When I first envisioned these “Top-Ish” lists, the obvious one for me was to put together a list of my favorite songs. So I tried to pick 5. That became 10 with 8 honorable mentions. That became closer to 20. And the number keeps growing. So, ultimately I needed to break it up, but now some of those are blowing up. So I just said, screw it – I am going to pick a topic and if I get it wrong so what, who’s going to notice, the three of you who actually read this?
So for starters, I thought of those songs that I love because they tell me a story. If you know me, you know I like a good story – and sometimes song writers will do that same thing on their own. They create in a short period of time a full plot, with characters, moods, and themes. They start, they finish, and give us the whole nugget all in one(-ish) package. While it was never my intention, all of these songs are gut punches in some way. Some of it was subtlety sad, some of it was downright horrific. Honestly, pain is what makes a good story, and in the time given in a sing offering – pain makes for a good short story.
To get my meaning of what constitutes a story song, let me give you the rules and maybe that will help:
- The song(ish) must tell a complete story. Beginning, plot, ending. Ending is key here, we can’t be left without a known direction. This is not about leaving you with an impression, this is about telling a story. Songs like Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” didn’t make this list because while it establishes a direction it really is more events in a location.
- The story has to be clear, and while it can be left to interpretation it can’t be completely left to interpretation. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen is a good example – because let’s face it, that song is a little bats**t crazy.
- This list is about standard rock, pop, or what have you. So music from the stage, screen, or opera does not count. We can leave that to a later list.
- The story has to be a nice packaged size. Not a rock opera or full album. Ideally it has to be one song; but I wanted to shoehorn in a specific item on this list so consider it ‘packaged’. That’s your ‘-ish’ part of your list, since it isn’t a list of songs, its a list of song(ish).
- One entry per artist.
- I reserve the right to reuse these songs(ish) in a future list. Just because I can. It’s my rules.
- These are my favorites, not yours. You don’t like them make your own blog.
- I reserve the right to change my mind in the future. Because moods change.
So here we go … in order of ‘None of your business what order it is in’ here is:
The Top-6ish Favorite Storytelling Songs, That Just Happen to be Sad and Pathetic:
1) Crane Wife Parts 1, 2, 3 — The Decemberists
Let me get this out of the way right now. The Decemberists are going to show up a lot in these song lists. This entry is the ‘shoehorn’ mentioned in the rules too. This isn’t one song, it is three, in three parts. Live they play all three at once, and to me that is the best way to hear it (the transition from 2 to 3 gave me goosebumps the first time I heard them together); however, on the original album (also titled Crane Wife) 1 & 2 were together but 3 was separate … ironically, the album started with 3, and nearly ended with 1&2.
Crane Wife retells a Japanese folk story. A lonely hermit finds an injured crane, mends it and heals it until it is able to fly away. Shortly after a woman arrives on his doorstep. In time they marry and try to make a life, however they were very poor. She says she can spin cloth but only if she is left alone to do so; and as she does he finds the cloth is of such high quality that it can make them wealthy. He pressures her to spin more, but she grows weak and tired. Soon blood stains show on the cloth. Worried of what she is becoming he finally enters the room where she spins, only to find that instead of her, it is the crane he had healed. She uses her own feathers to spin the cloth, and the work has caused her wound to open. But since he now knows her secret, she must leave him and he is left alone with the guilt that he drove the crane and wife away.
What makes this song so good is that the music shifts with changes in mood, capturing the spirit through the eyes of the man. You get his loneliness. You get his happiness when he is married. You get his shame when he drives her away. Yet it’s non-traditional approach. Like, yeah, you get his shame, but it is music that would traditionally feel uplifting – and it gives the effect of a guy screaming to the heavens pleading for the bird to forgive him. Pieced together, it’s one of the best songs you can find, and well worth the shoehorning.
2) Tunnel of Love – Dire Straights
Okay, Dire Straights will likely show up more than a few times to. Tunnel of Love was on the Making Movies album Dire Straights put out in their pre-top 40 years. Officially, you have to do a little interpreting to get the ending of this but it’s just a great song. The narrator is a young fellow who loves the carnival – for the lights, for the sounds, for the games, for the rides; but most of all as a place to pick-up women. The ultimate goal is of course, getting that girl to take a ride with him on the Tunnel of Love. In this song, he is trying for a girl who is enticed by the carnival as much as he, but she could play the game as good as he could and stays aloof. For most of this song, there is that youthful excitement of the game of flirting. Until the last verse tells you how the story change.
