When you visit the homes of people my age and take a peek at their CD shelves (only people my age still have CD shelves), you’ll likely find some common denominators in the soundtrack section*: Pulp Fiction, The Crow, Pump Up the Volume, Judgment Night (right?), Wayne’s World (for those who’ve never heard of Disc-Go-Round), and arguably the best soundtrack of that time, Singles.
(* I’m assuming everyone follows my lead and files their soundtracks separately, in ABC order, after the regular albums sorted A-Z by artist; those regular albums are sorted chronologically within the artist, with singles sorted outside of the full-length albums, and any bootlegs toward the end of the artist sort…)
We all owned the Singles soundtrack because it was 1992 and the movie was set in Seattle and had a lot of Seattle bands on the tracklist (despite no Nirvana). But now, as the soundtrack turns 20, we should ask “What was really so great about it?”
There are certainly good things here:
- Two exclusive (and great, not throwaway) Pearl Jam songs*
- A song from Alice in Chains upcoming masterpiece
- An exclusive Soundgarden song
- An acoustic solo jam by Chris Cornell
- An underrated Hendrix song from Are You Experienced?
(* more on Pearl Jam later)
It also features:
- An interesting Led Zep cover by the girls from Heart
- A revered track by Mother Love Bone that I find boring
- A by-the-numbers early ’90s song by Screaming Trees
- A Mudhoney song that I always skipped because I never understood what everyone liked about Mudhoney
- Two cheeseball suckfest tunes by Paul Westerberg
These bulleted lists don’t exactly support any statement about Singles being the best soundtrack of its era, but the next paragraph—which will consist of just one word—is all you need to make the case.
Smashing Pumpkins, more or less a one-man band (well, two, as Jimmy Chamberlin could not be sidelined in the studio by Billy Corgan like James Iha and D’Arcy were) from Chicago, fresh off the impressive debut album, Gish, dropped one of its three truly epic songs from the early days (“Silverfuck” and “Starla” being the other lengthy moments of genius) to close out the album. As someone who spent his senior year of high school listening to Gish on repeat and writing “Smashing Pumpkins” on desks throughout Waukon Senior High (especially in pre-calculus class; sorry about that, Mr. Strike), I was excited for new material.
And this was eight minutes of the Billy Fucking Corgan Experience. A nice groove, laid-back vocals, quiet-loud dynamics, killer drum fills, and then four minutes of feedback bliss, layered many times over. (One of the funniest Guitar World transcriptions ever was this song; I’m barely paraphrasing the annotations for the last four minutes: “Guitar 1-8: droning feedback for the next 60 measures”.) And as a result, the Windy City stole the show from the home team (even though many people back then probably lumped SP in with the “Seattle Scene”).
And because Pumpkins fans were somewhat obsessive even at this early stage, the entire soundtrack was a must-have. BECAUSE BACK IN MY DAY, WE DIDN’T HAVE NO FANCY iTUNES/BUY ONE SONG AT A TIME ON THE INTERWEBS ARRANGEMENT. WE COULDN’T SHARE MUSIC VIA NAPSTER OR GNUTELLA OR WHATEVER ELSE. WE DIDN’T HAVE SHINY CD-Rs AND 2x WRITE SPEED CD BURNERS! WE WENT TO MUSICLAND OR SAM GOODY OR BEST BUY AND GRABBED THOSE LONGBOX-PACKAGED CDs AND WE PAID MORE THAN WE SHOULD HAVE AND WE LIKED IT!
Anyway, what was I saying?
Oh yeah, Singles. Despite my dislike for a few tracks, this remains my favorite motion picture soundtrack from the flannel-adorned era. But while considering the merits of this soundtrack, I found myself admitting some truths, some that I couldn’t see back in the grunge days.
Namely, the movie really isn’t all that great. Certainly nowhere near as good as the soundtrack.
The Cameron Crowe flick about young pathetic adults in Seattle trying to figure out the method of modern love (an area of expertise for Hall & Oates) featured a long-haired Matt Dillon as a rocker dude in Seattle who DOESNT use heroin (what?!?); a boob-conscious Bridget Fonda who likes long-haired Matt Dillon but wishes the shiftless layabout would say “bless you” or “gesundheit” every time she spreads her vocal-crippling germs; an Xavier McDaniel-loving wussy (played by Campbell Scott) who wants to build trains all over the city so that he can continue to play with model trains in his apartment; and a “she’s kind of hot, I guess” Kyra Sedgwick, who doesn’t like Xavier McDaniel but likes to deliver and receive lines like “I was just nowhere near your neighborhood” as a prelude to sex romps with guys who do like Xavier McDaniel. (So far I might be overemphasizing Xavier McDaniel’s importance to the central plot.)
