The Replacements were one of the best bands that never got big: Midwestern goofs teetering on the wrong side of alcoholism, plucking the best bits of their boozy catharsis from the other classic down-to-earth rock groups like the Faces, Big Star, Tom Petty and beyond. They never quite struck gold in the ’80s despite signing to a major label around the time it was getting popular to do so, instead watching their peers get much more famous on a national and historical perspective. But they’ve become a powerful influence on modern rock acts like Titus Andronicus and Wilco, and August marks the 30th anniversary of their debut album Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash. In honor, we’ve selected twenty of their best songs, arranged chronologically.
The demo that launched a recording career, “Raised in the City” sounds like a lost ‘70s radio classic about cheap thrills in the big city: the exhilarating drums pumped at double time, Paul Westerberg’s raspy defiance (“Raised in the city, ready to listen / Keep tellin’ me what I’ve been missing / Why don’t you sit down?”), the first of many truncated Bob Stinson solos to come. The Replacements were signed to their first deal after Twin/Tone founder Peter Jesperson heard a cassette of “City.” “If I’ve ever had a magic moment in my life, it was popping that tape in,” he said. “I didn’t even get through the first song before I thought my head was going to explode”.
“I Hate Music”
Rattling the meta cages, “I Hate Music” is a desert-dry evisceration of everything in its narrator’s humdrum life: “I hate music / Sometimes I don’t,” “I hate my father / Some day I won’t,” “I hated high school / Sometimes I went,” etc. Already on their first record, Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars were evolving into a rock-solid rhythm section, with Stinson laying down a mean bassline punctuated by blasts of aggro-noise and Westerberg’s deadpan delivery. It’s self-aware angst, bursting with juvenile hatred and unable to do anything meaningful about it.
“If Only You Were Lonely”
The charter member of the “drunk and depressed” school of Replacements songs, “If Only You Were Lonely” was officially released in 2008 on the remastered version of Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash after floating around for years on bootlegs. Recorded when the band had done little to distinguish themselves from the glut of early ‘80s punk bands, it’s a direct pipeline to the self-aware romanticism that would dominate their later albums as Westerberg drops lines about porcelain gymnastics and overenthusiastic drinking while admitting, “Forgot my one line / So I just said what I felt.”
“Kids Don’t Follow”
The Replacements go off the rails on “Kids Don’t Follow: a real-life Minneapolis policeman crashes the party, Bob Stinson follows with 90 MPH of shrill guitar histrionics, and Paul Westerberg hollers himself hoarse over a simple-as-Sunday “fuck old people” lyrical conceit. Opening up the Stink EP, “Kids” is the finest pairing of the Replacements’ bratty fuck-all attitude to the rough n’ tough hardcore tension they tried (and failed) to perfect as a young band. If you don’t believe me, look to the album cover carrying a winning endorsement: “Kids Don’t Follow” Plus Seven.
“You’re Getting Married”
“Save it for your solo record,” Bob Stinson reportedly told Paul Westerberg after hearing this song, “That ain’t the Replacements.” High on melodrama and pained metaphors, it didn’t sound like any other Replacements song; Westerberg had never sounded this fragile or pleading before, devoid of any irony or humor. “Please don’t get married,” he asks over and over again to his former sweetheart, completely powerless. His voice carries what could’ve been a boilerplate whinefest across the finish line for one of the loneliest-sounding songs in the Replacements’ discography.
“Color Me Impressed”
Coming to you from the afterglow of a boozy party, “Color Me Impressed” starts with the trepidation of attending an awkward gathering, picks up around the time someone busts out the cocaine, and ends with trying to get up from the floor. A typical night out, basically. The Replacements did write a lot of songs about getting too wasted but the sonic dissimilarity prevents the formula from getting too tired, and “Color” benefits greatly from energetic rock tempo and Westerberg’s woozy delivery; check out those high notes as he wails, “Can you stand me on my feet?” In barely 150 seconds, they cycle through the entire timeline of a forgotten night.
