Justification: Oh, nineties alt.rock, you promised us so, so much. You were going to show all them cool kids that the geeks were just like them, man. It was going to be like The Breakfast Club, except with songs and real. And then what did you do? Nothing, that’s what. Stupid dumb genre for jerks.
What sets Nada Surf’s sole hit apart is the tone: while other I’m-not-cool-dear-god-love-me anthems have expressed stoned indifference (Beck’s ‘Loser’), angst (Radiohead’s ‘Creep’), clipped defiance (Devo’s ‘Through Being Cool’) and underdog optimism (Wheatus’ ‘Teenage Dirtbag’), ‘Popular’ has a barely contained insane fury whose only analogue is metal at its most sexually terrified. Astonishingly, the verses delivered by an increasingly hysterical Matthew Caws are actually legit: they’re from the 1964 teen advice book Penny’s Guide to Teen-Age Charm and Popularity (written by the actor Gloria Winters, in the character of Penny King – the all-American gal she played in the television series Sky King). It charted strongly, but the parent album was dismissed across the board as being a weak Weezer rip-off (produced, as per the Blue Album, by Cars mainman Ric Ocasek) and the band struggled to repeat the success. Their awful, awful name didn’t help. That being said: their later, indie, post-people-much-caring stuff’s not without its charms. 2008’s Lucky has its moments, actually.
This video was directed by Jesse Peretz, incidentally, who was the founding bassist with the Lemonheads but left just in time for them to become huge with It’s A Shame About Ray.
Justification: Fine, Dave Bloustien, I’ll take the bait. But only this once.
There’s nothing brighter than a false dawn, and when Suede reappeared with this single it seemed like they were set to do the impossible. After the critical plaudits for their second album Dog Man Star the thought of Suede minus guitarist and co-songwriter Bernard Butler (who acrimoniously left the band toward the end of recording) seemed downright ludicrous – not least since they’d replaced him with the seventeen year old Richard Oakes, who looked like he’d gotten the job primarily by having the same haircut as the absent guitarist. But he proved his mettle by co-writing ‘Trash’ which returned returned them to the charts (and was their biggest-selling single ever, reaching number 3) and heralded the release of Coming Up, which became their most successful album – and justifiably so. Sure, there was none of the glorious drama that made earlier single ‘The Wild Ones’ so affecting, much less the sleazy grit of ‘Metal Mickey’, ‘Animal Nitrate’ or ‘The Drowners’, but these were great pop songs, pure and simple.
And in the biopic of Suede, this is where the story arc would finish. From here on things get fairly grim: frontman Brett Anderson’s crack addiction moves into high gear, the band begins to fracture, they make two more albums – 1999’s fairly dreadful Head Music and 2002’s godawful A New Morning – before splitting, Anderson gets clean, buries the hatchet with Butler and make on rather superb album as The Tears before splitting again, and Anderson makes several abysmal solo albums followed by the inevitable Suede reunion. So let’s just say it all ended with this album, OK?
Justification: So, are Fountains of Wayne a joke band that people took too seriously, or a serious band who never could shy away from a joke? Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger are both great jobbing songwriters (Schlesinger was nominated for an Oscar for writing the title song for the film That Thing You Do!) and their band, named after a New Jersey lawnware store, has released four albums that mix the too-wacky with the too-sincere; but when they nail it, they’re pop geniuses (cherry pick three or four songs from each and you’d have nature’s greatest album). One of those moments of genius is this, their debut single, which manages to make a line that reads as vapid as “Baby, baby, baby – c’mon, what’s wrong?” sound goofily genuine.
‘Stacy’s Mom’, however, is shit. That much is beyond question.
Album: ‘Atom Powered Action’ EP 1996, The New Transistor Heroes 1997
Justification: Oh, Bis, you were the future with your DIY Scots aesthetic, your let’s-have-the-show-right-here! exuberance and your clear belief that every idea for a song was a good one, even if it had a title like ‘Icky-Poo Air Raid’. And you were pretty much right for a while there, especially when you made this loving tribute to the decade of your birth with a song chock-full of film references (rhyming “Ferris Bueller” with “Meet Drew Barrymore, ’cause she’s way cooler”? Genius) and an album that was a perfect distillation of being young and indie in the early 90s to the point where no sane 25 year old would be able to play those songs without feeling deeply humiliated.
