In the summer of 1998 I got a job working at Tower Records, in a perfunctory way fulfilling my lifelong dream of being a snotty, college record store dude. I would have been shocked to learn that a mere dozen years later this particular breed of insufferable teenager would be a dying one. It’s as if a light has gone out of the world.
When I had some free moments away from making people uncomfortable for buying Barenaked Ladies and/or Limp Bizkit albums, I took advantage of the store’s employee discount to fill out my record collection. I bought albums by groups like The Psychedelic Furs, Jesus and Mary Chain, The Replacements, X, and Gang of Four and discovered somewhat newer bands like Mercury Rev, Sleater Kinney, and Girls Against Boys through promotional albums sent to the store.
I came out of the experience with an obsession for arranging my CDs in ever more complex organizational systems and an unhealthy taste for distorted Shoegaze pop that I’ve never really been able to shake. Here are some more songs on the countdown:
160: Mercury Rev, “Opus 40″
I’m not sure you could get away with naming a band Mercury Rev in this day and age, but at the time I remember thinking it was pretty cool. Critics loved these guys – especially this album (Deserters Songs) – but you tended to hear about Mercury Rev a lot more than you actually heard them. Which is a shame, because they crafted some genuinely beautiful pop music.
159: The Murmurs, “You Suck”
Fun fact about The Murmurs: There are no fun facts about The Murmurs. But this masterpiece is more than enough to make up for their biographical inadequacies in the fun department. In high school, our Latin teacher used to give out demerits to anyone who dared to say that something sucked. I think she thought it meant blow jobs. This song makes me think of her.
158: The Lightning Seeds, “Pure”
Every time I hear “Pure” (from 1990′s Cloudcuckooland), my brain does contortions trying to remember where I’ve heard that bridge before. To spare you the agony, it’s the hook from New Order’s “Love Vigilantes”, which kind of makes this two songs in one.
“Pure” is hopelessly upbeat, but in a very British way – with a tinge of melancholy and an implied expectation of eventual disappointment. It’s that sensibility, as much as Ian Broudie’s ridiculously competent songcraft, that makes this song so much fun to listen to.
157: Saint Etienne, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”
Not to sound all old and stuff, but it makes me sad to think that we’re long past the days when you could walk into a record store and buy an album just because you liked the band’s name or the look of the cover art. Saint Etienne was one of those discoveries for me – somewhat after their heyday, when I was in my sophomore year of college.
Listening to them again almost 15 years later, it’s surprising how gracefully they’ve aged. This one is actually a Neil Young cover, but it’s a perfect example of the band’s idiosyncratic dance pop, with its hypnotic, House-infused rhythms, the repetitive piano hook, and those oddly (for a dance song) plaintive vocals.
156: Teenage Fanclub, “The Concept”
All the best bands are from Scotland, and I’m fairly certain that’s Teenage Fanclub’s fault. “The Concept” is so rich with harmonic lines (actual and implied) that it’s almost a hymn. Teenage Fanclub are like alternative rock’s Beach Boys.
155: R.E.M., “Walk Unafraid”
Most people had (inexplicably) given up on R.E.M. after Monster, but When Up was released in 1998, I was still as devoted a fan as I’d ever been. I remember the electric feeling I got listening to a sneak preview of the album on British radio and then waiting outside St. Andrews’ only record store before it opened the next morning to bring home my copy.
“Walk Unafraid”, in the tradition of “Leave”, off of New Adventures in Hi-Fi, is ambitious and anthemic and wonderful.
154: Kristin Hersh, “Your Ghost”
In November 1998, I bought a copy of Uncut magazine that came with a free compilation of music from 4AD. It turned out to be one of the most useful goddamn samplers I’ve ever encountered, and it fueled a lasting love affair with everything 4AD: Red House Painters, The Cocteau Twins, Nick Cave and The Birthday Party, Tanya Donelly’s underappreciated solo work, Mojave 3 (and through them, Slowdive), The Throwing Muses, and of course, Kristin Hersh herself.
