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(Credit: Far Out / Rounder Records)

Music

Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Jonathan Richman

@TylerGolsen

If you’re looking to find the perfect bridge between the rougher edges of proto-punk and the lighter themes of old-school rock and roll, there’s no better figure to turn to than Jonathan Richman. As both the frontman for the Modern Lovers and as a solo artist, Richman has been bringing the summery tunes and wonderfully wonky tracks.

Floating through the genres of power pop, punk rock, acoustic folk, and classic garage rock, Richman always kept strong melodies and optimistic world views at the forefront of his sound. The results often get pegged as “whimsical” or “childlike”, but the earnestness that Richman maintains wins you over in only a few minutes.

Over the course of his five-decade career, it might be tricky deciding where to start with Richman’s catalogue. While he seemingly has a different album for every mood, Richman does have a few tracks that are essential in defining him as a unique artist.

Here are the six definitive songs to start with if you’re looking to jump into the work of Jonathan Richman.

Jonathan Richman’s six definitive songs:

‘Roadrunner’ (1976)

No list of Jonathan Richman songs would be complete without ‘Roadrunner’, the joyous ode to open roads and escapism that beat Burce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ to the punch by a few years (even though Springsteen got his song out first).

Bringing in all of Richman’s signature songwriting flourishes, including references to his home and a fondness for youth distilled into one perfect chord progression, ‘Roadrunner’ helped invent and perfect power pop. Excitement has rarely been bottled into such an effective package.

‘New England’ (1976)

At times, it appeared as though Richman could have come from his own planet. But the truth was that Richman made his name in Boston, one of America’s most unique cities. Richman isn’t actually all that interested in directing what it means to be a Bostonian – instead, he just wants to sing its praises behind a Bo Diddley beat.

‘New England’ is playful, fun, and filled with casual references to America’s northeast. No matter where Richman might find himself, he always winds up coming back to good old New England, something that’s memorialising in a catchy song.

‘Someone I Care About’ (1976)

From the moment you heard The Modern Lovers, it was clear that Jonathan Richman was an individual. While completely enamoured with old-school rock and roll, Richman was happy to pair those sounds with a fresh look at the themes and messages that pervaded those songs, as he does on ‘Someone I Care About’.

Richman was also unafraid to go against standard lascivious rock star views of relationships and love. Richman puts lust in the back seat on ‘Some I Care About’ wanting something more than just a girl to have fun with. He’s looking for a connection, which is wonderfully wholesome for a rock and roll tune.

‘Fly Into Mystery’ (1977)

Although he’s most often associated with unbridled optimism, Richman could get on the sadder side from time to time. Bittersweetness and melancholy were elements to be mined sparingly for Richman, heightening their impact when they do eventually show up.

‘Fly Into Mystery’ is a song all about embracing the frightening aspects of the unknown. Richman positions the vast open spaces as being full of potential wonder, even as his minimalist accompaniment gives the song a sombre edge. Playing on both sides of the positive/negative divide, ‘Fly Into Mystery’ is one of Richman’s most cosmic excursions.

‘Velvet Underground’ (1992)

To know about Jonathan Richman is to know the ultimate fandom for the Velvet Underground. As an early disciple of the New York band’s unique brand of stark imagery and simply chords structures, Richman decided to pay tribute to his favourite band on his 1992 solo album I, Johnathan.

Containing a small snippet of the Velvet’s ‘Sister Ray’, ‘Velvet Underground’ embraces the minimalism and artistic ethos of the band it’s paying tribute to. Richman is usually unafraid to play the role of the shameless devotee to music, and ‘Velvet Underground’ is Richman at his most delightfully geeky.

‘Vincent Van Gogh’ (2004)

Richman always seems to be at his best when he has another figure to bounce reflections and observations off of. Whereas ‘Velvet Underground’ was a pure expression of unbridled love and fandom, ‘Vincent Van Gogh‘ similarly adopts a sort of nursery rhyme form to

Richman always had a childlike wonder about him, and no song better exemplifies that kind of feeling than ‘Vincent Van Gogh’. Sing-songy in all the best kinds of ways, ‘Vincent Van Gogh’ is just one of many Richman songs that can lift your mood instantly.