Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The 10 Best Songs That Make You Feel Good (And Then Feel Bad About Feeling Good.)

Have you ever been driving along, enjoying yourself (enjoying yourself as much as you can on the commute into work, that is) and humming along with the pleasant, bouncy, upbeat song playing on your iPod, and all of a sudden you remember that this song, the song that's putting you into a good mood and making you hum happily and look forward to the day ahead of you, the song that's actually helping you enjoy your day just a little more, is about Oedipus' mother, and also that the first stanza is, so far as you can tell, about feeding a stillborn child to the wolves?

Music's funny that way. It works on a bunch of different levels on us, revving us up and calming us down and using the complex interplay of melody and lyrics and rhythm to create sometimes not one emotion, but several -- which may or may not be the point of the musicians were trying to make. Maybe they were trying to confuse your emotions and create a sort of meta-feeling in you, maybe they weren't. Maybe, after all, they were just writing a song and didn't give any thought to the complicated way that song would make you feel when you tapped your foot to it and sung along with it and then suddenly realized that you're tapping your foot and singing along with a guy whose heart is breaking.

That's the kind of music that's on my mind today. Not purely happy songs. Not purely sad songs. No, I'm thinking about songs that are both, at the same time, songs that use their own internal structure to set off all kinds of feelings in the listener -- maybe actively applying the My Aunt's Dog Theorem to the music in hopes of stirring up something even more complicated. Songs that don't just sing about the time the person was on the dance floor wanting some more, but instead delve deeper into the human psyche and create not just something lasting and memorable and thoughtful, but lasting and memorable and thoughtful and you can dance to it.

Songs, in short, that make you feel good, and then feel bad about feeling good. That's why I call this list...

The 10 Best Songs That Make You Feel Good (And Then Feel Bad About Feeling Good.)

1. The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism, (by New Pornographers.)

Why it'll make you feel good: The bouncy beat, the strummy guitars... this is a happy song! Look, my toe's tapping!

Why it'll then make you feel bad: The singer is slowly descending into alcoholism. Didn't you get that from the title?

Lyric that should have tipped you off and made you hang your head in shame: The title. Remember? How'd you miss that?

2. American Girl (by Tom Petty)

Why it'll make you feel good: That opening guitar riff -- it's ringing out with the grandeur and glory of the American landscape, urging you to put the pedal down and speed on down the highway into a glorious future.

Why it'll then make you feel bad: So far as I can tell, the American girl is going to commit suicide. Or she's just really depressed and alone. Is that any better? Maybe just a little.

Lyric that should have tipped you off: "She couldn't help thinking that there was a little more to life somewhere else." If that's not enough, how about "If she had to die/trying she/had one little promise she was gonna keep."

3. Scar That Never Heals (by Jeremy Fisher).

Why It'll Make You Feel Good: This song sounds like summer! It's got a reggae-like feel to it without being actual reggae, so you don't have to feel like some kind of poser or deal with people wearing knit berets and smoking Pineapple Express.

Why it'll then make you feel bad: Is it really about a woman that runs guns? Sure seems like it.

Lyric that should have tipped you off: "She runs guns everyone wants guns." But this one seals the deal: My self is broke and bandaged/her love is a scar that never heals. Hey, how's your summer going now?

4. Long Long Time (by Guy Forsyth)

Why It'll Make You Feel Good: Hey, it's nostalgia! Everyone loves nostalgia! Kids drawing jet planes, Luke Skywalker, comic books! Why, I'm remembering my own childhood right now and things were pretty good, weren't they? Rambling guitar, Star Wars. This is great!

Why it'll then make you feel bad: What's that he's saying? Wait, aren't things really good? I missed his last comment. Is he becoming a downer?

Lyric that should have tipped you off: No one lyric really serves as the tipping point -- I hope I'm using that right -- but instead, the song slowly tilts down hill a little at a time as your heart sinks. It starts to dawn on you around "Living life according to the TV set..." that maybe things aren't so great after all. Where did I put those comic books? Then, that final line drives the point home... like a stake into your heart.

5. The Man Comes Around (Johnny Cash)

Why It'll Make You Feel Good: I've mentioned this song before a couple of times. Hear that guitar? I love acoustic guitar. The version I chose there omits the intro that Johnny used sometimes.

Why It'll Then Make You Feel Bad: Because it's about the end of the world when the Lord comes and calls the good into Heaven and damns the evil. Didn't you skip church this week? And didn't you just flip off that other driver? And come to think of it, you don't do a whole lot of good in the world, do you?

Lyric that should have tipped you off: "'Til Armageddon, no shalom, no shalom. Then the father hen will call His chickens home. The wise men will bow down before the throne." Why don't you just find that guy you flipped off and apologize, quick -- and maybe donate some money to a charity.

