When you’ve gotten to a point, as a songwriter, where you feel like you heard or played it all, there comes a necessary need for change. Whatever that might be; for some, that change may come in the form of an extended African holiday, a new pill combination (not advisable), or simply picking up an instrument most people don’t generally equate to rock status.
One instrument in particular fitting this very description is the accordion. These days, you’re more likely hear it in Europe being played by a humble busker (or on your average indy-folk band’s pegboard), but it has found its way into rock songs made all the more awesome by its uniquely-colored character. Here are ten of them:
10. Angry White Boy Polka
Weird Al Yankovic
This song from the frizzy-haired king-of-song-parody, Weird Al Yankovic–appearing on his Grammy-winning 2003 album Poodle Hat–is exactly what it says it is: an Angry White Boy Polka. Armed with an apparent tormented-childhood’s worth of accordion lessons, Weird Al lampoons 13 songs in one …in the innately over-the-top style of polka.
Being an album from the faraway year of 2003, he targets ‘angry white boys’ from acts as regrettable and/or genetically-dissimilar as Papa Roach, System of the Down, the White Stripes, the Strokes, P.O.D., Limp Bizkit and Eminem. Imitation may be the most sincerest form of flattery, but this is completely original.
Best moments: when the Strokes’ “Last Nite” is rendered as a slinky, finger-snapping jazz tune, or when P.O.D.’s “Youth of a Nation” is outfitted with distinct trumpet ‘wah-wahs’.
9. Karla with a K
You might not know this, but Cyndi Lauper’s ever-so-commercially-viable debut album She’s So Unusual (e.g. “Time After Time,” “All Through the Night,” “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” etc.), was largely written by the formative members of a band called the Hooters, (i.e. Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian). She’s So Unusual was also produced by Rick Chertoff, who signed the Hooters to Columbia Records, and produced three of their albums). So basically, for this album, the Hooters were Cyndi Lauper’s backing band.
So, it should be no surprise then, that their undeniable songwriting sensibilities should be evident in their former musical incarnation. One thing that does show, from album to album, is the band’s lack of complacency. Their willingness to explore new, different sounds has resulted in the Hooters incorporating many an unconventional instrument into their act, from melodica to mandolin (even unleashing a completely-ostentatious guitar-mandolin hybrid onstage) to accordion. This song offers a taste of it all, with an immediately gratifying, hook-centric pop sensibility that speaks to folk tradition, as well as the kind of things a band should be doing; that is, obeying structure, while defying limits.
8. Start Wearing Purple
Gogol Bordello occupy a scarcely-populated genre called ‘gypsy punk,’ which is music that carries the brash force and frenzied energy of your average punk song, while dipping it into a distinctly Eastern European kettle. Their songs overflow with the sorts of melodies and instruments (e.g. accordion and fiddle) you might expect to hear at a Russian wedding reception. Led by the heavily–and cheekily–accented Eugene Hutz, any punkish attitude and vulgarity is completely lost in translation–and gobs of schtick–the resulting tone being a unilaterally playful one. Take this song, which is as obscure in meaning as it is infectious: the chorus goes, “Starting wearing purple, wearing purple. Start wearing purple for me now. All your sanity and wits will vanish, I promise. It’s just a matter of time.”
The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys experiment in more ways than one; they–but mostly Brian Wilson–have pioneered much in the way of vocal harmonies and avant-garde song structures, but they also have a tendency to reach for and incorporate instruments that don’t naturally coexist (e.g. listen to “Good Vibrations” off of Pet Sounds, which employs harpsichord, theremin, and cello beyond typical rock utensils). In this latter hit from 1988, Kokomo, the song evokes a lavish, distinctly non-Californian beachscape with the aid of steel drums, accordion, and, of course, those epic harmonies.
6. Rox in the Box
This song from The King is Dead evokes the most Popeye-like of barnacle-encrusted sailor music. The melody is teeming with a passionate folk sensibility: with violin, acoustic guitar, and male-female duet harmonies (folksinger-songwriter Gillian Welch steps in to accompany Colin Meloy’s vocal flails). Then, the song steps aboard the S.S. Blow-Me-Down at the bridge–which appears just after the second chorus–with a distinctive accordion hook that anchors the song until it reaches ‘land ho.’
5. Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
What would a Springsteen song be without all the bells and whistles and esoteric instruments? Well, it’d probably be more like a John Mellencamp song. Sax and glockenspiel are a given in any Springsteen anthem, but this song strives for grandiosity with much less: the song relying primarily on some acoustic guitar, the Boss’s unmistakable vocal snarl, and a persistent accordion in the background. A blatant love song for the eponymous ‘Sandy,’ the tenderness of the sentiment and French-restaurant evoked via accordion make no attempts at being subtly romantic. Sometimes beauty can be dipped in cheese; call it fondue beauty.
4. A Candle’s Fire
Beirut, as a musical unit, is little more than an expansion upon the ideas of songwriter Zach Condon. His music is heavily embellished with non-traditional rock instruments (horns, trumpet, accordion), and this is very much to do with his upbringing. Condon has admitted to being influenced by the residing mariachi music of his New Mexican hometown (he also played trumpet in a jazz band as a teen), as well as the world music he encountered while working at a foreign film theater. So, with all that stewing in the pot, it was only bound to bubble over. This track in particular (from his latest album, 2011’s The Riptide) best exemplifies his taste for back alley exultancy. The first thing we here is a few short breaths from the lungs of the accordion, before it is drowned out by brilliantly anthemic horn blasts, but those eight breaths form the song’s foundation, providing the wind beneath soaring wings. The song form is ‘strophic,’ meaning that each verse is the same music but with different lyrics- a simple-yet-effective Beirutian reoccurrence. The smooth and impassioned vocals glide just overhead during this song that last just over three minutes, while the lyrics instruct us to enjoy simple pleasures while they last.
3. Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
This song from Arcade Fire’s David Bowie-heralded album, exemplifies just why the band is so deserving of such majesty. The layers of beauty are deep, but never so much so that you aren’t affected by and compelled to sing along after a single listen. At work here is a score of muted guitar chimes, violin sweeps, some glockenspiel winces, and an accordion to tie it all together atmospherically. The result is something like being trampled by a stampede of pure, cathartic beauty- nothing synthesized or unfelt.
2. You Are the Everything
1988‘s Green marked a lot of changes for the band, mostly sonically. On this album, frontman Michael Stipe reportedly told the band to purposely not play ‘R.E.M.-type songs,’ insisting the band step more and more outside of its comfort zone. And so it did. On this album we see new additions to the line-up of traditional vocals, guitar, bass, and (sometimes) piano, with the likes of mandolin and accordion finding their way as the essential components of several songs. One in particular, “You Are the Everything,” features guitarist Peter Buck on mandolin and bassist/pianist/multi-instrumentalist Mike Mills on accordion. The result is more beautiful than likely was anticipated. And as this band went on to continue displacing earth for 20+ more years, bands like Radiohead and the Decemberists followed what might as well have been the footsteps of a T-Rex.
1. The Boy in the Bubble
Paul Simon’s songwriting genius has been the cause of both intimidation and awe in his contemporaries (according to their confessions). He has a fastidious streak that surely must be a great source of personal agony, but such ultimately pays off with an album full of carefully-arranged gems, whose flawlessness (or intentional flawfulness) is no accident. On Simon’s Graceland (1986), his most beautiful ear-guided tour of Africa, he lets his explorer’s streak run free on the very first track, which is guided completely by accordion. It sounds almost like it was intended as a guitar track, but at the last minute was adapted for the accordion after his strings broke mid-recording session. Still brilliant, after all these years.