I’m kinda obsessed with lists. I use them to remind myself what I need to do. I use them to motivate me and I use them to remind me.

As an example, I used to read a lot. But then life got in the way and I pretty much stopped reading. Five years ago, I recognized this and felt like I should be reading more. So I started keeping lists of the books I read; a way to hold myself accountable. I went from reading almost nothing to reading about a couple thousand pages that next year. The year after, I doubled it and the year after, I doubled again. It kept doubling until last year, I read 12,000 pages. That’s more like it. I’ve applied the same mindset to exercising and eating and other habits I want to change. It also goes without saying that, as I get older, lists are helpful because I can’t remember shit.

But I also use lists to keep track of things — stuff like favorite movies and, of course, music.

A while back, as I was building a playlist of important songs I had listened to in college in the 80s (a list that ended up growing to more than 400 songs (!)) – I had the inevitable thought about which ones I liked most. Four hundred songs is a long list and if I wanted to share a manageable version of that list to someone, which ones are representative of the whole? Better still, which ones did I like best? I toyed around with that exercise, but it didn’t really hold me for long. Eighties music is pretty enjoyable – and it’s definitely fun – but it’s also pretty dated and fairly uniform in its sound. Still, that spark of an idea – which songs do you like best – clung to me and it was hard to shake.

Something about me: I have pretty bad tinnitus. I went to too many loud concerts, stood by too many loudspeakers, walked around campus too many times with a Walkman turned up far too loudly. As a result, whenever I’m awake, I usually have some music on. The sound helps cover up the constant and very loud ringing in my ears. In short, I’ve listened to a lot of music.

But it can’t be just any music, oh no. It has to be something I enjoy or at least don’t hate. As a result, I’ve listened to tens of thousands of hours of music – maybe more. Probably more. And I ask myself, in all that time of listening to people play those same 12 notes over and over in a multitude of different ways … which ways are my favorites?

Well, I created a playlist of songs that I thought were my favorites. It started out as a really big list, but then I started to pare it down. I thought it would be pretty hard, but it was easier than I’d anticipated – to a point. Turns out I’d known what my favorites were for a long time. I’d largely been listening to them for years.

I listened to that playlist for a few months. I thought pretty hard about each one. Occasionally, I’d drop one — only to add it back the next day. I’d add others in and realize they didn’t fit. I came to the conclusion that if I listened to this playlist on shuffle and didn’t hate a song that came up, I was in a good place — a pretty big challenge given the diversity of genres.

In the end, I had a list of 33 songs. (Would it be better if I could add another third of a song?) But that’s two and one-half hours of music. It starts in 1967 with Jimi Hendrix and ends in 2019 with George Strait. No surprise, but my favorite band, Rush, is represented the most with three songs. It’s mostly rock, but there are a lot of other genres thrown in. Probably the biggest surprise (to me) is that there are only a couple of electronic songs in there. I listen to a lot of dance and electronic music, but I realized not that much of it is really great. A lot of it is good, but it’s like audio wallpaper, not that memorable (but it’s fantastic for covering tinnitus!). The same goes for rap, maybe even more so. In making this list, I realized I’ve been listening to rap for more than three decades, but not a single rap song made my list. (Though Tribe came close.)

The other surprise, this one not as big, was how important a song’s lyrics were to me. I buy into the notion that music evokes emotion, but lyrics define a song’s true meaning. But clearly, I’ve spent a healthy chunk of my professional career writing. So, of course, the words are going to be important!

When I finally felt good with my list, I began thinking about how to present it. A simple Spotify or iTunes list would do the trick, but it would be missing my “why”. And the why is pretty much the purpose of spending so much time on this list. Plus, I’m paying for this site’s hosting, so if you aren’t interested in the why, check this out instead. It’s interesting.

Without further ado, here’s my list. Thirty-three songs that I absolutely adore – and the reasons why. I hope you find some of your favorites here, too. Better still, I honestly hope you find something that becomes your favorite. Because I think there is nothing more human than sharing things we like — hey, here’s a thing that brings me happiness and joy, I want to share it with you in hopes it brings you the same happiness and joy!

In mostly no particular order (read that again – it’s the important part), here we go!

Closer to the Heart” Rush

This is probably the right place to start. Rush is my favorite band because of their complex arrangements, intricate time signatures, and clever and intelligent (and often literary) lyrics – although this song doesn’t really have any of those. It really is pretty basic for them. Rush credit the song for getting them on radio, probably because it’s short (for Rush) at just under three minutes, but the real reason is that it’s a fan favorite. Aside from 2112 (pts I & II), it’s the second most played song in concert, and has appeared on all their live albums. What’s more, this is the first song Alex and Geddy played together after Neil passed (performed with the South Park guys at Red Rocks). Plus, the tubular bells part has been my ringtone for as long as I could make my own ringtone. This video … the kimonos!

