What makes a good song good?

I have actually been exploring this question for the last two weeks. This happened because of a question posed to me by one of the other guys in the office when I was playing the National’s Alligator. This was an album that had as much of an exponential buzz growth as any album can probably have these days, when it was released in 2005. I heard it in 2006 and the hype probably didn’t peak until the end of the year and into the beginning of 2007. This hype caused said office worker to ask me “Can you, in two sentences or less, tell me why you like this band and why everybody is saying they are like the next big thing?”

So I tried. And I failed. He wasn’t impressed. In fact, I think the question was incorrect. Instead it should have been posed more like “In two sentences or less, try to convince me to like this band because I have already decided that I don’t.” This, of course, was quite an unfair challenge and so I am not that disappointed in myself that I couldn’t sway my coworker to love Alligator as much as I did. This was his loss, not mine. But, of course, I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to think about why I did love them so much.

Then I attended an information session by ASCAP with three industry executives talking in a panel to a group about how to get signed by a label. The prevailing theme was that an artist had to have killer songs. And what made killer songs? Well there were all kinds of mechanical terms tossed around like “hooks” and “song structure” and things like that, but one of the guys also talked about “IT,” as in songs also have to have “IT” – some kind of grabbing quality that probably can’t be expressed in words or quantified in a rhythmic scale.

I don’t know what “IT” is so I really can’t tell you what makes a good song good. I think it could be argued that “IT” is the transition from the truest thought and inspiration in an artist’s mind to its manifest expression in sound. An artist wanted to relay this core sound or this subject matter and expressed it in a form because they were inspired to do so. Then the training and studying and knowledge of the musical language fill out the rest of the song. It doesn’t have to be a song lyric or a catchy symbol. It can be as simple as the overall mood of the song, and of course people may or may not like the “IT” in a song. The best songs have some of the most universal “IT’s,” and that is why the greatest songs are loved by so many, because so many people get “IT.”
Or that could be a decently well crafted 8-line paragraph of crap because I have no idea what I am talking about. I have never written a song, nor accomplished anything artistically worthy since I successfully completed the color-in-between the lines tests in 2nd grade. But, I do know that the “IT” is there and it is something different then playing this note in such and such scale on that part of the beat. And that phenomenon is hard to describe.


The National’s Alligator was full of “IT’s” and that is why I loved that album. My new favorite band, Moses Guest, also has many songs that have “IT,” and that is why they are my new favorite band. Their idea of sonic story telling is compatible with the qualities that I like to listen, I like their songs because I love their “It’s.” The title track off their new album, Best Laid Plans, is by far their catchiest, most accessible, and most well rounded song to date. It’s a great song, but not my favorite. Instead, I have gravitated to a song called “Colorado.” I have listened to the song probably 6 times since I found out about Moses Guest (only a couple weeks ago), yet every time that it came up when I heard it on my mp3 player, I had to stop and check to see what the track was. “Oh yeah, Colorado, I like this song,” I would say to myself. As of this writing I couldn’t even tell you a line in the lyrics other then I am pretty sure they something about Colorado.

But the lyrics aren’t why I love the song. I love the song because the attitude and the sound make it seem like I have been locked in a stinky car with my best friends for 2 days as we smoked 57 hundred cigarettes on our road trip to Colorado; or like I’m cruising through a mountainous Colorado road on a hot afternoon in the middle of the summer with the windows down as I am air drying from the white water river trip I just took; or like I just jumped into a viscously cold pool of water at the bottom of a waterfall where we have just dropped off our packs and are going to make camp. Actually, none of these places have to be in Colorado. We all can all relate to a destination that takes us out of our normal daily routine and makes us feel this way.

I could be wrong, but I believe this was the “IT” that Moses Guest was going for in the song and if it wasn’t, who cares, that’s the beauty of being listeners – we can actually take whatever we want whenever we want from a song. Some songwriters use their specific lyrics to get the “IT” across. Moses guest used this jazzy funky intro that turned into a rocky chorus, which evolved into funk laden bass/keyboard exchange. The band eventually jams out together and they come back to the chorus. It’s a ten minute song, so it’s long. But I can go to Colorado for 10 minutes on the subway and not have to throw down for the air fare and take days off of work. I love “Colorado,” because I get “IT.” For many people, the idea of being locked in a stinky car for 2 days with his best friends as they smoked 57 hundred cigarettes would not be that great of a time so I don’t expect them to get “IT.” But at least I think I now have an answer to whenever someone asks me to explain why I like something in two sentences or less. Actually, I will only need two letters.

“Duh, dude, that band totally has “IT!”