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.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

10. Foo Fighters vs. Portastatic vs. Mates of State

vs. vs.
"For All the Cows"
by Foo Fighters
from Foo Fighters
  "You Blanks"
by Portastatic
from Be Still Please
  "Whiner's Bio"
by Mates of State
from Team Boo

"For All the Cows" (2 plays at, unranked): The first time I played the debut Foo Fighters album was an unnerving experience. I had heard "I'll Stick Around" a couple times but I was basically going into it deaf and trusting in my love of Dave Grohl as Nirvana's drummer. As good as the whole thing was, this was the song that immediately stuck out for its quiet-LOUD-quiet structure, its shimmery guitars, even its obtuse lyrics to a certain extent. It's the one that sounds most like a Nirvana track, and I kind of felt at the time (and especially when the next Foo record came out) that it was a closure track -- the thing that allowed Grohl to move forward. That was probably a bit of a 16-year-old's overreading, but the way the album is sequenced, you can still get that sense that Grohl needed to make some kind of statement, but that he wanted to build to it over the first 2/3 of the album, and then do it indirectly.

"You Blanks" (22 plays, tied for #13): The most overlooked measure in public opinion polling is the right track/wrong track measure. For the last couple years of George W. Bush's presidency, even before the economy crashed, right track was at about 20%. Now it's in the high 40s, even though little substantive change has actually happened yet, the economy's still in the toilet, we're being besieged by pirates, etc. Atrios, who frequently promoted this song, formulated today that right track/wrong track is all about subconscious feelings about the president, and that everybody basically hated Bush. This song captures that era perfectly: "All my songs used to end the same way/'Everything's gonna be OK'/You fuckers make that impossible to say." The sheer lizard-brain loathing for what the Bush administration did to this country is still not well appreciated by pundits or scholars, but Mac McCaughan expresses it as well as can be -- both at the individual level of his song-writing and at the societal level ("Now every horse I dream about is pulling a hearse").

"Whiner's Bio" (9 plays, tied for #299): The night I met my wife Mates of State played what I assume was one of the earliest live performances of this song; a couple years later we saw them again and they dedicated it to us. It also represents in a lot of ways the end of the first Mates of State era. This song is structurally more similar to their first album than to the one that followed it, but it includes some of the flourishes (e.g., a horn line) that would mark their transition on Bring It Back. That combination really has them at their peak so far -- complicated harmonies, a good mix of keyboard tones and a catchy chorus.

VERDICT: I thought coming into this round that "You Blanks" might have the edge. My stats go back to the start of 2006, and it's the highest-ranked song in the tournament so far by quite a bit. But listening to "For All the Cows" again really brought home how well put-together it is. A part of my music brain is always going to be stuck in the early and mid-90s (earlier today I found myself thinking how underappreciated the Juliana Hatfield Three's Become What You Are is), and this song is one of the important tethers.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

9. Radiohead vs. Nirvana vs. Nirvana

vs. vs.
"Palo Alto"
by Radiohead
from Airbag/How Am I Driving?
  "Heart-Shaped Box"
by Nirvana
from In Utero
by Nirvana
from Incesticide

"Palo Alto" (7 plays at, unranked): I think the listening public has largely come around to my view that The Bends is superior to OK Computer. A big part of why my opinion came out that way is the quality of the b-sides found on the Airbag EP, of which this tune is the last and best. It neatly encapsulates what made the band's 90s output so great, both musically and lyrically -- the little guitar and noise flourishes, the big crunchy chorus, the desolate and soulless future. For me, this was essentially Radiohead's high-water mark. I couldn't say yet whether it's their best song -- "Just" will provide stiff competition if it comes to that -- but it may well be.

"Heart-Shaped Box" (7 plays, unranked): Like so many Nirvana songs, it's hard for me to hear this one for just the song and not for the memory ripples it kicks off. I remember the late summer of 1993, just as I was starting college, being all about this song and its superb video. Those first few times hearing, it was face-smacking: This dry sound, this raucous mess was how they were going to follow up the bright shimmer of Nevermind. It was so much more visceral and narrow; it didn't trade in melody the same way "Teen Spirit" and the other previous singles had. Throughout the promotion and discussion of the album -- and I recall the review in Rolling Stone hitting this pretty hard -- was the awareness of a line being drawn through the band's audience, with this song on one side and about 80% of Nevermind owners on the other. Sales-wise, it didn't quite to that, but this thing that was excised from Kurt Cobain as a middle finger to the grunge industry was revelatory for me both as music and as cultural commentary. I don't think it's a coincidence that I later wound up enjoying artists like Marilyn Manson as media provocateurs as much as musicians.

