15. “Kids Don’t Follow” (Stink EP, 1982)
Supposedly, Twin/Tone Records founder Peter Jesperson was convinced that “Kids Don’t Follow” off Stink had hit potential, and it’s easy to hear why — this was the probably the first truly indelible song the Replacements recorded, and if nothing else, it suggested Westerberg had plenty of burgeoning brilliance even he was likely unaware of. Easily the most realized song from the ‘Mats early period.
14. “Here Comes a Regular” (Tim, 1985)
The closing track to the Replacements’ major label debut, Tim, feels out-of-place on a record packed to the rafters with rowdy fist-pumpers, but the juxtaposition only contributes to its effectiveness as the final cut. It’s no secret that Westerberg (not to mention the other members of the group) was a fan of the bottle, but this penchant isn’t glamorized in “Here Comes a Regular”. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: this is the portrait of an abject alcoholic at his most desperate, desolate and dependent, set to a haunting acoustic guitar track that chugs along gracelessly (the guitar almost sounds like a sonic representation of Westerberg stumbling out of a bar at 3:00am). The dismally ironic “Here comes a regular / Am I the only one here today?” is one of Westerberg’s greatest lines. Table for one, please.
13. “Color Me Impressed” (Hootenanny, 1983)
If “Kids Don’t Follow” heralded what was to come, “Color Me Impressed” was its announcement — this is the first Replacements song that sounds like a Replacements song, and while the group had yet to shed its hardcore guise completely, virtually none of that aesthetic infiltrated “Color Me Impressed”. The song is a trenchant criticism of exclusionary hipster culture — ironically the same culture that was prone to embrace a band like the Replacements — that predates Weezer’s “Undone (The Sweater Song)” by over a decade: “Everybody at your party, they all look depressed / Everybody dressing funny, color me impressed”. The contrast between the song’s two sections is startling (and how about that bizarre solo?), and almost sounds like the band is actively alternating between the convulsive, discordant ‘Mats of the past and the starry-eyed, ebullient ‘Mats of the future. I’m happy with the decision they made, ultimately.
12. “Androgynous” (Let It Be, 1984)
There really isn’t another song in the Replacements’ entire oeuvre quite like “Androgynous”, musically or conceptually. It’s a gorgeous little vignette about two gender-ambiguous kids deeply in love with each other. Unusual for Westerberg, his lyrics here carry ideological weight, but he doesn’t get too preachy. The moral is just that “Dick” and “Jane” (the two characters in the song’s narrative) share an insurmountable love and are unaffected by people’s prejudices towards their unconventional sexual proclivities, and that one day they know people will reflect on the ridicule once leveled against them and feel ashamed, as we do now about outdated, once-practiced societal norms that seem ridiculous in hindsight.
In the chorus, Westerberg brilliantly describes the two characters as being “closer than you know”, which suggests both the love they share for one another is unfathomable to anyone on the outside, and that sexual identity is ultimately inconsequential because sexuality is ultimately fluid — in other words, everyone is basically the same. So yeah, its inclusion on this list is a no-brainer.
11. “Left of the Dial” (Tim, 1985)
“Left of the Dial” is one of Paul Westerberg’s tenderest love songs. That’s right — allegedly written about one of the members of Let’s Active, it inadvertently became a call to arms for proponents of college radio and the indie scene in the 1980s and 1990s. Both interpretations seem valid, and perhaps one was intended to conceal the other. The line “Whose side are you on?” was appropriated by punks for use as sort of a DIY gauntlet, but clearly, Westerberg had more in mind here: the line “I headed up north, you headed north” sound like it could be an allusion to the two bands touring parallel to each other; he “reads about her band in some local rag” but it “doesn’t mention her name”. If he misses her, he feels comfortable knowing he can always hear her “left of the dial”, which is a reference to college radio stations and also possibly the receiver on a payphone. This song should resonate with anybody who’s been separated from somebody they love for an insufferable length of time. An all-time alt-rock classic and another obvious addition to the list.
10. “Favorite Thing” (Let It Be, 1984)
I once read an article about the Replacements (not unlike this one) where the author claimed the band was the ’80s equivalent to the Beatles (a toxic comparison for a variety of reasons). Curiously, I always thought that “Favorite Thing” sort of sounded like an indie-rock reinterpretation of a mid-’60s Beatles song. This is the Replacements at their most virile, and it’s always the first song I play for somebody unacquainted with the band, as it highlights both Westerberg’s peerless pop sensibilities and the group’s unbridled vehemence. It’s the most raucous performance on Let It Be, and reveals every member in top form (especially Bob Stinson, whose guitar solo is one of my favorite ‘Mats moments — in fact, it’s largely responsible for the song creeping into the top 10).
