Ah, 2001. Pete and I moved to Columbus and into our first apartment together on September 10th (yes, THAT September 10th) and I'd started grad school at Ohio State later that month. It was an exciting time. We were quickly becoming grown ups.
We'd also had an experience at a local punk show towards the very end of our Hawaii residency that shifted our feelings and perceptions about punk rock music. I don't remember the specifics. I don't even think I was there, but I think it involved a fight or something. Pete was shaken by this and even started to grow his hair out after years and years of having short hair which he stood up in spikes using hair gel.
This was the start of the NEW MILLENIUM and the end of the mainstream's infatuation with pop punk music and I guess we were all a little tired. I've mentioned before that I felt that in the 90s the simple fact of enjoying the music felt oppressive with all of the rules involved. There seemed to be this arms race towards the most purest of punk rock lifestyles that even trickled down to a sideline observer/admirer such as myself. You needed to be straight edge, ideally vegan, and could only listen to vinyl in order to make the cut. Wear band shirts but make sure they're not too well-knowm. Only shop at thrift stores but if you absolutely must wear new clothes, make sure they're Dickies. I am exhausted just typing this.
But coinciding with the turn of the 21st century, this suddenly became uncool, which was in a lot of ways a big relief. Mainstream rock music seemed to change on a dime as well and I think of this turn as being lead by the Strokes and the Is This It album.
THIS ALBUM IS STILL INCREDIBLE. I LOVE IT. I LOVE IT SO MUCH. It's still a great listen. The Strokes could have been a Whitney, where I'm enthusiastic about the artist's work but can't pick just one song. But I couldn't leave the Strokes off of this list. I listened to all of Is This It to really think about which one track should make the cut. If you're curious, my second favorite song on this album is "Barely Legal" and it's close.
According to Wikipedia, "Hard to Explain" was the first single released from Is This It, but I don't think I heard it until I got the album and think of "Last Nite" as the introductory track to the Strokes. Pete had caught wind first and it was one of those "you gotta hear this." Not having heard it, I asked him what the genre was. He basically said that it seemed like rock music that bordered on punky but, and I'm quoting now "they're like, hip or something." I was like "what?" And he said "I'd think they'd get laid a lot." Welcome to the early 2000s.
I almost trashed this one in favor of one of the songs I'd forgotten about after I started posting. I went with it for two reasons: One, I really need to focus on work today and I don't imagine this one will inspire a lot of discussion. I'm going to also try to keep this one short. Two, it mixes things up a little and makes me look really smart.
I kind of surprise myself by how much I like Television. It's not my usual fare. It's far more proggy than I'd usually go for and the critical acclaim would suggest that it's up its own ass pretty far. But Marquee Moon is a very enjoyable record over all. I think of this one and Blank Generation by Richard Hell and the Voidoids as being spiritual cousins despite their being pretty different musically. This isn't because Richard Hell was in both bands (I think I knew this and then forgot and then was reminded later), but because I got into both of them at the same time (early 2000s).
Television's is one of my favorite origin stories. Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell both literally ran away from their small home towns in Delaware to move to New York to become poets. That's lovely.
"See No Evil" is my favorite song on the record and I can't tell you why, I just really like it. I guess it's fairly uptempo compared with the rest of the album and the hook is very fun. I do not know what the lyrical content references, but this song and the album is generally very gritty, 1970s-New-York-City. I romanticize that period. Most of my favorite music comes out of that time and place. I'm sure if I was there at the time, I would NOT have enjoyed it and would have complained persistently at how dirty and dangerous it was. Being able to gaze at old pictures and film from that time without any firsthand tetanus or hookworm scars is a 21st century luxury I appreciate.
Appropriately, I had the opportunity to see Television play live in very late December 2017 at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. It was a two-night New Years reunion special and Pete and I went with Josie and King Fuckboi (TM Dorian). It was an ok show. It felt a little like the one J Mascis solo show I consented to attend where everything would be going fine and then the Guitar Guy would start getting off on himself and time would stop. Of course I'm glad I went. It was a rare opportunity and Television became another band I strongly associate with Josie's memory, which makes everything sweeter.
Picture it. Washington DC, yesterday. Pete and I are making salads for dinner, listening to Spotify's album radio for Aladdin Sane. "Teenage Riot" comes on and out of nowhere, Pete, who has been very insistent that he does not want to be spoiled on my top 100 asks "Are you like most people, where 'Teenage Riot' is your favorite Sonic Youth song?"
"I--I'm not at liberty to say," I respond. I knew it was coming up the following day at number 73. I would have been surprised at the coincidence but he pulls this shit all the time.
"Oh," he replies, filling in the gaps.
Yes, my favorite Sonic Youth song is everyone's favorite Sonic Youth song. Knowing this, I'd considered picking "Bull in the Heather," which is probably a distant second or "Incinerate" just to be extremely interesting (though it's an incredible tune), but now and from the moment I heard it, is "Teenage Riot." It manages to be the best Sonic Youth song and also the most Sonic Youthy pop song of all time. It's like super-concentrated Sonic Youth, all boiled down and thick. That distinctive guitar introduction and the infectious melody. I still prefer Thurston-lead songs to Kim-lead songs even after all the unpleasantness. I love his unassuming but authoritative voice (he's telling you how things are but doesn't care if you believe him). The frenzy leading up to the bridge gives me goosebumps. And the lyrics (more on this later) are kind of gobbledegook but do the trick in painting that picture of feeling free for the first time with a bunch of other people who feel free for the first time? It's been done before and since but I'm really not sure who's done it better, I love it. I'm listening to it now and don't want to stop.
Don't read Kim Gordon's book. It's not only to shield your love of Sonic Youth from Thurston's shitbag behavior, though that is also a reason not to read Kim Gordon's book. Sonic Youth has this mystique relies both on the appearance/conduct of and relationships between the members, but also their spooky lyrics. In the book, Kim talks about what her lyrics are about and had me wondering "is that all?" In her explanations, she seemed to be confirming what I'd assumed all this time but didn't discuss any subtext, which I didn't completely get but also assumed existed. No, "Tunic" is just about Karen Carpenter. Nothing else. I'd thought the same about "Teenage Riot," that it's just (as mentioned) about teenagers running wild and free, but Wikipedia tells me that it's actually about an alternate reality in which J Mascis is president. Hahahahahaha, nice! That's much better. In any case, all I needed to know to love and aspire to be just like Sonic Youth is their chapter in Our Band Could Be Your Life. Art should be at the center of music and that's exactly what Sonic Youth is all about. Band goals.
I saw Sonic Youth once, a million years ago at the Newport in Columbus. The internet tells me it was in June of 2003 and I guess I believe it, though I would have sworn I was wearing a heavy sweater. I mostly remember my shoes because we'd gone directly from school to the show and I had been wearing heels all day and was fairly miserable during the last part of the show during the requisite 20-minute noise finale. I would have also thought it was 2002 because it seems slightly longer-ago than that, even if by a year. SO LONG AGO. My favorite part about that show was actually waiting in line outside before doors opened. Who should wander out but all or at least 75% of Sonic Youth?? They weren't hiding from us, it was great. Thurston turned to the crowd, all slack-jawed and said "Hey, is that Blimpie's any good?" I'm sitting here chuckling to myself, it's still so funny. The best part is that they all looked so much like Sonic Youth, walking together. It was like watching a cartoon. They're all so distinct looking and yet really recognizable. I love that.
We also saw Thurston Moore in person at the inauguration day protests in January 2017. There he was, hanging out like the rest of us, looking extraordinarily tall. Cartoonish and recognizable as ever. Pete said "hey that's Thurston Moore," I looked over and it was. I had a quick debate with myself in my head about whether I should give him the time of day. Not only for being terrible to Kim but also for sledgehammering the mystique of one of rock n' roll's most enduring couples and at the same time a lot of Sonic Youth's, but Pete was already gone, ready to pose in a picture with him. So I did too. Kim and Thurston were one of those couples that gave a lot of people hope and renewed belief in love and the dissolution of their couplehood was really hard for me and I think a lot of other people, but I guess I'm mostly healed from this. I also think that it's a good lesson about idolatry and the efficacy of famous people as role models. Just don't. Even in the case of the coolest band of all time.
I got my love of Dionne Warwick from my mom. She mentioned it to me one day. When you're a kid, all of those soul/R&B artists from the 60s kind of blend together, but when she mentioned it, I was like "yeah--hey, good thinking." It's hard to explain but I can hear my mother in Dionne Warwick. The sweet and flirty and not-too-powerful vocal performance is very evocative of the style my mom wanted to present. I think her big jam was "Walk on By," which is also on-the-nose, but I love, love, LOVE "Say a Little Prayer."
This song was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and I guess Bacharach actually discovered Dionne Warwick. These shadowy songwriters (of which Bacharach and David were among the most well-known) creep me out. "Say a Little Prayer" is written from a woman's perspective but Bacharach and David just churned it out. Also the precision and success with which this class of songwriter cranked out the hits creeps me out. It's like instead of writing something from the heart, they used their powers of manipulation and knowledge of what people respond to to trick me into feeling things.
Even knowing all of this, I just love this song so much. It is so sweet, lyrically and in terms of the performance. I picture sweet little Dionne in her powder blue (or pale, but not-butter yellow) 60s skirt suit, maybe even with a pillbox hat, riding the bus on her way to work, gazing out the window, thinking about her new boyfriend. Similarly at work, during her coffee break-time. I've always pictured this, even before Mad Men, though Mad Men helped with this image. I've also felt this--in the midst of a new love--carrying around this light and happy feeling with you as you go about your routine. It rings true and is again, very sweet.
I do not like the Aretha Franklin version. I guess it was more successful, but all that sweetness I blather on about above is gone. I read that part of the reason Aretha's version was better receives is because of the arrangement, but that's irrelevant to me. This song is all about the vocal performance and Aretha's powerful voice is just not suited to it! Spotify certainly favors the Aretha version, which is a persistent source of frustration for me. Here's where I admit that while I admire the power of her voice and her accomplishments, I do not like listening to Aretha Franklin. Her songs don't move me. Well, maybe "Think."
In the beforetimes when I was having a substantially bad day, I would insist that Pete and I grab dinner at the Benihana in Bethesda and we would get sloppy on wine while sharing a table with strangers (jeez). On one such night a couple of years ago, we passed the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club and who was on the marquee but Dionne Warwick? I have never seen her and wonder whether a show in which she's playing at a fairly small venue in the year of our lord 2018 is really the best way to experience Dionne? I think somewhere in my brain I thought she'd gone crazy at some point. I guess I took her involvement in the Psychic Friends Network in the 90s to be the beginning of a long decline for her, but I guess she's been on Masked Singer and has also performed at a number of benefits for progressive causes, so she seems to be doing well. Very happy to hear that.
It's kind of a bummer that this one appears so soon after "Home Sweet Home" and they're the only two of that late-80s hard-rock genre on this list. Sorry, Robby. This list is not a nostalgia trip, it's meant to reflect the songs I love most NOW. The songs from my *past* that appear are songs I still enjoy to this day, which stand up to the punk, post-punk, and glam that I mostly listen to now. So it stands to reason that a great song by a band I never really liked and my favorite song by a band that was once my favorite in the world both appear in the 70s of my top 100 list.
