Not So Incidental Music: A Dozen Essential Superchunk Songs

[21 August 2013]

By Mike Noren and Arnold Pan

Back in the early ‘90s, it would’ve been hard to imagine Superchunk still going strong almost 25 years later, much less elder statesmen to a few generations of indie rockers influenced by the Chapel Hill quartet. The brattiest band on the college rock scene, early-era Superchunk brashly called out bad bosses, less committed peers, and significant others, hardly the makings of a group that’s now almost avuncular in showing the youngsters how its done by leading by example. And you would’ve thought Superchunk’s revved-up, all-out punk-pop made ‘em a prime candidate for breaking down, burning out, or falling out, which could’ve happened a few times, most notably when the romantic relationship between founders Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance ended around the time of 1994’s Foolish and the extended hiatus between 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up and 2010’s Majesty Shredding.

Instead, Superchunk has survived and advanced because the foursome figured out how to change with the times, its music reflecting different stages of the band’s career and its members’ lives. Contrary to the popular opinion that all Superchunk songs sound the same, there’s more variety and craft to their ten albums and innumerable singles than they’re given credit for: Sure, most songs revolve around the combination of McCaughan’s overheated vocals, Ballance’s bounding bass, Jon Wurster’s primal drumming, and guitarist Jim Wilbur’s wisecracking energy, but they’ve stretched their prototypical power-punk form in more directions than you thought possible until you take the long view looking back.

That’s what we’re doing here with our list of a dozen essential Superchunk tracks, which toasts the release of the indie institution’s tenth full-length, I Hate Music. Another set of engrossing variations on the band’s main themes, I Hate Music proves the only thing that’s same old, same old about Superchunk is how consistently good it is, the one real thread connecting its “Slack Motherfucker” days to now.

12. “So Convinced” (1999)
(Come Pick Me Up)

As the 1990s came to an end, Superchunk adopted an increasingly complex approach to songcraft and an apparent openness to far-flung collaborators. 1999’s Come Pick Me Up could be considered Superchunk’s “headphones album”, a collection of relaxed, textured indie pop recorded with experimental musician/producer Jim O’Rourke and featuring a host of string and jazz musicians. “So Convinced”, the album’s short-but-sweet lead track, sets the tone early with a lighter touch and playful studio quirks. After the opening bubbles of distorted percussion, new elements join the mix piece by piece, with the heavy guitars finally taking over and accelerating through the finish. ~ Mike Noren

11. “Skip Steps 1 and 3” (1991)
(No Pocky for Kitty)

Even for a band as adrenalized and impatient as early Superchunk was, “Skip Steps 1 and 3” sounds fast and hyped up, its thrashy guitar riffs noticeably quicker and the rapid-fire drums going at double time—when McCaughan calls out, “Get to the point,” that’s exactly what he’s doing. However many steps are involved, Superchunk is definitely skipping a few on this prototypical punch-up, mashing the velocity and aggression of hardcore punk up with the beefy melodies of grunge-era indie rock. A fan favorite from 1991’s No Pocky for Kitty, “Skip Steps 1 and 3” comes off even better live, guaranteed to trigger more frenzied pogoing than just about any other entry on a Superchunk setlist. ~ Arnold Pan

10. “Everything at Once” (2010)
(Majesty Shredding)

For 2010’s Majesty Shredding, Superchunk’s first studio album after nearly a decade away, the group opted not to pick up where they left off and instead went back to the basics. Packed with fast tempos and loud guitars, the album set the studio fuss aside and focused on the rawer thrills of music making. Final track “Everything at Once” summed up the group’s universal appeal while also closing out the comeback with a victory lap: “Here’s a song about nothing, and everything at once…The feedback and the drums / Oh, the feeling noise becomes.” ~ Mike Noren


9. “For Tension” (1993)
(On the Mouth)

Superchunk never sounded so pent up and ready to explode—or implode?—as it did on 1992’s On the Mouth, something that’s as apparent as ever on “For Tension”. Aptly titled, “For Tension” is the most representative track on an album that’s buzzing and crackling with nervous energy, especially in the interplay between the snapping guitars, pulsing bass, and pounding beats. When McCaughan gets to the chorus and almost sneeringly asks, “For tension, guess what I use?,” the answer is open-ended, since what makes the number work so well is that you’re not sure whether “For Tension” only builds up that tension further or finds a release. ~ Arnold Pan

8. “Hyper Enough” (1995)
(Here’s Where the Strings Come In)

If there ever were a theme song for Superchunk, “Hyper Enough” is it. After all, is there a title to a song that more aptly describes the band that made it than “Hyper Enough” does for Superchunk? “Hyper Enough” certainly lives up to its name, a caffeinated blast of churning riffs, each jittery and antsy waiting its turn, only to jump the gun. And when McCaughan yelps out the chorus of “I think I’m hyper enough as it is!,” it’s at once a perfectly apt description of his musical persona as well as a profound understatement of what the song accomplishes. ~ Arnold Pan

7. “Martinis on the Roof” (1997)
(Indoor Living)

