This thread is an offshoot and was inspired by @mahgister’s wonderful thread "Interesting videos about sounds and music." I made a couple of contributions to that thread, recommending a video recorded quite a few years ago by (I believe) a music teacher, who sits at his keyboard while explaining and demonstrating the construction of the utterly majestic "God Only Knows", written by Brian Wilson (music) and Tony Asher (lyrics), recorded by The Beach Boys (vocals) and the L.A. studio musicians who comprised the legendary Wrecking Crew (instruments), the song found on the Pet Sounds album.
In my posts, I made the case for the highly sophisticated and incredibly brilliant chord progressions, modulations (key changes), and use of inversion (playing a bass note below the tonic of the chord being played on the piano) in the song’s composition. So when the video below appeared when I just jumped onto YouTube, it’s title really caught my eye. It is entitled "Exploring The Mythical Chords Of "God Only Knows"." Brian is well known for his harmony vocal arrangements, but that’s just the icing on the cake; the song itself is in it’s chords and melody. Some of the chord sequences in "God Only Knows" bring me to tears. Add to that the vocal harmonies---many sung in counterpoint---and Carl Wilson's angelic singing of the melody, and you have an absolute masterpiece of a song.
I have long considered "God Only Knows" my favorite song, and imo the "best" song ever written. I’m not alone in that; Paul McCartney has stated he feels the same. I could have added this video to @mahgister’s thread, but I believe the song and it’s appreciation warrant it’s own thread. Watch and listen to this video (and the one I posted in mahgister’s thread), give the song a new listen, and see if you don’t agree with Paul and I. 😉
I want to begin by saying that I have tremendous respect for your vast knowledge of rock and pop music. I always find your stories and inside knowledge very interesting. Being 68 myself, I lived with and through most of the same music that you have, but I couldn’t scratch the surface of all that you know.
That said, I have never subjectively regarded this as anywhere near the greatest pop song ever. I never knew everything that went into it (thanks for the video), and yes, Brian was a pretty amazing arranger, and the whole song is beautifully realized, but I don’t find any of it very emotionally powerful, or tear inducing. There are many pop songs that do have that effect on me, but his has never been one of them.
This is a very interesting subject, and it will be interesting to see what other members have to say.
I'm not sure there's a GOAT pop song, but Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" certainly deserves to be near the top of the list. The Beatles original still retains its power, and it's been recorded by thousands of artists over the years.
I understand the passion one has for a song, and for me (although I love this BB song) it might be San Francisco Mabel Joy, a Mickey Newbury song, that would top my list. It gets to me each time I hear it/play it. Very different that GOK, but as great none the less. I think.
Just listened to God Only Knows by the Beach Boys and can confirm that it is not the best pop song. Top of my head, these are better.
Dancing In the Street by Martha and the Vandellas
Be My Baby by The Ronettes
I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor
Let it snow by Ella F.
Dancing Queen by Abba
It’s not as though "God Only Knows" is the only well-crafted Pop song -- there are many in the top tier. It all comes down to what moves us, particularly.
Simply consider the many gems in Stevie Wonder’s catalogue, for example. His composing is as harmonically/melodically sophisticated as anyone’s. This may or may not matter, depending upon whether his music appeals to you. Songs like "All Is Fair In Love" and "Visions" would certainly rank very highly on any list I’d compile, though.
What is the time span we’re considering? Think of all the Standards, some going back to the Twenties -- the Pop music of that era. These tunes from the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s are still being both sung and utilized for instrumental Jazz improvisation.
@rpeluso: Oh yeah, if you remove the "Paul and" the sentence would read "agree with me". So even with "Paul" in the sentence, "me" is correct. Smarty-pants. 😉
Another Top 10 song for me is "What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted". Like "God Only Knows", it’s chord structure/modulation/inversion just kills me. The bass part---played by my favorite bassist, James Jamerson---raises the hair on the back of my neck.