I was 12 when Use Your Illusion I and II came out and Wikipedia tells me that the first single from the double album was "Live and Let Die," about which I am suspect, followed by "You Could Be Mine" which makes total sense to me, followed by "Don't Cry." Yes. Perfect. I caught wind of "You Could Be Mine" because Astra, my fairly new friend at my new school, was really into Terminator 2 because she was obsessed with Eddie Furlong. I wonder how many Guns n' Roses origin stories start this way? I didn't care much for "You" at the time, it was just kind of there, screamy but vaguely infectious. But then they released "Don't Cry" and like so many other young girls of the early 90s, I suddenly found myself a fast fan of Guns n' Roses. Side note: Until about a year ago, I hadn't heard "Don't Cry" since the 90s and punched it up on YouTube. I'd idealized that song in my head for years and years, thinking it was simple and gentle and beautiful. It is not. It's discordant and annoying. And probably impossible to sing. What is Axl doing during those verses? That's not singing. It's not screaming or whispering, I don't know what it is.
Anyway, I was obsessed with Guns n Roses and had an ENORMOUS boner for Axl. It became my world. I had the posters, bought the magazines, collected ALL the cassettes (even the one with the racist song). My aforementioned pal in this era of hard rock, Cybil came along and graciously ceded Axl to me. That was very nice of her. She admitted to me later that she thought he was hot, but knew I had that obsession market cornered. I legitimately appreciate it. She took Slash, in whom she was not physically attracted, but thought was cool and had a lot of hair just like she does. I guess she could have taken Duff McKagan, who's better looking, and as we found out later had more street cred, but not as fun as Slash.
Anyway, as a kid I loved Use Your Illusion II best, with I a close second but as a grown up adult, I can rock out harder to Appetite. The songs are less drawn-out and lumpy, it's all closer to punk. It's also grimier and more LA. I have in some ways a love-hate relationship with the city of Los Angeles, but goddamn if it didn't produce some of the best music. The city itself inspired some of the best songs (see: X's entire catalog). I have mentioned before that I don't like songs that feature counting, or days of the week, or letters of the alphabet. I do love songs about places though. I think I just love places. "Paradise City" is a song about a place and I'd always assumed it was about LA, but reading about it this morning, it's apparently a little schizophrenic. I guess the band thought that the verses were about life in the midwest and the chorus was about LA but I think they're overthinking it. I don't care that they wrote it, they weren't very smart people.
I do like those verses. They're all good, but I liked this best:
Strapped in the chair of the city's gas chamber
Why I'm here I can't quite remember
The surgeon general says it's hazardous to breathe
I'd have another cigarette but I can't see
Tell me who you're gonna believe
Hahahaha! I think I was a latent nihilist as a young teen. It was my mother's influence.
So I abandoned hard rock in the advent of grunge. I was fucking sad about it, but holding on seemed embarrassing. I've mentioned before that I have a checkered relationship with grunge. I don't like sludgy music. Up the tempo, add a little spit-shine, and grow the fuck up, guys. I recall--and don't care enough to look it up--the turning point being when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" replaced *some song* off of one of the Use Your Illusions, possibly "November Rain" although I think that one came much later? It doesn't matter. That was my signal to let it go and join the Nirvana bandwagon. Axl was starting to show signs of megalomania anyway. They were cracking under the pressure and it was really ugly. Then you face facts about the racism, domestic abuse, and it all comes crashing down.
I have been known to karaoke "Sweet Child o' Mine" in recent years. That one's pretty good. I don't think I could sit through an entire listening of any of the albums, but will probably put on "This Is Guns n' Roses" on Spotify when I'm done here and I will enjoy it. I am VERY pleased with Woke Axl's antics. I don't know whether it's expected or unexpected that he'd be anti-Trump but I'm so, so grateful he is. I think I would very much like to spend one supervised hour with him. Or if he'd just write a memoir already, I'd definitely read it. But he probably won't. I think even now in all his chubby-hairy glory, his greatest asset is his mystery.
Bill Withers has always been around, being very excellent in the background of the Soundtrack of My Life, but I never started paying attention to the extreme excellence of his work even in comparison to his quite excellent contemporaries. He's a soul man among soul men. About five years ago, I found my focus and have loved him with adequate intensity ever since (more on this later). His best songs, this one included, are understated and arranged to feature his undeniably velvety and supremely vulnerable vocal performance. "Lovely Day" is a stone cold pop classic but lacks the depth of "Ain't No Sunshine," "Use Me," and "Grandma's Hands."
I have exactly three stories about Bill Withers to share. In my household, "Ain't No Sunshine" is most strongly associated with an episode of Fresh Prince in which Will and family return to Philadelphia and Will has a hot nostalgic trip, showing everyone his old haunts, the punch line being that everything had this charming suckiness to it. One of which is a local restaurant he frequented before moving to Bel Air where the staff were rude and the jukebox only played "Ain't No Sunshine" and would always get stuck on the "IknowIknowIknowIknowIknowetc" part. Will would then give it a sharp kick to un-stick it. So when we hear this song, we observe the Fresh Prince version and sing along as if the record was stuck.
Bill Withers was ALLEGEDLY inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 but I would swear it was more recent than that. This is meaningful to me because it was the same year I made my second-ever and most recent trip to the controversial museum. This would have to have been the time we went to Cleveland to spend Christmas with Pete's parents and escaped with Pete's older sister for a "kids outing," a Christmas tradition of ours. If that sounds weird, it's ok, it is, but if you spent Christmas with Pete's family you'd also understand. I recall very clearly checking out the Bill Withers induction displays and thinking "yeah. Bill Withers" and deciding I'd pay him more attention. God, it is so weird how memory works, isn't it? I remembered clear-as-day that Green Day and Lou Reed solo were also inducted that year but would have sworn it was summer when we went and that we were alone.
Finally, this song is another that reminds me of Josie. It's the result of a very simple, no-account incident, but one of those small things that just stick in your head related to people you love. It's clear that I use Facebook to take mental breaks from work. I'm an efficient worker and justify time spent off-task and on social media because I generally get things done faster than my peers, particularly if I can take these mental breaks. I think they are just an essential aspect of white collar working life in the 21st century, but it is a slippery slope. When working on deadline I sometimes find it hard to resist taking such mental breaks, so need to physically remove temptation to stay on-task. One day I actually announced this and stayed away from distractions ALL DAY. When I finished my task I logged back in and Josie had tagged me in a post with this video, saying that her Facebook wasn't the same without me. Those of us who are semi-present on Facebook pretty much all day are kind of like an oddball community and Josie was one of us. It's how Josie and I got so close over the years. We talked to each other every single day. So weird that this no-account gesture she made that day would lead me to forever associate her with this song, taking on weighter significance since her passing.
I was paying so little attention to mainstream pop/R&B when this song came out, I barely noticed it. It allegedly hit #1 in April of 1994, though I would have set its peak a bit later than that? So this is kind of a poser pick. I barely noticed it in its time. I was paying so little attention that in my mind Montell Jordan and R Kelly were the same person for a long time. My sincerest apologies, Mr. Jordan.
It was a few years ago when my home treadmill was broken and I had to use the gym in my apartment building. At this time I was mostly watching TV while exercising, which was really a non-option in the semi-public gym. As such, I needed an alternative stimulus to occupy my brain. A friend (I believe it was Natalie or Sarah, I don't remember) posted a Spotify playlist of mid-nineties exercise jams and I had a REALLY GREAT TIME working out to "Good Vibrations" by Marky Mark and "This Is How We Do It," among other solid bangers. I realized then that ignoring "This Is How We Do It" all these years was a grave error. Note: after thinking about it, it must have been Sarah who posted the playlist, since Natalie is notoriously a Pandora hold-out.
I realize this song is so good because it's basically "Children's Story" by Slick Rick. I know that. For those that feel at-best conflicted about corporate hip hop and R&B leaning so heavily on samples, this situation presents a particularly difficult pill to swallow. I don't know enough about the technical aspects of the practice, but to my untrained ear, its use sounds exactly like it did on "Children's Story," which samples a song called "Nautilus" by a jazz artist named Bob James, a song I did not listen to until today. And to be honest, I'm not sure "Nautilus" is even relevant in this discussion because it's not obviously similar to either song. In fact, the Wikipedia entry about "This Is How We Do It" indicates "Children's Story" was sampled, not "Nautilus." Is that ok? To sample a sample? I don't feel qualified to present an opinion. I also love "Children's Story." Ask me again next year if I like "Children's Story" better than "This Is How We Do It" and I'll give you a different answer. Anyway Slick Rick and Montell Jordan are pals, so I guess I defer to Slick Rick's being ok with this.
"This Is How We Do It's" spiritual cousin is "Return of the Mack" by Mark Morrison, a song I really don't care for, but one that Pete for some reason finds really great. When we have our video nights on Fridays these two songs must be played back-to-back. I will punch up this one and Pete responds with "Return" and vice versa.
Also notable, I can't find any evidence to cite here, but according to Pete, this song was Beck's favorite single of 1994.
It's interesting to me that this song is about South Central Los Angeles (where Montell Jordan grew up) but it's about the party scene, not about violence and social problems. I want to say that this was pop culture moving on from Gangsta rap but I have no proof to back that up. I do know that he was the second-ever R&B artist to be signed to Def Jam, which seems relevant to this discussion. I also want to mention that he went to Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. I mention this because students from my private high school in Hawaii were frequently recruited from private colleges in California, Pepperdine being one of the swanker and more expensive among them. Without judgement: it struck me, reading this. He graduated in 1989, which means he was in his late 20s when he became a superstar. What an unusual path he took. Also, Montell Jordan seems to be doing well now. He's a pastor at some big church in in Georgia. I think he's happy. I wish him well.
When I was a kid, I loved movies. I mean, obviously I still love movies, but as a child I was very much taken by the romance of Hollywood. I had solid plans to move to Los Angeles after high school, aspired to be an actress, and every trip to the theater seemed like a magical, transformative experience. Ironically, my parents didn't take me very often. My parents' particular brand of pop culture censorship had very little to do with trying to protect me from content or not having time/money to take me. Rather, they didn't like watching kids movies. Or like, poor quality movies at all.
This is completely fair if at the time annoying and contributed to my bizarre early childhood. I dare you to go back at watch the original Care Bears movie. It's not possible. My dear sweet aunt usually took me to the garbage dump movies, but my relative deprivation to all but a handful of wide releases probably contributed to my obsession with film and ALL stick out very clearly in my memory. So like while I'm still mad that I never got to see Young Einstein, the first movie I ever remember seeing in the theater was Splash. Mom took me to see Labyrinth even though I'd never heard of it or David Bowie beforehand. We saw the Abyss, Twins, and Aliens 3 (which both of us wanted to walk out of) together. And of course she took me to see La Bamba.
Mom wanted to see it because she was a boomer and remembered the Day the Music Died firsthand. I wanted to see it because cute boys and rock n' roll. Here's a fun aside: I remember very clearly seeing the trailer for Born in East LA at that viewing. If you were sentient in 1987, you probably remember that "La Bamba" (the song) was a radio hit at the time and for me, whose exposure to current pop culture was severely limited, having access to the film and its retro-current soundtrack would probably give me some much needed credibility on the playground. It did, I was the envy of all of my friends and became the authority on La Bamba and Ritchie Valens.
