My taste in music is awful.
Before we go any further, please understand that I am fully aware of that. I’m not here to justify or apologize for any of the things I’ve liked in the past, nor am I here to validate or rationalize any of the things I like today. I’m certainly not a music scholar, nor am I claiming to be some pillar of musical integrity. I’m too far gone for redemption at this point, as my current iTunes playlist of k-pop ballads and songs ripped from old super nintendo games will clearly illustrate. I’m not here to tell you what is good or bad, or what you should or should not like.
That being said, let me explain to you why Big Shiny Tunes 2 is the greatest album released in the last 20 years.
The Big Shiny Tunes series is well known to all Canadians who had their formative rock and rolling years in the late 90s and early 2000s. Compiled and released by MuchMusic just before christmas time each year, it was the alternative rock companion to the popular MuchDance pop and R&B series. If you were a teenage boy (or an angry teenage girl), it was likely that you were going to get at a copy of the newest Big Shiny Tunes in your stocking that year, bought for you by that distant aunt who barely knew you but remembered you wore those baggy pants and had mentioned you liked that English singer fellow “Radio Ed” once or twice.
I was eleven years old in 1997. I had been collecting cassette tapes for a few years at that point, most of them bought based on a vague rudimentary criteria, namely if it was something I thought my older brother liked and would make me seem cooler by-proxy, or if Weird Al was somehow involved. That christmas, I would receive two very important gifts, my first compact disc boom box, and my very own copy of Big Shiny Tunes 2.
Ask anyone who is familiar with these albums, and they will agree with me that the second Big Shiny Tunes was by far the best the series ever produced. That’s not me being hyperbolic. That’s just a stone cold fact. The sun rises in the east, the moon orbits the earth, Scarface is overrated, and Big Shiny Tunes 2 was the best Big Shiny Tunes. Period. Case closed. Roll credits. Emmett Kelley, sweep up that spotlight.
The numbers don’t lie, either. It is still the fourth highest selling album in Canadian history. Considering we’re talking about a compilation album comprised mainly of artists who had yet to (or would never) achieve those numbers on their own, that’s pretty impressive. Sales and figures aside, it is still without question the best selection of songs the series ever compiled. There was nothing particularly wrong with the first Big Shiny Tunes, but some of the choices were glaringly odd, and did not endure the test of time as well as the sophomore effort in the series (Poe? I mean, really? Fucking Poe?) Succeeding volumes would try to recapture that magic, but would never quite make it over that high water mark.
Sales of the series begin steadily dipping with each successive release. It’s no mystery that the record industry took a major punch in the dick with the rise of downloading in those years, and that the need for compilations like Big Shiny Tunes would soon become irrelevant. Beyond that whole rigmarole, rock music itself got a lot less easy to compartmentalize in those years. The internet has made the various sub-genres of rock boisterous enough to support and promote themselves, and all flavors of rock are now easily accessible to the pasty-faced distortion-loving kids of today. Back in the day, genres of questionable similarity mashed together in those early volumes of Big Shiny Tunes, the logic being that it was all technically “alternative rock”, and that all the misfits just had to learn to play nice together. We had to just suck it up if we didn’t like the fact that Sugar Ray and The Prodigy were on the same album.
For a lot of us, it was all we had. There was no other grand public forum for a less than universally palatable rock bands at the time, making those albums likely the first time a young music fan would hear something like Marilyn Manson or The Chemical Brothers, outside of course for the basement of that weird kid at school who smelled like paint thinner and whose parents had that garage we were never allowed into.
That’s not the case anymore, it seems. There has not been a new volume of Big Shiny Tunes since 2009. Big Shiny Tunes 14 may end up being the last in the series, as most kids today view being given a mix CD of current radio friendly rock songs the same way I would have felt in 1997 being handed a wax cylinder with the Men In Black soundtrack on it.
So why was Big Shiny Tunes 2 the best, you ask? Is it because it was broad enough in appeal and varied enough in content to pretty much appease everyone’s musical tastes at the time? Did the MuchMusic scientists crack the code and pick the best seventeen songs that they knew would define that place and time for so many young people? Was it just the perfect time to release an album of borderline-badass rock songs aimed at stupid suburban kids?
Probably all of the above. Mostly the last one. I should know, I was one.
