Original ceramic art by Matthew Chambers
The Japanese word “Shibui” refers to an aesthetic of subtle, unobtrusive beauty often characterized by simplicity and economy of form. In the context of writing songs, it often translates to the art of knowing when to stop. It’s arguable whether or not the White Stripes had this concept in mind when they used only two instruments and two minutes to construct their garage rock masterpiece “Fell in Love With a Girl.” But what’s not debatable is that many of us recognize Shibui when we hear that song; it’s scuzzy, ramshackle and agitated, but nothing feels extraneous. The song remains precise in its own chaos, perfect in its imperfections.
I’ve compiled a list of ten songs that exude a similar magic — emotional expressions that, in spite of their brevity, affect us long after the music is over. These are songs you might not hear for months or years, but once the mood strikes, you play over and over again. These are songs that have a way of making sure you come back to them.
In keeping with the theme, I’ve placed a few restrictions on the list. No songs longer than 2:30 allowed — I had to draw the line somewhere. And because half the pleasure in crate digging is the belief that you can still find a diamond in the rough, I omitted anything that became a top 20 single in the 1950’s and 1960’s (45’s from that era were regularly under 150 seconds) and skipped over well-known modern tracks like “Fell in Love With a Girl” or Blur’s “Song 2.”
My hope is that you’ll find at least one song in this collection that you’ve never heard before and think: “Yeah, that’s perfect.”
“Caroline, No” – The Beach Boys
Pet Sounds (1966)
Perhaps because it’s officially credited to only Brian Wilson (the rest of his band mates were on the road when he recorded it), or because it only hit #32 on the pop charts, or because it often gets overshadowed by the ever-growing influence of its legendary parent album, “Caroline, No” remains the great, forgotten single from the world’s ultimate singles band. Out of the twenty-two different Beach Boys’ greatest hits compilations, this song is only included on four of them, likely serving as protection for unsuspecting summer BBQ playlist makers everywhere. For a band whose song catalog is the equivalent of aural serotonin, “Caroline, No” remains the black sheep because it’s heartbreaking.
The purity of Wilson’s boyish tenor is overshadowed by unusually somber instrumentation — bass flutes, harpsichord minor keys, and the hollow sound of an empty water bottle struck in the studio. As the image of Caroline cutting her hair gradually evokes some deeper betrayal, so too does the meaning of the chorus shift from initial desperate plea to a final repudiation of hope: “Could I ever find in you again/ Things that made me love you so much then?” Those bobbed curls might seem quaint by today’s standards, but for teenaged baby boomers, they captured a canonical sense of innocence lost, an end to gentler times, a perpetual sadness behind the smile. Fifty years later, the iconic denial of “Caroline, No” still stings — wholly of its generation, yet timeless.
“People Take Pictures Of Each Other” – The Kinks
The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1968)
The genius of the Kinks’ wry, societal caricatures was the way they made you believe they still truly adored the things they satirized. Prim properness, impeccable English manners, and respect for tradition were all fair game on The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, a sneak attack on the stiff upper lip of British culture that remains the most verdant, underrated jewel of the band’s late-60’s glory days. Yet there’s an endearing tastefulness to this album that allows it to transcend derision. Closing track “People Take Pictures Of Each Other” captures that juxtaposition succinctly, a scathing indictment masquerading as merriment.
The song’s romping bass line, blitheful piano melody, and madcap “la la la’s” lend it the air of a joyous nursery rhyme, making Ray Davies’ musings even more subversive; he fondly recounts childhood memories conjured up by an old photograph but bemoans how taking pictures of loved ones has replaced caring for them. The contradiction is too much: “How I love things as they used to be/ Don’t show me no more, please.” Nostalgia short circuits our ability to live in the now, to have real relationships, to distinguish imitation from emotion. Nearly a half century later, Davies’ assertion that “People take pictures of each other/ Just to prove that they really existed” has become de rigeur in our camera phone culture. “People Take Pictures Of Each Other,” a lamentation of our inability to reconcile the past and the present, has become something else, too — startlingly prescient.
“Ride My Llama” – Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
In 1979, Neil Young and rock and roll teetered on the verge of irrelevance until, just like that, a rallying cry for burning out instead of fading away assured the world that both would do neither. Recorded mostly live and divided into acoustic and electric sides, Rust Never Sleeps was both a return to Young’s folk roots and blistering retort to the emergence of punk. In many ways, it remains the perfect juncture of Young’s conflicted personae — the wise-beyond-his-years disciple paying homage to his forefathers crossed with the irascible, old codger growling fuck-off to another generation of upstarts. For one album, Young became both irresistible force and immovable object.
Planted square in the middle of side one is “Ride My Llama” whose lyrical surrealism and spirited vocals seemed to transcend the austerity of the performance and capture the quintessence of Young’s rugged survival. The song’s simplicity masks a complex knot of major and suspended chords that heighten the weird imagery — Young remembering the Alamo, conversing with extra-terrestrials, and mounting Peruvian pack animals. And of course there’s the transcendent, hammered-on bridge, whose “ahh, ahh, ahhs” seem to float on forever. Eclectic, elegant, and oddly touching, it somehow embodies Young’s sense of renewal as well as his staying power. It’s old, but it’s good.
“Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” – The Smiths
B-side to “William, It Was Really Nothing” (1984)
Any respectable Smiths’ enthusiast would cry foul that “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” be considered obscure. Easily one of the most beloved tracks in the UK foursome’s illustrious catalog, it’s included in film soundtracks (Pretty in Pink and (500) Days of Summer)), covered by a wide range of artists (from alt-metal thrashers Deftones to Hootie and the Blowfish), and lovingly employed to illicit lumps in throats in one of the most memorable holiday commercials in recent memory. But the song’s origin remains humble — “Please, Please, Please” was never more than a B-side during the Smiths’ epic 1984-85 run of non-album singles (a decision Morrissey later admitted was ‘sinful’). That queer blend of modesty and renown hints at the song’s arresting spell — it has a way of converting first time listeners into Smiths’ fans for life.
The chord progression underscores guitarist Johnny Marr’s virtuosic simplicity, but it’s the custom details that make the song legendary — the coy way a verbose plea is nestled in such a short song, the slippery little guitar fill after the chorus, and the sense of longing at the unheralded finish. Morrissey, who once described “Please, Please, Please” as a “very brief punch in the face” and claimed that “lengthening the song would…have simply been explaining the blindingly obvious,” remains silent during the entire third verse. Instead, a bittersweet mandolin coda fills the bar like a warm breeze prolonging the last day of Indian summer. The cumulative effect is sublime — a concentrated dose of melancholy kept aloft by hope, tantalizingly close, yet forever out of reach.
“Something Against You” – The Pixies
Surfer Rosa (1988)
The first truly great Pixies’ album, Surfer Rosa, is stuffed to the gills with two-minute tantrums (“Break My Body,” “Something Against You,” and “Broken Face”) that play out like joy rides in a theme park of lurid sex and unchecked aggression. That middle track remains the biggest doozy, compressing an avalanche of punk sneers and subversion into a clean, pop jewel in which Black Francis needs only five shrieked words to turn strangers into enemies: “I got/ Something against you.” Then there’s the immortal last line in which he buoyantly dishes out a spoiler alert on a revelation that Kim Deal (and everyone else on the planet) would discover once the Pixies were disbanded via fax message in 1993 — Frank Black revels in the pleasures of being an asshole.
“Something Against You” is well-suited for enabling this sort of misbehavior — reflecting your worse flaws back at you like a deranged fun house mirror and daring you to embody its message. I remember over ten years ago joyriding around a nearby university campus for kicks, almost in my 30’s, with the windows rolled down and this little number belting out on repeat at offensive levels. My college rock is better than your college rock. It’s easy to hold a grudge but hard to make it sound as soul-satisfying as the Pixies do. I was one happy prick.
“Spin the Bottle” – Julianna Hatfield Three
Become What You Are (1993)
Juliana Hatfield reportedly wrote “Spin the Bottle” in its fidgety 5/4 time signature to break up the monotony of her debut album, but another effect was realized once the song landed on the Reality Bites soundtrack; it became the sound of a heart skipping a beat. “Spin the Bottle” captures that slippery, intoxicating moment when adolescent naiveté crosses the line into adulthood, when making out with your crush at a house party leads to far more serious consequences than chapped lips and high school gossip. There’s sexual intimacy, the next day’s regret, and shitloads of Grown Up decisions — basically the same sort of Gen Xer conundrums that Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder, and Ben Stiller lovably parlayed into a 1994 cult-film classic.
You can feel the tension between Hatfield’s innocent delivery and the way she drops a surprise f-bomb just to remind you what’s at stake here; this ain’t no kid’s game anymore. Her heart’s on the line. That same sensitivity may have been what kept Hatfield from assuming the mantle of alt-rock stardom pressed upon her by Spin magazine, but this song’s genuine portrayal of infatuation ensures its timelessness. It’s still sweet bliss to hear a 26-year old Hatfield spell out the very definition of teenaged heaven: “Five minutes in the closet with you.” “Spin the Bottle” does it in just half the time.
“15 years in Indiana” – Jack Logan
Jack Logan’s 42-song debut Bulk is a buried treasure chest — hidden, unearthed, then forgotten once again. Assembled by the Replacements’ manager Peter Jesperson (acting on a friendly tip from R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck), it’s the distillation of 600+ song demos Logan recorded over the course of 14 years, on nights and weekends, in basements, kitchens, and living rooms, with drinking buddies, enablers, and ne’er-do-wells. In spite of a 4-star Rolling Stone review, it sold less than 14,000 copies. (I still have mine)
“15 Years in Indiana” is a song about time and what it can do to you. In a two-minute span, a waitress’s life story unfolds; we witness her fading beauty, the creeping despondency, the interminable passage of days that have somehow slipped into years. We smell the garbage in a nearby dumpster, taste the mixture of cigarettes and disappointment. As a swimming-pool motor repairman from Georgia, Logan knew well the balance of tedium and dignity of the blue collar worker. As a songwriter, he sifts through the mundane for innate truths — the decency afforded to common people, their grinning resolve in the face of futility, the monotony of diligence and the quiet way it yields to epiphanies. As lo-fi as “15 Years in Indiana” sounds, it still feels crystalline.
“Pennies” – Smashing Pumpkins
B-side to “Zero” single (1996)
Length – 2:29
“I’m your lover, I’m your zero” Billy Corgan sang brazenly in late 1995, translating his non-existence into super hero status, but b-side track “Pennies” is literally the other half of that equation — the earnest kid who lays his heart on the line and gets crushed. For the thousands of neglected grungeheads who could identify with Corgan’s damaged little boy from Siamese Dream’s “Disarm,” “Pennies” was the subsequent adolescent heartbreak that we all knew was coming, but couldn’t quite avoid.
At worst, Corgan’s angst could veer precariously close to sock drawer poetry, but something about drummer Jimmy Chamberlin’s galloping snares (recreated in the clip above) and the unresolved yet hopeful ellipse of “Pennies'” guitar riff makes his lyrics particularly poignant. “I always loved you so/ Especially when you go.” The song’s cryptic title is revealed in the final line, a little turn of phrase that becomes proverb. “Pennies” romanticizes the pang of unrequited love, the knowledge that what is most precious to you has no value to another.
“Blizzard of ’77” – Nada Surf
Let Go – (2002)
Length – 2:12
Nada Surf’s second life began with “Blizzard of ’77” which is ironic considering no one is really sure what the song means. The airy, acoustic beauty of the opening track from 2002’s Let Go was miles away from the post-grunge paydirt the New York City quartet had hit in 1996 with “Popular,” and wisely so, given its stylistic shift transformed them from one-hit wonder into power-pop cult favorites for the next 15 years.
“Blizzard of ’77” remains a lovely conundrum, a song whose poignancy is undiminished by its indecipherable nature. Singer Matthew Caws’ lyrics veer from vivid (“And then later, trippin’ in 7-11/ The shelves were stetching out of control”) to cryptic (“It’s like flowers or ladybugs/ Pretty weeds or red beetles with dots”), but his crisply strummed chords and yearning affect brim with some unknowable emotion. “I miss you more than I knew” he concludes at the song’s abrupt finish, and we’re left nodding in agreement, wondering how something so inexplicable can leave such an imprint.
“Dear Chicago” – Ryan Adams
Length – 2:13
“Dear Chicago” is the loose page that wiggled its way out of a diary, a secret plea demanding discovery. It’s a reluctant confession, a deep cut on an under promoted album composed of songs slated for other albums that were never even released. But its poignancy and craftsmanship wouldn’t let it stay shelved, proving that Adams isn’t just prolific, but a prodigy.
As a romanticist and songwriter who draws upon personal experience, Adams possesses a tragic overabundance of material, having been torched by so many women he could have owned a flame-retardant suit. As a lyricist, he’s autobiographical and forthright to a fault, often referring to his ex-paramours (many of whom are famous) by their real names. But the kiss-and-don’t-tell ambiguity of this song adds welcome weight to its gravitas: Who exactly is this girl? How badly fucked up is this guy? What transpired between them? Given all these unanswered questions, it’s surprising how much closure “Dear Chicago” provides.
The song’s melody is florid and achingly full, one of prettiest Adams has ever written. But it only makes it that much harder to stomach when he utters: “I been thinking some of suicide” and a tender guitar note cracks. The reason to stay his hand is as unexpected as it is sad: “But there’s bars out here for miles.” Adams explores the dark stretch of road between self-pity and emotional reconstruction and survives what he finds there without ever sounding maudlin or trite. “I think that I’ve fallen out of love with you” is as heartbreaking as a relationship’s closing statement gets, but on a good day, in the context of the picking up the pieces that is “Dear Chicago,” it resembles redemption.
“The Book I Write” – Spoon
Stranger Than Fiction Soundtrack – 2006
Length – 2:13
Britt Daniel’s flair for the succinct was already firmly established (see the self-fulfilling prophecy of Kill the Moonlight’s “You Gotta Feel It” or “Quincy Punk Episode’s” thorny snarl on A Series of Sneaks) by the time composer/musician Brian Reitzell tapped the Spoon front man to soundtrack 2006’s indie film Stranger Than Fiction. Daniel’s punchy songs stimulate raw nerve endings and the brain’s pleasure centers all at once, feeling offhand yet lovingly meticulous.
Daniel sprinkled a handful of older Spoon tracks throughout the quirky comedy/drama, but in true meta-prankster fashion, also penned “The Book I Write,” a song about a movie about a book about a life. The track’s catchy hook, bouncy brass section, and immaculate production were indicative of the times; Spoon was in the process of writing and recording songs for soon-to-be career highlight Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. “The Book I Write” feels like a twenty dollar tip on a five dollar drink — it could only be considered a throwaway for a band with an abundance of riches.