S-Tier Songs, Vol. 22

Time again for an S-Tier song. For the list of the others and also the ground rules of this whole deal, head to the main page.

Today it’s time for yet another singer to get his second song on the list. I’m still running with the “only one song per act” rule (it’s almost over), but being in two different projects or one band and solo outing works fine. Joining Bruce Dickinson and Maynard James Keenan as two-timers is the one and only Ozzy Osbourne, who has a prior S-tier song as a member of Black Sabbath and now gets one from his solo catalog.

Ozzy Osbourne – Steal Away (The Night)

Today’s song is the closing track from Ozzy’s debut solo album Blizzard Of Ozz, released in 1980. The album is a banger from front to back, so odds are good that this album will have other appearances on this list in the future.

Steal Away is an experience from the word go, and it starts immediately out of the prior song Revelation (Mother Earth). It is a jarring and pretty awesome way to kick the track off, and an experience that’s almost necessary to have a physical copy of to achieve. Digital music in a lot of forms has inserted gaps between songs, rendering this kind of playback ineffective. Though I did play with it on Spotify and it seems to hold up there with maybe just a nanosecond between the closing and opening notes.

There is a good variety of music on Blizzard Of Ozz, but the closing track is a pretty straightforward, high-engery rocker. There isn’t anything at all wrong with it – everyone is in top form on their instruments – the immortal Randy Rhodes on guitar, Bob Daisley on bass and Lee Kerslake with the drums. Add in Ozzy’s typically underrated sense of melody and we’re off to the races.

The song’s lyrical matter is not some deep plunge into existential lore – this is a song about enjoying the night and having a good time. It’s beyond the “party rock” stuff common to this decade, though. This is Ozzy truly living as the Prince of Darkness. Ozzy and whatever woman of the evening hours he has found are off on an adventure in lyrics that fit the music like a glove.

There is no talking about an early Ozzy song without talking more about the guitars. Randy Rhodes is in fine form here and playing a very nice riff that is certainly more than what the average guitar player would have brought to a tune like this, but also is not “full Rhodes” either. The solo, which gets a fair amount of time in this short song, does have a bit more of Randy on offer but even then he is playing more to the song in the full instrumental break as opposed to getting up to any virtuoso stuff.

Being that Steal Away The Night wasn’t a single, there isn’t a lot of statistics or lore to go over. The song did get played hundreds of times in the early Ozzy setlists, though it was taken out after 1985 and hasn’t been played live since (at least according to Setlist.fm) There is a live version on the 1987 Tribute album dedicated to Randy Rhodes – the song boasts an 8 minute runtime but is the song played normally then followed with a Tommy Aldridge drum solo.

Why is this an S-Tier song?

Steal Away The Night is a blistering track that showcases a great collection of talent. It is primarily the work of Randy Rhodes that shines, but this was a songwriting and recording effort that fires on all cylinders. It it a fun song that adds to the aura that Ozzy Osbourne would develop through the 1980’s and is also a great track for the ’80’s in general.

S-Tier Songs, Vol. 21

The S-Tier songs series marches on. For the list as it stands now and an overview of what it’s about if you haven’t seen it before, head to the master page.

I always have the next handful of songs for this planned out. I was about to work on one of them when I went back and read through the list of what I did so far. I could have been knocked over with a feather to find that this song was not already on my list. So today it’s time to right that wrong.

Metallica – For Whom The Bell Tolls

The third track from 1984’s seminal thrash record Ride The Lightning was a massive force that captured the attention of the metal world out of the gate. The song was released as a promotional single and has endured as one of Metallica’s best-loved songs through the course of their 40-plus year career.

Ride The Lightning has been the subject of the Album of the Week before, that post is here.

The intro to the song is classic, but it actually begins with something else. Two bells ring, followed by the drop of the riff. If you hear more than two bells, then you are most likely about to enjoy the classic song Hell’s Bells by AC/DC. Or maybe some other song that has bells but isn’t as good as either this or AC/DC. It’s a fun game to play if listening to the radio or whatever and the bell starts ringing to figure out which song is playing.

Once the bell is over with it’s all guns blazing with the guitars and – wait, what is that infernal noise? It’s actually bassist Cliff Burton with his rig plugged into a few effects, doing a part he used to do in old Bay Area bands alongside Jim Martin and Mike Bordin, who would go on to form Faith No More. Cliff’s twisted bass piece fits the guitar part very well and the song trudges on to begin the verses.

The song’s lyrical fare is inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s 1940 novel of the same name as the song. I’ll just get this out of the way – I read the book in high school because of the song and I wasn’t all that into it. But it’s pretty badass when distilled into a song – it’s set in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s. In the book, a group of fighters are planning to blow up a bridge to stall an enemy advance when shit hits the fan and people are butchered. In the song, a group of fighters takes a strategic hill but get blown apart by an air raid or artillery strike soon after. Different specifics but same general concept.

