The All-Time Greatest UW Playlist
Our picks for the best songs by Badger alumni
Beethoven and Bach in the Hamel Music Center. National headliners at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Sweet summer sounds on the Memorial Union Terrace.
On the UW campus, music is everywhere, whether it’s being performed on stages or taught in classrooms. Little wonder, then, that the university has produced popular musicians of the highest order. They’ve mastered their genres, sold millions of records, even been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Here are some of the greatest songs by artists Badgers can proudly call their own.
“Down So Low” | Mother Earth, 1968
Madison native Tracy Nelson x’67 spent a couple of years at the UW studying social work and singing at parties and coffeehouses. Then California beckoned. In San Francisco she fronted the blues-rock band Mother Earth and, following a romance with future rock legend Steve Miller x’65, wrote the weeper “Down So Low.”
Nelson has recorded the soul-inflected song numerous times over the years. As performed by Mother Earth, it’s staggering, a slow burn punctuated by startling key changes and sweet backing vocals. Nelson’s singing is gigantic. “I know your opinion of me isn’t good,” she moans, and anyone who’s ever been through a breakup knows just what she means.
“Feel Your Groove” | Ben Sidran, 1971
After earning a doctorate in American studies at the University of Sussex, keyboardist Ben Sidran ’67 launched a music career that included work with the Steve Miller Band and a series of solo albums on which he perfected a distinctive blend of jazz and rock. “Feel Your Groove,” the title track of his debut release, feels like a statement of purpose, with Mose Allison–inflected speak-singing, dreamy chord sequences, teasing strings, and an extended jam that signifies maximal groove-feeling.
“Dueling Banjos” | Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell, 1973
Bluegrass seldom dominates the pop charts, but that’s what happened in 1973, when the rollicking “Dueling Banjos” peaked at number two on Billboard’s Hot 100. The release was also a number-five country hit and even topped the easy-listening chart. Not bad for this simple instrumental duet recorded by guitarist Steve Mandell and, on banjo, the late Eric Weissberg x’61. (Right, one of the banjos on “Dueling Banjos” isn’t a banjo. Don’t worry.)
Weissberg attended the UW and the Juilliard School of Music before collaborating with future screenwriter and director Marshall Brickman ’62 on a 1963 album, New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass. Tracks from that album, as well as “Dueling Banjos,” wound up on the soundtrack of Deliverance, the unsettling 1972 film that gave “Banjos” its wide audience.
“The Joker” | Steve Miller Band, 1973
Steve Miller came of age musically in Texas, but his roots are in Milwaukee. That’s where he had an early mentor in Les Paul, a pioneer of electric guitar and a good guy for a future Rock & Roll Hall of Famer to know. At the UW, he founded the Ardells, which featured future stars Boz Scaggs x’66 and Sidran. Miller left Wisconsin to soak up the blues in Chicago, then made his way to San Francisco and launched a campaign to conquer radio and the rest of the world.
A series of albums and singles met, at first, middling success. Then came “The Joker.” It reached number one on the Billboard pop chart and set the template for hit records that followed: sparkling arrangement, glib lyrics, guitar hooks no one forgets. But as great as other Miller singles are, “The Joker” wields a secret weapon: the word pompatus. Pompatus.
“Lowdown” | Boz Scaggs, 1976
Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller were friends and musical collaborators as schoolboys in Texas, and with the Ardells they entertained in dorms and at sorority parties. Scaggs appeared on the first two Steve Miller Band albums and released a series of tasteful solo albums that didn’t make much of a commercial impact, notwithstanding the searing Duane Allman collaboration “Loan Me a Dime,” from Scaggs’s second, self-titled release. But when Scaggs released Silk Degrees in 1976, the album’s deft agglomeration of soul, rock, and disco captured a moment. The Force was strongest on the low-key “Lowdown,” with its sly groove and louche lyrics, to say nothing of a flute earworm to beat all flute earworms.
Silk Degrees was a multiplatinum smash. No need to wonder-wonder-wonder who is doing that smooth, dare we say silky, singing. It’s Boz.
“Member of the Family” | Spooner, 1982
Garbage cofounder and drummer Butch Vig ’80 walked a long road to alt-rock megastardom. A native of Viroqua, Wisconsin, Vig studied film at the UW. Beginning in the 1970s he was in the power-pop band Spooner, along with future Garbage guitarist Duke Erikson, and the band went on to release three indie albums. The first, 1982’s Every Corner Dance, received positive attention in Rolling Stone. Singer/ guitarist/songwriter Erikson “acknowledges his debt to the Beatles in just about every song,” critic Lloyd Sachs wrote.
