Sunday, December 25, 2011

17. Pearl Jam vs. The Hush Sound vs. Hole

vs. vs.
by Pearl Jam
from Vs.
  "Sweet Tangerine"
by The Hush Sound
from Like Vines
  "Miss World"
by Hole
from Live Through This

"Rearviewmirror" (6 plays at, unranked): It's weird how we map ideologies onto our tribes. In that strange time from the fall of 1991 to the spring of 1993, I was a devoted Nirvana partisan. I hated Pearl Jam and the, let's say, corporate rock that they represented. They were had an easily packaged angsty story that wasn't exactly buried under layers of subtext. They were in "Singles," the "Desperately Seeking Susan" of the early 90s. When people accused Stone Temple Pilots of ripping them off, I wondered how you could rip off something so fake.

But OK, I was 13, and by the time I turned 14 something clicked. Their superb performance on Unplugged helped, as did the advance hype for Vs. And though it set sales records on the strength of "Go" as the lead single, I suspect it could've done even more leading with this song, which was never even officially released as a single. Opening with a bouncing, simple riff, it's almost perfectly inviting, and is structurally magnificent. The breakdown and return sections work great as Eddie Vedder's vocals begin to strain and deteriorate. Vedder wrote the music himself and it really demonstrates his growth as musician, as the lyrics and music work more cohesively than anything on Ten.

Thematically, the angst and anger of Ten gives way here to emergence and escape, and does so without some of the really obvious poetry that fills both of the first PJ albums. This is a taste of where Vedder would go on Vitalogy. It's also the second of three amazing eighth tracks that the band would their career with, following Ten's "Porch" and preceding Vitalogy's "Corduroy," which is coming later in the tournament.

"Sweet Tangerine" (17 plays, tied for #40): The middle part of the last decade saw the quick rise and fall of a certain kind of male/female indie pop-rock epitomized by the Hush Sound. The form is basically already gone -- most practitioners have shifted noticeably harder (Tonight Alive) or softer (Gold Motel, featuring the Hush Sound's Greta Salpeter). The Hush Sound's second album is probably the foremost example of this genre, and this song is one of its several extremely catchy tunes that combines a plinky piano line with overdriven guitars to create a great, driving tension.

As great a song as it is, though, I'm not even sure it's my favorite song on this album. "Don't Wake Me Up" is also terrific, as is "A Dark Congregation" and a few others. So not a likely winner, but a solidly built and powerful pop song, of a kind that disappeared too fast.

"Miss World" (3 plays, unranked): Even as a Nirvana partisan, I don't know if there's a party line on Live Through This. It's trite to call it the "lost Nirvana album," and I tend to think there's some sexism in that legend, too (though I don't really feel the same about calling Celebrity Skin a Billy Corgan project for some reason). There's no denying the influence of Kurt Cobain here, but it's also nothing like what Nirvana had become by the time it was recorded in 1993. If anything, you can hear a reappraisal of Bleach and the early Nirvana singles in this album's fuzzed-out, simple guitars and pop song structures; if Nevermind was about ripping off the Pixies, Live Through This was about ripping off the Breeders.

"Miss World" itself was released as a single eight days before Cobain's suicide, and at exactly three minutes long, it is maybe the quintessential pop single of the original grunge era. The dueling crunchy and bright guitar parts play off each other beautifully, particularly in the repeated choruses toward the end; Courtney Love's vocals mirror this as she switches between sneer and sincerity. And of course, there's more than a little in there to glom onto in retrospect, realizing it all had to end. This album, Vitalogy and Soundgarden's Superunknown sort of form the firewall of 1994's clash with the future in my mind, and this song is where it starts.

VERDICT: I realize that it's now over 18 years old, and is edging very close to classic rock status, but that's a label that "Rearviewmirror" really deserves. As key a role as it played in turning me around on Pearl Jam, I probably could've written another 500 words just on its subject matter. It'll be interesting to see how it holds up next to some newer classics in later rounds.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

16. Queens of the Stone Age vs. Failure vs. Piebald

vs. vs.
"No One Knows"
by Queens of the Stone Age
from Songs For the Deaf
  "Stuck on You"
by Failure
from Fantastic Planet
  "Just a Simple Plan"
by Piebald
from We Are the Only Friends We Have

"No One Knows" (7 plays at, unranked): Every time I hear this song I think of something Kurt Cobain said in that big Nirvana interview with MTV around the time In Utero was released. He said one reason he was excited to have Dave Grohl join the band was that his drumming was so metronomic. I don't think that's more true on any other song than this one. The driving rhythm of his drumming and Nick Oliveri's bass is so key to making this tune work that I couldn't imagine it happening had Grohl not been part of this album. On top of that, this is both the quintessential QotSA song and the best song of Grohl's hard rock summer of 2002, as well as bring the rare breakout single that's both highly anticipated and totally awesome.

"Stuck on You" (1 play, unranked): As much as I liked Ken Andrews' subsequent bands, On and Year of the Rabbit, I never could get into his classic first band, Failure. This song is the exception. That squealing, opening lick is the kind of thing that makes you want to be in a band, just to cover it at the top of your set. Meanwhile, the grinding melody of the rest of the song makes for a great closer (as Andrews also later did with YotR's "Say Goodbye"). It's a real accomplishment to have a song that feels so much like the mid-90s but also seems to foretell a lot of what I would like in the hard rock of the following decade.

"Just a Simple Plan" (5 plays, unranked): Hearing this song as my first exposure to Piebald, I never would have guessed that they'd previously been a hardcore band, and that they angered many of their fans with a big shift towards pop. This was the record that really pulled me into the nexus of alt. power pop bands like OK Go and Troubled Hubble, but Piebald -- especially here -- always had a very unique flavor to how they did it. The music here is simple but with a subtle snark to it -- not Aquabats snarky, but something almost soundtrack-like. At the same time, Travis Shettel's vocals are clever and self-referential without seeming forced. The voice in this song (and the whole album, really) shows a perfect transitional state between the hardcore and "mature" versions of the band.

VERDICT: I will actually rock out to "No One Knows" in the car, nearly 10 years later. As much as "Stuck on You" still works for me, the edge goes to the song that was both the calling card and swan song of the real Queens of the Stone Age, before Oliveri went nuts and left the band's sound a trebly mess.

Monday, November 21, 2011

15. Charlemagne vs. Eisley vs. Interpol

vs. vs.
"Pink and Silver"
by Charlemagne
from Detour Allure
  "I Wasn't Prepared"
by Eisley
from Room Noises
by Interpol
from Antics

"Pink and Silver" (14 plays at, tied for #82): Leading off Charlemagne's second album, this tune's synthy, fuzzed-out folk pop encapsulates in many ways the preeminent Madison sound of the middle of the 2000s. It's hugely catchy and makes for a great, stage-guest friendly set opener. On the other hand, it's a little slight lyrically, especially when compared with the also catchy "Fave Unknown" from the same album. Possibly my favorite local song, but not a likely contender overall.

"I Wasn't Prepared" (4 plays, unranked): My first time through Eisley's debut LP, this was an immediate grabber. The song is so well structured as a showcase for Stacy DuPree's breathy soprano, without itself being overly fragile. And in fact, this was the song I kept coming back to for quite a while. But while this one a ceiling early on, others such as "Telescope Eyes" and "Trolleywood" have grown on me a lot, leaving this song's relative prominence a bit lower. Still, it's a big part of what drew me to similar acts such as Minipop.

"Evil" (9 plays, tied for #299): I never got into the first Interpol album, and I think the consensus over the last few years is that they're no good anymore. But I liked Antics a lot, and this was the song that opened the door. That sweet, simple bass line to kick it off builds to an awesome song structure that culminates in one of those great moments as it all peaks - "Rosemary, aw, heaven restores you in life." It brings things together to set the album's mood in a way that probably wouldn't work without this song.

VERDICT: This is sort of a weak round, but "Evil" stands out as the best of the bunch. The way it crescendos and glides back down really makes the whole album work and allows Interpol their best moment of their own identifiable sound.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

14. System of a Down vs. Pearl Jam vs. Weezer

vs. vs.
by System of a Down
from Toxicity
  "In Hiding"
by Pearl Jam
from Yield
  "Only in Dreams"
by Weezer
from Weezer

"Aerials" (7 plays at, unranked): There's so much to hear in this tune it's hard to know where to start analyzing it. You can find Alice in Chains, you can find Metallica, you can find Soundgarden, not to mention the band's eastern European influences and unique showmanship. As the best song on an album the band didn't know how to follow up, it has the bitter flavor of impending doom to it, but also has come to signify for me the final end of the 90s hard rock era. The rest of the field was in transition, with nu metal and the point-missers of nu grunge coming on. Hard to believe it's been almost ten years.

