01. "Sick Of Goodbyes" - Sparklehorse – Mark Linkous, he of Sparklehorse, defines weirdness, even on songs like this, a cover of a Cracker song. Battling illnesses, putting out strange records and stranger EPs, and being a bit reclusive, one could see Linkous as a mad genius. Either way, he had a knack for writing a melody, and his weird outlook and strange lyrics never got in the way of a great song.
02. "Catching On" - Son Volt – Rising from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo, the band largely credited with creating No Depression/Alternative Country (whatever that means), Son Volt was primary Uncle writer Jay Farrar’s next band. Picking up where he left off in UT, Farrar and Son Volt crafted warm tales of life on the road and life in the boring-ass Midwest. A perfect mixture of rock, country and blues, Farrar’s music came to life under the expert musicianship of the Boquist brothers. Whereas Farrar’s partner in crime in UT, Jeff Tweedy, would go on to be a critic’s darling while Farrar stayed the course, didn’t sell out, and came closest to capturing real true-blue cosmic American music.
03. "Blue" - The Jayhawks – The Jayhawks were my first foray into Alternative Country (whatever that is). If I remember correctly, this album (Tomorrow The Green Grass) was bought at Borders, in the bargain bin, one of those discs with the “Best Value!” stickers on it. I am almost certain that I had this in high school, though I am not sure how I would’ve got connected to this kind of music back then. Regardless, this song is great. The vocal harmonies alone are enough to break your heart into a million pieces. That is reason enough alone for me to listen.
04. "Fall On Me" - R.E.M. – I was obsessed with R.E.M. in college. They epitomized college rock – they literally were college rock, the very definition of college rock. Though they would achieve worldwide fame and break into the mainstream, the band still had a solid following in the indie-rock world, and I became a huge fan of the band. We still spun R.E.M. vinyl at the studio, which was good, since we have crates of it. I always found this song sad but not in a terrible way. It’s very resigned and beautiful, and it really captures R.E.M. at their early creative peak.
05. "Can't Stand It" - Wilco – Jeff Tweedy was shocked when Jay Farrar left Uncle Tupelo, and he and the remaining members – who, at the point, were record company appointed studio musicians – picked up the pieces and formed Wilco. As Uncle Tupelo was about to gain more than a small degree of notoriety, Farrar took off with Son Volt to stick with the roots rock tradition. Tweedy and Wilco would eventually go on to sell out and become utter corporate rock whores (it’s true and you know it). But for a few albums, the eased their way away from Alternative Country (whatever that is) and towards being the record company’s bitches and total rock and roll tragedy stories, complete with the drugs and failed relationships. Before their epic face-plant/total hosejob/career defining and critic’s darling work Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they actually committed the last good music of their career to tape on their third album, Summerteeth. This was thanks in no small part to the late Jay Bennett (r.i.p.), who took the band from being also-rans to near superstars. “Can’t Stand It” is an epic, reaching, grand-sweeping track. It also stands as the last great song Wilco would do, before completely putting their mouths of the cocks of critics everywhere and selling out faster than an American Idol contestant. God, I hate this band. But dammit… I really, really love this song.
06. "I Only Play 4 Money" - The Frogs – It wouldn’t be college rock without humor, and bands like the Frogs brought humor in spades. These brothers – rumored to be gay and sexually involved with each other – spun tales of rape, sex in the park with geriatrics, bondage with sailors, and their grandparents’ genitals. If you couldn’t laugh at them, you were most likely disgusted. Otherwise, though, they could write a melody, and not all of the songs were so gross as to be unenjoyable. Take this tasty track – alliteration aside – and really realize that rock and roll was made to have a sense of humor. This is like Spinal Tap, only these amps go past eleven.
07. "Advice to Aces" - Songs: Ohia – I found Songs: Ohia right where I should have, in the Locals section of the studio. On the Bloomington-based Secretly Canadian records, Songs: Ohia, really just a name for Jason Molina, told bleak tales of Midwestern woe and eerie stories of living in the tip of the conservative bible belt. A true working-class hero kind of band. Molina could switch from acoustic to electric pretty quickly. Some records were sparse and very open, while others were dense organ-drenched affairs. Above all, though, they were good. This quick song captures the typical, one voice and guitar structure of so many of Molina’s songs, and is as good as any place to start appreciating a truly unrecognized Midwestern talent’s work.
