“Jackson” by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash
“Jackson” by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash
“My Boys” by Taken by Trees
It took me awhile to realize this, but most songs I listen to don’t really have proper refrains. Sure, some phrases may be repeated, or each verse may end with the same line, but that’s not what a chorus is. A proper refrain is like the head of a jazz song: it’s instantly recognizable and is repeated at least once, preferably twice, in a song. It’s the hook, it’s what gets stuck in our heads for days on end. It’s the reason fucking “Call Me, Maybe” (and no, I will not link you to it) gets stuck in anyone’s head the minute it’s mentioned (sorry, it’s in your head now too). Pop songs have to have the best (or at least catchiest) refrains because the act of getting it stuck in your head is what makes you get the gottas and go and buy the record. Or at least, it used to, before people started straight up stealing music off the internet. So a good chorus will now make you buy the song or a thief! Either way, a good chorus works on your brain in a very deep and yet still superficial way.
For this list, I tried to pick some songs I haven’t talked about before. Since we’re spending so much time on songs, and I can listen to the same song 72924102647 times before even remotely getting sick of it, I thought maybe I’d spare y’all of listening to me talk about the same favorite songs over and over again (read: “Graceland” could be on literally every list we’re doing about song structure).
“I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You” by The Black Kids
It took me until I sat down to write this blurb to realize this song is basically all chorus, and that’s why it’s so freaking catchy. I mean, besides the adorable lyrics and bouncy beat. But there’s the “verses,” which are identical in both instances (and in fact repeat the same line) and then the “chorus,” which against all songwriting staples, is far longer than the verses put together. But it’s hard to argue with The Black Kids’ formula here. I have been singing this song to myself all month.
“Worried Ming” by Megafaun
I might be cheating a bit here. One could easily argue that since the chorus doesn’t come until the very end of the song, it’s not a “proper” chorus. While this may be true for the studio version, when I saw this band open for The Mountain Goats last year, they played a longer version of this song with the chorus repeated many, many times, and sung in rounds with the audience’s gleeful assistance. And lord, these guys can harmonize with the best of them. The harmonies in the last lines of the song are soaring and gorgeous, the kind I wish every song could have, and the kind I wish I could be doing with someone all day. If I could, I would speak in classic 4-part harmony, and of course, being mindful of any theoretical part-writing errors. (Those of you who took music theory know exactly the infuriating rules I’m talking about here. Goddamn parallel fifths have made me re-write far too many measures of 4-part harmonies.)
“The Body Of An American” by The Pogues
This may be the best example I have of a perfect non-traditional chorus: it has different lyrics in parts, but always in the same place, and they all have the same rhyme scheme, which also differs from the rhyme scheme in the verses. Actually, I believe this is a pretty common thing in folk songs, no matter the nationality associated with the type. It’s a great way to both interrupt and continue the story at the same time, with a good hook in the last line of the chorus. This song has one of the best last lines of a chorus, immortalized by Bunk, McNulty, and Freeman (around the 3:00 mark): “I’m a free born man of the U-S-A!”
“How Long Do I Have To Wait For You?” by Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings
God, the beat of this song alone is enough to draw anyone in. And layer in on top of it the horns, you have the makings of a true classic. And the refrain does not let you down even for a second. It’s incredibly simple, only two quick lines, but it has something that lacks in a lot of newer songs: the guitar line that walks down that phrase, letting the listener know that yes, this is the refrain. You can’t possibly remember the refrain to this song without remembering that little walkdown, which makes it incredibly effective at making it super catchy. And funky as all get out.
“Get By” by Talib Kweli
If the object of a good refrain is to get stuck in your head, then rap has got it fucking figured out. If you name me 30 raps songs right this second, I may not remember any single lyric of the song, but I’ll be damned if I don’t remember their hooks. The beauty about the hook in this song is that it matches so perfectly the wide open and totally non-synthesizer beat: The beat is comprised of a piano, a drum set, a bass guitar, and people clapping. And equally, the hook is a few great voices harmonizing perfectly. It’s a such a wonderful difference from most modern rap hooks and beats, all triple-sequenced synths and auto-tuners. It makes me remember and miss the wonderful beats done by A Tribe Called Quest with freaking Ron Carter, one of the best jazz bassists ever to have lived, in no small part to the fantastic sample of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.”
