Music Reviews,  Projects

The Essential 20

I nicked the idea from the awesome Mags Lum. @Londonjustin asked people to list their #essential20 songs using Spotify and listing the criteria they used to choose them, why you chose each song, what you left out and what you learnt while making the list.

Sounded too good to pass up, because I am bored and procrastinating at the moment. So here we go.

The criteria for the list:
They had to be songs I would never get tired of and that usually means one of three things – they are nostalgic, they kickstart something in my head or they will get me up and dancing.

I also restricted myself to one song per artist/group and to one version of each song even if I liked both the original and the cover. Usually, I don’t like all of an artist’s work so this wasn’t so bad.
Song choices are in bold with lyrics in bold and italics. They are not in any particular order.  The Spotify list is here.

Onto the songs:

  1. Let’s start at the beginning. I was born in 1983 (yes, I am declaring my age online but I don’t give a damn). In 1984, A-ha released Take On Me.  This was the FIRST music video I remember seeing and honestly? It explains a lot about why I love comics, some semblance of romance, boys in tight white t-shirts and jeans and leather jackets and motorbikes. Given that it was one of the first musical influences that I remember, I could not not choose it. Also given that it’s from 1984 means that I can say I am an ’80s kid – I started young.
  2. This is my favourite song and for awhile favourite songs changed though not that often but eventually and rather serendipitously, I settled on this and I don’t think I will change it ever: Tom Petty & The Heartbreaker’s Don’t Come Around Here No More.The reason for choosing this is rather odd. I think very visually and when I first heard this song, I had an image in my mind of what I thought the music video SHOULD be though I knew it was probably likely to be very different (and no, I’m not going to tell you what my idea was). When I finally got around to seeing the video, I was thrilled to find that it was based on Alice In Wonderland, which incidentally is a favourite book (though my favourite book is actually Carroll’s Sylvie & Bruno series). The fact that Dave from the Eurythmics is the caterpillar, Petty is the Mad Hatter and then on top of that there is an unrelated movie with Ringo Starr as the Mock Turtle just kind of makes my day really. Or my week. Or my life.  And I hang onto my original idea as well because I am sure it will happen one day. One day.
  3. I couldn’t write a list without tossing in David Bowie if only for my credibility’s sake. And while I like a lot of his songs, it was clear that it had to be one from Labyrinth (well, if you’re going to go geeky on pop culture that matters, you might as well dive right in). I grew up in the ’80s – Henson was everywhere, ok? There are some romantic numbers, some weird ones (Dance Magic Dance for one) but since I decided I am not sappy enough to claim As The World Falls Down (though yes, awesome!) much to the delight of another friend, my pick is Within You. And yes, I know it’s mostly instrumental but I like it because hardly anyone gets the point of this song – they all think it’s just tacked on at the end. When it’s really about the realisation that he can’t control her decisions, he can’t have her and the only reason he wants to do so is because he loves her because she challenges him and now he will lose her. It is heartbreaking. And now that I have explained it, you can all go nod your head at parties, looking all wise and gain some hipster cred by stating “Well, you know, the whole point of Within You when you analyse its juxtaposition to events in the film is…” and pretend you came up with yourself.And no I don’t like “movements” that can go buy everything for it from a chain store – how is that anti-establishment, really? Bah. End rant on hipsters.
  4. What’s next? Well when I was a kid we had cassette tapes. Yes, cassette tapes and then CDs and so on. There was a cardboard box full of cassette tapes – my father was a huge music fan and devoured everything so I have him to thank for a very broad and awesome musical education really. He was a massive Beatles fan – to the point where he got jealous if I had something cool and Beatles related that he didn’t. The road trips that he and I did alone were fun affairs where we used to put music on shuffle and sing along from Travelling Wilburys (bonus points if you know who they are without looking them up) to Paul Simon. Tom Petty to Mike & The Mechanics. If it wasn’t a cricket diary he got for his birthday gifts, it was a Beatles book – I used to stand in line for hours to get books signed for him.I know all the words – figuring out my favourite was hard. There’s I’m Only Sleeping, Blackbird, Her Majesty, Another Girl, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, She’s Leaving Home, Here Comes The Sun and my father’s choice to suddenly randomly sing (though probably not his favourite), Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. He could never remember the words  to most songs so perhaps that why he kept coming out with that one. In the end I chose If I Fell. Because the lyrics are just right.If I fell in love with you / Would you promise to be true? / And help me understand? 
    Because I’ve been in love before / And I found that it was more / Than just holding hands
    If I give my heart to you, I must be sure / From the very start, that you
    Will love me more than her.