08. "Slate" - Uncle Tupelo – This captures the true beauty of the No Depression movement – the loneliness and ache, the fire and defiance. Uncle Tupelo was a herald of great things to come. They melded ripping guitars and punk energy with country’s lyrical content and working class values. Though none of the songs on this disc showcase the louder side of Tupelo, the band broke ground. Then, once they amped things up, they turned things down and went acoustic. Along the way, they recorded some of the best batch of Americana music you’ll ever here. This is simply a primer song, one of their greatest and yet just a window into the soul and sound of a fantastic American band. Everything – from the harmonies to the traditional instruments to the strange lyrics that just sound right – is perfect here. This would be their swan song, but what a song it is.
09. "Glory & Consequence" - Ben Harper – Harper wasn’t quite the well-known artist he would become yet when he released the album The Will To Live. A songwriter who could capture rage and anger in the same breath as love and wanting, and convey them both back at you in equal parts, Harper’s songwriting is strong throughout this album, and peaks with “Glory & Consequence,” which also captures one of his most scorching guitar solos, a truly breathtaking piece of work that reaches for the stars and actually gets there.
10. "Goodbye" - The New Amsterdams – Matt Pryor didn’t quit his day job as the frontman for the Get Up Kids when he made his first album under the name of the New Amsterdams. But, he almost could have, as good as the record was. You can see the similarities between the two bands – same voice, same songwriting – but the quieter, reflective material here lends itself well to the acoustic and personal nature of the whole project. And the New Amsterdams are, to this day, my preferred of the singer’s projects.
11. "Sweeter" = Julie Doiron and Wooden Stars – This track was one of those miracle discoveries – walking through the studio library, I was pulling out records I thought looked like they might be fun to play. I wasn’t prepared for the gulf of emotions in this song – nor the harmonic contrast between the two singers. “Sweeter” is possibly the greatest sad love song ever written. It somehow perfectly captures the feeling of being paralyzed when you bump into an ex-lover that you are still madly in love with. The bittersweetness, the hurt and hopelessness, the gripping, cold fear in your heart, and the melancholy joy of seeing your loved one again… it’s all right here.
12. "The Black Crow" - Songs: Ohia – Dark, lonely, epic. Before Jason Molina went full Alternative Country (whatever that is)/Americana on us, he was mining coal out of the Appalachia Valley hills. Cold is color in his world. Desperation is a fragrance. There is barely warmth enough to keep the bones from freezing, barely light enough to keep the wolves away during this song. But the ride it takes you on is well forth the feeling you go through along the way.
13. "Jagged" - Old 97's – As ragged as Neil Young and as tuneful as R.E.M., the Old 97’s mixed grit and swagger with their melodic country rock. The band knew how to write a hook, and that was the stock they dealt in throughout their career. They were a great solid favorite of the second wave of Alternative Country (whatever that is). Rhett Miller, lead singer and primary songwriter, has gone on to have a mildly successful solo career on pop/AOR radio (“Come Around” is one of the best songs you’ve heard but can’t remember where or why).
14. "Ten Second News" - Son Volt – Son Volt’s first album, Trace, was the perfect marriage of country and folk acoustics with classic southern rock’s electric sound. But it was on “Ten Second News” that the band broke new sonic ground – the kind that bands like Califone, Red House Painters, and others would go on to perfect in the years prior. Jay Farrar found ways to wrap his abstract tales around piercingly deep, spacious and simple grooves that get lodged in the head. His knack for real lyrical imagery is fairly unmatched in music today, popular or otherwise. He can tell you a story that you don’t understand, but it won’t matter, because the depth and feeling of his lyrics delivered by his emotive and plaintive voice is enough to keep you listening, over and over again.
15. "Black Eye" - Uncle Tupelo – If I am at all honest, I must admit that it is this song, sung by Jeff Tweedy, that introduced me to the No Depression sound and movement, and helped me discover the fertile fields of Alternative Country (whatever that is). This achingly simple song is so good, so sweet. So plain, yet it conveys a depth of emotion (sadly lacking from the majority of Wilco’s later work). It’s youthful and earnest, to it’s very core… and as like as good an introduction to the world beneath your local country radio’s airwaves as any. Uncle Tupelo proved time and time again that great country music doesn’t have to be made in Nashville, TN, nor does it belong to it.
