Pickled Priest Mixtape: Our Favorite Songs of 1988
In 1988, I was fresh out of college (I checked my math three times) and I'd finally landed my first real job, if you use the term "real" very loosely. On the positive side, I was finally back in Chicago again after a four year stint at school, and finally of legal drinking age. Which meant more live music than ever before for me (and many more records, too). And few better cities for live music exist on this planet than Chicago. Those where the days when I could go to a four-band show that started at 11:00pm and not have to take several days off work to recover like I would have to now. It was a glorious period of my life. The list I made at the end of 1988 would've been different than the one I made this week, but there are many songs that haven't budged. The benefit of time is that tastes change, more records are heard, and more perspective has been added. This mixtape will continue to evolve, but this is how it looks in 2021. Remember: my favorites, not yours. But if you make your own tape, email it to me. I'd love to see it.
26 TONI CHILDS / “Don’t Walk Away”
When Toni Childs released Union, I thought a major new artist had been born; one that could be around for a long time if she played her cards right. Not the case, it turns out. While I presume she hasn't lost her singing talent, she never quite captured the same artistic lightning in a bottle ever again (at least on record). Not uncommon, but always a letdown when it happens. (For what it's worth, she's still apparently a household name in New Zealand, where it only takes 15,000 sales to be certified platinum.) But we'll always have Union, an amazing one-off flash of brilliance. Co-produced by then-boyfriend David Ricketts (of David + David fame), it was a sonic marvel, incorporating African and Caribbean rhythms into some of the songs to great effect (not quite as overt as on Paul Simon’s Graceland from 1986, but not subtle either). Her songs were distinctive, rich in atmosphere and texture, and fully matured, like they'd been gestating for a while waiting to arrive. Toni’s throaty voice, almost as if she was being lightly choked by a small boy during the recording sessions, was the main attraction. It was double-take distinctive and admittedly took me a while to get used to, but she eventually won me, and many others, over in a big way (500,000 sales in the US alone). Her unique tool was capable of great subtlety and restraint, but could also erupt when the situation called for it, as it did on the tour-de-force, “Don’t Walk Away,” a forceful, borderline Biblical, plea to a former lover to stay with her in lieu of “ripping out the root of love.” I have a feeling that she eventually got her way.
25 THE CHURCH / “Antenna”
The Church’s most commercially successful album, Starfish, contained their biggest hit ever, the ubiquitous, star-gazing “Under the Milky Way,” which became one of those all-purpose tracks used when two people, separated for any reason, pine for each other. That said, from day one I gravitated toward several other tracks on the record as well, most of which featured the distinct, ethereal tone of Marty Willson-Piper's electric guitar. (If you went to a solo show of his, the audience would be made up of about 95% Guitar Center customers.) The real genius of Starfish is on the rest of the record, from “Destination” to “Spark” to “Reptile” to “Hotel Womb,” and everything in between. My personal favorite is perhaps the least song-like track in the bunch, the chorus-less “Antenna.” Oddly, the main guitar on the track is provided by guest mandolinist David Lindley (of Jackson Browne fame), and not Willson-Piper. No matter, it’s positively captivating to hear, like it’s being beamed in from outside of the Milky Way just for your satellite ears.
24 MUDHONEY / “In ‘n’ Out of Grace”
I will not reference the genre, I won’t say the name, but without Mudhoney there might not have been you know what and you know who back in the early 90s. Suffice it to say, Mudhoney were the true believers who kept Sub Pop alive when it was in critical condition back in the late-80s. And the band is still a much-loved staple (like a bag of sugar) in the Sub Pop pantry. Band leader Mark Arm works in the label’s warehouse to this day, and, if you order some Mudhoney records from Sub Pop right now, he will likely pack and ship them to you personally! (So do it!) He’s a highly likable fellow who has always kept his significant contributions to the history of Seattle rock and roll in an endearing and humble perspective. But significant they are, and even if all we ever got was their opening EP, Superfuzz Bigmuff, that would’ve been enough. (Thankfully they now have about a dozen LPs under their belt, the last coming as recently as 2018.) It's nice to know they're still alive and kicking—
we need to keep our pure rock bands around in case people want to come back to the rock flock someday. When they do, Mark and the boys will be ready. The obvious song selection from 1988 is their landmark single “Touch Me I’m Sick” or even its killer flip, “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More,” but I’m partial to Bigmuff’s closer “In ‘n’ Out of Grace” because it has an epic intro, is highly quotable (“Oh God, how I love to hate!”), and is a killer drum showcase for the great Dan Peters. Oh, and enough distortion pedals to fuel an entire movement, not just a song.
