It seems that sometime around 1998, mainstream pop music fell apart. After enjoying almost seven years of interesting musical phases — sparked, initially, by Nirvana and grunge, then later by Green Day, Brian Setzer, and countless others — popular music finally divided itself firmly into teen pop and angsty hard rock a la Korn and Limp Bizkit.
And then there were the Barenaked Ladies.
They defy classification, and that’s probably why they hit so big in the summer of 1998 with the inescapable “One Week”. But like so many fun-loving, catchy, plays-well-on-all-formats bands before them, they became the victims of a horrible backlash, and of course became incredibly uncool.
To truly give an overview of the Barenaked Ladies’ career, it’s necessary to rewind a bit. Long before “One Week” and TRL performances, the Barenaked Ladies were a cheeky acoustic act from Canada. Their unassuming debut album Gordon became an unexpected smash in Canada, selling truckloads despite the band’s geeky, awkward demeanor (look no further than the original Gordon cover art, which featured each band member doing silly things like flinching, and also featured vocalist Ed Robertson looking nothing like the moderate sex symbol that he’s become). They were a hit precisely because they were so endearing. Because they sang songs about how, if they had a million dollars, they’d buy Kraft dinner, fans felt they could throw macaroni at the band while they were onstage. College students, in particular, warmed to their smirking pop-culture references and rousing live shows. They became, in short, our friends.
The two albums that followed Gordon only built upon that legacy. Maybe You Should Drive and Born on a Pirate Ship are probably the band’s two most overlooked albums now, but they’re actually the best. After dispensing with the limited all-acoustic formula of the debut, Barenaked Ladies turned out the two most diverse and charming records of their career. The songwriting began to take many cues from classic XTC (take a listen to “I Know” from Born on a Pirate Ship), even if the sound was now all over the place. For every rocker (“Alternative Girlfriend”, “The Old Apartment”), there were ballads (“When I Fall” and the show-stopping “Break Your Heart”), pure pop numbers (“Shoe Box”), and lots of weirdness (any of bassist Jim Creeggan’s tracks).
At this point, one could rightfully say that the Barenaked Ladies were one of the bands most deserving of a commercial breakthrough. They had the songs and the charm to be big. And that’s when the live album Rock Spectacle stepped in. While not exactly an accurate portrait of the band’s live show — it included almost none of the witty banter or on-the-spot songwriting for which they became known — it did give U.S. fans a digestible portrait of the Barenaked Ladies.
“Brian Wilson”, pulled from that album, became an unexpected hit, despite the fact that the original came out on Gordon years earlier. In the following nine months or so, radio warmed to parts of the band’s back catalog, particularly “The Old Apartment” and “If I Had $100000”, sending the message to everyone that they’d been missing something all along.
Then things began to really change.
“One Week”, the incessantly catchy folk-rap-rock-pop lead single from their fourth proper album Stunt became a huge hit. The Barenaked Ladies were originally scheduled to play an in-store performance at a Boston Newbury Comics store on the night before release. Demand was so high that the concert was moved outdoors because of an expected crowd of 1,000 to 1,500. It’s estimated that over 40,000 actually showed up.
And so began the whirlwind in which the Barenaked Ladies went from being a charming underground success to an annoying mainstream success. Things went wrong precisely because part of the band’s original charm was their accessibility. They were your band. They were your friends. They were “average” guys. But then they became huge. They were on TRL. They sold millions. They weren’t your band anymore. Your friends forgot about you. And that was sad.
And, at the same time, Stunt lacked some of that same charm that was smattered all over the earlier records. It was a fine enough album, but it felt like more the work of any-old-band than the earlier material. And that lack of charm isn’t as easy a thing to pin down as something more concrete, like poor production or weak songwriting; it was something more abstract, and something that just kind of bugged a lot of the long-time fans.
