A friend asked me today what my favorite song is. Full stop, point blank, no modifier: favorite song ever. She has her own answer, but the thought of me trying to land on a single song that would rank as my topmost was nearly dizzying. How would I condense a lifetime of loving music into a single track?
She’s right of course, technically speaking. There must be one track that brings me scientifically the most joy of any song I’ve ever heard. It may be an old song, one that has stood the test of time and repetition. It might be a new song, one awash in that stomach-churning anxiety of new love. In either case, I was resolved to figure it out.
Let’s start with artists. There are many artists I enjoy, but there is certainly a core group who continue to assert themselves. They’ve followed me through moves, relationships and any number of life events. These artists produce the backbone of my musical identity. Therefore, my favorite artists of all time (in mostly no particular order) are:
Now that I have artists, I can start to dig into the songs by those artists to get at something approximating my favorite song. I’ve listened to all these bands for decades and boiling their oeuvre down to one song might be difficult.
After some consideration, I decided to go with selecting a track from a formative album. This technique has flaws (what if my favorite song by an artist isn’t on a good album?), but it’s something. These artists all had one particular album that really sunk into me. It may not have been their first album that I heard, but it was the album that I most strongly associate with my love of them.
My favorite albums by my favorite artists of all time are:
- Radiohead – OK Computer
- Bright Eyes – Lifted
- Sigur Rós – Takk…
- The Decemberists – The Crane Wife
- Death Cab for Cutie – Plans
- Ben Folds – Rockin’ the Suburbs
- Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
As I put this list together, it felt like a cheat. The albums seemed obvious and uninspired. But that’s the point, right? There’s no sense in picking an obscure album or a brand new one or an album that I feel I haven’t given enough attention. This should be the list that makes me say, “Duh.” So… duh.
Now to pick my favorite song from these albums.
At this point, I started getting apprehensive. Here is where it gets real. Here is where we really start narrowing in on things. It’s at this moment that I realize how much my answer to this question will define me in a certain way. I’ve always felt that way about the art that I enjoy.
If, instead of asking me to my face, this friend had instead gone to my Spotify profile and discovered my Top Songs of 2019 playlist, she would have discovered that my most listened to track from last year was Kazoo Kid Trap – Extended Mix by Mike Diva. This song bears no relation to any of my actual favorite songs, but it made the perfect opening track from my workout playlist. In the course of training for a half marathon last year, I listened to this track every workout for dozens (if not hundreds) of workouts. I would be fairly mortified if someone thought it was my favorite song of 2019.
The process of picking my favorite songs took a little longer than the albums. Many tracks on each album made a good case for inclusion. After much deliberation, these are my favorite songs from my favorite albums by my favorite artists of all time (in no particular order):
- Radiohead – OK Computer – Let Down
- Bright Eyes – Lifted – False Advertising
- Sigur Rós – Takk… – Hoppípolla
- The Decemberists – The Crane Wife – The Crane Wife 3
- Death Cab for Cutie – Plans – I Will Follow You Into The Dark
- Ben Folds – Rockin’ the Suburbs – Zak and Sara
- Arcade Fire – The Suburbs – We Used to Wait
The Songs, In Particular Order
By now I had an arbitrary list of some of my favorite tracks ever (more or less). How to whittle the list down? If I’m to pick just one favorite, we need to learn more about these titles.
Ben Folds – Rockin’ the Suburbs – Zak and Sara. This song had the least chance. Ben Folds has been a favorite artist of mine since before he left Ben Folds Five to go out on his own as Ben Folds. There are a lot of his albums that I enjoy nearly equally. Rockin’… stood out because it was his first solo project, and I think he really expanded his musicality with it. All the tracks are catchy and beautiful, and Zak and Sara just happens to slightly edge out the others. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a great song. It’s just not the greatest song.
Sigur Rós – Takk… – Hoppípolla. I can’t remember any longer how I discovered Sigur Rós. Being able to tell people that I listen to a band from Iceland may have been all the initial motivation I needed. However, I soon fell in love with their artistic creativity. The band writes lyrics in Hopelandish, an invented language that blends Icelandic with English. They are constantly experimenting with new ways of getting sounds out of their instruments (including using a cello bow on an electric guitar). And they regularly partner with artists from various media to produce immersive and expansive artistic musical experiences. However, I really value strong lyrics, and I’m not yet fluent in Hopelandish, so this track loses out early, too.
