Our Top 10 Michael Penn Songs list presents the best Michael Penn Songs like “A Revival,” “No Myth,” “This & That” and many more. Born in Greenwich Village, New York City, on August 1, 1958, Michael Daniel Penn grew up as the firstborn son of actor and director Leo Penn and actress Eileen Ryan. Although born in New York, the family moved to Los Angeles, California, before he was a year old. Fans may recognize Michael Penn as the brother of actors Sean Penn and the late Chris Penn. The brothers come from an ancestry of Lithuanian-Jewish and Irish-Italian paternal and maternal bloodlines. While acting seems to be the Penn Family trademark, in Michael Penn’s case his niche has been specializing in music production as a composer, singer, and songwriter. However, Michael is no stranger to being in front of the camera, at least as an extra for a few different television series.
On October 24, 1987, Michael Penn appeared on Saturday Night Live as one of two musical guests featured on the series episode. His brother, Sean, was serving as host at the time. This was followed by the release of Penn’s debut album in 1989, March. This was the album that released his first and most successful single to date, “No Myth.”
“No Myth” earned Michael Penn a 1990 MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist. Prior to becoming a solo artist, Michael Penn was a member of the Los Angeles-based band, Doll Congress. That band had a career lifespan that began in 1981 and then ended after they played their final local gig in 1987. At the time, the Doll Congress was quite popular in the Los Angeles area. Michael Penn contributed as the band’s guitarist, vocalist, producer, and songwriter.
While as a group, Doll Congress recorded and released an album in 1983 that had “The Main” sung by Michael Penn while “Concrete and Clay,” and “Easy to Touch” were performed by Gabriele Morgan. This was followed by a 1986 soundtrack to the movie, Welcome to 18, in which Doll Congress performed “Give Up Your Ghost” and “I Will Be Around.”
Although March was a 1989 release that was credited to Michael Penn, there were six songs included in the album that came as Doll Congress imports while he was still performing with them as a bandmate. This recording was released while Penn was signed to RCA Records.
After the success of March and “No Myth,” Michael Penn recorded and released Free-for-All in 1992. The second album resulted in a battle between Penn and RCA Records, which played a role in the time gap between it and Penn’s third studio album, Resigned. That was a 1997 album that was released by 57 Records and Epic. This was later followed by three additional albums, MP4: Days Since a Lost Time Accident in 2000, Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 in 2005, and Palms and Runes, Tarot and Tea in 2007.
There was also the compilation album, Cinemascope, a 2005 release that featured Penn’s musical scores as a composer for various film productions. Despite receiving praise as a songwriter, none of these albums were able to match the level of commercial success March achieved.
While some fans might regard Michael Penn as a one-hit wonder, there is much more to the man’s talent as a musician than meets the common eye. Penn’s brand of music has earned critical acclaim for its mix of originality and spirituality. Among the fan base who recognized this, Penn’s musical style was both entertaining and refreshing at the same time.
In addition to a solo career as a recording artist, Michael Penn has also collaborated with The Brothers Quay on “Long Way Down (Look What the Cat Drug In),” which was a surreal animation that has since become a big part of American film festival history.
While Michael Penn may not have made an everlasting impression as a huge commercial success story as a solo artist, he has definitely earned his claim to fame as the genius behind musical scores for film and television. 1996’s Hard Eight and 1997’s Boogie Nights owe their musical scores to Michael Penn. In fact, “Try” from Resigned, was a music video Paul Thomas Anderson directed that found its place on the Boogie Nights DVD.
Additional documentaries and movies that feature Penn’s talent as a composer responsible for their musical scores include The Anniversary Party (2001), Melvin Goes to Dinner (2003), The Comedians of Comedy (2005), The Last Kiss (2006), Suffering Man’s Charity (2007), American Teen (2008), Sunshine Cleaning (2008),That Evening Sun (2009), Bollywood Hero (2009), Solitary Man (2010), Carrie Pilby (2016), and Boundaries (2017).
It was Penn’s musical contribution to Melvin Goes to Dinner that earned him a DVDX Award for Best Original Score in a DVD Premiere Movie. In addition to this accomplishment, he also produced recordings for Aimee Mann, Liz Phair, and The Wallflowers.
It should be noted when Michael Penn first met Aimee Mann, it was for the 1995 recording of her album, I’m with Stupid. As the two worked together they formed a friendship that later grew into a romantic relationship. On December 29, 1997, the two wed and have since formed an independent music collective known as United Musicians. Along with co-founder Michael Hausman, the goal behind this organization is to help artists retain copyright ownership of their original work.
In addition to composing music and songwriting for film production and other recording artists, Penn has also produced music for a collection of television series as well. Starting in 2012, it was Girls. This continued until the series came to an end in 2017.
From 2013 until 2016, he was a series composer for Showtime’s Masters of Sex. Then in 2018, Penn composed music for Good Girls as well as Here and Now. In 2019, he also composed music for Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein.
In total, there are twenty soundtracks that feature Michael Penn’s musical contribution. The most recent among them is 2022’s Hollywood Stargirl, which also happens to include Penn’s best-recognized hit, “No Myth.”
Top 10 Michael Penn songs
#10 – The Main (featuring Doll Congress)
While Michael Penn was with Doll Congress, his performance of “The Main” was recorded and released via Enigma Records in 1983 on the band’s self-titled debut album. The highlight of this song was the steady beat of a suspended steel pipe that also became part of the group’s live performances while they were still a band.
#9 – Seen the Doctor
From the album, Free-for-All, “Seen the Doctor” became a number five hit on the US Billboard Modern Rock chart. Also known as the US Billboard Alternative Airplay chart, this song became the fourth single release from Michael Penn that would earn a spot on an official music chart. In the song, Penn used a series of medical-related metaphors to describe a relationship with a girl whom he lyrically admitted he knew once.
