April 1, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Ander Monson's new essay collection is titled Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, and is as much about the concept of the modern memoir as it is about Monson himself.
The book embraces the internet with its use of hyperlinked words, which lead to further online discussion. Ander Monson has always impressed with his innovative prose and poetry (in particular his short story collection Other Electricities), but these essays reveal the author at his his creative and critical best.
In "Ceremony," one of the essays I like the best from Vanishing Point, being a nonfiction book about self and memoir and detritus and Gerald R. Ford and Doritos and other deities including all the essays that I like the best, I reference an ongoing list project, The Best Pop Songs Since 1980 And Most Likely All Time Because Pop Keeps Getting Better and Better list. The song titles that serve as the section titles for this essay would not, of course, make the best mixtape. They don't even make a good one, actually. I made said mixtape for a friend of mine who claimed not to have ever heard of New Order. And the resulting mixtape is pretty crappy. I chose them for their titles, not thinking of sequencing or the quality of the songs (only a handful are even good songs). But the essay mentions this list so I thought I'd flesh out the list here. I posted an old version on my website in 2006 and made CDs for a bunch of friends, most of whom responded with mixtapes of their own or at least quibbles with or suggested edits on mine. Some of them never spoke to me again, but that is to be expected. You can only have so many friends. Some of their edits and quibbles and silences led to this new list. But since I've lived with the list and the playlist (which is on all of my iPods of course in various iterations) for five years now, I've removed some songs and added more. This list is where I'm at now.
First, a note: yes, making a canon of pop is a stupid idea. Pop is inherently evanescent and disposable. Yet we live in a disposable culture, a culture of collected traces. We are a culture of traces; actually that is what a culture is. These songs embed themselves in us. You know just how powerfully they can prompt recall or transport you when you hear a song you haven't heard in 20 years, and the song returns you to whatever old emotional state that got associated with it. It's sad how animal we are sometimes. Vanishing Point is partly about that sense of self, of selves, of layers of discarded and recovered selves, so these are important considerations worth serious thinking about, which I have attempted to do.
In the meantime here is the list, more or less chronological, with annotations.
Joy Division: "Love Will Tear Us Apart"
This song begins the era of modern pop that I think about when I think pop. Look at how many covers there are of this, and how much they suck. And listen to the last few bars, the Sixties major-key pop lick which is only one of the things that makes this about as good a pop song as you can get. That's what makes this pop, and crucial. And that's what makes this an excellent gatekeeper song to the compilation.
Talking Heads: "Once in a Lifetime"
I originally had another Talking Heads song on this list, but my friend Emma gently corrected me, as she does, with this one, and she was, and is correct, and so it stays. The song's stated thesis is one very dear to the book, wondering how we got to be who we are, and wondering if we are still who we were, and if so, what do we have to do to kill that old self or reanimate it as the moment dictates.
Billy Idol: "Dancing with Myself"
This song resists time. It is also a metaphor for writing.
The Go-Go's: "Vacation"
The best pop song by one of the best pop bands of all time. It's all surface, candy coating. If you're a serious fan of the band you know just how depraved the Go-Go's got underneath that surface.
Roxy Music: "More Than This"
I'm not sure why, but I thought this song, self-evidently a brilliant pop song, was from the 70s. I read a short thing by Greil Marcus earlier this year in which he identified it as 1982, which places it solidly in my frame. Thanks, Greil. Not just for this. Note that this song is unusual, especially for a pop song, in that most of the last half of the song is instrumental. I also really like the Todd Terry mix of the 10,000 Maniacs Mark II cover of this song. The beat adds a lot. It usually does. Yes, I'm talking to you, Suzanne Vega.
Prince: "Little Red Corvette"
It's all too obvious that there are many options for Prince Songs to include. "Kiss" would be an obvious choice, but the Art of Noise feat. Tom Jones cover is maybe superior, and "Let's Go Crazy" would have been good too. "1999"? Maybe even "Raspberry Beret." But I really like songs about cars. And this is a song about a car.
Shannon: "Let the Music Play"
This is one of the newest additions to the list. I've always loved this song; it's one of the real dancefloor numbers on this list. I have a deep love of dance songs and particularly synthy dance songs that I have tried to edit out a little bit in this list to avoid just going down the Erasure and Pet Shop Boys discographies. This song makes such a lovely comeback in The Crying Game.
Alphaville: "Forever Young"
A doomed, nuclear ballad. This is still the best, though Laura Branigan's version of this is also spectacular. Damn, I forget sometimes how much I am a dork for Laura Branigan. I'm not sure why. Maybe it has something to do with listening to one of her songs on repeat on the floor of my parents' farmhouse, though I can no longer remember which song it was, or even if it was a Laura Branigan song.
The Cars: "You Might Think"
The Circuit City circa 2007 commercial has killed "You're Just What I Needed" for me, and the mark of a Great Pop Song is that it should stay listenable and memorable, lodged in your memory, in fact, after thousands of listens.
Don Henley: "The Boys of Summer"
This is a great song. I've never much liked the Eagles, and I don't really care about Don Henley, but this is one of those crucial pop songs. It even mentions summer. It's more than a little washed out. The bit I like best, like many of these, is the little guitar solo at the end of the song with about forty seconds left. It's simple but lovely, and culminates in the very best part of the track just before the song fades out, so it doesn't have to just fade out over the chorus.
Echo & the Bunnymen: "The Killing Moon"
A recent addition. All of these songs speak to being young in some way, which is what pop is for this listener. It's transitory, evanescent, a little desperate. It's not all flowers and fast cars. If we're being honest about our actual youths, we have to admit it can be terrifying too. Maybe it's only terrifying. Fate! Up against your Will! This song is over the top but awesome. Great use in Donnie Darko of course, though the director's cut stupidly cut that out. What the hell, director's cut? As with most things sometimes you need an editor to shut you up. I find this is the case more often than not.
The Smiths: "There is a Light That Never Goes Out"
Previously I had chosen "Girlfriend in a Coma" which is totally defensible, but I've phased it out now. (Also, possibly, "Panic," or "Ask".) It's super tempting to include a Morrissey song instead. I think I actually prefer "Everyday is Like Sunday" to this one. It's heresy to say so, of course, but I've never loved the Smiths the way I loved Morrissey. I think I was about 10 years too late to the Smiths to really love them in the way that their fans do, and I saw The The one time opening for Depeche Mode and Johnny Marr was there playing the harmonica and jumping off speakers, rock-star-style, and I was dumbfounded, and because that was confusing in a confusing time in my life I've never forgiven him.
The Cure: "Just Like Heaven"
Maybe too obvious of a choice, but they've got such pop action happening, and this is a great song, and besides it should be obvious, no? Easy alternate choices would be "In Between Days" or "Close to Me". Very few bands can do dark and pop incredibly well. Maybe this is the only one. Man, they still put on a great live show, too.
Michael Jackson: "Smooth Criminal"
Best MJ song ever, totally bizarre, with a great video, and it's a more interesting choice than "Billie Jean," which also admittedly kicks ass. Did you ever play one of my favorite arcade games of all time (after Bubble Bobble and Gauntlet, and maybe Golden Axe): Michael Jackson/Moonwalker? Awwwwwwesome. It's a pretty easy arcade game which is important when you only had a quarter and an hour to burn. The part of it I remember the best was when you built up enough magic or manna or energy or whatever they call it, and you were surrounded by bad guys, and you hit the DANCE button, and Michael (you are Michael in this game: in our dreams we are all Michael; in his dreams we are all Michael) did a succession of sweet moves that blew up all the bad guys on the screen.
New Order: "Temptation"
As I mention in one of the essays in Vanishing Point from which this whole tangent springs, this is the best pop song ever recorded (at least it's the best pop song from 1980 onward; if you start extending backwards then eventually you have to seriously start considering madrigals and chansons, and things get really complicated really fast. I only really started listening to music, meaning of course pop music, meaning my parents' music and whatever you could get on the radio up in Upper Michigan, in 1983 or so, but I'm extending this list back to 1980 to make a nice shift from the 70s into the 80s, and that also gives me three decades to play with over three CDs. The version I prefer is the one from Substance in 1987, though I thought about the 7" too. The production here is a lot tighter. The drums on the 12" are just a little too big and obvious. I don't want to suggest that pop is anything but obvious, but for a song to have real staying power with me it has to reveal additional layers on additional listens.
