Best tunes of 2000: #7 Teenage Fanclub “I need direction”

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Creeping ever closer to the number one song on my Best tunes of 2000 list, we have, at number seven, Teenage Fanclub”s “I need direction”.

Teenage Fanclub is a criminally overlooked, alternative rock band that formed in Scotland in 1989. They were for many years a guitar heavy quartet, made up of Norman Blake, Gerard Love, Raymond McGinley, and a revolving door of drummers (finally settling on Francis MacDonald), but in recent years, have added a fifth member, Dave McGowan, on keys. Over the course of ten albums, their sound has evolved from its basis in loud, anarchic, and distorted guitars to the jangly beauty it is today, deeply rooted in their love for Big Star and the sweet sounds of harmonizing vocals. Songwriting duties are shared evenly between the band’s three principal guitarists and each take lead vocals on the songs they wrote, with all of the members adding their backing vocals to the mix.

I got into Teenage Fanclub originally in 1991 with that year’s excellent long player, “Bandwagonesque”, and have been following them closely ever since. In fact, “Howdy!”, the 2000 album on which “I need direction” appears, is their first album since “Bandwagonesque” that I didn’t purchase immediately on compact disc. Not because I stopped loving the group, mind you. It just so happened that around this time there was a little thing called Napster and the explosion and proliferation of file sharing. I admit to being pulled in. Mostly every crazed music fan salivated at the thought of limitless “free” music. Online file sharing and the MP3 changed everything for music, the music industry, and music fans (perhaps more on that another time). In 2000, however, my internet came courtesy of a dialup connection so though it was “free”, the downloads were slow. One had to be more choosy than we were in later years when high speeds became the norm. I had a copy of the single, “I need direction”, and grew to love it long before I ever purchased and listened to the rest of “Howdy!”.

And maybe it’s for this reason that I still see this song as the standout track on the album. The Gerard Love penned and helmed number is boppy with jangly guitars and sweet, almost to the point of cheese, “ba ba ba ba” harmonies that flit in and about the chorus. If you’re not with me so far, have a taste of that zippy organ Doors-esque bridge around the 2:43 mark that leads to some lovely dark guitar lickage. Sold, no?

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.


Best tunes of 1990: #21 Concrete Blonde “Joey”

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The cassette single, or “cassingle”, was the magnetic cassette tape equivalent to the vinyl 45, the format it was meant to replace back in the mid to late 80s and into the 90s. However, it never did gain the traction that the record companies had hoped it would. And why would it, really? A cassette with a song on each side, or in some cases, both songs repeated on both sides, packaged in a flimsy cardboard sleeve. It was hardly worth shelling out the dough and definitely not worth inserting into your Sony Sports Walkman if you made the miscalculation of purchasing it. Nonetheless, anyone who listened to music back in those days likely remembers having one or two cassingles in their collection and indeed, I’m sure some of you even still have one or two of these relics gathering dust somewheres.

I definitely had one or two at the time and remember exchanging and sharing these two song wonders between friends. I mention this long defunct format today because the first time I ever heard Concrete Blonde’s “Joey” was when a girl I was “seeing” for a very brief time in high school loaned me her copy of the cassette single. And also, the very fact that this song was released in this format illustrates that it enjoyed a modest modicum of commercial success, one the few songs by the band that did.

Concrete Blonde was an American alternative rock band led by the intense vocals of Johnette Napolitano and whose name was suggested to the band by friend and fellow IRS labelmate Michael Stipe. In their early days, the band played to an almost exclusive college radio crowd, right up until the release of “Bloodletting”, which exposed them to wider commercial audience, mostly thanks to this track, “Joey”. The interesting thing is that this is the album that saw the band move away from their more pedestrian, hard rock roots towards a darker, more gothic rock sound.

“Joey” was the final track recorded for the album because the lyrics were emotionally difficult for Napolitano to lay down. She has since confirmed early suspicions that the song is about an alcoholic (a stretch, I know), and specifically, about her relationship with Wall of Voodoo guitarist, Marc Moreland. Even without knowing any of this, you can hear the pain in Napolitano’s voice as it flips between the soothing and sad verses to the rage and the pleading in her chorus.

But if I seem to be confused
I didn’t mean to be with you.
And when you said I scared you
Well, I guess you scared me too.

The song is quite beautiful in its melancholy, and not just in the lyrics and the way she sings them, but also in the solemnity of the simple drum line and fills and the aching guitar solos. This is a song that I’ve played on repeat numerous times in the past and have also done a few times this week. Enjoy.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.


Best tunes of 1990: #22 Bad Religion “21st century (digital boy)”

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I’m sure a great many of you know and love this Bad Religion track. But did you know that it was originally released in 1990, as part of their fifth studio album “Against the grain”? And that it was only released as a single in 1994 after being re-recorded for their first major label album “Stranger than fiction”? I certainly didn’t know all of this back in ’94 when I was busy getting hooked on the song through regular airplay on Toronto’s CFNY. But it’s all true.

“21st century (digital boy)” was written by guitarist Brent Gurewitz and this fine American punk rock band had been performing it during their legendary live sets as early as 1989, the tune becoming a fan favourite in the process. Depending on who you believe, the song was re-recorded for “Stranger than fiction” either because Gurewitz felt that the band was performing it better in 1994 than when it was originally recorded or because their new label, Atlantic, wanted a single for the album that wasn’t yet there. Regardless, the song did become Bad Religion’s biggest hit and their most easily identifiable track.

By the time that I sat down to put together this list, I was more familiar with the history of the track and I momentarily hesitated to include it. Should it be considered a 1990 track because that was when it was originally written? Or does it belong with the best of 1994 because the re-recorded version is the one that everyone (including me) knows and is more familiar with? In the end, it obviously found a place in this series because it’s too great a track not to rave about, right here and right now. (I’ve got both versions below so that you can enjoy the version of your choice.)

Bad Religion has been a going concern since 1979 with a fluid roster whose only static member has been lead vocalist Greg Gaffin. The band toiled in the punk underground for years but started to gain traction in the late 80s and amassed a following on the back of their electrifying live shows. It was here they attracted the attention of the majors and signed with Atlantic during the gold rush of alt-rock band label signings post-Nirvana. The aforementioned “Stranger than fiction” long player is their best selling album, attaining gold status in both Canada and the US, and featuring a number of fan favourites, including this one and the thundering title track. The band is still quite active, touring with Pennywise and The Offspring as recently as 2014.

“21st century (digital boy)”, like many of Bad Religion’s tracks, has plenty of raging guitars, hammering percussion and angry sounding, three-pronged vocals. With its apparent diss at all things technological and commercial, and all the toys that we can dream of, it is as relevant today as it was twenty five years ago. And yes, I smile knowingly at this as I listen to this track and jot down these very ideas on my Apple iPad.

Original version from 1990’s “Against the grain”:

Re-recorded version from 1994 (including a music video):

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.