The following Christmas, Santa left me a cassette of the film's soundtrack and I all but wore it out in my cute pink Walkman. I didn't know who these Los Lobos people were. That was really fucking confusing. About half of the soundtrack included songs that were popularized by Ritchie Valens but were credited to something called Los Lobos on the album? Why??
If you'd ever listened to an original Valens recording, you'd know why. What a genius move on the part of the movie producers! Ritchie Valens originals are obviously well-written songs but he wasn't a great performer. Los Lobos added a much-needed pop and shine to the recordings they severely needed for a late-80s audience. Neither the movie nor the soundtrack would have been nearly as compelling. I'm listening to the original "La Bamba" as performed by Valens now and it's not as dull as I remember, but it certainly can't hold a candle to the Los Lobos version. In one of the very last scenes of the film, Ritchie is on his way to super stardom, performing in front of a packed theater, wearing a kick ass sparkly blazer and out of Lou Diamond Phillips' mouth and backing band come the sharp, dynamic sound of 1980s production and there's just no comparison. I gotta listen to Los Lobos now to cleanse my palate. I'm not a guitar solo person, but MAN, that solo in the Los Lobos recording. Phew!
I also loved the other Los Lobos performances on the soundtrack. They improved ALL of those songs immeasurably. It's such a unique thing. For a minute I even favored "We Belong Together" over the title track. It's much better as a 50s school-dance balad than "Donna," which is way overrated. But, no, "La Bamba" solidly belongs on this list. In third grade, a classmate and I made a dance routine to "La Bamba" for the school talent show. I was a very confident child. I don't know where I got this confidence but this experience was one that knocked me down a peg. We were 100% sure we would win the whole thing, but we weren't even the best lip/sync routine by a long shot (a couple of classmates who did a less straight-faced rendition and actually brought out a real saxophone to pantomime the solo in the song received that distinction). Appropriately, the winners actually *performed* something instead of pretending to. I was still kind of confused as to why our dance routine didn't have the whole school a'buzz, but whatever. THEY were wrong.
I've recently tried to get into Los Lobos apart from the La Bamba soundtrack but I am not there yet. Los Lobos has these improbable but strong ties to the LA Punk scene, which didn't make a lot of sense to me until they explained it in Under the Big Black Sun. Independent artists flocked together at the time and independent artists from the same community *certainly* flocked together, regardless of genre. Their non-La Bamba songs are catchy and obviously well performed but basically the only non-English language songs I've put much effort into aside from "La Bamba," "99 Luftballoons," "Ca Plane Pour Moi," and various Loi Loi songs, so it's going to be a process.
You may not know this and probably wouldn't have guessed it, but Pete used to be a lot more outspoken politically than he is now. He's still got thoughts and opinions on these matters, but keeps them mostly to himself and certainly avoids sharing them online a lot, which is why you wouldn't guess it. When I met him, however, it was a big thing for him and I suspect this was fueled mostly by the influence of his musical heroes. At the time he was listening to a LOT of Subhumans, the Clash, Sex Pistols, and Dead Kennedys.
Before I met him I had general knowledge of DK. The big two, "Holiday in Cambodia" and "California Uber Alles," but nothing beyond those. As with many artists that appear on this list, I got into Dead Kennedys because of frequent appearances on mix tapes Pete would make for me. As someone who has always been pretty opinionated politically, the unapologetic this-is-how-it-is brashness of the Dead Kennedys REALLY appealed to me as I explored their catalog when I was 18 and 19.
My favorite album of theirs is their debut, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, which includes the aforementioned two tracks for which DK is generally best known. It's not just the two smash hit singles, that album is fun as fuck. One of my recent favorites, which I put on to blow off steam if I get too mad about stuff is the first track, "Kill the Poor," applicable to our times for pretty obvious reasons. Most of the album is pretty good for this, even if some of the subject matter didn't age well or was actually never really relevant outside of Jello Biafra's head (I still struggle most notably with "Well Paid Scientist").
Pete's favorite has always been their second album, Plastic Surgery Disasters, a distinction I respect. I think the first two* are inarguably their best. Plastic Surgery Disasters, while still pretty infectious is less lovable than Fresh Fruit, but also includes "Moon Over Marin," by far my favorite DK song.
*In God We Trust Inc. is technically their second release, but I think of it as in the same bucket as Plastic because the CD we have lumps them together and In God We Trust is just an EP.
I mentioned in my tangentially related post on Marvin Gaye that I like songs about the environment (which is true, but I think I generally like songs about weird topics). "Moon" is very obviously about the environment, but the take on it is not entirely clear. It is, like a lot of DK songs, painfully specific. I love the Bay Area in spite of myself. Last time we visited, we actually stayed in Sausalito (adjacent to the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County), which is fucking beautiful even if it's so rich, it staying there is like engaging in wealthy person cosplay (see also this). It was honestly a pretty unpleasant experience because the roads are tiny and at a greater-than 45 degree slope, there's no street parking, and because of the hills you can't walk anywhere.
What's more, it's populated with arguably the biggest assholesbon the West Coast. This piece is part of the in-joke of the song, but it's applicable beyond Marin County and the insanely rich people who privately own swaths of the coastline. What I've always taken from this song is that the wealthy love to *enjoy* the environment, even if sacrificing in order to take care of it is not a priority. And it seems that the perspective in the song is almost like the proverbial frog in the boiling pot of water. "The crowded future stings my eyes, I still find time to exercise in a uniform with two white stripes." I'm aware of the problems but focused on personal health and maintenance, spending money on overpriced tracksuits.
This track presents an exceptionally rare side of Jello--his vulnerable one. The vocal performance is his best. He sounds sad. He's usually mad. The guitar work is equally emotional. East Bay Ray's guitar almost seems to commiserate with the subject of the song as well as the listener. It's just all very sad. So is climate change. This song was written before we were fully aware of the current, hair-on-fire issues that put our very lives at risk. This was back when hippies were the only ones who cared and overpopulation and litter were the biggest concerns. Very ahead-of-its time. I don't imagine many punks were wringing their hands about ocean pollution at the time.
For a long time I turned on Jello and the Dead Kennedys but to be fair to me they've been very difficult to like in the past two decades. Jello's post-DK output had for a while been dominated by his spoken word albums and performances. He started out so well! No More Cocoons is fabulously entertaining. If you've never heard "Names for Bands," please fix that. Eventually, the spoken word pieces devolved into long-form lectures about the State of Things. He was never wrong about stuff for the most part, but being right and proving his point got in the way of delivery and they were no longer entertaining.
As long as I live, I will never forgive him for that one performance at Cleveland State University back in December of 2001**. We drove from Columbus on a weeknight to hear him speak. We didn't get dinner because we were late. The room was poorly ventilated so someone opened a window near me, making the space in my immediate vicinity freezing cold. I had to teach the next day. The fucking guy talked for THREE HOURS and none of it was interesting. The local anecdotes peppered in were all slightly off. I think the Cleveland Browns' owner had died earlier that week and Jello made mention of him as if he were still alive. Most of what he discussed were statistics, which of course are relevant and important, but not entertaining at all. It was like we were in school. We left after 3 hours, before he finished.
**Or was it Case Western in November? Doesn't matter.
Then of course there's the dispute between he and his former bandmates in DK, the details of which I don't recall and about which don't even feel moved to refresh my memory because fuck all of them. If memory serves, I generally felt like the other members of DK had a legitimate argument but they squandered that deference by going on that joke of a reunion junket with Brandon Cruz, the fucking kid from the Courtship of Eddie's Father on vocals.
The combination of factors and my own maturation slightly soured me on listening to DK for a solid 15 years. The aforementioned specificity that dogs Jello's litany of complaints throughout their discography got on my nerves. Also, seemed petty at times? "Terminal Preppie?" Eh. "Trust Your Mechanic?" Why? It seemed like he would sometimes take aim at people who should be his friends. It may have been edgy in 1982 for a leftist to criticize rioters, but as we've seen recently, Fox News doesn't really need Jello's help, here.
As with other artists who share some of these tendencies (Bad Religion comes immediately to mind), the Trump administration has rekindled the angry and indignant music fan in me and I've found it a relief to put them on occasionally. When the state of Georgia recently took steps to ignore the guidance of public health experts and moved forward with reopening early on in the pandemic (seems like years ago now), I put on Fresh Fruit. Pete was concerned that I'd do this voluntarily. Rightfully so.
I actually like the Eagles, the admission of which makes me both brave and wrong. My mom had their Greatest Hits collection and at one point I permanently borrowed it from her because I was so hooked on a lot of their non-Hotel California tunes. The Eagles, by the way, do not appear on this list. My love of the Eagles does not exist in a single song or even all the songs. It's a general sense-of-things. I had to review a list of Don Henley's singles to decide that no, Don Henley solo is not better than the Eagles. I only really even immediately recognize a couple of his songs apart from "Boys of Summer" which compared to his Eagles-inclusive body of work, is a pure miracle. The music was written by one of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, so I guess it stands to reason.
I have no idea when I first heard "Boys of Summer." It was certainly not in 1984 and may not have even been until the 90s and even then I didn't realize how much I actually loved it until the 2000s. In my post about "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" I mentioned that this was one of the first iTunes I purchased. What would I want with an entire album of Don Henley songs? Nothing. It's during this period that my love of this song was fully realized. I wonder how many songs like these enjoyed an early-iTunes renaissance? Where a fair number of us was like "oooh! THAT song!!" all at once.
Baseball is romantic, isn't it? I don't enjoy watching it particularly and certainly can't manage to follow it, but I love the act of going to baseball games, love movies about baseball, and really love myself a good baseball metaphor. In the case of "Boys of Summer" this reference is both metaphorical and non-baseball literal. Summer--also a wholly romantic concept--is itself a metaphor for adolescence, the end of summer being entering into adulthood. Adolescence in fact being another metaphor for an entire generation of boomers selling out of their flower-child pasts and buying into all the spoils of the 80s. This whole song and all the metaphors-of-metaphors is a monument to cocaine-fueled songwriting.
Pete and I sat down to watch the video for the Ataris' cover of this song recently and NICE JOB, ATARIS. The Ataris are kind of after our time and fall into that slender slice of culture in which pop punk and the musical style known at the time as emo, which left a lot of us who cut our teeth on Green Day scratching our heads. So until this viewing, I never paid it much mind, aside from the updated lyric "out on the road today I saw a Black Flag sticker on a Cadillac," switching out "Black Flag" for "Dead Head," which is inspired. And has prompted Jimmy Askew to wonder what would be appropriate to switch out for "Black Flag" in an updated, updated version of the song and he suggested Green Day. I think history sees Green Day as not alt/hard enough to subs out for Black Flag. Anti-Flag, maybe? ANYWAY, Pete in particular was blown away by the vocal performance and I have always just been happy that others enjoy this song as much as I do. I was also heartened to see that Pitchfork of all publications named it one of the 500 best songs post punk (as opposed to best post-punk songs, which is a completely different list).
If you don't know Fishbone, the easiest way to explain them is that they were shockingly ahead of their time in their heyday and by the time the world caught up with them, they'd sort of fizzled out following lineup changes and interpersonal issues. Though they never really stopped playing.