For all the song’s epic feel and delivery, it is also a very, very simple song. This takes a few minutes for even a novice guitar player to pick up on, and yet it is the full weight of heavy metal crushing down on someone. It was proof that metal was more than just “play fast and scream” and that songwriting and arrangement were a part of the process. And also proof that Metallica especially would be sharp in that field.

For Whom The Bell Tolls entered Metallica’s setlists and did not leave – according to Setlist.fm, it is the band’s fourth most-played song live. It would appear the song has never left the stage in the band’s many gigs over the years. It would be a clear inclusion on any “greatest hits” of Metallica list and certainly ranks toward the top of many fans’ favorite songs lists. And the single went gold in the US, an impressive feat as the band were not a radio or MTV darling in their early years.

Why is this an S-Tier song?

For Whom The Bell Tolls is one of Metallica’s immortal anthems, a crushing tale of the horrors of war set to a simple yet devastating heavy metal track. Even in all the subsequent world-conquering fame Metallica would enjoy, this song remains one of their most beloved. It was a showcase for Cliff Burton and it proved the band had the writing chops to excel beyond the scope of simply playing fast and loud.

S-Tier Songs, Vol. 20

Time again for a new S-Tier song. For the rundown of what has been “inducted” so far and the basic ground rules of this whole deal, head to the main page here. Note that in the near future, probably after number 25, I’ll start a second page so that I don’t have a miles-long list.

Today’s pick was not a single from its album but was picked out by fans as a highlight track right away. It has gone on to become one of the band’s most famous songs and its fame has grown, even in the midst of a major singer change in the band.

Nightwish – Ghost Love Score

Today’s song comes from the 2004 album Once. In a neat coincidence, I have previously covered Once as an Album of the Week. And after looking back at that post, it’s no surprise that I spent most of my words talking about this very song.

Ghost Love Score is a long, epic movement clocking in at over 10 minutes. It is not a simply-structured pop song with verse/chorus/repeat, rather it is a symphonic piece arranged in movements. It is in parts both progressive and classical, and bears the accompaniment of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. (That would be part of the album’s €250,000 budget) The song was composed by keyboardist and band leader Tuomos Holopainen, as per usual with Nightwish’s music.

The song is about someone looking back fondly on a past relationship. The pair are no longer together, yet the narrator still keeps a place in their heart for their former lover. This isn’t a story-song with a plot or anything like that, but the song does explore the range of emotions when looking back on lost love.

While the band and accompanying orchestra are in fine form on this run, the most-discussed aspect of this song is the performance of the singer. Original vocalist Tarja Turunen cut the studio version of the song and the live version presented above. Her performance on this song is majestic and otherworldly, though that could describe the vast majority of her singing over the years. Ghost Love Score is an operatic performance, which Turunen excels at. It is not an opera, but certainly the vocals are of that style.

Nightwish’s star was on the rise during the Once album cycle and Tarja Turunen became noted as one of the best singers in the world. Then, in a very unexpected twist, she was dismissed from Nightwish in 2005. In fact, she was fired just after the concert that the live footage above is taken from. While the drama surrounding the move is both long and not entirely clear, Nightwish was now without what many considered its star performer, and the one who made Ghost Love Score such an especially compelling song.

Turunen was replaced with Anette Olzon, a Swedish singer who had previously fronted rock act Alyson Avenue. The two albums Nightwish recorded with Olzon suited her more rock-oriented singing style and were well-received by most fans, while derided by others for not being Tarja’s work. It did stand out when Olzon performed some of the older material, as Olzon and Turunen had very different singing styles. While a lot of the discourse over these differences became toxic among fans, I don’t feel it’s wrong to point to the contrasts objectively while being respectful of Anette.

Olzon did perform Ghost Love Score live. Her renditions were well-executed and she approached the song in her style as opposed to trying to imitate Tarja, something only a select few singers on the planet can do. I wouldn’t pass judgment on Anette’s singing or make nasty remarks about her simply for not being able to mimic one of the best singers on the planet, but I’ll also admit that a song like Ghost Love Score didn’t hit exactly the same way without Tarja.

In 2012 while on a US tour, Nightwish entered another stage of drama and the result was the exit of Anette Olzon. The band already had an emergency replacement lined out – former After Forever singer Floor Jansen, another standout singer who also had been speculated as the pick to replace Tarja in 2007. Jansen stepped in to help finish the tour and then was promoted to the role of full-time singer soon after.

And this is where the story of Ghost Love Song takes another turn and the song truly propels itself into the heights of Internet fame. Nightwish performed at the 2013 edition of the famed Wacken Open Air festival in Germany. The show and some documentary footage were filmed for a release later in the year, packaged as Showtime, Storytime. Nightwish performed Ghost Love Score as part of their set and it was this performance that lit up YouTube and social media. The song became the primary fuel of the emerging “reaction” channel movement and everyone with access to a camera filmed their hot takes of Floor’s performance.

Floor Jansen was honestly the perfect singer for Nightwish – someone able to handle multiple styles yet also sing in the range and scope that Tarja previously offered. Her Wacken performance of Ghost Love Score was a complete home run and the song’s viral reaction would introduce Nightwish to new fans all over the world.

It isn’t a terribly common thing for a new singer to come in and knock an old song out of the park, but in the case of Nightwish and Floor Jansen that’s just what happened. Floor was able to fill Tarja’s shoes and even add her own element to the song, in a case of one of the best singers in the world tackling the work of one of the best singers in the world. Ghost Love Score still lives on today in scores of YouTube reaction videos, even if that format has grown beyond stale at this point. Hard to knock it when it brings a masterpiece such as this to the masses.

Why is this an S-tier song?

Ghost Love Score is a wonderfully composed epic that combines the realms of classical music, heavy metal and even film score in a way that suits many fans of all those areas. And its centerpiece is the performance of the singer, a song that has now featured a few of the world’s best vocal talents that have raised the bar of talent and performance in metal.

S-Tier Songs, Vol. 19

Once again it’s time to add to the list of S-Tier songs. For the list as of now and the basic guidelines about it all, head here.

Today’s entry is quick and to the point. It’s about two minutes long, it’s about being unable to “perform” while drunk, and that’s really about it.

Elastica – Stutter

As I said, this one is pretty cut and dry. It’s a simple punk tune, though delivered with smooth women’s vocals as opposed to some shouty drunk guy. The song is expertly constructed in its simplicity and walks a fine line between hard and catchy while getting both sides right. No need to reserves space to evaluate a guitar solo here, this song is out just a quick as it came in.

The lyrical content, while simple in two verses and the chorus, doesn’t quite “come and go.” The song is about a well-known phenomenon where a fella can’t quite get to business after having too much to drink. I suppose “erectile dysfunction” is the proper medical term here. Vocalist Justine Frischmann, also the songwriter, handles the problem in stride, she seems willing to encourage her down and out lover rather than be too upset about it. Though it’s clear she’d also prefer to get to some action.

Stutter was released as a single before Elastica had recorded a full-length. The single was packaged as a limited run of 1,500 records and they flew off store shelves. A series of British media articles shined more attention on the band, and the meteoric rise to fame was on. Two more singles would light up UK charts in 1994, then their debut album released to smash success in early 1995.

The powers that be delayed the release of Stutter in the US until late 1994, a move that likely paid off as the full-length was close to release at that point. Stutter did nominally well on the Billboard charts at position 67, though it did hang out on the charts for 9 weeks. It also broke the top 10 of the alternative rock chart. Subsequent singles would climb higher on both UK and US charts.

The music video was a simple yet effective shot that was in heavy rotation on MTV and other video channels in 1995. Stutter served a number of outlets at the time – “post-grunge” was coming in and Elastica were exactly in the right place at the right time for that. And Britpop was a movement with legs around this time. While Elastica’s sound might not “vibe” with what most consider Britpop, they were undeniably a successful act on the scene at the time. And they were one of the more successful Britpop outfits in the US, second in sales only to the mass success of Oasis. Also, Elastica even outdid Oasis in their shared home country of England – Elastica’s debut album outsold Oasis’ Definitely Maybe, handing Elastica the crown of “highest-selling debut album” in the UK until the Arctic Monkeys came around over a decade later.

There is one other bit of trivia surrounding Stutter that also, uh, sort of involves the Britpop phenomenon. It is widely speculated that the song’s lyrics might be about another of the luminaries of the Britpop movement. Justine Frischmann was an early member of Suede and was in a relationship with that band’s frontman Brett Anderson. Frischmann wound up leaving Anderson for Damon Albarn, frontman of Blur (and later Gorillaz). Frischmann and Albarn were together for a handful of years and were linked at the time Stutter was conceived.

So the question is often asked – is Stutter about either Anderson or Albarn? No answer has been provided and I doubt one ever will. It’s the fodder of endless speculation on ye olde Internet, but it’s also pretty slimy in a way. It’s not like I’d ever ask Justine that question were I in the same room as her. Kind of personal stuff there.

And also – it’s entirely possible the song has nothing to do with either Anderson or Albarn. It might have just been an idea that Frischmann ran with. I thought about not even including this part of the post, but honestly the post was kind of short for my tastes and it’s not like Frischmann is gonna read this and be like “you’re gross.”

