20. Supergrass “Alright”
(Gaz Coombes, Danny Goffey, Mick Quinn)
I Should Coco [Parlophone] • 1995
Supergrass might be the best of the second wave of Britpop, emerging a couple of years after Blur, Suede, and Oasis (in that order) defined the “return of guitars” genre, and with it the next decade and a half of British music-journalism hype. Most of their second-wave peers — Menswear, anyone? — sound labored and derivative, but where Supergrass is derivative, they’re also so enthusiastic as to knock words like “retread,” “unoriginal,” and “pale shadow of” right out of the critical response. Their classic rock/glam/pop-punk hybrid should be the last word in tired hagiography, but somehow no one ever thought to combine the Buzzcocks and T. Rex quite like this before.
Or something AMG-ish like that. My own experience is a bit narrower. I came to Supergrass in a period of my life when I was listening to nothing but new releases, with the release of the perfectly-okay 2002 record Life On Other Planets. The single “Grace” became part of my everyday life, and when I dug into their catalogue, the only thing that sounded comparable was “Alright.” All this to say: I know that their first single “Caught By The Fuzz” is traditionally considered their greatest song (or so readership polls in British music magazines would indicate), but I only hear lazy bombast in it, not the bouncy 70s pop that made me love them in the first place.
Rob Coombes’ keyboards are the first thing you hear, and they’re the sound that makes this record, rolling and bounding like a primitivist Art Neville, while the rhythm section slips and slides to keep up. The lyrics are a 90s lad-culture update on the Monkees’ equally toothless “We’re the new generation/And we’ve got something to say,” the guitar solo is straight out of the late-60s George Harrison playbook. But it’s those pounding, glammy keyboards (cf. Suzi Quatro, Aladdin Sane, and “The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys”) that give the song its floppy-eared puppyish energy, and, in their unrelenting drive, make it sound less like a relentlessly chipper yoof anthem and more like a manic, unhinged threat.
Supergrass know their pop history: “Keep our teeth nice and clean” is (probably) a Blossom Toes reference, and in addition to the Monkees/Beatles/glam references above, the recurrent “Are we like you?” bridge is as 60s pop-psych standard, smearing into gently unsettled minor keys. That they pull themselves out of the dead end of retro homage is as much a tribute to their sharp ear for modern patterns of repetition and modulation as to the unfocused, decentered nature of 90s (and later) pop: everything, past and present, is grist for the mill.
19. Shanice “I Love Your Smile”
(Narada Michael Walden)
Inner Child [Motown] • 1991
One of the effects of having the kind of pop education I did (that is, none at all for the first twelve years of my life) is that I heard most of the songs that everyone else my age associates with childhood, fun, early romantic relationships, etc., at an age when they were nothing more than historical curiosities. Another effect is that when I did start listening to pop around age thirteen, I responded it to it like a much younger child at around the time when everyone else my age was beginning to form a critical sense and hate the stuff that didn’t meet their evolving needs.
All of which is to say, I’ve never heard of anyone else loving this song, or even thinking about it after about 1993. But one of my earliest pop memories is furtively scanning the radio for songs that made me think about sex (I was thirteen, and this was a golden age of sleaze-pop, with “I Want Your Sex,” “Me So Horny,” “I Wanna Sex You Up,” “Let’s Talk About Sex,” “People Are Still Having Sex,” “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” “Baby Got Back,” and “Erotica” all in the recent past or near future) and being slapped across the face by the virginal cheerfulness of this song’s flute hook, a sound I still can’t hear without being transported across the decades to the first room I ever had to myself, on the second floor of our house in San Cristobal, lying on the bed staring at my radio, and realizing for the first time that pop could be guilt-free. Because of my sheltered upbringing, I was operating on the unconscious assumption that all non-Christian music was more or less pornography, and the fact that somebody could be so carefree and almost giddily joyful on the radio was analogous to the discovery that I didn’t have to be afraid of hell.
Which isn’t to say that sex isn’t an important part of pop, but it’s hardly the only important part, and the strain of puppy love which Shanice evoked so well (joining a long line of her labelmates dating back to “Baby Love” and “My Girl” in 1964) is as important as the “really love your peaches let me shake your tree” strain in pop.
