Song 325: ABBA, “Dancing Queen” (1976)

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I’ve been debating for a while about which ABBA song to write about, but who am I kidding? It was always going to be “Dancing Queen,” that unstoppable pop stalwart. It’s probably being played at some wedding or Bar Mitzvah at this very moment. And everybody is happy about it.

The best thing about “Dancing Queen,” in my opinion, is its pace. It just thumps along, taking its sweet time as if aware of its own greatness. There aren’t many midtempo party songs—maybe because it results in some super-awkward dancing—but ABBA absolutely nails it here. The drums are the key; they keep the beat steady while offering the occasional “bop-bop” snare hits (you can hear them after Agnetha Fältskog sings “only seventeen” in each chorus).

The second-best thing about “Dancing Queen”? That piano. Without it, the song is just a pretty-good pop song; with the piano included, you’re immediately reminded of old dance halls and romantic movies. It sounds like love and happiness. (It also inspired Elvis Costello to use a similar piano sound on “Oliver’s Army,” a decision that elevated his song from B-side status to worldwide hit. Though, it should be noted, “Oliver’s Army” is… not about love and happiness.)

Will the popularity of “Dancing Queen” ever end? I hope not. In fact, I think it should be instated as a required song at celebratory public functions. That’s basically already happened, I just think we need to make it official.


Song 305: James Taylor, “Something in the Way She Moves” (1976)

James-Taylors-Greatest-HitsI get why James Taylor’s rep is not so cool. He’s very, very sincere, and he makes songs called “Shower the People” and “Secret of Life.” But look: I grew up in New England, where Taylor is treated like an unofficial mascot. He’s the sound of road trips and grown-up dinner parties. He’s just kind of a given, and he’s welcome every place, any time, in New England (even when he forgets which America-themed song he’s supposed to sing at Fenway Park).

My favorite James Taylor song has always been “Something in the Way She Moves,” a song about how nice James Taylor feels when the person he loves is around. The concept is very simple, so the arrangement is sparse: there’s just guitar, bass, and vocals. I also love that this is not a song about the joy of being in love, it’s about feeling comfortable and content when in the presence of the woman he not only loves, but likes best. If she’s talking, It doesn’t matter what words she uses: “she says them mostly just to calm me down.” That’s an important thing to have.

“Something in the Way She Moves” first appeared on Taylor’s self-titled debut in 1968. James Taylor was one of the first releases on the Beatles’ Apple Records (George Harrison nicked the title of this song as the first line of his great song, and the phrase “I feel fine” pops up here in homage). Because of contractual reasons, “Something in the Way She Moves” and “Carolina In My Mind” had to be re-recorded for Taylor’s Greatest Hits in 1976, and those are the versions that get the most attention today.

Around the time that James Taylor was released, Taylor fell back in to heroin addiction after a brief break from the drug; for this reason, he was unable to promote the record, and James Taylor didn’t sell. Which leads me to something else: you’d never guess it, but James Taylor has been through some shit. He stayed at McLean Hospital for severe depression and battled heroin addiction much of his young adult life. In my opinion, this background has always lent a bit of sadness to Taylor’s music. Even when he’s singing about showering the people with love, his voice always has an edge of disappointment, as if he’s trying to comfort himself back to happiness with his warm blanket of a voice.

Some would argue that James Taylor’s voice is more of a wet blanket than a warm one, but don’t listen to them. Just listen to him sing about how nice it is to have someone to love, and, like Taylor, be thankful for simple things.


Song 180: Boston, “More Than a Feeling” (1976)

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This is another song that, at this point, sounds like the radio. It’s hard to hear it as a song, even as something you would choose to listen to. It’s just there, fully formed, a pop-rock masterpiece that you always knew and can’t remember not knowing.

It took Tom Scholz five years to record “More Than a Feeling” in his Watertown basement. At first you think, “What?! That’s insane!” but then you hear the song again, you notice all the damn layers to the thing, and you realize, yeah, that sounds about right. It sounds like the work of a mad genius, which Scholz apparently was–he was an electronics whiz who worked at Polaroid, and he tinkered on demos at night. He asked his friend Brad Delp to lend some vocals to the project, and then he submitted six demos to everybody he could think of, and they were all rejected. CBS Records finally relented, and Scholz was off. Now he just needed to put together a band.

I love that story, and I love that all of Scholz’s hard work is totally evident in the finished product. Guitars are everywhere, flying in and out of range, crunching, shimmering, soaring. It’s one big shiny pop song, but there’s nothing messy about it.

The Wikipedia page on “More Than a Feeling” is great, because it contains some interpretations of the song’s lyrics, from a “Walk Away Renée” reference to thoughts on unrequited love. And Scholz’s explanation? He says the song is about “the thrill one gets while driving fast cars.”

The man put six years of his life into recording a song that sounds amazing while driving. For that alone, we owe him our gratitude.


Song 83: Thin Lizzy, “The Boys Are Back In Town” (1976)

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Let’s get this out of the way. This song is dumb. We all know it, and I won’t try to argue otherwise. It’s about a bunch of boys, boys who are decidedly back in town. They are at a bar called Dino’s, and they are going to get in a fight, and we’d better let ’em. This also, for some reason, makes us all think about that chick who used to dance a lot, and also the chick who got up and slapped Johnny’s face. Remember that? If not, here’s a reminder: we all fell about the place.

Dumb. But musically, this song is the weirdest, most fun thing. I’m not even referring to the chorus, which is what we all think of when we hear this song’s title. I’m referring to the verses, which are full of syncopated minor sixths and sus4s, and you may not know what those are, but let me assure you: they don’t generally show up in Aerosmith songs. They’re jazzy, and they’re a little abstract, and they’re not usually paired with power chords.

My favorite thing about this song is the guitar solo, which is technically two guitar solos at once, because the band’s two guitarists, Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson, are playing simultaneous, harmonized solos. (Belle and Sebastian later paid homage to the band and their harmonized solos with their song “I’m A Cuckoo”.)

As a whole, Jailbreak is a surprisingly cohesive and substantial record, with rockers (this one and the title track), gentle ballads (“Cowboy”), and midtempo songs that fall somewhere in between (“Running Back”). It’s a lot better than you’d expect, which is something of a backhanded compliment, but most definitely true. Give it a try.

Also: Thin Lizzy is Irish. For some reason, that blew my mind.


Song 44: Joan Armatrading, “Down to Zero” (1976)

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Aside from the general time period when she was popular, I know virtually nothing about Joan Armatrading. As far as I know, the only song of hers I’ve ever heard is “Down to Zero.” I’m curious enough that I’m going to do a Google investigation after this post, but for now, I like that “Down to Zero” is just a song that exists with no context. I love this song, and I love that it’s in my brain with no surrounding information. It’s just there, being itself.

I first heard “Down to Zero” on an episode of Homicide, of all places. It was one of those “what was that?” moments, and it sent me to the Internet to find out more. Apparently downloading this song was all I needed for my fix.

There’s a “roominess” to this song, in the sense that you can get a feel for the room it was recorded in. The parts are separate, but they all have the same kind of reverb, and you can imagine the players sitting in that room, attentive to each other and the project at hand. (And no, I have no idea whether everyone played together with no overdubs, but shhhh. I’m busy.)

In listening to this song on repeat, I’m realizing that I’m a complete sucker for this swaying waltz kind of tempo. It lulls me into relaxation, even when Armatrading is singing about “more pain than the blistering sun.” And speaking of her singing, I love this woman’s voice, especially when she sings “down to the ground.” She seems to be singing as low as she can go, but she doesn’t go off-key. That’s some control.