College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 1

1 flyover

1. Marques Bovre and the Evil Twins, Flyover Land

Though I wasn’t at the station at the time, I can provide all sorts of reasons as to why Flyover Land predictably landed at the top spot of 90FM’s year-end chart. The simplest explanation involves the radio station’s biggest event of the year. A weekend-long affair modestly billed as The World’s Largest Trivia Contact takes place every April. Throughout much of the nineteen-nineties the weekend prior was marked by a couple of “Kickoff” programs: a midnight movie and a concert. In 1995, the movie was an indie crowdpleaser that likely challenges the sensibilities of at least a few of the staid Midwestern viewers who felt obligated to attend (the movie had a built-in audience as there was sure to be a question or two pulled from it), and the band that played the concert was a group making a return engagement to the task: Marques Bovre and the Evil Twins. With a concert to promote, the 90FM deejays would have spun the band’s most recent album, Flyover Land, with tireless regularity. That alone would have guaranteed the Madison group high placement in the tally that closed the year.

While I’m certain the connection to Trivia boosted the band’s stature, this is an album I can easily imagine dominating at the station regardless. Even as the larger alternative music fanbase was still struggling to climb out of the tarpit of grunge (or faux grunge, as was increasingly the case), the good programmers at 90FM maintained a certain devotion to the earnest, blues-tinged sound practiced by a procession of bar bands stretching out towards infinity. Much as I love my alma mater, I’m forced to concede that — during my tenure, anyway — the station was never out of ahead of the curve of any major, convention-challenging band that formulated that percolated up through college radio first. On the other hand, they played the hell out of Hootie and the Blowfish well before Cracked Rear View was even released, much less before its stealth, slow-growth development made it into a ludicrously successful album, selling over sixteen-million copies. Though I’ll admit there’s a little disappointment to that statement (I’m snobby enough in my music fandom that I pine for the ability to gloat about landing on intense appreciation of one of the bands that approach legendary status ahead of my peers without their own FCC operator’s licenses), there’s something to be said for being able to sniff out the bands that have a mastery of a particular beer-soaked sound. If they were able to cut through the din of smoky Wisconsin barrooms, they probably had something at least somewhat interesting to offer to the great musical conversation.

Though success away from his Dairyland home base was limited, Bovre definitely had something to say. Among his disciples, and there were many, Bovre elicited comparison to no less than Bob Dylan for the accomplishment of his songwriting. While the bard of Hibbing, Minnesota is the clear and obvious standard bearer when it comes to pinnacle of rock ‘n’ roll creation, at least when it comes to a largely unadorned combination of words and music, it always struck me as a somewhat ill-fitting imagined bond, if only because Bovre was more direct, delivering his material with a humble plainspokenness that seemed, well, highly Midwestern. As he sings on Flyover Land‘s title cut, “Flyover land is a land that I love/ Smells like a barn and it fits like a glove/ And we’re here/ In the middle.” Those aren’t the words of someone toying with the listener through abstracted poetry. That’s someone who, blessedly, wants to be clear, connecting with his audience with a heartfelt openness.

And Bovre left a legacy. As I tap these words out, we’re closing in on the three year anniversary of Bovre’s untimely demise, which came after an extended struggle with a brain tumor. Around Madison and the surrounding music scene reminiscences of the man and his music still pop up with some regularity, and the Evil Twins have been known to occasionally go out and play. 90FM didn’t forget him either. Fittingly, given the band’s stature in the station history, a full radio show was devoted to remembering him shortly after he died. As I turned out, I was listening that morning. Then living a long, long distance from my native state, that was how I found out about Bovre’s passing. I had a melancholic appreciation that I received the news that way. It was through my time at 90FM that I was introduced to the music of Bovre — I bought a CD copy of Big Strong House at that first Trivia Kickoff appearance — so I’m glad that station officially provided me with the sad news that there would be no more of the man’s music to hear.