"Sliver" (4 plays, unranked): The randomizer put these two Nirvana songs together in this round, and I guess it's appropriate that they be from such different eras. And how odd is that this band can be said to have eras at all, let alone these distinct ones three years apart? The sort of play-acted innocence of this song (and the use of Frances Bean Cobain as a prop in the video) is typical of a lot of the band's early recordings ("School," for instance), but this one has such great pop energy that you can't help but be taken by it. Of all the songs that I'll never get to see performed live, this one might be the most disappointing. It's such a perfect two-minute bounce for a small club full of kids looking to dance off a buzz.

VERDICT: I vary from match-up to match-up on how to weigh my historical feelings about older songs, and this time I think my history puts "Heart-Shaped Box" over "Palo Alto" by a nose.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

8. Fiona Apple vs. Weezer vs. Toadies

vs. vs.
by Fiona Apple
from Tidal
  "Tired of Sex"
by Weezer
from Pinkerton
  "Possum Kingdom"
by Toadies
from Rubberneck

"Criminal" (3 plays at, unranked): Despite the fact that Fiona Apple's second album is head and shoulders above her first, in my opinion, this debut single remains her best song. It's sultry and lush, and probably could only have come about between Liz Phair's Whip-Smart and Britney Spears' ...Baby One More Time. Structurally, it's got a kind of wicked confidence, with Apple's vocals anticipating beats and meshing with the light drums maybe more than anything else. It feels like a hit single, which makes the extended, eastern-teasing outro that much more interesting; I'm positive it was cut for radio promos, though I can't say I remember for sure. In a lot of ways, it's a song that's built to be hard to follow up (and the herion-chic, underwear-filled video probably didn't help that any), which makes the fact that Apple disappeared into cult popularity afterward not that surprising.

"Tired of Sex" (6 plays, unranked): In some ways, the first 22 seconds of this song, before the vocals come in, are the most awesome in the history of rock. Coming off a polished, poppy, MTV-friendly first record, Weezer recast themselves as a noisy emo band (and that's "emo" as it was understood in the mid-90s, as opposed to the 80s or today). In so doing they provided a bridge between Braid and the Get Up Kids and established an incredibly high-energy presence that held throughout Pinkerton and its b-sides. Everything is on full shout here, and come on, "Tired of Sex" could be the title of a thousand parody emo songs if it weren't already real. It's the slightly stronger half of a great couplet of angst and confusion with "Getchoo," the two songs making a perfect musical dovetail and a frustrating lyrical clash. It's material that you could imagine turning Rivers Cuomo into a hermit if, say, Rolling Stone were to give it an incredible panning (which it did).

"Possum Kingdom" (11 plays, tied for #180): This round really is an encapsulation of mid-90s rock radio. Several years ago (I want to say 2003, but I don't recall for certain) I went back to my undergrad alma mater for its Winter Carnival and somehow found myself in a frat house basement with about 50 people ranging from age 18 to 30 or so. When this tune came on, everybody sang it. The whole thing. When I saw the Toadies last summer, it was the same thing (and I was really glad to see them not eschewing their One Big Hit). The little repeated guitar progression was an incredible building effect -- I think when you listen to the song it seems like it's just the quieter-to-louder vocal repetition at the end, but that guitar provides the foundation for it throughout the song. Then, of course, when you get to that peak it's like all Hell breaking loose. It sounds, on record, like a live crowd going crazy, so much so that when an actual live crowd actually goes crazy it feels familiar.

VERDICT: This is a really tight one between "Tired of Sex" and "Possum Kingdom." Weezer gets the edge because the anticipation that comes at the end of "Tired of Sex" -- both because it's an incredible trailer for their sound at the time and because you know "Getchoo" is coming next -- is so exquisite.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

7. Year of the Rabbit vs. The New Kentucky Quarter vs. Finch

vs. vs.
"Say Goodbye"
by Year of the Rabbit
from Year of the Rabbit
  "Carry It Around"
by The New Kentucky Quarter
from Carry It Around
  "Letters to You"
by Finch
from What It Is to Burn

"Say Goodbye" (10 plays at, tied for #218): Year of the Rabbit frontman Ken Andrews is in this tournament as the leader of three different bands (the other two being Failure and On), which is pretty impressive. This band released its only album at a time when the majors briefly tried their hand at angular shimmer rock, and this closing track brought the whole thing to an incredible, if tragically destined, head. The lyrics have a nice back and forth across the verses, and Andrews had really perfected the arena version of his croon when we saw YotR play the comically undersized (and underfilled) Rave Bar in Milwaukee. Of all the bands that fit this subgenre (Failure being one, but also Hum, late-model Cave In, Shiner), I think this one is one of the few that are carried by vocals at least as much as by music, and this song is a great example of it.