#8 – Try
“Try” was a single that was recorded and released on the 1997 album, Release. At the time, it failed to make a chart impression on any official music billboards but it did leave a big enough impression to find its way into the 1998 movie, Boogie Nights. The song also has its own music video, which added to the song’s popularity, as well as a new set of fans that no longer regarded Michael Penn as a one-hit-wonder.
What added to the appeal of “Try” was bits of Beatles influence that came from Penn, who was a big fan of the Brit rockers. Much of Penn’s songwriting genius felt as if there were hints of John Lennon somehow making a mark in a tune that perfectly meshed with the mockumentary that revolved around mid-1970s pop culture that was center stage at the time.
#7 – On Your Way
Starting in 2012, Michael Penn worked as a composer for the HBO TV series, Girls. This led to a January 2013 release of Girls Vol. 1 as a soundtrack that featured “On Your Way.” This was the same song that was played during the final episode of the show’s first season. The song, “On Your Way” featured bits from the American national anthem that was performed in a manner that was pure Michael Penn genius from start to finish. Whether assigned to perform music for some program or as material that’s purely his own, Penn has made a niche out of delivering music that’s entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time.
#6 – Walter Reed
According to Michael Penn, the reason why Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947 received this as a title for his 2005 album was his way of commemorating a significant year in American history. 1947 marked the year the National Security Act was passed by the United States federal government. It was also the same year the transistor made its introduction as an electronic device designed to work with radio signals.
“Walter Reed” was the song that served as the opening track of an album that served as Penn’s musical version of a history lesson. Also combined with his personal views, his artistic expression poured into this song has been exemplary. It was mainly about the value placed on what matters most in life, especially after contending with the harsh realities of what feels like a cruel world has to dish out.
The real Walter Reed was an actor that first grew up as the son of an army officer. He was born in Washington but grew up in Honolulu and Los Angeles. While in school, he had the children of movie stars as classmates. Reed tried his hand at acting during the darkest days of the Great Depression which included his appearance on Broadway, as well as in film during the early 1940s. This was a career he kept until he became more involved with real estate investments in the late 1960s.
#5 – Brave New World
On the US Billboard Modern Rock chart, “Brave New World” peaked as high as number twenty for Michael Penn. Released from the 1989 album, March, this became the third hit for Penn as a solo recording artist. As a song that looked upon a society that was potentially staring down the possibility of World War III, Penn’s musical approach began with an acoustic performance before speeding into a number that demonstrated the genius behind the man’s lyrics. Designed to be entertaining yet thought-provoking at the same time, “Brave New World” was a great reflection from the perspective of a man who looked upon the world with a set of eyes that saw beyond the surface.
#4 – Long Way Down (Look What the Cat Drug In)
“Long Way Down (Look What the Cat Drug In)” was a single that was released in 1992 that came from Michael Penn’s album, Free-for-All. This was the song that featured The Brothers Quay exercising their expertise in surreal animation as they collaborated with Penn to come up with a video. This combined effort resulted in both the song and the video becoming an MTV favorite that’s also become a film festival favorite elsewhere.
#3 – This & That
“This & That” was a single that was released in 1990 as a follow-up behind 1989’s “No Myth.” For Michael Penn, this song peaked as high as number ten on the US Billboard Modern Rock chart and at number fifty-three on the US Billboard Hot 100. It was also a number seventy-four hit in the Netherlands and a number eighty-six hit in Australia. Although “This & That” didn’t quite reach the same success level as “No Myth,” it proved Penn wasn’t merely just another one-hit-wonder. It also served as a sign of things to come from a musical talent that would make an even bigger impression in film and television.
#2 – No Myth
1989’s “No Myth” became a number four hit on the US Billboard Modern Rock chart, as well as a number thirteen hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 after it was released as a single. Globally, it was a number twenty-four hit in Australia, a number forty-six hit in Belgium, and number forty-eight hit in the Netherlands. The music video that was used to promote “No Myth” also earned Michael Penn a 1990 MTV Music Video Award for Best New Artist.
In the song, the narrator has been rejected by a woman which caused him to reference Romeo and Juliet as he dealt with what felt like a shock to his psyche. The lyrics were clever, which wasn’t unusual for Michael Penn. His genius as a songwriter was made obvious through this song, which served as a prelude to what was to come. Penn’s reputation as a world-class composer and songwriter has ranked him as one of the best in the business. Much like the great Frank Sinatra, Michael Penn’s achievements as an artist were done his way instead of somebody else’s.
#1 – A Revival
In 2020, “A Revival” became the first song Michael Penn wrote and released as a single for the first time in fifteen years that wasn’t associated with a soundtrack. From the piano performance to Penn’s lyrical delivery, “A Revival” is a real gem. The genius behind the songwriting was Penn’s statement of the obvious as a solid believer in God and His Word. Despite all the schemes leading members of society come up with in order to steer the world in a certain direction, in the end, it will all be in vain. In the end, God has the final say in what happens to mankind no matter how vocal the opposition suggests otherwise.
Since “A Revival,” Penn’s song has been surging as an important message of hope among believers who are in agreement with this incredibly talented singer-songwriter. Instead of getting deceived and depressed by the stories told by broadcast news, listen to Michael Penn instead. Your ears, your mind, your heart, and your spirit will thank you for it. While “No Myth” was no doubt Michael Penn’s greatest success as a commercial hit, “A Revival” has personally won me over as his best song to date.
Feature Photo: Cyn Graham Chepigan, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Top 10 Michael Penn Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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