In no particular order
L Y R I C S
I consider myself a lyricist before being a singer as I think I’m better with words than having a particularly good voice. So when I hear a song, I’m usually biased towards the words.
1. Hey Joe - Patti Smith
Her amazing, poetic introduction subverts a misogynistic tale of a man killing his woman for infidelity. She transforms this into a woman’s song – a woman coming out of the shadow of a powerful man.
Patty Hearst: “You standing there in front of the Sibanese liberation army flag with your legs spread. I was wondering, were you getting it every night from some black revolutionary man, and his women, or were you just dead?”
How fucking cool is that?!
2. Birdland – Patti Smith
The song that made me become a singer and a lyricist. It concerns a boy losing his father. I heard this on the night I thought my father was going to die.
3. Chelsea Hotel - Leonard Cohen
Probably the best and most consistently focused lyrics I’ve ever heard. “You told me again you prefer handsome men but for me you would make an exception”. Full-time poet.
4. Fuel – Ani DiFranco
Maybe this one is even better. “They were digging a new foundation in Manhattan and they discovered a slave cemetery there. May their souls rest easy, now lynching is frowned upon and we’ve moved on to the electric chair”… Holy shit!
5. Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole - Martha Wainwright
I love profanity when well used. Is this really about her dad?
D A N C I N G
Actually I lied. I’m a dancer before a lyricist.
6. Eight ball – Underworld
They so deserve the new found recognition the Olympic Opening Ceremony has given them. One of the most original acts in the last 20 years. I could pick 6 of their songs that I dance to on a weekly basis.
7. All My Friends – LCD Soundsystem
Builds and builds with no chorus until you want to scream.
8. I Feel Love - Donna Summer
In my teens I was a punk and I hated this. Now when that chorus kicks in- a tsunami of ecstasy!
V O I C E S T O D I E F O R (E L D U E N D E)
9. Dream I Had (Part 1 and 2) – Mary Margaret O’Hara
Here’s one of the greatest unrecognised singers, giving 2 versions of the same song. She is so in the moment, she doesn’t know what she’s going to do next. This makes her so fragile that she hardly performs anymore. Miss you, Mary.
10. Sinnerman – Nina Simone
Brilliantly evangelical, and always on the edge of falling apart, just like her.
11. Hold On – Alabama Shakes
Brittany has the same passion and ferocity of Nina. I hope she can Hold on and ground herself because we want years of brilliance.
12. All the Time in the World – Louis Armstrong
He sang this a year before he died. Class.
13. Hope There’s Someone - Anthony and the Johnsons
I’d invite him to sing at my funeral. His voice has got so much death in it.
C O O L
14. Where Is My Mind? - Pixies
We met them casually in a London hotel in ‘89. They invited us to see them live that night at The Brixton Academy.
15. Hey - Pixies
Frank Blank gave me screaming lessons back stage but I just ended up with a sore throat.
16. Cannonball – Breeders
This is what a pop song should sound like
17 . Bittersweet Symphony – The Verve
They had to give ALL of their royalties to the Stones? Like the Stones needed it…
18. Sympathy for the Devil – Rolling Stones
This is the first punk band and this is the last of their great dark POP songs. I find their initial power came from his shamanic dancing, up until 1969 when he switched from Shamen to Jester.
19. I Wanna Be Your Dog – Iggy Pop
The greatest punk song of all time, by the true punk king. Primal.
20. Touch Me – The Doors
The Doors asked Iggy to take over when Morrison died. This is a great pop song, probably seen as a sell out at the time.
21. Gun Club - Jack on Fire
Sexy, swampy, desperate.
U P L I F T
Generally I think it’s much harder to write happy songs with depth than miserable ones. It’s too easy to write from victimhood.
22. Roadrunner – Jonathan Richman
The joy and freedom of being on the road. Velvets without heroine. How the Velvets would sound if Lou Reed had a heart. Sorry, Lou.
23. Whole Wide World - Wreckless Eric
The wittiest intro lyric, guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Just sung it with my 8 year old over breakfast.
24. 40 Day Dream – Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros
A song for a sunny car journey.