Why is this an S-Tier song?

Stutter is a short and to-the-point affair that communicates its message in a clever and coy way despite the aural assault of the music. Justine Frischmann lends some subtle qualities to her vocal delivery that makes the song work in a more playful manner, even though she’d prefer her lover to get to business. The song was a moment in time that fit the time perfectly, as 1995 was a period of transition out of the darker air of the early 90’s. Elastica were in a great place to offer up a ligher-hearted and funny take on an issue not really getting airplay in the grunge years, and the result was very well-received.

S-Tier Songs, Vol. 18

Gonna hit up the S-Tier songs list one more time before year’s end. For a look at the other songs on the list and a bit about how it all works, head to this page.

Today I’m switching genres and offering up the first country song to appear on the list. It was a hit in the early 90’s, a time in country that is now being looked back on fondly. The song and artist both had a degree of crossover appeal, which lent to some exposure to a wider audience.

Dwight Yoakam – A Thousand Miles From Nowhere

Today’s song hails from Dwight’s 1993 opus This Time, which was a multi-platinum hit. It had three singles each hit number 2 on the Billboard Country singles chart. The album itself peaked at number 4 on the country chart and hit number 25 on the mainstream chart, no small feat for a country record.

A Thousand Miles From Nowhere is a bit of a departure from “pure country” standards, though Dwight Yoakam has always been a bit off in left field anyway. He’s perhaps the poster boy for the phrase “too rock for country, too country for rock.”

Our song today is a sad tale, though, not a number to rock out to. The song puts its narrator in the aftermath of a break-up and the desolate feelings associated with that. The lyrics paint a vivid picture of someone drifting along, remembering what was said at the end of their split. This is a completely broken person who has nowhere to be and isn’t even at nowhere.

The song is almost the literal opposite of the hit from The Proclaimers, I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). The latter sees someone willing to walk a thousand miles for their love, while Dwight is so far gone that he’s a thousand miles from nothing. And in a bit of an ironic twist, The Proclaimers’ song would hit the charts in a second life just after Dwight’s song released.

The music video for A Thousand Miles From Nowhere is noteworthy. It is a simple yet visually breathtaking film that sees Dwight singing while riding in a train car across the Arizona desert. The beautiful simplicity of the shots lend weight to the sad song. For a bit of trivia, country singler Kelly Willis is the woman standing in the stream as Dwight’s train crosses a bridge at about 1:35 in the video.

I am extending myself a bit here as my memory of 30 years ago isn’t going to be spot on, but I am pretty sure the video got airplay on MTV. It was not common at all for MTV to play country but again, Dwight hasn’t always fit the country mold. I know I saw the video quite a bit when it released and I never watched the country music channel so I’m assuming MTV is where I saw it. It sounds logical, as MTV played Chris Issak frequently and this song sounds like one that could slot perfectly alongside his work. I’m happy for any correction to this from anyone who knows for sure, but I can’t imagine where else I would have seen the video as much as I did back then.

The song would appear in two movie soundtracks – the 1993 film Red Rock West used a demo recording of it as the film hit theaters before the song and album were released. And the 1994 comedy Chasers used the tune as well. In 2018 the song came up again, this time as a cover version from artist Jesse Woods used in a Yeti coolers ad.

Why is this an S-Tier song?

A Thousand Miles From Nowhere is a somber tale of loss and rejection. It paints its images vividly, the words pour out the heartbreak and desolation. The video adds to the presentation with its majestic scenes of a lone man traveling across the gorgeous desert. Everything adds up to an expression of how sad can be beautiful.

S-Tier Songs, Vol. 17

It’s yet another installation of the S-Tier Songs series. The list of entries so far and the basic tenants of the exercise can be found on this page.

Today’s offering is one of the finest moments of the grunge movement. Even with being “grunge,” it is a suiting power ballad that evokes sadness and despair in a way not a lot of artists can touch.

Alice In Chains – Down In A Hole

Our song today hails from the album Dirt, the 1992 masterpiece of the Seattle-led grunge period. The album sold millions and was ever-present on radio and video airwaves. It qualifies as “classic rock” today and is still in rotation far and wide.

Down In A Hole was the fifth and final single from the album. It was released as a single almost a full year after the album arrived. The single sold over a million copies and charted in several countries. On Spotify it is the third-most streamed song from Dirt, behind only the mega-hits Rooster and Would?

The song begins very softly, almost in a way that departs the hard-edged album it is from. But it remains within the Alice In Chains lexicon, with suitably melancholy guitar work from Jerry Cantrell and the sheer power of the vocals of Layne Stayley, with harmonies provided by Cantrell. The singing has always been a highlight of AIC and both Stayley and Cantrell shine especially bright on this song.