“And the men who hold high places must be the ones who start”

Bold As Love” The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Take a second and just think about the title. (I told you words were going to be important here.) What is more bold than love? Think about the courage to stand up emotionally naked and take a risk, to make yourself vulnerable. There is no emotion more bold than love. All the others are just cheap imitations. Throughout the song, Jimi looks at his different emotions, each represented through different colors (it was the sixties, yo). The guitar is ethereal … until it shifts gears and then it’s just carnal.

“All these emotions of mine keep holding me back from giving my life to a rainbow like you”

Farmhouse” Phish

The intro song on Phish’s ninth album of the same name, “Farmhouse” is representative of the crunchy sound that would mark the band’s high point before their hiatus in the early 00s. Guitarist/singer Trey Anastasio tells a story about recording this song:

“I picked up Tom (Tom Marshall, lyricist) at the airport in this cool old 1970’s RV that I had bought that had an eight track player in it, and we drove to the farmhouse we had rented … I started strumming and Tom started singing, and since he didn’t have any lyrics, he reached over and grabbed the note that the owner of the house had left for us and began reading it, verbatim. “Welcome! This is a farmhouse, we have cluster flies, alas, and this time of year is bad…” Also, for the record, of course we immediately recognized that it sounded similar to “No woman no cry”, and sort of threw that “be all right” thing in specifically for that reason, amidst the frenzy of laughing and singing. It felt like the perfect sentiment for our escape. “in the farmhouse things will be alright”.

Things are going to be alright. It’s a common theme in this list because music can be therapy. I love this song because it feels like something I’d love to listen to played on a porch while drinking something cold.

“In the farmhouse things will be alright”

Nothing’s News” Clint Black

If there’s an album that defines my two senior years of college, it’s Clint Black’s “Killin’ Time“. End-to-end, it a solid album, full of as many great songs as you can fit in 31 minutes. (The answer is ten. Ten songs in 31 minutes.) “Nothing’s News” is the only released single that didn’t hit #1 on the charts. Maybe that’s why I like it, because it’s the guy who tried hard and just missed? Maybe because of its sad steel guitar singing or maybe the song’s slow, Western swing, but this is the one I’ve listened to the most over the years. I think when it comes down to it, it’s Clint singing about drinking with friends and how it seems it will never end … listened to by me at the end of college, knowing that drinking with friends would come to an end soon.

“I wonder how I came to be the know-it-all I am … and how the world ever got used to me”

Roll Me Away” Bob Seger

There is something so peaceful about those first 8 bars that I just want to live in them. On “The Distance“, Bob Seger’s (The Bob Seger System/Bob Seger/Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band) twelfth album, Seger was exploring the idea of songwriting about relationships. Emboldened by Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” Seger says the song was inspired by a motorcycle trip he took from Detroit to Jackson Hole. Although the song is about relationships, it ultimately is about freedom and independence of being alone. The great rock writer Dave Marsh said the song was defined by Roy Bittan’s elegaic piano playing. Hard to disagree.

“She said she missed her home. I headed on alone”

Ramblin’ Man” Lemon Jelly

For a long time, I listened to a whole awful lot of Lemon Jelly, a British electronic duo known for their whimsical samples and smart, popular beats. They are just as much graphic artists as musicians and their album covers and music videos are critically acclaimed – I have an autographed lithograph of their in/out cover of “Lost Horizons” hanging outside my office as I sit here typing this. It’s from that same, second album that we find “Ramblin’ Man“. The song begins with a faux interview of a man given to traveling, voiced by the actor John Standing (The Elephant Man, V is for Vandetta, Game of Thrones, The Crown), where he describes why he likes to travel. What follows next is a fluttering and calming (and rather lengthy) sub-intro. I like to think this represents the relaxation we experience when unplugging from our everyday lives, after the bags have been packed and checked, and setting out on a trip. It is three minutes of bliss. The song then goes into a cartwheeling list of places to visit. I interpret this list with the urgency of so many places to go, so little time (and resources) to get there. It relaxes into a calm acknowledgement of the traveler’s urgency to move on to the next place. There are 67 locations on the list. I’ve been to 21 … there’s still time – right?

“And you’re going to keep on rambling?”

“Oh yes. Have to.”

