5. “I Will Dare” (Let It Be, 1984)Let It Be is often considered to be the Replacements’ most eclectic record, but “I Will Dare” is without a doubt the band’s most consumable and forthright pop song — it has more in common with groups like the dBs and Let’s Active than the Mats’ Minneapolis conspecifics Hüsker Dü and Soul Asylum. There’s an uncharacteristic lack of aggression here (unsurprisingly, Peter Buck from R.E.M. contributes a guest guitar track), as the guitars jangle brightly and the drums innocuously shuffle along. The honky-tonk solo and mandolin present during the last verse speak to the group’s breadth of taste, which ultimately distinguished it from competitor bands. “I Will Dare” is the Replacements’ best opener from their most consistent record, and it easily belongs within the top five.
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.