1. "Lean On Me" - Bill Withers
One of pop music's most enduring, touching ballads. Its beauty is its simplicity, the tender refrain of "Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow, but if we are wise, we know that there is always tomorrow. It saves no room for its subject (which remains anonymous, the "you" of the song could indeed be anyone listening) to feel shame for asking for help. "Lean On Me" is an endlessly encouraging song, urging its listener to "call me if you need a friend" until it fades blissfully out.
2. "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)" - Beach Boys
Where "Lean On Me" looks past the misfortunes of the present to a brighter tomorrow, "Don't Talk" stresses just the opposite, but is no less optimistic, with lyrics like "We could live forever tonight/Let's not think about tomorrow." Further, it calls for silence, but not in a stifling way. The "don't talk" of the chorus is not a "shut up" but a sweet, cooing request to appreciate love wordlessly.
3. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" - Simon & Garfunkel
One of the most breathtaking vocals in any genre, Art Garfunkel finesses the words so gently and sincerely that when his voice explodes with emotion at the end of the second verse, he carries us right along with him. It is a song of absolute selflessnes, with lines like "When evening falls so hard, I will comfort you, I'll take your part" and "When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all."
4. "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" - The Four Tops
The song announces itself with a beautiful horn section and the determined gallop of its bass line, and, although only three minutes in length, sustains that raw feeling throughout. Of all these songs, it paints the bleakness of it's subject's situation most clearly, but that makes the singer's commitment seem all the more meaningful. There's not much more you can do for someone who feels like they have nowhere left to turn than to assure that you are there for them.
5. "I'll Be There" - Jackson 5
How was this 12 year old boy able to render a love song so stunning? Each phrasing comes across like he'd seen the world of love inside and out. He put artists with decades more relationship experience to shame here. This song remains unmarred by the unfortunate circus that became Michael Jackson's life in his last ten or so years. There is an indescribable quality to his singing on this track. It transcends innocence, although there is certainly purity and innocence in it. It is like precociousness, but precociousness too doesn't quite get to what makes it so moving. It's the sound of an old soul reaching out from a little boy, like Michael had seen into the future and come back with a wisdom that too many of us dismiss as "trite" and convenient : love really is humanity's salvation.
6. "No Matter What" - Badfinger
In the devastating wake of the Beatles' disbandment, young music lovers struggled to fill the void. Along came many pretenders, pale imitations of the British kings of melody. Were Badfinger among those pretenders? It seems harsh, but yes, to an extent they surely were. This song has to be high on the list of tunes mistaken as Fab Four recordings for its similarity in sound and structure. It's true also that Badfinger's catalog is slight at best as compared to the McCartney/Lennon songwriting machine.