Foxes and Hedgehogs: The Top Thirteen Songs at 3:12


14 Oct 2009, 2:04

"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

It's not only true of philosophers and historians, it's true of musicians too. Some bands are hedgehogs: they have one big idea that informs everything they do. Other bands are foxes, who successfully try out a variety of ideas, often (though not always) within the same song. If you need more than one hyphen to describe a band, it's probably a fox: The Velvet Underground, TV on the Radio, David Bowie.

I suspect most of us would say it's better to be a fox, but it's hard to imagine the world without hedgehogs. Chuck Berry was a hedgehog. The Ramones were quintessential hedgehogs, as are most punk bands. Most pure genre performers are by definition hedgehogs: blues, surf, punk, country, etc. Even The Beatles, who in some ways are the Platonic ideal of the fox, started out as hedgehogs.

Of course, it's not a classic binary; there's a continuum with hedgehog on one end and fox on the other, and almost every band has at least a little bit of the thing it isn't. More important than being one or the other is deciding where the sweet spot is for your art to reach its fullest expression--because watching a true hedgehog try to be foxy can be embarrassing, and a fox that masquerades as a hedgehog will soon become frustrated by the constraints of that creative mode.


Hey! It's one year since I started this series, and this is the 28th list. So many more to go I still can't imagine finishing, but as long as it's still fun I'll keep going.

Project Index

What a tough group of songs this is! My original "short list" was 32 songs long, so a lot of things I left out would have made a different list. All the more reason to celebrate the ones that made it.

The Top Thirteen Songs at 3:12

1) Holland, 1945--Neutral Milk Hotel
The centerpiece of a monumental album, in which Jeff Mangum's universalist, omniscient perspective combines with close-up raw emotions in a way that would seem impossible in theory. Yes, it's about Anne Frank, but that's only one facet; it's also about all of us, and what we're doing here.

2) Ticket to Ride--The Beatles
The inundation of advertising for the Beatles edition of Rockband has sent me over a tipping point, where it's even harder to hear The Beatles anymore past the encrustation of culture obscuring the original thing that got everyone so excited. But I still try. Last week, my iPod shuffled up the "basic tracks" version of "I Am the Walrus" (no overdubs, no strings, no backing vocals), and I have to admit it was kind of thrilling, because it sounded tough, and new, and a little bit like Wolf Parade.

3) The Guns of Brixton--The Clash
Paul Simonon (who rarely wrote) knocks one out of the park. I'm a little surprised this song hasn't become a libertarian/anarchist anthem, but then the money quote ("when they kick at your front door, how you gonna come" and so on) is too long to fit on a bumper sticker.

The Clash were by far the foxiest of the original punk bands; London Calling and Sandinista! seem like fox manifestos.

4) Gloomy Sunday--Billie Holiday
I didn't know until recently that this used to be nicknamed "The Hungarian Suicide Song." As such things go, it beats Judas Priest by a LOT.

5) It's a Curse--Wolf Parade
The mechanical guitar figure sounds like Frankenstein, the singer's gruff howl sounds like a werewolf, and the lyrics suggest zombies. Happy Halloween! Note: the version on is NOT the one I'm talking about; it's a lesser/earlier take.

6) The All Girl Team--Blitzen Trapper
Last time I mentioned that this foxy band hadn’t scored much on these lists; I admit I picked this time to accommodate them. What a tough group to compete against, though! Here's a hard R&B foundation, decorated with twangy flourishes, struggling towards poptopia.

7) Ziggy Stardust--David Bowie
An iconic moment from a performer so iconic that he had to invent multiple iconic personas. The Pavement line, “I’ve got style, miles and miles, so much style that it's wasted” comes to mind.

8) Men with Broken Hearts--Hank Williams
It might be Hank’s best lyric, almost poetry on its own, describing the homeless broken skid row alcoholics and condemning those of us who would look down on them. It's hard to excerpt, but let's try:
"Some lose faith in love and life when sorrow shoots her darts
And with hope all gone, they walk alone, these men with broken hearts."

