Earworms – those confounded, parasitic melodies that take up residence within your lobes – are sometimes made all the more irksome by the fact that you can’t make out a bloody word the singer’s crooning about. Or, in most instances, slurring. Even worse, when you’re in your own little world and some independent sector of your brain decides it’d be a great idea for you to sing to yourself, you’ll find yourself warbling a sludge of meaningless drivel. You might even get caught out singing entirely the wrong words by a friend, who’ll roundly mock you for walking around with a minute slice of incorrectly-processed information in your head, before he kicks you in the shins for being such a lyric-mishearing idiot.
Some songs seem designed to cause this kind of scene. Using Twitter-heads and our own addled memories, we’ve tried to find the 10 best examples of this phenomenon – just in case you’re an alien and this has never happened to you before.
10. The Joker – Steve Miller Band
This scrapes into the Top 10 on the basis of one word. Even though I first heard it on a Levis advert when I was a small, stupid child, I still knew that the ‘pompatous of love’ made no sense whatsoever. Even as I type it – pompatous – it’s underlined in red by the bemused spell-checker. What makes it even more confusing is the fact that the rest of the lyrics are eloquent, amusing and reassuringly clever. A little cod-research in Wikipedia reveals that there’s a not-uninteresting history to the neologism. You can read it here.
9. Loser – Beck
Moving up a gear, Beck chose to rap his way through his brilliant breakout single in a surreal rant about nothing in particular, confirming his angular cool before he’d even secured a career. To add to the strange emotion you get after hearing it – the feeling that you’ve just heard something that’s clever and meaningless at the same time – he went and sang the lead-up to the song’s killer ‘I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?’ hook in Spanish. In a time when lyrics weren’t instantly available online, this resulted in many an indie-kid scratching their head and wondering why this hip-hop busker had dedicated a song to a saveloy.
8. Two Princes – Spin Doctors
Remember when bubblegum American pop wasn’t Jonas, Miley, Avril-type over-produced MUCK? We do – and Two Princes is a grand example of the genre from the period when it pretty much died out. A time when four hippies making inconsequential, melodically appealing but needlessly irritating guitar pop could still get signed to a major and marketed into the Top 10. Two Princes is an inoffensive blast of 90s nostalgia and it’s fair to say we all struggled with that bit that seemed to go ama-walla-lubba-bebbe-carnah-see.
Murray herm, or Murray me?
7. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
It’s amazing that Nirvana became the biggest band in the world, however fleetingly, off the back of this song. That’s not to say it’s bad. It’s like heavy metal sugared and then dipped in muck – a little derivative but also sparkling new. The aspect that makes it most unlike your usual crossover single is the fact that you can barely make out a word Kurt Cobain’s singing. After a million listens and some analysis, obviously it begins to make sense. But the first five times you heard Cobain yelling ‘a mullato, an albino, a mosquito, my libido’, even if you got the words, you’d be scratching your head at the juxtapositions going on there. It all makes sense, looking back over the band’s legacy, but when this was the first you’d heard of them, those slurred and angry/bored lyrics made this an alienating but incredible smash.
6. Dreams – Fleetwood Mac
Stevie Nicks was hard enough to understand at the best of times. Dreams starts off perfectly enunciated but the second Nicks starts hitting the high-notes, we lose any sense of what she’s trying to stick in our heads. The use of backing vocals at critical points to make it a little less confusing is a despicable tactic. The fact that she pronounces ‘memory’ as ‘mwemma-way’ is an insult to the ear. And I’m far too lazy to google the lyrics – for me, that first falsetto will always remain ‘the zulu ride that is your play the way you feel it’.
5. The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight – REM
This misses out on a Top 3 position because, where the others may in some cases be deliberate word-skewerings, this actually seems earnestly contrived. It’s a lovely tune and a strong example of the kind of smart but hummable pop REM can deliver, but when the chorus kicks in – with the line that caused much baffled discussion among music fans – you might find yourself sneering a little. Just a little bit. ‘Comedy shall wake her up’, ‘Come on Jamaica’, ‘Crumbling John Major’ are all failed attempts I’ve heard made at working out what Stipe’s babbling, but it turns out the lyrics are the slightly more leaden, ‘call me when you try to wake her’. There’s a lesson here, and it’s ‘MAKE THE LYRICS SCAN, STIPE’.
4. Purple Haze – Jimi Hendrix
Alright – so it’s really just the one line – but it was so subversive it warrants inclusion. Young stoners still check themselves when they hear the ‘kiss the sky’ line, unsure whether it’s an acid-tinged hallucination scenario involving atmospheric snogging or if it’s a request for patience whilst the singer gets off with someone of his own gender. Not a big deal now, obviously, but back then you can imagine the shock this instilled. You have to love the ’scuse me’ aspect of it all – the way the deliberate confusion and potential uproar it provoked is shrugged off by the instigator with such good manners.
3. The Israelites – Desmond Dekker
The first ever reggae number one on these shores thanks to a public keen to embrace the groove despite the fact the words were an alien babble to them. On your first listen, it sounds like poor ol’ Des’s ears are alight. The second time around you glean that it’s a song about hardship and by the third all you care about is how bloody great it is. No wonder Patrick Trueman on Eastenders always sticks it on after he’s had one drop too many of his beloved rum.
2. Come On Eileen – Dexy’s Midnight Runners
Where are you most likely to hear this tune? That’s right! An 80s night. An 80s night where everyone is drunk beyond belief and slurring along with Kevin Rowland and his crowd of busking dungarees like it’s the sound of the heavens on Earth. ‘Poo-weo jwaarny reurgh!’ they cry. ‘Shetta whatta gwarn a radio and a modern heart ya warna kneow’ they continue, as the song builds to a chorus which finally, thank God, begins to make some semblance of sense.
1. Louie Louie – The Kingsmen
The daddy of them all. Even back in 1955, The Kingsmen didn’t care if they inflected their vocals to the point that meaning was obscured. So long as the tune was rocking, the lyrics became secondary. A total classic, and the Jamaican patois-influenced singing only seems to add to its enduring appeal, making this a staple song for the homeward-bound drunk looking for a tune to bellow at the top of his lungs at a time when lyrical accuracy is the furthest thing from his mind. So long as you get the ‘Louie, Louie’ bit right, everyone will know what you’re singing.
… Jesus Built My Hotrod – Ministry
As far as I can tell – and I’m no expert here – most Death Metal and a lot of Industrial Rock or Hardcore relies on heavily distorted vocals to make songs seem scary and intimidating. That’s why none of them made the list. Napalm Death are the kings of this, but this outing from Ministry is a good example of it being almost affectionately self-parodied. At least, that’s how it seems to me. Ding-a-ling, indeed.
Where to begin?