All Shook Down is the Replacements‘ final album, but it was the first Replacements album I ever heard because it was available at the library and Let It Be (1984) and Tim (1985), their most critically acclaimed works, were not. The Replacements’ albums have proven to be especially elusive in the world of public borrowing, in my experience, and I was very excited to finally be able to listen to such an acclaimed band. The two things that immediately came to my attention when I read about this album were: 1) All Shook Down was produced by Scott Litt, best known for his work with R.E.M. (he produced all of their albums between 1987 and 1996); 2) All Shook Down was released in 1990, not in the ’80s, which is the decade the ‘Mats (short for place mats, see) are most associated with.
R.E.M. laid the foundation for alternative rock with Murmur (1983), and gained mainstream recognition with Document (1987), which was their first album produced by Litt. It’s no surprise, then, that All Shook Down is more grounded than the Replacements’ previous efforts, with mostly acoustic-flavored tunes. Even the rockers are fairly gentle; this is pretty far removed from the more helter skelter Let It Be. Grunge was just around the corner in 1990, and All Shook Down captures the calm before the storm. It’s fitting though that the Replacements never became hugely popular; it would have just gone against the spirit of their music, and the sense of relief that they never became truly famous rock stars is almost palpable throughout All Shook Down.
There’s an unshakable feeling of contentment on this album, with songs that are quite reflective like “When It Began,” a real wonder of a song. (It feels like the end of an era.) It’s pure coincidence that Murmur and All Shook Down follow one another on this list, but I’m glad it turned out this way because they dovetail with each other very nicely; the narrative of ’80s alternative rock begins with Murmur and ends with All Shook Down. The Replacements played their final show in the summer of 1991, mere weeks before Ten and Nevermind were released. Once the grunge explosion was underway, alternative rock would always be viewed through that lens. Some alternative rock sub-genres — like Britpop — were defined by how they weren’t like grunge.
Some other tidbits: All Shook Down was originally intended as a solo album by singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg, but gradually morphed into a Replacements album as session musicians and the other Replacements were brought in during the recording process. All Shook Down is more than a little reminiscent of Abbey Road; it’s a triumphant, happy record that’s aware it’s the last one its creators will ever make. Abbey Road finishes with “The End” — not counting the 23-second long “Her Majesty,” of course — and All Shook Down ends with “The Last.” Both of these songs are very obviously self-aware of their context in their respective band’s histories. (Incidentally, Abbey Road is an honorable mention. I really thought it was going to make the list, but I ran out of room for it.)
More importantly, however, the Replacements seemed to recognize that their time was over, and that it was time for new blood. They were right; a year later, Nirvana released Nevermind, which would bring the music the Replacements helped pioneer into the mainstream. Nevermind eventually achieved a diamond certification from the RIAA — ten million copies shipped — while not one of the Replacements’ albums has achieved even a gold certification (half a million copies shipped). Sometimes life’s not fair. (Honestly though, the romantic notion of the Replacements’ underground significance is such a large part of their appeal that I would imagine most Replacements fans would probably resent any bandwagon supporters if they had achieved a heightened level of popularity.)