I've mentioned before that the early 90s were all about fusion. I think it would be exaggerating to say that Fishbone lead this charge, but I don't have firsthand knowledge of Fishbone's activity in the 80s so I can't say for sure. It solidly blows my mind that they released this song in 1985. I became aware of it because it received airplay on Radio Free Hawaii, I think coinciding with their singles collection release and the budding mainstream appreciation of ska.
I was also prompted to ponder this morning how much political music there was in the 80s. There was a ton of political punk. I feel like a solid 20 percent of titles of 80s punk songs included the word "Reagan" or "bomb." But even mainstream pop music had a number of Songs on the State of Things like "The Future's So Bright" and "99 Luftballoons"? I have a theory as to why it all-but ended there. During George W Bush's administration, some punk bands tried out of nostalgia for 80s hardcore, but it came out all weird and derivative. And how do you even write a song about Trump? I'm sure there's stuff out there but unless it's conveyed via a very layered metaphor, I don't think anyone wants to hear it. He's not a fun enemy.
The reason that politics worked in 80s pop songs is that the politics did not lead the way. "Party at Ground Zero" RULES from a pure bop standpoint. I was going to recommend that people who think they hate third wave ska should listen to this and get back to me but that might be a bad idea. The horns are really obtuse but they serve a goddamned purpose. It's not comfortable, but it's definitely frenetic and certainly a party. It's so hard not to dance to it.
I can't 100% recommend the Fishbone Documentary Everyday Sunshine because it's fairly depressing, but does provide a lot of good information about the band and will teach you all about the theremin. I've learned today that like a shooting star, the original lineup was finally 100% back together and touring in 2018, only to lose a member again the following year.
Apart from Bowie of course, neither Pete nor I were really heavy into glam until 2016 or so. After Bowie died, we explored his British glam-era contemporaries beyond a passing familiarity with Sweet songs that showed up in 90s movies and "All the Young Dudes." It was a fun process. Sweet is great po fun at times and painful at others, Slade is unlistenable, I wanted to like Suzi Quatro than I ended up actually liking her (though not British, I want to put her in this bucket). I find Mott the Hoople's non-"All the Young Dudes" songs just ok. They're certainly listenable but they're more straight-up classic-rocky than I usually like.
How is it that T Rex flies under the radar to the extent that they do? I think we were an extreme case of managing to avoid them for a long time but given how good and at least in their time how crazy popular they were, but I think a lot of people have delayed exposure to them. This is an injustice. They're so good! Before we resolved to Get Into T Rex, I *believe* I heard a Columbus local band perform a cover of "Bang a Gong" at a Treehouse show and I remember thinking "good lord, this is excellent" and maybe even saying as much to Pete who was like "I think this is a cover?" I was like "by who?" He was like "T Rex?" I was like "what?"
Pete one time asked Facebook why nobody told him that T Rex was so good and Robby, our friend of many years whom we believe is the ultimate rock and roll authority responded plainly that he thought it was obvious. I felt a little weird about this until another friend Amanda wondered aloud to Facebook how she managed not to know how good T Rex is after all these years, so I felt better. She was even aware of Marc Bolan's weird-ass tv show before she knew how good his band was! I do think it's a syndrome.
I learned that they were at one time the biggest band in the world. At the risk of belaboring my previous incredulity about T Rex's being oddly obscure in my universe, REALLY?! It almost seems like an elaborate and pointless ruse. But their four worthwhile albums, Electric Warrior, Slider, Tanx (questionable as to whether that one belongs here), and Dandy in the Underworld are all fantastic, start to finish. T Rex's place on this list almost went two other ways. They were almost a Whitney, where I love them, but was unable to pick just one song. T Rex is an experience, their songs are just building blocks. I also could have picked "Get it On" which to me is an extreme case of a band that has one single that is FAR better known than the others, but somehow the band isn't a one-hit wonder. I consciously did not select that one because zzzzzzzzzzz even though it is a banger of staggering proportions.
Our first T Rex purchase was a collection. Although as I mentioned their four strongest albums are great, none of them include what I think is their best or second-best song, "20th Century Boy." This was the first track on the collection we got and the internet tells me that it was released on the Visconti Mix of the Tanx album I guess as a bonus track. Leave it to Tony. I'd also like to mention that if you stick with the big four, you also miss out on a couple of songs from their pre-glam, hippie-dippy days, "Deborah" which might be my third favorite T Rex song and "Ride a White Swan" which was also just released as a single. Goddamn, what a band.
"20th Century Boy" also has a distinction of being the only T Rex song (or T Rex inspired song) to be featured in the 1998 major motion picture Velvet Goldmine, a film I cannot recommend because it's fucking stupid. It's literally fanfiction set to film in which Bowie and Iggy Pop have an affair. The Velvet Goldmine universe also has the "old Bowie" faking his death before releasing Let's Dance under a new name. Bowie famously refused to let the film use any of his music and he was right to do that. So rude; equally stupid. Furthering my point about T Rex being shoved to the rear, I kept waiting for them or their music to pop up and it didn't until the very end and there was some house party or small club show and there they were, performing "20th Century Boy," the Marc Bolanness demonstrated with a top hat and a sparkly feather boa.
I'm going to be 100% honest and offer that your enjoyment of T Rex is ALWAYS enhanced by Marc Bolan's INSANELY handsome face. My husband, who is as plausibly close to 100% heterosexual as any man I know, would probably make out with Marc Bolan if not for his being 73 years old and dead. It follows then, that the frequent sexy references in T Rex tunes are not just well placed but necessary for the total T Rex experience. They're sexy. The songs are sexy. It's an overall sex experience. That's their distinguishing characteristic and the sex therein somehow manages to be obtuse, slightly cheesy, and extremely appropriate all at once. I don't think this combination has been replicated before or since. Marc Bolan mugs, but he should.
I've heard theories about T Rex having been overrated in their own time and severely underrated after their time and none of them make 100% sense to me, so I think it's probably a combination of factors. In their heyday they were a band that was extremely popular among middle school-aged girls. I can see it. I've seen the magazine covers. They were almost the New Kids of their day. Marc Bolan turned into a cocaine and cheeseburger-fueled raging asshole when he hit rock bottom. They put out several very lousy albums between Tanx and Dandy. Their comeback was a strong one, but I can imagine that many of their fans kind of grew up and moved on during their low stretch. Marc Bolan died young and suddenly in a car accident, which I wonder whether that has contributed to his muted legacy even though you'd think it would enhance it? Idk, it's a mystery for the ages.
Real quick some housekeeping--my friend Kelly is doing her top 100 too but we didn't align personal rules. She's doing one per artist. I am NOT, but capped it at 3 per artist, in case you assumed it was the former. The Ramones pick wouldn't show up so far away from #1 in the countdown if I was confined to just one choice. I should also mention that I forgot about this song and found a place for it by removing "Mandy" by Barry Manilow from the list because nobody wants to hear me talk about "Mandy," least of all me.
Both Pete and I have a quirk about us. We are rabid Ramones fans, but our favorites come from their albums released in the 80s, not the 70s. The Ramones are best known for the sound they established on their first four albums which featured simplistic, fast, poppy, fairly traditional*, three-chord punk like you hear in their better-known tunes like "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," "I Wanna Be Sedated," and the like. This pattern was broken by their 1980 album on which they worked with Phil Spector. This was a conscious sell-out attempt and it didn't work. There are a lot of amazing horror stories from that experiment. The album itself is a beautiful mess, really compelling, and remains the album I'm most likely to put on after Too Tough to Die and Pleasant Dreams.
*Calling the Ramones "traditional punk" feels a little like calling Einstein a "traditional theoretical physicist," and I realize this.
After this experiment and other interpersonal scuffles, the boys stopped even trying to get along with each other, realized that they'd never be the Beatles, and switched gears to just being a rock n' roll machine. It's during this stretch immediately following End of the Century where they somehow put out their most compelling tunes. They kind of grew up during this era and put a lot of thought and emotion into the songwriting and it's great, generally criminally underrated, but is beloved by those who love the Ramones like we do.
"Bonzo" is also the rare political Ramones song. In their early days, the Ramones made a mockery of politics and very serious themes in music in tunes such as a song that nearly made this countdown, "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World." The shift to taking stuff more seriously didn't always work for them. My favorite example is "Planet Earth 1988," released in 1984, written by Joey (bless his heart), which paints a portrait of a dystopian future. The songwriting is awkward, to put it kindly:
Battle ships crowd the sea
Sixteen year olds in the army
Our jails are filled to the max
Discrimination against the blacks
"Bonzo" was inspired of course by good old Ronald Reagan and a trip he made to Germany. This event drew protests because the cemetery he visited included the remains of SS troops. In defense, Reagan indicated that many Nazis were also victims, which is seems to reach Trumpian levels of ignorance and offensiveness. I thought, based on Johnny's memoir that Dee Dee was the primary author of this tune but I have learned that it was a three-way split between Joey, Dee Dee, and, randomly Jean Beauvoir of the Plasmatics, though that's in dispute as well. I'll bet the split credit was to keep Johnny from getting too mad at Dee Dee because the songwriting has Dee Dee written all over it. I'll bet you $100.
In Johnny's aforementioned memoir, he suggests that Dee Dee wrote this just to appease their "liberal fans." He said that Dee Dee was really a conservative at heart. God, I wish people would stop putting concepts in dead people's heads, that's like the most offensive thing to me. Johnny is remembered as "the conservative Ramone," but to me his bigger crime is being a manipulative bully. I give him all the credit for keeping the band together, touring, and writing. His fascism kept them around so that fans of my generation could enjoy them, but man, what a fucking asshole. Don't read that book. Instead, read On the Road with the Ramones by Monte Melnick.
"Bonzo" is a perfect political tune which for me belongs in the same category as "Moon Over Marin" and the lone Bad Religion song that appears on this list, TBA. It's political, but they're not shouting a bunch of warnings or a list of demands on what people *should* be doing instead of listening to the song. It's personal and emotional. I will backtrack slightly on the songwriting credit piece because I'm sure Joey had influence given his heritage and general interest in this area and social justice. Joey's voice comes through in the writing for sure and his vocal performance isn't angry, but tired and sad. Stylistically, it's 100% Dee Dee.
The name "Bonzo" of course is a reference to the 1951 major motion picture Bedtime for Bonzo. I have watched this film--sort of. It's one of two movies starring Ronald Reagan that I've skimmed through for the purpose of putting together Electric Grandmother visuals. I was also subject to Hellcats of the Navy for one of our recent songs because Nancy's in that one. I watched Bonzo for "Reagan's Got the Bomb," a tribute itself to 80s hardcore songs about Reagan. Both movies suck and I'm not just saying this because I hate republicans. I know the 1950s are known for quality historical/costume epics, but the rest of it is a garbage dump. Bedtime for Bonzo is literally about a professor and his wholesome, pert love interest raising a chimp and the madcap misadventures such an hilarious setup will cause. Bonzo is the chimp. I'd say it's incredible that such a doofus became president, but *gestures broadly*.
