I am woeful at anything even approaching rock journalism. In the dark on most records, I guess I have enough tormenting music in my head that I mostly prefer silence when I’m not working. And here I find myself faced with providing commentary for a host of artists that deserve to be analyzed by someone much more informed than I. This is making me really nervous for some reason. I’m gonna try my best to say something about 10 songs suggested by MAGNET, who kindly tried to gauge what kinds of things I might be familiar with. They did a pretty good job, actually! But still nervous. Melody is so much easier than words … —Matthew Sweet
The Bangles, “A Hazy Shade Of Winter”
The Bangles are one of the great girl groups, and this is a badass cover. I think Rick Rubin might’ve produced this for a soundtrack if I remember correctly. Sometimes people mistake the Bangles for a Susanna Hoffs vehicle, and I love Susie, but they truly are a group of people whose musical chemistry and voices combine to make real magic. I was a fan from the very beginning. Bangles drummer Debbi Peterson recently made the trek and played some great drums on my new album, Tomorrow Forever, out here in Omaha at Black Squirrel Submarine.
The Beach Boys, “Sail On, Sailor”
According to Beach Boys lore, “Sail On, Sailor” was the song Brian Wilson always was playing at parties, and apparently there were many different people who had shared the piano bench in a festive moment and so thought they wrote the song with him. I sang this song with (Hootie & The Blowfish’s) Darius Rucker, a lovely guy, for a Brian Wilson tribute at Radio City Music Hall. I flew on an airplane for the first time in eight years to do the song on Letterman and then sing on “Good Vibrations” with Brian. Brian’s daughters were so sweet to me. They knew I had a serious fear of flying!
The Beatles, “She Said She Said”
I just love this song and recording. Trippy and melodic in an irresistible way. Revolver was the first Beatles album I really got into. Before it, I only knew the soundtrack album from Help! (which was, of course, also great). “She Said” was a big part of Revolver to me, really my favorite song on the album. As a teen, I would often listen to one side of a vinyl album on headphones as I was falling asleep. The night John Lennon was shot, it was the side of Revolver that ended with “She Said She Said.” I had just fallen asleep to it when my dad came in my room to tell me come see the news. I really do see it as an easy coincidence now, but at the time it felt downright spooky.
Bee Gees, “Massachusetts”
It’s fun to imagine I was four years old and this was a number-one radio hit. I don’t remember the song that well, but it’s amazing to think of these Australian brothers tapping into the hippie lore of San Francisco 1968 and scoring a massive hit. There’s something quaint about its plaintive vibe. The album itself, Horizontal, is pretty interesting overall but predates some of my favorite stuff yet to come. “World,” the song that opens the album, is pretty compelling and quite inventive.
Big Star, “September Gurls”
What can I say that hasn’t been said about the incredible Big Star? It’s wonderful how everybody seems to know how great they were at this point. I got to sing “Big Black Car” at a New York City performance of Big Star’s Third. But “September Gurls” (I love the spelling; so Alex) really shows them at their best. I was first given a cassette tape with both #1 Record and Radio City on it when I was in high school. I really liked the dB’s and a friend said I’d better check out Big Star. I was completely taken with the music. Guitar jangle like I’d never heard before, the loopy drum fills, inventive melodies, beautiful singing, with moods from witty to so earnest. It really kind of blew my mind. Such a classic track. And they were American! To top off the experience, I ordered the 45 of Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos,” which was pure magic.
The Byrds, “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better”
When we were making my album Girlfriend, I was pretty focused on Revolver as some kind of working sonic guideline. But it was the late, great Robert Quine who made sure I realized how awesome the Byrds were, playing stuff of theirs and making me tapes throughout recording. Again, here is a group that was a sum of its incredible parts; so many talented guys were involved over multiple lineups. This song always picks me up with its transcendent effect of ultra jangle. Just love it. The Byrds are, deservedly, one of the great “B” groups we think of today. Beatles, Beach Boys and Byrds.
Tom Petty, “You Don’t Know How It Feels”
I had Damn The Torpedoes as a teenager and always looked up to Petty as a super-cool dude. He played 12-string electric guitar, which only helped elevate him in my innocent eyes. Wildflowers was a great record for him. I remember hearing “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” on the radio while I was out doing promo somewhere in Texas, and I totally dug it. This record sounds amazing, and this is where I first heard Jim Scott’s name, who I was lucky enough to work with later on. I love the sentiment, spelled out in the title, that idea of trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I think of Paul Westerberg’s song “I’ll Be You” as well as my own “We’re The Same” as attempting a similar switch of perspective.
The Pretenders, “Brass In Pocket”
This was such a great, great album. My older brother played it for me for the first time, and it was wholly unique. The band was killer, and Chrissie Hynde was an instant classic with her snot-nosed sass mixed with gentle sincerity. “Brass In Pocket” was the radio hit as I remember it, and though it didn’t exactly represent the full rock potential of the band, it still could barely contain Hynde’s punk attitude and sly sexuality. The song is the ultimate come-on. I particularly love hearing album track “Lovers Of Today” these days; it’s so haunting and deep. As a teen, I traveled with some friends to see the Pretenders live in Kansas City when the second album had just come out. James Honeyman-Scott was a true guitar god. I got all their autographs on the first album cover by handing it to Chrissie through their town-car window as they were leaving the venue through a back alley. Years later, when I was on tour with the Golden Palominos, I hung out for a few hours with Syd Straw and Chrissie in her hotel room in Toronto. I can’t remember who partook, but I’m pretty sure I smoked a ton of pot while listening to those girls converse for what seemed like hours. I was maybe 20 or 21 years old and in awe of both of them.
R.E.M., “Perfect Circle”
It is impossible to overstate how important R.E.M. were to the entire realm of ’80s indie rock that was about to become the bona fide genre of alternative rock. R.E.M. were an inspiration to myself and so many other budding songwriters. Here was a band that was American, had their own sound and did things their own way. For indie-pop nerds like me, just the fact that they were produced by the legendary Mitch Easter was of note. Seeing it was produced by Easter, I ordered from an ad in New York Rocker the first R.E.M. single on Hibtone Records, “Radio Free Europe” b/w “Sitting Still.” “Sitting Still” really caught my ear. I was able to see R.E.M. live at a local club in Lincoln, Neb., get my 45 signed and ask about Easter, who I later corresponded with and eventually met. They loved that I knew who Mitch was. By the time R.E.M. came to play the Drumstick (chicken restaurant by day, rock club by night) again, Murmur was coming out, and Let’s Active was opening up for them, soon to release their own debut on IRS Records, where R.E.M. were by then signed. “Perfect Circle” is such a beautiful song, and its gently cascading chorus takes me right back to a time when the world seemed new and R.E.M. were leading the way to a melodic and mysterious future where a wide range of styles would combine to transcend the college charts and land in the mainstream. A special song from a very special band.
Bruce Springsteen, “Born To Run”
I like Springsteen, even though I’ve never really followed him closely or known most of his records particularly well. But over the years, whenever I’ve heard “Born To Run,” it has a big impact on me. This is a record packed with so much energy, so much wrenching passion it should be a goal for all of us to try to match in our own music. It’s like a Phil Spector opus, it’s like a teenage symphony but wholly creates its own world, where young lovers rage against life. When he cries, “It’s a suicide pact,” the effect is transcendent in the best of ways. A truly great song, a truly great recording and a truly great artist in his prime combine to reach the zenith of rock crescendo and release. My friends know I’ve never been too big on saxophone, but here even it gets a pass!