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
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon
— 62-60: Lucky Dumpling, Fight for Your Mind, and Short Bus
— 59-57: Good News from the Next World, Joe Dirt Car, and Tomorrow the Green Grass
— 56 and 55: …And Out Come the Wolves and Clueless
— 54-52: We Get There When We Do, Trace, and Twisted
— 51-49: Thrak, Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), and You Will Be You
— 48 and 47: Shamefaced and Here’s Where the Strings Come In
— 46 and 45: 13 Unlucky Numbers and Resident Alien
— 44-42: Elastica, Private Stock, and Death to Traitors
— 41-39: Optimistic Fool, Ben Folds Five, and Above
— 38-36: Collide, Cowboys and Aliens, and Batman Forever
— 35-33: Taking the World by Donkey, One Hot Minute, and Dog Eared Dream
— 32 and 31: Straight Freak Ticket and Besides
— 30-28: Sixteen Stone, Big Dumb Face Shoe Guy, and Cascade
— 27-25: Born to Quit, King, and Hate!
— 24 and 23: Sparkle and Fade and Brown Bag LP
— 22 and 21: University and Pummel
— 20 and 19: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Thread
— 18 and 17: Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and Rainbow Radio
— 16 and 15: Let Your Dim Light Shine and Day For Night
— 14 and 13: Tales from the Punchbowl and Sleepy Eyed
— 12 and 11: Post and Deluxe
— 10: Yes
— 9: To Bring You My Love
— 8: Garbage
— 7: 100% Fun
— 6: Only Everything
— 5: Brainbloodvolume
— 4: The Bends
— 3: Foo Fighters
— 2: A Boy Named Goo

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 2

2 goo

2. Goo Goo Dolls, A Boy Named Goo

There are a lot of albums on this particular countdown that sound intensely, almost painfully tied to their era. I tend to consider the different records that are so desperately trying to ape the Seattle sound as the most characteristic of the time. They contributed mightily to the numbing sameness of the commercial alternative stations that briefly flared up, including the one I worked at all through 1995. I think I may be a little off-base with that theory, though. Listening to it anew, I’m now convinced that A Boy Named Goo is the most direly nineteen-nineties album of all.

A Boy Named Goo is the fifth full-length release from the Buffalo, New York band Goo Goo Dolls, and it was absolutely their biggest, glossiest record to that point. Produced by Lou Giordano, the album doesn’t really get dirty enough to feel like a reaction to grunge. Instead, it’s hard rock pumped up with an airy blitheness. It’s well-played enough, but ultimately feels exceedingly generic. There are big guitars, thumping drums, and lyrics straining with anguish. “Flat Top” is fairly typical, spilling out empty profundities: “A television war between the cynics and the saints/ Flip the dial and that’s whose side you’re on/ A-sleeping on the White House lawn ain’t never changed a thing/ Just look at all the washed out hippie dreams” They charge forcefully through song like “Long Way Down” and “So Long” without ever instilling them with any real character. Practically everything on the album is blandly interchangeable.

There is an exception to the plodding sameness, and it delivered the band the biggest hit of their career. “Name” is a the sort of ballad that every hard rock band needed to have up their tattered sleeve in the nineties, basically following the model established by Extreme when they had a massive success with “More Than Words,” a very different offering from their usual sound.  “Name” took two different trips to the pinnacle of the Modern Rock chart and topped the Mainstream Rock chart for a full month. On the main Billboard chart, it peaked at #5, the first of three Top 10 songs and eight total trips to the Top 40. It’s one of those instances in which a single track clearly changed everything for a band, including, it seems, locking them in as an enduring act. I think of Goo Goo Dolls as a group that peaked and them slipped in to irrelevance, but they’ve been continually making music this whole time, never going more than four years without a new studio album. That level of endurance is worthy of admiration, even if the newer stuff just sounds bland in a different way.

