Someone asked for a list of my 10 favorite songs. The thing about making a list like this is that you have to have fun with it, otherwise you could drive yourself crazy. Your 10 favorites at this moment may not be your 10 favorites a year from now, or 10 years ago.
Look for my list to join those of more than 870 other artists who talk about their favorite songs on the Warmer Climes blog, a creation of 25-year-old music journalist Vlad Stoian of Bucharest, Romania. He asked for detailed personal stories about why the songs are favorites. Thanks Brandon for connecting me with Vlad.
1. The Beatles / Strawberry Fields Forever. I first heard this when I was probably about 5 years old, in 1970 or so. I could fill a list of 10 favorites tunes with all Beatles songs, but this John Lennon number about his childhood is special in that I remember actually picking strawberries with my older brothers and sisters, running through the rows and singing this song. I love Lennon’s wit and nonsensical lyrics, and later became enthralled to learn how Lennon insisted producer George Martin splice together two different versions of the song recorded at different speeds in different keys to create the final take.
2.) Dust My Broom / Robert Johnson. There are hundreds of versions of this tune by 1920s bluesman Robert Johnson, the man who “sold his soul to the devil” down at the crossroads, though I’m partial to the Elmore James version. I like this song because of the line, “I believe my time ain’t that long,” which is a wonderful mantra. It means make the most of your time here, because it’s finite. No one cheats death. Live life to the fullest, today and every day, because all of our days are numbered.
3.) The Weight / The Band. The songwriting is credited to Robbie Robertson, though later disputed by the late drummer Levon Helm, who insisted each of the five members of The Band had a collaborative role in the words and music for this song. I love this song on many levels. The Band backed up Bob Dylan, the greatest songwriter ever, and created much great music of its own. This song is popular among cover bands—most musicians know it, so it’s a fun one to jam to. At the conclusion of the documentary “It Might Get Loud,” it’s the song that guitarists Jimmy Page, Jack White and U2’s The Edge perform together. Personally, this song was the topic of one of the last conversations I had with my brother Jim, who passed away in 2009. He loved open-wheel auto racing and was freelance writing for a racing magazine. He was covering a race in Nazareth, Pa., and phoned me one night asking me to verify the song’s opening line. I was annoyed, it was late—I think I told him to Google it, even though I knew the lyric by heart. It was one of the last times we spoke, and I’ll always regret brushing him off.
4.) God Only Knows / The Beach Boys. A lot of best-songs lists pick “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys, but I prefer this track from the “Pet Sounds” album. The music is pure Brian Wilson genius, with lyrics by Tony Asher. I’m not ashamed to admit that this song is in heavy rotation on my MP3 playlist, and if I’m the least bit blue or melancholy I’ll likely shed a few tears when this one comes on. The beautifully arranged harmonies, the soaring horn parts, the chunky bass line—it’s all so PERFECT.
5.) Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner / Warren Zevon. Admittedly, Warren Zevon is my all-time favorite songwriter. This is one of his signature songs, and the last one he performed publicly (on “The Late Show with David Letterman”) before his death in 2003. In the biography written by his ex-wife, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon,” Crystal Zevon relates how the newly married couple moved to Spain in 1975 with no prospects for work. What an incredibly bohemian thing to do! That’s when Warren met “Roland” co-writer David Lindell, a former mercenary who inspired the fictitious tale. Warren is one of history’s greatest musical storytellers, and this is one of his finest works.
6.) Gimme Shelter / The Rolling Stones. Had to include a Stones track among favorites, and who could argue with this selection? It’s from the Stones’ late ’60s/early ’70s “golden era,” when Keith Richards discovered open tuning and Jagger was at the height of his vocal powers. If you haven’t heard the isolated vocals of Jagger and Merry Clayton, it’s a powerful experience. On a personal level, this was one of the few Stones songs I saw Richards perform with the X-pensive Winos in 1987 at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom with my sister, who was five months pregnant at the time.
7. The Cave / Mumford & Sons. When I first heard Mumford & Songs, I was the most excited about a band since first hearing Nirvana 20 years earlier. My son introduced me to their music, and the first time I heard this song was this high-definition video of a live studio performance before a small audience. I could see exactly how Marcus Mumford played the song on acoustic guitar, and from there I was able to figure out how to play it myself. Because when you strip away the banjo, kick drum, keyboards and other accompaniment, The Cave is truly a beautiful song about self-discovery, determination and overcoming fear.
8. Won’t Get Fooled Again / The Who. Pete Townshend composed so many great songs for The Who and as a solo artist, it’s hard to choose one. "Won’t Get Fooled Again" certainly belongs on lists of rock classics, from the innovative use of synthesizers to Roger Daltry’s epic scream and Keith Moon’s pounding drums. Of course they played it during their halftime show at The Super Bowl. Lyrically it’s an anthem applicable not just to their generation but to all generations, because after all—the more things change, the more they stay the same. And if you think this song only works as a full-power electric juggernaut in a stadium or arena, check out Townshend’s 1979 acoustic version from The Secret Policeman’s Ball.
9. Like a Rolling Stone / Bob Dylan. This song is No. 1 on some lists of the greatest songs ever, and Dylan’s widely regarded as the greatest modern-era songwriter. It’s a song that holds up well after 50 years. Great songs enable the listener to see themselves in them. They may still be a writer’s personal revelations, or some great social commentary, but the truly successful songs allow the writer and listener to connect on a personal level. For me, this songs not only encapsulates a great life philosophy (a rolling stone, after all, is temporary and fleeting but oh so much fun, and when it stops it’s going to rest for a long, long time) but ties together three huge musical influences: Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Muddy Waters. Muddy wrote the song that contained the line that inspired the name of the British Invasion band, one of many influenced by Chicago blues, and Dylan himself was inspired by Muddy (compare Dylan’s "Someday Baby" to Muddy’s "Trouble No More"). On the recording/production front, guitarist Al Kooper plays a mean B3 organ on this track.
10. We’re Going To Be Friends / The White Stripes. I wanted to include a nice, simple acoustic song on this list, and while I considered everyone from Jim Croce to Nick Drake I ended up choosing this Jack White number to close out the list. I love the narrative about childhood innocence, learning and play. The melody is simply beautiful, and believe me, it’s not easy to be simple, great and original. Maybe you were introduced to this song from the "Napolean Dynamite" movie, or maybe it’s on the soundtrack of a year-end video your school put together. Either way, you should be glad you heard this lovely piece. You’ll always have it as a favorite memory.