THE WOOF 200 FOR 1993
When I posted the last installment of this countdown all those many weeks ago I asked my Facebook peeps for some guesses as to what the top 10 might hold. In retrospect that was a stupid question given that I knew most of what is about to follow fell way outside of “mainstream” at least in terms of exposure. You’ll know some of the artists, might even have heard of the songs, but with a couple of exceptions the top 10 isn’t really made up of “hits”. Instead they represent a rather laidback sampling of the kind of mellow album cuts I was headlong into at the time. Looking from the outside in I can tell you that they don’t really represent “1993” in the way a typical countdown might. But then again, that was kind of the point of this ridiculous exercise to begin with: to remind myself of the stuff that meant something to me at the time and maybe expose my friends to a few things they might have otherwise missed. Anyway, your mileage may vary (may?), but it is what it is. Hope you dig ’em.
I grew tired of the Counting Crows pretty quickly thanks to their massive overexposure, the hits being great songs that just got played way too much. That’s my explanation for why this little heard album track, with its haunting piano and impassioned vocal performance, is my favorite from the album. With “Mr. Jones”, Adam Duritz seemed to be trying way too hard to be different, slipping little vocal gymnastics into his phrasing where they weren’t needed, whereas here I feel like he just gives himself over to the song and let’s his voice do the work. Like most of the stuff to follow in the top 10, the song is stark in its presentation and at times a little dark lyrically. 21 was a weird age for me.
The first time I heard this song was during an episode of MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball (back when that was still a thing) and it was accompanied by the music video. At first it was the visual that grabbed me, and I must admit it took many listens for the song to actually win me over. As a band their sound was unlike anything I had ever heard before, unsure as I was if it was really “metal” even though it had a lot of the requisite sounds. I grew to appreciate them and by the time of their third album Lateralus I was totally hooked. “Sober” though has remained my favorite track from them, sounding as it does like equal parts death march and giant metal structure dangerously folding in on itself. And that video. Wow. Creepy stuff.
As life would have it, I never became a parent, but that doesn’t change the fact that this song devastates me with its beauty every time I hear it. The lyrics are perfect and as usual so is Marc’s vocal. Sit back and bathe in it all.
This is, I think, the saddest sounding song I own, if not the saddest sounding song I’ve ever heard. Something about Stone Gossard’s guitar work here is just a magnificent downer and Shawn Smith’s light yet eerie vocals just ride that downward slope straight into a pit of despair that I don’t recall hearing before. They manage to find a few tiny moments of life, but they’re quickly squashed, returning the song to its natural state of dulled reticence. Oddly enough I would often listen to this track when I was already in a bit of a dark mood and found that it lightened me ever-so-slightly even though there is nothing about it that would seem to inspire such a shift. The power of music is a mysterious thing.
So let’s keep things low and depressing, shall we? Buried in the middle of her debut album (as well as the soundtrack to the film Kalifornia) was perhaps Sheryl Crow’s finest track, a laconic shuffle of a tune that seems to perfectly match the good times/bad times vibe that was the mid-90’s, everybody still coming down from the high of 80’s excess while trying to figure out where the fuck we were going next and what it all meant. Musically this one is carried by a simple bass part that ends each run with a little slide down that keeps you from ever really getting your hopes up. Vocally, Sheryl has never sounded quite so smoky or sexy, reminding me at times of Shawn Colvin, another personal favorite. Like “Buttercup” at #7, another downer of a song that somehow manages to perk me up the tiniest bit on each listen. I don’t get it either.
Mark Lizotte was born in Fall River, Mass, before emigrating to Australia at the age of 4 and eventually becoming a decent sized star down under as Johnny Diesel and later just “Diesel”. He got a minor push in the states with his 1993 album Hepfidelity which is where and when he came to my attention (note: apparently it came out in ’92 in Australia, so my entire countdown is now a lie). This breezy pop-rock song appeared on a label sampler somewhere and managed to crawl its way into my head during a time when (as seen above) most of what I was listening to lacked, shall we say, positive bounce. For some reason everything comes together here in simple ways; the bounding bassline, the gentle piano, the repeating acoustic guitar riff. Diesel’s vocals are likewise perfect for the mix, raspy and soulful with just enough blues to keep it authentic. He throws a fun little guitar solo into the stew as well, because why not. File alongside Jude Cole as a guy who was trying to keep rootsy blues-pop alive in an era where the general public just wasn’t having it unless your name was John Mellencamp. Pity.
