According to the Wikipedia entry on the song Wichita Lineman, "...the BBC referred to it as 'one of those rare songs that seems somehow to exist in a world of its own – not just timeless but ultimately outside of modern music'." I know this because I looked it up last week. I've loved that song my whole life, and more, it's held a certain mysterious fascination with me, one that I've never been able to explain in words. The chord changes, the lyrics that are somehow both simple and artfully complex, and Glen Campbell's understated yet sophisticated rendition, down home and dramatic at the same time, understated and soaring, plaintive and triumphant. When I read, "not just timeless but ultimately outside of modern music" I nodded to myself and said, yeah, that's it, there are some songs that have that strange quality, they achieve that inexplicable tension and resolution that transcends the artform. It's not just musicianship, or the compositional skill they embody but something that is so soul-stirring as to be sublime, resulting when the right song and the right performer come together. Which got me thinking about other songs that achieve that level. What I found when I started compiling my list is that they cross the genres. But the one consistent thing is that they are all songs that I've heard most of my life and never got tired of. Even from the first time I heard them they seem to have always existed, like nature itself. They're songs that aren't just good or great but they produce chills every time. Here it is, in no particular order. Commentary added when it occurred to me:
Wichita Lineman (written by Jimmy Webb, performed by Glen Campbell). An aria sung for the ages by a cowboy.
Promises, Promises (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, performed by Dionne Warwick). Composed for Broadway, a unique arrangement with hybrid instrumentation, a bizarre change in tempo mid-song that works, and a complete lyrical/narrative arc, matched beautifully by Warwick's achingly heartfelt vocal performance. This song beats out Walk On By by a nose hair.
I've Got You Under My Skin (written by Cole Porter, performed by Frank Sinatra). Sinatra's voice and delivery were made for this song. It swings; the very definition of 'hip'. Simultaneously fearless and vulnerable, soft and strong. Gives me goosebumps on top of my skin every time.
Let it Be (written by Lennon and McCartney and performed by the Beatles). Practically a prayer.
Born to Run (written by Bruce Springsteen, performed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band). Anthemic, booming, operatic, raw, romantic, gritty and triumphant. A paean to youth, young love and American idealism. This album was the reason I stopped 'studying my pain' (Thunder Road), in fact, stopped studying altogether.
This Guy's in Love With You (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, performed by Herb Alpert). An example of a song and performance that are so understated and spare, they soar. I will not argue that Herb Alpert can't sing worth shit, and yet every note is somehow spot on.
Close to You (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, performed by the Carpenters). Karen Carpenter's singing is positively ethereal.
Hallelujah (written and performed by Leonard Cohen). Leonard Cohen makes Herb Alpert look like Pavarotti. He is Karen Carpenter's exact singing opposite, the fallen angel to her angel, which is why his rendering of this simple song qua poem works so exquisitely.
Fire and Rain (written and performed by James Taylor). The song that every songwriter wished he could have written and every guitar player wants to be able to play and sing like James Taylor.
Bridge Over Troubled Water (written by Paul Simon and performed by Simon and Garfunkel). The greatest song ever written about hope and self-sacrifice.