Nightman’s Favourite Songs Of All Time – Fake Plastic Trees – Radiohead

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It didn’t take me long to get around to Radiohead. I’m one of those Radiohead fans who appreciates their new stuff rather than loving it. I don’t hate it, I don’t dislike it, I just… don’t think about it much at all. Admittedly much of their music post OK Computer I prefer listening to live than on record. OK Computer to me is peak Radiohead, and everything after it just different shades of the Thom York Show. The Bends remains my favourite Radiohead album – I don’t think they’ve equaled that cacophony of angst, emotion, wisdom, disaffection, and commercial swagger since. Again, I’m not discounting anything from Kid A onward – check out this link of my favourite Radiohead songs and you’ll see that every album is covered – it’s just that back then, they were something truly special, without really alienating anyone.

Fake Plastic Trees is one of those songs which – I just don’t understand if you don’t like it. I assume you’re lying. You’re a jaded metal fan, too proud to get sensitive. Or you’re a hipster who can’t admit to anything. Or you’re a fool. What’s not to like here? It’s beautiful from North to South, the nonsensical lyrics form into some sort of sense by the end, melodically and emotionally it is glorious. It’s rock with heart but without cheese. It’s rock with intelligence, but without arrogance. It’s perfect.

I speak about the song in detail in my Favourite Radiohead songs list so hear I’ll mention some side information. B-Sides included the okay India Rubber and the fantastic How Can You Be Sure, and the single reached the Top 20 in both the US and UK. Plenty of artists have covered the song, most famously perhaps prog heroes Marillion, and the video is worth a watch (as most Radiohead videos are). Daryl from The Walking Dead shows up, presumably confused at the lack of real firearms available to purchase. I was playing the song myself on guitar in the house one time when a couple of cousins walked in and assumed it was the radio. They thought my version was good. It probably wasn’t.

What do you think of Fake Plastic Trees – let us know in the comments!

Nightman’s Favourite Songs Of All Time – Everlasting Love – Love Affair

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One of my Glastonbury snaps from 2003

Greetings, Glancers! This song is marvelous. I’d forgotten about for a long time… forgotten isn’t the correct word – more like I hadn’t thought about it for years. In most of these posts I talk about my memories of the songs as they tend to have some special nostalgia or anchor in space and time. Unusually, I have no idea when I first heard Everlasting Love and I can’t think of any nostalgia surrounding it. I remember it from my childhood, but I remember millions of songs from then too. It’s just so good that when I listened to it again out of the blue, its quality knocked me over.

This is one of those songs which has been covered, successfully, a billion times. The version I’m talking about most is by Love Affair. When I first heard the song again recently, I couldn’t have told you who it was by, and when I watched the Love Affair video online I was confused as it seemed like a very recent video. Like maybe from the 80s or 90s, but with an HD makeover to make it look even more modern. But no, this version, and the video, are from 1968. I still don’t understand this. Seriously, watch this video and tell me it’s from 1968 and not from today. On closer inspection, some of the hair and clothes and dances tell you it’s from the 60s, but so much of it feels ultra-modern. The music and the look hasn’t aged a second. What adds to the weirdness is that the singer looks about 14 years old, yet has the voice of a seasoned blues rocker.

The song was originally written and released in 1967, the first performer being Robert Knight, yet the most successful version in the US was by Carl Carlton seven years later. Both these versions are good, but they lack something special – probably the fact that I’m more familiar with the Love Affair one. There’s a terrible version by Sandra in the 80s – quite a lot of cheesy pop versions in the 80s in fact, Gloria Estefan did one, and a bunch of boy bands and pop stars have since done their own thing with it, with diminishing returns. What stands out is the melody and the earnest message. It’s one of a very select group of songs which came from the 60s and has been re-recorded with financial and critical success in every decade since. Still, the Love Affair one tops them all.

What’s so good about it? I love the ever so slight subversion of the verse chorus format – here the song extends the verse without reaching the chorus (I say extended, but we still hit the chorus inside the first minute) and then, with no fucks given, just sticks with the chorus for the entirety of the song. With a chorus like this, you can understand why they keep it. The chorus acts more like a refrain, with slight musical and clear lyrical differences with each cycle. I love the whole instrumental section with its Motown brass and thumping beats, I love how the intro gives the whole song away in just a few moments – with one of my favourite bass parts in history chucked in to act as a transition. Hell, I even love the dancer in the video. No, not that strange lip-licking, prancing harlequin who skips about, but the long-haired woman who is probably 90 years old now.