By 1997’s Indoor Living, Superchunk had broadened its approach, balancing full-speed rockers with gentler ballads and intricately crafted pop songs. “Martinis on the Roof”, the album’s closing track, finds Superchunk branching into new territory both sonically, with its ringing guitar tones and touch of xylophone, and lyrically. The lyrics describe offerings from a rooftop party—“Blue Ribbons and red wine”, “Cheetos and 100 proof”—but take a somber turn as more details unfold. McCaughan has said that the song deals with someone who was killed in a car accident, and the verses about friends returning to their daily lives and “trying to work it out” are some of his most affecting songwriting. ~ Mike Noren

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6. “Baxter” (1993)
(collected on Incidental Music 1991-1995)

An oddity among the band’s early-‘90s anthems, “Baxter” doesn’t storm out of the gate in typical Superchunk fashion, but it reaches the same heights in its own way. Rolling out with just bass and drums, the song takes shape as guitars punch in and out, alternately screeching, riffing, and seesawing. The lyrics read like disconnected fragments—a bloody chin, a scene from 1950, a man making jewelry for his daughter—but the song snaps into focus for each chorus of “He’s always happy about something.” Originally released on a hard-to-find seven-inch for Tsunami’s Simple Machines label, “Baxter” is one of several stray tracks that make the Incidental Music 1991-1995 compilation as essential as Superchunk’s proper albums. ~ Mike Noren

5. “Throwing Things” (1991)
(No Pocky for Kitty)

No song better expresses the range of moods that Superchunk evokes from hard-charging romanticism to tender-hearted sentiment than “Throwing Things” does in its two versions. The driving, dynamic melody of the plugged-in original from 1991’s No Pocky for Kitty finds Superchunk at its most desperate and pleading, with McCaughan striding headlong after the object of affections. But it’s the acoustic redo that’s the more lasting version of “Throwing Things”, the best-case scenario among the many strong unplugged renditions Superchunk has done to reinvent its own songs. The remake takes the piss and vinegar out of Mac’s anxious tone, as he comes off more earnest and yearning than ever when matched by the true, clear tone of his acoustic strum. ~ Arnold Pan

4. “Driveway to Driveway” (1994)

Careening at a mid-tempo pace with loping guitar lines, “Driveway to Driveway” was a big departure for Superchunk at precisely the moment the foursome’s turn in the spotlight came around. But “Driveway to Driveway” wasn’t just going against the grain of Superchunk’s own history as an indie prom ballad rather than a pogo-punk ditty, it flew in the face of what indie was supposed to be, circa 1994: Instead of tongue-in-cheek wordplay or sentimentality in quotes, Superchunk wore its heart on its sleeve more vulnerably than before here, touching on the break up of band principals Ballance and McCaughan most achingly as the latter crooned, “My hand on your heart had been replaced / And I thought it was you that I had chased / Driveway to driveway, drunk,” his voice breaking to his broken heart. The irony, of course, is that this atypical Superchunk song has turned out to be one of the songs the band is most identified with. ~ Arnold Pan

3. “Slack Motherfucker” (1990)
(collected on Tossing Seeds (Singles 89-91))

Few bands have cranked out as much high-quality, high-energy rock music as Superchunk, and even fewer have done so while members were running a record label as prolific as Merge. There’s no doubting the band’s work ethic, and yet Superchunk continues to be best known its track about loafing and smoke breaks, “Slack Motherfucker”. A classic early single and highlight of their self-titled debut album (1990), the song delivers either a slacker rallying cry or a rant about a lazy co-worker, depending on how you want to approach it. But more than anything, the song’s key line—“I’m working, but I’m not working for you”—feels like a defining statement from a band that’s always functioned on its own terms. ~ Mike Noren

2. “Cool” (1991)
(collected on Tossing Seeds (Singles 89-91))

“Slack Motherfucker” is generally cited as Superchunk’s quintessential Gen-X statement, but you could make a good case that “Cool” is the band’s more compelling early-era touchstone, both musically and thematically. There’s a more developed sense of build-up on “Cool” than there is in most of the group’s early material, coming up with more of a melodic payoff and a little more space for Superchunk to work with than normal. But it’s Mac’s state-of-the-scene musings that stand out, turning out to be prophetic for a band that probably didn’t imagine being around two decades down the line: When McCaughan crows, “There’s nothing new / Everything’s borrowed / Everything’s used,” he might as well be describing how Superchunk didn’t invent the punk-pop wheel, just ended up pushing it forward. Then comes the kicker, as he rounds out those lines declaring, “But we know it’s cool / And we’re cooler than you / And you know it’s true,” sentiments as true now as when they were first uttered in 1991. Now that’s cool. ~ Arnold Pan

1. “Detroit Has a Skyline” (1995)
(Here’s Where the Strings Come In)

As its title suggests, 1995’s Here’s Where the Strings Come In showed the band adding some new elements to its sound, but the album also took the time to perfect old formulas before moving on: “Detroit Has a Skyline” starts with a crash and launches into a full-speed guitar assault as vital as any in the band’s catalog. McCaughan’s vocals are equal parts angry and apologetic, dealing with a break-up by turning up the stereo, drunk dialing, and pleading for a second chance (“Meet me again / I won’t flake this time”). An acoustic version on the Cup of Sand (2003) compilation ramps up the regret and shows that the songwriting stands up even without the soaring guitars. ~ Mike Noren

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