In my perfect world, the best rap group ever would be ?uestlove on drums, Marcus Miller on bass, John Scofield on guitar, Herbie Hancock on piano, the Tower of Power horn section, and Mos Def and Talib Kweli over them all. So, come on guys. Get it together. I want to hear that album yesterday.
“The Body of an American” by The Pogues
If you’re going to repeat a cluster of lines a couple times over, they better be good. I’ve never taken a songwriting class, but I have to guess that’s a lesson that’s taught on day one. The chorus does the song’s heavy lifting—how often, during a concert, does an artist ask the audience to put down their drinks and chant the third verse? It’s rare. The chorus is what everyone knows, the chorus is what gets trapped in your head, long before the rest of the lyrics land there too.
“Ghost World” by Aimee Mann
Remember the public, coded melodrama that was the early 2000s AIM away message? The clear ancestor of modern Facebook statuses and tweets, away messages were prime real estate for a well placed song lyric, meant to convey the ocean of feelings you were off somewhere glamorously drowning in (when, in fact, you were usually across the room watching TV).
My first year of college, “I’m bailing this town/Or tearing it down” was a not so sly glimpse at the epic partying I was clearly doing, meant to impress…well, everyone. I moved back home as a sophomore and started using the full chorus, following up those loaded two lines with the truthful third “Or probably more like hanging around.” Aimee Mann succinctly sums up a snapshot of adolescence, and not the kind so often portrayed on TV and in movies, where everyone juggles lurid sex lives, wacky adventures, and transcendent angst. It’s real adolescence—the kind where the bulk of it is boredom and waiting, wanting to do something exciting, but probably doing a lot of nothing as you hide behind a carefully invented version of yourself.
“Brilliant Mistake” by Elvis Costello
I almost got a tattoo of this song title, years ago. I’m glad I didn’t; I think whatever haunch or shoulder blade I scribbled an Elvis Costello lyric on would embarrass me now. What if in two years we find out that Elvis Costello is a serial killer, or worse, he takes a cue from Liz Phair and releases some inescapable piece of pop drek? His handiwork would sit right on my skin, forever. This is how I think. This is a keyhole view into my obsessive mind. And for another view, here’s this: Several times a week, I’ll leave my keys at home or rewrite a draft into a worse draft or get garishly heavy-handed with eye liner, and the chorus to this song will run through my head and make me smile: “It was a fine idea at the time/ Now it’s a brilliant mistake.”
“Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand)” by The Shangri-Las
I love this chorus. The entire tempo of the song shifts and it’s stripped down to snapping and atmospheric noises. Even the lead singer’s voice changes from impassioned, loud pleading to a half whispered kittenish drawl. The other girls, who oohed and aahed through the intro, join together for a hushed “Remember!” at the top of every line in the chorus. It’s striking and a little bizarre—the background noises are kind of psychedelic, and when they’re paired with classic Motown girl group snaps and syncopation, it’s magical. I heard this song for the first time recently and the chorus made me drop what I was working on and really tune in.
“Metal Firecracker” by Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams is a badass. All grit and wisdom and you took my joy, I want it back—listen to “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” one time and tell me you don’t want to track her down and swig whiskey with her at some salty dive. (And hey, if that ever happens for you, call me?) Even this song about a breakup shows off a bit of her swagger, as her old lover calls her his biker and they cruise around listening to ZZ Top. But the chorus is so quiet and vulnerable, it’s jarring and does a magic trick that good poetry performs: It reveals an experience so universal, you didn’t realize you’d had it a million times. It’s terrifying to reveal yourself to someone, scarier still when that someone leaves with half your heart and all your secrets. Who hasn’t wanted to plead “All I ask is don’t tell anybody that secrets I told you” when a relationship ends? I’ve never said that to someone: ego and fear usually get the better of me. But like I said, Lucinda Williams is a badass. Vulnerability and honesty are just as ballsy as bourbon and bikes.