Saying Big Shiny Tunes 2 is a great album is not to claim any sort of musical superiority over my peers or elevate my rock critic snobbery. Just look at it…
1. Prodigy – Breathe (Edit)
2. Blur – Song 2
3. Third Eye Blind – Semi-Charmed Life
4. Smash Mouth – Walkin’ On The Sun
5. Sugar Ray – Fly (featuring Supercat)
6. Bran Van 3000 – Drinking in LA
7. Marilyn Manson – Beautiful People
8. Holly McNarland – Numb
9. Bush – Swallowed
10. Matchbox 20 – Push
11. Collective Soul – Precious Declaration (Remix)
12. The Tea Party – Temptation (Edit) (Tom Lord-Alge Mix)
13. The Chemical Brothers – Block Rockin’ Beats (Radio Edit)
14. Wide Mouth Mason – My Old Self
15. Radiohead – Paranoid Android
16. The Age Of Electric – Remote Control
17. Stone Temple Pilots – Lady Picture Show
Yeah, I’ll admit, some of those are pretty bad. Some of them are shit, quite frankly. Some got worse over time, and some endured the same level of shittiness without the benefit of ironic distance. I don’t need to say which ones, I think we all know which they are. It’s hard to defend them as enduring classics, but like it or not, a better selection could not have been made for that time and place. I’m not sure if I could adequately explain it to someone who was not there, but you need to appreciate how incredibly handy it was to have an album at that time to embody all the various forms of disillusionment that I and my peers were about to feel in the next decade.
All the stars aligned on this one. These songs endured over the years for me, and are often recalled in the same memory along with each other. If ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ is to forever be thought of in connection to Reservoir Dogs, ‘Lady Picture Show’ will always be remembered as the last song I heard before the discs would change in the player. I can’t hear any song off this album without thinking of the other songs that came before and after them. Their connection to this album will forever be how I associate them.
I’m biased, I know. I’m sure anyone who did not have the exact same upbringing as me could easily poke a few holes into my theory about this being the greatest album of my generation. However, I refuse to think that my admiration for this album is just some sort of Andy Rooney-esque old man rant about how things were better when I was a kid.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I do think that. Of course I do. I was a kid, this shit was made for me. I hate today. Today fucking blows. I’m 26, bald, can’t pay my phone bill, and the hallway of my apartment building always smells like onions. In 1997, every day was just Ren and Stimpy re-runs and me sitting in front of that boom box lip syncing to Blur and Age of Electric. You tell me I’m wrong in thinking that’s awesome and I’ll call you a coward who is missing the point.
I can’t be objective about the quality of the music, no matter how much I force myself to think analytically about it. I can’t have hindsight about something that essential to my upbringing. The thought does often cross my mind, though. Do I still like the songs that were on this album, or do I still like these songs because they are on this album?
Remember, I was eleven when I first heard it. I had a lot of leg work ahead of me before I was ever going to figure out what I actually liked. I was still a summer away from even finding the Beastie Boys. I was intrigued but intimidated by heavy metal, thought most electronic music was boring, and did not have the attention span to sit though a whole album by any band I had only known from their singles. I would only ever get out of that head space through time, patience, and a whole lot of trail and error.
I can vividly remember being in my teens, sitting in a bus station, listening to my just purchased copy of The Cramps’ Bad Music For Bad People. I’ll never forget thinking that everything had irreversibly changed for me the moment the album ended. Nobody helped me find it. It was not ‘recommended’ to me based on some youtube or iTunes algorithm. I just went to the punk section of a record store and took a risk. I felt like I had won, like I had achieved a special prize in the field of cognitive exploration. I had to listen to a lot of shit before I found the stuff I actually liked, but eventually it started to pay off, and I was armed in that exploration with the knowledge and insight that albums like Big Shiny Tunes 2 had instilled in me.
I can only assume that eleven year olds are getting their music today the same way I currently am, by exploring the internet trying to find things similar to what they already like. I’m sure we all think of this as a superior method of being exposed to new music than grabbing the latest Big Shiny Tunes, but I can’t help but wonder if this method does more harm than good in the long run.
Do young people ever make mistakes buying music anymore? When was the last time you bought an album you were sure you were going to like, only to find out it was a piece of shit? I still buy albums, but only after I’ve previewed the tracks to death, ensuring I don’t waste my precious fifteen bucks on something I’ll end up hating. I certainly did not have that attitude growing up. I blew hundreds of dollars collecting albums that I would immediately regret buying after the first agonizing listen. Has anyone in this country under the age of sixteen even done this once?
The scour and rip method works great for me now, but I can’t imagine how I would have approached it if I didn’t have the first few years of my musical intake easily weaned on me by the corporate monoliths that tried for years to convince me that Treble Charger was a good band. Am I nostalgic for being spoon-fed my media by a room full of executives? People who assumed there was no way I could not love the songs they foisted upon me in a grungey looking black and yellow package?
