Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Crash Test Dummies’ “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #4 in March 1994
Of such small things are our hates composed. When Crash Test Dummies crossed over pop with “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” Brian Roberts’ bass-baritone came off like dead roaches on the balcony. Whether the song was any good was irrelevant. Fortunately, the song isn’t any good. Millions disagreed. For years “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” parked itself on what became adult alternative radio, croaking and heaving. What I despite about the track made it a hit: the novelty of a bass-baritone voice ladled like gravy over the most innocuous of Modern Rock 1994 arrangements.
“Once there was a KEEE-ADD who got into an accident and couldn’t come to school,” Roberts gulps, reminding listeners that Pearl Jam, in whose ranks Eddie Vedder and his worried burr figured, and their Vs had debuted to the highest first week sales in Soundscan history to date several months earlier and whose Ten still enjoyed brisk sales. As noted, the guitar arpeggio is pro forma, but producer Jerry Harrison — yes, that Jerry Harrison, who found a second act lending sympathetic ministrations to bands who needed I AM HUMAN & I NEED TO BELONG t-shirts, ampersand crucial — mixes the drum taps to practically harmonize with Roberts. The song has nowhere else to go except recruiting a reluctant “girl” whose birthmarks made her a figure of fun in the ladies room. Linking the strangers — maybe they’re not strangers, who cares — is the refrain. Is “Mmm Mmm Mmm” a variant on “The Way It Is”? Are Crash Test Dummies suggesting “Shit happens”? And why is there a choir?
Leonard Pitts, Jr., The Miami Herald‘s pop critic in the early nineties, once proclaimed 1991’s The Ghosts That Haunt Me some kind of masterpiece. I can’t find a link — I request someone’s help (Pitts has or had admirably heterodox tastes in pop stuff. He also raved about Grayson Hugh’s 1992 album and treated U2’s Zooropa as a casual patron of the Armory Show might have Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase). I have, however, heard the Canadian act’s “Prufrock”-indebted “Afternoons and Coffeespoons” and their cover of XTC’s “The Ballad of Pumpkinhead,” surely one of the fastest turnarounds since Pseudo Echo covered “Funkytown.”
Then the marketplace shuffled its feet.