As for Beatles covers of Motown songs, give the original recording of "Money (That’s What I Want)"---written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, sung by Barrett Strong---a listen. Good as The Beatles version is---and it’s good---the original is even better (a very visceral feeling of tension-and-release is created by The Funk Brothers), with a very wicked little guitar solo (incredible tone, too).
John Lennon’s vocal on "Twist And Shout" is one of his best. I don't remember whether or not The Beatles did the song when I saw them live in '65. But I vividly remember looking up at Lennon on stage, standing on the floor of The Cow Palace in S. San Francisco about ten yards away from him. He had an electric piano next to him, which he played on only one song. He smiled a lot that night, appearing to be having a great time. Amazing to think he was murdered only fifteen years later.
Instead of saying greatest song ever written, maybe what song would I not want to live without? Done by the then other then, Stevie Ray, Tin Pan Alley. As per stuartk, many eligible as per personal preference.
As with any type of art, music is 100% subjective and for people to say "so and so is the greatest song (of any type) ever", is silly and pointless. It's simply an opinion that some may share but most probably won't.
@mrskeptic: You misunderstand my intent in the use of the term "greatest" (but @tony1954 doesn’t). It was deliberately chosen not to apply that adjective as a simple-minded statement of fact, but rather to make a polemic assertion. My statement assumes all readers are aware of the fact that in art there is no greatest, except for the music of J.S. Bach, of course.
Still, in the world of Pop music songwriting, "God Only Knows" stands alone. Says who (or is it whom, rpeluso? 😉)? Me. And Paul McCartney (a pretty good songwriter himself). And a few excellent songwriters I personally know (or knew. A few are dead).
But I have plenty of others. "The Weight" by J.R. Robertson, "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" by Gary Brooker & Keith Reid, "Nowhere Man" by John Lennon (which contains my favorite bit of George Harrison’s guitar playing in the song’s short/perfect solo), "Waterloo Sunset" by Ray Davies, "Waterloo" by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, "Shake Some Action" by Cyril Jordan and Chris Wilson, "Fresh As A Daisy" by Emitt Rhodes, "Why Don’t We Talk About It" by Rodney Crowell (found on his perfect album The Houston Kid, which I rate higher than Pet Sounds), "No Time To Cry" by Iris DeMent (about which and whom and I learned of in an interview with Merle Haggard), "Love Hurts" by Boudleaux Bryant (the original by The Everly Brothers please, not the inferior remake by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris), "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen, and "Like A Rolling Stone". There are dozens and dozens more I could name. All great, unique, and incomparable with each other.
For me, it all starts with the song. That’s why I don’t love than many Rock bands: most don’t have a great songwriter amongst it’s members. Being a musician, even a very, very good one, has NOTHING to do with writing songs. Prior to Brian Wilson and Lennon & McCartney, Pop music was most commonly made by separate teams: professional songwriters, studio musicians, the featured singer(s), and the record producer. After The Beatles, all Rock bands were expected to write their own material. That has resulted in a lot of mediocre music being made. IMO, of course..
@jmalen123: Rodney Crowell's "Why Don''t We Talk About It" is from 2001. Lucinda Williams' incredible song "West" is from 2007, her song "Essence" from 2001. The latter, by the way, is the most intense song I've heard from this century, with a vocal performance absolutely lascivious, the lyrics full of wicked double entendre.
Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt" is from 2002, though he of course didn't write the song. He does however make the song his own. Was he too old to matter to you? 😉
But ya know, one element in a song's stature as a great one is how it holds up to the passage of time. Some songs improved with age, others become diminished (no musical pun intended). A lot of the late-60's music now sounds quite dated to me. Genius songwriters aren't necessarily born every day, or even every decade. Would you rather listen to great music from the 20th century, or mediocre music from the 21st? J.S. Bach was for many years considered too "old" for 19th and 20th century ears, but sounds far fresher to me than most music written in those two centuries. Perhaps my love of Bach explains my love of "God Only Knows".
