Top Ten Songs of the Mid-1990s Chicago Rock Scene
n 1993, at the height of the grunge era, hordes of journalists and record execs eager to discover the "next Seattle" alighted upon Chicago. On the strength of three rising rock acts with well-received albums—Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, and Urge Overkill—A&R; reps began combing clubs in the bohemian Wicker Park neighborhood where Phair famously resided, searching for similar alt-rock successes. In the end, few of the bands that signed to major labels at the time (Loud Lucy, Fig Dish) ignited interest nationally.
But the years that followed proved that the scene was still quite fertile. If it never served as the locus for a national trend, it may be because it was too eclectic to be marketed as a movement; it wasn't uncommon for indie, jazz, alt-country, and noise musicians to share stages and record together. It was also self-sufficient, with independent labels like Touch & Go, Thrill Jockey, Drag City, and Minty Fresh all supporting a bevy of Chicago bands.
As I was in high school in the Chicago suburbs at the time, many of the local bands that attracted notice in 1994-96 were among the first indie acts I ever heard. But I also liked some of the more popular hometown talent, too. Here, then, are ten of my favorite songs from that specific era:
10. Wilco, "Box Full of Letters" (A.M., 1995)
Before Wilco garnered thousands of rockist hosannas for the earnestly experimental Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, even before they became de facto torch-holders for Woody Guthrie's legacy, they were a pretty decent Byrdsian country-rock band. Some have speculated this song is about the rift between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, who both led Uncle Tupelo before Tweedy moved to Chicago. But ever since I first heard it on the radio, driving to my first summer job, it's always seemed like a standard-issue romantic breakup song. And a good one, too, with just the right amount of twang.
09. Smoking Popes, "Need You Around" (Born to Quit, 1995)
I'll admit, I was never into the sort of driving pop-punk Smoking Popes trafficked in, with that non-stop chugging guitar, but I was into the Smiths, and damned if Josh Caterer didn't sound like Morrissey in a Dickies shirt. The baroque yet familiar chord structure of "Need You Around," coupled with Caterer's elegant moaning, elevated this song above its suburban all-ages basement-show roots. Record execs agreed, as the album was soon re-released on Capitol and the song spotlighted on the Clueless soundtrack.
08. Motorhome, "Superstar" (Sex Vehicle, 1996)
Chicago in the mid-1990s is not where one might've expected to encounter a shoegazer revival, but Motorhome's lone recording, Sex Vehicle, channels My Bloody Valentine circa Isn't Anything as well as anyone, with "Cupid Come" in particular setting the template. Though the hour-plus record is also unfocused and bloated, songs like "Superstar," with its swirling, overdriven guitars and androgynous vocals, demonstrated why critics Jim DeRogatis and Bill Wyman, whose radio show Sound Opinions was one of my main sources of musical discovery, actively championed the band.
07. The Jesus Lizard, "Thumbscrews" (Shot, 1996)
I really wanted to include Shellac on this list, given that Steve Albini was such a figurehead of the Chicago indie scene—but I've never actually heard their landmark At Action Park, and "Wingwalker," with its sludgy, repetitive bass line and desperate, poetic bursts, was a year too soon. The Jesus Lizard, however, came from the same aggro school, packing tight wallops of noise around David Yow's unhinged, dick-shaking screams. Though a friend recently described the band as being like "body odor that's strangely compelling," I liked "Thumbscrews" mostly for the trick it shared with NIN's "March of the Pigs": the abruptly pretty breakdown between its harsh attacks.
06. Red Red Meat, "Idiot Son" (Bunny Gets Paid, 1995)
I could be wrong, but this song might have been the first audio I ever downloaded, a 30-second excerpt from the Sub Pop website in 1995. I remember at least playing that clip repeatedly, drawn to its druggy mumbling and ramshackle slide guitar, with everything buried in a swampy haze. Singer Tim Rutili is now perhaps more widely known for leading Califone, but that band's snaky, fucked-up folk-blues really started here.
05. Smashing Pumpkins, "1979" (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, 1995)
In 1995 the Pumpkins were inescapable, especially in Chicago, where every misunderstood boy at my high school sulked between classes with "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" on his Discman. But I always liked "1979" best among the Mellon Collie singles, for the same reason that "Lost in the Supermarket" is my favorite song on London Calling: it abandons the straight-ahead bombast in favor of a bittersweet pop shuffle. If it's not as overtly disco as "Supermarket," it's still tight and danceable. (Coincidentally, Liz Phair, who was queen of the class of '93 to Billy Corgan's king, engages in a similar homemade groove on her 1994 single "Whip Smart.")
04. Number One Cup, "Just Let Go" (Possum Trot Plan, 1995)
On the face of it, Number One Cup appeared to ape the lo-fi indie pop of Guided by Voices; their debut album featured 20 songs, nearly all under three minutes, brimming with hooks, and with titles that paralleled Robert Pollard's penchant for surrealism: "Strange & Silent Staircase," "Lustrous Poppies," "Seminar for Backward Pupils." But the band was also infectiously eager in a way that Pollard, then boozy and pushing 40, wasn't. "Just Let Go," with its rubber-band synth break and amiable vocal harmonies, is merely the best encapsulation of a solidly quirky record.
03. The Sea and Cake, "Jacking the Ball" (The Sea and Cake, 1994)
The Sea and Cake was, from the beginning, a side project. Sam Prekop and Eric Claridge had played in Shrimp Boat, Archer Prewitt in the Coctails, and John McEntire in Bastro and the recently formed Tortoise. Because all of those bands were famous for jumping between genres, the fact that The Sea and Cake hit upon such a consistently distinct sound was all the more remarkable. "Jacking the Ball," which over ten years later is still a staple and highlight of the band's live show, is centered on a clean, jazzy guitar riff that trades off with Prekop's slack vocals. Though they've since made better albums, few individual songs better showcase the band's breezy pop than this one.
02. Veruca Salt, "Seether" (American Thighs, 1994)
At age 15, I fantasized in my journal about what it would be like to have status: "When I get my power," I wrote, "my high-paying job wherever I want to ... when I have that car w/ tape player, I will really feel important. I will say, 'Hey, world, here I am, listen up.' And it will be some kick-ass band like Veruca Salt booming from the speakers and everyone will think I'm cool." And why not? "Seether," which is all I'd heard of the band then, is nothing but blissfully sweet crunch, and it's still one of the catchiest singles of the alt-rock era.
01. Tortoise, "Djed" (Millions Now Living Will Never Die, 1996)
Unfair, maybe, to put a 21-minute, multi-part composition at the top of this list, ahead of several dumb, fun radio singles. But also inevitable, in a way, because a) Tortoise led the post-rock wave, the one '90s trend with which Chicago would eventually become synonymous, b) despite the fact that it invites a game of spot-the-hipster-influences (Neu!, Steve Reich), I had never heard anything remotely like it at the time, and c) whatever, it's FUCKING GREAT. First off, I always just pronounce the title as "jhed" (sorta), but I've known others to say "deejayed" in recognition of the debt it owes to electronic music, as well as the fluidity of its transitions. Which I'll totally buy. I mean, the track begins with a moody bass figure surrounded by various noise effects—snoring, crunching snow, fluttering birds—and somehow proceeds into a steady Krautrock jam. This in turn evolves into several minutes of brilliantly trance-like vibraphone patterns, which then warp, as if the disc is skipping, into a feast of dubby ambient sound. As an album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die unfortunately suffers from the shadow "Djed" casts over the rest of the tracks, some of which feel like sketches. But it's hard to complain too much when the opening statement is so perfect.
By: John M. Cunningham
Published on: 2005-06-03