The best song. Ever


The best song. Ever

How do you identify the greatest song of all time? What are the criteria? Do you look at the music? The lyrics? The interaction between the two? FRED DE VRIES shares his thoughts.


MY FRIEND Tim Cohen sent me a message the other day: the Mail & Guardian had asked him to write a piece about “the best song ever".  Tim, who’s the editor of Business Maverick, was quite excited. He loves lists, especially in combination with the words “best" and “ever". As I expected (we played music together), he came up with a Bob Dylan tune, Tangled Up In Blue, and wrote a long piece about why this is the ultimate song, in his mind.

I’m a bit of a sucker for lists as well, and they are always fun to check and argue about. And of course, the sheer impossibility of deciding on a “best song ever" made this one particularly challenging. I mean, what defines a “best" song? What are the criteria? Do we look at the music? The lyrics? The interaction between the two? Do we look at it from a strictly personal point of view, or from a cultural and sociological standpoint? Do we take historical relevance into consideration? And what type of music are we talking about? If it’s the broad world of pop, it should encompass multiple genres, including country & western, r&b, hip hop, rock, metal, rockabilly, soul, funk. But what about jazz, blues, folk, classical? For the sake of sanity, let’s stick to pop in its broadest sense, from Little Richard to Taylor Swift and everything in between. A few million songs to choose from.

If you do a Google search, you’ll soon have many tabs open with various “best ever" lists. In 2004, Rolling Stone devoted a whole issue to “500 Greatest Songs of All Time". It gave us an overview based on the choice of 172 artists, critics and music industry types. As could be expected, most of the songs dated from the heyday of pop, the 60s and 70s, and virtually every one was sung in English (the only exception was La Bamba, which Ritchie Valens sang in Spanish). Most tunes (357) were performed by American artists, followed by 117 by Brits. Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone was voted the greatest song ever, followed by the Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and Imagine by John Lennon. The Beatles had the biggest number of mentions, 23, and their highest placing was for Hey Jude at number eight. In other words, it was all pretty predictable.

In 2021, the magazine came up with a new effort. In the words of the editors: “More than 250 artists, writers, and industry figures helped us choose a brand-new list full of historic favourites, world-changing anthems, and new classics." Just over half of them still dated from the 60s and 70s, and the Beatles were still most represented (12 songs). But this time, diversity (or was it political correctness?) was more apparent, in that there were more women and more non-white artists. Now we had Aretha Franklin with Respect at number one, followed by Public Enemy’s furious rapid-fire rap Fight The Power and Sam Cooke’s hopeful lament A Change Is Gonna Come. Dylan’s acerbic put-down of a wannabe New York hipster had rightfully been relegated to number four, while Nirvana’s slacker anthem Smells Like Teen Spirit had jumped from nine to five.

Meanwhile, Tim’s message kept tickling my brain. What is my best song ever? Good question.

The first thing that came to mind was: who were the biggest innovators? That will automatically lead you to The Beatles and Dylan. Of course, I value Dylan for what he has done for the role of lyrics in pop music, but there’s not one of his songs that I would put in a top 50. It’s all just a bit too distant for my liking. Have we ever seen a vulnerable Dylan? (Oh yes! a choir of Dylan fanatics will shout.) But he’ll never move me to tears, and there’s always a snarky grin hiding somewhere.

As for The Beatles, well sure, initially I thought I’d pick a song by the Fab Four, namely A Day In The Life, the closing track on their 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, co-written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In that song, basically a response to The Beach Boys’ 1966 hit Good Vibrations, the band opened up a whole new vista, a sea of possibilities for pop music to surge forward, to explore uncharted territories. At 5:02 minutes, it’s long for its time, twice as long as your average 60s pop tune. The lyrics are detached, melancholic. “I read the news today, oh boy", begins Lennon, as if he’s just been leafing through the Daily Mail. “About a lucky man who made the grade/ And though the news was rather sad/ Well, I just had to laugh/ I saw the photograph/ He blew his mind out in a car/ He didn’t notice that the lights had changed." (This part of the song was about their friend Tara Browne, a young millionaire who “missed" a red light and drove into a parked van, killing himself, in 1966.)

