Steven R. Smith: OK, so I couldn’t really pick my favorite 10 songs of all time—that wound up being much harder than I had imagined, so these are just 10 songs that I have listened to hundreds of times throughout my life and I have repeatedly gotten lost in these.
1. Townes Van Zandt. “Rake”.
Most of the songs I’ve picked here probably do not fall into the “singer-songwriter” type of song. It seems like I’ve gone for the longer, more abstract type of thing, but this one is certainly a really well written song by one of the best singer-songwriters. I can’t say for sure what it’s all about, although loss of youth, regret, frailty and drawing near the end are what I get out of it. I had a tape of this record stuck in my car’s tape deck for the longest time so it reminds me of listening to this over and over while being stuck in Los Angeles traffic on the 110 freeway.
2. Richard Thompson. “Calvary Cross (Live 1975)”.
So Richard Thompson is also a great singer-songwriter but I’m picking this particular live version of “Calvary Cross” mainly because he uncorks an amazing 10-minute guitar solo at the end of this which is just pure magic. A 10-minute guitar solo sounds self-indulgent but I assure you there isn’t a note wasted. This can be found on a record that came out in the U.S. called “Live (More or Less)”.
3. Arvo Part. “Tabula Rasa”.
This piece of music and some of his other well-known things get used a lot in films and documentaries which sort of waters down the effect, maybe it’s a little overexposed, but every now and then I’ll sit down and focus and just take in the whole 25 minutes of this and it’s really something, it’s just a really beautiful piece, so seemingly simple but very complex and moving.
4. Sleep. “Dopesmoker”.
This is a good one to pick because it 60 minutes long so you get a lot for one song. People always say “it’s just one riff for 60 minutes” as if that’s a bad thing! And anyway, that really isn’t true. I mean, sure, the song sort of circles around the main riff for most of that time, but there’s a lot going on in this song and they push into a lot of different spaces…and it’s also one hell of a riff.
5. Nina Simone. “My Man’s Gone Now”.
This is the version from “Nina Sings the Blues”. I don’t know what to say about this one, just an amazing performance. Old man sorrow indeed…
6. Drive Like Jehu. “Luau”.
This song just reminds me of when I was younger and really loved watching this band play, I saw them a bunch of times and this song was always an epic jam. They always reminded me of a freight train running off the rails so their band was aptly named. Great interlocking guitars, great vocals…Rick Froberg is way underrated, he’s one of the great post-punk singers and I basically taught myself to play drums by following this drummer, Mark Trombino as well as Mick Harvey from the Birthday Party and Crime and the City Solution which leads me to…
7. Crime and the City Solution. “Steal to the Sea”.
I love all the Crime and the City Solution stuff, and I could have named a bunch of their songs, in fact I could have just done a list on my 10 favorite Crime songs…but anyway, I’ve listened to this one an awful lot—it’s a longer one and has a number of build ups and a lot of dynamics. It’s just really well done.
8. Popol Vuh. “Aguirre I”.
They also have so many great songs it’s hard to pick one, but this is just so quintessential and pairs up so wonderfully with Werner Herzog’s film—just a perfect match. I would love to get a hold of the “choir organ” he used to record this…as far as I understand it’s like a mellotron of some sort, uses tape loops of a choir which you play with a keyboard. I don’t really know but I do know that I’ve tried to approximate that sound many times and never really get it right.
9. Erik Satie. “Gnossienne Nos. 1-6”.
Like Arvo Part, on the surface it seems so simple and minimal but there is a lot going on here in these pieces. It’s very melancholy and a little wistful, but there’s also some playfulness in there as well. Satie was sort of a master of making that unlikely combination work and that’s not easy to do.
10. Lungfish. “Fearfully and Wonderfully”.
Like Sleep’s “Dopesmoker”, Lungfish also gets saddled with the “it’s only one riff” critique but I have to say again, it’s one hell of a riff, and Lungfish have so many great riffs over a bunch of great records. I guess I really like repetition. Anyway, Lungfish not only have great riffs but also a great singer/lyricist in Daniel Higgs. I just love them and this song is one of my favorites.