The group knew they wanted to have a female vocalist and eventually came across a video for the Scottish band Angelfish. Setting their sights on the Scottish lead singer Shirley Manson, the band requested a meetup and, impressed by Vig’s production credits on Nirvana’s Nevermind, Manson joined the band.
The band’s debut album was released in 1995 and proved extremely popular in Manson’s native Britain as well as in Australia, resulting in the group winning numerous Europe-based music awards. Two years later the band began work on their sophomore album and pledged not to stray far from their existing sound for Version 2.0. This second album got the band a lot more attention in the US, even receiving two Grammy nominations. In 1999 the band were asked to record the theme for the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, a prestigious accoladed afforded to very few artists.
In 2001 the band began work on their third album Beautiful Garbage, and, following various legal disputes, signed to Universal Music Group. This third album had strong sales but was met with a mixed reaction. Bleed Like Me, the next LP, was released in 2005, following a strained period for the band, and introduced a timely political edge to the band’s music. During the second half of that year, Garbage announced they were going on indefinite hiatus, and it wasn’t until 2010 that Manson announced the band were recording a new album. The band’s fifth record Not Your Kind of People was released in 2012 and lacked none of the band’s trademark mix of grunge and gloss. It’s follow up, Strange Little Birds, the band’s most recent album, was released in 2016.
Over the years Garbage have forged a unique sound which has allowed them to stand out, not least thanks to Manson – one of all too few rock front-women – and her distinctive tones. The group have a formidable back catalog which, as this list will show, still sounds immensely fresh today.
# 10 – The World Is Not Enough
The theme song from the 1999 James Bond film of the same name, The World Is Not Enough blends the classy orchestral elements typical of Bond themes with the edgy electronica of Garbage. Shirley Manson’s deep and throaty vocals exquisitely contrast the instrumental’s soaring strings, creating a sound which is every bit as threatening as it is brilliant. In fact, the whole song has a palpably threatening vibe to it, with pulsing electronic pads rubbing up against the classical instruments to create a really ominous and acutely sinister soundscape. This is, of course, perfectly suited to the song’s lyrics, which seem to be coming from the point of view of a super villain (presumably Elektra King, the film’s antagonist) and discuss a mix of seduction, murder and megalomania – all essential elements of the Bond series. It helps that you can easily imagine Manson herself as a Bond villain, bent on world domination, with her iconic eyeliner becoming her defining characteristic, like Blofeld’s cat or Oddjob’s bowler hat.
Garbage were an enjoyably left field choice to record a Bond theme, as they are usually performed by untouchable megastars like Madonna, Adele and Paul McCartney. The band managed to bring their distinctively edgy stylings to the track, creating a slinky and sumptuous song which easily stands alongside Bond classics like Goldfinger, Live and Let Die and Diamonds Are Forever.
# 9 – Not Your Kind of People
In many ways this is the spiritual successor to The World Is Not Enough. It’s hard to pinpoint just what links these two songs, but there’s something about 2012’s Not Your Kind of People which somehow manages to embody what made the earlier song so brilliant. The World Is Not Enough might have sound tracked a Bond movie, but this track was used in full during the official teaser for the video game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, an espionage action game at the very cutting edge of technology.
Not Your Kind of People is gritty and moody, thanks to the interplay of buzzy and groaning guitars, not to mention the rather grim sounding organ which undercuts the track. The song’s four note guitar hook is a brilliant way of making it instantly recognizable and cuts through the track’s brilliantly grungy atmosphere like a hot knife through butter.
Lyrically, the song sets out to present people like Manson – those often seen as weirdos or outcasts – as superior to those who follow the status quo. The track suggests that it is everyone else who is a problem and that the outcasts are the type of people brave enough to create their own path and live life on their own terms. Perhaps the song’s hazy atmosphere is a sonic representation of this idea, as it seems likely that only a certain kind of people will be able to appreciate its odd and unusual brilliance.
Not Your Kind of People is one of the standout songs from the album of the same name and, despite being an album track, is more than worthy of your attention.
# 8 – Empty
The lead single from the band’s most recent album Strange Little Birds, Empty is a reflection of Shirley Manson’s belief that music acts these days won’t admit to feeling lost or lonely, and will instead put on a brave face and just carry on dancing through the pain. As such, the song sees Manson address her self-doubt and lack of confidence and – on the chorus – even ties this to how a lack of self-esteem can lead to an obsession with others.
The rousing and rocking guitar riffs which form the heart of the track seem to spiral up and down the song, almost as if reflecting the turns of madness and depression described by the lyrics. Similarly, the choruses enormously repetitive nature must surely represent the obsessive behavior being mentioned. Interestingly, Empty features a glitched-up version of the drum beat used on the band’s 1998 single Special. Quite why this would be the case is not clear, after all, a master producer like Butch Vig would have innumerable drum loops to choose from. Perhaps the band, now over twenty years into their career, wanted to play on listener’s nostalgia and remind them that they’ve got a whole catalog of hits to their name.