I’m Not The Man” Ben Folds

I love Ben Folds. I’ve seen him in concert a lot. When Covid hit, he was stuck in Australia, not doing much and I came this close “||” to getting him to perform on Zoom for my 25th wedding anniversary. Oh well. Didn’t work out. Got a Ben Folds cover band instead. He is one of the greatest songwriters of our generation and has a fantastic sense of humor. Ben’s about the same age as me, so this song about looking back on his old self and how his newer self is a better version, rings pretty true. And while the line “There could be fewer days ahead than gone” hits like a bucket of cold water, much of the song is about not letting others define who you are. But, also, “I’m Not the Man” is a humbling reminder of where we all are. Still, empowering stuff with an uplifting ending. This version (above) is a pretty awesome live version featuring the amazing mandolin player (but lost in the mix here) Chris Thile (Punch Brothers).

“I just want to be.”

Used to Be” Violent Femmes

Picking up on the theme from the Ben Folds song, is this gem from the Violent Femmes. It’s easy to look at their first, eponymous, album as a favorite, but “Why Do Birds Sing” is the one that I love, their last as the original trio for nearly a quarter century. “Used to Be” is pretty simple – in all ways – but it still calls to me. Perhaps it’s the contrast between Gano’s ambivalent voice, singing about being happy (once upon a time) or the strings that come in to complete the song, but it’s my favorite Femmes song.

“I used to be such a loving man”

Blue Sky” The Allman Brothers Band

Oh boy. Here is a case where a very light-hearted song is incredibly heavy. The Allman Brothers Band had released two albums to little fanfare before capturing their live sound on “At Fillmore East” in mid-1971, a double-album, which captured their live performance at the NYC venue for record buyers to enjoy in their homes. It worked and the world took notice, hitting high spots on the charts within the first week of its release. With acceptance and awareness assured, the band headed back into the studio to record another double-album, this time a mix of studio and live songs, called “Eat a Peach“. Unfortunately, before the album was released, guitarist and band leader Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle crash. “Blue Sky” is one of the last songs he ever recorded. The song is written by guitarist Dicky Betts about his (soon-to-be) wife, Sandy “Bluesky” Wabegijig. It’s a beautiful and shining example of a southern rock jam. The three-minute plus guitar solo begins with Duane Allman and his slide guitar about a minute in. At the two-and-one-half minute mark, Betts joins in for a duet before taking over 10 seconds later. Just close your eyes and enjoy. It’s like a butterfly dancing on a breeze.

“Don’t fly, mister blue bird, I’m just walking down the road”

This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” Talking Heads

David Byrne said this is the only love song he has ever written and, reading the lyrics, it’s so delicate, innocent, and sweet, it’s easy to appreciate. (Although in the movie “Stop Making Sense“, he sings it to a lamp – so go figure.) I think this song is about finally finding that person you know you love. It’s honest in that way. Above is my favorite version – it’s David Byrne, without the Talking Heads, on Jools Holland’s show – mostly because the strings and xylophone make for such a lovely sound.

“And you’re standing here beside me, I love the passing of time”

Ripple” Grateful Dead

At first listen, “Ripple” has all the qualities of a great American folk song – a simple, building melody, a lovely picked mandolin solo (by David Grisman), and a hearty, many-voiced vocalization at the end. But there’s so much more to it than just that. As Jerry Garcia pointed out, this song is about faith. (And the similarities in melody to the hymn “Because He Lives” are not lost.) Some have pointed out that the song has a Taoist bent, the Chinese philosophy of harmony and simplicity with natural events. This Asian theme is further punctuated by the fact that the song presents its chorus in haiku. But perhaps more has been written about the song’s many references to the Bible’s 23rd Psalm: in the references to the harp, still water, a road at night, and a cup being refilled. The lyrics were written by Robert Hunter, who also invoked the 23rd Psalm in Dead songs “Alabama Getaway” and “John Silver“.

“If I knew the way I would take you home”

God and Country Music” George Strait

I’m not going to say much more than this, but I strongly believe in God. He brings me peace. But I’m not at all fond of Christian music. It’s almost universally awful. But I do love what most of country music does with it (and that includes George Strait). And I think part of the reason I love this song so much is the lyric: “God and country music, they both never really change – you find em when you need em”. I think God has always been with me, but it wasn’t until I found him that my life changed. I also really appreciate how Strait sings in this song about the temptations – sin and salvation, church and honky tonks … life’s tough! But the best bit is the conclusion of the song where Strait’s grandson, Harvey, closes out the chorus. It’s sweet.

“There’s always lost in the found, Darkness in the ‘I saw the light’.”

