For nearly 30 years, Teenage Fanclub has been one of the world’s great bands, first as a scruffy alt-rock group that wore its Byrds and Big Star influences on its sleeve, and more recently as mellow elder statesmen of indie-pop. And for nearly as long, the Scottish band’s core trio—Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley—have split songwriting duties evenly, contributing four tunes each to five straight 12-track albums.
Which makes it all the more impressive that the level of quality and consistency of Teenage Fanclub’s work remains world-class, up to and including their most recent full-length, Here. But on Friday, the band will reissue its finest albums—1991’s Bandwagonesque, 1993’s Thirteen, 1995’s Grand Prix, 1997’s Songs From Northern Britain and 2000’s Howdy!—making them readily available on vinyl for the first time in years.
In celebration, here’s a roundup of the 20 best songs from Teenage Fanclub’s catalog. The parameters: These are taken from official TFC full-length albums only, so no singles, no B-sides, no rarities, no De La Soul or Jad Fair collaborations. Just melody, harmonies and guitar jangle as far as the eye can see.
20. “Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From” from Songs From Northern Britain
Teenage Fanclub’s sixth album spills over with songs worthy of a place on this list; it feels almost criminal to leave off “I Don’t Want Control Of You” and “Take The Long Way Round.” But sneaking in at #20 is the album’s penultimate track, a folksy, midtempo tune that typifies Raymond McGinley’s generally melancholy vibe. Anybody who’s ever been deeply in love with someone can surely relate to the line “I disappear when you’re not here in my life.” McGinley delivers it with believable anguish.
19. “Shock and Awe” from Shadows
This is a lovely Gerard Love tune that epitomizes everything good about TFC’s 21st century output. The band’s classic guitar jangle remains, augmented by keys, a tasteful string section and pillowy backing vocals. Front and center is Love, whose fragile tenor glides along a sweet melody. But 20 years (at the time) into the life of his band, Love has, for the most part, left behind the abstractions of the old days and replaced them with literary references and well-seasoned wisdom: “Wake me when the conflict is over. I aim for a peaceful life,” he sings. “Shake me when this madness is no more. I favor a peaceful life.”
18. “Tears Are Cool” from Thirteen
Teenage Fanclub’s first effort after its Bandwagonesque breakthrough serves up one catchy, crunchy rocker after another, no doubt intended to feed the alt-rock beast that ruled the era. But late in the album is this tender ballad by Raymond McGinley, which simulates the experience of trying to talk to someone you love when you have no idea what to say. McGinley’s wavering voice fits the subject matter nicely, nearly cracking as he sings “You always knew I could be unkind, but I can’t be cruel” as an electric-acoustic guitar crackles and chops in the background. “Tears Are Cool” is Thirteen’s well-timed palate cleanser.
17. “I Was Beautiful When I Was Alive” from Here
Teenage Fanclub’s most recent album is also it’s most relaxed. Its arrangements bare no trace of hurry or uncertainty, and all three writers offer perspectives that could only come from someone who has lived and loved and lost. In particular, Raymond McGinley’s “I Was Beautiful When I Was Alive” unfolds slowly and beautifully, like sap dripping from a tree branch in late spring. The guitars sing a lullaby, gentle keyboard touches create a spacey backdrop, and McGinley squeezes every drop of emotion out of his voice. And then, all of a sudden, the song shifts into a motorik outro in the final 90 seconds. It is glorious.
16. “Speed Of Light” from Songs From Northern Britain
Written by Gerard Love as a sort of informal advice column for some younger siblings, the closing number on Songs From Northern Britain pulses with positive energy from its opening drumbeat to its abrupt final chord. It helps that there’s a squiggly synth in the instrumental mix, but more important is the song’s sleek feel and driving pace. Be smart, stick with your people, stand strong in an ever-changing world, you have everything you need to succeed … intertwined with Love’s melody is a whole treasure trove of Gerry’s Rules For Life. If this had been the end of Teenage Fanclub, it would’ve been a fine way to go out. As it is, it almost feels like an answer to the first song on Howdy!, Love’s own “I Need Direction.”
15. “Neil Jung” from Grand Prix
was an obvious influence on early Teenage Fanclub, as heard in some of the burly arrangements on A Catholic Education. But this punnily titled song has nothing to do with either the Canadian roots-rock legend or psychoanalyst Carl Jung. It’s a Norman Blake song about a deteriorating relationship, delivered via Blake’s usual blend of chiming guitars and addictive melody. The little hiccup of a pause in the chorus is one of the most distinctive moments of any TFC song, and it’s a killer sing-along bit in concert. Fun fact: Blake wrote the song about his good friend, Duglas T. Stewart, leader of the Scottish rock band BMX Bandits.
14. “The Sun Shines From You” from Howdy!
This Howdy! deep cut starts off unspectacularly, with Raymond McGinley’s unsteady vocals paired with a sort of strangely dubby acoustic guitar lick. Vocal harmonies lift the tune, but still it doesn’t really take off until about 45 seconds in, when it blossoms into a warm and inviting chorus. From there, “The Sun Shines From You” shimmers like it’s namesake, as McGinley sings the praises of a person who brings their own brilliant blue-sky weather pattern to a relationship. “Time chases me,” he sings, “My mind races to find the place where I wanna be.” Here, McGinley sounds at home.
13. “Fallen Leaves” from Man-Made
Tucked into the back end of the modest Man-Made is this Gerard Love song that somehow manages to sound dusky and downcast while also sparkling with optimism. “Fallen Leaves” features a heavy dose of keyboards and a layer of fuzz, which makes the track a throwback of sorts for TFC. And Love is in great form—typically understated, and warm as usual as he mulls the precious present and the unforeseeable future: “Brighten up, there is more to become,” he sings in a low hum. “Fasten down every day, ’cause nothing’s tied, nothing stays.”
12. “Everything Flows” from A Catholic Education
Teenage Fanclub’s debut album is noisier and harder-edged than everything that came after it—the sound of a band finding its place in the musical world (and taking more direction from Neil Young than The Byrds). But hidden in there among the modest jams is this Norman Blake-penned gem, where you can hear a sticky future-TFC melody blanketed in grunge-y guitar tone and fighting to get out and be heard. Lyrically, Blake is in the midst of navigating young adulthood: “We get older every year, but you don’t change,” he sings. “Or I don’t notice you’re changing.” On an album that sounds different from the rest of TFC’s catalog, “Everything Flows” offers a path to what the band would become.
11. ”Alcoholiday” from Bandwagonesque
If Nirvana—who were fans and tourmates of TFC—were the Beatles of the alternative scene, then Teenage Fanclub were the Big Star. That’s clear all over Bandwagonesque, where easy, approachable melodies are draped in distorted guitars, giving the music a sweet ’n’ sour flavor. “Alcoholiday” encapsulates this sound, pairing restlessness and remorse with sugary “ooohs” and “aaahs” and riffs that ring into eternity. It’s also another example of TFC’s expertise with outros, as the final two minutes beautifully repeat a sad sentiment: “What I’ve done I leave behind me. I don’t want my soul to find me.”
10. “Radio” from Thirteen
The band’s proper follow-up to their breakthrough, Bandwagonesque, received more than its share of negative reviews upon release. But the years have been kind to Thirteen, and many consider it a strong bridge between Bandwagonesque’s alt-rock and Grand Prix’s pop perfection. Thirteen boasts a number of solid songs, most notably this bracing rocker written by Gerard Love, who sounds like he’s through being cool. “When I try to trip you up,” he sings, “I’m the one who falls.” Set at a fast pace and shot through with prickly guitars, “Radio” oozes more punk energy than just about anything else in the TFC catalog.
9. “Baby Lee” from Shadows
Sometimes it feels like Norman Blake can piece together a perfect chord progression as easily as most of us breathe. “Baby Lee” is one of those times. The lead single from 2010’s Shadows is a jaunty song about being so hopelessly in love with someone, you’re willing to lose everything to be with them. There’s a painful undercurrent here—Blake sings of public suffering and encourages Baby Lee to “wreck all the things that I know”—but the song is so sunny and sprightly, it sounds like it’s powered entirely by pure infatuation. This is peak pop-rock melody from one of pop-rock’s all-time great melodists.
8. “I Need Direction” from Howdy!
If it’s sunny, ’60s-style “ba ba ba ba” backing vocals you seek, then run—don’t walk—to “I Need Direction,” which opens TFC’s seventh full-length studio album. The verses of this Gerard Love song are as bouncy (and fun) as a red rubber ball, while the chorus finds the band filling in the spaces with a fuzzy wall of sound. The result is something like early rock ’n’ roll submerged in a light shoegaze syrup. No matter the sound, though, Love’s vocal melody—one of his best—shines through the haze.
7. “It’s All In My Mind” from Man-Made
For their first album on legendary indie label Merge Records, TFC traveled to Chicago to record with John McEntire, best known as the drummer of Tortoise and The Sea and Cake. McEntire’s light touch as a producer can be heard throughout Man-Made, especially on its opening track, “It’s All In My Mind,” a Norman Blake song with a strong, steady rhythm and a simple vocal melody. Those two components come together to create one of the most hypnotizing tunes in the Teenage Fanclub catalog, and the psychedelic guitar solo is the icing on the cake.
6. “Star Sign” from Bandwagonesque
“Star Sign” takes a full 75 seconds to get going, but once it does, it’s instantly one of TFC’s all-time best rockers. The pace is urgent, the bass line taut and the guitars do their best Dinosaur Jr impression. Meanwhile, Gerard Love dismisses the idea of good luck and bad luck: “Hey, there’s a horseshoe on my door,” he sings. “Big deal.” The song is one of the best examples of early TFC’s charming rawness, as the track warps and wobbles a couple times (at least) in its final third. As stately as the band would become in its later years, “Star Sign” is a good reminder that they were once young, fun, sloppy pop-rock band.
5. “About You” from Grand Prix
The distinctively ringing chords that begin “About You” are like an audio portal to a state of pop-rock perfection; they are the very first sounds on what is probably TFC’s best album, top-to-bottom, Grand Prix. (Today, at least. Tomorrow it’ll be Songs From Northern Britain.) Typical of Raymond McGinley tunes, “About You” does a lot with a little: the lyrics are simple and repetitive, the guitar solo is as unassuming as you’ll ever hear, and the melodies have a droning quality that burrows its way into your brain to live for a good long while. It is one of the most insistent earworms on an album full of insistent earworms.
4. “Start Again,” from Songs From Northern Britain
Kicking off TFC’s 1997 album Songs From Northern Britain is an apology song written by Norman Blake that perfectly encapsulates the feelings of sadness and confusion that follow a screw-up … or a break-up … or both. Against a handful of buzzy chords and some unconventional rhythmic shifts, Blake’s easygoing melody sounds even more fluid as he offers up regrets for things he’s thought and said and done. And though he’s unsure if the person he wronged can even hear him, he implores again and again: “Even though it’s complicated, we’ve got time to start again.” Sadness never sounded so elegant.
3. “The Concept” from Bandwagonesque
After the band’s Sonic Youth-indebted debut, TFC began a gradual shift toward pop music that continues today. The very first song of that shift is “The Concept,” a six-minute celebration of jangling electric guitars, harmony vocals and band hangers-on that changes from rock song to breezy outro about halfway through. It’s a Norman Blake tune, and it opens the band’s breakthrough album Bandwagonesque, a near-perfect collection of fuzzy alt-pop songs that famously beat out Nirvana’s Nevermind, among others, for Spin’s album of the year for 1991. TFC die-hards maintain to this day that the magazine made the right choice.
2. “Sparky’s Dream” from Grand Prix
Track two on Grand Prix is a classic love song, lyrically, and a melodic monster that’s home to one of the best TFC choruses, period. Gerard Love wrote the tune, which grooves more than most of its siblings in the band’s songbook, thanks to a danceable rhythm and a serrated guitar sound. And then, the main hook comes along and blasts the song off into a space shimmering with shooting stars and crystal balls. “She painted pictures that never dried,” Love sings of his subject. “Always try and keep the feeling alive.”
1. “Ain’t That Enough” from Songs From Northern Britain
The second half of arguably the greatest album-opening one-two punch ever, Gerard Love’s “Ain’t That Enough” is a masterwork of ’90s electric guitar tone, a clinic on melody making and harmony singing, and a lesson about optimizing our limited time here on Earth, all wrapped up into one. Listen to this song on headphones and let the voices pour into your ears. Listen to the strummed strings churn straight up into heaven. Nod in appreciation as Love asks, “Here is a sunrise. Ain’t that enough?” Indeed, “Ain’t That Enough is an ecstatic exhale of a song bathed in sunlight, and it’s the very best song in one of the very best catalogs of recorded music ever created.