Originally posted winter/spring 2009.
Couple of things.
First, of all the music I’ve listened to over the past decade, I’ve listened to the music of the nineties the least. (There are several reasons for this, each duller than the last.) So I’m nobody’s expert here. This list is what was left in my hand when I dipped it into the Nineties Music stream and drew it out again: whether the deposit is composed primarily of gold or silt is a question only to be decided by individual tastes.
Second, the nineties is the first decade I remember all the way through, the first decade I actively listened to music outside the Christian contemporary of my childhood, the first time that my personal history intersects with my interest in music. So this will be even more solipsistic than usual. You have been warned.
Finally, I’ll be taking the opportunity to address, or at least counterbalance, what I think are faulty habits of thought and criticism that I’ve noticed when it comes to the music of the nineties, the decade above all others for which there exists no real critical or cultural consensus. Many of us are embarrassed by it all; we are not yet ready to find the nineties cool again, to admit it into the canon of retro chic. The rest of us, perhaps the majority, are (even worse) still stuck in the 90s, interpreting all later musical activity through the ideological battlegrounds of the Clinton years, unable to accept the world of today on its own terms. For me, returning to the music of the 90s has been both a homecoming of sorts and a realization of just how much time has passed. The decade is dead; long live its music. Especially these songs.
100. C+C Music Factory “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)”
(Robert Clivillés, Freedom Williams)
Gonna Make You Sweat [Epic] • 1990
’Cause music is my life!
Mythologies require origin stories. There must be an Adam, an Eve, an unmoved mover, an ex nihilo. This is why the theory of evolution is so unsatisfactory, except for the minor point of precisely fitting the evidence. The deeper parts of our minds are still haunted by myth, and need concrete, comprehensible beginnings. For me, “Gonna Make You Sweat” (along with the Remus to its Romulus, Snap!’s “The Power”) is an ur-text, a primordial creation story far more powerful than the more soberly-documented chronicles of electronic music in which 1990 is the fall from grace, the year when Dance became Kitsch. When I first began listening to the radio in the waning months of 1990, furtively and with malice aforethought, “Gonna Make You Sweat” was the beginning of time. Before this, music was null and void and spirits moved over the face of the deep. I knew nothing of Detroit techno, Chicago house, or Manchester rave; I certainly didn’t know that the beat was a jacked-up version of M/A/R/R/S’ “Pump Up The Volume,” that all the samples had already been used by Eric B, or that Freedom Williams’ flow was bad enough to make a suburban white boy cringe. It was simply modern music, the clean dividing line between all that had gone before, the dead weight of the past, and all that would come to be in the Irrepressible Now. Someone dropping leaden rhymes was the price you paid for being alive in 1990 — and anyway, I wasn’t listening for him. I was listening for Martha Wash, for that massive voice that tore the sky asunder, its thundering echo due not to any piddling effects Clivillés and Cole cooked up but because her arena was the world itself and her voice came booming off the distant mountains.
I was twelve years old and “Gonna Make You Sweat” was both threat and seduction, suffused with the promise of illicit rapture and cruelly mocking the virgin’s ideal of intimacy with its jackhammer beats and distancing, cut ’n’ paste vocals. And sometimes a few years later, when we went to the roller-skating rink, it would play, and it would begin to sound old-fashioned already, with its simple, four-note synth riff and wailing house vocal. And now, after two decades of movie trailers, “ironic” get-pumped scenes, slow-moving basketball games, and the near-geologic accumulation of pop-cultural detritus attached to the hook, it can be hard to dig past the accreted kitsch and the very not-dope rhymes and just hear a song.
I’ve found that turning it up always helps.
99. Bikini Kill “Rebel Girl”
single [Kill Rock Stars] • 1993
I hear Mary Weiss bragging on her boy: “He’s good bad, but he’s not evil.” I see Patti Smith on the cover of Horses, colonizing James Dean cool with her lean junkie’s body. I hear Debbie Harry, catty and spiteful: “She looks like the Sunday comics.” I hear Joan Jett not giving a damn about her bad reputation, the Last Poets reflecting on the interstices between revolution and sex, the strut of Shaft and the neurotic implosions of Alison Bechdel’s characters. All stuffed into a Ramones chassis with an Albini finish.
It’s probably unforgivably patriarchal to hear how the Rebel Girl of the song can trace her lineage to the Bad Boys of girl-group songs of the 1960s. (She hit me, and it felt like a kiss? The way Kathleen Hanna screams about her kiss at least implies a certain level of violence.) But there are no clean breaks with the past; even radical feminism only makes any sense within the humanist framework which is the birthright of post-Christian Europe. And Hanna & Co. aren’t all that radical anyway. Sure, they’re mad about the raw deal women have always gotten and continue to get, but never to the point where they forget that having fun is the primary point of being in a band. (Cough Hole cough.) It makes sense that of all the feminist punk bands of the early 90s, they’d be the ones to evolve into Le Tigre.
I can’t call myself a huge fan of the Riot Grrrl aesthetic; I’m too male, and too much of a dilettante regardless. But I’ll always appreciate a good pop song, and the dreamy, stumbling closing lines of the song are the kind of decorative element that pop was made for.
98. The Spin Doctors “Two Princes”
(Mark White, Eric Schenkman, Chris Barron, Aaron Comess)
Pocket Full Of Kryptonite [Epic] • 1991
This is the sound of people who grew up watching the Muppets making rock & roll.
I feel like that says it all, actually. The way you respond to it is determined by a) your feelings about the Muppets, b) your feelings about rock & roll, and c) your tolerance for category confusion. Because, obviously, the Muppets aren’t very rock & roll, the Electric Mayhem notwithstanding. Even the kind of rock & roll the Mayhem gesture towards is a deeply unfashionable kind, good-time sub-beatnik hippie bullshit. What redeems it (if it is redeemed) is the fact that the Muppets’ real loyalty is to the unbreakable laws of Show Business, to that combination of hucksterism, hard work, and hell-if-I-know that has managed to produce iconic pop culture for damn near a century. Buster Keaton and Britney Spears aren’t that far apart on this scale: they both know that chasing art is a mug’s game and what really matters is getting a cut of the door.
It’s in that spirit that “Two Princes” is an enduring thing of awesomeness. The Spin Doctors may have been a shaggy jam band, but by cutting the fat out of their instrumentation and playing to the balcony with broad, dopey gestures like describing every dumb romantic comedy decision ever, they managed to squeeze out an honest-to-God pop song, in both the classicist sense (it’s a comic-book-beatnik variation on the standard Greenwich/Barry template) and in the dumbass dictionary sense: it sold a lot of copies and a lot of people still like it even if it isn’t very cool.
And as with the Muppets, there’s the comfortable sense that no one is taking any of this very seriously, and once the song ends the story’s over and it’s on to Statler and Waldorf and, if we’re lucky, Pigs in Space.
97. Ride “Vapour Trail”
(Andy Bell, Laurence Colbert, Mark Gardener, Steve Queralt)
Nowhere [Creation] • 1990
I spent the 90s hooked on radio; it wasn’t until around the turn of the millennium that I began dimly to realize that there was important, vital, and deeply enjoyable music being made that never got onto the Guatemalan and Arizonan radio stations that were my first education about music outside of the church. But by then there were whole centuries of music to absorb, and a late adopter like myself had to rely on the critical consensus, and learn how to skim. So some scenes and genres — especially relatively recent scenes and genres — ended up getting represented by an album, or a song, while I simultaneously burrowed into 70s reggae and 40s jump blues and 10s ragtime and 60s countrypolitan.
All of this to say, I’m aware that some people think “Vapour Trail” is Ride’s worst song, but it’s the one I know best and I love it a lot.
And it’s an odd song. Its structure is fragmentary (two verses, no chorus, unless you count that wordless warble), its hooks are buried into a hypnotic groove, and the drumming is far more vigorous and even amphetamined than the lysergic, smoke-clouded production would seem to admit. Yet it somehow works, and the string quartet that concludes the song (and, in the original vinyl pressing, the album) is less a flashy Statement of Significance (see “Eleanor Rigby” or “November Rain”) than simply another form of the trancelike repetition that made shoegaze the ideal chillout music for indie rockers. I’ll be talking more about this later, but the way so much British music of the late 80s and early 90s combined noise, dance, and jangle is both alien to my actual experience of the period and deeply comforting to my idea of what the period’s eclecticism should have been.
96. P.M. Dawn “Looking Through Patient Eyes”
(Attrell Cordes, George Michael)
The Bliss Album [Gee Street] • 1993
To answer the obvious objection: yes, “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” is probably their greatest song in a quasi-objective sense (i.e. a poll of all relevant listeners would put it on top). But 1) I already have Spandau Ballet’s “True” on my 80s list, and while it’s a great hook, I can’t bring myself to list it twice, and 2) I heard this one first.
Spring, 1993. I was listening to American Top 40 on the English-language station in a suburb of Guatemala City (presented by Shadoe Stevens), and tucked in among the leftover power ballads and Swedish dance-pop was this curiously psychedelic rap song, sampling George Michael’s “Father Figure” (which I wouldn’t recognize until I read about it on Wikipedia) and muttering solemnly about emotional literacy and infinite lights. I was both horrified by the New Age babble of the imagery (Frank Peretti, the fundamentalist Stephen King, was a major presence in my world at that time, and in his cosmology New Age=Satan) and fascinated by the low-key gauziness of the production, which sounded like nothing else on the radio. The totality of my understanding of hip-hop consisted of Hammer, Marky, and Ice (not that one, or that one, but that one), with Wreckx-N-Effect as the street-level spoilers; small wonder P.M. Dawn (and Arrested Development, around the same time) seemed so amazing on first listen.
But then it stuck in my head, because I’d happened to tape that week’s countdown (and in fact rarely ever listened to American Top 40 again), and I listened to that tape over and over, wondering if the line “with total recall as wild as the deuce” was a nod to the Schwarzenegger movie — and, thanks to radio static and tape hiss, thinking the line was “wild as the goose,” which I still think is a better, if obscurer, image. In fact, listening to this song over and over helped me move out of the evangelical fear of philosophical Otherness: Prince Be’s New-Age ruminations were so obviously not demonic that everything I had been told about non-Christian spirituality had to be revised.
Today, I hear it as a Princey ballad with some oddly evocative rapped verses. Which isn’t a bad thing to be either; but I cherish it for the years when, in my head, P.M. Dawn were the highest form of art to which rap could aspire.
95. The Chemical Brothers feat. Noel Gallagher “Setting Sun”
(Ed Simons, Tom Rowlands, Noel Gallagher)
single [Virgin] • 1996
As further evidence towards the OCD quality of these lists, I would not have included this if “Tomorrow Never Knows” had been on my 60s list (which, it’s played on oldies radio and was never released as a single, so). But then, is “Tomorrow Never Knows” one of my favorite Beatles songs because I’d heard this first, and so Ringo’s smashing, crumbling beat already sounded like a futuristic echo of electronic mayhem?
Apparently the Chemical Brothers wanted to make a “Tomorrow Never Knows” for the 90s. They failed, of course: the impact of the original was the impact of bringing avant-garde compositional elements like tape manipulation, loops, and samples into the mainstream of pop music. (Yes, Joe Meek blah de blah, I said mainstream, not obscure tributaries.) There is a clear dividing line between pre-“Tomorrow Never Knows” pop and post-“Tomorrow Never Knows” pop. (Whether that dividing line is a good thing — a.k.a. the worthwhileness of psychedelia — is another argument. These are just facts.) “Setting Sun,” on the other hand, is only a pretty great big-beat anthem, marrying the energy and ferocity of (say) the Prodigy to a classicist sense of pop idyll. With, of course, a jacked-up Ringo beat.
It’s kind of startling to remember just how deeply the Sixties — or the myth of the Sixties anyway, as parodied by the Simpsons’ “standard Sixties montage” (civil rights, Woodstock, Nixon, Vietnam) — mattered to the Nineties. From a President who “didn’t inhale” and a Supreme Court confirmation hearing that managed to trivialize both the Civil Rights movement and feminism, to the return of celebrated junkie rockstar deaths, the decade managed to play its hand-me-down mythology as a singularly depressing farce. And that’s not even getting into the second Baby Boomer administration ….
But about “Setting Sun.” Noel Gallagher of Oasis contributes some vocals which are vague and pointless even by his standard — but then that’s what makes it pop, innit?
94. Macy Gray “I Try”
(Macy Gray, Jeremy Ruzumna, Jinsoo Lim, David Wilder)
On How Life Is [Epic] • 1999
I feel like this song hasn’t gotten the respect or place in pop history it deserves. I know that some people hate it — or at least, they hated it nine years ago, when it was inescapable, and most likely haven’t given it much thought since. It’s the kind of thing that tends to slip through the cracks of history: a throwback record without the reverence for tradition that makes the keepers of the Boomer canon sit up and take notice, not part of some easily identifiable trend (it’s neo-soul, except it’s successful, so it’s not) or any of the important hipster fields. It won a Grammy, but nobody takes those seriously, and in the most respectable circles they’re a strike against. Then too, there’s that voice.
If I have an overriding musical concern, it’s that I’m captivated by and love to immerse myself in a wide range of distinctive voices. I suppose I can just kind of barely understand how someone could hate Macy Gray’s voice so much that this song would drive them up the wall, but that horror of the unusual is so alien to how I process pop that I can’t take it seriously as an actual barrier. The sandpaper texture of her voice is the song’s chief pleasure for me, and it would be vastly diminished as a listening experience if a more conventional singer (say Aaliyah, or even Angie Stone) had given even the same performance, emotionally speaking. And Macy, in the emotional sense, does sing the hell out of it. Those rasped howls of urgency towards the end, when the song shifts into a higher key, are why I listen to music at all.
Here’s where I say something about the warmth and classicism of the production, but I don’t want to be misunderstood: while I love the sound of old-school soul, I don’t think it’s necessarily any better than new-school programmed beats and synth squelches. But neither do I think it’s worse: as far as I can tell, opinion is roughly divided between those who overrate this song because it’s “real music instead of all that drum-machine crap” and those who underrate it because it’s “looking back towards the 70s instead of into the future with Timbaland and the Neptunes and blah de blah.” All we have to build the future with is the fragments of the past; I’m glad this was saved from the wreckage.
93. The Magnetic Fields “Take Ecstasy With Me”
Holiday [Feel Good All Over] • 1994
Okay, this is how little I cared about the 90s in the 00s: I first heard this song because !!! covered it in 2005, and I didn’t realize it was a cover until like a year ago. (Yes the Magnetic Fields are one of the pillars of 90s indie rock. No I still haven’t listened to most of their catalogue. I’ve been busy.)
It’s a good song, regardless, and although when I finally got around to hearing the Fields’ version I held a small grudge against it for not being a male-female duet or including the line “I’ve got a stack of records,” I’ve come to appreciate its less expansive pulse. The !!! record is a dance record, meant to anchor a DJ’s set; the original is a shaggier, more ill-at-ease production, the sound of a shy, pale indie kid trying to figure out how this electronic stuff is supposed to work. Which creates the perfect soundscape for Merritt’s shy, pale indie-kid lyrics: the Ecstasy is only there to drown out the awkwardness and self-involvedness of clumsy adolescent relationships.
Clumsy adolescent gay relationships, too, which the song doesn’t push very hard (which is why the male-female duet on !!!’s version works), only glances at in the line “we got beat up just for holding hands.” It only comes as something of a surprise because of the over-the-top ways in which pop music usually represents gaydom — there’s no fierceness or camp here, only troubled, uncertain teenage emotion and a desperate hope that shared experience means love. It’s all anyone’s got.
92. The Mavericks “I’ve Got This Feeling”
(Raul Malo, Jaime Hanna)
Trampoline [MCA] • 1998
The Mavericks inhabit a weird, ill-defined space between critical acclaim and mainstream country, the Venn diagrams for which only rarely overlap. Too polished and modern to fit under the alt-country umbrella, too dedicated to following their own muses to have a huge CMT presence, the Mavericks — and especially their singer and lead songwriter, Raul Malo — did more than almost anyone to expand the range of radio-ready country in the 90s, bringing Latin balladry, Cajun two-step, and the lush, melodramatic style associated with Roy Orbison into the mix. True, they never got all that far into mainstream radio (topping out at #13 is generally frowned upon in Music Row), but thanks to the more forgiving album-buying audience, they managed to make an impact anyway.
Maybe I’m just dense, but it took Malo’s interpretive genius to get me to understand the connection between Orbison’s pop-operatic singing and the equally melodramatic (and equally indebted to art song) style of vernacular Latin American music known as ranchera. Here, Malo’s soaring tenor and the expert construction of space in the production harkens back not only to Orbison as produced by Phil Spector, and various Iglesiases, but also to the bel canto-trained Italians who ruled American popular music before rock & roll: Frankie Laine, Vic Damone, Al Martino, etc. Those guys often gestured towards country music as well — and Orbison’s coöption by rock & roll has too often obscured how he was seen as a country singer long before he ever crossed over into the pop charts. Turns out Raul Malo is more of a traditionalist than he might have seemed to the ahistorical 90s.
91. Massive Attack “Unfinished Sympathy”
(3D, Mushroom, Daddy G, Shara Nelson, Jonathan Sharp)
single [Virgin] • 1991
I’ve never been able to fully embrace trip-hop, aside from a song or three here and there, and I’m not entirely sure why. Here are several possibilities:
1) I’m not as familiar with dub, dancehall, and 80s Brit-dance — the roots of trip-hop — as I ought to be.
2) I’m not particularly fond of movies in the first place and music which is frequently compared to soundtracks for nonexistent movies has to work that much harder to hold my interest.
3) I’m American goddammit and we already have real hip-hop and don’t need no postcolonial knockoffs.
I like the last one best.
Anyway. Massive Attack. They too often fall into the “soundtracks for nonexistent movies” category for me — and based on the music they’d be movies I’d have little interest in seeing anyway. (Postindustrial cyber-noir? Yawn.) But this, their original calling card and a superb single, works its way out of that sleepily narcotic subgenre into a full-fledged pop song, if an oblique one. Shara Nelson’s vocal performance is, of course, what makes the song — only the knuckled piano break gives her any competition for my attention — and the nerve-jangling, tin-drum beat (or rather, layered beats) gives the whole thing more of an edge than might otherwise be expected.
Still, there’s a facelessness to Nelson’s vocal, an impersonality that rubs American me the wrong way. I’m aware, or I think I am, that one of the points of European dance (in which trip-hop is undeniably complicit) is to create music almost entirely free of personality, a frictionless glide that could keep robots dancing for millennia. (Call it the Kraftwerk mandate). I can appreciate the vision, I suppose, but I think it’s wrongheaded: to be human is to sweat, to creak, to die, and I can’t see the point of music without humanity. I never really liked science fiction either.
90. The Flaming Lips “Bad Days”
(Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins, Steven Drzod, Ronald Jones)
Clouds Taste Metallic [Warner Bros.] • 1995
The Flaming Lips have had such a remarkable post-millennial career, in that their longtime fans have grown less and less enthusiastic about each new release even as the band has reached undreamed-of heights of widespread appeal and commercial success, all while remaining true to their fractured, weirded-out vision of guitar pop, that it can be difficult to trace their lineage without choosing sides between the condescending “their early stuff was better” hipsters or the puppyish “omg At War With The Mystics roxxorz my post-9/11 world lulz” newbies.
Both of which are strawmen, and neither of them are necessarily wrong anyway. But my own preference is here, at the precise midpoint between the early freak-scene alt-stardom of “She Don’t Use Jelly” and the ascension to the Everything’s Serious indie-pop pantheon of The Soft Bulletin. The version I’m streaming is the last track on Clouds Taste Metallic, on the Wikipedia page of which it’s listed as “Bad Days [Aurally Excited Version] [Mix],” to distinguish it from the less gonzo-pop versions which had previously appeared on an EP and a soundtrack which will play host to another song on this list (gentlemen, start your search engines).
Sounding like the strung-out post-Smile Beach Boys with J. Mascis sitting in on guitar is one thing: recommending that the slackers of the world rise up and kill their bosses is another. Yet somehow Wayne Coyne’s still-fragile falsetto manages to unite sun-kissed harmonies with Mansonesque fever-dreams in a way that sounds both elegaic and hopeful. Probably because when it comes to psychedelic pop, lyrics mean less than the sounds of the songs — and the sound of the song is of a slumbrous trip riddled with grace.
That sentence means something to me, apparently; I’m sorry it’s not clearer. Ever since I gave up on music lessons, imagistic language is the only tool I really have at my disposal to talk about this kind of thing.
89. Missy Misdemeanor Elliott “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”
(Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Don Bryant, Bernard Miller, Ann Peebles)
Supa Dupa Fly [Goldmind] • 1997
Well hello Timbo.
I’ve said in another context that Timbaland is the Phil Spector of 00’s music; that would place this song as, roughly, “To Know Him Is To Love Him.” Except much better, because Missy Elliott ain’t no fuckin’ Teddy Bear.
The song is anchored, of course, by the unforgettable refrain of Ann Peebles’ 1973 “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” which, when paired with Timbo’s sparse, narcotic beat and a looped sample of crickets, serves as a chorus around which Missy creates her own sparse, narcotics-laced narrative of companionship, good times, and that damn rain bringin’ everyone down. She’s (as of 2009) the all-time number-one female MC, and on this her debut single she arrives fully-formed, casting herself as the successor to Lauryn Hill and (more surprisingly) Digital Underground — which makes sense, because Missy’s not out to be the black CNN but to give people something to dance to, and to humpty hump to. She’s pulling pop-rap out of the early-90s ghetto created by Hammer and company, dusting off the accreted gangsta signifiers, and, with the help of her producer, turning it into something that can propel pop through the next millennium.
Which is why her relationship with Timbaland is the grand tradition of vital producer-vocalist relationships in pop. Phil and Ronnie, Ike and Tina, Richard and Karen, Nile and Madonna, Max and Britney — they all pushed pop forward in different ways, but here in 1997 you can begin to hear the last gears clicking into place. Hip-hop’s raid-the-past aesthetic provides the template for modern pop: the next step is to begin raiding the present.
88. Moby “Porcelain”
Play [Mute] • 1999
Strings, piano droplets, a muted beat, the otherwise unheard-of Pilar Basso far away in another room moaning (so says the collective wisdom of the Internet) “hey, woman, it’s all right.” I totally understand if, after reading my exaggerated yawn towards trip-hop at #91, you dismiss me as the rankest nationalistic hypocrite: surely there’s very little music more boring, more frictionless, more coffeeshop than Moby’s.
Well, yeah. Granted. Any defense I could muster would be on the level of having somebody recount their dreams to you; either you’re already on board or you’re not, and since you’re outside my head, why would you be? Here goes anyway:
In 1999 I was probably at my music-listening nadir. Fed up with Third Eye Blind and the Goo Goo Dolls and Everclear and the mediocre sameness of everything on the local “alternative” station, and fatally dismissive of anything else, I was close to forgetting about music and getting on with my life. (I’m, uh, still working on that last bit.) In that environment, “Porcelain,” when I heard it in the car of a friend who bought like a CD a year (and in 1999 Play was the CD that everyone who bought like a CD a year bought), was like growing a new synapse. Music could be this, too! Evocative, pastel-colored, not in any rush to ingratiate itself or shout-smack you into submission, with those minor-key piano figures left hanging like a slow-motion punch in the gut — it was very like being in a waking dream.
And then I found out about Napster and every story has a happy ending. That initial fascination with “Porcelain” never turned into a full-on investigation of (embarrassed cough) electronica, and today I’ll happily make fun of Moby with the best of them, but the song remains in my memory like a hole in the air, and when I listen again I can’t hear the commercials, the self-righteous veganism, or the embarrassing attempts to remain relevant. I just hear a shy dude trying to explain himself in a void. And man, do I understand that.
87. Green Day “When I Come Around”
(Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, Tré Cool)
Dookie [Reprise] • 1994
Scene: before class, sometime in 1994.
Friend Who Is In A Band: Dude, you know this Green Day band?
Me [cautiously]: I think I heard of them. [I have read a blurb about them in Newsweek, paired with the Smashing Pumpkins, but am not sure if I have yet heard their music.]
FWIIAB: Oh, man, they’re so bad. They only have like, two or three chords per song!
Me [hoping to convey the appropriate level of contempt]: Man. Geeze. [Remain uncertain as to why that should make them bad. I am aware of Georges Perec’s novel A Void, which is 300 pages and never uses the letter E. Constraints can be useful in art. I myself am in the middle of an ambitious retelling of the Arthurian myth in short poems, each of which is a minor catastrophe for English literature.]
Scene: Any time throughout 1995.
Me [listening on my Walkman to a tape I made off the radio]: [Bounce in glee when “When I Come Around” squirts into being after a garbled Spanish-language DJ coming off of the Eagles’ live concert version of “Hotel California,” attempt to sing along with Billie Joe Armstrong’s Californian approximation of adenoidal English punk. Mostly it just sounds like I have a cold.]
“Basket Case,” “Longview,” “She” and “Welcome To Paradise” are everyone else’s favorite songs off Dookie. “When I Come Around” is mine. With the benefit of perspective, I think that’s because the others are closer to the rest of American mall-punk. “When I Come Around,” though, is power pop.
86. Mazzy Star “Fade Into You”
(Dave Roback, Hope Sandoval)
So Tonight That I Might See [Capitol] • 1993
Apparently this was a hit.
Not in Guatemala, where I was glued to the radio, nor with such force that it was still being played on returning to the States in 1996. I first heard it in 2002 because I was trawling through allmusic.com looking for bands similar to and influenced by the Cocteau Twins. But when I was playing it at work one day, a girl who (as far as I knew) never intentionally listened to anything besides They Might Be Giants stopped and said, “Mazzy Star, right?” So apparently it was a hit on some level.
One of the perils, if you want to call it that, of remix and mashup culture is that later music can sometimes overwhelm the experience of listening to older music. Producer and mashup guru Richard X’s 2003 album Richard X Presents His X-Factor, Vol. 1 (there have been no subsequent volumes) contained a song called “Into You,” in which Jarvis Cocker basically wrote different verses to this song and crooned along with Hope Sandoval, and it became one of my favorite songs for a couple of years there, and now I can’t listen to the original without hearing a ghostly echo of Cocker’s lecherous croak overlaid on top of it.
I can’t decide which is the better song — or rather, I refuse to assign a meaning to the phrase — but on the principle that the samplee deserves to be known in its own right apart from the sampler (which is why I have a whole lot of obscure 70s funk, disco, and Afro-jazz on my hard drive), and because after all I fell in love with the spectral gauziness of the original before Richard X and Jarvis Cocker applied their electronic voudou witchery to it, and also as a sort of apology for the fact that Hope Sandoval’s solo albums weren’t very good, even though I tried very hard to believe otherwise just because I was so besotted with her on this song . . . ladies and gentlemen, “Fade Into You.”
