instead, it's merely my favorite chorus-less song ever. Here's a link for you - no video and a mismatched photo from long after the song was released but that's for the best because who wants to look at Rod Stewart in motion?