Initially it was easy to look past these lame lead characters because of all the musician cameos: Eddie, Jeff, and Stone from PJ as Dillon’s bandmates; Chris Cornell walking into the glass-shattering car stereo scene; live shots of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. But once that novelty wears off, you have to deal with the uber-wuss Campbell Scott character and his convoluted road toward the improbable ensnaring of Mrs. Kevin Bacon, and the boring Matt Dillon-Bridget Fonda relationship, which finally coalesces once rocker boy finally says “bless you” after a sneeze*. The movie comes off feeling kind of corny now rather than cool or hip.
(* That specific aspect, the “I want a guy who says ‘bless you’ when I sneeze,” I really took that to heart. For my entire collegiate career, I found myself hoping to meet up with some hot chick, preferably one who suffers from hay fever, so I could drop the bless you line on them and then enjoy the acceleration into Intimacytown. Instead I got weird looks or perhaps a “thanks” and that was that. This movie made “bless you” out to be some sort of love hypnotism! Damn you, Crowe!)
Poor Pearl Jam.
Another crime committed by this movie: setting Pearl Jam up for a fall. The crew formerly known as Mookie Blaylock chipped in two solid tunes for the soundtrack, on the heels of its breakthrough debut album. The sky’s the limit, I said. But while Smashing Pumpkins rode the wave to new heights in the summer of 1993 with Siamese Dream, Pearl Jam would soon suffer some setbacks, one of which was completely out of the band’s control…
My entire freshman year at UNI, rooms up and down my corner of Rider Hall were blaring Ten, which wasn’t exactly a new album at this point but still a big deal. I remember one night where we feared one of our buddies had overindulged in the beer department, only to have him spring to life from the couch (or floor, who can remember) to join Eddie for the chorus of “Alive”. I remember the group sing-alongs we would have to the verses of “Even Flow” (“REEEEE-SAYYYYYYYY NUMMA NUMMA NUMMA NUMMA NUMMA MADE OF CONCRETE!”) Each Friday, as many students would grab their suitcases and head for their cars, someone would blare “Why Go” and crack open another 12-ounce container of Milwaukee’s Best Light. It was great, the soundtrack to life in the dorms.
But when I returned in the fall of 1993 for my sophomore year, some dudes were still playing it. All. The. Time.
I’m as guilty as the next guy of overkill. My roommate that year told me I ruined Siamese Dream for him because of how frequently I played it. But at least it was fresh! Before long, Ten became unlistenable by choice, dropping PJ a notch or two below the lofty altitudes cruised by the Pumpkins and Nirvana.
And then PJ put out Vs., an album I actually pre-purchased at Sam Goody. I was soon longing for another 638 listens to Ten, as Vs. was pretty much ZZZZZZZ for me. (Did Pearl Jam ever pull out of this tailspin? I heard they kept making records despite my disapproval…)
Yes, the soundtrack is good, but No Alternative is the better ’90s time capsule.
It’s not apples to apples, since one is a soundtrack and the other is a fundraising compilation, and one basically limits itself to Seattle while the other can pick and choose from the entire “alternative” genre. But if I’m going to take an early ’90s nostalgia trip via a prepackaged CD, I’m going to choose No Alternative over Singles. The 1993 compilation has “Glynis,” an exclusive track from the Pumpkins (not on the same level as “Drown,” but it’s one of Billy’s nice quiet moments). We get an oral history of R.E.M. courtesy of Pavement’s “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence.” We get a nice track from Sarah McLachlan before she became synonymous with mistreated animals and the largest-ever synchronized ovulation. Bob Mould’s song is heartfelt. Urge Overkill’s 15 minutes of fame happened around this time; as such, we get a song from them. Soundgarden and Sonic Youth make an appearance. The Breeders and the Beastie Boys offer live tracks (the latter is really interesting, a great run-through of a Licensed to Ill gem).
And this time, we get Nirvana. We didn’t know this (or at least I didn’t know this) when we grabbed the CD, as the song wasn’t listed on the back cover. But once the last listed track (a cool Patti Smith performance) runs out, we are greeted by clean chords and Kurt’s voice, followed quickly by the click of a distortion pedal and Nirvana’s wonderful mix of fuzz and pop. This song rivals some of their most enjoyable pop, right up there with “About a Girl” and “Lithium.”
Yeah, there are some tracks I skip (that would be you, Soul Asylum). But at least no one sings about having a dyslexic heart here.