The lyrical content of a song called Down In A Hole is, of course, pretty downtrodden. Though not from the doom genre per se, this could easily be considered a doom song thematically. It sounds like someone in the grip of utter despair and hopelessness. Every line is awash in depression and soul-crushing anguish. Lines like “See my heart, I decorate it like a grave” and “You don’t understand who they thought I was supposed to be, look at me now I’m a man who won’t let himself be” are jewels in this crown of misery.

Jerry Cantrell, the song’s sole writer, shed some light on the song’s origins in the liner notes to the band’s 1999 box set Music Bank. He states that the song was written about his girlfriend at the time and the realities of a long-term relationship and how they clash with being in a band. While there are plenty of songs about that and about life on the road in general, I don’t know how he got Down In A Hole out of that. But hey, I’m glad he did.

Down In A Hole has been a staple of the Alice In Chains setlist, with one major caveat to that – they did not often perform the song when Layne Stayley was alive. It was not a regular part of the setlist on the band’s tours in the early 90’s, and the group did not tour much after that due to Stayley’s health issues. A vast majority of Down In The Hole performances are from the band’s modern incarnation with William Duvall at the vocal helm.

One notable exception was the 1996 MTV Unplugged performance. This did feature Layne and the song worked very well in the unplugged setting. Alice In Chains were always a proficient acoustic act anyway, so having this version of the song is a massive plus.

Why is this an S-Tier song?

Down In A Hole is both beautiful and soul-crushing. It communicates absolute sadness but in a very majestic way. It showcases the main strengths of Alice In Chains, those being the voice of Layne Stayley and the musicianship and songwriting of Jerry Cantrell. It is an amazing work that got huge airplay despite being such a depressing affair.

S-Tier Songs, Vol. 16

Time for another S-Tier song, and the second part of a mini-series started awhile ago. For a list of previous S-Tier songs and an explanation for how it all works, head here.

So I last left off with A Perfect Circle and their hit single Judith. The song was an attack on the deep faith Maynard James Keenan’s mother felt despite an injury that left her debilitated for nearly 30 years. It wasn’t the first time Keenan had used his mother’s malady as lyrical inspiration – the Tool song Jimmy from 1996’s Aenima was about his experiences being 11 years old after his mother’s injury.

And it wouldn’t be the last time Tool would visit with Judith for song inspiration. Judith died in 2003, and in 2006 Tool would release the 10,000 Days album. While the album title pays homage to Saturn’s 29 year long cycle of moons in orbit, two songs on the album serve as eulogy to Judith Marie.

Tool – 10,000 Days (Wings Pt. 2)

10,000 Days the song is preceded by Wings For Marie, a more intro-like song that sets the stage for the epic rollout to come. And while Wings For Marie is its own track, it’s very difficult to assess it in isolation, as it is clearly a companion to 10,000 Days.

The song 10,000 Days itself begins with a rolling, quiet intro that is clearly building to something and also features the sound of storms in it. The payoff will come, but this 11 minute long song isn’t in a hurry to get to its point.

As the bass and the storm rolls along, Maynard begins singing about the end of his mother’s mortal journey. He takes a shot at the hypocrites who surrounded her after her health issues, but then deliberately writes them off and focuses the rest of the song on Judith.

The lyrics accompany Judith as she ascends to Heaven. Rather than be a humble servant, Maynard says Judith should arrive at the gates proudly and demand her wings. She is truly “the light and the way they only read about” and is the main event at the pearly gates.

The song ends with a quiet reflection from Maynard offering further suggestion for what Judith should say as she enters the afterlife. Everything is a bit of a roller coaster in the 11-minute long surge of music and movements, but the quiet ending sums everything up perfectly.

The rest of the band is up to some real atmosphere generation on 10,000 Days. This isn’t a long song that just goes from point A to point B with a few riffs and fills – no, there are plenty of movements and changes to keep everything fresh and also flowing along with the varying intensity of the lyrics. Tool never was much of a straightforward band anyway, and they up the ante on this song with arrangements and progressions that stand apart from a lot of popular fare of the time.

10,000 Days was not released as a single. It was played live during the album’s tour cycle, but met with some resistance from a portion of fans. The popular cuts from the record were the singles like Jambi and The Pot, and in some instances people at concerts were screaming for those while the band was playing 10,000 Days.

