What do you talk about, when you talk about music? Because I don’t remember. I remember sitting in a car at two in the morning, waking the neighbours with the talk. I remember beers and hoarse throats, the hush of listening, the glee, the mockery, always another record – or the same one, over and over. I don’t remember the words.

So it’s a stupid thing to do, talking about records and then writing it down, or pretending we can catch on paper that moment of hearing – really hearing – a song, when your life and the music pass through one another and something is exchanged. You’re left with a splinter of memory, working its way through you, sometimes glancing off a nerve, sometimes an unplanned comfort in raw moments. And the song is left with your mark on it, a certainty that while other people may listen to it, you will know it. It doesn’t happen often, that moment; it happens often enough. The gaps in between we fill with more talk.

This conversation, this criticism, is trivial – but without it there is no music. All music starts in acts of criticism, of selection: one Liverpool boy playing another the latest R&B hits; a musicians wanted sign – ‘influences Husker Du and Peter, Paul and Mary’; a spike-haired kid wondering which showtune will swing the judges. Or two Scottish brothers in a room together for years and years, cutting out the world, hating everything about it, playing records. Jim and William Reid: what did they talk about?

The Jesus And Mary Chain from the minute they stumbled into pop life were half-written into history as one of those golden-ticket moments for a lot of people. And almost as quickly they were half-written off, perennial noisemakers who’d lost it long ago, whose ex-drummer’s band was much more important. (In fact ‘Reverence’, one of the fourth type of Mary Chain songs, pretty much blueprinted Primal Scream’s late-90s sound. But that came later.)

Meanwhile the Reid brothers sat in their Glasgow home and listened to records, until they knew everything about rock. Of course they weren’t the first band to take rock and roll as a series of gestures and work in that framework. But they were one of the last bands – in Britain anyway – to make what seemed like a new gesture, almost by accident. ‘Upside Down’: the first type of Mary Chain song. It sounds fucking horrible.

Was it really a new gesture? I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Maybe they did have a masterplan – what was it, Velvet Underground noise meets Beach Boys harmony, some bullshit line like that. Certainly ‘Never Understand’ and ‘You Trip Me Up’ sound like formula work, along those lines even, pretty bop-bop garage songs with shipyard wreckage feedback on top. But on ‘Upside Down’ the feedback is underneath the sickly little song too, and inside it, breaching it, puncturing it, out of anyone’s control. It’s harder to listen to, by the way, than anything the Velvets did. Not in a good way: it’s not even a very good record, I always wince and wait for it to finish and feel underwhelmed when it does. But it is entirely its own record and not much else feels quite like it.

Certainly nothing the Jesus And Mary Chain recorded. (Some of their songs sounded like it, which isn’t the same thing.) The rest of their career – thirteen years! – played out in the shadow of its irruptive beginning. Very soon they were just there, a well-respected band, rolling out singles and albums as needed. Which is what 21 Singles documents: a reliable rock and roll band. That was where I came in, too: when I started getting into this music the Jesus And Mary Chain were already a name, a classic, something taken for granted. I’ve only ever met one person whose favourite band was the Mary Chain, and even then he put it down to the band’s name. But everyone liked them. You heard one of their records – fuzz, snarls and yearning – and it was immediately familiar. I stopped listening to them long ago but I feel like I know every song here: I always did.

And to be truthful there were some constants – the fucked-up drawl; the see-Spot-run lyrics that all the journos took the piss out of, the generally awful drumming. People said their songs sounded the same. That’s not true: there are six different types of song on 21 Singles, which is more than some other bands manage. The first type was the feedback wrestling match, which had to go when the band began winning too often. The second type turns up with ‘Just Like Honey’ – sullen, grey ballads with feedback sputters added at whim. It’s miserable, unengaging stuff, which probably suited the moment. That style faded out when Spacemen 3 started doing it better.

That’s another thing you notice about the Jesus And Mary Chain when you listen to this compilation – so many bands sound a little bit like they sometimes did. Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine, RideÖ but you never feel the Mary Chain were innovators, or initiated anything. They were too low-key, too private – their music was a conversation about music, and we were listening in. Ideas would come up and other people would borrow them, which was fine. Often the other people would have more success with them, which was fine too: the Jesus And Mary Chain seem like a band that kept rock borrowings and gestures warm, until another group could come along and hit big with them.

