I’m not talking about Stairway to Heaven or Hotel California, both of which are purposefully imperceptible (both bands left the lyrical interpretation up to the listener – because art). These tunes will make you think big thoughts (“your future self is thinking about you in the form of a memory right now”) or just give you a good laugh. All are from my own collection, so the list is obviously not comprehensive.
‘would love to hear anyone else’s recommendations, too! Comment and tell me what’s missing from the list.
1) The Mars Volta – Eriatarka
“Trackmarked amoeba lands craft
Cartwheel of scratches
Dress the tapeworm as pets
Tentacles smirk please
Flinch the cocooned meat
Gotta be a way of getting out”
Cedric Bixler-Zavala has been known for absurdly outlandish and bizarre lyrics and this cut from De-Loused in the Comatorium is no exception. The album is a concept album about a friend who accidentally overdosed on pain pills, entered a week-long coma, then recovered long enough to tell the band about his experience(s). He apparently passed away soon after.
2) Jaco Pastorius – Crisis
If there was a song that sounded any more like a violent nervous breakdown, you’d have to convince me twice. Jaco Pastorius wrote all of the parts for this cut and asked that each musician record their part individually in closed-off rooms so they could not hear one another. Obviously, the final product had to be fine-tuned to make sure it all matched up, but Jaco was so happy with the result he got, he decided to make it the first track on the album for shock value. He definitely got what he wanted.
3) Incubus – You Will Be a Hot Dancer
“What if your brain,
Unexpectedly and suddenly,
Picked out things to flip around
And view a lot differently?
What if blue sky,
All of a sudden turned a purple hue?”
[NSFW] In the liner notes for this album (Fungus Amongus), frontman Brandon Boyd explains that the band (at this point in their career) wanted to sound like an amalgam of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mr. Bungle, and Primus. For this reason alone, the band Incubus fits the bill with songs that make you scratch your head; it’s also the existential lyrics that earn this song in particular a spot on the list.
4) The Roots (feat. Monsters of Folk) – Dear God 2.0
“Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image?
And why is livin’ life such a fight to the finish?
For this high percentage
When the sky’s the limit
A second is a minute, every hour’s infinite”
[NSFW] I appreciate the Roots because they ask the tough questions but still keep things real. This song is excellent musically, so it’s the lyrics that earn it a spot on the list. Anyone who has ever had a crisis of faith can probably identify with Black Thought’s (lead rapper) doleful musings.
5) Primus – Tommy the Cat
“The air was thick with cat calls (no pun intended),
But not even a muscle in her neck did twitch as she sauntered up into the heart of the alley
She knew what she wanted
She was lookin’ for that stud bull, the he cat
And that was me”
[NSFW] Les Claypool. Need I say more?
6) Flying Lotus – Zodiac Sh*t
Steven Ellison (that is, Flying Lotus) has said explicitly that he doesn’t want his music to be predictable. He wants it to take his listeners on twists & turns and never to where the listener believes the music is heading. Even though this is one of his shorter cuts, it is just a taste of what Flying Lotus does so well – the unexpected. [Also, the trippy video augments the experience so well that I had to include it.]
7) Miles Davis – B*tches Brew
“See, if you put a musician in a place where he has to do something different from what he does all the time, then he can do that – but he’s got to think differently in order to do it. He’s got to play above what he knows – far above it. I’ve always told the musicians in my band to play what they know and then play above that. Because then anything can happen, and that’s where great art and music happens.” ~ Miles Davis
Miles Davis is my music idol, and the quote above provides just a small taste of his stylistic genius. He was the first jazz musician to incorporate electronica into his music, and while it damaged his fan base at the time, it allowed him to explore previously uncharted musical territory. B*tches Brew was a studio recording experiment that incorporated electronica, but more importantly was a totally unstructured “jam session” with loosely prepared music and little to no direction from Miles. He encouraged his musicians to essentially feel the piece out for themselves, even proffering that mistakes are welcome. Naturally, this cut (and the album itself) became a masterpiece.
8) Frank Ticheli – Blue Shades
My high school symphonic band played this piece (Oakton High School class of ’08). At the time, I struggled to understand what statement was being made in the music. My young musician mind couldn’t comprehend the abstract, staccato delivery of musical motifs that characterize the first 12-bars of the piece. Nearly a decade later, I recognize the genius and have to include it on this list because it is rhythmically and harmonically complex and hard to understand on first listen. Give it a second chance and I bet it will grow on you, too.
9) Daft Punk – Touch
“A tourist in a dream
A visitor it seems
A half-forgotten song
Where do I belong?
Tell me what you see
I need something more”
The album this cut comes from is called Random Access Memories and is one of the best albums I have ever heard. Highly, highly recommend to any EDM/dance music fans. However, I still can’t wrap my head around what part this song contributes to the full statement of the album. If anyone has any insight into this, please leave a reply and let me know – I am very curious.
10) Gwen Stefani – Harajuku Girls
“Wa mono – there’s me, there’s you (hoko-ten)
In a pedestrian paradise
Where the catwalk got its claws (meow)
A subculture in a kaleidoscope of fashion”
In my opinion, Gwen Stefani should have stayed in No Doubt, where her music was at least somewhat decent. Once she went solo, it seemed to be all downhill for her. This cut had to be included in the list because it is, in my honest opinion, an incorrect fusion of genres. Gwen’s combination of American and Chinese culture doesn’t appear to blend well and the production is not only cheesy, but almost sounds sardonic. Not quite sure what she was going for with this tune.
11) Andrew Rice – Heaven on Their Minds (from Jesus Christ Superstar: Rock Opera)
“Nazareth’s most famous Son
Should have stayed a great unknown
Like his father carving wood
He’d have made good
Table chairs and oaken chests
Would have suited Jesus best
He’d have caused nobody harm, no one alarm”
This one is a personal favorite because the music from this rock opera is absolutely incredible. The production itself was [rightly] ill-received due to the many inconsistencies in plot as compared to the true Gospel story and the certain artistic liberties, which many considered deliberate blasphemies, so watch with good judgment please.
Looking at the opera without an eye for Biblical accuracy, the character of Judas brings up an interesting theological question – what if Jesus had decided not to accept His ministry on earth as God in the flesh? What would have been the metaphysical and spiritual fallout of that decision? What would the implications of that decision have been for those of us who are Christian (or those who at the time were Jewish)?
12) XTC – Scissor Man
“So be kind and helpful to your mother
Just think twice before you try and steal
When he cuts with sticky silver snippers
You may find the wounds will never heal”
I don’t have the backstory on this song – I actually heard the cover by Primus first – but it still deserves mention on this list. My [sober] mind still has trouble conceiving where XTC got the inspiration for this song or what it is about. The silly lyrics and uppity, almost polka-esque influence in this song are what earn it a spot as a head-scratcher.
13) Edgard Frise – Ionisation
Had I not stumbled on the Frank Zappa chapter of Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting, I probably would never have discovered Edgard Varese. Not for the faint of heart, his music is often very jarring and abstract. His work is difficult to digest because he often incorporates non-instrument sounds into his pieces or uses prolonged periods of silence to make a musical statement. It is no surprise, then, that Zappa was so influenced by him. Fans of Edgard Varese should also check out John Cage.
14) Outkast – Chronomentrophobia
“It’s beginnin’ to look a lot like the endin’
And got to be more careful know what corners you be bendin’
Revelations gettin’ impatient and now I’m dead
Remember what I said I’m gone bow ya heads”
I’m pretty sure this song is about the fear / inevitability of death. Chronomentrophobia – the fear of time or clocks – could be a misplaced phobia, as the real fear is what it means for time to stop (for you or in general). This is the gist of the song in my mind. Andre 3000 has a cornucopia of songs that could fit on this list, but this one was the most thought-provoking.
15) Hamilton – Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control
[WASHINGTON AND COMPANY:]
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story
If you have the means, go to Amazon or iTunes or wherever you buy music and buy The Hamilton Musical Soundtrack [NSFW]. It flows quickly because it’s a Broadway play performed with rap. You can pack a lot more script (and therefore more plot) into rap songs, so even though you aren’t watching the show with the soundtrack, you can still follow the story very well with just the soundtrack. It is a work of genius that could (and should) be included in high school History curricula.
16) Animals as Leaders – Cafo
Read this. Matt Garstka is the drummer for progressive metal band Animals As Leaders. He talks in the above interview about “curating” odd meter and “parallel time signatures” that will literally blow your mind. It’s not even worth me attempting to explain – just read the article and you’ll have an indelible appreciation for the band (and polyrhythm subdivision).
17) Charles Mingus – Pithecanthropus Erectus
Free jazz not unlike that of B*tches Brew (#7). This song is about the evolution of man, his cognitive development, and eventual self-awareness beginning at the beginning. It didn’t happen overnight. Ponder that as you soak in some mean upright bass by one of the best in jazz.
18) Nas – Memory Lane (Sittin’ in Da Park)
“Peoples are petrol, dramatic automatic four-four I let blow
and back down po-po when I’m vexed so
my pen taps the paper then my brain’s blank
I see dark streets, hustling brothers who keep the same rank”
[NSFW] Nas is a true poet. His music is phenomenal without any lyrics, but the added angst and indignation Nas infuses into his music stands out among the plethora of wash, rinse, & repeat rappers who [unfortunately] make it big. I also enjoy how he raps about real issues, not just the trivial rags-to-riches stories. This cut makes me scratch my head because it’s an authentic portrait of life in Queens as a youth during the birth of the Hip-Hop movement. It makes me so curious to learn more about the culture during the period and specifically how it shaped Nas’ self-identity.
19) Parliament – You’re a Fish and I’m A) Water Sign
“Let’s go down now baba
(we gonna be two freaky fish)
Baba baba baba baba boo byeohhhwhoaeyah…..
(two freaky fish together)
When we go down, when we go down…”
[NSFW] Probably the greatest WTF moment on this entire list. Self-explanatory.
20) Soundgarden – Spoonman
“All my friends are Indians
All my friends are brown and red, spoonman
All my friends are skeletons
They beat the rhythm with their bones, spoonman”
First and foremost, R.I.P. Chris Cornell. You will be sorely missed. This song makes the list solely because it has a spoon solo in it FTW. Excellent way to close up a list of songs that make you scratch your head.