Song 342: Mariah Carey, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (1994)

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I know, I know. You’re probably cringing just thinking about this song, because you’re tired of hearing it every damn place you go. And look, I feel you: it’s unrelentingly cheerful, as if fueled only by joy. It wants so badly to be a Christmas standard, and now that it’s actually achieved that esteemed status, the song seems to rub that in your face. Look what I did, it says. I’m a goddamn Christmas song, and you’re just buying peas in the frozen food aisle.

But here’s the thing about “All I Want For Christmas Is You”: despite its tinny early-nineties production and cloying background singers, despite its karaoke strings and unearned bombast, it’s awesome. I love it, and I think, deep down, you do too.

My office has a tradition in which people hired during a given year have to perform a holiday song at that year’s Christmas party. The year I was hired, I and two others sang along to “All I Want For Christmas Is You” wearing blonde wigs (we couldn’t track down Mariah’s brunette shade in time), dancing around a table full of props. We sweated this for a few weeks,  rehearsing the stupid thing every couple of days. Thanks to the wigs, props, and drunk audience, we killed, but it was a hard-won victory.

I thought that experience would erase any love I had for “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” but it only strengthened our bond. After those weeks of rehearsal and the flop-sweat performance, we know things about each other that nobody else could ever understand. We have seen some shit, man.

That’s what I think of when I hear those tinkly opening notes, but I also get excited for the Big Pop Song to come. Carey was clearly trying for a Phil Spector thing here, and I wish she had gone all the way, with baritone saxes and glockenspiels—the whole nine yards. It’s a great song, and it would sound even better with the right arrangement. But maybe we get the Mariah Carey Christmas song we deserve. Maybe I should just accept that Christmas sounds like the mall now, like a bunch of money thrown around like so much fake snow. Sometimes, that doesn’t sound too bad.


Song 269: Pavement, “Unfair” (1994)

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Where to start with Pavement? That’s what I’ve been wondering for many months as I’ve attempted to write something, anything about them. Not only do they have many great songs to pick from, they’re also hard to pin down in a general way. They wrote and played songs that were beautiful, sad, funny, bitter, and celebratory, sometimes in the course of a single song. They loved ambiguity, but they also loved specificity. They had good songs and bad songs. They seem, in retrospect, to have done everything all at once.

I wasn’t aware of Pavement when they were originally around, and I wish I had been. It may have been a little rough for my taste back in high school, but it would have been a rewarding gateway, one that would have led to the world of indie rock that I found later on. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is my favorite Pavement record, and I think it’s the one I would have liked most at the time. I was already listening to Weezer and Smashing Pumpkins, and Pavement, despite some differences in sound (and Stephen Malkmus’s infamous takedown of the latter band on “Range Life”) were similar in many ways: they all catered in dark weirdness cloaked in heavy fuzz, and in the joy of explosion.

I thought for a long time about the Pavement song I most wanted to feature. The beautiful slow-burn “Here”? The crowd-pleasing pop single “Cut Your Hair”? The cheeky Brubeck rip-off “5-4=Unity”? I ultimately settled on “Unfair” because it brings me such pleasure every time I hear it. It bursts out of the gate as if it’s been waiting for hours behind a closed door, and it only briefly lets up its brisk pace over its two minutes and thirty-three seconds. I love so much about this song, but my favorite thing is probably the moment Malkmus scream-sings the lines “Walk! With your credit card in the air! Swing your nachos like you just don’t care! This is the slow, sick sucking part of me! This is the slow, sick sucking part of me!” By the end of the song, Malkmus is straight-up screaming, as if his nonsense protest song has completely worn him out.

I tend to think of Malkmus as a kind of Dadaist, an artist who takes an accepted art form and plays gleefully within it. It’s the jester that also pops up in songs like “Stereo,” in which he giddily yells, “Hey! Listen to me! I’m on your stereo, your stereo!” And he always, whether the song is happy, sad, or somewhere in between, sounds excited to be there.


Song 200: Nas, “N.Y. State of Mind” (1994)

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A high-pitched, pulsating signal, followed by a young man saying, “Yeah, yeah.” Then a couple of rapped lines, an abrupt pause, then that same young man saying, “I don’t know how to start this shit.”

That’s how Illmatic begins, and it’s quite possibly the biggest fakeout in all of hip-hop. Not only does Nas know how to start that shit, he does it amazingly well, because a few beats later, he launches into a verse that weaves, hurdles, ducks, leaps around and over the track’s beat. It’s the first track (after the brief intro “Genesis”) of what many consider to be the best hip-hop album ever.

“N.Y. State of Mind” isn’t technically the first time the world heard from Nas—that would be the 1992 single “Halftime,” which was also featured on Illmatic a year later—but it’s a hell of a way to start a debut record. Nas was immediately compared to Rakim, and I can see why: all those internal rhymes, for one, and the focus on lyrics that tell a story.

I love Illmatic, but I don’t know much about it, so I’ve been looking at its Wikipedia page. It’s one of the longest Wikipedia pages I’ve ever seen, and it’s endlessly fascinating. This quote from co-producer DJ Premier describes what it was like to witness Nas record “N.Y. State of Mind”:

I’m counting him in. One, two, three. And then you can hear him go, “Yo,” and then he goes right into it … He didn’t know how he was gonna come in, but he just started going because we were recording. I’m actually yelling, “We’re recording!” and banging on the [vocal booth] window. “Come on, get ready!” You hear him start the shit: “Rappers….” And then everyone in the studio was like, “Oh, my God”, ’cause it was so unexpected. He was not ready. So we used that first verse. And that was when he was up and coming, his first album. So we was like, “Yo, this guy is gonna be big.”

