Elvis Costello: You Belong to Me (1978)
I love Elvis Costello, particularly for his 1978 album This Years Model, which I regard as nearly perfect. My favorite song on the album, “You Belong to Me,” is one that I consider elemental, both in the energy of it and in its message. The song opens with loose rhythmic plucking of a rockabilly steel guitar, a spirited energy that becomes manic when a rapid paced drum and tambourine hit underneath it. Then the centerpiece of two loud, basic pipe organ chords rip through, and the song becomes truly addicting. The lyrics start off with a wistful picture of misspent youth, even including a sly reference to teenage pregnancy (“She’s been to see the doctor so you hope that she recovers”), before rejoicing in the danger and freedom of youth. And then, Elvis shifts into the expression of true rock rebellion, concluding that “No uniform’s gonna keep you warm.” This song evokes a smart-ass teenage kid, refusing to join the army, and I can’t think of anything more rock and roll than that.
Vince Staples: Jump off the Roof (2015)
Vince Staples is an exemplary young California-based rapper, and in 2015 his album Summertime ’06 he displayed greatness, particularly with complex, emotional songs like “Jump off the Roof.” The song begins with two choruses of tortured choirs singing high chords of lament, presumably to prepare the listener for the darkness of the song. Despite a rapid drumming on what sounds like empty paint cans, a beat that seems like it would feel right at home in a latin-flavored party banger, Vince begins with the sentiment “What’s your addiction, baby?” which links nicely to verses concerning the implacability of drug addiction. In line with the picture Staples paints of urban hopelessness, he finishes the song with a bitterly satirical reference to a sentiment that in a real way helps perpetuate the existence of an underclass: “It’s fine baby girl I don’t need a rubber, nothing wrong in the world with another mother.” In this way, Staples describes in an emotionally devastating way that there is a segment of the population for whom suicide may be the best option.
Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus: Quick Joey Small (Run, Joey, Run) (1968)
This is a great pop record born out of an ill-considered idea. Two record producers, Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, brought together eight separate groups into one supergroup, an experiment that ended just a year after its conception. Despite the frankly boneheaded nature of the enterprise in itself, “Quick Joey Small,” the centerpiece of this mishmash, is pure fun. This song is the story of a work-prison escape, and the verses are belched by what sounds like a frog-voiced field foreman, giving updates on a street corner through a paper cone. Though this is addictive and grin-producing, the song truly comes into its own at the chorus, where a mass of singers warn Joey that “The hounds are on your tail.” Then with a slight upturn in pitch they continue, saying that “They’re gonna send you back to jail.” I’m hard pressed to imagine a song more playful than “Quick Joey Small,” and the fun it inspires will linger long after the last note is struck.
David Byrne: I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Whitney Houston cover) (2008)
The Talking Heads are, all things considered, my favorite band of all time, and since their dissolution, frontman David Byrne has continued to produce occasionally exceptional music. One example of this comes from his 2008 live album, Live from Austin, TX, where Byrne did an emotionally revelatory rendition of Whitney Houston’s 1987 party-pop megahit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” While Houston’s version is definitely fun, it might give you cavities, and her performance does not correspond with the lyrics. The lyrics portray a lonely individual, pleading to an empty sky for someone to love, though it delivers no one. While Houston tackled the depressing nature of these lyrics by simply ignoring them, Byrne instead layers them over a sweeping line of violins, thus giving them a sense of proud hope. These violins, as well as bongo’s, marimba’s (I believe), and many other instruments I’m unfamiliar with, give the song a beautiful energy, and a wonderful sense of fun.