Top Ten Neko Case Songs

Neko Case will never use auto tune. Ever. She’ll tell you so herself. Her voice is too powerful a beast—deep and brutal and pining to tempt. The Alexandria-born, Tacoma-raised musician resents being pigeonholed. I’ve seen her style described as alt country (gross), indie rock and experimental. None alone are right. She’s some of each…and a bit of a noir poet.

Most of Case’s songs are dark and purposefully obscure. The woman has soul for miles. She prefers the message to be cryptic and the incidents blurred, so that you can fill in the pieces.

Narrowing down her top ten was akin to what I would imagine it feels like to separate orphaned siblings. I didn’t know where to begin. On top of the wall of sound, she weaves Ukrainian fairy tales into her work, has songs that would befit jihad missions (see “Lady Pilot”), and writes lyrics that command:

Come chain yourself ’round my ankle, you’ll see the world like a bird
Diving down low, flying up high, through all of these saccharine gutters we’ll ride
And I won’t say that I told you so

That said, I listened to builds and harmonies, tempos and reverb, pedal steel and strings. Then I scrapped all of it and went with my gut. I’m anxious to hear where you would agree and argue. So here goes…the ten Neko Case songs worth swooning over:

10. “This Tornado Loves You”

Tornado opens up Middle Cyclone (Neko’s latest album). It was inspired by a dream she had about a tornado frustrated because it couldn’t turn the pages of a book. It wanted to read. This song moves at a frenzied pace and introduces the force of nature that is the album’s theme. My love, I am the speed of sound. I left them motherless, fatherless. Their souls dangling inside-out from their mouths, but it’s never enough. Don’t you see? This tornado loves you. And I love the thought of carving your name across three counties to prove it.

9. “Mood to Burn Bridges”

This song, which sounds more country than most of her work, is off the early Furnace Room Lullaby album. It is so fired up, twanging all over the place in a celebration of shabby, small town life. It also shows Neko’s anti-conformist tendencies—both in tempo (she lets the hyper beat catch its breath a couple times) and in words. Don’t cross me on either a day, baby.

8. “Alone and Forsaken”

This list deserves a cover, and I chose Hank Williams and his crying whip-poor-wills. Neko’s take lets her deep voice linger, begging. Oh please understand. Live versions give Jon Rauhouse the attention he deserves on the pedal steel. In close contention was her cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me.” The pianos (21 of them!) are incredible.

A note on the video: I couldn’t find a Neko version of this, so you’re getting Hank Williams.

7. “John Saw That Number”

On 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Neko moved away from typical song structure. This jamboree is her rendition of a traditional Christian gospel tune. She breathes in the religious revelry while, I suspect, slinging tomatoes at it. Atheists and zealots alike can stomp their feet in praise. Wild honey, lord, wild honey.

6. “Vengeance Is Sleeping”

Stripped down, Vengeance isn’t much more than vocals and guitar—striking and raw. Neko sings from a dude’s point of view (not for the first time): You’re the one that I still miss, and it’s ruthless that it comes as no surprise. I’m not the man you think I am. Kelly Hogan’s voice joins hers at the end. Two delicate birds.

5. “Middle Cyclone”

What a lullaby…with a music box to boot. This title track is a waltzy love song. It sounds like a progression of “I Wish I Was the Moon,” which probably deserves a spot on this list (it was the first song of hers that caught me like a deer in headlights). There are some gorgeous lines in here too, with nice breaks:

I lie across the path waiting, just for the chance to be
A spider web, trapped in your lashes, for that
I would trade you my empire for ashes
But I choke it back, how much I need love

4. “Deep Red Bells”

This song casts a spell. It was inspired by Neko’s memories of growing up in the Seattle area when the Green River Killer was at large. Eek. It feels like thunder, especially the sound of her voice in the chorus. The transition at 2:49 turns what was once menacing into a rockabilly number. Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag? Past empty lots and early graves? The feeling of hope layered on top of sadness (or confusion) makes its way into a lot of her songs, but it’s particularly evident here.

