1. The Fastbacks – Very Very Powerful Motor
Of course it's The Fastbacks, and of course it's this record. If you know me, you already knew this. Very Very Powerful Motor blew my mind, altered my notion of what music could be, and gave me permission to play the kind of music that was in my heart, but I had no idea anyone else in the world would ever accept. But there it was – reaching out to me, melting the turntable in my 1990 college apartment. My Gabba Gabba Hey moment.
2. Hüsker Dü – Flip Your Wig
Another college era discovery. In 1988, underground music was abrasive and scary. Having just met the small group of friends that were (finally) people like me, I was rapidly exposed to Black Flag, the Melvins, the Ramones, Soundgarden, The Angry Samoans, Minor Threat, the Misfits, etc…I loved it all, I felt this music more than anything prior, but none of it was "beautiful". Then some unsuspecting person put on Hüsker Dü's Flip Your Wig. I distinctly remember feeling a chemical change in my brain when the opening chords of Flip Your Wig chimed through that apartment living room. I could see the music and the white noise as colored light and black and white static as it compressed, exploded, and flowed through my head. Looking out the window, the light seemed different, better, dreamy. I may have been high – not 100% sure on that. Here was fast, loud, precise, powerful, BEAUTIFUL pop, with all the rough legitimacy of its abrasive brothers. The guitar sound was so unique, and somehow the worst recorded drums in history still conveyed all the glory of the 2nd best band in history. To say I became a lifelong Hüsker Dü and Bob Mould fan would be a bit of an understatement.
3. Snuff – Demmamussabebonk
According to legend, the guys in Snuff knew an immigrant grocer whose go-to expression was "they must be bonkers" when referring to someone he found puzzling or strange. With his thick accent, this came across as "dem a mussa be bonk", and the rest is silly LP title history. This record got a lot of rotation in the Sicko touring van. Normally, the stereo would be cranked, we'd be getting blown away by the sonic joy of Sunny Places or the furious prog-pop-punk of Horse and Cart, and someone would incredulously note that the drummer was not only playing these fast killer beats, but was actually the lead singer as well. Amazing, jaw-dropping. The pure pop, the Celtic drones, the almost-metal style, the swerves from the sarcastic to the poetic, all validated my predilections while bringing me heaps of inspiration. Denny would probably say "Snuff Said" or "Flibbidydibbidydob" are better, but for me this is the game changer.
4. Cringer – Karin 7"
Cringer was the band that Lance Hahn and Gardner Maxam had before JChurch. This was one of my first exposures to East Bay pop punk, I believe that Denny first told me about them. The Karin 7" captured a happy go lucky, shambling, unserious tone that came as a welcome relief in the context of the intense heavy styles of 80s hardcore punk and 90s Seattle grunge. The artwork on the cover and inside was goofy and low budget, but painstakingly assembled, reflecting (to my mind) the surfeit of time and deficit of money of young artists who were gleefully opting out of society in general and the music industry in particular. The songs were catchy and sloppy, and the lyrics were thoughtful, revealing Lance to be a sort of intellectual of the punk world. This unique combination was very appealing to me, and lit up my imagination with possibilities for my own music. I have no idea who Karin is, but I remember thinking that I wanted to meet a girl as pretty and goofy and punk rock and cool as I imagined her to be. (It turns out I did, Rebecca!) I remember sitting in my rented room after a day at my loading dock job, playing this single over and over on a $10 thrift store turntable and speakers. In grunge-explosion 1991 Seattle, it was comforting to know that there were people somewhere who "got it", even if "it" was still forming in my mind. For me, this disc became a window into a world of low budget tours, arty record labels, weird intellectuals, frenetic joyful music, accepted misfits, cheap living, and 2nd hand combat boots; a million miles away from the leg humping meat-headed stupidity of the Seattle grunge world. I wanted in.
5. ACDC – Highway to Hell
The first couple of albums were easy, but now it's a bit tougher to pick because there are a lot of contenders. Stepping out of the punk for a minute, I have to go back a bit further to Jeremy Clement's Dodge Colt, my junior year of high school, and Highway to Hell. I remember Jeremy speeding west on NE 75th Street blasting the title track, and then moments later getting pulled over for a speeding ticket. I thought we were pretty bad-ass. Listening to the devil's music and also violating the traffic laws of King County? These kids were dangerous! This record is so smooth, so polished, and so full of hooks that its (at the time) scary cover and ultra-mild satanic imagery almost seem mis-placed. There really isn't a stinker on the whole LP, but for me, it's Shot Down in Flames vs If You Want Blood for the title of perfect hard rock song. Funny, hooky, repetitive, ultra-precise, primitive, with great warm 70s guitars, and that awesome dry, thumpy 70s up close drum sound. Rebecca and I used to have matching homemade "WWPRD" (what would Phil Rudd Do) t-shirts, because when we were working on a song and didn't know which way to go, we'd guess what Phil would do (NOT play a drum fill) and get on with it. Pretty pedestrian, but undeniably LEGIT.
6. Decscendents – ALL
I realize I am running out of time here, this is getting harder. Number 6 is all down to my buddy Marlin, who in 1988 took my live Led Zeppelin tape, and recorded the Sex Pistols and Descendents over it. I liked the Sex Pistols, but their tone and concerns seemed a little removed from my life. The Descendents however, were speaking directly to me. This music couldn't have been more perfectly designed for me: fast, pop, precise, goofy, whiny, self-deprecating, and hooks galore. Guys singing about being misfits, nerd-male bonding, female rejection, farts, weird in-jokes, fast food, being butt hurt because she doesn't like you / did something mean to you / broke up with you / lost interest in you… the soundtrack to my life up to that point. It occurs to me that in Milo's lyrics, there was a hint of the intellectualism that later drew me to bands like Cringer, Mr. T Experience, and Bad Religion. Clean Sheets is a masterpiece of vocal harmonization and emotional manipulation, a totally perfect song. As a sometimes-bass player, Karl's playing is a very special thing to me. His driving 8th note lines create a counterpoint to Milo's voice, changing the tone and implications of the song as he presses up and down around the edges of the chord structure, or sets up the listener for the next section. His other signature move is momentarily dropping in classical, metal, and corny traditional motifs into vocal gaps, aping the whirling thoughts and emotions of my hyperactive mind. I found this mesmerizing. Bass players can lay down the root notes of the guitar, or they can sing you another song that fits within the song, and for me the latter is the proper use of the instrument. Bill's drumming is of course the stuff of punk rock legend, still a benchmark today. Milo's voice is entirely irreplaceable in its ability to connect, as evidenced by All's years long struggle to achieve similar levels of success with the exact same membership and a succession of excellent but ultimately less relate-able singers. Mandatory listening for all aspiring pop punkers!
7. REM – Murmur
This list has been heavy on the punk up to now, and after a few days of sober reflection, I realize that I would be a great big faker if I didn't own up to the pop side of the story. Probably my first serious love affair with pop focused on REM, discovered once again by way of my college "my people" Erik, Scott, and Marlin. This record was different from the Slayer, Black Flag, Dinosaur Jr, and other hard-edged stuff that was on heavy rotation in that little 3 bedroom basement apartment in Pullman, WA. The songs were thoughtful, pretty, dance-able, lyrically obscure, and conveyed a sense of arty intellectualism that rang my bell, even as a meathead 1988 rocker hippie. The songs implied a hidden America of depth and culture, of thinkers and poets, of austere intellectuals and misfits. Living in that world was appealing, but I had no idea how to get there (can't get there from here!). I remember staring at the pictures of these beatnicky looking guys on the back of the record, and thinking that I wanted to be like them. Indeed, years later, playing my jangly Rickenbacker 12 string in a recording session for what would become the first Tales from the Birdbath album, my pal and engineer Pete Gerrald referred to my little recording project as "Ean's Rich Pageant", which was pretty funny and not at all far from the sound I was going for. Returning to 1988, hair length was a big deal in those days, and Stipe seemed like a plausible reason to get what at the time was a short haircut – apparently you could be counterculture and a musician without long hair, a novel idea in 1988. I also realized that I needed to find some well thrifted, oversize suit jackets. Murmur captures some of the first wobbly steps of what would become the biggest band in the world by the early 90s. Mills' bass and harmonies provide stability, a slightly punk aesthetic (yah!), and the shape note ear candy harmonies that I've been poorly aping for 30 years. Buck's simplistic playing, really barely keeping up with the band in this release, hide his songwriting and riff genius. In a series of posts where I'm talking about Duncan Redmonds, Karl Alvarez, Kurt Bloch, Bob Mould, Lance Hahn, and Malcolm Young without yet unwrapping the term "genius", this is an appellation not lightly given. Considering Buck's contributions to acts like the Replacements, Dream Academy, Billy Bragg, and Robyn Hitchcock among others, he could reasonably be considered one of the most important songwriters of the 1980s. Berry's drumming is just fine. Stipe's voice and persona are so obviously unique and universally appealing that it hardly bears mentioning, but it is his narration that makes the statement, and seals the concept of this band as art. REM has made its way into every band I've been in since 1988… Sicko actually covered These Days, Tales from the Birdbath was an obvious 12 String REM wannabe, Date Night with Brian is (in my mind) 1/2 SY Sister and the other half Murmur. Thanks guys for all the tunes and introducing me to the idea of sonic bliss, even if I've ditched the oversize suit jackets. Sorry I keep ripping off your band!