The fan backlash, however strong it may have really been, coupled with the extremely personal nature of the song, led Maynard James Keenan to feel a bit burned by doing the song. He said this about it in a May 2022 interview with Loudwire:

“I think probably the stupidest thing I could have done on 10,000 Days was put myself out there as much as I did with the tracks ‘Wings for Marie (Part 1)’ and ‘10,000 Days (Wings Part 2),’ Keenan said in an interview to promote the album. “I’ll never make that mistake again. It just took too much out of me – too much emotionally, mentally, physically – all those manifestations. Those songs were exploited and misconstrued, people were flippant and dismissive. I won’t be doing that anymore. And technically, ‘Wings’ is very difficult to pull off. If any one of us is off, it falls apart and makes that thing tragic, and that’s not a good song for me to have fall apart. It’s just too personal.”

It is a shame that the song was shrugged off by some, but I know me and many others found it to be a masterwork. The majestic instrumentation along with the powerful lyrics that could only come from such a harrowing place were the perfect song combination. Tool no longer performs the song, though in part that might be due to a whole other album full of 10-minute long songs that eat up a fair chunk of a set list.

Why is this an S-Tier song?

10,000 Days is a triumphant movement, wrapping the emotionally-charged death of Maynard’s mother Judith into a masterful piece of music. It’s a movement that goes beyond our regular notions of music enjoyment and enters a kind of space reserved for the more transcendent of songs. It is a long build up for a payoff only paid if you have any amount of patience within you.

This is the type of song to be enjoyed over a course of time, and to be appreciated for the scope of what is being communicated. A “fan” looking for immediate payoff won’t be welcome here. This is for the more discerning ear, preconceived notions about Tool be damned.

S-Tier Songs, Vol. 15

This is another edition of S-Tier songs. For the premise behind this exercise and the list of prior inductees, click here.

Today I visit a song from 2000. Not a hotbed year of music, at least what I and many others who read this listen to. But this band and this song would rise up from the muck and gain widespread notice, becoming a hit single in the mire of post-Woodstock ’99 fatigue and a beacon for the way for alt-metal to go forward. It only helps that the song involves highly charged personal affairs and features the lead singer of alt-metal’s biggest band.

A Perfect Circle – Judith

To begin with, a Cliffnotes version of the formation of A Perfect Circle – guitarist Billy Howerdel had been a guitar tech with Nine Inch Nails and Tool, among others. The latter band is very important, as Tool singer Maynard James Keenan would offer Billy a place to crash in L.A. After Maynard heard Billy’s demos, Maynard offered to sing on them.

Billy Howerdel wanted singer Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins to sing on it originally, but was rebuffed and Maynard sang on the demos. The pair assembled a band and got a record deal, signing with a group apart from Tool’s label so that the band would be taken seriously as its own entity.

Well, no problem there.

A Perfect Circle would hit well on the early millennium, with the debut album Mer De Noms debuing on Billboard at number 4 and hitting platinum before year’s end. The band hit on the charts and also toured extensively, initially opening for Nine Inch Nails in the summer of 2000 – a show I caught and detailed here.

It was fairly quick success for APC, and it wasn’t entirely because the singer of Tool was involved. There was a rich, deep song composition to the band and that was evident on the lead single, which is the song we’re discussing today.

Judith hits with a monster riff that isn’t something that could be easily replicated by a band, rock or metal, that I know of. It’s not “complex” in the vein of Dream Theater or Yngwie, but it’s something not of our usual world and gets set apart. This song, for all its lyrical complexities, is a banger. This throws down and slams, and goes very mainstream in a weird 2000’s world where we’re still trying to define the new rules.

And then there is the lyrical content. This is a highly charged, personal song for Maynard James Keenan. The song bears the name of his mother, Judith Marie Keenan. It is directly influenced by her, but not in a way that would be considered a fitting tribute by many (don’t worry, that’s to come)

Judith Marie Keenan suffered a stroke when Maynard was roughly 11, and would live in a debilitated state until her death in 2003. Her devotion to the church through her life and the backbiting talk of members of her church would inspire Maynard’s lyrics for this song.

And the song is not, in any terms, kind to the Christian institution. While “shock rock” had been played out by 2000 and “shock rapper” Eminem was rising to superstardom at this time, it was a different scene to have such a blasphemous song so blunt and upfront on record. Lyrics like “fuck your god” weren’t reserved for much of rock, beyond a bit Nine Inch Nails used on a secondary track on The Downward Spiral in 1994. But A Perfect Circle would slot right in to a very weird early 2000’s MTV and radio scene and score a big hit that charted well in the US and abroad.

But the song is far more personal than just a rant at religious institutions. Judith was struck down by a stroke, left to linger for 10,000 days in a paralyzed state. The song bearing her name takes aim at the gods she deifies, who Maynard holds responsible for her state. The song is really a question, why are you venerating this deity that left you in this position for damn near 30 years?

The combination of complex riffing and instrumentation, as well as the massively charged personal lyrics, mark this song as a dark highlight of the year 2000. It would be a herald for more to come from the band, as 3 Libras would also chart well and The Hollow would be one of the best songs anyone has heard from whatever scene, ever. APC’s second album would bring The Outsider, another banger and very strong performing track.