9) The Cold Hard Facts of Life--Porter Wagoner
Tagged "violent cuckold stories." Wish there were enough songs in that genre to make a compilation album. Please do suggest others, if you know any.

10) Everybody's Happy Nowadays--Buzzcocks
“But wouldn't you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody else's way.” Almost annoyingly irresistible falsetto chorus.

11) My Back Pages--The Byrds
The Byrds made Dylan’s lyrics almost not matter, rolled up in that jingle jangle guitar and sweet harmony. They were foxes overall, but really they were just doing different hedgehog things sequentially, an artistic strategy that also applies to Bowie.

12) Sheela-Na-Gig--PJ Harvey
PJ Harvey comes at the blues from inside it, rather than employing the more common method of copying the sounds and hoping to reach the emotional core of it that way. It can be done, but when it fails, it sounds washed-out and fake, as if the musicians have failed the Blues Turing test. Anyway: PJ is not constrained by the curatorial impulse to preserve original blues sounds, which is why most people probably would not consider this as authentic blues music, but it beats mere copyists by a long shot.

13) Sam--Meat Puppets
Curt Kirkwood proves he could have been an auctioneer. Not deep, but 100% fun; possibly someone has a different opinion.

Foxiest track not to make the list: Oh! You Pretty Things--David Bowie

Most hedgehoggy track not to make the list: Shove--L7
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  • Auto_Da_Fe

    So.. none of those amongst the 27 I've currently managed to cut down to. But several anachronisms may appear later should we reach 3:09, 3:13 or 3:14

    14 Oct 2009, 8:23
  • rockrobster23

    I can't leave a juicy guessing opportunity alone. Might the three anachronics (band name!) you mention be NMH, Billie, Buzzcocks?

    15 Oct 2009, 8:33
  • Auto_Da_Fe

    Actually more than 3 because there are more than one at :13, but yes to NMH and Buzzcocks. Byrds Bowie and Clash too. Anachronic Jazz Band does (or did) exist. I have a track on this: rather fine album, compiled by Gilbert Shelton.

    15 Oct 2009, 18:28
  • LisaV

    Huh...yeah this is hard. I found it difficult to make enough obvious cuts from the original list to get it much below 40 songs! I wish I didn't have more work tonight and didn't have to wake up and go in to the office tomorrow because I'd be quite happy to just stay up and listen to this playlist to re-evaluate :)

    16 Oct 2009, 3:30
  • LisaV

    OK now I do need to go to bed. I think this is it: 1. Eli, The Barrow Boy - The Decemberists 2. It's a Curse - Wolf Parade 3. Letter From Belgium - The Mountain Goats 4. There's Nobody Like You - The Soft Boys 5. Dog On Wheels - Belle & Sebastian 6. Situation Vacant - The Kinks 7. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry - Bob Dylan & The Rolling Thunder Review 8. Time To Fall - Radio Birdman 9. (It Won't Hurt) Half As Much - Them 10. When the Ship Comes In - The Pogues 11. Amanda Ruth - Rank And File 12. Christmas In Prison - John Prine 13. She's A Mover - Big Star Honorable Mention: Harvest - Neil Young (I grew up on this album)

    16 Oct 2009, 4:49
  • masto65

    NIce picks so far. Some of these are absolutely must haves but are not listed at that time in Mastoworld©. Holland 1945 will be hard to beat. And Lisa get's bonus points for Amanda Ruth. I love that song but it ain't at 3:12 for me. I got my work cut out for me my initial pull at that time was 211 songs.

    16 Oct 2009, 5:59
  • rockrobster23

    Kris, good to see you again! I don't think I would have known it was you behind that new name. For metaphorical creatures, it's hard to beat Pink Floyd's *Animals*. Lisa, "Amanda Ruth" is 3:11 for me, and it would have been on my short list, but this is such a tough group I don't know if it would have made it onto the list.