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
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon
— 62-60: Lucky Dumpling, Fight for Your Mind, and Short Bus
— 59-57: Good News from the Next World, Joe Dirt Car, and Tomorrow the Green Grass
— 56 and 55: …And Out Come the Wolves and Clueless
— 54-52: We Get There When We Do, Trace, and Twisted
— 51-49: Thrak, Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), and You Will Be You
— 48 and 47: Shamefaced and Here’s Where the Strings Come In
— 46 and 45: 13 Unlucky Numbers and Resident Alien
— 44-42: Elastica, Private Stock, and Death to Traitors
— 41-39: Optimistic Fool, Ben Folds Five, and Above
— 38-36: Collide, Cowboys and Aliens, and Batman Forever
— 35-33: Taking the World by Donkey, One Hot Minute, and Dog Eared Dream
— 32 and 31: Straight Freak Ticket and Besides
— 30-28: Sixteen Stone, Big Dumb Face Shoe Guy, and Cascade
— 27-25: Born to Quit, King, and Hate!
— 24 and 23: Sparkle and Fade and Brown Bag LP
— 22 and 21: University and Pummel
— 20 and 19: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Thread
— 18 and 17: Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and Rainbow Radio
— 16 and 15: Let Your Dim Light Shine and Day For Night
— 14 and 13: Tales from the Punchbowl and Sleepy Eyed
— 12 and 11: Post and Deluxe
— 10: Yes
— 9: To Bring You My Love
— 8: Garbage
— 7: 100% Fun
— 6: Only Everything
— 5: Brainbloodvolume
— 4: The Bends
— 3: Foo Fighters

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 3

3 foo

3. Foo Fighters, Foo Fighters

At the time, it seemed highly improbable that Foo Fighters was the thumping drumbeat announcement of one of the more enduring rock bands to emerge in the nineteen-nineties. In the aftermath of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, there weren’t a whole lot of people willing to lay bets that either of the surviving members of Nirvana would make much of an impact without the heartrending, soulful fragility of their former frontman’s musical voice. If anything, I remember greater anticipation for what bassist Krist Novoselic might come up with, probably because he was the person who could claim to be by Cobain’s side from the beginning of the group, as if the musical invention could shift by osmosis after enough exposure. Instead, it was the drummer, Dave Grohl, who wasn’t even there when Bleach was recorded, who forged a record that owed only the slightest of debts to the multiplatinum band that had made his name, but indeed served as a full-fledged commitment to unabashed, hurtling rock ‘n’ roll. Grohl understood the low expectations attached to him, expectations that, to a degree, underestimated his history and talent before taking up what was expected to be permanent residence behind the bass drum with the Nirvana logo stenciled onto it. He rejected that and the fallow offers that came with it (he reportedly turned down the gig as new drummer for Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers) and instead went out and made a record that made it clear that he was more than the backbeat in a seminal band. He was a musician.

With the exception of one guitar part on “X-Static,” provided by the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli, every sound on the self titled debut of Foo Fighters came from Grohl. He played every instrument. He sang every line. A true band would be recruited in time for touring (including a couple members of Sunny Day Real Estate and Pat Smear, the former Germs guitarist who’d been a touring member of Nirvana), but Foo Fighters is a statement of self, of intent. The singles alone offer a treatise on Grohl’s musicianship and underrated talent for songcraft: “This is a Call,” “I’ll Stick Around,” “For All the Cows” (the only one that wasn’t a hit on commercial radio), and “Big Me.” If Nirvana launched a revolution, somewhat unwittingly and unwillingly, Foo Fighters was about mastering the form that Cobain bent to his wounded will.

