Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was listening to New Miserable Experience by the Gin Blossoms, and I had to marvel that they chose to follow up “Hey, Jealousy” as a single with “Found Out About You,” instead of “Hold Me Down” or “Pieces Of The Night,” two of the best rock songs of the ’90s. Similarly, it makes me almost physically sick to think that Prince buried the inhumanly awesome “Electric Chair” on the Batman soundtrack, instead of turning it into another in a string of massive hits. Are there “deep cuts” you wish artists had released as singles so the rest of the world knew how great those album songs were? —Greg
With the way classic-rock radio has zombified the group’s catalog over the years, it may be ridiculous to call any Led Zeppelin song a “deep cut.” In spite of popular opinion, though, there are still a great many Zeppelin songs that aren’t even close to being overplayed, even though they’re as good as (or far better than) “Stairway To Heaven” or “Whole Lotta Love.” I could rant about the awesomeness of “Wearing And Tearing” or “Candy Store Rock” all day, but the most glaringly overlooked Zeppelin track has to be Physical Graffiti’s near-nine-minute “In The Light.” That sinuously psychedelic John Paul Jones synthesizer intro alone is enough to make the song a classic, and Jimmy Page pulls out some of his creepiest, darkest, most tightly coiled riffs. But the chorus is where “In The Light” really blooms; at the risk of sounding absurdly obvious, it’s like a ray of sunshine bursting out of a storm cloud, and the rhythmic interplay between bass and guitar lifts Robert Plant’s plaintive, primal plea—”Everybody needs a light”—into the realm of the transcendental. Honestly, I’m the kind of guy who can hear “Black Dog” for the billionth time and never tire of it, but “In The Light” deserves to be lodged right alongside it in the cultural consciousness. And then we can all bitch about having to listen to it again.
Man, I hate to go to The Smiths’ well for every single AVQA ever (favorite dish soap? The Smiths!), but I kinda have to here. “Rubber Ring” was the B-side to the inferior “Boy With The Thorn In His Side” single, and it ended up on the odds-and-sods collection Louder Than Bombs, buried halfway through side two, no less! I think it’s my favorite Smiths song, and maybe even one of my favorite songs, period. The theme—music as a life-saver—surely spoke to me when I was in my late teens, and the music was slightly off the band’s usual path. Here’s a lyric for you: “Don’t forget the songs that made you cry / and the songs that saved your life.” Word.
The first side of David Bowie’s smash 1983 album Let’s Dance opens with three consecutive hits: “Modern Love,” “China Girl,” and “Let’s Dance.” But the last song on side one has always been my favorite: “Without You,” a snappy little love song that makes better use of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guesting bluesy guitar than any other track on the record. When I bought Let’s Dance at age 13, I was sure “Without You” was going to be the fourth single and the fourth hit off the album. Instead, it became a staple of every mix-tape I made for every girlfriend I ever had. (So… four mix-tapes.)
I feel like this probably isn’t a “deep cut,” since it was released as a single (though it performed very poorly), and it seems like lots of people I know have heard of it, but I’m going to say that Bob Dylan’s “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)” is one of my favorite songs of all time, and definitely not most people’s first pick when they want to hear a Dylan song. It captures something ineffable about things ending—everything from relationships to something as ambiguous as childhood—and to me, it’s definitely the emotional center of Blonde On Blonde, an album that seems rather obsessed with things coming to an end. (Granted, Dylan is often mildly apocalyptic.) The first time I heard this song—right in the middle of listening to Blonde On Blonde, just as one should first hear this song—it absolutely floored me, and every time I’ve heard it since, I’ve been just as impressed. Also, it makes a better answer than “Every Fountains Of Wayne song that isn’t ‘Stacy’s Mom.’”
My answer piggybacks on the Inventory we did a few weeks ago, though the deep cut didn’t appear on a proper album per se. As I wrote in the odds-and-sods Inventory, Jawbreaker’s Etc. was a collection of singles, B-sides, and previously unreleased material, but it qualifies as an essential entry in the band’s catalog. It has a slew of my favorites, but Jawbreaker’s “Better Half” is an old song that doesn’t get enough credit. It originally appeared on a split 7-inch with another beloved Bay Area punk band, Crimpshrine, and for years, I played the shit out of the copy I bought at Vinal Edge in Houston. The song captures Jawbreaker in its rough early days—all tinny-sounding, with Blake Schwarzenbach’s vocals as raspy as ever. I’m sure the recording makes the band cringe these days, but it has a charm, and it does nothing to dilute the melodies that make the song so great. Schwarzenbach’s guitar chimes over Chris Bauermeister’s noodly basslines, and the impressive instrumental ending shows an ambition that few other punk bands could match at the time. Plenty of Jawbreaker fans would argue for the primacy of “Caroline” as the band’s best early song, but I think “Better Half” blows it out of the water.
