I was back in my hometown of Mattoon this weekend. I spent about half an hour just walking through downtown, a place that in my childhood felt like Mayberry or Pleasantville and now mostly resembles Sarajevo after the Siege. That’s probably too glib a reference for such a tragic conflict, so let’s go instead with Hill Valley in the alternate future of Back to the Future 2, after Biff has become a Trump-esque billionaire who has left the rest of the town in ruins. I love my hometown so, so much—it made me sad to leave—but a once-thriving downtown has been decimated. There’s the original Burger King, and D to Z Sports, and the husk of the old Time Theater, but most everything else is long gone. Some of the buildings have sat empty for a decade; you can still see their signs covered in dust when you peek through the front windows. The only business stirring after 5 p.m. was a windowless former bar that now has three stools for lonely souls to sit and play slot machines throughout the night and morning. There are people back home trying their best to revitalize it. But there is so far to go. It hurts the heart to see.
Another business still around though, closed when I walked by, was a pawn shop. This place, this place I knew. It was open when I last lived here in 1993, run by an grizzled old crank named Geoff who had a sign on his desk that simply said “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT?” When I first got my drivers license my junior year of high school, I went by this pawn shop constantly. I wasn’t looking for jewelry, or tools, or a gun. I was looking for cassette tapes.
There was a Mister Music in the Cross County Mall that sold albums and cassettes, but a 16-year-old who can only fit in part-time shifts at the movie theater in between baseball practice and scholastic bowl meets couldn’t afford new albums. So I would go by Geoff’s pawn shop every other day to see if anyone had sold anything I might want. Once Nirvana exploded in 1991, the world opened up to me musically: I was suddenly obsessed with listening to everything I now knew about because of them. I wanted all of it, because it represented a planet so far away from where I was from, a place I’d had no idea existed before. I remember when “In Utero” came out, and Nirvana agreed to have their song “Rape Me” changed to “Waif Me” so it could be sold at Wal-Mart. All the cool indie rock snobs said they’d sold out, but Kurt Cobain said he did it because he remembered what it was like to be from a nowhere town where the only place you could get music was Wal-Mart. He wanted kids like him to be able to listen to the records they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. He always understood stuff like that.
I remember finding a copy of “Use Your Illusion II” at the pawn shop just a couple of weeks after it came out, a remarkable discovery; that album’s release felt like the Super Bowl and the Oscars wrapped up in one for a teenager at the time. I got so much music at Geoff’s. The albums we fall in love with when we are in high school always have an outsized influence on us. There are better albums than the ones I listened to over and over in high school, but you’ll never convince me that each and every one of them isn’t absolutely perfect. They’re the soundtrack to the most important time of my musical fandom. Three chords, and I’m instantly transported.
All that walking around downtown Mattoon this week, unsurprisingly, got me sentimental about all the music I listened to in high school. So, because this newsletter has gotten way too serious (and definitely way too political) over the last month, we’re going to give ourselves over to the warm, deceptively comfortable, ultimately rancid bath of nostalgia this week. Allow me, if you will, to get my Klosterman on. It’s OK GEN XER time.
Here are the 12 definitive albums of my high school experience, the albums that bring me back, for better or worse, every time. Think of it like Late Gen X, Rural Illinois Freedom Rock. Is that Late Gen X, Rural Illinois Freedom Rock, man? Well turn it up, man.
Dirt, Alice in Chains
I was tempted to put the “Singles” soundtrack on here—which, like this, featured “Would?”—but I listened to this a lot more. Alice in Chains is considered grunge, but the band was always much more metal to me; this album has the guy from freaking Slayer on it, for crying out loud. Nearly 30 years later, this album is still deeply upsetting. I’ve never been addicted to heroin, but I bet this is what it sounds like.
Angel Dust, Faith No More
Speaking of disturbing albums, this thing sounds like someone having a full on mental breakdown for 45 minutes. Nothing Faith No More ever did again sounded even remotely like this. Maybe it broke them? I sometime want to produce a piece of writing that uses the phrase, “If I speak at one constant volume, at one constant pitch, at one constant rhythm, straight into your ear, you still won’t hear.”
Bat Out of Hell, Meat Loaf
We’ve covered this one already. I don’t love it any less than I did when I was 13.
This was also the first concert I ever saw, at Assembly Hall in Champaign in 1992. You can actually watch this full show online, which is the best argument for the utility of the Internet I’ve seen in years.
Is this still my favorite album of all time? I think it is. In my soul, it will be impossible to top.
Into the Great Wide Open, Tom Petty
I do not know enough about the critical consensus on Tom Petty to know what everyone considers his best album, but it’s either this or Wildflowers. Also, remember the video with Johnny Depp?
Exile on Guyville, Liz Phair
This album is so raw and pained and terrifyingly open that the fact that Liz Phair has turned out to be not just OK, but a pretty fantastic person, feels like a testament to the power of the human instrument.
Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy
Talk about albums that opened up a whole new world to a teenager from Mattoon. This album introduced me to all sorts of things I couldn’t have possibly understood when I first heard it, but that’s OK, because it’s musically so electrifying that I ended up just internalizing it all. My friend Andy—who ended up becoming a herpetologist, like all early ‘90s Public Enemy fans—gave me this album when I was, like, 14 and I was totally not ready for it. I now can (but don’t!) recite every word of it from memory. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back might be the more consistent album, but this thing feels like bombs going off for an hour.
Automatic for the People, R.E.M.
One of those albums that is so emotionally overwhelming that I sometimes have to turn it off before it becomes too much. (The Soft Bulletin is another album like that.)
The Rhythm of the Saints, Paul Simon
Yeah, you can have your Graceland: This is the one he got the (yeah, sort of problematic!) sound absolutely perfect. The songs are better too.
Girlfriend, Matthew Sweet
Achtung Baby, U2
Remember, too: If you ever perform any songs off this album, you better go all out.
Thank you for indulging me on this. It has been a long week, and I just want to remember having a mullet and listening to ‘90s music for a little bit. I’m glad we could share this together.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Pete Rose Is Back, Inevitably, New York. Pete Rose is just the worst. I do need to watch the ESPN Don Van Natta show on him; I’ve heard excellent things.
How Many of These New Managers Will Still Be Around in Five Years? MLB.com. This was a fun idea that I thought was well executed all around.
Your Big AL Central Preview, MLB.com. No surprises here, though we didn’t know about the Clevinger injury yet.
Best Picture Winners, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. Updated with Parasite. This is still one of the best lists we’ve ever done over there.
Will Ferrell Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. With Downhill.
The Thirty: Best Closers, Ranked, MLB.com. I am sort of ready for “closers” not to be a thing anymore.
Debate Club: Best Animated Characters in Non-Animated Movies, SYFY Wire. This is one of the sillier one of these we’ve done, to be honest.
Grierson & Leitch, we recapped Oscar night and discussed “Birds of Prey,” “The Lodge” and “The 400 Blows.”
Seeing Red, no show this week. We’re about to go weekly, though.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week.
We take one question a week around these parts: Send yours to email@example.com. This one comes from Dan (A Marlins fan looking to win an argument with his Orioles fan wife).
Not sure if you take baseball questions here, but here goes:
Who do you think will win their next World Series first: Miami or Baltimore? Over/under on baseball surviving in Miami to their next relevant team?
Love the newsletter and your work!
I think people are sleeping on the Marlins a little bit. They have some actual professional hitters now—I really wanted the Cardinals to get Corey Dickerson and still don’t entirely understand why they didn’t—and their rotation is underrated and underappreciated. I bet they finish out of last this year, and to be honest, I’d take them to have a better record over the next five years over, say, the Phillies, or maybe even the Indians.
The Orioles, on the other hand, are dreadful in every possible way right now and look to remain so for the next several years. I loved this bit from Jayson Stark’s column this week:
Walk into any bar outside the 410 or 301 area codes and ask: Name six Orioles. It’s so hard that even people who work in baseball — people who took part in this survey — were huffing and puffing mightily, trying to answer basic questions like: Can you name the Orioles’ lineup? How about their rotation? Or their bullpen? “I don’t know who the hell is on their team,” said one longtime executive. “I’m trying to do their lineup in my head right now, and I’m struggling,” said a pro scouting director.
That’s pretty grim!
All that said: I think in this question—who wins a World Series first, Baltimore or Miami?—I’m taking the Orioles. They are run by smart people who are deputized to take as much time as they need to build an Astros-esque juggernaut, and whenever they get this thing turned around (and I believe they will), they will have the money to spend and a rabid fanbase that will rally around them. As a franchise, the Orioles just have a a higher ceiling than the Marlins do. They’re the worst team in baseball right now, and may well be next year, and maybe even the year after. But I saw it happen with the Astros and I saw it happen with the Cubs. The Orioles are a sleeping giant. It’s going to turn around, and when it does, it will do so big. The Marlins are never going to be turned around. My pick’s Baltimore.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
I write this to you from NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago. I have no more travel for a full month, a month I will spend answering all your letters. So send them, please.
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“C’mon, Utah!” Shovels and Rope. I spent three of my roughly 14 hours in Athens this week seeing Shovels and Rope play at the Georgia Theater. They’re good! Though it has to be a little awkward as a married couple band to have one band member be decidedly more charismatic and magnetic than the other one. (It’s her, obviously. He’s fine, but she’s amazing.) Look what it did to the poor White Stripes!
I went by the Daily Illini this week and talked to the kids. You never, ever look more like the Crypt Keeper than you do standing next to college students.
Have a great weekend, all.