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Back to school special: Six decades of angst


With high schools and colleges returning around this time, so returns all that teen angst. In fond recognition of all those petty problems, I've selected a choice angsty album, generally high school or college-related, for each decade from the 1950s to now. (Since I always love overloading on music samples, I'll also throw in some cuts from also-ran albums.)

The Everly Brothers, The Everly Brothers (1958)

Though it opens with a cheerful bubblegum cover of Ray Charles' “This Little Girl of Mine,” most of The Everly Brothers' debut album mines the depths of teenage heartache. It's a pretty smart move, considering they first hit it big with the defeatist country-pop tune, “Bye Bye Love” (later covered by Charles), and they mark that territory well throughout the album without ever feeling like a rehash. Though it contains a weak mid-section of covers of the era's pop hits, the originals are all quite winning, and The Everlys prove to be superb songwriters right out of the gates, with such tear-drenched gems as “Maybe Tomorrow,” “Should We Tell Him,” and especially “I Wonder If I Care As Much” (a song they would later revisit on their tremendous Roots album). Singing lines about crying yourself to sleep with Don and Phil's chipmunkish harmonies leans heavily toward the juvenile, but the songwriting team of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant top them in that department with “Wake Up Little Susie.” It's a terrific pop song for sure, but it's almost grating in its youthful innocence, with the brothers taking on the role of the classic teenage overthinker fretting over the gossip their folks might dish out after he and his date Susie fall asleep at the movies. Oh, the follies of youth.

Also-ran: Chuck Berry, After School Session (1957); Choice track: "School Day"

The Left Banke, Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina (1967)

The American Nuggets box set makes one thing pretty clear: cashing in on teen angst was quite widespread in the 1960s. Problem is all those bands had to record an album's worth of other songs to surround their angst-driven hit. While not always the case, many of these bands simply littered their records with cover songs, becoming less chroniclers of teenage misery and more chroniclers of songs past. Fortunately, all the songs on The Left Banke's debut album, Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina, are originals, benefiting from the wimpy voice of lead singer Steve Martin (not that one) and the youthfully naïve songwriting of Michael Brown, both teenagers at the time. The almost constant stream of Baroque pop gems tackles pretty much every touchstone of teen romance—superficial excitement about an impending date (“Pretty Ballerina”), jealousy (“She May Call You Up Tonight”), heartache (“I've Got Something On My Mind”), both sides of breaking up (“Let Go of You Girl” and “What Do You Know”), and creepily stalking girls on their walk home (“Walk Away Renee”). The only subject they avoid is sex, coming closest with the implied lust of “Evening Gown,” a quick garage rocker that serves as their only real hint at aggression, though even that has a harpsichord solo.

Also-Rans: The Who - My Generation (1965); Choice track: "My Generation"

The Beatles - Beatles For Sale (1964); Choice track: "I'm a Loser"

 The Electric Prunes - I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night) (1967); Choice track: "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)"

Frank Zappa - Cruising with Ruben & The Jets (1968); Choice track: "How Could I Be Such a Fool?"

The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers (recorded 1973, released 1976)

“Tonight I'm all alone in my room! I'll go insane if you won't sleep with me,” Jonathan Richman shouts at the beginning of “Astral Plane,” the second song on the Modern Lovers' debut album. Its opening track, “Roadrunner,” is the greatest love song ever written to a car radio, but most of the album, while still fun, is firmly rooted in the lonely bitterness of that second track. (Another opening line, from “Dignified and Old”: “My telephone never rings, she'd never call me. I hate myself today.”) Speak-singing over raw assemblage of jagged guitars, pounding drums, and bleating keyboards, Richman not only helped lay some essential groundwork for the burgeoning punk movement, he also laid his emotions bare on nearly every track, serving as a vital predecessor to emo. “I'm Straight” even sums up straight-edge before it was an established movement, as Richman begs a girl to consider him over the ever-stoned Hippie Johnny. Elsewhere, he begs for a girl to offer something more than physical (“Someone I Care About”), for a girl to walk through the museum with (“Girl Friend”), for a girl to let him back into her life (“Hospital”), and for a girl to put down her cigarette and drop out of BU (“Modern World”). While he does break from the standard approach to angst by proclaiming that he loves his parents on “Old World,” it's an unusual statement of contentment in an album sprinkled with such lines as “I stay alone, eat health food at home" ("She Cracked").

Also-Rans: Buzzcocks - Singles Going Steady (1979); Choice track: "Why Can't I Touch It?"

