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Top '80s Songs of The Replacements

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The Replacements' Paul Westerberg may not have instantly emerged as a top-notch pop/rock songwriter, but it didn't take him long to become a master of guitar-based, accessibly edgy college rock. The band's career was almost destined to be brief, beginning as it did in the wake of punk rock and moving toward increasing commercial viability on the strength of its frontman's talents. Here's a chronological look at the best songs from The Replacements, drawn from a deep catalogue of prime album cuts.

1. "I'm in Trouble"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Twin/Tone
The Replacements' 1981 full-length debut Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash represents the band at its breakneck best at a stage when hardcore punk was still the group's greatest influence. This relatively narrow direction would not continue on subsequent releases, but in the case of this two-minute romp, no one's likely to complain. The signature Westerberg melodic sense already dominates here, even if the spirited but focused guitar noise from Bob Stinson is the undisputed highlight. Westerberg would grow quickly to offer far more complexity in terms of songwriting, but this remains a bona fide early alternative classic.

2. "Willpower"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Twin/Tone
Following 1982's similarly loose 1982 EP Stink, The Replacements quickly began to explore greater sonic atmospherics on 1983's Hootenanny. The album as a whole is a huge step forward into various, sometimes warring genres, and the conflict produced by Westerberg's ambition crackles consistently with life. This haunting track built on loud/quiet contrasts and Bob Stinson's textured but unhinged lead guitar definitely advances a progressive take on modern rock before anyone had much begun entertaining the term. An early powerfully searching moment for what was already a great band.

3. "I Will Dare"

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The Replacements' sound continued to evolve in satisfying fashion on this, the lead-off track from 1984's critically acclaimed Let It Be. Westerberg's vocals retain their gravelly charm and genuine rock and roll passion, and the ensemble's instrumentation threatens constantly to jump right off the track even as it gives listeners the sonic ride of their lives. This is a band that managed to be a versatile master of guitar riffing without playing to the lowest-common-denominator nature of that oft-used musical hook. Call it artless sophistication or sophisticated artlessness, if you wish.

4. "Sixteen Blue"

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Though celebrated with much justification as classic tunes of The Replacements' early period, the experimentation of "Within Your Reach" and the obvious commercial appeal of Let It Be standout "Unsatisfied" don't tell the full story of the band's evolution into a "serious" band. That's why I choose the lovely, underrated "Sixteen Blue" to spotlight for this list. A melodically romantic foray into roots rock and jangle pop, this track showcases Westerberg's penchant for capturing the wrenching emotions of hard-fought maturity. It's a classic surrounded by numerous examples of essential listening but should not be overlooked as an important Replacements moment.

5. "Hold My Life"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Sire
We've now reached the point of this survey where personal taste and individual attachment become centrally important. 1985's Tim will always be a record for me that exemplifies growth both musical and otherwise, even if I did come to it a few years later than ideal. For this reason, the album's lead-off track must receive due praise as a thrilling blend of Westerberg's growing virtuoso as a rock composer and the classic lineup of the band's imperfect yet undeniable symmetry. The lyrical sentiment here treats the confusion and sometimes inevitable dread of post-adolescence with tremendous emotional sincerity. Almost - maybe even beyond - perfect.

6. "I'll Buy"

Many outright gems must be set aside temporarily to give this unheralded track its due, as the desperate onslaught of each member of the band comes to dazzling fruition here. The elder Stinson's lead guitar cannot be contained, nor can Westerberg's tortured howl and powerhouse riffing during the transcendent chorus. This is accomplished rock music that never tries to take credit for emotional resonance not fully earned through blood, sweat and tears. Among several powerful tunes including "Bastards of Young," "Left of the Dial" and Little Mascara," this track leaps from a living, breathing record whose importance can hardly be overstated.

7. "Swingin' Party"

As chief songwriter of one of rock and roll's most literate and unruly bands of all time, Westerberg delivered more than a few sterling lyrics as leader of The Replacements. Nevertheless, this mellow, beautifully arpeggiated rock song of wonderful delicacy contains an undeniably concentrated collection of profundities within its ultimately few lines of concise poetic language: "If bein' wrong's a crime I'm servin' forever, If bein' strong is what you want, then I need help here with this feather." Some say the best way to find an existential fountain of wisdom is in a college philosophy class, but I've always thought listening to The Replacements works well in a pinch.

8. "I.O.U."

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Even if Bob Stinson had been kicked out of the band for quite some time before the release of 1987's Pleased to Meet Me, this is still an unbelievably classic, relentlessly tough lead-off track full of noise and fury. The Replacements suffered noticeably from the elder Stinson's absence, but damned if one can tell listening to this piledriver of a rock song. Westerberg's guitars amply fill what could have been devastating empty space, and the remaining trio's headlong performance proves the talent pool in this band was defiantly deep and appropriately unrepentant.

9. "Never Mind"

A full four years before Nirvana's breakthrough masterpiece of similar title shook the music world, Westerberg & Co. deftly captured the best ragged, rootsy alternative rock had to offer at the time. Not enough people noticed how good the band still was at this point, but this song particularly represents the group's well-worn fusion of garage rock energy with sparkling melody. It's also a nice distillation of its songwriter's core ethos about life, music and everything else that matters: "Absolution is out of the question," the song's intro slowly rolls out. "It makes no sense to apologize, The words I thought I brought I left behind... So never mind." And we're off - and the journey never gets old.

10. "Achin' to Be"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Sire
Unfortunately, 1989's Don't Tell a Soul and The Replacements' final LP, 1990's All Shook Down, were both in many ways Westerberg solo records. Actually, it's not like that's a bad thing in any sense, other than the fact that this was once one of the finest true rock and roll bands of the era. Nevertheless, this melodic heartland rock tune (complete with harmonica and steel guitar) covers much musical ground without ever obscuring the reality that it's an accomplished, deeply affecting song no matter its genre or era. This album features additional classics, which simply proves that Westerberg and cohorts had plenty left in the tank as the band's career neared its end.
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