The album yielded the memorable track “Member of the Family,” which features the jerky rhythms and tinny keyboards familiar to fans of early 1980s New Wave. The song’s melancholy lyrics fit uneasily with the upbeat music, and what’s more New Wave than that?
“Carry the Torch” | Fire Town, 1986
Next on Butch Vig’s musical journey came Fire Town, a rock band whose members included another UW alum, Phil Davis ’76, MA’81. The group released a pair of albums with Atlantic, In the Heart of the Heart Country and The Good Life. A standout track from the former, “Carry the Torch,” features the chiming guitars and Byrds-like dreaminess that were all the rage on college radio in the mid-1980s.
“Stupid Girl” | Garbage, 1995
The music Butch Vig made with his 1980s bands was taut and effective, but something was missing. That something, it turns out, was Shirley Manson. Vig, Steve Marker, and Duke Erikson teamed with the flame-haired Scots siren to form Garbage. A signature act of alternative rock’s commercial triumph in the 1990s, Garbage has sold zillions of albums, played the grand stages of the world, and recorded a James Bond theme, all while maintaining its acerbic wit and fierce artistic integrity. At the height of their fame, band members stayed in Wisconsin even as performers not half as successful might have drifted to the coasts.
“Stupid Girl,” the highest-charting single from the group’s self-titled debut, perfectly encapsulates the Garbage strategy: voluptuous synthesizers, concise guitar hooks, arch lyrics, and, best of all, Manson’s menacing vocals. Wherever this song is playing it’s 1995 again, but only in good ways.
“Breakfast of Champions” | Rainer Maria, 1999
From the ashes of another group named for a poet, Ezra Pound, UW students Kaia Fischer ’97, William Kuehn ’93, and Caithlin De Marrais ’96 formed Rainer Maria. The emo combo made a name for itself among indie fans with its musing lyrics, soft-loud dynamics, and proudly unvarnished singing. In the 1990s and 2000s, the group released five albums and toured the small venues of the unforgiving indie circuit before parting ways in 2006. They subsequently reformed and, in 2017, released another album, S/T.
“Breakfast of Champions,” from the 1999 release Look Now Look Again, is a mournful, despairing breakup song with lyrics that are in turn abstract and all too precise in their sadness. “When he left me, we drove into a snowstorm,” De Marrais murmurs at the end. Sigh.
“Madison, Wisconsin” | Lou and Peter Berryman, 2000
Madison-based Lou ’77 and Peter x’69 Berryman have forged a long, remarkable career recording albums and performing their funny, subversive songs in folk clubs and church basements. Accordionist Lou writes the music, guitarist Peter the lyrics, and they harmonize robustly as they sing laugh-out-loud ditties about consumer paranoia, ecological dread, and weird stuff in the refrigerator. Career highlights include Love Is the Weirdest of All, a 2004 theatrical revue of Berryman songs that Madison Repertory Theatre staged in the UW’s Vilas Hall.
“Madison, Wisconsin” is a sweet, nostalgic tribute to the Badger State capital in general and the UW experience in particular. “I used to sit out on the Terrace,” they sing, “and watch my grade point disappear.”
“I’m Not Shy” | Joy and the Boy, 2004
Ben isn’t the only talented Sidran to graduate from the UW. Son Leo Sidran ’99 is a music-business veteran in his own right, with credits that include the Academy Award–winning song he produced, Jorge Drexler’s “Al Otro Lado del Río,” from the 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries. In the early 2000s, Sidran teamed with the gifted singer-songwriter Joy Dragland ’00 to form the pop duo Joy and the Boy. Early gigs included a 2000 spot opening for presidential candidate Al Gore on Madison’s Capitol Square. Then came a series of releases, each one a showcase for Sidran’s taut musicianship and Dragland’s poised singing.
A standout song is “I’m Not Shy” from the pair’s first album, Paradise, with a teasing vocal by Dragland and a lively beat that recalls 1970s funk. “I’m not shy,” she purrs, and we believe her.
“Night” | Zola Jesus, 2010
As a UW student, Nika Roza Danilova ’10 studied philosophy and French. She also developed Zola Jesus, the brooding, goth-inflected music persona that, starting in the early 2010s, has been received ecstatically in the indie music world and beyond. Danilova has released a series of acclaimed albums marked by her powerful, operatic singing. “Not many female pop voices have sounded like this,” the New York Times reported admiringly in 2011.
“Night,” a highlight of Danilova’s 2010 release Stridulum II, recalls goth icons like Siouxsie and the Banshees with its moody atmospherics. Yes, it’s a love song, but take a line like: “In the end of the night we’ll rest our bones.” “Rest our bones” is a normal, everyday saying, but in this gloomy setting it has all kinds of creepy connotations.
