The Anniversary

Singles Soundtrack Turns 20

Michael Nelson | June 27, 2012 - 4:35 pm

Singles was the second movie written and directed by Cameron Crowe. It’s an amiable rom-com starring Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick, and some say a great movie, but is most notable because it was filmed and set in Seattle, 1991, just as that city’s musical subculture was about to explode.

In the book Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History Of Grunge, Crowe says that the March 1990 heroin-related death of Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood — and the community that came together after his death — served as something of an inspiration for the film. Said Crowe, “It made me want to do Singles as a love letter to the community that I was really moved by.”

That community is represented to an insane degree in the movie. Crowe started production on Singles a year after Wood’s death, in March 1991 — months before the release of Nevermind or Ten (in fact, when he started work on Singles, Pearl Jam was still called Mookie Blaylock) — and one of the film’s narrative threads follows Matt Dillion as the leader of a fictional Seattle rock band called Citizen Dick. Rather than cast actors to play the rest of Citizen Dick, though, former rock journalist Crowe gave the parts to three members of Mookie Blaylock: Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, and Jeff Ament; much of Dillon’s wardrobe in the film was borrowed from Ament. Singles is loaded with such ultra-specific references and cameos. More impactful than all of them combined, though, was the movie’s soundtrack.

Singles, the movie, came out on 9/18/1992. The soundtrack predated the film by months: It was released on 6/30/1992. That’s not some random error or idiosyncrasy: Between March 1991 and June 1992, Seattle’s grunge scene had grown from commercial nonentity to globally dominant force; by that point, Pearl Jam was one of the hottest bands in the world — coincidentally, the band’s label, Epic, was also releasing the Singles soundtrack, and surely they saw a prime opportunity to cash in. Moreover, two of the bands on the soundtrack, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, were scheduled to play the Lollapalooza tour that summer, which would kick off July 18 of that year. (To give an idea just how quickly Pearl Jam’s star had risen, when they were booked for Lollapalooza, they were scheduled to play second — preceding five other bands, sandwiched midday between openers Lush and the Jesus And Mary Chain. By the time Lollapalooza hit the road, Pearl Jam were, at worst, the second biggest draw, with headliners the Red Hot Chili Peppers their only competition.)

The Singles soundtrack climbed into the Billboard Top 10 and eventually went platinum (surely it would have shifted three times as many units had virtually every song here not been made available elsewhere), but it also helped galvanize the Seattle scene in the mainstream. More ignobly, perhaps, it changed the way soundtracks were compiled and packaged for years to come, leaving countless record stores to contend with used bins full of Reality Bites and Threesome soundtracks. But Singles stands apart from and above those, with each song worthy of attention. So, since we’re just swingin’ on the flippity-flop here, let’s look at those songs, one by one:

01. Alice in Chains – “Would?”

You could make a convincing case that any one of a half-dozen Alice In Chains tracks — maybe a dozen, even — is the band’s single best song, period. For me, they never crafted anything better than “Would?” The Singles soundtrack was released two years after AIC’s excellent debut album, Facelift, but “Would?” suggested that the band had made remarkable strides during that time: It’s a coiled, taut track and a breathtaking listening experience, particularly when vocalist Layne Stayley unleashes his devastating low tenor on the chorus. Three months later, AIC released their second full-length, Dirt (where “Would?” also appeared), which lived up to the promise of that song, though never quite equaled it.

02. Pearl Jam – “Breath”

“Breath” is first of two Pearl Jam songs included on the Singles soundtrack; it was originally written by guitarist Stone Gossard when he was still in Mother Love Bone and allegedly the first song ever demoed by Pearl Jam. The version of “Breath” included here was one of the earliest PJ recordings to feature drummer Dave Abbruzzese (who had replaced Matt Chamberlain soon before the release of the band’s debut album, Ten, in August 1991). Like all the songs to come from the Ten sessions, the band’s songwriting chemistry here is at its very strongest (things got worse as Eddie Vedder took more control), and while there is a lot of excellent material on Singles, the two exclusive Pearl Jam cuts probably drove about 95 percent of the album’s total sales.

