52 Albums That Changed My Life (and Other Exaggerations), Chapter 11: Girlfriend

I think every music fan has at least one album in their collection that they would describe as perfect. I’ve got a few but there’s always one particular album that sneaks forward. It’s been one of my go-to albums for years whenever the “What three albums would you bring to a desert island?” (although sometimes I don’t get that far because I start asking about how the island has electricity and I just bog down the game).

In 1991, Matthew Sweet released Girlfriend, the best pop rock album of the 1990’s and one of the best pop rock albums ever made in my humble opinion. I know a lot of my peers and friends consider this one of the staples of 90’s alternative rock and to be honest they are not wrong. I shall explain all a little bit later.

While this album came out in 1991, I’m pretty sure I didn’t have my own full copy until my first year of high school in 1992 and even then it might have been late into the semester so it may have been 1993 before I had this disc in my hot little hands. But before I had the album, there was the video.

“Girlfriend” was the perfect way to hook a young music nerd like me. The song had a good set of guitar riffs and featured scenes from an anime (a Japanese animated film) called Space Adventure Cobra: The Movie. Anime was scarce to us suburban nerds. We didn’t have the internet or Amazon and while comic shops would usually have a selection, it tended to be expensive. If you saw any anime on tv, you usually stopped to check it out. The video grabbed my attention with the anime but I stayed for the simple guitar rock. I made a mental note that I had to eventually check this album out, despite heading into a particularly heavy phase of my musical life.

When I hit high school, my mother signed the family up for two record clubs, BMG and Columbia House. I think I may have convinced her to do it as between the four of us in the house (my parents), we could easily fulfill the subscription requirements and we would get all of those free albums for one penny. I did this, I might add, without really having any source of income at the time. Maybe she just indulged me because my love of music was really starting to shine through. Maybe it was an excuse for her to indulge in some music buying where she didn’t have to go to the mall and ask some teenager where the latest Little River Band album was. Either way, in the first batch of albums I bought, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend was among them.

Girlfriend is the successor to the pop album classics made by The Beatles. On the surface, it’s very simple and catchy. The songs are about love and love lost and longing. And they work amazingly well just on that level. But if you dig a bit deeper, the album is still as good but has a lot more going on than you may have originally thought. The instrumentation is fairly simple but a lot of the guitar solos have a technicality to them that is a lot more than your average pop song would have. The lyrics were also really well written. You could feel the sense of loss, anger and wanting in this album that few albums ever manage to do.

I wouldn’t discover until well after I had Girlfriend that it was written after Sweet’s first marriage had more or less ended, he channeled his pain into the album and it made one hell of a fine work.

It’s really hard to pick out a stand out track on Girlfriend because this album has no filler. It’s a lean fifteen tracks and it’s hard to think of the album without any of them or even changing the song order. Such care seemed to be taken in the track listing, especially if you pay attention. The sixth track, “Evangeline”, and the twelfth track, “Your Sweet Voice”, both have the sound of the exit groove on a vinyl record playing out. There are three other tracks on the album after “Your Sweet Voice” but think of them like bonus tracks. Maybe it’s my imagination but on my CD copy, there is a clear space in the track listing between “Your Sweet Voice” and “Does She Talk” that would be like if you bought an album with bonus tracks.

Today, the album still hold up perfectly. I think you could release this album tomorrow it would still get a very good run on the charts.

Personally, Girlfriend is an album that I must always own. My particular copy is a bit of an immortal among my music collection. I’ve loaned it out to so many friends and girlfriends over the years that I’m always amazed at how good of condition it’s in. The CD has no scuffs and the case is in solid shape with a few cracks. It has survived at least eight moves, who knows how many parties and one flood.

Oddly, Girlfriend has been my all around relationship album. When a girl came into my life during my teenage years, I could hear “Girlfriend” play when they walked into the room. If a woman wasn’t interested in me, Girlfriend would go on to the CD player. After a breakup, Girlfriend would go on to the CD player. Got back together with the girl, Girlfriend was back on the CD player. Now, it’s just my everyday album. Girlfriend is an album I can put on once a day and still not get tired of.

I’ve followed Sweet’s career since then and he’s done some great work. I think 100% Fun is a very underappreciated album from the 90’s and I really wish we would get another album from The Thorns (his short-lived group with Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge) that had vocal harmonies to kill for (seriously, if you like Crosby, Stills, and Nash, grab the self-titled album by The Thorns).

Next week, an album that I was given as a joke, managed to use for several school projects and rivals Metal Machine Music as one of the worst sounding noise albums ever made.

Brent Chittenden

Brent Chittenden is a freelance writer with a gift for the geek. Currently a writer with A Journal Of Musical Things and a podcaster with True North Nerds, he's also written for Comic Book Daily, Explore Music and a dozen other places. Currently, he is the co-host of the True North Nerds podcast. You can find out more at www.facebook.com/bcchittenden

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