9. “Sixteen Blue” (Let It Be, 1984)
One of the things that define Paul Westerberg’s songwriting is his preternatural ability to approach these very adolescent subjects from an adult perspective. When I was in high school, I experienced plenty of horrible feelings that I couldn’t really articulate. I remember listening to “Sixteen Blue” and feeling like Westerberg was sympathizing with me directly. It really is the hardest age, or at least feels like it in the midst of everything. That tail-end of those teenage years is when you’re still too young to reap any of the palpable benefits of adulthood and most of society still distrusts you, but you’re also all of a sudden shouldering these alien “grown-up” responsibilities (like “driving your ma to the bank”) and nobody’s looking out for you, either. Put frankly, it’s the worst of both worlds. Not to mention those uncouth elementary sexual experiences (the aspect that seems to be the emphasis of “Sixteen Blue”). Good riddance.
8. “Skyway” (Pleased to Meet Me, 1987)
“Skyway” is more elegant than the other token Westerberg one man/one guitar ballads, “Here Comes a Regular” and “Within Your Reach” — and that’s why it’s better. It’s a brief, scenic detour on Pleased to Meet Me, linking rasping rockers “Red Red Wine” and closer “Can’t Hardly Wait” with two minutes of elevated acoustic beauty. Westerberg regularly sees a girl pass through “the Skyway” from the street below, and admires her beauty from afar. Improbably, he bumps into her after days of this remote adoration, but is ironically too shy and self-doubting to say anything to her. The fragile-sounding 12-string guitar reflects the author’s own emotional frailty — on the last line, Westerberg reaches for a note he isn’t really capable of hitting, and it’s truly one of his most sincere recorded moments. A veritable Midwest standard.
7. “Alex Chilton” (Pleased to Meet Me, 1987)
It’s not confidential information that Westerberg and Co. idolized Big Star. During live performances, the band frequently covered the cult group’s songs, and there are several riffs and melodic tropes scattered throughout the ‘Mats canon that bear a suspicious resemblance to Chilton-penned compositions. Westerberg decided to take it one step further, however, immortalizing Big Star’s creative helmsman Alex Chilton with this titular track. And it is great. In the bridge, Westerberg sings what we could have already assumed — “I never travel far / Without a little Big Star” — and then launches into one of the band’s most memorable solos. An inspired love letter from one underachiever to his antecedent.
6. “Hold My Life” (Tim, 1985)
Tim rocks immediately out of the gate. The verses to opener “Hold My Life” are largely inscrutable, but one thing’s for certain: Paul Westerberg is spiraling out of control. In the chorus, Westerberg becomes lucid briefly, pleading for the listener to “hold his life” or he “just might lose it”, a disturbingly clever allusion to self-inflicted annihilation (and a destination Westerberg and the rest of his band were most certainly headed towards).
“Hold My Life” is a great summary of the band’s Tim-era; the production on this cut (and the rest of the record) is more muscular than any Replacements’ song preceding it. It sort of sounds like good hair metal if you’ll bear with me (based on the ‘Mats impassive, faithful cover of “Black Diamond” off Let It Be, consumable pop/hard-rock was an influence on the band in some sense at least) or Born in the U.S.A.-era Bruce Springsteen with a definitive punk rock edge. “Hold My Life” is the perfect first track on Tim, a record where the band hits the gas and doesn’t really ever let up.
5. “I Will Dare” (Let It Be, 1984)
4. “Bastards of Young” (Tim, 1985)
“Bastards of Young” is the punk rock bid to combat everybody seems to mistake “Left of the Dial” for (although Green Day and Against Me! got it right when they opted to cover the former). The intro riff, which foreshadows the melody in the chorus, is simply unmistakable. Even though they were now at the mercy of a major label, Westerberg’s stoned howl suggests that the band wouldn’t allow their antics to be suppressed entirely, and thank God for that. Westerberg doesn’t hesitate to tip over the preceding generation’s sacred cows (“Clean your baby womb, trash that baby boom / Elvis in the ground, there will ain’t no beer tonight / Income tax deduction, what a hell of a function”), as this could retroactively be described as one of the first real Generation X anthems.
3. “Kiss Me on the Bus” (Tim, 1985)
“Kiss Me on the Bus” is an incredibly accurate consideration of teenage love, written by a grown man. The song is similar to Big Star’s “Thirteen” in the sense that it’s so authoritative it’s hard to believe this isn’t something experienced that afternoon and lifted out of a 14-year-old boy’s diary. Westerberg — or whoever he’s portraying — is simultaneously perverted and earnest, desperate but sympathetic: he has a heart of gold, but he’s still ultimately being governed by his nether regions.
