Best Song Ever?: Magic (Ben Folds Five)

Another in the “Best Song Ever?” series. Simply, I give the background, a point, a counterpoint, then star rating for songs that I have on my list of “good songs” with the goal of deciding what’s the best song ever. Note for those using feedreaders: the song is embedded on this review’s entry so there’s a point-of-reference in the review; you might want to view this entry from the webpage instead of the feed.

I was really never a fan of Ben Folds Five. I thought “Brick” was catchy in its own way, way back when (1995?). I never followed Ben Folds Five, but I knew the band ceased to exist sometime between 1995 and 2000, with Ben Folds going out on his own, making CD’s that sounded just like when he was in “Ben Folds Five.” (I had no problem with it, I just wasn’t into it.) I randomly (very randomly) heard the song, “Magic” sometime in the fall of 2005 on WMUH. I didn’t know what it was when I heard it (I had missed the DJ’s intro), so I scribbled down some of the lyrics to look up later on the internet. Turns out that this was the mystery song. +1 for college radio.


  • Shows that playing “around” chords and a pleasant melody can get you pretty far as a singer-songwriter. (yes, I’m aware that being that he had a backing band, this isn’t really a “singer-songwriter” type song). For what it’s worth, the song was actually written by the drummer, Darren Jessee, so it’s not necessarily a “Ben Folds” song.
  • The viola playing the bottom of the chords in a nice touch during the first verse.
  • It’s in 6/8. None of the pedestrian 4/4 stuff here, thank you very much.
  • The soft-loud-soft dynamic is used to good effect here. (see “against”)
  • 2:12 – At the risk of venturing into girliness, the line “You’re the magic that holds the sky up” really gets the point of that whole “love” thing. It’s not a metaphor, there’s nothing really figurative to it, I’m not sure it’s even symbolic, but it’s just a gentle exaggeration which gets the point across rather well.
  • Against

  • For the love of God, who thought it would be a good idea to have the timpani levels so loud. If you’ve turned up your head phones to hear the first verse, the timpani is seriously “damage your ears and headphones” loud. Why, why, why? Studio engineers:The enhanced dynamic range offered by CD’s is a privilege, not a right. Don’t abuse it.
  • Again, the timpani. If anyone has his or her bass turned up (most people usually do), the two timpani entrances (combined with the relative quiet of the first verse) will cause noticeable clipping because of their volume. Again, why?
  • The string section is a bit gratuitous. A single viola, violin, or cello would be ok, but with all of them, it gets a little heavy sounding.


    I’ve got a fever and the only prescription is louder timpani. No one would ever say that, even jokingly making reference to a Saturday Night Live sketch. The slightly over-the-top string section can be forgiven, but when the mixing of a song calls attention to itself, someone should be fired. Jarring dynamic changes are one thing; being unpleasant to listen to is another. It gets 4 out of 5, because of the quality of the song, but the mixing should really give it an “NA” for its rating.


  1. I have to say, (and you probably knew I would) that while “Magic” is a good song (and maybe its simplicity is why it warranted the spot in the rotation), I happen to think that both “Mess” and “Don’t Change Your Plans” are much better, way more layered and textured songs from that album that might’ve deserved the mention instead.

  2. Mess – Good song. Not great song. In fact, the first time I listened to the album, this was my favorite song. BUT, this was the first Ben Folds (Five) album I listened to, and I didn’t realize that “60’s-ish, busy textured song” was one of the Ben Folds styles which makes an appearance on every record. “The Ascent of Stan” is a much, much better example of this style. The so-simple-it-must’ve-been-difficult-to-write bass line is commendable, though.
    Don’t Change Your Plans – eh, just sort of blah. The trumpet (cornet?) interlude is unnecessary, and much of the non-verse sections of the song reminds me of Muzak. The only good part is when the accompaniment drops out and he comes in with only the piano (1:23)

    If I had to pick other songs from this album, it’d be Narcolepsy, Lullabye, Your Redneck Past, and even Army (which very much fits in the ” ‘rocking out’ section of different formulas Ben Folds uses to write songs) — any of these before Mess or Don’t Change Your Plans.

