When I was 16 or 17 and girls my age called Alanis Morrissette “Alanis,” it irritated me in the way that smartass know-it-all insecure teenage boys frequently get unaccountably irritated. You don’t know her! I’d think. Or sometimes say out loud, in the way that smartass know-it-all insecure teenage boys frequently can’t keep their stupid mouths shut. At the time I, to paraphrase the song “Rock Me,” didn’t know who Liz Phair was. But I thought back to those moments when reading over our write-ups of the best Liz Phair songs—including my own. Pretty much all of us did it: We called her Liz, like we knew her. We don’t, of course. But that’s how good Liz Phair’s songwriting is: There’s something relatable yet specifically conversational about so many of her lyrics, as well as her unaffected delivery style and sometimes fret-squeaking arrangements. And as important as Exile in Guyville is, this kind of presumptuous rapport with your audience doesn’t automatically happen from one great album. It happens more often from a career full of high points, from one of our best (and sometimes most underappreciated songwriters). SportsAlcohol.com founders Marisa, Jesse, and Rob were joined by past ‘90s list voters Sara Ciaburri and Lorraina Raccuia-Morrison as well as Liz (and film) scholar R. Emmett Sweeney to pay tribute to our collective favorites, coinciding with the reissue of her first four albums on vinyl, an Exile-themed anniversary tour, a bigger tour in the fall, and hopefully a new album sometime soon. In the meantime, here is who Liz Phair is.
The Top 15 Best Liz Phair Songs So Far
15. “Little Digger”
Liz Phair, 2003
Every veteran musician has one: The song they wrote when they grew up, felt relatively well adjusted, and started a family. Most of these songs are beautiful; “Little Digger” is no exception. It has that lullaby quality to it, with a hushed melody and a soft, soaring vocal. But “Little Digger” takes on so much more than those other baby-ballads, which mostly start and stop with a message of “I love you, child.” (There are notable exceptions, like Ben Fold’s “Still Fighting It,” and those are usually the ones that really tug at the soul.) “Little Digger” gets down to kid-eye-level and tries to process a relatively nuanced situation from Liz’s son’s point of view. There’s a lot of emotion layered here: the son’s confusion after finding Liz in bed with another man, the corresponding fascination with who the guy could possibly be, the kid’s jealousy over sharing his mother with someone else, and, finally, the mother’s guilt over letting the whole situation happen. When she sings, “I pray to God that I’m the damaged one,” it’s pretty much every parent’s prayer—we all wish we can take on all our kids’ mental anguish in the hopes of keeping their souls unscathed. And that’s so much more meaningful than just writing a song that says, “I love you, babe.” – Marisa
14. “What Makes You Happy”
It’s a conversation between a mother and daughter. The daughter’s speech is melancholy and wistful, the mother’s lines are punctuated with an upbeat rhythm. Maybe because when we’re in our twenties, we’re fraught with self-doubt, insecurity and fear, but the mother is wiser, giving advice with confidence. “All those other bastards were only practice.” Liz plays with consonance while giving her listeners lines with universal themes, as if she’s peering into the hearts of young women everywhere. – Lorraina
My two-year-old daughter is currently obsessed with Rapunzel. I’m not entirely sure why. We have multiple versions of the story in the house: a stand-alone retelling with the characters drawn in an Indian style; a more traditional and less interesting entry in a fairy-tale compilation; the Disney movie Tangled. But there are plenty of Little Mermaids and Frog Princes/Princesses and the like all over the house, too, plus about half a dozen Elsas, so I’m not sure what about Rapunzel has so captured her imagination that she talks about living in a tower, letting down her hair, and going to “find” Rapunzel (who in her invisible depiction is Thumbelina-sized) at the playground.