Resist” Rush

The opening line of this song is “I can learn to resist anything but temptation,” which is a variation on a line from Oscar Wilde’s play “Lady Windermere’s Fan“. Wilde’s writing is characterized by his wit and wordplay – something he shared with Rush’s lyricist, Neil Peart. I think the song speaks to the challenges we face as people. I’m especially fond of the pair of couplets that showcase Peart’s thinking and cleverness: “You can surrender without a prayer, but never really pray without surrender. You can fight without ever winning, but never ever win without a fight”. While the studio version has a great hammered dulcimer intro, I greatly prefer this stripped down live and acoustic version. It feels sad and fragile and honest. It’s really beautiful.

“I can learn to compromise anything but my desires”

Mouth for War” Pantera

Change of pace? Right fucking now, brother. I went through a pretty extensive hardcore punk/heavy metal period in my life and, while I still listen to a lot of it, it’s tough to be headbanging and slam dancing when you click past 50. Pantera was one of my favorites and it was kind of tough to pick which one of their songs I would include. Still, “Vulgar Display of Power” is their best album and “Mouth for War” is the best song on the album, so that’s what I’ll choose. (Although “Walk” is a close second.) It’s just so powerful. I heard they were going on tour again in 2023, which is nuts. Dimebag Darrell was killed on stage 18 years ago and his brother, Vinnie Paul, has been gone for 5 years. So it’s Rex and toxic Phil? OK. (I’d probably still go.) I read Rex Brown’s biography and he talks about being so poor during “Vulgar” (even though they were coming off massive success with “Cowboys from Hell“, that his only transportation was a bicycle and he lived off donated, outdated sandwiches a clerk gave him at the 7-11 near where he lived). The music business is fucked up.

“When I channel my hate to productive I don’t find it hard to impress”

My Own Way” Pennywise

Staying on theme, punk rock. When I was in high school and college, punk was all over the place. There was a Philadelphia scene. And DC, NYC, TX, but the biggest was LA. While I was heavily into LA bands like Circle Jerks, Black Flag (later, Rollins came from DC), Descendents, and Suicidal Tendencies, I didn’t become aware of one of my favorites, Pennywise, until the early 90s. Named after the clown from Stephen King’s “It“, their first national “hit” was “Bro Hymn“, a song which had been a tribute to some of their friends who had died tragically, but took on new meaning after bassist Jason Thrisk took his life in the mid-90s. The list of sportsball teams that use that song before or during games is awesomely long. The first album Pennywise recorded after Thrisk took his life was “Straight Ahead” and it’s a burner. There are so many great songs on this album, but also the one I think is my favorite, “My Own Way“. The first bit of lyrics: “Guess I gotta do things my own way and I don’t give a damn if you got a problem with who I am ’cause I don’t give a fuck. You wanna change me, well you’re outta luck.” Well, ok. It’s getting harder to fool myself that I’m still punk, but I still wear a PW hoodie for a good chunk of every winter. Here it is, live – because there’s no better way to listen to punk.

“It’s so hard to believe that we can see the world so differently. We don’t realize cause we can’t see the world through each other’s eyes”

Rudie Can’t Fail” The Clash

Falling backward, another punk song – but this time, before punk was cool. (When I was still in grade school.) I mean back when there were really just a handful of decent punk bands: Sex Pistols (arguably), The Ramones, The Damned, Buzzcocks. The Clash was hot out of the box, their sense of racial injustice and mix of ska, punk, and rockabilly was the perfect solution for late 70s London. Their first, self-titled album was blistering and mostly stellar. Their follow-up, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” was less than great. There were a few great ones, but the rest were ho-hum. So the lads went back to the studio and came back with one of the greatest albums of all time, a double-LP called “London Calling.” The cover art was evocative of Elvis Presley’s debut effort. There were 19 songs on their third effort and every single one of them was hit worthy. While only three singles made it to the charts, practically anyone who is a serious rock journalist realizes “London Calling” is in the top 10 most important albums ever released. It’s tough to pick a favorite, but mine comes at the end of side one of the first, “Rudie Can’t Fail“. It’s got strong reggae influence and the term “Rudy” was used to describe first-gen Jamaican immigrants to England (sing it to me, rude boy!). (More on the ska influence of Jamaica on English music in a short bit.) “Sing Michael, sing!” Joe Strummer rhythm guitarist implores guitarist Mick Jones at the beginning – and away we go. It’s so much fun, you can’t help but dance.

“I know that my life make you nervous but I tell you that I can’t live in service”

Stalag 123” Big Audio Dynamite

I got dropped off at college and wasn’t really sure what to expect. But on day one, a curly haired guy at the end of the hall invited me into his room and handed me a pipe. You like to play soccer? Yep. You like music? Yep. Check this out. He popped in a cassette and I learned about Big Audio Dynamite. Turns out The Clash’s Mick Jones had started a new band and he loved samples. On their debut album, “Medicine Show” sampled heavily from some of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies, “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly,” “Fistful of Dollars” and others. I bought my own copy and wore that tape out. I ate up every other album before they lost their way (in my opinion) in the early 90s. Their last great album was “Megatop Phoenix.” As that album wound down, there were 3 magical minutes that recaptured my heartfelt crush of when I first discovered BAD, a song called “Stalag 123.” This time, the song sampled another epic movie, “The Great Escape.”

