Pickled Priest Mixtape: Our Favorite Songs of 1992
1992 sadly looked a lot like 2020. We've learned very little as a society since. For me musically, it was a time dominated by alternative rock, Americana, some hip-hop, and a some good old fashioned rock & roll. It was a time where I was hatching the idea of starting a fanzine in order to document the many new bands I was discovering (new and old). That concept continues, amazingly, to this very day. At the same time, I was also continuing to enjoy Chicago's phenomenal blues clubs and soaking in everything I could along the way. This list tells the story of my personal selections and I'd love to hear yours. Everybody's story is different, but here's mine for the official Library of Congress record. As always, 26 songs, 13 on each side (like an old BASF 100-minute tape) in descending order for drama.
26 “Black Metallic” / Catherine Wheel
Back in the early 90s we were all for getting washed away in a squall of majestic sound and “Black Metallic” is just such a beautiful wave. At a little over 7-minutes, it’s an immersive experience—ebbing and flowing from loud to quiet and back again like waves crashing on a beach and then receding out to sea. Rob Dickinson’s vocals emerge softly whenever there’s a calm in the storm and lull you into a sense of complacency only to be shattered by a groundswell of guitar and drums that return with epic power moments later. Interestingly, despite much speculation by fans as to the song’s meaning (some pretty deep concepts presented) Dickinson burst all bubbles when he responded: “It’s about a car.”
25 "Goin' Out West" / Tom Waits
When Tom Waits started, he was working a Tin Pan Alley, Beat poet, lounge act angle that fit his personality and voice well. At the time, his songs were comparatively accessible. Years as a heavy smoker and drinker took a significant toll on his voice, especially when he started asking it to do more than just entertain at a piano bar. Then he met his soul mate and future wife Kathleen Brennan who lit his muse on fire in almost all ways—from songwriting (his partner since) to exotic junkyard instrumentation—and she also introduced him to Captain Beefheart, who wrote raw, untamed songs from an alternate universe with no regard for public affirmation. For Tom, I imagine it was like discovering a long lost sibling. Soon, the music in Tom’s head got more conceptually challenging and expansive and he pushed his voice even further, alienating some old fans in the process, but gaining far more in replacement. (He sells out instantly whenever he tours and it’s a tough ticket.) This all leads up to his 1992 masterpiece, Bone Machine, which is a descent into a nightmare where hell is on Earth and Tom is its musical accompaniment. The album is a cohesive work of art that pushes his voice about as far as it can go without breaking down like an old jalopy. It also defies efforts to pull a solitary track out into the light of day. If forced, I’ll pick “Goin’ Out West,” the tale of a cross-country road trip (“With my Olds 88 and the Devil on a leash”) to Hollywood. It’s as conventional (and humorous) as the songs get, but in Tom’s world, don’t even think of getting comfortable.
24 “So What’cha Want” / Beastie Boys
I love a good rap banger and this is the Boys boasting at top volume with some serious heavy weight behind them. It features the Beasties basically telling all posers that they’ve got it all and more, so what else do you fucking want? “Well I’m as cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce/You’ve got the rhyme and reason, but got no cause/But if you’re hot to trot, you think you’re slicker than grease/I’ve got news for you crews, you’ll be sucking like a leech!” Also appreciate the “Reddi Whip topping” product placement, which is the go-to whipped cream of the Pickled Priest (and no surprise, we prefer the heaviest cream they’ve got).
23 “We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful” / Morrissey
Morrissey is one of those few artists who you know by song title alone. Is there any doubt Moz is behind a song that tells such a sad truth about human nature? And could this song be ready for a comeback in our social media, troll infested society? Morrissey may be talking about his musical friends in this song, but the song is universal—the dark side of humanity revealed.
