Perhaps the only genre ever to be named after its fans’ level of educational attainment, “college rock” was exactly what the name implied: smart, fun music perfect for hanging out and drinking beer, ideally on a Friday afternoon in fall just after your last class was over. College rock got its start at the close of the Seventies in Athens, Georgia, with the insanely original dance-punk band Pylon; soon it came to be defined by the sweet, cryptic guitar jangle of R.E.M., who went on to help define Nineties alt-rock as well. The scene also incorporated Midwestern wiseacres like the Replacements and the Embarrassments, crisp Southern power-pop like the Connells and Let’s Active, playful, arty New Englanders like the Pixies and Throwing Muses, and a ton more. Here’s a concise guide to some of its greatest highlights.
Find this playlist on Spotify here.
The seminal Athens band took the clipped, stentorian dance-punk of U.K. groups like Au Pairs and Gang of Four and flipped it into something fresh and wide-open, offering “everything is cool” as a chill salvo for small-town art-school slackers looking for affordable kicks.
R.E.M., “Radio Free Europe”
Their first single on a tiny local label was speedy and dreamy, driving into a brand new kind of rock & roll mystery. This version has the hyped-up punch they’d vague out marvelously for the recording that appears on their historic 1983 debut, Murmur.
The Embarrassment, “Celebrity Art Party”
From Wichita, Kansas, the Embarrassment were four guys in glasses with a wry sense of wit and a knack for charging, churning guitar tangle: Who hangs out at a celebrity art party? “Art Carney!” Guess Don Knotts went home early.
Camper Van Beethoven, “Take the Skinheads Bowling”
Camper Van Beethoven formed at UC Santa Cruz and packed their songs with scenester in-jokes you could sing along with. “Skinheads” was a college-radio smash that even trickled down to cool high-school kids.
Guadalcanal Diary, “Watusi Rodeo”
A sly, rollicking riff on cultural colonialism wrapped in madcap surf-rock jangle from this great second-generation Athens band. Guadalcanal Diary had a searching earnestness that was admirably endemic to college-y bands.
The dB’s, “Black and White”
Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple of the dB’s were Beatles fans from North Carolina who headed up to New York and proved themselves peerless pop masters on songs like this tense, testy banger from their first record.
Let’s Active, “Every Word Means No”
If college rock had a sonic architect, it was Mitch Easter, who produced R.E.M.’s landmark early records; his own North Carolina band’s debut EP is full of bright, slippery tunes like this one, driven by Mitch’s sharp songs and cheery voice and ace drummer Sara Romweber.
Love Tractor, “Satan”
Another weird, cool band from Athens, Love Tractor was founded in 1980, and they’re still going, usually cracking out oddly transporting instrumentals. “Satan,” from 1989’s Themes From Venus, shows they could write killer rock songs too.
Dumptruck, “Watch Her Fall”
Seth Tiven went to Wesleyan, moved to Boston, and threw himself into his own style of post-punk squall. If over-cutesiness could be a college rock Achilles’ heel, that was never Seth’s issue: “Watch Her Fall” is full of likably bracing sad-dude angst.
Big Dipper, “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House”
Members of the Embarrassment teamed up with members of the Volcano Suns to form Big Dipper. Their best moment is a heraldic-sounding anthem about a guy who throws a party that gets out of hand — like an indie-rock version of a wild scene in some goofy Eighties coming-of-age comedy.
The Connells, “Try”
Listening to the Connells, you could clearly tell they were the kind of boys that tucked in their shirts and never forgot to call their moms once a week. A sense of good-natured wonder is all over their music — Southern alt-pop with the lilt of Scotch-Irish ballads.
Game Theory, “24”
Game Theory’s Scott Miller was a songwriting genius (and later an excellent rock critic), and his sublime erudition comes through on this pretty post-R.E.M. ode to ambivalently easing into your mid-twenties.
Pixies, “I’ve Been Tired”
They became alt-rock stars, but the wonderfully art-scarred Boston band was never more “college” than they were here, with Black Francis trying to impress a lefty girl with his dreams of being the next Lou Reed as the rest of the band bashes away.
Throwing Muses, “Not Too Soon”
Throwing Muses was the vehicle for songwriters Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donnelly, who brought a feminist poetics to the indie scene. “Not Too Much” piles bees-nest guitar buzz, spiraling vocals, punk brio, and Sixties girl-group ache into something strange and glorious.
Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians, “So You Think You’re In Love”
In the Soft Boys, singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock brought Beatles and Syd Barrett whimsy to the U.K. punk scene; he kept the warped-Sixties idealism going as a solo artist, and this dappled advice tune is his most concise pop moment.
The Replacements, “Alex Chilton”
What the Velvet Underground was to punk, Big Star’s Alex Chilton was to college rock, so it’s fitting that Minneapolis beer-romantics the ‘Mats would light up college radio with their ode to the master.
The Feelies, “Let’s Go”
The Feelies’ pastoral second LP was produced by Peter Buck, and even R.E.M. never got as pretty as the Jersey band did on “Let’s Go,” with its sweetly mumbled lyrics about going all night long and its almost-hymn like gorgeousness — the sound of being let into jangle-pop heaven.
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