The instrumentation is unusual, several steps removed from the normal set-up of guitar, bass and drums. Instead, we hear violins, cellos, a harp, clarinets, bassoons, French horns. The tempo changes are abrupt and unexpected. And after Paul comes in with his part, double-time and sung in a brisk voice, contrasting with John’s floating vocals, the song ends in a musical explosion, a long reverberating E-major piano chord, which Lennon wanted to sound like “the end of the world". In the scarily detailed book Revolution in the Head, British Beatles expert Ian MacDonald calls it “the peak of The Beatles’ achievement". He refers to its structure as “at once utterly original and completely natural". In other words, A Day in the Life contained all the elements that lifted pop music from the dire everyday, without falling into the trap of freaky guitar solos or predictable blues progressions. The song was ambitious and groundbreaking. With A Day In The Life, The Beatles transformed pop music into a serious form of art.

But I wasn’t content with my choice. It was simply too predictable. I mean, The Beatles… So I turned the question around. Which song would I not be able to live without? And I must say, I can live without A Day In The Life. It came out before I seriously started listening to music, so my attachment is more intellectual than emotional. Other songs quickly rose to the surface. I always think Black Sabbath’s Paranoid is the perfect pop song: fabulous intro, short, fast, loud, catchy, clever middle eight, sharp guitar solo, dumb lyrics. But that last bit disqualifies it from being “best song ever". With Waterloo Sunset, The Kinks wrote the forever glowing love story set in drab, grey London — a serious contender. And what about (‘Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay, the last song Otis Redding recorded before his untimely death?  And should I mention John Coltrane's spiritual journey of A Love Supreme? But that’s jazz, you’ll argue. And of course there is also Jumping Jack Flash, which The Rolling Stones released as a non-album single in 1968. A fabulous Keith intro, Mick doing his “watch it", followed by snarly vocals, Charlie not once doing a single drum roll, Bill adding melodic bass, and a chorus to die for.

And if we move up some 20 years, we find post-punk’s magic moments: The Cure (A Forest), Joy Division (Love Will Tear Us Apart), Magazine (Song From Under The Floorboards), Siouxsie and the Banshees (Arabian Nights), The Triffids (Wide Open Road), and particularly Echo and the Bunnymen’s majestic Killing Moon with its unusual structure and romantic lyrics. Locally, Koos Kombuis’ poetic report from the depressing 1980s, Swart September, would be a true candidate.

If I could take them all to the desert island, I’d be extremely content. But if it’s only one tune… only one…  then… it… would… be… Maybe Not by Cat Power. Yep, that’s the one song I couldn’t live without.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to explain why. Music touches the ear then triggers things in the brain: memories, a feeling, a context, an urge to dance or cry. It carries you into a different dimension, like hallucinogens. And that’s what Maybe Not does for me. It’s the 10th track on Power’s 2003 record You Are Free, which itself is a highly recommendable album with sparse instrumentation (piano, guitar, occasional drums, guest appearances by Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl), and the truly mesmerising voice of Atlanta-born Chan Marshall, who is Cat Power. It’s that voice that invariably touches me, unlike any other. If I could compose a perfect voice, this would be it. It’s how I imagine a Greek goddess would sound.

When Maybe Not finally comes on, we’ve already had many highlights, such as the opening track, I Don’t Blame You, which may or may not be about Kurt Cobain, and the vulnerable break-up track Good Woman. But nothing has prepared you for the devastating Maybe Not, which is not only unbelievably sad but, eventually, surprisingly uplifting. It’s what comes after the blues, a kind of cleansing, comparable to the feeling of coming out of an ice-cold sea, standing on an empty beach, shivering, desperately trying to absorb some sun, realising that life goes on, that it does have some kind of meaning, that it pushes you to persevere.

The song has a basic chord structure: Am, C, G and F (the same, by the way, as The Rolling Stones’ Angie). It’s pretty pointless to analyse the words; they are kind of abstract, leaving more than enough space for your own interpretation. I guess it’s essentially a plea not to give up, inspired by those old Southern spirituals Chan grew up with. “We all do what we can", she sings over barren piano chords, “so we can do just one more thing/ We can all be free/ Maybe not in words/ Maybe not with a look/ But with your mind."

It’s not just the words, it’s the melody in combination with the voice, that voice, its timing and its phrasing, the holding back and letting go, the sweetness and the suffering. It’s the empty spaces in the song, the jumps in the singing, the harmonies that arrive completely unexpectedly. It’s the bones that Chan Marshall lays bare. Hers, and ours. Nowhere to hide. “Pray to be/ Shake this land."

Playlist: The best songs ever

♦ VWB ♦

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