I'm not a Kinks fan but I'm also not-not a Kinks fan. I guess they'd default to my favorite British invasion band but that's a low bar. When I was in high school I really enjoyed their twin hits, "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night" and I got one of their collections but it didn't really take. Fast forward to years later when I got into the Raincoats, I came to find out "Lola" was a Kinks cover (and I put together all at once, made an appearance in an episode of Family Ties in which Nick and Mallory were going to run off and get married and Nick wanted them to walk down the aisle to "Lola." What a great show.). THEN, I found out that the Jam's "David Watts" was also a Kinks cover. So when I free up some time, I'm going to open up to the Kinks a little. All of this is besides the point because this post is not a tribute to the Kinks. I'm here to talk about Ben Weasel.
There have been times in my relationship with Pete where we've nerded out in sync to a particular band or style of music we'd previously kind of ignored or abandoned. This has been a bonding experience and always somehow brings us closer together, close as we already are or have been. One of the more memorable instances of this over the last 23 years we've been together is our late-2000s pop punk renaissance.
As I've mentioned, and I think like a lot of people, we kind of abandoned 90s/pop punk in the early 2000s because it'd come and gone in the mainstream and felt a little embarrassing to hold on to. Also in the mainstream, it had drifted into "emo" territory. I think if you're more than 5 years younger than me, you can't possibly understand how confusing, frustrating, and off-putting this turn was. So I'll lay on you a big fat NO OFFENSE but in the advent of the emover haircut, it was time to find something else. Also, as I've mentioned, by the late 90s we were tired of it all. Punk enjoyment takes effort. In any case, we never completely walked away from some of our evergreen favorites, but definitely cooled off.
I don't remember how it happened*, but we both started listening to the Queers and Screeching Weasel on heavy rotation again. We never really walked away from them, but they regained their spot at the center of our universe. We also got into some bands who came along slightly after our time like the Groovie Ghoulies and Chixdiggit. We returned to others that we'd actually walked away from for many years like NOFX (who don't really fit into this category, but I'm putting them here anyway) and the Mr. T Experience. The renaissance was full-blown and we were obsessed.
*If pressed, I would say this started during the lead up to Riot Fest in October 2009, which was the first time either of us had seen Screeching Weasel.
And again, at the center of all of this was Screeching Weasel. They became my favorite band in the world during this time. It was the kind of personal affair with a band where the music is so good and so personal that it all applies to your life. "My Brain Hurts" became my personal anthem. "Your Name is Tattooed on My Heart" was my love anthem. I couldn't even listen to "Handcuffed to You" because it seemed so sad and personal. I ate it all with great abandon. I even loved Ben Weasel's first solo album, the obnoxiously titled Fidatevi (I have to look up the spelling every single time). It's not a favorite among Weasel fans, but I loved it. At the time it was recorded, Ben was experimenting with Buddhism and he was really trying to live his life in a centered way he'd never experienced before. It was great and included "Strangers," a song I didn't know was a cover until years later, when I heard the original on a Spotify playlist.
"Strangers" is gut wrenching. It's a beautiful love song. It might be THE beautiful love song. It's not sad or tragic but triggers a sadness in me every time because it's so simple and so sweet and when you peel back the everyday and the bullshit, it succinctly and accurately expresses how you feel about a partner with whom you match perfectly and completely. See:
So we will share this road we walk
And mind our mouths and beware our talk
'Till peace we find tell you what I'll do
All the things that I own I will share with you
And, if I feel tomorrow, like, I feel today
We'll take what we want and give the rest away
I'm such a sap, I just read that passage and I have tears in my eyes. Pete is sitting less than five feet away from me and has no idea.
Ben Weasel's meltdown and eventual strange turn to alienate everyone who was ever good to him was very hard for us in a lot of ways. We had to completely reorganize our music fandom. The Ben Weasel situation was so bad, it seemed natural to take sides. It is ridiculous to say but his actions felt like a betrayal. It wasn't about the original, infamous woman-punching incident at SxSW, it was about the fallout in which he turned on everyone who'd ever done anything for him. Eventually, we had to let go of most of it because we couldn't shake the reminders of Ben's megalomania.
Letting go was really hard because the times we shared in our deep-dive of Screeching Weasel and Weasel-adjacent music as such a sweet and romantic time for us. From sharing a hardcore french during "Talk to Me Summer" at Riot Fest, to the marathon car rides on our way to EG shows in Pittsburgh, singing and laughing along the way, we had a lot of lovely memories tied to this time. Pete had asked me whether either the Queers or Screeching Weasel made it on this list and I told him technically not and he was like "whoa." Not to end this with a life lesson, but you know what? It's ok. We naturally found other music to share and made new lovely memories. And it's convenient that the most beautiful love song ever recorded by Ben Weasel turned out to be someone else's.
I know. I KNOW! I've been shifting it up the countdown to avoid posting about it. I can't take it off the list either. I am stuck but can't keep allowing this thing to fail upwards so I'm ending it on a Monday morning. Bring it on.
Like everyone else in America with internet access, I'm sick to death of this song because kids can't be trusted with any part of culture without spoiling it. The memification of this song was cute at first but uuuuuuuugh did it die a painful death.
My love of this song dates back to the NINETEEN EIGHTIES back when it was a mere curiosity and not a colossal joke. It goes down as one of a handful of tunes released post-1972 that my mother became obsessed with. Really, a handful. Also sharing this very elite distinction is "More Than Words" by Extreme and "Missing" by Everything but the Girl. Brief side note: She purchased all three albums. I warned her against Extreme, telling her in no uncertain terms that she would absolutely hate the rest of it, but she had to find out for herself. Mom did enjoy the rest of the Everything but the Girl album.
Mom could listen to the same song over and over and over again, so I know where I picked this habit up. She was worse than me, though. And would drive everyone else in my household completely insane. I believe "Africa" was the first of these songs-on-repeat in my parents' home, though it may have been "Bolero." It was certainly the most memorable instance. I loved the song too, but it seemed irrelevant in the face of mom's obsession.
After I became a grown-up, it became easy to foster independent love of "Africa" and it was one of those first iTunes I downloaded as soon as it was possible. I experienced a personal renaissance of "Africa" enjoyment just ahead of the internet. I recall during a trip to New York in 2014 or so, I drove Pete absolutely nuts because the toilet in our hotel room was apparently a TOTO brand toilet and said so on the bowl. Every time I'd use the restroom, I'd break into the chorus of "Africa." On a mini-tour with Catscan! in 2015, we sang along to the track while driving on the Pennsylvania turnpike. It was intended as a Facebook Live thing, but Zucc's all-too intelligent copyright protections prevented it from being posted and that four-part harmony that sounded almost competent to my ear is lost to the ages. Then, this adorable thing was unleashed to the internet and I began to feel like we were a small but mighty cult and I welcomed my celebrity friends into the fold, full stop. All was well.
Dozens of music-video nights later, shortly after Trump was elected amid the manic protest marches, I saw a public invite to sing "Africa" at the White House. To me, this seemed like an appropriately surreal pile-on that should effectively be a standard Fuck-You to the president which featured one of my favorite songs of all time. After I'd gotten myself all excited about the whole thing, it grew bigger than I think the inexperienced organizers were equipped to handle and they got a permit and decided to make a donation to some worthy but self-consciously nonpartisan cause. We went anyway and were easily the oldest people there. The actual performance did not go well as you can imagine, but that wasn't the worst part. On the way back to the Metro, Pete and I overheard some chick on her phone saying "yeah, we were singing 'Africa' at the White House. No, it wasn't a *protest* or anything, it was just for fun." It was then that I realized that this was not the silly Fuck-You to the President I'd initially thought it was, but rather a passive fuck-you at the protests. I was sad.
Then, the Weezer thing happened and I am out of reasons and inclinations to defend this song. I only gained the strength to finally watch it a few months ago, and I admit it's very, very cute. Weird Al is an unqualified national treasure and I guess I'm glad this happened, but the HORSE WAS ALREADY DEAD AND FAIRLY WELL-BEATEN BY THIS POINT. And it was *my* song too.
Sometimes I think music should be hidden from most people because they can't be trusted not to abuse it. "Africa" is a prime example.
So anyway yeah. That's over with.
The 1981 minor motion picture the Decline of Western Civilization presents a cross-section of the early 80s art-punk scene in Los Angeles. The bands featured fall into three categories. The typical hardcore acts like Black Flag, the Circle Jerks and typical to a lesser extent, Fear. Then there were the outfits that were each in their own way kind of a mess like the Germs, Alice Bag Band, and Catholic Discipline. Then there was X, in a shining category by themselves.
I first saw the Decline early on in college at Pete and Mike's friend Steve Whitten's house. It was a revelation overall, but X stood out as far more together, expressing more of a distinct point of view, as if they aspired to be more than they were but in an effortless way. Leading up to the Decline's opening credits, director Penelope Spheeris opens with a montage of each band's reading the disclaimer that they'd be filming during the band's set. Lee Ving of Fear read it in a German accent, Keith Morris concluded the statement with "and you can tell them to fuck off." Alice Bag read it angrily, and Darby Crash mumbled his way through it, as if he can't read. Exene of X read it like a junior NPR producer and in my mind punctuated it with a little curtsey.
Part of my infatuation with X is the romance. The vocalists, John and Exene were married until 1985 or 86, which spanned their best years. A very dumb, dark part of me has always wondered whether Pete and I would be better artists if there was less harmony in our relationship. This song in particular is about infidelity--based on a true story!--in which John cheated on Exene with Lorna Doom, bassist for the Germs. I remember listening to this song by myself in the car driving to school and thinking that I could use some drama like this in my life. Being 20 is ridiculous. Still, contend with these lyrics. Just try!
Missing her man for an old girl (nineteen)
Drain every beer left over at home
And listen to ghosts in the other room
I love it! What you miss in reading the lyrics is that the parenthetical "nineteen" there is an Exene backing vocal and it's impossibly pouty.
Then, from the chorus:
Easy to fall
Part of your skull
Starts to break away
Drugged and in love
Out at a club
Pulling me outside
So the other thing here is that it's a man talking about his experience cheating on his wife AND HIS WIFE IS SINGING ALONG. Take THAT, country music! Try and fuck with that. Just try! It's so complex and ugly and emotional it all adds up to this uncomfortable, compelling, beautiful song.
HAVE YOU SEEN THIS VIDEO? I'm not sure where it came from. It's not posted from the official X Vevo if there is such a thing, but it has to be somewhat official. I normally hate in-the-studio videos, but this one is great. Pete's favorite part is when John gets caught with a cigarette in his mouth when his vocal cue sneaks up on him. It's quite cute. As someone in a band who does 100% home recordings, I've always been grateful that I don't have to sit around a studio for hours on end, but X makes it look almost fun.
I have more to say about X, but (spoiler), they'll be back and I gotta save some stories for that post. I do love X so very, very much. I think if they had a deeper "acceptable" catalog, they'd be my third or fourth favorite, all time. Los Angeles and Wild Gift are both perfect albums and I dig Under the Big Black Sun ok, but like so many other bands of their generation, they kind of crapped out, not knowing where to go once their scene died. It's hilarious and bitterly ironic that such amazing underground songwriters are best known by the mainstream by their cover of "Wild Thing" that appeared in Major League.
Two days ago on Toto Day, I said I thought it was smooth sailing for at least a little while from here, but I'm feeling a little self-conscious about this one because of something Lilly said to me recently. Apropos of nothing she said she could stand never to hear Rage Against the Machine again. I was hoping we, as a society, had gotten over this.
