76 Self Hi, my name's Cindy
I really, really didn't want to like this. My good friend Matthew (hi, Matthew!) insisted I listen to Self's major label debut album Breakfast with girls a while back, and oh fuck, I really hated it. You know, happy white guy singing voice, glossy-sheen overproduced guitars, everything perfectly safe, perfectly clean, dull as hell. But then (I assume) no one bought the album, Self fucked off back to the Carolinas or wherever they came from, and then they put together a kind of Oulipian album, Gizmodgery. The constraint was simply to only use toy instruments. Now, it's been done before, but never seriously. Due, I'm guessing, to Matt Mahaffey's producing skills, it all sounds very good, very expensive, very clean, but everything is simultaneously interesting because it doesn't sound like a pop album at all. This tricks obstinate hardasses like myself into actually paying attention to the music, to the songs, instead of to how the thing sounds as a whole. And, truth be told, I really like this album. Great relationship songs, a great Doobie Brothers cover (What a fool believes), and it doesn't sound quite like anything you've heard before.
77 Severed Heads Jetlag
A riding to work on my bicycle in Switzerland Walkman favorite, I must have listened to this every morning for the summer of 1988, and again in the fall of 1989 when I was preparing for the language entrance exams at university in Germany. Ultimately, it's a simple song: the lyrics are relatively straightforward for Tom Ellard, it's somewhat normal sounding for Severed Heads, but the sentiment, the feeling it conveys is strong: Now I'm learning to fly by myself. Pretty much as uplifting a song I want without succumbing to Mariah Carey histrionics or an abuse of a string section. Simple and beautiful.
78 Severed Heads Alaskan polar bear heater no. 1
I'm sure that there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have experimented with tape loops. It's pretty simple - get an eight track reel to reel or whatever, get eight sounds that loop, get the machine going, start playing with the faders on the mixer. But how many times does it actually produce anything interesting? Steve Reich (Come out, It's gonna rain) comes to mind, but who else? One of the most unlikely experiences of my childhood was happening across the Severed Heads Clifford darling, please don't live in the past double LP. It's basically a bunch of odds and ends, largely tape loop efforts, mixed in with some definitely experimental stuff (e.g. the radio interference noise caused by a computer running simple RAM addressing programs placed too close to the tape recorder). It held my interest, though, and it still does. This track, the title of which is presumably a Jerry Lewis reference, goes from amusing to wonderful in about six minutes. It's basically a dead art form, I suppose, but if you want to hear how good it was at at least one point in time, this is it.
79 Silica-gel Master of the game
No one has heard of Silica-gel, alas. I suppose the basic problem is that there are too many bands out there, even if they're good; at some point you just won't hear of them unless they are endorsed by someone famous, or if they get a really good record deal. Sucks, though, that completely shitty bands like The Ass Ponys and Thinking Fellers Union are probably recognized by a few thousand people, whereas Silica-gel, well, uh, maybe a hundred folks have heard of them. IIRC they're from Raleigh, don't record any longer, really, and had limited success, but what there is of their work that you can hear (a CD on Seeland, a homemade release, a compilation track) is still impressive. This one piece is, I suppose, technically nothing fantastic, but the sensitivity of the sample choice and the subtle accompaniment make it haunting, noble, good.
80 Smiths, The Please please please let me get what I want
81 Soft Cell Little red rhinestone
82 Sonic Youth 100%
83 Squarepusher massif (stay strong)
84 Steel Pole Bath Tub Pseudoephedrine hydrochloride
85 Steinski and Mass Media The motorcade sped on
From a giveaway NME single came this short, strange track that's the news broadcast from JFK's assasination chopped up and played back over a smart little breakbeat. I don't know who exactly made this or why but it still amuses.
86 Sugar Helpless
Bob Mould shoots, Bob Mould scores.
87 Surf Punks Somebody ripped my stick
What can I say? I'm a Californian. The Surf Punks are an utter throwaway, a one-joke band, but there's something about them that sounds like home. The music is simple, the playing is competent but not impressive, and the lyrics are of course subhumanoid in their idiocy. Still, there's a place for humor in music, isn't there?
88 Swans Love will tear us apart
At some point in the early 1990s I found myself backstage at an amphitheater in Hollywood, with Swans. Speaking to Michael Gira, it turns out the man can speak fluent German; he said he'd worked for a while in a knife factory in Solingen. It sounds a little too á propos for Gira, but what the fuck, it could very well be true - it's hard to fake speaking a foreign language well. Jarboe was already on the scene, and she lent a more delicate, more beautiful touch to the band; for a year or two there, right around Children of God, they had a difficult to maintain balance between the beautiful and the dark. A few months later, she sent me a cassette tape of what would (basically) turn out to be their new 12", Love will tear us apart. It's still incredibly beautiful; the original song seems only to have been improved by Swans' somewhat more somber playing, and Jarboe's backing vocal. They'd repeat it again a year or so later with a cover of Can't find my way home, but the first is still the best.
By the way: to whoever nicked my CD of The burning world: Fuck off. Love, Chris.
89 The The Giant
There are many things that annoy me about Matt Johnson. The man is obviously capable of writing beautiful, heartbreaking songs, but somehow they get lost over the years, and they seemed to peak only very briefly in the early 1980s. Worse yet, a lot of his most interesting work remains unreleased or only available on obscure promo-only vinyl that I haven't seen since I was a high school radio station DJ. In any case, I distinctly remember a time when I thought this song was one of the most wonderful things I'd ever heard. I believe - my piece of shit CD reissue is lacking any kind of information about what's on the CD - that this is largely Jools Holland on piano... no, wait, that's not it, I was thinking of the amazing piano solo he does at the end of Uncertain Smile. I'm leaving this at Giant though just because it's a much better than example of that very 1980s phenomenon of the extended remix. According to the Pet Shop Boys, the extended remix went out of fashion in the 1990s when remixers started demanding more latitude to do something other than just stretch out a track - they wanted to make something new, their own (cf. Richard's Hairpiece, but I digress). But here you have a nearly ten minute song that doesn't get boring, even though it goes through a few odd patches before the satisfying let's all sing along kinda coda finale thing.
90 Throbbing Gristle CD1
Definitely a band whose reputation is way, way out of proportion to any actual quality they may have possessed, but at some point I suppose you just have to see what they're all about. This CD was available at the Tower Records in Stockton in the summer of 1987, I believe, and it was one of the very first CDs - if not the very first one - I ever bought, primarily because it had been previously unavailable in any format. Unusually for the time, it was an hour-long single piece; remember, before CDs, you were basically limited to about forty-five minutes (if you were on a cassette; if not, maybe twenty-five minutes). And how is it? Well, I've never gotten rid of it. Kind of aimless, squalling, messy noise, but somehow it's got charm. Ultimately, I suppose I like other TG stuff better, like the cheesy synthy Chris and Cosey stuff, but this seems to be most closely what it is people admired about them.
91 Edgard Varèse Poeme electronique
At the top of one of the staircases in my childhood home hung a faded, yellowing poster from the Brussels World's Fair of the 1950s. My Dad sometimes talked about his trip there with the Cal Band - the long voyage, the drunken debauchery, the thrill of it all. At some point much later on in life I read that a building had been constructed (by Le Corbusier, no less, with Iannis Xenakis) solely for the purpose of playing a piece of music (well, kinda sorta music at any rate). How totally mad is that? Of course, the building's long since been torn down, and it took me fifteen years to find a copy of the music that was played in it, but it's still fascinating to hear something this wonky and this old - hard to believe anyone could have pulled this off in the 1950s. Being largely tape manipulations and basic synthesis, it's also kind of a direct precedent for the tape loop hijinx of Negativland and early Severed Heads, which just makes it all the more interesting.
92 Tom Waits Johnsburg, Illinois
This is the most beautiful song ever recorded. Buy it and prepare to cry your heart out. Proof that brevity is a virtue.
93 Wagon Christ Tally ho!
Sublimely stupid dance music bollocks courtesy of Luke Vibert. Inane samples ( "Tally ho!") are thoughtfully inserted into a piece of upbeat dance music that's more remarkable for its cleanliness than anything else - it sounds like it was recorded in a very expensive studio instead of in some wanker's bedsit in London or Cornwall or wherever. The first five seconds of the song are reason enough to buy it - nice fat bass sound with that kind of FM synthesis sizzly twinge to it, with an unidentifiable happy noise (seagulls? feedback?) shivering over the top of it, with some other noise that could be strumming a guitar incorrectly or just a turntable needle jitter. When the drums kick in, they're not the right kind of drums for this kind of music, which makes it oh so much more interesting - almost an old-school bad-jazz-combo thing that suddenly lurches into an I can't stop dancing like a grinning idiot breakbeat that should really upset your breakfast in a most wonderful manner. I can't recommend this highly enough for driving long distances over uninteresting roads.
94 Wall of Voodoo Call box
Los Angeles residents prove that you can make music with barely anything going on in the mix, with wildly disparate elements, and with a definite sense of style - as long as you're backing up with a distinct voice and a good sense of humor. Sadly, I've never been able to find a CD of the album this came from (Dark Continent), so I won't be able to say much about this song other than I can still hear Stan Ridgway singing "One two three". My cassette is long since lost, but I played it into the dirt for a few years there.
95 Ween Mister would you please help my pony?
He's fallen and he ain't getting up. - Ween are difficult to sell to anyone who hasn't heard them. On the surface, they're a couple of idiot stoners from New Jersey who seem to have a real attitude problem and/or a bad sense of humor. However, if you can just give 'em a chance, you may well be enthralled by their oddly wide range of musicianship and their elliptic sense of style. Again, thanks to the CompUSA warehouse staff, I had decided that Pure Guava had some merit to it - somehow, I often wound up singing Little Birdy if I were helping out in the warehouse - but upon seeing the cover of Chocolate and Cheese, I knew I had to buy this album immediately. I was programmed, born to buy this sort of thing. On the front, the most outlandishly cheesecake shot of a woman you could imagine - huge, beautiful breasts, a slim stomach, and a tasteless Ween belt buckle (think WWF championships here). On the back, a track listing of song titles unfathomable as they were odd. Buenas tardes, amigo. The HIV song. Baby Bitch. Roses are free. Spinal meningitis (got me down). Any of these songs would be a candidate for this list, but Pony made it strictly because it's giddy fun singalong time when it's in the car CD player. I also have a special place in my heart for songs that intentionally don't even come close to rhyming. And, finally, it's got a wonderful Barry Manilow style modulation for the final chorus. What more could a man possibly want from a band?
96 Wilco Can't stand it
To paraphrase the Pet Shop Boys, I wouldn't normally buy this kind of thing, but I did, somehow. I'd always been passably familiar with Uncle Tupelo - when I was living in Oakland, Ben my housemate adored them - but this is straight up guitar music, maybe a little bit country, with reasonably straightforward lyrics delivered in an honest, emotional style that strikes me as just a little bit flat. However: the words, the words, the words.
The way things get / You get so high / Funny
how we make new friends / Hey Ho / I gotta go / Our prayers will never be
You know it's all beginning / To feel like its ending / No love's as random / As God's love
I can't stand it / I can't stand it
97 Wiseblood Prime gonzola
On a high school Model United Nations trip to Oakland (don't worry, I wasn't really supposed to be there, I was just tagging along for the free trip to hang out with my friends), I took BART up to Berkeley to look for Dirt Dish, the new Wiseblood album. And boy, I wasn't disappointed. I suppose it's typical of any high school kid to seek out music which disturbs and upsets others, but I think I pulled it off with more class than most. It's easy to buy a gangsta rap album these days - and no one likes to hear about how you're going to shoot your ho's for not sucking your dick good enough - but back in 1986, you really had to stretch to find something offensive. And the thing is, this record is really offensive, but in a gleefully sexual way you just don't get these days. When someone remakes Loving you as Having sex with you, it isn't sexy, and it's too lame to cause upset of any kind. But when JG Thirlwell (a/k/a Foetus) starts getting down with Roli Mosimann on drums, oh God, it's threatening as hell. This song is, I'm afraid to say, about pussy. It's leering at your cooze with jaundiced eyes, practically groveling before your girlfriend, begging her to give it up. And it's got one of the best lines of any pop song ever: I'm gonna mosey on down to that burning bush. Mmmm. Delicious. And for you homosexuals out there, just skip ahead to track three, The Fudge Punch: Bite the pillow / Don't talk back / Roll over, lay down/ and shut your trap. - Indeed. It's no wonder they caused a furore when he told a BBC interviewer in the early 1980s that a woman's place was on his face.
98 XTC Love on a farmboy's wages
99 Yazoo Bad connection
100 The Young Gods Mackie Messer
Swiss arthouse faves TYG never really amounted to much, but in 1989 or 1990 they were paid a sum of money by a Swiss arts organization to come up with a bunch of Kurt Weill songs for some sort of Fest in Basle, I think it was. So yeah, we all know these songs, most of us probably from the Mac Tonight commercials for McDonald's they used to show during episodes of Moonlighting (yuck). Thing is, though, that cover versions occasionally can do things you didn't think possible. Every time I think of Mack the Knife, I usually think of Ute Lemper or a similarly attractive female vocalist singing it in a friendly, almost jazz-lounge style. This is of course wrong. This is an angry, Socialist song - heck, it's Brecht, fer Chrissake. It's really fucking pissed off that people like Mack can get away with their shit - it's a warning, a call to arms. So what better way to foreground this than to play it mad as well? As JG Thirlwell once said, Say what you mean and say it mean. It's menacing. It's got Metallica-style furious drum rushes, grating electric guitars, strange tape manipulations, and a very aggressive Swiss compulsive R-rolling singer who won't let you forget for a minute that Mack's got a knife that you can't see. Watch your ass.