  5.  Eddi Reader. No list is complete without her, really. The band is Fairground Attraction and there are so many to choose from and in the end I chose, a cover. Well, sort of a cover. Ay Fond Kiss was written by Robert Burns about the love of his life for some vague odd reason, that I was never ever really sure of, marrying someone else and so of course how they could never see each other again and how if they had never met they would have never been so broken hearted.Are you seeing this weird bittersweet romance/yearning tangent to me yet? If you haven’t you should be – my mother named me well. Marisa can mean bittersweet.
  6.  Before I forget her completely, let’s toss in Annie Lennox though really I only seem to gravitate to her Diva album. Well, we had to have something from the ’90s – I think this came out in 1993/4. Diva is fantastic and again so much to choose from and though Walking On Broken Glass makes me laugh (despite said subject matter) and want to dance and sing, I chose Why. As to why I chose Why – well I am not really sure why save that in the video for why she is putting her makeup and I seem to have this thing for watching people transform from one thing to another and the change is dramatic and fantastically androgynous. And then she goes out onto stage to be a cabaret singer from the ’20s. The only issue I have with this videois that fact that the dress is absolutely awful – there must have been better ones that looked period perfect. or maybe the weight of the headdress made her uncomfortable.All of Diva is about one relationship going wrong in a myriad twenty thousand different ways and perhaps that’s why I like it. It’s raw, it’s honest and it hits on everything with desperation and disbelief in Walking On Broken Glass, a bitter diatribe coming through in the fun and poppy Keep Young And Beautiful, the reality sinking in and the denial in No More I Love Yous and then the questioning and problem solving attempts in Why. Plus with a fascination for androgyny, I have to have both Bowie and Lennox on here.
  7.  By the way, I like reggae. This was probably another early influence again coming out of general Sri Lankan society at the time. Bob Marley is pretty big there but this first reggae song is not a Marley number but a UB40 number. They couldn’t believe that I as a kid was a fan and I have an autographed photo which is the only autograph for myself that I have got and been happy about. Their cover of Can’t Help Falling In Love is fantastic for me because if you give me drums AND a saxaphone then I am yours but I went with Kingston Town.This is a song I want to dance to with someone – it’s a kind of forward looking nostalgia – just like to song lyrics – looking forward to being with someone, and being in a place that feels like home somehow whether you have ever been there before or not.
  8. Since we mentioned Bob Marley, here’s the Marley song: Is This Love. When I was 16, I went to Key West and I remember standing on a street, looking at the water, waiting for the family to decide something and Bob Marley’s Jammin’ coming out of the restaurant windows as the sun was starting set. It was a serendipitous moment – everything was perfect and I wasn’t far from my birthday buddy Hemingway’s residence with all its six toed cats. Is This Lovehits the spot because well, it kind of gives you a bit of hope:I, I, I, I’m willing and able / So I’ve put my cards on your table
    I want to love you / I want to love and treat you, love and treat you rightA bit of emotional honesty from a guy with himself and with you goes a long way and maybe it is still possible to find – who knows? 😉
  9.  I learnt to dance by picking it up off what I saw. And what I saw was A LOT of Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson (her pupil and nowhere near as good) and Michael Jackson. The best Michael Jackson for me to dance to though was Jam – one of the first tracks to have both horns and drums/beats in it and there was not much of a story save for the lovely idea of MJ finding a place to practice dancing in which definitely appealed to me. I don’t bother with MJ moves now – I dance to Jam however I want having gone on to take dance classes even at university level. But the point is, it’s always, always, always going to be Jam. No question about it. “It don’t take too much for me to jam!”