Not that the Mary Chain didn’t hit big themselves, with a third type of song, massive paisley-Gothic rock anthems. ‘Happy When It Rains’ was a mission statement and a sell-out both at once, coming on like Simple Minds’ pouty younger brother. ‘Well, I don’t care – don’t put me in your teen movie!’ So nobody did.

The fourth type of Jesus And Mary Chain song was the first type I cared about. ‘Sidewalking’ – bass-first, repetitive, looped drums, oppressively petulant – was great music to slouch to. Simple to do (a bass riff, a sneered slogan or two, some feedback), venomous and ugly, and always effective, this was the basic and ultimate Jesus And Mary Chain song, maybe the basic rock song. So they kept making it. ‘Sidewalking’, ‘Blues From A Gun’, ‘Reverence’, ‘Snakedriver’, ‘I Hate Rock And Roll’, ‘Cracking Up’ – these tracks are the crooked spine of 21 Seconds, getting ever-more ground-out, boxed-in, stubborn, and self-hating as the 90s dragged on and the Mary Chain found themselves slipping ever closer to the margins.

Once they tried to muscle back to the center: the Rollercoaster tour, in 1992, a mismatched line-up of the indie great and good. The Mary Chain headlined, and Dinosaur Jr, Blur and My Bloody Valentine rotated below them. They even came up with a new kind of song for the occasion: ‘Rollercoaster’ itself, jangly and jaunty and maybe even a tiny bit ëbaggy’. The bass was nowhere to be heard, and there was the sinking feeling the drummer might be trying for a groove. The band tried this fifth style once more, with ‘Far Gone and Out’ – it’s good pop fun, a lost cousin to Ride’s ‘Twisterella’, but the discomfort showed. On the tour, it was generally agreed that every show was stolen by one support act or other, and the Mary Chain went snarling back to exile.

The conversation was over. The sixth type of Jesus And Mary Chain song was just small talk: kit-built acoustic ballads, marking time (the best and funniest is ‘Sometimes Always’, a Lee and Nancy pastiche with Hope Sandoval, but it’s still worth skipping). ‘Come On’ was as pathetic as the title suggested. That came out in 1994. The band got dropped, swapped labels, and four years later took their curtain call.

The Jesus And Mary Chain had started off doing something nobody expected and had wound up sounding exhausted and oppressed, knowing every cool rock gesture and gradually paralysed by it, flame-keepers who got burned. Perhaps the splinters working through the Brothers Reid had reached their hearts. But because they knew everything about rock, they could offer us three different endings. You could pick ‘I Hate Rock And Roll’ – embittered burnout blues. You could pick ‘I Love Rock And Roll’ – the schmaltzy end-credits song, complete with horns. In between them, disguised as a comeback single so you don’t think it’s an ending at all, is ‘Cracking Up’, which goes like this.

A hesitant bass picks out a riff, then stops. A couple of muffled drumbeats, a piano chord – they stop too. The bass again, louder, playing a different riff, more confidently, and then suddenly it’s overwhelmed by a third, loudest riff. That’s the one – catchy enough, dirty enough – so it’s joined by a basic, rapid drumbeat, and the song starts. ‘Some said I was a freak. I am a freak.’ The riff again. ‘Some said I was weak.’ Pause. ‘I am a freak.’ He keeps repeating it, his reply to every accusation. ‘I’m cracking up. We’re cracking up.’ goes the chorus. At the end he whispers, ‘Freak…freak…’ and then a long, disgusted moan, panning between speakers, ‘Freeeeeeak’, and the song ends.

That’s the real ending: preposterous but compelling, horribly fascinating. Rock knocked silly, punch-drunk, the fight about to be forcibly stopped, pathetic but somehow still proud. It wasn’t ‘Upside Down’ or ‘Sidewalking’ or anything else the Jesus And Mary Chain got that connected with me in the end, that made me buy – and enjoy – a compilation of singles by a band I’d never loved. It was ‘Cracking Up’, which seemed to sum up everything that had happened to rock music in Britain since I’d started listening, and to sum up my listening to it.

The moment passes. Things are almost the same – but there’s a difference, tiny really, nothing you could put your finger on. Silence for a half-second, and then the conversation starts again.