Anyone who knows me or has spent time with the blog, knows the premium I place on lyrics. I don't dismiss the music, if I did there'd be better ways to get my lyrical kicks. It's more that my Luddite proficiency on anything resembling an instrument keeps me at a natural distant. It's akin to Monday-morning quarterbacking. You can second-guess your team all you'd like, but until you set foot on the field, you'll never fully know what it's all about. Granted I don't feel empty when I hold a guitar; there's a passing familiarity. I've nodded along in pure bliss as Lou Reed or J Mascis shred a hole in the cosmos. Even without being in perfect harmony, I've come close to transcendence. But what about a well-placed lyric or turn-of-phrase? In the right atmosphere or the right moment, those can become dogmatic. I have no shame in admitting there are lyrics I strive to live out in my own life. Panda Bear's "coolness is having courage, courage to do what's right" immediately comes to mind. Morrissey's "it takes guts to be gentle and kind" is emboldening.
With that sort of lyrical predilection, anything attempting to rank or catalog lyrics is bound to entice me. So when a close friend of mine rather innocently declared on Facebook, "The indisputable best opening line in a song ever: '737 coming out of the sky'", a powder-keg ignited in my mind. Countless questions began to swirl. Sure some of the all-time great lyrics need time to take-off, but what about those that arrive in full-flight? Does the immediacy of a supposed "great lyric" add to its resonance? Is John Fogerty's snarled recounting of a "Travelin' Band" really the "best opening line in a song ever"? And working from there, the idea for this article began to develop. If it is, what other songs belong in the discussion with it? And with that burning question, I began formulating my list. Below you'll find the first half of what I arrived at. Stretching from the 60s right up until the present, the list you see below is a bazaar of lyrical offerings. Some of these are bizarre utterances that only entice you to keep listening. Some are steadfast in their proclamations. There are those that roar out of warning and others that enter the world as a whisper. Regardless of the status, are all indelible lines that will have you hitting repeat and remembering them (hopefully) forever.
20. "Oceanographer's Choice"- Mountain Goats
"Well guy in a skeleton costume, comes up to the guy in the Superman suit, runs through him with a broadsword."
Mountain Goats acolytes rejoice as those of you non-fans scratch your head. Any list devoted to the best lyrical offerings must reserve a spot for the Mountain Goats John Darnielle, a prolific songwriter and possible "poet laureate". Darnielle's oeuvre is lousy with great lines from the sobering "the loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you're never going to see again" to "Dance Music"s painfully specific "I'm in the living room watching the Watergate hearings while my stepfather yells at my mother". Throughout that sprawling mess, there's the surreal. You pine for "Golden Boy" peanuts in the sweet afterlife while the fearful "Tianchi Monster" stares into space. Taken from 2002's smoldering love story Tallahassee, "Oceanographer's Choice" sits atop that surreal pile. Its first volley is a glorious lark that leaves more questions than answers. Are we at a costume party? Is it Halloween? Or is cosplay running rampant throughout an entire city and these are the deadly consequences? What did this guy do to deserve an attack via broadsword? Maybe he really is Superman, and our man donning the skeleton attire is Lex Luthor claiming revenge. Complicating matters is Darnielle's surprisingly nonchalant delivery of the tongue-in-cheek line. If he knows anything, he's not telling.
19. "Wouldn't It Be Nice"- The Beach Boys
"Wouldn't it be nice if we were older?"
Few lines capture the painful stasis of youth as poignantly as the simple question above. In general youth can be boiled down to waiting. Waiting to move past constant frustration. Waiting to better understand your life. Waiting to live that life free of overbearing parents. Or quite simply, waiting to grow older. Throughout "Wouldn't It Be Nice" the Beach Boys Brian Wilson is waiting. He's waiting and wishing for that day when he's no longer alone. He's waiting for the day when his hand is permanently intertwined with his lover's hand in a tender embrace. On one level it's a matter of the heart, but taken in another light, Wilson's just looking for companionship. Living without is the worst thing possible in his mind. That opening kick drum attempts to shatter Wilson's quizzical, harp-filled dream world. So desperately it attempts to swap abundance for absence. But it can't. And soon we're exploring a land free of loss, wandering down roads paved by hopes and prayers. And it all it took was that simple first question.
