We all have them, those songs we love that nobody else has a clue about.
We tell our friends, and they promise they’ll give them a listen. They never do, do they?
In the old days you may have even called your local radio station to request them and gotten laughed at as the DJ spun “Sweet Home Alabama” for the eleventy-billionth time.
But still you soldier on. The years pass, the list grows, and your grudge against humanity glows hot.
You are, clearly, too smart for the room. Your ear is so refined it hears tones beyond the normal human spectrum. It’s the only explanation, because these songs are so good it’s a crime that the world (or, at least, the circle of friends you’ve been annoying since “Pass the Dutchie”) doesn’t know them.
This list is unassailable and cannot be improved in any way, though you’re certainly welcome to try. It’s limited to 14 only by my editor’s insistence I keep this piece under 25,000 words.
They are listed in no particular order as all are awesome and ranking one above another would be unseemly. Think of them in a circle. Now, prepare to have your life vastly improved 3-4 minute increments.
(You can thank me in the comments.)
“Always the Last to Know” -- Del Amitri
“Kiss This Thing Goodbye” -- Del Amitri
How Del Amitri never achieved massive fame in America is beyond me. Sure, “Roll to Me” was a top 40 hit (that the author may have sung several hundred times with his band), but it was far from the group’s best song.
You could argue that the ’90s were still a tough time for European bands (Del Amitri are a Scottish outfit) to break big in the colonies. That feels like a cheat. Maybe their sound was too multifaceted to pigeonhole in an era when top 40 radio still held sway?
I mean, there’s some blues in there, some majestic pop, and tricky vocals with simple but devastating harmonies. Whatever the reason, at a time when Green Day, Counting Crows and Alanis Morissette were dominating the charts, these guys got lost in the shuffle.
It’s a shame.
I’d put these two against the best Steely Dan and feel pretty okay about it. Bold words, and true.
She’s So Young- The Pursuit of Happiness
When the Sky Comes Falling Down- The Pursuit of Happiness
It’s a little easier to understand why The Pursuit of Happiness never found fame in the U.S.. First, they’re Canadian, and we’ve long had a hostile musical relationship with our neighbors to the north. (Bryan Adams? Glass Tiger? Acts of war.)
Second, the lead singer is named Moe, and the only Moe we recognize here is a Stooge or a bartender. So, nice try, Canada. But there is no denying the catchiness (Happiness?) of these two tracks.
I discovered these songs by chance. A friend borrowed my boom box, left a mixtape in it, and these were the first two songs on it.
For younger readers, “mixtapes” were cassette compilations of songs by different artists cobbled to fit a mood, usually love and heartbreak, not an attempt to break into rap.
I was immediately obsessed. Problem was, the only clue I had was “TPOH” written on the cassette liner. TPOH? What’s a TPOH? It was 1990, there was no Internet. So I scoured every record store in the Pittsburgh area (where I went to college for 15 minutes) until I found one that was able to calm my fevered rantings.
The clouds parted, angels descended, symphonies played! I bought the CD, rushed back to my dorm to listen to it and … it was just OK. The album had a couple of other decent tunes, but nothing else as fantastic as these two.
And if they sound a little Todd Rundgren-y, it’s because Rundgren produced the album. Pretty sweet, eh?
Anything Can Happen- Was (Not Was)
The producing team turned duo left a lasting imprint on the ’80s with “Walk the Dinosaur.” It’s an undeniably terrible song that somehow became a smash among the pheromone-drenched teens in parachute pants set.
The song gave us the immortal lyric, “Boom boom acka lacka lacka boom! Boom boom acka lacka boom boom!” Move over, Bob Dylan!
Maybe the band wasn’t shooting for “Tangled Up in Blue” levels of lyrical complexity. Still, it’s a terrible song. Which is what makes it so confounding that they followed it with this under-heard gem, day and night presented in musical form.
“Anything Can Happen” is what Prince (the silly lyrics) might have written after a weekend hanging out with Chicago (the impeccable song structure). It’s a little weird, and I love it. Still have the cassingle in a trunk somewhere. (For our younger readers, a “cassingle” is a “cassette” with a “single” song on it.)
That’s Just What You Are -- Aimee Mann
Aimee Mann, darling of the indie music scene for going on four decades, has always crafted a good song. That started with what is probably still her biggest hit, “Voices Carry” about a verbally abusive beau from her band ‘Til Tuesday.
This song is kind of “Voices Carry II: The Adult Years,” except it’s about a million times better. From the “1… 2…” count-in to the last interweaving harmonies on the fade out, it’s a perfect song.
Not only is the tunecraft sublime, the lyrics are just great, deftly portraying the end of a long-term relationship.
In my previous column about being a singer in a cover band, I talked about my brother and I starting a band that only played cool songs. This one was at the top of that list (also sung beautifully by my then-girlfriend who is my now-wife who may have sung it a little better than Mann, but I’m biased). It’s a song I’ve loved for 20 years and now I hope you do, too.
Trivia: Mann is married to fellow indie rocker Michael Penn, brother of Sean, and singer of “No Myth,” a ’90s alternative smash.
“Here’s Where the Story Ends” -- The Sundays
Straight from The Cure playbook of being imminently hummable while also making you sad for some reason, this song never ceases to move me some 30 years later. Lyrics that reveal and revel in the slow pain of growing older, ringing vocals that haunt as they work their way into your soul, and a catchy beat you can dance to!
