Music

Not So Incidental Music: A Dozen Essential Superchunk Songs

Mike Noren and Arnold Pan

Debunking the popular opinion that all Superchunk songs sound the same, PopMatters picks a dozen essential tracks from the Chapel Hill band's catalog that proves there's a lot more variety and craft to it than it's given credit for.

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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