No one who puts their feet up on my coffee table and says, “God Only Knows” is the best pop song ever written will get a dirty look from me.
A pop song that can hit a “laymen” with authority and merely sound like a “pretty, catchy song,” but which employs highly sophisticated methodology in it’s construction/execution, is, to my mind, a good measurement of a great pop song.
The hazard in writing, say, “Hang On Sloopy” (a song I love) is that it may be perceived as “too simple.” The hazard in writing, say, “Aja,” is that it may be perceived as, “obtuse, ponderous, boring, etc.”
To write a song that simultaneously achieves both…damn hard to do.
The best pop songs (of which there are many) by these songwriters achieve this remarkable balance:
- Jerome Kern
- Irving Berlin
- George Gershwin
- Vincent Youmans
- Cole Porter
- Richard Rodgers
- Harold Arlen
- Harry James
- Jimmy Van Heusen
- Henry Mancini
- Burt Bacharach
- Carole King (do yourself a favor and spend a few days - it’ll take a few days as the volume is staggering - digging into the pre-‘70s-solo-artist-i.e.-Tapestry-etc. Carole King compositions of the ‘60s…amazing)
- Randy Newman (ditto)
- Brian Wilson
- John Lennon
- Paul McCartney
- Ray Davies
- Harry Nilsson
- Nicholas Ashford & Valerie Simpson
- Stevie Wonder
- the Odessey and Oracle LP by the Zombies
- Thom Bell
- Elton John
- Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff
- Joni Mitchell
…to name a few 😉
Fantastic list @tylermunns! For an example of Carole King’s early songwriting quality, give a listen to her "Halfway To Paradise". I first heard the song on an early (pre-debut album) Nick Lowe single on Stiff Records, and was stunned speechless; it’s an incredible song! Investigating, I learned it had first been recorded in 1961 by Tony Orlando (!), but I don’t remember hearing it. I was buying Pop singles in the early-60’s, and Carole’s name (along with that of her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin) was on a lot of them. She was already a professional songwriter while still in high school.
I just now stumbled upon another video in which "God Only Knows" is examined, and it might be my favorite of them all. A pianist with a pretty heavy Italian accent dissects the song, but what I really like about his presentation is that at the end of each section of the song, he plays through that section, so that one may hear what he just explained. The beauty of the song is fully expressed, the brilliance of it’s composition fully revealed.
If you decide to watch the video (Secret Chords Found In The Beach Boys: "God Only Knows" Analysis), and find yourself somewhat lost in the technical matters (when I and my musician peers got to college, many of us took Music Theory. We were surprised to learn how mathematical music is.), just let it go and keep watching and listening. You’ll "get it" anyway. 😉
During the Hippie era, Pop became a dirty word. The 3-minute single became the domain of teenybopper music, not serious "Art". Pretentiousness became rampant, reaching it’s peak with Progressive Rock, the appearance of The Ramones finally putting a much-appreciated end to.
But I never stopped loving Paul Revere & The Raiders, whose "Just Like Me" is a fantastic Pop song! Sure, the chord progression is nothing special, but the song has a great melody, and the all-important sing-along chorus "hook", as well a really cool double-tracked guitar solo by Drake Levin. Plus, Mark Lindsey was (is?) a great singer.
I auditioned for a Hippie band in the spring of ’71, and after passing the audition (a jam from 10 PM to 6 AM the next morning) moved into the band house. The bass player helped me carry in my LP collection from my VW van (of course 😉), and after looking through the titles said to me "You like weird music." He had seen my Beach Boys albums (they had long ago become uncool), my Paul Revere & The Raiders, my Ventures, my Animals and Manfred Mann albums, my copy of Emitt Rhodes s/t debut (a Pop classic), my girl group albums, my Soul and R & B, my Country & Western (Hippies did not allow you to like Merle Haggard, even though Jerry Garcia did), and my Andy Williams Greatest Hits album (which contains some songs by Henry Mancini, a favorite of mine). But my Jazz and Classical were fine, of course. I liked some albums by current bands, like those of Moby Grape, The Sons (though a Hippie band---in fact as about as Hippie as they come---they were great), Spirit, Fleetwood Mac, Procol Harum, The Kinks, a few others.
