“Say your little sh** and get out the way” – Ted Dunbar
As anyone who reads this blog is aware, brevity isn’t my strong point. With music, though, I am always concerned with making a performance the “correct” length. If it’s meant to be epic, then longer is often appropriate. Sometimes, though, it’s a matter of making a pithy statement and then letting it be absorbed. Certainly as a listener, I have a soft spot for songs that feel complete and compelling while clocking in at under 120 seconds.
I was actually surprised that compiling this list yielded far more great examples than I could possibly fit into a Top 10 list. As such I did what I often do in this situation and tightened the criteria. Some categories that I therefore ruled out include:
* Shorter versions of longer songs (the a cappella version of “Daddy’s Gonna Tell You No Lie” by Sun Ra/Cosmic Rays, the reprise of “The Light From The Lighthouse Shine On Me” from the Ladykillers soundtrack, the reprise of “Zululand” by Eileen Ivers, any number of recorded Nina Simone fragments).
* Novelty songs where the joke just isn’t that long (“F*** You” by Wesley Willis, “Dad I’m In Jail” by Was (Not Was), “Cups and Cakes” by Spinal Tap, Richard Cheese’s cover of Bel Biv Devoe’s “Do Me”).
* Spoken Word (Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “Bid ‘Em In,” Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon”).
* Instrumental pieces (of which there are many examples) that are clearly meant as vignettes, preludes, interludes and so on – that is, meant to function on an album but not presented as free-standing pieces. A variation on this is instrumental jazz pieces that essentially consist of a couple choruses of somebody soloing (Nat “King” Cole’s “Cole Capers” was a tough one to leave off the “big” list).
1 ) Tom Waits: “I Want You” (from The Early Years, Vol. 2)
Back before Waits swallowed gravel and began writing wry songs about the underbelly of humanity, he came up with one of the best and most straightforward love songs ever. Really. This song simultaneously leaves me wanting more and grateful that he makes his point so touchingly and then gets out of the way, as it were. An added benefit is that I can get through the song without crying, usually, which would likely not be true if it went on any longer.
2 ) Leadbelly: “Linin’ Track” (from Bourgeois Blues and on other compilations)
There are lots of great examples of folk songs that are short and straightforward (it was hard, for example, to leave off Pete Seeger doing “Little Boxes” or “If I Had a Hammer,” Odetta singing “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” and Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “We All . . . Every One of Us.” This one, though, gives me goose bumps. The first time I heard it I was taken aback realizing that it was the origin of an Aerosmith song I’d heard on the radio, but soon I stopped thinking about that and was swept away by Leadbelly’s delivery.
3 ) Gerald Cleaver: “Praise the Lord!” (from Detroit)
This is one of my favorite albums of the last 15 years, by the brilliant drummer/composer Cleaver. What is remarkable is that somehow the 10 minute title track is so infectious that it doesn’t feel long, while the song “Praise the Lord!” is so substantial that it doesn’t feel short. What kind of mumbo-jumbo did you use to make this happen, Gerald?
4 ) Kongar-ol Ondar and Paul Pena: “What You Talkin’ About?” (from the Genghis Blues soundtrack)
Great singing and guitar. And blues. And Tuvan throat singing. If you’ve heard it, you know what I’m talking about. If not, trust me on this one and check it out – better yet, get the movie.
5 ) Ramones: “Cretin Hop” (from Rocket to Russia)
It would seem wrong to make this list with no punk rock, and the Ramones certainly rank among the all-time masters of the short yet satisfying punk song. There were a few good choices, but since I don’t advocate glue-sniffing, I landed on this one.
6 ) Jefferson Airplane: “Embryonic Journey” (from Surrealistic Pillow)
There is a substantial tradition of instrumentals by rock guitarists that clock in at under 2 minutes (“Scuttle Buttin’” by Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Because They’re Young” by Duane Eddy, Jeff Beck’s arrangement of “Greensleeves,” etc.). This one, which has become a signature song for guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, has always made me smile.
7 ) Betty Carter: “Blue Moon” (from Finally)
In the realm of straightforward female jazz vocals, there was a lot of competition, including Sarah Vaughan’s “I Cried For You” and “Linger Awhile” (from Swingin’ Easy) and Ella Fitzgerald’s “All of You” (from the Cole Porter Songbook) but I just love the playful manner in which Betty transforms this song into a sly up-tempo number without losing its essence.
8 ) B.B. King “Every Day I Have the Blues” (from Live at Cook County Jail)
I thought about a lot of catchy and straightforward songs from the late 50s and early 60s that (the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” Rick Nelson’s “Stood Up,” Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “Stay,” etc.), but since I like a little more grit I decided to go with B.B.’s fast-chugging version of this blues chestnut. Gritty isn’t necessarily the operative word here, mind you (if he has the blues every day, they’re some happy blues judging from this performance), but it’s just as irresistible as the short-and-sweet pop hits of the era.
9 ) Miles Davis: “Nothing Like You” (from The Sorcerer)
As I have discussed elsewhere, my first encounter with this song was so unexpected that it bordered on a psychedelic experience. Now I just smile whenever I hear Bob Dorough, with his inimitable vocal style, delivering these romantic lyrics amidst the super-hip Gil Evans arrangement and great playing by Miles’ cohorts. There are no solos (hence coming in at just under 2 minutes) and none are needed.
10 ) The Rolling Stones: “I Wanna Be Your Man” (from Singles 1963-1965 and on other compilations)
I determined there was only space for one Beatles song, so I went against the grain (sorry “I’ll Follow the Sun,” “I Will,” etc.) and took this one that John and Paul penned for their friends/rivals. This track epitomizes raw, snarling early Stones.
Great list! Let me suggest “The Letter” by the Box Tops.
Good call, I love that one. I’ll admit I overlooked it because I more often tend to listen to the drawn-out version by Joe Cocker.