03. Chris Cornell – “Seasons”

Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell was given a list of fictional Citizen Dick song titles, and took it upon himself to craft actual songs based on those titles, among them the delicate, plaintive acoustic ballad “Seasons.” Like his work on the 1991 Temple Of The Dog album, it gave Cornell’s insane multi-octave range a much brighter, clearer context than Soundgarden’s drop-D grunge-metal. Another Citizen Dick song title adopted by Cornell, “Spoonman,” would later show up on Soundgarden’s 1994 album, Superunknown. (An early acoustic version of “Spoonman” can be heard in the background during a scene in Singles.)

04. Paul Westerberg – “Dyslexic Heart”

One of two non-Seattleites here, Westerberg had broken up the Replacements only a year before the release of the Singles soundtrack; in fact, these were his first two post-Mats solo songs. Overproduced and loaded with goofy puns, “Dyslexic Heart” is one of the cheesiest songs in the man’s catalog, although it kind of makes sense here: Singles is a lighthearted romantic comedy, and “Dyslexic Heart” is totally the type of song you’d expect to hear during a lighthearted romantic comedy (it plays over the credits during the movie). The Replacements were an important influence on the grunge bands of Seattle, but “Dyslexic Heart” is neither Singles’ nor Westerberg’s finest moment.

05. The Lovemongers – “The Battle Of Evermore” (Live)

Until 2000’s Almost Famous (another Cameron Crowe-curated soundtrack, oddly), Led Zeppelin had famously never licensed one of their performances to a soundtrack. I kind of wonder if this version of “The Battle Of Evermore” (performed by The Lovemongers, aka Ann and Nancy WIlson, the latter of whom was married to Crowe) was basically an end run around Zep’s policy — this version is true enough to the original as to make it redundant at best. Tonally and thematically, though, it’s a fit: The Lovemongers are from Seattle, and Zeppelin was a huge influence on elements of the scene (more so Mother Love Bone and Pearl Jam than Mudhoney and Nirvana).

06. Mother Love Bone – “Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns”

Of course Mother Love Bone was no longer in existence by the time Crowe was producing Singles, but if the passing of Andrew Wood did indeed affect the director’s vision for the film, he doubly honored the man by including “Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns” at the heart of the soundtrack. Wrenching, gorgeous, and otherworldly, it is far and away the best song in MLB’s very limited catalog — eight-plus minutes of total emotional upheaval, at turns somber and joyous, delicate and raucous. I’d venture to say that it’s also the best song on the soundtrack (though “Would?” is a solid 1A), which is no small achievement given the field. It’s a totally essential gem, and if you don’t know it, seek it out.

07. Soundgarden – “Birth Ritual”

By ’92, Soundgarden was coming off their then-best album (’91’s Badmotorfinger) and arena tours with Guns N’ Roses and Skid Row, respectively, although they’d gone from the biggest band in Seattle to the third biggest. “Birth Ritual” is a mid-level Soundgarden track — neither a career highlight nor a throwaway. Chris Cornell has a cameo in Singles, and Soundgarden is featured performing “Birth Ritual” in the film. This is one of the things that makes Singles such an exciting movie: It not only has an incredible amount of great music specific to Seattle in the early ’90s, but it collects so many of the most important artists from that scene and features them without fanfare (Tad Doyle and Alice In Chains can be spotted in there, too).

08. Pearl Jam – “State of Love And Trust”

The second of two Pearl Jam songs featured here, and the better song, too, “State Of Love And Trust” is PJ at their absolute best — roaring on all cylinders, with a ferocious vocal from Eddie Vedder and a monster chorus. It’s been a fan favorite for two decades, with good reason. It was written by Vedder, Ament and Mike McCready (where most PJ songs at that stage featured Gossard among the credits) and recorded during the same sessions as “Breath.”

