1. Chelsea Hotel № 2 – Leonard Cohen
A great deal of the late Leonard Cohen’s music deals with love, from its disappointments and trivialities to its majesties and joys. No song is so sentimental in its reflection however, as Chelsea Hotel № 2, a fingerpicked acoustic arrangement whose gentle arpeggios are offset wildly by candid lyrics, woundingly recollecting an ephemeral evening spent in the company of one Janis Joplin. Cohen’s Marianas Trench vocal shrouds a bone-dry mix in warm, mournful clouds of deep sound, his words leaking out of the pained face you so clearly imagine on listening; one that squints through the performance and smiles incongruously with the cauterising effect of successful sad poetry. As enamored as he is jealous, regretful and melancholy, the narrator fondly retreads the evening spent with a fellow occupant of the Chelsea Hotel, detailing their antics, both debauched (“head on the unmade bed”) and even heroic (“we are ugly, but we have the music”). The melody is beautiful, and the plain mix prefigures the rawness of envelope-pushing folk records of the decades to come (with the inclusion of a subdued horn, the comparably blunt Billy Bragg springs to mind). This is, by no means, Cohen’s best examination of the tragic human condition we call love. However, for its swelling mixture of the proud, nostalgic, eulogising and rosy, I simply had to include it. Since his death, I’ve become much better acquainted with Mr. Cohen (pictured), and I only wish I’d done so sooner. If you have yet to dig yourself, do – starting with this…
2. Nobody Does It Better – Carly Simon
It’s the king of Bond themes; the seventies ballad to end them all. Carly Simon’s contribution to 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, goes above and beyond the cheesy merits of that film. Its enormous, orchestral pop-format delivering some stunning melodic action, Nobody Does It Better is also littered with cute production techniques, from vibrato tape delay on the piano track to surreptitious double-tracking of Simon’s voice in the choruses. Lyrically, it’s no showstopper, but its directness works in its sensual favour: “why do you have to be so good?” Simon almost moans after the first chorus. It’s a fab work of vocal delivery on her part too; her low, growling tone utterly soars on this, particularly during the coda where a sugary, double recording of her ‘you’re the best’ refrain explodes into being, dragging us, kicking and screaming, to the premature end of the song that could play quite comfortably for (let’s face it) all of time. Let’s not forget, of course, that epic horn outro. It’s a truly superb pop-song, perfectly straddling the gap between 60s bubble-gum and80s power-balladry. What a bloody tune.
3. Your Best American Girl – Mitski
Nothing has ever caught me so off-guard as the tragic, feminist grunge-pop of Mitski Miyawaki. Her album, Bury Me At Makeout Creek, is titled after a quote from the Simpsons’ Milhouse Mussolini van Houten. On it, she references the Objectivist poet, Charles Reznikoff; pines for “a love that falls as fast as a body from the balcony”; and ponders the heart breaking “last words of a shooting star”. Its successor, Puberty 2, was released to rave reviews last year and continues the singer/songwriter’s deeply personable analysis of a very romantic, liberal feminist agenda, exploring the relentless abuses of a sensitivity that also perversely pursues the excellent trophy of love. Your Best American Girl is Mitski’s magnum opus; it perfectly encapsulates the encompassing tensions of her work, from fears of the racial outsider to passive aggressive acceptance of her Americanism as only partial. A Tokyo-born US citizen, she has spoken frequently of her difficulty finding a sense of belonging in either Japan or America. “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me”, she apologises to the recipient of her music, as bludgeoning musically as its words are on paper. Writing as I am in xenophonic, post-Brexit Britain, mere hours away from the inauguration of President Trump, I think I can safely call these some of the most profound lyrics of our contemporary condition.