Saturday, October 31, 2015

Top 100 Songs From the 1990s (No. 4)

4. "Tracy Hide"
Artist: Wondermints
Year: 1995

When I featured Jeffrey Foskett on this countdown, the Swede wondered if Wondermints would also make this series. I'm sure even he couldn't have imagined it would be nearly 80 places before that prediction would come to fruition. I, of course, knew, and it was a smile when I read his comment way back in March. Wondermints are usually described as "Brian Wilson's backing band." On the one hand, I'll be forever grateful Wilson showed up unexpectedly at a Brian Wilson charity tribute show in L.A. (the bill was Wondermints, Alex Chilton and Apples in Stereo... what a night!) and was blown away by Wondermints' rendition of "This Whole World." That eventful night eventually led to 16 years (and counting) worth of touring and recording together, not the least of which was Darian Sahanaja's vital role making 'Smile' a reality in 2004.

Having said all that, for those of us who think of Wondermints first and foremost as one of the all-time great power-pop outfits, we have paid a price, albeit small, for being witnesses to Wilson's return from the abyss. Wondermints haven't had an album of new material since 2002, but I won't complain too much. Every song they have given us since the early '90s has been gold, and I certainly can't be angry about the Wilson connection and then choose "Tracy Hide," a tune that sounds more like "Wonderful" or some other long lost song from the 'Smile' era than any other in the band's discography. You can find this one on the self-titled debut from 1995. There were five songs from the album that made my long list of candidates for this countdown. It's that good.

In 1996, the band released an inspired album of obscure covers called 'Wonderful World of Wondermints.' In an unusual turn, Wondermints covered Wondermints as the album closer. Here is an ever-so-slightly different take of "Tracy Hide."

"Tracy Hide (Cover Version)"

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Top 100 Songs From the 1990s (No. 5)

5. "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road"
Artist: Nick Lowe
Year: 1994

Nick Lowe has been a favorite since I was a lad, and the 1994 album 'The Impossible Bird' marked the beginning of a renaissance that continues to this day. I would take the six albums he has done since 'Bird' over the six he did before that in a Brentford minute. OK, I don't know what that means either, but if you do the math, that just leaves 'Jesus of Cool' and 'Labour of Lust,' and those are my No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, but I put 'The Impossible Bird' right there with his best work. Lowe didn't want to "become one of those thinning-haired, jowly old geezers who still does the same shtick they did when they were young, slim and beautiful," and his reinvention as a crooning balladeer has completely worked for me.

Today's song wasn't penned by Lowe, but I think his take is the best version on wax. "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road" was written by the country songwriting team of Dallas Frazier and Arthur Leo "Doodle" Owens and first released with little fanfare by Duane Dee in 1968. Elvis' recording is the most well known, but Percy Sledge's was the best... until Lowe took his turn. Lowe speaks of the tune with affection, saying, "I first heard "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road" on a compilation record that accompanied Peter Guralniek's book 'Sweet Soul Music.' I love the title, I love those sort of gospely words, and it has a lovely tune. Percy Sledge's version is kind of jaunty, where mine is a little more downbeat." He went on to say, "I love that thing where R&B meets country."

I'm going to include the lyrics for this one. Chances are these beautiful words will hit home for you... and yours. Enjoy the completely different version from Percy, too.

How many girls choose cotton dress worlds
When they could have satins and lace
And stand by her man, never once letting shade touch her face

How many hearts could live through all the winters
We've known and still not be cold?
True love travels on a gravel road

Love is a stranger and hearts are in danger
On smooth streets paved with gold
Oh, true love travels on a gravel road

Down through the years we've had hard times and tears
But they only helped our love grow
And we'll stay together no matter how strong the wind blows

Not once have I seen your blue eyes filled with envy
Or stray from the one that you hold
Oh, true love travels on a gravel road

Love is a stranger and hearts are in danger
On smooth streets paved with gold
Oh, true love travels on a gravel road
Yeah, true love travels on a gravel road
True love travels on a gravel road

Friday, October 23, 2015

Top 100 Songs From the 1990s (No. 6)

6. "The Boy With the Arab Strap"
Artist: Belle and Sebastian
Year: 1998

This is getting ridiculous. I know I'm not exactly changing the world here, but for some of these spots I'm laboring as if I am. For me, Belle and Sebastian is a band that made living through the late '90s tolerable, and choosing one song has proven to be just about the most difficult task of them all. I have had one title in place since the spring, but it always felt like a placeholder, and now I'm getting cold feet. So, for the past few days I have been listening to all of the singles and EPs from the era, as well as the albums 'Tigermilk,' 'If You're Feeling Sinister' and 'The Boy With the Arab Strap,' at a furious pace. Obviously, you can see which song I went with, but I will share with you that both "Sleep the Clock Around" and "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying" (which sounds just like the Lucksmiths!) have been typed in the space above this week.