"Carry It Around" (13 plays, tied for #101): This might be the most obscure track in the tournament. Madison's the New Kentucky Quarter released a couple of EPs, then broke up a short while after this one came out. This title track from their swan song is a superb piece of pop-rock that I suspect would've burned up the charts if had it found its way into a Zach Braff soundtrack. The boy-girl harmonies in the chorus are terrific, as are the slight changes to the vocal melody each time through. We saw them play at the Terrace without ever having heard them before and fell it love instantly -- if anyone has a line on their earlier releases, please let me know!

"Letters to You" (2 plays, unranked): Come to think of it, all the songs in this match-up are fairly obscure. Finch was part of an early 2000s wave of halfway decent screamo that went light on the screaming, then they put out a forgettable follow-up, split, and reformed to release a forgettable EP last year. These songs are also all really well structured -- with lesser execution that could be a bad thing, but with all three and this one in particular, it feels like the band is taking you on a tour of how the song works, and even though it's not an unprecedented setup, it sounds impeccably put-together. It this case it's things like false stops being just in the right place, like the perfect placement of decorative mouldings or something. This song also has a lot of resonance for personal historical reasons, as it came out in 2002, just as I had was going through a lot of life upheaval. It can still feel and understand it now, but it's less salient than it was then -- I've been known to scream this one out in the car in the past, but it's been a while.

VERDICT: "Letters to You" has lost a bit due to time, and it's a tough choice between the other two. I'm going with "Carry It Around," because upon close review of "Say Goodbye" it seems like it doesn't quite have the energy it once did -- I want it to be a little faster and a little harder.

Monday, February 9, 2009

6. Motion City Soundtrack vs. Fear of Pop vs. Matthew Sweet

vs. vs.
"Capital H"
by Motion City Soundtrack
from Back to the Beat
  "In Love"
by Fear of Pop
from Volume I
  "Sick of Myself"
by Matthew Sweet
from 100% Fun

"Capital H" (9 plays at, tied for #299): This song appeared on an early Motion City Soundtrack EP, and then was rerecorded for the Epitaph re-issue of their debut LP, I Am the Movie; the former is the version on this list. It's the thing in the MCS catalog that best combines their ramshackle beginnings with their synth-driven melody and vocal mania. It's also maybe the most fun live track ever -- the little two-note kick-off and big synth waves get a crowd jumping like nothing else I've ever heard. Maybe more than any other song in this competition, this tune is pure energy. The rerecorded version is not, unfortunately; it's much more subdued and sacrifices a lot of personality for professionalism. If you can find the Back to the Beat version, I highly recommend it.

"In Love" (7 plays, unranked): Ben Folds has got some problems with women. There were a few Ben Folds Five songs that strongly hinted at it ("Song For the Dumped," most notably), but his solo material goes there a lot more directly. When his Fear of Pop record came out, though, very little of that stuff had been produced yet. This tune -- a template for his later production of William Shatner's Has Been -- is by far the standout from that project. Over a soft and quirkly melody, with Folds doing a 60's ballad in the background, Shatner gives an incredible reading of a diss track to an anonymous woman. The last verse is just devastating: "I can't tell you anything, and I... can't.. commit! You're right! I can't commit! To you. I will always treasure our time together. I don't feel enough of anything to harbor the kind of disdain that you'll maintain. You painted me into what you wanted to see -- and that's fine! But you will never know me." On top of that, the music really is terrific, in the vein of then-recent BFF tunes such as "Smoke" and "Selfless, Cold and Composed."

"Sick of Myself" (8 plays, tied for #395): Most cite Girlfriend as Matthew Sweet's breakthrough album, but for me he moved to the next level with the four muted quarter notes that open this tune and his fifth album, 100% Fun. He adds some "power" to his "power pop" here -- the sound neatly foreshadows his Specter-esque In Reverse -- and encapsulates the sound of a fairly broad 90s movement that also included bands like Urge Overkill and the Lemonheads. It's a tune that is immensely hummable, with some great garage guitar work and fun use of false stops at the end.

