I guess I’m not as big a Garbage fan as I thought I was. Either that or these guys have put out way more singles than I thought they had. Garbage have released like 35 singles over the course of seven albums and 25+ years. Just going back over those single releases revealed a bunch of stuff I didn’t remember. And don’t forget the endless remixes and the shit-ton of great album tracks.
It’s strangely easy not to be a fan of this band, despite their commercial success and critical acclaim. From the outset, the whole thing seemed like a “project.” Three veteran player/producers, one a Grammy winner, coming together to concoct some “modern rock,” with Shirley Manson sent over from central casting to front the thing. Mid-’90s modern rock programmers took it from there, pounding the airwaves with their hit singles and slick videos. Smelled kind of calculated.
I never disliked the tunes, but their singles got played so much that by the early aughts I had tuned them out and moved on to indie-er pastures. Then in aught-five, I happened to catch their show in Las Vegas on the Bleed Like Me tour. That was the moment I became a fan. I realized that this is a great live act, not a studio creation. Shirley was charming and intense, totally in her element on stage connecting with the audience. They’re a cohesive ensemble, with chemistry earned over a quarter-century of creating, touring and fighting together. Their lineup remains as it was at the start: Shirley, Duke Erikson, Steve Marker and Butch Vig.
At this point, I’ve got nothing but Garbage in my head after listening to all their singles – even tunes that didn’t make this list are bouncing around up in there. Be warned: You’re going to remember how much you love these songs, and you will believe.
released 11 March 96 – from the 1995 album Garbage
chart peak: #24 on Billboard Hot 100; #2 Billboard Alternative Airplay
The band’s debut album exploded on the modern rock scene in 1995. Garbage eventually spawned five singles, and this one remains their biggest chart hit. “Stupid” started with a drum sample from The Clash’s “Train in Vain” (which I totally hear, now that I know), but was built around the hooky bass line created by Steve Marker, played on the recording by Milwaukee session bassist Mike Kashou, and performed live by their touring bassist at that time, Daniel Shulman. They performed it on Letterman in July ’96, marking their network TV debut.
released 20 November 95 – from the 1995 album Garbage
chart peak: #12 Billboard Alternative Airplay
This was another sensation from their debut album, incorporating a laid back trip hop groove and featuring Shirley’s salacious vocal. The video, nominated for an MTV Video Music Award, is a statement of the band’s bold visual style, in which Shirley subdues and shaves some dude. (please refer to our article chronicling another Shirley shaving incident). Reportedly, Vig found inspiration for the song in a novel, “about this woman who was hired to go and make this guy’s son a ‘man'” Shirley’s reworked lyrics describe a timid boy through the eyes of the prostitute, reminiscent of the “Acid Queen” from The Who’s Tommy.
1995 non-album b-side; remixed 1997 for the film Romeo + Juliet
chart peak: #1 Billboard Alternative Airplay
The band declined to include this track on Garbage. Vig went so far as to refer to the song as “disturbing.” However, the universe had other plans for “#1 Crush.” Nellee Hooper and Marius de Vries remixed it for the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet film adaptation. Here, Shirley and the boys perform it in the KROQ Red Bull Sound Space with Eric Avery playing the haunting bass line.
released 20 April 98 – from the 1998 album Version 2.0
chart peak: #52 Billboard Hot 100; #6 Billboard Alternative Airplay
This is the first Garbage song that I remember becoming terribly sick of. 23 years later though, I dig their quote of The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby.” Apparently, they shared the same publishing company with Brian Wilson and took a chance on getting his approval to use the sample. He agreed — and reportedly kept the demo tape they sent him. Here the band perform a kick-ass outdoor version in LA in 2012.
“I Think I’m Paranoid”
released 6 July 98 – from the 1998 album Version 2.0
chart peak: #6 Billboard Alternative Airplay
Garbage seemed to be incorporating as many styles of the popular music of the day as possible. You find elements of hard rock, industrial, electronica, grunge, trip hop and lots of classic-rock references and samples. Some believed that Butch and company were up to more than creative reinvention. Music publisher Helios Music sued Garbage for copyright infringement, claiming “I Think I’m Paranoid” ripped off a song called “Bend Me, Shape Me,” which was a hit in the U.S. for The American Breed. Litigation is the sincerest form of flattery.
released 5 October 98 – from the 1998 album Version 2.0
chart peak: #52 Billboard Hot 100; #10 Billboard Dance Club Songs
When I search for Garbage on my current streaming platform, they’re categorized as “alt dance.” Uh, OK. While I find their brand of heavy rock to be super groovy, it doesn’t usually inspire me to shake a leg. “Special,” however is a tune to which I could be convinced to shake it. Shirley looks really stoked to be performing at Glastonbury in this clip from aught-two. Be sure to listen to the end for her subtle homage to Chrissie Hynde.
released 24 September 2001 – from the 2001 album Beautiful Garbage
(did not chart in the U.S.)
Beautiful Garbage was a departure from the heavy modern rock of the band’s first two records, and it received a chilly response from their fan base. “Androgyny,” the lead single, has a decidedly pop vibe. It mixes elements of R&B and Latin arena pop in the verse, then plays the chorus straight hard rock. Guitarist Duke Erikson said of the song, “The way we do things is almost like Cubism. It’s different viewpoints of the same thing, jammed together on the one canvas.” This London performance from that same aught-two tour was broadcast live on MTV.
“Why Do You Love Me”
released 5 April 2005 – from the 2005 album Bleed Like Me
chart peak: #94 Billboard Hot 100; #8 Billboard Alternative Airplay
Bleed Like Me found the band stripping down their sound to the rock-n-roll basics: guitar, bass and drums. And, after the poor chart performance of their previous record, voila! they were back in the Hot 100. This is great heavy-guitar rock with a typically fierce vocal from Shirley. I like the video because the backdrop is a huge portrait of Deborah Harry. Not sure what that’s all about, but it’s cool.
“Blood for Poppies”
released 26 March 2012 – from the 2012 album Not Your Kind of People
chart peak: #13 Billboard Hot Singles Sales
Seven years since their last album, the music business had splintered. Garbage was now a niche band with a faithful core fan base. Free from major-label politics and meddling, the band founded their own label, Stunvolume, and relaxed and stretched out. The verse in “Poppies” feels like The Clash — white folks playing Jamaican dub. Then the old school hard-pop chorus is like Sheryl Crow meets Avril Lavigne. Always great contrasts. Here’s some more of that 2012 rehearsal footage.
released 20 April 2016 – from the 2016 album Strange Little Birds
chart peak: #39 Billboard Alternative Airplay
This tune was released on their own label a few months before Shirley’s 50th birthday. Honestly, I’d never heard the record before and I wondered how well these cats would age. I’ll tell you, this track is hooky as shit and as powerful as anything from their chart-pounding days. Shirley’s still got style and the grooves are still industrial strength.
“The Men Who Rule the World”
released 30 March 2021 – from the 2021 album No Gods No Masters
(To date, this track has not charted in the U.S.)
Garbage are still doing their thing, and they don’t care if you’re not paying attention. But you should pay attention. I actually like this new stuff better than their old stuff. Shirley is really letting loose. Here she takes on capitalist greed and the patriarchy. She’s putting the kids and animals in a space ship and blowing the rest of it up. This track has an angular, twitchy new-wave feel. If you have an opinion, a mind of your own, you will like this record.
Back in 2012, when Garbage launched Stunvolume, the LA Times asked Shirley if the band were scared. Shirley replied, “…we probably have more experience making records and releasing them than 99% of people working at labels these days… People at record companies live in fear of being wrong. Music cannot thrive in that environment… You have to let it morph and move and breathe. So are we scared? Not a jot.” I for one am glad that the noise is still keeping this band awake.
No Gods No Masters is out now on Stunvolume. The band are currently on tour with Alanis Morissette and Cat Power.