22 “Sheela Na Gig” / PJ Harvey
A “Sheela Na Gig” is a stone carving of a woman spreading her vagina in an exaggerated manner (see photo) . They’re all over Europe and it was somewhat common for them to be incorporated
into buildings (castles and, strangely, cathedrals common) in a similar fashion to the more common gargoyle. They were thought to keep evil spirits away. (Hey, if it works, perhaps I should renew my Hustler subscription after all.) But all kidding aside (I was never really a subscriber), Polly Jean Harvey’s provocative “Sheela Na Gig” is a fiercely executed feminist anthem that references a song from the musical South Pacific and a Clairol hair commercial from the seventies in one line and mocks the gigolo/whore double-standard in the next.
21 “In the Meantime” / Helmet
This is what we call a “ball bolter.” It’s the audio equivalent of having your nutsack riveted to a slab of solid steel. This pleasure comes courtesy of Page Hamilton who used his guitar like a power tool as the leader of Helmet, but somehow assembled one of the greatest and most influential guitar albums from the afterbirth of alternative rock in the process.
20 "Boilermaker" / The Jesus Lizard
Never a band that worked as well in the studio as it did on stage (untouchable is the word that comes to mind), “Boilermaker” is as close as the group ever came to capturing David Yow’s onstage madness while in captivity. As if a performing animal, Yow was seemingly controlled by Duane Denison’s drill press guitar riffs. To this day, I haven’t seen or heard anything like it. Hovering behind it all, an absolutely seismic rhythm section of bassist David Sims and drummer Mac McNeilly only added to the cyclonic fury. If you want a taste of real alternative rock, this is it.
19 “Nothin’ But a “G” Thang” / Dr. Dre
In the intro to one song, we’re introduced to two rap legends at the same time, “One, two, three, and to the fo’/Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the do’ ” and we’re off and running. You know the story by now. There are countless great moments on The Chronic, but this is the one that started it all. What makes this track extra special? It’s like this and like that and like this, and uh, it’s like that.
18 “Getting Friendly With The Devil” / Chris Bailey
This slot is the memorial tomb for the forgotten songs for 1992. “That Was the Greatest Song” by the Pooh Sticks, “You Don’t Love Me Yet” by the Vulgar Boatmen, “When a Heart Breaks Down” by Mark Johnson, “One More Time” by Alejandro Escovedo, “Can I Take My Gun to Heaven” by Cracker, “Free Range” by the Fall, “I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar” by Jonathan Richman, “Baby, Don’t” by Steve Forbert, and yes, even “Percolator” by Cajmere. I could add many more. However, no song was played more here than this one from the ex-lead singer of Australia’s beloved Saints, so it gets the nod. Bailey ranks with the great unknown singers in rock and roll and probably does a killer Pee Wee Herman impression, too. He’s versatile.
17 “When She Begins” / Social Distortion
Following up their 1990 self-titled masterpiece came a record, Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell, that some have come to call their career peak. While we respectfully disagree, there’s no need to play favorites when you can play all your favorites. “When She Begins” is the official Social D love song done in Mike Ness’s usual style mixing 80s punk & 50s rock and roll. “When she begins to rock, honey I begin to roll” sings Ness and if you’re in the rock and roll business, that’s pretty much all you need from a future lover.
16 "Why" / Annie Lennox
Any song that can find 11 syllables in a three-letter word gets extra credit. That it comes within one of the most original and heartbreaking loves songs ever written makes it even more of an accomplishment. “These are the contents of my head…”
15 "Take Me With You (When You Go)" / The Jayhawks
No Depression magazine, once the definitive source for writing about alternative country music (whatever that is), would be birthed three years after the Jayhawks breakthrough record, and you have to think Hollywood Town Hall had as much to do with fathering the publication as any other record in the genre, with the obvious exception of Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression (duh). The songs haven’t aged and never will.
14 “Trying to Tell You I Don't Know” / Freedy Johnston
“I sold the dirt to feed the band…” begins the story of Freedy’s still career-defining masterpiece Can You Fly. An album of peculiar charms and slanted perspectives, it took a familiar world, salvaged it for parts, and put it back together with a disproportionately large amount of heart.