Boogie Down Productions’ Ghetto Music: The Blueprint Of Hip-Hop yielded three singles, although it was strong enough that any track on the album could have done the job. The biggest hit—surprising, considering that it’s crammed full of KRS-One’s goofy Biblical Afrocentrism—was “Why Is That?” The black-power anthem “You Must Learn” and the movie tie-in “Jack Of Spades” also charted, but one of the best songs on the 1989 album wasn’t even released as a single, even though it can stand next to the best rap songs of the era. That would be “Breath Control,” driven by a hooky sample from Koko Taylor and a classic old-school beatbox track by D-Nice; although it eschews KRS’ political attack for straight-up hip-hop boasting, it’s one of the most entertaining, cocky bits of braggadocio of all time, and it showcases some of his cleverest rhymes in less than four devastating minutes. It also ends with one of the finest, snottiest write-offs in rap history: “I got the style you need in my house on the shelf, labeled ‘Sucka-Boy Style’; I like to do it every once in a while.” Leaving a gem like this as a mere album track is evidence of how masterful KRS was at the top of his game.
Ah, the deep cut. The song you love and call out for in concert, knowing you’ll never hear it. I once stood next to a woman at a Ramones concert who kept crying out in vain for “Havana Affair.” But I know the feeling. I go to Magnetic Fields shows hoping in vain to hear songs from Charm Of The Highway Strip that never arrive, for instance. As for songs that should have been hits, here’s one: Blondie’s “Union City Blue.” It has hit written all over it, but it never saw life as a single, at least in the U.S., during the band’s lifetime. (It reached number 13 on the UK charts, and curiously, got released as a CD single with remixes from Diddy and others in 1995.) That doomy outsized drama feels like a natural next step from Blondie, but ended up sounding more like a dead end.
This is an almost impossibly broad topic, since so much great music gets relegated to album-cut status, but I am going to go with The Beatles’ “I Will,” a deep cut from The White Album that’s perfect in its stripped-down simplicity. Clocking in at well under two minutes, it’s little more than a carefully plucked acoustic guitar, something called “Vocal bass” (which I imagine is an early form of beatboxing), some subtly effective percussion from Ringo Starr, and a lovely lyric from Paul McCartney commemorating his love for Linda in its early stages. In its own unassuming manner, it’s as masterful as anything The Beatles recorded.
I’ll go to the mat for Talking Heads’ “Seen And Not Seen.” In some ways, it’s the group’s archetypal song: David Byrne sounding like a man with a detachment disorder, singing about a man who wills his face into an entirely new shape, then regrets it once it’s done. The backing track is the most offhandedly psychedelic thing on Remain In Light: swooping synth shudders and a basic, funky rhythm track. It may be my favorite thing on the album, and almost no one mentions it.
Scoff if you must (and given the last few year’s of the band’s career, you must), but I’ve always thought Barenaked Ladies received a raw deal due to poor singles choices: Tracks like “One Week” and “Be My Yoko” are too damn goofy to draw in anyone but novelty-seekers. The things that first attracted me to the band—its sideways sense of humor, Beach Boys-informed melodic sense, and Steven Page’s theatrical croon—are all better served by “Tonight Is The Night I Fell Asleep At The Wheel,” the darkly funny chamber-pop waltz that closes 2000’s Maroon. Hearing Page and company harmonize in a suitably woozy fashion about blood loss almost obscures the fact that the band led its next album with a half-rapped track about primate-covered stationery. Almost, but not quite.
This answer obviously requires that the artist is big enough to release singles, which means that many of my favorite bands are exempt. But who am I kidding? I love tons of chart-topping bands, and thus my mind first wandered to The Killers’ “On Top,” which, while not quite the three minutes and 43 seconds of perfection that is “Mr. Brightside,” is easily the second-catchiest song on an album packed with hooks and hit singles. Then I thought of Depeche Mode’s “But Not Tonight,” until Wikipedia taught me that it started out as a little-B-side-that-could and only ended up on U.S. editions of Black Celebration because of its inclusion on some ‘80s movie soundtrack alongside Tony Basil, Club Nouveau, and The Jesus And Mary Chain. But alas, I return to a familiar source of ridicule-fueled enjoyment for my real answer. Considering that a colleague has called out Barenaked Ladies, I’m not going to feel bad saying that Third Eye Blind’s “The Background” might be my favorite deep cut. Part of it has to do with the fact that it really is buried, showing up as song 12 of 14 on the band’s self-titled debut, but mostly it’s just a great song on an album with five singles, most of which were ubiquitous in the late ’90s. The song, which finds Stephan Jenkins talking about some significant other who’s ended up in the hospital—perhaps she went crazy from hearing “Semi-Charmed Life” too many times in all those movies?—spends its first half being dreamy and sucking me in even further with a tangible local reference to walking on Haight Street, then explodes at the end with some of Kevin Cadogan’s finest guitar work. I just listened to it again, and man, it’s good stuff.