In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, we're asking our writers to talk about a song that always reminds them of their own arrested development.
At some point, every band asks if it’s worth it. As much as popular culture mythologizes the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, the people in the trenches understand that it’s mostly a soul-sucking grind, filled with seemingly endless boredom punctuated by the moments onstage (and occasionally offstage) that make it seem worth pursuing. For people who started bands when they were young, it’s common to stare down the barrel of your late 20s and wonder if it was the right choice. Because if it doesn’t “work out”—the definition of that being vague at best—you can find yourself pushing 30 with little in the way of a real career. For people who spent years touring and recording, it can feel like stepping out of a time warp: You’re in the same place as kids just getting out of college, only you’re notably older and have a giant hole on your résumé.
Around the time Chicago punk band Horace Pinker wrote “Second Best,” it was nearly a decade into a run that seemed on the cusp of bigger things several times. A 7-inch with Fat Wreck Chords in the mid-’90s—at the height of the label’s power—seemed like a foot in the door to a label that could turn Horace Pinker into another Lagwagon or No Use For A Name. (Laugh now, but those guys sold a shit-ton of records back in the day.) Founding members Scott Eastman (vocals/guitar) and Bryan Jones (drums) were working tedious day jobs and nearing 30, while the band hadn’t released an album in three years, and a deal with a bigger label never materialized. “Second Best”—the opening track from 2000’s phenomenal Pop Culture Failure—captured a moment of peak frustration: “I’m afraid I can’t keep fooling anyone but me / I’m not what I thought I really want to be / But it’s like when you’re never really satisfied / When it comes around to me, I’ll always second guess, second best.”
I’d been friends with Horace Pinker for a couple years by that point, so I watched it play out as the band tried to find a home for a record that was clearly its best work—and maybe realized that a breakthrough wasn’t coming. Within a year, the members of Horace Pinker would still be playing, but also plotting their forays into “real” adulthood. More than a decade later, they’ve done well for themselves—and they’re still playing. “Second Best” remains a staple of the live set, a picture of a moment when priorities began to shift.