At the end of the song, all of the instruments are stripped away, leaving Manson to perform a stark and final repetition of the chorus’ hook. This is a haunting way to finish the track, and perfectly illustrates the song’s narrative. Empty may be a recent addition to the Garbage canon, but it is just as accomplished as any song on this list.
# 7 – Only Happy When It Rains
During the mid-90’s there was a noticeable trend for alternative music to be incredibly bleak and angst-ridden. Only Happy When It Rains, taken from the band’s self-titled debut album, was Garbage’s attempt to poke fun at these overly gloomy and sorrowful songs (which the band knew they too were guilty of releasing).
It’s hard not to smile while listening to this track because the lyrics, especially during the chorus and the outro, are so over the top and outrageously melancholy that they perfectly skewer the type of depressing indie-nonsense the song sets out to mock. Of course, in a stroke of genius, the song does actually manage to impart some wisdom, pointing out that sometimes happiness can be found in even the most miserable of times and that there’s no shame in reveling in the darkness every now and again.
Musically, the track’s best feature is undoubtedly its lead guitar – a deep, crunchy and throaty sound which effortlessly fills the track, providing the perfect foil for the song’s hilariously depressing lyrics. Only Happy When It Rains is one of the band’s best-known songs and has even been covered by rock heavyweights Metallica. It’s no surprise the track has always been so well received, its lyrics are extremely memorable and enjoyably ironic, while the robust guitar is simply a pleasure to listen to.
# 6 – Blood for Poppies
This was the band’s comeback single in 2012 after going on hiatus seven years before. The track was chosen because the group felt it best represented the band’s trademark sound. It’s hard to argue with this assertion since Blood For Poppies does indeed contain a number of the band’s most recognizable characteristics – fuzzy and funky guitar riffs, a singalong chorus and Manson’s undeniably smooth tones.
The track’s narrative is quite hard to follow. This was an intentional decision the band made, wanting to write a song which illustrates the confusion and disorientation of the human condition. The title suggests the track’s protagonist is someone involved in the opium trade, and this is certainly an appropriate backdrop for the song’s abstract musings about insanity.
The song’s primary funk-driven guitar riff is not dissimilar to something Muse might produce (a huge compliment given Matt Bellamy’s immense talent) yet, at the same time, this is unmistakably a Garbage song – not least thanks to Manson’s coolly glamorous vocal stylings. The group’s experimental production techniques are most evident during the second verse, where a number of glitchy electronic effects are employed, further creating an atmosphere of mad chaos.
Blood for Poppies was the perfect song for Garbage to explode back onto the scene with. Despite the tracks being given away as a free download to fans (and leaking a week earlier, anyway) it received considerable attention throughout the world, proving that there was absolutely still a place for Garbage in the digital era.
# 5 – Push It
This single from Version 2.0 typifies the kind of edgy and gritty sound that the band were best known for during the 90’s. Push It is a dreamy alternative rock/pop track with considerable industrial elements. The track starts with an incessant electronic drum beat before Manson’s dulcet tones begin alongside multiple layers of grinding industrial padding. The song doesn’t truly come alive until its first pre-chorus, in which the singer’s voice is distorted with a loud-speaker effect and some jagged heavily wah-wah’d guitar enters the mix. None of this frenetic energy is lost as the chorus begins, in which Manson adopts a frenzied whisper and a more traditional electronic guitar riff begins, after this a dance beat plays and the track returns to the syrupy smoothness of the first verse.
Push It is a great example of the kind of remix-inspired sound which the band hoped to achieve at their inception, featuring a number of interpolated samples and references. The song’s interlude is purposely reminiscent of The Beach Boys’ Don’t Worry Baby, and the band’s lawyers deemed the choruses titular vocal hook as being so similar to the Salt-N-Pepa track of the same name that its writer is credited on this song.
Push It is a wild track, full of diverse influences and references – just the type of thing fans wanted from the band’s second album – and is a great “starter” for new fans wanting to get involved.
# 4 – I Think I’m Paranoid
Upon first listen, this second single from Version 2.0 sounds like a sweet and simple rock ditty, with light guitar and a slightly odd drum beat. This soon changes at the end of the first verse, when Manson’s voice is suddenly distorted and the beat changes to resemble a cassette tape being reversed. The song suddenly bursts into an explosion of sound with grinding and moaning guitars kicking in and Manson’s vocals becoming jagged and angry.
Once this heavy pre-chorus is over, the song settles in to a somewhat discordant chorus, in which Manson’s voice – sweet once again – gives up any semblance of the song’s earlier detachment and entirely submits herself to the person she is singing to, proclaiming that they can do whatever they want to her as long as they don’t leave. This is quite a change from the first verse, in which Manson was clearly in control of the relationship.
This change is echoed by the song’s instrumental, especially during the second half, which features a manic bridge, full of DJ scratch effects, and then, following a regular chorus, a bizarre alternate chorus plays, in which Manson adopts a deeper voice (almost as if pitch shifted) before returning to the sweet and light sound of the song’s beginning. This time, however, Manson has completely given herself to the man, with the empowered woman of the first verse completely gone.
This is a great example of how lyrics and music can work together to create an arresting (and, in this case, disturbing) narrative. Of course, regardless of this clever technique, I Think I’m Paranoid’s pinball-like punk energy makes this an essential Garbage song.
# 3 – Cherry Lips
This transcendent track from Beautiful Garbage is one of the band’s most traditionally pop productions, full of delightful flourishes and a cheerful, bubbly synthetic bass line. Don’t let that fool you though, the guitar (when it kicks in) is impressive enough and, thanks to its progressive narrative, this is a surprisingly punk rock track.
Cherry Lips was inspired by the books Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things and tells the story of a neglected child who grows up to be a transgender prostitute. Rather than being a disapproving criticism, the song is a joyous celebration of the protagonist’s life and makes it clear that the band are right behind them. Gender is a hot topic in 2017, but Garbage were clearly ahead of their time with this track, which has become somewhat of a transgender anthem. Perhaps the controversial subject matter, which conservative groups would not approve of, is the reason that the song was released as a single in all territories except the US, where Breaking Up the Girl was released in its place.
Sometimes referred to as Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!) because of the infectious vocal hook in the song’s final third, this is certainly one of the band’s most memorable songs, even featuring Queen-style handclaps for audiences to join in with. Quite simply, Cherry Lips is a celebratory track and serves as a wonderful breath of fresh air from a band often associated with a grungey sound. Forget bubblegum pop; this is bubblegum rock.
# 2 – Stupid Girl
Stupid Girl, from the band’s debut, is one of the group’s most successful songs, receiving two Grammy nods and charting highly across the world. Of course, success is no way to measure quality but, in this case, the track lives up to the hype.
The song began life as a drum sample from The Clash’s Train In Vain and evolved exponentially from there, with the band adding further percussion, a light and pleasant guitar riff and a Motown inspired bass line to form the heart of the song. In addition to this, the instrumental features grungy crunches, ambient synth pads and some scratchy feedback-like effects. Lyrically, the song is about someone who is squandering their potential instead of being the best version of their self. The band have made it clear that, despite the title, the song is supposed to be genderless, and simply chose to address a woman because they felt a strong female putting down a weak man had become somewhat of a cliche.
There’s a reason Stupid Girl has become one of the band’s most popular songs, it’s full of little touches which give it a real sense of polish, from the buzzing guitar in the instrumental breakdown to the ethereal-sounding backing vocals during the chorus. The song’s scratchy effects were ingeniously represented in the track’s music video, where – in a homage to the film Se7en – the film was purposely ruined and distorted, creating a really messed up and abrasive aesthetic, perfectly suited to the band.
Stupid Girl may not be one of the more showy Garbage tracks, but that’s not where its genius lies. What makes it so good is that it’s a reliable, straight up alternative rock smash – sturdy, brooding and utterly brilliant – a perfect example of what makes Garbage so compelling.
# 1 – Why Do You Love Me
Why Do You Love Me was the lead single from 2005’s Bleed Like Me and became the band’s first entry on the Billboard Hot 100 for six years. The song introduced fans to the new sound the band had planned for their fourth album, which stripped back the overly-produced elements and the electronic/synth aspects to focus on a much purer rock sound made up of drums, guitars and Manson’s vocals.
In fact, the song is quite the introduction to this new sound, immediately kicking listeners in the face with a thick and tasty rock riff. After this, the guitar becomes a background element, letting Manson’s vocals take center stage and becoming just slightly more frantic during the chorus before returning to an enormous, grizzled buzz for the post-chorus solo.
Along with the guitar, the immense chorus is the highlight of Why Do You Love Me, it is an impossibly catchy pop hook and amongst the band’s very best. It really is futile to attempt to resist singing along to the chorus; you simply have to let its brilliance wash over you. There’s something very Blondie-esque about the hook, which is high praise indeed and, appropriately, a poster of Debbie Harry can be seen in the song’s music video.
Why Do You Love Me is easily one of Garbage’s most immediately enjoyable tracks. While some fans might miss the more experimental elements of the band’s oeuvre, Garbage had intentionally removed these in order to experiment with their sound, so fans should embrace these changes. This is a dynamic and extraordinary song which showcases Garbage at their very best.
Over their decade spanning career Manson, Marker, Erikson and Vig have created a huge amount of fearsomely enjoyable tracks. Their fondness for experimentation and willingness to be that little bit different has allowed Garbage to record some of rock’s most unusual and brilliant tracks. Since their reunion a few years ago, the band are as good as ever and look to be releasing more new music soon. One thing which has always been certain about Garbage is that they certainly don’t live up their name.
Updated March 1, 2021
Top 10 Garbage Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2017
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