  3. I actually haven’t listened to that album in about a year I think. After I posted, I totally forgot about Narcolepsy (which is one of the songs that he hasn’t borrowed from since then, i think). Lullabye is good, but there’s nothing really to set it apart from his other “Faux-Bluesy”-style songs (See: All U Can Eat), other than its sentiment (which is way more in check than that ridiculously sappy “Gracie”). I never really liked “Your Redneck Past” other than the awesome last quarter of the song, and for some reason, I never was one of those people who loved Army either (not that it’s bad or anything). Maybe it’s the whole “no chorus” thing, and that the song’s only real hook is with the horn section. Dunno.

    As far as Mess and Don’t Change Your Plans go, I already posted a while back that Jesusland was a way better version of Mess and Ascent of Stan combined, and I think my suggestion of Don’t Change Your Plans was based on a half-remembered vocal bridge of “Ahhhs” that I always thought was perfect. Again, though, it’s been a while for this one.

  4. Noted that your review of “Songs for Silverman” addressed his self-copying.

    Also, the song “Fred Jones, pt. 2” is quite good.

  5. I love this song; and I actually believe this might be the best song ever. I mean, some might say its just pop love song (though it is a requiem), but it really goes straight to your romantic side with those lyrics; can’t help it.

    i love the piano when it says “saw you last night”

  6. This is a wonderful song. I am not a musician but I’ve always thought the first 21 seconds of the song should have been repeated at the end of the song. Just saw Ben Folds play with the Minnesota Orchestra last night and was surprised “Magic” was not played. However, since learning he didn’t write the song, that may be the reason. It would have been great to hear the timpani in the orchestra hall.

  7. For some reason I was just googling Ben Folds lyrics to see what people thought of them, and ‘Magic’ was the first one I tried, as it’s my favorite Folds song (even though he didn’t write it, just as Night and Day is one of my favorite Sinatra songs, and Cole Porter wrote that, along with a lot of Sinatra’s most favorite recordings/covers).

    Anyway, I’ve always loved the Timpani in this, but I don’t turn my bass up, unlike what you say most people do. I also keep my volume pretty low, compared to most people these days (i.e. I keep my music just loud enough to hear comfortably, if not a teensy weensy bit louder).I always prefer to highlight the softer points of songs, I usually only see percussion as an accompaniment, when it’s in more layered songs, and as such only pay attention to it as a baseline, so I keep my bass at what you could call “classical” levels. After all, Folds is soft-rock/piano-rock, not as heavy on drums as most rock bands, and I think he uses percussion really well (he oughta, eh? Went to University on a percussion scholarship, after all, and did percussion long before he took up piano professionally). I might also be listening to a more recent/tweaked version, as I use a digital-only version of the album, though I doubt it differs too much, if at all.

    Anyway, the main point I wanted to make, other than the suggestion that you use a more “classical” EQ setting, is that you should approach the song as a slow, poignant piece intended for, above all other audiences, people who have lost someone to illness. That’s the reason this song resonates so much with me. I was love struck by this song the very first time I’d heard it, simply from the, in my opinion, incredibly catchy theme. After listening to it a few times, I fully registered the lyrics and was immediately awe struck by their simplicity and poignancy.

    This is my go-to song for dealing with illness of just about any kind. I absolutely love it, and it’s seriously helped quite a few people I know with their losses, not to mention seriously helped myself when my Grandpa passes (Alzheimer’s, perhaps the most frightening and depressing way to die, and this song is really spot on for describing at least that particular depressing illness).

    P.S. I’m not very knowledgeable of music theory or percussion, as I’m just a 17 year old with 6 or so years of Violin and haven’t really picked up my violin in four years (7-13 or so), but I do know words and writing comp, and I know them extremely well, and I have a very finely tuned ear.

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