I know these posts are meant to represent my own personal favourite songs of all time, but I honestly feel like this is more, that this song, and this version of it, is one of the best songs of all time. It’s just perfect. Great orchestration and performance, powerful vocals – understanding that it isn’t the easiest song to sing, and just an overall vibe of goodness.

Let us know in the comments what you think of Everlasting Love!

Nightman’s Favourite Songs Of All Time: Dead Skin Mask – Slayer

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Raise those horns, shit is about to get loud. Oh yeah… that’s not a Slayer pic up there, but one I took of Opeth back in 2010 – thought I’d better add some pictures to these posts ‘cos the words sure as shit ain’t exciting. If you follow my blog, you’ll probably know a little of my musical preferences by now. I was a rock, metal, and grunge kid in the early 90s and most of my books and homework were covered in scrawls of guitars, band logos, skulls, and snakes. Metallica, Nirvana, Guns’n’Roses were the most common, but every so often I’d whip a Slayer out. The funny thing was, I didn’t actually know any Slayer songs. Give me a break, I was like 10 years old. As big as metal was at the time, you think that shit was getting played on the radio? Not only that, I didn’t have MTV. One of my friends and metal comrades did though, so it was during my sleepovers at his house that we would stay up to catch Headbanger’s Ball and Beavis And Butthead and late night music videos. I don’t remember ever catching a Slayer song though… and in truth I don’t recall when I really got into them. I wasn’t… then I was.

Slayer had been growing in power and influence throughout the 80s, and their fifth album Seasons In The Abyss came in 1990, right around the time the industry was about to drastically change. While still incredibly fast and brutal, the songwriting had matured significantly and the band were branching out into some slightly different directions, if not outright experimenting. While War Ensemble is the leading single from the album, it’s Dead Skin Mask which makes the most impact. A significantly slower song with a clearly defined riff, borrowed from South Of Heaven, it tells the story of Ed Gein complete with spoken male and female parts and screams. The song builds and builds in a way more akin to Metallica and Megadeth than the all out fury and shredding we are more used to from Slayer.

The verses are static and monotone as many Slayer songs are, but stripped back to just drums and sustained chords while the chorus hilariously is about as singalong and commercial as you’ll ever get from the band. It’s stupidly catchy and each repetition adds a pulsating mesmeric rhythm right up until the finish with the yelping woman screaming to be let out. Even the solo is more refined than the usual whammy stylings of Kerry, and the lyrics vary a little more than the Slayer trope of how many times can you say ‘Death’ in a minute.

Dead Skin Mask remains popular with fans and still pops up when the band (sadly not for much longer) play live. In terms of covers… you’re not going to get many non-metal renditions of a song like this, but the likes of Black Metal band Dark Funeral and experimental noise band Nadja have offered their own wildly different interpretations. The song was one of a small number of Slayer songs which got regular enough rotation at my local metal bar ‘The Venue’ in Belfast. It acted as both a breather between faster songs, and one for the blokes to shuffle about to and warm up their neck muscles while the ladies grabbed a beer and waited for some Nine Inch Nails. I’m sure once I started DJing, I played it too though it and the band were rarely requested. Still, it’s a safe enough introduction to Slayer for non-metal bands due to it’s slower pace and restrained brutality – be sure to check it out by clicking any of the links in this post.

What do you think of Dead Skin MaskLet us know in the comments!

Nightman’s Favourite Songs Of All Time: California Dreamin’ – The Mamas And The Papas

California Dreamin‘ is a song that, up until recently, I wouldn’t have considered one of my favourite songs. Not because I never liked it, just because I never much thought about it. Typically when I talk about my favourite songs, they are the ones that have somehow shaped my life or my musical taste or are by one of my all time favourite artists. In this instance none of those statements fit. So why is it featured in this series? Like some song posts to come in the future, it’s simply because the some is so fucking good I can’t ignore it. I’ve been listening to it more and more in the last year and pining for someone to start a new pop movement where the songs are as strong as this. The song has always been there in my life, not because I purposefully put it on or had an album with it but more simply because it was released a good eighteen years before I was born and was so popular that it continued to be played on radio stations and in movies and shows as I was growing up.

That seems like a good place to start – the song was released in 1965 and over the next couple of years became one of the seminal counter-culture hits. It’s one of those songs which makes me yearn for the USA – as many problems as it has always had, sometimes something comes along which makes you want to be a US citizen living and breathing and existing in the same world that the song talks about. It was a hit single in the States and made the Top 40 in The UK, before a re-release in the late 90s saw it finally crack the Top 10. It’s one of those songs which is predominantly 60s but yet endures in each new generation both in its original form and thanks to copious cover versions. While The Mamas And The Papas version is the best, cover versions include Sia, The Beach Boys, America, and Nancy Sinatra have all had a turn yet it was some dodgy German techno thing which garnered the song its first Number 1 placement.

