1. Lyrics that tell a story.
I think the best songs have some point to them besides being catchy. Don't give me a cheesy love song (or if you're going to, at least make me laugh). Sing me a story with characters, plots, and messages.
I look for lyrics that illuminate my own feelings. I'll award bonus points to songs that rally me, inspire me, pull me up, dust me off or convince me that I'm going to be okay.
When my (lousy) boyfriend of 11 years moved out, I felt confused and conflicted, but I played the subtly happy song "Tears Dry on Their Own" and wrote a music video in my head, starring me twirling around in my newly empty, sun-kissed apartment, finally unburdened with all the cobwebs of our misspent decade. I appreciated how Amy Winehouse gave a name to the feeling of "inevitable withdrawal." I didn't love my ex anymore, but I still had to bear the withdrawal of our breakup as I learned how to be alone for the first time as an adult.
When Amy sings, "He walks away; the sun goes down," I don't picture darkness but rather the glorious glow of a blazing sunset.
Another example: One of the greatest stories I know is about a human being who is Given to Fly. Here's what Eddie Vedder says about that beautiful song:
"[I imagined the song as] a 20-page cardboard children's book with a line on each page and a picture to go with it. It's a fable, that's all. The music almost gives you this feeling of flight, and I really love singing the part at the end, which is all about rising above anybody's comments about what you do and still giving your love away. You know? Not becoming bitter and reclusive, not condemning the whole world because of the actions of a few."
2. Grungy guitars that rock out.
I can't resist them. I feel them in my belly. They make me want to burst into a run. They make me want to shrug off my last board meeting and my last deadline and joyfully headbang like the mammal I am. I can appreciate the perfectly-executed licks of a classical guitar song, but I'm not sure how long I could sit and watch someone coax them out. I want to watch a person grab their guitar and shred it like they're purging the demons within.
I know it's been overplayed, but to this day, I can't fathom how someone can hear the opening chords of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and not emphatically agree that the song is a cosmic gift from the universe. It's just perfect. Whether they were ready for it or not, something otherworldly just clicked the day Nirvana came up with that one.
Same thing, right here:
3. Beautiful vocals.
This one seems too easy but, oh well. I'll bliss out to Rob Zombie for Reason #2 but give me Eddie Vedder's soaring, honeyed baritone to soothe my troubled heart. It hits me like a Klonopin right in my soul.
4. Music that has heart.
I need to feel like music is sincere, like it was born because the artist had to write it whether anyone would like it or not. I like music that is confessed. I like songs that purge anguish as a means to finding light.
I think that's why I like Jill Sobule so much. I go see her every time she comes to town, and Jill has a way of making the entire room fall in love with her. She's cute and funny, yes, but also, Jill's heart is present in every one of her songs.
I always felt like Kurt Cobain's lyrics, as flippant and bitter as they seemed on the surface, were painfully self-aware and of brimming with heart.
A piece of music doesn't have to have all of these ingredients, but if I love it, chances are it will have at least one.
Pearl Jam corners the market with all four, which is why seeing them live takes me to staggering heights of sheer bliss.
I'm going to close with a song that has Ingredients #1, #3 and #4. This is a song that put four whole years into perspective for me, and makes me cry every single time.