“Assassin” by John Mayer (2009)

Battle Studies is John Mayer’s weakest album by some measure. “Assassin” is the song that saved it from being a complete disappointment.

I realize, of course, that there are several problematic things about John Mayer*. He has a tendency to try to be the smartest, wittiest dude in the room and that doesn’t always fly. But he can play the fuck out of a guitar and he can write a hell of a song. If the fact that there are probably going to be a dozen John Mayer songs on this list makes you roll your eyes, tough shit. Make your own damn list.

He’s also a pretty self-aware guy, all things considered. “Assassin” is a song about a love ‘em and dump ‘em kinda dude. It’s got to be at least somewhat autobiographical, considering John has developed a reputation over the years for being-if we’re putting it nicely-a cad. The song takes the “lady killer” metaphor into an extremely literal place. And then-SPOILER-the tables get turned on him. It’s easily one of the five best lyrics he’s ever written.

*find me an artist on this list that you can’t say something problematic about.

NOT QUITE FIVE STARS…

“Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” by Maxwell (1996): The first thing I think about when Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite isn’t how good the album is (and for my money, it’s the best of the “neo-soul dudes” triumvirate of albums that also includes D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar and Tony Rich’s Words) but it’s the fact that asses were truly busted when it came to making the album a success. I didn’t know 1/10 of what I know now about marketing and promotion back in ‘96, but I knew then (and am absolutely sure now) that there was max effort in getting this guy’s name and music in front of people, from then unheard of pricing (I can remember the CD going for six bucks when most albums went for upwards of thirteen and a cheap album was 10 bucks) to a string of wins at the Soul Train Music Awards.

Twenty years later, we know that “Maxwell” and “smooth” are practically synonymous, but “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” was a total breath of fresh air upon its release. Jazzy, airy in both production and performance (Maxwell’s opening falsetto note is worth the price of admission in and of itself), it’s perfectly constructed for romantic evenings or chill afternoons.

And I’ve gotta give props to the remix, even though it’s a Puffy-style jack of “No One’s Gonna Love You” by The S.O.S. Band. The jack happened to be a perfect fit for the original song.

“Ashes To Ashes” by David Bowie (1980): Most of the songs I’ve compiled for this blog so far are songs I’m so familiar with I could point them out in 5 seconds or less AND I can sing them straight through. I can point out “Ashes To Ashes” in less than 5 seconds (how could you not with that intro?) but I can’t sing it straight through. So while I’m less familiar with “Ashes” than, say, “Adore”, it’s still worthy of five stars in my book. I mean, there’s the intro. There’s the super-weird (and way ahead of its time) video. Then there’s the fact that Major Tom returns over a decade after “Space Oddity”-as a near-death drug addict. Props (I guess?) for continuing a story (pretty unusual for pop music.)

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