Discover more from The Album of Record
Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette
Alanis Morissette was on a rocket ship ride with her debut rock album.
Alanis Morissette was so unstoppable in 1995 that she could play the harmonica worse than anyone in the history of recorded music, and it didn’t matter. Like a good roaster, I joke because I love, but it’s funny and true. As I was running this week, listening to Jagged Little Pill to remind myself of how magical the album was, the miles added up quickly and painlessly. I was left thinking about what Jagged Little Pill allowed Alanis to get away with because the songs were just so damn good. She not only played harmonica poorly, she dared to put that sloppy harmonica on three separate tracks which went on to be pretty famous. Album opener “All I Really Want,” eventual Number 1 single “Hand in My Pocket,” and another Number 1 single “Head Over Feet” all featured Alanis’ harmonicacophany.
I had a funny thought or a thought that was funny to me at least. I imagined the exasperated look on John Popper of Blues Traveler’s face as if he were the musical equivalent of Lee Trevino disapproving of Happy Gilmore when he hears what Alanis does to a harmonica.
So, I started with a Google search and sure enough, the outspoken Popper has indeed commented. Of Alanis’ solo on “Hand in My Pocket,” Popper says in his book Suck and Blow: And Other Stories I’m Not Supposed to Tell…
Where I try to draw a line is Alanis Morissette. I can hear her breaking the harmonica when she puts it to her lips. There's a track she did, "Hand in My Pocket," and I can hear the reeds breaking during the harmonica solo. They're not meant to be blown that hard, and I'm arguably the only person who hears it every time that song is played. It's like, "For a solo we're going to smash this violin against the window" -- that's the sound I hear when I hear that song.
That’s some hysterical stuff, to be honest. And listening to Jagged Little Pill in 2021, just about 26 years after it exploded into the hearts of music fans everywhere, John Popper isn’t wrong. The fact of the matter is, however, that it didn’t matter then. It doesn’t matter now. For anyone who was there for the rise of Alanis Morissette, she really could have smashed a violin against the window in the middle of one of the songs she co-wrote and recorded with Glen Ballard. She was undeniable. The album was undeniable. That’s why Jagged Little Pill is this week’s Album of Record.
Jagged Little Pill wasn’t an album I was meant to like. Back in 1995 I was a mediocre drummer, and I knew it, but I was a huge fan of great drumming anyway. When I end up writing about Smashing Pumpkins and Tool, I’ll try to keep some of the drum geekiness bottled up. Anyway, Jagged Little Pill stuck out to me because I loved the songs, but it also stuck out to me that the drums sounded like a drum machine. Drummer Matt Laug gets drum credits on six songs, including “You Oughta Know,” but that means no drummer gets any credit for six other songs on the album.
(As an aside, I had forgotten that Flea and Dave Navarro of the One Hot Minute-era Red Hot Chili Peppers played bass and guitar on “You Oughta Know.” How did I forget something as big as this?)
Despite some real acoustic drums undoubtedly being used, the album didn’t really sound very drummy to me. I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who loves it, but it’s notable that there’s no drum credit for “Hand in My Pocket,” for example. Despite that, I was enthralled enough with the material that I just had to see Alanis Morissette live in person.
When I saw Alanis playing live on TV, I could tell that as good as her album was, she was the real deal live. Surrounded by a real rock band, Alanis owned the stage and shined as a front person. The power of “You Oughta Know” was even more apparent with her gigantic vocals and spastic movements in front of a band that included Taylor Hawkins on drums. Hawkins is such a phenomenal drummer that he would end up being Dave Grohl’s pick to play the parts he recorded on the Foo Fighters records on The Colour and the Shape and then he became the permanent drummer for the band. For any doubts I had about the poppy, muted production on Jagged Little Pill, Alanis was a full-on rocker for real with her band.
Alanis Morissette Cemented Her Album With Incredible Live Performances
I eventually did see Alanis live when she was still riding high on Jagged Little Pill. I can’t figure out exactly which show I went to see, but I think it was early 1996 on her “Can’t Not Tour.” She played a weird venue in Cleveland called Public Hall or Public Auditorium. Out of the hundreds of shows I’ve been to over the years, it’s still the only concert I think I’ve ever been to there. I remember certain moments with clarity. I believe she opened with “All I Really Want,” and I can still remember toward the end of the song when she goes up in her vocal register and blasts the notes before ruining another harmonica as the band explodes into a huge rock and roll flourish to finish the song. I’ve always had a thing for singers that would go for each and every note they wrote on the album. Alanis never played it safe live when I saw her.
Maybe no song played out better live than the way the band played “You Learn.” It was quicker than the album version, with a real left-right teeter-totter syncopation. It was also the band jam song where they’d rock out, do some soloing. They would break into a prog-rock jam section. She would pound on the drums and cymbals when she wasn’t pogoing around the stage with the pure unbridled joy that could make even the most sullen teenage boy such as myself smile. Just watch her trade cymbal hits with Taylor Hawkins starting at about 5:55 in this live version of “You Learn.” The look on her face says absolutely everything about the way her live show made me feel about her and the music on that album.
From a personal perspective, the Alanis concert was a really fun night out. It was a rare double friend date. My buddy and I both invited girls we went to high school with, but it was based on having a fun night of live music and not burgeoning romance. Alanis wasn’t the kind of music you fell in love to, was it? It was unifying in a different way. It was an empowering message that women and girls could identify with and rocked in a way that everyone could identify with.
And holy shit, did everyone identify something in this album. How else do you have that many number one singles and end up going platinum 16 times? “Ironic” takes heat for not actually understanding the definition of the word “irony,” but the song is so good, only the biggest nit-pickers could ever care. “Hand in My Pocket” was also a huge hit, but the magic is in the lesser-known songs. The chorus on “Right Through You” is as good as any chorus on the whole album. “Forgiven” shows just how urgent Alanis can be. When Alanis played “Perfect” live, the dynamics from the loud parts to the softer finish practically melted the audience.
In those early days, Alanis sang it a bit screechy and immature, and it worked really well for her in her early 20s. It’s really cool now that the song has aged extremely well as her style and voice have as well. Check out her performance from Leno in 2005. It’s still the same Alanis, but her comfort in her more mature skin is apparent and the song, while slightly different, doesn’t suffer at all.
Alanis Morissette sold as many or more copies of Jagged Little Pill than Bob Marley’s Legend, Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., Journey’s Greatest Hits, and Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits. Only albums like Appetite for Destruction, Rumours, Hotel California, and Thriller have gone platinum more times than Jagged Little Pill.
Usually, when something gets to be as ubiquitous as Alanis’ album, it ends up having huge detractors. Obviously, Alanis Morissette never reached those same heights again, but you also don’t find a lot of people out there who hate her like, say Hootie and the Blowfish who sold similar amounts to Alanis with Cracked Rear View.
One of the experiences that today’s kids won’t be able to comprehend is the $1 bargain bin at the used record store. In Cleveland, we had Record Exchange and CD Warehouse, and some other used record stores. Certain albums with giant crossover appeal on both alternative rock radio and adult contemporary radio would sell like crazy. Then, they’d end up being traded in like crazy at used record stores. Eventually, you’d be able to see just how fleeting the popularity was for an album or if it was an album with only one big hit because it would have a red sticker and there’d be dozens of copies sitting in the bargain bin.
This isn’t always a shot at the artists either, but I think of albums like Cracked Rear View, or Tragic Kingdom by No Doubt. Appetite for Destruction sold the same amounts of records as those, but pretty much everyone kept their copy of Appetite. You couldn’t find that thing in the dollar bin. Same with the black album by Metallica. It sold crazy amounts starting in 1991, but people didn’t turn their copies in at the same rate they did Pocket Full of Kryptonite by The Spin Doctors or Throwing Copper by Live as a couple other examples.
And that’s how Alanis Morissette gets the last laugh today. You never saw dozens of copies of Jagged Little Pill at the used record store. Or if you did, there is one other album I knew I could find with many many more copies available. As much as I love it, and I really do, I’m talking about that open-mouthed whisker cat that adorns the cover of John Popper’s band Blues Traveler and their album Four.
How many people bought that album for “Run-Around,” didn’t like enough of the rest to keep the album and dropped it off at Record Exchange? I bet they stopped taking copies or paying anything for them.
You may destroy harmonicas Alanis, but you also get the last laugh here today. Jagged Little Pill was undeniable then and it’s still undeniable now more than 25 years later.
Did you enjoy this essay? Help us out and tell a friend. Subscribe for free. Share this site. Reading is enough, but if you feel obliged, I appreciate it.
Post-Script: I might have to write about Four one day simply because of the vocal melody that John Popper wrote on “Look Around.” Or maybe this reference is enough. “Buyer beware of me!” is delivered in that song in a way that gives me chills just thinking about it.