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Tom Waits with a megaphone to his ear. (Courtesy of the artist)

Question Of The Week: What Are Your Top Five Story Songs?

Jan 22, 2013

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Robin Hilton

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I've always admired songwriters who can tell an entire story, sometimes even an epic one, in two or three short minutes. Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up In Blue" might be the greatest story song ever written. But it's a lot to digest at six minutes long, with more lyrics than anyone can remember (and Dylan is always changing them in live performances). I prefer tidier tales that cover more ground with less movement.

For this week's nerd-debate question, we want to know your top five story songs.

Mine:

1. Grandaddy: "Jed The Humanoid"
It's sort of a darker, 21st century version of "Puff The Magic Dragon." But instead of a little boy who outgrows his own innocence and imagination, the focus here is a group of M.I.T. students who build a robot in their kitchen, grow tired of it and break its robot heart. Also, Puff lives alone in his cave at the end while Grandaddy's robot drinks itself to death. But you get the idea.


2. Villagers: "27 Strangers"
My favorite stories are the ones where it seems like nothing is happening but really everything is happening. Raymond Carver, my favorite author, was a genius at doing this. Not much transpires in "27 Strangers," but it perfectly captures the malaise of modern living in a few simple details: An endless loop of fluorescent lights, shop fronts, staring faces and a bus that offers the hope of escape before breaking down. Brilliant.


3. Tom Waits: "The Fall Of Troy"
Waits is, without a doubt, one of the all-time greatest story song writers. It's hard to pick just one, but "The Fall Of Troy" is pure genius. An exasperated narrator questions the point of doing anything in a world of failed dreams and disappointments, crime, violence, poverty and death. And yet, the troubled characters Waits sings about keep slogging ever onward, if not upward. This song also gets the prize for one of the greatest closing lines: "The well is full of pennies." So much desperation and hope tied up in that one little image.


4. The Beatles: "She's Leaving Home"
The melody is lovely but lonely as McCartney sings about a girl who runs away from home, breaking her parents' hearts. While it's a simple little tale, it speaks volumes about the culture clash that was happening at the time between generations, when disillusioned youth fled the shackles of overbearing and baffled parents. I love how the "bye bye" at the end sounds like the "amen" of a hymn.


5. Richard Thompson: "Vincent Black Lightning 1952"
The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. This one is another classic heartbreaker that touches on everything from fleeting youth and impetuous love, to a dangerous man, the woman who falls for the bad boy and tragic death. Also, what's with Thompson's finger picking on this cut? It's sick!


Tell us your own favorite story songs in the comments section.

If you have a question or topic you'd like us to nerd-debate, you can leave that in the comments section, too, or drop us an email: allsongs@npr.org.

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