8. Beat Happening – Black Candy
One of the brightest spots at the intersection of pop and punk is Beat Happening. At a time when virtuoso musicianship was the seeming price of entry to musical legitimacy, Beat Happening pretty much couldn't sing or play their instruments. It wasn't just that this didn't matter. Their primitiveness served to disarm the listener, focusing us on the story, baring powerful emotions that I for one was ready to feel. Desperate love, fickle love, love lost, witchy schemes to get the one you love, teenage awkwardness (about love), and a lot of sex. I don't mean "sexy", or "sex positive", or "gratuitous", or even just sex in the myriad adult senses of the term. I mean sex in that awkward, heart racing, mysterious sense that only young people can harbor for a very short while as they teeter into adulthood. OK, and a bit of teen rebellion. All set in the rural idyll of a Washington small town. Like so much of punk music, Beat Happening allowed the listener a moment of childhood recidivism. Their rejection of 80s underground music norms of virtuosity, anger, and speed created a safe space for awkward romantic misfits. They also gave Denny and I the idea of trading instruments around on stage.
9. Dinosaur Jr – You're Living All Over Me
In 2019, the world of music seems to have many bright lines dividing genre and sub-genre. It's not enough to have Punk, and Pop Punk, but we even have Ramones-Core… which is pop punk that seems to be defined by downstroked guitars, 1-4-5 chords, microscopic quantizing, and pitch perfect vocal harmonies. Oddly, the Ramones weren't much on harmonies, but then again when Lou Barlow shouted "Gimmie Indie Rock" on Sebadoh's 1991 7", I doubt he had the Courteeners in mind either. We are musicians: and we ape, adapt, co-opt, and innovate, in that order. Punk may be a type of house music by the time my kids get to university. If punk has micro organized itself by 2019, the world was not always so. Perhaps in reaction to the homogeneity of 80s hardcore, things had gotten a bit weird by 1987. Bands like Nice Strong Arm, The Screaming Trees, Halo of Flies, and Glass Eye had constituted themselves out of the wreckage of 1st wave punk, hardcore, pop, new wave, C86, arena rock, psych, NWOHM, and who knows what else, but somehow ended up in the "punk" bucket. Perhaps this is unsurprising considering the first time around the Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads all ended up in a very different bucket with the same name? Enter Dinosaur Jr: hardcore kids who came up with a new sound out of odds and end left lying about the underground music world. An NME interviewer once asked J what his influences were, and he replied "oh I don't know… just, everything." Which is the perfect way to think of Dinosaur, and You're Living All Over Me specifically. Massive guitars, country licks, long solos veering between classic rock and Greg Ginn-esque free jazz, gratuitous and unorthodox use of pedals, wah wah rhythm tracks, that awful/perfect voice, weird jazz chords, sludgy metal chunka chunka, rumbling dance drums and hardcore beats, and intentional swells of white noise, all with the SST stamp of approval. In the summer of 1989, I lived in a tiny college town that was so empty after the spring student exodus that the transportation department put the stoplights on blink. I worked in a salad prep room during the early morning, and played music and partied with my friends by night. Dino were the perfect sound track to fill up the hours in between. We didn't have internet or TV, so I would come home in the 90 degree heat, open the doors and windows, take in the dry air, and let the waves of late 80s psychedelic hardcore noise wash over me. Flipping YLAOM over and over, I could waste the long hours away between the two main activities of my day. If only I liked pot, it would have been perfect. Sicko started out as a terrible Dinosaur impersonator (we ditched that pretty quickly), and Date Night with Brian certainly owe a debt to this music. Birdbath covered Freak Scene, and the Subjunctives even have a track that nods to J and his songwriting. As I write this, I'm trying to figure out how to balance a Dinosaur-esque classic rock / free jazz style for the solo I have to play in the studio this weekend!
10. Ten, oh ten. I just can't do it.
How could I leave out even one of They Might Be Giants' Lincoln, Black Flag's Damaged, The Crabs' Jackpot, Stiff Little Fingers' Nobody's Heroes, The Replacements' Let it Be, or Yo La Tengo's Fakebook? Ana Ng, Spray Paint, Alien Girl, Gotta Gettaway, Favorite Thing, and Cast a Shadow? Each song a perfect gem in each album's perfect crown. I will not betray a single one of you. Perhaps this list should have been a top 15? Then I'd be writing this piece for CPRW for another 6 months. It's probably for the best. On a rainy Seattle Friday in March 2019, I'm looking out the window at cars crossing a high bridge over the canal, but I can see 1987 Amherst, 1986 London, 1983 Athens, 1990 Seattle, 1985 Minneapolis, and 1989 Olympia.
Check out Ean's newest band The Subjunctives on Facebook and Sicko too. You can get The Subjunctives’s latest EP, and load of other great stuff, from the Top Drawer Records online store.