18. "Criminal"- Fiona Apple
"I've been a bad bad girl, I've been careless with a delicate man."
In case you weren't entirely sure of the point Fiona Apple was just trying to make on breakout 1997 single "Criminal", she repeats herself. Delivered in her smoky contralto voice, what she assures us is bad borders on evil. Describing the song herself, Apple relayed it's about "feeling bad for getting something so easily by using your sexuality." That said, the sexuality on display is as likely to send men running for the hills as it is to lure them in. The misogynistic ideal of young women being cutesy or coy is lost on Apple. We have here a siren who has made no attempt to conceal herself. Should any ship run aground, they're solely to blame. Later on Apple confesses "I don't know just where I can begin." With such "carelessness" and a massive body count, picking a sin to kick-off your confession is impossible.
17. "Bastard"- Tyler, the Creator
"This is what the devil plays before he goes to sleep."
The ship that launched the Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All fleet. Our most current song on the list, what it lacks in longevity it makes up for with its impact. Try going to sleep after OF mastermind Tyler delivers that line in his guttural rasp atop a minor piano figure that would make Jason Voorhees recoil in horror. Calling it nightmarish is too easy. "Bastard" is teenage id put to paper. Post-pubescent but still gawky teenage boys gather in unholy trinities with teenage girls and alcohol. In this hell-hole, the reward for AP and honors class is delivered by a bully. Drugs can't offer a cure, especially for an asthmatic kid. Forget love digging you a tunnel out, it's all unrequited. Then there are the absentee fathers reviled by wrist-cutting kids. If Tyler has a father, he's Satan himself. Beelzebub's not getting any shuteye though, that lingering tritone is keeping him up. So much for sleep.
16. "Only Love Can Break Your Heart"- Neil Young
"When you were young and on your own, how did it feel to be alone?"
When Bob Dylan asked a similar question in "Like A Rolling Stone" it was coated in vitriol. Coming off a taxing 1965 tour of the U.K. Dylan had his dukes up, ready to fight as he penned what would become the "greatest song of all-time". Instead of a closed fist, Neil Young lends an open hand on After the Gold Rush's most plaintive track. Supposedly written for CSNY bandmate Graham Nash after his split with Joni Mitchell, Young is laying out a reality he's lived himself. Countless events can bruise your heart: a close friend moving away, losing out on a prestigious job, a loved one passing away. But only the slings and arrows of love can break a heart, can make it unmendable. Rather than attempt to pick up the pieces, some retreat and nurse their wounds in solitude. The friend of Young's dreams is such a person. He's lost. And with that opening question, Young's trying to be his guide. What better person to lead you out of a storm than someone who has weathered it themselves?
15. "Space Oddity"- David Bowie
"Ground control to Major Tom."
It's been speculated David Bowie's first hit single released as the Apollo 11 spacecraft touched down on the Moon in July of 1969 is a lampoon. A not so sly jab at Britain's failed space program. The Space Man himself has never publicly acknowledged his intent, but something about his sobering intonation of the opening line suggests he's deadly serious. Sure protein pills and talk of "tin cans" come up throughout the swelling number, but they're red herrings distracting us from Tom's peril. Mellotrons bellow on and acoustic guitars continue to strut, unconcerned with our hero's ultimate fate. "There's nothing I can do" he dejectedly confesses. He's alone and he knows it. That sparse opener is more than the beginning of a launch sequence, it's a forecast. When Major Tom steps out into space it will be by himself. No other pair of eyes will gaze upon the vibrant blue Earth. You're born alone and in the case of Major Tom, you die alone.
14. "Imagine"- John Lennon
"Imagine there's no heaven."
