Ben Folds’ decade-and-a-half commitment to smart-ass, piano-based pop remains true to form on Way To Normal (Epic), a perfect combination of orchestral maneuvers and snark. Ranging from break-up romps (“Bitch Went Nuts”) and widescreen laments (“Cologne”) to a vamping duet with Regina Spektor (“You Don’t Know Me”), Way To Normal is the 42-year-old Folds’ most complete album, examining all the funny things that happen en route to heartbreak.
ELMER BERNSTEIN “Main Title” From To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
The soaring melody catches you by surprise when it opens for the tearjerker moment. It’s like the main motif starts like a child and matures throughout the song; you’re proud of it when it grows up and flies away—and sad, too. The use of the Lydian mode in this piece probably inspired the next 30 years of movie scores, because I’ve never heard an earlier example of it.
STEVIE WONDER “You Met Your Match” (1968)
This song just makes me happy. I don’t give a damn about the words one way or another. It’s that sick vocal performance! The in breaths groove, too, all brought up and exaggerated by compression. I go back to this to remind me that a recording can be an event you can step into.
OTIS REDDING “Mr. Pitiful” (1964)
When I was a kid, I used to point the speakers directly into the floor where I sat so the bass would vibrate my ass. “Mr. Pitiful” also served as some kind of template for me by being a song that’s lyrically “pitiful” while musically uplifting. I loved the live version (from 1968’s In Person At The Whisky A Go Go). I know every little detail and nuance in this recording and had an imaginary visual for it, all of which I can still remember.
ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER AND TIM RICE “Heaven On Their Minds” From Jesus Christ Superstar (1970)
Judas knew the shit was going down. The riff telegraphs it, too. For those who’ve never really played vinyl LPs, when you play a record enough times the grooves on the record wear down and get a white look to them. I did that to two copies of this album before I was 20 years old.
ELLIOTT SMITH “Alameda” (1997)
I had the honor of playing some shows with Elliott and asked him, like the geek that I was, if he could play this song one night onstage. He said that his band didn’t know it. A few minutes later, from the other side of a divider in our shared dressing room, I heard his guitar and voice start into that song. There was nobody else around. It made me really happy and still does.
RANDY NEWMAN “Old Man” (1972)
I consider Newman the master. “Old Man” is a perfect song, and I don’t really know what else can be said about it.
THE FLAMING LIPS “Turn It On” (1993)
I was visiting my friend Summer in San Francisco. She was driving, and every time we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, convertible top down, she’d crank up this song. It’s more white-man fun than you can shake a stick at. If I threw parties, I’d make sure I cranked this song to get shit started, put a lampshade on my head and dance on the table.
TORI AMOS “Pretty Good Year” (1994)
This song was the soundtrack for a year that I recovered from being young and dramatic. It was a fine time when I decided to stop being silly and get a band together and do something with myself. I had a cassette copy of Under The Pink that I just left in my car stereo for ages.