So often I’ve listened to certain songs and wanted to talk openly about why I love them, and how they make me feel. You know the ones I mean – like the embers of a fire suddenly delivering that first flame with the right breath of air, hearing these tracks induces shivers in my chest that spread without fail to my fingertips, despite having heard them now countless times. It’s taken some strong thought to realise I can’t choose a limited number, but I’ve decided that here, at least, I will begin with three of what I believe to be the most beautiful songs in the world…
Sigur Rós – “Gong”
My quiet (-ish) relationship with Sigur Rós has led me, directly or not, to some very interesting places; most notably to their homeland of Iceland itself in May of this year (something I wrote some fairly flowery words about in a love letter). As a musical interest it’s opened me up, more truly than any other, to the concept of pure melody as the intrinsic ingredient of certain strains of popular music, as of course Jónsi, the band’s frontman, sings not in English (as many Nordic artists do) but in his Icelandic mother tongue – something even those with the enviable ability to understand the language are not left out of due to his regular use of ‘Hopelandic’; a vessel for melody of total gobbledegook.
I heard the band’s international hit ‘Hoppipolla’ in – well, actually, I have no idea when I first heard it. It certainly left no impression on me, one way or another; I dare say I heard it and wrote them off as a dull, twinkly pop band. ‘Gong’, however, was a different story entirely. A string-led masterpiece of 5:34 seconds, I first listened to ‘Gong’ on a viciously cold winter’s day in Guildford in 2010. I was pacing up and down a few feet of iced cobbles of the high street, my friend sitting in the café a few steps away. My chalk-white, brittle fingers were clutching a cigarette and a mercifully hot paper cup of coffee, and I could barely stop my teeth from violently chattering. I was listening to Sigur Rós’ Takk… for the first time that day, purely because I had seen them appear endlessly in my suggested artists on Last.fm. I had listened through a few tracks and been somewhat intrigued by Jónsi’s unique voice, but as I pressed the toe of my boot into my cigarette end and made to remove my iPod, the strings that open ‘Gong’ slipped into my ears and I stopped. I listened to the strings build slowly, and, as I approached the 40-second mark, a plucked guitar sound both at once warmer, colder and cleaner than any I’d heard before rang out over the strings and, with the crash of a cymbal, led in a pattering of soft, frantic drums that induced an explosion in my chest that warmed every fibre of me. I closed my eyes and sat down on the bench behind me, utterly removed for a few minutes from my surroundings – from my very life. I listened back three times, and, every time, I swear I welled up.
Sigur Rós slowly became one of my most beloved modern bands, and to this day, ‘Gong’, with its indecipherable non-lyrics providing the surreal skeleton for one of the most evocative vocal melodies I have ever encountered, makes my nerves shiver and sing in a way I’ve only experienced in moments of real human intimacy. With no words and no meaning to lean on, I love it for nothing more than the fact that I genuinely believe it to be the most musically perfect and beautiful piece of alternative music ever written.
Jon Lord – “Pictured Within”
This was always going to something of bias for me. The late Jon Lord was my Godfather; a man I grew up loving and respecting beyond anybody outside of my immediate family. He was a magnificent composer and pianist, and was of course famous as the organist and founding member of Deep Purple.
‘Pictured Within’ is drenched in overwhelming nostalgia for me; it was one of the few CDs my parents played in the car on long drives, and a pivotal piece in the first concert I ever attended at the age of eight (the video of which is above) – Deep Purple in concert with the London Symphony Orchestra, performing Jon’s beloved Concerto for Group and Orchestra.
The lyrics, performed by Miller Anderson, are bleeding with serenity, contentment and love for one’s family, which is part of why it has taken until now, a year after Jon’s passing, to write about it. Simply, Jon meant music to me; Jon meant love and passion for creation and conversation and family, and with Jon truly passed my boyhood dream of being a famous musician.
Jon’s supremely beautiful writing for piano in this piece will never, ever fail to pull me back to that night in the Royal Albert Hall in 1999; to the smell of his house in Henley; to falling asleep in the back seat as we drove down motorways in the dead of night, and to the sound of his melodious voice saying over the phone “Merlin, my boy – how the devil are you?” – a sound that always made me feel as warm as his music still makes me now.
Louis Armstrong - “When You’re Smiling”
I can’t even begin to remember where first I heard this song. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t love it; when hearing it didn’t mean ‘Hey, man – slow the fuck down, take a deep breath; life’s okay’. It’s been played a thousand times in every house I’ve called my own, I’ve prepared more meals to it than any other song in my library, and it’s the only thing I ever want to hear when it’s raining and I’m walking through central London late at night. Beautiful in a way very few pieces of music are, and a song I could never do without.
It’s beyond likely I’ll write another one of these, and very soon. However, for now, it’s well past 3am and I have to be up in four hours, so more will have to wait. Good night, good night.