At barely over 150 seconds long, the song is a perfect example of how to do a pop single with no fluff. Perhaps more important, it’s a perfect example of how to do harmonies – in my mind it’s one of the two best examples of this type of harmony ever written, the other being Help! The song even has a lazy pace and a fake-out psychedelic intro in its short running time. That intro strikes me, quite clearly, as the band having no idea how to start the song and getting to the main melody in a smooth way, so instead they just said ‘fuck it’ and cobbled together a few seconds of bizarre psych guitar before blasting straight in. Those melodies? Forget about it. A few seconds in and I’m hooked forever.

Lyrically, it’s the writer yearning for the warmth of California while in a colder part of the country. I’ve never been to California, but the song paints such an idyllic vision of the place that it make it sound like paradise – coupled with the hundreds of movies and shows I watched growing up set in California, hell even the name California has a mythic quality to someone from the dreary, grey, bomb-drenched shores of Ulster. Hearing this song as a kid made me think of long sunny evenings, beaches which stretched as far as they eye could see, and carefree living – feeling which still pervades now even with the cynical mind of a grown-up.

I’ve probably mentioned it countless times on this blog, but the three main elements for me in any song are melody, lyrics, and emotion. This song ticks all three boxes – while I don’t think the band here showcase amazing technical skills or vocals, the lyrics are evocative, the melodies like glue, and it’s all wrapped up in an authentic package. Get those three right, and all of the other important components of music should follow naturally. Get those three right, and even if the other components don’t work, I’ll probably still love your song. Check out my Nightman Scoring System(c) posts for more information on how I break down songs into twenty different components. For now though, click on one of the links throughout this post and enjoy some nostalgic, sun-drenched, melancholic pop.

Let us know in the comments what you think of California Dreamin’ and if there are any other Mamas And Papas songs you think I’d enjoy!

Nightman’s Favourite Songs Of All Time: Baby Be Mine – Michael Jackson

It’s still okay to talk about Michael Jackson’s music, right? I haven’t seen that documentary about him, and while I’ve been a lifelong fan and there’s no-one bigger than him in forming my musical taste, all that kiddie stuff now puts a sour taste in the mouth. If it’s true of course. I veer on the side of it not being true, and him just being an innocent weirdo, but I try not to be blinded by my love for him and his music. In the end, only those involved know for sure.

But I’m here to talk about his music; individual songs which I class as my favourites, and how they have impacted me. I’ve probably talked about it here before, but when I was young I never had my own copy of Thriller. Instead, I had a bootlegged/copied cassette which had somehow been doing the rounds in school, and I somehow managed to acquire a copy of that copy. One side had Bad (without Leave Me Alone) and the other had Thriller. I used to listen to both, probably on a daily basis, but as I was young and Thriller was scary, I would rewind the tape and listen to Bad more. I’ve always been a much bigger Bad fan but in recent years I’ve found myself enjoying many of the songs from Thriller more than I used to. Baby Be Mine was never a top tier Thriller song for me – the title track and Beat It were the biggies, Billie Jean and Lady In My Life were next, then Baby Be Mine and Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. Now I rank them more or less evenly.

I don’t have any specific memories of listening to the song on its own – it’s more of a collective memory, an unease which covered the first half of the album and came from me knowing that Thriller would be coming up. So even though I liked the songs on the first half, my apprehension about the creepy song to come stopped me from fully appreciating them. That’s probably part of why I’ve never really enjoyed The Girl Is Mine, coming right before Thriller. 

After the sheer funk insanity of the epic opening track, Baby Be Mine simplifies things with a streamlined disco boogie and a dark atmosphere. That atmosphere may be something I’m projecting into the song, but it’s there nonetheless every time I hear it. I love that brief jazz drum intro and the synths work mysteriously for me as I’m not usually a big fan of the instrument, and all of the hand clicks, claps, and guitars work extremely well. This being Jackson, what stands out for most people are the melodies and vocals. Jackson was at his peak here as a singer, and the song challenges even his fantastic range. He soars and shrieks and lets out a variety of tics and runs, never letting a slight growl or impure note get in the way of the performance and emotion – if it works, keep it in. Lesser artists would retake again and again to get as clean a result as possible, taking out much of the emotion and inspiration.