John Lennon held many occupations throughout his life. Singer. Songwriter. Artist. Activist. Husband. Father. Troubled son. Walrus. Tour-guide of the serene Strawberry Fields. Frontman of the most popular band in musical history. But the hat he wore most often was that of the dreamer. Only a dreamer could conjure up a world of newspaper taxis and plasticine porters. You'd have to be asleep to blissfully "float down streams". Surely only someone with their head in the clouds could think there was even a chance for peace as the Vietnam countryside was being razed daily. John Lennon's imagination ran wild and with "Imagine" it sprinted. Lennon's ideal world is one where all our divisive concepts of: countries, religions, and possessions have been washed away by the tides of change. Heaven and hell both banished, we're closer to God and each other. Trust funds are forgotten and food banks are plentiful. The only casualties are of old age. Lennon spoke of being "classless" and "free" on "Working Class Hero". Here he attains that freedom, if only in his mind.
13. "Sympathy for the Devil"- The Rolling Stones
"Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste."
By 1968 Mick Jagger may as well have been the devil. The frontman of the self-proclaimed "World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band" would have easily been public enemy number one if not for John Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" comment. He and the rest of the Stones gleefully wallowed in the sort of filth and sleaze the Fab Four shied away from. Nothing about the band screamed "kid friendly" and they could care less, this was rock and roll after all. Even their restrained foray into psychedelic pop was mischievously affixed with the title Their Satanic Majesties Request. Jagger carries over some of that restraint on the glorious bongo jive of Beggar's Banquet cut "Sympathy for the Devil". He takes his own sweet time getting to who he is and what he's here for, but provides plenty of clues along the way. He killed the czar and his minsters, rode a blitzkrieg, and stuck around to watch Pilate wash his hands. His sneer is audible as he lays "traps for troubadours". We already know his name as the fiery guitar licks burn, but he keeps up the ruse for awhile longer; almost teasing us. Finally he arrives at the fateful name and no one is safe. Just call me Lucifer he politely requests. When the Prince of Darkness knocks on your door to introduce himself, it won't be with horns and a pitchfork.
"It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play."
Wave goodbye to the Beatles and say hello to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ringo's been replaced by "the one and only Billy Shears". Aiming to top Brian Wilson's grand achievement Pet Sounds in an ever-increasing arms race, Paul McCartney figured the only way to win was to "kill off" The Beatles. Adapting a new moniker they'd be free from mounting expectations. With that notion (which John admittedly never stuck to) the concept album was essentially born. As introductions go, this one threatens to outclass them all. Paul's positively joyous while snarling through the song. "We'd love to take you home with us" he warmly invites. After the invitation they're off through a labyrinth of experimentation. The album itself is a Russian nesting doll of styles. Hard rock workouts swirl around with raga exercises, music hall ditties, and psychedelic experiments. Closer "Day in the Life" presents a microcosm of the whole conceit, successfully wedding John and Paul's independent pieces in holy matrimony. It shouldn't be this cohesive, but somehow it is. Though Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arrived out of nowhere, they certainly played like a band with 20 years to their name.
"What's with these homies dissing my girl?"
Yes the scrawny white guy with the glasses just said "homies". The title and lyrics trade heavily in nostalgia, though the opener's incredibly anachronistic. Our titular rock and roll pioneer probably never encountered any homies 0r accused them of dissing his girl. Like the immortal Spike Jonze music video dropping Weezer into a jam-packed Al's Restaurant from Happy Days, Rivers Cuomo's putting on his own revisionist act. Lookalikes or not, Cuomo crafts an alternate timeline where there's a chance for Holly and 70s TV star Mary Tyler Moore to pair off. Just imagine the possibilities that could branch off of this stream. Maybe Marilyn Monroe and Richie Valens mingle. Or Elvis abandons his music gig to play dad to Audrey Hepburn's children. Anyone that would scoff at the notion is raining on the parade. Cuomo doesn't care what you say anyway, especially if you're dissing.
To see numbers 10-1, check back into the blog on Thursday.