20. Too Much Joy, Mutiny
As I’ve noted before, Too Much Joy was our band. To the degree that every college radio station has a single artist that most clearly represents them — preferably an artist that is woefully underappreciated elsewhere, upping the sense of special discovery — the quartet out of Scarsdale, New York were the beer-loving, smart-alecky, boisterous, and endearingly cunning mascots of Stevens Point’s WWSP-FM. The bond began with their 1988 release, Son of Sam I Am, and was cemented one album later, with 1991’s Cereal Killers. By the time Mutiny landed in the mailroom, Too Much Joy might as well have been U2 as far as many of our deejays were concerned.
Mutiny wasn’t the band’s swan song, but it’s close to it. And it definitely represents either the end of their commercial upswing or the beginning of the downswing, depending on the angle. It was their third effort released as part of the Warner Bros. galaxy of stars and the second that was recorded with that unique mix of comfort and buzzing pressure that come with being connected to a major label. The album is definitely awash in studio polish, heard clearly on tracks like the swirly “What It Is” and the thickly layered “Magic.” That can sound like a band becoming indulgent, but Too Much Joy is too earnestly committed to the resounding purity of rock ‘n’ roll for that. Instead, it sounds like a group taking full advantage of what they have in front of them, upending the coffee pot to get every last drop.
I’ll admit that Mutiny wasn’t as dominant or exciting of a Too Much Joy album for me and my immediate noncommercial broadcasting kin. It has as good of a single as the band ever concocted, in the blazing ode of romantic and sexual obsession “Donna Everywhere,” but when we explored the deeper tracks, fewer of them on the album locked in for us. We found a half dozen anthems of prior releases. With Mutiny, it felt more like just another fine record instead of our shared manifesto of permanently maintained youth, in all its dopey glory. It’s definitely fun to hear the band reimagine the stellar the Records song “Starry Eyes” so that it recounts their more notorious happenings from the prior couple of years, such as getting arrested for performing the same songs that landed 2 Live Crew in jail, but that also feels like another form of putting the past behind them. Too Much Joy was growing up, and we weren’t quite ready to be taken along for the ride over that particular cliff.
19. Sonic Youth, Dirty
I wonder if 1992 felt a little strange to Sonic Youth, like they’d been throwing dangerous darts expertly and yet slightly off-target, and then Nirvana strode right up to the line and threw a bullseye casually, over their shoulders. I don’t actually think the music Sonic Youth was creating at around that time was all that similar to what Kurt Cobain and company cranked out, save a certain abrasiveness that wasn’t supposed to work with a broader audience (although, that quality looms pretty large in figuring out the discrepancy in the wider acceptance of the bands’ records). But Sonic Youth were the sound of aural rebellion for college radio in the late summer of 1990, when Goo was released and dominated the charts, at least those determined by airplay choices made by kids hovering around the age of twenty. One year later, Nevermind arrived to the same reception. They simply found that the door to other parts of the radio landscape weren’t barred for them.
Though Sonic Youth maintained they weren’t courting the same level of success, they did opt to work with some of the same key personnel that helped make Nevermind a colossal seller: producer Butch Vig and mixer Andy Wallace. For Dirty, Vig reportedly pressed the band to tighten up their songs, keeping the intensity but avoiding the kind of sprawl that could turn their rough edges into a sort of endurance test for the less adventurous listener. That influence is evident across the album, as with “Sugar Kane,” which keeps threatening to become raucously expansive, but always manages to coil back to the sturdy spine of the song. Sonic Youth wasn’t tamed, but they were directed. If that lessened the likelihood of stretches of near-genius that could be found on Daydream Nation and Goo, it also lent a newfound sense of purpose that would arguably pay its greatest dividends a decade later, when the band had the developed discipline to come up with a string of fantastically accomplished albums, beginning with Murray Street, in 2002.
Realistically, though it was decidedly uncool to say so, I think back then Dirty was my favorite Sonic Youth album up to that point. I appreciated that honing of their creative sensibilities, probably heard best on lead single “100%,” a mournful lament with feedback pulsing through its veins, as only Sonic Youth could create. (Though I’ll note that, knowing what I know now, it’s a little odd to hear Thurston Moore sing “I’ve been around the world a million times/ And all you men are slime.”) Similarly the fierce feminism of Kim Gordon was made more pointed thanks to the streamlining, with “Swimsuit Issue” and “Drunken Butterfly” (lyrically comprised entirely of lyrics and song title, albeit sometimes warped versions of such, from the band Heart) as only two pieces of thrashing evidence. There are enough instances of the band unleashing full-on punk aggression (“Orange Rolls, Angel’s Spit,” the cover of the Untouchables’ “Nic Fit”) to forestall any accusation of favoring accessibility over staying true to their combat-booted muse, but the album’s entryways made it easier to embrace. I can say with certainty that I felt a little bit better about playing this album on the radio in the fairly staid patch of geography where my station’s transmitter tower stood, even as I understand that for many that’s not viewed a compliment.
And here’s Vig again, serving as producer for the self-titled debut of the San Francisco Bay area band Overwhelming Colorfast. The band was largely the creative outlet for lead singer and guitarist Bob Reed, who had a little Bob Mould to his voice. Sticking with that comparison, Overwhelming Colorfast swerved a little closer to the shiny pop pile-driving of Sugar than the surging assaults of Hüsker Dü. The band’s debut was assembled with all the trimmings of a early-nineties album meant to storm the college charts, including the inclusion of an obligatory cover, taking on no less than the Beatles. The band released a total of three albums before calling it quits. Reed is evidently still out there, fighting the rock ‘n’ roll fight.