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:
20: Matthew Sweet, “Sick of Myself”
The title of Matthew Sweet’s 1995 album, 100% Fun, is a quote from Kurt Cobain’s suicide note: “The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun.” That trick – sounding upbeat and life-affirming when you’re actually having a really brutally lousy time – is something that Sweet is fantastically good at, and “Sick of Myself” is a wonderful case in point.
19: Fugazi, “Bed for the Scraping”
DC was utterly saturated with Fugazi throughout my adolescence, so I have them in my blood to some extent, but Red Medicine (1995) was the first Fugazi full-length that I really got my teeth into. It was around this time (maybe a couple of years later) that I first got to see them play – during one of their annual appearances at the free outdoor summer shows Ian MacKaye organized at Fort Reno in Tenleytown – and attending that show felt almost reverential, like we were finally paying fealty to the God-creators of DC music as we knew it. Headbanging as an act of devotion.
Red Medicine is a little bit more of an intellectual album than some more “classic” Fugazi stuff, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t rock your fucking face off – just that it tends to do so somewhat more thoughtfully, and with more tempo changes.
18: Belle and Sebastian, “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”
Hearing If You’re Feeling Sinister for the first time was an epiphany – I can even tell you exactly where I was (in a room, in a house – it’s not that interesting, but the point is that I remember it). It’s difficult even to really describe what it felt like except that, absurd as it seems, I hadn’t realized that you were even allowed to make music like this before.
And I’m aware that “music like this” veers pretty quickly into the (potentially) dangerous territory of whatever precious tearjerkers that chick from Garden State probably had in her record collection, but (1) that movie came out 8 years after this album, and (2) for Belle and Sebastian, “twee” was just a palette they were using to paint these lush, intricate masterpieces that, in 1996, were, well, like I said, an epiphany. Which is all a pretty roundabout way of saying that this is still one of my favorite songs to sing in the shower. Nobody writes them like they used to.
17: Counting Crows, “Mr. Jones”
Despite following in the hallowed footsteps of misters Loverman, Vain, and Wendal, Mr. Jones was immediately and uncontestedly the quintessential mister of the decade. This was a Buzz Bin song, I think – at least I definitely remember hearing it first on MTV – but it had a weight to it that didn’t seem like the work of a bunch of upstarts. It’s the narrative, I think, that gives it ballast, plus the three or four heaping tablespoons of emotion that Adam Duritz puts into his voice during the crescendos, and it’s just totally obvious from the first time you hear it that this is one of the great singalong jams of all time.
16: Belle and Sebastian, “Sleep the Clock Around”
Shortly before this album came out, I had been able to get my hands on a bootlegged cassette of a bootlegged cassette of one of the mythical 500 copies of Belle and Sebastian’s first album, Tigermilk, and the hype leading up to the release of The Boy With the Arab Strap in the dusty, cigarette-smoke stink of my ground-floor bedroom in a flophouse on 8 John Street in St. Andrews was going to be pretty tough for this Glasgow band to live up to. Obviously they did, and frankly this song was all they needed to do it, even if Arab Strap hadn’t been the masterpiece that it was.
15: Neutral Milk Hotel, “Two-Headed Boy”
Anyone who has ever heard In the Aeroplane Over the Sea knows that it is an assault. It is impossible to ignore. It grabs you and sits you down and forces you to listen to every moment of its sad, sad, wonderful story until you agree that you will tell everyone you know the magic words it spoke to you, except for that creeping fear that you won’t be able to remember even a hundredth part of the sweet, sweet, terrible feelings that those words make you feel once it’s over. Is how I feel about this album, anyway.
I also remember that we almost called our intramural soccer team Neutral Milk Hotel in college because someone had heard them on John Peel and thought (rather reasonably) that it was dumbest name for a band ever.
14: Pavement, “Cut Your Hair”
Why this is the case I don’t know, but there is something about the fact that Stephen Malkmus is quite deliberately being coy about whether he is saying “career” or “Korea” near the end of this song that always makes me really happy.
