Cover of the 1965 single by the The Byrds, "Turn! Turn! Turn!"
I have been thinking today about the qualities that make up the perfect pop song, that three-minute aural ecstasy that can momentarily brighten even the darkest days, or with which you connect on a visceral level.
The perfect pop song must have a memorable melody to separate it from its many thousands of musical competitors. It should have a hook that suddenly catches your ear, and such a song should jump out of the speakers with an immediacy that jars you and generates shivers.
You instantly know this song is flawless.
Perfect pop songs should possess first-rate musicianship, as well as recognizable compositional ability. I'm not arguing that every pop composer needs to be on par with Chopin, but at the same time I hesitate to classify a three-chord, boisterous song like the Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie" in this perfect category.
The lyrics of the perfect pop song should not only synch with the music, but should convey human emotion in a unique and meaningful way. The listener and the lead singer join together in a moment of pathos, and the separation between the two blurs.
Thus, having laid out some basic criteria for the perfect pop song, let's move to some examples of songs I put into the category of "perfect," which I have organized in chronological fashion. Feel free to leave your nominations in the comments section of this post.
The Byrds, "Turn! Turn! Turn!": From the opening twang of Roger McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker guitar to the soaring harmonies, this song exemplifies the possibilities afforded to the genre of pop at a time when people were beginning to recognize that this musical form could communicate more than the emotions of lovestruck teenagers.
The Beatles, "When I'm Sixty-Four": Yes, there are probably two dozen Beatles songs that could qualify as inherently perfect, so I picked one of my all-time favorite love songs. At times following Tin Pan Alley chord structures, "Sixty-Four" blends a series of deceptively simple piano riffs with a clarinet trio, chimes, a plucked cello, and Paul McCartney's busy bass lines, along with those characteristic Beatle harmonies.
Todd Rundgren, "I Saw The Light": Rundgren wrote this song for singer-songwriter Carole King, and this 2:15 gem is a testimonial to the concept of the one-man band (he played all the instruments and provided all the vocals on the self-produced album Something, Anything). A truly inspired piece of pop magic about a protagonist who just figures out he's in love.
The Raspberries, "Go All The Way": Once billed as "Cleveland's Paul McCartney," Eric Carmen shines in this power pop ballad whose titular double-entendre slipped passed the censors. The blending of Wally Bryson's blistering lead guitar and Carmen's operatic tenor, coupled with a dizzying flurry of key changes and bridges, makes this song more like an electrified symphony than a mere pop song.
U2, "Sunday Bloody Sunday": That angry arpeggiated guitar riff sets the tone for this uncompromising look at the effects of war on everyday people, and Bono was in fine form when he belted out the defiant lead vocals. Still gets my blood rushing when I first hear the Edge, that pounding, martial drumbeat of Larry Mullen Jr., and the plaintive cry of the violinist, Steve Wickham.