  10. At this point, I should probably point out that though to you this next choice is a foreign choice, to me – it was all technically foreign. Technically I listen to a ton of world music except you call it pop, jazz and what have you. I speak the language, I am affected but give it some thought.The only time I want to ever play this song out loud is if I am dancing to it at my wedding – not because it’s horribly cheesy or something like that but because, well if you think it’s awesome enough for that, then I kind of want to save the shared experience of it for that occasion.
    And I don’t understand a word of it apart from the chorus though I can venture a guess that it is telling people to take it easy and have some hope. It’s in Korean by The Clazziquai Project and it’s called Dance Now and Spotify doesn’t know it exists though they are aware of the band so check the link for the video. It is very beautiful.
  11. This song was everywhere growing up: Iko Iko. Now before you groan, might I culturally educate you a bit as to that it was a song by one of the first African American girl groups in the ’60s, the Dixie Cups? The version you no doubt recall is the one Belle Stars did for the movie Rain Man in the ’80s with Belle Stars with blonde dreads pre-empting both Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga though possibly not Madonna because no one could keep track of Madonna’s split personalities in the ’80s. There has been a  more recent version by Captain Jack, the music video of which contains an Amazonian wannabe island tribe of women who seem to strangely prefer to remain almost fully clothed on a tropical island – one would think if there were only women on an island, there would be no requirement to cover up the genitals as there would be no sexual meaning attached to them but there you go. Why the song though? Well, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t dance to the damn thing.
  12. This song was long but it harked back to rock and roll probably because it was the creation of George Harrison (ex-Beatles member for the living under a rock types amongst you): Got My Mind Set On You. Again, Spotify knows not of its existence. There are two videos for it – here’s one. Here’s the other.For some reason this was popular when I was a teenager in the late ’90s though I am pretty sure it was released much earlier than that. But I loved it and I still do. And yes, my favourite Beatle was George though I do think Ringo Starr overall has behaved himself the most admirably over time and therefore wins a lot of respect – yes, this is how I judge celebrities. And anyone else I know really. It works. Try it.
  13. Let’s mix it up a bit: Tchaikovsky. And because I cannot be bothered trying to pick one – you get a ton of bits all from the Nutcracker. I have to say that as a story I could care less about the Nutcracker really BUT I know the moves for the following and I cannot deny that they are absolutely fun to dance: March of the Red Soldiers/Chinese Dance (of Tea)/ Spanish Dance (Chocolate)/Russian Dance (Trepak)/Arabian Dance (Coffee)/ Dance of the Reed Flutes. One is from the First Act and the rest are from the second or third. Tea is fun and childish, Chocolate is more character dancing than ballet, Trepak is very energetic, Arabian is sexy, The point is when I hear the music, I know what is supposed to happen on each note and how I am supposed to move and how that movement is a meaning conveyed to the audience that I cannot even begin to put into words.
  14. I feel I should toss in something Sri Lankan for thy edification buti t has to be something I will put up with. So I chose the baila song Kandy La Missi by Marisel Gunaratne. A baila song is a pastiche songreally – you are mocking certain things, sometimes yourself. You dance very silly and make exaggerated moves and if you have a baila dance contest, the girl can often pretend to be the guy and the guy pretend to be the girl. It makes everyone feel good because you feel like you are mocking someone who is so totally not you or anyone you know and that changes from person to person.They are catchy, they are fun and these are the songs we would sing as kids on school trips on the bus, while the boys in the back drummed the beat as best as they could (sorry, sometimes you guys were horribly bad at keeping time) and everyone else would sing, changing words, tossing in even more swear words because you know, you’re a boy and you think it’s cool and the girls just ignore the indirect bragging. But this all was fun and it’s nice to have memories of that.
