Pains me to admit it, now that I’m in my thirties and all, but for a time I thought the record store nerds from High Fidelity were the illest motherfuckers on the planet. It doesn’t take much to impress a fourteen-year-old, but if you think about it, these guys – a trio of aging gen-Xers played by John Cusack, Jack Black, and Todd Louiso – are actually pretty amazing. Not only do they get to talk about music all day, but they somehow manage to afford beers and cigarettes and cool Chicago apartments on record store salaries. And this is back in 2000, well before records got cool again (a weird phenomenon likely caused by this very movie). I mean, what fucking planet is this movie from?
So yeah, I idolized these floundering doofuses like they were goddamn guitar gods. Which is probably why I still have the emotional maturity of a teenager. It’s also why I’m a sucker for a good list.
LISTS!!! What elegantly structured forums in which to flaunt one’s surpassing knowledge and superior taste! The Hi Fi dudes sit around when no one’s in the store and share personal top-5 lists re: pop minutae, begging the question: Why isn’t everybody doing this, all the time?
Sure, there’s not much to be gained, necessarily, by listing one’s personal top five Monkees tracks or whatever (and where do you even begin???) but there are worse ways for humans to get to know each other. You can tell a lot about a bloke by learning that he prefers Rubber Soul to Revolver. (He likes acoustic shit, for one thing. And he probably doesn’t smoke a lot of drugs, the pussy.) And there are certainly worse ways to waste time. Some of the best conversations of my life have been shit-shoots about rock music or films or ’90s nostalgia. If only those conversations had been conducted in list form!
Sadly, though, people get sick of you right quick if you go around shouting your top five favorite songs about the male anatomy (“Excuse me, sir! Do you prefer ‘Love Gun’ to ‘Big Ten Inch Record’? The people demand answers!”) which means that obsessive-compulsive headphone junkies like me are scarcely tolerated in polite society. Luckily God created the internet, so here I am. I’m going to make lists and post them right here. Maybe once a week, maybe a few times. Regularly. I mean, unless I forget or don’t feel like it. But Angela always says I’m great at wasting time, so let’s put that hypothesis to the test.
And why not start with a category tooken straight from those losers at Championship Vinyl? Something like halfway into the movie, Rob (the incomparable Johnny Cusacks) lists his top five “side ones, tracks ones” – as in, top five leadoff album tracks. This is a good balance between a turbo-nerd category and something a little more accessible. There are hits in the mix – Rob names “Smells Like Teen Spirit” offa Nevermind, I’d second with “Sympathy for the Devil” offa Beggars Banquet – but you also get to show off your album knowledge, which means you care about the album format, which means CONGRATULATIONS!!! You’re a true blue dork!
I’m not going to rank these lists, at least not this one. Ranking is the officious cousin of listing, always prioritizing and de-prioritizing lists in a manner that can’t help but bend toward the arbitrary. “Teenage Riot” and “Whole Lotta Love” are both leadoff tracks, but the similarity pretty much ends there. To say that one is, I dunno, fifth best while the other is fourth best is to assume they occupy the same aesthetic real estate, which is bonkers. And anyway, “Teenage Riot” is better, and only your alcoholic uncle disagrees.
Speaking of disagreements, it should go without saying but I’ll say it anyway: This is my list. These are all my lists. You wanna drop a comment complaining that I left out “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (which I did) that’s totally cool, but don’t be a dick about it, you know? (Or be a dick about it; it’s the internet after all.) You can totally make your own list and it’ll be perfect because it’ll be yours. Except it’ll suck, because it’s not mine.
Anyway, fuck! Enough of this introductory pig vomit. The list!
The Replacements – “I.O.U.” from Pleased to Meet Me
Only these Minnewegian freaks could take the oldest rock riff in the book and amp it up to bonecrusher status. This album boasts ‘Mats classics like “Alex Chilton” and “Can’t Hardly Wait,” but it’d be thin water indeed without the punishing fury of “I.O.U.” to kick it off. Rob from High Fidelity started his list with “Janie Jones,” track one off the Clash’s self-titled debut. “I.O.U.” is that song all grown up and mainlined full of Budweiser and Adderall. The song rips along with such relish that it doesn’t even have time for a proper chorus. There’s no chorus! Instead they trade that shit for a massive chant-along coda at the end: I WANT IT IN WRITING, I OWE YOU NUTHIIINN!!!! If any frontman ever sang in all caps it was Paul Goddamn Westerberg, and when he’s got something to say he fucking COMMANDS that flimsy attention of yours.
