I’ve been obsessed with the idea of identifying critical moments in popular songs for a long time, but have been struggling with defending what that exactly means. One friend dismissed my ever-growing playlist of songs with identifiable pinnacles of brilliance as just “good songwriting.” I tried to tell her that, no, wait, good songwriting is one thing, but being able to completely change the composition of a song, the whole understanding of the joy that a song can bring, in one critical moment, is not just good songwriting, it’s genius. Nor was I talking about anything as simple as climax and release. As was found with Adele’s “Someone Like You,” science can now identify the exact elements of a song that make it so heart-wrenching—that is, where the song becomes so successful at conveying emotion that it sends “reward signals to our brains that rival any other pleasure.” But I’m no scientist; my degree is in Children’s Writing. What I go on are hunches and careful, careful listening for the little moments that change everything.
Now, a song’s climax usually happens pretty late in the game. We’ve already heard the chorus, we’ve seen a bridge or a slight interlude, and all we’re waiting for is to be elevated that one step higher to bring the song to its full potential. We need to walk across that bridge to a necessary pitch modulation that will make us feel like the singer has reached an exalted plane—the second coming of the artist, if you will. But what I think of as the pinnacle moment of a song can actually come much earlier or later than the climax. And while we would know if the climax and release were lacking, we might not be able to identify if that other pinnacle wasn’t there: we’d just feel it as a sort of unconscious missed connection. It takes incredible talent to place these moments in a song—and while some musicians have nailed the beauty of finding this magical spot on more than one occasion, it’s rare. How can an artist know what it is we really need? What we really, really need? What follows is a list of some of my all-time favorite moments where the artist has figured that out.
3:45—“A Postcard to Nina” by Jens Lekman
If you were a lesbian, Jens Lekman is exactly the sweet image of gentility that you’d want your parents to think was your boyfriend. Yeah, your father is a bigot and a psychopath, but at least you could go to sleep at night knowing that pop perfection was recorded in honor of your troubled relationship with your good ole German dad. “A Postcard to Nina,” Lekman’s five-minute note to a friend about the ruse of his standing in as her boyfriend is not only lyrically pop gold but musically, it creates the perfect balancing act between smooth, unaffected calm and slight anticipatory buildup. We ride the epistolary wave along with Lekman as he writes sweetly, softening our hearts, then more irritably (“Hey! You! Stop kicking my legs!”), until his sign-off (“Yours truly, Jens Lekman”) gives us our chance to feel release. By no mistake is this moment in the song the most sonically important. We’ve just been witnesses to an awkward series of lies and slip-ups, and while Lekman’s inner-monologue is notated with brash horns, his dinner conversation plays around with a harmless glockenspiel. But it isn’t until 3:45 precisely, when both horns and glockenspiel play in tandem, and we are given the addition of a clave-sounding backbeat, does the song reach such a direct and essential pinnacle. It comes near the song’s closing of the song, and could easily serve as the falling action, but it means so much more than that.
“1:22—“Nectarine” by Twin Sister
If you grew up in Pennsylvania—or, for that matter, anywhere that had a Cracker Barrel—you may have owned a train whistle. It’s the all-essential instrument to pissing off everyone around you. The sound that it creates is, exactly as the name suggests, just like a train. In one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands, I’m immediately brought back to my childhood and sent into a dreamscape of spaced-out fuzziness at 1:22, when a descending bass line leads us into what can only be known as the sonic representation of a train arriving. We have a shaker, some dull spoons clacking, a harmonica-as-train-whistle, and an overlay of vocals calling out to us with a sumptuous “yoo-hoo” to add to the urgency of it all. As the lyrics that precede this exact moment are “And when you come back home / when you come back home / I won’t ever let go / I haven’t before,” we imagine the return of a loved one on a train pulling into the station. The bass line, as it walks us toward the pinnacle moment, is as familiar as the steps we’d take to walk down to a train platform. Then the train pulls in, and it’s perfect.
2:56—“Heard ’Em Say” by Kanye West
Kanye West has a talent for creating great moments in song and including “Heard ’Em Say” on this list was a tough decision because Adam Levine from Maroon 5 spends half the song practically ruining it with unnecessary humming and whining and what I’m sure he would call “crooning.” Just shut up, Levine. But the nature of this song’s critical moment makes it worthy of almost any top ten list…about anything. When you’ve grown almost so irritated by Levine’s voice, and are hoping with all your ability that Kanye West will reintroduce himself sooner rather than later, the song appears to come to its most enlightening moment. It’s at 2:56, when the singing stops and the piano trill loop fades out, we’re left with the sound of a warped vinyl spinning in slow motion, what appears to be Levine’s key melody filtered through many processors, and the most important element: some finger cymbal-y rhythms beat out over the course of the last 30 seconds. It works to astounding effect. An ultimate coolness rests over the song now that wasn’t present before. West has given us a fresh interpretation of a song, where the most important moment happens near its close, which I advise all young songwriters to take note, because that is the real deal.
3:52—“Heart of Chambers” by Beach House
If there’s any band that can send a person into fits of epic sadness, it’s Beach House. When “Heart of Chambers” begins, we’re presented with another droney, lonely song that tears apart our insides (and we like it). We’d be perfectly satisfied with this slow electronic drumbeat that seems to be keeping the time of our heartbeat’s march toward death, but Beach House has something more in mind. A short instrumental breakdown is followed by a trembling guitar smoothly leading into the lyrics, “In our beds we’re the lucky ones / fill us with the sun” sung over and over again. Deceptively, this is not the best moment of the song. On the second round, as the tremolo on the guitar becomes more distinct and the pitch modulates an octave higher, at precisely 3:52, we really, really feel it—a hauntingly on-pitch turn to comfort. It’s practically the end of the song, but Beach House has wrenched out from us all the emotion that we can part with, and it’s right at this moment that we feel magnificently full again. They have created musically what we feel internally: in our beds, we’re the lucky ones.