Rage Against the Machine started out so well! That first, self-titled album was absolutely incredible. It was released in 1992 when I was a freshman in high school and I think the first single "Freedom" hit alternative radio and MTV that summer. I immediately ran out and got it, listened to it CONstantly. For more than a year. I could still put it on today and love it almost as much.
I loved the anger and the indignation. I feel like I'm always talking about political music on these posts, even though it's not really my typical fare. In this case, it was so fresh to me, not yet knowing about Bad Religion or Dead Kennedys or any of the usual suspects. The concept of using music to identify social ills and then get really mad while singing about them seemed so fresh! They taught me about Leonard Peltier! They got me all mad at the police! A white teenage girl growing up in Hawaii! Mad at the police! They were really important to the development of my generation's political consciousness, for better or worse. I don't know why they popped into the mainstream the way they did. Anyone have an answer?
So it's weird, right, that I think their best song came off their second album, which I didn't even really like? The two were released four years apart. That's way too much time. I've said many times that I have a history of getting bored/moving on from bands who maybe deserve a little more of my attention. This might be an example of that but to be completely fair to me, perhaps it isn't?? I don't think Evil Empire is nearly as good. I ordered it from Columbia House on a whim and it didn't take. Got rid of it when strapped for cash shortly thereafter. That was a great thing about Columbia House--turning a profit on used CD trade-ins. What a racket.
I did like "Bulls on Parade" fairly well then and I love it now. Goddamn, that bassline should have its own Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit. The way the song starts with the bass upfront then steps back for most of the song and at the very end with the BULLS ON PARADE!! it's back just as it was in the beginning? YES!! The Wikipedia page makes a big thing of the guitar solo and the scratchy wah-wah sound and that's well and good but doesn't come close to defining the song for me. Here's another factoid that I picked up today: this song hit number 1 in Finland.
Here is an inexhaustive list of totally legitimate atrocities committed by Rage Against the Machine, which resulted in most good people feeling like they'd crossed over into joke-territory:
1992: Words printed in the liner notes for their self-titled debut album: "no samples, keyboards or synthesizers used in the making of this record." OK, grandpa. This seemed reasonable in 1992, but didn't age very well.
Sometime between 1996 and 2000: It became really uncool to be at all political. Like, nationally. Apathy was 100% in. This wasn't Rage Against the Machine's fault completely, but maybe it's a little their fault.
February 2000: Making an appearance at an Alan Keyes campaign rally during which Keyes jumped into the mosh pit as part of some Michael Moore-related stunt. Then Gary Bauer called them "The Machine Rages On" and THEN they used that sample in a song. Which I guess I understand but it's a move that lacks dignity. What a mess. I don't think they knew what to do with themselves at this point. Where to go from here.
September 2000: Rage Against the Machine appears at the MTV Video Music Awards and the bassist climbed the stage scaffolding, reportedly to "protest" Limp Bizkit beating them out for best rock video or something. There are so many layers that make me angry here, I don't even feel like going into detail. I think the shark truly jumped here.
I think in recent years we as a society have softened on Rage Against the Machine. The whole thing is really too bad. I guess the lesson here is that truly revolutionary music has no place in an obtusely capitalist music industry. This used to be common sense, but then Kurt died and we all eased up on the whole Sellout concept.
Two quick anecdotes. Quick not because they aren't good, but quick because I've shared them before. Rage Against the Machine came to Hawaii sometime between 1992-1994ish and I was REALLY excited to see them. We'd planned to go and were all set and then I mentioned to my parents that I'd planned to go. My parents were skittish, unpredictable wild horses when I was a teenager. They seemed cool with everything one minute and then they'd just DECIDE to care about my health and safety the next. Sadly, my announcement that I was going to take my 14 year old body to a BAR BY THE AIRPORT triggered that native protectionism in them and they wouldn't let me leave the house. And then my parents told Cybil's parents and they wouldn't let her go either. Our friend Astra managed to go anyway. Cybil and I were SO mad, we told Astra we'd gone anyway, that we were hanging out in the back with a bunch of cute guys and did a bunch of drugs. I think she believed us.
I carried this secret with me for years until three or four years ago when I attended a Halloween cover show at the Pinch (RIP) and a band fronted by a very young woman did an INCREDIBLE Rage Against the Machine cover set. Oh, it was perfect! The energy was insane and I was 14 again. Pete too. It was so good, it almost made up for missing them those many years ago, so I came clean on Facebook and Cybil yelled at me.
I'm not having the best work day and have had it up to HERE with political hot takes, so Stevie's first appearance on my top-100 is well-timed.
I'm not mad at Stevie for the 1980s. I know many are, but "I Just Called to Say I Love You" is a very sweet little tune and "Overjoyed" is one of my favorite tear-jerker love songs of all time. But like anyone who has explored beyond the hit singles of the 80s, my favorite Stevie is 70s Stevie.
The basic choice for Grooviest 70s Stevie is "Superstition," the rare undisputed if overplayed banger I've lost my enthusiasm for after hearing it no fewer than 8 million times, just in the last 15 years or so. This may have been my selection for Favorite Groovy 70s Stevie at one time, but "Sir Duke" has overtaken it.
I'll once again give Pete credit for ushering me into the world of 70s Stevie because he picked up Talking Book, so long ago I can't even tell you what decade it was. More on Talking Book later on in the top 100. I picked up the slack on Stevie several years later when he was coming through DC on his Songs in the Key of Life tour back in 2014. I saw he was coming through and casually inquired with Pete as to whether he wanted to go and he casually responded that he did and we casually got some shitty tickets in the upper deck of the then-Verizon Center. I wasn't even sure whether I was going to be in town for it.
Not being 100% familiar with the album he would play in its entirety (and then close with "Superstition," natch), I committed to self-study and very quickly Songs in the Key of Life became my favorite. It's a double album and every single song on it is worthy of your attention. There's absolutely no filler. I could have also included "Saturn" (a bonus track) on this list with its lovely innocence and idealism. "As," "Joy Inside My Tears," "I Wish?" All similarly lovely and comforting in a way only Stevie can produce.
I ultimately prefer "Sir Duke" because of that hook! Or should I say "those hooks?" The horns in the intro that make appearances later on? I guess I'm a sucker for a callback. And the chorus? It's 100% feel-good music, but I am definitely here for it. Among topical songs (counting, days of the week, articles of clothing, etc.), I'm most tolerant of "here are a list of influences" songs (see also Le Tigre's unfortunately titled "Hot Topic"). The focus here is on Duke Ellington (woo! Civic pride!), but it's generally a tribute to jazz. I'll be really clear here, I think in terms of overall influence and quality of songs for a very broad audience, it's impossible to beat Stevie Wonder. That's in part probably a function of knowing no world without Stevie, but I think I'm right. I can't think of an artist off the top of my head for whom I have more genuine reverence and respect. So it's fucking OUTSTANDING to hear the man backup and say "this is where I came from" in the grooviest manner possible.
The concert was great, but if I could do it again, I would have found out about it sooner, been way less casual about it, and gotten some goddamned floor seats. In the rafters, you've gotta sit during "Sir Duke," which is a crime against god.
I am a rare and special bird in that I neither love nor hate Pearl Jam. I found out that there was a very fervent and dedicated fan base for this band in or about 2004 when I first met Shaun Duff at the Treehouse in Columbus. It was one of the first things we ever talked about. He was wearing a shirt or something and I was like "huh, that's weird" and he was like "no, this is like a religion." I learned from there that there are many, many more Shaun Duffs, including Joe Moore. These are people who have seen Pearl Jam in concert 60+ times. I had no idea this was a thing.
On the flipside, a lot of people love to talk about how terrible Pearl Jam is, particularly in comparison to their most comparable popular-heyday contemporaries, Nirvana. I've mentioned before that I don't care for Nirvana, which would suggest that I do like Pearl Jam better, but again, I'm not going to pitch a fit about it. This is one of those things where I acknowledge I'm probably factually incorrect in my opinion (which I do think is possible). Or maybe, just MAYbe some people forget that Eddie Vedder invented the Eddie Vedder voice which was ripped off by many postgrunge/alternative vocalists including but not limited to Ed Roland of Collective Soul and Kevin Martin of Candlebox (I am resisting picking on the dead here). Eddie Vedder was indeed the cause of this irritating trend in popular music, but come on. It's not his fault.
I have mentioned that I was very much into the Ten album in its day. The Ten album includes a representative on my top-five Pearl Jam songs, "Black." I raise this issue in deference to my husband. One of Pete's favorite things is that rumor that Eddie Vedder heard two guys singing "Black" while on a hike and kicked their asses for singing such a sacred song. This seemed wholly plausible at the time, but completely ridiculous in retrospect.
"Yellow Ledbetter" was not initially released on an album. I'm going to go back into Grandma Mode and tell you about how things were before the internet. "Yellow Ledbetter" was the B-side to "Jeremy," a purchase I could not justify since I had the album early on. And anyway, by the time "Yellow" surfaced on the radio, I'd transitioned from cassette tapes to CDs and would have had to spend like 6 of my hard-earned dollars. The economics of CD singles never worked! Because the materials were so expensive at the time, the lowest price of a CD single was like $5, which was almost half of what the whole album would cost. Cassette singles were $3, which is like lunch at McDonald's and doable most of the time unless of course, you'd transitioned to CDs. This was even *assuming* I would be able to find it in stores, which was not a solid assumption.
Your recourse, in those days, was to try and catch it when it came on the radio and record it on a cassette. The problem with this strategy is that the timing was completely unpredictable and even if you were sitting there, staring at your stereo with your finger on the Record button, you're bound to miss the first chord or two. These unreleased/hard to find songs were shooting stars. This was the case with "Yellow Ledbetter" which begins with a guitar-only intro. For a while, it felt weird to not hear it start on the third note.
Here is an incomplete list of misconceptions my friends and I held about what "Yellow Ledbetter" was about:
Sex after a breakup
Hallucinating a small group of leprechauns on the porch while tripping on acid (my favorite)
A friend who died
As it turns out (and I think Shaun told me this and Wikipedia confirms it), "Yellow Ledbetter" is an anti-war song inspired by the Gulf War. I can't say that it isn't noble and probably best, but I remain disappointed that it isn't sexy. I think my friend Cybil and I were particularly stuck on that theme because of our misunderstanding of the following lyrics:
On a weekend I wanna wish it all away, yeah.
And they called and I said that "I want what I said" and then I call out again.
Which we heard as:
Haw d'ee-end I wanna waste it on the way, yeah
And I called and I said and I know and I said and I crawled outta bed
And we would sing it out loud and shout the word BED, fueled by the vision of a shirtless Eddie Vedder getting up out of bed.
"Yellow Ledbetter" is a mainstay on those amazing Radio Free Hawaii Spotify playlists. I can't help but marvel and the convenience of pulling up one of those playlists and listening to the Top 25, which included singles like "Yellow Ledbetter" and obscure stuff from the 80s or others that were only released in Europe. Particularly when reflecting on trying to catch songs spontaneously played on the radio station that inspired these playlists. But anyway, it's always a lovely treat when "Yellow Ledbetter" pops up, despite the fact that I have it on the Lost Dogs compilation AND can elect to listen to it from the small, smooth black rectangle I carry around with me always. It's close to that feeling of hitting the record button less than five seconds after the song starts.