25. These Boots Are Made For Walking – Nancy Sinatra
To be playful without being uncool is a tight rope. We all remember the brass section but it only appears on the fadeout.
26. Land of Hopes and Dreams – Bruce Springsteen
As with Einstein’s brain, when Bruce dies someone has to study his heart to measure its extraordinary girth. Even if you don't like his music, live he's unmatchable. This is on his new CD and it’s up there with The River or Philadelphia.
27. (Love Goes To) Building On Fire – Talking Heads
Talking Heads’ first innocent single - so unique. Few have managed to be successfully influenced by them, except maybe…
28. How Do I Know – Here We Go Magic
Beautiful, light and seemingly effortless minimalism; it takes a genius to be so minimal.
Minimalism; Sometimes its what great musicians leave out that makes them great.
29. An Ending (ascent) – Brian Eno.
I want this to be played at my funeral.
30. Oh Superman – Laurie Anderson
When I first heard this, at no 2 in the charts no less, I had to pull my orange beetle onto the hard shoulder to recover - and what a punch line "And when force has gone there's always Mom. Hi Mom!” 21st century storyteller.
31. Da-Da-Da – Trio
A parody pop song? Funny, and as catchy as the plague.
32. Song to the Siren – This Mortal Coil
This is the song that launched Angelo Badalamenti’s amazing sound.
33. Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart – Julee Cruise and Angelo Badalamenti
I got to make a CD with Angelo, who created this mysterious, sensual and playful piece.
34. The Day Texas Sank to the Bottom of the Sea – Micah P Hinson
His 1st CD is an all time great. He doesn’t have verses or a chorus but something in between. Amazing arrangements are needed to carry off such minimalism.
35. Wire - Dot Dash
I never tire of ‘Wire’. “Pink Flag” and its 45-second song masterpieces. Did they influence the Pixies? This is a perfect pop song.
36. The Only Living Boy in New York – Simon and Garfunkel
This song feels as lonely as the title – the yearning at the end is transcendent.
U N D E R T H E I N F L U E N C E
37. A Day in the Life – The Beatles
How many random sections of music can you weld together to make a song that sounds so organic? They could do no wrong at this time. “Honor thy error as a hidden intention” (Brian Eno).
38. Man of a Thousand Faces – Regina Spektor
A contemporary great who I hope will be around as long as Leonard Cohen. This seems to be about a man who transcends religion by eating a lump of sugar (sic).
39. White Rabbit – Jefferson Airplane
This little mantra seems inspired by the same lump of sugar. Slow build to a climax defies a traditional song structure.
40. Interlude 1 - Alt J
Yes I could choose one of their songs but have you tried singing this baroque nonsense? Wonderful.
41. Future Boy – Turin Brakes
It’s the line “my friends are all junkies, but they’re still my friends.” That draws me in with its compassion.
O D D S A N D S O D S
42. Exit Music – Radiohead
This song takes us on an amazing journey. Thom Yorke finds his voice in this period and he is no longer a skinny white boy.
43. Us – Regina Spektor
Crazy and unpredictable. The sound of an artist discovering herself.
44. Haiti - Arcade Fire
A band that are so good live, that sometimes their recorded work is over-shadowed. I love the playfulness of this one.
45. The Needle and the Damage Done – Neil Young
We toured with him and this was a highlight night after night.
46 . Under Pressure – Queen
Damn. I hated this song for years… until I actually listened to it. Really original structure that somehow holds together.
47. Myth – Beach House
A bastard offspring of the Cocteau Twins and the Amelie soundtrack. Beautiful.
48. Come Together – The Beatles
A band that did everything before everyone else. Ringo’s a much-underrated drummer.
49. Lover's Story – David Bowie
My teenage years, sigh. He wrote so many great songs.
50. The Scientist – Coldplay
This one sticks in my head. I love its bittersweet poignancy. This is one of those bands that are so huge they are underappreciated musically.
The Gathering Sound, a boxset including featuring all of James's albums, a vinyl, DVD, 32 unreleased tracks and more is available now. You can buy it here