Saturday, December 27, 2008

Perfect Songs

I'm an aficionado of hooky pop/rock songs: engaging melodies, satisfying chord progressions, clever bridges, and tasteful arrangements.* My playlist is full of them, from one-hit wonders like "Stay" by Lisa Loeb, to a banquet from the best pop/rock songcrafters such as Crowded House, The Police, The Pretenders, Billy Joel, Guster.

(*Many people would include lyrics as part of the criteria on which they judge songs; as that is not a primary part of my listening experience, I leave it out here. I hear songs viscerally as sound, not as a verbal cerebral experiences.)

Even among the best songcrafters, each has tunes that stand out above their others. These are simply better crafted: the hooks are catchier, the bridges make more sense, the arrangements are so sonically delicious as to make us want to hear them again and again. Though The Police's "Murder By Numbers" is a perfectly fine tune, it's just not in the same league as "Every Breath You Take" from the same album.

And even among these well-crafted tunes, a few songs are so perfectly conceived and executed that they span entire ranges of the pop music spectrum as the ne plus ultra: they are without flaw, and there is simply nothing better. They are perfect exactly as they are: nothing extraneous, nothing left out. One can't imagine them being anything other than what they are.

While perfect songs are endlessly listenable and might end up on one's "desert island" playlist, the two groups don't necessarily overlap exactly. My desert island list might include "Back In Stride" by Maze, which I don't consider to be a perfect song. There's not much in the way of a chord progression, and the bridge is passable but not terribly interesting. However, its infectious groove always makes me feel so happy, I'll never get tired of listening to it.

So here are some notes on a few of my candidates for "perfect songs," songs that I simply can't imagine being improved upon, which I think stand as quintessential examples of their niche in pop/rock music:

1. "What I Like About You" by The Romantics. Save for this gem, I'm not a Romantics fan. Many of the songs on the same album have the same beat, and even sometimes the same chord progression, but they are not even in the same league. The band members aren't exceptional musicians. But in this song, everything comes together. You can't do a I-IV-V-IV chord progression better than this. The vocals, including the "yeahs" and shouted "heys!" couldn't be placed any better to add to the build and flow of the song's energy. The hooky slashing guitar chord opening comes back at the end of the song, played as an exciting and surprising counterpoint against the main I-IV-V-IV progression. The ending is abrupt and just in time; "leave them wanting more" has never been more perfectly executed.

2. "Midnight Train to Georgia" by Gladys Knight and The Pips. This song is all about the conversation between Gladys and the Pips, set against a chord progression that embodies the song's affirmation of love and understanding even while acknowledging loss. Gladys is the woman testifying her love for her man through hard times, and the Pips are her Greek Chorus of calm supportive friends encouraging her and affirming she's doing the right thing. Gladys has an idiosyncratic voice that, out of context, might be annoying, but here it serves perfectly to express the storyteller's feelings. The arrangement is one big hug: the warm throaty horns, the subdued organ, the delicate piano, the gorgeous vocal blend of the Pips. We are going to experience loss, but our love will go on and grow stronger, oh yes it will.

3. "You Wreck Me" by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. This is the quintessential power chord rock song, that builds a simple but immensely satisfying progression out of its initial three-chord hook. It's perfect in its economy: all power chords, but only as much as necessary. Don't use four bars when two will do. The song starts with two bars sans drums, then two bars with drums, and then we're right into the vocals. The bridge take the chord progression in a surprising direction, builds the harmonic tension even higher, then releases into a perfect short and sweet snarling guitar solo. A breakdown gives us a rest before we come back into the vocal. The ending doubles up the main hook to increase the intensity, then smashes all into the final chord. Now THAT's a resolution, baby!

So...what are your candidates for perfect songs?