85. Los Lobos “Kiko And The Lavender Moon”
(David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez)
Kiko [Slash] • 1993
I may have made mention before of the fact that I’m generally not a big fan of albums, preferring the internal consistency and handcrafted miniaturity of great songs. There are of course exceptions.
There are eighteen songs on Los Lobos’ 1993 masterwork Kiko, and not a single one of them is extraneous or unnecessary. I did not think this the first time I listened to the album, nor the second, nor the tenth. And in fact I will continue to insist that the the bloated running time made possible by the CD has on the whole been a Terrible Thing for pop music in general and rock music in particular. The 90s are littered with half-great albums that would have been jewels of perfection in the vinyl age, with more stringent editing and a harsher attitude towards the merely passable. At an earlier time, I would have included Kiko as Exhibit A in this thesis. No longer; I have lived with the album long enough to know its contours, and I can settle into them as into a familiar drive, happily expecting the next song round the bend.
I said all of that to say this: picking just one song from the album was really hard and remains unsatisfactory. But this was the single (it did nothing), and it’s the title song, and it’s a good example of the atmospheric, wide-ranging tunefulness to be found on the album.
Los Lobos are, as every child should learn at its mother’s knee, a rock & roll band from East L.A. whose members are Latino, steeped in the traditions of American and Latin-American vernacular music, and superb musicians, not in that order. With avant-trad producer Mitchell Froom, they made a record which is the musical equivalent of Los Bros Hernandez’ Love & Rockets alt-comix saga, which (not coincidentally?) hit its high notes around the same period: Mexican-American magical realism, with clean lines and unexpected grace notes. The way this song shifts and bleeds from Glenn Milleresque horn lines, to norteño accordion that instead calls to mind Italian trattorias, to an electric sitar rumba, all with muffled, shuffling percussion and a two-step piano line that only gasps into existence every now and again, is only a jewelled setting for David Hidalgo’s lyrics about — well, ask Gabriel García Márquez. I’m too busy dreaming.
84. Underworld “Born Slippy .NUXX”
(Darren Emerson, Rick Smith, Karl Hyde)
single [Junior Boy’s Own] • 1995
I haven’t seen Trainspotting, and in fact I have a distinct quarrel with the commonly held, though not always widely expressed, notion that if you haven’t seen a movie in which a particular song plays a particular role then you don’t really have a full understanding of the song at all. First, it’s bullshit, and second, it’s obviously bullshit. Pop exists in its own sovereign territory, and colonizing it by means of other media is an act of unwarranted aggression against which guerilla warfare can be justifiably waged. (No, I’m not sure what form this guerilla warfare would take. I only thought of the metaphor a minute ago.) I don’t want to see Reservoir Dogs because I like the associations I already have with “Stuck In The Middle With You” and don’t want them tampered with; ditto “Atlantis” and GoodFellas. I suppose what bothers me most is the existence of an agreed-upon system of pop-culture hierarchies that makes it possible for me to feel like a self-righteous rebel by opposing it. I hate those dudes. Everyone hates those dudes.
Anyway. Apparently Underworld thought they were perpetrating a joke by including laddish stream-of-consciousness lyrics with their thumping, regressive techno. Which might be a cautionary tale about how musical subcultures can disappear so far up their own asses that they’re out of touch with what the larger pop audience requires from their music (you listening, indie rock?), but I’m not committed to the premise and anyway I don’t know enough about electronic music to say either way. (My Anglophilia only extends so far; like most fascinations with Otherness, what I’m primarily interested in is the reflection.) What I do know is that “Born Slippy” is a helluva pop song, even if it’s a swollen, distended one, “Tubthumping” by way of “Marquee Moon.” The extended instrumental outro (a.k.a. the whole reason for the song by club standards) is one of the few times I’ve been able to hear, rather than just intellectually assent to, the usual claims made for techno’s build-and-release dynamism. Clubs, like football terraces, are alien landscapes to me; to make an impact, you’ve gotta be able to play to the earbuds.
83. Deee-Lite “Groove Is In The Heart”
(DJ Dmitry, Lady Miss Kier, Towa Tei, Q-Tip, Herbie Hancock)
World Clique [Elektra] • 1990
The first time I remember hearing this song (rather than the first time I actually heard it, as it’s always been more or less present in some sort of background manner) is when I failed to guess what song my brother-in-law was humming in a game of Cranium; all he could remember was the title phrase, but his frustration with my cluelessness (particularly after the smack I’d talked) was still magnificent. Once informed of the song’s title, I of course recognized it: I mentally filed it away as a faceless house song. Then I started doing research for this list. And this song kept popping up in all kinds of different places: chart lists, dance lists, Pitchfork lists. So I listened to it. And . . . .
Wait, Q-Tip has a guest verse? Wait, Towa Tei? I like Towa Tei! And Bootsy Collins! And a Herbie Hancock sample! And — is that the drum break from “Pet Sounds”? (Apparently not.) Okay, yeah, the chorus is a little prefab-housey, but the way she drags out and practically gargles the ends of lines is goofily adorable. As is, basically, the rest of the song. It’s cartoon pop, full of bright colors and giddily juxtaposed noises, and why didn’t anyone tell me about this? Answer: because you weren’t interested in the music of the 90s, dumbass.
Man, I’ve got so much catching up to do it’s not even funny. I’m hoping that after this is all over I’ll keep digging into the albums and discographies of the artists I’ve been sorting through, instead of just returning to my comfort zones of 1927-1934, 1956-1974, and 1977-1983. I know me, though.
82. Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Doggy Dogg “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang”
(Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Frederick Knight, Leon Haywood)
The Chronic [Death Row] • 1992
Give it up for what I believe is the only instance of gangsta rap [sic] on the list. (There are a couple of arguable cases down the line. We’ll argue about them when we get there.) Nothing makes me feel more like a Fox News commentator than using the phrase “gangsta rap” in 2009, but if I can’t use it to talk about Dr. Dre when can I use it? Okay, yeah, let’s settle on “g-funk,” which is more descriptive anyway. (To those who know. Armstrong’s Paradox.)
It’s labeled as a Dr. Dre joint, and it appears on a — sorry, make that the — Dr. Dre album, but it’s Snoop’s song to lose, and muhfucker runs with it. It’s basically his debut appearance in any kind of wide release, and suddenly rap has changed. After this song, forceful, uncompromising flow like Chuck D’s (and, uh, Dr. Dre’s) is not enough: Snoop’s lazy-voiced, surprisingly nimble flow — the apotheosis of every imagined easy-living pimp incarnate — has changed the game. I can feel the baking California sun, the way dust rises up and clogs the nostrils away from the coast, the high-pitched whine that is g-funk’s signature sound halfway between a siren and a busted brake pad. New York City has lost rap forever, at least as a life partner. From now on it’s going to be a polygamous relationship; and just wait until the South and Midwest start horning in.
I knew none of this at the time. The nagging g-funk whine was catchy; Snoop was, in his expurgated music-video appearances, a likeable comic figure; but guitar music was claiming my attention. I was, after all, a white teenaged American male. Please, no pity.
81. Guided By Voices “I Am A Scientist”
Bee Thousand [Scat] • 1994
As may have become clear from a careful perusal of these documents, cassette tapes were an important part of my early relationship with pop. Yet I haven’t listened to a cassette since 2003, and I only did then because the mix I wanted to make was too long for a CD. (Problem long since solved by the Age of iPod.) Audio fidelity has only something to do with it: although revisiting the tapes of my youth left me staggered at how little music I could actually make out underneath the rumbling hiss and grinding of physical wheels, I’m no audiophile, and in some contexts ambient noise produces the same effect anyway.
Still, when I first listened to the album most commonly agreed on as the one Guided By Voices which is required listening for the poor illiterate savages who made it through the nineties the first time without having heard a worthwhile note in ten years (yes I have a conflicted relationship with the rhetoric of indie rock, why do you ask, etc.), I was put off by the audible difference between it and, well, everything else on my iPod, even the stuff that had been mastered from wax cylinder: at least those pops and crackles had had their levels boosted properly. Welcome to lo-fi, I guess.
But as it does with everyone (note: this claim has not been backed up by any kind of quantitative research or analysis), the melodicism, the concision of expression, and yes, the charm of Robert Pollard’s greatest calling card eventually won me over. I can’t say I listen to Bee Thousand all the way through very often — another problem solved by the Age of iPod — but I never skip this one. No matter how many times the Dandy Warhols cover gets plastered over drippy sitcom montages, the muffled buzz of this song (which, tape hiss and all, sounds like Suicide channeling Blossom Toes) retains the electric spark that all pop seekers are chasing, if only they could hear it clearly enough.
80. Sixpence None The Richer “Kiss Me”
Sixpence None The Richer [Squint] • 1997
There is a sense in which this song is the musical equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting: all gauzy artificiality and concentrated, unrelenting prettiness, without the faintest hint of actual life, observed truth, or immediate passion anywhere. There is also a sense in which it is not.
I knew who Sixpence None The Richer were long before they were on the radio. They were part of a mid-90s surge in literate, intelligent Christian rock, with music more indebted to the Smiths and other English miserabilists than to the usual Christian-rock tropes (which are to imitate the sounds of pop radio two years prior), and lyrics which wrestled with faith, morality, and the fragile bonds of human relationships in an introspective, abstract manner that at times approached profundity. Only at times — songwriter Matt Slocum’s most impressive attribute was the length of his reading list, not the depth of his original thought — and their early albums were sketches in search of a sound, as they floundered on an unsupportive Christian indie that didn’t know how to market them.
Their third, self-titled album, on which this song appears, was one of the first releases on a new label, Squint Entertainment, which was 80s church ironist Steve Taylor’s effort at making Christian music relevant to the wider culture (but please don’t blame him for Creed). The second song begins with the words “This is my forty-fifth depressing tune,” and to Sixpence fans, it wasn’t far off: Slocum’s penchant for downbeat lyrics, slow tempos, and minor keys could be oppressive, saved only by Leigh Nash’s winsome voice and shrewd, patient delivery. It’s in the context of the album, set in the middle of mopey reflections on loss, pain, betrayal, community, and a Pablo Neruda poem, that “Kiss Me” deserves to be heard, that its full force is truly evident.
What it is, is hope. Yes, life is dark and depressing and nothing will ever entirely satisfy. But then on the other hand, there’s love. No, L. M. Montgomery’s vision of life isn’t all-encompassing any more than Morrissey’s is; but it’s nice to visit.
And there’s the fact that Matt Slocum, writing as a straight man, doesn’t change the gender signifiers, so if you really want to you can hear Leigh Nash asking someone in a flowered hat to kiss her.
79. Luscious Jackson “Naked Eye”
single [Capitol] • 1996
I resisted placing this song for a long time, partly because I misheard it as a Crystal Watersy trying-too-hard dance song, and partly because it seemed too modest, too reluctant to speak up for itself. (If you don’t hear songs as having personalities — entirely incidental to whatever the lyrics may be saying — I don’t know what to say. I can’t help you.)
But there are two reasons I finally broke down. The less important one is that I wanted a representative of the New York boho-dance scene, the one with roots in the post-punk of the late 70s (Talking Heads to ESG to Was Not Was), which incorporated hip-hop in the late 80s (via the Beastie Boys, no I’m serious) and by the mid-90s had given us Cibo Matto, Spearhead, and the prenominate J., Lusc. The scene would explode post-millennially thanks to the DFA and !!! and LCD Soundsystem and the conflation of uptown disco with downtown dance-punk, and that explosion, ironic and po-faced at the same time, would leave much of the quirk and sincere bohemianism of the 90s behind, so that it’s impossible to hear Luscious Jackson as anything but a period piece now. Just like the rest of their decade.
The other reason I broke down is that I listened to the song over and over again, and it won me over in spite of my resistance. This is not unusual; in fact throughout the compilations of these lists I’ve placed songs that I didn’t know very well, confident that repeated exposure would justify their position. (No, I’m not telling you which ones. A man needs some mystery.) I think what it was was the galloping fills during the “coming down on me” refrain. And the unflustered white-girl rapping. That’s something you never hear anymore, not since rap ascended to undisputed dominion over all pop: white people rapping in their own voice and style, without trying to imitate black styles or being Eminem. No, she ain’t got flow. The Rolling Stones never had the blues, either, but the latter-day tension around white coöption of black music has inevitably left white culture the poorer.
Yeah, yeah, cry you a river.
78. Air “Le Soleil Est Près Du Moi”
(Jean-Benoît Dunckel, Nicolas Godin)
single [Source] • 1997
The Millennium Began Three Years Early;
Or, How To Redeem The Promise Of European Avant-Pop From The Early 70s.
How do you hear this song? Is it too slow and boring, too one-note, too soft and gauzy and AM-pop? Is it a weird pre-echo of the Daft Punk that became rock stars? Is it just plain Air, mellow and atmospheric and all-around excellent?
I don’t know what goes through your head when you hear this. What goes through mine is roughly:
Longtime French pop chancer Michel Polnareff’s 1971 album Polnareff’s is one of the most perfect pop albums of all time. Building on the carefully-controlled atmospheric innovations of his compatriots Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Claude Vannier, he added a bit of the electronic manipulation that was just beginning to take root in the global pop scene; less than two years later, Kraftwerk in Germany, Giorgio Moroder in Italy, and Les Rockets in France would start the ball rolling in the long slow lane towards techno. With his smoothly-orchestrated pop songs informed by drones, cocktail lounge, and MIDI technology, Polnareff sounds like nothing more than all the art-pop inclinations of the mid-90s stuffed together into a time capsule, waiting to explode. “Le Soleil Est Près Du Moi” is a collection of all those loungey, spacey experiments, distilled down to a single song.
The synthesized robo-voices owe something to Kraftwerk, but more to Les Rockets, and (as you might have noticed) Daft Punk and Kanye West would steal them for further exploration. Air would go on to release mighty, dreamy albums and garner a critical and popular reputation far more thoroughgoing than their inspirations; but I’m not sure they ever got better than this.
77. Boyz II Men “Motownphilly”
(Nathan Morris, Shawn Stockman, Dallas Austin, Michael Bivins)
Cooleyhighharmony [Motown] • 1991
New jack swing entered its period of high decadence in the early 90s, just when I began listening. That spring-loaded rhythm, at once clattering with the energy of urban life and bouncy with the goofy carelessness of teen-pop, would be out of fashion within a year or two, but after nearly twenty years it sounds way better than the dense, dark beats that took over in uptempo r&b. (“Better” = I was thirteen.)
Boyz II Men are not nowadays remembered as one of the major groups of the 90s, but when I came of pop age they were everywhere, their smooth, inhuman harmonies one of the key sounds of pop radio. I learned about that classic pop trope, the spoken-word bridge, from them, in examples both pretty okay (“End Of The Road”) and terrible (“On Bended Knee”). But I only knew them as balladeers, unctuous lovermen whose instrumentation echoed with insincere solemnity: their duet with Mariah Carey was both entirely typical and, as far as I was concerned, their swan song. I was beginning to distinguish good music from bad, and rock & roll from non-rock (which was, ah youth, the same thing). I didn’t think about them for fifteen years.
But you know how it is. You talk yourself into doing an insane thing on your blog where you pick your favorite hundred songs of each decade of the twentieth century, and because you’re afraid your inevitable blind spots will make it too easy for people to make fun of you, you download massive amounts of music from those decades and start listening to them in preparation for making the list. You find a collection called 100 Greatest R&B Songs Of The 1990s (you are not able to find out who compiled the list, but what the hell), and download it and listen to it and you keep coming back to #72 on the list, which surprised and enraptured you. This is Boyz II Men? you think. But this is, like, good!
Indeed. The uptempo beat, which every now and then works itself into a drill formation, is the least of it: BIIM are mythologizing themselves, and mythologizing the Philly r&b scene they came out of, shouting out to Another Bad Creation and Bell Biv Devoe (whose Michael Bivens contributes his own spoken-word part). Their slick harmonies are far more magical in this overheated environment than in the lugubrious ballads that came later, especially when the wall of sound drops away and they sing a pointillist riff: “dm dm dm daddup,” &c. I loved Take 6 way too much in my Christian youth not to respond to that.
76. Suede “The Drowners”
(Bernard Butler, Brett Anderson)
single [Nude] • 1992
I suppose I can just barely hear how this was a shock to the system of British pop music in the early 90s — guitars were back! Stylish cool and glamorous self-assertion was in! — but Suede has rarely meant more to me than as a gesture towards other, more fully-developed musics. This song is one of the exceptions.
See, Brett Anderson’s strangled, androgynous yelp owed more than a little to David Bowie’s epochal 70s work, and Bernard Butler’s massed riffing guitars were basically nicked from T. Rex ca. “Twentieth Century Boy,” but the hypnotic cyclical rhythm pounded on the toms drew as much from trance and druggy acid house as from Suzi Quatro or Gary Glitter, and it’s the sleek modernization of glam, more than anything unique and particular to Suede themselves, that really grabs me by the throat.
Trashheap chic is of course unoriginal by definition, being built out of scavenged parts, and Suede’s political-cultural ethos — the way its vision of sleazy, androgynous glamour is essentially a palimpsest of more “authentic,” less surgically airbrushed visions — is a large part of their appeal. I can never forget the first Suede song I heard: a cover of Noël Coward’s “Poor Little Rich Girl,” a mocking 1927 study of the Bright Young Things mocked and studied in Evelyn Waugh’s early novels, a generation of wealthy wastrels aching for real lived experience (generally in the form of Negro entertainment) and defensively ironic, unable to allow themselves the vulnerability of emotion. (Also, scabrously funny. Read Waugh, folks.) Privileged, irony-soaked youth driven by lust, drugs and fear are a constant regardless of generation. It’s to Suede’s credit that they inhabit the idea so well.
N.B. This is normally called the first Britpop single. I tend to enjoy Britpop, but I heartily endorse all anti-fans-of-Britpop policies. Especially when they’re Americans. Like me.
75. PJ Harvey “Sheela-Na-Gig”
(Polly Jean Harvey)
Dry [Too Pure] • 1992
A Sheela na Gig is a decorative carving found on medieval buildings, usually (though not exclusively) in historically Celtic regions. It displays a simplified female form with an exaggerated vulva. The Wikipedia page is fascinating. I’m pretty sure there was a Hellboy story that mentioned the concept. Anyway.
PJ Harvey’s song of the same name can be understood epistemologically as an exercise in feminist anthropology, conflating the historico-architectural fact of the carvings (which are historic0-architecturally uncertain as to their textual meaning (in a quasi-Lacanian sense)) with the horror of female sexuality visible in a wide swath of modern cultural production up to and including the common masculine-feminine relational axis. Interrogative references from the worlds of capitalist pornography, intermammalian biology, colonialist American musical theater of the post-war era, and gay poetics are drawn in to comment on and at times subvert the original radical-feminist thesis of female power and male fear. (Translation: I’m an English lit major.)
Also, it’s a kickass rock song, jarringly funky in the Rodgers & Hammerstein breakdown and darkly funny in its portrait of a relationship made intolerable by one partner’s squeamishness. Polly Jean Harvey grew up on a farm; the false niceties of civilized society are generally not a priority for her.
I’ve talked about my rather uneasy reaction to PJ Harvey’s music elsewhere. I’m aware (or I think I am) that her longtime listeners tend to dismiss this song as lightweight, but I’m pretty sure it’s made me a fan.
74. Orbital “Halcyon”
(Phil Hartnoll, Paul Hartnoll, Ed Barton)
single [London] • 1993
Anyone who has paid close attention to these lists over the years (needs to get a life, yes, but also) might be aware that a rule of thumb for them has been No Instrumentals. Partly this is because as a pop fan instrumental songs are harder to peg down than song songs; partly it’s because I don’t have the musical vocabulary with which to discuss composition and theory with any kind of justice; and partly it’s because you’ve got to put boundaries somewhere or the whole enterprise collapses into a viscuous goo of Everything All At Once. Well, kind of. The hardy souls who have braved my 20s and 30s lists know that there are exceptions to this rule. Congratulations on your percipience; and pop followed different rules back then.
Which brings us to this.
First and less importantly, I’m not convinced that this song has no lyrics. It has no words attatched to a syntactic meaning, sure; but there are (looped and patterned) human voices, and if the outro to “Hey Jude” counts as pop, so does this.
Second, assuming that this is an instrumental. Pop followed different rules back then; and it follows different rules now, comparing both periods to pop’s Classical Era (1956-1988, or Elvis to Techno). A good portion of purely electronic music has slowly established itself as a sort of post-bop for the millennial era, a complex and not easily accessible form of quite large compositional, performative, and dynamic freedom. But just as post-bop had its origins in the (pop) jazz of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, modern electronic has roots in dancefloor fillers that aimed as much at the head as at the ass.
This is a limited-release 7″ mix of the song, which was originally released as a the ten-minute title track on an EP and then as the original capper to Orbital’s brown album (as “Halcyon+On+On”). Having to conform to the compressed running time of the 45-rpm single did wonders for Orbital’s tendency to meander: “Halcyon” is now a highly concentrated shot of bliss, evocative and aching in all the right places.
73. Stone Temple Pilots “Interstate Love Song”
(Robert DeLeo, Scott Weiland)
Purple [Atlantic] • 1994
This is probably the place where I talk about grunge.
Except I’d rather drive saguaro needles into my eyelids than participate in anything so deathly boring and grindingly predictable as the usual Internet pissing match about the most overrated/necessary/media-hyped/heroically successful, then tragically betrayed/lively/dull/full of power and meaning/lacking pop’s primal impulse to entertain/what the hell are you talking about have you ever really listened man scene in rock history. Besides, STP aren’t really grunge anyway. If they were, it would have been a more interesting genre.
This song is a Southern Rock song. Yeah, it has the usual post-Seattle signifiers of raging guitars, semi-cryptic lyrics (though not really; Weiland’s a pop songwriter, not goddamn T.S. Eliot), raspingly weary vocals, and plodding tempo, but listen again: those chords are pure Skynyrd, that riff is secondhand Allman, the lyrics not all that far from the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See.” In fact, when I first started listening to classic rock, there was a disorienting period of déjà vu: I knew those songs, even though I’d never heard them in my life. (Yes, it’s possible. Grow up fundamentalist, then start listening to the radio in Guatemala. Let me know how it goes.)
Stone Temple Pilots were always, quietly, my band. Nirvana was too mythologized, Pearl Jam too earnest, Alice In Chains too anguished, Soundgarden too grandstanding, Mudhoney and Screaming Trees too unheard. STP was the first of the wave of imitators, and like any good Southern Californians they understood far better than the original Seattle scenesters the imperative towards posing and calculation that pop demands. They couldn’t sell out; they were never authentic. The authentic always eventually fades and rots; the artificial is artificial forever.
72. The Roots “The Next Movement”
(?uestlove, Black Thought, Kamal Gray, Hub, Mercedes Martinez, Tracey Moore)
Things Fall Apart [MCA] • 1999
The one thing about the Roots that everyone knows — they use real instruments omg — is not entirely true on this track. Yeah, the drums and bass and keyboard are live, but DJ Jazzy Jeff (I’d sigh nostalgically over his beginnings with Fresh Prince, but I missed it at the time and have not been particularly grabbed since) throws a bunch of old-school samples and scratches over the loping, acid-jazz beat set up by ?uestlove and company. Black Thought’s cerebral, wide-ranging wordplay on the verses is set off by a chorus as dumb-awesome as any club banger: “We got the hot hot music, the hot music.”
I’m not sure I buy it. All hot music is cool, but not all cool music is hot, and the organ trills and cooing female backup singers set this firmly in the cool column. Which is unusual for a hip-hop track, frankly, and even more so for hip-hop in the late 90s. Not a dis, except this was the era of Puff Daddy’s commercial dominance, which is a massive dis on the face of the world itself.
But the Roots’ abnormality in their contemporary context is sort of the point. They’ve been a lot of indie kids’ entry into hip-hop (not mine, though; I came to them late), and on this track particularly you can hear why: intelligence, particularity and microscopic grades on the emotional spectrum tend to win over freak, funk and fire in the bedrooms of skinny sweater-wearers. Again, not a dis. Pop vs. indie is a common dichotomy, but entrenched oppositions are inimical to pop, which is ravenously multivalent and has no patience with ideological fervor either for or against. Meaning yeah, my instincts are largely indie too.
Sorry if the culture warring above makes no sense to you. Just click on the song and let the slippery funk slide over you.
71. Sam Phillips “Zero Zero Zero!”
Omnipop (It’s Only A Flesh Wound Lambchop) [Virgin] • 1996
Unpursued trains of thought while listening to this song for the several thousandth time:
1) The production sounds like Jon Brion, but it’s actually T-Bone Burnett, who was married to Sam Phillips throughout the 90s. He’s best known (maybe) for the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack and related Americana-soaked authenticity, but he can do anything.
2) The fact that the song piles up every discarded, corny cliché of the easy-listening 60s, from Hawaiian “exotica” and harp glissandos to pillowy Bacharach horns and hammy choirs is a count in its favor, not against.
3) Sam Phillips was one of my earliest musical crushes in the mid-80s, when she was a Christian recording artist under her given name of Leslie; she rocked harder than anyone I’d ever heard before in 1984. Her voice is still toe-curlingly sexy.
4) Something about how the defiantly minor nature of this song makes it an unlikely and even (in some sense) wrong choice for a list like this, except hell and damn, it’s my list and it’s one of my favorite songs ever, forget Of The 1990s.
5) This album is one of the great pop albums, cynical, sweet, sarcastic, wounded, scared, and hopeful all at once. And it’s on sale really cheap at a used record store near you.
70. Black Star ft. Common “Respiration”
(Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Hi-Tek, Common)
Black Star [Rawkus] • 1998
I can feel the city breathing/chest heaving against the flesh of the evening/sigh before we die like the last train leaving
That’s poetry, that is: modernist poetry of a particularly American school, Carl Sandburg and early T. S. Eliot by way of Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison, “my soul has grown old with the rivers” for a new urban, technocratic generation. All that, together with the muted smooth-jazz backing and the Spanish-language whispering, might have resulted in one of those dire orgies of tastefulness that can too often occur when well-intended bourgies (of any race) try to make High Art out of vernacular forms: tedious ethnic mélange fit only for turtlenecked NPR heads.
But that’s not what the song is.
It’s no gangsta rap, for sure — its vision is too expansive, too interested, too complex for that. At stake is nothing less than a comprehensive statement of what it’s like to be young, black, smart, and passionate in New York on the eve of the millennium. Even Talib Kweli, the most-praised underachiever in conscious hip-hop, brings as much of an a-game as it’s possible for him to. Brother’s got worse flow than a Minnesota dairy farmer, but his writing is sharp and on-point, living up to Mos Def’s standard-setting opening verse and even managing a couple of indelible images. Hell, you know it’s a great track when one of Common’s best verses is merely gravy, adding to the vision without being necessary to it.
By the end, even the smooth-jazz guitar is plucking the strings of an aching, too-full heart.