It’s both delightful and sometimes a little troubling: Though I love Mandy Moore’s take on the character, my hopes for my kid are more in line with Moana’s whole deal. Is she going to yearn for male rescue, cursed with hair that she can’t herself climb down? (Maybe not; she did float climbing down her own hair as a possible solution the other day.) Regardless, I deeply love that Liz Phair sang “I’m gonna lock my son up in a tower / ‘Til he learns to let his hair down far enough to climb outside” (maybe I’m limited in my understanding of how hair-ladders really work). She didn’t have a son yet, just like she hadn’t yet gotten divorced when she wrote “Divorce Song.” I don’t think she means it punitively, that she’s going to exact revenge on behalf of women everywhere by treating her son like just as much of a damsel as a fairy-tale princess. I think she’s considering the female experience, as so many of her songs do, and how that might do young boys some good in how they process empathy. There’s something lovely about this sentiment, maybe because of the calm yet insistent beat that carries “Whip-Smart” along. – Jesse
How fucking weird is it that the lead single to Liz Phair’s follow-up to Guyville is so fucking happy in a uncomplicated way? Weird in the sense that it didn’t seem like a very Liz move at the time, but not weird in the sense lots of sophomore albums feature creative departures defined more by an increased recording budget than anything else. Also, weird/not weird that Liz fucking nails it.
The lyrics may not have the depth of Guyville’s high points, but the music fucking wails. I’ve recently been obsessing over the use of fuzz pedals in 90s rock. That sound was everywhere as Gen X had blended together all the music they grew up on in the 70’s (MOR, stadium rock, and early metal and punk) into a heady stew. Sometimes that mix would come out clear as mud, especially by the middle of the decade when a paint-by-numbers approach to “alternative rock” was a surefire formula to land a record deal. Liz Phair took those ideas to a place they hadn’t been by hitching them to poppy number about being very physically attracted to someone (but in, like, a very sweet and loving way. I guess it’s not that much of a digression for Liz in the sense that it’s still about boning). This singer songwriter made a better grunge song than most grunge artists.
I like to imagine some dad in Evanston with some gray in his beard thinking this song is about him. It’s not. – Rob
11. “You Should Know Me”
The biggest shame of people losing touch with Liz Phair after the ’90s in general, and writing off Funstyle in particular, is that “You Should Know Me” gets lost in the cloud of indifference. Which is a heartbreak, because it’s the best song she’s released in the 21st century. If there’s one wish I have for this list, it’s that it gets more people to listen to “You Should Know Me.”
It’s a breakup song. Many Liz songs are. But while a lot the others, including some of her best, have a righteous anger about them, “You Should Know Me” has a more resigned weariness. Instead of burning with rage over a history of slights, the song laments what happens when one person checks out of a relationship before the other. “We should be there together,” Liz sings plaintively, “like the wave meets the sand.” Whoever she’s singing to is not only not there on the beach, he’s “building a dam where our lives should be.” Ouch. Even the refrain, “You should know me better than that,” just gets to me. What do you want more from the person you love than to have them really, truly know you?
What kills me most about this song, though, is that it’s duet with only one person singing. In the verses, Liz harmonizes with herself, but it’s more than just her singing over a backing vocal. Then in the bridge, the two Lizes lose synch and start echoing each other. It’s the whole situation of “You Should Know Me” in a nutshell: There should be two people, but there’s just one, alone, cycling through all the emotions by herself.
In the midst of all this gloominess, I also have to admit that the bridge is pretty fun to try and sing by yourself. You can pick a Liz and do it straight through, or try to hit all of the “I get sad!” parts. I listened to it a bunch in preparation for this write up, and it took all I had to not belt it out on a crowded subway during morning rush hour. The only thing that stopped me was that I’m not really a sing-in-public person. If you though I was, well, you should know me better than that.
10. “May Queen”
It took me a while to get into Whip-Smart, Liz Phair’s second record and my second-favorite after Whitechocolatespaceegg (I know. I’ve spared you my whole thing about that one by avoiding writing up any of the spaceegg tracks on this list). I’m not sure exactly how it clicked for me, something exemplified by my love of “May Queen,” a song that clocks in under three minutes and hinges on the semi-inscrutable sound of Liz asking: “Where have I been? Got any what? Who have I seen?” I’m honestly not even sure whether these questions are rhetorical (she floats some possible answers—“disease, hashish, a mind”—that ultimately serve as questions about the questions), but they dominate the lyrics, in part because of the way she hits them with her voice and that satisfying little rhythm-guitar riff. I dearly love that this is how she ends a record. – Jesse
9. “Uncle Alvarez”
“Uncle Alvarez” stands out because Liz’s forté isn’t character-sketch songs, or at least they aren’t something she does often, and this track gives us a two-for-one: There’s the story of Uncle Alvarez, a person so lame his hanged portrait makes his relations “feel sorry for the wall,” and there’s you, the one-time beautiful dancer whose postcard-mailing, college-supporting, wife-ignoring lifestyle means you are destined to end up more than just a smirked-about picture. The more I listen to the song, the less sure I am about which lines refer to Uncle Alvarez, and which lines refer to you. When Liz sings, “He’s not really part Cherokee Indian,” is that refuting a claim that Alvarez made about himself, or something you’ve said about him to justify his place in the home décor? Who’s the one full of “imaginary accomplishments?” And does it matter, or do we all get reduced to an image in a frame in the end? – Marisa
Exile in Guyville, 1993
This is my favorite song on Exile because of its detailed description of the strangeness of flight. In “Stratford-On-Guy,” Liz is briefly detached from her life and the world, which helps her to make sense of the “movie sized” situation she is flying home to (I assume because she’s heading to Chicago). I love imagery in the lyrics; she views the earth as “a poorly assembled electrical ball,” and is “watching landscape roll out like credits.” Planes are pretty boring but also kind of terrifying when you really think about what is happening. You also have a lot of time to think when you’re flying alone. This song is near the end of the album, and while we don’t really know what happens once Liz gets off that plane, there is hope that spending some time 6+ miles above the ground helped lead to something positive. – Sara C
7. “Table for One”
Somebody’s Miracle, 2005
It’s in present tense. It’s important that “Table for One,” one of Phair’s loveliest and least-heralded masterpieces, roots itself in what’s happening now: “I hide all the bottles in places / they find them, confront me with pain in their eyes / And I promise that I’ll make some changes.” She’s assuming the voice of an alcoholic (and a male one: “I still see that guy in my memory,” the narrator says, about himself) describing his routine, and the disappointment his friends and family obviously feel, and the fact that it’s not a retrospective lends it an immediacy that other songs might provide through a faster pace or more urgent delivery. Phair’s singing here is slow and careful, never as low as on her earliest record, but perfectly unadorned. The song is in the present tense because this guy’s pain is in the present tense. “Reaching back, it occurs to me / there will always be some kind of crisis for me.” Phair captures the moment where alcoholism turns functional, just another part of the scenery. – Jesse
6. “Perfect World”
When SportsAlcohol.com asked me to make a list of my favorite Liz Phair songs, I immediately knew that “Perfect World” would be at the top of my list. For me, this song really captures what I love about her music, especially the power it finds in simplicity. In “Perfect World,” you hear that in the music, the lyrics, and even those fret squeaks. Plus, as a person who works with teenage girls all day, I can’t help but feel like this song is more relevant now than it was back in 1998. “I would have it all if I’d only had this much” should be the tag line for Facebook or Instagram or one of those other sites the kids are on these days. It’s a song that conveys that aching feeling of being on the outside looking in, which is something that you can relate to at any age. – Sara C
5. “Polyester Bride”
One of the themes running through Liz Phair’s work is the push-pull between greatness and mediocrity (e.g. the difference between you and Uncle Alvarez, if you have an optimistic reading of that song). When is it time to settle, and when is it time to put your head down and forge ahead and hope for better things?
I can’t think of a better metaphor for settling than being a “polyester bride.” On one hand, there is some kind of small triumph: you did it, you got the ring, somebody wants you, you’re a bride. On the other hand, you couldn’t hold out long enough to afford the silk? That seems like a superficial way of putting it, and it is, but I don’t think she’s really saying that all that matters is a ring in a dress. In fact, it’s the opposite: Settling, and settling down is the easy way out. Instead, you need to find a way to motivate yourself—or find a helpful bartender willing to motivate you—to reach for more. It’s a perfect song for your 20s, when you doubt all your life choices a million times in a day, and also have a circle of willing drinkers to help you talk yourself through it.
And aside from the emotional pick-me-up, “Polyester Bride” is also one of Liz’s catchiest songs. It’s got a big, fat, sing-along chorus. It goes from the lows of the “cowboy boots they just put on sale” to the highs of getting to “fly away from here,” both in terms of emotion and vocal registers you need to access to yell along. In the context of Liz’s pop career, it’s not as overproduced and glossy as some of the big singles on the next few albums. It’s a perfect balance between those looking for something a little hookier than the lowest-fi early songs, and not quite as blindingly bright as “Why Can’t I” or “Somebody’s Miracle.” We’re lucky to even know it. – Marisa
4. ”Never Said”
Exile in Guyville, 1993
An addictive use of the double-negative, a driving beat. This is a song for the person who “ain’t done anything wrong.” When I first started listening to this song, my favorite words of it were “clean as a whistle”– there was something appealingly cheerless about Liz’s voice when she spoke those words. – Lorraina
3. “Divorce Song”
Exile in Guyville, 1993
The only time I saw Liz Phair live was when she played a free show at my campus while touring on Whitechocolatespacegg (you don’t have to point out that I’m quite old, I can literally feel it in my bones). I was familiar with her whole catalog at the time, but I was taken aback by Liz needing to promise to the crowd that she would play “Divorce Song” to quell the growing number of hardcore fans yelling “Play Divorce Song!” in between every song. I thought it was a good song, but I was confused about the fervor. I really started listening to it and a year later I would be the one doing the confusing as I included it on the first mixtape I made for a girl I was seeing. She later told me she thought it was weird to put a song about the end of a relationship when ours starting, but it made sense to include it just because a track that good needs to be shared. That girl married me, and we haven’t gotten divorced (and you know we’ve been married for a long time because as I mentioned before: I’m old) so…yeah.
I used to think the key lyric to “Divorce Song” was:
“it’s harder to be friends than lovers And you shouldn’t try to mix the two Cause if you do it and you’re still unhappy Then you know that the problem is you”
Because that’s quite clever. It rhymes and sounds like there’s some wisdom to it. As I get older, though, I think it’s what comes next:
“And it’s true that I stole your lighter And it’s also true that I lost the map But when you said that I wasn’t worth talking to I had to take your word on that”
That is just so insightful. If you’ve ever gotten into a fight with your partner where someone says “What’s that supposed to mean?” you know that’s what happens; the tiniest, inconsequential mistake is brought up either to express anger without getting into about a larger problem or as supporting evidence of a supposed character flaw when all you really need is some time to yourself.
It doesn’t stop there. These little observations are sprinkled throughout the song to put together a portrait of a woman trying to be gracious to a man clearly trying to sabotage their relationship decades before phrases like “male fragility” and “toxic masculinity” were part of the zeitgeist. It’s not a happy song, but it’s true in the best way. That Liz Phair wrote something so perceptive in her early twenties is something worth celebrating. – Rob
2. “Go West”
If you talk about this song with Marisa, she’ll inevitably mention its utility on a certain mix tape (see below). I’d posit that the reason this song works so well on a mix tape is because it never really broke through, even by modest indie-rock standards. Whip-Smart as an album was vastly less beloved than Exile in Guyville, and its place in ‘90s alt-rock has probably been secured as the record that spawned up-tempo rockers like “Supernova” and “Jealousy” (and, for Liz fanatics, that “Jealousy” had an EP that featured some precious Girlysound tunes). It’s fitting, then, that our highest-ranked song off of Whip-Smart is about leaving the whole scene behind – not indie rock necessarily or specifically, but whatever you know best: “I’ve got to tear my life apart, and go west, young man.” It’s an airy, elegiac number, with a simple guitar line and maybe the closest Liz Phair vocals have ever come to “ethereal.” But it pushes forward inexorably. – Jesse
Addendum from Marisa
When I graduated college, I made a mix tape for the four other people I lived with my senior year. (Yes, a mix tape. I bought blank cassettes with my leftover meal plan points.) My goal was to make everyone cry. I ended it with “Go West.” I succeeded.
1. “Fuck and Run”
Exile in Guyville, 1993
We thought maybe this should be a group effort, including one of our main contributors who loves this song but doesn’t have a broader Liz fandom. Here is our email thread.
I have to admit, though I had “Fuck and Run” on my ballot, I’m a bit at a loss to explain why it was a pretty easy win at #1 in this poll. It’s not that it’s not a good song — it’s a great song, in fact, maybe the peak of Phair’s early-90s minimalism. But it’s so stark, even by Exile in Guyville standards. “Divorce Song” has, I think, stronger, more specific storytelling, “Never Said” and “Supernova” are more of your accessible, catchy alt-rock songs, “Polyester Bride” is there if you want something more pop… “Fuck and Run” is no kind of middle ground between those sensibilities. It’s kind of everything those various songs aren’t. But it does have an undeniable pull. It was probably the first song I loved off of Exile, even if it’s no longer my favorite. Do we just find the shock value that bracing? What’s the deal, ladies and also Rob?
Jesse, I don’t think you’re the right choice to get us going on this topic. We’ve discussed in the past that your take on Liz Phair’s ouevre is…skewed, to put it charitably. And while I think you’re overrating “Polyester Bride” in general, I did put all the other songs you mentioned either right above or below “Fuck and Run” on my personal list. It’s in the pantheon and I don’t think it has anything to do with shock value. Liz isn’t G.G. Allin or even the Sex Pistols; while a female songwriter making frank observations about sex may have been novel during Clinton’s first term, the song did and continues to feel very real to me. If anything, a song pining for relationships over casual sex is even more relevant in this post-Tinder age. But someone someone who isn’t you or me should probably weigh in. Once again, I think us boys have talked too much (especially considering the subject matter).
I’ll just say that by “shock value,” I guess I’m specifically thinking of the line “even when I was twelve.” Maybe “shock” is the wrong word (we didn’t all vote for “Flower” or “HWC” here). But it’s a line that gives you a little sucker-punch, doesn’t it? Do the rest of you not sometimes still say a silent “oof” to yourselves when you hear that line? Someone else go.
I think it’s fair to say it’s all meant to be provoking: not just putting the word “fuck” in a song title and alluding to preteen sexual activity, but also the desire for something quaint like “letters and sodas.” Even the opening lines take a hard left turn. “I woke up in your arms” is such a romantic lyric, you don’t really expect that it would be cause for shame and embarrassment (or, in girl speak, “I felt sorry”). I have a feeling that this song is our No. 1 because it’s a lot like Liz herself–always doing the unexpected. Just when you think you have the cool, sexually explicit rocker chick figured out, she starts singing about wanting a boyfriend. Just when you get a handle on that whole deal and put her in the pantheon of indie acts, she reinvents herself as a pop princess. It’s never what you guess it will be.
Fuck and Run is such an anthem for me right now, even though it thankfully has little to do with the actual details of my present-day life.
As seems to be a constant for me with the musical acts discussed on this website, I discovered Liz Phair much later in life since I was about seven when Exile in Guyville. In fact, I think she was already into her pop princess left-swing by then, “Why Can’t I?” featuring prominently in the soundtrack to my senior year in high school. I found a lot of her back catalogue inaccessible though until I got to college, and not just because my Iowa library branch was unwilling to carry CDs with the “Parental Advisory” label. It’s too bad, because I really could have used someone with her insouciance and righteous anger in my life back then, even though I didn’t start understanding (and having) the experiences she sings about here until I was in my early twenties. I think the song is a classic, and certainly worthy of #1 status, because a great majority of women who listen to it, and love Liz, do recognize themselves in it for better or worse. What’s bracing isn’t the provocations of the lyrics (I’m of the personal opinion that the “even when I was twelve” line is meant as a deadpan, self-protective joke, a “shame yourself before they shame you” kind of thing) but to hear another woman acknowledging these intimate, confusing moments without any varnish on it, to be honest about fears of being alone, and unafraid to announce that the same girl who has one-night stands can be the same one who wants a commitment from a guy. She was tapping into the ambivalence of (straight) womanhood well before it became zeitgeisty and I’ll always be grateful for that.
Sara, you do raise a great point and reminder that Liz can be really funny even if it seems at first like she’s going for sad or harrowing, or can make those turns within a single line, as Marisa mentions. So it’s probably fitting that I was here hand-wringing about how the visceral effect of “even when I was 12” while you guys have a more clear-headed reading. There was plenty of confessional singer-songwriter rock in the ’90s and yet I don’t even always think of Phair that way, despite her clearly writing from her experiences, because she’s such a fucking good writer.
This song runs through my mind as a pledge and a confession. I love the almost bored tone and rhythm of “I want a boyfriend.” This song sounds best when played a few times in a row, just as I did when I bought Exile right when the CD came out. I lived in Ohio, went to an all-girls Catholic school and knew almost nothing about guys or relationships, but I also had the distinct feeling in my bones: “I’m gonna spend my whole life alone.” No one ever thinks this will happen again.
This isn’t my favorite song from Exile but it is a song that I always listen to all the way through when it pops up on a playlist. It’s just so simple, relatable, and sad. I don’t interpret the shocking “even when I was twelve” line literally either. She’s in her twenties and exasperated by dating nonsense, but it’s always been that way. Nothing has changed or improved. This was happening even when she was a teenager. Even when she was twelve. Not only has it always been that way, but in her mind it will always been that way. The “I can feel it in my bones, I’m gonna spend another year/my whole life alone” lines are bleak, but who hasn’t been in that headspace the midst of a stretch of bad dates?
I wanted to bring this to a close by quoting a not-altogether-related quote from a not-very-great article.
Slate wanted to do a story on people who got really bad reviews in Pitchfork, which is a bad idea because, 1) who cares?, and 2) understandably no one wanted to talk about their bad Pitchfork reviews. (Because, again, who cares?) But the one illuminating thing I actually got out of that article was from Travis Morrison of The Dismemberment Plan, who emailed the writer to decline the interview, then took the time to write back again to defend Liz. Here’s part of what he said:
I did not know Liz Phair got a 0.0. I see it was for her “pop” record. I don’t want to do any interviews. But I [want] to say something about that. Because I so deeply love her art. I think that record was not her most completely executed. But I do think it was her most visionary gesture. I always admired her for it. Now hipsters listen to Carly Rae Jepsen and no one thinks about it. But Liz Phair was pretty ahead of that curve. And she really got some nasty shit about it. Mostly, of course, from white male “critics.” What a bunch of fucking garbage.
1) Some of the SportsAlcohol.com founders feel seen by that Carly Rae Jepsen remark.
2) Even though a Guyville track was #1 on our list, good on us for repping all of her albums (and not asking anyone to care about old Pitchfork pans).
3) Good on Liz for her ahead-of-the-curve, visionary gestures. “Fuck and Run” is one of them.