To figure out why Marshall Crenshaw is such a brilliant singer-songwriter, one only has to look at his impressive list of influences. He’s got the pop sensibility of Brian Wilson, the fresh-faced nerd look of Buddy Holly, and he knows the Beatles so well that he even played John Lennon in a touring cast of Beatlemania in the late 1970s. The songs he’s created are power pop masterpieces: predominantly 4/4 beats with deceptively complicated guitar work, catchy hooks, and lyrics that are smart enough to appeal to an educated crowd but not so obtuse that the masses brush him off as pretentious.
Still, Crenshaw was always a slippery one for record company executives. After all, how do you even promote a musician like Marshall Crenshaw? His songs often eluded the Top 40, possibly because musically he was always swimming upstream, never quite fitting in with the new wave, heavy metal, alternative, or grunge scenes. And his look never fit the MTV glam and glitz; he’s a square, to borrow the old parlance, with his skinny frame, wire glasses, clean haircut, and clothes that look like they were bought on sale at Sears. True, it was a look that landed him the role of Buddy Holly in La Bamba, but it was nothing that mainstream media knew what to do with.
Marshall Crenshaw just makes rock and roll. It’s great rock and roll, but it’s nothing that could ever be neatly packaged to fit the latest craze.
Still, the quiet impact Crenshaw has had on pop music is undeniable. In addition to his own enormous catalog from ten studio albums and a handful of recent EPs, he’s written hits for others, like the Gin Blossoms 1996 single “Til I Hear it From You” and the title track to the 2007 John C. Reilly movie Walk Hard. It’s hard to cull it all down and choose favorites, but we tried. Here are our picks for the Top 10 Marshall Crenshaw Songs.
# 10 – Our Town
Crenshaw’s second album was 1983’s Field Day, and it’s packed with power pop gems like “Our Town.” It’s too bad the production on this track and the entire album is sort of muddy and flat (a factor that has been blamed for Field Day’s limited success), because its tune is catchy and its lyrics about just wanting to be home are totally relatable.
# 9 – Cynical Girl
What are you looking for in a mate? Marshall Crenshaw can tell you: a cynical girl! This track off his self-titled debut album lays out Crenshaw’s hope for finding a soulmate who “harbors no illusions” and is “worldly wise.” It’s an anthem for anyone who values brains over looks, complete with a singalong chorus and timeless longing.
# 8 – Better Back Off
Crenshaw doesn’t do a whole lot of two-stepping, but the countrified rock beat combined with just enough guitar distortion to give it some edge make “Better Back Off” one of his most fun tracks. Off 1991’s Life’s Too Short, it sounds absolutely nothing like the Seattle grunge sound that was so popular at the time, but does sound good. And despite the aggressive sounding title, “Better Back Off” is actually a great reminder that we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves, especially around the people who love us.
# 7 – The Spell is Broken
Crenshaw has become a bit more introspective and quiet in his later years, and this track off of 2003’s What’s in the Bag? is perhaps the epitome of that more mature direction. Not only is it a gut-wrenching farewell to a giant mistake of a one-night stand, but it’s got a bluesy guitar solo and a gorgeous melody to wriggle into your head and stay there much longer than the subject that inspired it. Lust may come and go, but a great song is forever.
# 6 – Some Hearts
You know a song is a good one when a pop star like Carrie Underwood covers it. She may have the more well known version of “Some Hearts” on her 2005 debut album, but Crenshaw’s original (from 1989’s Good Evening) is the blueprint. It starts off as a torch song, then effortlessly transitions into a stunning pop hook with layered vocals and Crenshaw’s signature guitar work. We may not have much success at finding love, he tells us, but that’s because “some hearts just get lucky sometimes.” Don’t we know it.
# 5 – Some Place Where Love Can’t Find Me
So technically this isn’t a Marshall Crenshaw song: it was penned by prolific songwriter John Hiatt. However, Crenshaw has a knack for picking great songs to cover and make his own, and this one sounds like it’s all his. It’s hard to say what’s the best part: the hook, the guitars, or the incredibly clever lyrics. What most listeners can agree on is that this one is greater than the sum of its parts — and ultimately, that’s what makes a great pop song.
# 4 – There She Goes Again
Don’t confuse this one with the Velvet Underground’s song of the same name. While Lou Reed and company may have made an avant-garde masterpiece, Crenshaw’s carefully controlled pop sound is on full display in this track from his brilliant first album. He’s mourning a lost love but discovering his own strength, and he’s sort of feeling bad for the next guy she loves and leaves. “Will her heart ever be satisfied?” he wonders, even though the answer is abundantly clear.
# 3 – Television Light
First you notice the longing lyrics, then how smoothly the verse transitions into the hook of the chorus, and then the intricately layered percussion. This is the track from his 1999 album #447 that you play over and over and over, because it just keeps getting better. Crenshaw has gotten better and better at writing songs of introspection, and “Television Light” is a perfect example of that.
# 2 – Whenever You’re On My Mind
Is there a more perfectly crafted pop song than “Whenever You’re On My Mind”? It presents a pretty good case: great tune, fun guitars, driving beat, longing lyrics, and a verse-chorus-verse structure that sticks in your head worse than the theme from “Sanford and Son.” It charted on Billboard Rock Tracks at 23 in 1983, though it never broke on the pop charts, and Ronnie Spector even recorded a cover version of it. It’s also one of the few Marshall Crenshaw songs for which there’s an official music video, though when you watch the awkward three minutes, it’s easy to see why neither Crenshaw nor MTV were particularly enamored with the experiment. Still, the song holds up amazingly well.
# 1 – Someday, Someway
Crenshaw’s biggest hit to date was this, his very first single off his very first album. “Someday, Someway” went all the way to 36 on the Billboard Top 40, and in the early ‘80s, the song was everywhere. It’s appealing because of its repetitive, infectious guitar riff and circular verse and chorus, but also because of its simple lyrics, which seem to allude to the difficulties of human relationships. (Crenshaw has alluded in his live ramblings that it’s more about his relationship to his hometown of Detroit.) Because it’s the song for which he’s best known, as well as the perfect power pop-ness of it, “Someday, Someway” the song lands in the No.1 spot on our Top 10 Marshall Crenshaw Songs List.
Feature Photo: Ronzoni at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons. Black Backgorund Shutterstcok
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