While attending Berklee College of Music in the late Eighties, Juliana Hatfield began singing and playing bass in the Blake Babies alongside guitarist/vocalist John Strohm and drummer Frieda Love. The band (whose name was suggested to them personally by none other than Allen Ginsberg) would release several independent albums before breaking up in 1991. Hatfield briefly joined the Lemondheads as bassist but in 1992 released her debut solo album Hey Babe (on which she began playing guitar, in addition to bass as well as all the lead vocals) to overall positive response.
After signing to a major label (Atlantic), she released Become What You Are in 1993 under the moniker the Juliana Hatfield Three (bassist Dean Fisher and drummer Todd Phillips were the other “two”). Able to present herself (or let others present her) as a component of the Nirvana-led alternative music boom of the era, Hatfield became something of a fixture on MTV – particularly with the video for the single “My Sister” – and her track “Spin the Bottle” was featured on the soundtrack to the movie Reality Bites. During this period she also appeared on the cover of Spin magazine and was even cast in a major role on the Christmas episode of My So-Called Life.
Hatfield released the follow-up album Only Everything in 1995 (this time under just her own name). The single “Universal Heartbeat” was accompanied by an elaborate video in which she played a duel role as a singing diva and a take-no-prisoners exercise instructor. Although the track did well on MTV and alternative radio, the album failed to make the US Top 100, and after she recorded another album which Atlantic declined to release, Hatfield split with them, marking the end of her brief time as a major-label artist.
This is the point at which most of the general public probably lost track of Juliana Hatfield. However, she’s maintained a solid cult following, and to date has released fifteen albums of all-original material plus three of all covers and several EPs (there’s also the never-officially-released but widely-bootlegged 1996 studio album God’s Foot). She’s also found time for a number of notable collaborative projects: The Minor Alps (with Matthew Caws of Nada Surf), The I Don’t Cares (alongside legendary Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg, one of her main influences) and Some Girls (with bassist Heidi Gluck and Blake Babies drummer Freda Love). The Blake Babies even reunited for a tour and new album in 2001.
As great as those collaborative efforts are, for our Top 10 Juliana Hatfield tracks we’re going to focus on just songs which have been released under her name. This pool alone gives us many, many choices, ranging from blistering, heavy rockers to haunting acoustic ballads, all of which showcase not just her distinct soft but steadfast vocal style, but also reveal her to be one of her generation’s best songwriters.
# 10 – Noblesse Oblige
Juliana Hatfield began the 2000s with the simultaneous release of two new studio albums, Beautiful Creature and Juliana’s Pony: Total System Failure. Although the two were perhaps meant to be contrasting pieces – the former was the more pop, singer/songwriter effort while the latter successfully displayed Hatfield’s harder-edge side – this standout mid-tempo track from Total System sort of represents the best of both worlds. The title (a French phrase referring to the responsibility of the privileged to help those who are less so) never appears in the lyrics, but in the song the message about forgiveness in difficult relationships still comes across quite coherently (plus, a direct reference to a Beatles song – in this case “Drive My Car” – is always good for a few bonus points).
# 9 – Blame the Stylist
In 2015, Hatfield called back bassist Dean Fisher and drummer Todd Phillips to revive the Juliana Hatfield Three, the incarnation under which her work had gotten the most attention in the early Nineties. Even the album’s title, Whatever, My Love, reads like a throwback to the perceived indifference of Slackers days. That said, the resulting album was among the best of her career, and included in the numerous highlights was this defiant rocker. What seems thematically like an attempt to simply vent over a bad encounter with an overenthusiastic but somewhat misguided image consultant in the end becomes a strong protest anthem which targets the sexualizing of female performers (“I knew the dress was wrong/But I tried to get along/She made me look like a whore/Who am I being sexy for?”) in the name of showcasing them as commercial product.
# 8 – Dune
In 2005, Hatfield made several dozen original studio tracks available for download through her website (a true fan’s artist, she then set up an “honor system” whereby listeners who wanted them could submit payment directly to her). Revised and re-recorded versions of a few of the songs would later appear on Whatever, My Love in 2015, but otherwise most of them you had to catch while you could. Fortunately, a few ended up on (where else?) YouTube, including this phenomenal and right-to-the-point rocker (on which Hatfield plays all the instruments) driven by a stomping guitar riff.
# 7 – Between the Clouds
Another one which was released exclusively online and therefore a bit harder to track down, but it’s worth the search to find this strikingly beautiful mostly-acoustic track (in which Hatfield overdubs her own harmony vocal).
# 6 – Hang Down from Heaven
It’s definitely a job trying to choose a track from Hatfield’s amazing 1998 release Only Everything, which also includes the single “Universal Heartbeat” as well as fan favorite “Live on Tomorrow.” But deep-ish cut “Hang Down From Heaven,” which uses the quiet-then-loud-then-back approach which became a touchstone of early Nineties alternative rock, stands out as an example of her best work from that period.
# 5 – This Lonely Love
In 2008, reviewers praised the noticeably more mature sound of Hatfield’s ninth solo album How to Walk Away, and songs like this one – co-written by Andy Chase, formally of the band Ivy – were a lot of the reason. The track is driven by a simple-but-compelling four-note piano riff and perfectly-fitting harmony vocals by Psychedelic Furs lead singer Richard Butler. True to the album’s title, “The Lonely Love” feels like a musical stroll, but the final result is anything but pedestrian.
# 4 – Spit in the Wind
Okay, the title’s kind of gross, but this standout track from 2013’s Wild Animals (which, despite its title, is one of Hatfield’s more consciously mellow albums), perfectly illustrates Hatfield’s ability to make a musical statement which is direct, gripping and powerful on an acoustic guitar (although this one does feature some drums). Hatfield obviously also knows her own vocal range very well, and this song fits it flawlessly. Like quite a few of her songs which at first deceptively come off as “quiet,” this one sounds like she’s sharing a secret with an intimate friend, but that intimate friend is the whole world.
# 3 – For the Birds
This second single (and video) from Hatfield’s classic 1993 Become What You Are album, “For the Birds” is anything but. In the lyrics, the song’s protagonist, while seeking to perhaps connect with others (“to go downtown and hang around”) instead comes across a life that most would probably dismiss as insignificant – a dying baby bird – and through that discovery develops an excuse (or perhaps a legitimate reason) to find fault with the entire human race (“I’d rather hang around with the birds/Humans only wreck the world/They kill your whole family for a string of pearls”). The slower tempo which both opens the song and then turns up again at exactly the right point later is just one of the highly appealing musical aspects of this gem.
# 2 – Everybody Loves Me But You
Just the title of the 1992 debut solo single from Juliana Hatfield (twenty-four years old at the time of its release) capsulizes the paradoxical nature of Generation X – that see-sawing between narcissism and self-loathing – better than some full songs or even entire albums of the time which tried to do so. “People always notice me wherever I go/They think I’m lucky but they don’t really know… /’Cause all I ever do is cry/Everybody loves me but you.” Although we never learn the concise identity of who the song is addressing (an unrequited crush? A disapproving parent?) the person singing may well be talking about their inability to love or even accept themselves, even as others shower them with endless praise.
As thought-provoking as that is (and to which no doubt many can directly identify), the track is hardly just a therapy session with a 4/4 beat: musically speaking the song’s tight, catchy raw power-pop also provides the perfect introduction to the artist.
# 1 – My Sister
Juliana Hatfield’s best-known song (recorded with the Juliana Hatfield Three) opens by grabbing the listener’s attention with its trademark riff before easing into its main section, where the lyrics of this essential Nineties indie rock/power pop track depict the duality of a relationship between sisters (the first verse begins with “I hate my sister,” the second with “I love my sister”), both in the literal sense that probably anyone with siblings can relate to, and in regards to that too-often-indecisive nature that defined the twentysomething generation of that (or possibly any) era.
The emotional stalemate which the narrator feels is then broken in the final verse: “I miss my sister/Why’d she go?.” It’s never explained what actually happened to the sister (Died? Moved away to college? Became the merch girl for the Afghan Whigs?), but these lyrics successfully illustrate what can be the fleeting nature of virtually any human connection.
So you might be wondering: what did her sister think of the song? Nothing. Juliana Hatfield doesn’t actually have a sister (she has an older brother and a younger one). But what she does have are fans, and this classic song is a big reason why she has so many.
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