“Daydreams of The Great Escape, of music on the run”

The Last Time” Danny Elfman

This one is kinda convoluted. Once upon a time, in the late 70s, there was a street theater troupe/band called The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo in LA. They were on The Gong Show. They won. (Not kidding.) Soon after winning this prestigious award, they broke up. A few years later, they reformed as, simply Oingo Boingo. They made music, good music this time, and got a lot of attention. But a couple guys quit because they wanted to do other weird stuff. There was this red-haired fellow who wanted to try his own thing, so he invited most of Oingo Boingo to make a record with him and he called it So-Lo (even though it really wasn’t). This guy was Danny Elfman and, besides making an incredibly fantastic and great album, the year after this album came out, he began his career writing scores for films. His first was Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and he scored almost all the Tim Burton films after that. He’s also worked for directors Sam Raimi and Gus Van Sant. Never mind that – So-Lo is fucking fantastic. It was a bit slower and more melodic than a lot of the Oingo Boingo stuff and really showed off Elfman’s songwriting abilities. It’s an A-Z great album with the most popular song being “Gratitude,” but I like “The Last Time” better. The pacing’s better and I think it holds up better than the others – but I still routinely listen to this whole album. “Dead Man’s Party” was released the year after this and the influences of “So-Lo” are in-your-face evident in every note of DMP.

“I’m the last person in the world that I thought I’d be.”

I Confess” The (English) Beat

In England, they were just known as The Beat. But over here, The English Beat. Whatevs. They managed to get three albums published before flaming out in the early 80s. The last, “Special Beat Service,” included the song “I Confess,” written by guitarist/vocalist Dave Wakeling. He’s said that it’s loosely based on his experiences but also on salacious tabloid stories. The song is about a love triangle gone wrong. While the album version is true to their ska/reggae roots (that were so popular in Britain at the time), I prefer this version that has more of a Latin/Calypso vibe. After The Beat broke up, Wakeling and Ranking Roger went on to create General Public (“Tenderness“, “Too Much or Nothing“) and David Steele and Andy Cox started Fine Young Cannibals (“She Drives Me Crazy“, “Good Thing“). Every single time I hear this song, I think about dancing close and fast to an oh-so-special girl in college. Good memories.

“I confess I’ve ruined three lives and didn’t care till I found out that one of them was mine”

If You Could Read My Mind” Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot is best known for this song, “Sundown” and the very 70s titled “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald“. While those are great songs and Lightfoot is widely praised as a singer-songwriter whose songs have been covered or recorded by a very, very long list of big names in music (to the point of winning the Order of Canada), “If You Could Read My Mind” has been a long-time favorite. It’s about him reflecting on his divorce, which is kind of sad, but it’s a freaking great song. As a side note, Lightfoot sued the writer of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” on the grounds it copied the melody of this song, a case which was settled in Lightfoot’s favor out of court.

“And you won’t read that book again because the ending’s just too hard to take”

Everything” Michael Bublé

Speaking of Order of Canada awardees … I don’t know when I became aware of Michael Bublé, but I’ve seen him a lot. Standards singers are timeless and that’s how he got his start. One of my favorite memories is from early in his career. He would close out shows by setting the microphone aside and belting out the last line to his encore song all by himself, his voice filling the theater or arena. He eventually started scoring some big hits with original songs, including this one written about his (then) girlfriend, Emily Blunt. This is a home run and such an epic love song!

“Whatever comes our way, we’ll see it through and you know that’s what our love can do.”

Fearless” Pink Floyd

I love prog rock and Pink Floyd is one of those giants. And while my favorite Floyd album is “Wish You Were Here“, my favorite Floyd song is off the album, “Meddle“. There are common themes among my favorite songs and “Fearless” subscribes to one of those themes: rising to the challenge. I am a never-ever-say-quit person and this song hits that mark. Plus it has Gilmour singing, which I always liked a bit more than Waters. Lastly, at the beginning and end of the song, it includes the “You’ll Never Walk Alone” chant from the Kop at Liverpool, my favorite football club. Almost like this song was made for me! Rather than include the band audio/video, here’s a video I did of my family, using this song for a fairly obvious reason, a fair bit back. When digital cameras were about 320×125, it seems. Gratuitous use of Ken Burns effect.

