Sunday, February 23, 2014

The 10 Best Guitar Songs

Since I've been doing these top 10 lists about music lately and getting pretty good feedback, I figured I'd keep the series going.

For this one, I am considering the best guitar songs.  By "guitar," I mean "electric guitar" - there are certainly some fantastically-intricate and incredible acoustic guitar songs out there, but you won't see them on this list (Stairway to Heaven, anyone?).  My main criteria is not just guitar solos, but the overall guitars within the song as a whole (although the solo is a big part of it).  Like my list of the 10 Best Songs of Hard Rock, I have taken into consideration how widely known a song is, because no one wants a top 10 list of songs no one has ever heard of, even if they do have kick-ass guitar parts.  Be that as it may, I have not limited myself to only those songs that get a ton of airplay.   

Also, unlike that other list, I have not limited this list to just one style of rock music.  I've considered all possibilities, from the lite rock of the 70's to the most hardcore thrash metal.  You'll notice there are no songs on this list later than 1988.  That's not because I didn't consider songs of the last 25 years.  Instead, it's simply a sad reminder of how guitar-driven music has died a slow and painful death over the last two decades.  

10. Aqualung - Jethro Tull

British prog-rock band Jethro Tull has never been a particularly popular band in the United States, but they've been around since the late 60's and have sold (according to Wikipedia) more than 60 million albums worldwide.  "Aqualung" was the title track from their 1971 album, and it showcases a kick-ass guitar riff from beginning to end, together with a perfectly executed guitar solo in the middle by perennially underrated guitarist Martin Barre.

9. Telegraph Road - Dire Straits 

"Telegraph Road" isn't a Dire Straits song you're likely to hear on the radio, but if you think you've heard the best Mark Knopfler has to dish out in songs like "Sultans of Swing" and "Money for Nothin'," you are sadly mistaken.  "Telegraph Road" is, quite simply, a masterpiece of guitar music. The guitar solo at the end is overlaid with the sounds of a thunderstorm and, if you listen creatively, the solo, itself, plays the role of the flashing lightning.  It's musical and creative brilliance and never fails to give me chills.

8. Pride and Joy - Stevie Ray Vaughan 

Stevie Ray Vaughan was the quintessential guitar musician, and it was difficult to decide which of his masterpieces should be in this list.  Honorable mentions go out to "Texas Flood" and, especially, the live version of "The Sky is Cryin'," found on his Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan compilation.  In the end, however, "Pride and Joy" makes the list because it is his most widely-known song.  It showcases Vaughan at the height of his powers and never ceases to elicit a twist of the volume knob when that tell-tale opening riff roars out of the speakers.  Perhaps no guitarist in history could make his guitar wail like Stevie Ray Vaughan.

7. Comfortably Numb - Pink Floyd 

David Gilmour is, quite simply, one of the greatest guitarists of his generation, and his guitar work doesn't get any better than his performance on "Comfortably Numb."  If this list had been strictly about guitar solos, this song would have been easily in the top 3. The solo that closes out this song is simply one of the best of all time.  The song itself, however, despite having some lead riffs, isn't heavily guitar-driven, so #7 was as high as I could place it in good conscience.

6. Bodhisattva - Steely Dan

If you love guitar music, and you've never heard this song, you should YouTube it right this instant.  It's a weird song with odd lyrics, but the guitar work is absolutely brilliant.  Walter Becker is a guitar virtuoso.

5. Do You Feel Like We Do (Live) - Peter Frampton 

When it comes to kick-ass guitar music, it doesn't get much better than Peter Frampton.  His 1976 live album is one of the best-selling live albums of all time and is by far his most successful album. Frampton must be the only artist in history who is known primarily for a live album.  In any case, "Do You Feel Like We Do (Live)" is a classic guitar-driven epic of nearly 14 minutes, including an almost 10-minute guitar solo.  The song hits its peak around the 11th minute and just explodes into a frenzy of pure guitar rapture.  It's an orgasm in music.  

4. One - Metallica 

I was introduced to this song in 1989 by a friend of mine who is now a Presbyterian minister.  He bought the cassette single while we were on a youth group trip in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and we listened to it in the church van.  I was absolutely blown away.  For me, this song is the quintessential heavy metal song.  Kirk Hammett's solos are perfectly executed and the song just kicks so much ass that it's hard to say which part I like best.  Speed metal at its finest.

