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NPR's Stephen Thompson's top Weird Al songs, 40 years after the parody genius' debut

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Weird Al Yankovic has been the creative genius behind some of the best parody songs ever made. "Eat It," "Smells Like Nirvana," "Dare To Be Stupid" - the list goes on and on and on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMISH PARADISE")

WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: (Singing) We've been spending most of our lives living in an Amish paradise. I churned butter once or twice living in an Amish paradise.

PFEIFFER: It's the kind of fun, dorky music you're introduced to as a teenager, and you never forget it. Weird Al's self-titled debut album came out 40 years ago this month, and it inspired NPR Music's Stephen Thompson to compile a list of his favorite Weird Al songs. Hi, Stephen.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Hello. Thank you for having me.

PFEIFFER: I love this music because I was a teenager of the 1980s.

THOMPSON: Yep.

PFEIFFER: So I don't know how we compare in age, but when did you get introduced to Weird Al?

THOMPSON: Well, I'm 50 years old, and so I was introduced to Weird Al at Christmas 1984.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: I tore open a wrapped vinyl record, and it was ""Weird Al" Yankovic In 3-D." My parents thought, jeez, Stephen doesn't have a lot of friends (laughter). He's kind of a nerd. I think this might be just the thing. And it absolutely was. It opened up kind of a whole new world for me, and it was a gateway into a lot of great pop music. I think for a lot of people, Weird Al Yankovic is a gateway into mainstream culture. He's not necessarily reflecting it for a lot of the people who are into him. For a lot of people, their first contact is with him.

PFEIFFER: Interesting. You think sometimes they knew his song that he did the version of before they heard the original pop song.

THOMPSON: I think that's often true. It's definitely true of my mother. I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

PFEIFFER: So you were a fan, clearly.

THOMPSON: I was a fan from age 12 to the present day into the distant future. And I should note here, over the years, I have actually gotten to know Weird Al. I worked with him on a couple of projects when I worked at The Onion many years ago. I booked him for the Tiny Desk. I wrote liner notes to one of his compilations. I'm not necessarily a completely objective observer, but I tried to give these songs as keen a critical eye as I could.

PFEIFFER: He's probably most famous for his parodies. And by the way, does he have anything other than parodies? - 'cause I mostly associate him with parody.

THOMPSON: Yeah, he's mostly associated with songs like "Eat It" or "Smells Like Nirvana," songs where he's taking popular songs, recreating them but with different lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EAT IT")

YANKOVIC: (Singing) Have some more chicken. Have some more pie. It doesn't matter if it's boiled or fried. Just eat it. Eat it. Just eat it. Eat it.

THOMPSON: But he also does a huge number of originals and kind of writes funny songs often in the style of other artists, but the song isn't a direct parody of a specific song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CNR")

YANKOVIC: (Singing) He could eat more frozen waffles than any other man I know. Once he fell off the Chrysler Building, and he barely even stubbed his toe - had a tiny little scratch on his toe, didn't even hurt.

THOMPSON: He's taking, like, the sound of The White Stripes but writing a funny song around that. He also does polka medleys. He's done TV theme songs. He's done the theme song for a podcast, you know? So he's done a lot of different kinds of music and really in every genre imaginable.

PFEIFFER: That's interesting. I either had forgotten or didn't know he did anything other than parodies. So anyway, let's talk about parodies. Do you have a clear top pick?

THOMPSON: My No. 1 favorite Weird Al Yankovic song is from 2006. It's a parody of Chamillionaire's Song "Ridin'." And so the original is ridin' dirty, and the parody song is called "White & Nerdy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE & NERDY")

YANKOVIC: (Singing) They see me roll on my segway, I know in my heart they think I'm white and nerdy, think I'm just too white and nerdy, think I'm just too white and nerdy. Can't you see I'm white and nerdy? Look at me. I'm white and nerdy.

THOMPSON: What really jumps out about this song for me is the joke density.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter) I love that term - joke density.

THOMPSON: The speed at which jokes are deployed in this song, you almost have to listen to the song multiple times just to pick up every joke. And if you watch the video, there is a whole 'nother layer of jokes on top, a whole bunch of visual jokes. I just find it so delightful.

PFEIFFER: Because I knew I was going to talk to you, I looked up some of Weird Al's lyrics, and I truly have a new appreciation for this man's ability to write hysterical lyrics.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

PFEIFFER: I was told that you actually went back and listened to all of the Weird Al canon to prepare for this. Did you listen to everything?

THOMPSON: Well, Sacha, I am nothing if not deeply, deeply committed to journalistic integrity...

PFEIFFER: And thorough. Yes.

THOMPSON: ...And thorough research. He has 14 albums. There's a collection of rarities. There are kind of one-offs, soundtrack work. And, yeah - dirty job, but somebody's got to do it.

PFEIFFER: Any big, profound thoughts after all that research you did?

THOMPSON: One - I had so many. One of the big, profound thoughts I had is when you listen to them in chronological order, you're hearing the evolution of not only Weird Al as a parody songwriter or as a satirist or as a comedic voice. You're hearing the evolution of his band and its ability to recreate these works in such convincing ways. One of the central rules of satire, of parody - you have to be able to do the thing you're parodying or satirizing as well or better than the source material. And if you don't, people can see the strings. People can see the seams, and it doesn't look or sound quite right. And so his band has to be able to recreate these songs perfectly.

PFEIFFER: He's really a master of his niche.

THOMPSON: He is a master of what he does.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Stephen Thompson. Thank you.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE & NERDY")

YANKOVIC: (Singing) Really, really white and nerdy. First in my class here at MIT - got skills. I'm a champion at D&D. M.C. Escher - that's my favorite M.C. Keep your 40. I'll just have an Earl Grey tea. My rims never spin. To the contrary, you'll find that they're quite stationary. All of my action figures are cherry. Stephen Hawking's in my library. My Myspace page is all totally pimped out, got people begging for my top eight spaces. Yo. I know pi out to a thousand places. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)