The digital sounding backing vocals come decades before everyone else jumped on the bandwagon, yet they sound fresher than anything in the charts today. There’s something slightly ghostly about those backing vocals – projecting again – but they do what so many backing vocals don’t do – they stand on their own. Grab the mix, remove everything else, and listen to the backing pieces – fantastic by themselves and telling their own melody separate from the main lines. Those main lines are some of my favourites from any Jackson song. I’m surprised this wasn’t selected as a single too – it’s one of only two songs of the album’s nine which wasn’t released as a single. It’s interesting how the verse melody descends at the start of the line, and ascends for the second half, with the pre-chorus extending this out with a twist. It’s the verse melodies I prefer over the more straightforward chorus, but fortuitously the bridge is also exquisite and showcases some of Jackson’s most powerful vocals. The ending is a simple disco extension of the chorus, with enough variance so that it doesn’t become tired and repetitive – another skill today’s pop artists have lost.

Lyrically, the song is another call out to a lady – the clue’s in the title – and while he is treading the same ground he had been covering throughout his career, it’s the sexy, raw delivery which heightens their potency; the guy really wants this girl and it’s tearing him apart both being with her and being apart from her. He gets right to the howling soul of obsession and lays it bare. Jackson was much more than just a singer’s singer – he knew how to inflect, how to expand and retract, how to be theatrical and how to give the extra needed punch to an individual sound or word – his love of movies and musicals training him, but his natural ability keeping it from becoming false. He was truly a one of a kind voice.

Let us know in the comments what you think of Baby Be Mine – is it a personal favourite for you, is it one you need to return to, or is it a song you either don’t know or have never liked. Try one of the links above to check out the song and share your thoughts!

Nightman’s Favourite Songs Of All Time – A Case Of You – Joni Mitchell

Greetings, Glancers! You have been warned. But now it’s too late to turn back, and before you start whacking that back button and trying to get out let me tell you that if you do, there will be an unholy stain on your favourite rug next time you look. You’re stuck with me. Deal with it.

I came around to Joni Mitchell quite late. Late teens. I knew some of her songs when I was a cub – namely Big Yellow Taxi and The Circle Game. One of my best friends was a massive fan and he was living and working in a (basically) psych hospital/home and I would come and stay with him sometimes and get up to all sorts of shenanigans. He essentially had a personnel living quarters/ward to himself which reminded me of the army barracks I used to… well, that’s another story. It had the same feeling – long corridors, common rooms, dimly lit kitchen areas, hefty double doors and fire escapes, and bedrooms which seemed like minor improvements on prison cells. To have all this to yourself was like living in your own castle so naturally we would stay up till dawn watching DVDs, playing guitar, getting drunk, and messing around the halls on the various pieces of cleaning and physical training equipment. I have fond memories of walking around the building at 4.00 am while Fleetwood Mac was blaring through the speakers, before going outside as the sun was coming up and talking to some random ‘inmate’ who happened to be having a smoke (the whole complex was split into different areas from the violent criminally insane section which had its own guards and walls, to the more harmless dementia and addict patients, and many were free to roam as they pleased as far as I could tell).

Back to Joni – my friend would stick on Joni albums and they would be perfect for background chill music, but I’ve never been the sort of person who can ‘tolerate’ music as background sounds. What I mean by that is, if a song is on, I can’t help but listen to it. I focus on it, I zoom in on the instruments and the lyrics and the writing and end up engaging with it more than whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing. Having a similar taste in music to me anyway, and frequently introducing each other to new bands, I latched on to Joni pretty quickly. With songs like A Case Of You – how can you not? It remains one of the most sweet, most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.

My wife hates it – she doesn’t do high pitched voices and she can’t listen to anything by Joni without cringing. I get it, even in her most commercial songs, I understand why some people won’t like her voice. She hits some incredibly high notes and at times comes close to being shrill, but by contrast that’s what I love in a vocalist. I like a voice to be strained until breaking point – I don’t usually do smooth vocals, listening to someone like Michael Buble is like having an apple pushed into my ear. The thing that is easy to miss when you dislike her voice is just how perfectly controlled it is – remember this song is little more than her vocal and her Dulcimer, but she performs it like a duet, her voice as the lead instrument and the guitar as a backup. Fans will know that she does this on a lot of her albums, but I think she does it best on her first three or four albums. Those little ascending scale runs she does, the personality on certain inflections, the incredible resilient vibrato, it all lends a unique power and quality that I don’t think any other vocalist has ever matched. Joni has always had that power of commanding a song with a vocal performance meaning that her version of whatever song it is invariably sounds the best.