3. Sweet Child O' Mine - Guns n' Roses

I love Guns n' Roses.  There has simply never been a better hard rock band than Axl, Slash, Izzy, Duff, and Stevie.  They were the climax of hard rock music.  Everything before them was leading up to them, and everything since has been a slow, steady decline.  Like Stevie Ray Vaughan above, I had a hard time choosing which song of theirs should be on this list.  "Coma," "Don't Damn Me," and "Civil War" get honorable mentions.  Also like Stevie Ray, I ultimately went with their most popular song.  "Sweet Child O' Mine" is a guitar masterpiece, from the the intro, which is one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in history, to the solo near the end, which demonstrates Slash at his creative and prodigious best.  This was the first song I ever heard by Guns n' Roses, and it's still one of my favorites.

2. Freebird - Lynyrd Skynyrd

If this list was just about guitar solos, "Freebird" would not only be #1, it would be #1 by such a enormous margin that no other song would be anywhere even remotely close to it.  But this list isn't only about guitar solos, so Freebird falls into the #2 spot.  Does anything even need to be said about this song?  If you're not aware of what an epic, timeless guitar solo Allen Collins throws down at the end of this song, you don't like guitar music.  My favorite version of this song is the 13-minute extended live version from the band's Essential Lynyrd Skynyrd collection.  Steve Gaines, who joined the band just a year or so before their fateful 1977 plane crash (in which Gaines, together with lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, died) adds a second guitar to the solo and the effect is just epic guitar euphoria.  Let's also not ignore the slide guitar work in the first part of the song by Gary Rossington.

1. 2112 - Rush

Probably a dark horse winner for many, but not for me.  You may not know much Rush music, and/or you may not like Rush, but if you are not able to recognize "2112" for the astounding, overwhelming, and utterly unmatched guitar masterpiece that it is, you don't know guitar music.  "2112" is the title track from their breakout 1976 album of the same name, and it is a brilliantly-conceived and flawlessly-arranged prog rock epic of more than 20 minutes, taking up the entire front side of the original vinyl album.  Alex Lifeson, undeniably the most underrated guitarist in rock history, weaves together an intricate tapestry of guitar artistry and brilliance, while Geddy Lee adds his trademark virtuoso bass lines, ultimately forming a song that simply represents everything you could ever want from guitar music.  "2112" is the greatest guitar song ever recorded.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The 10 Best Songs of Jimmy Buffett

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, I never heard of Jimmy Buffett.  But when my family moved in 1988 to Cincinnati, a city that has long had a love affair with him, I was very quickly introduced to the man, the music, and the myth.

I didn't take his music very seriously at first (my musical tastes at that time were almost exclusively used up by Guns n' Roses and a few other hard rock bands), but he slowly began to grow on me, particularly after his 1990 live album, "Feeding Frenzy," became a staple on the family CD player.  

By the time I graduated from high school in 1993, I had begun buying all of his back catalogue and completed it within a year or two.  Since that time, I have counted Buffett among my very favorite artists.  

After posting a list of the 10 best hard rock songs of all time, a friend of mine - who used to hear me playing Buffett nonstop through the walls of our adjoining dorm rooms in college - jokingly said he'd like to see a list of my 10 favorite Buffett songs.  I decided to take him seriously and make it happen. What follows is the result.

It's important to note that, in making this list, I did not take into consideration how popular or widely-known a given song was.  I have simply chosen the ten songs that I think demonstrate Jimmy Buffett at his very best.  

10. Livingston Saturday Night

This song first appeared on Rancho Deluxe, which was a movie soundtrack Buffett did in 1975. He then rerecorded the song (rewriting some of the lyrics to make it a bit less raunchy) and released it on his 1978 album Son of a Son of a Sailor. I've always said this was the closest Jimmy Buffett ever came to doing southern rock - and that's also why I like the song so much.

9. Tryin' to Reason With Hurricane Season

This is one of the few well-known Buffett songs that gets anywhere near my top 10.  A classic beach bum song from his best album, A1A, this was one of my first Buffett favorites.

8. L'Air de la Louisane

As the title implies, this song is sung entirely in French.  It's not an original Buffett composition, but was instead written by a singer/songwriter named Jesse Winchester, who is, apparently one of Buffett's friends.  Buffett has covered a number of his songs, and this one is easily the best.

