Making this list was like cutting off my fingers and toes. It was nearly impossible to cull songs. I’ve grown up listening to Village Green Preservation Society in its entirety so often that the lyrics, harmonies, and rhythms are forever burned in my brain. I have distinct memories of my mother singing it animatedly with gusto. This year of the Kinks turned out to be viscerally a part of me in ways I wasn’t quite expecting. So with that, the list:
- Village Green Preservation Society
- Big Sky
- Do You Remember Walter?
- Animal Farm
- Picture Book
- Village Green
- Pretty Polly
It’s not a surprise that “Days” tops this list. I can’t really say it’s my favourite song of the year, but I deeply respect its lyrics and music. The rhythm of the guitar is counter to the melody, which really makes it feel disjointed, dreamlike, and wistful. They lyrics painfully capture the fondness in goodbyes. This is one of Ray Davies’ best songs period. I can’t think of more poignant and universal lyrics. (This is my brother’s favourite Kinks song, not “Death of a Clown.”)
“Village Green Preservation Society” is kind of a weird sing-a-long song that probably still introduces affected American kids to anoraky corners of English culture. The drums really anchor the song in a kind of laid back way, but it continues to drive on. The way the lyrics just go on and on without a real chorus help push the song as well. The little guitar flourish at the end of every line is a great touch. The lyrics though… “We are the Skyscraper condemnation Affiliate / God save Tudor houses, antique tables and billiards” That’s the sort of twee precociousness that many people emulate and fail.
The opening of “Big Sky” might be the best part. It might be the second best opening after the title track. (When I was 14 years old, I won over Dr. Frank after a MTX show with a long, detailed discussion of this song after he played the opening riff on stage.) Then when the acoustic guitar kicks in… it gives me chills. I think the way the bass and electric guitar play the riff signal what’s going to happen in 1969. The lyrics, about God and not caring, are also great and kind of a thematic outlier in the album. I also like the way Ray Davies juxtaposes the talking and singing parts.
“Do You Remember Walter?” is probably so high up the list because of my own personal feelings of nostalgia, but that’s kind of fitting for the song. It’s a good song about distance of time, growing old, and drifting apart. Facebook has really made it easy to keep track of the Walters, but “isn’t it a shame our little world has changed” will most likely always be true. “I knew you then, but do I know you now?” Not really.
If there’s a song to play anytime a child is born, “Wonderboy” is a pretty good choice (for any gender). It has the sort of dreamy harpsichord (you know Ray Davies has been using it for a couple of years now), but the line “I see you, and you see me, and ain’t that wonder” accurately describes first eye contact with a new life.
“Animal Farm” is another song that’s probably so high on the list because of my own nostalgia. It’s bouncy and kind of danceable, though also kind of slow. It’s midtempo, but I like the dynamics of the song, the bridge taking it down, and the imagery of an idyllic farm to escape the rigors of city life. The line that follows the bridge, “I’ll take you where real animals are playing,” hooks you in and immediately makes it seem like things might get wild. It doesn’t, but I think the song is charming as hell.
Talk about riffs on Village Green Preservation Society and “Picture Book” might be the tops. The running bass line during the chorus really anchors the song despite the light acoustic guitars and the silly lyrics.
The harpsichord is back (along with an oboe) for “Village Green”. Where “Village Green Preservation Society” is jubilant and defiant, “Village Green” is a dirge of what was. I don’t know many people who really like this song, but I think it has it all going on. It paints a kind of sad, antiquated scene where cute English villages are now just tourist traps. Prescient? In some ways it’s like a proto Pulp song.
“Pretty Polly” was the B-side to “Wonderboy”, so it’s probably having a revival thanks to the long tail of reissues and the internet. Musically I think this is one of the strongest songs of the year, but the lyrics are kind of weak. The piano really pushes this song into raucous territory, which isn’t said very often. I also think Ray Davies does a great job balancing between his over enunciation of priggish singing with his more normal full bodies singing.
I rounded it out with “Starstruck” because I had to pick another song. The intro and the hook are quite good, setting a weird tone that’s hard to describe other than maybe hippy vaudeville? The lyrics describe the allure (and possible folly) of big city living. It’s amusing because they were so famously from very urban London, but we always idealize what we don’t have. This kind of cynicism will be the basis of many albums to come.
I have major regret about leaving several songs out of this list, but I am trying to limit myself to 10 per year for brevity. “Phenomenal Cat” is wonderfully trite and cute. “Wicked Annabella” has such a good fuzz guitar line. “Monica” has a distinctive Latin beat. “Johnny Thunder” is a sing song. The only lesson I got from this year’s exercise is that “She’s Got Everything” was actually from 1966 and one really can’t separate out tracks from Village Green Preservation Society without destroying the album.
Stay tuned to 1969 where I try to do this all over again and break up Arthur, which will be another painful experience.