16. "Dry The Rain" - The Beta Band – Movies play a large role in music, and vice versa. It was the movie High Fidelity that introduced this song to my musical vocabulary (via the famous “I will now sell 5 copies of the Beta Band EP by The Beta Band” scene). This song captures the folk-tronic movement before it even began. The Beta Band were doing this kind of folk rock mixed with electronic beats long before the latest craze of bands in Britain and the States were. And, quite frankly, they did it better. The original is usually better than the imitators, and so… folk-bop away, intrepid listeners.
17. "Carlisle Wall" - Alisdair Roberts and Jason Molina – There is something breathtaking about this simple song. Irish folk, done to perfection, in my eyes. Ali Roberts not only played with band Appendix Out (who do some pretty sweet folk stuff of their own – again, a “cutting room floor” casualty), but was a frequent conspirator of Jason Molina during the days of this recording – something in the early ‘00’s (say that as “ots” – it’ll make you feel good). I had been dying, dying to see Songs: Ohia play. Despite being based in Bloomington at the time, Molina rarely played around town. Alas, on a chance visit to TDs CDs and LPs, I found my chance to see S:O/ Molina. Tom, the owner, told me about a house show, happening that night, as I bought the new S:O/ Scout Niblett 7”. Told me the place and time. I rounded up my girlfriend and best friend (what’s up, Cory), and off to the house show we went. They had, predictably, started early. Alasdair Roberts was playing when we got there… and we caught the end of his set, during which he played this song with help from Molina. And, by “this song,” I mean THIS ACTUAL RECORDING. We were there, I was there, when this piece was performed and recorded. It was hot and stuffy in that cramped little house, and so Molina decided to play on the porch… and so drug an amplifier out on the porch, plugged in an electric guitar, and played about 25 minutes for about 10 people, under the stars on a hot summer night. To this day, it was one of the coolest performances I’ve ever attended – an artists nowhere near his peak but most certainly on his way there, in a casual environment, acting like this was nothing more than a get together of friends (which, aside from a few outsiders like us who had heard of the show through word of mouth that day, it probably was), and playing some beautiful music. Was I naïve and dumb enough to ask Molina to sing the 7” record I had just bought that day? Of course I was… and you’d not meet a nice, finer fellow, who even had the time to tell me that his song on the record wasn’t very good, but that I should really pay attention to Scout, an up and coming artist. What a cool hot summer night.
18. "Sandusky" - Uncle Tupelo – If one song ever lead me to pick up a mandolin and banjo, among other various Appalachian folk instruments, it was this. I have done you, avid listener, a disservice by not including the raging punk-country that Uncle Tupelo did so well, and that directly lead to the creation of the No Depression/Alternative Country (whatever that is) label for that brand of roots rock music. But the acoustic work of Uncle Tupelo is easily some of their best. This track, without ever saying a word, captures the essence and power of the band. These guys – Farrar and Tweedy, and drummer Heindorn – had a knack for melody. There was no denying the songwriting talent. Beyond that, they were able to craft great songs, even on instruments that really could barely play. It was all for our enjoyment. “Sandusky” has been used in movies and television a time or two, and for good reason – it’s obviously a very visual song. Melodic, moving and gorgeous, it aptly summarizes the band responsible for the biggest dreams and internal song monologues of this artist.
19. "Say Goodbye Good" - The Promise Ring – This song has always reminded me of a closing – be it the close of the year, the end of something sweet and great, the end of an era. In a way, it was… for this was the Promise Ring’s last hurrah. Many fans and critics panned the band for their last album, Wood/Water, when it was a complete departure from the sound the band had made its calling card throughout its career. But to me, a band that knows how to mature and grow is a band worth knowing and loving. After having an aneurysm after massive touring behind Very Emergency, singer Davey Von Bohlen had a new lease on life and a new perspective. The band grew up… and it spelled the end for them. So, unwittingly, or then again maybe so, The Promise Ring waved goodbye with this last classic tune. With the slow, steady build throughout the song culminating in the sing-along chorus and gospel fervor of the ending, it perfectly caps the three discs of music representing my college radio career. I couldn’t think of a better song to wind things down than this. This is the close of the year, the end of an era. I hope when I look back, I will have been able to say goodbye in a good way, and still see something I am so proud of, and proud to have done. This has been but a capsule of my life, but in putting it together has really helped me realize just how much this time in my life was “my formative years,” where my musical foundations were laid, and my future self was made. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much I have. Say goodbye good.