MC5 - Back in the USA (1970); Choice track: "Teenage Lust"

The Undertones - The Undertones (1979); Choice track: "Teenage Kicks"

Elvis Costello - My Aim is True (1977); Choice track: "Mystery Dance"

Descendents, Milo Goes to College (1982)/I Don't Want to Grow Up (1985)

If this were simply seeking out the most angst-ridden album of each decade, The Violent Femmes' self-titled debut would win hands down, with The Replacements' Let It Be and Tim not far behind. Seeing as how this is a back-to-school article, though, I naturally gravitated toward the obvious: Milo Goes to College, and the Descendents' equally good and equally angsty follow-up, I Don't Want to Grow Up. Miles away from The Everly Brothers or The Left Banke and fully embracing the hardcore punk that had developed in the decade since The Modern Lovers recorded their debut, the Descendents specialized in quick bursts of youthful aggression. Milo Goes to College crams 15 assaultive songs in 22 minutes, while I Don't Want to Grow Up makes things slightly longer and slightly poppier, but the recklessness still remains. They're sorta like the Beavis and Butthead of '80s hardcore, taking an over-the-top attitude for comedic effect (though that leads to some unfortunate homophobia on “I'm Not a Loser”). Their bluntness often sounds like a parody of youth-targeted rock, particularly “Parents,” whose minute and a half is mostly comprised of the line, “Parents, why won't they shut up? Parents, they're so f***ed up.” Easy angst aside, they do manage some effective and (relatively) mature takes on marriage (“Marriage”), addiction (“Bikeage”), disillusionment (“Can't Go Back”), and even love (“Good Good Things”). Mostly though, it's a bunch of young folks getting angry and having a lot of fun with it.

Also-Rans: Violent Femmes - Violent Femmes (1983); Choice track: "Add It Up"

The Replacements - Let It Be (1984)/Tim (1985); Choice tracks: "Sixteen Blue," "Bastards of Young"

Sparks - Angst in My Pants (1982); Choice track: "Angst in My Pants"

The Cure - Boys Don't Cry (1980); Choice track: "Boys Don't Cry"

Weezer, Pinkerton (1996)

“Tired of Sex” aside, Pinkerton was the soundtrack to my sophomore year of college. Just saying that makes me feel like I've revealed way too much about myself, but Rivers Cuomo has an uncanny knack for the general specific on this album, honing in on the heart of whatever snippet of his college experience he wants to describe in detail. Granted, it helps that all the anecdotal lines crop up in the verses, while the anthemic rockstar choruses stay pretty universal. Shout-alongs like “Why are you so far away from me?” and “I think I'd be good for you and you'd be good for me!” are pretty all-angst applicable, not dependent on the unrequited Asian girl crushes “Across the Sea” and “El Scorcho” recount. (But then again, who hasn't had one of those?) Also in the mix is an unrequited lesbian crush (Note: copy-paste last parenthetical aside) on “Pink Triangle,” featuring the album's gold medal lyric, “Everyone's a little queer; can't she be a little straight?” Gunning for the silver medal would have to be a line from “Falling For You,” “I've got a number of irrational fears that I wanna share with you,” which is practically the album's mission statement. It helps when those fears are set to terrific hooks.

Also-Rans: Green Day - Dookie (1994); Choice track: "Longview"

Fountains of Wayne - Fountains of Wayne (1996); Choice track: "Leave the Biker"

Nirvana - Nevermind (1991); Choice track: "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Everclear - So Much for the Afterglow (1997); Choice track: "Normal Like You"

Jimmy Eat World, Bleed American (2001)

This decade should've been the easiest, since I actually attended high school and college during it, and it was the decade when emo broke into the mainstream. Until pretty recently, though, I was the type to give a blanket scoff to emo, and I still haven't given it a fair shake in my music library. Hell, yesterday was the first time I ever listened to this album, one I'm sure many of my peers can practically recite. It certainly would have been a good one to have on hand in high school, though “The Middle” was always a pretty strong presence on the radio, which unlike the music video, didn't mock my dull high school experience with a highly dubious underwear party. Likely due to my nostalgia goggles, that inspirational power pop-punker remains the highlight alongside the only other song I recognized from my youth, its fierce title track, which opens the album with some suspect angst defenses, “I'm not alone 'cause the TV's on, I'm not crazy 'cause I take the right pills.” As evidenced by the sports trophy cover, its high school tropes are well-worn, taking on cynicism (the “cheating gets it faster” message on “Get It Faster”), heartbreak (the “rip my heart right out” chorus of “Your House”), and even the arduous task of finally holding someone's hand (“If You Don't, Don't”). They fare better on less-tread ground, highlighting the iconic songs of their youth on “A Praise Chorus” and “The Authority Song,” basically singing about their generation's “The Middle”s.

Also-Rans: Los Campesinos! - We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed (2008); Choice track: "It's Never That Easy, Though, Is It? (Song For the Other Kurt)"

Death Cab For Cutie - Transatlanticism (2003); Choice track: "We Looked Like Giants"

The Nice Boys - The Nice Boys (2006); Choice track: "Teenage Nights"

The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls in America (2006); Choice track: "Massive Nights"