69. Gin Blossoms “Hey Jealousy”
New Miserable Experience [A&M] • 1992
Collegiate jangle-pop meets the muscle and gloss of corporate rock. Divide by Tom Pettyish scene-setting, throw in a bit of Southwestern-fried twang and tabasco, and one of the great dumb-literate lyrics of early-90s radio rock. (A scene overflowing with dumb-literate lyrics.)
I have no specific memory of this song at the time: it was one of four or five Gin Blossoms songs that seemed to have sprouted on the radio all at once, each one as jangly, fizzy, and depressive as the last. Revisiting them, it’s the drums that stand out: the guitar lines are as shapeless and predictable as anything ever, but the drums, which hit hard and, by accenting the beat in interesting ways, shape the songs into coherent narratives, are what stick in the mind and make the return fresh every time.
Or whatever. Honestly, if you don’t have time for the Gin Blossoms I don’t know what to say. I’ll never own an album, but I’ll never not be ready for the three minutes and change it takes to go down their particular road, one song at a time.
68. Aphex Twin “Windowlicker”
(Richard D. James)
single [Warp] • 1999
Hey, remember back when rock was dead and electronica, or intelligent dance music, or whatever stupid name people had for it was going to be the music of the future? Real music would be nothing but a sea of faceless, lyricless songs created on computers and full of complicated beats and bizarre sonorities. Thank God the Strokes came along and saved us from a fate worse than death.
I’m kidding. It was Outkast who saved us.
Still, there was a moment there; the moment when Richard D. James was, briefly, one of the most important musicians in the world. Important in the real sense, not the music-journalist sense, in that he got real people excited about listening to music obsessively, trying to figure it out, parse it, understand where it came from. It was, as they say, gonna be a thing.
(His penchant for creepy videos certainly helped, back in those dim, distant days when you had to turn on a television to see music videos so indelible images made an impact, instead of just playing on Youtube while you do something else in another tab.)
There are still a few techno die-hards left (mostly in Europe, as far as I can tell), but the lack of banner carriers has left it a dedicated niche genre. Or, more positively, almost all of its major ideas have been incorporated into the mainstream of pop by now. Timbaland, the Neptunes, and Britney alone.
Still, there was a moment, a moment when a glitchy, cut-n-paste thing of fractured beats and processed voices that sound like nothing so much as Monty Python’s brain-damaged Gumbys trying to hum a tune, a thing without any lyrics (except for one sample of a woman speaking French), a thing that at the right volumes and frequencies is the most irritating thing on earth, could be a kind-of sort-of hit, if you knew the right people.
I almost never listen to Aphex Twin. But I’m glad to have it in my back pocket, just in case I ever need to remember that the sonic world is much larger than I usually give it credit for being.
67. Harvey Danger “Flagpole Sitta”
(Sean Nelson, Jeff J. Lin, Aaron Huffman, Evan Sult)
Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? [Arena Rock] • 1997
In the summer of 1998, I came back to Phoenix from a year spent in Illinois. I won’t bore you with the details, except to say I hated the world, myself in particular, and as it became increasingly clear that I wasn’t going to return to Illinois but was stuck in this flesh-cracking, dry-baking hellhole of a city, I found that the radio matched my foul mood.
Or rather, that what was on the radio was so shitty as to turn my mood even fouler, matching the bleakness of my interior life with a sonic and lyrical bleakness that was also matched by the ungodly, life-destroying heat wafting from every cement, asphalt, and glass surface in the arid, tire-streaked city. (This would be “alternative” radio. I was still in thrall to the dumbass guitars=good belief system.) This was the apotheosis of Third Eye Blind and the Goo Goo Dolls and Everclear and Eve 6 and on and on and it was all so terrible and my life was folding in on itself like an imploding universe.
I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong. “Flagpole Sitta” was not a breath of fresh air in that stale, airless climate: it was simply more of the same, only in extremis. The cheap cynicism in the lyrics, the relentlessly cheery punk-pop swing to the beat, the pounding guitars so perfectly embodied the sensation of being suffocated in blistering vapidity that it drove its way into my skull and now is simply part of my psyche.
Whenever I think someone’s being paranoid, I sing the third verse to myself. I can’t help it. (It’s better than singing Garbage, or even Black Sabbath. And you’d be surprised how often the whole thing applies.) It’s simply part of my lexicon now. And listening to it again, I discovered that not only is it part of me, but now that I am so little what I was then, that I actually have affection for the song. I particularly like the spacey, psychedelic “kill my mind” bridge before the song comes roaring back into that aforementioned third verse.
Some of these songs are on the list because I loved them when I was young. Some of them are on the list because I learned to love them later. This is the only one that’s on the list because I hated it.
66. Breeders “Cannonball”
Last Splash [4AD] • 1993
Yep, you thought this was going to be on the list. You were right. Just make a note of its position and let’s move on.
No, seriously, I’m finding this song curiously resistant to having anything said about it. It’s a perfect alt-pop song, only it’s shaped all wrong and wearing very weird colors, and it’s practically avant-garde in the way its elements are all stacked up against each other any which way, as though it didn’t matter what way they were thrown together. It’s only rescued by the fact that each of those elements is a perfect pop moment, from Kim Deal’s sugary vocals to the stuttering guitar distortion to the wholesale theft of the chant from the March of the Winkies in The Wizard Of Oz. And that rubbery, slippery bassline, which gives the song its spidery backbone.
Apparently the song was a hit in the U.S.; it wasn’t in Guatemala, and I only heard it because of later investigations into the Pixies and so forth. Unlike every goddamn other music nerd of my generation (it feels like) I don’t have any special relationship with the Pixies or the Breeders; all I know is what I hear. I like it a lot, it was just never transformative or definitive in a way it seems to have been for a lot of people.
So there you go. I found something to say about it.
65. Mariah Carey “Dreamlover”
(Mariah Carey, Dave Hall, David Porter)
Music Box [Sony] • 1993
I’m not sure I can explain this one. The reader I have in my head (which probably has no relation to anyone who’s actually reading this) needs no explanation for “Cannonball” — it’s probably already part of their personal canon. Confronted with this, though, they go “what the hell?”
And I understand that, believe me. For a long time I held the position that Mariah Carey had, if not single-handedly, then at least with a minimum of accomplices (Whitney Houston and let’s say Janet Jackson) destroyed r & b for any purposes other than hearing an overdone melisma and no feeling whatever. And sure, the massive ballads that made her name are still more or less unlistenable. What she did to Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” is unconscionable. (Yes, Harry Nilsson’s, not Badfinger’s. What are you, an animal?) But I’ve been coming around.
I think what did it for me, honestly, was hearing her new stuff. She no longer has the supernatural range that she had in this song, when that falsettissimo was unaided by computer trickery; but she’s grown into a sexy-older-woman role, slightly less crazy than the subsequent generation (Britney, Beyoncé, et. al.), but still crazy enough to try weird experiments and have them work at the top of the Billboard charts. “Touch My Body” is a Laurie Anderson song with sex; “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time” is a Gamble & Huff song with a T.I. verse.
And “Dreamlover”? Let’s just say that when I was fifteen, man did I want to be the guy this was sung to. Over the rest, a veil is discreetly drawn.
64. Arthur Russell “This Is How We Walk On The Moon”
Another Thought [Point] • 1994
Part of me wants to say, just play it and you’ll see. But I suppose some context is in order.
Arthur Russell was an avant-garde disco producer in the late 70s and early 80s. Associated with the hedonism of the gay disco scene (Larry Levan, Nicky Siano), the rigor of New York’s downtown avant-music scene (Sonic Youth, Phillip Glass, Rhys Chatham), and the fragile, mutated pop he created on his own time (World Of Echo is one of the great albums of the 80s), he was diagnosed as HIV-positive in the mid-80s and died in 1992. Another Thought, a collection of experiments, demos, and unfinished thoughts, was released two years later.
Which explains why this song sounds so ghostly. What it doesn’t explain is the sense of joy. “Every step is movin’ me up” — it’s a curious phrase that can recall both Angels in America and The Jeffersons. As the spare, fluttering cello that opens the song is joined by beats, secondary voices, and then — magically, life-affirmingly — horns, the song bursts out of its cocoon as a dance song. Then the bottom drops out as the title is chanted by robots.
Maybe you have to hear it at the right time, or in the right way. But it’s one of the very greatest songs that almost nobody has ever heard.
63. The Cranberries “Linger”
(Dolores O’Riordan, Noel Hogan)
Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? [Island] • 1993
We all have embarrassing pasts, and the Cranberries are mine.
It’s not that I’m embarrassed for liking them: my usual attitude towards the critical consensus is “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me,” to quote an act who (sadly) won’t be making an appearance on this list. I’m embarrassed for them, rather, or specifically for Dolores O’Riordan, and even more specifically for her cringeworthy lyrical choices. You kind of have to admire somebody so convinced of the purity of their emotional expression that they’re unaware that “you’ve got me wrapped around your finger/do you have to let it linger” is a howler on an epic scale.
Which, if I listened to pop the way I read poetry (or even prose), would consign the Cranberries to perdition forever, without a second thought. (The books I’ve left unread after a single infelicitous sentence on the second page!) But I don’t listen to pop that way. Lyrics are required, but they’re also more or less gravy. It’s the emotion of the song I’m after, and that’s all about the composition and instrumentation and production and performance. The lyrics run a distant fourth or fifth in the construction of a song’s emotion. (Exceptions include, say, the Mountain Goats or Leonard Cohen, where they leave the songs so unadorned that the lyrics have to be the central focus.)
Even so, I can understand people for whom this kind of thing is too lugubrious, lyrics aside. And quite frankly if I was hearing it for the first time today I probably wouldn’t care for it either. But when I was fifteen my favorite hard rock song was “Zombie” and “Ode To My Family” made me cry. I can no more disown the Cranberries than I can disown my own adolescence. Much as I’d like to, in hindsight.
62. Manic Street Preachers “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”
(James Dean Bradfield, Sean Moore, Nicky Wire)
This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours [Epic] • 1998
Wikipedia tells me this song is about the Spanish Civil War, inspired by George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia and by the Clash’s “Spanish Bombs.” Huh.
I always heard it as a simple call to arms (or rather, non-arms) for all people of good intent. There are so many intolerable things in the world, and catastrophe always rests on a knife edge. Or at least that is the world conjured up by the song, a world of limpid moral clarity in which fascism walks abroad and rising against it is incumbent on all of us. There is a significant strain of such black-and-white do-or-die heroics in many of my favorite works of art, from the Lord Of The Rings to The Code Of The Woosters. (No, really.) Which is odd, because on a philosophical level I tend towards murk and delicately nuanced shades. But for the space of a novel — or of a song — it’s a nice world to live in.
61. Blind Melon “No Rain”
(Shannon Hoon, Christopher Thorn, Rogers Stevens, Brad Smith, Glen Graham)
Blind Melon [Capitol] • 1992
On some level I’m a little annoyed that, having grown up in the 90s, so much of it feels so consummately normal to me. Take this song. I have no idea when I first heard it: it was just there. But listening to it now, with headphones, with full concentration, I find it difficult to believe that I — that everyone — just accepted it as normal in 1992. It’s an acid-fried song, a phase-shifted, color-bleeding ballad that could have come out of Syd Barrett as played by Jefferson Airplane in 1969.
I don’t generally have a kind word to say for hippies, but acid-damaged freaks are something else. Shanoon Hoon’s spacey, otherworldly vocal — as well as his faintly pathetic, drug-shortened life — touch the romantic in me. I can understand the impulse to want to shift everything, to bleed the colors from red to yellow, to live in a heightened state of reality. And I’m impressed that he was able to get it down so perfectly on tape, on this song. Singing like an Axl Rose who never lost his innocence over an electric hootenanny with just enough slippage to make the unwary wonder if they’re still in the right universe, Hoon conjures up a mood that only the legendary German psych-rock band Faust has ever matched, in my experience. (“It’s A Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl.” Check it.)
This installment has been heavy on the familiar; perhaps, to some people, overfamiliar. That was part of my intent with this project: to reclaim worthwhile and memorable pop from the dustbin of fashion. While I was preparing for this project, I read The Pitchfork 500, a list of 500 important songs from 1977 to 2007 according to the dudes at Pitchfork. It struck me that while their selections from the 70s, 80s, and 00s seemed about right, their 90s tended to be skewed in strange ways. Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and Madonna’s “Holiday” made the 80s list, but nothing remotely that commercial made an appearance in the 90s. We’re too embarrassed by our own youths. If we can reclaim the kitsch of other generations, we can reclaim our own. Onward.
60. Gang Starr “Jazz Thing”
(DJ Premier, Guru, Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard)
single [Sony] • 1990
One of my inspirations for much of what I do here (and the specific inspiration for including playable tracks) was Noel Murray’s Popless at the Onion’s A.V. Club. Noel’s much more of a rockist than I am; in fact, he confesses that almost everyone in his jazz collection was sampled only because Guru namechecked them in “Jazz Thing.” (Funnily enough, he’s not a big hip-hop guy, either.) I’d be tempted to point and laugh, but we all have our zigzag histories, and just because I came of musical age in the omnivorous post-Napster era doesn’t mean I don’t have unfortunate gaps either. (As witness much of this list.)
In the early 1990s Gang Starr was one of the great New York hip-hop outfits with a complex discography that spoke to every aspect of the black experience, including both criminality and consciousness — but it’s characteristic of me that the tune I latch onto is merely a big-up to a genre of music for which no gangsta, real or wannabe, had any time. I always think of a scene I happened upon from some late-90s teen movie on cable, in which a white girl is shyly getting to know the cool black guy from across the tracks. They’re looking at someone else’s record collection: “Do you like jazz?” she asks tentatively, and he shakes his head, making a face. She laughs, relieved. They are young and beautiful: of course they don’t like jazz. That has always seemed to me to perfectly sum up my generation, so it’s always with relief that I find someone like Guru willing to go to the mat for Ornette, Thelonious, and Dizzy.
His history may be a bit lacking — I’m thinking of the unnecessary dis to white impresario Paul Whiteman, who’s been somewhat rehabilitated in recent years (i.e. he wasn’t a jazzman, but he did almost more than anyone to popularize jazz and give it the cultural clout it enjoyed for the next four decades) — and his prediction that “the nineties will be the decade of a jazz thing” could only be true for listeners who found in Gilles Peterson all they could ever want in life, but his and Premier’s obvious affection for, deep knowledge of, and commitment to the music of their fathers is the kind of thing that keeps me interested in music. Even if a lot of people aren’t comfortable with that kind of historical telescoping.
Aesthetic theorists call it “essentialism,” the idea that every genre or form has a “pure” or “perfect” expression, and that to crossbreed or blur the boundaries is to put your work beyond the pale. Me, I’m with cartoonist Eddie Campbell: “We should not quibble [as to categories or conventions]. We should only ask whether it increases the sum total of human wisdom.” Gang Starr does.
59. Smashing Pumpkins “Today”
Siamese Dream [Virgin] • 1993
1. One of my best friends in high school only half-jokingly said that this would be the perfect song to play as the entroit to his graduation ceremony. Although I have been out of high school for over a decade, I still see no reason to disagree.
2. It’s such an inexpressible joy to hear Billy Corgan’s voice so low in the mix that it flutters and distorts along with the rest of the sonic washes. I’ve repeatedly made the mistake of attempting to listen to his post-millennial material.
3. The infamous quiet-loud-quiet-loud pattern supposedly pioneered by Pixies and definitely popularized by Nirvana was never, in my view, effected with greater economy or force than in this song.
4. The Pumpkins had a pretty neat signature sound at their peak, a sort of Bauhaus-as-produced-by-Tom-Scholz-of-Boston dark stadium glam that was pretty effective for a while there, although like many things about this decade, it can be hard to hear for the overfamiliarity of it all.
5. That signature sound was pretty handicapped by Corgan’s screeching whine, though. Except, as noted, when it was mixed low enough, and he just sounded like a crazy person trying to be heard through all the noise in his head, rather than a crazy person screaming at you and blaring noise at you on the street.
6. I really don’t have any good reasons for numbering these comments, except I only had these small, disconnected thoughts and didn’t want to put in the effort to build coherent paragraphs out of them.
7. Christian numerology says seven is the number of perfection. Ergo, this is a perfect write-up. And I wasted it on the Smashing Pumpkins.
58. Seal “Kiss From A Rose”
Seal [Sire] • 1994
You may have noticed that I have a thing for layered harmonies, particularly of black voices. (PM Dawn, Boyz II Men, some more upcoming). And sure, the sheer unearthly beauty of Seal’s voice as he winds through this rather stately melody is the kind of thing that makes a man glad he has ears, but that’s almost the least of this song’s charms.
But before we get into that, let me address a phrase that some — including myself in some moods — could use to dismiss this song or songs like it. “Adult contemporary.” (Involuntary shudders all round.) And yes; this is exactly the kind of inoffensive song that gets played in supermarkets along with solo Sting, the collected works of Celine Dion, and the unholy trinity of Bolton, Marx and G. But it can also comfortably share a playlist with Sadé or Bryan Ferry, who inhabit space at the more critically-legitimate end of the silky-ballad spectrum. As always, genre labels are not big enough sticks to beat songs with: register a real complaint.
On the heels of the Batman Forever soundtrack (that was a weird moment, by the way, when a middling soundtrack to an abysmal superhero movie produced two major chart hits), this song was all over Guatemalan airspace around the same time as a more justly-forgotten blowsy ballad, Martin Page’s “In The House Of Stone And Light.” The two are connected in my head — and, rather more embarrassingly, anchored to my soul — in a way that’s hard to explain, but I think can best be understood in light of the fact that I spent my high school years half in the waking world and half in Narnia, Middle-Earth, and Arthurian Logres. Fantasy imagery, particularly medieval imagery, was always going to catch my attention, at least until I grew sick of the fumbling, generic attempts to live up to those childhood mythoi.
But while Page’s song could merely provide the soundtrack to Ramandu’s Island (you cannot outnerd me on the works of C.S. Lewis), Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose” became, in my somewhat overheated imagination, the pop equivalent to the medieval dream-allegory The Romance Of The Rose, or Charles Williams’ densely poetic reworking of the story of Launcelot and Guenivere (itself deeply indebted to medieval courtly-love allegories) in Taliessin Through Logres. I think it’s mostly down to the repeating oboe figure: it’s a very high-medieval sound.
Like most people, I generally use pop for different ends now, but I suppose soundtracking a complex and intensely-felt mythopoetic symbology is as valid a use as any other.
57. No Doubt “Don’t Speak”
(Gwen Stefani, Eric Stefani)
Tragic Kingdom [Trauma] • 1995
I remember precisely where I was when it first dawned on me that this was a great pop song, rather than just a song that exists on the radio and becomes part of the sonic wallpaper to a period in your life. I was sitting in my car, driving down Palm in central Phoenix, watching the giant stalks of the palm trees flick past. The flamenco guitar solo hit, then the pulsating muted trumpet just before Stefani takes the bridge, and I realized that my early, easy disdain for No Doubt (let’s just say I had a younger brother who was way too into third-wave ska) had melted away. Sure, the guitar pulse of the song is basically Aerosmith’s “Dream On” applied to a heavy-lidded SoCal sensibility, and the overpolished sheen of the thing is everything a right-thinking person should hate about 90s alt-rock, but — but flamenco! and a muted trumpet!
In retrospect, of course, this is where Gwen Stefani The Grand Mistress Of Junkyard Pop was born. Their early new-wavy ska-punk material was fine for what it was, but pitched far too minor, and without a major, genre-defying move like this, they would have disappeared around the time her pink hair dye faded. The song — and certainly the video — is about Gwen becoming bigger than the band, but it’s the fact that the song is, melodically and structurally, a tejano ballad, the sort of emotionally-lavish, melodramatic thing that Selena could have really gotten her teeth into, that really points the way to the future for me. That future would contain duets with electronica wimp Moby and r&b hotcha Eve, experiments with dancehall and reggaeton, and finally a solo career that led the way in mashing up global pop forms and topping the charts (again, globally) at the same time. By edging herself out of the pop-ska ghetto, Stefani takes the first steps down the road that would eventually produce “Hollaback Girl,” and anyone who can’t see what’s brilliant about “Hollaback Girl” ain’t no friend of mine.
But it’s as a song in its own right, rather than as a symbolic marker of some future aesthetic, that “Don’t Speak” is on this list, so I’ll just note that beyond the genre mashups, my favorite moment is the out-of-nowhere “I know you’re good, I know you’re real good” at the outro.
56. Whiskeytown “Houses On The Hill”
(Ryan Adams, Caitlin Cary)
Strangers Almanac [Outpost] • 1997
Here’s the thing: even though it’s obvious from a latter-day perspective that Ryan Adams only started out in alt-country because it was easier to get noticed there, and that his real interest was in doing everything as quickly as possible — even though with every passing year it gets easier to tell that Whiskeytown was as much a put-on and a persona as anything else he’s ever done — it’s still the best he’s ever been.
And I say that not as a function of nostalgia for any collegiate innocence; I only came to Whiskeytown after knowing Ryan Adams the rock star, and was taken by surprise. These songs were not the facile genre-by-numbers exercises I’d come to expect from Adams: they had deep roots, and branched out into unexpected grace notes, strung together with the lean complexity of literary fiction. In Whiskeytown, Adams lived outside his own head in a way he has only rarely attempted doing since. Maybe it was the being-in-a-band thing, maybe it was the influence of fiddler and harmonizer Caitlin Cary (whose own latter-day solo material has been equally thoughtful if never as immediate), maybe it was sheer youthful hunger and not knowing what he was doing.
But on songs like this one, Adams picked up the mantle of Hank Williams and George Jones and ran with it, investing the rich tapestry of American country with the mythic significance usually reserved for rock, and as Cary played Emmylou to his Gram, he painted a portrait of one of millions of forgotten lives that has made up all of democratic history. I’ll take that over more rock & roll self-mythologizing any day.
55. The Sundays “Here’s Where The Story Ends”
(David Gavurin, Harriet Wheeler)
Reading, Writing And Arithmetic [DGC] • 1990
Some people might say that, having always intended to include the Sundays on my list, there was no need to have included Sixpence None The Richer or the Cranberries, who are just watered-down versions of the Sundays in the first place. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that, but it overlooks a valuable point: melodic guitar pop featuring gossamer female voices is one of my very favorite kinds of music, as well as being a field in which the 90s excelled to an almost embarrassing degree.
“Here’s Where The Story Ends” is one of the great, unimpeachable singles of British indie, combining the winsome jangle of, oh, any number of 80s bands (we’ll start with Modern English and end with Lloyd Cole) with the lush soundscaping of dream-pop (Cocteau Twins, yes, sure, but there’s even a family resemblance with My Bloody Valentine in the drums). But it’s Harriet Wheeler’s performance, clear and creamy with a subcutaneous bite, a distance that seems at once intellectual and fragile, that elevates the song into a pantheon dominated mostly by young men in varying shades of off-key.
One of the key moments in the song is the word “cynically” repeated twice. But the glorious surge in Wheeler’s voice, the space that drops out for her to soar, sparrowlike, in the next few lines to the open-ended conclusion of the bridge — the girlish, pop giddiness of it all — puts the lie to the adjective. Cynicism has nothing at all to do this song, whether you take it as a giddy pop sugar rush or as the cheeriest, least traumatic breakup note of all time.
54. Morphine “Cure For Pain”
Cure For Pain [Rykodisc] • 1993
Morphine inhabits kind of an odd space in the cultural memory of the 1990s. I can’t think of too many bands beloved both by my best friend, who’s favorite music is jam bands and jazz and progressive metal — basically anything that takes a lot of skill to play — and the indie rock massive. Actually, I’m not real clear on that massive — maybe it’s just the people who were into indie rock in the 90s who still like Morphine. They’re not the furthest thing from Primus, which is, I’m pretty sure, anathema to the Pitchforkier among us. Morphine are more or less forgotten (as much as anything that recent can be), but nobody dislikes them — if only because disliking Mark Sandman would be such a dick move. The man died of a heart attack on stage, and had a pretty rough childhood as well.
Not that the climate of opinion about them matters that much — at least not when the music starts. A unique lineup of two-string bass guitar, bluesy saxophone, and percussion gave them their signature “low rock” sound, and their prediliction for jazzy chords and odd time signatures makes them more rewarding to return to than many of their more era-confined peers.
This, the title cut off their breakthrough album, is unlike the majority of their more popular singles: breezing at a low tempo, not attempting any weird urban-rock posturing, and riding the sax hook rather than being dominated by the bass (which sounds not unlike a guitar in spots). And then there’s those lyrics. I’ve encountered some grief after calling lyrics “gravy” earlier in this list, and while I stand by my contention that good lyrics and bad music makes a bad pop song, while bad lyrics and good music can still make a good song (incorporating far more than mere composition under the umbrella of “music”), I will also note that consistency is the hobgoblin of something something. Anyway, my point was that Mark Sandman sounds exactly like Nick Lowe on this song, both lyrically and vocally, and that is about as high praise as I can give.
53. Jay-Z “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”
(Jay-Z, The 45 King, Charles Strouse, Martin Charmin)
Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life [Roc-A-Fella] • 1998
How do you prove you’re the new king of hip-hop, the man who must be taken into account, the heir to the power centers represented by Biggie and Nas — and even more than that, because you won’t die like Biggie or drift into commercial irrelevance like Nas, but you’ll stay on top for another decade at least? One way is to slowly build up a head of critical and cultural clout by making your debut album an unassailable document of aspirational hustling that would set the benchmark for the next ten years of hip-hop mythology, incorporating the violent glamour of mafia mythology into your sharp-edged, clear-eyed street reportage.
Another is to stomp all pretenders and aspirants by releasing a song built around the orphans’ chant in the 1977 musical Annie, which was a corny throwback even then and unworthy of the gritty, populist realism of Harold Gray’s era-defining comic strip. If power, as Steven Spielberg claimed via Oskar Schindler, lies in refraining from murder when you can get away with it, then the way to complete hip-hop domination is in aligning yourself with music and culture so recherché that lesser rappers wouldn’t have the balls to be associated with it for fear of undermining their cred. When you can dismantle your own credibility and be rewarded with commercial dividends undreamed of in Horatio’s philosophy, your credibility is unassailable.
But why choose? Jay-Z, of course, did both, and more: visionary entrepreneur, sucessful businessman, and canny self-marketer (his feud with Nas would be as elegantly orchestrated as his duets with Beyoncé), he beat the odds in the notoriously fickle world of hip-hop to have a long-term career predicated as much on what he had the balls to do as on his (very real) talent. No one else could make popularizing bhangra, dueting with Linkin fucking Park, retiring, marrying Beyoncé, not retiring after all, and singing “Wonderwall” at Glastonbury as a fuck-you to Oasis all seem incidental to a career producing top-flight hip-hop both as a rapper and as a businessman.
Also, the degree to which this song works really, really well is underrated. The oompah chug of the original song is sped up only slightly to match a springy funk beat, over which Jay-Z raps like a man unaware of the cognitive dissonance between adorable theater urchins and hard-faced, cred-is-everything New York hip-hop. Except that the dissonance only exists for those of us with Bernadette Peters-loving aunties: hip-hop is as theatrical as Broadway, and a future of increasingly oddball experiments on the charts is established.
52. Kahimi Karie “Good Morning World”
(Kahimi Karie, Momus)
single [Trattoria] • 1995
Japanese girl singer. Not a J-pop star as understood by those who watch the credits to anime, but rather a major figure in the shibuya-kei movement of mid-90s Japan, a cultural-mashup scene that took inspiration from the breezier side of 60s’ pop, whether that meant Burt Bacharach, Swinging London, French yé-yé, or Brazilian bossa nova, filtered through a postmodern samples ’n’ electronics sensibility. Pizzicatto Five, Cornelius, Fantastic Plastic Machine, and Flipper’s Guitar were other key figures in the scene, but (aside from Cornelius) only Kahimi has continued to evolve and branch out into less comfortable pop forms; her recent records are about as avant-garde as anyone with such a whispery, “cute” voice can get.
I said she wasn’t a J-pop star, but that’s kind of misleading. She’s not a plastic post-soul diva with ornate electronic orchestration, true, but this song did go to number one in Japan. Which is one of the most pleasant ironies I can think of: it quotes the Fall’s “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’”, samples Soft Machine (that wheeling psychedelic figure), and undercuts the sugar-sweet “it’s so nice to be a beautiful girl” refrain with sarcasm and a healthy sense of proportion.
Thank Momus, the song’s co-writer and producer. He’s a half-mad Scottish pop aesthete who first came to light in the late 80s on Mike Alway’s experimental/easylistening label él. A decent portion of 90s British indie can trace its roots to his unafraid pop songs; but he really came into his own when he moved to Japan and helped kick-start the shibuya-kei movement into high gear.
So there’s that.
51. Pet Shop Boys “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing”
(Chris Lowe, Neil Tennant)
Very [Capitol] • 1993
This song was my introduction to the Pet Shop Boys as a youth in Guatemala, a splurt of joy bouncing out of the radio one spring and intoxicating me with its bonhomie. I interpreted the Guate disc-jocky’s “peyshoboys” correctly, and started asking around. (This was pre-internet.) A friend who had spent most of her life in Zaire acknowledged that yeah, they were pretty good, “but you know they’re gay, right?”
As I’ve said before, the Pet Shop Boys made being gay sound like the coolest thing in the world, leaving those of us who had the misfortune to be attracted to the opposite sex out in a glamourless, witless, danceless cold, having to make do with Bon Jovi. (And not the good Bon Jovi either.) To be gay was to exist in a world of brighter colors and materials that responded to your touch; to live for the moment because you never knew what was going to happen; to always have the right thing to say and to say it at the right time; to have exquisite taste, and yet to allow tastelessness into the canon under the banner of camp; to be interested in everything, but never to give your heart fully because honey things just don’t work out that way.
With a bit more experience under my belt I can see that I was merely idealizing and fantasizing an Other, no different from the Magic Negro fantasy of earthy wisdom. Still, the Pet Shop Boys’ vision of acerbic hedonism is a powerful one, and never more so than on this vibrant, trembling streak of joy painted across an album of much darker complexity, one which grapples with AIDS and psychosexual relations and social problems and the Village People, with a sound that was equal parts day-glo synthpop and post-techno impressionism. But that bouncy, rabbity beat starts pounding, and I’d also like to dance naked to the Rite Of Spring. When you’re always cynical, going mushy for the space of a song is sweet rebellion.
50. Nirvana “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
(Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic)
Nevermind [DGC] • 1991
The song that changed everything. But not in the way you think.
Before “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” anguished self-absorption mixed uncomfortably with overwrought, unparticularized rage was limited to a small audience of underground punk-metal enthusiasts; after “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it became the lingua franca of teenage white suburbia, the quickest way to self-identify as sensitive and artistic, and incidentally superior to all the ballcap-wearing morons who embraced hip-hop and outnumbered you. Except, turns out all the ballcap-wearing morons also love Nirvana (as “In Bloom” noted in characteristically pissed-off fashion), but they’re hearing it differently: it’s music for moshing, for partying like an asshole to, for getting drunk to, for hitting girlfriends to. Nirvana unleashed something ugly and self-defeating into mainstream music, the poisonous flowers of which bloomed toward the end of the decade, in acts as differently awful as Marilyn Manson and Creed, the subliterate platitudes of Bush and the nerd-rage of Tool.
All of which makes it sound like I don’t like Nirvana. The truth is that I’m exhausted by Nirvana. I got all I can get out of them about a decade ago, and can no longer listen to them except by random chance, when hearing them cheek-by-jowl with very different kinds of songs tells me more about their strengths and limitations than any further close studies of Nevermind and In Utero can do.
Dave Grohl’s drumming, for one; “Smells Like Teen Spirit” could never have been the pop hit it was without his clipped, near-breakbeat sense of rhythm, and it’s his charismatic, unpretentious sense of humor that levels out and gives context to Cobain’s navel-gazing and unfocused despair. Would we ever have been able to recognize Grohl’s contributions without knowing Foo Fighters? Probably not; every goofy drummer should form a side project that eventually eclipses the original self-serious band.
Kurt Cobain’s sense of melody and secret classic-rock fetish, for another. It may be commonplace by now to note the rhythm guitar’s lift from Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” (or the main guitar figure from “Come As You Are” from the Killing Joke’s “Eighties”), but that’s doesn’t make the result any less thrillingly pop. Even while sharing the grungy, anti-everything underground’s mania for detuned minor keys and inscrutable (but probably unpleasant) lyrics, Cobain had a real gift (which he despised) for a sweet-and-sour melody, the biggest reason that Nirvana broke huge and remained huge.
And there’s the production, probably the biggest reason anyone listened in the first place. The song follows Berry Gordy’s dictum of grabbing from the first seconds: that whipping rhythm guitar, then Grohl’s mighty drums, then BAM that wall of sound which still makes me want to jump around like a sixteen-year-old headbanger. It’s the perfect marriage of alt fire and pop sheen, and the only thing wrong with it is that it’s overfamiliar. Spend enough time away from it, though, and it’ll grab you by the throat next time you hear it.
And then there’s Krist Novoselic. He doesn’t get in the way.
49. Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories “Stay”
Reality Bites Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [RCA] • 1994
I spent the summer of 1994 on the road, visiting relatives and friends in an aluminum-can minivan until I totaled it between some Nebraska cornfields (landing upside-down in a ditch, my life saved only by the hard-shell carrier on top of the minivan), then in a brown-and-tan Suburban which would be the vehicle of my junior and senior years. It was the summer that “Stay” began to be played on the radio, on the back of a supposedly generation-defining movie I’ve never been motivated to see. That movie, of course, was Forrest Gump. At least those are the twined tendrils in my memory; I read about Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis in Newsweek, then went into the room I was sleeping in — a ten-year-old girl’s room; the family was on vacation and letting a Guatemalan missionary family stay in their house for a couple of weeks — turned on the radio, and heard Lisa Loeb’s sweet, innocent voice cycle through hurt, recrimination, despondency, philosophical inquiry, uncertainty, self-doubt, and quiet, sarcastic triumph.
I think that was the first time I heard the song; I know that I didn’t suss out all the lyrics until the fall, back in Guatemala, listening to the song as the suburban trundled over the cobblestones of Antigua, by which time it had become my favorite pop song by far, so much so that when I finally had any spending money to speak of a couple years later some of my first purchases were Lisa Loeb’s first two CDs, which I listened to frequently enough to drive my first college roommates insane.
The crush didn’t last: too much exposure to Loeb’s lesser works (and more exposure to a wider variety of great work) made me aware of how facile and production-dependent much of her songwriting was, not to mention how rarely she achieved the off-the-cuff magnificence of her first hit, more commonly recognized for the rather undistinguished distinction of being the first number-one hit by an unsigned artist (bless, Ethan Hawke) than for its qualities of fragile beauty and breathless assurance. (And the subtly funky drums. That crisp snare sound punctuating Loeb’s reverie is the song’s main sonic pleasure.)
It’s also one of the great pop records about the indescribably healing verities of pop: “lover’s in love and the other’s run away/lover is crying ’cause the other won’t stay” is as old as the blues, which is to say as old as time. It’s only after turning the radio on, turning the radio up that the singer gains the confidence not to stay.
48. A Tribe Called Quest “Scenario”
(Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Phife Dawg, Charlie Brown, Dinco D, Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes)
The Low End Theory [Jive] • 1991
The second most heartbreaking thing about doing these lists is having to leave songs off. A hundred songs seems like a lot, but it turns out not to be, especially if you’re making a concerted effort to include as wide a variety of genres as the period demands. (And even then you end up shortchanging something. No dancehall or Brazilian pop here, which is a damn shame.) My hip-hop count, in particular, is anemic; and this is just as I’m rediscovering (or, just as often, discovering) the brilliance of 90s hip-hop. No Wu-Tang, Kool G Rap, Dr. Octagon, Ice Cube, Mobb Deep, or Scarface would automatically invalidate this list in the eyes of many — and that’s a point of view I’m highly sympathetic to. But I don’t want to let my new enthusiasms crowd out the fact of my longtime relationship with 90s’ rock; twenty-year-old me deserves to be heard too.
All of which is a roundabout way of getting to the fact that songs like this are perfect having-it-both-ways solutions to such problems. I get to check both Tribe and Busta Rhymes off my mental list — and while I’ve loved Tribe’s conscious aestheticism a lot longer, my newfound love for Busta’s ragga-inflected enthusiasm is more important to me at the moment. So while this song has only a little of what I fell in love with A Tribe Called Quest for — the jazz samples, the consciousness-expanding lyrics, Q-Tip’s narcotic, dense flow — and is basically a boastin’ an’ braggin’ concession to radio simplification, the sheer fun and lightning-fast interplay between the two members of Tribe and the three members of Leaders Of The New School is more than enough to make up for the lack of NPRy tastefulness.
That, and I get yet one more reference that Barenaked Ladies were making in “One Week.” Sigh.
(Oh, and the first most heartbreaking thing about doing these lists is discovering songs that belong on the lists after finishing them. I may have to do a roundup in a year.)
47. Collective Soul “December”
Collective Soul [Atlantic] • 1995
I doubt there’s anything I can say that can convince the imaginary reader in my head that Collective Soul are anything but lame corporate rock, writing checks for faux-profundity that their actual songs can’t cash. And the thing is, I don’t necessarily disagree with any of that. But then so was Journey, and “Don’t Stop Believing” is still (or has become) a monument of heartfelt earnestness, due in large part to the shared history that 80s kids invested it with. “December” may only have significance for my own history, but then this is my list.
The downtuned pointillist guitar figure that opens the song sets the scene: it is winter, cold but clean, snowless, gray, with streaks of washed-out maroon standing for buildings in the city. (?) (!) Ed Roland’s voice, double-tracked but not really harmonizing, just singing an octave above himself, is an unsettling presence, not spectral really, but inhuman somehow. (The early 90s rush to sign “new Nirvanas” allowed a lot of odd-voiced singers in the commercial door: Roland’s vocals are stylized in ways that even Randy and Paula would laugh off the stage today, but back then he just sounded like someone who really meant it, man.) The lyrics he’s actually singing, meanwhile . . . .
I parsed those lyrics as concentratedly and devotedly as any Talmudic scholar. My friends and I were almost certain that Collective Soul were a sub rosa Christian band, and we pored over their lyrics, finding Biblical allusions in lines that now strike me as a breakup with a dental hygienist (“turn your head baby now spit me out,” cf. Rev. 3:16) or mere ham-handed double entendre (“your cup runneth over again,” cf. Ps. 23:5). But we couldn’t be sure, and it was the tension between piety and doubt that made Collective Soul worth returning to again and again, until I had heard the songs so often that I couldn’t even think about them anymore: they just slid by my brain, tractionless and meaningless.
And yet, even though none if it any longer gives me the depth charge that possible blasphemy did (“tilt my sun towards your domain,” cf. Is. 14:12), what stays with me is the early encounter with doubt. It’s not an experience I expect anyone in the world to share; the majority of music geeks never had any faith to lose, which is why they embraced music geekery: it’s a coherent set of doctrines all its own, with innumerable narratives of fall and redemption, of early persecution leading to eventual triumphalism, of multiplying One True Ways all in complex competition with one another. My own impulses towards pop ecumenism mirror my approach to my Christian heritage; and I can no more disown the Church than I can disown lame rock & roll, no matter how broad my later experience has become.
46. Johnny Cash “Rusty Cage”
Unchained [American] • 1996
This is as close as this list will get to having Soundgarden on it. I loved “Black Hole Sun” in high school, but despite what I wrote above, I’m no longer in high school, and Audioslave has retroactively made Chris Cornell’s phlegmy yowl unlistenable.
Johnny Cash’s dust-dry voice, however, remained listenable to the end of his life. Actually, that’s damning it with far too faint praise: rather, it was an unearned, miraculous privilege that our ears were allowed to hear that voice.
So far, so obvious: what is it, then, that makes this song more valuable than the roughly two dozen songs Cash released in the 1990s, not to mention worthy to stand with his classic cuts from the 50s, 60s, and 00s? Is it as simple and straightforward as the swamp-funky power-crunch that Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers put behind the final verse, the single time in recorded history when Johnny Cash’s actual singing self met the pounding hard-rock fury his Man in Black persona had done much to inspire? (Probably.) Is it Cornell’s evocative-for-once-in-a-way lyrics, given an extra layer of meaning by one of the all-time great mythic Americans infusing them with the sense of shattered history and apocalyptic outrage he seems to carry in his bones? Johnny Cash so frequently carried himself like a character from a Cormac McCarthy novel that sometimes he seemed to belong not to the age of VCRs and strip malls but to the age of slavery and Indian wars, a past that he carries forth into the present simply by being himself, burning dinosaur bones and all.
This song is Huck Finn lighting out for the territories, slaves making for the Mason-Dixon, Hemingway on his way to war, Kerouac on his motorcycle and every hobo myth there is, the irrepressible, inextinguishable American desire to Get The Hell Out. All society is a cage, and every red-blooded American is born a Houdini. If you can see the smoke from your neighbor’s fire, he’s too close.
45. Tricky “Aftermath (Version One)”
Aftermath EP [4th & Broadway] • 1994
Speaking of Cormac McCarthy.
I believe I mentioned, in reference to Massive Attack’s usual modus operandi, that postindustrial cyber-noir was unlikely to hold my interest. Since Tricky was associated with the Attack early in both their careers, it might follow that his version of sci-fi soundscaping would be equally snooze-worthy. A couple of crucial adjectives need to be changed, though. This song is postapocalyptic tribal-noir. The closest narrative equivalent I can think of is McCarthy’s The Road, or maybe the first half of I Am Legend: an unnamed, unexplained event has left a man alone, haunted by fragments of a woman’s voice, half-submerged in the shifting, inexplicable, hostile environment, buffeted by remnants of a disappeared world: clips of David Cassidy’s version of “How Can I Be Sure,” a surf-rock riff rising from nothing and falling away again, a flute fluttering like ashes on the breeze. And a constant three-note pulse underneath everything: the decomposition of radioactive waste? the broken-down and wheezing knell of doom? Dub never sounded so sinister before.
It’s more than that, of course. Tricky’s aesthetic of blurring boundaries and dissolving genres is reinforced by the teenaged Martina Topley-Bird getting just as much voice time as the supposed star: Tricky is as much woman as man, as much lover as beloved, as much absent as present, as much sonically manipulated as sonic manipulator. This is a vision of trip-hop as unrecognizable to the venerable Portishead as to the hacky Dido, more dream than waking life, threats and promises equally unfulfilled, entirely suspended in air, in tension, unresolved.
44. Cornershop “Brimful Of Asha”
When I Was Born For The 7th Time [Wiiija] • 1997
British pop inevitably comes to me secondhand (just as American pop comes to Brits, nevermind what they may think about it), and in some sense my response to it is a learned response, set at an intellectual distance, processed through experience that isn’t mine or part of my heritage. Perhaps that’s why Americans tend to think of British pop as more literary than their own strains: because engaging it requires the same faculties as engaging literature does for us.
Every time I hear a British person use the word “Asian,” I have to translate it in my head: they almost always mean South Asian. Americans almost always mean East Asian; our standard usage for the British meaning is “dot, not feather.” (Yes, that’s reductive, and kind of a cheap joke. But acknowledging sensitivities allows me to outrage them, right?) Which is a metonymic way of saying that as an American I have less context for Cornershop than I have for Cibo Matto. (But only one of them made the list. Standard-issue colonial inferiority complex, or something more dastardly?)
Asha Bhosle is, I am reliably informed, Bollywood’s all-time greatest playback singer. I know more or less what that means, but I’ve never been able to sit through a Bollywood production and am frankly a little scared to try to tackle a discography that massive (she is also the most-recorded human being ever). Which is one advantage the 90s had over today: musical knowledge was necessarily limited by sheer physical contraints. Picking up an Asha Bhosle 45 in a secondhand shop is vastly preferable to downloading her entire discography in a couple of hours: for one thing you actually have time to fall in love with the 45.
And that, despite the cultural difference and lack of context, is what I love about this song: at root, it’s about a guy who loves a record. (Or a bunch of records, really, as the early outro lets us know.) It’s about processing pop, even pop from widely disparate cultures of which you have no direct experience, and giving it space in your interior canon, recontextualizing it and converting it to your own use, turning Asha Bhosle’s name into the Hindi word for “hope” and then, because your East London dialect is non-rhotic, pronouncing it “asher” and making puns about ashes. It’s about a stoned raga-rock groove, with guitar phasing borrowed from George Harrison’s ashram years, surging and enveloping everything in a haze that’s impossible to hate. Jacques Dutronc and Trojan Records, together at last.
And my own cautious secondhand approach to British pop is swallowed up in the totalizing bliss of loving pop, all pop, everywhere and all at once. You might even call it grace.
43. Stereolab “Ping Pong”
(Tim Gane, Laetitia Sadier)
Mars Audiac Quintet [Duophonic] • 1994
If Stereolab didn’t exist, someone would have had to invent them. You could say that’s what happened, actually: few bands are so conceptually driven. 60s sunshine pop, 70s Krautrock, and straight-up 1850s Marxist dogma shouldn’t, by all that is holy, work together so well, but here we are.
This particular song is perhaps not the band’s best foot forward: droning, buzzy masterpieces like “Jenny Ondioline” or the experiments with early-synthesizers might give a greater charge to the experimental-music wonks among us (including me, in some moods), but the (ironically?) bright, Anita Kerr Singers-type orchestration and cheery melody are infectious, so much so that you almost miss Laetitia Sadier’s lyrics until that naggingly catchy chorus beats them into your head: “bigger slump and bigger wars and a smaller recovery/huger slump and greater wars and a shallower recovery” isn’t exactly love poetry.
Maybe it’s the fact that the lyrics are in English for once (generally they’re in French), maybe it’s that you can hear her voice clearly for once (usually there’s too much noise), but most likely it’s that the song keeps recurring in my head every time I glance at the financial news. As Jon Stewart likes to put it, we’re fucked, and while it no longer takes hardline socialism to be able to see the indicators, it does take a bit of the edge off to have the news delivered in such cheerful, upbeat tones. When Sadier breaks out into the wordless hum towards the end, it has the same effect for me as all those “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile” songs from the Depression. Surely things can’t ever get so bad that pop can’t help.
42. Victoria Williams “I Can’t Cry Hard Enough”
(Marvin Etzioni, David Williams)
Swing The Statue! [Mammoth] • 1990
Google tells me that this song was used to memorable effect in an episode of Beverly Hills 90120; perhaps I caught either a reference or a parody at some point, because when I (far too late in the game) went looking for Victoria Williams material, I recognized it as familiar. (Was it used in a movie? Some TV show that I would have seen? Little help?)
I’ve known who Victoria Williams was for a long time; she had a track on the first CD I ever bought (on which more later), and her early-90s milieu of faith-haunted folksingers was perfectly familiar to me for about a decade before I got past her decidedly singular vocal style to want to investigate further. Pearl Jam had covered her; she had been close to several of my youthful favorites; and my tolerance for unusual voices has expanded to the point where I actively seek them out, disgusted with the boredom inherent in tonal purity and multi-octave ranges. But when I saw the writing credits for this, I blinked.
Marvin Etzioni recorded one of the most wrenching, raw performances I’ve ever heard when he appeared on a tribute album to Christian skeptic singer-songwriter Mark Heard: apparently drunk and openly weeping, he shout-sings lyrics from all over Heard’s oeuvre, tying them together with the refrain “your love never fails to pierce through me/hammer and nails” (another Heard song). The experience is total, emotionally shattering and impossible to forget; be glad I chose instead Etzioni’s earlier anthem of loss and heartbreak. Both he and co-writer David Williams recorded versions of “I Can’t Cry Hard Enough” (Williams with his band the Williams Brothers), but Vanessa Williams (no relation) was the first one to get it on disc, and her wobbly, throaty moan gives the song an extra emotional punch that even the high-country male harmonizing can’t quite pull off.
It’s a secular hymn, a gospel song without a resurrection, and the other day, as I listened to it while walking to Borders, was one of the few times I’ve actually teared up while listening to music. When the next song on the list came up, I had to pause it while I sorted myself out. I don’t know about this transition, man.
41. Santana feat. Rob Thomas “Smooth”
(Itaal Shur, Rob Thomas)
Supernatural [Arista] • 1999
First, fuck you, it is a good song. Second, I apologize, you probably didn’t deserve that much attitude.
But I understand where the theoretical hipster sneer at this entry comes from. About a year after this song first hit the charts, I was ready to tear out my car’s radio if it came on again. One of the great things about being a grownup, though, is never having to listen to music you don’t choose to listen to, and when I returned to this song eight years later I fell in love with it, if not all over again, then with a new appreciation for its sterling qualities.
Matchbox 20 sucked, I think it’s pretty safe to say. A good portion of that suckage came from Rob Thomas, the frontman and only recognizable member of the band: his throaty whine and pretentious lyrics, backed by the most hermetically generic modern-rock instrumentation possible, made rock radio in the late 90s a decided wasteland. And Carlos Santana hadn’t done much worthy of note from the pop arena since, oh, 1975. (Sure, if your tastes run to soporifically tasteful latin-rock-fusion, he’s never not been perfectly fine. But then you would’ve hated this.) So there was no reason to believe that this song would be any good, and for a lot of people it never went beyond glancing at the tin and recoiling. It was that asshole Rob Thomas with that burnout Santana; it couldn’t be any good.
But it could. The first key ingredient is the rhythm: classic salsa, boiled in post-disco New York heat for a couple of decades and seasoned with Santana (the band)’s classic fusion-drums sound. Santana sucked for so long because no one ever kicked the tempo up to anything danceable; but with Palmieriesque piano drops and a rhythm section with some Fania in its past, he steps up with a fluid, lazy shred that can get the whitest classic rocker on board.
And then there’s Rob. The best choice anyone made in recording this song was to tweak his vox: not only does he sound like a dry run at Julian Casablancas’ early Strokes records, but the diminished dynamic range keeps his annoying vocal tics to a minimum, flattening his voice and giving it an ironically human expressionlessness. And his lyrics are, for once in a way, not embarrassing, except in the way that any white dude macking on a hot Latina is always going to be. (Seriously, guys. I don’t care if you’re Brad Pitt; she’s always out of your league.) Again, it’s a song about the urgency of pop, but only in the old, comforting way that dance music has always been about dancing and the other, less vertical activities that dancing represents.
I was just starting to get into the history of pop when this song was on the radio; it occurred to me one day sitting in traffic that, quality aside, it was just about the perfect song to end the twentieth century on. It’s rock and soul, Latin jazz and hip-hop (listen for the scratching), with rhythmic roots stretching back to rumbas and tarantellas and foxtrots. It’s campy, miscegenated, and idiotic. It’s twentieth-century music. Amen.
40. Aaliyah “Are You That Somebody?”
(Static Major, Timbaland)
Dr. Dolittle Original Motion Pitcture Soundtrack [Atlantic] • 1998
Sometimes I regret having the experience of the 90s that I did: ruled by radio, wrapped in rock, blinkered by evangelical Christianity and hobbled by the aesthetic snobbery endemic to bookworms. There are two things that can trigger this regret. A couple of years ago, it was reading other music nerds talk about their experience of the 90s, soaked in indie and alternative rock, excited virtually every other week about a new band, a new scene, a new sound. But after listening to a lot of what they found exciting, I found much of it merely opaque and undistinguished at a remove of a decade or more: it’s tied to its era in a way that I’ll never be able to fully inhabit.
The other thing that triggers that regret is a song like this one. I completely missed it the first time round, subject to the subconscious racism that refuses to hear anything valuable in modern black music. (Black music of the past is okay, being safely ensconced in the past; but that stuff they make now? Too alien, too uninterpretable, too opposed to my ideas of what music should be.) It’s a mindset not much talked about in public, and even if Sasha Frere-Jones was ham-handed, he should be recognized for making the attempt to wrestle with the phenomenon. I basically had to be educated in the entire history of black music before I could learn to love modern hip-hop, and while my experience is no doubt unreplicatable — I’m not kidding myself that anyone much is as willing to sift through crackly old 78rpm records as I am — it does have its rewards. I came to this song entirely unaware (in the visceral sense) of its status as a major pop hit of 1998 (when I had the radio plugged firmly to the “alternative” station and was just beginning to venture into the oldies and classic rock stations), which may allow me to hear it better as the amazing shift in beat-building and sonic architecture it was.
It’s a Timbaland track; that much would be unmistakable even if his voice wasn’t the first thing you heard on the song, saying “Dirty South.” (First time that phrase hit the pop charts? It’s associated more with the rise of crunk some five years later, no?) But that slippery, unstable bass kick and the way he builds the beat out of off-kilter sonic elements — in this song, airless beatboxing and a baby’s gurgle — is classic Timbo, presaging not only his own later chart hits with (e.g.) Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake, but even the sonic experimentalism of avant-electronic acts like Matmos or Herbert, who take found-sound fetishism to such an extreme that it can be difficult to hear their melodies for all the pointillist scraps of sound.
Timbaland’s constantly self-reinventive personality comes through so forcefully that Aaliyah is very nearly reduced to being a guest on her own track, but she basically invents the role of the 00s hip-hop singer here: since the beat is so all over the place, she has to become a master of timing, working in call-and-response patterns, rushing to fill a line, and suspending in air as the beat drops from under her. Unlike the lugubrious r&b of the past decade, the beat won’t wait for her, and she has to master its intricacies in a kind of vocal dance. The stronger-voiced and more disciplined Beyoncé would perfect this art over the next decade, but a part of me wonders what Aali might not have come up with if she hadn’t died in 2001. Of course, pop history is littered with r&b-queen has-beens (what are Brandy, Monica, and Adina Howard up to these days?), but very few of them were ever this futuristic. When I caught it on the radio a couple of weeks ago, it took me until the baby gurgle to place it as a ten-year-old song: this is modern pop.
39. The Orb “Little Fluffy Clouds”
(Dr. Alex Paterson, Youth)
The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld [Big Life] • 1991
This, meanwhile, isn’t modern pop, though it might have seemed like it at the time. But the further away from the epochal electronic records we get, the less epochal they seem: they too are tied to their era, though more in the sense that they help to define it than in the sense that they’re unreachable after the fact.
Cut ’n’ paste vocal samples over an electronic backing was hardly an original thought by 1990, when the single version of this song was released (but my preference is for the one that opens the Orb’s greatest album), with everyone from Pop Will Eat Itself to the KLF to Negativland getting in on the act, but this track had two things that none of its competitors had: Rickie Lee Jones waxing throatily nostalgic, and the Orb’s microscopic sense of timing. (And LeVar Burton asking, with a straight face and for no apparent reason: “What were the skies like when you were young?” If you’re too young, too old, or too non-American to remember Reading Rainbow, you will never understand how awesome that is. Yeah, yeah, Roots, Star Trek, whatever. Take a look, it’s in a book, bitches.) Rickie Lee’s meandering thoughts are sliced and sculpted into a perfect, high-wire narrative; when she finally admits that “you might still see it in the desert,” it’s like being let out of a closet.
But there’s a tension in the song beyond the strictly narrative, though again it may only be apparent to someone like me, who also grew up in Arizona and doesn’t experience Jones’ description as an exercise in exoticism or Hollywood reverie, but as humdrum reality. (For one thing, those clouds are rarer than she remembers, especially in summer. Which, ahem, has just begun.) The cool, burbling electronic noises are the exotic element for me, conjuring up places where water is plentiful and heat is grateful rather than punishing. I’m left wondering what the British response to this song is — after all, Brits made it, and it was a minor hit there, not here, where I only heard it because of the dedicated Anglophilia of American music nerds. Does it evoke Ibiza, which could be thought of as the meteorological halfway point between London and Phoenix? Does that opening sample about the “traditional sounds of the English summer” ring ironic or, post-rave culture, true? And isn’t the “layering different sounds” sample just belaboring the point? We can hear the process fine without its help.
But perhaps I’m nitpicking, or (more likely) looking for conflicts that don’t exist for most people. After all, the point of the song isn’t what it says, but how it sounds. (One of the charter beliefs of pop.) And it sounds, well, a lot like floating among clouds: not the big, dark, dangerous cumulonimbus, but the high, lazily drifting altocumulus. The ones that are little, and fluffy, and catch the colors everywhere.
38. The Beastie Boys “Sabotage”
(Mike D, MCA, Ad-Rock)
Ill Communication [Grand Royal] • 1994
As the history of American pop over the last thirty years begins to settle and solidify into a coherent narrative, it’s increasingly probable that the Beastie Boys will play a prominent role in most tellings. As the gateway drug to hip-hop for a large plurality of white kids, as the inventors of a rap-rock fusion more admirable and more enduring than the nu-metal of the fin de siècle, and as one of the key elements moving pop culture towards the “alternative” paisley-punk aesthetic of the early 90s, they played multiple roles with the confident assurance of legitimate pop stars without ever forsaking the brash comic voice that brought them to attention in the first place. Even more seductively for minds like mine, the Beasties were able to incorporate loud rock sounds into their soul-jazz/hip-hop mélange without falling prey to the belligerent miserablism of the era’s hard rock: the distorted guitar here plays the same role that the buzzsaw guitars do in early punk: fulfilling the sacred (and Jewish) injunctions of Psalm 100 to “make a joyful noise.”
“Sabotage” is gloriously grimy gutter-funk playing unexpectedly on a wide screen, and the video’s tribute to the seedy, flare-lapelled cop shows of the 1970s is the perfect visual representation of the Beasties’ omnivorous, retro-minded, and tough-guy-posturing aesthetic, which nevertheless refuses to take itself too seriously. Although Ad-Rock’s verses spit fire and even anger, there are none of the darker undercurrents of malice or despair that marred so much of the era’s most influential hard rock: the most distorted instrument is the bass, and its slipping, sliding groove is the engine behind the song, unable to disobey hip-hop’s prime directive: to get asses moving.
And yet, despite its massive popularity and embrace by the broader pop community, it’s another of those songs that I never heard until much later, as much historical document as living text: it didn’t get played on Guatemalan radio, I never saw MTV, and even the “alternative” radio stations I knew in the late 90s, which played Nirvana and Jane’s Addiction like they were new, never saw fit to remind their listeners of the Beasties. It wasn’t until I made a conscious effort to investigate what existed of a canon in 1999 (in the heyday of Napster and end-of-the-century lists) that I downloaded “Sabotage” — and it became one of the four or five songs I thought of as definitive 90s rock songs.
With a bit more experience (and a bit more girth) under my belt, I can hear how this engages with the way alt-rock incorporated hip-hop in the mid-90s. It was the heyday of Cypress Hill, Beck’s “Loser,” and, a bit later, Sublime. The Beasties, who were actually around for the Golden Age of hip-hop, are true to their old-school roots, but unafraid to step into the post-grunge arena. It’s exactly that kind of genre-straddling that has made them legends to all but the most hardline of musical ideologues, whether on the rock side or the rap.
37. R.E.M. “Drive”
(Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Bill Berry)
Automatic For The People [Warner Bros.] • 1992
I didn’t realize until just now, revisiting it on Youtube, how powerful an impact David Essex’s 1973 “Rock On” had on 90s pop. Listen to it again, then listen to Arthur Russell’s “This Is How We Walk On The Moon” (conveniently at #64 on this very list) and watch whole genealogical trees get filled in as if by magic. Compared to that production/orchestration coup, R.E.M’s borrowing a lyric, a tempo, and a general sense of sexy dread from Essex seems piddling.
This may have been the first R.E.M. song I ever heard, but if so it was quickly overwhelmed by “Losing My Religion,” which was then in the first flowering of its complete dominance of the first half of the 1990s. I still can’t listen properly to “Losing My Religion” — it’s long been leached of any meaning or significance by dint of its sheer ubiquity (and yes, this from a man who can re-embrace Nirvana and Rob Thomas without irony) — and there is a sense in which its shiny blandness has extended itself over all of R.E.M.’s contemporary catalogue. “Man On The Moon,” “Everybody Hurts,” and the late-80s hits are similarly drained for me. Only the insignificant fun of Monster (the last record I have any interest in) and the relative obscurity of the 80s college-rock years have anything left to say to me. (Well, so far. All categorical statements I make should be read as provisional. To be human is to change one’s mind.) And this.
I was surprised to find that “Drive” isn’t held in particular high esteem by a lot of R.E.M. fans (among which I wouldn’t count myself: I came along too late and too uninvested in alt-rock mythology), with Allmusic going so far as to call it an inauspicious opening to Automatic For The People. But I still remember coming across it on the radio while lying in bed at thirteen years old, and mentally shivering at its spare, bleak mood. “Hey, kids, rock and roll” sounded like the sardonic laughter of a demon who had snared an unsuspecting hedonist with promises of fame and glory. Peter Buck’s seductive, brittle acoustic riff sounded like the sinking, gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach when I thought about sex; Michael Stipe’s hollow, chambered voice sounded like someone who knew too much. And yes, in retrospect I can see how much I brought to the song — or rather, how much my uninformed, Christian-mythologized mind filled in — but its slow, swampy build, the wet drums, and Stipe’s obliquely apocalyptic lyrics still strike me as evocative, if no longer as full of terrible meaning as they once did.
But if the song sounded like a darkly seductive come-on to me, what really made the blood pound behind my ears was that I kept listening. Hey, kids, rock and roll.
36. Len “Steal My Sunshine”
(Marc Costanzo, Gregg Diamond)
You Can’t Stop The Bum Rush [Work] • 1999
I’m not expecting much of anyone to agree with me on this one; even mutant-disco heads who can appreciate the Andrea True Connection sample (from the bridge to “More, More, More”) would most likely be off-put by the two ridiculous conversations (“well . . . does he like butter tarts?” “Karen! I love you!”) that lead off the verses. (And don’t watch the video unless you want to be worked into a rage at late-90s backwards-ballcap-wearing douchebags.)
But that sample counts for a lot: bubbly, bouncy, and stompy as hell, it sets up the cartoon camp universe in which this song exists: a Canadian-universalist utopia of hip-hop beats and breathy girly vocals, where adolescent emotional outbursts are both cast as high drama by the structure of the song and undercut as vapid and frivolous by the giggly pop backing. And this is a very Canadian song, make no mistake: hip-hop posturing turns to whitebread navel-gazing, goofiness is mistaken for actual humor (cf. Barenaked Ladies), and everything is as white as the Northwest Territories.
And those dorky guys having a gossipy conversation, once understood as good-hearted Canadians genuinely concerned for Marc, who looks pretty, uh, down, and Sharon, who’s never looked so bad (other than once before, but this is pretty bad), are more like campy Degrassi High students than like the catty, douchebaggy potheads they sound like at first blush. Although, uh, what is with the switching of names? Sharon Costanzo is the girl who actually sings the song; Karen is, presumably, someone else entirely.
Sharon is the sister of Marc, who wrote the song and sings the guy’s part and whose band Len more or less was, inasmuch as it was a band rather than just a bunch of friends who put out one album, reaped the rewards, and moved on to Canadian A&R. (Trivia time: Buck 65 worked on an album track.) Her vocal makes the song: if it was just Marc’s throaty sprechgesang (I refuse to dignify it by calling it rapping) for three minutes, no one would want to hear it twice, but her chirpy, wispy repitition of the hook is enough to make it a pop classic, if a slightly awkward, well, Canadian one.
Like most Americans, I have a hard time taking Canada seriously as a country. Which is probably why their least-serious export is part of my vision of great 90s pop: if all of Canada is as silly as Len, it is a utopia.
35. Common Sense “I Used To Love H.E.R.”
Resurrection [Ruthless] • 1994
“’Cause who I’m talkin’ ’bout y’all is hip-hop.”
One of the great pop narrative reversals of all time, up there with the identity of Sweet Marie in Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” and the status of He in George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Also, though, a pretty condescending tone for Common (as we know him now) to take, dismissing all 90s rap up to his moment as commercialized gangsta trash. Which kind of goes with the conscious territory; but you can feel the subterranean plates shift slightly, as camps begin to form down non-regional lines in the world of hip-hop. This is, among other things, the birth of backpacker, the moment when a segment of hip-hop turns its back on the commercial game and chooses to plow its own field, knowing that it will be playing to a smaller, less financially rewarding audience from now on.
Which from one perspective can be read as a betrayal of the pop ideal: to change the world because the world is listening (not necessarily because of your ideals or any of that post-U2 horseshit, but because you are the future, you are to coin a phrase bigger than Jesus, and the world reshapes itself around you). Backpackers have been called everything from cowards to race traitors to snooty elitists with their heads up their collective asses, and on one level retreating from the chart hustle is exactly that: a retreat, an admission of defeat on the battlefield.
But from another perspective it’s simply the natural evolution of pop, and (not coincidentally) of empire. After conquering the world, you divide it into protectorates: gangsta for the masses, conscious for the intelligensia. The same thing happened in the late 60s when progressive rock and bubblegum flowered at exactly the same time; and in the 1940s, when aggressively futuristic bebop and retrogressive, nostalgic Dixieland captured entirely different audiences. If you last long enough, you get a synthesis of the two strains: jazz got cool, while rock turned punk. Hip-hop . . . but that would be telling. This is a list about the 90s.
But back to the actual song. If the line was coming from someone less skilled in either rhyming or structuring a narrative, it would be more easily dismissed. But Common was at the height of his powers here: his second album and the full flowering of his conscious, inclusive persona. In some tellings, he never got better. But he also never got bad, and even his failed experiments are worth hearing if only for the ambition behind them. Success came late, with ads for Gaps and iPods; but there aren’t many hip-hop lifers who deserved it more.
34. Portishead “Sour Times”
(Geoff Barrow, Adrian Utley, Beth Orton, Lalo Schifrin, Henry Brooks, Otis Turner)
Dummy [Go!] • 1994
Things this song makes me think of, in order of how much I care about said things:
1) The Lalo Schifrin sample (of “Danube Incident,” a track he composed for the Mission:Impossible show), all jangled wires and crossways strums, makes me think of the music of eccentric composer and instrument-inventor Harry Partch, especially the similarly wiry “And On The Seventh Day Petals Fell In Petaluma.” The exoticism of Schifrin’s Eastern-European cimbalom sounds a lot like Partch’s invented instruments, and the way Geoff Barrow rearranges it and patterns it over the trip-hop rhythm sounds a lot like Partch’s microtonal, off-kilter melodic sense.
2) Beth Orton’s creamy croon here (one of several voices she has at her disposal, and to my mind one of the less remarkable ones) sounds a great deal like Leigh Nash’s similarly haunted vocals on the non-“Kiss Me” songs on Sixpence None The Richer, which build in similarly dramatic ways, even if they use traditional rock-band instrumentation. As you may have guessed, I was a Sixpence fan long before I’d ever heard of Portishead. (Apparently they did well in the U.S. Couldn’t prove it by me.)
3) It is ultimately a torch song — an arch, postmodern torch song, yes, film noir as filtered through the stylized lens of the French New Wave (you can almost hear the projector’s whirr) and with a thorough grasp of Foucault and Derrida. But nevertheless it’s the essence of torch: a dramatic, high-contrast backing for a woman to stand alone, spotlit, at a microphone, and pour her heart theatrically out. “Nobody loves me” is the elemental torch cri de coeur; “not like you do” is the English Orton puts on the ball. It’s a song about lost love, as they all are, but more tragically still, love in denial.
4) Man, I love the crackle of vinyl under a needle. It’s something you hear a lot more in 90s music, as samples were lifted straight off of turntables, and almost never hear today.
33. Foo Fighters “Everlong”
The Colour And The Shape [Capitol] • 1997
Ten years ago, it would have been dancing with blasphemy to rank a Foo Fighters song above a Nirvana one. Now, it’s bordering on obvious. Not only have Foo Fighters been a consistent, major presence in rock music for twice as many years as Nirvana existed, but they’ve weathered major shifts in fashion, cultural consumption, and politics with the kind of workingman’s brio one simply can’t imagine on Kurt Cobain. As grunge recedes into distant media hype and a fashion for alternate tunings, the Foos’ straight-up loud pop sounds better and better; as the critical consensus turns away from lacerating, anguished lyrics in hard rock, Grohl’s oblique-savant constructions, existing almost entirely for the sake of the rhyme, are frankly a relief. The cautionary lecture on constructing canons too early can be taken as read.
“Everlong” is, for my money, the song where Grohl finally moved out of the shadow of his former band. The initial singles sounded too much like every other alt-rock song of the mid-90s, Stone Temple Pilots roar or Gin Blossoms jangle, and “Monkey Wrench” sounded like too many ideas going too many different directions. “Everlong,” by contrast, is a streamlined, even Art Deco rock song: the initial flickering chug of the rhythm guitar is the engine that drives the whole song, a propulsive forward thrust that rises into an electric stomp with dense harmonics and explodes into melodic crescendos at the chorus. If the metaphor seems subliminally sexual, you’ve caught on; this strikes me as Grohl’s most romantic song, at least until the acoustic disc of “In Your Honor.” (Even if the romance is obsessive, even stalkerish. But like I said, oblique-savant.) It’s the rhythm track, as usual with Grohl’s drumming, that provides the swerve to the song; rather than timekeeping, those crashing bangs are practically the song’s true solo instrument. When Dave finally hired a real drummer, rock lost a superb narrative voice.
My favorite Foo Fighters album is 1999’s There Is Nothing Left To Lose (the one with “Learn To Fly” and “Breakout”), one of the the great pop albums of the decade; it’s song after song of airy melodies, banging guitars, and Grohl’s smooth, faintly sweet vocal style. I never really got on board with his inclination post-millennium towards screaming his choruses — his scream is pedestrian (unlike Kurt’s), while his singing voice is one of the pleasantest pop sounds of the late 90s. And I do think of Foo Fighters as a pop band instead of a hard rock one — or rather, as one of the few modern hard rock bands to earn a place in the elite pantheon of great pop acts. The loudness of their guitars has nothing to do with it: Poison (“Unskinny Bop”), Cheap Trick (“Surrender”) and T. Rex (“20th Century Boy”) were pop bands too, and the Foos carry on that proud tradition.
32. Mary J. Blige “Be Happy”
(Mary J. Blige, Arlene DelValle, J.C. Olivier, Sean Combs)
My Life [MCA] • 1994
It’s hard to deny the heavy strain of 70s nostalgia that flows through almost all the music of the 1990s; I was certainly aware of it at the time, even if I didn’t remember the 70s myself. The vogue in bell bottoms, flannel, and hippie skirts was only the most noticeable rejection of the plastic-and-neon 1980s: crunchy guitar heroics, spacey funk rhythms, and the triumph of pot over cocaine as the drug of choice for rockers and rappers alike — a triumph which has become so mainstream that potheads are now the everyman of choice for Hollywood comedies, while cokeheads are eternally villains and losers — all bespoke an affection for the latchkey childhoods of alternativo-types everywhere, childhoods where Shaft, Kung Fu, Black Sabbath, and roller disco all shared the same space, where wood-panelled dens faded away to meaninglessness when confronted with Jim Starlin starscapes, bright-red shootouts, and Diana Rigg (or your starlet of choice) in hot pants. Or so I’ve been given to understand; my experience of the 70s is second- or third-hand, although growing up in the 90s made me more affectionately disposed towards them than I otherwise might be.
Even so, I came to Philly Soul late. Or rather, to the sumptuously orchestrated proto-disco that Philly Soul tends to stand in for, whether perpetrated by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff in Philadelphia, Isaac Hayes in Memphis, Curtis Mayfield in Chicago, Norman Whitfield in Detroit, or Barry White in Los Angeles. Blame the immediately apparent virtues of Stax/Volt for making me think that soul’s highest expression was in southern-fried funk, blame the lingering “disco sucks” mentality that’s made two generations of white guys suspiscious of strings and smooth voices, blame the fact that I had a hard time distinguishing between types of ballads as a youth (confusing Chris Isaak with Richard Marx still stings) — anyway, it wasn’t until Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul took me by the collar and shook me that I was able to enter into the minutely detailed worlds constructed by the legendary producers of the 70s, worlds of pain and betrayal and joy and sex and everything that soul has meant for fifty years.
Worlds that Mary J. Blige inhabits with the effortlessness of the great singers of past generations; she’s only the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul because Aretha Franklin would pitch a hissy fit if the “Hip-Hop” were dropped. (Just ask Beyoncé or Tina Turner.) In fact, you have to go back to Nina Simone or even Billie Holiday to find a singer as able to convey worlds of lived pain and experience in the microscopic shadings of her voice.
Which is why despite it all, despite the piggybacking on Biggie’s success, despite the travesty of “I’ll Be Missing You,” despite the name changes and the self-aggrandizement and the bankruptcy of actual ideas for fifteen years of shitty chart dominance, I can’t hate Sean Combs. He recognized Blige’s talent and produced My Life, the greatest soul record of its generation, for once sublimating his talent for ripping others off into actual conversations between Blige’s immediate presence and similar cries from the past. Curtis Mayfield’s “You’re Too Good To Me” is the lynchpin for this sweet drift of a song, but it is neither overwhelming to Chucky Thompson’s live instrumentation nor disrespected by a trite lyric or unconvincing performance: Blige’s reserved, dignified plea to the (reputedly) abusive K-Ci is among her finest readings in a career full of them. The entire album is worth soaking in — like the great Philly Soul albums of the 1970s — but it’s this generously-sized closing hymn that makes it.
31. Spiritualized “All Of My Thoughts”
Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space [Dedicated] • 1997
There has been an impulse in post-indie British rock towards spaciousness: grand anthems, soaring choruses, massive building guitars. This impulse is neither good nor bad except as it’s put into practice; it’s a feature, not a bug. U2 is probably the primary model here (with forebears in Queen and Led Zeppelin in their more expansive moods), but it was Radiohead who showed the way under “modern” (i.e. 90s) conditions. Coldplay, Muse, Keane, name your poison: they all want to make The Bends. It’s unfortunate, then, that the other great 90s example of hugeness in Brit-rock has been neglected as a model, as modern (i.e. actually modern) bands could do far worse than follow their lead.
Or rather his lead: J. Spaceman a.k.a. Jason Pierce has more or less been a one-man show since the Floydy, shoegaze-affiliated Spacemen 3 gave up the ghost in the early 90s. And while shoegaze’s massed walls of guitars became one of the signature sounds of 90s British rock, he followed a more idiosyncratic path, drifting towards Reichian minimalist repetition and drone, then overlaying it with giant ensembles reminiscent of Electric Light Orchestra or — more to the point — Roy Wood. Wizzard’s massive 70s singles are the obvious forebear here: you can even hear traces of Glenn Miller horn sections behind all the noise. But let’s back up.
Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space is a depressive album (something else that British post-indie has excelled in, viz. Blur’s 13, the Verve’s Urban Hymns, and Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, not to mention Radiohead’s 1997 opus, about which more later), and a post-breakup album to boot; and to a startling degree Spaceman* manages to sonically recreate the disorienting experience of extreme post-romantic depression, living claustrophobically in one’s own head, subject to sudden seizures of almost physical pain, everything meaning much more than it normally does, meaning so much that it hurts. “All Of My Thoughts” was not released as a single, which is understandable: those massive breakdowns, in which thinly squalling guitars are spackled over by a hysterical, out-of-control harmonica, would be terrifying on radio. Also, uninterpretable: do yourself a favor and listen to this with headphones on. (Even then, the 128kbps piece of crap I’m streaming won’t do it justice; seek out the album.)
The lyric is so basic that it’s nearly autistic; the instrumentation is symphonic without ever being assuring. Church organs and horn sections aren’t triumphant, only barely hanging on: and the tinkertoy piano, the arrhythmic heartbeat of the song, could never be confused with something Chris Martin would play. Which, come to think of it, never mind. Keep ripping of Radiohead, folks; anyone who would dare to try to imitate Spiritualized should probably be shot.
* It is, I’m pretty sure, a good thing that I can’t call Pierce by his alter ego without thinking of Chris Parnell’s character on 30 Rock. They’re both associated with illicit drugs, for one thing.
30. Social Distortion “Ball And Chain”
Social Distortion [Epic] • 1990
The one Orange County punk band that everyone can get behind (or just about everyone; there are always people willing to show off the breadth and depth of their grumpy disdain), Social D started out as a Misfits-lite group in the early 80s before bandleader Mike Ness’ escalating drug use and violent outbursts landed him in jail. Which is where the story really begins, at least as far as people who don’t particularly care about California hardcore go. (Yes, that would be me.)
This was the band’s second album after Ness got out of jail and rehab, and the first one on which his new Johnny Cash/Stones ca. Jimmy Miller persona really clicked. Turning tales of wasted lives, dead ends and self-abuse into country songs, rather than sticking to the hardcore formula, turned out to be a stroke of real intelligence, if not genius (the Mekons had figured it out a half-decade earlier, as had the guy two entries down from here, with his first bands). But keeping the buzzsaw attack of punk, just slowing it down so the exhaustion and regret could really seep in, was Social D’s lasting gift to rock & rollers trying to age gracefully.
The entire album is superb. The high-school-fuckup-returns-to-town “Story Of My Life” is the one I’ve most often heard on the local “alternative” radio station, and the cover of “Ring Of Fire” was my entry point into the original, what with my not being able to appreciate mariachi horns and senses of humor around 2000 (what an insufferable little twit I was), but it’s this drinker’s anthem, which Ness purposely wrote to try to achieve the country-folk immortality of a Cash, a Hank Williams, or a Willie Nelson, which is the true standout and the punk song every barfly with a broken-down hog parked in the dust outside should know by heart. Ness even manages to pull off a double reference to Ted Daffan’s country-folk gem “Born To Lose” and Johnny Thunders’ gutter-punk classic “Born Too Loose” in the same line, which also happens to be the most awkwardly-scanned line in the song — nothing like keeping it ineptly real, huh, O.C.?
There is a sense, I think, in which Social Distortion’s whole thing has been kind of shunted aside by flavor-chasing hipsters (of which flavor-chasing I’ve partaken in my fair share) (yes, that parses). It’s certainly not particularly cool to like them, and especially not this album. But it’s not particularly cool to like any album that has sold so well for so long — try to buy a copy for more than fifteen bucks, I dare you — and the fact that Ness has since mostly just plowed the same furrow to diminishing returns since is always an issue. Music nerds can be as bad as sports fans in the “what have you done for me lately” arena.
But as long as domestic beer tastes like cat piss, as long as guys with sideburns and farmer’s tans and stupid tattoos put cigarettes behind their ears and think they know how to handle guns, as long as the American flag flies over no-hope places where the cars that pass through on their routes between major metro areas get stared at real hard, as long as some shitkicking asshole feels cool for putting a punk rock song on the jukebox, Social Distortion will be one of the great American bands and this song will be one of the great American anthems. I, frankly, wouldn’t have it any other way.
29. Belle & Sebastian “The Stars Of Track And Field”
If You’re Feeling Sinister [Jeepster] • 1996
So it makes a kind of sense, from a thematic point of view if not a tracklisting one, that the next song would be the one where I talk about Anglophilia (or, not to unnecessarily annoy the band’s compatriots, Britophilia, which just raises the question of whether conscious inaccuracy or insufferable neologisms are worse).
I’ll actually have plenty of chances to talk around the subject — the list gets pretty Brit-heavy from here on out — but few British bands are quite so specifically British as Belle & Sebastian. Stuart Murdoch’s lyrical method would not even be possible in America, let alone desirable; and the fact that the band is in fact Scottish only underlines how deeply insular (ha ha, get it) the United Kingdom’s shared history, culture, manners, and manias can be. Just as one example and I hate to do this because I read Language Log pretty religiously and I’m not trying to be Whorfian or anything here, but bear with me: how many cultures would turn the word “bedsit” into an adjective? (Americans: don’t know what the noun means? Look it up.)
I honestly have no idea what the major appeal of Belle & Sebastian is for actual people who live in Britain, aside from their obvious virtues of melodic construction, lyrical complexity, and thoughtful, even tender production. But for me, listening to them is a way to live vicariously in another world for three to four minutes at a time, a world more overcast, drizzly, crumbly, tightly-knit, easily flustered, and waspishly witty than the one I recognize around me. Which I suppose isn’t that different from how the post-war British youth heard American r&b, country, and rock & roll, only, you know, completely inverted.
But ever since as a child I wished that the Narnia books spent more time in England, because a place where winter happened at all was just as magical as one where it never ended, I’ve spent my life riding a cyclical fascination with British history, arts, literature, culture, and (eventually) pop. Cyclical because there is, ultimately, a wall for those who choose not to expatriate, a thus-far-and-no-further, and despite all her faults America is mine by birthright and by choice: given the choice between Chess and Factory, I’m with Muddy and Etta and Chuck and Wolf every time, heart and soul.
It’s the fantasy of Britishness I love — after pop, my deepest well of transatlantic insight is Wodehouse — and it’s the fantasy that Belle & Sebastian are (practically) uniquely skilled at delivering. Take this song, probably nobody’s favorite B&S song, not even mine, it’s just that I first came to them post-millennium and in working my way back this was the first one to snare me because it was the first one I heard. It’s a portrait (I take it) of shy, tremulous, and painfully sarky kids watching, admiring, envying, and sneering at the athletes at their school, and every single detail is completely different from how such a topic would be handled in American pop, if it ever even was. The way the song builds from hushed guitar-and-Stuart to pounding rushes of drums and horns and organs is a double increased-heart-rate metaphor, for athletic activities and more intimate ones — but the lyrical sketch is so ungainly, and delicate, and pale that I can practically see the red spots under blancmangish skin that bespeaks a Briton exercising, and I think of Charles Ryder’s Schooldays and Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys” and the passion of D. H. Lawrence dressed in the prose of E. M. Forster. It may not sound like much of a fantasy, but properly (mis)understood, all difference is exotic.
28. Alejandro Escovedo “The End”
(Alejandro Escovedo, Stephen Bruton)
Thirteen Years [Watermelon] • 1994
Which means that I have no idea what my British readers (I know I have a handful) would make of this. Does alt-country translate across the Atlantic? Hell, does it translate across the Alleghenies? Although this song ramps up the alt and tamps down the country, you can still hear a cowpunk twang deep in Escovedo’s voice, a fiddle plays the hook, and like many Texas singer-songwriters over the decades, he’s so hard to pigeonhole that the alt-country warehouse is as good a place as any to store him until the next mass critical readjustment. (I completely missed when we all started calling new wave New Pop. I’m still not used to it.) Owing as much to versatile rock-n-poppers like Elvis Costello as to the holy trinity of Johnny, Willie, and Gram, Escovedo’s been pretty much the definition of a cult artist for his entire career; like Victoria Williams, he’s about as famous for having a bunch of more-famous people do a covers album to pay his medical bills as for anything he’s actually done.
“The End” is a comfortably swirling rocker, borrowing a title from the Doors and an aesthetic from Echo & The Bunnymen (so, the Doors again, then) and should have been a massive hit. In fact, I’m almost certain it was, and everyone just forgot: I could have sworn that massive wheeling hook soundtracked at least one drive to the beach junior year. It may be less sharply-observed and witty than the songs that gave Alejandro his cult, but it packs the kind of punch that Poe (Edgar Allen, not the Garbage knockoff) would kill for: every element in it aims in full consort to a singular, almost granular effect.
There may be a nagging feeling at the back of some of my fellow obsessive list-compilers’ minds that Escovedo is on the list as much because I wanted some diversity as for any other reason. And while I won’t deny that putting “The End” in this position felt a bit like killing two birds with one stone — alt-country and Latino! A double threat! — if the song hadn’t refused to leave my earspace for weeks on end I never would have considered him. And, well, Hispanics are underrepresented in conventional pop narratives. Partly this is because Latin America (of which a substantial population is within U.S. borders) has a whole alternate pop universe to play in, so that their stars rarely make much of a stir here on Earth-Prime; partly this is because conventional pop narratives tend to be driven by New Englanders, Brits, and (more recently) Midwesterners, and some things just aren’t on some radars; but largely I think it has to do with what could, taking a shortcut, be called racism, but on the scenic route is something more like a mistaken assumption of cultural familiarity: most Anglo pop fans think they already know what Latin pop is, and don’t care for it. Escovedo isn’t exactly the kind of person to force others to redraw their cultural boundaries — he’s more Charley Pride than Sly Stone — but he (and many others like him) are a step towards a greater cross-cultural pop dialogue.
27. Goodie Mob “Cell Therapy”
(Big Gipp, Cee-Lo, Khujo Goodie, T-Mo, Organized Noize)
Soul Food [LaFace] • 1995
One of the greatest pop personalities of the next decade enters, stage right. He takes the second verse. He sounds oddly Jamaican for the first couple of lines, then fades into a Southern rasp and sounds like himself: Cee-Lo Green, the Soul Machine. For a more thorough examination of his brilliantly psychotic appeal, we’ll have to wait till the end of the year when I post my 100 Great Pop Songs Of 2000-2009 list (title, concept, and effort all subject to change) — life is uncertain in a lot of ways, but there’s no way in hell he’s not making that list. But for now, let’s talk Southern Rap.
Goodie Mob invented the term Dirty South; they were part of the Atlanta-area Dungeon Family, in which production team Organized Noize and hip-hop funk icons OutKast were other major figures; but more than most of their peers, they took the music of the black South to heart, and their gruffly full-hearted, righteous hip-hop was steeped in backwoods blues, hard-driving soul, sweaty funk, and the thick-mouthed bonhomie of long history and the profuse evolution of methods of dealing with history. Their first (and best) album was called Soul Food, and it was as unreconstructed Southerners, creating a future without being ashamed of the past, that they presented themselves to the hip-hop world, a world which was mostly divided between the whip-smart sneer and hustle of New York and the grimly comic violence and swagger of L.A., with just the beginnings of input from the cerebral, better-than-this strut of Chicago. There was still a sense, lingering if not fully expressed, that hip-hop was an exclusively coastal phenomenon, and an urban, high-rise one at that: the Bible Belt had (for once in the history of American music) nothing to say. Goodie Mob didn’t change all that — on the commercial level, Outkast and Lil Jon and a bunch of Texans did — but they did challenge it.
“Cell Therapy” was their first single, one of the great narcotic, paranoid productions of 90s hip-hop, always looking over its shoulder as it stalked through an unseen darkness. There’s no coherence to the narrative: it’s all atmosphere, dread, muttered warnings from forgotten records. Khujo goes rural and talks about lynching, the Holocaust and child molestation, Cee-Lo delivers a suspicious meditation on suburban gated communities, T-Mo and Big Gipp get all Old Testament with prophecies and lamentations, and through it all runs the gleefully barbaric chorus: “Who’s that peeking in my window?/Pow/Nobody now” while someone doing a really good Louis Armstrong imitation moans wordlessly behind them. The suggestion of violence in defense of self, family and property — or is it that, the violence over, there was never anyone there in the first place? — is just destabilized enough to add to, rather than resolve, the paranoiac mood hovering over the song.
And it’s fun to sing along with, too. The hook, as a wise man once said, brings you back. On this you can rely.
26. Pearl Jam “Yellow Ledbetter”
(Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament)
“Jeremy” b-side [Epic] • 1992
I haven’t got much to say on this one. I loved the sparkling, space-making guitar when I was fourteen years old and hadn’t heard a note of Jimi Hendrix. Now I love the song for the same reasons, and in the same way, that I love listening to great pop in languages I don’t understand. Eddie Vedder is definitely not one of his generation’s great writers, but he is one of its great singers, and on this song he may as well be Betty Carter scatting over a piano improvisation, simply vocalizing his frustration, regret, and loss without recourse to any specific imagery or ideas, all of which would fail at the task of living up to the way his voice moans and throws itself across the arcing line of those crystalline guitar figures.
Of course, I know that the song actually has lyrics. I simply do not choose to try to figure out what they are.
25. Saint Etienne “Like A Motorway”
(Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs, Traditional)
single [Heavenly] • 1994
Towards the end of the 90s, I became gradually aware that electroacoustic music with non-dancefloor tempos and pretty vocals had become one of the established signifiers of good taste common to all, and therefore meaningless to (almost) all. Like achromatic colors, densely-patterned fabrics, and darkly-shaded electronics, it filled upscale commercials and shops, a symbol of leisure and education tied to no culture in particular and satisfying only the surface of emotional desire. And because of this very ubiquity, it meant less and less with every appearance as a signifier of cool. Cool, after all, trades in exclusivity: and while electrofolk was (theoretically) a cerebral alternative to the lowbrow rock and hip-hop of the masses, the ease with which it was made, and imitated, and used as wallpaper made it as ubiquitous as any party jam, except its very rootlessness kept it from meaning as much to anyone as even Petey Pablo meant to North Carolinans.
That’s one interpretation, anyway: in a world of six point six million, no two of which have the exact same experience, definitive readings are impossible. I lived through the millennial years watching television and standing around in shops; and when I first listened to Saint Etienne, I felt a familiar revulsion against tastefulness without taste, generic instrumentation and melody that takes no stand and induces no passion for or against.
But Sarah Cracknell’s voice caught me in mid-shudder, and I listened closer, and heard the witty meta-pop commentary. Pastoral melodies with club instrumentation; the two Summers of Love (’67 and ’88) melded into a single unified vision of pop; and lyrics which struck a smart balance between elegaic and ecstatic, like ABBA if Benny and Bjorn had taken postgraduate degrees — Saint Etienne make music that exists for more than the sake of the sound: they make these sounds because they love them, and their music is driven by a particular taste, rather than a generic “good” taste.
This song is a remake of the pastoral folk song “Silver Dagger” (check Joan Baez’s definitive reading) with new lyrics that draws together strands from Appalachian doomsaying, Sixties teen death ballads, and a near-Chekhovian glimpse of the awful banality of human misunderstanding. Or you could ignore the lyrics, as if it were wallpaper music, and let the insistent sequencer, punctuated by dance breaks and the mournful sigh “he’s gone,” take you on a Kraftwerkian journey across a desolate landscape, dull, grey and long.
24. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony “Tha Crossroads”
(Krayzie Bone, Layzie Bone, Bizzy Bone, Wish Bone)
E 1999 Eternal [Ruthless] • 1995
Black dudes singing harmony. This goes back to the Spinners and the Stylistics — no, wait, the Four Tops and the Temptations — no, wait, the Coasters and the Penguins — no, wait, the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers — no, wait, the Unique Quartette, the first black group on record — in 18 motherfucking 90 — and the Dinwiddie Quartette, the most popular black recording group of the pre-jazz era. A stone century of brothas getting together and vocalizing, and what have we got to show for it? Lament. Lament, and stereotype elevated to iconography by force of charisma.
The Unique Quartette recorded “Mamma’s Black Baby Boy” in 1893, an a capella song about a kid who gets into trouble — including getting liquored up — and causes his mother grief. The Dinwiddie Quartette recorded the spiritual “Poor Mourner” in 1903, a jaunty, rapidfire performance which grieves both for the dead and for those who, left behind, must also grieve for the dead. I’ll leave it to you to work out the relevance.
Bone Thugs presided over the most singular blend of sweet, radio-friendly r&b and street-life hip-hop to emerge in the 90s. Taking the dense, layered harmonies of vocal groups past and present (Boyz II Men; I’m just sayin’), but then overlapping them in quicksilver, complex rhythmic patterns, mimicking the effect of hip-hop’s fractured, compulsive beats. Which makes it sound like harder work than it is: this song was a (deservedly) massive hit, a eulogy for every possible loss (to violence, to prison, to AIDS), and it was because of the simplicity of the overriding idea that the layer upon layer of melody, chant, sing-song, rap was able to wind its way so persuasively, so deeply, to the million aching hearts who turned it into a standard.
Excellent use of an Isley Brothers sample, too.
23. Neutral Milk Hotel “Holland, 1945”
(Jeff Mangum, Scott Spillane)
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea [Merge] • 1998
I think this is where I talk about indie rock.
There are several things that could be meant by that phrase, and I’ll freely admit to using it inconsistently in the past and (probably) in the future. But one of the better interpretations of pop history I’ve seen is that indie rock is what happened once alternative rock stopped being alternative. (This applies pretty exclusively to American rock, by the way: British indie is something different with a more coherent tradition, and is only occasionally on speaking terms with American indie.) Just as a defining aesthetic of punk was to leach the blues out of hard rock, indie leached the metal out of alt-rock, retaining distortion (sometimes) but abandoning the macho aggression it symbolized.
The online magazine Pitchfork, which started up in 1996, would become a flagship for indie’s post-alernative aesthetic. Along with the rest of its post-GenX cohort, Pitchfork rewrote the 90s alt-rock narrative, finding a center in Pavement rather than Nirvana, and implicitly defining post-grunge as the mainstream to which indie was opposed. At the same time, indie rock became more insular and less interested in engaging the larger culture, surrendering the pop fight for hearts and minds to hip-hop and nu-metal, entrenching itself behind “singular” sounds which were mostly variations on detuned guitars and flat drums, and limiting the conversation to those who were listening.
The Elephant 6 collective , born around the same time as Pitchfork, embraced these limitations to such a perverse degree that they turned inside out and became strengths. The Apples in Stereo’s bright noise-pop, the Olivia Tremor Control’s psychedelic marching-band, and Neutral Milk Hotel’s folk-shaman art-punk only rarely reached anyone outside the obsessive indie-rock subculture, but the demented glee with which they approached their individual visions, as if they had never even heard that any other kind of music existed and they were producing their own versions of chartpop, was enough to create an alternate reality in which it was the only music that mattered.
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is probably the greatest indie-rock record of indie rock’s heyday (roughly 1993-2005, or Pavement to Arcade Fire), at least when defined in the constrictive way I’ve done above. (And again, I make no promises to abide by such a definition in the future.) And “Holland, 1945” is the closest thing the record has to an obvious single: sharp, concise, urgent, packing all the album’s themes — death, reincarnation, bodily dysmorphism, Anne Frank — into a blistering, fuzzed-out rave where dry, ascetic folk-punk is relieved by the ecstasy of mariachi, and Jeff Mangum’s limited yowl has its own peculiar logic.
This is supposed to be a list of pop songs, and I know some people don’t like my conflating indie rock with pop — both those who think indie is supposed to burn with a pure flame unsoiled by commercial considerations, and those who don’t like its noise and amateurishness intruding on their pristine pop world — but indie rock is a pop genre like any other, and being able to measure indie songs by pop yardsticks does much to inform both. At least for me.
22. Disco Inferno “Footprints In Snow”
(Ian Crause, Paul Wilmott, Rob Whatley)
D.I. Go Pop [Bar/None] • 1994
But after that elaborate defense/explanation, I have no real desire to try to situate Disco Inferno in any genre, movement, or scene. Partly this is because I don’t know much about them or the avant-rock scene they came out of — D.I. Go Pop was on allmusic’s front page for some reason about five years ago, I clicked through, read up on it, and (after failing to find it in any local shops) ordered it from Amazon, and it’s been part of the fabric of my listening ever since — and partly it’s because in order to do so I would have to draw a distinction between pop and art that this song ignores — or at least that my understanding of the song ignores, which comes to the same thing, as songs only ever have any existence in a particular set of ears.
That pop/art distinction is an old and not very useful one (it’s behind the indie-rock snob’s traditional loathing/ignorance of chart music). Traditionally, vitality, charm and immediacy are the province of pop, while complexity, ambition and nuance belong to art. But of course pop without nuance is impossible to enjoy more than once, and art without vitality is pointless. The real distinction is between music that appeals to a wide variety of people, and music that appeals to a self-selected minority. Which is of course the least objective standard possible: everyone is a minority depending on how we define the majority; and given enough time and cultural change, all music becomes minority music.
Still, Disco Inferno is harder to read as pop than most musics, even though they used standard rock instrumentation: guitar, bass, drums. But the guitar, rather than playing notes or chords, was set up to play samples of found sound, musical excerpts, or original pieces, while the bass and buried vocals took care of the melodic hooks and the drums kept everything upright. Most of this album — their finest — takes several listens to get your head around: the repetitive fragments (or “hooks”) are so layered that it can be hard to distinguish them. But this, the final track on the album, is the most accessible.
D.I. would go on to create spare, shimmering pop without the found-sound aesthetic as a prickly hedge against the unwary listener, but for my money, “Footprints In Snow” is their peak, incorporating washes of sound and using the titular footprints as a rhythmic element without ever getting too fractured for mass consumption. I think of the song as a post-rock extension of Yoko Ono’s beautiful and mostly unheard (I first knew of it because of the Galaxie 500 cover) 1970 pop song “Listen, The Snow Is Falling,” which opens with the sound of footprints in snow and winter wind before fading into stately organs and John Lennon’s orchestration. Yoko’s naïve lyrics about global harmony are replaced by Ian Crause mumbling low in the mix about something that sounds quite urgent if only you could understand him, while the storm whips up around the listener and chiming, Glassian music wafts in underwater billows. It’s the kind of music that requires no knowledge of genre, movement, scene, or even band beyond what comes through the headphones. The more I listen to, the more that becomes my favorite kind of music.
21. Chagall Guevara “Treasure Of The Broken Land”
Strong Hand Of Love: A Tribute To Mark Heard [Fingerprint] • 1994
In the summer of 1990, my family moved from Arizona to Guatemala to begin working as missionaries. In the house where we stayed briefly before going on to language school and the houses where I would more or less grow up, I remember reading a brief article in CCM Magazine (that would be Contemporary Christian Music) about a new band. I knew vaguely who Steve Taylor, the lead singer and songwriter for the band, was — he had been making waves and unsettling the faithful for nearly a decade with his acerbic, new wave-informed Christian pop. Most recently, he had seen controversy over the ironically cheerful “I Blew Up The Clinic Real Good,” a satirical portrait of an anti-abortion activist who has lost his moral focus. Satire has never been evangelical Christianity’s strong suit, and Taylor was forced from his label by a combination of those who thought he was advocating the blowing-up of abortion clinics and those who believed he was making light of the evils of abortion.
But he was back, CCM crowed, with a new band — and they had signed to MCA Records (an honest-to-gosh real label!) — which, as Taylor explained, sought to mary the religious aestheticism of the modernist painter Marc Chagall and the revolutionary fervor of Che Guevara. Their first album would be out soon. I wanted to hear it so bad, you guys. You have no idea.
This obsession I have with collecting, selecting, and organizing pop is not exactly new. As a child, I kept a list (mostly in my head, but sometimes written down) of the best songs on every Christian tape my parents, my older cousin, and later I myself owned, planning an elaborate playlist which would someday, I thought, be dubbed on to the best tape ever, the ultimate tape, the one I would never grow tired of listening to. Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Carman, Glad, Scott Wesley Brown, Phil Keaggy, First Call, Rich Mullins, the Imperials, Twila Paris, Keith Green, 2nd Chapter of Acts, Wayne Watson, the then-unheard-but-magnificently-rocking Petra…. These were the pop acts of my 80s childhood (Madonna, Michael Jackson, and U2 were mere shadows in the newspaper by comparison), and more were being added constantly as my appetite grew for wider and more varied sounds to add to my tapestry: Marty Goetz, a Jewish convert who sometimes sang in Hebrew, Teri DeSario, whose Trevor Hornish electronic soundscaping freaked me the hell out, some kid’s-music tape with a supposedly “urban” finale called “God Don’t Make No Junk.” I was always eager to expand my Christian-music horizons.
That didn’t mean, though, that just I could hear anything I wanted to. Missionaries are (this may come as a surprise to you) not particularly rich. I had no money to spend, and nowhere to spend it if I did. So I, surreptitiously and with great fear and trembling, for the first time in my life switched the little cassette deck I owned to FM. Some of the effects of that have already been chronicled; more will continue to be.
Chagall Guevara came and went: their first album met with unpromising sales, MCA didn’t particularly support them, and everyone in the industry was caught flat-footed by the sudden boom of alt-rock. Their literate Georgia Satellites-meets-Midnight Oil sound was immediately passé. Since they weren’t on a Christian label, they never even showed up on the Christian-music catalogue that missionary families received in the mail, a sort of Columbia House mailer for virginal minds, from which my family would occasionally order a tape or two. (I got trad-Irish combo the Crossing and old-time black gospel quartet the Fairfield Four out of the deal. I had weird tastes back then too.) But . . . .
The catalogue did eventually list an album towards the back, in the various-artists section. Strong Hand of Love: A Tribute To Mark Heard. I had never heard of Mark Heard. But I had heard of Kevin Smith, who had the first cover on the album. And Phil Keaggy, and Rich Mullins and Tonio K. And . . . and . . . the last track on the album was by a band whose name I had never forgotten. I had scrawled it in the margins of notebooks during class, read up on Marc Chagall and Che Guevara in the school library, and wondered and waited while soaking up a completely new and different kind of music from the radio. Then I saw an ad for the album in the back of Breakaway, a truly terrible Christian teen-boy’s lifestyle magazine. I knew what it looked like. Then a classmate told me about a new store in Guatemala City: a Christian-music store. A cool Christian-music store, what was more: they had obscure, quasi-dangerous stuff from the likes of One Bad Pig and Bride and Code of Ethics. I knew I had to go there. I had to.
My sixteenth birthday, 1994. I had forty quetzales (ca. twenty dollars) saved. I convinced my parents to drive me up to northern Guatemala City. It was there. The album was there, and I didn’t even have to hunt for it: it was on a display right when I walked in. I paid for it with trembling hands, turning it over and over, not even daring to try to remove the plastic wrap for fear I damaged it. Because it was the first CD I ever owned. And we didn’t even have a CD player.
We borrowed a Discman from somebody. My dad hooked it up to the stereo system. And I pressed Play.
I still listen to that album with some frequency. There isn’t the slightest possible chance of my being objective, but it’s a fucking great album. Even the weak link, Bruce Carroll’s anemic country cover of “Castaway,” a not-that-great song to begin with, is okay. It’s all popular music by alternative-type Christians in the mid-90s: there’s some hard rock, some folk, some country, some atmospheric U2-type stuff. And then the last song, a song about death and loss and triumph anyway.
I had been living in lush, tropical Guatemala for four years by then, but the deserts of northern Arizona, where the bones of the earth push through the topsoil, red and sandy with scraps of scrub brush still clinging to their sides, was where I was born and where I will always, no matter where I live, belong. The opening notes of “Treasure Of The Broken Land,” drawling and gritty, will always evoke that desert for me, and the clear and sweeping sky above. Mark Heard lived there too — and died there in a plane crash, leaving widows and orphans that the tribute albums went towards feeding — and while I would later come to know and love his own pastel-colored music and his depressive, fighting-towards-grace personality, it was in the hands of Chagall Guevara that I glimpsed glory under a banner I recognized as home.
It would be their last song. Years later, thanks to eBay and file-sharing, I would track down everything they had ever released — a puny seventeen songs, and one of them was a between-tracks skit — and while I wouldn’t call them one of my favorite bands, they’re one of my favorite secrets, with a good half-dozen songs that could hold their heads up in any company. And this song is a rock & roll song, a desert-air Faces (who I would call my favorite band, if absolutely forced to choose) who sound like they know it’s their last shot and want to give Mark and themselves the extended rave-up they’ve always known they were capable of. “All the way to Macon,” they shout during the outro (Mark Heard was born in Macon GA), and I can’t help thinking of second-line funeral bands in New Orleans. The saints are marching in, all of them, and if heaven fulfills the deepest desires of our hearts there will be a lot of kickass bands reuniting there.
This list is inevitably unrepresentative of my actual listening experience in the 90s: there’d be a lot more Christian music if it were a more faithful record. But there wouldn’t be anything as great as this.
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.
15. Shakira “Ojos Así”
(Shakira, Pablo Flores, Javier Garza)
¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones? [Sony International] • 1998
I knew who she was about six months before she conquered the English-speaking world, thanks to a turn-of-the-millennium crush on a Mexican-born girl who idolized her. (Ancient history. Wish the pulse that jumps every time I see remotely similar shoulders would figure that out.) I was intrigued as much by Gabriel García Márquez’s not-entirely-attributable-to-senile-decay-or-dirty-old-manhood panegyric as by the growling imitation the crush performed at an open mic. Turns out Shakira was at least as good as García Márquez and unrequited love.
Shakira’s particular genius was mixing and matching global pop forms a good decade before M.I.A. came along (there’s something to go into there about the dominance of British pop journalism meaning that ex-British colonies are privileged above corny old Latin America in most music nerds’ interest, but skip it), but on “Ojos Así” she’s not so much combining disparate forms as simply presenting her own heritage, uncut. Shakira is equal parts Colombian and Lebanese, and the song is as thoroughgoing a mixture of cumbia and Arab pop as a demanding intellect, performative genius, and some of the most highly-skilled producers in the world can make it.
All of which would be of academic interest if it weren’t also one of the greatest dance songs of the past quarter-century, banging with all the furious heat that “Latin passion” and “Eastern voluptuousness” can conjour up in the shared pulp imagination of the West, with Shakira’s sinuous hips finding the shared focal point between salsa and belly dance. (Less difficult to find than you might think; the veins of Spanish culture still run half-Moorish even today.) Those self-same hips would drive her biggest global hit some eight years later (thx reggaeton), but the Spanish-speaking world was taken by storm here, and modern Latin pop was transfigured into something more global, whipsmart, and futuristic than it had dared to dream of being before. Not that there aren’t still plenty of trad Latin genres doing extremely well among the viejos and campesinos, but try listening to a youth-oriented Latin station today and keep from being blown away by the rhythmic complexity and shameless patchwork variety.
It’s a tad ironic, bee tee dub, that I had to return to the United States and crush on a Mexican (the sworn enemies of the Guatemaltecos) before I really understood and appreciated Latin pop. I could have included a number of songs I knew from my time in Guatemala — Gloria Trevi’s “Pelo Suelto,” El General’s “Muévelo,” Selena’s “Amor Prohibido,” — but none of them have stuck with me and given me the kind of long-term satisfaction that Shakira’s first mega-hit (however unknown it may be to you, O reader of English) has.
For those who don’t know Spanish and stubbornly refuse to enjoy pop they don’t understand, she did record an English-language version when she launched her assault on the Anglophone pop market in 2001. It’s not quite as good. Not because her translation is lacking, but because 2001 was not 1998, and the rest of the world had already begun to catch up to her.
Haters who still sneer and make Alanis Morrissette remarks have lost the thread: that crazy old cadaniense pales in comparison to the quicksilver Colombian goddess whose sandals she is not worthy to loosen. (The reference is made advisedly.) The two of them have similar backgrounds: both had minor, regionally successful teen-pop careers before breaking out with major artistic statements. Difference is, ¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones? was only the overture of one career; Jagged Little Pill will always stand as the pinnacle of another, no matter how many more records Alanis makes.