“And as you rise above the fear-lines in his brow, You look down and hear the sound of the faces in the crowd”

Tangerine” Led Zeppelin

True story: when I first discovered music on the radio, I thought bands came in and performed in the studio – played a song and then left. I was young. And not very smart. Time passed and I learned a fair bit. Led Zeppelin became my first and greatest love (until that Canadian trio came along). I spent so much time on the shag carpet, in front of the turntable with all their records, over and over and over. And then cassettes. DVDs were a bit harder to wear out, but I tried. They were a great band, but let’s be honest – they stole (or borrowed) a lot. While much of their steal … errr … borrowing … was from American Blues artists (and accordingly, a bit more abhorrent, given the poverty and relative obscurity of those artists), so when Zep covered traditional British tunes, it seemed more acceptable. This is all a way of saying their third album, aptly named “III” was one of my favorites. Sandwiched between two “traditional arrangements” are three originals, including “Tangerine“. This acoustic ballad about love lost, Plant would sometimes introduce the song as one of “love at its most innocent stages”. I really like the idea of that. Personally, it’s a song that is very closely tied to my first true love in high school. I still see her and am still very fond of her, but … now a thousand years between. The song was also used in my favorite movie “Almost Famous“.

“To think of us again … and I do”

Scribble” Underworld

It’s weird. If you asked me what my favorite electronic band was, I think I’d probably say The Chemical Brothers or Daft Punk or Thievery Corporation. But then I go look at my play counts for electronic music, the most played songs are all Underworld. All of them! Weird, I say! And while there are a lot of songs that I listen to a lot like “8 Ball” and “Born Slippy” and “Jumbo“, the one that has far and away the most plays is this one, “Scribble“. It’s a great song but I think what makes it fantastic is Karl Hyde’s euphoric look in this video and the near constant refrain “And it’s okay”, which I willingly admit is a simple mantra I adopted and have used over and over for years to get me through some tough patches: *close eyes, deep breath … and it’s okay!*

“You give me everything I need”

No More Tears” Ozzy Osbourne

I’ve been into Ozzy since Black Sabbath because, well, he’s Ozzy. And it’s fucking Sabbath.  Period. I always liked his solo stuff but never really loved it. In the beginning, much of it was too theatrical, bite-the-head-off-doves silly. In the late 80s, he took a bit of a break and came back with his sixth album, also titled “No More Tears“. It was more mature – to me, at least. The showbiz was shed for more focus on the music. Perhaps it’s because it was the first album Ozzy recorded sober? There were a couple big singles, with the biggest being “No More Tears“, for the first time showcasing guitarist Zakk Wylde (Black Label Society). While Ozzy calls the song “a gift from God”, he also says it’s a song about a serial killer. Go figure. I love that, like many epic songs, “No More Tears” features some time changes and feels like a bit of a journey. Sort of relatedly, I love the story that when a severely autistic 8-year-old ran away into the San Bernardino mountains, he was only rescued after police played this song over loud speakers and the kid wandered back toward the sound, since it was one of the boy’s favorite songs.

“I never wanted it to end this way, my love, my darling”

Breakdown” Guns N’ Roses

There are very few albums that were so groundbreaking, so life-changing, that I can pinpoint where I was and who I was with when I heard them. “Appetite for Destruction” was one of those. It was so loud and so raw … it just changed everything. While pop music was busy with makeup, big hair, and synthesizers, metal (Motley Crue, Poison, Winger, Ratt, etc) was busy with … uhh … big hair, makeup and … errrm …keyboards? GN’R changed all that. “Appetite” was leather and dirt and a return to hard rock’s roots. It was such a big album, they didn’t release another album for four years. (let’s be serious, “Lies” doesn’t count.) And when they did, it was an event: Two double albums, four sides, “Use Your Illusion I” and “Use Your Illusion II“, released at the same time – midnight on September 17, 1991. You’d better believe I was at a record store to pick up both of them. I’d scraped together enough money, having just started my first professional job. The first “I” was just OK, buoyed by side one of the second disc, which included “November Rain” and “The Garden” (featuring Alice Cooper), “Don’t Cry” with Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, and a cover of McCartney’s 007 theme song, “Live and Let Die“. This album had a lot of pre-“Appetite” songs, but “Use Your Illusion II” had more songs written after Appetite‘s success. The Dylan cover “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” had been released the previous year on the “Days of Thunder” soundtrack and the GN’R original, “You Could Be Mine” was included on the “Terminator 2” soundtrack. I think the II songs are better, more raunchy, as shown in “Estranged,” “Locomotive,” “Pretty Tied Up“, and my favorite Guns song, “Breakdown“. It’s a seldom played song – only performed live twice – but evokes the notion of a character who is so rebellious, as to be self-destructive, which also seems to capture the behavior of the band’s members.