    16 Oct 2009, 19:47
  • rockrobster23

    Ack--yes, The Clash were extreme foxes by the time they hit their peak. The Ramones are extreme hedgehogs.

    17 Oct 2009, 5:57
  • LisaV

    I couldn't imagine The Beatles sounding like Wolf Parade but I guess I kind of see it. I didn't think I'd heard the version you described when I read this post but "I Am The Walrus" from the "Ultra Rare Trax" collection I downloaded a while ago (but hadn't listened to much) just came up on shuffle and I think it might be the same track you're referring to. It was definitely a creepier rendering of the song than I am accustomed to. The original would probably be on my list of Beatles songs I never would think to want to hear. Hah...I guess that's the Wolf Parade sound then? Rhythmic, jerky and sorta threatening but still pop? :)

    21 Oct 2009, 2:34
  • rockrobster23

    (If we are talking about the same track): It is odd and titillating to think that the "extra stuff" in the original release (all the weird backing vocals, the "hee hee hees," etc., and the weird strings and so forth) were undoubtedly meant to make it sound creepier. However, now that we've all heard that version hundreds of times, it no longer has the power to be creepy. Instead, the [i]stripping away[/i] of the creepiness defamiliarizes it, making it (again) creepy. And cool. The Wolf Parade similarity is much as you describe, along with the much more prominent keyboard, and the foregrounding of Lennon's voice, which is great but not what anyone would call a classic smooth croon. Damn it. Now I have to listen to it again. It is that good.

    21 Oct 2009, 4:44
  • Auto_Da_Fe

    This length is too difficult! So, to begin with, here are eight number ones: 1) Pere Ubu - Non-Alignment Pact. The best politics as a metaphor for sexual politics song ever. (Except maybe Strasbourg) 1) Pere Ubu - Navvy 1) Elvis Costello & The Attractions = Less Than Zero 1) The Mekons - Last Dance. The Mekons in transition – here they are playing post-folk en route between post-punk and post-country 1) Gang of Four - I Found That Essence Rare 1) Felt - Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow 1) The Clash - Train in Vain (Stand by Me) 1) Scott Walker - Big Louise I love all of these without reservation.

    23 Oct 2009, 17:05
  • rockrobster23

    Eight number ones! James, you feckless flouter of rules! I love it.

    24 Oct 2009, 6:10
  • rockrobster23

    Next up is another chunk of lengthier tunes, 5:43 to 5:46. Masto, I just saw you peeking over here--I hope to feel guilty about not posting your list!

    29 Oct 2009, 5:25
  • masto65

    Okay, in what seems to becoming a trend with me here is my entry for 3:12. Only about a month late but hey it made it. Strutter • Kiss If this song were any simpler it would be one chord. But it works damn it. It is in the pantheon of simple rock'n'roll songs. Doubt •The Cure One of the only uptempo songs on "Faith". And one of there better earlier works. This song alone becomes the link between "Boy's don't cry (for us Americans)" and "Pornography. L.A. • Neil Young Early 70's Neil with more boogie than alt country. Off the much forgotten "Time Fades Away" live album. Solid album, if you are not familiar with it I recomend it. What Difference Does It Make? • The Smiths One of the most recognizable openings to come out of the 80's. And even after hearing it a million times a still rather enjoy it. Even with it's "song of a generation" bagage. Day After Day • Badfinger IMHO The best Power Pop band hands down. Big Star. Yeah eccelent, but these guys just had a stranglehold on the genre like nobodies business. I Want You Back • Hoodoo Gurus Speaking of good pop. One of the catchiest songs. Still have a soft spot in my heart for this tune. Story of Love • The Saints Another example of the criminal neglect of this band. Put them up against any other class of 77' band. I dare you. Strung Out Again • Elliott Smith Nobody does the slightly unhinged manic depressive a go like Elliot did. This is just more proof. Even more painful considering it was released pothummusly. Telephone Call From Istanbul • Tom Waits 80's Waits is my fave. The freak, weirdo flag is unfurled at length and it is delightful in every odd little tune. Sleepers Awake • Guadalcanal Diary A band most wouldn't know but this crowd is way to dialed in to make that assumtion here. Just a sweet little tune from a band nobody remembers. It still holds up quite well for a 25 year old college radio tune. The one that got away this time was "Holland 1945" but there were plenty of others that would be stellar choices too. As a matter of fact looking at this page of lists there would be one hell of a mix tape buried in here. If anyone still knew how to do that sort of thing anymore. Masto.