7. School Boy Heart

From 1997's Banana Wind, this is one of Buffett's many autobiographical songs, and it has a great chorus and lyrics that have always inspired me.

I've got a school boy heart
a novelist's eye
stout sailor's legs
and a license to fly

6. Railroad Lady

This song is from Buffett's first major label album, A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, and it was later covered by Willie Nelson.  It's the only Buffett song that mentions Kentucky, but that's not why I like it.  It's a perfect example of acoustic country western music from the 1970's.

5. I Heard I Was In Town

This is a song from the mid-80's in which Buffett sings about going back to Key West after having lived there for a time in the 1970's.  As the title implies, it's an introspective look at coming back "home" after becoming famous.  This has always been the quintessential Key West song for me.

Changes have come like the storms of the season
but time here still moves slow

4. Tin Cup Chalice

One of three songs on this list from A1A, this song is quite simply the definitive beach bum song.

Give me oysters and beer
for dinner every day of the year
and I'll feel fine

3. Coast of Carolina

Easily my favorite Buffett song of the 21st century, and (obviously) one of my favorites of all time. 2004's album License to Chill wasn't a great Buffett album, but this song blew me away from practically the moment I first heard it.  In it, Buffett reminisces about his long relationship with his wife, and the lyrics have always hit home deeply with me.  If I let myself, I can actually choke up listening to this song.

From the bottom of my heart
off the coast of Carolina
after one or two false starts
I believe we've found our stride

2. Migration

This was the song that made me a Jimmy Buffett fan.  Back in the late 80's and early 1990's, I had, of course, heard all his standard hits, but when I heard this song from A1A, I realized that I really, really liked Jimmy Buffett.  Forget Margaritaville...for me, Migration is Buffett's signature song.

1. Brahma Fear

This song is sort of a dark horse winner.  It's not a widely-known Buffett song, nor is it one you hear discussed very often even among diehard Buffett fans.  He virtually never plays it in concert. It's just a plain old song buried deeply on his second album, Livin' and Dyin' in Three-Quarter Time, from 1974.  But it is, and has been for a very long time, my favorite Buffett song.  There's nothing spectacular about it, and the lyrics are typical of the kinds of songs he wrote during that era, but somehow this song just has a perfect sound, a perfect representation of acoustic, folksy, beach bum music from the 1970's that Buffett did, does, and always will do, better than anyone. In my opinion, Brahma Fear provides the best blend of all the unique elements that have made Buffett famous.  

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The 10 Best Songs of Hard Rock

Despite having fairly broad musical tastes, my first true love has always been hard rock.  The first album I owned was Van Halen's 1984 (I was 9 when that album came out), and I later became a disciple of Guns n' Roses and other hard rock bands of the late 80's.  Even though I'm now more likely to be found listening to "80's on 8" or "Willie's Roadhouse" (classic country) on Sirius XM, hard rock still most definitely holds a special place in my heart.

So with that in mind, I decided to rank the top 10 greatest hard rock songs of all time.  It should go without saying that this is my list.  It's the songs I think represent the best of hard rock.  I've taken into consideration popularity and how widely recognized a song is (because a top 10 of obscure songs no one has ever heard of would be boring), but otherwise, the main factor is how much a song moves me and makes me want to run marathons and leap tall buildings in a single bound.

It's also important to note that I delineate a fine line between hard rock and heavy metal.  For that reason, don't be surprised to see no entries on this list from bands like Iron Maiden, Slayer, Judas Priest, or even Metallica.  

10. Black Betty - Ram Jam/Starstruck

Black Betty - YouTube

This southern rock anthem became a hit for Ram Jam in the late 1970's.  Ram Jam's version of the song was adapted from an old folk tune by blues musician Lead Belly, and was originally recorded by an indie Cincinnati band called Starstruck.  Starstruck dissolved soon after and the guitarist, Bill Bartlett, took the song to a record company, who immediately formed a band around Bartlett (Ram Jam) and released the song nationally.  The recorded version is simply an edited version of the original Starstruck recording, but was included on the debut Ram Jam album.  

This song kicks a whole lot of ass.

9. Love Song - Tesla 

Love Song - YouTube

When this song starts, you think it's just going to be another typical hair band power ballad.  But it goes way beyond typical.  This song just kicks more and more ass the farther along it goes.  The guitar solo gives me chills.  