Green Day – “Burnout” from Dookie
Speaking of fierce, in-yr-face statements of purpose, you could do a lot worse than the opening track on Green Day’s 1994 classic for the greatest opening line of all time: “I DECLARE I DON’T CARE NO MORE!” So universal, yet so utterly necessary. And for those of us who were both too young and too far above ground to have heard the band’s early Lookout Records catalog, Billie Joe’s snotty timbre and aggressive cadence were revelatory. Billie taught us how to be pissy about nothing in particular, and to reject the monotony and colorlessness of youth. (Which continues to help in rejecting the monotony and colorlessness of adulthood.) He knew the difference between growing up and burning out, that the former often felt impossible while the latter was impossible to avoid. Sometimes rage is the only reaction to festering apathy that makes any damn sense. For all its awesomeness, “Burnout” isn’t very different from “I.O.U.” in terms of tempo, attitude, etc., but fast and ferocious is what I want from an album opener, and I don’t think I’m alone. I mean listen to this fucking song. Those snare triplets tell the whole story of my adolescence. Call it nostalgia if you will, but listen.
Taylor Swift – “State of Grace” from Red
A sly declaration of new classic status, slipped into a list of old safe ones. Very PUSSY!! Okay, Barry, but hear me out. First of all, if you don’t think T-Swift is “safe” then you need to tighten up your definition of what constitutes danger. Second, pop this track on and I defy you not to be enraptured. Unlike its listmates, Swift’s song builds slowly – an unusual choice for a pop star of Tay-Tay’s enormity. First come the hard-chugging drums, so present in the mix they could’ve been laid down by Tre Cool himself; then twin electric guitars, lapping each other up like a pair of Peter Bucks on shore leave. Swift’s voice doesn’t appear until 38 seconds in. She knows you’ll wait for her, not just because she’s human divinity but because the tune is straight seductive. If the rule here is that the first song on the album should feel like a bright new beginning, send all the trophies to Taylor’s place. When she speeds up the vocal in the last verse, you know you’re in for something; when the band slams on an out-of-nowhere minor chord in the second-to-last chorus, you know it’s fucking special.
The Beatles – “Back in the U.S.S.R.” from the White Album
UGH NO! My first list out of the box and I’ve already broken my own rule! To grant the Beatles a victory lap in any conversation about music is beyond redundant, I know. But at the same time we can’t ignore the stacked lineup of leadoff hitters on the Beatle bench: “I Saw Her Standing There,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help!,” “Drive My Car,” “Taxman,” “Come Together” – and those are just the really obvious ones. But in the idiom of album-starters, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” stands on its own. The record begins with a literal takeoff, the pressurized hiss of a jet airliner in flight cluing us in to the mood ahead. There’s no subtlety here, just goofy ecstasy and a rock record made for air guitar. Singing about Ukraine girls like they was California girls must’ve given the lads quite a giggle, but that’s the thing about them Beatles: even when they were just screwing around they were transcendent. That it bleeds right into the unironically gorgeous “Dear Prudence” just shows the brassiness of those Liverpudlians’ balls. Rock’s never rocked harder, and no band has yet matched the Fabs’ magical cockiness.
13th Floor Elevators – “You’re Gonna Miss Me” from The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators
And how can we forget THE SONG THAT BEGINS HIGH FIDELITY??? It’s entirely possible that my love affair with this movie can be explained by the fuzzy quartet of chords that opens “You’re Gonna Miss Me” by druggy curiosities the 13th Floor Elevators. The song opens High Fidelity over footage of a record spinning on a turntable; cut to a headphone cord (the curly kind, natch) sticking out of a stereo; cut to our hero, miserable fuck extraordinaire Rob Gordon, who’s finna wax psychoanalytical re: pop music’s dual role as cause of and solution to all his dogged adolescent anxieties. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” also opens the excellent High Fidelity soundtrack, as well as the ‘Vators debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators – which, in full disclosure, I’ve never actually listened to. I don’t need to hear the rest of it to justify my love for this monstrous ass kick of a rock song. Stacy Sutherland plays the crunchiest guitar known to history. Roky Erickson’s screaming melts serious face. For those of us for whom garage rock is the only kind of rock, this is side one, track one of the soundtrack of life itself. And what extraordinary noise it is.