As noted above, Grohl’s mastery has endured, well past the point that anyone would have likely predicted upon hearing the first Foo Fighters album, strong as it is. He and his band are arguably the standard bearers for a certain form of rock ‘n’ roll: big, loud, guitar-driven, simple, direct. U2 are probably their closest semi-contemporaries, the other band with a propensity for arena bombast that hasn’t yet (quite) been relegated to the senior circuit, but Bono and his cohorts have always approached their rock stardom with a level of undercutting irony, a veneer of chiding embarrassment. Grohl believes in what he’s doing, as evidenced by the earnest testimonies to the power of music that can be found in the surprisingly strong HBO documentary series Sonic Highways. Foo Fighters is the ideal introduction to that sterling belief system. Like the pinnacle achievements of Grohl’s prior band, it resounds with the authentic expressive of its chief creator’s voice. He didn’t carry Nirvana’s legacy forward, exactly. He didn’t need to. All that was required, it turned out, was to be firmly and truly Dave Grohl.

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
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon
— 62-60: Lucky Dumpling, Fight for Your Mind, and Short Bus
— 59-57: Good News from the Next World, Joe Dirt Car, and Tomorrow the Green Grass
— 56 and 55: …And Out Come the Wolves and Clueless
— 54-52: We Get There When We Do, Trace, and Twisted
— 51-49: Thrak, Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), and You Will Be You
— 48 and 47: Shamefaced and Here’s Where the Strings Come In
— 46 and 45: 13 Unlucky Numbers and Resident Alien
— 44-42: Elastica, Private Stock, and Death to Traitors
— 41-39: Optimistic Fool, Ben Folds Five, and Above
— 38-36: Collide, Cowboys and Aliens, and Batman Forever
— 35-33: Taking the World by Donkey, One Hot Minute, and Dog Eared Dream
— 32 and 31: Straight Freak Ticket and Besides
— 30-28: Sixteen Stone, Big Dumb Face Shoe Guy, and Cascade
— 27-25: Born to Quit, King, and Hate!
— 24 and 23: Sparkle and Fade and Brown Bag LP
— 22 and 21: University and Pummel
— 20 and 19: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Thread
— 18 and 17: Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and Rainbow Radio
— 16 and 15: Let Your Dim Light Shine and Day For Night
— 14 and 13: Tales from the Punchbowl and Sleepy Eyed
— 12 and 11: Post and Deluxe
— 10: Yes
— 9: To Bring You My Love
— 8: Garbage
— 7: 100% Fun
— 6: Only Everything
— 5: Brainbloodvolume
— 4: The Bends

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 4

4 bends

4. Radiohead, The Bends

In 1995, Radiohead wasn’t yet Radiohead. Yes, it was absolutely comprised of the exact same five members who persist in the lineup to this day, and any cursory listen to their earliest albums indicates that they were already engaged in some of the same sonic explorations that would define them in years to come, although it was definitely in a nascent version. That noted, the band wasn’t yet burdened by the stultifying reputation for modern pop distilled down to high art that began a couple years later, with 1997’s excellent OK Computer, and proceeded with a series of albums that grew increasingly tedious in their cloistered, icy deconstructionist tendencies. When they recorded The Bends, Radiohead was still just a band, coming off a debut album that included a couple out-of-left-field quasi-hits, led by “Creep,” which for all the band’s monumental impact and influence, remains one of only two singles they’ve been able to push into the Billboard Top 40 (the other, amazingly, is the arch and angular “Nude,” off of In Rainbows). The Bends is the sound of a group still finding their voice, largely free of the external expectations of headphone-friendly greatness in every sliver of song.

Part of Radiohead finding that distinctive voice is offering up a handful of songs that comes across somewhat as reactions to what was happening around them. Album opener “Planet Telex” has echoes of Smashing Pumpkins’ lushly self-satisfied neo-psychedelia, and it’s followed by the title cut, which fits surprisingly snugly up against the bounding pop sensibility Oasis was using to enthrall the music press. Even the single “My Iron Lung” is exploratory in fascinating ways. It is simultaneously relaxed and probing, with unexpected flares of aural complication that almost sound like they’re emanating from a less caustic Sonic Youth. It’s possible that Radiohead never again filled an album with so many unexpected turns, not just bending signature sounds in daring new ways, but operating utterly unmoored from a musical home base. It may be my own diminished interest in Radiohead’s refined art pop, but I find The Bends to be abundant with strange satisfactions. I like the more direct churn and grind of “Bones” better than anything I can think that they’ve delivered during roughy the past decade-and-a-half.