"In Hiding" (5 plays, unranked): It's amazing how hopeful so much of this album is, in the context of PJ's first three albums and the false start of No Code. Landing near the record's end, it caps the set with lyrics that aren't so much positive as they are looking toward positivity: "It's funny when things change so much/It's all state of mind." It's also a great and subtle showcase for the band's musicianship. Eddie Vedder gets some terrific Cornellian crooning opportunities in the chorus, while the variations within the tune provide ample room for different guitar approaches. By 1998 they had become a careerist band, and this is a careerist song, but it's one that should be among their best-loved mid-period album cuts.

"Only in Dreams" (5 plays, unranked): At the time I was simply amazed. The blue album was astonishing. Now it's diminished in some ways and grown in others. Opinions on the exact date differ, but there is a broad consensus that Weezer began to suck hard sometime from 2001 to 2005, and it's difficult not to let that suckage impact the older, brilliant material. At the same time, as an older, wiser music fan, I'm now able to hear more in a song like this. I can imagine this being a local band's first incredible song, the one that everybody shows up early to hear, that sells hundreds of copies of their EP. It's such a raw and unassuming song -- even more so than the rest of the album, and that's saying something. The combination of teenage uncertainty and garage-based guitar fantasy could never be made this organically on anything but a first record, and the way it bookends the opening cacophony of "My Name Is Jonas" is a feat unmatched in the modern era. An absolute classic; just writing about it is almost enough to make me forget "Beverly Hills."

VERDICT: "Only in Dreams" in a landslide.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

13. Cracker vs. Massive Attack vs. R.E.M.

vs. vs.
"Euro-trash Girl"
by Cracker
from Kerosene Hat
by R.E.M.
from New Adventures in Hi-Fi
by Massive Attack
from Mezzanine

"Euro-trash Girl" (4 plays at, unranked): In my mid-90s college days I bought a used copy of Kerosene Hat, mostly on the strength of "Low," but also after hearing this song on my school's radio station. To my horror, the copy I bought was the version distributed by BMG, which didn't contain any of the hidden tracks, including this gem. As a result I always considered this like a lost track or a rare b-side or something, which only added to its epic nature. It's probably the least gratuitous eight-minute song in the history of rock, and the subtle way it builds to its climax is stupendous. There's also something about it that sort of epitomizes its era of college rock, in a way that validates a lot of music that, 15-20 years later, doesn't get the kind of respect it deserves.

"Leave" (4 plays, unranked): And then you have R.E.M.'s most gratuitous song (most gratuitous good song, at least). The original version of this track includes a sweet little introductory dirge, while the main body features six straight minutes of knob-twisting by Scott McCaughey, which would certainly have been looped by a lesser band. The song is the peak of the band's music and ambition in the Monster/New Adventures period, which makes it such a disappointment that they've largely abandoned it for a shorter, thinner, quieter version that originally appeared on the soundtrack to "A Life Less Ordinary." It also makes for a great, though unintended, dénouement for the band's original line-up, and a high point that they have yet to reach again since.

"Teardrop" (1 play, unranked): Often when a song I love appears repeatedly on TV I'm done with it, but this track acting on the theme to House hasn't dampened my appreciation for it. If anything, it's a frequent reminder that I'd really like to listen to the full version, with vocals. Massive Attack is an atmosphere band working in an atmosphere genre, but this track -- perhaps on the back of its wooden beat and sparse piano chords -- takes it a step further. I'm writing this entry on a dark plane between Tokyo and Singapore, and it's taking all my effort not to simply declare this one the winner of the whole tournament and be done with it.

VERDICT: I think I can be objective enough to factor out my surroundings and gauge my typical standing enthusiasm for "Teardrop" a little lower. And in the battle of lengthy, era-defining songs, I have to give the edge to the era that's stuck with me a bit more. 1996 might be my favorite year of music ever, and "Leave" was a big part of that.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

12. The Dismemberment Plan vs. Rage Against the Machine vs. Fastball

vs. vs.
"The City"
by The Dismemberment Plan
from Emergency & I
  "Wake Up"
by Rage Against the Machine
from Rage Against the Machine
  "Fire Escape"
by Fastball
from All the Pain Money Can Buy

"The City" (8 plays at, tied for #395): It's hard to overstate the tragedy of the Dismemberment Plan over the past decade. Since making one of the best indie rock records ever -- this tremendous song is one of four in the tournament, out of just 12 on the album -- they produced a middling follow-up, a forgettable remix album, broke up and gave birth to Travis Morrison's embarrassing solo career. This tune is maybe the most disappointing of it all, though, in that it should have been a radio smash. I suppose 1999 was not the right time for it, but the guitar chime opening just begs to heard with "This is the Dismemberment Plan on Z104" over it. The rest of the song is structured impeccably, with verses flowing smoothly into a little chorus descent, and matching the tone of the lyrics -- despair, loss and understanding -- exactly. The one and only time I got to see them live, on their farewell tour, that last line, "All... I... ever... say... now... is... good... bye!" was a tough one.

