The 25 Best Songs of the Posies
Power pop legends the Posies are still rolling along after 30 years. Here are 25 of their sublime career highlights.
The Posies are setting out on tour this spring, commemorating an impressive 30 years of music-making—a run that demands a retrospective. Throughout these last three decades, mainstay co-founders, co-songwriters and singers, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, have produced eight studio albums as the Posies, along with a prolific output through various solo excursions, side gigs, and collaborations. Some highlights of the non-Posies work: Stringfellow was a long-time sideman with R.E.M. (e.g. check out the keyboards on 2000's Reveal). And, in 1993, the leader of the legendary '70s power pop band Big Star, Alex Chilton, was short two original members of Big Star for a reunion show and brought on Auer and Stringfellow. Things went so well that the Posies duo remained members of Big Star throughout various projects over the next 17 years until Chilton's untimely death in 2010.
It began for Auer and Stringfellow early, when, barely out of high school, the pair self-produced and played all of the instruments on their debut, Failure, in 1988. That album put them on the map with a folk rock and psyche-tinged sound, best described as Simon and Garfunkel meet the Hollies. And that's not a stretch. The duo's songwriting was fully formed from the start, and their harmonizing spot-on. They gradually added some heavier rock guitar to their sound and became leaders in what was labelled a '90s power pop revival, along with Mathew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub, et al.
The Posies next three albums form the classic core of their catalogue. Dear 23 (1990) is mostly considered a pop-rock classic though its' reception is a bit mixed. Those less enthralled by the record have cited over-zealous production that makes the melodies and harmonies sound overly sweet and even a bit "precious". The other perspective (the right one) is that the album clearly shines and even shimmers, throughout, so much so that, yes, if you don't really give the record a chance, you might miss out. Indeed, this is one of those incredibly cohesive albums that demands to be heard in its entirety to really take it all in. At its' core, Dear 23 is really all heart and soul, and its' songwriting and vocal harmonizing, in particular, are stunning.
The Posies' bona-fide classic is Frosting on the Beater (1993), which saw the band maintain their melodic bent but with heavier, fuzzed out guitars, while a different production style more brought "the melodies and hooks into the forefront". (AllMusic) Frosting is a perfect blend of the Posies neo-Merseybeat melodies and some of the grungier guitar associated with Seattle at the time. (Of note, the album also happens to serve as a perfect yang (dark) to the yin (light) of Dear 23.) All of this brought consensus praise from critics, several song songs got radio play, and "Dream All Day" received regular rotation on MTV. For various reasons, mostly because the band's melodic and retro sounds did not fit the "grunge" label of their fellow Seattleites, the record didn't blow up like it might have.
The Posies' fourth album, Amazing Disgrace, featured a more aggressive take on power pop, and everything from some sweeping pop compositions to punk aggression. Geffen, for whatever reason, failed to promote the album, it languished, and the band was dropped from major label status.
Auer and Stringfellow had briefly broke up the band but were back together to record Success in 1998 (the title an ironic nod to the debut, Failure). Success neatly tied up the first five-album phase of the group. Perhaps because they were in a bit of transition as a band at the time, Success is uneven, but with some obvious highlights.
The Posies last three albums, Every Kind of Light (2005), Blood/Candy (2010) and Solid States (2016), mark a new era. Anytime a rock band goes and does something radical like matures, it can make a fan nervous. But the Posies have remained remarkably consistent and constantly moving forward in all of their endeavors. Both Auer and Stringfellow are also long-time producers of other acts, and they have wisely used that production experience to continue to innovate and keep things remarkably fresh in their own music.
To celebrate 30 years, below are one writer's choice for the 25 best songs from a great, long-lived rock band.
25. "Somehow Everything"
Straightforward, i.e. classic, pop-oriented rock music. A perfect mix of jangling and distorted guitars, strong vocals and harmonizing, and big hooks.
24. "My Big Mouth" (D23)
Fast, jangling guitar and a lot of youthful exuberance. The bright melody helps gloss over the subject matter: the protagonist may be caught in an infidelity, he does not know what to say about it, and is kind of hoping you don't ask a lot of questions. All done to fine musical and comedic effect.
23. "Fight It (If You Want)"
More classic power pop songwriting and a propulsive rhythm, a buzzing guitar, impassioned vocals, and lyrics that make you think about picking your battles ("You can fight it if it doesn't kill you").
22. "What Little Remains"
From their debut exactly three decades ago. Astonishingly mature and developed songwriting for then-nineteen and twenty-year-old songwriters. Holds up against anything. An infectious but affecting song about hashing out a troubled relationship and feeling left with very, very little.
Upbeat, guitar-heavy pop-rock with compelling yet murky imagery. Despite the positive vibes, some seriously foreboding lines pop up, yet the band chugs and bounces along, nonetheless. Thus, it is maybe a bit of sarcastic song about dark turns in life, but also about being able to get past it, and even sing about it, afterward.