He exhausts his arsenal of persuasive maneuvers; he tells the girl they might not get another chance to make out because there’s a possibility he’ll “die before Monday”, confronts her for slighting him (“baby, don’t’ be so mean”), and finally issues an urgent ultimatum (“Hurry, hurry, here comes my stop”). Within the author’s exaggerated reality every other passenger is eagerly anticipating the conclusion — and there isn’t any. The song ends with Westerberg incessantly begging the girl to “kiss him on the bus”, but based on her behavior elsewhere in the song, it’s doubtful he ends up getting any — he probably just gets off at his stop and sulks home in a hormone-inspired ague. And like sexual frustration itself, “Kiss Me on the Bus” is timeless.
2. “Can’t Hardly Wait” (Pleased to Meet Me, 1987)
“Can’t Hardly Wait” was the moment when apprentice surpassed mentor — there’s an anecdote in the liner notes for the Tim reissue that recounts an instance when Alex Chilton was mentally absent during an interview because he was so absorbed in a demo version of the song. Likely, Chilton realized this was one of the best pop songs ever written, a brilliant, inspired masterpiece where every component coalesces perfectly to form three minutes of aural sublimity.
While the original Tim outtake of “Can’t Hardly Wait” that Chilton produced is required listening if you haven’t heard it — it’s more rambunctious, has a blearier set of lyrics, and features some dizzying leads courtesy of Mr. Bob Stinson — the version that appears on Pleased to Meet Me is untouchable. Jim Dickinson’s addition of horns is probably the only tasteful production decision made for the record and gives the song sort of an epic symphonic flare that it deserves. The lyrics are the most bittersweet Westerberg ever penned: like all pop masterpieces, they straddle the line between forward-looking optimism and deep, inexplicable wistfulness. I ain’t had enough of this stuff.
1. “Unsatisfied” (Let It Be, 1984)
Okay, so I know what you might be thinking — that my decision to make what is essentially a power ballad my choice for the absolute best Replacements song ever sort of annuls my initial argument that they’re the best American rock ‘n’ roll band of all time. Led Zeppelin fans roll their eyes when somebody cites “Stairway to Heaven” as “definitive Zep” and anybody arguing to prove KISS’ legitimacy is likely to eschew “Beth”. But in some sense, “Unsatisfied” is the quintessential Replacements/Westerberg song.
Nowhere else has Westerberg (or really anyone else, for that matter) communicated world-weariness and perpetual heartache more succinctly than in “Unsatisfied” — and nowhere has his voice sounded quite as real. His urgent shriek mirrors the bowels of loneliness and discontentment. If you’ve been there, you’d know. The band is a drunken fucking mess. Tom Stinson misses notes, and Bob Stinson plays the wrong ones. You can hear Westerberg physically struggle to hit those notes during the final refrain (at one point, he grunts in frustration), and it’s all so real, and so good. Absolutely one of the most cathartic rock songs of all time. Thanks for everything, boys.
I’m going to preface this list by making an admittedly contentious assertion, and that is: The Replacements are the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll band to have ever existed. I’ve expressed this belief to friends of mine before and initially, they rebuff it as exorbitant iconoclasm. But think about it a little bit, and I’m sure you’ll find that it’s absolutely feasible (as they eventually do) — bands like Nirvana and the Beach Boys are exempt obviously for falling slightly outside the “rock ‘n’ roll” genus. Tom Petty is whatever (sue me). You are lying to yourself if you believe anything R.E.M. has ever done in any sense of the word “rocks” (although this doesn’t necessarily make it a bad band). Big Star can’t qualify because it was arguably always more of a studio-generated enterprise than a real band, and (Alex) Chilton and (Chris) Bell would likely be the first people to acknowledge that fact.
Trust me, I’ve tried to think of another American band from any era that encapsulates those progenitor rock ‘n’ roll/punk ideals better than the ‘Mats, and I just can’t. My head hurts. Moreover, the group united British Invasion melody and punk rock vigor long before the Pixies or Guided By Voices (two bands that are always mistakenly accredited as being the architects of this admixture) were making records. They eschewed acclaim and commercial success. They didn’t employ apathy or irreverence as some sort of weird sellable gimmick like Pavement did, though (after all, Paul Westerberg is nothing if not frighteningly sincere).
The Replacements realized the entire music industry dog and pony show was bullshit and totally exploited its amenability for as long as they could (admirable!). Simply put, the classic Replacements lineup of Paul Westerberg, brothers Tommy and Bob Stinson, and Chris Mars remain unbeatable. The inhuman streak of Let It Be, Tim, and Pleased to Meet Me are bested by only a few (The Beatles? The Who? You tell me.)
In the meantime, here’s a rundown of their top 15 songs. Bon appétit.
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This article originally published on 17 October 2012.