Wednesday, May 24, 2006

100 Doses: A Long-Term Cure for American Idol

One of the reasons I continue to watch and critique American Idol is simply that, like most of us, I kind of like playing the critic. The contestants of a show like AI make pretty easy targets, don’t they? At the end of the day, though, I’m not going to buy any of their albums, I’m not going to put down money to see any of them play live, and I can’t remember if I ever got around to voting for any of the contestants that I liked.

As Walter pointed out in a comment yesterday, these people aren’t really artists. They don’t write their own music, they don’t always even choose their own songs, and, if they win, I doubt very seriously that they’re given much in the way of artistic control over the songs, production, or arrangements. AI exists as a sort of lottery for moderately talented singers; the end result is pre-fab pop with not much of a shelf life.

When you look at it like that, though, the next questions should be obvious: what makes a song great? What makes a singer great?

I’m not sure that it can be easily quantified, although I would agree with Walter in that it isn’t purely about mechanics. The best-trained voice is no guaranty of a memorable (or even good) song, much less a great one. Which explains why Bob Dylan gets to have a music career.

(As an aside, if you were to be asked to identify the most influential American poet, who would name? I would suggest that Dylan might well fit the bill.)

That said, a truly horrible voice can render a good song unlistenable--so there is a low bar to be cleared when it comes to the mechanics, but the mechanics aren’t the deciding factor.

I don’t know what ingredients build a great song, but I do have my opinions about some songs that I consider to be great. And, one by one, I’m going to share 100 of those songs. They won’t be in any particular order (and Mark Lanegan might be a little over-represented), but they will be accompanied by MP3s and the reasons that I think the songs are so brilliant.

Some of the songs will be familiar, although popularity is no quick gauge of virtue.

Think of this as a cure for American Idol. A group of songs that make up a hell of a playlist with songs that you’ll hate and songs that you’ll love and a little bit of musical exploration for the class. The only two rules are that the songs have to have a prominent vocal, can’t be a cover of another artist’s music, and that I think that they are so damned good that they are worth sharing.

Ready for some fun? Good, because this was all a lengthy introduction to the first song on the list.

100 - Mark Lanegan, “Judas Touch”

It’s only appropriate that I start out with a Mark Lanegan song and this is one of the best. From the brilliant album, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, “Judas Touch” is a little drop of near-perfection. At only one minute and thirty-seven seconds long, it leaves a little too soon. Stuck somewhere between country and acoustic blues, the star is Lanegan’s voice on top of the simple guitar and brushed drum.

“Judas Touch” doesn’t cover new ground; it’s as familiar as a worn cliche. But Lanegan’s intimate voice is almost seductive and he remains one of the most distinct and fascinating voices in rock music.

Turn out the lights, close your eyes, and enjoy this gentle tune.

Download Judas Touch. (The file is no longer linked. Check back for Number 99 soon.)


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