Another gem from Success. Shares many of the qualities of "Somehow Everything" (beautifully distorted guitars, harmonies), but "Placebo" adds some dissonant effects for texture and is even better and catchier.
20. "Accidental Architecture"
A fascinating bit of psychedelia, and though far afield from their early work, it is still the Posies. Like so much of their newer phase, the songs take you exactly where you are not expecting them to go, and that is a good thing.
19. "The Longest Line"
A ridiculously catchy and confident tune from the debut whose vocals and pop songcraft sound like a veteran band hitting its' stride. Beautifully melds the Merseybeat and folk worlds.
Off of the first of their later-stage albums, "Conversations" is evolving power pop. It is built around a fantastic hook and chorus but the Posies add nuance to the quiet-loud dynamic, with the almost delicate finger picking to open the song, and strings, later.
17. "Licenses to Hide (Feat. Lisa Lobsinger of Broken Social Scene)"
Starts like a lounge-y piano song before taking several fascinating turns. Lobsinger's voice complimenting Stringfellow's is ideal. Innovative but restrained, or "coolly bombastic", as one reviewer put it. (Stereogum)
16. "You Avoid Parties"
Halfway into Dear 23 is this stark gem; an astonishingly honest account of watching an abused and hurt loved one's life slowly unravel. And all you can really do is observe. The emotional clarity here would make any psychotherapist proud. Indeed, there is honest music and lyrics and then there is devastatingly honest music and lyrics—this would be the latter. Still, the song shines, and stunning vocal harmonies and acoustic guitars deliver the story impeccably.
15. "Grant Hart"
"Grant Hart" is an homage to its' namesake, the drummer and co-songwriter of the famed melodic/hardcore band, Hüsker Dü. (Presumably the Posies were influenced by the Replacements' homage "Alex Chilton".) This is a true punk-pop masterpiece with thrashing guitars but maintaining a great melody, throughout. Stringfellow rips his guts out, relating what a new Hüsker Dü release meant to him as a teen with his friends, sitting on the couch smoking weed. He also notes what a gift those records would be to a new generation of otherwise "nervous children", no doubt referring to Kurt Cobain, and others.
Deeply textured with the strings sounding orchestral at times, all offset by crashing guitars, and building to a blissed-out melody and harmonies. A song that captures the truly timeless and sublime feel of Dear 23—and delivers a powerful and heartfelt apology: "Take me back - teach me / Take me back – apology / I never meant to be and I won't take much with me / Just an open mind and a second nature."
13. "Squirrel Vs Snake"
Again, Auer and Stringfellow are veteran producers at this point, and that is very clear on this 2016 track. It sounds effortless, yet extremely sophisticated, at the same time: Power Pop 2.0. The lyrics seem to cover everything (from Ivanhoe to Bronies!) but it's interesting to follow along. From a PopMatters writer reviewing this track when it came out: "It's a credit to their talent that they can step into 2016 with an album that fits seamlessly into a music landscape that includes bands at least 20 years younger."
12. "Second Time Around"
Vocals and melodies are a given in a Posies' song. Here, though, roaring guitars and a brilliant use of effects otherwise create an even more remarkable and fresh sound.
11. "I May Hate You Sometimes"
Merseybeat energized and updated for a new generation. A song from The Posies' debut that instantly established the band's credibility as songwriters, singers, harmonizers, and versatile musicians. Spoiler: love wins in the end.
10. "¿Will You Ever Ease Your Mind?"
"¿Will You Ever Ease Your Mind?" is incredibly ambitious pop music and thoroughly successful. A song that brings together more stunning choruses and harmonies, some well-placed country twangs, power chords, and moments of pure relief.
Few guitarists can make fuzzy dissonance as moving and as warm as Auer does here. Fully developed power pop songwriting with hooks that stick in your brain. A song about not wanting to "think and…feel" that makes you think and feel.
8. "Dream All Day"
The first track off of Frosting. With "Dream All Day" getting significant MTV play, the band was branded retro-psychedelia, which fits this song but not really so much the rest of the album, even. Further, the mainstream youth culture of the early and mid-'90s was leaving any '60s and hippie references behind for something new that they could call their own: i.e. grunge, alternative, and hip hop.
Auer sings about dreams and how important they are—but also how they can be a trap, as well: "Where everything is reachable/Imagining is safe." The song's dreamy quality and airy chorus are grounded by hammering drums and, especially, Auer's substantial, psyche-tinged guitar work.
7. "Any Other Way"
Another one of the stunning tracks from Dear 23 that make the album so transcendent. A fantastic blend of shimmering guitars and soaring harmonies captures the experience of joy and relief felt when some relationships end.
6. "Flavor of the Month"
Another all-time power pop track; alt/British Invasion, with power riffs and ringing guitars, done the Posies way. An upbeat comment on, and powerful counter to, the disposable nature of popular music.