“I’d Rather Go Blind” Etta James
My friend Max, who’s a chef, once came over after work with a foie gras sandwich on brioche, slathered with homemade duck fat butter. “Luxury!” we exclaimed as we devoured it. I will never eat that sandwich again, which is a fact that makes my arteries sing. When it comes to little luxuries, the ones you can conjure more than once, I think a good cry is the best. The kind of cry where I may not be sad about anything in particular, but I find myself with a chunk of alone time and the opportunity to wail for a bit. It’s better than any massage or bubble bath or any other spa like treatment that may cleanse your skin, but can’t touch the soul cleansing powers of voluntary weeping. A good song can kickstart a crying jag, and “I’d Rather Go Blind” is one of my favorites. Etta James’ voice gives me chills, and the bone rattling sadness of the chorus reduces me to a blubbering mess.
“Atticus” by Noisettes
“Silver Spring” cover by Lykke Li (original by Fleetwood Mac)
xx by The xx
Let’s say it’s raining in San Francisco, and day light savings time has sharpened the sunny bits of your day to a sharp peak that ends around 3:30pm. Let’s say you’re staring down a growing pile of work and a growing sense that you have no idea what to do next, or where you’re going. Let’s say you need to get excited, but the kind that pairs well with room temperature coffee and a blank page. Let’s say you have to go to sleep in a few hours. Let’s say you need to forget the dishes in the sink; why on earth do you keep cooking eggs in the morning when the crust stares up at you from the pan all day, waiting for your undivided, teeth gritting ablutions? Let’s say you need to sit down and write and figure and enjoy the early nightfall.
Let’s say none of this applies to you, that you’re churning out copy and clean dishes at an alarming rate. If there’s any corner of your life that requires a potent combination of focus and forgetfulness, put on this album. When you need something to tune into so you can tune out, this album is perfect: steady, atmospheric, and engaging in a way that seems to encourage concentration. xx has a strong, continuous pace; each song flawlessly weaves into the next. But, and this is important, it’s not boring zone out music, the beloved soundtrack of cafes and tiny quasi French restaurants. That kind of music puts me to sleep, or makes me want to serve everyone spinach feta crepes (tiny quasi French restaurants were my bread and butter in my waitressing days).
So go forth and work and write, and if you need a break from your album du jour because it’s distracting or doing something less than helpful to your mood (a common problem for this easily distracted writer/music consumer), let xx work it’s magic on your ears and attention span.
“Worried Mind” by Megafaun
It’s no doubt there are lines in songs that make your heart stop, but how often is it that it’s the whole verse that does it? Well, probably more than the 5 that are down here, but at least these 5 kill me, every time. I could be doing anything when these songs are on, but I will absolutely focus my attention every single time these verses start. In fact, writing this post was kind of a pain in the ass. Usually when I write these posts, I listen to the songs while I’m writing. However, when I tried that with these, I had to stop writing every time the verse in question started, making it hard to really get a handle on the verse in the moment. But enough technique.
Why, (somebody?) why people break up turn around and make up? I just can’t see You’d never do that me? (Would you, baby?) Cuz being around you is all I see
- “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green
I’ve almost always said that this is the best thing Al Green has ever done – the third verse in this song is no doubt the best in the song, and it’s very tough to top. It’s the perfect expression of uncertain romantic love. “I love you, baby, and you love me, right? Right?” It’s both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. Or maybe I just find it beautiful because I’m always the one who’s more in love. Are you that person, or are you the person Al is singing to? If you are, you probably won’t be swayed by the song or him singing it. But really, it’s fucking Al Green. If 1972 Al Green started singing you this song,
I’dyou’d be giving it up all day, everyday.
