Top Ten Favorite Pronunciations
ifferent people often pronounce words differently when speaking, so it’s no surprise that the effect is only exaggerated in song, which naturally calls for a distortion of how we’d talk. What’s surprising to me is how often different pronunciations make a song for me all by themselves. I’ve tried to avoid cases where the singer is just drawing the word out at the end of a line, as there are more examples of that than stars in the sky. These ten, though, are the kind of beautifully off-kilter pronunciations that make a song into something special.
10. “Lord Ronald” - Alasdair Roberts: “Down”
“Lord Ronald” comes in last because it’s purely a product of Roberts’ accent; instead of “down” we get “doon,” and while I love all of Roberts’ performance, the way every chorus ends with that “fain would lie doon” went quickly from sounding vaguely affected to being my favorite thing about the song.
09. “The Everlasting” - Manic Street Preachers (James Dean Bradfield): “Genuine”
I guess this one might be a product of accent as well, but Bradfield doesn’t sound terribly Welsh when he sings. I can understand why people might find “The Everlasting” and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours overblown and not terribly compelling—understand, but don’t agree. But my favorite thing about the scene-setting first song is the way Bradfield sings “jen-eww-win” instead of how I’m used to hearing the word. “Jen-yoo-in” wouldn’t fit the meter quite as well, and his alternate phrasing makes the song feel slightly ornate and courtly, a perfect match to the tasteful echoing guitar and strings.
08. “The Hairstyle of the Devil” - Momus: “Beelzebub”
The ever-arch Momus has plenty of delightful spoken/sung moments, but the midsection of this ode to “the inexplicable charisma of the rival” is the best. Not just because the name Beelzebub is wonderful to say out loud (so much to chew on!), but for the way Currie stutters the initial “be-ell” using production trickery and then finishes off with a crisp “bub.” Not only is it a moment of mock drama of the sort that Momus excels at, but the oddly delicate finish makes it kind of adorable.
07. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” - Radiohead (Thom Yorke): “For life”
I admit to being a huge fan of pretty much everything I’ve heard Yorke sing, but there’s a special place in my high school heart for one moment on this classic. It’s the one song that qualifies for my personal “hold me closer, Tony Danza” hall of fame: Not only did I think the closing “Immerse your soul in love” was “In a mass of soaring light” for years (I still like that version better), but while doing a little research for this very top ten, I discovered that the last verse opens “Cracked eggs, dead birds / Scream as they fight for life,” not “Scream as the fat flies,” which, admittedly, had always seemed a bit random. But in either case, the way Yorke smushes the sounds together into a slightly gutteral “fuh” paired with a brief upward run into “lie”—he never pronounces the “eff” sound, as far as i can hear—makes for the most sublime moment in a song full of them.
06. “Seven Seas” - Echo & the Bunnymen (Ian McCullough): “Tortoise”
Ian McCullough is always good for a dramatic pronouncement, and the chorus of “Seven Seas” marries random absurdity and a kind of majesty perfectly: “Seven seas / Swimming them so well / Glad to see / My face among them / Kissing the tortoise shell.” But the coup de grace is the way he turns “tort-uss” into “tor-toys.” Hell, for all I knew that’s the proper pronunciation, it’s certainly closer to the way the word is spelled (not that that means much in English). It makes the whole thing that much more baroque and strange, and the fact that the lyrics make no literal sense is a lot more tolerable if some of the words he’s singing are half-imaginary anyway.
05. “Everybody Come Down” - The Delgados (Emma Pollock): “Mafia”
Unlike “Seven Seas,” Emma Pollock only sings “mafia” once on “Everybody Come Down,” but it’s the best part of a great tune. Full credit goes to Stylus’ Singles Jukebox impresario William B. Swygart for pointing out that listening to Pollack pronounce the word “mafia” is nearly as much fun as the rest of “Everybody Come Down” put together. The pronunciation isn’t that different from what I’m used to—the main change would be the initial “moff” sound being pronounced “mahf” instead, but there’s something more, something intangible. The line, about being slapped in the face, isn’t exactly light, but that word alone makes my heart glad.
04. “Let’s Get Out of This Country” - Camera Obscura (Tracyanne Campbell): “Cathedral” city
I admit that I am a big fan of the Scottish accent, and not just because my family comes from Scotland. But the way Tracyanne Campbell sings the words “cathedral city” during my favorite lines of my favorite song of one of my favorite albums of 2006 so far has little to do with her accent, at least as far as changing the sound of the word. But the way she sings it, rushing through “cathedral” and drawing out the “thee” sound before abruptly resolving in the clipped “city,” is something I never get tired of.
03. “Metal School” - Spoon (Britt Daniel): “Nihilistically jaded”
In a very similar fashion to “Let’s Get Out of This Country,” “Metal School” features a singer rushing through a bunch of syllables with gusto before abruptly slamming into a new word. But Britt Daniel’s half-mushmouthed delivery enhances the effect, and he has an even chewier set of sounds to lay into. Every time I hear the swooning highway drive of “Metal School,” I wait anxiously for the part where “nihilistically” trips all over itself before the short bark of “jaded”—magnificently rat-a-tat.
02. “John the Revelator” - Son House: “Apostles”
Son House’s recorded version of the traditional “John the Revelator” was done a capella, so along with his handclaps, his pronunciation is all he has to make the song expressive. Unsurprisingly, he accomplishes it with ease, especially when he sings the line “You know, Christ had twelve apostles.” He starts out in full, fiery form, right up until the “twelve,” but “apostles” experiences a sudden, mysterious fade; all you really hear is “aposs...” and then he rears right back up into the next line. The first time I heard it I got chills. I’m not sure why Son House chose that moment to bring the song to a standstill, but it’s a moment that has stuck with me ever since.
01. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” - Joy Division (Ian Curtis): “Good”
More than anything else here, this one word and how Ian Curtis sang it epitomized the entire song, maybe even Joy Division’s entire catalogue. The whole of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a bravura performance, but the moment when Curtis sings “Is it something so good / Just can’t function no more?” is truly heartrending, suicide or not. It sounds like he’s choking on the very air he’s singing with, and the depths of longing and self-loathing he hints at with the merest shading of a sob is staggering, precluding the very possibility of anything being “good” ever again. No cover has ever come even close to capturing that single transcendent moment, and it’s doubtful one ever will.