Pet Shop Boys: "Always on my Mind"
Previously "It's a Sin". It's hard to figure out what to do with the Pet Shop Boys. They're a great pop band, but they're better taken as a whole than taken track by track. This one could still get cut. As usual, ever geeky, I prefer the version on Disco that mashes this up with In "My House" because it includes a great keyboard line midway through the song, but I don't really like the In "My House" coda breakdown thing, so we'll skip it.
I might still take this song out.
U2: "With or Without You"
Argued by many to be the perfect pop song. Not my favorite on this list, and it's one of those songs that has infiltrated the culture too much to be distinguishable anymore. Yet it still moves me.
Madonna: "Like a Prayer"
Certainly the best Madonna, and the beginning of her better period as a pop star, I think, where she's more in control of everything that is apparently and actually Madonna.
Being a pop star is being in charge of how you present your Self, how you perform that Self. Madonna defined it. Probably the best pop artist on this list by a long ways to be honest.
The Jesus & Mary Chain: "Head On"
Maybe the most rock song on here, but like the best pop it fills me up with a sense of what I—or my life—might be.
Morrissey: "Everyday is Like Sunday"
I guess I am including this anyway. It's so fucking doomed and glorying in it. This is why Morrissey is a great artist: he knows how to make pop anthems out of unusual (at least for pop) emotional states. This is something I aspire to.
The Trash Can Sinatras: "Obscurity Knocks"
Substantially less well-known than most of these songs, the Sinatras were an excellent band that never quite caught fire with the whole 90s Brit thing in the States. I gave myself a little leeway to include a couple songs that you won't probably know, so that the experience of reading this list is one of discovery and not just of disagreement or reaffirmation of your own obviously awesome and impressive musical tastes that happen to coincide with mine. It's true that pop songs need to be popular, and this was popular, just not as popular as some of these other songs. And this is how geeky teenagers define themselves: by making lists, by elevating some things and not others, by listing your influences and your favorites on Facebook (or on the walls of your bedroom or whatever). We fill ourselves with others until we are overfull, eventually finding ourselves in that network somewhere.
A Tribe Called Quest: "Scenario"
You know when the Barenaked Ladies reference you in a song this is pop. I've never been a huge hip hop fan, but I like me some late-80s and early-90s hip hop: A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and so on. Busta Rhymes is pretty much insane on his rap here, which continues after almost two decades, to surprise me.
Sugar: If I Can't Change Your Mind
(runner-up, per Medievalist Chris Roman: "Believe What You're Saying")
I love me some Mould.
Bjork: "There's More to Life than This"
(It's hard to pick Bjork songs, because she's such a great artist; all of Debut is just spectacular, and might just be the best debut album ever (formerly the song choice was "Big Time Sensuality," also considered: "Hyperballad"). But this song's sentiment is a keeper: it's a pop song for getting the fuck out of the party. I love how we are literally taken outside the party in this song.
The Breeders: "Cannonball"
I keep meaning to take this song off the list but it persists. Cotton candy drugfun, it is in my brain forever.
I love me some James. I actually like a lot of the latter James that the unserious aren't aware of, "Just Like Fred Astaire" especially, which I'll consider adding in later. Still the exuberance and unhinged quality of this song (and the video! awesome) keeps me hooked into it.
Pulp: "Common People"
I always used to like "Disco 2000," which is great, but this is an excellently divergent idea for a pop song, and damn has it aged well. Few pop songs successfully deploy a sense of irony, and fewer rope it to such a great song so well. I have yet to perform this song at karaoke, since most karaoke songlists don't include it, but I hope to find it in some random bar and belt it out and hopefully not get my ass kicked (this has yet to happen).
Smashing Pumpkins: "1979"
High point of their oeuvre, and very fine indeed. A perfect young song. And unlike a lot of the Smashing Pumpkins Corgan nails it without overacting or without cheesing it. (I do like the Smashing Pumpkins, but they're so dramatic so I can't listen without laughing sometimes.)