“Take Me Down to the Hospital”
Sounding like the score to a state fair, “Take Me Down to the Hospital” imagines a night of heading to the hospital after having a heart attack. Fun fun fun! Bob Stinson’s guitar snarls and squawks over a real hillbilly bass line as Westerberg hollers and moans like a dog in heat. It’s one of the goofier songs the Replacements ever wrote, a sure bet to have started some mosh pits in 1983.
Sounding like the coda to a barroom brawl, “Treatment Bound” is a brothers-in-arm ode to being way, way too drunk. Paul Westerberg’s voice is somewhere between revelatory and depressed, like your buddy telling you, “Man, can you believe we did that shit?” Yes, yes, binge drinking is irresponsible and nothing to be proud of, but sometimes you feel like you can fight the world even when you can’t stand up. It ends with a studio snippet of Tommy Stinson telling Westerberg he screwed up a chord, and Westerberg’s mumbled response: “Fucked him up.”
“Within Your Reach”
While recording this song, Westerberg tried to hide it from the rest of the band because he was afraid it was too emotional or embarrassing; drummer Chris Mars found out, sat in on the session, and the result was the sweetest moment in their catalogue. It’s a vision of simple love where presence is more resonant than lust, where acknowledgment of affection is enough. Westerberg had always sounded nervous when singing about love, but on “Reach” he sounds cool-headed and surprisingly contemplative.
Chuck Klosterman once wrote that the genius of Paul Westerberg (and really, any songwriter) is how he could reinterpret his personal feelings into a song that thousands of people could think had been written just for them. “Unsatisfied” is supposedly about Westerberg’s personal anxiety over the way the Replacements were floundering in an underground scene, but with the unspecific lyrics and free-floating angst, it’s the best example of that “I wrote a song for everyone” genius. His voice nearly cracks as the song fades into him screaming “I’m so unsatisfied” over and over, a structure that a whinier singer could’ve blown but one that Westerberg, in hist most transparent display of emotion to date, completely killed. The song is a little too easy for any young creative type to empathize with, which is the point, I believe.
“I Will Dare”
The song that broke the Replacements as an underground force, “I Will Dare” is the band at their most romantic, pledging themselves to the kind of love that’s only supposed to exist in Cameron Crowe movies. “If you will dare, I will dare,” Westerberg sings above a gentle Tommy Stinson bassline and a mandolin solo assist from R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. Opening their breakthrough album Let It Be, “I Will Dare” was a bold affirmation of their musical ambition, a complete break from the jokey, tossed-off manner of their early albums and a college radio staple. Having the gall to name their biggest album after a Beatles classic? How daring.
Written for teenaged Tommy Stinson, robbed of a normal adolescence thanks to his burgeoning indie stardom (boo hoo!), “Sixteen Blue” adroitly captures the ennui and awkwardness of being a sensitive teenager. You know, the parts where you can’t get a date and wonder whether or not you might be gay. The normal stuff! Sixteen might not be the hardest age, as Westerberg claims but it sure feels that way sometimes; “Sixteen Blue” is kind of like a proto-”It Gets Better” project for confused teens across the country who don’t understand anything sexual, either.
A tender piano ballad not about being drunk, “Androgynous” tells the story of Dick and Jane, the model androgynous couple of the ‘80s. The narrative’s not quite clear, but Westerberg’s a sympathetic narrator, lamenting that the genderbending duo (Dick in a skirt, Jane wearing a chain) are unlikely to be accepted until they go back to wearing pants and a dress, respectively. He sings “Future outcasts and they don’t last,” knowing all too well the pressure to fit in.
“Here Comes A Regular”
It took Paul Westerberg four albums and one EP to sound this dejected. The Replacements had carried songs of woe and personal failure, but none so gloomily depressing as “Here Comes A Regular,” which closes Tim. From the opening lyric (”A person can work up a mean, mean thirst / After a hard day of nothing much at all”) to the way Westerberg’s voice inches closer and closer to despair with every “Here comes a regular / Calling out your name” refrain, “Regular” mirrors the band’s real-life anxiety over not hitting it big; the prospect of a life spent down and out in a small town, with nothing to look forward to but last call at the local watering hole. If it sounds farfetched, spend some time in the Midwest.