3. “Star Witness”

Here is a tragic tune with lonesome strings. Loosely based on Neko witnessing the murder of a black boy in Chicago, it’s a salute to the innocent—dead and forgotten. Go on, go on, go scream and cry. You’re miles from where anyone will find you. Wolves linger in this song (in the lyrics and in metaphor), but they’re masked by the soft and easy drums. Animals, a common thread in Neko’s music, are a sly bunch.

2. “Prison Girls”

Holy hell, this is a soulful shade of blue. Neko says it came from a waking dream. The instruments and vocals trudge along in a trance, as if lugging sins. They make jail sound sinister in its beauty. I love your long shadows, and your gunpowder eyes. I could listen to that refrain forever.

1. “Maybe Sparrow”

Tragic little sparrow, you didn’t listen! And now what? You’ve left us all weeping.

Notes are hung so effortless
With the rise and fall of sparrow’s breast
It’s a drowning dive and back to the chorus
La de da de da de da

That last line reads so trivial, but it’s proof that music trumps lyrics to infinity. Its sound conjures up emotions that words can only aspire to affect…in vain. Just listen.

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18 Responses

  1. virgotex says:

    Vengeance is Sleeping isn’t from “a dude’s point of view.” In live performances, she usually prefaces it with something like “This is a song for all the tomboys in love, you should know now how screwed you really are.”

    Big difference between being a dude and being a tomboy. Which is what the song’s about.

  2. Jeremy Kotin says:

    Fantastic list! But you missed my absolute, hands down, favorite song… “I Wish I Was The Moon.” It was the song that brought me to Neko’s amazing catalog. I heard it in a coffee shop somewhere and kept asking everyone around me who was singing. Such a voice! Such a song!

    Welcome to popten!

  3. Maybe Sparrow is my all-time favorite Neko song as well!

  4. Jecca Berta says:

    I appreciate the comments! Never again will I confuse dudes for tomboys.

    @Jeremy — It was so tough to keep that song off the list…but have a look at the love I gave it when talking about #5 “Middle Cyclone.”

  5. Welcome Jecca! I love Neko Case – especially Deep Red Bells. I ended up seeing her in concert once though, and for some reason everything sort of melted together. Kind of disappointing. So happy to have you on board, and can’t wait to read more. I first caught you on the BSS think blog awhile back, and loved your take on branding. It’s great to hear a different side of the same voice.

  6. Tom says:

    Well I wanted to get this right on the first attempt, so hence the delay … and until I’m told differently, I’ll assume I introduced you to Neko Case. I also recall a fast-paced and joyful back and forth about Prison Girls upon first listen via text messaging. So with the ultimate hubris, here’s where you got your top 10 right, and here’s maybe 2 or 3 ways I’d improve it.

    There is zero arguing with Maybe Sparrow, Star Witness, Deep Red Bells, or Prison Girls. But I’ve got a nagging (not teenage) feeling that you opted to be a completist here. Since I don’t suffer from that self-imposed limitation, I’d put these remaining songs as part of my top 10: That Teenage Feeling, I Wish I Was the Moon, Favorite, People Got A Lot of Nerve, and Hold On, Hold, On.

    In reverse order:

    Hold On, Hold On – probably her best narrative lyric and that’s saying something. She expresses longing and boredom in the same song, and believe me I can count the people on this planet who are capable of doing that on one hand.

    People Got a Lot of Nerve – Sophie’s favorite song, nothing more to be said.

    Favorite – the first song Neko Case wrote by herself, and you can tell when she sings it live it means something special to her. And thank God she got her first song right. If she’s written a clunker we might have been stuck with a second attempt at writing songs for the New Pornographers.

    I Wish I Was the Moon – God it’s such a sad song, it’s like being Linus when he tries to convince Sally that the Great Pumpkin exists.

    That Teenage Feeling – An exceptional song, and one that gets people who don’t know Neko Case to pay attention, in my experience. And lyrically as good as it gets. Sums up perfectly what it feels like to know that your teenage years are gone forever, and the fleeting ability to recapture them once in a while.

    Whether you agree or disagree with my amendments, we can agree on the following – this is arresting stuff. All of it.

  7. Jecca Berta says:

    @Juan I appreciate the warm welcome.