Imperial Teen: "Pig Latin"
One of my favorite pop indie pop acts ever. Featuring the keyboardist from Faith No More, everything this band recorded is total pop glory. Also "Yoo Hoo" would be a fine choice.
Hanson: "MMMBop (Radio Version)"
I would go down defending this song as a stone-cold classic, though it's probably the most disliked-by-others song on this list. I think it's great. I think I did an open mic version of this at some point which is depressing to think about. Thank God this preceded personal digital video cameras and Youtube. Again the best pop songs, this included, are about evanescence. Hard to karaoke for obvious reasons.
Spice Girls: "Spice Up Your Life"
Better than my original choice, which was "Wannabe," which was more recognizable (and had that bizarro Zig-a-zig-ah bit in it) but substantially crappier. This is the most Spice Girls Spice Girls song in its weird, half-assed super-peppy postcolonialism. They have songs I like better, but they're much less Spice Girlsy, genre exercises like "Stop," for instance, but this is the perfect choice here. To me the Spice Girls are among the most perfect postmodern pop bands. They are nothing if not totally disposable. They crib from everything. They aren't really even a band, of course, having been assembled by Svengalis, in spite of the hilarious myth-retrofitting that their (fairly great) movie Spice World attempted, also in its postmodern bizarro way. I think a lot about the Spice Girls. There is probably a book in there somewhere.
The Sundays: "Summertime"
I debated adding the DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince song by the same title, but did not do so in the end.
Eels: "Last Stop: This Town"
On an exceptionally depressing album, no less.
Saint Etienne: "Sylvie"
Very hard to pick just one of their songs, but this is the best, and the least attached to the technopop they're sort of known for. Saint Etienne is one of the quintessential pop bands of all time. (If I could include the entire Magnetic Fields oeuvre I would, but I cannot, and can't choose one song only.)
Backstreet Boys: "I Want it That Way"
Let's admit it: good pop, like good art (and maybe good pop art but I am not smart enough to say) has an irresolvable mystery at its center. What way? Well, Backstreet Boys are among my favorite karaoke choices. Everyone is snarky about it, but yet everyone in the bar, even the country bar, ends up kind of rocking along with me. Actually maybe they are mocking me. Sometimes it's better not to be able to tell the difference.
Basement Jaxx: "Where's Your Head At?"
Disturbing video, insanely catchy song.
Kelly Clarkson: "Since U Been Gone"
She cannot be stopped. I really like dancing to this song on Dance Dance Revolution (I forget which iteration has it). A pop product, Kelly has gone on to prove herself.
Kylie Minogue: "Can't Get You Out of My Head"
Totally. My friend Tom forwarded me a live version of this that merges it with New Order's "Blue Monday" which kicks additional ass.
Superchunk: "Late Century Dream"
Still on here. Maybe not a proper pop song. But what is a proper pop song? This is the only song I've ever heard on the radio and had to call in to ask the DJ what song that was and who sang it so I could find it. This is of course before the days of satellite and internet radio where you have that information immediately at your disposal. When we know who is singing or can find out very easily maybe we don't listen as closely, hoping to retain every fragment of song in memory. Technological progress robs us of many pleasures. Yet who would want to go back?
Tegan and Sara: "Underwater"
"Verse, chorus and such."
Fountains of Wayne: "Stacy's Mom"
I would have preferred, actually, to have included a track from Ivy, Adam Schlesinger's other band which I once thought far superior, but they've gotten sort of dull with age, and this is a classic track. Rocking The Cars, Schlesinger et al make this a great teenage anthem. Hott with two Ts. A little shameful too.
Outkast: "Hey Ya!"
This needs no explanation.
R. Kelly: "Ignition (Remix)"
Especially hilarious that this song knows it's the remix, and is self-referencing it. Very catchy. Disturbing guy. I can't believe he wrote that atrocious "I Believe I Can Fly" which makes me want to tear myself apart every time I even think about it.
The Killers: "Mr. Brightside"
I didn't like this album when it came out, but you know how it goes. Now it's brilliant. I also love that the band's named after the fake band featured in New Order's video for "Crystal," which is a great theoretical move.