My story in discovering Belle and Sebastian is an ancient history lesson in what it used to be like to buy music. We never have to take risks with our purchases anymore, or even buy at all, for that matter, and I'm not sure I call this progress. A work pal of mine was getting married in Pennsylvania, and I felt obliged to go. It was going to mean an overnight at a bed and breakfast in a small town far away and many other items on an itinerary jammed with stuff I had no interested in at all. To make the road trip tolerable, I stopped in a books, movies and music mega-chain (another sign things had gone wrong!) when Mrs. LTL went to the mall to fetch some clothes fit for the occasion. Since I had not bought anything for ages, I figured some new music for the car would generate a little excitement.

I found 'The Boy With the Arab Strap' in the new-releases section and was immediately drawn to the cover. It had the aesthetics of an early single from the Smiths. I flipped it over to see titles like "It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career," "Seymour Stein" and "Dirty Dream Number Two." The album came out on the trusted Matador (here in America) to boot. I bought it without ever listening to a note or reading a single review. In fact, I had never heard of them. That feeling when I realized I had struck gold as I drove up I-95 just can't be replicated by clicking on a song as you sit in front of a computer. I really miss these moments. Thanks in large part to Belle and Sebastian, I look back on that weekend in Pennsylvania with nothing but fondness.

As Adam said yesterday when writing about Husker Du's 'Flip Your Wig,' "It may not be their best album, but it was my first and you never forget the first." Hear, hear!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Top 100 Songs From the 1990s (No. 7)

7. "She Sleeps Alone"
Artist: Epic Soundtracks
Year: 1992

Late one evening in the summer of '93 I searched the shelf of open records behind the counter for something to play while going through the routine of closing up the record shop. I came across a disc with a little sticker that said "Bob" on the case. That meant the owner of the store brought this one in from home. I was immediately drawn to the font and and color scheme of the album name and artist on the cover... or was it a band? What in the hell was an Epic Soundtracks? I had no idea at the time he was the brother of Nikki Sudden and that the two had been in Swell Maps before this, his debut solo album. Anyway, it seemed obvious to me the letters were meant to pay homage to 'Pet Sounds,' my all-time favorite LP, so that made me curious enough to give it a spin. By the fourth song I had the register all counted out and could have gone home, but I didn't budge until I had heard every note of 'Rise Above.' I was mesmerized. I turned out most of the lights in the store and just soaked in the sounds.

The final song was the six-and-a-half minute chamber-pop epic "She Sleeps Alone." I have listened to this one hundreds of times in the past 20-plus years, and it never ceases to move me. The cello and violin have this wonderful build and swirl, and I have told you countless times what a sucker I am for trumpet in a pop song. Mostly, though, I'm attracted to Soundtracks' piano and voice, which I find haunting, sad and beautiful. His influences are very easy to spot, and they are all biggies in my world... the Zombies, Brill Building, Harry Nilsson, Brian Wilson and, on his later albums, Phil Spector and even some Big Star. Sadly, there wouldn't be too many more records. He died in 1997 at the age of 38.

I mentioned Soundtracks one other time on this countdown. Kevin Junior was a good pal of his, and Junior's band the Chamber Strings got started just about the time Soundtracks passed away. If you enjoy the song featured today, I would highly recommend the Chamber Strings' album 'Month of Sundays.'

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Top 100 Songs From the 1990s (No. 8)

8. "To the End"
Artist: Blur
Year: 1994

Once again, I was out of the country and completely oblivious to the mania surrounding 'Parklife,' and I will be forever thankful for that. I imagine the press around this one and other Britpop entities would have been too much for me. That would have been a real shame because I really do love 'Parklife,' and I was surprised and excited when I saw it on the shelf one day while browsing at Import Yamachiku in the spring of '94. If you want to know about that life-saving shop during my time in seclusion, you can go back to No. 43 on the countdown.

The band's previous album, 'Modern Life Is Rubbish,' remains my favorite, but I think the four singles from 'Parklife' are without peer in the Blur discography. Of course, I'm probably not the blogger to make such a bold statement since the 1993 and 1994 albums are really the only two I ever play. I imagine I might hear from some of you about that. Those of you in the UK might be surprised to learn the band wasn't all that successful in the '90s on this side of the Atlantic. Only three albums charted, 'The Great Escape' at No. 150, 'Blur' at No. 61 and '13' at No. 80. The highest charting single on the Billboard Hot 100 was "Song 2" at No. 55. Although the lads were about as British as it gets, it's still a bit of a head scratcher. I just searched Oasis on the Billboard charts, and the Gallagher Bros. left Blur in the dust over here.

