[Such was the title of an email conversation with Jay. The entire thread appears below. Add your picks in the comments. —D.]
Subject: Surprise Song That Makes You Cry
(And that song cannot be “Do You Realize” by the Flaming Lips nor can it be anything from Beck’s Sea Change)
For me it’s Mary J. Blige’s version of U2’s “One.” Live, I can’t even watch it. I think because U2 has become so goddamn ubiquitous and culturally diluted, we forget how powerful their songs used to be, especially back in the War/Joshua Tree/Achtung Baby days, which, for the record, was 1983 – roughly 1993. (Sidenote: Like it or not, U2 is the most important band of your generation, and no one else is even close.)
When someone like MJ comes along and not only breathes new life into it, but layers all of her social significance on top of it, it really makes you LISTEN to the song (Another Sidenote: In the end, “One” may be the best song U2 ever wrote. This may be a bit of an overstatement, but it may be the last single in pop music that actually meant something.) When she sings it live, she sings the SHIT out of it: fist pumps, holding up the hands of others, pained facial expressions, the whole thing.
You ask me to enter
But then you make me crawl.
And I can’t be holding on to what you got
When all you got is hurt.
When she sings that part, it sounds like her heart is gonna burst out of her chest. Right after it, Bono comes in to back her up. It’s like she has nothing left for the rest of the song (except for a triumphant “sisters and brothers” run near the end).
Download the single from her album The Breakthrough (a phenomenal album, by the way. On “One,” she actually has all of U2 backing her up). Give it a listen.
Let me preface this list by noting that I have uttered the words, many times, “Any song can get you there.” Put differently, I’ve cried to everything from the Bach (see #1) to The Beatles (#2) to The Minutemen (DNQ). And yes, to “Do You Realize,” and most of the songs on Sea Change. You know me so well.
I would also note that this list excludes songs that get me for exclusively (or even mostly) life-history reasons. In other words, there might be a few that will always remind me of ______, but if they didn’t get me before we broke up, they’re not in here.
Finally, I tried not to put, you know, all 97 songs by The Beatles that make it happen, though I do note some alternative entries by certain artists (the Lads included).
1. Otto Winter playing Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” (which is the most famous organ piece not on the Rushmore soundtrack): I’m not putting this at the top of the list to be pretentious, but like no other song (except perhaps “Do You Realize?”), this one makes me cry every single time, and in the exact same spot. The chord changes when there remain between 22 second and 13 seconds in the song are breathtaking in a most saddening way. I am powerless against this song.
2. “Dear Prudence” (you know who): The heightening intensity of the choppy lead guitar and the sudden change in feel 2/3 of the way through the song get to me quite often. But “Long Long Long” (also from the White Album) and the opening bars of “Here Comes the Sun King” (Abbey Road) also do it.
3. “Chelsea Hotel #2” (Leonard Cohen): This song, for me, is about losing the possibility of naïve romance. Apparently LC wrote it for Janis Joplin, but I don’t much care. It’s just about growing up and realizing that, to paraphrase the Buddha, all life is suffering.
4. “1/1” (Brian Eno, from Music for Airports): Whenever I have something sad that I need to accept, I listen to this one. It’s the most repetitive song I’ve ever heard (at 17:20), and also one of the most calm and resigned. Life is as life is, it seems to say. (See also #3 above.)
5. “Chandranandan” (Ustad Ali Akbar Khan): Again not trying to be pretentious, but this is simply the music of anxious sadness for me. There are sadder songs, and more anxious ones, but none that combine the two quite so well. (For sheer sadness I’d suggest “A Cool Wind is Blowing” by Djivan Gasparyan, off his perhaps ironically titled album, I Will Not Be Sad in this World.)
6. “Wild Horses”: Neither the Rolling Stones’ nor Gram Parsons’s version makes me cry, but playing through the song myself on guitar usually makes it happen.
7. “Never My Love” (The Association): If this one’s gonna get me, it’s at the point, about 2 minutes and 30 seconds in, when the feel changes and the piano starts playing something more up-tempo. Just the surprise of it is almost enough, but combined with the melancholy of the rest of the song…
8. “Livin’ on a Prayer” (Bon Jovi). Greatest key change in rock and roll history.
