Your body may be gone : The best songs about the afterlife

Hearing “Dead Man’s Curve” this weekend and Conway Twitty on my phone inspired this list, forty songs about looking the Grim Reaper in the sockets, that limn an afterlife, or eulogize a dead companion. Obviously I could find five hundred songs and still offend readers by omitting favorites. These are mine.

1. The Notorious B.I.G. – Suicidal Thoughts
2. The Cure – Just Like Heaven
3. The Mekons – Only Darkness Has the Power
4. Ray Charles – That Lucky Old Sun
5. Queen – The Show Must Go On
6. Bob Dylan – Tryin’ to Get to Heaven
7. Belinda Carlisle – Heaven is a Place on Earth
8. Carrie Underwood – See You Again
9. Brad Paisley ft. Dolly Parton – When I Get Where I’m Going
10. David Bowie – I Can’t Give Everything Away
11. Aerosmith – Dream On
12. Kanye West – Coldest Winter
13. Tupac – I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto
14. Pixies – Monkey Gone to Heaven
15. Talking Heads – Heaven
16. Conway Twitty – That’s My Job
17. Blue Oyster Cult – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper
18. 50 Cent – Many Men (Wish Death)
19. T.I. – Live In The Sky
20. Tom Hall – Ballad of Forty Bucks
21. Funkadelic – Maggot Brain
22. Joy Division – The Eternal
23. Kristin Hersh – Your Ghost
24. Randy Travis – Three Wooden Crosses
25. Modest Mouse – Ocean Breathes Salty
26. Led Zeppelin – In My Time of Dying
27. Sonic Youth – I Love You Golden Blue
28. Jan & Dean – Dead Man’s Curve
29. The Dixie Chicks – Goodbye Earl
30. George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today
31. Ke$ha – Die Young
32. The Chills – Heavenly Pop Hit
33. Drive-By Truckers – The Day John Henry Died
34. Metallica – Fade to Black
35. Reba McIntyre – She Thinks His Name Was John
37. John Prine – When I Get to Heaven
38. The Smiths – There Is a Light That Never Goes Out
39. Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around
40. Warren Zevon – Keep Me in Your Heart

Dead, fat, or rich nobody’s left to bitch: The best Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell songs

When Patterson Hoods mythmaking enterprises stumble, Mike Cooley has saved Drive-By Truckers with his rangy rock. Jason Isbell limned what Cooley called in 2008 the self-destructive zones of rural losers, often turning to heroes like Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. Sine his departure, Isbell has pursued an estimable if safe solo career that will ensure him excellent press. I doubt I’d have any interest in Cooley solo.

1. “Self-Destructive Zones” (Brighter Than Creation’s Dark)
2. “Marry Me” (Decoration Day)
3. “Goddamn Lonely Love” (The Dirty South)
4. “Outfit” (Decoration Day)
5. “Never Gonna Change” (The Dirty South)
6. “Ramon Casiano” (American Band)
7. “Bob” (Brighter Than Creation’s Dark)
8. “Shut Up and Get on the Plane” (Southern Rock Opera)
9. “Danko/Manuel” (The Dirty South)
10. “Birthday Boy” (The Big To-Do)
11. “Panties In Your Purse” (Gangstabilly)
12. “Surrender Under Protest” (American Band)
13. “When the Pin Hits the Shell” (Decoration Day)
14. “Shit Shots Count” (English Oceans)
15. “Perfect Timing” (Brighter Than Creation’s Dark)
16. “Decoration Day” (Decoration Day)
17. “Zip City” (Southern Rock Opera)
18. “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” (The Dirty South)
19. “Get Downtown” (The Big To Do)
20. “Primer Coat” (English Oceans)

The best B-side and rarities compilations

Having covered compilations and B-sides already, I wanted to cover B-side and rarity coms, omitting things like Wingspan and Substance for collecting A-sides. I couldn’t omit Louder Than Bombs, though — the proportion of released versus unreleased matter swung me. I rated those collections whose sequencing, gestalt, and range of material expanded my comprehension of an act’s range. Frequency of play mattered too: I had no wish in including museum pieces regarded once.

