Randy Newman – Short People
Newman himself might disagree with “Short People”’s appearance on this list: in his later years, he’s more or less disowned it, leaving it off his greatest hits album and dismissing it as a “novelty record like The Chipmunks.” But if Alvin and family had recorded anything as clever and maddeningly catchy (as opposed to just maddening) as this, maybe that wouldn’t be an insult. The melody is wonderfully simple, a few notes building up to a great big BOM repeated over and over, alternating between piano and bass, occasionally decorated by a spare electric guitar. Of course, Newman might just be hedging the real reason he’d like to distance himself from the song, which is that his goofy satire on the arbitrariness on prejudice somehow stirred up controversy as an example of the real thing. It’s more than a little baffling: while dwarfs have certainly faced their share of prejudice, it’s hard to imagine anyone being worked up enough about it to write an outright hate song. And Newman takes it even further into absurdity: his narrator doesn’t even seem to be prejudiced against little people. Just short people in general. Tom Cruise would probably qualify, but then again, he probably deserves it. As over the top and satirical as Newman’s prejudice is, there’s still a touch of subversion here: the bridge reminding us “Short people are just the same as you and I/All men are brothers until the day they die” probably should have clued the detractors in that Newman didn’t entirely sympathize with the voice he was putting on. But that moment’s as goofily insincere as the verses in its own way, layering on sappy harmonies and “why can’t we all get along” naivety that’s almost as laughable as the anti-short-people prejudice.
- Linda Ronstadt – Blue Bayou/It’s So Easy
As R&B got swallowed up in electronic disco spectacle (which is hardly a total loss, as we’ll see below) and pop was smoothed away to almost nothing, the best place to go for killer vocals in 1978 was the much-maligned world of country music. The Hot 100 featured classics from Dolly Parton and Crystal Gayle that year, as well as these two slices of sonic beauty. It might be a little unfair to lump Ronstadt in with the country genre, as she always straddled the line between Nashville and the folk-rock of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Certainly, “Blue Bayou” looks past the folk music of her native land with that indelible mariachi-inflected chorus. “It’s So Easy,” meanwhile, combines its classic pop songcraft with a good old stompin’ country beat and twangy guitar. Putting these two together, they serve as a great showcase for Ronstadt’s versatility as well, with the clean, classically beautiful of sound of her alternately trembling and powerfully solid voice on “Bayou” next to the unladylike Janis Joplin growl of “It’s So Easy.” The two sides she shows off in her performance fit with the duality of her subject matter as well, the one emphasizing the hoedown energy of “Easy” and the other gorgeously communicating the wistful heartbreak of “Bayou,” never more powerfully than the long keening note in the last syllable of “Bayou” at the end.
8. The Trammps – Disco Inferno
Just to be clear, this is gonna be a very anti-Disco Sucks kind of list. After all, when you’ve got stone-cold classics of the genre, how can you say anything bad about it? It’s so simple and elegant it makes writing a pop classic look easy, with that thrumming funk beat and that five-word chorus (even less if you only count “burn baby burn” as two words). It speaks to the song’s endurance that it took me something like ten listens to realize it was based on the forgotten disaster movie The Towering Inferno. And despite what I said about disco’s focus on beat over vocals, Jimmy Ellis’ James Brown-esque vocals are as essential to the song’s success as anything else. He makes as engaging a hype man as anyone in hip hop, turning on a dime from gravelly blues shouting to holding smooth, clear notes for incredible amounts of time. “Disco Inferno” has burned, baby, burned…it’s way into all of our hearts.
It’s okay, I hate me too.
- The Rolling Stones – Miss You
You wouldn’t think a pack of aging rebel rockers trying to cash in on the disco trends that were passing them by would produce a classic, and yet that’s exactly what “Miss You” is. Like the next artist on this list, they recognized that there was something more than a little spooky and lonely in these echoey songs designed to be played in the dark. Because while “Miss You” is certainly danceable, there’s a dark undertone to it as well, with Mick Jagger’s wordless vocals on the chorus, somewhere between a howling coyote and a nightingale, perfectly emphasizing the lonesome lyrics. While most artists this year were screaming their lungs out to be heard over the beat and convince you that their focus-grouped songs had real emotion just by sheer volume, Jagger takes it down almost to a whisper, sometimes intimate, sometimes threatening (“people think I’m…craaaaaazy”). While they adapted some of the percussive technique of the younger disco groups, the Stones kept one foot firmly planted in the territory of their blues forebears, with Keith Richards’ guitar and Sugar Blue’s harmonica creating the perfect shadowy, swampy atmosphere. Is this is selling out, I don’t care. I’m still buying.
6. Chic – Dance Dance Dance (Yowsah Yowsah Yowsah)
Chic is a more straight-ahead disco group than the Stones could ever hope to be, but there was always something melancholy to me about their music as well. I was a little shocked when I first spun their next album, C’est Chic that one track had literally moved me to tears.
Content-wise, this seems like the standard airheaded “don’t think, just dance” kind of material. But frontmen Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards fill it with haunting little touches – the vocals that echo like they were recorded in the heart of a cave, the minor-key arrangements, the violins that, as anyone who’s played the world’s smallest model knows, are better suited to expressing sadness than boogieing. Even that “Yowsah Yowsah Yowsah” refrain, as silly as it seems on paper, has its own power. Taking it from long-dead jazz musician Ben Bernie, Chic, much like DJ Shadow would almost twenty years later with Endtroducing…, take the ridiculous and make it sublime. They take the remains of disposable pop culture and resurrect it as a kind of Ghost of Music Past.
And yeah, it’s fun too. Keep on, people!
- Meat Loaf – Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad
“Two Out of Three” is kind of a dark mirror image to last month’s Meat Loaf pick, “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).” While that later song (nearly two decades later in fact — the Loaf had a lot more staying power than I can imagine anyone would expect) told the story of a man who can’t resist love, this one is a desperately sad plea for understanding from one who’s completely incapable of it: “No matter how I try/I’ll never be able/To give you something/Something that I just haven’t got.” Compared to “Anything,” to say nothing of the rest of the Bat Out of Hell album it appeared on, this is a relatively subdued affair – but not by any standard other than that. I realized listening to the full album that Meat Loaf is just Bruce Springsteen with absolutely no restraint (which to be clear, is a very, very good thing) and this is his “Downbound Train.”) Meat Loaf strains his voice almost to the breaking point to express his heartbreak, accompanied by a swooning crowd of backup singers. He pledges his love the only way he can: “I want you/I need you/But there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you,” creating in those few words a picture of deep brokenness and desperation. If this seems unnecessarily dismissive of the poor woman he’s singing to, the last chorus turns it around, putting those words in the mouth of the “only girl I ever loved,” with the thuddingly powerful repetition of “She kept on telling/She kept on telling me/She – kept – on – telling me.” The backstory deepens the song’s sad power: far from being cold, our narrator’s past has left him desperate for love but unable to give it in return. As good as this song is, it will always be overshadowed in my mind by Jamey Jackson’s cover version.
While Meat Loaf can be hard to warm up to before the last verse shows us what made him the way he is, Johnson exudes brokenness from the first note. And the “kept on telling me” moment is only enhanced when it’s underscored by a single drum invading the spare accompaniment. Replacing Meat Loaf’s arena-rock wail with a soft, quavering growl, and his declamatory back singers with a spare, high guitar, Johnson makes a counterintuitive discovery: while Meat Loaf’s un-self-consciousness allowed him to reach for operatic heights without caring if he made a fool of himself along the way, stripping out the camp only makes his song even more powerful.
4. Earth, Wind, & Fire – Serpentine Fire
Of the disco hits of 1978, it’s hard to imagine any getting more feet on the floor than this one. The driving percussion, funky bassline, and parade-ready horns all give this a groove most artists would kill to capture once, let alone as many times as EW&F did over the course of their career. (And is that Christopher Walken’s beloved cowbell? Why yes! Yes it is!) The content mixes things up a bit from the standard “dance while we sing about dancing” formula, with the title evoking a dash of hippie mysticism that’s only deepened by lyrics like “When I see your face/Like a mornin’ sun/You spark me to shine” only enhance the effect. With all this going on, it might be a little hard for even the most talented vocalist to make himself heard, but the chorus’ piercing falsetto and the almost doo-wop-ish refrain of “oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah,” sometimes sung with hiney-smoothness, other times with George-Clinton-style nasally funkiness, are the track’s biggest highlights: with “Serpentine Fire,” Earth, Wind, & Fire created a dance-along that works just as well as a sing-along.
3. The Patti Smith Group – Because the Night
If the disco artists turned the feeling of being young and in love into light entertainment, Patti Smith took it to the heights of the epic. The almost martial drumbeat and and lines like “can’t hurt you now” repeated with ever-increasing intensity make it clear that two young people in love is far more serious than any clash between nations. Knowing all that, it only makes sense this song was was partly the work of Bruce Springsteen – the more restrained Meat Loaf, remember? Once again, these things are all relative. His authorship does nothing to make it any less of a Patti Smith song — she brings a far different energy to it than he ever could. Her voice sounds at once young and ancient, with the inflections of an old wise woman reading her spells – there’s a reason she was just as convincing covering another youth anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” at sixty years old. It might seem a little odd that a cut from an album that also included songs with titles like “Barbelogue,” “Space Monkey,” and “Rock and Roll N*****” could have been welcomed into the conservative world of Top 40 radio, but for all its underground cred, this is also a perfect pop anthem. The melody is a perfect earworm hidden under the raw, moody drums and air-guitar-ready shredding from Smith herself. And under their poetic obscurities, the lyrics beautifully sum up the subject matter of nearly every pop song in existence in a tenth the time: “Without you I cannot live/Forgive, the yearning burning/I believe it’s time, too real to feel.”
2. Queen – We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions
It’s one of the great ironies of rock music that one of the most flamboyantly queer acts in its history would be so wholeheartedly embraced by jocks, sports fans, macho men, and other segments of society with no patience for anything that doesn’t fit into a narrow definition of manhood that you wouldn’t expect include, well, a queen. That said, it’s not too hard to see why. “We Will Rock You” might have the single most earth-shaking drumline in all of music, with the only reason to disqualify it being that there’s no drums, just clapping hands and stomping feet (that’s just the band on there, overdubbed so many times it sounds like a literal army). Between that and the chorus repeating the title and daring you not to join in, it’s almost like it was written for the football stadium. Not to be outdone by the percussion section, Brian May cuts in with a fuzz-heavy, ringing, shredding guitar solo. “We Are the Champions” is a little more outré, with the approach to choruses that gave Queen’s A Night at the Opera its name, and lyrics that cheekily rewrite Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Where he embodied machismo to perfection in “Rock You,” Freddie Mercury slips into something a touch more gender-bending here, hitting notes that would be out of most male singers’ ranges, and slinking and vamping his way through his Sinatra impression full of flowery images like “no bed of roses/no pleasure cruise.” The songs were released together, and it’s only fitting: played this way, they create a perfect one-two punch of intimidation, half put-down, half build-up.
1. Parliament – Flash Light
When it comes to sheer joy in music, it’s hard to beat the P-funk. If their forebear James Brown was the hardest-working man in show business, they made show business not seem like work at all, but just a way for grown-ups to play. You can see that playfulness in the almost free-associative lyrics like “Now I lay me down to sleep/I guess I’ll go count the sheep/Oh, but I will never dance/Oh, don’t make me do it/Dance, sucker! ooh ha ha!” And you can see it even more in the backing, which sounds like Collins, Clinton and company got hopped up on pixy sticks and cut loose in a room full of the world’s greatest electronic toys, interjecting squeaks and buzzes at moments that are both random and perfect. In most of these columns I’ve let the number one pick take extra space, but that would be a waste of time here: “Flash Light” is irresistible and unanalyzable. While so many of the songs on this list owe their appeal to their meticulous perfectionism, the best one gives the impression of just a bunch of dudes screwing around and having a great time. And darned if it isn’t infectious.