Not much became of The Sundays after this song, the flag they planted in the heart of every MTV 120 Minutes viewer, and that’s okay. This track is more than enough.
“Up the Junction” -- Squeeze
“Some Fantastic Place” -- Squeeze
“Cradle to the Grave” -- Squeeze
It’s my list, and if I want to include three songs from the world’s most criminally underrated band then, I’m going to do it!
These tracks encompass their tenure as the greatest band nobody knows (but that a few love passionately), and though “Up the Junction” is one of their “hits”, it’s probably been 20 years since you’ve listened to it. A perfect Squeeze song, it tells the tale of a work-a-day Joe just trying to do right by his girl before “the drinkin’ became a proper stingin’.”
(I don’t know what a “stingin’” is, I just assume it’s one of those British terms I don’t get, like “torch” or “flat” or “Brexit”.)
“Some Fantastic Place,” if you ask Squeeze, is the best Squeeze song, and it’s hard to argue. Paul Carrack (the best pop vocalist of all time?) rejoins them for this 1993 record and you can feel his presence all over the track on vocals and organ. Just… Difford, Tilbrook, Carrack… how were they never the biggest band in the world?
“Some Fantastic Place” was written as a memorial to the woman Glenn Tilbrook once dated, a woman who twisted his arm until he took that flyer from the local record shop from that band looking for a guitarist. That “band” was Chris Difford.
If this one doesn’t punch you in the gut I’m afraid you may not be human.
“Cradle to the Grave” (the theme song of a BBC sitcom of the same name) makes a nice bookend here, a late career stand out that ranks with their best tunes.
It’s got everything that makes a Squeeze song great; a tap-your-foot beat, jaunty guitar and keys, Tilbrook’s still-supple lead vocals (with Difford right underneath, as ever) and lyrics that bite as they soothe. An instant classic.
Legend has it that the lads shared a flat for three years, Difford would leave a sheet of lyrics on the kitchen table before work and Tilbrook would write a new song to them when he got home. A song a day. For three years. And they were probably all great.
“Don’t Disturb This Groove” -- The System
A good faith Google search tells us… not a lot about this band. The System just kind of came and went. But before they did they dropped this beauty on us, and we never had time to thank them for it.
Clocked many a mile listening to this jam in my ‘78 Chevette, windows down, on the way to a party or ball game.
“Leave” -- R.E.M.
R.E.M. are probably the greatest rock band America has ever produced, and I will go toe-to-toe with anyone who says otherwise. Not only did they produce several albums worth of stone cold classics, they were a foundational band in the American alternative movement, back when “alternative” was code for “good.”
I’d been vaguely aware of R.E.M. throughout the ’80s; who doesn’t know “It’s The End of the World As We Know It”? (Off-Topic: Sang “End of the World” in a band, pre-Internet, figured out the lyrics by listening to the tape three seconds at a time, 3,000 times, got a computer and found out I was about 30 percent right, which I feel like is pretty good.)
It was college (where else?) where I became a true fan, thanks to a dorm mate who was a dedicated DiStiple. I was working through their early catalogue when the video for “Losing My Religion” debuted and I was blown away.
I now loved these weird guys from Athens. I got the T-shirts. Bought the albums. Acquired the bootlegs. “Out of Time” made them global superstars. “Automatic for the People” might be the best album ever recorded. All was well and right.
I hated this album so much it made me stop buying R.E.M. records. A 3,000 percent over-correction to their mandolin era. Just terrible.
Then a funny thing happened. I sort of became the Cape May Tribute Guy, with outfits that covered The Beatles, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and Prince. Next on my Mt. Rushmore? R.E.M.
Except I (like most of the country) hadn’t listened to any R.E.M. since “Monster.” So I did a deep dive on the stuff I’d missed since 1994 and was thunderstruck at how many great R.E.M. songs I’d missed and this made me really mad. At myself.
Among them is this one, my new favorite R.E.M. song (supplanting the brilliant “World Leader Pretend” which maybe should possibly be on this list). The acoustic, baroque opening, the electro-fied body, Michael Stipe’s cryptic vocals. Hypnotic.
It may take a few listens, but this one will grow on you. Trust me.
Sweethearts- Camper Van Beethoven
Borderline- Camper Van Beethoven
The same college roomie who got me into R.E.M. also introduced me to this band. All I really know about these guys is that the singer went on to have a few modest hits with Cracker, but this album, “Key Lime Pie,” has been in my CD rotation since 1990.
It’s full of great songs, including an exquisite cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” but these two are the best.
“Sweethearts” is a melancholic joy. The lyrics are R.E.M.-level nonsensical (and the Ronald Reagan reference was already dated in 1990), but it’s a flat-out perfect song that makes a strong case for adding fiddle to everything.
“Borderline” is a scorcher with a clearer political message (something-something-borders are bad… can you believe people have been bitching about the border since 1990?) and a wonderful harmonica spine.
Yes, it’s a leftist parable, but that beat! I wish all left wing entertainment was this good. Unfortunately, most of it is “Designated Survivor” Season three levels of awful.
Make Leftist Parables Great Again!
Terry O’Brien is a resident of Cape May, NJ who writes utter nonsense for Exit Zero magazine and clearly has fantastic taste in music produced between 1983-1996. His short story collection, “Murder-Oke!: And Other Spooky Cape May Tales,” is not very good, but it is affordable.