8. Thunderstruck - AC/DC

Thunderstruck - YouTube

Speaking of kicking ass.  If you can hear this song and not turn the volume up, you don't like hard rock.  

7. Rooster - Alice in Chains

Rooster - YouTube

Alice in Chains had a bunch of songs that were ah-mazing, but Rooster has always been my favorite.  It's one of those songs that starts off sort of soft and slow, and yet it's so full of dark menace that you know it'll just explode later.  It's about the Vietnam war, and Vietnam songs never fail.  Layne Staley's voice is perfect on this song.

6. Slither - Velvet Revolver 

Slither - YouTube

A combination of Slash, Duff, and Matt from Guns n' Roses, fronted by Stone Temple Pilots' lead singer Scott Weiland, there was no way that Velvet Revolver wasn't going to be awesome.  If you can listen to this song's leading riff and not bang your head, you should try the Brittney Spears station.  Between his playing chops and his persona, Slash may be the greatest hard rock guitarist of all time.  

5. Kickstart My Heart - Mötley Crü

Kickstart My Heart - YouTube

I've always thought the members of Mötley Crüe were all pretty much shameless, self-promoting douchebags, but damn they have some songs that just rip the skin off your face.  This was the best of the bunch.  From the opening riff that sounds like an engine revving, to the driving, chest-thumping chorus, this song just kicks all manner of ass.  

4. Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen

Bohemian Rhapsody - YouTube

Forget the sub-category of hard rock, Queen's ambitious magnum opus from 1975 is undeniably one of the greatest songs of all time.  Although only the third segment of the song really constitutes the classic definition of "hard rock," the opening segment qualifies as a legitimate power ballad. Furthermore, the guitar solos that pepper this song are magnificent - some of Brian May's best work.  

3. Tom Sawyer - Rush 

Tom Sawyer - YouTube

As a certified Rush disciple, it was hard for me not to put Rush in the #1 position, but in fairness to the strict category of "hard rock," this is as high as I could reasonably put this prog rock band's signature song.  Tom Sawyer could end after 15 seconds, and it would still be a fantastic hard rock song.  Undoubtedly the best opening chord in rock history.  The instrumental in the middle of the song is a brilliant display of this 3-man band's collective prodigious playing skill.

2. Welcome to the Jungle - Guns n' Roses

Welcome to the Jungle - YouTube

A few years back, Welcome to the Jungle topped VH1's "100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs."  They weren't far off the mark.  The first song on Guns n' Roses debut album was a brilliant example of what hard rock should be in its purest, most powerful form.  One of the best vocal performances in hard rock history.  An unforgettable riff and chorus.  The archetypal image of 80's hard rock by a band at the absolute height of their powers.  This song still gives me chills after more than 25 years.     
1. War Pigs - Black Sabbath

War Pigs - YouTube

On the off-chance that you've never heard this song, click the link above right this second. There simply is no better hard rock song than War Pigs, from 1970.  It has all the elements required to create the ultimate hard rock song - a kick-ass riff, amazing drums, a goose-bump-inducing solo, brilliant vocals, and gritty, poignant, utterly in-your-face lyrics.  Perfection in every way.  The quintessential guitar song.  The quintessential anti-war song.  Quite simply, the quintessential hard rock performance.  

Friday, February 07, 2014

Memoirs of a Georgetown Freshman: Second Semester

Part I: First Semester

Part II: The Blizzard of January 1994

Part III: Joining the President's House Association

Following my invitation to become a member of PHA at the beginning of the spring semester of my freshman year, I gratefully moved out of run-down, frigid, no-doors-on-the-bathroom-stalls Anderson Hall.  My new room was on the third floor, rear side, of the PHA house.  I had a wonderful view of the parking lot, and the Phi Mu and Phi Tau houses.

The back of the PHA house is in the center of this picture.  My room consisted of the 2 windows on the upper right.  Phi Mu house is to the right.  

All the rooms on that floor were 4-man rooms (as opposed to the 2-man rooms on the second floor), and I was living with my friend, and fellow freshman music major, Sammy, as well as two upperclassmen named Tony and Chad.  Although I was glad to be out of Anderson Hall and into the PHA house, I pretty much hated living in that room.  With three roommate, privacy is rare, and the room was always a wreck.

