Snowflakes, Ghosts, Detritus: The Top Ten Songs at 4:08


Nov 1 2008, 6:21

"My name is Jerry Lee Lewis, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

Not long ago, I mentioned Jerry Lee Lewis in a conversation with some of my staff, and one of the servers (in her early 20s) asked, "You mean the guy who does the telethon?" I burned her a CD. Last year, similar situation, different person, didn't know who Bob Dylan is. Bob Dylan! Icon! Detritus.

Everything is forgotten eventually, but so soon? The source of the whole "underrated" thing is what people don't know, what the culture at large is beginning to forget.

We are fortunate to live in an obsessively recorded age. We have photos, video and audio recordings, and writing of all sorts, preserved on paper and microfilm and Web archives and electronic media. That doesn’t mean we’re any more narcissistic than our ancestors, just that we have more advanced technology. If the Victorians had had cell phone cameras, we would have goofy candid movies of them. But I digress. Assuming such recorded media survive, anyone who really wants to, one hundred or two hundred years from now, will be able to become an expert on the music and culture of our time. To all but those experts, distinctions that seem vitally important to some of us now (what counts as “punk,” or “emo,” or “real country”) will collapse. It’s all going to be just music again, having lost its cultural baggage as the people who originally enjoyed it died.

The experts will be able to reconstruct those cultural contexts, but there is no substitute for living it. They won’t know what the great clouds of pot smoke smelled like at a 70s arena show, or feel the sudden violence and adrenaline of a mosh pit, or undertake the laborious process of making a gapless mix tape on a cassette. Those kinds of details are cultural snowflakes; savor them as they land on your tongue, because they’re unique. Carpe diem.


Top Ten Songs at 4:08

1) Sweet Jane (full length version)
For the second week in a row, I'm surprised to find a Velvet Underground song in first place. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure if I still liked this song at all. There was a time in the early 90s (I think) when seemingly every local indie band in every town covered this song, and everyone got completely sick of it. It was the same in the late 70s/early 80s with “Stepping Stone.” I thought all the limp covers might have destroyed my enjoyment of the original, but here I am listening to it for the first time in years, and that Lou Reed swagger still sends me.

2) Get On The Good Foot
Utterly infectious. We usually think of hooks in terms of melody; here it’s the rhythms: the guitar bouncing up and down a simple scale of single notes, the hyper-sharp drumming, and the horn section jauntily interjecting a low shimmy. James is the ringmaster, but there’s so much interesting stuff going on besides the vocal. Hey, everybody still knows who James Brown is, right? Maybe I'd better ask my staff.

3) Ghost
If I finish this project, I would be unsurprised to find every track from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea on one of these lists: it's a record with nothing but high points. Mangum builds human landscapes in sound, singing joyous and weeping and possessed, as if he's speaking in tongues but having it come out in in poetry.

4) Los Angeles
Only the second-best song with this title in my collection. Opens with acoustic guitar & bells, HUGE drum leading to HUGE metal riff; breaks with a weird time signature; then at 1:55, a sudden tone and tempo shift, to stately anthem, growing into orchestral Beach Boys. So much to chew on, it doesn’t seem like it lasts as long as it does. Classify as an experiment successful beyond all expectation: two very different songs crammed together Dr. Moreau-style. There’s no way this should work, but it does, spectacularly.

5) walls and foundations
The Tourists were the seed from which the vastly more popular Eurythmics sprouted, and they've been forgotten, or were never thought memorable in the first place. This farfisa and big guitar rocker sounds like a garage band in a really big garage: a hangar, maybe. The debt to The Who is obvious, but it's not just a knockoff.

6) Rose Garden
This is the ONLY track that I have from this pretty obscure DC band. It's 60s Nuggets psychedelia tempered with an agreeable punk sensibility, which filters out all the embarrassing hippie excess found in some of the source material. Yes, I need to get the entire album. It's available, but hard to find. And I am so very lazy.

7) Uncle Salty
Aerosmith is a decent candidate to be some vast and trunkless legs of stone in a couple hundred years. Those future cultural historians should note that in the late 1970s, everybody had this album (Toys in the Attic). It was well-used, too: always with the white circle around the album cover. More people had this than Boston's first album, more than Tres Hombres, more than gazillion-sellers Frampton and Fleetwood Mac. Adults must have bought those; kids bought Aerosmith. And honestly, this was pretty good taste for teenagers to have, especially when you think of all the crap we could have been listening to.

8) Tilted
Bob Mould is such a master riffmeister. "Tilted" almost could be power pop, if the riffs weren't so huge. It suffers a bit from the early 90s dense candy-coated production, which was the style at the time. If Husker Du had sounded this big and slick, would they have been more popular and less influential? Ahhh, I don't know. I'm not sure if the world was ready for this level of chromed aggression in the 80s.

9) Velvet Ears
Yes, I can get even more obscure than the Vile Cherubs at #6. Caterpillar was a Philly indie rock band from the 90s, fairly popular regionally for its niche, but already forgotten now. "Velvet Ears" features shredded voice and guitar, sliding out of the verses with a classic make-you-blush pop refrain that most bands would be tempted to push—after all, it’s the “best part of the song.” Instead, they go into a long more-shred/less-pop coda, which is either unfortunate or inspired, depending on your taste and current mood.