1:09—“Pizza Time” by Ducktails
Many of the songs written by Real Estate’s Matt Mondanile for his side project, Ducktails, are lackluster. But “Pizza Time” is an exception—brilliantly titled and with a great fast-forward, free, jamming motion to it. And it’s once we hit 1:09, as Mondanile’s bass taps out a few critical notes in a row as it builds into a glowing warmth that has now settled over the song, we’re allowed a release of our anxiety about how much layering is going on. Too much chillwave can actually set off uneasiness within us—we crave a path or a direction in songs, and meandering, laid-back instrumentals don’t often provide it. It’s when the low bass sound is reintroduced several times close to the end of the song that we realize that without the early bass strums at 1:09, we wouldn’t have settled into the song’s sweetness so nicely. All we need is one more Corona and a pair of vintage tortoise-shell Wayfarers to complete the mood.
2:00—“What Would You Do?” by City High
“What Would You Do?” is the one significant contribution that now defunct group City High contributed to pop music. The production quality of the song is as good as if I recorded it in the back break room of the a Kansas Stop ‘N Shop with only a Styrofoam plate and a tube of Wet ‘N’ Wild “The Devil Wears Prada” lipstick—it sounds like the scraps from R. Kelly’s second cousin’s soul project. Despite the cold beats and lack of real tonal depth, there is something real that happens at 2:00, when we’re brought to the song’s height and introduced to a revelation. I haven’t yet figured out if the reason I love these few seconds so much is because the rest of the song is so poorly administered or if this really is an earnest elite interval in musical history, but in a way, it doesn’t matter. When the pitch of the song modulates right after the Dr. Dre sample (anyone know how they got away with using that, anyway?), we’re brought to an eye-opening moment of exaltation. Before this, perhaps we disagreed on what we’d do if we had a hungry son at home—some thought my girlfriend should go get a regular job, while others claimed her situation was unavoidable—but after we hear the choir come in and the chorus is repeated again, we seem to all be in agreement. This is utilization of “take ’em to church” in the best way possible.
1:42—“The Sun” by Mirah
The studio version of this song, despite its practical verisimilitude to the b-side, does not make the cut as far as game-changing moments are concerned. It’s far too obvious. We know from the beginning when things are hollow and tired that we’re building toward something. It opens with heavy plucks on a bass that resonate fully and then transitions into an acoustic guitar, and Mirah sings sugary and sweetly, while an overlay of somewhat sinister leading background vocals sing in a tandem hum. When it does hit its critical moment, it isn’t big or defined enough—it feels lazy. On the b-side, however, we could happily expect the song to continue as straightforward and understated as it begins. It’s soft and quiet. It’s passive. But then a crash symbol is tapped lightly and harmonies begin to elevate into something bigger and louder. At 1:42, the song goes barreling forward into what we never knew that we wanted: Mirah advising us to breath. It feels so good—it’s so sexy and real. She all of a sudden possesses such power that we’re overcome by the first line that falls directly after the song’s essential moment: “I am the sun / I’m the only one.” The way the drums crash heavily into that line makes the emphasis on that moment in particular all the more relevant and authoritative. Our surprise gives the moment significance.
4:21—“Losing My Way” by Justin Timberlake
The “bring in the gospel choir” tactic is an overdone trick in pop music, and at times I wish it had no effect on me. Justin Timberlake is also obviously a fan of the gospel climax-and-release in song, and that is not a complaint. His use of a gospel choir at the end of “Losing My Way” is perfect. The anticipation that builds until the moment of release in a song is so epic that it almost hurts—it’s reminiscent of every R. Kelly song we’ve ever liked—that I feel like Justin helps us actually find both ours and his way. (If you don’t know it, Justin has lost his way in the song due to addiction to crack. Really, Justin?) The moment of necessary enlightenment, however, isn’t as obvious as just “when the choir comes in” (though the instinct to think that at first is strong). The choir and some relevant clapping comes in around the 3:37 mark, but we feel the real change in us, the true genius and excellence at 4:21, where all of the relevant newly introduced elements come together at the same time to tell us that “I’m losing my way.” We have the gospel choir, a confessional man who speaks and pleads over the song, and a fluid orchestra that mimics the melody. You’ve helped us find our way, JT.
:52—“Is This It” by The Strokes
Some Strokes songs can leave us painfully and achingly wanting. Someone, somewhere is disagreeing with this in an insurmountable rage, but it’s true that their pop genius can falter on a few tracks and leave us asking for more depth, more power. If they could only reproduce the sonic quality of “Is This It” on every single track, I’d feel very satisfied. In “Is This It” at exactly :52, wunderkind bass player Nikolai Fraiture introduces to us what can only be the best and most essential moment in this song (and maybe all songs). A wandering bass line brings the singular plucking on a lo-fi electric guitar to new heights by complementing it accordingly with an infinite, ambling, jazzy smoothness. The bass line continues and repeats throughout the remainder of the song but because little else transpires from start to finish, it’s at the first time that we hear this rhythmic addition that we feel completely overcome by genius. What has always been missing in Strokes songs is found in this single dignified moment.