Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at email@example.com.
What artist or band has the best B-sides? — Brian from Long Beach
Hey Brian, thank you for this question and for making me feel extremely old. We are probably at least one generation removed from a music culture in which B-sides are a relevant concept. But for those of us who remember our most precious B-sides, they remain eternally romantic.
Just so we’re all on the same page: Back in the days when physical media was the only game in town, a single — whether it was a 45, a cassingle, or a CD — would have at least one additional track to accompany the headliner (or A-side) song. Often, this was a deep cut from the most recent album or a live number recorded during a contemporary tour. But sometimes these extra songs would be original tunes not available in any other format. And for certain acts, these B-sides were as good as the A-sides, maybe even better.
In the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, acts such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Queen would frequently put out what were essentially double A-sided singles, in which a classic like “Strawberry Fields Forever” was backed with another classic such as “Penny Lane,” or “We Are The Champions” was inevitably supported by “We Will Rock You.” While you can technically count “We Will Rock You” as a B-side, it doesn’t have the spirit of a real B-side, which to me is the kind of song reserved for the select few who are obsessive enough to track down everything an artist has ever put out. It’s not the obvious hit that everyone likes; it’s the small but invaluable reward for the truly devoted.
As someone who came of age as a music fan in the ’90s, I have a soft spot for the extremely inconvenient but ultimately fun process of tracking down singles for precious B-sides by acts like Pavement, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, and Modest Mouse. Sometimes, this meant paying ridiculously exorbitant import prices. In the streaming age, in which all songs are basically equally accessible, the B-side idea is positively archaic. You can find classic B-sides collections like The Smiths’ Louder Than Bombs, R.E.M.’s Dead Letter Office, Nirvana’s Incesticide, Ice Cube’s Bootlegs And B-Sides, and Smashing Pumpkins’ Pisces Iscariot — or even some of the original singles releases that originated the B-sides — right next to the regular albums. There are no buried treasures in this space, no “B” tracks. (Or, maybe, there are no “A” tracks because practically everything is kind of buried now.)
Anyway, back to your question: My love of B-sides is related both to the quality of the songs and the difficulty in tracking them down. So, for me, the answer to this question will always be Oasis. In the mid-’90s, I spent a small fortune on their import singles and was always rewarded with excellent material. My favorite all-time Oasis song is a B-side, “Acquiesce,” and other B-side classics such as “Talk Tonight,” “Step Out,” “Fade Away,” and “Listen Up” are right up there. Eventually, many of these songs ended up on the compilation The Masterplan, but I still swear by the actual singles. Anyone can buy the budget-priced one-stop compilation, but the magic of B-sides is that the hunt bonds you even closer to the artists and bands you love. Sometimes, scarcity makes the heart grow fonder.
I had such a fun time reading this article. Scrolling through some of these videos, I can’t help but notice how much the good old fashioned organ adds to a song and/or live performance. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that pretty much every song I’ve heard with an organ has only benefited from it. So my question is: Has there ever been a song where the organ made it worse? I would bet you money that the answer is no. — Jesse from Washington, D.C.
This is difficult for me, Jesse, because I am hopelessly biased in favor of the organ, probably more than the average listener. (Perhaps even more than you, a fellow avid organ fan.) How biased? I recently wrote a column defending The Doors, for crying out loud. If I like The Doors, I’m probably going to be on board with any band who uses an organ.
But what is it about this instrument that is so appealing, whether we’re talking about The Band, The Walkmen, Alabama Shakes, Jimmy Smith, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Booker T. and The MG’s, or many others? For me, a good organ sound adds an infusion of atmosphere and warmth. It’s the smoke machine of music — it makes any song sound more alluring, more mysterious, and ultimately more inviting. When you hear an organ, you know something profound is about to unfold. Or it might be the first sign of a party. The sound evokes both the church and the circus. Whatever it is, you know you will feel something.
I can think of examples of songs that I would like less if there were no organ. I’m not sure, for instance, if “Whiter Shade Of Pale” is actually a great song, or if I just like the organ part. I’m also not sure if I would like Clinic’s Internal Wrangler as much if there were no organ. There are countless Americana acts that I have talked myself into liking because some dude laid a little Hammond over otherwise uninspired songs. (Along with being the smoke machine of music, it’s also the avocado of music — add it to any dish, and I’ll probably eat it.) It’s just a very soothing and stirring sound for me. Liking a song more without an organ seems inconceivable.
As a geriatric millennial, over the past few years I’ve been consumed with the concept of aging in popular music and what I’ve noticed as the now-predictable rock star trajectory that goes from initial acclaim as artists break onto the scene to disdain and mockery as they become legacy acts and then finally to reclamation as elderly survivors of the music biz. One can certainly argue that it’s a case of what was once novel, fresh and energetic giving way to formula and over-familiarity, but I’m curious about what it says on a larger scale: apparently the only vital music is made by people in their 20s and 30s and is about being at that point in your life? On the other hand, I want to understand more about life in middle age through the prism and perspective of the artists I love. Is there any interesting music out there by legacy acts in their middle period that is still considered vital and has a consensus of quality? — Derek from Vancouver
The short answer to this question is “absolutely.” There are so many examples that it would feel odd to list them here; I’m sure I would leave off many deserving names just for the sake of space. But I would argue that most legacy acts put out music that is worth checking out. Nobody sustains a career for more than 20 years by sucking. If you endure, there is inevitably something about your work that is valuable and it’s up to the listener to figure out what it is.
I feel like this question is based on a common fallacy that I have also been guilty of at times, which is putting too much stock in opinions expressed via social media. For instance, a lot of people (including me!) had fun recently with the lineup of the Just Like Heaven festival, cracking jokes about it being a nostalgia trip for millennials. Now, you can look at this one-day viral happening and believe it’s a statement about the bands involved. But it’s really not. It’s about the people making the jokes. In the case of Just Like Heaven, I saw a lot of people making jokes to compensate for insecurities about their own mortality. The aging bands were just signifiers of that mortality.
You see this in the opposite direction, too. I have no doubt about the sincerity about middle-aged people loving, say, Olivia Rodrigo. But in a social media sphere, there is certainly a kind of capital related to an older person being conversant with young-people culture. It’s a preference people are more likely advertise, because it plays into the vanity of those most likely to obsess over What Is Happening At This Very Instant. It’s a signifier of conquering mortality.
I agree with you that at some point this curves toward a more positive view of legacy acts, who if they stick around for 30 years or more become celebrated for their immortality. But this again has a lot do with the audience. The most vocal supporters now of people like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, or Bruce Springsteen are younger generations who came to those artists when they were already old. It’s a different audience from the people who knew those artists when they were young and then watched them age as they themselves aged. To a certain generation, those artists are like monuments, and therefore ageless. It’s like saying you’re into the Statue Of Liberty; the Statue Of Liberty isn’t associated with a specific generation or era, it’s this thing that has seemingly always been there.
The moral here, I think, is to try to be less self-consciousness about aging and accept it. Make self-deprecating jokes if it makes coping easier. (Like I did at the start of this column!) But let’s not project our own fears about aging on to the artists who make the highs and lows of life a little more bearable.