14. Nas ft. Lauryn Hill “If I Ruled The World (Imagine That)”
(Nas, Jean-Claude Olivier, Samuel Barnes, Kurtis Blow)
It Was Written [Columbia] • 1996
Some people would say the same thing (pinnacle of the career, no matter how many more records made) about Nas and Illmatic. Those people belong to that special class of music nerds, those who love something so much that they hate everything that isn’t it. (They are to be distinguished from those people who hate everything on principle, a far more coherent if still utterly insane life philosophy.) Illmatic is one of the high-water marks of late twentieth-century music, there can be no doubt. But it’s not like Nas stopped being brilliant, he just channeled his brilliance in directions that many of those who embraced Illmatic can’t accept.
The nails-hard street poet who centered a life’s worth of small-time hustling in the long shadow of black consciousness and the ineffable power of hip-hop to transform reality — the dude who made Illmatic — would never have duetted with that lame J. Crew hippy Lauryn Hill, let alone allowed early synth-pop sonics to sweeten his dry-as-bone, thundering beats. (Or so it is said.) This is because Hip-Hop and Pop are irreconcilably opposed, as far apart as Truth and Lies, as Integrity and Selling Out, as Art and Trash. Which only goes to show that strict constructionist hip-hop heads are just as intolerant and ignorant as their indie-rock counterparts discussed in #23. Pop is not an ever-fixéd mark: it swallows up new forms and absorbs new ideas as soon as they enter the common discourse, transmuting into something else in the process. Illmatic is great because it’s a pop record: concise, single-voiced, wholly committed, as much of a piece as the great Beatles, ABBA, and Prince records that defined pop in their generations.
The only change Nas made afterwards was to embrace that pop tradition. “If I Ruled The World” quotes both Kurtis Blow and the Delfonics, gives the hook and the bridge to a woman best known for singing a song exactly like Roberta Flack except not as well, and was, inevitably, his first mainstream hit. Its sentiments are obvious, widely embraceable and positive, the production rolls, spreads, and flourishes like a well-groomed pop song, with easily distinguishable acts and a climax (the only swear words in the song, which is to say the only street urgency) right at the end where it belongs. And he sings: the ultimate betrayal of hip-hop orthodoxy, the reason why both Andre 3000 and Kanye West will never again be fully accepted by their former fans no matter how big they get outside hip-hop’s narrow borders.
Or so my interpretation goes, and I’m clearly biased. The first hip-hop record I ever owned was The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, that’s how white I am. And Lauryn’s sultry-sweet vocals, still fresh from the surprise Caribe-funk of the Fugees and not yet giving a glimpse of how self-involved and clueless she could be, make the song. Which isn’t to say Nas isn’t still brilliant throughout — his verses double back on themselves, commenting wryly on the paranoia, the idealism, the grandiosity inherent in the song’s conceit. He’s still the best rapper to come out of New York in the 90s; the fact that he’s no longer making Illmatic is no more relevant than the fact that Bob Dylan isn’t making Blood On The Tracks. They’re still the best at being them that anyone’s ever been.
13. Pulp “Common People”
(Nick Banks, Jarvis Cocker, Candida Doyle, Steve Mackey, Russell Senior)
Different Class [Island] • 1995
Sometimes there’s a lot to say, and sometimes there isn’t. This time there isn’t, really.
Sometimes that’s because the song explains itself better than I can do, and people for whom it is new would be better off just listening to the song; sometimes it’s because the song has already been pored over, poked, prodded, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, and numbered so much already that anything I could say would be old news to the masses who already love it. In this case, both are true. Just listen to the song (again).
Okay, I will say that the older I get the less I sympathize with the working-class hero whose voice Jarvis Cocker sings in (which is fine; very few Cocker narrators are wholly sympathetic). Not that I feel sorry for the rich bitch he’s lambasting, either: these two deserve each other, the one oblivious and condescending, the other sneering and venemous, locked in each other’s uncomprehending embrace for as long as it takes for her to call her dad and stop it all — when he will be proven right, and she will not have to put up with him any more. They’re both losers; and so they both win.
But this may be an impassable cultural divide. American and British people mean very different things by middle class and working class (in the U.S., they’re frequently used synonymously), and the supercilious overtones of “common people” simply don’t register here: we think instead of ordinary people, few of whom feel trapped or as though dancing, drinking and screwing is all that’s left to them. Don’t misunderstand me: lots of Americans are trapped, and do dance, drink and screw because there’s nothing else to do; we just don’t see it that way. Our luck’s always about to turn: every American is always spending his first million in his head, no matter what his bank balance is. This is the Land of Opportunity, where the streets are paved with cheese, and there’s always room at the top.
Well, that’s the theory, anyway. Perhaps my real problem with the song is that the anger is directed at the idiot child of privilege rather than at the Greek capitalist whose foot on the neck of the working poor has given her such a limited understanding of life. Inasmuch as I have a problem with the song: the point of it isn’t Cocker’s talent for flamboyant venom, it’s the circus-synth pulse of the band, creating a rinkydink epic out of the forsaken tools of a discarded pop era. If Britpop was the first “guitars are back” sigh of relief for rockists, Pulp’s apotheosis was the moment when even guitars failed to hold back the masses. That, in the end, is the real difference between the British and American working class. In Britain, they dance.
12. The Cardigans “Lovefool”
(Peter Svensson, Nina Persson)
First Band On The Moon [Stockholm] • 1996
The one thing I always hear people say about the Cardigans is how like their fellow Swedish geniuses ABBA, they reflect the beautiful and glamorous world of pop back to us in fractured, ungiddy, stealth-adult songs about loss, heartbreak, and unhealthy relationships. What I never hear is how they follow directly on the heels of fellow Swedish pop stars Ace of Base and Yaki-Da. There’s a direct musical lineage from “The Sign” to “I Saw You Dancing” to “Lovefool,” although it might only be apparent to those who ever heard Yaki-Da, the missing link between those lame-o’s Ace of Base and those sensitive intellectuals the Cardigans. Thanks to Guatemalan radio, I heard nearly as much Europop as American pop in the first half of the 90s, so when I first heard “Lovefool” it was hard to listen past the sun-drenched half-step flamenco rhythm (it’s there, beyond the four-on-the-floor techno stomp) and into the breezily-delivered lyrics about co-dependency, irrational obsession, and self-deceit.
But then a few years ago, I heard it once unexpectedly on my car radio at the end of a long day (as one does), and Nina Persson’s sweetly angelic vocals, the bubbly stomp of the music, and the impressive craft on display in the changes from verse to chorus to bridge and back again took me aback, and I muttered to myself, “Wait, this is good.” Pathetically, I had to look up who sang it; when I did, I recognized the Cardigans as being one of the Good Pop Bands that even rock dudes grudgingly endorse (before that, I’d always gotten them confused with the Corrs), and another canonical entry was lodged in my mental Hall of Fame. (Srsly guys, I’ve been planning this list for a while now.) I still can never quite get Yaki-Da out of the back of my head when I hear it; but I’m no longer embarrassed by that.
Like much of rock-music nerddom, I was deeply excited by the Scandinavian invasion in the early oughts — the Hives! the Concretes! the Sounds! the Shout Out Louds! Mando Diao! Kings of Convenience! Sondre Lerche! Annie! Serena Maneesh! the Raveonettes! Mew! the Soundtrack of Our Lives! the Knife! the Hellacopters! Sahara Hotnights! Erlend Øye! — and even if today I’d whittle that list down to the the Concretes! the Raveonettes! Annie! the Knife!, I still have a lot of affection for the era, and a lot more for the idea of Sweden and the surrounding territories as some kind of experimental breeding ground for awesome pop (I even like Roxette . . . okay, I like “The Look”). The Cardigans are one of the great pro arguments for that (admittedly silly) idea: the fact that they beat the rush by a whole half-decade only makes them even more special.
“Lovefool” is their best-known song; I’m not sure that makes it their best song. But it’s their song I know best; so it’s here.
11. Weezer “Buddy Holly”
Weezer [DGC] • 1994
As opposed to this. I know all of Weezer well, like any good rock dork, and “Buddy Holly” is absolutely their best song, and I will fight anyone who says anything from Pinkerton is better.
. . . .
Overexposed, schmoverexposed. That’s always the lazy go-to from people who don’t have the aesthetic stamina to keep on liking something after they’ve gotten used to it. Fuck ’em. Which isn’t to say that the opposite problem doesn’t exist — people who can’t like anything they haven’t heard before (we all know those people) — but those people aren’t part of the discussion. We’re all music nerds here.
If it’s not good after you’ve heard it for the thousandth time, it wasn’t good to begin with.
. . . .
Well, it really all depends on what we want in our pop music, doesn’t it?
And for the record, yes, Weezer is a pop band, as if everything Rivers Cuomo has done since 2000 somehow didn’t count. If you insist on making the distinction between a rock band and a pop band (a distinction I don’t really recognize), then you have to face the fact that Weezer is a pretty shitty rock band but a really great pop band.
But I digress. If we want serious, literate treatment of the complexities of human interaction, then yeah, “Buddy Holly” isn’t going to cut it. But if we want something to jump up and down to while playing air guitar and singing along with the ooh-wee-oohs, then it’s hard to think of a better candidate.
. . . .
Well, the latter experience is more obviously pop, innit? Of course I’m not saying that serious, literate treatment of the complexities of human interaction is outside the bounds of great pop; I just listed the Cardigans. I’m saying that serious, literate treatment of the complexities of human interaction is outside the abilities of Rivers Cuomo, while bashing around like a nerdy, amped-up kid who’s listened to too much Cheap Trick and The Cars is right in his wheelhouse. “Buddy Holly” was and remains the perfect antidote to rock that takes itself too seriously.
And dude, watch the Dick Van Dyke Show sometime: Mary Tyler Moore is hot.
10. Beck “Devils Haircut”
(Beck, The Dust Brothers)
Odelay [DGC] • 1996
I’ve noted before that I hate when a piece of music is colonized by a film or TV show in the shared pop-culture imagination, so that no one can bring up, say, “Atlantis” without having to sit through a point-counterpoint on GoodFellas. But the opposite can happen too: the pilot episode of Reaper tried to stock up on cheap, unearned cred by using “Devils Haircut” in an opening scene. The snippet of Beck was the best thing about the show, at least as far as I was concerned; I haven’t watched an episode since.
But my choosing to open with this not-even-anecdote raises the question: what’s so great about the song — or maybe about Beck — that a forumlaic supernatural comedy on the CW would find clinging to its coattails valuable?
Saying something like “Beck is the most important musical figure to emerge in the 1990s” doesn’t really help: I mean, it’s true, but why? Here’s my best shot: Beck is valuable not because he’s an an innovator in any deep sense — everything he did had been done before — but because he’s a synthesist operating at a very high level. In that way, he’s comparable to Bob Dylan, who synthesized American folk traditions with rock & roll, or to Lennon/McCartney, who synthesized rock & roll with the skilled craftsmanship of classical pre-rock pop. Beck teased out the hip-hop strain embedded deep within the DNA of blues, country, folk, and rock, and brought that strain — talking blues, patter songs, off-kilter rhythms, bone-dry repetition — into the modern world of samples, electronics, distortion, and lambent meaning.
Not that he did any of this intentionally: one of the great things about such synthesists is that frequently they don’t even perceive the boundaries they’re crossing. Beck’s Los Angeles art-hippie upbringing reads like a dream of the 70s, and anyone with a more concrete grasp on the rest of the world would, it seems, have been unable to throw themselves so wholly into making every kind of music at once, rapping as though it wasn’t different from singing, singing as though it wasn’t any different from thinking, writing lyrics that say nothing in a literal sense but create worlds of associations, patterns, and dreamtime shifts that echo the way music itself operates.
“Devils Haircut” is the opening song to Beck’s most critically-acclaimed album — and Odelay is that rare album, an instant classic which has never sustained a meaningful backlash — and it’s a sort of showcase for the album itself, throwing garage rock riffs, funk breaks, 60s soul bass lines, modernist feedback, early electronic soundmaking, post-punk solos, a black man’s voice, and warm vinyl crackle into a blender and then slacker-drawling postindustrial SoCal mythopoeia over top of it all. Sometimes nonsense may say best what’s to be said. Everyone in our shellshock-and-concrete, rootless modern world knows what the briefcase blues are, even if no one can really explain it.
9. White Town “Your Woman”
Abort, Retry, Fail? EP [Chrysalis] • 1997
Version 1: The Triumph Of Poptimist Democracy Over Indie Orthodoxy.
Jyoti Mishra began his pop career in the late 80s with a shambolic indie band called White Town, playing twee, chuggy songs in the C86 tradition, with lo-fi production and lyrics which alternated between the emotionally self-indulgent and the politically radical. Guitars and confrontational miserabilism have a long and respected tradition in British indie; but Mishra wasn’t a particularly notable practitioner of the increasingly rigid and strictly defined limits of leftwing indie, and his embrace of the electronic dance forms of his youth was the move that enabled him to make the most effective pop of his career, with a thumping beat that sounds as good in the club as in the headphones.
Version 2: The Triumph Of The Personal Over The Political.
For a while in the 1980s, Mishra was a full-fledged Marxist — more specifically, a Trotskyite — and while he later abandoned the rigors of left-wing ideology for a more idiosyncratic blend of feminist, psychoanalytic, political, aesthetic, and economic theories (White Town’s first album included a fourteen-page polemic with academic citations), he never stopped being dissatisfied with the status quo. Casting that dissatisfaction in romantic terms gave “Your Woman” the kind of subterranean shock effect that sneaks political truth onto the dancefloor. I could never be your woman, any more than I could be your colonial, your proletariat, or your patriarchal construct.
Version 3: The Triumph Of Ambiguity Over Identity.
Mishra is an Indian-born heterosexual man singing as a woman (or a gay man) in the whitest form of music there is, indie dance. The permutations of possibile interpreations are, if not quite endless, at least much larger than the average pop song permits. His own intention, he says, was to make a song that could be read in any number of ways, including as a disaffected Marxist, as a straight man singing to a gay woman, as a gay man singing to a straight man, or as a woman singing to … Jyoti Mishra. The lack of key identifiers (neither the narrative voice nor the “you” are ever fully gendered), as well as of more subtle racial signifiers lets each listener choose what it is they hear. Or, like perhaps most listeners, you can choose not to choose, and revel in pure multivalency.
Version 4: The Triumph Of History Over The Tyranny Of The Present.
Googling around, I found that more than a handful of listeners were convinced that the iconic trumpet sample which opens the song and returns as a motif in the chorus was nicked from Star Wars, either from the Mos Eisley cantina scene or as a sped-up version of Darth Vader’s theme. Some people are very, very stupid. The sample actually comes from bandleader Lew Stone’s 1932 cover of Bing Crosby’s “My Woman” (to which “Your Woman” can be heard as a theoretical answer record), with a vocal by Al Bowlly and trumpet by Nat Gonella. And it is the crackly, nagging three-note riff that gives the song its peculiarly haunting quality: without it, “Your Woman” would be just another mopey bedroom-electro song. But with it, all the stored-up energy of ancient, forgotten 78s sitting and waiting in the counting-room of history, long ignored and worse than derided, unknown, bursts through, and time itself is dislocated.
Version 5: The Triumph Of Triumph.
But nagging riffs and thumping beats are not enough. Those are the stuff of one-hit wonders: what makes a song last is the mood it creates. The greatest songs are those which evoke a frame of mind so precisely and comprehensively that nothing else will do. In this sense, “Your Woman” is an “I Will Survive” for the literate and undemonstrative, a reclaiming of the self from a grasping, devouring Other. We will not be played that way. We will never be your woman.
8. Björk “Hyperballad”
Post [Elektra] • 1995
I’m a Yoko Ono fan. Not because I’m an enormous feminist, or because I have any intense interest in banshee caterwauling, or even (all that much) because I enjoy going against the received wisdom of 98% of music nerddom; but because every now and then, in the spaces between the shrieking harpy epics and the unhelpful sloganeering about Woman, she reminds me of Björk.
It’s unfortunate that Björk is only really thought of in two ways in the popular imagination: as The Woman Who Wore A Swan To Some Awards Show Or Other That One Time, or as the one-time indie-dance pixie who’s gone increasingly off the rails into unlistenable screeching, unwatchable films, and art music tedium. Both of those images capture something of the truth (I don’t think I’ve ever really enjoyed a post-millennial Björk album), but there’s more there than the summary judgment of an inattentive populace can really hear.
Or maybe I’m just too far up the ass of the experimental-music party to understand the Man On The Street’s point of view. (Counterpoint: Fuck the man on the street. We’re talking music nerdery here.) I am, after all, someone who listens to and enjoys György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Krzysztof Penderecki, Olivier Messiaen, Terry Riley, Morton Feldman, and Rhys Chatham; I am, in other words, part of the elitist, condescending elbow-patched arugula-eating problem. Real people can see through all that bullshit, including Björk and her weird-ass art-song tendencies.
“Yes, I know Björk,” a professor of finance at the University of Iceland says in reply to my question, in a weary tone. “She can’t sing, and I know her mother from childhood, and they were both crazy. That she is so well known outside of Iceland tells me more about the world than it does about Björk.”
Conversely, that statement tells me more about a certain U of I professor of finance than it does about Björk; so let’s stop talking about what people say about her and start talking about her.
Björk’s signal contribution to global pop was to hold it down and forcibly inject it with a viral transfusion of contemporary art music, much as Laurie Anderson had done in the 80s and John Cale had done in the 60s. The strange thing is that in the mid-90s art music was only a couple of feet away from the dancefloor anyway; the most-revered art-music figure in the world at the moment was Aphex Twin, and electronic manipulation had been standard in academic circles for a generation. So you might as well say that Björk introduced pop to art music — her extravagant theatricalism, her ear for sonic pleasure (as distinct from sonic originality), and her inimitable sense of pop dynamics, of build and release, for a brief shining moment made her the most interesting and important pop star/art-music composer in the world.
“Hyperballad” is actually one of her less profoundly explosive pieces; like the title says, it’s a ballad taken to logical extremes, which means that although it does eventually erupt into percussive splendor, it’s glacially paced and requires patience on the part of the listener. For some, that required patience extends to the ornate metaphor of the lyrics, in which dreams of loss serve to reinforce present happiness (a strange topic for a ballad, which are usually concerned with heartbreak neat, no ice). There are Sibelian strings, glitchy electronic beats, and (finally, transfiguratively) pounding dancefloor ecstasy.
In some ways this is the North-Hemisphere twin to Shakira’s “Ojos Así” — both Björk and Shakira are global pop stars who incorporate a lot more thought and compositional variety into their music than they’re generally given credit for, but only one of them has honor in her own country.
7. OutKast “Rosa Parks”
(Andre 3000, Big Boi)
Aquemini [La Face] • 1998
Ah hah, hush that fuss. I know there are people who hear this song as Outkast’s sell-out moment, when they abandoned their loosely-structured P-funk alien gangster hardcore hip-hop and went for the screaming teenybopper audience that haunts the nightmares of every strict constructionist music fan, as the early tremor that presages “B. O. B.,” “Mrs. Jackson,” and (shudder) “Hey Ya.” But as you’re sick of hearing me say by now, whenever pop is defined in opposition to anything, I’m on the side of pop.
In point of fact, “Rosa Parks” is the halfway point between the overstuffed, shaggy, and fitfully intelligible material Dre and Boi made their name on, and the increasingly direct, engaging, and elegant music they’ve made since blowing up. With a killer, even prophetic hook (“We the type of people make the club get crunk”), a BPM that encourages dancing more than getting high, and a busy arrangement that finds room for a nonsense Andre vocal (“lackalackalacka lackalacka”), an all-but-inaudible Curtis Mayfield sample, and a honking harmonica breakdown, it’s the perfect marriage of pop simplicity and the idea orgy that made (and continues to make) Outkast Outkast.
A word on the title. The late Mrs. Parks sued Outkast for misuse of her name in a song which had apparently nothing to do with her; lawyers got greedy, record labels got involved, and it all came more or less to nothing. But it highlights a breach which tends to be invisible to white people (just as white class identifiers can puzzle black folk) — the first black generation gap, usually described in terms of the Civil Rights generation vs. the hip-hop generation. In a way, it’s a measure of progress that black Americans can finally afford to not maintain solidarity; the very struggle over what it means to be black means that the question is, for the first time ever, open — that is, not imposed from the outside. (Which ain’t sayin’ racism is over, kid; I ain’t that dumb.) Anyway, Dre and Boi used Rosa Parks’ name in order to symbolize a historic turning point: they will now begin leaving all their peers in the dust. Which, yes, that’s what they proceeded to do, but still, man, that’s kind of a reductive thing to do to the woman.
Because it’s not like they can boast of an ignorance of history. The fellas’ increasing obsession with black musical history, reaching past the funk breaks which basically constituted hip-hop, can be seen as starting here, too. Idlewild, the movie and the album, are heavily flawed, but there’s a peculiar energy to it that can be found nowhere else in modern hip-hop, the way country blues, second-line marches, and the holy 40s triptych of swing, boogie-woogie, and jive are overhauled and rebuilt for the twenty-first century. The harmonica solo here is only a glimmer of that time-traveling future, but it performs the same function: field-holler stomps, Little Walter in Chicago, and the spirit of Mr. DeFord Bailey (both the first harmonica-playing recording star and the first performer on the Grand Ole Opry, and he was black) shimmer into being while Organized Noize (right?) lays down the kind of juke stomp that makes you want to fuss and fight and, er, carry on. Bump and shlump, baby, bump and shlump.
6. Blur “For Tomorrow”
(Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James, Dave Rowntree)
Modern Life Is Rubbish [Food] • 1993
Few impulse purchases have had such a lasting impact on me as the moment when I picked up a used copy of The Best Of Blur in the summer of 2000 on the strength of the cartoony cover art and the fact that I recognized them as the ones who did “Song 2,” which I thought of as just about the perfect hard-rock song at the time. (While reading around in preparation for writing this, I came across the following description of what appealed to me about it: “The song is practically over once it’s begun, something that just never happened with lethargic grunge.” It took the jump-up-and-down dynamics of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and removed the boring old angst; it was awesome.)
Let’s set the scene. It’s 2000; I have been slowly getting into music history for about a year, thanks to Napster, end-of-millennium best-of lists, and copious free time. I have found something of a spiritual home in the 1960s British Invasion: the Beatles yes of course, but also the Stones, the Zombies, the Kinks, the Who, the Animals, the Troggs, the Moody Blues, the Creation, the Hollies, the Yardbirds, the Small Faces, etc. etc. This music, and classic rock in the Jimi-Zep-Floyd mold, and also a bit 80s synthpop, is filling a need in me that the stuff I hear on the radio increasingly isn’t. (Because I’m listening to the wrong stations; but that’s another essay.)
I don’t actually remember the experience of listening to The Best Of Blur for the first time. I know where I probably was; I know what I was probably doing; I just listened to it so often that it became part of my mental furniture, ready to pack up and move along with me to the next stage in life at a moment’s notice. Every time I listen to a Blur album, there’s (still) a twinge of “hang on now” when the goosey club track “Girls And Boys” isn’t followed by the Kinksian knees-up “Charmless Man,” or the Eurosophisticate sigh of “To The End” isn’t succeeded by the modernist electro-buzz of “On Your Own.”
But the effect was electric. There were people making music in my own time that compared with the pop rush, guitar buzz, and (let’s be honest) exotic Englishness of the Sixties music I loved! A magical few years would follow, when vista after vista would open up to me, punk and new wave and glam and soul and country-rock and post-punk and shoegaze and somehow Blur would always still be waiting for me there, waving a friendly hand and saying, “see, this is where we nicked it from.” I burned CD after CD, trying to express through the medium of compilation what I felt to be true, the truth to which Blur introduced me: that pop has no one master, that it’s really all just music, that hooks and harmonies and rhythms and wit are all one ever needs. How did Blondie and the Jam and 4 Non Blondes and Radiohead sound next to Blur? Great; how did the Clash and Wilco and Joan Jett and Madness sound? Still great. In fact, just about the only people who didn’t sound great next to Blur were Oasis.
“For Tomorrow” became my default Blur track, for reasons I can’t really remember. (Parklife, predictably, became my favorite Blur album, but Modern Life Is Rubbish was my first.) I’m pretty sure “For Tomorrow” got me into soul music, thanks to the horns. More explicitly, I understood horns as an awesome sound in themselves for the first time on “For Tomorrow,” which enabled me to hear past the lack of (what I recognized as) guitar on classic soul records. It still strikes me as unanalyzable, like the most basic element of pop. I know it isn’t; in fact, I know the record’s got flaws, because I can think of some. But I can’t hear them.
Last thing, and then I’ll shut up. This very nearly wasn’t the Blur song on the list. One of the things I did last December to prepare for compiling this thing was to sit down and listen to all of the 90s songs from The Pitchfork 500. I saw “For Tomorrow,” furrowed my brow and muttered, “which one’s that one again?” and then when I heard it almost physically recoiled. No. No. Too deeply ingrained; too personal; too too. It was like having the poetry you scribbled in the back of your notebook read aloud to the class; poetry you’d forgotten you’d written, and were now ashamed of, not because it was bad poetry (necessarily), but because you were no longer that person.
I was going to be firm. I was going to put “This Is A Low,” or maybe “To The End” on here. But then I listened again, and sigh. La la, la la la, la la la la la la lalala.
5. Pavement “Summer Babe”
single [Drag City] • 1992
We’re down to the final five now, and as these things normally go, each of these last tracks is going to Say Something about my vision of (or, less grandiosely, my taste in) 90s pop. Which isn’t to say that the other ninety-five were chosen more or less at random.
(Although let’s be honest, they kind of were, inasmuch as my limited experience of and interest in 90s music can be considered a randomizing factor. There’s probably something I could get into here about my relative lack of interest in the immediate past and much greater interest in the distant past being a form of self-loathing or at least an inability to face the world as it is, rather than through the romanticized lens that old records present it as having once been, but I lack the stomach to pick apart my entire consciousness so completely. I’ll leave it to the armchair psychiatrists who will someday Google onto this page and find themselves unable to keep from venting their repulsion.)
The list up to now, in a very perfunctory and sort of disappointing way, has been meant to present the overall picture of what I like about 90s pop, as well as what I mean when I say 90s pop. I clearly don’t mean Only Chart Hits — cf. Uncle Tupelo, Guided By Voices, Bikini Kill, Denim — and I also don’t mean the “brainless teenybopper dance crap” that a lot of rock fans mean by the word, though I’m not opposed to it; cf. Mariah Carey, Shanice, Aaliyah, Len. I don’t even mean pop as opposed to experimental music — cf. Arthur Russell, Disco Inferno, Aphex Twin, Neutral Milk Hotel. I do mean song-oriented, relatively concise, and in some way physical music: even the slowest and off-kilter songs on this list find a sort of groove eventually.
In my continuing effort to make sense of it all, I am both encouraged and somewhat repelled by what I usually think of as the “British view” of pop, which is that the Pop Era begins in the mid-1950s, concurrent with both the rise of rock & roll and the first British music charts. Encouraged because that definition allows you to see how pop has changed over the decades without letting go of its primary impulse to entertain, surprise, and move its audience (emotionally or physically, or at its best, both). Repelled because it draws a false distinction between pre-rock and post-rock music that doesn’t hold up to a moment’s scrutiny, and is in fact quite minor compared to the difference between, say, pre-hip-hop pop and post-hip-hop pop. (One of my favorite British music writers recently asked if swing could even be understood as pop, which just shows a terribly limited understanding of swing. What do you think raves were in the 40s?)