I chose "To the End" rather than the excellent "Girls & Boys" or "Parklife" because it's one of Mrs. LTL's all-time favorites. It gets played constantly in this house. Based on the song's theme, I hope she hasn't been trying to tell me something all of these years. Apologies to Stereolab's Lætitia Sadier, but the wife is partial to the version that features the vocal talents of the lovely Françoise Hardy. You can find this one as a B-side to the 1995 CD single "Country House." Let's turn things down just a little bit...

"To the End (La Comedie)"

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Top 100 Songs From the 1990s (No. 9)

9. "Blue"
Artist: The Jayhawks
Year: 1995

Really pressed for time today. So, short and sweet. Most of you will know this one well anyway. I'm a 'Hollywood Town Hall' man myself, but this isn't an albums list, and "Blue" is the band's moment. If this is the song the Jayhawks are remembered for, well, that's fine by me. Most of us know they have been much more than "the hit."

I hope I'm not giving the impression 'Tomorrow the Green Grass' isn't wonderful as well, but 'Hollywood' is where I came in, and it's the one I usually pull off the shelf when I have a hankerin' for some Jayhawks. I assume if you're a fan these are your go-to albums too, but I'm curious about what you think of the band's other work. Did you stick with the Jayhawks as Mark Olson jumped in and out of the lineup?

I have a very memorable tale to tell about the purchase of 'Tomorrow the Green Grass.' Mrs. LTL and I were still in Japan when the album was released. Our time there would be coming to an end later in the year, and we knew it. We were saving as many yen as we could knowing we could be unemployed for a while when we returned to America, but we also felt like we should see as much of the region as we could because, hey, maybe we'll never get back here. (Twenty years later, that has proven to be the case.) So, we decided to dip into the account for a few fun-filled days in Hong Kong. We reasoned the Sino-British Joint Declaration would be kicking in soon. Better go now. I had not been buying much music, but I knew if I had the opportunity I would pick up the new one from the Jayhawks while we were there.

I remember it like it was yesterday. We walked into an HMV and placed 'Tomorrow the Green Grass' and Nick Lowe's 'The Wilderness Years' on the counter. There was a promotion going on where paying customers were allowed to spin a wheel to win prizes. I won a free CD. When I chose my bonus music and took it to the counter, I was told I could spin the wheel again. Well, long story short, I just kept winning. I didn't understand why they kept letting me spin every time I took my FREE CD to the counter, but they did. It got to the point where I was feeling anxious because I didn't have my trusty hand-written list of music wants with me, and my mind was a blank. So, I kept going back to the stacks and searching for the next CD. Meanwhile, Mrs. LTL was giving me the eye because she would like to go see Hong Kong, and now she's stuck in a record store. I was literally sweating at this point, and it was all a blur as I was running back and forth between the counter and the shelves over and over again. The girls working the counter were covering their mouths and giggling as this silly American was making a fool of himself.

When I finally "lost," I walked out of the HMV with nine CDs. Thank you, Jayhawks!

Here's a bonus live performance:

"Blue" (First Avenue, Minneapolis, 2010)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Top 100 Songs From the 1990s (No. 10)

10. "Holiday"
Artist: Jason Falkner
Year: 1999

Chances are even if you don't have one of Jason Falkner's solo albums in your collection, you have his work on the shelf somewhere. He was in the Three O'Clock, Jellyfish and the Grays, all for the briefest of spells... and he reunited with Jellyfish mate Roger Joseph Manning, Jr., as TV Eyes a decade ago, too. He has shared his enormous talents with the likes of Brendan Benson (see No. 53 on this countdown), Air, Beck, Paul McCartney, Aimee Mann, Susanna Hoffs, Gnarls Barkley, Eric Matthews, Travis, Glen Campbell, Daniel Johnston, Primal Scream and scores of others. All of this studio work and touring pays the bills, and I get the feeling his solo albums, well, don't. That's such a shame because every one of them is a must have in my book. So, while he toils for others, those of us who worship at the altar of Falkner are always wanting for more.

In the past 20 years, if you strip away the covers, demos, EPs, singles and the like, we are left with a mere four full-length albums (as brilliant as they are!), and it has been six long years since we have had one of those. Still, the gaps between albums makes me ever more thankful for the ones we do have, and I listen to them with regularity.

The next three slots on the countdown will feature favorite artists, obviously, but I will not be showcasing a song from their best album in the '90s. In the case of Falkner, he had two solo albums during the decade, and both of them were for Elektra. Remember when being on a major was a big deal? Anyway, 'Jason Falkner Presents Author Unknown' is power-pop perfection. I love every note. For me, a top 10 album from the '90s, but I have found it impossible to separate one song from the pack. So, I didn't. 'Can You Still Feel?' was a slick followup chock full of electronic flourishes and a less lo-fi sound. Today's pick is the standout from Falkner's second-best album in the '90s. I hope you like it, too. "To pick up where I left the story..."