  15.  I deliberated on this but I gave into the beat. Because I only care about the heavy drums/bass in this song: Personal Jesusby Depeche Mode. I did consider Just Can’t Get Enough and Master And Servant but no the damn drums got me. It starts out with the kick and makes your heart thud and honestly, I can instantly turn into a hard rock groupie whatever the occasion, just hearing something like that.And you have got sexy lines: Lift up the receiver, I’ll make you a believer. And yes, it is a come on line. Any song that drag the inner leather clad, head banging rock chick in me gets a spot on the list. I hate the video though.
  16. So why am I choosing this next one for my punk cred? Heaven by the Psychedelic Furs. Mostly because no one I know, knows of it. And it is a bloody wonderful song. And again it is bittersweet and about how something you want so badly can hurt you as well. And about how external pressure can drive you to become robotic almost and push your yearning for anything to be hidden and how suddenly the best things in the world draw you out of yourself and then you are unleashed with all that pent up emotion to react 100% honestly to any situation which is not always desirable especially if you still get annoyed. Nouvelle Vague covered it and I think I have listed that version in the Spotify list as well.
  17. Ladysmith Black Mambazo first got everyone’s attention when they sang back up for Paul Simon’s Graceland in 1999 (ish?). Homeless is still a track they perform and is still one of my favourites. I love the ululation and the rhythmic intonation and honestly I think anyone who can get organised and coordinated enough to figure out and perform acapella like that is amazing.  It makes me want to sing.
  18. Did I mention I love jazz? Well, I do. IT’s hard to pick a singer and with jazz generally, I pick a song. And then it’s hard to pick a song. I tend to like the odd ones no one has heard of like I’ve Got A Crush On You originally by Sinatra and more recently performed by Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane (oh here come the comic books again). Then there is I Told You I Loved You Now Get Out which tells you everything really about how much fun that song is. It was sung by Cybil Shepherd in Moonlighting.Eventually I went with Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares For Me which is made all the more wonderful by the claymation music video that goes with it. It has cats, jazz and some romance, what is NOT to love?
  19. From jazz to swing – I said that I dance right? Best swing band ever is Brian Setzer’s Orchestra, titular lead of which is credited with kickstarting rockabilly and swing. I chose Swinging In The Mood (renamed Getting In The Mood on the Spotify list) because this was the first non-ballet number I danced to as part of my dance concerts. It’s fantastic and fun and somehow I manage to forget that I was annoyed by part of my costume. I can jive to it or I can swing dance… and when I say jive/swing dance, I mean dance alone since I haven’t had a dance partner in ages. And it looks weird and is funny no doubt to watch but I enjoy it.
  20.  To finish off, I know not where I even first heard of this song but I do love it: Edwyn Collins  A Girl Like You.  It came out in the ’90s but it sounds like it should be from the ’60s because Collins was a bit of a revivalist. It also sounds like a potential James Bond song except more peppy and poppy. There are two videos for this song – one is black and white with a few dancing skeletons, a mermaid and a weird dancer ala Josephine Baker banana style. The other is colourfulwith girls, animations and monsters. There is a whispered “it’s a gift” repeated at the start and end of the track under everything else.I think I like this one not just because it is fun to dance to but because it strikes just the right balance of fear and healthy respect and awe I think any guy should have for a girl (yes, take notes).

What did I learn?

That I jabber too much, that lists like this take long time to write, that I am quite possibly showcasing a soft romantic side but possibly also overemphasizing that side a bit too much. I feel I am made up of many things and I am not sure if this list represents that accurately but it is me and and maybe some parts of me don’t need music and some do.

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is currently based in Melbourne.


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