“Bastards of Young”
Aside from being a supreme distillation of Reagan-era apathy, “Bastards of Young” is also the Replacements’ calling card, the song that sums up their ethos in under four minutes of howling, arena-ready rock. Westerberg hits the cycle on youthful dissatisfaction: unfulfilled dreams, useless education, lack of a generational identity, the pain of filling out one’s taxes. His voice, the passionate and scratchy constant of every Replacements record, fills out the nondescript lyrics while a mournful Bob Stinson guitar solo does the emotional heavy lifting. And pardon the generalization, but it’s also one of indie rock’s best singalong songs; at the “Our Band Could Be Your Life” tribute concert held in NYC earlier this year, my concert companion remarked semi-seriously, “Where’s the ‘Bastards of Young’ All-Star jam session?”
“Left of the Dial”
That’s not a typo: the song title refers to a physical radio, and the college stations that would occupy the left side of the dial. “Left of the Dial” is about indie rock as much as it’s about love, as Westerberg imagines hearing a girl with whom he’d lost touch with on the radio, sandwiched in between all the music he loves. He pictures her getting older, playing in bars, trying to make it big–a female Westerberg, basically– while proclaiming,“If I don’t see you for a long, long while / I’ll try to find you left of the dial.” The years may have passed, but the music hasn’t. It’s enough to make you nostalgic.
“Alex Chilton” gets to the core of what it means to be a certain type of music fan, one who swears by the bands that no one else seems to love. Big Star, the band that Alex Chilton fronted in the ‘70s, was one of the all-time great cult bands that played to small crowds and broke up to smaller attention; it took years of being cited as an influence by bands like R.E.M., the Posies and of course, the Replacements, before they got their due. They might not have played to arenas, but being the subject of the best tribute song ever written is a nice consolation prize.
This song, off Pleased to Meet Me, found the Replacements in a weird spot: Bob Stinson had been kicked out of the band for boozing too hard, and the band was trying harder and harder to make a hit single that would never come. For all of their underground cred, they wanted to write a song that millions of people would love, the kind that Westerberg mythologizes on the chorus: “Children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ‘round / I’m in love, what’s that song? / I’m in love with that song.” You can hear it in the recording: the cleaned up production, the backing harmonies, the slightly hokey-but-stupidly-catchy outro where the instruments minus a cowbell drop out and it’s just Westerberg singing on his own. It’s the Replacements as they’d never sounded before, trying to make it big. It takes a certain kind of bravery to persevere in the face of obscurity, but I think it’s just as brave to admit that you want to make it at all.
“Can’t Hardly Wait”
A song so great they named a Jennifer Love Hewitt comedy classic after it, “Can’t Hardly Wait” boasts a very uncharacteristic horn section and one of Paul Westerberg’s most soaring vocal performances. The Replacements often couched their tenderness in melancholy or defeatism, but “Can’t Hardly Wait” has them sounding positively optimistic, even happy.
With a breeziness reminiscent of “I Will Dare,” “Talent Show” imagines the band performing at a, what else, talent show, paralleling their attempt to be accepted by larger audiences. They’ve slicked their hair, they’ve taken their pills, they’ve swallowed their nerves, they’re ready to go. “It’s too late to turn back, here we go,” Westerberg yodels as the song fades out, which is a metaphor for just about everything. It’s sweet and a little sad, like a lot of the best Replacements songs. (NOTE: Version I’ve linked is the studio demo, released on the remastered Don’t Tell A Soul album; it’s a little more pumped up and fun than the original.)
“I’ll Be You”
By the time the Replacements released Don’t Tell A Soul, they’d switched to an AOR-friendly sound, characterized by cleaned-up production and ruminative songwriting less heart-on-sleeve than they were known for. “I’ll Be You” is the finest hurrah of those adult-grown Replacements with Westerberg sounding more anxious than angry, asking “If it’s a temporary lull / Why’m I bored right out of my skull?” It’s a weariness that the band had been too angsty to previously pull off; it imagines a colorless life, not an overtly depressed one, and tries to pull out of the muck.