    6 Nov 2009, 6:05
  • masto65

    I posted without reading all the way down. I see I was busted.

    6 Nov 2009, 6:09
  • rockrobster23

    I am pleased that you carried through on your threat to put "Strutter" first! When we talked about it a couple of weeks ago, I listened again, and yes! It holds up. It's still big dumb rock, but the decades of bigger and dumber rock that followed have sharpened its blunt edge, and made it seem almost cute in retrospect. Which is not to say that it does not still rock. I don't want to even imply that kind of blasphemous nonsense, even if I maybe just did. Re: mix tapes, I used to be a really good mix tape maker. I mean, REALLY good. And now, it's not even boasting to say so, because it is an entirely useless and obsolete skill.

    6 Nov 2009, 6:18
  • masto65

    Tell me about it. Myself too. My tapes were coveted by many. People would make copies of other tapes I gave to other people. Alas it has gone the way of other lost skills like typesetting and navigating the reference section of the library.

    6 Nov 2009, 7:03
  • rockrobster23

    There needs to be a song about that, which includes lyrics about a "world-class typesetter" and "card catalog virtuoso."

    6 Nov 2009, 7:32
  • masto65

    Bwahhaaa! That is a great idea. We could write a whole song just lamenting the lost skills and or jobs of yesterday. Can I add gas station attendant and darkroom technician. On a side note I obviously forgot to spell check my list. Egads! thats some crappy spelling. Can we maybe add knowledgeable speller to that list.

    6 Nov 2009, 16:29
  • Auto_Da_Fe

    for the record, here follows the rest of my chart. (I left the Saints in despite Masto's charting - what's really amazing about that first Saints album is that they did it all in isolation in Queensland. Picked up the same (Stooges, Dolls &c) influences as elsewhere and came up with their own very fine version of punk rock. As I've said elsewhere, the Ramones, Talking Heads and Saints gig at the Roundhouse in June '77 remains the best gig I've ever attended. 2) The Decemberists - Apology Song 3) Arnold - Fleas Don't Fly 4) The Saints - Story of Love 5) Scott Walker - The Girls And The Dogs 6) Michael Hurley - Girl on the Billboard 7) My Bloody Valentine - I Can See It (But I Can't Feel It) 8) Stereolab - Wow and Flutter 9) Frank Chickens - Sake Ballad 10) Marden Hill - Robe 11) Graham Parker & the Rumour - Waiting for the UFO's 12) Ivor Cutler - Life in a Scotch Sitting Roon Volume II, Episode 1 13) Creedence Clearwater Revival - Lodi

    7 Nov 2009, 21:24
  • rockrobster23

    Was that Scott Walker track ever used in a film comedy of the 60s? It sounds exactly like the kind of thing that would play over the opening credits. I hope this isn't a stupid question, but was he imitating or inventing that style? Odd and wonderful either way, in different ways. Re: Girl on a Billboard, do you know/have the Del Reeves original? Happy to send it on if not.

    9 Nov 2009, 6:52
  • Auto_Da_Fe

    The Scott Walker track is a Jacques Brel cover, and I think that style is more to do with the French chanson tradition.. I don't know much about films of any era. Also didn't know that Michael Hurley hadn't written Girl on the Billboard, so yes very interested in hearing the original.

    9 Nov 2009, 20:06
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