Death Cab for Cutie – Plans – I Will Follow You Into The Dark. I’ve followed Death Cab since their second album. The band has gone through small evolutions since those early days, but they more or less remain a really fantastic indie rock band. I feel like Plans strikes the best balance between taking musical chances and delivering more of what they’re good at. There are many fantastic tracks on the album, including favorite contenders Summer Skin and Marching Bands of Manhattan, but I Will Follow You… became the relationship song for Holli and I and has a special place in my heart. Given that, the song is pretty standard for Death Cab and doesn’t quite have what it takes to be my number one overall.
The Decemberists – The Crane Wife – The Crane Wife 3. The Crane Wife, the album, recounts a Japanese folk tale in musical form as a sort of modern opera/concept album, something that The Decemberists would try again with Hazards of Love. There are three “Crane Wife” references on the album: The Crane Wife 1 & 2 are an epic eleven-and-a-half minute journey, but The Crane Wife 3 is more succinct and playlist-friendly tune. If you like lyrics, this song is packed. If you like traveling bass lines, this song delivers. If you like soaring vocals, this song climbs Mt. Everest. That said, a fair part of its strength lies in being part of a concept album.
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs – We Used to Wait. What first drew me to this song was the music video. Arcade Fire partnered with Google to produce an interactive web-experience for their music video. The web app would open windows with related videos, animate in-browser birds and integrate with Google Maps StreetView to walk the viewer down their literal hometown street. As a web developer, I was ecstatic to see these two partner up on such a great song.
The driving piano in this song is addictive. It builds and layers throughout the track, finally fading away without a truly resolved climax. While this song isn’t my top, it has some of my favorite lyrics of all time: I used to write / I used to write letters / I used to sign my name / I used to sleep at night / before the flashing lights / settled deep in my brain. Why these lyrics resonate so much with me, I don’t know.
Bright Eyes – Lifted – False Advertising. This song is a journey. Bright Eyes is no stranger to bending the format, and this song is no excuse. It features sound effects (fake record crackle), ad libs (“I’m sorry!”, “No, it’s okay. It’s okay.”), scene changes (the applause and door shut at the end) and even a spoken word beginning (“On a string. On a string. (inhale) On a string…”). The track is also very rich. I think some of Bright Eyes’ best work is when it sounds like a dozen people are playing at once. This track is one of the most orchestral in their catalog. Conor sings well in it, and the lyrics are some of his best: onto a stage / I was pushed / with my sorrow / well-rehearsed / so give me all your pity / and your money, now (all of it). This song could have been my favorite of all time, but there’s still one more track on the playlist…
Radiohead – OK Computer – Let Down. Radiohead was probably my first and greatest musical obsession. The sister of a high school girlfriend had a “Now That’s What I Call Music” CD that I borrowed. One of those tracks (baffling to me now) was Karma Police by Radiohead. There was a lot in that track to enjoy, but I remember distinctly a moment when the lyrics clicked for me. Under the beautiful crooning of Thom Yorke was a dark and foreboding message: this is what you get / this is what you get / when you mess with us. The dark violence hidden beneath those soaring vocals fascinated me. I knew then that Radiohead was special and quickly began buying their albums. I sought out and joined fan sites. I poured over lyrics. I pirated live shows. I was all in.
OK Computer is singular in its combination of extremely listenable musicality layered over the challenging and anxious poetry of Thom’s lyrics. For many, OK Computer is the only Radiohead album they’ve ever heard. It put the band on the map, showing their talents as a mature and deliberate musical act instead of just a bunch of mates from Oxford who wrote guitar tunes.
Let Down has long been my favorite track on the album for its heartbreaking imagery and beautiful arrangement. The lyrics are like Kafka put to music: one day / I am gonna grow wings / a chemical reaction / hysterical and useless. My favorite moment is the climax of the song, where Thom begins to sing a round with himself, letting the melody and counter-melody play over each other in a gorgeous medley.
Let Down by Radiohead is, according to the previous described process, my favorite song ever.
Best Song Ever? Really?
Probably not. I can already think of a couple other ways I could have made my decision. But at least now I have an answer for my friend.
Want to hear the songs I wrote about? Here’s the playlist on Spotify: