"Who is he?" is the question that every Don McLean fan must learn to answer if they want to talk about the music they love, and the man who kills them softly with his song. A better answer than "Heard American Pie?" is surely to simply offer the tracklisting of this "best of" album. At least that way, the next sentence you hear won't have to be "But isn't American Pie a Madonna song?". You'll likely hear "But isn't that an Elvis Presley, Fred Astaire, Perry Como, ... song?" All those artists and many more have covered Don's songs.
Opening with the convention-defying American Pie, a song about which McLean is famously silent, and including his other "chart toppers" (relatively few as a performer, rather more if you include his songwriting credits), the album contains 20 tracks in total. And although he won't comment on the Pie directly, it is worth pointing out that two of the songs on his "Best of" album were originally made famous by Buddy Holly -- enough said.
For my money the album has 5 standout tracks. The rest I enjoy of course, but these five really move me, and are tracks I listen to again and again. My five don't include American Pie. It's a great song, and it broke ground, and it's still the center of a minor war, but for me it's overplayed, (it's a standard DJ toilet song) and doesn't take me on the emotional journey it once did.
The original version of Vincent still has the power to make me weep. It's one of those songs, perhaps because of the intricate phrasing or the tears it invokes, where I can never remember beyond a few snatches of lyric. And so each time I hear it, it blows the covers we've all heard literally off the musical map, and is continually fresh. Where the cover versions go wrong is in hamming up the sentimental. And that's what Don does right, so often. He plays it straight, his instrumentation is clean, his voice pure, the song is heard for itself.
If your haven't heard this version of the big O's Crying then you haven't heard the song. I love Roy Orbison's immense talent as much as the next guy, but when he does this song it seems like an excuse to put his famous 3 octave range through its paces. In Don's hands the song is stripped of its showoff quality and is haunting and full of light and shade.
Mountains of Mourne originally comes from McLean's 1973 album, Playin' Favourites. It's a brave man who sings an Irish ballad without a scrap of Irish accent or a borran to be heard, but there is something hypnotic about this one that brings me back again and again. I'll be bold and say that songs about loneliness sound best when they're not sung by a four piece Irish band.
In Sister Fatima it's the humour, the irony and the instrumentation which beckon me back time and again. A potent brew of a song, sizzling with smoky intrigue and a bittersweet aftertaste.
Finally, And I Love You So is just an amazingly strong song. It has been covered at least four times that I know of, Elvis and Como I mentioned above plus Bobby Goldsboro and Ed Ames. All of these other artists did it kind of sappy. Come to the Don for the true feel.
All in all, not a bad place to start if you love at least one of the songs below and want more where that came from. For the fans, it's a must for the last two tracks, which are a little hard to find elsewhere. It's definitely on high rotation at my place.
- American Pie / Don McLean
- Castles in the Air (1981 Version) / Don McLean
- Dreidel / Don McLean
- Winterwood / Don McLean
- Everyday / N.Petty & G.Hardin
- Sister Fatima / Don McLean
- Empty Chairs / Don McLean
- The Birthday Song / Don McLean
- Wonderful Baby / Don McLean
- La La I Love You / Don McLean
- Vincent / Don McLean
- Crossroads / Don McLean
- And I Love You So / Don McLean
- Fools Paradise / Linsley/Petty/LeGlatre
- If We Try / Don McLean
- Mountains of Mourne / P.French & H.Collission
- The Grave / Don McLean
- Respectable / Don McLean
- Going for the Gold / C.Bowder & J.W.Ryles
- Crying / Roy Orbison & J.Melson
Noded in response to Suggestion 1 of This place needs more actual content. Let's begin.