Song of the Day: Soul Coughing, "Super Bon Bon"
Most people have a hard time being objective about the bits of culture that they are also nostalgic for, particularly when it comes to music. (In fact, it often seems as though the acknowledgement of a song's poor aging is necessary for proper nostalgia.) But after spending years analyzing and comparing charts, I can say with full and unironic confidence that the best period in radio was 1996.
The pop chart doesn't necessarily bore that out—this was, of course, the year that the fucking "Macarena" ruined every party you went to—but modern rock radio was peaking, precisely because it didn't know what the hell it was doing. The grunge revolution was in the rearview, and even though founders and pretenders alike were still producing quality records, the sound of down-tuned guitars was starting to curdle. Kurt Cobain's death in 1994 would make for a convenient end point, but I like to think the point when Sasquatch rock becomes endangered is the release of Stone Temple Pilots' Tiny Music...Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop in March of 1996. That album saw STP, who had nakedly arrived as a Pearl Jam clone only four years earlier, almost completely abandon the sound that made them huge in favor of '70s glam homages and jazz-bo explorations like "Adhesive."
Basically, the band acted as a metaphor for modern rock radio programmers in 1996. The early part of the year saw a handful of unabashed pop-leaning tracks from the likes of Oasis and Alanis Morissette, but the back half of '96 is completely bonkers, with lots of noisy, moody experiments ascending to the top of the heap. That was the period when Butthole Surfers somehow managed to crash the mainstream with "Pepper," when Primitive Radio Gods arrived with the incredibly cumbersome (but no less catchy) one-hit wonder "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand," and when Tracy Bonham's "Mother Mother" signaled the arrival of the post-Alanis crowd. Even Pearl Jam's big single that summer, the moody "Who You Are," was the sound of a band self-consciously abandoning its signature sound in favor of something stranger.
And then there was Soul Coughing, with its hip-hop samples, stand-up bass, noise beds, and the rap-crooning of frontman Mike Doughty (who kinda sorta sets the table for Drake's whole vocal steez). Their second album Irresistible Bliss arrived in July of '96, and it's a super goddamn odd marriage of twitchy New Wave posturing and post-Beck soul gumbo. The second single "Super Bon Bon" became a heavy rotation modern rock hit, and though Billboard tells me it only went as high as 27 on the modern rock chart, I can tell you it was way more ubiquitous than that. It's the kind of song that either sounds completely irritating or unendingly cool depending on your ears, but whichever side you end up on, you cannot deny that it sounds strange. That strangeness couldn't last, and there are plenty of weirdos out there now, but this was a dynamic bit of oddness that simply doesn't happen any more.