DC and Baltimore’s favorite “alternative” radio station, WHFS, was good enough to play “Cut Your Hair” essentially on repeat for about 6 months after it came out, which I feel is probably a thing that wouldn’t happen nowadays with an equivalent song.
13: The Cure, “A Letter to Elise”
This is random as fuck, but I was on an exchange in Monthey, Switzerland, some time in the early-ass ’90s hanging out in a mall – as you do when you are just an idiot kid and don’t what you’re supposed to do on vacations – when whatever the Swiss version of MTV is came on in a store and they were doing an hour-long Cure retrospective, because they wear their hearts on their damn sleeves in Switzerland apparently, and I just sat there and watched video after video after video – from “Pictures of You” to “Lovesong” to “Just Like Heaven” with Robert Smith whirling around on a mountaintop to “Catch” and on and on until I was just completely besotted with this band.
I know that can’t be an apocryphal story because I would have made up something much more romantic and intense for my formal introduction to The Cure if I’d been allowed to. Anyway, I’ve given this an awful lot of thought, and I’m pretty sure that “A Letter to Elise” is the best song off Wish. Discuss.
12: Guns and Roses, “Don’t Cry”
The first song I listened to off the Use Your Illusion albums was “Get in the Ring” – over at my friend Franz’s house. We listened to it kind of a lot, because Axl says pretty much every swear word in the book on “Get in the Ring” and that kind of thing was extremely interesting to me in those days. But once we were able to make it past that particular aspect of G’n'R, there was “Civil War” and “November Rain” and “Yesterdays” and “Don’t Cry” to contend with and even our juvenile-ass minds were sharp enough to appreciate that whatever the hell was going on here, it was fucking big.
11: Pearl Jam, “Black”
For Christmas of 1991, my cousin bought me U2′s Achtung Baby and Pearl Jam’s Ten. The message was very clear: The only band I ever really talked about in those days was The Beatles, and there was contemporary stuff that I needed to be listening to if I wanted to stop embarrassing myself (and indeed, my entire family) in front of the other 7th-graders. For whatever reason, it didn’t really work, and I refused to give either of those albums anywhere near the attention they deserved until years later. Which is maybe fortunate in the case of Ten, because I think I would have missed this track in all the “Jeremy” hype, and that would have been a catastrophe.
10: Liz Phair, “Fuck and Run”
Exile in Guyville is a crash course on how to fix all your problems with sarcasm, and “Fuck and Run” is its final exam. This is the most convincing disquisition you’ll ever hear about the three universal truths: that boys are assholes, that everyone’s an asshole, and that the only way to get through it is to have a fucking attitude about it.
Liz Phair has the best attitude of all time on Guyville, and I still think that one eye-roll from her is worth all the letters and sodas in the world.
9: Smashing Pumpkins, “1979″
1979 was an important year for me because I was born in it, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what the Pumpkins were going after with this one. I think what they were going after was nostalgia, the sticky-sweet homesickness for a relived past that’s just as achingly distant as a dreamed-of future. I think that if this is a feeling that you want to have, then listening to this song is like mainlining it. Be careful! The video gets all of that stuff right too, so it’s like a double dose.
8: Modest Mouse, “Trailer Trash”
Lonesome Crowded West made its way into my hands during the spring of 1999 when I was in my Junior year of college and there are those who would claim that it would eventually become my favorite album of all time. Me. I am those would claim that. It’s just a tough thing to come right out and say.
I remember listening to it for the first time falling asleep on the floor of a dorm room in Glasgow and waking up with a heart attack when they got to the really really loud part in “Shit Luck” (THIS PLANE IS DEFINITELY CRASHING). And I remember listening to it on a thousand road trips, which is what Modest Mouse was made for. I’ve had a lot of different favorite songs off this album over the years, but “Trailer Trash” is the actual best.