9. “My Heart’s in the Highlands” (Arvo Pärt): Just a sad, beautiful song about missing a place. But there are at least three other songs on this album (Triodion) that could’ve made the list.
10. Unidentified (Yo-Yo Ma): I can never figure out which one it is, and I’m not willing to listen to all 30-whatever songs to figure it out, but there’s one of those Bach unaccompanied cello suites (besides the famous first one, “Suite 1, S. 1007, G Major: I. Prelude”) that has this sort of extended pounding on one of the real deep notes, combined with a crescendo on the meedly strings. It’s relentless and quite effective.
11. “More than a Feeling” (Boston): I was driving up 279 to wherever the fuck my appointment with the laser-eye people was, and this came on, and as the song eased into the first chorus, I just burst apart. I had to pull over. Ever since then, it pops me about 1/3 of the time.
12. “Everything in its Right Place” (Radiohead): The part where everything changes. You know what I’m talking about. With the silence and the keyboard part and the melting?
13. “I Feel Free” (Cream): The soaring guitar solo, and the part where Clappy switches from the rhythm to the lead pickup and gets filthy on you all of a sudden.
14. “Die Without You” (PM Dawn).
15. “The Other Woman” (Nina Simone).
Notable absences: Elbow, Sigur Ros, Doves, Mogwai, Air, The Who, The Velvet Underground, The Band, Jefferson Airplane, The Kinks. Surprisingly, I rarely cry to Coldplay.
As for your list, you’re right that (1) that’s the best song U2 ever wrote, (2) they’re the most important band of my generation, and (3) Mary J sings the pants off that song. I’m not going to listen to it till I leave work, so that I can really let it hit me.
Great job. Nice effort.
A few late entries to my list, because I feel you’ve over-delivered here and I have some ground to make up:
Also by the Paul Hewson and the Ubiquitous Dubliners, “Walk On.” The only “U2 – Apple/Super Bowl Era” song that I think has any kind of emotional weight. This one’s on the list mostly for the gang vocals and guitar melody at the end.
“The Only Living Boy in New York” and “America.” by Simon & Garfunkel. TOLBINY got me way before the “yelling into the chasm” scene in Garden State, but I think that sent me over the edge (rim shot). In “America.” the “counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike” crescendo bit with the chorus and cymbals at the end is where the waterworks start. My good friend from college – who was a good bit older than me – handed me a S&G mixtape about 8 years ago and said, “my father always told me, ‘When you’re 35, Simon & Garfunkel will start to make a lot more sense.’ I’m telling you the same thing now.” I’m only 27, but I think he’s right.
“Great Expectations” by the greatest band alive, Elbow. Apparently it was written to describe an imagined/impromptu wedding on a rain-soaked Mancunian evening bus ride, using the riders and passersby as the priest and party. When I get married, this is the song I’m dancing to first.
“Still Fighting It,” Ben Folds. Really touches that “holy shit, high school was really awkward and SO long ago” feeling.
“February Stars” and “Everlong,” Foo Fighters. Two lightning-in-a-bottle songs on a lightning-in-a-bottle album. To have them back-to-back in the tracklist is downright cruel.
“For Me This Is Heaven,” Jimmy Eat World. A bit juvenile, but they don’t call it “emo” for nothing.
“Slam,” by Onyx. Just seeing if you’re awake.
“Take Me Somewhere Nice,” Mogwai. The most tender Mogwai song, by a lot. Maybe it’s because they actually sing.
“Californication,” RHCP. To me, this is their opus. I’m not sure how much time you’ve spent in LA, but they NAILED California with this song. Doesn’t hurt that the first time I heard this, I was driving through Beverly Hills.
“On The Bus Mall,” The Decemberists. Sure, it’s another keep-the-thesaurus-on-hand song by the D’s, but a very touching tale
of impoverished vagabond love.
“Pink Bullets,” The Shins. I’ve never given much thought about what this song is about, but it’s a great brooding, moody number.
“Reservations,” Wilco. Tweedy rarely writes a straight love song, but here, he seems to be saying, “Listen, I’m fucking crazy. I must have at least four diagnosable personality issues. I get migraines so bad that I can vomit on command. I can’t stand most of these bastards in my band, and they can’t stand me. But I know one thing, god dammit. I love you.”
I also don’t think I’ve ever cried to Coldplay.