Song 255: Bonnie Raitt, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (1991)

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Bonnie Raitt is an immensely talented songwriter and guitarist, so I feel somewhat guilty choosing a Raitt song written by someone else and that doesn’t feature her on guitar. But it’s sung so beautifully, and it was such a wise song choice as a performer, that she deserves a lot of credit.

“I Can’t Make You Love Me” was written by Allen Shamblin and former Cincinnati Bengal (!) Mike Reid. The idea for the song reportedly came from a court appearance at which a man who had been arrested for drunkenly shooting his girlfriend’s car, when asked what he had learned, replied, “I learned, Your Honor, that you can’t make a woman love you if she don’t.” I wonder if that guy knows that he won Bonnie Raitt a Grammy.

Raitt sang this vocal in one take, which I think is both extraordinary and unsurprising: it’s very impressive that she nailed it on the first try, but it also sounds so raw and fresh, as if heartbreak had just happened. It’s really beautiful.


Song 95: Nirvana, “Drain You” (1991)

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I like to say that some songs are “secret best songs” from a particular artist or album. It’s not that they’re necessarily the best song, it’s that the universally accepted best song (“Hey Jude”, say) is so well-known and lauded that it’s hard to hear with fresh ears. That’s where the secret best song comes in, the dark horse that deserves more attention. (Isn’t that a fun idea? Guys? Where’d you go?).

To that end, I think we would all agree that the best song on Nevermind is “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, that ferocious animal of a single that never sounds old. But the secret best song on Nevermind is Drain You. The thing that makes Nevermind so amazing is that almost all the songs are so remarkable that each could be the secret best song. “Lithium”, “Come As You Are”, “In Bloom”… I couldn’t argue with any of these choices. Yet it’s “Drain You” that I always come back to, and I think half the reason may be the first few seconds: I love they way Cobain’s voice is so immediate and clear, with his guitar matching the tone. Then it all gloriously blows up, of course, but those first few seconds are moments of pure pop in their clarity.

I also love, love, love the melody on this song. It really is beautiful, which might sound like a strange thing to say about a song with lyrics such as “It is now my duty to completely drain you”, but it’s true: try picturing this song being played on the piano, and you might hear what I’m hearing. (Tori Amos famously did this with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which made the thing sound like “Moonlight Sonata.”) Cobain rivaled Lennon and McCartney in the melody department, as far as I’m concerned.

Another reason I love this song: Dave Grohl once again beating the shit out of his drums. That guy’s commitment to noise knows no bounds.


Song 80: U2, “So Cruel” (1991)

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Achtung Baby is one of my all-time favorite records, which is funny because I’m not a big U2 fan. It’s not that I have a problem with Bono, who I generally find amusing and self-effacing. No, it’s more that U2’s music, mostly in the Joshua Tree and Rattle & Hum years, has a grandiosity that I don’t really understand. Songs like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” just make me think, “Why are you telling me this? And stop yelling!”

With Achtung Baby, U2 seemed to pick up on the fact that people were starting to feel that way about them. Only a few years after Rattle & Hum, which dropped the band in the American South to sing about Martin Luther King and Billie Holiday, the quartet was singing about personal relationships and, on the Zoo TV tour, ordering 10,000 pizzas onstage. A weirder, more interesting U2 had arrived.

Which wouldn’t have mattered if the songs weren’t so damn good. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” “Trying To Throw Your Arms Around the World,” “Mysterious Ways,” and, yes, “One” — these are anthemic without being sanctimonious. And in the case of “So Cruel,” U2 made a gorgeous ballad that was tucked away in the middle of the record, overshadowed by the obvious hit singles but a powerful centerpiece to a fantastic album.

So why “So Cruel”? There’s that piano, for one, which I’d barely noticed before i tried covering the song and replicated the piano on guitar. It plays twice in each line that Bono sings, and the second version is slightly more syncopated than the first. This is a good example of the attention to detail that the band and producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno put in to all these songs. And I think the melody of the chorus is just beautiful, from that high note to the next phrase, which sounds like it’s from an old spiritual. It’s one of those songs that you’re surprised didn’t always exist.

Footnote: I wrote the first draft of this post in a mall food court, and as I was leaving the mall, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” played over the speakers. It fucking haunts me.


Song 34: Michael Jackson, “Black or White” (1991)

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First things first: There are many Michael Jackson songs better than “Black or White.” It’s hamfisted, pandering, and quite possibly the least subtle work of art ever (aside from that cover art up there). It is dumb.

And yet… I absolutely love this song. It’s clear in retrospect that Jackson, even more than usual, was worried that his foothold on the global consciousness, so he was throwing everything he could into the first single from Dangerous. (This was even more the case with the insane “Black or White” video; more on that later.) I actually find this endearing, like Jackson was appealing for us to keep him around as long as we could. Things didn’t work out so well, but it’s rather heartening to consider.

Of course, that’s all speculation on my part. I have no idea how Jackson felt about this song. I just know that he was extremely insecure about success, and with the sales for Bad not up to par with those of Thriller (an insane expectation, to be sure, but it was Jackson’s obsession), I imagine Jackson was very concerned about making an album that cemented his icon status.

So why do I love this song? I love that catchy melody, of course, and that fun guitar riff. But I also love the arrangement. I don’t know whose idea it was to incorporate acoustic guitar (I’m guessing it was either Jackson or his co-writer and co-producer Bill Bottrell), but it’s a stroke of genius. Just listen closely to its entrance at 3:25 in the video below. Just when you’re getting used to the pattern of the song–and that happens fast, because the thing is so simple–the acoustic guitar grounds it, makes it sound a little more organic. I bought the CD single, which had an instrumental version, and the acoustic guitar really stands out without Jackson’s vocals.

Now, that video. First of all, it is the most early-nineties thing you will ever see. It starts with Macaulay Culkin at his Macaulay Culkin-est, jamming to some generic hair-metal in his room (which features a Bartman poster on the wall). His dad, George Wendt, at the height of his Cheers fame, storms in, and then gets blasted to the middle of an African savannah, where Michael Jackson is dancing around with some tribesmen. Then, in case we were wondering whether Jackson was a rich person, he brings us to a variety of countries and cultures, stops in on a rapping Culkin (dressed like he’s in an Another Bad Creation video), and culminates in Jackson singing on the Statue of Liberty’s torch. It also features Jackson beating the shit out of a car (a scene that was toned down after the videos’ primetime premiere) and faces morphing into each other (which, I’ll admit, still looks pretty amazing).

At the time, this video was seen as an epic event by an important pop star, but now it just like the ultimate insecure move. “Wait, don’t go!” Jackson seems to be saying. “I turn into a panther later on! And then some Russian guys dance in front of the Kremlin! And it turns out that it’s all inside a snowglobe held by two babies! Love me, please!”

Sigh. It works.