7. Radiohead, “Let Down”
Weirdly, the thing I remember about the day I bought this album was that it was the same day I started reading Brideshead Revisited, during the summer of my senior year in high school. Both pieces of work constitute fairly important formative moments in my late adolescence because at that age you are an open mind turned towards the world and when someone shoves into that mind something as complex and powerful as, say, OK Computer, or, like, a book that doesn’t suck, it is going to fucking resonate.
But so what happened was that I sat in my room for two straight days and read Brideshead from cover to cover and listened to this album on repeat, and the two things are now completely inseparable in my mind which is a weird but wonderful way to experience one of the greatest albums about alienation ever made and one of the greatest books about alienation ever written.
6. Pulp, “Common People”
Different Class is an album about not fitting in; being an underdog; watching hopelessly from the sidelines. But it’s also (especially in its latter half) about the very specific feeling you get after you’ve been to an all-night rave and you’re coming down from God-knows-what and you try to take stock of your life but everything’s in too many pieces to make any kind of sense, and then you’re stuck almost certainly in some dreadful coffee shop or all-night diner staring at a plate of uneaten toast or grits or scrambled brains and watching hopelessly from your own sidelines. Which is just a singularly unpleasant experience.
Anyway, this album came out when I was about 17 and it really spoke to me.
5. R.E.M., “Country Feedback”
This has always been my favorite R.E.M. song, and I’ll back that up by saying that it’s also Michael Stipe’s favorite R.E.M. song, or at least that that is a thing he used to claim when they’d play it at shows.
The Out of Time cassette tape had a “Time Side” and a “Memory Side,” which is a concept that won’t even register with anyone born after, say, 1994, but this album will forever be divided into two distinct parts for me, with the two movements of “Country Feedback” as the emotional centerpiece that unites them. If you do happen to be familiar with the frustrating magic of the Walkman’s auto-reverse function, you will recognize “Country Feedback” as one of those songs that you can rewind forever and still be at the end, which is fitting somehow.
More importantly, and setting aside the structural nuances of Out of Time for just a second, this song is utterly and permanently devastating. Listen with caution.
4. Nirvana, “Come as You Are”
It’s difficult to know how to talk about Nirvana because the emotional experience of their story is essentially public domain for anyone my age, but these are the snapshots that stick in my memory:
Krist Novoselic throwing his bass in the air after “Lithium” at the MTV music awards and knocking himself out with it;
The video for “In Bloom” where they’re all dressed up like “decent fellas” from the ’60s, and the experience of “In Bloom” which is mostly not knowing whether it’s OK to sing along;
The surprisingly intense liner notes from Incesticide;
The fear and consternation when it was revealed that Steve Albini would be producing In Utero;
The Unplugged performance where Kurt butchers “Pennyroyal Tea”;
That whole hospital robe thing at Reading;
Learning about Kurt’s suicide from MTV News;
And then almost 20 years with just the legacy to go on, and the Foo Fighters.
3. James, “Laid”
James were already just about in our collective subconscious in 1993 because of their singalong radio anthem “Sit Down”, but “Laid”, song and album, blew the roof off all that. I got my copy, I am fairly certain, through the mail-order relic that was Columbia House, and pushed past the oh-so-’90s weirdness of the album art (they are all in dresses eating bananas in front of an ornate door, clearly) to discover something vastly more rich and intricate and beautiful than I could possibly have expected.
Arriving at the crescendo of “Laid” after 10 tracks of James (and Brian Eno) being sultry and hypnotic and portentous is as satisfying a payoff as you could hope for, but the journey there is breathtaking.
2. Mazzy Star, “Fade Into You”
Shhhhh – Hope Sandoval is talking. She’s saying something about how she melts into your shadow and breathes the same air that you breathe but you never seem to notice. There is a fucking slide guitar that is backing up her point in a really unbelievably convincing way. The concert piano is like, “uh-huh.” It knows exactly what she is talking about. She never even has to raise her voice. “You put your hands into your head and your smiles cover your heart.”
1. Beck, “Loser”