Best tunes of 1992: #21 Sugar “Helpless”

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I never got into Hüsker Dü.

I can almost hear the sound of thousands of eyebrows raising out there but the truth is, I’ve never even sat down to listen to them.

I am well aware that they are highly influential in alternative rock music and that I quite possibly could find plenty of tunes that I would enjoy within their nine year, six album career. However, Hüsker Dü had already broken up quite acrimoniously by the time my musical tastes had a found a proper home in the alternative rock world in the very early 1990s and with no new music to slog on the alternative radio or music video shows, they didn’t immediately come across my path. By the time I heard tell of them, years later, there was always other new music to occupy to my time and took precedence.

One of the founding members of that band, Bob Mould, however, has not escaped my notice. After Hüsker Dü ended, Mould released a couple of solo albums, both of which saw middling success and to neither of which I have listened. Then, in 1992, Mould formed a new band with bassist David Barbe and drummer Malcom Travis and that same year, this trio, Sugar, released their debut album “Copper blue”. This is where our story begins.

When I first heard the third single off this album, “Helpless”, I knew nothing of Mould or Hüsker Dü or any other context. I just heard this hard hitting beast of a song. It was loud and brash and super confident. The guitars were noisy but still melodic and the drums seesawed between rata-tat-tat gunfire and metronomic syncopation. And there’s Mould singing with by now quite recognizable sneering but calm vocals, not quite buried in the mix but not obviously prevalent either. Indeed, he feels here like just another layer of guitars that anyone can sing along with, more as a hum than outright lambast.

A great tune, a great single, and really, it was just one of many great ones released off an amazing debut. But when I saw him perform solo a bunch of years ago, this was the one that had my fists pumping when I first heard those introductory riffs reverberating in the hot summer sun.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1992 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2011: #22 R.E.M. “ÜBerlin”

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A couple of days ago I posted a tune from the era that is arguably R.E.M.’s apex for my Best tunes of 1991 list and today I present my favourite tune from the end of their career. “ÜBerlin” was the third single released off the American alternative rock band’s fifteenth and final album, “Collapse into now”. And yeah, it’s awesome.

R.E.M. had just come off one of their most successful albums in years, 2008’s “Accelerate”, and during the tour in support of it, all three members had independently decided that it was time to go out on a high note. With this in mind, they recorded their last album, knowing that these sessions would be the last time they would perform together. Then, they broke up officially, six months after its release. There are apparently hints throughout the record that this would be it but if the clues are there, I never heard them. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t want to hear them. I remember first listening to “Collapse into now” and falling for it, much like I did “Accelerate”, and thinking “They’re back”. I had lost interest in the band in the 2000s, feeling that they had stopped challenging themselves, though I am sure that’s not the case. Regardless, I didn’t hear a lot to be excited about on those years. So imagine my disappointment when I learned R.E.M. were done after being lured in by them all over again.

As I mentioned above, “ÜBerlin” was not just my favourite on the album but likely my favourite of their tunes for a decade or so. It’s because it feels so personal. Peter Buck’s acoustic strum and pluck is pushed forward in the mix, closely shadowed by Mike Mills’ bass, the tricky-tack drum beat and organs just add ambience. It’s a crowded coffee house, mugs are clinking and baristas are busy steaming milk but Stipe is there, in the corner with his stool, and his band in the shadows. It’s German noir, black and white, save for a red technicolor balloon. And this is hope. A hope that everything will be okay in the absence of R.E.M.

Five years later and I’m still not so sure but at least we have a recording like this to soothe us.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2011 list, click here.