A plus D feat. Missy Elliott v. Le Tigre: "Decepta-Freak-On"
I think this mashup improves significantly on both songs. I like Le Tigre in theory, but get bored listening to them too often. Missy I like more but "Get Your Freak On" seems now impossibly slow and dull divorced from the feminist punk of Le Tigre. I also love how we've been moving away from the individual in pop. I love that now pop songs don't have to sing, play instruments, or even dance and look sexy, but manipulate sound. Cut shit up. Edit. I've been thinking about this a lot for an essay I'm working on which should come out in The Believer's music issue this year, but I won't say any more about that now. Stay tuned.
Gorillaz: "Feel Good Inc."
And speaking of moving away from self (something that New Order were always very uninterested in: their videos mostly blow, don't they, since they didn't like to be on camera, or apparently to perform or be looked at in any way, even inventing The Killers, a young and sexy faux-band in that video which works as satire: but pop is being able to take a statement at face value and make it blow up: think of how the Spice Girls were mocked by the British press when they first debuted: oh, that's the posh one, the sporty one, etc; easy enough to just ignore it or let it get you down, but what happens? They name themselves after those roles. In the video game Katamari Damacy you're a dude rolling this ball around created spaces and trying to roll things into your ball—called a katamari—and it gets bigger and bigger if you're doing well, and soon you can pick up almost anything with it: that's what the Spice Girls juggernaut was like. I have a book of poems that thinks about Katamari Damacy coming out in June called The Available World which you might consult if you're a nerd for that game or for poetry, or, preferably, both), and eventually we return from our ungrammatical parenthetical adventure to what I was saying about Gorillaz: they are very fun. What could be more pop than a song ostensibly by cartoon characters?
Lenlow: "Bjorn Slippy"
A mash-up of Peter Bjorn & John and Underworld. Improves on both to my ears, and works as a kind of double-soundtracking for your life: that's what these mashups do, isn't it? When you listen to it, you're aware of that doubleness, the presence of both songs that you probably know, both fused into this new thing, so in a sense it's a trinity experience, not to say a holy experience. This is also what happens when we read a piece of writing using received forms: oh, it's a Harvard Outline, and it's an essay, and it's hopefully somehow both and neither and bigger than the sum of the two. I like these experiences a whole lot in case it isn't obvious. A cover version also provides this sort of pleasure, but in a more straightforward, usually less artful way.
LCD Soundsystem: "All My Friends"
I had specifically avoided including anything post-2005, thinking that the songs had not set sufficiently into the psyche, but I have reneged because it's a great song, and one that encapsulates the others in a pleasing way. (There is a great discussion of it in a piece from Slate and in a Pitchfork review.)
Leona Lewis: "Bleeding Love"
Man, this song is bad ass. I was resistant to it, and I am resistant to trying it in karaoke (I do talk about karaoke some in Vanishing Point so this constant karaoke fixation isn't just a random reoccurring blip on this piece's radar) because the end of the song, where LL is catapulting herself up and down trills and arpeggios seems, uh, like, hard or something. I'd have to entertain in another way when I was not singing this part. Maybe I can work out a beat box routine.
This is the real ending point of the list at this time. There's nothing from 2009 or 2010 here yet; I think it's a little too early to say. It's hard not to think of Rihanna's "Umbrella" as a serious candidate for it or maybe Black Peter Group's "Kamikaze Kid" (also 2008 but I'm just not sure enough yet), but pop is about getting old too, realizing that it's harder to tap into those pop/young feelings. It takes more effort. Who wants to watch that much MTV or listen to the terrestrial radio? Perhaps I'm nearing my pop expiration date and can only reengage with the past via these pop songs or any New Order song or songs that sound like songs I used to like when I was young and liked songs. It's a possibility, you have to admit, thinking about your self, that you're on the cusp of no longer being who you were, that you'll have to define yourself in different ways, via a larger and more complex network of media. Each year all those Dickens novels you haven't read make you feel worse about your use of list-making and -annotating and -thinking time. Stay in school, kids. Don't do drugs.
Ander Monson and Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir links:
Albion Plebian interview with the author
Appomattox News profile of the author
Avery interview with the author
The Collagist interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist by the author for his short story collection, Other Electricities
Margaret Kimball interview with the author
Metromix Tucson interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists