"Geek U.S.A." is, perhaps, one of the greatest hard rock songs ever written. It’s a roller coaster ride of emotions, hitting almost everything positive aspect that early Smashing Pumpkins records were capable of. It is masterfully heavy but yet intricately designed in a way that feels both loose and technical at the same time. It is tied with "Mayonaise" as my favorite Smashing Pumpkins song and their differing styles show how versatile this band really is.
The guitar and drum work on the song is something to be admired. Billy Corgan’s guitar solo in the song was ranked as the 54th greatest guitar solo ever by Guitar World magazine. When the guitars are being played together in unison, it sounds so thick and heavy. When they are each playing something separately, both are essential and add immensely to the song’s overall value. Jimmy Chamberlin’s drum work was described by producer Butch Vig as “one of the most amazing drum performances I had ever heard.”
One of The Smashing Pumpkins’ biggest strengths was their ability to play with dynamics and tone over the course of a song or record. “Geek U.S.A.” switches between fast hard rock riffs, slow, moody melancholy, mid-tempo rock, and blistering shredding before landing at a feedback-heavy dirge to close out the tune. You hear arrangements like this and it’s no wonder the album was late and over-budget. Corgan was a workhorse in the studio, but the results heard over the course of Siamese Dream were well worth the painstaking effort that went into its creation.
I was just watching a documentary on Squeeze and it dawned on me that I’d never written about them on here. Also, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to include any of their songs on my list of the best top 40 singles since I was born since all the Squeeze songs I know and love were written before 1983. One of the best (and closest to my date of birth) was “Black Coffee in Bed” off of their last album of their classic period, Sweets from a Stranger.
Glenn Tilbrook is in top form both vocally and melodically on this song. On this album and the one prior to it, East Side Story, the band had started to experiment with a sound that leaned less on new wave edge and more on other genres like soul. You can really hear that influence on “Black Coffee in Bed.” It sounds like a top notch ’60s Motown tune complete with sparkling background vocals by Elvis Costello and Paul Young. Costello was a big fan of Squeeze and helped produce East Side Story which, in turn, made the band a bit more “hip” to record buyers. Music journalist, David Hepworth, put it elegantly by saying that Costello provided approval to that crowd by backing Squeeze in a way that said “It’s okay to like Squeeze.”
The song was the longest single by the band at the time. Seeing a song of this length — Six minutes, twelve seconds — will often turn someone off thinking that it must be a bloated pop song. “Black Coffee in Bed” never feels long winded. Each phrase seems like it goes about as long as it should. Each crescendo builds in a logical way that enhances the song. The chorus is incredible as sung by Tilbrook, managing each soulful melisma in a way as to not sound overly hokey or in a way that stretches beyond his means.
While the album itself was a step back for the band, “Black Coffee in Bed” is a gem and remains of of their best tunes.
I’m in the middle of making a list of the best U.S. top 40 hits since I was born. So far, I’m only up to 1987, but there’s a few things of note that I’ve observed:
- Anything tied to Michael Jackson turned to gold.
- Anything tied to Prince turned to gold.
- How the hell did “Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco get to be such a big hit?
- I had no idea Billy Ocean had so many hits. Apparently he’s much more than “Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car” and “Caribbean Queen”
I’m missing Rilo Kiley hard right now.
I remember walking into the living room of my apartment in 2005 and my roommate had this Austin City Limits performance playing. They were playing “More Adventurous" at the moment, which is one of my favorites by the band. I was talking on the phone with my then girlfriend and I think I just sorta zoned out of that conversation and just focused on how good the performance was. Then, after not saying anything for a while, I gathered myself back again and said something about how "When country is done right, it’s so good." Rilo Kiley is definitely not a country band, but every once in a while, they’d lean towards that sound like with "More Adventurous" and those are some of my favorites they ever recorded.
The heady days when “Believe” was number one, Britney wasn’t that innocent, and boy bands were all the rage.
I remember intently watching the Wanna Be a VJ contest when it was happening. I wanted Dave Holmes to win so badly. Jesse Camp won ‘cause he was a stupid stupid fucking idiot who appealed to stupid fucking idiots, but Dave was so good and so knowledgeable about music that they offered him a job anyways and lasted way longer on MTV than Jesse.
Also, I remember watching an episode of Say What? Karaoke that he hosted and someone did “You Get What You Give" by New Radicals and he talked about how it was his favorite song. How could I not love someone who appreciates Gregg Alexander like I do? I’m reading through this article and he even talks about other songs Alexander wrote that he loves. We’re basically soulmates.
For a band with so many hits, The Beach Boys are highly underrated in history’s pop music pantheon. They’re often trivialized as a group who just wrote a million songs about cars, sun, girls, the beach, and surfing and then Brian Wilson took a bunch of acid/pot, made Pet Sounds and Smile and that’s it. Oh yeah, and “Kokomo" also happened a couple decades later.
I’ve seen The Beach Boys live twice in my life. Granted, it was in 2005 and 2011 and none of the Wilson Brothers/Al Jardine were anywhere to be seen at these shows, but still, to watch the band blow through around fifty songs over the course of a concert, most of which were huge hits, is something at which to marvel. It always made me sad that they never played “Girls on the Beach,” which is one of the top tier Beach Boys songs that was never a hit.
The melody bears a slight resemblance to “Surfer Girl,” another Beach Boys classic, but the harmonic structure of “Girls on the Beach” is out of this world for how seamless it sounds. The song is so beautifully constructed that you barely even notice any of the harmonic complexities and music theory nerd progressions that are right around every turn.
For example, the verse starts with a standard I - vi - ii - V progression in Eb. No biggie. The next phrase is I - V/ii - ii - iv. Two chords out of the key: the V/ii (C7) and the iv (Abm6). The V/ii chord (known as a secondary dominant) resolves to where it should (ii) and the borrowed iv is a pretty standard move in pop music, but “Girls on the Beach” is already more complex than, say, “Say Something.”
But then when the chorus hits, the song suddenly modulates up a half step to E and yet it doesn’t sound jarring at all. Why is this? You might be surprised, but it’s not just because of the lush vocal harmony. It’s because that borrowed iv chord (Abm6) turns into a pivot chord - iii in the key of E. Because that borrowed iv chord in a major key has been used so often, it barely even registers as something out of the key, and Brian Wilson uses that knowledge to easily shift keys between the verse and the chorus several times throughout the tune. It’s masterful.
Also, that’s drummer Dennis Wilson on lead vocals during the bridge. Soulful delivery, dude.
My buddy Jordan Hensley and I wrote this song together a while back in the summer. He sent me an a cappella vocal track and wanted me to write music to it. I still question Jordan when he says that he knows nothing of music theory and harmonic progressions because I find it hard to believe he could write a melody with such obvious hints at chords outside of the key without knowing a bit about what he’s doing.
Someone help me get a job in the greater Portland metropolitan area so I can make music regularly with this man in person.
Philly Soul is one of the most celebrated genres of music on this blog. The sound differs from the classic Motown sound in that it replaces much of the funky, groove-based stuff Detroit was producing with highly polished, lush arrangements. You won’t hear a lot of thumping basslines that make you want to jump up in Philly Soul, but you’ll close your eyes and feel the silken strings, elegant woodwinds, and vibrant horns wash over you in a way that’s as refreshing as they come.
The Delfonics were one of the pioneers of this style along with artists like The O’Jays, The Spinners, and The Stylistics. “La-La (Means I Love You)” was written by lead singer William Hart and Thom Bell, a prominent songwriter, arranger, and producer for Philadelphia International Records who wrote many Philly Soul standards like “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide from Love)" by The Delfonics and "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)" by The Stylistics.
As soon as “La-La (Means I Love You)” begins, you can hear everything that makes Philly Soul great. Those tremolo strings are haunting and give a sense of longing. The vocal harmonies are on point, especially during the chorus when the vocal lines descend over the words “La la” and end with thick harmony over “I love you.” William Hart’s over-enunciation of syllables during the verse is fantastic. The Jackson 5 did a cover of this tune and Michael Jackson was really going all-out with his best Hart impression in that way. The parts that gets me every time when I hear this tune are the quarter note triplets during the second bar of each phrase during the verses. The way everything stops to hit those marks while the vocal line stays loose over the top of it is incredible.
During the bridge, there’s an obvious modulation that happens and while it may seem at the time like it’s just to make the bridge sound different from the rest of the tune, it also makes the following pre-chorus and chorus even more powerful when Hart’s falsetto soars over the line “Listen to me.”