Note too the Anglophilia with which this list is afflicted. American acts offer their singles benign neglect.

1. Suede – Sci-Fi Lullabies (1997)
2. The Clash – Super Black Market Clash (1992)
3. The Velvet Underground – VU (1985)
4. Dionne Warwick – Hidden Gems: The Best of Dionne Warwick, Vol. 2 (2005)
5. Pet Shop Boys – Alternative (1995)
6. Morrissey – Bona Drag (1990)
7. Ghostface – More Fish (2006)
8. Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (1991)
9. XTC – Rag and Bone Buffet: Rare Cuts and Leftovers (1990)
10. Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Taking Liberties (1980)
11. Nirvana – Incesticide (1992)
12. The Cure – Join the Dots: B-Sides & Rarities, 1978–2001 (2004)
13. The Smiths – Louder Than Bombs (1987)
14. PJ Harvey – 4-Track Demos (1993)
15. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Barbed Wire Kisses (1988)
16. Pearl Jam – Lost Dogs (2003)
17. Talk Talk – Asides Besides (1998)
18. The Replacements – All for Nothing / Nothing for All (1998)

Best Queen songs written by Freddie Mercury

A shorter list than expected. Before learning to what extent every member of Queen contributed to the songwriting — a rarity in rock — I’d assumed Freddie Mercury did the writing himself or with Brian May, like other singer/guitarist dynamics. Turns out John Deacon wrote my beloved “Back Chat” and Roger Taylor “A Kind of Magic.” But Mercury was up for anything, defying the NO SYNTHS twaddle the band followed until not even their cats thought Moses had carved it on a stone tablet.

This is why fans love him, the Greatest Showman apotheosized during the Live Aid appearance. Committed to blasting the nosebleeds into submission, he moved the camp self-regard of the era’s blowsy arena rock acts from subtext to text. Bohemian Rhapsody, responsible for an explosion of interest in Queen for anyone under thirty, gets the self-regard but dilutes it with biopic crap. For Freddie Mercury, “redemption” was a concept he’d read about in someone else’s story, dah-ling, or it meant the bulge of a crotch through jeans. The movie is product for audiences who want spectacle leavened by assurances of offstage stability, like, say, The Love of a Good Woman, infantilizing us with the fiction that there’s more to life than those fictions we create that delight relatives and fans.

No “Bohemian Rhapsody” below, I should mention.

1. “Somebody to Love” (A Day at the Races)
2. “Bicycle Race” (Jazz)
3. “Body Language” (Body Language)
4. “Killer Queen” (Sheer Heart Attack)”
5. “Flick of the Wrist” (Sheer Heart Attack)
6. “I’m Going Slightly Mad” (Innuendo)
7. “Love of My Life” (A Night at the Opera)
8. “Crazy Thing Called Love” (The Game)
9. “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy” (A Day at the Races)
10. “Seven Seas of Rhye” (Queen II)
11. “Don’t Stop Me Now” (Jazz)
12. “My Melancholy Blues” (News of the World)

Bulldozers and dirt: The best of Patterson Hood

Drive-By Truckers leader offers its grandest concepts, before which songs often fall supine, at worst on their faces too. Yet when he or Mike Cooley (or, briefly, Jason Isbell) married those concepts to riffs and Brad “EZB” Morgan gave them momentum, the results put to shame many of the bands that colleagues and I hailed as The Best of Rock or some such twaddle. Drive-By Truckers rocked, and, if you were that sort of person, you could study their lyric sheets. Knew their territory too — “The Southern Thing,” as he labeled his obsessions in an early song. Still, I wish “Wallace” were faster, the trilogy to Sheriff Buford less unnecessary; he doesn’t valorize him, but he does give the impression that he deserves three songs devoted to him. Grant him this: he could write a title even when the songcraft faltered. Look at them below.