Living with Sammy proved to be, more or less, the undoing of our friendship as well.  I never will forget the day we were moving in, and I was playing Guns n' Roses on the stereo as we moved our things in, and Sammy got incensed about it and essentially made me turn it off.  I don't think it was a religious thing (I don't recall Sammy being hyper-religious); I think he just didn't like hard rock and didn't want to hear it.  I remember being so shocked by his reaction that I just sort of meekly agreed to turn it off.

As I've demonstrated in the last three posts about my freshman year, there are a lot of things I remember about first semester and the beginning of second semester.  However, following the blizzard and my joining of PHA, my memories of the remainder of that second semester are fairly hazy.

I became more and more involved with activities in the fraternity and with a growing number of new friends, and I became less motivated for classes and practicing the piano.  I still practiced a lot (going down from three hours a day to two hours a day still means a lot of piano practicing), and I still made all A's and B's, but time would show that my GPA steadily declined each semester I was in college, until I finally fell below 3.0 my senior year.  Thankfully, the trend reversed in my very last semester, and I raised my GPA so that I graduated right at 3.0.  Regardless, that downward trend began during that second semester of freshman year.

Most of my remaining memories of that semester are just snapshots.  I remember "sinking" in our fraternity's finale to our pledging period (we were called "boats" instead of pledges, and "all boats sink").  I recall getting a bleeding cut on my knee in the festivities (read: "all out brawl") that took place before the sinking (thanks Dan), so that I spent the next few weeks worried that I had gotten some horrible disease from the nastiness that we were thrown into.

I remember the family picture that my roommate Tony had on his dresser and it looked something like this:

All 70's and rural and about 50 brothers and sisters

I remember getting a tie-dyed PHA Homecoming '93 shirt at Senior Send-Off that I still have to this day in the back of my drawer.  It's ripped to shreds from years of being worn as an undershirt, but I've kept it for sentimental reasons (not because I was close to the person who gave it to me, but simply because, along with a hat, it ended up being the only piece of PHA paraphernalia that I didn't give away myself at Senior Send-Off four years later).

My girlfriend did poorly in a very difficult elementary education class during the fall semester, so her GPA was not high enough for her to join a sorority.  She was devastated about that, because all her friends were joining one, and I remember feeling really bad for her.  As a result, she spent a lot of time at the PHA house with me and got to know a lot of the guys.  A senior named Rob had given all of the new members nicknames, but for some strange reason, only mine stuck.  From the time I joined PHA, up to the present day, I have been known to my Georgetown friends exclusively as Schmoo.  Because she was at the PHA house all the time, my girlfriend quickly became known as Schmoo-ette (or sometimes Schmoo-etta).

I don't really remember our spring formal that year.  Even though it was my first, it obviously didn't make much of an impression on me.  I never really liked dances anyway, and felt awkward at them - especially when I was a freshman.

After the semester ended, we packed up our things and returned to my girlfriend's house in Cincinnati.  I don't remember exactly why, but my parents (who lived in Houston) were not able to come pick me up and bring me home right away, so I spent about a week at my girlfriend's house.  It was May, and she and I, along with her Dad, went down to the lake in Tennessee for a few days.  We both remember that trip fondly.  It was warm and beautiful the whole time we were there, and we had a really great time out on the boat.  I remember Jackie Kennedy Onassis dying while we were there (that was May 19, 1994), and watching the reports on the news.  Her death was less than a month after Richard Nixon had died.

My father-in-law mowed the grass there one afternoon and accidentally shot a rock straight through the passenger window of his car.  We had to drive five hours home with the window wide open.  Thankfully, the weather remained nice the whole time.

After we got back, my dad came to pick me up for the day-long drive down to Houston.  I remember crying as I waved to my girlfriend as we drove away.  I soothed myself by listening to Jimmy Buffett's entire discography, in chronological order, during the 16-hour drive home.

I cried because I was going to miss my beloved M, but I think I also cried because the best year of my life was over, and I had to go to a city I'd never lived in before and get a job and be away from not just my girlfriend, but all my new friends too, for an entire summer.

Those four years of college really were the best of my life, and though in later years I would look forward to going home at the end of the year, I always was excited to get back in the fall and become, once again, part of that magical community that was PHA and Georgetown College in the mid-1990's.