71 pounds71. Big Sugar, 500 Pounds

Wikipedia describes Big Sugar as “a Canadian blues, reggae band,” which is about as terrifying of a description as I can imagine. They had a decent run in their homeland, with a couple platinum albums. 500 Pounds, their sophomore effort, was the first to go gold, a promising enough turn of events that it was released in the United States. The album was something a slow build, with the group generating a good chunk of those sales on the basis of their live show (you know, the place where blues/reggae outfits prosper, if only because a good chunk of the audience has altered their judgment with one substance or another), helping to explain a two year gap between the album releases on the different sides of the border. They officially broke up in 2004. The inevitable reunion began in 2010.

70 pill

70. Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill

I remember the exact moment I was certain Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill was going to become something more than a hit record, that it was going to cross over the realm of sensation, the sort of album that requires an eighth column to tally up its sales. It was relatively early in the album’s release cycle, certainly before, say, it proved such a global powerhouse that fifth and sixth singles were released from it. I was in a bar in downtown Madison and “Right Through You” cycled onto the sound system. Two college-aged women, in the happy fervor of a weekend night, sung along at top volume, eyes closed tightly, arms draped across one another’s shoulder, apparently finding some shared truth in lyrics like “You shake me like a fish/ You pat me on the head/ You took me out to wine-dine-sixty-nine me/ But you didn’t hear a damn word I said.” This wasn’t a single off of the album, pummeled into familiarity by the radio. It was simply a song that spoke to them, deeply and honestly. Morissette was writing from her own experience about what it was like to be a marginalized, cast-aside, heartbroken woman just past the age of twenty. Of course there was going to be an audience for this music. And yet somehow no one saw it coming.

Jagged Little Pill was technically Morissette’s third album, but in many ways it is a proper debut. Her previous releases were really Canada-only affairs and were characterized by opportunistic teen pop. Jagged Little Pill had its genesis when Morissette connected with producer Glen Ballard. They took what they come up with together and shopped it around, facing refusals from almost everyone before Maverick, the fledgling label co-founded by Madonna, signed Morissette. Even the label’s expectations were fairly low. Then KROQ locked onto lead single “You Oughta Know,” which laid out Morissette’s thesis of empowerment through melodic variations on “fuck off.” No matter how much the saturation airplay of the song and Morissette’s career descent into insignificance now compounds the sense that the track is a relic of the nineties, when even the fiercest music came delivered with a layer of toxic candy coating, there was something bracing about a hit single that snarls, “And every time I scratch my nails down someone else’s back/ I hope you feel it.” And I will add this: of all the songs that showed up with the heartbeat regularity on the playlists forced upon me when I worked in commercial radio, “You Oughta Know” was one of only two that I never got tired of (Beck’s “Where It’s At” was the other, and I consider that good company).

The album is positioned as a provocation. The very first lyric asks, “Do I stress you out?” (on the feverish, thrilling “All I Really Want”) and Morissette keeps circling back to challenging the men who’ve let her down and declaring her intent to persevere (and often both).  While there are definitely times when it sounds like Morissette and her collaborators were trying to create a more commercial version of Ani Difranco’s oeuvre to duplicate the righteous babe’s surging fan base on a more massive scale, it seems foolish to deny that the album is coming from someplace deep and truly wounded. Indeed, the piercing nature of the lyrics stirred churlish commentary that Morissette was trafficking in some sort of man-hating agitprop (because no group is simultaneously less persecuted and more certain of the cruel unfairness they face than American, white males). If the album is often scathing, it also has room for “Head Over Feet,” which is as sweet and vulnerable as a love song gets. Morissette was tagged as some sort of warbling misandrist from the Great White North, but she was more than that. But categorization can be hard to shake when thirty-three-million record buyers worldwide have bought into the album that spurred the tag.

Morissette never came close to the same commercial success again. Her follow-up, the clumsily-titled Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, also went multi-platinum, seemingly from leftover momentum as much as any of the music actually on the album (though it does have its moments). Since then, it’s been sporadic albums released to diminishing interest, a situation dire enough that Morissette has occasionally had to resort to revisiting her clear career high-point to give her place in pop culture a minor but necessary jolt. Still, most recording artists would love to have a career high-point like Morissette’s. She fell far, but that’s only because she had reached a dizzying height.

Previously…

An Introduction
— 90-88: The Falling Wallendas, Parasite, and A.M.
— 87-85: North Avenue Wake Up Call, Live!, and Life Begins at 40 Million
— 84 and 83: Wholesale Meats and Fishes and Orange
— 82-80: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Fossil, and Electric Rock Music
— 79-77: Coast to Coast Motel, My Wild Life, and Life Model
— 76-74: Gag Me with a Spoon, Where I Wanna Be, and Ruby Vroom
— 73 and 72: Horsebreaker Star and Wild-Eyed and Ignorant

33 thoughts on “College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 71 and 70

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