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 progenitorial 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)—they just 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.)
And in case you haven’t heard, the Replacements just announced a new EP of cover material and hinted at a reunion (“reunion” in giant bunny-ear fingers quotation marks, that is). And there’s good reason to be apprehensive: lead guitarist Bob Stinson, who was so essential to the early Replacements’ sound, died in 1995, so naturally he will not be contributing to these recordings. Drummer Chris Mars has simply decided not to take part, and I’m not entirely sure I can blame him. However, even if this is merely a Westerberg cash-grab (nobody’s perfect), it still means if the band, in whichever incarnation, hits the road again, we will hear timeless Replacements classics in their complete, full-band form once more. And there’s nothing I wouldn’t pay to witness that.
In the meantime, here’s a rundown their top 15 songs. Bon appétit.
(Stink EP, 1982)
Supposedly, Twin/Tone Records founder Peter Jesperson was convinced that “Kids Don’t Follow” off Stink had hit potential, and it’s easy to hear why—this was the probably the first truly indelible song the Replacements recorded, and if nothing else, it suggested Westerberg had plenty of burgeoning brilliance even he was likely unaware of. Easily the most realized song from the ‘Mats early period.
The closing track to the Replacements’ major label debut, Tim, feels out-of-place on a record packed to the rafters with rowdy fist-pumpers, but the juxtaposition only contributes to its effectiveness as the final cut. It’s no secret that Westerberg (not to mention the other members of the group) was a fan of the bottle, but this penchant isn’t glamorized in “Here Comes A Regular”. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: this is the portrait of an abject alcoholic at his most desperate, desolate and dependent, set to a haunting acoustic guitar track that chugs along gracelessly (the guitar almost sounds like a sonic representation of Westerberg stumbling out of a bar at 3 AM). The dismally ironic “Here comes a regular / Am I the only one here today?” is one of Westerberg’s greatest lines. Table for one, please.
If “Kids Don’t Follow” heralded what was to come, “Color Me Impressed” was its announcement—this is the first Replacements song that sounds like a Replacements song, and while the group had yet to shed its hardcore guise completely, virtually none of that aesthetic infiltrated “Color Me Impressed”. The song is a trenchant criticism of exclusionary hipster culture—ironically the same culture that was prone to embrace a band like the Replacements—that predates Weezer’s “Undone (The Sweater Song)” by over a decade: “Everybody at your party, they all look depressed / Everybody dressing funny, color me impressed”. The contrast between the song’s two sections is startling (and how about that bizarre solo?), and almost sounds like the band is actively alternating between the convulsive, discordant ‘Mats of the past and the starry-eyed, ebullient ‘Mats of the future. I’m happy with the decision they made, ultimately.
(Let It Be, 1984)
There really isn’t another song in the Replacements’ entire oeuvre quite like “Androgynous”, musically or conceptually. It’s a gorgeous little vignette about two gender-ambiguous kids deeply in love with each other. Unusual for Westerberg, his lyrics here carry ideological weight, but he doesn’t get too preachy. The moral is just that “Dick” and “Jane” (the two characters in the song’s narrative) share an insurmountable love and are unaffected by people’s prejudices towards their unconventional sexual proclivities, and that one day they know people will reflect on the ridicule once leveled against them and feel ashamed, as we do now about outdated, once-practiced societal norms that seem ridiculous in hindsight. In the chorus, Westerberg brilliantly describes the two characters as being “closer than you know”, which suggests both the love they share for one another is unfathomable to anyone on the outside, and that sexual identity is ultimately inconsequential because sexuality is ultimately fluid—in other words, everyone is basically the same. So yeah, its inclusion on this list is a no-brainer.
“Left of the Dial” is one of Paul Westerberg’s tenderest love songs. That’s right—allegedly written about one of the members of Let’s Active, it inadvertently became a call to arms for proponents of college radio and the indie scene in the 1980s and ‘90s. Both interpretations seem valid, and perhaps one was intended to conceal the other. The line “Whose side are you on?” was appropriated by punks for use as sort of a DIY gauntlet, but clearly Westerberg had more in mind here: the line “I headed up north, you headed north” sound like it could be an allusion to the two bands touring parallel to each other; he “reads about her band in some local rag” but it “doesn’t mention her name”. If he misses her, he feels comfort knowing he can always hear her “left of the dial”, which is a reference to college radio stations and also possibly the receiver on a pay phone. This song should resonate with anybody who’s been separated from somebody they love for an insufferable length of time. An all-time alt-rock classic and another obvious addition to the list.