One of my pet peeves is when someone goes on and on about how they are a music lover, music is their hobby, how much they just enjoy and love music, and then you ask them what they like:
"Oh, I love it all. I listen to everything. Except country and rap. And I'm not too fond of classical music. And Lady Gaga's a hack with no talent."
Hah, I caught you, you freakin' poser. A good song is a good song. Period. I personally caught you yesterday humming that Britney Spears tune. Don't worry - I realize she's not on your regular rotation.
But hey, if it speaks to you musically, who cares who wrote it or performed it or what genre label it's been slapped with? One of my good friends had to hide his Barry Manilow obsession from his own friends for most of his adolescent life. If your friends really give a crap, maybe you need to find some new ones. Or change the subject.
Bottom line: If you don't reach beyond your current iPod catalog, you're missing out on the joy of discovering something new and exciting. Even if it's only new and exciting to you. You're all that matters anyway, right?
So to jump-start your journey into the relatively safe unknown, I present to you five popular songs, in no particular order, that you are likely to have never heard before. Maybe it's because of your age. Maybe it's because your radio is stuck on one station. All are planted firmly in what you might call the rock/pop/alternative genre, so as not to scare anyone away with anything too "weird" - heaven forbid.
And if you have a song or two to add to this list, please, please share it in the comment section below. Or feel free to disagree. This is how we bond.
Nik Kershaw - The Riddle
This is the tune that inspired me to make this list, and it happens to have an interesting backstory as well.
It seems that British musician Nik Kershaw was demoing his newest album for his agent, into which he no doubt poured his blood, sweat and tears for what seemed like a decade. To which the agent responded something like this:
"That's nice. But…uh…where are the hit songs? I'm just not feeling it. Got anything else?"
This pissed Mr. Kershaw off enough so that, within the hour, he ran up to his room with his guitar and came up with this little ditty.
I came across this song onstage, while I watched from the sidelines as some Japanese high school students performed a bizarre drama they had written about a teacher and a vampire. It culminated (as all drama should) in a dance number to this song.
Though it sounded a little dated, I assumed it was a fairly new tune that never made it to U.S. shores. I was shocked to find it reached #3 on the charts in the UK in 1984. As a child of the 80's, I couldn't believe this one slipped by me all these years.
Now imagine my mounting excitement when I discovered it also has the coolest video ever:
So what's the answer to the riddle? There was intense speculation at the time - people stopping Nik on the street, constant questions in interviews, lots of fan mail. His label fanned the flames with radio promos to give prizes to people who submitted the best interpretations. They got bags of submissions with elaborate explanations.
Turns out that, in the haste of writing his hit song, he'd just made up some temporary nonsense words to go along with the music. Recording his album, time ran out for him to come up with anything better, so he just went with what he had and called it "The Riddle."
Poor Nik felt so guilty about all the fuss that it took him decades to come clean. Let that be a lesson to all you songwriters out there.
Incidentally, a dance remix by an Italian DJ sold over a million copies in Germany and France in 2000.
Alice Cooper - Might As Well Be On Mars
Alice Cooper is arguably one of the most influential, pervasive and successful rock musicians. You may know him as the father of "shock rock," but you may not realize he's dipped his toe into several genres - even recording a couple New Wave albums in the 80s. This guy used to go out drinking with John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Micky Dolenz, Bernie Taupin, and Keith Moon.
Remarkably, he's never done drugs, but alcohol almost killed him and he was in and out of rehab throughout the late-70s and early-80s. This mellow-but-powerful ballad comes out of left field on Hey Stoopid, one of his post-rehab albums (and a killer album it is, too). The sheer power of the complicated - almost orchestral - music combines with the desperation and sadness of the lyrics to slowly build emotion and mold one of the most romantic rock songs ever recorded.
Just listen and try to convince yourself you've never felt like this in your life.
The Coop continues to rock, and the original Alice Cooper band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year. I'm sure the length and complexity of this song kept it off the radio, but it deserves to be on everyone's top-ten list of love ballads. Or so my wife tells me.
Dream Theater - Erotomania
This group belongs on the "Top 5 Bands You've Never Heard" list, so I struggle to find the right Dream Theater song to put on here.
Their fans tend to be intense, serious musicians in their own right. If you've never heard Dream Theater before, imagine a group of classically trained musicians behind electric guitars standing in front of the world's most complicated drum set who insist on never settling into a straight 4/4 time.
Their albums are hard rock and high concept, with a strong thematic thrust throughout. The first song will introduce a variety of musical themes that will be revisited and explored more deeply in subsequent songs. As such, each song is a movement and the album is more like a symphony, which is most satisfying to listen to from beginning to end.
In the era of where music is now sold by the song, the properly structured album has become all but extinct. Thank goodness someone is keeping the faith.
"Erotomania" is an instrumental-only piece midway through Awake, which pulls together elements of some of the earlier songs while setting you up for what is to come. If you appreciate musicality, complexity and technical proficiency, I guarantee you're going to love this.
And brace yourself for the fugue-like guitar solo starting around 4:35...
Did I count six strings on that bass?
If you want to hear more, a great album to get started on is the highly successful Images and Words - "Pull Me Under" (the first track) still gets a decent amount of air play. The band has been labeled progressive metal, which is a perfect example of how slapping a label on a band is stupid.
Barenaked Ladies - Hello City
Every music fan has their "I was into that group before they were popular" story. The Barenaked Ladies is mine. 'Nuff said about that.
BNL gets lots of airplay now and has a fan base far beyond Canada, but their 1992 debut album Gordon is still their best overall. If you're looking for an album where nearly every song is gold, this is it. It's the source of the now ever-popular "If I Had $1,000,000" but I'm going with something more under-appreciated here.
Despite its upbeat, easygoing tempo, "Hello City" manages to strike a moody and somewhat melancholy tone at the same time with both words and music. I close my eyes and picture myself zooming through the alternately bustling and quiet neighborhoods of New York or downtown Toronto in the dark of night - where the sky is black and calm but a million bright lights are fighting against it and a certain crowd is still not ready to sleep. That's my crowd.
I personally feel that the 'Ladies have entered a bit of a rut lately, where they've settled into a particular style and expectation, losing a lot of the musical playfulness that set them apart a couple decades ago. I think they'll find it again, if they're looking for it.
Cowboy Mouth - How Do You Tell Someone
When I was in college, I directed a full-length film that I shot with a bunch of friends over the summer all over Kirksville. It's called "Dumping Jenny," and the premise is that a guy (Tom) and his friends wake up after a drunken stupor and have to piece together what happened the night before, which somehow involved him finally dumping his obsessive girlfriend Jenny, who they now cannot find.
This was well before "The Hangover" and "Dude, Where's My Car?" so I feel like we broke some ground at the time.
Anyway, I was looking for someone to score the music for the film and our boom operator had an obsession of his own - following a band called Cowboy Mouth to as many shows as he can. He had this idea that their song, "Jenny Says," would be ideal for our movie if we could just get the band's permission.
So he got to know the sound guy at one of the shows. Through the course of their conversation, it turned out that one of the band members, John Thomas Griffith, was interested in scoring films. After some discussion, Griff agreed to score my movie for the experience, only to be paid if we net wild riches. Which we didn't.
But it was a fun ride and he did a great job scoring the movie, sending me pieces here and there while the band was traveling on the road. It turned out that "Jenny Says" didn't really fit in anywhere, but we used a couple of their songs in the film, including this one that was just perfect for one of our two musical montages.
There are a couple recordings of "How Do You Tell Someone" out there. You MUST listen to THIS ONE from the album Easy:
This song never gets old. A band could easily ride into sellout crowds at packed stadiums on the coattails of a song like this.
I cannot say enough about Cowboy Mouth. It's one of those sad stories of a band that deserves to be more popular than they are. They have all the pieces in place: mass appeal, a catalogue of catchy tunes with great hooks, and one of the most energetic and uplifting shows you'll ever have the pleasure of attending. They push the drum set to the edge of the stage and their lead drummer - who is built like a football player - sings lead on most of their tunes, pumps up the crowd, and, oh yeah, manages to drum like hell too.
And so it goes.