There is plenty on the album that forecasts the Radiohead to come. The single “Fake Plastic Trees” is maybe the clearest indication of future directions: precise, fragile, airily epic. And “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was,” with its ruminative acoustic guitar, is like a first pass at “Karma Police.” Then there are the last few cuts on the album, which are the equivalent of a liquified soul going down a drain slowly. While hindsight draws those tracks into the fold of what Radiohead created later, strictly within the confines and context of The Bends, they come across largely as an appealing variance from other material on the record. In the respect, The Bends is less vital for what it presciently offers and more for what it is entirely on its own terms.

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
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon
— 62-60: Lucky Dumpling, Fight for Your Mind, and Short Bus
— 59-57: Good News from the Next World, Joe Dirt Car, and Tomorrow the Green Grass
— 56 and 55: …And Out Come the Wolves and Clueless
— 54-52: We Get There When We Do, Trace, and Twisted
— 51-49: Thrak, Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), and You Will Be You
— 48 and 47: Shamefaced and Here’s Where the Strings Come In
— 46 and 45: 13 Unlucky Numbers and Resident Alien
— 44-42: Elastica, Private Stock, and Death to Traitors
— 41-39: Optimistic Fool, Ben Folds Five, and Above
— 38-36: Collide, Cowboys and Aliens, and Batman Forever
— 35-33: Taking the World by Donkey, One Hot Minute, and Dog Eared Dream
— 32 and 31: Straight Freak Ticket and Besides
— 30-28: Sixteen Stone, Big Dumb Face Shoe Guy, and Cascade
— 27-25: Born to Quit, King, and Hate!
— 24 and 23: Sparkle and Fade and Brown Bag LP
— 22 and 21: University and Pummel
— 20 and 19: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Thread
— 18 and 17: Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and Rainbow Radio
— 16 and 15: Let Your Dim Light Shine and Day For Night
— 14 and 13: Tales from the Punchbowl and Sleepy Eyed
— 12 and 11: Post and Deluxe
— 10: Yes
— 9: To Bring You My Love
— 8: Garbage
— 7: 100% Fun
— 6: Only Everything
— 5: Brainbloodvolume

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 5

5 atomic

5. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Brainbloodvolume

As happens from time to time in this crazy endeavor of mine, I find myself downright startled by the high placement of an album on the chart being scaled through. The U.K. band Ned’s Atomic Dustbin had a couple of enormous hits on 90Fm during my time there. The band released their debut album, God Fodder, in 1991, and the singles “Kill Your Television” and “Grey Cell Green” were as constant of a presence on our Central Wisconsin airwaves as station policy would allow. Their follow-up, Are You Normal?, also did well, though I don’t recall it being nearly as dominant for us, a funny wrinkle considering its lead single, “Not Sleeping Around,” was by far the band’s most successful in the U.S., topping the Billboard Modern Rock chart. That album was released in 1992. There was a long three year gap (a timeline that would be reasonable enough now, but seemed like an eon in the era when memories of R.E.M. and other modern rock acts in the nineteen-eighties putting out new records at roughly a yearly clip) before Ned’s Atomic Dustbin got around to crafting their third proper album, Brainbloodvolume. In that time, their jagged, roughly hewn pop was supplanted by the far more booming, aggressive grunge sound. They were bound to have a hard time cutting through the din.

That indifference from the alternative radio programmers was a little ironic, given that the label evidently thought Brainbloodvolume was likely to be a stateside breakthrough for Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Though the band had been arguable more successful in their native land, where their singles regularly jockeyed with more mainstream pop releases for chart position, Sony opted to release the album in the United States well before it landed in U.K. record shops. The most devoted fans were forced to purchase the latest from their countrymen as a pricey import, stirring up a certain amount of resentment and dampening sales. The lopsided distribution strategy helped develop an icy relationship between the band and the label, a situation that couldn’t have been helped when the anticipated adoration of grunge-fueled U.S. fans failed to materialize. On commercial radio, lead single “All I Ask of Myself is That I Hold Together” barely registered.

