1. Waiting on the World to Change (Waiting on the World to Change, 2006).
The first time I heard this song on the radio, for a snap second, I thought I was listening to Marvin Gaye. Imagine my surprise, a few moments later, when I realized it was white-boy, do-gooder artist John Mayer. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. If any single characteristic has attached itself to John Mayer’s career and music, it’s earnestness. Mayer, a modern-day poet who accompanies his lyrics with a guitar. He’s a soulful crooner who now intends to bring a political conscience to his music. Waiting on the World to Change
has all the qualities of a sixties smash hit like What’s Going On
, but it’s not without its irony. It’s the strangest call to arms ever, where he gently chides his generation for waiting for their chance to change the world instead of seizing control. But the message might be a bit too subtle – and his sarcasm is undercut by what seems to be his genuine sense of helplessness. “Now we see everything that’s going wrong with the world and those who lead it we just feel like we don’t have the means to rise above and beat it, so we keep waiting, waiting on the world to change.”
2. No Such Thing (Inside Wants Out, 1999). Mayer’s career is marked by unusual choices, including his breakout first album, which lacks any kind of slick production sound. This is because Inside Wants Out is the promo album that Mayer used to promote himself, and achieve acclaim on his own without the power of a big studio behind him. This song was ultimately remade when he finally did get production support, but there’s an intimacy to the original that makes it worth mentioning. Mayer relies on acoustic guitar, and catchy little ditties like No Such Thing which is a defiant anthem about chasing your own dreams no matter who might discourage you.
3. My Stupid Mouth. (Room for Squares, 2001). Part of Mayer’s charm is that he lacks both sophistication and hard edges. He’s neither a slick pop crooner nor a bitter grunge-style artist. Mayer’s a guy in a button down shirt with a guitar, puppy-dog eyes, and too much smarts for his own good. He’s a kid looking at the world with newly-adult eyes, and no where are his lyrics more innocent than in My Stupid Mouth, a song about a dinner date gone awry because he has said something foolish. We never find out what it is that he has said, but we’ve all been there. We feel the discomfort keenly. “We bit our lips. She looked out the window. . . I played a quick game of chess with the salt and pepper shaker, and I could see clearly, an indelible line was drawn.” He pledges, in the song, to be quiet. But he can’t even do that, and after a pause, starts singing again. You can’t listen to this song without wanting to ruffle his hair.
4. Your Body is a Wonderland (Room for Squares, 2001). Just when you thought every song that could ever be written about sex had already been made, John Mayer gives us Your Body is a Wonderland. It’s unlike any other love song you’ve ever heard, with the bedroom sensibilities of Barry White, the catchy rhythm of a theme park commercial, and lyrics to melt the heart of even the most jaded women anywhere. Mayer manages to find the words all women want to hear, and combine them with a playful melody. “Your skin like porcelain, One pair of candy lips and Your bubblegum tongue. And if you want love we’ll make it, Swim in a deep sea of blankets, Take all your big plans and break ’em, This is bound to be awhile.” The radio station is filled with songs about scratching, biting, moving, grooving, banging, shaking, sweating, humps and lumps and milkshakes. Mayer turns a blind eye to the over-exposed, the sensationalized, and the exploitation of the body and deliberately approaches the subject with a sugary sweetness intended to seduce. Try to listen to this song without smiling. I dare you.
5. St. Patrick’s Day (Room for Squares, 2001). Mayer ventures slightly away from his trademark innocence in this song about the uncertainty of relationships. Throughout the ballad, Mayer is able to promise that there won’t be a break-up until after St. Patrick’s Day because of all the plans and holidays in between. Even the sadness in the song is countered by Mayer’s irrepressible hopefulness about the evolution of relationships; he likes the idea of knowing someone and exploring the sky the way children do. This song, like all the rest, is catchy as a commercial jingle.
6. Why Georgia (Room for Squares, 2001). How can you not love a song that brings to mind “mornings that last all afternoon”? Mayer has a way of turning a phrase, making a clever observation, and turning it into a larger metaphor and message. He isn’t embarrassed to ask all the small questions, like why he can’t keep his mouth shut when he knows he should, and he’s not afraid to ask the larger ones either. In Why Georgia, he wants to know if he’s doing the right thing with his life. A question that no one can answer, but which is still charming to hear posed. Like most Mayer songs, it sounds like just a guy and his guitar. But there’s a pretty production to it here that was missing from his earlier promotional album. Unfortunately, it’s also this song that he sounds most like Dave Matthews.
7. 3 x 5 (Room for Squares, 2001). Mayer has a voice that’s both masculine and pretty at the same time, and in 3 x 5 it takes on an especially whispery quality. Like so many of Mayer’s songs, it’s more a poem put to music than lyrics fit to a song. “Today skies are painted colors of a cowboy’s cliche’, And strange how clouds that look like mountains in the sky are next to mountains anyway.” But that isn’t to say that it isn’t a catchy little, foot-tapping song. A mix of pop and hillbilly folk, it builds in unexpected ways and will have you humming along.
8. City Love (Room for Squares, 2001). I’m sure some rabid fan is going to object to the inclusion of this song on the list, but City Love deserves a place on John Mayer’s ten best because it’s classic Mayer with some unexpected twists. Slicker, with more production behind it than some of his other songs, it bops along. But the lyrics are lovely, and telling. It’s not just about John Mayer’s nervousness about being in a new city, as some critics have claimed – it’s about the way love can transform our perspective of places, and get us to compromise in ways that we will later forget; so incorporated is the new perspective. He sums it up with, “And I can’t remember life before her name.”
9. Daughters (Heavier Things, 2003). Good on his promise, John Mayer delivers more maturity in Heavier Things. It’s not just the subject matter that gets a little heavier, but also the instrumentals. Mayer makes a departure from his mellow signature acoustics to experiment with thicker walls of sound. Daughters, however, is vintage Mayer. Catchy, smooth, and clever, it’s an immediate standout on the album. But there’s also a hint of something deeper going on here. He beseeches fathers to be good to their daughters, because of the emotional wreckage that can be left when women are abandoned. But he adds, “Boys, you can break. You’ll find out how much they can take. Boys will be strong and boys soldier on, but boys would be gone without warmth from a woman’s good, good heart.”
10. Bigger Than My Body (Heavier Things, 2003). For those used to John Mayer’s soft sound, Bigger Than My Body is a departure. Electronic guitar riffs and a driving beat are a new thing here. It’s also where he makes a sharp departure from sounding like Dave Matthews. And some fans were genuinely disappointed. This was not the all-too-witty John Mayer they knew. But no matter how “heavy” the new sound, John Mayer’s optimism shines through. “Someday I’ll fly, Someday I’ll soar, Someday I’ll be so damn much more, Cause I’m bigger than my body gives me credit for.”
(Mayer’s new album Continuum, will be released this month, and is sure to provide more great songs for lists like these.)