5. "Burn & Shine"
As the album Frosting on the Beater moves along, its' real depth and emotional resonance comes through. By the time you get to "Burn and Shine," track six of twelve, you are in deep. It is heavy and nearly dark, but with warm, fuzzed out guitar. It feels hazy, with some wondrously vague lyrics, including Native American, pop cultural references, e.g. Hiawatha, and a reference to the story of the Phoenix?
4. "Flood of Sunshine"
The album closer for Dear 23 is an overwhelming and transcendent, eight-plus minute epic. Both the guitars and the vocals are as good as shimmering, soaring guitars and vocals can get; Auer has three separate solos and it is not too many. Stringfellow embraces it: "We could drown ourselves in a flood of sunshine / We could walk all night still I'd see sunshine."
3. "Golden Blunders"
"Golden Blunders" may well be the Posies best pop song; absurdly catchy and almost joyous. Like "Ontario," the music oddly belies a serious lyrical topic, here a couple having a child too young and regretting it: "Four weeks seemed like a long time then / But nine months is longer now / But even if you never speak again / You've already made the wedding vow."
The song title is a spoof on "Golden Slumbers" from Abbey Road (and, interestingly enough, "Golden Blunders" was in turn covered by Ringo Starr). Chiming guitars and immaculate vocals are repeatedly jolted forward by the rhythm section and a raucous, sing-along chorus. The music reference guide MusicHound once wrote that the Posies had seemed "to have perfected pop music, almost to the point of sheer brilliance", and this song is no doubt a major reason why.
2. "Coming Right Along"
While Dear 23 closes with an epic song of triumphant optimism, epic Frosting closer "Coming Right Along" is perhaps an even greater feat: optimism with little evidence to support such a view.
The song (which was also on the popular Basketball Diaries soundtrack), is a very drawn out six minutes and twenty seconds, but utterly compelling throughout. Perhaps the best summation of "Coming Right Along," randomly enough, comes from rap star/actress Queen Latifah. In an aside in an otherwise unrelated interview, Latifah mentioned of the song among other things, "When I feel like I'm blue, I put that record on and take myself even deeper." (SF Gate)
Auer sings of that place where eternal and timeless love…has given way to a very real, and unequivocally final, nothing: "Feed the daytime with indifference / Watch the twilight starve the sun / Shuffle home against the darkness / Turn the key and bite your tongue."
The only assurance is Auer's steady voice imploring someone to stay the course despite an obviously consuming darkness: "So pleeeeease, be strong…" The slightly tortured, bottom-heavy guitars of Auer and Stringfellow interplay, and slowly, barely, creep along. A droning bass helps carry a rhythm that seems like it could fall apart at any moment. Odd, disconcerting notes ring out. (All harkening back to some of the emotionally desolate moments of Big Star's Third album.) The guitar solo is unsteady and unsettling—but still melodic.
There are no drums and the effect for the listener is to lose track of time and be just left out there, sort of floating. There doesn't seem to be any guarantee that you will even make it to the end of the song, mostly just the assurances and support of a friendly voice repeating: "You don't know it, but you're coming right along" throughout.
1. "Solar Sister"
Another track from Frosting on the Beater, and perhaps the quintessential Posies song, and certainly a quintessential power pop song. It is a transcendent take on Mersey Beat-meets-psychedelia, and heavy-but-melodic rock guitar. Auer proves himself be a top guitarist here; a Pitchfork writer called his solo on "Solar Sister" "jawdropping", and that sounds about right.
Stringfellow sings the first line with an urgency; pretty, but urgent. Auer then joins in the second line and the song quickly drops down into an easy groove. It goes back and forth like that, urgent-groove, building momentum, until it breaks wide open with Auer's brilliant, distorted solo.
The lyrics are a bit mysterious (although they reference a 1900 novel, Sister Carrie), but Stringfellow definitely sings about a girl, "Carrie", and an "arrow from" presumably Cupid's "quiver". Stringfellow mentioned of the song in live footage that "It's kind of an anthem of admiration for a person that maybe doesn't appreciate themselves," before adding, "it's woven into all sorts of mysterious things, mystical perhaps." He seems to be joking about the second part, but it sounds spot-on.
Not everyone cares for the power pop moniker the Posies often get tabbed with, as it can be thrown around to include everything from the universally beloved harder rock of a Cheap Trick, for example, to less-beloved, lightweight bands or even the bubblegum style of, say, a Bay City Rollers. But when power pop is done well, it is arguably as pure as modern rock and roll gets. It is, after all, what launched the early Beatles into the stratosphere.
Classic songwriting and power chords, perfectly fused with great melodies and harmonies. Visceral but exhilarating. That sums up "Solar Sister"—as well as much of the Posies' considerable catalogue.
- Jon Auer: Songs from the Year of Our Demise - PopMatters ›
- The Posies: Solid States - PopMatters ›
- The Posies: Blood / Candy - PopMatters ›
- Ken Stringfellow: Danzig in the Moonlight - PopMatters ›