With music of such high quality in its catalogue, X makes it difficult to select only 10 songs to showcase. But it's the good kind of difficulty often referred to as a challenge, and time spent culling the top tunes from the band's five studio albums becomes a rewarding endeavor instantly. By taking punk rock further than many thought possible, X not only made that genre plenty reputable but also influenced countless rock bands that would eventually find mainstream success as alternative rock stars.
Even if its central metaphor has long since expired in the relevance department, this lead-off track from X's 1980 debut release, Los Angeles, reigns supreme as one of punk rock's all-time scorchers. Built sturdily upon a wonderful, buzzing guitar riff from rockabilly-trained guitarist Billy Zoom, the song directs biting anger toward its deadbeat target. Such a first-person kiss-off works perfectly for Exene Cervenka's lead vocals, and immediately the harmonies between her and fellow leader/bassist John Doe establish a raw, off-balance trademark that would fuel the band's sound for years to come. Accessible but never typical in its ramshackle ferocity, this tune happens to be the perfect introduction to one of America's finest rock bands.
The band doesn't calm things down for the record's follow-up track, as Zoom channels Chuck Berry in a blistering intro. Then Doe's fashionably bleak lyrics make their presence known with an unprecedented bluntness, as few pop/rock songs of any era have dared to choose date rape as a song topic. Immediately X's energetic brand of punk rock was unflinching in its critical take on the Los Angeles underbelly, and such naturalistic subject matter blends seamlessly with the direct, stream-of-consciousness lyrical style of Doe and Cervenka. Even within the punk genre, music like this has always had trouble finding the light of day, but because of that rarity and independent spirit, X generated abundant buzz, especially among critics.
X's well-known title track from its debut is all alienation, communicating pain, confusion and frustration consistently throughout Doe and Cervenka's shared lead vocals and, of course, when they trot out their strange but affecting harmonies. And even though the lyrics serve as little more than instruments of that bleak tone, the portrait of an individual driven out of her beloved city by a persistent sense of hopelessness and helplessness commands the listener's attention if only for its intensity. However, the real treat of this tune may just be Zoom's active, nimble guitar work, especially in the form of a lengthy stop-start riff that presages the Pixies and Nirvana by almost a decade.
This jittery track with a machine gun rhythm from X's sophomore release, Wild Gift, loses none of the momentum built just a year earlier through the band's auspicious debut. It's one of many titles in the X catalogue that essentially coins a major punk rock catch phrase, as "desperation" is probably the most appropriate word that can be applied to the group's typical choice of subject matter. Immediate and forceful, the freewheeling performance on record makes clear that the edgy blend of all four band members was ideal to steer American punk into the '80s and beyond. At this point the deep-seeded influence of folk, country and roots music in general may not be readily apparent, but the excitement certainly goes beyond mere power chords.
In the compressed space of this 75-second buzz saw attack, X accomplishes far more than most bands can generate in a four- or five-minute single. The regimented but breakneck onslaught of D.J. Bonebrake's drumming, Doe's bass, and, especially, Zoom's weaponized guitar riffs, serves as an excellent showcase for one of Cervenka's most furious vocal performances of the group's career. Its brevity is most certainly not the only element that tags the tune with the punk rock tag, but with all of X's music, there just seems to be a little more going on than that label typically suggests. In other words, even when the quartet plays fast, hard and loud, it's always clear that the reach of talent on display subscribes to few if any limits.
As one of a group of tracks from X's third album of the same name that deals with the tragic death of Cervenka's sister, the great 1982 record's title track chugs ahead like a machine but cuts through the efficiency with peeling, raw emotion. This mostly stems from the bravely honest performance not only of Cervenka herself but of the entire band, which provides a sense of balance, particularly through a somewhat upbeat riff from Zoom. Cervenka's near-monotone vocal delivery may never earn her a reputation as a technically or classically brilliant singer, but she maximizes the normally haunting effect of her mournful style to reflect the experience of grief intensely: "Everybody asks me how I'm doing, I'm doing everything alone."
7. "Blue Spark"
In true collaborative style, this mesmerizing tune creates a fine opportunity for Doe to blend his quavering vocals with Cervenka's contrasting flat style, and the result is a revelation. As with most of X's material, the autobiographical honesty of Doe's lyrics paints a stirring, slice-of-life portrait that in this case focuses on internalized romantic concerns. But the contributions of Bonebrake's charging drum rolls and the unique, propulsive sound created by Zoom's left-hand, sliding flourish throughout the track take the performance to another level entirely. For X, careful layering of poetic lyrics with instrumental power and ingenuity is far from a novel approach, but the group always manages to create a fresh sonic impression.
I don't typically make a habit of including cover songs in my artist best-of lists, but sometimes the combination of inspired song selection and energized performance makes a recording impossible to ignore. This Otis Blackwell chestnut, perhaps most famously a huge hit for Jerry Lee Lewis in 1958, both showcases X's eclectic influences and interests as well as breathes new life into an old classic. Cervenka clearly has a ton of fun interpreting this one, nailing the suggestive parts with an amusing, passionate yelp: "When you love me, love me right..." But the band's raw power and unbelievably tight arrangement offer just the right touches to enable the performance to introduce some prime classic R&B to a relatively new audience.
By 1983's ironically titled More Fun in the New World, Reagan had been in office more than long enough to horrify and alienate those suspicious of his policies and America's apparent prosperity. The Southern California punk movement had been somewhat political from the start, largely because of the mostly unrecognized gap between the Haves and Have Nots in that deceptively working-class region. But this tune fiercely takes on '80s assumptions about Americana, even if the casual tone rarely betrays such anger. In fact, the song's lyrical epicenter of pure lament, "This was s'posed to be the New World," communicates stunned disappointment more than anything. As always, notable song components abound, particularly Doe's playful bass line.
X goes somewhat dreamy in this slowly building meditation on contemporary confusion, even taking a moment to wax reflexively poetic about the punk scene with a wry bout of genre name-dropping. Later, Doe spits sarcasm ruefully in a spot-on indictment of the music scene that could easily be dropped abruptly and effectively into just about any era: "I hear the radio is finally gonna play new music, you know, the British Invasion." Still, if the establishment didn't screw things up so royally, we would never enjoy the benefit of truly independent music exemplified by this track and this band. As usual, X presents music that dares to experiment with and explore the shifting parts of rock music, and, thankfully, the dividends have yet to cease.