23 N.W.A. / “Straight Outta Compton”
In the late-80s, I was not particularly dialed in to rap music, I’ll be the first to admit it. Sure, we danced to it in college, but it wasn't my day-to-day soundtrack. I did come around eventually, but by then most of the spots on this list were already taken by a lot of alternative rock, power pop, Americana, and other tracks from mostly white-dominated genres. Even my lifelong passion for gritty R&B went by the wayside in the late-80s, lost in a sea of smooth neo-soul schmaltz in slick packaging. Yawn. Hence, my “heart songs” (to quote Rivers Cuomo, which I never do) from the period are mostly tied-up in other genre pursuits. That said, if I made a second tape to represent 1988, there’d likely be some EPMD, Jungle Brothers, and Public Enemy peppered throughout to provide some much-needed diversity to the proceedings. But one cataclysmic rap masterpiece has managed to break through the highly limiting 26-song ceiling. And everybody knows it in one way or another, for better or worse. “Straight Outta Compton” has been used and abused by pop culture countless times over the years (be it on coffee mugs, "ironic" t-shirts, lame office jokes, and worst of all, Blake Shelton’s insufferable country hit, “Straight Outta Beer”), but if you dial back to the song's original time and place, you’ll find a menacing, drop-dead serious, urban folk song with harrowing tales told by three different yet equally effective narrators—Ice-T, MC Ren, and Easy E. It doesn't seem this way anymore, but there was a time when this was some scary-ass gangsta shit, and it predictably ruffled the feathers of some highly visible and vocal opponents in the process. Such things have happened throughout the history of popular music, of course, and just like the rock and roll rebellion found in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, new boundaries were also being pushed in the 80s. Shockingly, parents just didn’t understand (to quote another great rap song from 1988!). In this case, it's pretty easy to see why Tipper Gore and her cronies got their privates in a bunch. “When I’m called off, I got a sawed off / Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off!” might be the first clue. But what some didn’t realize is that this wasn’t sensationalized fiction; it was real-life, in-your- face anger from an area where most of its biggest fans feared to tread even in daylight hours. If anything, this was an harsh introduction to another way of life in the United States that many wanted to ignore. The allure for young kids was easy to understand. As Dr Dre sums up in his intro, “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.”
22 NAKED RAYGUN / “Soldier’s Requiem”
To this point, Chicago punk legends Naked Raygun rarely cracked the three-minute mark with their songs, so you know they had something important to say when they kicked off their third album, Jettison, with the four-minute epic, “Soldier’s Requiem.” Its ambition is twofold in that it decries the reckless deployment of our military manpower while also supports unequivocally the soldiers we deposit in harm’s way. Pretty heady stuff, executed with a poet's economy, a protester's conviction, and a carpenter's table saw, which has pretty much been Raygun's raison de vivre from day one.
21 ELEVENTH DREAM DAY / “Watching the Candles Burn”
If you saw a lot of shows in the late-1980s and throughout the 1990s in Chicago, which I most certainly did, you were bound to run into local favorites Eleventh Dream Day at some point. I saw them numerous times, mostly as an opening band, but you could always count on them for some guitar-intensive pummeling—one of my very favorite qualities in a band. Their fabulously titled debut, Prairie School Freakout, has only gotten better with age for me, perhaps because the general feeling these days is that rock as we once knew it is dead. But back in the late-80s it was still burning bright and “Watching the Candles Burn” proves that fact convincingly (it just edged out “Beach Miner” for this spot). With the twin-riff attack from Rick Rizzo and Baird Figi, backed by the rock-solid rhythm section of Douglas McCombs and future Freakwater co-founder, drummer Janet Beveridge Bean, they mounted little assaults on unsuspecting ears and created one convert at a time the hard way. It was quite a sound to behold back then, and it still sounds remarkably fresh to me thirty odd years later.