But Judith was the lead that brought us to the dance, and its mix of uncategorized banging and personally-fueled lyrics were what put the band on the map in the first place, and also separated the work from Maynard’s main gig in Tool. It was a messed up hit single to have, but it worked in the time and place. It gave fuel to a fire no one really saw coming, that was a mesh of an unheralded talent and a known singer that had something else to say.

Why is this an S-Tier song?

The combined simple, headbanging qualities of the track along with its more complex underpinnings make this a worthwhile endeavor on its own. Combine it with some very, very personal lyrics that transcend the typical fare of rock and metal hit-making, and you have a song that sticks out like sore thumb among the rest of what the hell ever we were doing in 2000.

And, as shitty as it is that it resulted in the death of Judith Marie, we get a spiritual sequel to this song next week. Maynard logged time at his day job to pay homage to his since-departed mother a few years later. He doesn’t like talking about it (understandable), but I’m not going to let that masterpiece of a song go.

S-Tier Songs, Vol. 14

Here we are yet again for another edition of S-Tier songs. The list of prior entries and the criteria can be found here.

I’m at an odd place with this series – I’ve been looking to get a variety of artists on here before I start repeating acts. But also this has been running for almost a year and at some point in time I just have to say the hell with it and just go with the songs I want to put on. For the time being I will stick to covering artists not yet on this list, though today’s pick changes that shape a bit.

I had been working on a two-parter for this series that would see songs brought in from two different bands, though having the same singer. The songs have the same theme and fit together and are both worthy inclusions on this list, so I thought it would be a cool thing.

But then I thought about something – if I’m going to have my first two-time singer appearance on this list, who do I really want that to be? I pushed off the other picks for a bit and made my choice for the first guy to actually appear on the S-Tier list twice, though in different artistic entities.

Bruce Dickinson – Tears Of The Dragon

Today’s song is from Bruce’s second solo album Balls To Picasso. It was also Bruce’s first album after his infamous exit from Iron Maiden in 1993. Bruce had made a few attempts to start the record with other bands and producers, but he scrapped those efforts and hooked up with Roy Z and Tribe Of Gypsies. That band would back Bruce on this effort and the partnership with Roy Z would yield great results over the ensuing years.

Tears Of The Dragon is generally viewed as the best song from Balls To Picasso. The song has over 40 million streams on Spotify, which basically obliterates the totals from any other Dickinson solo tune. While none of the solo catalog did massive numbers sales-wise and The Chemical Wedding is widely hailed as a masterpiece, it is Tears Of The Dragon that is the first song recalled when talking about Bruce’s solo career.

Our song today is not a blazing metal scorcher. It would fit quasi-ballad territory – the song opens with soft, somber verses that build to a powerful chorus suiting The Human Air Raid Siren’s voice. It is replete with the standard fare you’ll find in any good hard rock/metal song, including a fast-paced solo and also a jazzy sort of interlude that, well, I guess you don’t find in every hard rock or metal song. And yeah, the very first time I heard the song I was really thrown off, but I’ve gotten used to the bit and now I can’t imagine the song without it.

Lyrically the song deals with the idea of overcoming one’s fears to “throw myself into the sea” and see what happens. The song revolves around Bruce’s decision to leave Iron Maiden and throw himself into the sea, to experience what else might be out there that he was missing. I can’t readily access the source material for this, but Bruce gave the info in an interview with Rolling Stone when he was promoting his biography in 2017. It was a huge gamble to cast off from Iron Maiden and go at it alone. And while it might not have been a lucrative prospect, in the end Bruce does have an acclaimed solo catalog from his endeavors.

And the song’s greatest strength is that it wasn’t specifically couched in the terms of him leaving Maiden – it was a song for anyone who was unsure about a course in life, who needed that push to go ahead and jump into the sea of doubt. I think music in general will grab people at places and times, be the right song in the right place for someone. That much doesn’t consider genre or form – people have benefited from a song bringing the right message at the right time.

But I think we know rock and metal have long been the refuge of the loner, the doubter, the unsure of foot. And Tears Of The Dragon is a call to anyone feeling those kind of emotions – metal is often at its best when it appeals to the outcasts, and this is a song for those on the margins that need a push for that motivation to succeed and overcome when the odds aren’t good or even known.

It’s the overriding reason why many of us chose this kind of music as our own. We didn’t fit, we didn’t like the same things as those around us, or whatever it was, we faced life with doubt and trepidation. It was shit like this that got many of us over the hump, just as this song did when I was just before the age of 17 in 1994.