13 “Killing in the Name” / Rage Against the Machine
Wow. I picked 1992 randomly for this mixtape forgetting that it would inevitably feature this song, written after the Rodney King beating, which could’ve also been written a couple weeks ago, too. I’m sure somebody was pointing to this song then, like some are pointing to the new Run the Jewels record now, as a wake-up call to stop institutional racism.
12 “Mr. Wendal” / Arrested Development
Back in '92, Arrested Development seemed like a band built to last. They were clever, intelligent, socially conscious, had a great singer and songwriter (Speech), and their songs positively teemed with vitality. Their mass popularity quickly faded (although they are still active today), but they left us with a debut masterpiece, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of…, which was full of big themes viewed from overhead—this one about finding wisdom in a most unlikely place. I still remember most of the words.
11 “Friday I'm In Love” / The Cure
No, this is not an early Bright Eyes single. What it is, is a remarkable little jangly pop single, and after that there’s not much else to say. We all identify with it. Friday has always been the day we all wait for for one reason or another. Bruce Springsteen thought about Friday on “Monday when the foreman calls time” in “Out in the Street,” the Easybeats, like the Cure, took us through each day of the week on their classic “Friday on My Mind” (“Today I might be mad, tomorrow I’ll be glad/Cause I’ll have Friday on my mind.”) And who could forget Love and Kisses’ theme song to the movie Thank God It’s Friday from 1978? Simply put, it’s the day where good things are supposed to happen, it’s a day to get shit-faced and it’s a day to fall in love—at least until Monday comes around again.
10 “Baby Got Back” / Sir Mix-A-Lot
What love endures? The genuine kind, the blind kind, the unconditional kind, the kind where one loves big juicy asses and the other possesses one. Sure, this song is hysterical, but at its core, it’s a song of acceptance. The rap sequel to Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom” from 1984 (“How can I leave this behind?), which was the heavy metal sequel of sorts to Queen’s bombastic “Fat Bottom Girls” from 1978, which was the precursor to Morrissey’s “Some Girls are Bigger Than Others” from 1986. The booty is big business, with countless examples from pop music history to back that shit up.
9 “Anthem” / Leonard Cohen
One of Leonard Cohen’s finest poems made into a majestic church-worthy hymn. Read the lyrics, there’s brilliance in almost every line. But one, of course, stands out as a beacon for any person and any time that is suffering in darkness. “Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack/A crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”
8 “A Good Idea” / Sugar
“If I Can’t Change Your Mind” is the single of choice from Copper Blue, Sugar’s pop-punk dynamo, but “A Good Idea” is the song that proves Bob Mould was at the top of his songwriting and singing game. It’s not surprising that it became his most successful album ever, Hüsker Dü included. It’s also a testament to the wide influence of the Pixies' Doolittle released just three years earlier. Even a legend like Mould was all over it.
7 “If I Should Fall Behind” / Bruce Springsteen
This is the year Bruce ditched the E Street Band for a bunch of low-rent replacements* and released two records widely considered the worst of his career.** I’m a Bruce zealot and I even found the tour disappointing. For the “Springsteen Slot” on this tape I vacillated between two songs I love dearly: “If I Should Fall Behind” and “Human Touch.” I chose the former mainly because the song has come to symbolize the unity of the band, which is ironic considering it was first performed on a tour where they were left behind. Bruce eventually saw the error of his ways, perhaps while he was singing this very song by himself, and brought the band back together again. On later tours, they did a stunning version at the end of their sets with each band member (who can sing) splitting the verses along the way only to join in together on the final lines. Each and every time a chill inducing moment. So that’s our choice.