I played the band The Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile album, with which I was at that time obsessed (read the two chapters on the making of Smile in the Paul Williams book Outlaw Blues if you don’t already know about this incredible album-that-never-was), and they just didn’t get it. I eventually had to quit the band; too much jamming/extended guitar soloing, too little playing and singing of songs.
The Broadway and Hollywood musical tunes that comprise the Great American Songbook are pop tunes. So all that stuff by Gershwin, Kerns, Porter, Berlin, Mercer, Rodgers/Hart etc. should be considered. My top votes go to "My Funny Valentine", "Blues In the Night" and "Midnight Sun".
An awesome song that will thwart many a Monkees-basher’s notions as to their mediocrity/crappiness.
Carole’s demo of “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is great, and superior to the original Monkees record, in my opinion
Also written by Carole King:
“I Happen to Love You” - The Myddle Class (The Electric Prunes version equally good)
“Don’t Bring Me Down” - The Animals
“So Goes Love” - The Turtles (glorious song and track)
“Honey and Wine” - The Hollies
“Wasn’t Born to Follow” - The Byrds (the Dusty Springfield and Carole/The City’s version are very different but superb, my preferred versions)
“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” - Aretha Franklin (Carole’s version also gorgeous)
“Take a Giant Step” - Taj Mahal
“Chains” - The Cookies (Beatles version so-so)
“I’ll Love You For a While” - Dusty Springfield (badass pop perfection)
“The Loco-Motion” - Little Eva (of course Kylie Minogue’s hit 25 years later)
“I Can’t Stay Mad at You” - Skeeter Davis (sort of a re-write of her high school buddy Neil Sedaka’s classic ‘Breaking Up is Hard to Do’ but a gem in its own right)
“She Doesn’t Deserve You” - The Honey Bees (addicting flawlessness)
“Every Breath I Take” - Gene Pitney
“Keep Your Hands Off My Baby” - Little Eva (Beatles version so-so)
“You’re Just What I Was Looking For Today” - The Everly Brothers (check out this surprisingly not-so-Everly-Brothers, psychedelia-ish 1967 gem)
“Just a Little Girl” - Donna Loren
“Brand New Man” - Richard “Popcorn” Wylie (yet another gem that slipped through the cracks)
“Let’s Turkey Trot/Down Home” - Little Eva (world-beating 45; ‘Let’s Turkey Trot’ is irresistible and ‘Down Home’ is as good a pop song as you’ll ever hear…simply brilliant…the novelty-ness is the only reason ‘Let’s Turkey Trot’ was the A-side)
“I Can’t Hear You” - Betty Everett (Dusty’s version just as good, and my preferred version - YouTube her live TV performance of this and see her set the damn house on fire)
“Don’t Forget About Me” - Dusty Springfield
“Goin’ Back” - Dusty Springfield (The Byrds’ version from The Notorious Byrd Brothers is very different but quite good)
“Some Kind of Wonderful” - The Drifters
“He’s In Town” - The Tokens (what a great song, great record)
“That Old Sweet Roll (Hi-De-Ho)” - Dusty Springfield (Carole demo is great also)
“I’m Into Something Good” - Earl-Jean
“Crying in the Rain” - The Everly Brothers
“One Fine Day” - The Chiffons (masterpiece)
“Don’t Ever Change” - The Crickets (best version but Beatles version quite good as well)
”It Might As Well Rain Until September” - Carole King (pop perfection - sink your teeth into the bridge to receive a clinic on deceptively uber-sophisticated pop songwriting ingenuity…simply brilliant and seamless)
”Up On the Roof” - The Drifters (Carole’s version very different but awesome)
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