Some songs take a tried and true idea like “growing up and getting a job feels like selling out” and revamp it in bizarre ways. I think of “Mr. Chainsaw” by Alkaline Trio in which the above-mentioned theme is compared to being dismembered gruesomely by a chainsaw. Lovely.
But sometimes an artist does the opposite. They sing about something that makes you say, “Really? I can’t believe you’re singing about that!” or “I can’t believe you said you feel that way about that!” or even just “Yuck. No one wants to hear you sing about that.”
Maybe those obscure topics go on to become popular tropes such as how now everyone has to write songs about how drugs are awesome, how drugs ruined my life, and how I’m a better lover than you.
This 10top is for those that even after their release, few people followed suite to sing about. Note: They Might Be Giants is disqualified. They wrote a song about milk for God’s sake. They’d dominate this list and leave no room for anyone else.
#1 “Styrofoam Plates” by Death Cab For Cutie
This is the song that inspired the list. Usually when a song is about hanging out at a funeral or someone who has died, it usually involves missing the person or wishing you’d made peace with the person or maybe something like “I didn’t really know him and death makes you say huh what’s up with life.”
Here the narrator is remembering is deadbeat dad, who at no point in the song does he miss. Instead, the dad is a “disgrace to the concept of family” who has a bunch of problem. There is zero sympathy or longing for the father, just the cold and powerful statement about why he won’t buy into the lie that he might have been a good person:
“A bastard in life, thus a bastard in death.” Harsh, but sometimes harsh is true. Either way, not many people would write this stuff.
#2 Train Round the Bend by Velvet Underground
Some musicians love the city. Some sings love the country. Some write songs about they’re favorite. “Oh the trees!” or “Oh the bars!” or whatever. More likely in the case of musicians, it’s “Oh the ease of secretly growing drugs!” or “Oh the ease of scoring drugs!” Do you think I’m judging? Maybe I am.
But the Velvet Underground had a lovely little message. The singer is on a train. He’s going somewhere better. But he’s not just dreaming of the city. He’s got some spite for where he’s leaving.
“I’m sick of the trees, take me to the city.” He is sick of trees, fresh air, the country, bugs, whatever. The Velvet Underground may have lots of stuff he likes about the city, but right now he just wants to be there because it isn’t the country because to him, the country just plain sucks.
#3 Nugget by Cake
Protests songs happen. Wasn’t La Cucaracha a protest song or something? The first couple times I listened to this gem by Cake, I was certain it was too. After all he’s singing about overpaid business, manipulative politicians, and more. But look closer.
The discussion of politicians, evil businessmen, and even the deep inner sadness of the singers heart? The chorus responds with the song’s heartwarming mantra: “shut the fuck up.”
#4 Promises by Fugazi
Trust Fugazi to make this list. It’s what they do. They wrote a song about promises. Sure, who hasn’t? But instead of blaming the person who broke their promises and lied or broke their hearts or whatever, Fugazi reminds us that promises are broken so often because “Promises are shit.”
Rather than making promises, Fugazi would have you do what you do, have I do what I do and follow our own callings. This isn’t a selfish “just worry about what you need and forget other people” stuff. It just urges you to follow your beliefs and do what you were meant for rather than tie other people or yourself down with promises to things we desire.
Ok, the awesome philosophy of being yourself through pursuing who you are aside, the unique thing in this song is the idea that promises are just words that often tie us down.
Also, it’s by Fugazi so it is just awesome.
#5 Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time by Jarvis Cocker
Jarvis, king of twisted and not entirely sweet songs as frontman of the band Pulp, wrote this little number reminding all the ladies that “you ain’t getting no younger and you’ve got nothing to show.” Not exactly “single ladies put a ring on it” girl power, eh?
But underneath the very brash exterior he also focuses on his core concept: sure let a guy have space and take time or whatever but don’t let him string you along while he chases other women. Don’t let him waste your time, I guess, like the title says.
You might prefer the Nancy Sinatra version. It’s decent too but the Jarvis Cocker version has an awesome video.
#6 Christmas Sucks by Everybody
I love these songs but they used to be rare finds: songs where the holiday is overrated and bland and over-commercialized and we all find it soul-sucking instead of uplifting. For awhile, they were rare. Now it seems like if you want your pop punk credentials, you’ll be putting out a Christmas album full of these.