I am an old woman named after my mother My old man is another child that’s grown old If dreams were lightning, thunder was desire This old house would have burnt down a long time ago
- “Angel From Montgomery” by John Prine
I’m not sure why this verse makes me break out into tears immediately after hearing it. Every time. It’s bad, guys. Like, for serious bad. It’s one of those songs I love to put on right after a breakup, at a very drunk 3 am. Which I don’t think makes much sense – the lyrics aren’t really sad, just kind of wistful. But Prine has that way of turning wistful into powerful in a short turn a phrase. The last line in this verse is my favorite in the whole song and one of the best ways I’ve dealt with unrequited love.
She comes back to tell me she’s gone As if I didn’t know that As if I didn’t know my own bed As if I’d never noticed The way she brushed her hair from her forehead And she said losing love Is like a window in your heart Everybody sees you’re blown apart Everybody sees the wind blow
-”Graceland” by Paul Simon
Every time I hear this song, I think back to sitting on the Calvert balcony, listening to Trevor Shipley play it for all of us, lounging on ratty couches and smoking like chimneys. I can’t help but wonder if I loved this song because of Simon’s amazing lyrical ability and melodic phrasing or if because at that time, as a young 20 year old who was desperately and not-so-secretly in love with a girl who didn’t love me back, this verse spoke a truth I wasn’t able to admit to myself. I even wrote a short piece based off my feelings toward her based off the lyric “As if I’d never noticed the way she brushed her hair away from her forehead.” When you’re in desperate and stupid love with someone, you notice the tiniest things about them, and I noticed the way she did it because I was looking for it because Paul Simon said it in this song. So thank, Paul Simon, for furthering my obsession with this girl. And also for writing one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard in my life.
Telegram to Hip Hop: Dear Hip Hop, stop This shit has gone too far, stop Please see that turntables and mixer are returned to Kool Herc, stop The ghettos are dancing off beat, stop The master of ceremonies have forgotten That they were once slaves And have neglected the occasion of this ceremony, stop Perhaps we should not have encouraged them To use cordless microphones For they have walked too far from the source And are emitting a lesser frequency, stop Please inform all interested parties That cash nor murder have been included to the list of elements, stop We are discontinuing our line of braggadocio In light of the current trend in ‘Realness’, stop As an alternative, we will be confiscating weed supplies And replacing them with magic mushrooms In hopes of helping niggas see beyond their reality, stop Give my regards to Brooklyn
-”Telegram” by Saul Williams
My original list for this post was nearly 30 songs long and included a bunch of rap songs (not that this is really rap), but I realized something about most of the rap verses I like: I don’t like any of the whole verses, just individual lines, or maybe a couplet here or there. It is not this way with the titular telegram to hip-hop verse in this song. Every line is just as important to the song as the previous, and every line is awesome. I’d like to be able to say I agree with the point Williams is making here, but I don’t think I have the authority to do so (read: I’m white). Ooh, perhaps I’ll write a telegram to Nickelback.
Telegram to Nickelback:
Dear Nickelback, stop.
Oh, Margaret the lapping waves Are licking quietly at our ankles Another bow, another breath This brilliant chill is comfort a shackle With this long last rush of air We’ll speak our vows in starry whispers And when the waves came crashing down He closed his eyes and softly kissed her
-”The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)” by The Decemberists
I’m a total sucker for tragic love songs. Happy ever after pisses me off to no end, and therefore the last verse of tragic love songs are always my favorite. It’s the moment where the tragedy comes to pass and we have to deal with it. The beauty about this song is that moment is left until the very last verse on the very last song on the album. The listener knows from the get-go on this album the young lovers are fated to die, but the rub comes in that they choose their deaths, married together on the shores of a river they are about to drown themselves in, rather than be pulled asunder by forces beyond their control (in this case, William’s evil mother). The last picture we have of the young lovers is them lying together, William kissing Margaret, and them being pulled into the river. It’s beautiful and horrible.