Critical 10: Songs On The Street Map
10 great songs named after streets.
Along with being one of the best albums so far of 2012, Words and Music by Saint Etienne (Heavenly / Universal) also has easily the best sleeve of the year: a street map of the band's hometown of Croydon with all the street and building names replaced by song titles. Commissioned from the British art collective Dorothy, who are selling poster-size versions, it's impossible not to pore over for hours. So in tribute, here are ten of our own favorite songs named after streets. (Song titles with streets in them, like "Positively 4th Street" and "Across 110th Street," were excluded with regrets.) Spotify listeners can hear a slightly different version of this playlist at Critical 10: Songs on the Street Map.
1. Anne Briggs -- Rosemary Lane
Many British folk fans automatically associate this traditional ballad with Bert Jansch, who named his excellent 1971 album after it. But Anne Briggs' unaccompanied 1964 version is the canonical recording. A number of latter-day folk-rock punters no doubt have discovered this song through The Decemberists, who named their 2009 folk-inspired concept album The Hazards of Love after Briggs' four-song debut EP, which "Rosemary Lane" closes.
2. The Beatles -- Penny Lane
Something of a gimme choice, of course, but how could we not? Legend has it that this song and the similarly nostalgic "Strawberry Fields Forever" were initially intended for a concept album about the Beatles' childhoods, which was abandoned when EMI insisted on a new single. Forget the legend of The Beach Boys' Smile: How come people don't obsess about what might have been on the rest of an LP with those two songs as its keystone tracks?
3. Van Dyke Parks -- Vine Street
An early classic written by Randy Newman, "Vine Street" was recorded by Harry Nilsson, Harpers Bizarre and others, but the version that opens Van Dyke Parks' opulent cracked masterpiece Song Cycle is the best. Incidentally, all the versions recorded after Parks' include variations on this track's opening gambit: prefacing the song's opening couplet "That's a tape that we made/But I'm sad to say it never made the grade" with an actual pre-fame recording by the artist. In Parks' case, it's a snippet of a bluegrass take on the old folk standard "Black Jack Davey," sung by cult country-rock hero Steve Young, best known for his song "Seven Bridges Road," later covered by the Eagles.
4. Bee Gees -- Marley Purt Drive
The Bee Gees' 1969 double album Odessa had all sorts of room for experimentation, including this country-tinged ballad that Barry Gibb sings (and the rest of the band plays) like they'd all been listening non-stop to Music From Big Pink for a week. Although it's a bit hard to take seriously the cornball refrain about "15 kids and a family on the skids."
5. Gerry Rafferty -- Baker Street
The other obvious but essential choice. The defining example of a particular sub-sub-genre that a buddy of mine once dubbed "songs of psychic oblivion," "Baker Street" makes near-suicidal depression sound almost cool. Rafferty later claimed that the song was inspired by trips to London that he had to take to visit music industry lawyers after his old band Stealers Wheel split up. And by the way, the saxophone solo is played by a studio musician named Raphael Ravenscroft. I don't know why, but that's a question that gets asked a lot.
6. Echo and the Bunnymen -- Villiers Terrace
One of the high points of Echo and the Bunnymen's debut album, this is somewhat improbably the second rock and roll song about heroin abuse that focuses on the users' relationship to the carpet, following The Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray." I'm one of the least druggy people I know, so I have no idea: is there something about smack that makes folks obsess over floor coverings or something?
7. Human Sexual Response -- Public Alley 909
One of the many local oddities of Boston (home of both your author and early '80s post-punk cult heroes Human Sexual Response) is that the downtown neighborhoods are dotted with numbered public alleys. Not quite streets (I don't think it's legal to drive or park in them) but something more than pathways, they're often used as pedestrian shortcuts by locals. Public Alley 909 connects Mass Ave and Hemenway Street, near the Berklee College of Music. I suspect it's where many an aspiring musician slipped away for a quiet smoke break or, shall we say, romantic assignation.
8. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions -- Charlotte Street
Perhaps the canonical early Lloyd Cole and the Commotions song, "Charlotte Street" is the tale of a failed relationship based mostly on the participants' shared vocabularies. When I was in high school, the phrase "So she took me back to her basement flat which was down in Charlotte Street" was so perfectly evocative that it became an immediate dream of mine to live in a basement flat. Then much later I met a girl who lived in one and I learned that basement flats are kind of chilly and depressing. Still a great song, though.
9. Everything But The Girl -- Oxford Street
This haunting song about growing up in a small town is saturated with nostalgia both wistful and rueful, centered on the line "When I was 17, London meant Oxford Street," a flashy shopping district filled with enormous department stores. I've always thought that line was about imagining faraway glitz and glamour, but I was surprised to learn just now in online research that singer-songwriter Tracey Thorn grew up roughly half an hour from Oxford Street by train and subway. So now it seems more like growing up with such a narrow mindset that a major city can be reduced to one mile-long stretch of shops. Which now that I think of it is actually more interesting.
10. Hospitality -- Eighth Avenue
Finally, one of 2012's most charming debut albums begins with a song about the sudden realization that at some point it stops being cute and fun to fritter your life away: "I left my twenties in bar rooms and bathroom stalls." Actually, she mumbles that last word so much that I have no idea if that's what she's singing: most online sources report the line as "bathroom halls," but what's a bathroom hall?