Shanice Wilson is a pop journeywoman who has been a child actor, backup singer, r&b wunderkind, Broadway performer, and voice actress; this was her truest shot at immortality, a light, breezy confection which is just underproduced enough that the actual strength of her voice, a far more adult and versatile instrument than the teenybop new jack swing of the song required, nearly overwhelms it. (She’s one of the few people to nail a perfectly faithful cover of Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You.”) But that irrepressible hook, with the doo-doos layered over the flute, as well as her superb evocation of giddy mallrat girlhood — those giggles, the plinking vibe notes, that totally delighted “psych!” — is one of the key sounds of 90s pop, without which I cannot do.
Wikipedia says the radio and video versions of the song don’t include the rapped interlude on the album version, but I’m almost certain I remember hearing it back when, so that’s what I’m streaming. Besides, it’s important structurally to the production, as the Nickelodeon version of darkness enters in the “fessin’/state of depression” lines, all sound effect rumbles and minor keys, and then cartoon sunshine bursts through, and Branford Marsalis plays a sax solo. The “you” of the title whose smile Shanice loves is so barely present — the song is all about her, lyrics as well as production — that she might as well be singing to the mirror, practicing for her first serious crush. Which is how the song works: as a pop gift to thirteen-year-olds ambivalent about growing up everwhere.
18. Denim “Summer Smash”
unreleased single [EMI] • 1997
I came to the Belle & Sebastian party late, with the Life Pursuit album, and as per my usual m.o., in trying to figure out why I loved them so much, I read a lot of stuff about them online. One of the things I read was that Stuart Murdoch is more or less obsessed with Felt, a minor British indie band from the 80s, whose leader, Lawrence Hayward, married Television’s sparkling, angular guitars to a miserabilist sensibility which would become a hallmark of British rock. (I included a Felt song on my 80s list; I’m not sure I would today.) Felt came to an end with the close of the 80s, and Hayward’s next project was Denim, whose first album in 1992 included a song called “I’m Against The Eighties,” and whose biggest single, “Middle Of The Road,” took (tongue-in-cheek?) potshots at every Rolling Stone-approved rockist icon from Muddy Waters to Bob Dylan over a Bo Diddley/T. Rex beat. Denim was 70s junk-pop revivalism, with an enigmatic sense of humor and an intentionally prickly demeanor.
In some ways, Hayward anticipated the backwards-looking, dad-rock elements of Britpop to come; in others, he was in complete opposition to anything that smacked of widespread populism, a cult act to the bitter end. Or so it seems: it can be difficult to distinguish cause from effect here, as every instance of non-success seemed to drive him further into his self-created world of glitter guitars, primitive electronics, and boogie rhythms. The final straw was “Summer Smash.”
It was to be released September 1st, 1997, as the first single off Denim’s third album. With tinkertoy electronic percolation and a pumping 4/4 beat, it (ironically? wistfully? self-absorbedly?) proclaimed the chart-conquering success of the song itself, and stands as Hayward’s finest pop moment, all giddy burbles and stiff vocalizing, a Bay City Rollers version of glamstomp, wooshing sound effects, and a plaintive lyric finally drawing Hayward’s own line in the sand: he’s an indie poptimist who cares as deeply about the state of the charts as about the delicate shadings of his band’s own sound. The final effect is of a 90s version of T. Rex’s final single, “Celebrate Summer,” similarly glorious and which went similarly nowhere.
“Celebrate Summer” went nowhere, however, because Marc Bolan died in a car crash a month after it came out. “Summer Smash” went nowhere because Diana, Princess of Wales, died, a bit more famously, the day before its scheduled release. The record label, paranoid about the perceived propriety of a song which used the word smash so many times (as if it would have done anything anyway), pulled it, and the forthcoming album was also shelved. A few stray pre-release copies escaped the embargo, and it’s one of the rarest singles in Britpop history. (And thanks to file-sharing, anyone can hear it regardless. All hail the internet.)
Hayward unceremoniously abandoned the Denim project; he now records and tours under a Springsteen/Manfred Mann reference, Go-Kart Mozart, which I haven’t got round to hearing. But this unreleased single is one of my favorite pieces of flotsam from the wreck of the 90s, which crashed just as silently and just as irretrievably on the shoals of January 1, 2000, leaving all its treasure to scavengers of history like me.
17. Uncle Tupelo “Wait Up”
(Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar)
March 16-20, 1992 [Rockville] • 1992
Something something alt-country.