The realization that Hall and Oates are really special snuck up on me over the course of like 20 years. They looked and seemed like a very standard couple of rock-star ugly (not ugly-ugly) nerds who were making fairly catchy but standard-issue pop music in the 80s. Like nothing really separates them from Richard Marx and Huey Lewis unless you make an effort. They're fine, but kind of blend in.
I think in my experience the concept of radio did Hall and Oates a disservice. For me at least Hall and Oates are really best served by the playlist format. I wonder if Hall and Oates would be the Lawful Neutral category of Dorian's music alignment? When you list Hall and Oates' more impressive hits end-to-end, their output is shockingly good. I never thought about getting a collection of theirs because Hall and Oates are always kind of in the background (this is sort of like how I've never bothered to invest in a lot of Golden Girls' DVD sets. It's literally on Hallmark 8 times a day). They are the patron saints of CVS Bangers. Just, always around.
But in the age of Spotify playlists, I have found myself listening to 80s pop playlists on Friday afternoons. The slick and stupid optimism of 80s pop just goes very very well with a Friday afternoon. "You Make My Dreams" came in 1981 during Hall and Oates' peak before I became a sentient music consumer. It shows up on the same album as "Kiss is on My List" which I remember specifically hearing on the radio a lot as a kid in the mid- and late-80s, but don't have any specific recollection of the more infectious, lighter "You Make My Dreams." I must have come across it sometime. I guess like Hall and Oates' majesty, it snuck up on me too. This song is PURE Friday Afternoon. For comparison's sake, oher Friday Afternoon mainstays include "What a Feeling" by Irene Cara and "Nothing's Going to Stop Us" by Starship. These are not great songs like "You Make My Dreams," but their unrestrained, insistent idealism is in common. All three make me want to dance like Molly Ringwald in the Breakfast Club.
The way this song starts out with that infectious synth and the high-energy Daryl Hall vocals which seem to start a little too soon over top of the driving beat I think--I THINK--is what makes this song so hard to listen to without smiling. But what makes it truly great is towards the end when with such conviction, the repetition of WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR WAITING FOR you. He's waiting for you.
This video is perfect. It's simple and a little boring, which is what should accompany a bubblegum song like this, but usually doesn't. Normally in a video like this from this era, there would be some kind of neon smear in the background, but this one is just black. They're also not dressed particularly well. Why is Hall wearing a brown blazer over a black t shirt over a black background? Someone help these poor clueless souls. It also looks like they haven't received much if any specific direction. "Just be up front! Bounce! Put your face up front! Yes, like that!"
I put this song on this list before it showed up in a Michelob Ultra commercial starring Jimmy Butler in celebration of the restart of the NBA season.
I again have mixed feelings about that and never really cared for Jimmy Butler before, but this commercial is fucking adorable and does actually make me feel less conflicted about the morality of restarting the season because Jimmy Butler's dreams are coming true. Hook, line and sinker.
I cringe every time I post the most popular song by an artist on this list because it's boring and basic, but I can be excused at least for this one, no? Come on, it's "Fight the Power."
As a young teenager, I always wished that Public Enemy was more accessible. The songs didn't get the kind of wide play that gangsta and party rap got and I never did any blind purchasing of albums. I couldn't afford it. In fact, I had this system where I had to know at least three songs before investing in the album and Public Enemy did not qualify. Public Enemy's popular and creative peak was a bit before my time. Fear of a Black Planet was released when I was 10, just a hair too early. I remember the first time I saw a Public Enemy video on MTV, it was the premiere of "By the Time I Get to Arizona," a fine song. But it doesn't have nearly the same impact of "Fight the Power" or just about anything else on Fear.
"Fight" was initially released as a single (on July 4, 1989, which, A+) and very prominently featured in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing ahead of its album release the following year. I think I saw Do the Right Thing shortly after its release. I believe my parents rented it and I watched it with them, but don't recall "Fight the Power" standing out to me, which in retrospect is ridiculous. I can maybe point to the context of the film in which "Fight" barely seems like a song. It's so well-fit, it's environmental. A set piece. I don't mean this as a criticism.
Public Enemy's logo was also hard to avoid in the early 90s. Even though they themselves weren't super exposed in pop culture at the time, their cachet was. This is--so early 90s (in fact, here's a very fun piece in Pitchfork about this phenomenon). Eddie Furlong iconically wore a PE shirt through most of Terminator 2. If you don't remember, it was against the law to talk or think about any other film the summer of 1991. I remember my friend Astra who had a pathological obsession with Eddie Furlong saying she wanted a Public Enemy shirt like that one. I remember thinking that was a good idea and wanting one too, despite (to my knowledge) never actually having heard Public Enemy.
Then, for a while nothing happened.
Fast-forward to college when Pete got a copy of Fear of a Black Planet. He was still making mix tapes for me by that time and started adding Public Enemy to the rotation. I finally had a reference point. It certainly took long enough. "Fight the Power" lead the pack of course and I fell hard for it. Being particularly angry at the time, I remember thinking how ballsy it was that Chuck D had the nerve to effectively call Elvis a racist. I now see that was totally unfair and I think Chuck D has walked that back as well. I still like the spirit behind it.
It's interesting reading PE's post-hoc thoughts on this song. It comes off as kind of moderate by today's standards. Oft quoted is their bassist having said "Law enforcement is necessary. As a species we haven't evolved past needing that. 'Fight the Power' is not about fighting authority - it's not that at all. It's about fighting abuse of power." Hmm. It was a very, very different time.
THIS VIDEO, THOUGH. It might be my favorite part of the song. Unsurprisingly, it was also directed by Spike Lee, which was effectively payment for using the song so much in the film. They gathered the hundreds of people who appear at the situational march by putting the word out like "hey, Public Enemy is doing a music video. Show up at X location at Y time on Z date" and it all worked out. In this interview Public Enemy and Spike Lee reminisce about what a fun day it was. It is a very good read.
HEY--this is weird. I owned the Coneheads soundtrack but had ZERO recollection that Barenaked Ladies covered "Fight the Power" for it. I think I glossed over it because I had no reference point for the band or the song and it just sounded like gibberish at the time. I'm listening to it now and it's TERRIBLE. Just awful. I mean, what the fuck is this? How could they get away with this? I had to turn it off. There are other covers of this which I will NOT sit down and listen to, including renditions by Korn (2005) and Vanilla Ice (2008). Why do people do these things? Who enables this? Let's try and get a law on the books to eliminate cover versions of this song. "Fight the Power" and "Young Americans." Let's just take care of that now.
Public Enemy's messy recent past does not undercut their legacy. I don't think so at least. Flavor Flav was always eccentric. I don't think it's possible for him to do something out-of-character. I was an avid viewer of Flavor of Love when it was on. Pete would run out of the room screaming when I had it on, but I don't see what any of it has to do with Public Enemy. Looking back it's hideously problematic and I can't believe how much we've evolved since the mid-2000s, but that goes for ALL culture, not just VH1 reality show culture. I still can't wrap my head around that Bernie Sanders campaign/cease and desist situation from earlier this year (or last year or whatever), but I haven't really tried that hard. Honestly I'd rather read more about how great the "Fight the Power" video shoot was than form an opinion on that mess.
A few months ago I posted on Facebook about how I have grown into loving Automatic for the People best of all, despite loving Monster best of all for the majority of my adult life. The ensuing discussion prompted me to wonder why my REM experience seemed so different from everyone else's. I think I eventually got to the bottom of it. REM was not a big part of my life until very recently.
I first became aware of REM when I was in 7th grade, when "Losing My Religion" was absolutely EVERYwhere. Released in February of 1991, it came several months before Nevermind surfaced and was so confusing. Before REM, you had a choice between R&B and "rock music" which was at the time confined to hard rock/hair metal. REM--didn't at all fit. We didn't even have the vocabulary for it at the time. I think I understood this as "college rock," which made intuitive, if not actual sense to me. Labeling music as "alternative" didn't really catch on until after grunge.
I did not know what to think about REM based on "Losing My Religion." I thought it was cool as hell but had no idea what to do with it. They were kind of like U2 who I didn't completely hate but didn't love either (I would, like everyone else, learn to hate them much later, rest assured). They seemed more like Jesus Jones but American? I (quite fairly) failed to make the connection to the B52s who seemed in a freaky class by themselves. I guess to summarize, I was attracted to REM because they seemed smart and interesting but they didn't have that irresistible pull that the later grunge artists had initially. It was rock and roll, but it lacked edge.
I grew up with REM's mainstream success. They were always around, always pleasant, but I never felt strongly about them until c. 2014 when Pete and I immersed ourselves into their post-Out of Time, pre-New Adventures in Hi Fi catalog. This was born out of our music video nights, in which we would watch "What's the Frequency Kenneth?" and "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" and "Strange Currencies" at first opportunity. One time when driving home from Toledo on an EG tour, Pete put REM on, saying it was in observance of the rainy day. Inspired by the choice, the words "ehhhh man!" came out of my mouth. Ever since then, one of us will put REM on a dreary day and the other will say "ehhhh man!" On new years eve 2014-15, we spent the evening watching the REM by MTV Documentary with our friends Lucas and Emily. We were getting over the stomach flu and had to force ourselves to drink the champagne we'd been saving. Aaaand of course gave the bug to Lucas and Emily for their troubles.
True to form, when "Everybody Hurts" was out, like all Americans with cable television, was aware of it as well as its accompanying iconic music video. At the time, I was 100% baffled by its popularity. It struck me as slow, whiny, and worst of all OBVIOUS. The obviousness was borderline offensive to me as a young teenager. Of course everybody hurts. Stop wasting my time. I heard the stories about this song literally saving lives. "How?!" I wondered. How was it that this simple, obvious message meant so much to people? A very big deal was made of the aforementioned video, which kind of bugged me too because it felt like a ripoff of the opening scene of Falling Down, which was released earlier that year. It won all the awards. I was annoyed.
Fast forward to 2014 when we were in the midst of our personal retrospective. Pete was in the process of recovering from a severe depressive episode. I'm not sure how other couples deal with these kinds of situations, but for us, the episode and the recovery were shared to some extent. Pete bore the brunt of the pain of the depression, but we experienced the whole thing as a unit. Similarly, when he got help and was able to start the healing process, he shared his thoughts, methods, and progress with me. A big part of this process was dialectical behavioral therapy, with which he had a lot of success. A major tenet of this is an emphasis on empathy to build better relationships.
I haven't received DBT personally, nor have I really done much reading on it , but this piece--the value of approaching relationships with empathy at the forefront--has been basically life-changing to me. And ALL AT ONCE, "Everybody Hurts" finally made sense to me. Beyond the knowledge that sure, others have emotions (duh), the important part is that these emotions are meaningful and as important to other people as my emotions are to me. Reading this back, it still feels obvious but I can't think of a better way to explain this without sharing the story of the time I was taking a poop at work. So I'll just stop here.