On at least one college station, though, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin were clearly as big as ever, outpacing seemingly more significant bands and acts on the year-end chart. I wonder what made it click. It seems like plenty of the material on the album is far more relaxed and gently tuneful than the gun-blazing songs that had captured their predecessors’ eager attention. Maybe that was part of the appeal. The drive for variety was one of things I appreciated most in college radio. As the overall scene was becoming monolithic, there likely would have been a shared instinct among the student deejays to break up the drone with something a little different, but also tinged with just enough fuzz to fit in well enough.

Brainbloodvolume was the last album for Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. They officially disbanded less than a year after the album’s release. Of course, in the manner of any number of the left of of the dial stalwarts of the nineties, breaking up didn’t necessarily carry true finality with it. Reunions happen.

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
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon
— 62-60: Lucky Dumpling, Fight for Your Mind, and Short Bus
— 59-57: Good News from the Next World, Joe Dirt Car, and Tomorrow the Green Grass
— 56 and 55: …And Out Come the Wolves and Clueless
— 54-52: We Get There When We Do, Trace, and Twisted
— 51-49: Thrak, Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), and You Will Be You
— 48 and 47: Shamefaced and Here’s Where the Strings Come In
— 46 and 45: 13 Unlucky Numbers and Resident Alien
— 44-42: Elastica, Private Stock, and Death to Traitors
— 41-39: Optimistic Fool, Ben Folds Five, and Above
— 38-36: Collide, Cowboys and Aliens, and Batman Forever
— 35-33: Taking the World by Donkey, One Hot Minute, and Dog Eared Dream
— 32 and 31: Straight Freak Ticket and Besides
— 30-28: Sixteen Stone, Big Dumb Face Shoe Guy, and Cascade
— 27-25: Born to Quit, King, and Hate!
— 24 and 23: Sparkle and Fade and Brown Bag LP
— 22 and 21: University and Pummel
— 20 and 19: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Thread
— 18 and 17: Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and Rainbow Radio
— 16 and 15: Let Your Dim Light Shine and Day For Night
— 14 and 13: Tales from the Punchbowl and Sleepy Eyed
— 12 and 11: Post and Deluxe
— 10: Yes
— 9: To Bring You My Love
— 8: Garbage
— 7: 100% Fun
— 6: Only Everything

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 6

6 only

6. Juliana Hatfield, Only Everything

I don’t think I was the only person at 90FM who actively cultivated celebrity crushes. At the risk of stating the obvious, boys are sorta gross when it comes to that, categorizing those to whom they’re attracted as objects of various degrees of desire in an effort to make sense of, well, mostly their own loneliness. Among my brethren, at least there was a little different set of criteria that guided our fetishizing appraisal of the singers and musicians that captured a shard or two of our desperate, addled hearts. For those of us who favored women, it was less about the varying levels of undress they might embrace and more about how easily we could project our own ramshackle, twentysomething uncertainty onto the performer, usually because of how effectively that performer captured those beset sentiments in song. In short, we were more likely to crush on Juliana Hatfield because she sang about a life we knew. Maybe I’m really only writing about my own personal reaction, but please allow me the emotional safety of assuming the existence of more widespread solidarity in this instance.

