Cherry-Picking Pop Music's 'Good Parts'

Sep 6, 2012
Originally published on September 18, 2012 7:20 pm

When I started at NPR Music last year, I was given the desk immediately next to Robin Hilton's. Robin is a quiet neighbor, for the most part — it's rare that he'll take his headphones off more than once or twice in a day — but he does have one strange tic. Every once in a while, apropos of nothing, he'll raise his fists and shout, "DUM-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM DUM-DUM," while he pounds out a drum beat on an invisible kit. Then, with great purpose, he'll turn to me and say, "Name the song."

This is a leading question: We both know that the climactic fill from Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" is too distinctive to be mistaken for anything else (a fact that spawned a series on this very blog). The exchange always ends with both of us chuckling and reaffirming a shared sentiment: "That's the only part of that song I ever really want to hear."

As simple as it is dramatic, that cascade of gated tom-toms is the quintessential "good part": the standout moment in a pop song when you're helplessly compelled to air-drum; when everyone in the car stops talking to sing along; when the house lights go up and the lead singer points her microphone out into the crowd.

You Look Nice Today, one of my favorite podcasts, had the same thought a few years ago. The show is a free-form conversation with one consistent theme: At some point, one of the three hosts will pitch the others a business proposal for an imaginary product. In the 2009 episode, "The Good Part," that product was a song made entirely out of the best moments from other songs — beginning with "In the Air Tonight" and cycling through two dozen more.

It's a literal, and funny, take on an idea that's been attempted many times in earnest. The British DJ Osymyso strung together the attention-grabbing opening riffs from more than 100 songs to create his 2002 track "Intro Inspection." The Russian conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid aimed, with their People's Choice Music project, to create a song with universal appeal by conducting polls about what sounds people like to hear in their pop music. You could say OutKast plucked the most satisfying sounds from a handful of genres — wailing heavy metal guitar, thunderous club bass, rapid-fire rapping, a gospel choir — to create its apocalyptic five-minute opus "B.O.B." And there's always Girl Talk.

The thing about all these kitchen-sink salvos is that they're kind of difficult to listen to. Even "B.O.B.," a radio-ready single rather than an academic exercise, fries the senses — you hear enough music in those five minutes to feel like you've done all your listening for the day. That meal-in-a-pill feeling is a best-case scenario; at their worst, songs that are all "good part" go down like cake that's all frosting. (See the sickly-sweet result of The People's Choice Music for proof.)

"The Good Old Days," a catchy little gem from 2008 by the U.K. trio The Lodger, comes at the idea a different way. I'll tip my hat here to NPR Music's Lars Gotrich, who sent me this one last week with the endorsement, "Have you heard this song? It's basically all chorus."

The Lodger is not a DJ crew or a group of research scientists — it's just three guys with drums and guitars. Likewise, "The Good Old Days" is not a Frankensong constructed out of preexisting "good parts"; especially at first listen, it's a fairly straight-ahead indie-pop track. But on repeat spins, the song reveals a structural oddity: It is the same words, the same melody and the same chords three times through, without variation.

Ambient and dance music work on this same principle, establishing a groove or hook compelling enough that you don't mind hearing it ad nauseam. The twist in "The Good Old Days" is that the repeated unit isn't just a measure or two — it's more than a minute, long enough to actually feel new by the time it restarts. Subtle shifts in the arrangement help with that, most notably a bit where the guitar drops out, creating the illusion of a bridge section. The repeated chorus has little sections of its own: There's the lead-in ("All those days, wasting time..."), the main hook ("Could it be the start of something?"), a button of sorts ("All right!") and an instrumental tag.

Aided by those factors, "The Good Old Days" feels complete, even though nothing in it could credibly be called a verse. Moreover, there are no down moments: The song is all sparkle, all the time.

By the terms discussed here, there are at least three ways to create a "good parts" song. There's the Girl Talk/Osymyso way, which strings together great moments from other songs. There's the OutKast/People's Choice way, which combines well-loved musical tropes. And there's the Lodger way, in which an original "good part" is stretched out, embellished and repeated. Can you think of more? Are there examples of the first three that we've missed? Let us know.

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