1. “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” (Decoration Day)
2. “The Righteous Path” (Brighter than Creation’s Dark)
3. “Darkened Flags at the Cusp of Dawn” (American Band)
4. “Tornadoes” (The Dirty South)
5. “Used to Be a Cop” (Go-Go Boots)
6. “Your Daddy Hates Me” (Decoration Day)
7. “The Southern Thing” (Southern Rock Opera)
8. “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife” (Brighter than Creation’s Dark)
9. “Aftermath USA” (A Blessing and a Curse)
10. “Assholes” (Go-Go Boots)
11. “Sink Hole” (Decoration Day)
12. “The Fourth Night of My Drinking” (The Big To-Do)
13. “Bulldozers and Dirt” (Pizza Deliverance)
14. “The Tough Sell” (Gangstailly)
15. “The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town” (Pizza Deliverance)
16. “Demonic Possession” (Gangstabilly)
17. “I Do Believe” (Go-Go Boots)
18. “Me and Your Crystal Meth” (Brighter Than Creation’s Dark)
19. “Puttin’ People on the Moon” (The Dirty South)
20. “Ray’s Automatic Weapon” (Go-Go Boots)

Ranking Randy Newman’s five best albums

I still have listening to do, mind: Trouble in Paradise beyond the hit, Faust. 2017’s Dark Matter was a dud. And it took a while to get his L.A. pals to give his tunes simpatico arrangements instead of glossing up his tonal dissonances (Born Again‘s “Half a Man”)

1. Sail Away (1971)

To think that “Political Science” was once received as satire: “We give them money/But are they grateful/No, they’re spiteful/And they’re hateful.” A album chronicling the American imperialist ethos (the title track), including its sentimentality (“Dayton Ohio — 1903”) and self-pity (“Lonely at the Top”), Sail Away synthesizes Newman’s talents where on subsequent albums these talents he puts to discrete uses. That mopey drawl applied to signify his distance from the narrators produces queasy listening experiences, as intended. Tom Waits often didn’t heed this lesson.

2. 12 Songs (1970)

Before coming up with concepts, Newman had “Have You Seen My Baby,” a piano banger with a poised brass section, and Ry Cooler’s slide guitar setting “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” ablaze (“Stay outta danger til I return,” yow). Over and over on this album the beauty of his melodies overcomes critical faculties — take “Old Kentucky Home,” which could repeat its chorus for twenty minutes. “Because his lyrics abjure metaphor and his music recalls commonplaces without repeating them, he can get away with the kind of calculated effects that destroy more straightforward meaning-mongers,” Robert Christgau wrote at the time.

3. Good Old Boys (1974)

Could he sting “Rednecks” in 2018 and get away with it? The trick is difficult if not impossible. If the audience is in on the joke, then the message vaporizes; in this case, Newman wrote a joke everyone gets that nevertheless swings the n-word like a billy club. No matter how pretty the music or how enthusiastically Newman applies Method acting, “Rednecks” comes off like unintentional tribute, especially in Trump’s America. Better are “Louisiana 1927” and “Marie,” the latter revelatory for what the narrator reveals about the depths of his shallowness.

4. Land of Dreams (1988)

It gets off to a dreary start, and includes the usual Boomer Guy Goes Eighties synth pop moment(“Masterman and Baby J”), but “Roll with the Punches” has that wry twinkle in its eye, and the last two songs are immense: he gets the tone right on “It’s Money That Matters,” a celebration of filthy lucre sung by a sad sack singing the chorus to himself as he metaphorically tucks in his belly in front of the mirror; and “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do,” a gesture of empathy gloved in rancor.

5. Harps and Angels (2008)

Suddenly Newman, at the end of the low dishonest decade starring Dick Cheney and Bush II, released a collection as warm as anything in his discography. Must have been all that soundtrack work. Ray Charles has covered Newman. On “Feels Like Home” Newman for once equals him. “Laugh and Be Happy” is a joke and a truism. “Korean Parents” responds, twenty years later, to this magazine cover. Only “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” digs its elbows too deeply into the audience’s sides.