This one (off Hips and Makers) brings in Michael Stipe to make the memorable, haunting chorus even more so.
153: Cornershop, “Brimful of Asha”
I once threw a party at my house in Mount Pleasant, DC, where the entire playlist was this song on repeat. As far as we were concerned, it never got old.
152: Bikini Kill, “Rebel Girl”
This is a fucking serenade. I love you, Kathleen Hanna.
151: White Town, “Your Woman”
Fun fact about “Your Woman”: The trumpet line is actually taken from 1930s Big Band singer Al Bowlly’s “My Woman”. But yes, Star Wars.
150: Temple of the Dog, “Hungerstrike”
Ex-Mother Love Bone bandmates team up for a soulful early Grunge anthem about socialism. Haha, just kidding! Holy fucking shit, Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell. Jesus Christ. I don’t mind stealing bread either if you guys explain it like that.
149: Sunny Day Real Estate, “Seven”
Kind of out of the blue, a girl from my choir gave me a cassette tape (sometime in 1995) with the first Foo Fighters album on the A side and “Diary” on the B side, and I promptly went apeshit for this band, just like any other reasonable person who’d had the good fortune to come across them at the time. This whole album is a glorious assault on the senses, and “Seven” is an opener to match the best of all time.
148: Sugarcubes, “Hit”
You don’t hear about old Einar quite so much as you hear about the other singer in this band, but he brought to the Sugarcubes a sense of experimentalism and adventurousness that it’s difficult to imagine them without. The occasional ill-advised forays into awkward proto-rap notwithstanding, the Sugarcubes were a force to be reckoned with, and “Hit” is one of their most infectious and enduring songs.
147: Sugar, “Helpless”
I was too young for Hüsker Dü, but Bob Mould was a name that kept turning up when I began to look into the roots of the radio bands I was getting into in the early ’90s. Once Sugar began to be a staple of alternative rock radio with the release of File Under: Easy Listening in 1994 it felt like I’d found a missing piece of the puzzle. “Helpless” is from 1992, off their debut album, Copper Blue.
146: Soundgarden, “Outshined”
I don’t know why I remember this, but I acquired Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger in a trade with a friend from the Boy Scouts for my copy of Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album. It was a weird trade, and it was a while before I made it past the barrage of that album’s first track, “Rusty Cage”. “Outshined” was a more accessible single and a much bigger hit, though it’s still quite an earful.
It’s a treat nowadays to hear Chris Cornell without the edges worn off. The man can really belt it out when he wants to.
145: Primitive Radio Gods, “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand”
Throughout the summer of ’96, this song vied with The Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper” for radio ubiquity. I’m not sure why we were all so damn introspective in ’96, but it seems to fit with my memory of the time. The B.B. King sample is inspired.
144: Beta Band, “Dry the Rain”
The Beta Band are dear to my heart because they come out of a local scene that was quietly thriving in the small town of St. Andrews, Scotland, where I went to University. Everybody knows this song, of course, because of that scene in High Fidelity.
143: Luscious Jackson, “Naked Eye”
I saw Luscious Jackson play with (absurdly) Rasputina and Kula Shaker in 1996. The 9:30 Club was packed to the rafters with diehard, lifelong Luscious Jackson enthusiasts (who knew?) two of whom I was not entirely unpleasantly wedged between in front of the stage (which is where I watched shows from back in those days). There was almost a riot when they played “Naked Eye”.
142: The Pixies, “Alec Eiffel”
Trompe le Monde wasn’t quite as magnificent as, say, Doolittle, but it was the album (1991) that introduced most people my age to the band. “Alec Eiffel”, with its legendary breakdown, stands out in a big way.
141: Portishead, “Sour Times”
This one kind of blew all of our minds when it surfaced on the radio in 1994. I’d certainly never heard anything quite like it. Beth Gibbons’ wail on this track is like an alarm going off in your soul.