She is one of the finest singer-songwriters of her generation, yet a large swath of people only knows Aimee Mann from a single song: her ‘80s classic “Voices Carry” with the band ‘Til Tuesday. When that band fell apart, a lesser artist might have faded into anonymity. But Mann’s talent won the day, even when record company shenanigans forced her into starting her own label just to ensure that she could follow her muse without any nonsense. Now a quarter-century into her solo career, Mann is going as strong as ever, with her 2017 release Mental Illness hailed as one of her finest. Her entire catalog deserves closer inspection though so here are ten Aimee Mann songs that might have snuck by you.
1. “Mr. Harris” (1993)
Mann’s debut album Whatever immediately established her as a solo act and proved that she could move on from her ‘Til Tuesday era. This piano-and-orchestra beauty shows off her idiosyncratic side, as she inhabits a character who becomes involved with a Jimmy Stewart lookalike many years her younger. It also shows a hopefulness in the chorus that, considering her penchant for more somber material, is almost bracing to hear coming from that voice.
2. “Frankenstein” (1995)
Mann found a kindred musical spirit in producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion. After producing only a portion of Whatever, Brion helmed all of Mann’s sophomore album I’m With Stupid. On this track marked by a typically wending Mann melody and some clattery percussion, Brion ladles on all kinds of squiggles and squawks, conjuring almost a horror movie vibe, to keep listeners surprised throughout. Mann does the rest with one of her most evocative metaphors.
3. “Build That Wall” (1999)
When record company struggles piled up for Mann and the suits pushed her for a hit, director Paul Thomas Anderson threw her a lifeline. The Boogie Nights auteur was inspired by Mann’s music to write his film Magnolia which included her songs in the narrative. This track doesn’t get the on-screen showcase that “Wise Up” got (with its cast singalong scene), but it’s a pristine pop gem nonetheless with Beatlesque overtones brightening things up.
4. “Nothing Is Good Enough” (2000)
There is not an inessential track on Bachelor No. 2, her masterpiece which came about when Mann funneled all of her frustration with her record company and the music industry in general into a focused expression of disappointment and dejection. This number, which can be heard in instrumental form on the Magnolia soundtrack, stands out because of how it can be interpreted as either a lament over a feckless lover or a takedown of empty suits. Either way, it would be nasty if it weren’t so sad.
5. “It’s Not” (2002)
On almost every album from Mann, there is a show-stopping weeper to stop you in your tracks. For Lost in Space, she waits to unleash this torrent of sorrow until the very end. A simple acoustic strum is eventually accompanied by sympathetic strings as Mann’s voice, pretty yet delicate in its higher register, locates every bit of melancholy in the lyrics. It’s a harrowing song, with a refrain that hits like a gut punch every time, yet it’s loveliness refuses to abate.
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6. “That’s How I Knew This Story Would Break My Heart” (2005)
Concept albums can trip up even the finest artists: The Forgotten Arm finds Mann trying her hand at the form. While the story is a bear to follow, individual songs keep rising to the fore and grabbing you. The best is this ballad about that point where even the most devoted lovers have to admit defeat. Bonus points for Mann, ever the wordsmith, working the word “chanticleer” into the lyric without twisting herself in knots.
7. “Calling on Mary” (2006)
Mann’s detour into holiday music found her taking on an offbeat selection of left-of-center covers, but the real winner is this original track she wrote with producer Paul Bryan. The song gives the album its title (One More Drifter in the Snow) and proves that Mann’s brand of heartache translates well to even the most joyful of seasons. “If there’s a star above, then it can look like love,” she warns, “When they light up the Christmas tree.”
8. “Freeway” (2008)
Mann embraced her inner grump with the title of her 2008 album; you can imagine how you’re supposed to pronounce @#%&*! Smilers. The opening track finds Mann in the midst of an ingratiating mid-tempo groove with prickly guitars and insinuating synths that owe a debt to The Cars (fitting considering the song’s title.) It’s the perfect table-setter for one of her most underrated albums, but it works on its own as well as a peppy bit of sourness.
9. “Living a Lie” (2012)
Mann rocking out? Let’s just say that she isn’t the type to ever completely cut loose, but 2012’s Charmer is as close as she’ll ever get. There are times when she doesn’t feel quite at home in that setting, but this track gets it just right. Mann picks the perfect duet partner in The Shins’ James Mercer, who also knows a thing about labyrinthine rhymes and heartsick material. Imagine two jaded lovers with impressive vocabularies dissecting their relationship in the catchiest way possible.
10. “Philly Sinks” (2017)
It’s always futile to play the “Best Album Since…” game with an artist as consistently great as Mann, but Mental Illness undoubtedly captures some of the rapturous regret of Bachelor No 2. Mann leaned into the perception of herself as a chronicler of woe in the songs on the album, but she earns the emotion time and again thanks to her sizable gifts. Check out this waltz with lush strings, wordless vocal countermelodies, and Mann’s deadpan observations of a poisonous lothario.
Photo Credit: Aimee Mann performing at DKNY Presents Vanity Fair in Concert benefiting Step Up Women’s Network., Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, CA., 5-Nov-02 (Photo by Amanda Edwards/Redferns/Getty Images)