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Top 10 Soul Asylum Songs

At the Minnesota Music Awards in 1986, Soul Asylum front man Dave Pirner accepted the award for Best Garage Band saying “We are here tonight to celebrate music, and music is not something that can be judged.” Well Dave, my apologies for not only judging your music, but for ranking your songs as well.

I love Soul Asylum because they wrote great songs and rocked hard with great dynamics. But I also love them because, despite their greatness, they had some trouble getting out of their own way. While another glorious train-wreck band from Minneapolis, The Replacements, slurred and stumbled to legendary status, Pirner, Dan Murphy and the boys had their moment in the mid-’90s, but drifted out of favor and aren’t mentioned much anymore.

They went from a top 10, Grammy-winning hit with “Runaway Train” to Dave crashing the green room at a Wilco gig, which showed up in the 2002 Wilco documentary I’m Trying to Break Your Heart with Dave asking, “Is this food just like for anybody?” It’s a cautionary tale to just be yourself, unless yourself isn’t exactly what the music-business suits think yourself should be.

Dave’s still recording and gigging as Soul Asylum, but Dan hung up his Les Paul in 2012, stating he didn’t have the “naivete and swagger” any longer. Bassist and founding member Karl Mueller sadly passed away in ’06. Frankly, we only considered their classic period, from the beginning in the early ’80s through 1995’s Let Your Dim Light Shine.

1. “Cartoon”

(Lenny Kaye & Ed Stasium, producers)

A Dan Murphy tune comes in at #1! Dave Pirner was Soul Asylum’s principal songwriter, but Dan struck gold with this driving, hook-heavy single off 1988’s Hang Time. The lyrics pick up the signature Soul Asylum themes of alienation and self-deprecation, and the dual lead vocal with Dave and Dan sounds thick and exasperated. Dan gives his beloved Les Paul gold top a work out on his melodic solo break. “It goes on and on, but it won’t go away.” Truth.

2. “No Man’s Land”

(Chris Osgood, producer)

This is an extraordinary rust-belt anthem off their 1986 release, While You Were Out. It’s a great example of Soul Asylum’s dichotomic simultaneous sense of urgency and futility. The irony of these seeming contradictions reflected the zeitgeist of young-adult culture in the Reagan era – this sense that corporatism was having its way with us. “Where the kings of nothing rule, my friend. And you can’t make me leave.”

3. “Sometime to Return”

(Lenny Kaye & Ed Stasium, producers)

Also from the estimable Hang Time album, this proto-grunge slammer seems like a response to the Nike “Just Do It” ethos of the era. Nike’s overbearing, type A ad campaign debuted in ’88 around the time of the album’s release. Pirner speaks for many of us who were “doing it,” but getting nowhere. “Doing the best I can, with or without a plan. I’m taking what I can get, but I haven’t seen nothing yet.”

4. “Somebody to Shove”

(Michael Beinhorn, producer)

This is the lead track on 1992’s break-out album Grave Dancer’s Union. It’s also the tune they opened with on the subsequent tour. We saw them at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit early in that tour, and the mosh that broke out from the first note of the opening riff was a testament to the tremendous inertia Soul Asylum had been building for ten years. I have no idea what this song is about (other than alienation, of course), but it has a lot to do with land-line phones.

5. “Easy Street”

(Steve Jordan, producer)

It was starting to happen for the boys in 1990. So, it’s not surprising that they flipped a “fuck you” to themselves by titling this album And the Horse They Rode in On. (Additionally ironic, is the CD cover that features a donkey.) Dan co-wrote with Dave on this speaker-cone shredder that yearns to be at ease, but settles for an uneasy peace with “this mess ahead.”

6. “Never Really Been”

(Bob Mould, producer)

At their core, Soul Asylum were writing country songs. They told hard-luck stories using clever turns of phrase. But they were too insecure to be overtly earnest, perhaps because they’d “never really been touched there.” This mid-tempo country honker appeared on Made to be Broken, the first of their three releases in 1986. Fellow Minneapple-seed and Husker Du mastermind Bob Mould produced this collection of scruffy, Midwestern hard rock.

7. “Made to be Broken”

(Bob Mould, producer)

The title track from Made to be Broken, this sounds like a rock band wandered unwittingly into a honky-tonk near the freeway. It’s ill at ease, but just fucking goes for it. This album is a jewel in their catalog; if you’ve only heard their ’90s stuff, this is a great place to research the band’s back story. “By the chill that you gave me I will ride.” I’ve felt that.

8. “Black Gold”

(Michael Beinhorn, producer)

The second single from Grave Dancer’s Union, this is one of my favorite soft/loud songs. I’ve included the official video, because you really need to feel the power of the loud part to appreciate the dynamics of this tune. But I absolutely could not resist including the clip of their performance of the song at Bill Clinton’s ’93 inaugural gala. The song had just been released as a single and was climbing up the Mainstream Rock chart. Dave’s in a plaid sports jacket and attempts a cringey introduction, before literally falling on his ass when the loud part kicks. With characteristic grit, he scrambles to his feet and shakes it off while Dan laughs. A cherished basic-cable moment in my life.

9. “Heavy Rotation”

(Lenny Kaye & Ed Stasium, producers)

The third track from Hang Time to crack the top 10, this song suggests that Soul Asylum could have been Nirvana. But then Dave’s bouts with depression might’ve taken a tragic turn. Nah, suffice to say that this hardcore-inspired thrasher set a benchmark for Seattle’s flannel scene. Dave’s great “I Am” in this tune is him “just trying to live with today.”

10. “Just Like Anyone”

(Butch Vig, producer)

My friend Adam, who helped compile this list, posits the literary theory that this song is about a girl “whose shit doesn’t stink.” An intriguing reading of the lyrics, and in stark contrast to the girl in the official video for the song (played by Claire Danes) who is outcast because she has angel wings. Consider Adam’s interpretation as you listen to this cool version with strings recorded in 1995, shortly after Let Your Dim Light Shine was released.



(Butch Vig & Soul Asylum, producers)

Soul Asylum performed on Letterman a few times in the ’90s and Dave really seemed to dig them. Plus, this is just a damn good song, featuring some classic Pirner word play. I love the line, ” I know what you’d pay to feel.” I think he actually does know that.

Now, you might be asking yourself, “How can they have a Soul Asylum top 10 without ‘Runaway Train?'” Well, it’s a fine tune, and I’m pleased that it did well by these gentlemen. Nuff said. Dave released a new Soul Asylum record earlier this year, Hurry Up and Wait, with a new group of inmates. I gave it a spin and it’s good – good tunes and great Pirner lyrics. But make sure to listen to all the classic-period stuff too. I celebrate these guys’ entire catalog.

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