In the winter of 1996, my friend Anne lent me an LP titled 30˚ Everywhere – the first full-length record by Milwaukee’s The Promise Ring. It was a slightly odd entry point into a world of independent music – especially for someone living in DC during the reign of Fugazi – but the raw, intensely personal sound of the album was like nothing I’d ever heard.
My experience with 30˚ Everywhere opened up a world of bargain bins and indie record stores and out-of-the-way venues that had previously passed me by, and I began to devote large amounts of time attempting to immerse myself in a burgeoning scene that I knew existed but that never seemed to get any attention on the radio.
I made some stunningly bad album purchases during this period, and was forced to make more than one quick retreat from some dismal, unfriendly skate punk showcase (I’m thinking particularly of an ill-advised attempt to see the opening act at a Gameface show at The Black Cat in 1998), but I had successfully discovered a real alternative to the confusingly dubbed “alternative” music that was dominating the airwaves and the reviews sections of my Rolling Stone and Spin subscriptions. I began to feel a personal connection and sense of involvement with the new music I was hearing, and the effect was exhilarating.
Not that I stopped listening to the Counting Crows or anything. I mean, let’s be real here. These are 20 more songs:
180: Blink 182, “What’s My Age Again?”
It’s comforting to know that we were slackers right up until the very end. “What’s My Age Again?”, released in 1999, is the swansong for a generation of underachieving assholes, and I would happily pump my fist to it in solidarity, if I could only bring myself to give a fuck.
179: Frank Black, “Freedom Rock”
“Teenager of the Year” was the unlikely soundtrack to a summer exchange I spent in France in 1994, though I was too busy sneaking contraband bottles of Kronenberg 1664 and unnaturally strong Gauloises cigarettes at every available opportunity to pay as much attention as I would have liked.
178: Garbage, “Stupid Girl”
After producing now-legendary albums by Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Sonic Youth, Butch Vig took the entirely surprising next step of creating a poppy, post-Grunge juggernaut out of seemingly nothing and releasing Billboard-topping hits in rapid succession. As a band, Garbage may have suffered a bit from their vertiginous rise to superstardom, but there’s still something crisp and engaging about their early singles. Shirley Manson’s sneering delivery makes “Stupid Girl” one for the ages.
177: James, “She’s a Star”
Already a superfan after the spectacular Laid album (released four years previously), I saw James on the tour for this record at the 9:30 Club in DC. The Brian Eno-produced “Whiplash” seemed like a powerful return to form when it came out, though it now feels infinitely more of-its-time than its predecessor. There are a few charming exceptions though, and “She’s a Star” is one of them.
176: Texas Is the Reason, “A Jack With One Eye”
More bristling, top-of-the-line emotional punk rock from Jade Tree. Back in my day, emo bands used to actually emote.
175: Mogwai, “Yes! I Am a Long Way From Home”
When Mogwai’s first album, Young Team, came out, I frequently made the mistake of putting it on before bedtime – parts of it sound deceptively like sleepytime music. But Mogwai as it’s meant to sound should have the volume turned all the way up to 11, or you’ll miss the subtle instrumentation, the intricate tempo and dynamic changes – in short, everything that’s wonderful about this band.
174: Republica, “Ready to Go”
English people from a certain region have an incredible habit of inserting a parasite “r” between two words that end and begin, respectively, with vowels. That quirk alone, in “Yerr-I’m standing on the rooftops”, makes this song so much more than the sum of its admittedly derivative (GarbageElasticaL7EchobellySleeperLush) parts.
173: Veruca Salt, “Seether”
Fun Veruca Salt fact: Their only other nominal hit, “Volcano Girls” (1997), references “Seether” in the chorus, a la The Beatles’ “Glass Onion” (“The Seether’s Louise” = “The Walrus is Paul”). It worries me that I think about that sometimes.
172: Cinerama, “Dance, Girl, Dance”
David Gedge is like a twee, upbeat Morrissey with an endless supply of perfect, poppy love songs. This was the album that first introduced me to him (I had mostly missed out on The Wedding Present), though it was six years before I got a chance to see Cinerama play in London. I remember being pleasantly surprised by his glum, downtrodden, exquisitely British sense of humor.
171: Foo Fighters, “Everlong”
No one knew what to think about Foo Fighters when they first showed up. Nirvana + Sunny Day Real Estate just seemed like an absurd – almost sacrilegious – idea for a band. History, and a bit of objective distance, has proven that they were (still are?) a good thing. This is their best song. (Also: This one time, Dave Grohl and I broke into air drums at the same moment. I can’t remember what song was playing, or why Dave Grohl was there, or why I thought I could play air drums without ever having held an actual drumstick, but it definitely means that I am destined for greatness.)
170: Hum, “Stars”
In heavy rotation for a hot second on alternative rock radio in 1995, “Stars”, and Hum, probably deserved a good deal more recognition than they got.
169: Slint, “Good Morning, Captain”
A couple of months ago, I was buying apple juice in a bodega in Brooklyn when a big black man grabbed my arm, looked me in the eye, and said, “You look like you’d be into this sort of thing” and handed me a 20-year-old copy of Slint’s Spiderland CD. This is a true story.
168: The Wallflowers, “One Headlight”
I saw The Wallflowers perform once – at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in DC in 1996, back when every rock band in the world decided they were briefly passionate about Tibet. They opened their set with a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” and it made me angry, though I guess they were just as entitled as anyone to cover whatever the hell they wanted. I actually think the reason I like this song is because of the headlight metaphor, of all things.
167: The Sundays, “Here’s Where the Story Ends”
I associate The Sundays with my first days in college – their other truly great song, “Summertime,” was released the month I started school at St. Andrews. This track (1990) makes me think of The Cocteau Twins, except with more immediacy and fun than that band was generally capable of. Harriet Wheeler has one of those voices that can be dreamy and etherial without seeming fey. I am very likely in love with her.
166: The Rentals, “Friends of P”
The best song Weezer never wrote.
165: No Doubt, “Don’t Speak”
I once almost crashed my car singing along to “Don’t Speak”. You really want to belt this one out if you’re going to do it justice. I think it’s actually about the other dude in the band, which kind of adds a layer.
164: June of 44, “Of Information And Belief”
June of 44 were among my favorite rediscoveries when I started dipping into the world of math rock in earnest after having had my mind changed about that whole scene by Don Caballero’s earth-shatteringly good record, American Don. The range of this song – from 1998′s Four Great Points – is just breathtaking.
163: Catherine Wheel, “Judy Staring at the Sun”
Featuring Tanya Donelly, from Belly, which should be recommendation enough. I remember seeing the debut of the video for this song (1995) at about 2 in the morning on one of those MTV shows that still played good music because no one was awake to notice – Alternative Nation, possibly, or 120 Minutes. At the time, I considered them to be my own secret discovery, which was a reasonably preposterous idea – though in fairness, I’ve still never met anyone who actively claims to be a Catherine Wheel fan.
162: Cake, “The Distance”
I don’t normally like bands that sing dorky joke music (They Might Be Giants notwithstanding), but only bad, wicked people could reasonably claim they don’t think Cake is a whole lot of fun.
161: Bjork, “Bachelorette”
My first Bjork album was Post (1995), and I remember specifically that my awesome grandma liked it so much that she had me record it onto cassette for her. You haven’t lived until you’ve shown up at your grandma’s house during Spring Break to find her jamming out to “It’s Oh So Quiet”. After the success of Post, Bjork could do no wrong for a while. “Bachelorette” was the culmination of that period.