She took off her silver locket, said remember me by this.
She put a hand in my pocket. I got a keepsake and a kiss.
And through the roaring dust and diesel, I stood and watched her walk away
I could have caught up with her easy enough, but something just made me stay
After that, the song repeats the chorus, but what was once approached as the excitement of the midway began to feel like the passage of time. As that ends, the song turns soft, and quiet. It is a repeated line, originally given as a pick-up line, now with truth, sadness, and loss – and the first notes after that last line is the most forlorn guitar rift ever. This girl who he chased after one day at the carnival never came back; and he chases her again but only in memory. He’s just left with the big wheel turning.
3) Casimir Pulaski Day – Sufjan Stevens
Since it seems to be the theme – I can guarantee you that this is not the last time you will see this song on any list. Sufjan Stevens is a eclectic indy musician who had a couple of ground breaking albums in the middle ’00s that were generally themed after states. None had a greater impact, and few songs ever had this great of impact, as Casimir Pulaski Day from the ‘Come On Feel the Illinoise’ album. The title only receives a passing reference to a holiday they used to celebrate in Chicago, and by passing I mean there is one even that is mentioned to have happened on ‘a holiday’. The real basis for this story is established in the first line:
Goldenrod and a 4-H stone are the things I brought you when I found out you had cancer of the bone
This song follows a boy on the cusp of his awkward years when a girl he likes loses a battle with cancer. This story, in just 3 minutes, is deep, emotional, and powerful. The feel of it is soft, light, and airy as if there is hope even when there isn’t. The lyrics are absolutely masterful – because it tells you things about characters just in the way the phrases are written. No better example is a lyric that went:
And the complications you could do without, When I kissed you on the mouth
It says these two had their lives complicated by a kiss on the mouth. There is an age when a ‘mouth kiss’ is absolutely huge and life changing. So much that this girl, who is going to bone cancer, found a boy kissing her on the mouth to be a problem.
The song also is a song about trying to find meaning in faith. These kids almost have a naive approach to their beliefs, like trying to become faith healers during a bible study. This ends up to be the real gutting part of this story. While it appears it be about a girl who passes away too young, it is mostly about how such an experience could effect the boy. We leave him at that point of grief of anger, and his only place to send that anger is at his faith. Your left with the heartbreak of his pain, and the hope that he will ever love the way he loved that girl.
All in 3 minutes.
Literally, first deep listen to this, I was in the car and had to pull over to have a good cry.
4) Has Thou Considered the Tetrapods – Mountain Goats
Okay, lets face it, the first three on this list is growing levels of gut punches. I could go the other direction, but let’s take it one more level but with a story that, thank goodness, I can not personally identify with directly. The songwriter for the Mountain Goats wrote an entire album called Sunset Tree regarding his abusive step-father when he was growing up. Some of the songs deal with the way this step-father battered his mother or the constant stress dealing with an alcoholic in the house. One of the toughest songs is this one. The title references the evolutionary creatures Tetrapods, which are considered to be the first animals that had legs and crawled out of the oceans. The reference to make sense later, I promise.
The story is direct and blunt. A teenager coming home in the afternoon, finding his step-father passed out and drunk. He knows he has to keep quiet or “There will be hell to pay”. So he heads to his room, puts on his earphones, and listens to his stereo. He’s deep into his “Dream Chamber” listening to the music and somehow makes enough noise to wake the step-father. What happens next is brutal and hard to hear. It isn’t graphic, but it points to how desperate the fear is when your ‘caregiver’ attacks you with the fury that could leave you dead. Yet as it hits his peak he finishes the song with the thought that keeps him going:
Held under these smothering waves by your strong and thick-veined hand
But one of these days, I’m going to wriggle up on dry land
5) Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep At The Wheel – Barenaked Ladies
Hey, look at that, another group that will probably be on a few of these lists. It’s also a pretty direct song too. This song ended the Maroon album, best known for ‘Pinch Me’, the song that tricks you into saying ‘underwear’. The irony is that BNL is really good at being subtle with their lyrics, or putting some extra meaning – so when you see a specific title like “Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep At The Wheel” you would think it is about someone who just forgot to do something. Instead, it is a song about a guy who fell asleep while driving his car. From a storytelling standpoint, this is as direct of a story as it can get. There are only two non-narrative lines in the whole song, the first early on where he establishes the title with where we think they are still going to be subtle throughout:
As usual I’m almost on time, you’re the last thing that’s on my mind.
Wish I could tell you the way that I feel, but tonight is the night I fell asleep at the wheel.
(Hint, remember that second part of that first line for later)
After that, it gets blunt. He just didn’t fall asleep, he wrecked the car, and bad. He eases in with lines about the feelings of the crash, like the tumbling of the sky or the sound of impact. Then about the traffic around him slowing down, looking at the after effect. Then things start getting serious as fire trucks arrive and the jaws of life are used. There is a growing panic to the lines, suggesting that this is so bad that people are shocked anyone was inside the car still. The bridge of the song comes and he says directly with the growing line that ends with:
I guess it’s over now because I’ve never seen so much … blood.
Following that bridge, the outcome is clear and morbid. He’s not telling the story anymore from inside the car. He is telling it while floating above, looking down on himself. There is a peace to the music as if he is beginning the path to the afterlife, but before he goes he has one last line to leave a warm spot:
I can see my face slump with a grin
you’re the last thing on my mind
In all the blunt, direct language, the song ends with this little bit of subtly that gives you a beautiful finish. This person, this “you” he is singing to. She was the last thing on his mind when he died. And that in all the pain, all the blood, all the horror of the crash … it made his face smile. A strong, powerful, eternal goodbye.
6) Beeswing – Richard Thompson
Let’s end on a happy sad. Known for stuff nothing like this, Richard Thompson’s Beeswing is a sweet nearly folky song from his Mirror Blue album. It tells the story from the narrator’s point of view of woman he was with for a while. They were more vagrants or travelers during the summer of love, going where they can find work to get by. They do the best they can until the break-up and go their separate ways. What makes this song so memorable for me is that it is as much about the loving a woman for reasons that will remind you she will never love you in the same way. The chorus, in it’s most typical form, sums this up beautifully:
She was a rare thing Fine as a beeswing
So fine a breath of wind might blow her away
She was a lost child, She was running wild,
she said ‘As long as there’s no price on love, I’ll stay’
And I wouldn’t want her any other way
The last verse tells how they let hard drinking lead to petty arguments and their break-up. He had hints of what she might have ended up at, thoughts maybe she let her life become hard only by refusing the chains of life. Still that refrain ends as it did through, but now with longing for what had past.
She was a rare thing, Fine as a beeswing
And I miss her more than ever words could say
If I could just taste
all of her wildness now
If I could hold her in my arms today
Then I wouldn’t want her any other way
This maybe not as deep or subtle or descriptive as the others on this list. But if you ever loved a wild child – ever loved something so fragile as a beeswing – ever had to work so hard for the price of love — and then spend a day missing any of that wildness, then this song is one that you can embrace.
- America – Simon & Garfunkle — Sooooo close. If we could figure out where those hitchhikers ended up or were heading to then this was the winner.
- Bat Out Of Hell – Meatloaf — This probably should have been there, but I got tired of writing and had errands to run. Sorry Meat.
- Death Valley Queen – Flogging Molly – Again, an ending would have put it here
- Fred Jones, Part 2 – Ben Folds – Sad song about a guy getting fired from a job. But you had to tie into ‘Cigarette’ (the unoffical part 1); and that is really loose from a story – if only one sentence long song.
- Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen — Can a brother get an ending? Does Wendy hop in that back seat or not?
- Fisherman’s Blues – The Waterboys – This is more about getting a beginning but great visuals
- Humble Me – Norah Jones — ENDING!!! Come On! This had all the depression the rest of them did, just needed to find out if the guy came and helped her.
- Solisbury Hill – Peter Gabriel — Okay, this is a full story, but you need to know the meaning behind the story as told by Peter to know it. And then it loses a little bit of it’s luster.
- One Sunday Morning – Wilco – If I ever had the patience to do a deep listen to this twelve minutes of a gillion short verses I would probably like it.
Okay … enough with the gut punches. Enjoy your weekend y’all and thanks for putting up with me.