Listen to this track by experimental rock noise makers from New York City Sonic Youth. It’s “Teen Age Riot”, a breakthrough song from an equally breakthrough record in 1988’s Daydream Nation. This was the release that put the band on the map after having formed a full seven years before.
The band that included singer and guitarist Thurston Moore, bassist and singer Kim Gordon, guitarist Lee Renaldo, and drummer Steve Shelley built their sound on their experiments with distortion, re-thinking the traditional structures of rock music and distilling them into their component parts. Then, they added their own elements to those structures true to the American underground DIY approach that was growing steadily by the early eighties. They added in spoken word elements, and tying it all together with a ferocious guitar sound that opened up the possibilities for rock guitar into the 1990s.
But, in the meantime, they had their own reputations to build with alternative radio, pulling from influences that ranged from The Beatles, to Neil Young, to The Minutemen. As experimental as they continued to be by 1988, they also understood that traditional rock structures in a song were traditional for a reason; they resonate with listeners. But, this song goes beyond an embrace of standard structure still.
Listen to this track by three-cornered rap-rock pioneers from New York City, Adam “Ad Rock” Horovitz, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Mike “Mike D” Diamond; Beastie Boys. It’s “Sabotage”, a single as taken from their 1994 record Ill Communication. By this time in their career, their reputation preceded them, and this record debuted at number one.
By this time in the early to mid-90s as well, they had branched out stylistically speaking, including a wide range of musical styles. This included playing live instruments along with samplers, matching a rock arrangement with rap delivery. This would spawn a number of lesser (to say the least) imitators during the decade. That wasn’t pretty. But, the Beasties showed how versatile they were as a unit, doing what most bands who dealt in alternative rock and hip hop could not do; bring out the strengths of both of those musical poles without betraying one for the other.
But a deciding factor as far as the audience was concerned how they were able to hook into an emerging phenomenon in the 1990s; the rise of the “alternative” tag. Read more
Listen to this track by college radio darlings and grunge-era forebears The Pixies. It’s “Monkey Gone To Heaven” , a single as taken from their seminal 1989 record Doolittle.
The song made impact on the alternative rock charts with a top ten showing. It scored well in the UK as well, with the NME praising it for, among other things, it’s integrated use of strings with rock instruments. It’s not as if this is the first time this arrangement was employed. But, it was a first for the Pixies, who’d otherwise traded on hard-edged instrumentation; guitar-bass-drums-shouting . Here, those elements are taken to another level in one of their best statements as a band.
The song seems to hold an apocalyptic vision, with oceans, skies, and burning planets right out of the book of revelation. Of course, the numerology section of man as five, the devil as six, and GOD AS SEVEN! helps to create that effect pretty handily all by itself.
But, I think this song is less about lofty cosmology, and more about issues that are far more down to earth. Read more
Listen to this track by three-piece “low-rock” innovators from Boston, Morphine. It’s “Cure For Pain”, the title track to their 1993 album of the same name; Cure For Pain, arguably their strongest statement as a musical unit.
There are many examples of rock music innovation during the 1990s. As I’ve mused elsewhere, I really think this decade was an artist’s decade, with many bands empowered to push the boundaries while signed to major labels in the wake of Nirvana’s achievement of selling loads of records while also hanging onto college radio audiences. And, no other band was doing what Morphine was doing.
Everything about them was unconventional, from the instruments they used, to the way those instruments were played, to the musical references that define their sound. And yet their music doesn’t just appeal to some intellectual notion of originality. It socks you in the gut, too.
I think this comes from groundwork they laid which not too many bands decide upon from the get-go; a cultivated group identity. Read more
Listen to this track by Perry Farrell-led Jane’s Addiction offshoot band Porno For Pyros. It’s their “modern rock” chart hit “Pets” as taken from 1993’s self-titled Porno For Pyros album, the first of two albums by the band to date. Along with Farrell, the band was comprised of former Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins, plus new players Peter DiStefano (guitar) and Martyn LeNoble (bass).
In this song, humanity is inept in making our world livable due to how “fucked up” we are as a species. Yet not all is lost – we would still make great pets to alien life, should they decide to come to our world and remove us from our role as the superior species on the planet.
Maybe this isn’t a likely theme for a hit single, which is why it was part of the burgeoning “alternative” tag that was becoming a popular term for use in the mainstream for music that had odd angles to it. This one in the end is pretty bleak in its outlook, when it comes to a view on where our civilization is taking us. And yet at the same time, it certainly illustrates something that we can’t deny either, even if we don’t completely agree; that every dominant species has it’s time, once its rule comes to an end. Yet, there is a more current issue that perhaps inspired such a bleak point of view in this song, even if it is pretty tongue in cheek. Read more
Listen to this track by a young and hungry Athens, Georgia quartet R.E.M. It’s “Radio Free Europe”, a song that would be represented in a re-recorded form on their first album Murmur by 1983. The song would first be a single recorded on the independent Hib Tone label two years beforehand. The single was produced by Let’s Active prime mover Mitch Easter. It would eventually appear in this original form on the 1988 compilation Eponymous.
This version was recorded in the summer of 1981 before their deal with I.R.S records which would put out Murmur and set them on their path to pop greatness. This earlier take of the song moves at a faster clip, with scrappier playing, and with characteristic impenetrable lyrics that showcase Michael Stipe’s unique vocal style.
The pop sensibilities are locked into place, even this early on, helped production-wise by Easter, who knew a thing or two about jangly guitar music that hearkened back to a mythical, musical golden age, yet also infused with a modern sound.
So, how did a song that started off on an independently recorded and distributed single become one of Rolling Stone‘s Top 500 songs (at number 379) of all time?
Here’s a clip of the Replacements performing their song “I Will Dare” from their landmark 1984 album, Let It Be.
Were I to compile a list of songs entitled “Songs That Should Have Been Hits”, then this song would make top twenty at least. What’s not to love about this track? A great hook, some great lyrics from head writer Paul Westerberg (“How young are you? /How old am I? / Let’s count the rings/Around my eyes…”), and some great guest playing on it by none other than Peter Buck from REM. It should have been all over mainstream radio.
The ‘Mats (as they are known...) were an unstable unit in many ways, with brilliance lurking beneath a slovenly approach to the stage, with rock deity clashing with too much drink on a regular basis. Perhaps it’s this which kept them from breaking through to the mainstream, yet grew their legend as an underground attraction. There again, their lack of pop success could have been their seemingly willful refusal to play to a specific genre, which was a cardinal sin starting in the 80s and continuing today. The album off of which the track comes is known as one of their high points, taking a pot shot at rock classicism not only by putting a folk rock tune (“Unsatisfied”), a KISS cover (“Black Diamond”), and a hard-core punk tune (“We’re Coming Out”) on the same record, but in naming the record in question after a Beatles album.
Paul Westerberg would go on to success as a solo artist, while Tommy Stinson would join the latest version of Guns n’ Roses with sole original member Axl Rose. Guitarist Bob Stinson died in 1995 of a drug overdose, regrettably succumbing to the rock n roll lifestyle that the Replacements would embody for many.
Despite burning out as a collective, the Replacements are considered to be influential, informing the sounds of bands like Nirvana, Green Day, and Wilco, among others.