    @Tom Your assumption is correct. I’m grateful! Same goes for your recollection of the “Prison Girls” texting…just looked at it. I said my one call from jail would be to her, you said you were jealous I have her number 🙂

    I think you’re right in that I opted for a Gestalt approach (intentional or not). I will say that until the end, three of those five songs were on my list: “The Moon” (of course), “Teenage Feeling” and “Favorite.” I don’t feel as strongly about “People Got a Lotta Nerve” (no disrespect to the precocious Sophie) or “Hold On, Hold On.” The latter is another friend’s favorite.

    So no regrets (except a teensy bit with the Moon!), because I don’t want to remove any of the songs I chose. But I fully back 60% of your comment. In a swing state, that’s quite a victory.

  8. Love the list! Just gave another listen to Middle Cyclone- it’s growing on me, but it’ll be hard to top Fox Confessor- one of my all-time faves. I think I just needed more Ukranian fairy tales in it…

    I must agree with Tom, though- Hold On, Hold On, Teenage Feeling and Moon definitely top my list.

  9. Tom says:

    I’ll take People Gotta Lot of Nerve off the list, now that I think about it. I’ll replace with I Missed the Point, off Blacklisted. That was the song that a friend introduced me to Neko Case with originally. Now I’m done. ( :

  10. Rachel says:

    Great list! I missed Hold On, Hold On and Look For Me (I’ll Be Around), though.

  11. Jim says:

    Outro With Bees (…”I’m Going to Ruin Everything”…), A Widow’s Toast and The Things that Scare Me represent what I enjoy about Neko. These are short songs, a couple of minutes each or less, but they leave you wanting more. A Widow’s Toast in particular is an example of great harmonizing of very poignant lyrics, and was her concert opener around 2009. Really would get the crowds attention.

    And seriously, I Wish I Were the Moon really needs to be on this list.

  12. Jeanine says:

    Your list is awe inspiring but what lacks is tracks from her previous albums. People gotta lotta nerve sure deserves to be on the spot, Tightly is one of her best songs and wish I was the moon tonight deserves to be in top 3.

  13. smileman says:

    Great list! Thanks for pointing my attention to “Mood to Burn Bridges”, which is fantastic! Her voice rips through that song in such a commanding, lovely way.

    Totally agree with you on: “Prison Girls”, “Deep Red Bells”, “John Saw That Number”, and “This Tornado Loves You”.

    Not as sure about: “Star Witness” and “Alone and Forsaken”.

    Your other choices are fine but songs I’d add: Favorite, Hold On, Hold On, Moon (like everyone else).

    Also really like I’m an Animal, People Got a Lotta Nerve (first Neko song which pulled med in), as well as The Pharaohs and Red Tide.

    Off her new album I’m not sure many are really the equal of her earlier stuff, buy my favorites are the last three extra songs on the album, starting with Ferrets, revised Magpie, and Madonna.

  14. Jah says:

    I’m partial her more country side so here is my top 10…had a tough time create a top 25 list so this was difficult. Not all originals i know that.

    10) Timber
    9) Wayfaring Stranger
    8) Thanks a lot
    7) Star Witness
    6) Thrice all american
    5) I missed the point
    4) Duchess
    3) Running Out of Fools
    2) Set Out Running
    1) Guided by wire

  15. Greg says:

    Thanks, thanks a lot

  16. Sindri says:

    I wish I wish I was the moon!!!! It’s really impossible to narrow it down to ten

  17. JD Piper says:

    The best thing about music is that there are no wrong answers—however! You all seem to have overlooked not just my, but arguably Neko’s favorite Neko song; I mean she named her record label after it for God’s sake. . .arguably the most genre defying song in her catalog, full of jangling discordant guitars over a subtle but powerful rhythm with lyrics both evocative and poignant without being tied to a direct narrative. LADY PILOT from Blacklisted defines the alt-country/folk that is the culmination of America’s best music traditions. Indeed, Ghost Wiring and Blacklisted could easily be on mt top 10 list depending on my mood. . .

  18. false profit says:

    I would add Pauline, but not Margaret.

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