I love that story, because there’s an underdog aspect to it. He was not ready. And then he was very much ready. And then everything changed.

It’s interesting to consider this song’s title, because it references Billy Joel’s romanticized version of New York (sung by a rich white guy) and turns it into what New York is actually like for an untold number of its residents. Later, of course, came “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z (sorry, sorry—JAY Z) which romanticized Nas’s de-romanticized version of the city: I used to be in the projects, and now I’m sitting courtside with Spike Lee.


Song 182: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” (1994)

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The hype for the (ugh) “Unledded” performance by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on MTV Unplugged was pretty insane. At least, that’s how I remember it; it’s possible that I was so into Led Zeppelin and classic rock radio that I just assumed everybody was obsessed with the duo teaming up again.

I wasn’t exactly let down by the results, but it made me realize that not everything is helped by a slimmed-down approach. Some songs, like the already acoustic “Thank You,” didn’t get more interesting by barely scaling back. What I did love was the revamped version of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” a gospel number that the band reworked into a scorching blues track for their record Presence, and appearing on No Quarter as a swampy stomp of a song.

I love the section that starts around 1:50 in the video below, when Plant yells, “Take it on! Take it on!” (or whatever he actually says) and the hurdy gurdy churns along (can a hurdy gurdy churn? Poetic license!). It sounds fantastic, moving the song at a just-fast-enough pace. Whereas Led Zeppelin’s version of this song seemed fueled by anger, the Page and Plant rendition is more about coming to terms with owed debts and missed opportunities. I wonder if their old age accounts for this approach (Page was 50 when No Quarter was released and Plant was 46; they were respectively 32 and 28 for Presence), or if they simply wanted to try something new.


Song 130: Indigo Girls, “Least Complicated” (1994)

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I wasn’t into the Indigo Girls until I heard Swamp Ophelia. Say what you will about the duo, but that record is excellent, and it’s held up remarkably well over the years. The production is impeccable, the arrangements are simple but interesting, and the songs are good, with a couple of exceptions (I’m looking at you, lyrics to “Power of Two”).

This was the first song I heard from Swamp Ophelia, and I loved it immediately. The punchy percussion, the out-of-left-field pennywhistle, the catchy melody: it all combines for a fun, bittersweet pop song. The video is fun, too, with lyrics, chord changes, and lots of information. Swamp Ophelia was the Indigo Girls’ peak (unless you consider their fine live album 1200 Curfews, which came out a year later).


Song 124: Beastie Boys, “Sabotage” (1994)

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Now that I’m past the one-third mark (!), I’m starting to relax a little bit: I might revisit some artists (which I haven’t done yet) and I’ll definitely start writing about some songs that are among my all-time favorites (which I’ve only done a little bit). “Sabotage” is one of my all-time favorite songs, and its video is among my all-time favorite videos.

Ill Communication was the Beastie Boys’ fourth record, after Licensed to Ill, Paul’s Boutique, and Check Your Head. That’s an amazing run of albums right there. In fact, if you’ll allow my blasphemy, Ill Communication, is the best they ever did. Many people would cite Paul’s Boutique as their masterpiece, and I disagree. That’s a great (and undoubtedly influential) record, but on a song-by-song basis, I’ll take Ill Communication. It’s a ragged record, full of hardcore toss-offs and funky instrumentals, but that’s what I love about it. It’s a big fat collage of an album, and the shaggier moments are balanced with tight, immaculately produced tracks like “Sure Shot,” “Root Down,” and, of course, “Sabotage.”

Oh man, this song. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played it when I needed a quick wake-up (especially in Lilly’s infant days), a jogging boost, or a good driving song. It’s the first song I think of when I need a shot of energy or fun, when I need something to pick me up. It’s one of the best songs there is. It’s not as reference-dense as many other Beasties songs (despite the great line “I’m Buddy Rich when I fly off the handle”), but it’s effective. Is there a better description of taking care of business than “I’ma set it straight, this Watergate”?

And the video. Oh, the video. What’s left to be said about it? Wikipedia describes it as “an homage and parody of 1970s cop drama television series,” but I actually don’t think there’s much parody to it. Those things are already funny, and the Beastie Boys are clearly in love with the images of authority that they grew up with. It’s hard to argue with musatchioed men busting down doors being The Guys In Charge, especially with names like Cochese (vividly portrayed, as we all remember, by Nathan Wind).

For this and many other reasons, bless you, Spike Jonze. Bless you.


Song 106: Pearl Jam, “Corduroy” (1994)

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“Corduroy” isn’t a perfect song, but I think it’s the perfect Pearl Jam song. That is, it’s the Pearl Jammiest. It features Eddie Vedder displaying his various vocal styles, and the band is playing to its strengths, from vicious power chords to Neil Young-esque abstraction.

Pearl Jam seems to have become a band to scoff at only because of their longevity, which I don’t understand. They may not be releasing anything innovative, and certainly nothing on the level of Vs. or Vitalogy, but they’re still making good music. And it’s always nice to have bands around that aren’t concerned with how cool they look (if they did, they probably wouldn’t still be playing classic rock-tinged grunge, though it’s a style that’s come back into favor in the past few years).

I never much cared for Ten. The production, so cold and tinny, always drove me crazy. I’m much more a fan of the next few albums, when their sound became a little more interesting: more low end, less bite. “Corduroy” is my favorite Pearl Jam song, for the reasons described above but also because the melody is so well-constructed. It’s one of those melodies that seems like it existed sometime, somewhere else, because it’s so simple. But it wasn’t.

That’s always been Pearl Jam’s biggest asset: the ability, underneath the (glorious) bombast, to sneak up on you.