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Top 100 Songs From the 1990s (No. 11)

11. "Nothing Can Stop Us"
Artist: Saint Etienne
Year: 1991

As most of you have surmised by now, I'm much more into the indie pop that Bob Stanley listened to as a kid than the dance music he would generate with Saint Etienne, if that's even the right word to describe it, but the fact that I wasn't into the genre and still loved this band is quite a testament to how good they were at their craft. For me, this is particularly true of the first two albums when they were embracing that infectious swingin' '60s sound, but I also liked a few singles in later years, especially "Hug My Soul." All of the singles spawned from 'Fox Base Alpha' could have made it here, but I went with "Nothing Can Stop Us" because this was the lovely Sarah Cracknell's coming out party. Big crush. At the same time, I don't want to undersell the Moira Lambert fronted "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." This might be the most imaginative cover of all time, and it deserves more than the passing mention I'm giving it here. I have a feeling many of you will have a different favorite from Saint Etienne, and I would love to to hear what you would have selected.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Top 100 Songs From the 1990s (No. 12)

12. "A Girl Like You"
Artist: Edwyn Collins
Year: 1994

It was Oct. 10, 1995. I had just moved to Washington, D.C., after two years in rural East Asia and was still playing catch up with all things pop culture. The television was on late that evening, nothing but background noise while I thumbed through the paper, when my ears picked this up from Conan O'Brien: "Ladies and gentlemen, my next guest is here to perform a song currently climbing the U.S. charts after enjoying huge success worldwide. His new album is called 'Gorgeous George.' It's a real pleasure to welcome Edwyn Collins."


I really had been gone a long time.

The album had come out more than a year earlier, and "A Girl Like You" had already been a smash around the world, including peaking at No. 4 in the UK nearly five months earlier. America was discovering it as a single spawned from the soundtrack to the film 'Empire Records.' Like Nick Lowe with "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," Mr. Collins finally had his song to pay the bills, and I couldn't have been happier for him. For you trivia buffs, "A Girl Like You" would make it all the way to No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The way the song was performed on TV that night didn't really prepare me for the studio version. In fact, the music was almost secondary. I remember thinking "there's no way that's Edwyn Collins on my television." Those of you in the UK may not understand this, but I had never actually seen him move before. I only knew Edwyn from stills in magazines and on album sleeves. Then I wondered if that could possibly be Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols back there on the kit. It turned out Cook played that catchy vibraphone part on the record. I also thought Collins' guitar seemed pretty hard and not all that jangly, but I thought it sounded great anyway. I bought 'Gorgeous George' the next day.

To this day, I don't think "A Girl Like You" sounds like Edwyn Collins, but I love it anyway. I liken it to Nilsson's "Jump Into the Fire." Great song, a big hit, but not much like the work that defined him. I dedicate this one to Mrs. LTL. This will be her second favorite song in my little group of 100. Her No. 1 is still about a week away...

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Top 100 Songs From the 1990s (No. 13)

13. "French Disko"
Artist: Stereolab
Year: 1993

After Komeda's Stereolab-inspired "Disko" at No. 14, did you really expect something else?

I go back to Tim Gane's '80s days with McCarthy, but I didn't immediately take to his new band with French girlfriend and McCarthy mate Lætitia Sadier when they formed in 1990. By 1993, though, Stereolab really hit its stride, and I think the addition of one of my heroes, Sean O'Hagan of the High Llamas, made the difference. I like every album, single and EP from 'Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements' through the seminal album 'Emperor Tomato Ketchup.' The 1997 album 'Dots and Loops' ain't half bad either.

The list of reasons to love Stereolab is long. Like McCarthy, I respected the band's willingness to wear its politics on its collective sleeve. Stereolab was extremely experimental and created a sound so far from what was being listened to at the time and, yet, they were able to bust onto unwelcoming Billboard charts. It seemed like they were influenced by every genre... krautrock, electronica, lounge... you name it. Well, maybe not country, but just about everything else. I thought it was cool they played vintage instruments, particularly Vox organs and Moog synths too. Like a couple of other bands on this countdown, I really took to the back-and-forth vocals of Sadier and the late Mary Hansen. Sigh. Let's not be sad. This is a celebration of the music.

There were a few songs that were thought of for this spot, including "Jenny Ondioline," "Ping Pong" and "Cybele's Reverie," but not really. The ferocious pace of "French Disko" has been and will always be tops. You can (and should!) find this song on the "Jenny Ondioline" EP or the 'Serene Velocity' anthology.