“I’ve come to know the cold, I think of it as home. When there ain’t enough of me to go around, I’d rather be left alone.”

Tear Stained Eye” Son Volt

Shifting gears again, Uncle Tupelo was a great alternative country band in the late 80s/early 90s. After they broke up, songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Jay Farrar started Son Volt. This song comes off their debut album, “Trace” from 1995. Also on this album was the amazing “Drown” but I prefer the slower, folksier (hey, it has a banjo) “Tear Stained Eye“. It is has an old timey sound and is an instant classic. Here they are, performing the song on Austin City Limits.

“Can you deny, there’s nothing greater, nothing more than the traveling hands of time?”

Up All NightBeck

I had to include a song from Beck, whose body of work could fill an entire list on its own. He’s one of these savants who can play practically every instrument. In fact, he did on “Colors“, where my choice for favorite song hails. His style is hard to nail down and each album is unique in itself, as he constantly reinvents himself. I think many of his songs are more chill than anything else, which is why “Colors” was unique in its fun and free sound – it’s very upbeat, close to pop. “Up All Night” is very danceable and uplifting, like much of “Colors” – probably why Apple used it heavily in their promotions for Logic Pro. I saw Beck perform most of “Colors” live at an outdoor concert in 2018 and that night holds a special place as one of the greatest live shows I’ve ever seen. This song makes me think of that concert and the notion of staying up all night with someone special to you – I wish I could do that every night! OK, maybe not that often. I’m old. And, oh yeah, what a great video!

“There’s nothing that I wouldn’t rather do”

I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man” Prince

Speaking of musicians who play every instrument … Many people think of Prince in purple – in fact, I think I called him “the purple potentate” in the college newspaper a few decades ago – but I always think of him in peach, because “Sign O’ The Times” was the greatest complete work he did during his career. It was a critique of society in many ways, including his ever-present theme of sexuality, but also proof that Prince could do whatever the fuck he wanted and he could make it sound fucking fantastic. It’s soulful and power pop at its best. It just rocks. This version (from his concert film) has a long jam at the end that is oh so good.

“She asked me if we could be friends and I said, oh, honey baby that’s a dead end
U know and I know that we wouldn’t be satisfied”

The Good Stuff” Kenny Chesney

Chesney had a good deal of success before he dropped “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems,” his sixth album. I don’t have much to say about this one other than I just love it – it’s such a good meld of someone just starting a marriage and someone at the end. Simple. Easy. And very special.

“When she says: ‘I’m sorry,’ say: ‘So am I'”

No 100 Miles” Jon Swift

Every so often I like looking at this web site that has movie trailers. I like it because it usually has movies that are off the beaten path, which I tend to like more than big blockbusters. One day I clicked on a trailer for a movie called “Signatures“. It was a skiing film, but it was based on backcountry skiing in Hokkaido, Japan. I really enjoy Warren Miller films and am more than a little obsessed with Japan, so I clicked to take a look. The trailer was so peaceful and picturesque, cut in slo-mo and lots of pow-pow – but the thing about the trailer that absolutely throttled me was its song. Slow-paced and soulful, an acoustic guitar picking over a sliding electric one and a mandolin. I had to learn more! I quickly figured out it was a guy named Jon Swift and I tracked down the album this song was on and I bought it. I’ll be honest, the rest of it is nice – like really nice, you should check it out – but nothing grabs my core like “No 100 Miles“. It is so simple and slow and feels as meaningful as making love. I wish I could tell you more about Jon Swift, but he seems to be just a guy – his only online presence is a Facebook page and I don’t have Facebook. But I do know that anytime I hear those first few bars, I feel as settled as dropping into a plush sofa – I disappear and remember how small I am.

“There’s a wind out on the hill with an old harmonica swaying”

Schism” Tool

Like a lot of people, I became aware of Tool when the single “Sober” was released with their second album, “Undertow“. Like Rush, Tool is prog (more or less) and (for me) it just makes the music so much more interesting. I will say there is a lot I don’t like about Tool – I think Maynard is a bit too pretentious at times and I think their lyrics are more than a bit meandering. But Danny Carey is probably the second best drummer of our era (in my opinion) and their songs are brilliantly written and, well, they are tough to beat for smart-people metal. How smart? well, the syllables of the lyrics in the song “Lateralus” follow the Fibonacci sequence and they’ve played with Greek poetic meter in “Jambi“. When I get stressed out, I count Fibonacci numbers in my head to distract myself, so … someone who does that in a song? I’m hooked.