6. Guess Things Happen That Way (Johnny Cash)

Why It'll Make You Feel Good: Johnny Cash really is a master of this genre; virtually any of his songs could have been put on this list. But this song serves as one of the early-Cash songs that demonstrates his mastery. Bouncy beat, ba-doom-ba-do chorus, plucky guitar. The beginning sets you up for a 50s-style rockabilly romp. Poodle skirts all around!

Why It'll Then Make You Feel Bad: I kinda think maybe the girl is dead. But maybe she's just left him and he's so despondent that he doesn't think he can go on and needs help from God simply to keep living. Yeah, that's better, right?

Lyric that should've tipped you off: It's right in the beginning, but subtle: "Well, you ask me if I'll forget my baby/I guess I will someday." In retrospect, I shouldn't have been snapping my fingers to that, should I have?

5 Years Time, (Noah & The Whale)

Why It'll Make You Feel Good: Noah & The Whale's Jocasta set me off on this journey of musical discovery, but "5 Years Time" is the pinnacle of their work. The whistling at the beginning calls to mind "The Andy Griffith Show" and then there's talk about wandering around the zoo in the sun. Can't you just see the grainy home movies these two will be watching as they reminisce about all the fun fun fun they had?

Why It'll Then Make You Feel Bad: Umm... is this really happening? Could this happen? Did the singer actually meet someone and is now thinking about how things might turn out well with this person? Or is the singer thinking about someone he maybe hasn't even met yet?

The lyric that should've tipped you off: "In five years time/I might not know you/In five years time/we might not speak." That ices it. But the first clue was a little earlier, actually: "Although maybe all these moments are just in my head."

Fidelity (Regina Spektor)

Why It'll Make You Feel Good: The speaker in "Rush" by Big Audio Dynamite II says "rhythm & melody" are important, and this song proves that. The synocopated little beats, almost like a heart skipping here and there as it feels the first flushes of love, quietly lure you into a romantic, happy mood.

Why It'll Then Make You Feel Bad: Hey, this isn't a love song at all -- it's a song about wishing people hadn't fallen in love! That title, that's meant to be ironic, isn't it? I hate irony when it's mixed with romance.

The lyric that should've tipped you off: "And it breaks my heart." Yeah, I guess I should've caught on a little earlier. But that little music in the background! It's so cute and sweet!

Why Do You Let Me Stay Here (She & Him)

Why It'll Make You Feel Good: It's got that 60's wall-of-sound feel to it, strumming up to more and more emotion, building up and up with guitars and layers of music and background singers and crescendos.

Why It'll Then Make You Feel Bad: It's all kind of minor-chord music, though, isn't it? And there's a touch of sadness in Zooey Deschanel's voice that becomes more prominent as the song goes on, until you replay the song and think I've got to hear that again, and then, yep, you were right: she's in love and he's not coming around.

The lyric that should've tipped you off: You can't really be blamed; they don't tie it up until the end: You make me feel like I am just a child/why do you end it? But like any relationship gone sour, there were hints earlier on. You just didn't want to notice them.

10. The Underdog (Spoon)

Why It'll Make You Feel Good: It's got a good propulsive beat, right at the start, and, of course, acoustic guitar, and it picks up steam as you go. This is a good song for warming up for your jog -- gets the blood pumping!

Why It'll Then Make You Feel Bad: It gets the blood pumping in the manner of a servant or messenger who's apparently gearing up to overthrow the powers that be or maybe just kill a rich man who's done something wrong.

The lyric that should've tipped you off: "You got no fear of the underdog/that's why you will not survive." Telling people in song that they will not survive = warning sign that this is not a happy song. But maybe the listener had it coming? Or am I the listener? Could Spoon be outside my house right now, ready to chastise me for not backing up an inch ever? If so, then I swear -- I'll talk to the waterboy! I'll invite him right into my leather room! He can have my pipe and slippers...

UPDATE: A reader nominates "Always Summertime" for this list.

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Lisa said...

This was awesome! It's like you read my mind and went ahead and made me a mix tape. I'm going to iTunes to download these now!

Briane P said...

Just remember: Tap your toes and whistle somberly.

Christina said...

I really thought this was helpful! I've been a funk lately, and I really like you choices!

DJ Emir Mixtapes said...

The song "Landslide" By Stevie Nicks & Fleetwood Mac always gets to me. It Starts off with a nice melody and it feels happy at first. At first it just sounds like the person's reflecting on happy memories of a friend but as soon as it says "Children get older... I'm getting older too" it sounds more like reflecting on a life that is passing bay way too quickly and that landslide will bring us down cauuse I know it brings me down. :( - DJ Emir Mixtapes

nonsequitur guy said...

really neat, thought it was intresting how you broke down each song. great analysis of the works. music is a love of mine. keep up the good work :)

Anonymous said...

Aww. You missed a real gem: Always Summertime by the Gregory Brothers.


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Anonymous said...

Hey great list. I must add Ateam. I always forget who its by. Hmm im not very helpful, but anyway its about a british girl in her teens who is addicted to heroine and gets into prostitution and eventually dies. got a nice happy beat the whole time though. Again thanks for the list

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