Technically, Only Everything is Hatfield’s second solo effort, but only if 1993’s Become What You Are is truly considered a group effort because it was released under the name the Juliana Hatfield Three. Despite the much vaunted (in some circles) recent reunion of that trio, that seems like a stretch to me. Regardless, it’s an admirable extension of the sweet, sad, slightly cynical Hatfield voice that endeared her to so many of us in the first place. Single “Universal Heart-Beat” even comes close to being the definitive Hatfield mission statement, due to its persistent insistence that “A heart, a heart that hurts/ Is a heart, a heart that works.” The rest of the album basically adheres to the general vibe Hatfield established from the moment she broke away from the Blake Babies: giddy pop hooks, slight rough-edged guitars, and vocals that strained to make tenderized feeling be heard above it all. It may not be as compelling as her solo debut, the almost dizzying Hey Babe, but it still delivers individual songs that rank among Hatfield’s finest. “Dumb Fun” is invested with just enough of what it’s title describe yet throws a few sharpened darts (“Your true love is fuckin’ around”), and “What a Life” finds her giving it her best Replacements try (what it mostly sounds like is the eager approximation of his former band that Mats drummer Chris Mars offered on his first solo album, but that comparison seems too obscure to stand on its own).

Like any good crush serving the needs of fragile boys reluctantly trying to figure out adulthood, Hatfield also gave off just a hint that she could use some protecting, that her heart could be won by that fella that swooped in to solve some vexing problem. That’s needlessly diminishing of her own authority as an artist, of course, but her professional experience following Only Everything puts a faint veneer of truth to it. Hatfield’s attempts to record a follow-up were muddled by the persistent meddling of her label, Atlantic Records, in that endlessly vain attempt to coax her into recording an elusive “hit single.” Hatfield eventually asked to be released from her contract, and the material she worked on became the property of the corporate masters she’d just thwarted. With an extended gap between new releases assured, Hatfield’s cultural prominence dropped precipitously. To her credit, Hatfield kept on chugging along despite the setbacks, sometimes with seemingly ad hoc groups and often with creatively-financed solo outings. I’ll admit that I’ve mostly moved on. For those who still nurture that crush, it’s okay. She’s deserving of continuing admiration.

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
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon
— 62-60: Lucky Dumpling, Fight for Your Mind, and Short Bus
— 59-57: Good News from the Next World, Joe Dirt Car, and Tomorrow the Green Grass
— 56 and 55: …And Out Come the Wolves and Clueless
— 54-52: We Get There When We Do, Trace, and Twisted
— 51-49: Thrak, Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), and You Will Be You
— 48 and 47: Shamefaced and Here’s Where the Strings Come In
— 46 and 45: 13 Unlucky Numbers and Resident Alien
— 44-42: Elastica, Private Stock, and Death to Traitors
— 41-39: Optimistic Fool, Ben Folds Five, and Above
— 38-36: Collide, Cowboys and Aliens, and Batman Forever
— 35-33: Taking the World by Donkey, One Hot Minute, and Dog Eared Dream
— 32 and 31: Straight Freak Ticket and Besides
— 30-28: Sixteen Stone, Big Dumb Face Shoe Guy, and Cascade
— 27-25: Born to Quit, King, and Hate!
— 24 and 23: Sparkle and Fade and Brown Bag LP
— 22 and 21: University and Pummel
— 20 and 19: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Thread
— 18 and 17: Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and Rainbow Radio
— 16 and 15: Let Your Dim Light Shine and Day For Night
— 14 and 13: Tales from the Punchbowl and Sleepy Eyed
— 12 and 11: Post and Deluxe
— 10: Yes
— 9: To Bring You My Love
— 8: Garbage
— 7: 100% Fun

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 7

7 fun

7. Matthew Sweet, 100% Fun

Matthew Sweet was probably alternative rock’s official King of Power Pop in 1995, not that there were many combatants for that particular throne. Sweet bounded from obscurity to the upper reaches of the college charts a few years earlier, upon the release of his brilliant 1991 album, GirlfriendWith a big guitar sound and deliriously catchy hooks, Sweet scratched an itch most college programmers (myself included) didn’t even know they had, sending legs thumping as joyously as that of a dog whose human pal has found just the right spot behind the ear. This underserved subsection of the music scene so thoroughly belonged to him that when the band Velvet Crush released Teenage Symphonies to God, in 1994, that the music press rapidly and repeatedly cited Sweet’s involvement as producer as proof enough of the album’s legitimacy. Unfortunately for Sweet, things were shifting out of his favor by the middle of the decade. Grunge led painfully and inevitably to nu metal, meaning there was little room for the musicianship needed to craft power pop gems. If Sweet was doomed to one final burst of commercial significance, he at least had a dandy last hurrah with 100% Fun.