“Devils and Angels” | Toby Lightman, 2013
As a member of the Chi Omega sorority, Toby Lightman ’00 honed her musical chops performing in Humorology, the annual variety show staged by UW Greek organizations. “I was in the cast all four years and directed my senior year,” she told the Badger Herald in 2004. After graduation the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, native tended bar in New York City and eventually signed with Lava Records.
Her debut album, Little Things, included “Devils and Angels,” a cheeky woman-done-wrong anthem that melds rock and hip-hop sounds with Lightman’s seething lyrics. “I’m going to greet you at her back door as you’re coming out,” she hisses. That can’t end well! The song slid into the Top 20 on Billboard’s Adult Pop chart, and a series of major-label and independent releases followed.
“Impossible” | Lucien Parker, 2017
Since 2007, undergraduates in the UW’s First Wave scholarship program have studied hip-hop culture in its many aspects — rap, poetry, visual art, dance. Some have gone on to successful recording careers, including rapper Lucien Parker ’19, the South Minneapolis native who landed his musing, low-key track “Impossible” on an episode of the Marvel TV series Cloak & Dagger. That makes Parker officially part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Achievement unlocked!
“Mr. Clean” | Yung Gravy, 2018
In the weeks leading up to his UW graduation, rapper Matthew Hauri ’17, a.k.a. Yung Gravy, had to miss class — but not for the usual college-student reasons. He was flying off for contract negotiations with major music labels.
The absences paid off when Hauri signed with Republic Records and launched a platinum-selling recording career. But he notched one of his greatest successes when he was still an independent artist: “Mr. Clean,” which samples the Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman” and features Hauri’s funny boasting about his romantic conquests. The video, in which Hauri traverses Lake Mendota on a Sea-Doo, is a stitch.
“Lala” | Zhalarina, 2019
Another First Wave alum, rapper Zhalarina Sanders ’15, MS’18, earned a regional Emmy for The Light, a collection of music videos she created for PBS Wisconsin.
She told National Public Radio that her powerful track “Lala” is a love letter to her father, who was incarcerated when she wrote it. “My favorite thing about the song is that it has done exactly what I wanted it to do for my family,” she said. “My dad definitely cries every time he hears it.”
“The Wine Talkin’ ” | The CashBox Kings, 2019
Harmonica player Joe Nosek ’97, MA’00 formed the blues band the Cash Box Kings as a UW graduate student in the early 2000s. His inspiration, he told the Chicago Tribune in 2017, was the Windy City legends whose music he heard when growing up in the Chicago suburbs: James Cotton, Junior Wells, Sunnyland Slim. “We wanted to help keep alive the traditional ’40s, ’50s, ’60s Chicago blues sound, and the ensemble approach to playing blues music,” Nosek said. A key personnel change came in 2007, when Chicago singer Oscar Wilson joined the lineup. The band tours internationally and has released albums steadily since its 2003 debut, Live! At the King Club.
On the group’s latest, 2019’s Hail to the Kings!, Brown duets amusingly with blues diva Shemekia Copeland in the boisterous shuffle “The Wine Talkin’.”
“Road to Hell” | André De Shields, 2019
If you were watching the Tony Awards in 2019, there’s a 99 percent chance you cried as actor-singer-dancer-director-choreographer André De Shields ’70 accepted his honor for best featured actor in the musical Hadestown, which revisits the mythology of Eurydice and Orpheus. Rather than rattling off the list of names typical of these moments, De Shields shared what he called his cardinal rules of ability and longevity, beginning with: “Surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming.” It was a graceful moment in an unforgettable career, and the award was well deserved.
His signature tune from the show, “Road to Hell” by Anaïs Mitchell, opens the proceedings with a slinky New Orleans sound and singing that is merrily malevolent.
“Rakin’ and Scrapin’ ” | Leon Lee Dorsey, 2021
At the UW, jazz bassist Leon Lee Dorsey MM’83 studied with legendary professor Richard Davis. Now Dorsey’s an associate professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and the list of artists he has performed with is a who’s-who of American music: Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, Lionel Hampton, Art Blakey.
Dorsey also leads his own band, and his latest release, 2021’s Thank You Mr. Mabern!, was the final recording project of the late pianist Harold Mabern, a legend in his own right. The Mabern composition “Rakin’ and Scrapin’ ” is a standout. •
Kenneth Burns PhDx’05 is a music critic and a former member of the alternative-country band the Junkers, made up of UW grad students. Their songs touched on classic country themes as well as Hegelian dialectics.
Published in the Winter 2022 issue