Sure. Well, a little bit, anyway. It was a much simpler time in my life. They would never convince me to like Wide Mouth Mason, but I digress.
Big Shiny Tunes 2 helped immensely in getting me started down the path to figuring out what kinds of music I liked and didn’t like. It was a buffet of options I could pursue deeper on a track by track basis, over a long period of time, with my own chosen conviction. So many amazing albums had been released at that point that I would not discover for years, but I would eventually find using Big Shiny Tunes 2 as a musical canary in the coal mine. All I had was it as my starting point, and the desire to dig deeper and find more.
While in the process of digging, of course there were a few years where I arrogantly thought I had it all figured out. Maybe it was because my embarrassment in genuinely liking cheesy forms of entertainment reared itself as I got deeper into my teens, but for a while there, I hated Big Shiny Tunes 2. I dove head first into a punk rock and horror movie bubble of “FUCK YOU!” that no socially inclusive inclinations would dare penetrate. Eventually, like all young self-flagellating jackasses would (or should) eventually do, I started taking myself less seriously, broadened my horizons a bit, and remembered that at one point in my life I really liked Bran Van 3000. It’s hard to pretend you’re some sort of stoic, culturally learned badass when you know that is a salient truth about yourself.
That’s what I fear about today’s kids. Younger and younger, they are more certain of why they are fucked up, only because they have easier access to be obsessive about it. They are not forced to live their lives as ambiguously pissed off as I was.
I thought I was a lot of things I ended up not even coming close to being. I’ve worn every shade of black you can probably think of, all in a desperate attempt to figure out what I was actually mad at. A kid today can feel pissed off, type his or her symptoms into allmusic, search the ‘moods‘ section for something that suits their fancy, and be listening the perfect song that articulates their unique pain within moments. After that, the introspective search ends, and a new pre-teen Smiths fan is born.
Meanwhile, back in the dark ages of the late 90s, I actually had to go to the store and buy Dead Kennedys, Nick Drake, Portishead, and Carcass albums, trying to figure out what combination of dejected and lonely I actually was. I’d sit in my room with a stack of albums, trying to crack that code with limited success.
That search never ended for me, though. Nor do I think it ever really ends for someone passionate about music and what it means to them. Filling that void in yourself is the foundation of a long term appreciation of music, and whether I like to admit it or not, Big Shiny Tunes 2 was the album that forced me to explore why music made me feel the way it did.
It shaped me, because it gave me options. Its better if you are forced to try out a few forms of rebellion before you find out which one suits you. An eleven year old kid today could find every song The Clash ever made if he wanted to. Or Odd Future. Or Stevie Nicks. Whoever or whatever they choose to idolize is incidental, what matters is the volume of content they can access for any artist is easily deep enough to get lost in. Whatever avenue they decide on, for better or worse, will permanently alter how they view and interpret anything else they are exposed to.
They will never have to pick for scraps. They will never be thrown the proverbial bone with a compilation of songs that might be outside their wheelhouse. They won’t be shown that all countercultures exist because everyone is dealing with the same shit, just in different ways. They will have infinite access to all these countercultures, but never be exposed their contemporaries with due diligence. They can pigeonhole themselves as misunderstood twats faster than ever before. All kids are misunderstood twats, but they need to know there is kinship between them and all the other misunderstood twats out there. The Holly McNarlands and Radioheads and Third Eye Blinds of the world have a lot more in common with each other than you’d probably think.
Infinite choice gives you the opportunity to have standards, and therein lies the problem. Kids should not have standards. Standards and taste are things that should evolve with you over time. You can either choose to have them evolve or not, but you can’t enter the world of music and art with the assumption that you’ve seen the mountain top before you’ve actually climbed it. Kids should have options, and should be fortunate enough to have sheppards though the wasteland of shit that is most of what they will be first exposed to. Even with our newfangled technology, it should still be a challenge for them to figure that all out on their own.
The experience of finding new music has been greatly simplified, but finding music that shakes you out of your comfort zone and makes you question yourself is still as arduous as it always was. Those voices are important to find, and kids should be forced to dig for them.
It should be hard. They should make mistakes. They should spend money on albums they will regret, rather than just mindlessly downloading and deleting them. They should spend weeks, months, perhaps even years screwing it up before finding out they got it all wrong and having to start all over again. The tiniest glints of help in that search should be coming from a big brother’s record collection, a weird recommendation from a friend, or a cheap compilation album bought for them by a parent in a gas station.
The bar has been set pretty high, but one can only hope that gas station album is as formative in their education as Big Shiny Tunes 2 was for me.
- J.D. Renaud