A song so obscure I couldn’t find a recording of it anywhere on the internet, forcing me to dust off my limited YouTube skills and pray that the copyright police don’t find me. Anyway, an absolutely beautiful song from folk singer Barbara Kessler which first came to my attention on the compilation album Big Times In A Small Town – The Vineyard Tapes (represented twice previously on this countdown and the version which I have to decided to upload despite the album cover photo). I don’t really think the song needs any explanation as it speaks quite clearly for itself. I mean, we’ve all been there, right?
If pressed, I might tell you that “Creep” is one of the 5 greatest songs ever written, an idea that is impressed upon me every time I hear a new cover version that just totally crushes. There might not be a better anthem for alienation ever written. It really is that good. So why #3 on the countdown? Is it because I hate Radiohead? No, Mark, as I’ve said a million times before, I don’t *hate* Radiohead, I just don’t appreciate them the way most others do. The reason it sits at #3 is in part *because* of the fact that I actually enjoy the cover versions so much that the original recording loses just a tiny smidge in the trade. Yeah, none of the other ones I like have that dirty, staccato guitar that is initially what made the song for me, but they also improve on Thom Yorke’s vocals because I could never quite get into his mumbled wail-and-falsetto. Which is a minor quibble to be sure, but just enough of one to drop the song to a position just below two other songs that I happen to love just *THAT* much more. So be it.
Trying to explain why you like a particular song is a pretty futile exercise, as I have proven for the past year as this countdown has slowly unfolded. It’s doubly hard when the song in question isn’t one that will be familiar to most people you are talking to (see also: most of this top 10). I’ve lived with the music of 1993 for 23 years and each song on this countdown is here for reasons that are highly personal even if those reasons aren’t exactly clear (even to me). Time does something to music, attaching memories to it that are sometimes very specific (“they’re playing our song!”) and sometimes very vague (“this is such an 80’s song”). I don’t have a grand reason for why this song is #2. I only ever knew Big Country for their self-titled 80’s hit and wasn’t really looking for new music from them when The Buffalo Skinners first landed in my collection. I can’t even say I listened to it often in those early years. I just know that somewhere over the last two decades-plus the record found me in a way that I wasn’t expecting and this song in particular ingrained itself onto my brain unlike few others ever have. I love the build, I love musicianship, I love the lyrics, I just *love* the song. At this point it seems pointless to try and really explain why.
There are songs that come along and just slide into your consciousness, making a polite but memorable first impression before drifting away quietly only to keep coming back time and time again to convince you of their greatness. Big Head Todd were never a huge act (although they certainly have their following), and their major label debut Sister Sweetly, despite some decent radio play, never amounted to a whole heck of a lot. But I played it quite a bit and in doing so became completely and totally enamored with this mellow, almost tender track, in a way that defies explanation. I remember quite clearly a random weekday evening at Tower when a cute blonde girl came in looking for a song she didn’t know the artist for (a common occurrence in record stores). She tried describing it and wasn’t faring well until I convinced her to try and sing a tiny bit of it. Once I realized what she was singing I had a mini freak-out before guiding her to the album in question. I was awful with women back then and failed to capitalize on my good fortune by asking her out, a regret to be sure. I think I was too overwhelmed to find somebody else who loved such an obscure song as much as I did (although I guess it wasn’t so obscure as to not get radio play somewhere where she could hear it). The memory is fond one for me, even if it is a little… bittersweet.
And I’m out. Sorry this took so long. 2016 wasn’t really kind in a lot of ways. Peace all.