The death of Kurt Cobain signaled a sea change in pop music in the mid-1990s. Butch Vig, the superstar producer behind seminal releases by alt-rock acts like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and Sonic Youth, joined forces with fellow producers Duke Erikson and Steve Marker and a relatively unknown Scottish vocalist named Shirley Manson to form a group that married the hard-edged sound of American grunge with classic pop hooks, sampled drum loops, and the overall ethic of the then-blossoming trip-hop movement in Europe. Listening to it now, it all sounds quite dated—but in the best possible, gem-in-a-trash-heap kind of way. One would hardly use the word Important to define Garbage, but the band was a quintessential product of post-grunge pop, and their first hits compilation, Absolute Garbage, serves as an anthropological study of the musical relics of a bygone era.
The singles from their self-titled debut, “Queer,” “Only Happy When It Rains,” and “Stupid Girl,” found the band at their commercial peak, temporarily infusing pop radio with what can best be described as grimy, fetishistic, sex-club music and sing-song lyrics like “You can touch me if you want,” “Pour your misery down on me,” and “Don’t believe in anyone that you can’t tame.” Inspired by such disparate influences as Kraftwerk and The Manchurian Candidate, Garbage’s follow-up, Version 2.0, was the polished and refurbished sports car to Garbage‘s grungy pick-up. Frankensteinian lead single, “Push It,” was spliced together from 100 different drum loops and a Salt-N-Pepa sample; the group’s propulsive basslines and aggressive, rollicking rhythms place that track, along with “Special,” among their best and most inventive. Their music had become staples at both pop and modern rock radio as well as in dance clubs—a rare feat to say the least.
By 2001’s Beautiful Garbage, the sickly-sweet retro-pop and dark, sinister undercurrents of which journalist Peter S. Murphy aptly likens to a David Lynch film in his liner notes for Absolute Garbage, the band’s popularity had waned to the point where none of the record’s singles even made a dent on the U.S. charts, so the omission of “Androgyny” and “Breaking Up The Girl” here is only lamentable in that they’re the stronger of that particular album’s four singles. (The two missing singles plus 2005’s “Bad Boyfriend” are accounted for on the second disc of the limited edition version of the album in the form of remixes by Felix Da Housecat, Timo Mass, and Garbage themselves, respectively.) “Shut Your Mouth” features the kind of archetypical Garbage sound the group had otherwise started to abandon, while “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go),” displayed a deceptively coquettish side of Manson, whom Murphy perfectly describes as a “red-haired, kohl-eyed slink with lethal heels who could’ve stumbled out of some sci-fi noir novel.”
By this point, Manson’s vocals had matured in range and timbre since the group’s debut, and though their most recent album, Bleed Like Me, steered away from the pop aesthetic of its predecessor, there are reports Garbage’s next trip into the studio will find the band focusing on slower, moodier material like standouts “Milk,” “You Look So Fine,” and “Bleed Like Me.” More than ever before, Manson’s voice recalls Chrissie Hynde on Absolute Garbage‘s sole new track, the lush and lilting “Tell Me Where It Hurts.” The song is an undeniable sign that, despite their extended hiatuses and internal turmoil, Garbage is very much alive with ideas and ambition.