Which brings me to cover versions. According to Wikipedia, the song has had over 300 official cover recordings. I haven’t heard many of those, and the only one which jumps out at me is the one by Tori Amos – another artist who was frequently played during those debauched nights in the halls – but the likes of Prince, KD Lang, and Michelle Branch have covered it too, and a brief search in Youtube will yield hundreds of results by budding and wannabee singers, songwriters, pop stars all bringing their own voice and personality to it. The song has appeared in multiple movies and TV shows over the decades. It’s a song which has clearly spoken on a deeply personal level to millions of people since it’s debut in 1971 on Blue. What is it then which has made it so universally loved for so long? That’s one of the key questions of music, or art as a whole – how and why something endures. At its most simple, it is because the song resonates emotionally, and love and loss are human facets which have always been and will always be.

At a deeper level, that voice is at once haunting, sweet, reminds of what has been seen as a more ideal time, and somehow captures the listener in their own personal point in time. For whatever reason, people find this song exactly when they need to and years later upon hearing the song it transports you back to those days – as exemplified in my writing above. It’s the inherently catchy melody – a simple chorus switched up by the vocals each time, and it’s the timeless writing. You can mash up the song anyway you like, add a bunch of other instruments, soup it up in the studio, but you can’t really strip it down any further than how it is in its original, purest form. It’s like a newborn in its perfection – sure some people are going to be put off by it and not know what to do when handed it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s perfect. The lyrics are poetic without being obtuse, and universal without being cliche ridden – the truest sign of a great songwriter who can relate feelings we’ve all felt in ways and with words we all understand, but which are entirely personal to the person who wrote them.

Between Joni’s soaring highs and James Taylor’s heartbreaking acoustic, the sparse arrangement doesn’t require any embellishing. I love songs which throw everything at the wall and succeed, and I equally love songs which strut up to a stool on a stage, sit down, and just start playing with utmost confidence saying ‘here I am, you’re going to love me’ like A Case Of You does. There isn’t a single millisecond of bullshit in the entire thing, and it lays the performer and the listener bare. Even as simple and sparse as the song is, it still throws in surprises such as the Canadian National Anthem interlude and the interchange between childlike pain and fear and Godly falsetto. The song may not be the most instrumentally complex in the world, but its difficulty comes in playing it without breaking down – it’s a song you can’t restrain your feelings from, those feelings are transported into you fingers and your voice, and it’s very easy to collapse under the emotional weight of it all.

With all of this praise and with its enduring popularity, you would expect the song to have been a hit. The song was never released as a single, its popularity coming from the acclaim and success of the album Blue which went Platinum in the US and double Platinum in the UK. Each new generation of listeners and artists finds the album and finds this song among its many classics, and they share it far and wide, and so the song continues to connect and find new ears and hearts. Have you heard it? If not, there’s no better time like the present. Click any of the links I’ve popped in throughout this post – they all take you to the same album version video on Youtube and if you like what you hear, I highly recommend you buy Blue from wherever you can get it. It’s one of my favourite albums of all time and features a tonne of songs just as beautiful and powerful as A Case Of You. If you don’t like it… you are a very odd person.

Let us know in the comments what you think of A Case Of You!

Nightman’s Favourite Songs Of All Time

Greetings, Glancers! It’s that time once again when I drop trou’, squat, and squeeze out a fresh, steaming new category into a spreading puddle on the floor. I’ve done my favourite films by year, you’ve seen me listing my favourite songs by particular artists, you’ve been dismayed by my virgin adventures through the greatest albums of all time, and you’ve glimpsed briefly before disgustedly closing my personal blog posts where I talk about myself.

There’s a lot of negativity out there and this blog has its fair share of cynicism and annoyance – what can I say; that’s me. But this is going to act as a counter to all of that guff. These are going to be my purely positive, gushing posts about my favourite songs of all time. Unlike my list posts, and unlike my neverending Manic Street Preachers posts, I’m going to try to give a little of the factual information around the song, its commercial success, its culture significance, and why it means so much to me. I’m aware that there are a number of artists I regularly post about – my Madonna, Bowie, Bon Jovi posts etc, my Manics posts, along with any number of album reviews, but in these posts I’m going to try to hit a wider array of artists. In that vein, many of these songs may be little known, many will be one-hit wonders, many will come from artists you won’t expect me to comment on, and hopefully you’ll get a little more insight into me, and maybe find some new songs to love. I was going to go random – post whatever – then I was going to do it alphabetically by artist, before finally settling on alphabetically by song name.

Isn’t that exciting? Are you excited? You should be. All that’s left for me it to pull up my gunks, wash my hands, and get to work.