It’s always tragic when a beloved musician dies. But the loss feels even more acute when that musician was responsible for as many sun-kissed and life-affirming melodies as Adam Schlesinger. In the wake of his death from coronavirus, the divinely bittersweet and resilient spirit in songs such as ‘Hey Julie’ and ‘Troubled Times’ takes on a poignancy that is almost too much to bear.
Whether in his day job with power pop stalwarts Fountains of Wayne or his many side gigs writing songs for everything from Sesame Street to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Schlesinger seemed to churned out memorable hooks like it was second nature. His trademark? A song that just refused to leave your head, long after the music faded out or the credits rolled. These are 10 of his best.
Fountains of Wayne, ‘Radiation Vibe’ (1996)
The song that kicked off FoW’s first, self-titled record contains the nucleus of what made his songwriting partnership with bandmate Chris Collingwood so special. Sublime hooks, a tasteful amount of grit and a chorus that seems to reach the heavens – it’s ‘90s alt-rock at its absolute finest.
The Wonders, ‘That Thing You Do’ (1996)
Most songwriters would cling onto a pop nugget like ‘That Thing You Do’ rather than give it away to a film soundtrack. The litmus test of this fantastic Merseybeat-style number is that it’s played about three million times in the Tom Hanks comedy That Thing You Do!, but never gets annoying.
Fountains of Wayne, ‘Red Dragon Tattoo’ (‘1999)
Another Schlesinger/Collingwood trademark: a dorkily charming sense of humour, as they forever played the lovable losers. ‘Red Dragon Tattoo’, a song about getting a tattoo to impress a girl not worth impressing, is steeped in this sensibility, with winning lines such as “Will you stop pretending I’ve never been born now I look a little more like that guy from Korn?”
Fountains of Wayne, ‘Troubled Times’ (1999)
The counterpoint to that aforementioned sense of humour was Schlesinger’s knack for heart-melting sweetness. ‘Troubled Times’ is an ode to persevering through rough patches and saying how you feel while you still can. How it never soundtracked the big romantic denouement in a ‘90s rom-com is a mystery.
Josie & The Pussycats, ‘Pretend to Be Nice’ (2001)
One of the greatest tragedies of the under-seen and underrated movie Josie & The Pussycats is that most people never got to hear its stellar soundtrack, which was partly written by Schlesinger.. There’s nary a dud there but Schlesinger’s spiky pop-punk anthem steals the show.
Fountains of Wayne, ‘Stacy’s Mom’ (2003)
If you only know one Fountains of Wayne song, chances are it’s ‘Stacy’s Mom’, the goofiest and catchiest of all their singles and the closest they came to a bonafide hit (Number 21 in the US, Number 11 in the UK). The music borrows liberally from The Cars, while the resolutely tongue-in-cheek lyrics owe a debt to American Pie, Blink 182 and Cheap Trick. It’s silly but infinitely lovable.
Fountains of Wayne, ‘Hackensack’ (2003)
If you like your songwriters with endorsements from international pop stars, we’ve got you covered: Schlesinger’s came from one of the biggest and best. Katy Perry covered FoW’s ‘Hackensack’ for her MTV Unplugged session, and it’s hard to disagree with her choice. One of the highlights from the band’s third ‘Welcome Interstate Managers’, it’s Schlesinger and Collingwood at their most wistful and bittersweet.
America, ‘Work to Do’ (2007)
Schlesinger’s work on the soundtrack was by far the best thing about the middling Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore Music and Lyrics. The songs he wrote for Hugh Grant’s washed-up pop star are excellent but his best song almost flies under the radar, playing over the closing credits and not even appearing on the official soundtrack. Performed by ‘70s folk-rock band America (of ‘A Horse with No Name’ fame), it’s a jangly, Byrdsian number that is unmistakably Schlesinger through-and-through.
Fountains of Wayne, ‘The Summer Place’ (2011)
By the time FoW released their last record in 2011, the idea of chart success was well behind them and the term “one-hit wonders” was being unfairly – and liberally – applied to the band. Yet that didn’t stop them from going out on a high with their final album ‘Sky Full of Holes’. Opener ‘The Summer Place’ bears all the hallmarks of the band’s best work, clearly demonstrating that Schlesinger and Collingwood were just incapable of phoning it in.
Santino Fontana, ‘What’ll It Be?’ (2015)
— Aline Brosh McKenna (@alinebmckenna) April 1, 2020
When news of Schlesinger’s death circulated, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend creator Aline Brosh tweeted an incredibly moving tribute to the man who co-wrote so many songs for her acclaimed TV series. Included in that tribute was a demo of this utterly charming Billy Joel pastiche – sung by in the show by lead actor Santino Fontana – that Schlesinger sent to Brosh’s phone. Stripped back to just his voice and a piano, it lays his incredible talent bare.