Pop Culture

33 Years in the Key of Jangle

A buddy of mine recently asked me to introduce him to some new old music. He’s a sideman for one of the other artists on tour, and, like me, he’s a bit of an outsider—in his case, a brooding indie rocker wondering how in the hell he landed this kinda gig. His parameters for the music mix included something that sounded like that commercial for the Time-Life compilation that had “Turn Turn Turn” by The Byrds, and stuff that feels good for the same reason jangle pop feels good. He explained himself in more detail, but I was too busy joking to myself that he should just take a Xanax and watch Forrest Gump, the best medicine for a dark and stormy Gen-Yer’s ill humor.

Regardless, I got the gist and I was happy to oblige. But where to begin? In this, the Aristotelian phase of my self-education, I’m all about categories. I considered initially the artists properly associated with jangle pop, which for me begins with The Soft Boys’ A Can of Bees in 1979 and ends with Robyn Hitchcock’s Greatest Hits in 1996. The space between—specifically in the ’80s—owes its salad days to artists like R.E.M., The Replacements, and Camper Van Beethoven. It’s the kinda music that says, “The tinnier my guitar sounds, the closer I am to actually caring about something/anything.” (But more on Todd Rundgren later.) These are the stalwarts of jangle pop, and their music along with that of some satellite bands—The dB’s, The Feelies, The Bangles, etc.—would suffice for making a taut (read: boring) compilation.

But I like a more flavorful gumbo, so I broadened the rules. First, a wider timespan, five to ten years on each side. This allowed me to trace the ancestry of jangle from genres on the tail end like ’60s garage rock, ’70s power pop, and punk to subsequent genres like ’90s alternative, American trad rock, and twee pop. Second, I emancipated the mix from the electric guitar. A huge compilation of Stratocaster and 12-string Rickenbacker rock would just drive my buddy’s dogs crazy. This also opened up the possibility of including some outside DIYers like Daniel Johnston and They Might Be Giants. Third, I let the story tell itself. Is Portishead jangle pop? Nay, but what else am I gonna place between Stereolab and Belle & Sebastian? Besides, nothing jangles harsher than the sig lick (signature guitar lick) on “Sour Times.”

Having opened up to these new possibilities, I ran the risk of making a mess instead of a mix. My music collection has at least 30,000 songs that could make the cut on this comp, which surprised me because I’m not necessarily a rabid jangle pop fan. So I had my work cut out for me, but Papa Stravinsky trained me well, and I know which temporal limitations to set to keep this baby tapping tight. First, I placed everything in strict chronological order. Knowing which essentials to bullet—“I Will Dare,” “Fall On Me,” etc.—gave me checkpoints to guide the way from 1968-2000. Second, I went with compact disc format (perhaps nostalgically). This breaks the mix into two acts, each having its own contour (two beginnings, middles, and ends) and telling its own part of the story.

Third, I flew my dork flag and analyzed the harmonic progression from song to song. The importance of this is not within the scope of this piece to explain to non-musicians, but I’ll illustrate with a metaphor. Harmony, the vertical aspect of music, is like gravity. A musical key is like riding along a curve in some vessel, and to transition haphazardly to random or distant keys would cause something like motion sickness to a careful listener, musical or not. At the very least, bad harmonic progression frays the thread of the narrative.

One more thing before the list: this is not a pedantic librarian’s look at the genre of jangle. It’s a discourse between loose associates of jangle pop and is intended to provide a rich listening experience with a spirit all its own. And so, click-picked from my own collection, here’s the result.

Ringing Metallic: 33 Years in the Key of Jangle

Disc One

1. “Open My Eyes” by The Nazz (Todd Rundgren’s band before Runt), 1968

2. “Sweet Jane” by The Velvet Underground, 1970

3. “Baby Blue” by Badfinger, 1971

4. “Go All the Way” by The Raspberries, 1972

5. “September Gurls” by Big Star, 1974

6. “So It Goes” by Nick Lowe, 1976

7. “Positive Vibrations” by The Soft Boys, 1980

8. “Private Idaho” by The B-52s, 1980

9. “Tally Ho” by The Clean, 1981

10. “Cynical Girl” by Marshall Crenshaw, 1982

11. “Speeding Motorcycle” by Daniel Johnston, 1983

12. “I Will Dare” by The Replacements, 1984

13. “Hero Takes a Fall” by The Bangles, 1984

14. “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” by R.E.M., 1984

15. “In Between Days” by The Cure, 1985

16. “Kiss Me On the Bus” by The Replacements, 1985

17. “Take the Skinheads Bowling” by Camper Van Beethoven, 1985

18. “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus & Mary Chain, 1985

19. “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” by The Smiths, 1986

20. “Fall On Me” by R.E.M., 1986

21. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House, 1986

22. “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order, 1986

23. “Don’t Let’s Start” by They Might Be Giants, 1986

24. “Block of Wood” by The Bats, 1987


Disc Two

1. “Love Goes On” by The Go-Betweens, 1988

2. “Everyday Is Like Sunday” by Morrissey, 1988

3. “Victoria” by The Fall, 1988

4. “Birthday” by Sugarcubes, 1988

5. “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward” by Billy Bragg, 1988

6. “She Bangs the Drums” by The Stone Roses, 1989

7. “So You Think You’re in Love” by Robyn Hitchcock, 1991

8. “All I Want” by Toad the Wet Sprocket, 1991

9. “The Freed Pig” by Sebadoh, 1991

10. “Summer Babe [Winter Version]” by Pavement, 1992

11. “Son of a Gun” by The Vaselines, 1992

12. “Until I Fall Away” by Gin Blossoms, 1992

13. “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows, 1993

14. “Chickamauga” by Uncle Tupelo, 1993

15. “Last Goodbye” by Jeff Buckley, 1994

16. “Ping Pong” by Stereolab, 1994

17. “Sour Times” by Portishead, 1994

18. “Seeing Other People” by Belle & Sebastian, 1996

19. “Nous Ne Sommes Pas des Anges” by Heavenly, 1996

20. “Jaques Lamure” by Of Montreal, 1999

21. “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” by The Magnetic Fields, 1999

22. “Legal Man” by Belle & Sebastian, 2000


Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.