1. Flaming Lips - She Don't Use Jelly - Transmissions From the Satellite Heart
I clearly remember liking this song back in the day, marveling at how something so weird could be so cool and so catchy, simultaneously. And I actually had friends who were really into the Flaming Lips overall, not just this random hit. But I took probably another seven years before really catching up with the band. Then after another few years I watched Fearless Freaks and couldn't get enough. As my friend Marc says, Wayne Coyne would be the ultimate cool uncle.
2. Tom Waits - Carnival - The Black Rider
For some reason, the theatrically oriented Tom Waits albums are the ones that have taken me the longest to get into, and in the case of The Black Rider, I don't think I've even listened to it straight through. It's not that the album is too weird, but man I just like those earlier folky albums so much better. As this instrumental sails on by, I can't help but think of people in weird costumes dancing some strange, impressionistic thing that I don't understand...
3. Archers of Loaf - Plumb The Line - Icky Mettle
I'm a huge fan of Eric Bachmann's solo album and pretty much everything he's done with the Crooked Fingers, but I've hardly listened to the Archers of Loaf. Like the Tom Waits song previously, this is one of those albums that gets me thinking about how musicians with consistently excellent but widely varied projects throughout long careers are approached by fans, who inevitably come in from all sides. I happened to hit Bachmann in about 2002, and it's that era of his music I like most, but there's always more to explore. And this one, with the anthematic chorus "She's an indie rocker, and nothing's gonna stop her," just calls out for more exploration.
4. Nirvana - Milk It - In Utero
Between this song and the Flaming Lips, it could hardly be more clear how much more interested record labels were in actual music during the early 1990s. Nirvana would never have been on a major label if they'd hit about six years later. Rock music of this sort, this hard, this slanted, this passionate and this alienated is an amazing thing, and to hear it everywhere made my early teens a very exciting time (strictly speaking in hindsight, of course).
5. Stone Temple Pilots - Plush (acoustic) - Thank You (originally released as B-side to UK version of Creep Single)
I always liked this song - both the album version as well as this acoustic performance - and I wasn't in any sort of place as a budding music fan to start in on the backlash that has since doomed STP to a second-tier status. Now I can easily see how derivative they might have been, and I don't to this day have a single clue what this song might be about, but none of that is the point when you're 13.
6. Phish - Sparkle - Rift
A bunch of years back, when I was living in Phoenix for a short stint, I forced a buch of my closest friends to pick a favorite song or few, and from that I burned a CD of their favorite music, an effort which made the distance and time significantly easier to manage. Well, my friend Rod, who was going to school in Madison and still lives there, picked this as his tune. I never saw Rod as a big jam-band fan, but there's something mischievous about this song, with it's chorus of "Laugh and laugh and fall apart" that makes perfect sense.
7. The Cranberries - How - Everyone Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?
For a while I've thought this is one of the great underrated albums of the 1990s. I started turning back to it heavily as a college freshman, when Brit-Pop was huge and this album was kind of a footnote on the front wave of that trend. It's powerful, atmospheric, catchy and the right mix of sensitive and edgy (or so I thought). "How" is part of the albums very strong closing trio of songs that would surprise anyone who thought the band was summed up by the sappiness of "Linger." The Cranberries might not have been a band with a ton of staying power, but this first record is a masterpiece.
8. James - Say Something - Laid
My favorite 1993 album is Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne, but this is a very close second. It was one of my staple albums from a bit after it came out, straight through college, and has seen a resurgence in the last year or so. It's a masterpiece of brooding, thoughtful alternative rock. The lyrics of this have always grabbed me, from the openining line " You're as tight as a hunter's trap / Hidden well, what are you concealing," straight through to the refrain: "I'm open, wide open, wondering." This is the type of song and album that makes you a music fan for life.
9. Jackson Browne - Sky Blue and Black - I'm Alive
This song is an absolute heartbreaker, and perhaps Browne's most powerfully poetic song. The whole album is a wrenching emotional wreck, but this is its core, a simple piano ballad that is the very dictionary definition of lost love, with its echoing pain and disorientation that makes even the sky look a different color.
You're the hidden cost and the thing that's lost10. Bruce Springsteen - Living Proof - MTV Plugged
In everything I do
Yeah and I'll never stop looking for you
In the sunlight and the shadows
And the faces on the avenue
This is the live album that rescued his otherwise doomed Human Touch/Lucky Town period, and showed a defiant Boss still itchin' to rock. "Living Proof" will never be mentioned among Bruce's best songs, but thanks to this heartfelt performance, it feels like a song worthy of someone with his talent. It sure beats the façade-slick and soulless version from Lucky Town.
James - Say Something (live)
Jackson Browne - Sky Blue and Black (live)
Bruce Springsteen - Living Proof (live)