20 COWBOY JUNKIES / “Misguided Angel”
The Junkies second album, The Trinity Session, was the subject of a critical feeding frenzy in 1988 after it was revealed that it was recorded in one day in a Toronto church with a solitary microphone center stage. Any two of those characteristics would bring the average critic to a climax, but all three? Get a raincoat. As it turns out, the hype was justified. To this day, I know instinctively when it's Trinity time. Thanks to my lifelong crush, Margo Timmins, the physical manifestation of a simmering boil, the record exudes a persistent and haunting intimacy that is best absorbed in one sitting. This is not a passive record—it's total immersion or nothing at all. There’s not a track that doesn’t fulfill that goal, but “Misguided Angel” was the first song that captivated me holistically, if that's even possible. The songs finds Margo, with a bit of a fatal attraction scenario playing out, attempting to rationalize her desires to a different member of her family in each verse (“I said, Mama, he’s crazy and he scares me / But I want him by my side”). But we all know, that her mind is made up. She's just looking for some family affirmation. It's a good thing both of her brothers are in the band. At least they can support her musically.
19 MELISSA ETHERIDGE / “Like the Way I Do”
When Melissa was touring for her debut album, I saw her open for Little Feat in one of her first ever Chicagoland appearances (perhaps the first, I don’t know). To this day, it still ranks as the definitive example I can cite of an opening act blowing the main attraction off the stage. And that was a pretty big feat—pardon the pun—because Little Feat was a great live band back then, tight as a boiled owl, with a killer set list of proven fan favorites to call upon. But when we were on our way home from the show, we weren't talking Little Feat. All we were raving about was the then-unknown opening act, Melissa Etheridge. The next day, I went to about five different record stores looking for her album until I finally found a solitary copy tucked in the miscellaneous “E” section at my local Circuit City. (I was clearly desperate.) While the record didn’t come close to matching the sheer electricity of the live versions of the songs (people were standing on their seats going crazy when she finished), it was close enough. Her live juggernaut, “Like the Way I Do,” is the album’s emotional, physical, and psychological centerpiece, a passionate, borderline psychotic take on obsessive love conveyed with some of the most intense acoustic guitar on record. I admit, I’ve drifted away from this album for a while, not quite in love with her later work like some, but there’s no denying the raw, primal ferocity on display here. And when she asks her ex-lover, “Does she know just how to shock, electrify, and rock you / Does she inject you, seduce you and affect you / Like the way I do?” the answer is clearly and unequivocally a resounding NO. It would be hard to get more intense than this.
18 MARY MARGARET O’HARA / “Body’s in Trouble”
If Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Miss America album came out tomorrow, it would still sound ahead of its time. No wonder it didn’t find a home back in the synth and drum-machine 80s. It’s a singular experience to say the least, as daring and original as any record I’ve heard, but it’s reasonably accessible, too, much like the work of Kate Bush or Fiona Apple. It does take a while to get oriented, but once you’re in her world, you’ll be addicted. “Body’s in Trouble” is a great example of her eccentric, peculiar power. It’s like walking in on an experimental therapy session in the basement of a research lab. Something is being worked out, but exactly what, that’s for you to figure out.
17 THE GO-BETWEENS / “Love Goes On”
Here’s the third of four artists on my 1998 tape with Australian ties. Much beloved Aussie favorites, the Go-Betweens, check in with the lead track from my favorite album of theirs, 16 Lovers Lane. While I don’t consider myself a big fan of the band, and I'm certainly not conversant in their entire catalog, I do know a great jangly pop song when I hear one, and “Love Goes On” fits the bill perfectly. I put it on a power-pop mix years ago and every time this knowing little love song comes up in the rotation my ears perk up and I clear out everything else in my head and soak it up. Perhaps they felt it was their best work, too. This was their last single before disbanding. (Note: While they did reform a decade later for a while, it was not with all original members.)
