This is partially a note on methodology, but mainly a way to have one place where this whole quixotic, time-consuming project can live. Also, I have made a playlist of it, for listening.
I’ve called these “Pop Songs” using a fairly expansive definition of “Pop” which with a few exceptions just means “songs by bands”. For no reasons that would hold up under scrutiny other than to refine the scope of the thing and to play to my actual knowledge and interest this does not include individual pop stars like Madonna or Britney, hip hop, anything instrumental or jazzy, or any songs by Green Jello. Remember those guys? I have no idea why they just popped into my head, but that’s the kind of thing we’re dealing with here.
Also, I’ve tried (and occasionally failed) to limit this to one song per band, per album, because nobody wants to hear me do a track-by-track exegesis of June of 44′s Four Great Points.
I won’t go too much into the dark, nerdy magic behind the spreadsheets I made to get this list together before I started writing it up, but as a loose guideline, I used four scales to determine the rank of each song: 1. Objective musical value (oops, yikes), 2. Value to me (did I love it then?, do I love it now?), 3. ’90s-ness, and 4. Influence (on, like, future, non-’90s bands). As an example of how this worked in practice, “Hey Jealousy”, clearly the greatest song ever written, got extremely high marks in categories 2. and 3. and extremely low marks in categories 1. and 4. (because let’s be honest), which is why it is where it is on the list and (spoilers) not at #1.
This list is designed to be skimmed through and strongly disagreed with and occasionally nodded sagely at, and I hope you enjoy it. It’s been really fun to make.
Here’s the list, in 10 parts:
And if you want to listen along, here’s a playlist of all the songs that exist on Spotify, which is most of them. Have fun!
Some time in the year 2000, I got a message from my roommate while I was on a weekend trip saying simply that something really bad had happened and that I should call. There could only be one disaster catastrophic enough to warrant that much urgency, and, with a rising horror, I knew what it was immediately: My CDs had been stolen. All 700 of them. Someone had kicked down our door and ignored my TV, VCR, and laptop in favor of obliterating half a lifetime of collecting and curation in one cruel blow. All I had left were the 12 albums in my CaseLogic travel pack. In the months that followed (during which they were essentially all I had to listen to) these would come to be known as the 12 Apostles (if you’re interested, it was kind of an odd mix: My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything, Get Up Kids’ Something to Write Home About, At the Drive In’s In Casino Out, A St. Etienne comp., Wilco’s Summerteeth, Placebo’s Without You I’m Nothing, an Art Blakey album, Blur’s 13, and some other stuff I don’t remember anymore).
But so the weird thing was that here I was in a new millenium with an unpleasantly fresh start and a shockingly material, non-metaphorical break from everything I had lovingly tried to salvage from a decade of musical exploration and discovery. Just me and 10 years of memories and an uncertain future of pop music stretching out in front of me without a scrap of continuity to hold me over except 12 random-ass CDs in a CaseLogic as a reminder that there was once a time when I devoted abundant amounts of energy to collecting little pieces of plastic and arranging them on my wall in some absurd and arcane and complicated filing system as a statement about myself and my tastes and my own weird little journey through the magical undefinable frustrating musical world of the ’90s.
About a year later (after a daring sting operation by two Dundee detectives) I miraculously had all my CDs returned to me, but that’s another story and anyway, it wasn’t really the same anymore.
Here’s my top 20:
For the better part of a decade, if you went to a show at DC’s Black Cat any night of the week, there would be a large homeless gentleman with a booming voice at the door, and as you approached, he’d say, “Black Cat! Black Cat! Spare some change for the homeless.” Depending on what show you were planning on seeing, he’d throw in a reference for good measure: “Modest Mouse, baby! Spare some change for the homeless.”
I must have seen dozens of bands play at the Black Cat during that era – particularly DC bands like The Make Up, Trans Am, Tuscadero, Circus Lupus, and Dismemberment Plan – as well as a who’s who of indie bands from around the country who made their annual pilgrimage to the legendary venue. The Black Cat has since moved down the street to a larger space, and the homeless dude who announced the shows doesn’t seem to be there anymore, but it’s still one of the best best best places in all of Washington, D.C., and long may it last.
Here are 20 more songs from the list:
1993 was a pretty good year for alternative rock. I know, because I watched the whole thing on MTV in my basement, with a remote poised to hit record when a promising video came along that I could document for posterity on my “Great Music” video tape. The tape came in particularly handy as a supplement whenever MTV saw fit to punish one with, say, Bill Bellamy’s MTV Jamz or those awful people in that awful beach house or, God forbid, the dreaded Grind.
Among a number of other hot jams, 1993 yielded “Two Princes”, “Hey Jealousy”, and “Creep”, which were the first three cassette singles I ever bought. Along with those indelible classics, “Great Music” had songs by Soul Asylum, Guns & Roses, Pearl Jam, Snow (“Informer”), Primus, Blind Melon, Arrested Development, Megadeth (“Sweating Bullets”), Genesis, Candlebox, and Faith No More. It was last called into service two years later when R.E.M. surprised everyone by playing an unreleased new song (“Wake Up Bomb”) live at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards, which, at the time, was the best song I had ever heard.
“Great Music” might well still exist somewhere in my parents’ basement. It’s probably worth millions by now. Here are 20 more songs:
As far as I was concerned, the soundtrack to everyone’s lives in the Washington/Baltimore area between, say, 1992 and 1997, was a collection of tunes lovingly assembled by the venerable Disc Jockeys at 99.1 WHFS, Baltimore’s only alternative rock radio station.
On the way to school, we were tended by the careful ministrations of Zoltar, the Brother From Another Planet; on the way home we were gently serenaded by the beautiful (I assumed) Catherine. And if you happened to be near a radio on a Sunday evening, you would have the spectacular treat of listening to Dave Marsh’s “Now Hear This” in its entirety, where you could discover actual new bands making music you probably actually hadn’t heard before. A rarity in rock radio.
Towards the end of high school I began to think that HFS wasn’t really all that cool anymore, and though that eventually came to be true (to be specific, on a cold day in September, 1997, when the station’s new ownership deliberately and irrevocably played, for the first time, a short musical number by the band Puddle of Mudd), it was probably an ungrateful way for me to treat an institution that for years had given me new music by Sonic Youth and Pavement and Sebadoh in equal doses with the latest from, like, Harvey Danger and Eve 6.
Here are 20 more songs from the countdown: