And now…on with the countdown…
5. Pixies, “Head On”
My true confession for today is that, despite the cultural imperative associated with involvement in college radio during a span of time when the eighties gave way to the nineties, I was never all that excited by The Pixies. They were the cool band of the era, the one you could cite to prove that you had genuine taste and proper passion for the music played on college radio. I played them plenty, and I like several songs, but they didn’t really click for me. I like them far more now that nostalgia has entered into the mix. So it makes sense that my favorite Pixies song back then was actually a cover. As Black Francis announces with a growl at the start of the ferocious fresh recording made specifically for the music video, this is a Jesus and Mary Chain song. It was no obscurity or distant memory at the time the Pixies included it on the Trompe Le Monde album either. It was a very successful single off of the album Automatic, released just two years earlier. While college radio bands have long been amenable to covers (it was one of the best ways to penetrate the sheer amount of material out there to capture the attention of Music Directors and DJs), it was strange to see such a prominent band, that really needed no extra boost, covering something that recent from one of the peer groups. It was like something out the Motown music factory where songs were passed around a hash pipe in a idle studio.
This song was moving up. It was at number 8 on the previous chart.
4. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Give It Away”
When I first arrived at the college radio station in 1988, CDs were a rarity on our shelves. By the point in late 1991 when this chart was (likely) published, that’s all we were getting. Occasionally we were serviced with vinyl copies as well, but every new release that came through the door was pressed onto shiny little silver discs. One of the side effects of this new technology was bands stretching out to take advantage of the extra room. A single vinyl record had room for roughly 45 minutes worth of music on the two sides, so that was the generally established length of an album. A single compact disc was more like 70 or 75 minutes. This led to quite a few albums that had good material, but clearly would have benefited from the obligatory pruning process that took place when vinyl was the defining format. As I recall, the breakthrough album from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magic was one of the first, clearest examples of this odd new dilemma. Play the right few songs, and you could be easily convinced that they’d crafted a masterpiece. Drop the laser on the wrong space, and the opposite impression would emerge. Listening to the whole thing in one shot could eliminate any incentive to ever revisit it. It’s been years since I’ve given much thought to anything off of that album beyond the few songs that became ubiquitous, but that’s my recollection of the release. Maybe that’s not accurate and a fresh listening would lead to a completely different assessment. Regardless, this song, the lead single off of the album, was one of those that could convince you the band had made something great.
This song was also at number 4 on the previous chart.
3. Ministry, “Jesus Built My Hotrod”
This Chicago industrial band was so huge on college radio at this time, and main creative force Al Jourgensen was routinely celebrated as one of the musical geniuses of the day, often in the same breath that Perry Farrell was similarly praised to further illustrate how well those pronouncements have aged. This stuff routinely shot up to the top of the CMJ charts, but we never quite knew what to do with it at our humble little station located in the heart of central Wisconsin. It has a natural aggression to it that didn’t fit especially well on our playlists, which were far more likely to be ahead of the curve on The Cranberries than Nine Inch Nails. This was also out strictly as a single at the time, not showing up on an album until the following summer, which also would have blunted its impact at our station. Of the songs in the top five, this one has the weakest associations for me. It’s also, I suspect, the one with the least significant afterlife. Does this song ever crop up anywhere these days?
This song was also at number 3 on the previous chart.
2. U2, “Mysterious Ways”
If the lead single of off Achtung Baby seemed a little odd for the earnest Irishmen (see number 7 on the chart) it was a bit of ingenious, cool calculation to select “Mysterious Ways” for the follow up. There might still be a different sort of clang and clamor to the guitars, but this was still more recognizably a product of U2 with soaring, anguished vocals and a certain epic quality to it. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like a U2 song unless you can easily imagine Bono emotional spent after singing it on stage. According to Wikipedia, this song reached number on on the Billboard Modern Rock charts. I wonder if it ever got to the top spot on this CMJ chart. The song above it surely must have spent weeks and weeks there.
This song was also at number 2 on the previous chart.
1. Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
To the ever-lasting credit of Kurt Cobain and his collaborators, the song still sounds brilliantly dark and dangerous, the exact sort of unsatisfied howl that is supposed to be the racing heart of rock ‘n’ roll. Sure, almost twenty years later it’s just as likely (if not more likely) to be played over the corporate-approved, outdoor music speakers while you’re pumping gas than it is in a sullen teenager’s ill-lit basement bedroom, but that shouldn’t delude anyone into thinking the impact of this song in 1991 was anything less than seismic. Making the simple line “Here we are now, entertain us” so threatening is an incredible act of musical alchemy. Even the Weird Al spoof is cool. I actually think Nevermind is somewhat overrated, and In Utero is the real classic, but even I need to concede that this song is truly great, fully deserving of its anointed place in the canon.
This song was also at number 1 on the previous chart.