16 THE MEKONS / “Ghosts of American Astronauts”
Tucked on the Mekons overlooked 1988 album, So Good It Hurts, is this odd little conspiracy theory of a song sung by the incomparable Sally Timms that celebrates American space legends like John Glenn (who “drinks cocktails with God”) while also planting the seed that the moon landing was a hoax (“It’s a nice break from Vietnam / Filmed in a factory / Out on the back lot in Houston / Who says the world isn’t flat?”). It’s all good fun, of course, but what makes the song great is that it doesn’t sound like it’s going for laughs, even if lyrics are clearly absurd. Instead, it actually comes off as a richly atmospheric, beautifully sung, ballad played with just enough restraint to make you believe what they're on about...at least for a few minutes that is.
15 GEAR DADDIES / “She’s Happy”
There's a common myth in this country that you've got to seize the day and live every one of them as if it's your last. Not bad advice, but is it wrong to just peacefully enjoy what you have? The Gear Daddies "She's Happy" is a small story with a huge heart, about a woman who is content with her seemingly simple and boring life. It gets me a little choked up every time I hear it. The portrait painted includes details only an insider would know. The band hailed from Austin, Minnesota, a medium-sized town about an hour south of Minneapolis, so I don’t doubt this is a true story, or an approximation of one, based on a real person. Seemingly insignificant details add up to something bordering on the profound: "She" and her husband have "a poodle they love like the child they never had” and “They go to the VFW Club on Friday nights / She has a sloe gin fizz and some fries from the kitchen / Tips the waitress 50 cents.” Later we find out that “Nearly every day she cries / When she remembers the day that Elvis died,” and that “She paints ceramics and bowls twice a month.” It goes to show you that everyone has a song-worthy story, you just have to work a little harder to find it sometimes.
14 WAS (NOT WAS) / “Wedding Vows in Vegas”
Frank Sinatra would’ve killed with this song if he had it during his prime years. It would’ve been perfect for the late show at the Sands, inspiring young candlelit lovers to hoof it over to the local drive-in chapel in a drunken stupor to tie the knot. Sadly, Frank was at the tail-end of his storied career at the time, so he wasn't available, I presume. But the almost too obvious next best thing was to have his son, Frank Sinatra Jr., step into his shoes instead. The result is a classically-styled lounge number that would surely be on every Sinatra Sr. compilation if it was recorded in the 1960s. Instead, it was resigned to curio status on Was (Not Was)’s wildly eclectic What Up, Dog? album from 1988 (an album once rightfully ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the Top 100 albums of the 80s, I may add). But don’t miss out on this perfectly-written little masterpiece of kitschy songwriting. Not a hair is out of place. It’s the perfect song to accompany a trip to the Little White Wedding Chapel in Vegas (use the drive-up “Wedding Window” if you're also on the way to deliver a baby) where an “All night preacher does the ceremony / His wife throws Minute Rice / Her tears are phony.”
13 MORRISSEY / “Everyday is Like Sunday”
The gorgeously dour “Everyday is Like Sunday,” from Moz’s debut solo record Viva Hate, pretty much encapsulates why he’s become a reliable park bench (or equivalent) companion of mine for the last decade or so. The older I get, the more Morrissey’s music makes sense to me (I can't say the same for his politics, however). Which is somewhat ironic, considering the fact his music primarily appealed to disaffected youth back in the 80s. Am I potentially suffering from a retroactive form of undiagnosed, Morrissey-fueled, ennui? Highly possible. More likely, his songs are simply the perfect chaser for a healthy dose of late-life pessimism—a few moments to indulge my inner sad sack so I can rebound and come back strong tomorrow. I don't wallow in Morrissey, I use him for the greater good. A form of reverse psychology, if you will. "Every Day is Like Sunday" is basically the 223-second version of his 2013 autobiography, titled Autobiography of course (and hilariously issued by Penguin Classics—something only Morrissey could get away with). The book easily ranks among my all-time favorite music bios because it is simultaneously dark and hilarious, a talent I have cherished in authors ever since I read Catcher in the Rye back in high school. And, predictably, that trait translates well to the field of songwriting. Personally, I’ve never viewed Sunday, or any day for that matter, with the same existential dread as Morrissey—I actually quite enjoy my Sundays, overcast or not—but I can certainly relate to being in a place I don't want to be any longer. That said, I don't wish it Armageddon either.
12 CROWDED HOUSE / “Into Temptation”
I have always had a soft spot for classic pure-pop songwriters who treat the pop song as a craft and not a confection. And few were better in their time than Neil Finn (so good, I named my second son Finn in partial tribute). Their second album, Temple of Low Men, is one of their finest albums, even though it was considerably less successful than their debut, which featured big hits “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong.” But the growth between that album and its follow up two years later is striking. “Into Temptation” lives up to its title. It lures you in, seduces you, and intrigues you. Once it catches your ear, you can’t turn away: “A muddle of nervous words / Could never amount to betrayal / The sentence is all my own / The price is to watch it fail / As I turn to go, you looked at me for half a second / With an open invitation for me to go into temptation / Knowing full well the earth will rebel.” Those are not the words of an amateur. Those are the words of a master.
11 SAM PHILLIPS / “What Do I Do”
A perfect title, this is. The Indescribable Wow is one of my favorite records not of 1988, not of the 1980s, but off all-time. I love it that much and always have. She may have gone on to make more nuanced and sophisticated pop records later in her career, each one a marvel, but this early record offers up one sweet little pop song at a time like a musical Pez dispenser. “What Do I Do” is a bit of an outlier even for a record filled with so many well-crafted pop singles, and that's why I like it. In the first 30-seconds, it sounds like she's stumbled into a symphony orchestra's warm-up session and decided on the spot to use them for a quick pop song while they weren't busy. A very cool detour that gets even cooler when her multi-tracked vocals careen around like they're echoing off the back walls of the empty orchestra hall. It's all deliriously and refreshingly decadent—and it doesn’t sound like any other pop song I’ve ever heard before or since. Indescribable is right.
10 GRAHAM PARKER / “Don’t Let it Break You Down”
A mini-Graham Parker critical resurgence in 1988 was due to The Mona Lisa’s Sister, a record some claim to be his last great album (another "100 Best Albums of the 1980s" selection by Rolling Stone back in the day). I don't disagree, although I also loved 1991’s Struck By Lightning, a far less popular choice, but I'm a die-hard Parker fanatic, so there's that). This song, as telegraphed by the title, is an all-purpose “buck up” track encouraging people to keep strong despite a growing number of reasons to succumb to life's pressures and adversities. What’s particularly interesting, over thirty years later, is how prescient the song’s acidic lyrics turned out to be. In just a few minutes, Graham takes on global warming, anticipates cancel culture, warns of egomaniacal power brokers, hints at the opioid crisis, touches on the hazards of fracking, and eerily, foretells 9/11 thirteen years before it happened (“And the aeroplanes get hijacked / And all the Americans get killed”). All this, and still, somehow, he also finds the time to give us a little pep talk along the way. Much appreciated.
09 THE GODFATHERS / “Birth, School, Work, Death”
Thankfully, when this song came out I was only halfway through its title. I can’t say I’d be as receptive if it was released in 2021. But there’s no denying that while curt, the title is drearily accurate—at least for the vast percentage of us commoners. I’m all for minimalism, but is this all there is? Obviously not, of course. You’ll most likely want to pepper in a few other variables like love or marriage or perhaps a family along the way (maybe all of the above if you’re a masochist). But at its core, these four elements provide the skeleton for everything else you may want to add. It helps that the song is a bouncy little punk 'n' roll gem with a chorus that's fun to chant along with and not a depressing dirge of some sort. In the end, there’s something to be said for owning the realities of your existence. So lean in already. Maybe there’s still time to alter the paradigm. If not, just sing along and know you're in good company.