VERDICT: The other two songs would've won in a lot of other match-ups, but "In Love" is going to go a long way in this competition. On top of all of its awesome qualities, I suspect it's also partly responsible for the cultural resurgence of William Shatner in the last decade, and it's hard to overstate the value of that.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

5. The Long Winters vs. Pixies vs. Stone Temple Pilots

vs. vs.
by The Long Winters
from When I Pretend to Fall
by Pixies
from Complete 'B' Sides
  "Interstate Love Song"
by Stone Temple Pilots
from Purple

"Stupid" (13 plays at, tied for #101): Listening through these songs, it's becoming clear I have a thing for little opening flourishes, whether they're loud and brash or lush and pretty like the one that opens this song. Like most of the Long Winters' terrific catalog, this tune combines a nice, simple chord progression with great poetic lyrics and a wonderfully bright vocal line from frontman John Roderick. On top of that it's some of the best vocal harmonies of any of their songs and an interlude of what sounds like (but probably isn't) two-part lap steel. Then there's the little stutter-step false start near the end, which I can't help suddenly thrash about to -- a great cap to a really strongly constructed song.

"Winterlong" (2 plays, unranked): Another great opening bit, as a quick run up a scale sets up a great duet between Kim Deal and Frank Black's not-quite-falsetto. Their voices, and the band's guitar sensibility, is what really makes the track work for me -- I really can't get into the Neil Young original, even though I've given it a valiant try (though I wonder if Young had re-recorded it around the time the Pixies did, if it wouldn't sound much the same as theirs). The ability of the Pixies to both display and reinterpret their influences like this is one of the things that really separates them from many of their peers and followers -- this is a perfect companion to "Here Comes Your Man," for instance, but it's also a perfect homage.

"Interstate Love Song" (2 plays, unranked): I probably should've been a major label executive. I had an impressive string of predicting songs that would become hit singles back in the early and mid 90's, and this was one of them. I bought Purple largely on the strength of Core, and when this track first came up I was blown away. It's a step away from the 1992-era grunge that STP was otherwise soaking in at the time, sounding really nothing at all like, say, the Pearl Jam catalog to that point. The riffs are great, and the subtle bass line does way more work than it has an right to. The way the verses move forward is so well aligned that it's hard to believe the band didn't pop champagne as soon as they finished the last take. Unfortunately, they never really took this sound anywhere, which is pretty much true of every good song they ever had. A schizo band if there ever was one, I certainly hope this is something they can recapture if they ever record again.

VERDICT: There's a lot of perfection in these three songs, to be sure; it's probably the strongest group of three so far. I think the win has to go to "Stupid" on the basis of visceral love -- it's a song I still turn up when it shuffles to the top, while the other two have shifted somewhat into historical love territory.

Friday, January 16, 2009

4. Cowboy Junkies vs. Taxpayer vs. nine inch nails

vs. vs.
"Sweet Jane"
by Cowboy Junkies
from The Trinity Session
  "When They Were Young"
by Taxpayer
from Bones & Lungs
by nine inch nails
from broken

"Sweet Jane" (1 play at, unranked): This track is from an early Cowboy Junkies album, but really it's from the Natural Born Killers soundtrack. It's in many ways the processional for Mickey and Mallory's impromptu bridge-top wedding, and I'd say it reimagines the original Velvet Underground version at least as significantly as Jeff Buckley reimagined John Cale's reimagining of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Margo Timmins' voice and style bring a totally different flavor to the song than the downtown wink-and-sneer maleness of Lou Reed. That such a simple song could be so changed is one of the things I like best about music.

"When They Were Young" (10 plays, tied for #218): I discovered this band when I learned about the Boston Phoenix's music blog, a site from which I subsequently never found anything else good. The song came out a year before the Killers' "When You Were Young," and coincidentally is not dissimilar to that song's style. The difference is that Taxpayer's song is wickedly catchy, with much livelier vocals and more interesting lyrics. The band in general is pretty good, though this is by far their best song; if they'd gotten any exposure outside the northeast I suspect they'd've hit it big by now.

"wish" (4 plays, unranked): When I got into the NIN back catalog around the time I was 16 and deep into the downward spiral, this song sounded like a clear pivot point for Trent Reznor. Nothing on pretty hate machine was this full or loud or aggressive, and much of it actually sounds pretty thin compared to subsequent NIN material (maybe down to late 80's mastering style, but I don't think so). This song (and broken as a whole) came through on the Reznor's clear promise, apparently at the expense of all kinds of personal damage. It's a great metal song and a great live experience, and it's too bad that so few of the bands influenced by this NIN era seem to get how it works.

VERDICT: It's a tough call. "Sweet Jane" is too slight compared to the other two tracks. As great and historically important as "wish" is, "When They Were Young" is one of a handful of tracks that I often feel compelling to listen to, even when I'm in the middle of listening to something else, so it moves on to the next round.