Edit: I was butting up against a meeting and rushed this conclusion so I gotta add something here. The song's power to most is that being sad is hard and that other people share the experience. This makes the American Sad Teen feel less alone in sadness, which is why it means so much to so many people. Obvious, but super meaningful to your 14 year old kid who's sad all the time. This makes the song genuinely great and important. I wasn't a particularly sad 14 year old kid, which is probably a big reason I shrugged this off as obvious. As a 35+ year old adult, sadness never made me feel alone, but the reminder that sadness exists in others and impacts their relationships made me feel super close to all but the .00001% of humanity who are sociopaths and just can't get it. Shit, man, you've got this too. No wonder you're acting like such an asshole. Let's just not.
I am not a big Husker Du fan. I’m Husker Du-adjacent. I’m a Husker Du sympathizer, to paraphrase Brandt’s relationship with punk rock.* I respect Husker Du. I love Sugar, love Bob Mould solo. I for some reason never got into Grant Hart solo quite as much, even though I lean Hart when picking out my favorite Husker Du songs.
*Brandt, who named his cat Husker Du.
I watched with mild interest as Pete very consciously got into Husker Du and I picked up what I know along the way. Pete got into Husker Du in the late 90s because they’re an essential feature of punk history (his is to leave no stone unturned) and also because Bob Mould-lead projects are among our good friend Mike’s favorites. I got the mixtape treatment and a handful of tunes are Really Outstanding. Most of the albums are Pretty Good. I will occasionally put one on.
“Books About UFOs” and New Day Rising are respectively the Really Outstandingest and the most Pretty Good of all of Husker Du’s output. I will not fight anyone about either opinion. I wasn’t even sure whether this was popular opinion or not and it seems like Culture is also ambivalent about which Husker Du album is the best. I feel like people like Zen Arcade if they’re originalists, they like New Day Rising or Flip Your Wig if they don’t care about leaning into the easy choice, and like Candy Apple Grey if they love staying in bed all day.
I love “Books About UFOs.” It is Husker Du’s most fun song. This is not in dispute. It’s light. So light, it’s bouncy. The piano is PLAYFUL. I’ve conducted an exhaustive internet search to determine whether anyone else finds any subtext and it seems as if THERE ISN’T ANY. It’s just a lovely song about a cool girl who has a quirky interest everyone knows about. I have always known I’m not a Cool Girl Who Had a Quirky Interest Everyone Knows About, but have always sort of wanted to be one. I’ve never had the attention span to have a niche interest. Except 80s and 90s sitcoms. And cats. And David Bowie. OK maybe I’m just not that cool.
I am still mad that we missed Grant Hart at Andyman’s Treehouse in Columbus in 2010. I think we were on vacation in California or something drastic like that. We would NOT have missed it under any other circumstances. It would turn out to be our last opportunity to see him before he died. We’ve seen Bob Mould twice. Once on the much derided Modulate. Tour. That was, for a really long time, my very favorite concert ever (displacing the previous champions, the Beastie Boys, since displaced by Sleater Kinney and then Ween). I’ll save my story about the second time I’d ever seen Bob Mould for another post. It’s very sad that we’ll never see a Husker Du reunion, but I guess those dreams were dashed by Bob Mould himself back in 2016 amid reunion rumors. Maybe it’s best. I always get excited about the prospect of these things but can count on one hand how many times they work out.
Mariah Carey’s debut single, “Vision of Love” was released towards the end of my fifth grade year, so I remember a time before Mariah Carey. This also gives me the luxury of clearly remembering America’s first impression of her. The year was 1990 and there were two things: her ethinic ambiguity (it was 1990) and her VOICE. Specifically her range and that she could hit what the internet tells me is G7, achieved on “Emotions,” released on her follow up album a year later. The releases were so rapidfire, I remembered them as being from the same album.
I don’t care about her vocal range! It’s the thing that made her famous, but I liked “Vision of Love” because it was bluesy and cool and I loved her style. In the “Vision” video, she wore black skinny jeans and a black camisole and had this giant head of beautiful curly hair. It was stripped down, simple and elegant. “Emotions” was upbeat and had that high note, but it didn’t sound particularly like signing to me. She was everywhere for a while and I was there for it initially. However, it was 1990 and I was in the process of growing out of pop music so by the time her next releases hit, I was into Weezer and the Cranberries. Mariah wasn’t cool enough for me, haha.
This period when I completely lost interest in pop/R&B is when Mariah Carey became a legend.* I referenced this dead zone in my post about “This Is How We Do It,” another mid-90s pop standard that I didn’t realize I liked until the last 5 years and it’s real because Cybil didn’t know who Montel Jordan was either. We were just not following it. It’s the period during which her now-classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was released. Despite my willful ignorance, you couldn’t avoid hearing this song. I want to say that I was privately tolerant of the song upon release and immediate ubiquity, but I honestly don’t remember. I do remember hearing it in the mall at some point in the early 2000s and thinking to myself “yeah. This is a classic. I finally love it.” It’s not Christmas until I hear “All I Want” in the wild.
*This is the period that gave her the license to slip into her eccentric, Diva Emeritus period she now enjoys and I’m so happy for her.
Similarly, but MUCH delayed, I fell in love with 1995’s “Always Be My Baby” more than 20 years after it was released. Again, I must have known about this song when it was released to some degree, but it didn’t register. I kept hearing it as time went on and then last year it hit me like a bolt of lightning. I was riding the bus home from New York and it came on a playlist. “Good god,” I thought to myself. “This is the best song ever recorded.” I listened to it like ten more times in a row.
Mariah’s early output always struck me as voice first, song second. It felt for a long time like songs were written around her voice. “Vision of Love” was a strong first single, but I don’t like “Emotions.” Despite being up-tempo, it’s not a very interesting song and the most remarkable part of it is that high note. It feels like a weak attempt at a party. “I Don’t Wanna Cry” is downright boring. The rest aren’t really even worth mentioning from my perspective. It’s all just very bland.
Arguably, the singles off her Daydream album break this pattern, but “Always Be My Baby” is head and shoulders as far as I’m concerned. The songwriting is sophisticated. Musically it starts out rather formulaic, with the slow and quiet acoustic guitar and then the BEAT DROPS and things pick up slightly but it stays quiet well into the verses. It’s a very difficult song to sing. The verses are very runny and then the chorus is anthemy, but it’s also long. Despite listening to it hundreds of times on repeat, I don’t know all the words to it. The second half of the chorus starts with the unintentionally well-placed phrase: “and we’ll linger on” and it still takes me by surprise. The hook is just “doot doo doot.” I’m tempted to call it a throwback but it isn’t. It’s a class of song I’d describe as having been written on Mars, which is so weird because it’s Mariah Carey and not Nine Inch Nails or David Bowie. It’s strange and slightly uncomfortable but so infectious and has become a part of my very soul. I do love this song so, so much.
It’s funny that this epiphany came to me on my way home from New York following a visit with Josie. Funny because an inside joke between she, Pete, and I is that she entered into her summer of liberation after she and King Fuckboi (TM Dorian) split up. We likened this to Mariah Carey’s life after her divorce from Tommy Mottola during a very memorable Korean dinner in Manhattan before finally ordering six shots of something at the Continental in the East Village before it closed. Josie laughed HARD for like ten minutes about this. For those who don’t remember or never cared, Mariah married Sony Music’s CEO when she was a mere child. They divorced in 1997, coinciding with Mariah’s sexiest releases off of her Honey album. She was water-skiing in a crop top. You can’t get any more free than that. Mariah became Josie’s spirit symbol the summer of 2018 and the origin story of the Summer of Josie remains one of my most treasured memories of her: https://apainintheneck.com/2018/07/15/mariah-carey/
Weezer’s Blue Album is impossibly good. I’ve written about my Weezer Origin Story, in which “The Sweater Song” seemed to have been written specifically with me and a handful of my friends in mind. “Buddy Holly” is great,* but kind of suffers from Basket-Caseism in my mind. Like Green Day’s “Basket Case,” Weezer’s biggest hit on their breakthrough album is a fine song, but brought them to the masses in ways their other, more moderate hits did not. By the time “Buddy Holly” took over America, I was already firmly an Album Fan of Weezer’s and their ensuing popularity aided significantly by the admittedly INSPIRED music video irritated me.
*If I’m being charitable to “El Scorcho,” I’ll credit “Buddy Holly” with being a prequel to a superior song, but realistically, I think “El Scorcho” is just a retry to do “Buddy Holly,” but better, which mission accomplished.
I’d like to blame my irritation with “Buddy Holly” for not noticing that a third single was released off of the Blue Album. But to be completely fair to me, the Internet states that the music video for “Say It Ain’t So” wasn’t released until the year of our lord NINETEEN NINETY FIVE?! Well, no, I *wouldn’t* have noticed a music video released in July of nineteen fucking ninety five, why would I?? I was also losing focus at that point and less into Weezer than I’d previously been, despite having just about worn out my compact disc copy of the Blue Album (if only that were possible).
I mentioned in my post about “Why Bother?” that in my mind, Blue is extremely tight. There’s no wasted space. It’s pure excellence, beginning to end. It would be hard to pick a second favorite on this album. I think I tried. However, with another non-controversial proclamation, I’m saying firmly that “Say It Ain’t So” is a very easy favorite. Musically, it’s a slight variation on the quiet-verses, loud/rockin’ chorus (“getting to the cool part” if you recall from Beavis and Butthead) that was so prevalent in the 90s. It also includes one of my favorite recurring elements in music: the distinctive callback. It starts and ends on the same guitar lick. I guess Rolling Stone called it one of the 100 best guitar songs of all time, a distinction that makes me want to stop making lists.
Musically, this song is super compelling but I think what makes it a classic is the grief, dread and regret in the lyrics and vocal delivery. Before yesterday, I had some sense of it. It’s a well-written song in that it’s thematic enough so that it feels relatable but nonspecific enough so that everyone *can* relate? Angst aimed at how parents were and are comes loud and clear (“Dear Daddy, I write you in spite of years of silence”). There also seemed to be themes related to alcohol abuse? But I didn’t fill in the gaps until doing my pre-post research and found some evidence that Rivers is recounting a memory from high school in which he finds a beer bottle in his mom and step-dad’s refrigerator and began to imagine that marriage unravelling the same way his parents’ marriage did. Rivers also acknowledges his own dependence on alcohol (“like father, step-father, the son is drowning in the flood”). My goodness! How incredibly sad and impressively candid. I want to give him a hug.
I don’t recall exactly when I first saw the music video. I can tell you it sure as shit wasn’t 1995, but when? I know it was on YouTube maybe the turn of last decade ~2010 or soish? It was a cool experience because it’s an aggressively 90s video. Not having seen it until it was starting to be firmly reasonable to be 90s-nostalgic, it made me want to crawl into the TV and live in the Grandma’s House setting and play hacky sack and share Rivers’ juice box. It was a collision between the completely stale stale and completely fresh. The intersection between familiar and brand new.
I’m trying to conjure up something eloquent to say about Weezer’s legacy and I’ve got nothin’. It’s not necessary to point out that they’ve sucked longer than they were good (though they were SO good). I don’t want to talk about Rivers having lost his ability or desire or both to put out actual good music (again). This is the first artist repeat on my list and despite their Simpsonsesque, frustrating and interminable inability to get it together or pack it in, their influence on me musically and personally is very special and I will never not ultimately love Weezer.