THE WOOF 200 FOR 1993
The Top 20. Hallowed ground indeed, as we head down the final stretch and wade into a pool of songs so awesome they almost justify the use of this horribly mixed metaphor. I can’t speak highly enough about the tunes which are to follow, which probably shows in the writing. I had a hard time finding the words here. Hopefully the songs speaks for themselves. After this… the Top 10. Finally.
I’ve mentioned before how much I dig the production on Hiatt’s 1993 album Perfectly Good Guitar, and nowhere is it more potent than on the title track. There’s a grittiness to the guitars here that is just very different from the countrified rock of his previous output (which as the commenter on YouTube points out, makes him sound a bit like The Smithereens). This is where the influence of the grunge scene really bore fruit for me, by making it possible for other artists to step away from the gloss of the 80’s without completely changing who they are. Meanwhile Hiatt’s lyrics here – always his strength – are just fantastic, as he somewhat ironically chastises the likes of Kurt Cobain who were bringing back the Pete Townshend-style performance art of destroying guitars.
Fourth and final countdown entry from my #1 album of the year finds the unheralded Seattle act toning things down a bit to deliver up a kind of grunge blues. Lyrically they riff on a very common “what about me” laundry list of early 90’s concerns, the era often turning away from the political themes of the 80’s for a deep run on introspection. Musically it’s once again the guitars that drive this band, and while they don’t blaze out on this track like some of their others, the work here is still tasty and thick. The song picks up steam down the backstretch and builds to a nice crescendo in the final minute. Great stuff.
Saigon Kick has always been more than a little bit experimental while working within’ the confines of hard rock, here taking the ballad format and changing it up a tiny bit with some jangly guitar in place of where acoustics are usually the call. That simple twist is enough to really make this song jump out for me, meshing nicely with Jason Bieler’s unorthodox vocal style to propel a set of lyrics, that quite honestly read like something I would have written at age 16, to a higher place than they deserve to go.
My friend Bill questioned the validity of this entire countdown without the presence of a track from Morphine’s ’93 album Cure For Pain, so I satiated his need for Morphine (ugh) at #65 with the title track. That seemed to make him happy. Of course, I never said that would be the ONLY song from the album to make it, which brings us to #17 and quite possibly the simplest song on the list. A brief, starkly arranged number driven by some gorgeous mandolin playing and a set of “I’m not worthy” lyrics that fit in nicely with the band’s general attitude. Vocalist Mark Sandman’s vocals are affected just a little bit here and I think it adds another odd little layer to this tune, everything echoing slightly and giving the whole song a weirdly ethereal feel. A beautifully rendered piece of music.
As with much of the top 20, we keep things slow and ballad heavy with this album track from Garth’s In Pieces album. This is a very old school country kind of ballad built on a simple structure and minus a lot of splashy frills (aside from a brief but enjoyable sax solo). The message is of course pure country & western, plaintively dishing out the heartache while trying to act like it’s no big deal. Meanwhile the piano here sounds very Billy Joel-ish for some reason, a fact which I would never consider a bad thing. Through it all is one of Brooks’ finest vocal performances on tape, as he manages to hit a bunch of interesting moments without feeling like it’s all a big show. I’m such a sucker for a well done torch song.
Another country song and at #15 the highest ranking cover song to hit the countdown. Dean takes Dave Mason’s 1977 soft rock classic and ups the temp just enough to make it a borderline rocker and in to my ears improving on the original greatly (here it is if you care to judge for yourself). Dean’s version gives the song much more urgency, which heightens the sense of denial that the lyrics try so desperately to mask, thus making the whole thing more relatable. I also find Dean’s vocal performance much more interesting, which I can’t lie, is helped by the fact that its right in my karaoke wheelhouse. Also, +1 for Dean’s epic feathered mullet in the video.
We’re inside the top 15 with the only artist who will appear more than once from here on out. I simply adore this album on every level and this song is a main reason why. Most of the time music is background for me, the lyrics kind of drifting by as my focus tends to other things, the music providing the entertainment. But every now and then a song comes along with a tale so clear and fun that I can’t really listen to it without stopping to really *listen* to it. Mind you, I love the music here too, with its playful rustic stomp and a killer soul-filled vocal performance from the man himself. But in the end its always the story that slays me. Playful, naughty, earnest, and just about perfect.
Oddly enough I don’t own the album this was released on, nor any album by the Hothouse Flowers for that matter. I’ve given some of them a listen and while I enjoyed them well enough they didn’t strike me as something I needed to own. But this track, which appeared on some random record label sampler I got while working at Tower, has remained with me from all the first day I heard it. It’s one of those tunes that just builds this incredible momentum, driven in this case by a subtle, rumbling bassline and a quirky little guitar lick, which I can never resist. If I ever got my lazy ass on a treadmill this song would 100% be on any playlist intended to keep me moving.
Every now and then I hear a song from an artist who isn’t necessarily a guaranteed hit maker and think, “if this gets any sort of label push behind it, it will be a HUGE hit”. I’m almost always wrong (though most often because said push doesn’t materialize). In 1993 as this album was being released, Lenny Kravitz was generally known for one minor hit (“Let Love Rule”) and for being Cosby Show actress Lisa Bonet’s husband. This riff changed everything. The song became a massive rock radio smash that summer and if you have to ask why then you have no business reading this countdown. The 70’s retro sound was just starting to take a strong foothold in the early 90’s, the Black Crowes seminal Southern Harmony And Musical Companion record really paving the way, but Lenny hopped onto the wave they crested and rode it all the way to superstardom. I mean, my God, that riff!
Take what I said above about Lenny Kravitz above and flip it, this being one example of a song that I thought would break a band big time and did nothing of the sort (to the best of my knowledge never even getting released as a single). Which is a pity, because this is one of those tunes that is just crying out to accompany emotional sports video packages until the end of time. Just close your eyes and conjure up images of some college athlete battling back from some horrific accident that left them without the use of their legs and now finding the will to compete again in wheelchair rugby or what have you. Perfect, right? The message is there and the music is somehow both agonizing and inspiring, an aspect the band had mastered even before this. Their sound is that ragged pull of imperfect musicians giving everything they have to be heard. Alright, that’s enough. I gotta go climb Mt. Everest or something.