This isn’t a problem. Many are funny and well done. However, like songs about playing a sad song on a jukebox or rolling down the highway, it’s not unusual to have written this one.
The real #6 Fuck and Run by Liz Phair
So songs about casual sex are pretty common in the world of music. I mean everyone from Eminem to Motley Crue sings about their string of sexualized emotionally empty affairs.
Liz Phair laments her lack of emotional connection with her partners, her desire for boyfriend material (or girlfriend material depending on which version), and how she’s been living a string of sexualized emotionally empty affairs since she was in the sixth grade.
So she’s not “yay I’m getting laid” like so many, but she’s not “man I’m ready to settle.” It’s a song about how “yeah sure I got laid and have for years, and it sucks.” Not many people followed up on copying that one yet the song remains awesome.
#7 Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl
There are fifty million songs about how awesome Christmas makes people feel. It takes about three heartwarming Christmas songs to drive someone to write a song about how empty and soulless and evil and hate-inducing the Holiday season has become.
It takes the Pogues to write a song about a drunken drug addicted slag-punk couple arguing in the middle of the street on Christmas Eve and make it one of the most heartwarming songs you can hear on Christmas Eve.
I guarantee, even if you’re spending Christmas in the drunk tank the argument between the bum whose a punk and the “old slut on junk” will ultimately make you remember your fondest Christmas moments without all the sanitized crap of Tinsel Town Christmas movies or generalized malaise that characterizes most decent holiday songs by modern rock bands.
#8 Changes by Tupac Shakur
“Black and white people need to live together in peace and without violent racism but the system is set up to encourage us to be against each other” might be one way to sum up this Tupac classic.
Sure it has purse snatching, drug selling, liberal use of a word I’m legally barred from using due to the color of my skin, and more but what makes this song unique is that it a) wants the people of the world to band together and make the world a better place and b) recognizes that the world is prety crappy and probably won’t get better unless people something.
I don’t care if a bunch highly paid performers sing a boring song about peace because it sucks and no one will listen to it and we have enough people proving how hardcore they are with angry violence and such. Why haven’t people written more songs like this? Would it hurt the crappy rapper of the week to at least make an attempt?
#9 Evidence of Love by Air Supply
The song idea is pretty simple. Air Supply, who if I recall writes love songs almost exclusively, went somewhere a little darker with this one.
Air Supply is in love with you and you have been dating Air Supply for awhile. But now, Air Supply is feeling lonely. He’s fairly certain you’re leaving him and Air Supply really wants to believe you when you tell him that isn’t happening.
So, in a misguided attempt that can’t possibly end in a nasty breakup, Air Supply says “prove you love me.” Air Supply needs your Evidence of Love. Air Supply doesn’t specify what would count as evidence but generally in these situation once you’ve asked for the proof, you’ve pretty much assured the love isn’t there.
All of this hard hitting commentary on relationships yet still, Air Supply gets no respect. Maybe they should have made this a single? It still sounds like a “generic soft rock you’re leaving me” song so maybe it wouldn’t have helped. Air Supply, to quote Whitney Houston, I will always love you.
#10 English, Half-English by Billie Bragg
This song involves a discussion of marmite, lions, and Essex men. Basically, my beloved Billie Bragg is discussing the idea of English identityin the modern globalized culture.
He starts with his familiarity with Hindustan thanks to his half-English neighbors. Then he touches on the traditionally English foods such as Cappuccino and veggie curry, which he says are actually half-English. Even traditional English symbols like Brittania or St. George the Lion, are half-English.
It of course comments with the best line: “From Morris Dancing to Morrissey, all that stuff came from cross the sea.”
I’ve heard a number of songs about how American or French or Japanese or whatever something is, but who writes a song about how incredible Half-something they are? Of course, Billie Bragg gives us a whole host of social commentary mixed in but as of yet I haven’t found anyone following in his footsteps on this one.
I’m interested in songs about stuff no one bothers to write about. The best ones are stuff that ends up being important even if no one writes about it- whether something as complex as the artificiality of national identiy or as simple as how annoying country life can be to people who don’t like it.
So disagree with any of the suggestions? Want to discuss them? Maybe add one or more of your own? There’s a comment section below. Use it, por favor.