Two years later, in late summer 2000, Maroon, the follow-up to Stunt, was released. It was a textbook example of “two steps forward and one step back”; while the band did manage to re-energize themselves and restore some of their earlier charm, especially on songs like “Conventioneers” and “Baby Seat”, the album’s lyrics became strangely dark and cynical. The album’s big hit “Pinch Me” was a virtual re-write of “One Week”, only with a slowed tempo and a lyric about dealing with everyday depression. The album’s closer “Tonight Is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel” was particularly terrifying. It left many wondering where it all went wrong.
Now the Barenaked Ladies have released Disc One: All Their Greatest Hits (1991-2001), a career retrospective covering from Gordon right on through Maroon and including two new tracks as well as two previously rare non-album tracks. And thankfully, it does their career a great deal of justice. Because now that their whirlwind popularity is winding down, now that the last two singles from Maroon failed to take off like “Pinch Me” or anything on Stunt, the Barenaked Ladies have finally sunk back below the saturation level in pop culture.
The truth is that the Barenaked Ladies were one of the best mainstream pop/rock bands of the 1990s, and these 19 tracks will do right by newer fans who may have missed some of the great early material as well as old fans who want to get reacquainted. Even the making of the album is representative of the Barenaked Ladies relative good will — they included “Get in Line”, a minor hit from the otherwise awful King of the Hill soundtrack, as well as the Bruce Cockburn cover “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”, previously only available as a B-side or on a long out-of-print tribute album. Fans were originally invited to vote on whether “Be My Yoko Ono” or “Alternative Girlfriend” would be included, but when the results were so close — with “Yoko Ono” maintaining a slight edge — the band decided to include both. While so many “Greatest Hits” albums intentionally leave off hits to entice fans to buy more of the albums, Disc One includes every one of the Barenaked Ladies radio singles.
It’s no surprise that there are two new tracks tacked on either. Fans will of course be the most interested in these and, if anything, the most surprising thing about both is that they barely sound radio-ready at all. The first of the two, Steven Page’s “It’s Only Me (The Wizard of Magicland)” is a Knack-like power-popper, complete with fuzzy, tick-tick-ticking guitars reminiscent of the early Cars singles. The other new song, Ed Robertson’s “Thanks That Was Fun”, is a pensive, decidedly “adult” ballad about a failing relationship. Although it sounds like many of the Barenaked Ladies latter-day hits, it lacks immediacy, and probably won’t play as well on radio. But both of these songs are, thankfully, pretty good. Not Barenaked Ladies classics by any means, but like a lot of their catalog, they’re very easy to like.
Really serious fans will be curious about which versions of the hits appear here, since most of them have appeared in various recorded forms, and some may be disappointed. “The Old Apartment” had a slightly superior single mix with a longer intro, but the album version is featured here. Also, the “2000” version of “Brian Wilson”, mocked briefly in the liner notes, is the version that became the hit in 1997 and it is unavailable anywhere but on the out-of-print single. While the live version included is certainly fine, it would have been nice to see the rare single mix here. And it wasn’t a bad choice to include the live versions (taken from “Rock Spectacle”) of “Brian Wilson” and “What a Good Boy”, but it would’ve been nice if “If I Had $1000000” had appeared in live form, both because it is a concert staple and because the original album mix is comparatively bland. This is all nit picking, though, and thankfully “Shoe Box” does appear in its excellent single mix.
The album’s packaging is worthy of note as well; the CD label looks just like a CD-R with the title is mock-handwritten as if scrawled with a Sharpie. And the liner notes are fantastic as they include two essays (one of which is more of a band history) and a great track-by-track commentary written by Steven Page.
While Disc One is not going to convince non-fans that the Barenaked Ladies really weren’t just another packaged pop/rock band, it is probably the most convincing portrait of their talents available. And at the same time, it may well be a not-so-subtle way to end the “superstar” chapter of their career. As the new songs suggest, the band may be less concerned with Billboard and TRL, and may have a renewed interest in songwriting, with less focus on writing another number one hit. And that alone should make anyone with a passing interest stop and take a listen to these 19 tracks because, despite platinum albums and a number one hit single, the Barenaked Ladies are still — and always will be — your band.