What is a “perfect song?” A few years ago, I heard a song that I had heard a million times come on the radio. When it came out, it was played over and over and over again – back in the days of “Top 40,” and I was in a small town at the time with only a few very commercial stations. When it was on the charts, the song finally drove me crazy. Now, twenty-five years later, I not only did not turn the channel, I was singing along with it. I really liked the song – loved the song.
Why? How could that be? It was because it was a perfect song.
What makes a song perfect? What are the criteria?
There are many, many reasons to love a song, to call it your favorite, or even to call it perfect. To me, a song is perfect if it meets the following criteria:
1. The song must not evoke any particular time or event. It must be timeless, as much as possible. If you hear a song and think “ah, 1966!”, then it is not a perfect song, even if it is a great song. It must transcend its time.
2. The song is a recorded song, and it is a specific recording of the song. This probably reflects my recording engineer bias, but a perfect song is a specific instance of a wonderful thing, captured on tape, vinyl, or bits. If “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole is a perfect song (and I would argue it is), it is the recording he did, not just a recording of him on TV singing the song. By the way, Nat’s so good, he recorded the song twice, and both recordings are perfect.
3. You must be able to hear it a million times and still want to hear it again. You can burn it out with an overdose, but it comes right back, and you find yourself listening and perhaps humming along.
4. It must be artistically and technically perfect for what it is. It must be well recorded, by which I mean that the recording must perfectly capture the song even if it technically may not be “perfect.” It must be well played – the musicians must be inspired. The arrangement must work. The song itself must be a great song, well constructed, with lyrics (if any) that just work.
A perfect song, therefore, is a recording where the magic came together. It is a sublime moment in the musical cosmos.
An easy perfect song is “All Blues” by Miles Davis. Another is “I Can See Clearly” by Johnny Nash. Yet another is “Ring of Fire” by another Johnny, Johnny Cash. And, more recently, “Hallelujah,” which was written by Leonard Cohen, but recorded perfectly by Jeff Buckley. Just to name a few.
When I mentioned the concept of a perfect song to my old boss, who has a few years on me, he said that a perfect song to him was “Kentucky Rain” by Elvis Presley. Which, would not be on my list. But it shows you how subjective music is. One person’s perfect song could be (likely is, actually) someone else’s drill-bit on the ear drum. But to my old boss, “Kentucky Rain” spoke to him, and it was well recorded with great session musicians, and, well, Elvis was a pro, so I can’t argue the choice too much.
Some of the songs that I’ll dissect in this series will be perfect songs, many won’t be. I’d love to hear what songs you consider perfect according to the criteria listed above?