My primary tool of understanding, though, has not been anyone else’s systemization, or even their lack of it. It has been my iPod. In that slim black-and-silver box, smaller than a cigarette case, the decades and the centuries heat up, curl, and fuse together. It is all one quicksilver mass, and everything — everything — boils down to rhythms, chord changes, and production techniques.
The crackle and hiss of digital transfers from low-fidelity 78s is mirrored in the fuzz and feedback of indie rock, finding a rigorous honesty and integrity in noise. The weird stiff, jerky rhythms of music that mimicked the vernacular before everyone learned how to syncopate are matched by the untutored, self-created rhythms of art-school kids with hair over their eyes who spout primitivist rhetoric but listen to Art Blakey and Max Roach on the sly. And the violent pulse of unreconstructed America that made it onto the earliest records that would later be called folk (creating a welcome confusion among fans of “Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly)” and “Puff The Magic Dragon”), in which horrific events are related in an eerily flat, affectless tone, is resurrected in the slacker drawl that mumbles “every time I turn around I find I’m shot.”
Pavement, as I mentioned earlier, are increasingly the locus around which the current generation’s understanding of indie rock is being organized. This is both a good thing and a terrible thing, because Pavement are obviously really, really good, but they’re also really, really specific and can’t really stand being imitated without the whole enterprise falling apart.
Indie rock is of course a movement with its roots in the 60s (Velvet Underground, Stooges, Modern Lovers, Talking Heads, R.E.M., Dinosaur Jr, okay you’re caught up), in a countercultural moment when it seemed as though rock & roll might turn out to be the same thing as Dada, as Satanism, or as transgressive sexualities: perennial unsettlers of the conventional and bourgeois. Rock & roll, of course, has become as conventional and bourgeois as anything else (pop + time = something else to rebel against), and the many who ache for it to be as thrilling and rude and transgressive — and important, because it was once thrilling and rude and transgressive on such a large stage — as it was Back When are doomed to disappointment. There’s a new pop kid in town, and his name is Hip-Hop.
Which doesn’t mean that rock is dead, or at least not yet. One of the curious effects of the White Man finding himself unable to co-opt hip-hop has been that he’s still gotta listen to something, and rock mutates to fit the times. The slacker-rock of Pavement can be understood as a rock interpretation of the hazy, dry-cloud atmosphere of a lot of early-90s hip-hop, an interracial golden age of getting high and not giving a shit. It can also be heard as a culmination of the various approaches indie rock tried over the years: bone-dry production from the Velvet Underground, noisy guitars from Sonic Youth, tricky rhythms from the Feelies, the hooded-eye, don’t-care pose from Dinosaur Jr. All of whom wrestled with attempting to find a place for guitars and bass and drums in a world where macho posturing had been exposed for the lie it is and the blues had fallen into the strange twilight world they now inhabit, where white kids are made to feel inauthentic about playing them but black kids don’t want them, so gray-haired guys in Hawaiian shirts are it. How do you play rock without playing the blues? has more or less been the central question of indie since 1966. This is Pavement’s answer.
“Summer Babe” is a burst of warm-hearted color, with prickly post-beat lyrics about anything, nothing, and highly specific imagery with irrecoverable meanings. It’s the band’s first proper single (a very pop thing to be), abandoning the smartass carnival-noise fuckery of their early EPs for a straight-ahead, lovelorn riff and melodic cycle that comes to a head on the third verse, with the line “Not here babe,” followed by a cry that has been transcribed variously as “don’t go,” “torture,” or “you took it all,” and which sounds to me like “Tokyo.” Then the memorable “chorus” wheels in, repeats, breaks down, Steven Malkmus croons the title, and the song gently rocks to a finish. The effect is that of an ordinary pop song put together from spare parts and in the wrong order, held together with tape and caulking, and sounding abstract or opaque not as a fuck you to the uncomprehending listener but because those are the only words he has.
I never feel that I’m explaining myself very well. I guess I’ll leave it at that.
4. 2Pac “California Love”
(2Pac, Dr. Dre, Roger Troutman, Woody Cunningham, Norman Durham)
single [Death Row] • 1996
In the spring of 1996, I was a high school senior trying not to think about the summer, when I would return to the United States, go off to college, and begin a completely different kind of life, one I wasn’t at all sure I was prepared for, and prepared or not didn’t want.
I’ve had trouble relating to the vast majority of my peer group (that’d be surly nerds with obsessive interests in music, comics, literature, and philosophy) my entire adult life. The main difference, which I finally put my finger on when reading yet another Chris Ware work about a stunted man-child lost in a maze of narcissistic memories, is that my teenage years were not significantly unhappier than my childhood. Which could simply mean that my teenage self was as sheltered and solipsistic as my childhood self was allowed to be; or maybe I was a singularly depressed child. (Bit of both, far as I can tell.) But for the first eighteen years of my life, I dreaded adulthood. I knew how good I had it without responsibilities, worries, and a checkbook to balance. (And every young adult I knew was kind of an asshole, and why would anyone want to grow up to be an asshole?)
So in my usual way of dealing with unpleasant reality, I spent a lot of time glued to the radio, scanning between stations to find new songs to fill up the cassette tapes I listened to on the family Walkman while mowing the half-acre back yard that daily rains kept nice and lush for half the year. I listened to that last cassette, the one compiled May 1996, more after I left Guatemala than before, so its associations are bittersweet for me. It even felt like a ground shift: Babylon Zoo, Spacehog, Live, Hootie & the Blowfish, and Bush were on there, subtly transforming the landscape of pop I’d grown so familiar with into something alien and more grandiose. And there was a couple of minutes of a rap song on it.
My heart was hardening against rap, and had been for the last few years, once I realized how stupid dc Talk’s early records were. There was an almost-imperceptible cultural divide in my senior class: the “cool,” “rich,” and “athletic” kids (this is all in the context of a missionary kids’ school, thus the irony marks) could listen to hip-hop and r&b, while the impoverished nerds only liked guitar music, whether angsty or happy. (There were only eighteen people in my graduating class; solidarity rarely broke down along any clear lines, but musical taste was one of them.) As I had decided in my junior year, with the fine impetuosity of someone easily beaten at basketball, that I was an intellectual and not a physical being (good golly what a dipshit), guitar music was really the only option.
But the thumping electric-piano break, the processed-to-noise horns, the vocodered vocal hooks, and the glossy, glamorous sheen of this song that I’d recorded almost by chance was too much to resist. I didn’t know who’d recorded it, as I came in almost halfway through, but it didn’t matter. (They were all the same, anyway.) “Kyaaliforia … knows how to paartee,” sang a robot black man, and I could believe it. It was only a stopover between Serious Rock Anthems on that cassette, but it was a window into an alternate universe, one in which the crudely sexualized, thinly-produced rap party anthems of four or five years ago (I’m thinking mostly of Wreckx-N-Effect, I guess) were replaced by a heavy blanket of sound that covered all possibilities for happiness. Sex, sure, maybe, but mainly just driving around under the palm trees with your buddies, everything so blinding that you have to wear shades, the heat of the sun offest by the breeze blowing in from off the ocean. California is the eternal Promised Land in the mythology of the American unconscious, and these anonymous rappers had found a way to re-energize that myth for the electronics-and-angst 90s.
About six months later, I heard about this guy named Tupac Shakur. I was going to community college in central Phoenix for a semester before transferring to the real university that had accepted me, and everyone in my ENG 101 class was various shades of brown, and a few weeks into the semester it seemed everyone but me was shattered by the news of Shakur’s death. New tattoos sprang up overnight; one girl submitted an essay that was nothing but an analysis of his lyrics; every desk had 2PAC RIP carved into its surface within a week. My younger brothers reported that high schools and middle schools were even more distraught. I — this isn’t easy to admit — I sneered.
It’s no defense to say that I was for the first time beginning to pursue Serious Literary Themes in my writing, which had previously been dominated by rip-offs of Star Wars and The Lord Of The Rings. But Evelyn Waugh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and E. M. Forster had become my new heroes over the past couple of years (thanks, respectively, to the backs of Penguin Wodehouse editions, The Great Gatsby on an English teacher’s Great Books list, and the Merchant-Ivory Howards End), and I was attempting a novel that combined my still-fresh memories of Guatemala with the Big Ideas of serious fiction. Like every young would-be novelist, I was a fucking snob. (Scratch young and would-be from that sentence, and it’s still pretty true.) And the unconscious racism that comes with being a young white dude who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else and whose exposure to other cultures/classes/ethnicities has been at best limited held me hostage. The outpouring of grief would have been ridiculous to me no matter who it was. (I’d felt the same two years earlier about Kurt Cobain, and would feel the same a year later about Princess Diana.) But the fact that it was a rapper, and one I’d never heard of to boot (the essence of cultural snobbery right there) only strengthened my resolve to be unlike these people. I wouldn’t even inform myself. I would never listen to a Tupac Shakur song. That’d teach ’em.
(Teach them to what? To invest a large portion of their identity in a celebrity? To feel grief at the death of a fellow human being? To elevate rap lyrics to the status of literature? I can only report on my state of mind at the time, not on the logical basis for it. There was none.)
I don’t remember when it was that I first found out that Tupac was the guy who did “California Love.” I do remember having learned it at one time, and going “oh yeah,” when I came across it again a couple of years ago. And then feeling really, really stupid. (I still haven’t really gotten into Biggie. I mean, I’ve listened, but that’s it.)
“California Love” is the greatest pop song rap produced in the 1990s. This is, I’d imagine, pretty inarguable. It has so wholly swallowed up its source materials that Joe Cocker and Zapp are become mere voices crying in the wilderness, preparing the way of the One Single To Rule Them All. Dr. Dre was already immortal thanks to his single-handed invention of gangsta rap and the West Coast aesthetic; with this production, he ascended to Godhood. And 2Pac?
Yeah, 2Pac was pretty great. There. I said it.
3. Radiohead “Paranoid Android”
(Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Colin Greenwood, Phil Selway)
OK Computer [Parlophone] • 1997
But I digress.
The fear of growing up that I listened to pop to stave off in my teenage years did not lessen as I unavoidably grew up. I just found ways of coping, as everyone does. My main method of coping fell under the heading of Irresponsibility. Failing to apply for classes before the deadline … failing classes themselves … failing to hold a job for more than six months … failing to make space in my head for separate categories of life and getting fired after being too consumed with my private life … failing to take care of myself, ending up in the hospital, moving back in with mom and dad … failing to finish even one creative project of the dozens I set for myself over the span of a decade … failing to maintain a single relationship for any appreciable amount of time … failing … failing ….
Did I mention the depression? Yeah, that helped too.
The trouble was that I didn’t enjoy my irresponsibility. I was too serious-minded, too apt to read my life as a Thomas Hardy novel, overdetermined and marching implacably towards unalloyed misery and death. I didn’t even get any decent substance abuse out of it: too obsessed with control to get drunk and too cowardly to get high, I only ever allowed myself to get addicted to the Internet.
And it was on that Internet that I first heard of Radiohead. (Wait for it….) The too-cool-for-school nerds who founded my first internet hangout were all excited about Kid A in the fall of 2000, and I for some reason implicitly trusted their judgment, probably because they were the first people I recognized as smarter than me that I’d ever known in real-time, as opposed to out of books. I asked for — and got — Kid A for Christmas. (That was the last record I ever really wanted that I didn’t just go out and buy myself. It took me a while to figure out this being an adult stuff, I’m telling you.) I was deeply confused, to put it mildly, when I put it on.
This — this was just a bunch of noise. Where were the guitars? It was supposed to be good music, right? Good music had guitars! Electronic glitches and a ghostly, chopped-up voice wasn’t rock! What the … what?
It wasn’t actually that long before I assimilated Kid A (it’s still one of my favorite albums), and then in quick succession Amnesiac and everything else Radiohead had released. (Lightbulbs dawned when I heard “Creep” and “High And Dry” and “Karma Police.” I had heard Radiohead before; I’d just never known it. I hadn’t even known those were all the same band. Hell, I had “High And Dry” on one of those cassettes I’d taped off Guatemalan radio.) There, at last, were the guitars.
My relationship to guitars are a bit like my relationship to geek culture: I got into them more or less because I felt like I was supposed to, and spent years fighting my way out to the space where my taste stands on its own two legs, unembarrassed and unafraid. At the same time that I was leaving the wide-open spaces of pop behind for the narrower confines of guitar rock, I was developing a fascination with superheroes that I was fortunate enough to leave behind once I discovered that I loved pen and ink, not overcolored fascism. There’s a parallel to be drawn between the macho angst of late-90s rock and the hypermale melodrama of post-80s superhero comics: in both cases I was lost in an aesthetic dead end ca. the turn of the century until it dawned on me that the larger medium (comics and pop, respectively) was what I was really interested in. In that regard, Radiohead was exactly the kind of band I needed to wean me off guitars: the Vertigo imprint of rock music, exploring heady themes with the kind of adult sophistication you didn’t expect to find in post-grunge. Not, when you get a broader perspective, actually groundbreaking or even very adult (all that quivering emotion and rage at the injustice of the world), but perhaps the perfect expression of the existential dread shot through with sudden glimpses of expanding horizons that is young adulthood.
“Paranoid Android” became my favorite Radiohead song early on: Jonny Greenwood’s guitar squalls towards the end ensured that, and the angst-rawk-artsy interlude-rawk structure borrowed from Queen’s masterpiece (one of my fondest memories is of participating in a spontaneous a capella rendering of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the back of a tour bus in Italy) ensured that. But what sealed the deal was Brent DiCrescenzo’s infamous “sorry honey” capsule review, the place I first stumbled upon Pitchfork and now relegated to the no-man’s-land of web.archive. If I’ve moved somewhat away from it since those heady days when my greatest pleasure was freaking out to its freakouts, that has more to do with my ambivalent attitude towards the science fiction conceits that OK Computer uses as a springboard than with the song itself.
One of the Internet Dudes I respect most took me to task for calling science fiction inhuman back at #91 on this list. Perhaps it would be better to say that I resent science fiction for questioning what it is to be human. But it would be most honest to say that I simply don’t like it. I’ve tried, honest — I plowed through Asimov and Bradbury and Ender’s Game in high school and hated them all; I’ve read Ellison and Dick and Bester and Clarke and Delany and Le Guin and anthologies by the pound and I just have no sympathy whatever with the aims, the ideas, or the tropes of classic science fiction, and I’ve actually decreased in sympathy the older I’ve gotten and the more I’ve nailed down what it is I do like. It took reading all of Douglas Adams to do it, ironically enough; the man destroyed science fiction for me to such an extent that I treasure his wit but can’t even revisit the Hitchhiker series and only ever re-read the Dirk Gently novels.
So Radiohead borrowed a two-word phrase for the title of this song from Adams, but the lyrics read more like the apocalyptic Philip K. Dick, or even Anthony Burgess. But of course they aren’t meant to be read: they exist primarily in Thom Yorke’s strangled croon, paranoid indeed but not (except in the text-to-speech voice that interpolates in the first verse) inhuman at all, in fact hyperhuman, practically D. H. Lawrence in its vivid physicality. And yet there’s a nagging something that reminds me of the interminable hours I spent reading science fiction, trying desperately to give a shit about people who aren’t people in places that aren’t places doing things for no reason other than to prove a point. Maybe it’s the overdetermined nature of that shiny late-90s production, maybe it’s the claustrophobic effect that Yorke alone among his falsetto-crying peers can manage, maybe it’s simply that I can’t for the life of me disassociate music from cover art; there’s a story in here somewhere of a robot getting mad, and it makes me want to die.
In the wrong mood, that is. Usually, I’ll just croon and howl along with Thom and headbang in odd time signatures. I still read four-color comics now and then too.
2. The New Radicals “You Get What You Give”
(Gregg Alexander, Rick Nowels)
Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too [MCA] • 1998
It’s a little frightening looking back over the past dozen years of my life to realize how much of the time I’ve spent driving a car. And 98% of that time had some form of audio entertainment going, whether music (mostly), audiobooks (more rarely) or podcasts (sharp increase over the past couple years). Car-hours have been especially important when thinking about my exposure to mainstream pop music. Since graduating high school, I have almost never listened to the radio indoors. My education in Sixties pop, classic rock, the Eighties, and current chart music all took place behind the wheel of a car in the late 90s and early oughts. (As did my education in the exquisitely dull good taste of NPR and what might be called popular classical music, i.e., nothing after Brahms. But that’s a different, still incomplete self.)
Increasingly, those half-hour and forty-five-minute commutes (ah, blessed urban sprawl) became the only moments of unalloyed pleasure in a life that felt like it was closing in around me, choking, dry, and foreordained. If I had failed to create a satisfying life as an adult, living paycheck-to-paycheck at jobs I hated and snuffing out any chances at worthwhile relationships through lack of emotional oxygen, I was equally dissatisfied with the perpetual youth that avoiding responsibility was supposed to be the whole point of enabling. I was around actual young people — volunteering at church youth groups, watching my younger siblings grow up and lap me in terms of coherence, success, and stability — and was horrified by the idea that, in the tragic line from Dazed And Confused (I haven’t seen it, I just know the line), I would grow older while they stayed the same age.
Pop music became the only window in the prison of my mind. For three to four minutes at a time, for more years than I care to think about, songs about being young and cool and in love and feeling so much were my release into a larger world than the solipsism of self-pity, which a smartass depressive with a facile intellect can turn anything more ambitious into. High art, whether tragic or sublime, was too easy to incorporate into my self-obsessed narrative of doomed and thwarted ambition brought down by the tragic flaws of laziness and forgetfulness; the unpretentiously pleasure-inducing was all that could take me out of myself and into it, however briefly.
I must have heard “You Get What You Give” about a thousand times before it dawned on me what a great pop song it was. And I mean great pop song, like once-in-a-lifetime stuff, a “God Only Knows” or “Respect” or “I Feel Love” or “Anarchy In The UK” type of thing. It had simply short-circuited all my (still-nascent) critical faculties; I didn’t even know I loved it until I thought about it. I had simply lived with it, breathed it, pulsed with it. It’s only slightly hyperbolic to say that the New Radicals, along with P. G. Wodehouse and my discovery of a universe of healing, gently funny comics outside the suffocating soap-opera kabuki of superheroes (John Stanley, Lewis Trondheim, and Cliff Sterrett: good God, y’all), kept me alive ca. 1999.
Let me be clear. “Don’t give up, you’ve got a reason to live, can’t forget we only get what we give” strikes me now, as it did then, as tritely affirmative homiletics, sub-Oprah bullshit of the kind that slides off the meaning-seeking mind like warm butter. (Mini-epiphany of the last few months: reading David Foster Wallace’s “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” and realizing that some people can actually get something out of those contentless maxims, and being simultaneously happy and sorry that for whatever reason I simply can’t operate on that level.) It is not in the lyrics — or not in those lyrics — that the Great Escape lies. It is in the music; and again I want to be clear. I am as cynically unmoved as anyone by the great sweeping, stirring crescendos popularized by U2, Coldplay, the Arcade Fire, and so forth. There is nothing soaring about Gregg Alexander’s tightly-wound mechanical toy of a production: it may pound, but it never builds-and-releases (except perhaps on the line “we’ll kick your ass in,” which anyway works more like a punchline than what the ancients meant by catharsis), and when he goes into falsetto it’s less because the Big Important Melody needs to swoop into the stratosphere than because falsetto is simply another of the classic pop tools in his arsenal — cf. Roy Orbison, the Bee Gees, and Michael Jackson — and he’s showing off.
Showing off is an inherently childish thing, sure. Unsurprisingly, it’s something I’m pretty good at. (If you’ve been impressed by any particular verbal dexterity in any of the foregoing 97 theses, rest assured I meant to do that.) Shutting up and letting the fruits of my labor be their own reward, I’m not so hot at. I do, though, see it as goal, an ideal to aspire to, and perhaps another stick with which to beat myself. Which is why this song is at #2. But more about that next time.
“You Get What You Give” saved my life (metaphorically) in the sense that I found a channel (pop) into which I could divert the irresponsible, gleeful childishness that’s been struggling to sabotage my adulthood. Even Wodehouse comes to an end, and as Wimbledon Green knows to his sorrow, perfect comics are all too rare; but pop is a unquenchable Fountain of Youth, an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (in the sense that Pope meant, not Gondry) which cannot be exhausted. There are always new frontiers: other countries, other decades, other genres. (I’ll get around to listening to post-1980 country someday, I swear.) So bracketed, I have become free to grow up, and in fact I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my life before, finally completing my degree while working two jobs (public sector and nonprofit), while bills get paid on time and I only contemplate suicide occasionally, as a bit of relaxation after a long day. (Yes, that’s meant as humor.)
An aside. There is, to my mind, nothing so irrepressibly pop as the one-hit wonder. Everything that pop could possibly be arrayed against militates against the entire concept: Serious Album Artists, Rock Provocateurs, those who aspire to make music in classical modes like jazz or composition, even Business, the true arch-enemy of pop (ooh, how thrilling! it’s always the ones you never suspect, the ones closest at hand). Because businessmen, of course, want a continuous return on initial investment, and one-hit wonders provide only that, a one-time spike and then flatline. One-hit wonders have gotten conspicuously more rare of late, a combination of industry pressure to perform and the increasing irrelevance of the charts; even when a band can be officially tallied as a one-hit wonder, they have a massive following elsewhere. The heady days when the New Radicals, Eiffel 65, or Len could appear and disappear without a trace are more or less gone. Sic transit gloria.
Finally, a reminder. All of the above, including the last two entries, is a narrative. There are others. This is the one I’m telling now. Life itself is not a narrative. It is life. Don’t mistake the two.
1. My Bloody Valentine “Soon”
Glider EP [Sire] • 1990
In trying to make sense of the pop history I hear on oldies and classic rock stations, I perform web searches (this is pre-Google, folks, we’re talking dawn of time stuff) on the Beatles and the Who and end up at George Starostin’s website, where I eagerly devour his take on rock (begins with the British Invasion, ends with punk) (he’s since expanded his repertoire) and hungry for more, check out his links. Mark Prindle is prominent among them. On Prindle’s website, I for the first time that I can remember encounter the name My Bloody Valentine. I may or may not have known about the horror movie of the same title from a childhood both terrified of and fascinated by the horror aisle in the local video store.
Searching for chatter about Blur and Radiohead, the twin poles of my then-obsession with Britpop, I stumble across a site called Pitchfork. I am fascinated immediately. The writers are intelligent and well-versed in cultural minutiae, but also young and slangy. Their legendary snobbery is not an issue: I’m a snob myself, and am eager to learn the ins and outs of indie-rock tastemaking and tastebreaking. In rooting around in the Pitchfork website, I find their first Favorite Albums of the 1990s list, and note with some surprise that My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is #1. “I should look for that some time,” I think, and for a while the idea of really digging into the music of the 90s hovers there in the back of my head, but I am too interested in new music, and nothing ever comes of it.
I have returned to my historical-overview fetish, and am busily engaged in making a box set of the 500 greatest rock songs from Elvis to I think the White Stripes was my cutoff. With the information that My Bloody Valentine made Pitchfork’s favorite record of the 90s rattling around in my head, I deign to look them up on allmusic and download a couple of tracks. “Come In Alone,” for whatever reason, is the one that sparks something, and I put it on the box set. Sandwiched uncomfortably between “Paradise City” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it is a blast of shadowed, reluctant beauty in the midst of numbing obviousness and self-aggrandizement. I have listened to that set twice, I think. It took up twenty CDs and I would abandon CD-burning within a year.
I find Loveless cheap during an occasional record-store trawl with my best friend. He picks up Coltrane and weird dub-metal hybrids; I pick up Ike & Tina Turner, Leadbelly, and My Bloody Valentine. We go to his apartment and hang out; I put on Loveless. It is not a hit. We have the volume set low enough that we can talk, and it just sounds tinny and stupid, although the subterranean melodies do pick their way out of the surrounding slush and give me hope.
I listen to Loveless on headphones, like you’re supposed to. I am at work, in an furnace-like filing room adjacent to a garage, and I sit frozen to the spot until the record finishes. Oh my God. I get it, finally. A few months later, I listen to Ladytron’s mix set Softcore Jukebox. “Soon” is the leadoff track. I am shocked at how poppy and upbeat it sounds when it hasn’t been preceded by an hour of gorgeous noise and tinny drums. I suddenly start to take Ladytron a lot more seriously.
I list Loveless as one of my five favorite all-time albums on an Internet message board. It has become part of my habitual listening, something I’ll put on when I don’t know what else to put on. I have still not really listened to any other shoegaze.
I get hold of the Glider EP so that I can hear “Soon” without the fadeout from “What You Want” layered over the first few seconds. It assumes a status in my head as the My Bloody Valentine song, their “Layla” or “Smoke On The Water,” the archetypal single in comparison with which all else pales. (How could I ever have thought that “Come In Alone” …? but I was so much younger then.)
I start making plans to compile my 100 Great [Something] Songs Of The 1990s list. I think for maybe a fraction of a second before deciding that “Soon” is #1.
I sit in a church parking lot waiting for “Soon” to end. I’ve been listening to the last few songs on this list in a row, getting ready to write about them. Trees quiver and gel in the rearview mirror in time with the kickdrum bass. The inimitable (meaning I can’t reproduce it vocally, let alone onomatopoeically), beautiful, undistorted melody line comes bouncing and shaking out of the roar and thump, and all I can do is waggle my head in response.
All my life is words. They hedge me about and define me, they are the filter through which I process all experience. When I find something that no words can touch, against the skin of which they slide off like so much quicksilver, that is something precious indeed. “Soon” is an incandescent pink ball of fire, against which all constructed meaning burns away, and all that is left is Sound and Rhythm. There are lyrics to “Soon.” They are unknowable, and I wouldn’t choose to know what they were if Kevin Shields himself were to call me up and offer to tell me.
In the end, my vision of 90s pop is, more than anything else, mine. Its gaze is interior, not exterior. In some iterations of What Pop Means, commercial success matters as much as critical clout, perhaps more, and nothing can be the greatest that is not widely perceived as such. I have some sympathy for that view, but being neither a mass-market journalist nor an ideologue, I don’t have to organize my life by it; I don’t have anything against commercial success, but it informs rather than constrains my sensibility.
In embracing noise here at the end of all things, Sam, am I performing an anti-pop gesture? There are some who’d think so, and applaud it or scold it, or insist that I’m engaging in category confusion. I’d suggest that they have misunderstood noise, pop, and this song pretty profoundly.
Like The Return Of The King, I’ve got too many endings. Thanks for reading. I’ll have something else again soon.