10) Sister Cry
I almost didn't put a #10, not out of a shortage of candidates, but because there are too many good-but-not-great songs in contention, none if which I have much to say about, and I don't want to start making lists fifteen songs long. This? Heartland rock, appealing close harmony. Some Byrds, some Louvins. Soaring chorus, nice bridge.

The Two Worst Songs at 4:08

2) Shock the Monkey
From an album called When Pigs Fly, the conceit of which is to make unlikely (even absurd) pairings between artists and songs. Well, there's a reason why these kinds of covers are unlikely. I'd maybe be interested to hear Don Ho cover this song Hawaiian-style, but hearing him sing over a bland bed of electronics and slick drums just sounds like an old guy doing karaoke.

1) Follow Your Bliss
The best things about the B-52's are their spastic energy, the two female vocalists, Ricky Wilson's guitar, and even Fred Schneider in small doses. None of that is present on this boring easy-listening instrumental. Send it back to the cruise ship from whence it came, then sink the damn boat.

Commenters, do your stuff! I am very much digging your input.


  • Auto_Da_Fe

    Well, fascinating stuff again – and if Ghost wasn’t 4:09 in my world, I’d certainly be joining you in including it! As it is there are some very strong contenders at 4:08, only 145 to choose from this time, but several of my very favourite songs and 30 or so worth a mention.. but here is a squeeze into 10. Oddly enough, given your comments above and my choices below, in a pub conversation a couple of weeks ago, attempting to define what’s gone wrong with Herman Düne – I said that they seemed to be trying to channel Jonathan Richman. And to my astonishment the music loving 40 somethings I was with either had not heard Jonathan/Modern Lovers, or only knew one track – Roadrunner (hardly Jerry Lee Lewis or Bob Dylan in terms of cultural significance, but still...). 1. The Modern Lovers – Roadrunner Simple and perfect. 2. Mick Jagger – Memo From Turner From the film soundtrack “Performance”, one of the great Stones moments. The lyrics are just incredible. 3. Joy Division – Means to an End Thought this might only scrape the top ten, but listening again – it’s just so good. 4. Claire Hamill – Geronimo’s Cadillac In 1974 (or maybe it was ’75), I nominated a “single of the week” just like the real DJs on the radio. Finding the diary containing said nominations years later it was a relief that many of the choices were less embarrassing than the concept. This was one of my singles of the week, and it’s no less beautiful and moving 34 (or 33) years later. 5. Pere Ubu – I Hear They Smoke The Barbecue Only a B side, so presumably a minor piece in the minds of its creators, this whimsical list of attributes of the inhabitants of the Hollow Earth is for me probably the best thing they’ve done since the ’79 reformation. One of very few tracks (by anybody) that I can listen to over and over again. 6. Luxuria – Ticket For the most part Luxuria were disappointing after the glories of Magazine. But this track stands up well with the body of Devoto’s earlier work. 7. Neu! – Neuschnee the epitome of motorik 8. Long Fin Killie – Clinch At the time of the first album, I thought Long Fin Killie would be massive (in a cult sense of course, they were never going to be multi-platinum sellers) – Luke Sutherland was just so talented. But it seems he’s directing his talents toward writing novels these days. 9. Herman Düne – Good for No-one Not many artists have had longer winning streaks (in an artistic sense). Too bad the streak has juddered to a halt with the last two albums. 10. The Hold Steady – The Swish Just when it seemed that old fashioned rock music was a bankrupt artform, along came The Hold Steady!

    Nov 2 2008, 20:06
  • Auto_Da_Fe

    Can't see why the Claire Hamill track isn't linking...'s+Cadillac

    Nov 2 2008, 20:09
  • jcshepard

    at 4:08: Townes Van Zandt, Pancho and Lefty, off Disc 1 of Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas. I've also got a 4:08 track by L.A. artist Tom Brosseau he did live on air at KRFC, called "I tune my guitar to the hum of the train.".

    Nov 3 2008, 15:21
  • rockrobster23

    James, a retrospective of your singles of the week sounds like a great idea for a journal entry (or several). JC, it's interesting that you bring up "Pancho and Lefty," because I was thinking about that song a lot this past week. I don't have the live version, but I'd be shocked if when it comes up, it doesn't finish #1 for its length. That is, unless there's another Velvet Underground song I've forgotten about that wins in another upset. ;)

    Nov 4 2008, 0:29
  • rockrobster23

    OK, I just looked at 3:40 (for the original "Pancho and Lefty") and, wow wow wow wow. That's got easily the richest load of songs to choose from of any time I've looked at yet. It's going to be damned difficult to get that down to 12, or to decide a top 5. Good lord. I mean, look at this (very partial) list: "Pancho and Lefty" "Sacred Love" (Bad Brains) "Rock and Roll" (Led Zep) "Velouria" (Pixies) "Answering Machine" (Replacements) "Life During Wartime" (Talking Heads) "Nausea" (X) Plus great Hendrix, Beastie Boys, Beach Boys, Thee More Shallows, R.E.M., The Jam, Johnny Cash, Superdrag, Uncle Tupelo. I guess that's what I'm doing next, then. Better get to it quick before I add anything else to my library to make the task more complicated.

    Nov 4 2008, 8:23
Visualizza tutti (5 commenti)
Aggiungi un commento. Accedi a o registrati (è gratuito).