It’s unreasonable to expect Sweet to again reach the pinnacle of Girlfriend. 100% Fun is the closest he ever came. Lead single “Sick of Myself” can even make a claim to standing just behind the title cut to the earlier release in the procession of the performer’s very best songs. It also serves as the introductory thesis to the whole album, merging self-deprecation with lovelorn testimony and smashing it together with pristinely produced music. Sweet’s romantic cynicism is even more clear a couple tracks later, when “We’re the Same” notes the commonality arises “When we fail in each other’s eyes” (it’s also present “When we shine in each other’s sky,” but there’s still some pretty downbeat assessments of the relationship dominating the lyrics). Just because the music is pretty as can be doesn’t mean the sentiment of the words automatically has to follow suit, and Sweet gets a lot of mileage out of the contrasts he creates. That friction is usually within an individual song, though it occasionally twinkles into being through the progression through the tracks, as when the melancholy “I Almost Forgot” (“You would never turn around/ You’re laughing at everything that’s bringing me down”) presses up against the odd, thick, punchy “Super Baby.”

There are times when the album almost gets away from him, as if the temptation of label-funded studio time proves to be too much. The layering on “Everything Changes” distracts from the delicacy of the song, and “Lost My Mind” eventually swirls into a psychedelic freakout that comes across as a little ill-suited to Sweet. His craft is refined enough that songs are best served by a little more directness, just a touch of tenderness. I’m fond of the comparatively lean intro on “Walk Out,” which is reminiscent of a less ethereal “Under the Milky Way.” Sometimes when a performer is cracking his heart wide open, music that’s a little more unadorned best suits the material, something Big Star always understood no matter how lavish their tones could get. When Sweet sings “We tried to win/ At a game that has no winners/ We tried to learn/ When nothing can be understood,” on “Come to Love,” the chiming grind of the music provides the needed underscore of certainty.

As noted above, Sweet never quite reached this level again, either creatively or commercially. Radio was starting to lose interest by his next album, 1997’s Blue Sky on Mars. Sweet has tried a bunch of different approaches in the years since, including joining up with Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins to form the super(ish)group the Thorns and recording a bunch of covers albums with Susanna Hoffs.

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
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon
— 62-60: Lucky Dumpling, Fight for Your Mind, and Short Bus
— 59-57: Good News from the Next World, Joe Dirt Car, and Tomorrow the Green Grass
— 56 and 55: …And Out Come the Wolves and Clueless
— 54-52: We Get There When We Do, Trace, and Twisted
— 51-49: Thrak, Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), and You Will Be You
— 48 and 47: Shamefaced and Here’s Where the Strings Come In
— 46 and 45: 13 Unlucky Numbers and Resident Alien
— 44-42: Elastica, Private Stock, and Death to Traitors
— 41-39: Optimistic Fool, Ben Folds Five, and Above
— 38-36: Collide, Cowboys and Aliens, and Batman Forever
— 35-33: Taking the World by Donkey, One Hot Minute, and Dog Eared Dream
— 32 and 31: Straight Freak Ticket and Besides
— 30-28: Sixteen Stone, Big Dumb Face Shoe Guy, and Cascade
— 27-25: Born to Quit, King, and Hate!
— 24 and 23: Sparkle and Fade and Brown Bag LP
— 22 and 21: University and Pummel
— 20 and 19: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Thread
— 18 and 17: Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and Rainbow Radio
— 16 and 15: Let Your Dim Light Shine and Day For Night
— 14 and 13: Tales from the Punchbowl and Sleepy Eyed
— 12 and 11: Post and Deluxe
— 10: Yes
— 9: To Bring You My Love
— 8: Garbage