Alphabet Soup is an ongoing project during which I talk about my favorite songs from each letter of the alphabet, and the personal stories behind those songs, all in a satisfying Top 5 list. Let’s kick things off with The Letter A, which, with one exception, is so very 90s:
1. All I Want – Joni Mitchell
Sometimes we try out certain artists for dumb reasons. I knew who Joni Mitchell was, of course, but I’d never really bothered to listen to her until a guy I liked played her on his public radio show, saying she was one of his favorites. He drove an old white BMW (which I rode in twice – “eee!“ say all the teenage girls out there, right?), spent a few lunches with me, and we talked about music. He also had nice teeth, so to a 15-year-old, that’s a good enough reason as any to try out new music. My dad owned Blue, and I put it on one Friday night after the radio show had finished. While I can’t say the same for the guy, I’ve been hooked on Blue ever since. I’ve tried other albums from Joni Mitchell, and while certain songs would stand out, Blue is the only one I ever want to listen to from start to finish. I love how she sings about, well, love. Love for a person, love for your history, loving where you’re at, and loving all those things even when you recognize their flaws. “A Case of You” and “River” always get the play in people’s favorite songs from this album, but I’ve always been partial to “All I Want.” Who can argue with a line like,“All I really, really want to do is just bring out the best in me and you?” It’s a perfect opening song to a near-perfect album.
2. At My Most Beautiful – REM
While the argument that REM went downhill after Monster has some valid points, I wasn’t a college-aged kid in the 80s, and I have no problem with the song “Shiny Happy People.” You won’t find any hipster arguments (or whatever we called hipster kids – indie kids?– in the early 1990s) or declarations of “loving them since [insert early album] here. Pre-Monster REM reminds me of my parents playing the albums on my dad’s days off, while he put away groceries. I’d put on the albums while dusting the living room because they were a band I knew I liked out of the CDs my dad kept upstairs, or sometimes I would put them on when my longtime friend Heather would come over, and we’d draw in the kitchen. At the time, she claimed it was the only non-country she’d tolerate. My house was not the house of pop-country, that was for sure. Early and middle stages of REM remind me of the early and middle stages of my life.
I grew older, and I enjoyed most every single I heard and saw on MTV, but “At My Most Beautiful” was their first song that made me stop what I was doing, lose control of my brain and buy my first REM album out of the Hastings used bin. I recall an interview with Michael Stipe calling it his “Beach Boys” song, which I can hear, but maybe I haven’t listened to enough Beach Boys to know what they’ve written about adoration. “I count your eyelashes secretly/ With every one I whisper “˜I love you’/I let you sleep” – That set of lines would run through my head over and over, and it made me want to write about that feeling of infatuation (though wondering if I could convey it as well as I heard it through the speakers). It made me think about what kind of person that I would want to watch while they slept, save their messages and savor every bit of them, for however long it could last. Though we’re embarrassed to acknowledge it, we’re all borderline-obsessive during the really good relationships, where your heart fractures with joy at the perfection upon which you’ve stumbled.
The rest of the album Up isn’t the greatest, save for “Daysleeper,” the other single. I’m glad that I only paid a used bin price to satiate my need to hear this song whenever I wanted. (For that is what you did in the days when CD singles became harder to come by and yet not everyone had a high speed Internet connection to bother with downloading). “At My Most Beautiful” is one of those songs that no matter how many times I hear it, I’m still in love. I love the cellos and piano, I love its honesty and I love how it plays out like a three and half minute contented sigh.
3. Angel Child – Oasis
Noel Gallagher unknowingly owns a piece of my soul. Let’s just get that declaration out straight away because you’re going to be seeing a lot of Oasis on this project. The love affair began in 8th grade. I resisted at first – I don’t know why – when my friend Amanda declared her devotion to this band as the best thing she’d ever heard. When you’re 13, there is no middle ground when it comes to loving and hating things, of course. I wanted to tease her for being so obsessive and silly, but as soon as I gave Oasis an honest listen, I needed every song they’d ever release mainlined directly into my being.
In the 90s, the UK still took the business of a CD single release seriously, and Noel wrote a wealth of B-sides, providing each single with three or four additional songs. Some would argue that the B-sides surpassed some of the album’s tracks in quality, but that’s a long discussion separate from this list. What I always found most exciting about the B-sides was that Noel himself would sing on a large portion of the songs. Aside from “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” “The Girl in the Dirty Shirt” and “Magic Pie,” Oasis’ first three albums featured only his brother Liam singing, and while there’s nothing wrong with Liam as a singer, I fall a little bit more in love every time I hear the songs come out of Noel’s mouth. Sometimes it is Liam’s swagger that really makes a song, but there is a different sort of sincerity that comes through in Noel’s voice. For every “Rock n Roll Star” declaration of superiority, there is a “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” moment of reflection, and it is this duality that I love.
“Angel Child” was released as a B-side to “D’You Know What I Mean?” from Be Here Now (a rather under-appreciated album, I think, even by members of the now-former-band). The song aches with melancholy, at being beat down by life and finding it hard to remain optimistic. Despite all of this, the music itself still feels hopeful – as though Noel is saying that, deep down, he knows this feeling is temporary, but how it’s so hard to see a way out sometimes. This song is a moment where wallowing is allowed.“When you find out who you are, you’ll be free,” he sings, but there is always the struggle to get to that space, and to accept what you find there. It’s an honest declaration, and an important one to hear not only in the formative period of early high school, but also as a continuous reminder through life when you’re feeling beat.
People said we would grow out of our love, and some people who hopped on the Oasis-loving bandwagon did, but Amanda is the only person I know who is still a bigger fan than I am.
4. Afro (Freestyle Skit) – Erykah Badu (Linked because the available link has embedding disabled.)
Sung nearly a capella, save for one trumpet, the song stood out among the other bass-heavy songs on Baduism. Like many people, I bought Erykah Badu’s album because of “On and On,” but this short song was the one I kept putting on for friends. We all learned the words, tried to imitate her Billie Holiday-style singing, and laughed at what we saw as the punchline of the song:
Well, you said we was gonna see Wu Tang, baby
So I braided my hair
(Yes, I did. Corn rows and everything…)
Well, you changed your mind and said we weren’t goin’
but my mama saw you there!
None of our mothers were going to see Wu Tang, so part of the humor was picturing them there. Not every favorite song is a favorite for the deep, emotional reaction that it instills. This song is to the point, light, and mainly reminds me of goofing off with friends.
5. Alien – Bush
If I were to narrow this list down to my five favorite love songs, this would most certainly make the list. For a long time, I said that Bush was my favorite band with Oasis being a very close second. I suppose that when you’re 13 and all about making declarations, I the type of teenager that needed to make a declaration of my own, rather than feel like I was just piggybacking on someone else’s great discovery. Over time, I became more honest with myself, and now it is Bush that is the close second to Oasis. That’s okay – Certainly I don’t enjoy the band any less.
The quiet bass line bleeds in from the ending fuzz of “Glycerine,” and the song sounds like nothing else on the album. I remember an interview where Dave Parsons ranked the song as one of his favorites, but I suppose as the band’s former bass player, he would. Still, in a band with two guitarists heavily contributing to the overall sound, a bass-centric song is special. However, the lyrics and the stripped-away sound are hypnotic. One of my favorite lines in the song: “In silence we still talk by the light of the stereo waltz.” The swirling demo lights on so many CD players, and how they light up a darkened room, sets the stage so well that it plays out like a story. Of course, I love a good story, and I love it when it inspires me to work on my own.
So what about you? Tell me your favorite songs, and perhaps the stories behind them, for The Letter A.