While life wasn’t exactly great for Iron Maiden-Bruce Dickinson-hard rock and heavy metal fans in 1994, we still found our own way. And a fair bit of that had to do with the mainstays like Bruce offering viable product, updating with the times yet still staying the course. It would only come to pass years later that staying the course was the true line to walk, even in the turmoil of the early 90’s, and the greater turmoil of the years beyond.

Why is this an S-Tier song?

Tears Of The Dragon is a magnificent ballad of conquering self-doubt that offered its artist an early signature hit in a period of great uncertainty. While charts and sales figures weren’t entirely kind to Bruce’s solo efforts, the talk of the time and also the retrospective analysis paints his work away from Maiden in a fantastic light, and Tears is one of the main calling cards for his time in the 1990’s wilderness. It’s a song about conquering fears and embracing the unknown, which Bruce did by word and deed in a period where many thought rock and metal as we knew it was lost forever. Yet, by simply executing what he knew, we would be led back to a new legacy we couldn’t even begin to imagine.

You might recognize the guitarist here

S-Tier Songs, Vol. 13

It’s time yet again for another edition of S-Tier songs. Here’s a list of who’s in so far and the criteria behind it all.

It looks like unlucky number thirteen is up. What against the odds, damn it all band could possibly live up to that distinction?

Motörhead – Ace Of Spades

This homage to gambling would not just serve as a band’s hit, it would become the signature song associated with one of heavy metal’s most influential acts. Motörhead would not find massive commercial success, but after decades of recording and tearing up the pavement all the world over, they would become a stud in the crown of metal music.

Ace Of Spades was a single release a month ahead of the band’s fourth album of the same name. The song got noticed and hung out on the UK charts for a few months, it would also receive a UK gold certification for sales in excess of 400,000. The album Ace Of Spades would chart modestly well throughout Europe and also go gold in the United Kingdom for sales over 100,000.

And those fairly modest sales figures would be one of the biggest commercial successes of the band’s 28-year career. Motörhead were never a super popular or financially successful act, yet they endure as one of the heavyweights of the metal genre. Bassist and vocalist Lemmy Kilmister, praised in many circles as God, would make far more money writing songs for Ozzy Osbourne than for his own band.

Yet, when all comes due, it is Lemmy’s vehicle Motörhead that remains as a bastion of heavy music.

And even among the “great unwashed” who aren’t radically familiar with the music of Motörhead, it’s a damn safe bet that a lot of people have heard this song. It’s known far and wide as one of heavy metal’s greatest tunes.

The song is pretty simple in its premise – it is a buzzsaw, but with enough subtlety to distinguish it from the later-to-come death and black metal. It embodies rock, punk, speed and thrash, the latter two terms not even yet existing when it was released in 1980. Motörhead were already an edgy gambit in the few years leading up to this release – this song would cement a young legacy.

The tale of the song’s construction is fairly simple, and told in great detail in this 2017 article by Louder Sound. Drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor and guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clark were jacking around in the studio with producer Vic Maile, who was familiar with Lemmy from the latter’s time in Hawkwind. A series of riffs had been thrown around and the band worked them up while Lemmy was out on the prowl.

The lyrics would come from Lemmy later – he truly just slammed a bunch of gambling references together. It might have been in the back of a van while speeding along a freeway as he recalls, or it might have been on the shitter, as Phil Taylor would guess. Either way, the band had their title track down.

And in the wake, one of heavy metal’s immortal songs was born. Again, there is no mentioning Motörhead without Ace Of Spades. And there isn’t a lot of what we call heavy metal without Motörhead – everyone was influenced by the speedy, punkish outfit. This blend of nasty, noisy rock would give way to thrash in just a few year’s time, and by the end of the 1980’s, extreme metal was well on its way to being more than just a footnote in history. And much of all this noise owes its presence to Motörhead and principally Ace Of Spades.

It’s fair to say that this is Motörhead’s most famous song. Hell, their second most famous song is probably a pro wrestler’s theme song that the band didn’t even write. The group never really “got their due” in terms of huge success, yet they are almost without exception mentioned as a forefront influence on the music that has come from the decades since 1980. And while the band have a hefty catalog with several worthy albums and songs to choose from, there is little doubt that Ace Of Spades is the calling card that rallies all points home. When anyone mentions Motörhead, no doubt it is this gnarly riff and Lemmy’s gruff vocal delivery about losing your ass at cards that first enters one’s mind.

Why is this an S-Tier song?

Ace Of Spades is the banner by which Motörhead flew under for decades. It is a barnstormer of a song that both used and defied the music of the time to offer a new construct upon which much of the heaviest music of the ensuing years would be based off of. Everyone knows that Lemmy and Motörhead kicked ass, and everyone knows that Ace Of Spades is the signpost for the ass kickings.