08 LUCINDA WILLIAMS / “Changed the Locks”
The Silos and Tom Petty have both done excellent covers of this song since, but Lucinda is still the proud owner of the definitive version. I particularly love the structure, or lack thereof, of the song. There’s no real chorus to speak of, really. The whole thing is just one long, unfolding checklist of avoidance techniques: locking doors, changing phone numbers, buying a new car, choosing new clothes, and more ambitiously, changing the tracks underneath the trains and changing the name of her town. Must’ve been a real heartbreaker. And the song absolutely howls, too. What else would you expect?
07 NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS / “The Mercy Seat”
For those planning a dark night of the soul, Nick Cave has you covered. Always has. “The Mercy Seat” is one of Cave’s masterpieces, chronicling the maddeningly repetitious thoughts of a man condemned to die in the electric chair, of which, it should be noted, he has no fear. Imagine the coldest, darkest, starkest prison, and then descend unsteadily into its bowels, the belly of the beast if you will, down where they keep the worst of the worst—death row; the place where human life hangs in the balance on the daily, the most desolate piece of industrial real estate on the market. Dislocation, dislocation, dislocation. If you don’t have that kind of imagination, leave that to Cave, who takes you on that walk from Death Row to the execution chamber by putting you inside the addled mind of a condemned man for seven highly uncomfortable minutes. This is not for the faint of heart, especially because Cave doesn’t let you off easy at all. Only a sadist would decide to repeat the last stanza of the song a nerve-wracking 14 times, like a record skipping over and over and over, right? Who would do that to their listeners? Perhaps that’s how long it takes to get to the executioner’s chamber? I admit, sometimes it’s too much for me to take, so I cheat a bit and default to the “single” version that trims the harrowing tale down to a emotionally manageable five-minutes. And more often than not, I go with the live version, which like most Cave songs, is even more visceral than their studio counterparts. Even the acoustic version is great—stripped raw and befitting the context. And Johnny Cash’s read on the song from American III is also damn good. But I do recommend the full, haunting original version, at least once in a while, for the full harrowing experience. The director's cut, if you will.
06 THE POGUES / “Fairytale of New York”
The unlikeliest of adopted Christmas songs, this duet between Shane McGowan and the late, great, and underrated Kirsty MacColl, is a magical, demented barroom reel that suffers only from some lyrics not in vogue in the 21st century (“You’re an old slut on junk” and “You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot” come to mind). Otherwise, and arguably including those lines (in my day, we used the word "faggot" as if it meant "Stupid idiot"), it’s near perfect, managing to combine the bleakest sentiments (“Happy Christmas your arse / I pray God it’s our last”) with hopes for some kind of Christmas redemption. All housed in a classic Irish folk song with a rock and roll bent, which is what made the Pogues so original and vital to begin with.
05 SONIC YOUTH / “Teen Age Riot”
04 PIXIES / “Gigantic”
Here are two songs, say it with me, from “seminal” 1980s albums that have a lot in common despite being singular experiences individually. Both were on the cutting edge of alternative rock then, and have stood the test of time since. Both were highly innovative and influential. Both bands were gender integrated. And both albums were nearly impossible to pick apart for individual tracks, such was the diverse nature of their collective whole. With the depth found on Surfer Rosa, one track doesn’t do it, especially when you’ve got “Bone Machine,” “Break My Body,” “Where is My Mind?” and several other classics to pick from. So I went with “Gigantic” here because it’s always been the song that seemed like the most radio-ready single and therefore it fits on a mixtape nicely. Let the record show, I include one song only under protest. The same goes for Daydream Nation, an album that secretes is power throughout, but benefits from a leadoff track that is an uncontested alt-rock landmark. “Silver Rocket” may be Daydream Nation’s “Gigantic” in a way, a short single-length mixtape ringer, but sometimes you need to just toss arbitrary time restrictions to the wayside and let the majesty of an epic song have its rightful place front and center where it has always belonged.
03 LEONARD COHEN / “I’m Your Man”
By 1988, Leonard’s 54-year-old voice was already getting that extra rich and resonant patina that would mark his later recordings with a stamp of credibility and grace. Personally, I love Leonard the elder statesman even more than I love younger Leonard, the field-commanding ladies man. If there was a most interesting man in the world in 1988, Leonard Cohen would’ve been the perfect choice. He was the ultimate romantic, a debonair gentleman with a simmering ever-present sexuality just in case that's what you're into. “I’m Your Man” is a prime example of how to keep things fresh and frisky. “If you want a lover / I’ll do anything you ask me to / And if you want another kind of love / I’ll wear a mask for you.” A valuable lesson for us all.
02 MICHELLE SHOCKED / “Anchorage”
I can’t think of another song quite like it. That’s gotta be the ultimate compliment, right? Here, Michelle writes an old friend a letter and even lets us walk to the mailbox with her to send it off. How adorably old-fashioned compared to today. Personally, I would've love to hear the contents of that very letter as well. And why not? Clearly Michelle’s life is far more interesting than those of any of her friends, what with being a "glamorous" touring musician and all. But with the exception of the first few lines, the entirety of the song is her friend’s charming, earnest reply, recapturing memories of glory days, asking wide-eyed open-ended questions about her friend’s fascinating big city life, and regaling “Shell” with the thoughts and dreams of an everyday housewife. Even her husband chimes in at one point to send his heartfelt greetings. Some of you may be too young for this question, but have you ever received a letter that you wished would go on much longer? One where you flip the page over hoping for more on the reverse side only to find it, disappointingly, to be blank? That’s how I feel whenever this short, sharp song ends. I want more. I want a sequel. I want to run out and check the mailbox. I want a whole album of letters set to music.
01 TRACY CHAPMAN / “Fast Car”
You know the story by now. One day playing Boston coffee shops, a year later playing solo at the Grammy Awards, the new toast of the music business. The cover of Rolling Stone ("Tracy Chapman Facing Stardom"). She was everywhere. Did this really happen? It did, and it felt good. A true American success story. Every once in a while an album comes along that is so undeniable, so brilliant, so compelling, that nothing can hold it back. Everyone else has to work around it. The album is near-perfect, but “Fast Car” is the record’s true beating heart. Its opening moments are so simple in execution, yet so iconic in practice. Why? The same chords have been played many times before in much the same way. Perhaps they are seared into our minds because we all know what follows—a master class in storytelling given by a rank amateur, a sidewalk busker, someone who seems real to the touch. Three riveting stanzas elapse before anything resembling a hook arrives, but by then we are already fully invested, hanging on her every word, her every guitar strum, praying for a moment that might not come. We share in her optimism, we share in her hope that a new life isn’t out of reach. We ride with her and share in her sensations no matter how long they might've lasted. I shifted to the past tense there, because Tracy's next line in her song tells us that she's remembering a moment from her past, not living in it currently. The realization heartbreaking.
So I remember we were driving, driving in your car
Speed so fast, I felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arm felt nice wrapped 'round my shoulder
And I-I, had a feeling that I belonged
I-I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone
It’s almost like you’re in the back seat—that’s how real it all seems. Who hasn’t felt that way at some point, where, in the dizzying flicker of passing headlights or the glare of city lights, the world almost seems as if it is laid at our feet, waiting for our next move? “Fast Car” is a song that brings you along for the ride and makes you hope they eventually catch that one break they need. Because the alternative, albeit much more likely, is a dead end. And nobody wants a sad ending. So fill up the tank and head back out. Maybe it'll happen the next time.
Whew. A lot of memories flooding back there. Need to take a moment to collect myself. I'll be back with another year to be named later. If you have a year you want to hear about let me know. I take requests. Until then...