I knew I wanted to include a Tool song on this list, but I actually had a really hard time choosing which one because there are so many I like a lot. When I first started narrowing it down, I gravitated toward their last album, “Fear Inoculum,” which I have listened to a lot. But then I pivoted back to “Ænima“, which I listened to almost just as much. “Stinkfist” and “Forty Six & 2” were almost picked. But in the end, I split the difference and went to the album “Lateralus” and chose “Schism“. Like any great prog song, it has a big variety of time signatures, bouncing all over the place changing beats 47 times (4/4, 10/8, 13/8, etc) and a meter Tool describes as 6 1/2 over 8. I haven’t done the math, but my guess is that’s the average of all the bars. Typical.

“Point the finger, blame the other, watch the temple topple over”

The Garden” Rush

When I started this post, I said these were in no particular order and, mostly, they weren’t. I just kind of scratched them off a list. There were some nice coincidences, but I left this one purposefully last – for a number of reasons.

First, I love Rush. I grew up with Rush. My entire life can be tracked along with their music, from grade school to being an adult, Rush was there. There is zero question, they were my favorite band. And “The Garden” was the last song on their last album. That significance is not lost on me.

Second, Neil Peart was an incomparable genius when it came to lyrics. He was so good with wordplay, clever in turns of phrase, but I think he outdid himself with this one – not only does it match the steampunk theme of the album, “Clockwork Angels,” starring a supporting character, a watchmaker who keeps time for us all, but it is also about that judgment of that same time, a verdict that we all think about and maybe even fear. What’s more, it is a song about reflection – what could be more appropriate for a last recorded song – very poetic.

Third, and an expansion on the second, the lyrics mean a lot to me. The mid-song lyric “The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect, so hard to earn, so easily burned,” is largely how I have tried to live my life. I have endeavored to choose the right thing to do and I try to help others (or at the very least, try not to hurt). It is fun to try to dissect the source of Peart’s lyrics and in this song, “in the fullness of time” is clearly a phrase taken from the Bible, identifying the moment when Jesus redeems humanity through His sacrifice. My kids used to acolyte and this phrase is also part of the Eucharistic prayer. When the priest uttered it, “Father most holy, that in the fullness of time you sent your Only Begotten Son to be our Savior,” I would always break prayer and sneak a glance (and a wink) at my kids near the altar. (Hey kids, Rush rocks, right? Praise Jesus!) Or maybe the words are all a reference to David Foster Wallace’s novel? Or Hamlet? No, in terms of the theme of judgment, the Bible makes the most sense.

Fourth, and somewhat in contradiction to the point made in the paragraph above, in the lyrics found on the album Clockwork Angels, some of the songs have text that tells the story of Peart’s concept on the album: a young man and his quest across a steampunk world, as he follows his dreams. At the beginning of the lyrics for “The Garden,” Peart writes:

LONG AGO I READ A STORY FROM ANOTHER TIMELINE about a character named Candide. He also survived a harrowing series of misadventures and tragedies, then settled on a farm near Constantinople. Listening to a philosophical rant, Candide replied, “That is all very well, but now we must tend our garden.” I have now arrived at that point in my own story. There is a metaphorical garden in the acts and attitudes of a person’s life, and the treasures of that garden are love and respect. I have come to realize that the gathering of love and respect – from others and for myself – has been the real quest of my life.

Peart is clearly referring to the satire by Voltaire. In his book, Voltaire intended to destroy the endless optimism of the mid-18th Century France. In short, Voltaire thought hope was a disease. In “Candide,” as with his other writings, Voltaire enjoyed tweaking the beliefs of his Christian audience. It is a nonbeliever, an Islamic character, who delivers the line “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” or “we must cultivate our garden.” A popular interpretation of this line is that each of us should mind our own business and accept the world for what it is and not what we want it to be. I think Peart would have aligned with this interpretation, given his long history of individualism and classic liberalism. Additionally, it was not uncommon for Peart to present opposing ideas in his lyrics, setting up a mental exercise for reasoning out issues.

Fifth, and lastly, every year for the past decade or so, I have written and then rewritten my eulogy and given it to my wife as a Christmas present. Dark, right? Maybe. But it’s a way to ease the process for her when I inevitably kick off first and, also, to remind my family of the things I think are important. For every one of those years, I have pointed out that “The Garden” is a song that must be played at that event. Not negotiable … or I’ll haunt my family. Here is the live version, because I think it is the most representative. Yes, Geddy’s gray and worn voice isn’t perfect and Alex’s fingers are slow at times, but what could be more true to the theme of this song than the human falterings of age?

R.I.P. Neil. 

“The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect, the way you live, the gifts that you give”