Frankly, I’m not the person to be talking about this. My alt-country knowledge is an inch deep and only a couple more inches wide. I know more on a visceral level about mainstream country in the 90s (I sat and seethed like the rockist dork I was while a Mormon co-worker blasted Brooks & Dunn, Faith Hill, and Tim McGraw on repeat throughout the summer of my first job), although clearly I haven’t come around on it enough to include any in this list. (“This Kiss” and “We Danced Anyway” almost made the cut, though. A couple of weeks later and at least one of them would have.)
I don’t even have that firm a grasp on Uncle Tupelo’s career; I’ve read more about them than I’ve listened to them. Part of that is an irrational antipathy to Jay Farrar’s too-manly voice (I said irrational), part of it is simply that everyone’s got their weak spots, and never more so than in the running-to-stand-still, perpetually catching-up field of modern music nerddom, where the sheer availability of everything makes it impossible to ever feel like you have a complete handle on it. Still.
This pretty, possibly inconsequential flutter of a song is my favorite Jeff Tweedy moment pre-Wilco. The sudden tempoless violin-and-feedback smears between the jaunty banjo-plucked verses even anticipate the sonic experimentalism of my favorite Wilco material (yes, I came on board as predictably as possible, with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot just like the rest of post-9/11 America). It’s lovelorn, enigmatically concise, and despite the instrumentation, it sounds nothing like the old-time country music (bluegrass, honky tonk, western swing) that alt-country was supposed to be a refreshing return to, as opposed to the glossy, arena-ready music on country radio. It’s an indie rock ballad dressed up in Grandpa’s old farmhand clothes, escaping the sneering charge of inauthenticity only by a hair’s-breadth by the strength of the composition. (And not for everyone: for some, particularly it seems in Britain, banjos and fiddles after ca. 1960 are a priori inauthentic. I’ll just say that’s a pity and leave it there.)
There is a case to be made against including a song like this in a list of pop songs, but I’m not the person to make the case, both because my vision of pop is way too expansive to exclude anything much, and because I don’t hear it as working in any meaningfully different way from “I Love Your Smile” or “Summer Smash.” It’s a ballad, is the only real difference; everything else, even artistic integrity, is window dressing.
16. Sugar “Helpless”
Copper Blue [Rykodisc] • 1992
Sugar is aptly named from a pop perspective. I toyed with placing “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” here, but it’s a little too candyfloss; I have enough of that winsome jangle-pop elsewhere on the list, and without Bob Mould’s signature sheets of noise, there’s little to separate it from the, um, Rembrandts.
One of the unpredictable side effects of listening and re-listening to music in order to batter this list into shape was that it could become unclear whether I was familiar with the music beforehand. While listening to “Helpless” for the first time, I could have sworn I had never heard it before. But every time I’ve listened to it since, I’ve become more and more certain that I did hear it back in the 90s, and had just forgotten. Perhaps that’s a testament to Mould’s way with a hook — not only is it memorable, but it actually colonizes the listener’s memory — or perhaps I’m going faintly mad after so much immersion in new-to-me-but-still-dreadfully-familiar material. But it was apparently at least a minor hit (come on Wikipedia! give me more information than you currently do!), so I could have heard it without knowing.
But the song’s popularity and my early exposure to it are equally irrelevant: the question is, what do I think of it now?
Actually, that’s irrelevant too, smashed into a million pieces by the opening drum drill and crushed into fine powder by the raging guitar wash that follows. It hardly matters what follows: this song opens so massively that it swamps the listener’s ratiocinative faculties and takes over the lizard-brain. Which is good, since the lyrics are standard-issue alterna-rock vagueness, a series of phrases connected only in Bob Mould’s head if at all, and the melody simply circles around itself a few times before descending into a similarly circular bridge, then repeats that move. It’s not all that different from what Mould was doing with Hüsker Dü in the previous decade, only with gleaming pop production and less of a sense of guarded Zen mystery.
This installment has been heavy on obvious, everyone-would-call-them Pop Songs; as we get towards the end, these will become slightly rarer. Partly this is leftover rockism on my part; in order to be true to myself, I have to give space to my immature tastes. And partly it’s because I do gravitate towards the difficult, or perhaps the faux-difficult (another rockist impulse) — more critically acclaimed art-rock and -pop will fill in the gaps. Still, there’ll be plenty of room for people to despise my taste. So no worries.