*Full disclosure: I’m currently writing a book about Bruce’s misguided “Other Band Tour” tentatively titled Don’t Blame Shane Fontayne
**Bruce did manage to write about an album’s worth of B+ or better material for the sessions. As a public service, here’s how Bruce could’ve combined Lucky Town and Human Touch into one solid three-and-a-half-star record. Working title: Lucky Human (or Touchtown, if it’s football season)
1) Better Days
2) Local Hero
3) Leap of Faith
4) If I Should Fall Behind
5) Souls of the Departed
1) Human Touch
2) Soul Driver
3) The Big Muddy
4) All or Nothin’ At All
5) My Beautiful Reward
6 "Straight to You" / Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
This is about as conventional as a Nick Cave song gets—a good old testifying love song! But if you think for a moment it’s going to be anything less than towers crumbling, sharp-beaked swallows hovering, saints drinking, and angelic chariots colliding, you’ve obviously not read the small print. This is a Nick Cave album…anything goes.
5 “At the Hundredth Meridian” / The Tragically Hip
In 1992, the Tragically Hip was well on their way to beloved status in Canada, but they were still only four albums and five years into a career at the time. That said, many of their most popular songs were already in the can, including the absolutely ripping “At the Hundredth Meridian” from Fully Completely, generally thought of as their finest album, although Road Apples is my personal favorite. As usual, Gord Downie (now as close to Canadian Sainthood as a rock star can get) pens a song with flickering images projected on the side of an old barn and phrases that intrigue individually and add up to distinctive sense of place collectively. “Driving down a corduroy road,” “A generation so much dumber than its parents…,” “It would seem to me, I remember every single fucking thing I know,” “Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy” and the pull quotes continue. We sing along with them even though none of us know exactly what they really mean, but as long as Gord does that’s all that really matters.
4 “Our Town” / Iris DeMent
I distinctly remember the first time I heard Iris perform this song (she was the opening act for Nanci Griffith). Nervous, in the heat of the spotlight, struggling to get her guitar to sound right until a helpful member of the audience solved her problem (“Plug it in”), she then proceeded to mesmerize the crowd in a way I’ve rarely seen before. “Our Town” tells the story of a lifetime unfolding with a chorus that will bring a tear to your eye and an ache to your heart.
3 “Hey Jealousy” / Gin Blossoms
The early songs of the Gin Blossoms still resonate today because they meant something to people. Otherwise, a bunch of mid-tempo pop songs might’ve faded into the ether like so many other bands’ songs from the era. Credit Doug Hopkins for that; he was a naturally gifted songwriter who somehow converted profound desperation into radio friendly pop songs. They were catchy yes, but underneath were some universal truths—people struggle and often feel hopeless. “Hey Jealousy” cuts to the bone, “If I hadn’t blown the whole thing years ago I might not be alone” and “If you don’t expect too much from me, you might not be let down” are lyrics that punch the vulnerable right in the face. Sadly, the tradeoff in this case wasn’t worth it—Hopkins was in deep trouble at the time and ended up committing suicide, leaving the band to reconcile dreamed about success with unspeakable tragedy.
2 “Dream in Blue” / Los Lobos
I once interviewed Louie Perez about the making of Los Lobos’s masterpiece Kiko and even he didn’t quite understand where the music came from during the recording sessions—streamed from a higher power it is assumed.
1 “Try Not to Breathe” / R.E.M.
The one-song-per-artist limit has never been more painful. There’s simply no limiting Automatic For The People. The obvious choices—pop singles like “Man on the Moon” and “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”—seem to be perfect choices for a year-end mixtape, and they are, but the true heart of the record is found in its ballads. Specifically, the cathartic “Everybody Hurts,” the sublime “Nightswimming,” and the, um, breathtaking “Try Not to Breathe.” They demand equal time (and get it from me), but metaphysical and physiological connections cannot be explained, nor will I try, and this choice is one of them. It’s one of those songs that means the world to me.
We'll be back to with you another new year soon. But which year will it be? We'll both soon find out.