Yes, Bis had a built-in use-by date, but god they knew how to write a pop song, as this single (and amazing extended video) demonstrates. They were also damn good live, as I learned when I saw their show at Adelaide Uni in support of second album Social Dancing in 1999. I attended it with my later-to-be-wife-and-even-later-to-be-ex-wife in the middle of out three-month break up, since we thought it would be weird to go to the gig with anyone else, and that was when I knew we’d be getting back together. You know, for a while, anyway.
Justification: Here’s an oft-cited blanket statement about songwriting: happy songs are a damn sight harder to write than unhappy ones, and that happy songs are also generally awful. Perhaps it’s because when people are happy it’s because they’re doing something they enjoy rather than sweating over a lyric. Maybe it’s because so many artistic endeavours are about getting something deep and hard to express out of one’s system and “heck, things are neat!” is a lot simpler to express openly compared with “I hate everyone and want you all dead, especially me”, which is a sentiment better refracted through the symbolic prism of art. Maybe it’s because people take comfort in knowing that others share their sadness/frustration/anger/lonliness/sexual confusion etc and find those who write about how awesome their lives are to be insufferably smug. Either way, there’s a reason why the cool kids have always liked Lennon more than McCartney, despite the latter’s killer track record.
There’s also the fact that misery has a billion shiny facets and happiness is a perfect, opaque sphere. You can twist misery around and examine its unique intricacies and cracked reflections, whereas happiness looks similar no matter which way you turn it, and that makes a boring subject for artistic exploration. And a good example of how this works in songwriting is with Eels, where Mark “E” Everett’s plundering of his own considerable personal trauma – sudden death and suicides have plagued his family, leaving aside his own occasionally poor lifestyle choices – and have made for powerful albums full of pain and sly black comedy, welded to some insidiously catchy melodies. This is one of my favourites, but the Eels singles collection is pretty much nothing but awesome. And when E’s life is happier, as with 2010′s Tomorrow Morning, his writing kind of sucks.
His autobiography Things The Grandchildren Should Know is really good, though.
Justification: Like all that loved Weezer, I sometimes find myself wondering what would have happened if the rest of the world had followed Australia’s lead and bought Pinkerton. It was hugely successful here, and this much hated flop single charted strongly and got to #9 in the Hottest 100 for 1996. Just think: Rivers Cuomo might have persevered with writing peculiar, wandering songs with obscure references to opera and professional wrestling rather than heading of in search of some mythical perfect pop song that everyone in the world can enjoy, leading to album after piece-of-shit album. Writing this entry reminds me that Hurley and Raditude exist, and that makes me very, very sad and angry.
Anyway: Pinkerton flopped, Rivers went a bit nuts and Weezer began to explore the exciting world of increasingly bland power pop. And the culture died a little inside.
Justification: Let’s make this clear: I really do love the Fauves. ‘Everybody’s Getting a Three Piece Together’ is still one of my favourite songs of all time and if the video existed anywhere online this would in fact be ‘Self Abuser’, the best song about wanking ever written, but for some reason Mushroom have seen fit to deep six it. Future Spa was the perfect distillation of their art ambitions and pop sensibilities and briefly turned them into proper rock star contenders. It didn’t last, of course, but this song is their enduring Triple J legacy. And it’s a great one.
I hate to say this, but every time I hear the bridge I feel more and more annoyed by “he never lied to me once/he never flaunted my trust”. The term is “flouted”, meaning to dismiss contemptuously. You can’t “flaunt” trust – unless Cox is suggesting that the titular dog had never shown off Cox’s trust in an ostentatious manner. Which is probably accurate, but a weird thing to bring up in the middle of a song.
It’s worth going back to the album, by the way: there’s not a dud on there. And for my part, many songs that once seemed a bit middling (‘Understanding Kyuss’ and ‘Don’t Get Death Threats Anymore’) are now among my undisputed favourites.
Also, ‘Self Abuser’ is the best song about wanking ever written. Did I mention that?