"Wake Up" (2 plays, unranked): There are a handful of songs in this tournament almost entirely because of their use in film, and this is one of them. For a lot of reasons, this was the perfect track for the coda and credits of The Matrix. That said, it's also by far the best encapsulation of the Rage sound -- I think it says something for it that I originally assumed it was new when I first heard it, rather than seven years old at the time. You've got explicit politics, historical metaphor, calls to action, solid rapping, Tom Morello's wakka-wakka funk, some excellent youthful screaming from Zach de la Rocha. Even the six-minute length works well -- the bridge allows for some nice metal moves to be thrown into the mix and connects and makes the whole song really feel epic. The second half does a lot of things you don't often get from Rage, and certainly not from the later, more singles-oriented work.

"Fire Escape" (3 plays, unranked): 1998 brought an odd flood of power-pop hits that I liked but whose follow-ups I loved, and no one else did. This is one (Barenaked Ladies and Semisonic had the others). I've always thought this song was much better than "The Way," which always seemed a little gimmicky to me for some reason. This tune told me there was really something there with this band, and the record wound up becoming one of my favorites of the late 90s. It's still quite good, but it hasn't aged as well as it could've. While the genre as a whole has taken a commercial nosedive in the U.S., this decade has brought about a lot of great power-pop records from the likes of Starling, the Long Winters, Fountains of Wayne, the New Pornographers, etc. I'm still able to appreciate the well-founded melody here, the harmony and jangle, but it doesn't have the same kick it used to.

VERDICT: Later rounds of this tournament may be dominated by the Dismemberment Plan, quite frankly. "The City" barely has to nod in the direction of the other songs to advance, and it's going to be tough to beat until it's up against another one from Emergency & I.

Friday, June 5, 2009

11. Mates of State vs. The Anniversary vs. nine inch nails

vs. vs.
by Mates of State
from My Solo Project
  "All Things Ordinary"
by The Anniversary
from Designing a Nervous Breakdown
  "Dead Souls"
by nine inch nails
from The Crow

"Proofs" (1 play at, unranked): I don't know if any debut album has had a more style-encapsulating first song than this one. You can hear where Mates of State will go over their first three albums in this song, and yet even now it feels much more unique than derivative. The recording is still a bit lo-fi and the basic song structure is wonderfully natal -- plain organ and drums, vocal back-and-forth with occasional harmony. And it's so happy! Kori Gardner's "Yea-eah!" near the end is just blissful, coming on the heels of two and a half minutes of "It doesn't matter what might come true/It's simple enough to try." It's a triumph of the boy-girl indie pop genre and a testament to track sequencing; I don't think anyone could listen to this song and not want to hear more, more, more.

"All Things Ordinary" (6 plays, unranked): Between My Solo Project and the album this song comes from, 2000 seemed to herald a new age of poppy, keyboard-driven harmonies. This one, too, is a bit of archetype for the band, and it's one that was followed-up on much more by other bands (like the Hush Sound and 1997) than the Anniversary, who produced one more, quite different album, then broke up. What I like about these guys more than the rest, though, is that they're not ashamed to let the synth lines be out in front. That bouncy line along with the yearning vocals -- nicely split between male and female parts -- creates a danceable setting that's still recognizably within the late 90s/early 00s emo landscape. It's too bad that there's nobody really putting all those elements together anymore.

"Dead Souls" (1 play, unranked): In the middle of 1994, a crazy year musically and the first summer of my college years, The Crow was released with what's turned out to be a relatively seminal soundtrack. What I remember most from the movie and from the ads are Stone Temple Pilots' "Big Empty" and this superb Joy Division cover by NIN. I had no idea it was a cover at the time, I was just getting into the band and thought, hey, awesome new song that's not on my copy of the downward spiral for some reason. Now I know it's heresy in some circles to admit this, but I don't care for Joy Division at all, and as a result I find this cover vastly superior to the original. Trent Reznor pulls back some of the explosive energy he had on broken and combines it with the atmospherics of some of the remixes that were being made from the downward spiral at the time. The result is both a great soundtrack tune and a terrifically listenable song that fits flush within the NIN canon, even presaging the thick drums of 1997's "the perfect drug" a little bit.

VERDICT: All these songs are pretty evenly matched and it's tough to say one is any greater than the others. But, "All Things Ordinary" is the one that I get the itch to listen to the most, so that gets the win.