09. Mudhoney – “Overblown”

Not surprisingly, the most cynical moment on the Singles soundtrack — the only cynical moment, in fact — comes from Mudhoney. “Overblown” is basically just a snide dismissal of the media and industry frenzy that was infesting Seattle in the early ’90s (and hadn’t even peaked when Mudhoney wrote the song). Mark Arm’s lyrics are bitter and sarcastic, and the song closes with him muttering, “It’s all over and done.” It wasn’t, of course. Not by a longshot.

10. Paul Westerberg – “Waiting for Somebody”

The second Westerberg song featured here (Westerberg scored the film as well), the infectiously catchy “Waiting For Somebody” is superior to “Dyslexic Heart” if only because its lyrics are not quite so cringe-inducing (although they trade goofiness for vagueness, which is not necessarily a great bargain). To be fair to Westerberg, both these songs suffer as much due to their production as their construction. If these tracks had been on Mono or Stereo — and recorded with that same lunatic-in-a-basement feel, they would probably go over a lot better.

11. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – “May This Be Love”

Seattle’s favorite musical son, Jim Hendrix, was represented in Singles via this gorgeous ballad, the first track from the second side of Are You Experienced? Like Westerberg and Zeppelin, Jimi was an influence on the grunge scene (listen to McCready’s lick from “Yellow Ledbetter”), and “May This Be Love” is a total classic that fits pretty seamlessly among the newer songs here.

12. Screaming Trees – “Nearly Lost You”

In 1991, the Screaming Trees released their very good major label debut, Uncle Anesthesia, but they jumped three or four levels on its follow-up, Sweet Oblivion, which was released in March ’92, a few months prior to the Singles soundtrack. The band had evolved from their raw psychedelic roots into something much more refined and thoughtful, yet more powerful. “Nearly Lost You” was originally featured on Sweet Oblivion, but its inclusion on the Singles soundtrack surely helped the Trees’ album to greater commercial heights (it eventually sold more than 300,000 copies).

13. The Smashing Pumpkins – “Drown”

The second of two non-Seattle-specific artists here, the Smashing Pumpkins were often conflated with the grunge scene in the early part of their career, even though they were tangentially connected at best (the Pumpkins were from Chicago, although Billy Corgan did date Courtney Love before she married Kurt Cobain). The two disparate groups had different ambitions and influences, but “Drown” is a glorious closing moment, written by Corgan when he was seemingly incapable of producing anything less than sheer brilliance. It was written soon after the release of the band’s debut, Gish, and has a similarly acid-stained, washed-out beauty. Corgan was reportedly dissatisfied with the label’s treatment of the song. “We wanted it to be a single, we were pushing for it,” Corgan told Impact Magazine in 1994. “I was even willing to make it a video. Radio stations were playing it. And when it came time for the third single, they said, ‘Screaming Trees.’ And I was like, ‘Screaming Trees?’ But what label is Alice In Chains on and what label are the Screaming Trees on? Epic, which is the label that put out the soundtrack. And that’s what killed the song.”

. . .

The band most notably absent from the Singles soundtrack is, of course, Nirvana — the band that “put Seattle on the map” and opened the door for everything else. That omission was not intended by Crowe — the working cut of Singles included “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but when it came time to license the music, that song was a massive hit internationally, and thus reportedly out of Crowe’s price range. When interviewed on the subject, though, Kurt Cobain (who allegedly hated the movie) claimed that he had been asked to contribute to the movie but flatly refused.

On some level, it is perhaps due to their absence that Nirvana has remained at a degree of remove from the rest of the grunge scene, even years after such associations should have been rendered meaningless. Surely that distinction would bring some measure of satisfaction to Cobain. But it’s been 20 years now and the Singles soundtrack still resonates, still crystallizes a sound born of rain and junk, metal and punk — a sound that grew up in Seattle moments before the Internet took over the city and the planet, a sound that never could have taken hold in any other era, or any other town.

Are you a Singles fan? What’s your favorite scene from the film/song from the soundtrack? Get nostalgic in the comments…