Monday, August 4, 2008

1988 - be all that you can be.

Making my 1988 list confirmed two things for me. First, that maybe there’s something to be said for '80s metal after all, and second, just because something isn’t in tune doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I usually apply that second sentiment to the notes punk singers hit (or miss), but ’88 offered up two shining examples of experimental tuning, this time in the guitar department: Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything. While I’ve always preferred songs with lyrics that comment on either the personal or the political, there’s something to be said for the creations that build moments rather than recreate memories.

But mostly I just want to say that I still really like Metallica, so screw you.

10. Queensrÿche – Operation: Mindcrime

A prog-rock concept album? Yeah, I was totally into Queensrÿche in high school. More streamlined than Dream Theater or Rush, these guys had power and vigor in every cheese-filled bite. Operation: Mindcrime dealt with the war on drugs, and while I’m not that concerned with the plot, I still think it’s cool that these guys not only occasionally perform the album start to finish, but include actors and montages to help explain the story. I’d like to see Coheed and Cambria try that.

9. Jane’s Addiction – Nothing’s Shocking

Music critics tend to jock the band’s sophomore effort, Ritual de lo Habitual, but Nothing’s Shocking has more memorable songs and a more balanced track listing. “Mountain Song,” “Jane Says,” “Pigs in Zen,” “Ocean Size,” and “Had a Dad” are all here. Even throwaway novelty cuts like “Standing in the Shower… Thinking” and “Thank You Boys” are entertaining on repeat. Jane’s Addiction had a great songwriting dynamic in frontman Perry Farrell and bassist Eric Avery (who now shares a record label with Silversun Pickups. Small world), but it’s the metal roots of guitarist Dave Navarro and drummer Stephen Perkins that give Nothing’s Shocking its force. See, Jane’s Addiction is what glam metal should have been – pumped up jams with a dash of trash and soul instead of dudes with hard-ons and a shit ton of make-up. Sexier and harder than most of the bands coming out of California at the time, Jane’s Addiction is one of the few bands to jump off of Led Zep and not suck. Also, the bass line from “Mountain Song” is super cool.

8. My Bloody Valentine – Isn’t Anything

My Bloody Valentine had already churned out a ton of EPs prior to their first full-length, but it was on Isn’t Anything that the band found a compromise between the dissonance of early Jesus and Mary Chain and the post-rock of Slint. While I love the earlier stuff, like Strawberry and Wine, I appreciate that era more because it shows where the band came from. Isn’t Anything picks up the JAMC mantel and adds more ambiance. While Loveless is the better experience, Isn’t Anything is great for those looking for songs instead of textures. A lot of the classic MBV elements from Loveless were already falling into place, like Bilinda Butchers’ haunting coos. But Isn’t Anything has less swirl and more snarl, resulting in a top-notch indie rock record. Side note: this band makes me proud to be Irish.

7. The Lemonheads – Lick

I’m a glutton for records. Whenever I get into a band, I try to buy everything they’ve put out. Sometimes I adhere to popular wisdom – some folks think the only Lemonheads album you need is It’s a Shame About Ray, which I followed for a while. But after the Lemonheads put out a really dang awesome comeback album in 2006, I found myself pursuing the group’s other records. Come on Feel The Lemonheads was almost as bad as most people say it is, but that didn’t stop me from checking out Lick.

I should probably note that there seems to be a discrepancy about when Lick came out, ’88 or ’89 (a bio for former member Ben Deily says ’90). Since I don’t know Evan Dando, I’m just going to go with 1988, the year listed on the album. Pre-major label, Lick is understandably rawer. The Deily-led songs have an Ergs! feel to them, recalling a Ramonesy pop punk edge that Dando would not allow during the ’90s.

Speaking of Dando, he’s one of my favorite pop songwriters of all time. His songs have an effortlessness to them, as if they all arrived fully formed without much input on his part. This lack of trying was awkwardly clear on the sophomoric Come On, but on Lick, and the rest of the Lemonheads catalog I’ve accumulated to date, it’s perfect.

Not that Dando doesn’t ever try. “Cazzo di Ferro” is a randomly placed Italian metal ditty that clearly took some attention to translate, and it’s way more awesome than it should be. It’s these flashes of humor that also draw me to Lemonheads, and makes me wish I could’ve seen the band back when Dando played the guitar solo from Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” during every song, even if it wasn’t supposed to have a solo.

6. The Church – Starfish

While I don’t miss working at Barnes & Noble, one of the few tasks from the job that I enjoyed and kind of miss was scanning for loss prevention. Each month, I had to scan everything in the CD/DVD department. If the numbers I scanned didn’t synch up with what our computers thought we had, then we’d check out the discrepancies and write off whatever we couldn’t find as being stolen.

OK, so maybe it was a mindless job.

But scanning gave me an excuse to look at all the albums in our store. Thanks to our listening station, I could set aside albums whose covers caught my eye (Kaki King, Camera Obscura) and listen to samples. One of those albums was The Church’s Starfish. Arguably the most popular Church album, I was oblivious but interested in 2006. While the record’s hit single “Under the Milky Way” has made the rounds on compilations, my favorite track is “Reptile,” which boasts a killer guitar line that The Edge wishes he wrote. Starfish goes for more of a Smiths pop classicism sound than the psychedelia found on Heyday, which works for me. Either way, The Church rules.

5. Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation

Awkward hipster confession #1: Daydream Nation is not my favorite Sonic Youth record. But it is the most draining, and I mean that in a good way. The band’s aural textures swerved away from the grind of Sister and Bad Moon Rising into a more ethereal, but no less powerful, range. I spin Bad Moon Rising when I want to feel buried in noise. I spin Goo when I just want to hear some good alternative rock. And I spin Daydream Nation when I want my dreams to soar to new heights. Alternative music during the ’90s got sloppier and dumber, which makes me wish folks bothered to listen to the tightness in SY’s playing and the neo-feminism in Kim Gordon’s lyrics.

Admittedly, I’ve drifted away from Sonic Youth in the last few years. What seemed so vital and alive when I was 19 sounds kind of drugged out and directionless at 22. Plus, with 70 minutes of weird guitar sounds, Daydream Nation is a hard record to finish (I’m more partial to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless), but it’s also an important one to ingest. It’s the kind of album that divides everything you hear. If a band is worse than Sonic Youth circa Daydream Nation, they’re not necessarily bad. They’re just not worth your time.

4. U2 – Rattle and Hum

Awkward hipster confession #2: I like U2 more than I like Sonic Youth. Rattle and Hum, the soundtrack to the band’s concert documentary, continues the study of American roots music from The Joshua Tree. The live cuts show a band on fire. People slag Bono all the time for being a pretentious asshole. Honestly, when he’s not fighting AIDS and world hunger, he’s rocking out songs like he’s possessed, so it’s pretty hard for me to hate the guy. Bono’s also one of my favorite lyricists. Even my girlfriend, who notoriously hates U2 (it’s a ’90s thing, I guess), gets all choked up every time she hears “All I Want is You.” She got it from the Reality Bites soundtrack, but its first album appearance was here.

Slow yet smoldering, “All I Want is You” is the penultimate song of devotion, of swearing allegiance and desire to none other than one’s lover. I love Michelle that much, and I think she feels the same way (women are tricksy).

Rounding out the album are a handful of covers (“All Along the Watch Tower,” “Helter Skelter”) and audio snippets (Jimi Hendrix covering the national anthem). During the decade of excess, even U2’s odds-n-ends collections were top notch.

3. Metallica - …And Justice For All

Nate Adams nearly facepalmed me for liking Metallica’s …And Justice For All more than Pixies’ Surfer Rosa. In listening to the two albums back-to-back, I found that maybe I had been wrong. What holds Justice back from #2 is its lack of bass. The first studio album to feature bassist Jason Newsted, who replaced Cliff Burton after his death, suffers from an overabundance of hazing. The rest of Metallica saw fit to break Newsted’s spirits, which in this case meant making him follow the rhythm guitar as closely as possible, only to have his bass turned down so low in the mix that it didn’t matter what he was playing.

So while …And Justice For All may get knocked down a peg for lacking a bottom, I still can’t deny its sweet, succulent guitar solos. The band never got more intricate than here, and I understand why. The songs are all five-ten minutes long, with all sorts of solos and movements. Frontman James Hetfield continues his dark writing here, most favorably found on “One,” a song about the horrors of war. Of course, it helps when you add some hot shreddage to such messages.

2. Pixies – Surfer Rosa

Speaking of Nate, he once told me that he only felt one emotion, and it was Bear vs. Shark (which we can assume means insane rage). That’s not quite true. He feels two other emotions: Modest Mouse (alcoholism) and Pixies (the crazies). Surfer Rosa was the second Pixies album I picked up, and I knew I’d found a winner as soon as I started track one, “Bone Machine.” “You’re so pretty when you’re UNfaithful to me,” [EDIT: I FUCKED UP THE LYRICS! NATE! NATE I'M BLIND!] Black Francis/Frank Black/Hey you guy sings, creating one of my all-time favorite creepy lines.

Of course, the biggest song from Surfer Rosa is later on the track listing. “Where is My Mind?” is roughly worn yet instantly memorable. It’s kind of weird listening to this song, and Surfer Rosa in general, in 2008. For all the hullaballoo about how influential Pixies were, I can’t name a single band that really sounds like them. Sure, folks like to tag early Weezer for biting Pixies, but they were always secretly powered by Kiss and ’80s metal. Pixies, on the other hand, were this hyper-specific concoction of brutality and pop. Acoustic and subtle one moment, snarling and dominating the next. Black’s voice is notoriously whiny and high pitched, but not enough people talk about how truly frightening his bark can be. The guy walks so many extremes within such finely crafted pop gems.

1. R.E.M. - Green

While Nate scares the fecal outta me, he can’t sway me from knocking out my number one pick for 1988, R.E.M.’s Green. For me, Green and 1991’s Out of Time represent R.E.M.’s peak, when they could be rocking, emotional, acoustic, electric, pop, folk, whatever. Document, from the previous year, may have had better hits, but Green is the more solid record. It’s the one I find myself listening to the most, often by accident. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, it’s one of my favorite drinking records, along with The Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree and Counting Crows’ This Desert Life. It’s a fun album, not quite a blatant party jam, but still chock of full of danceable, jangly numbers that I enjoy.

Green opens with the insanely catchy guitar line that dominates “Pop Song 89.” The conversation within the song is so directionless yet so vivid. Frontman Michael Stipe asks “Should we talk about the weather? Should we talk about the government?” in attempts to connect with another person. “I’m sorry / I think I lost myself / I think I thought you were someone else.”

Other favorites include “Stand,” “You are the Everything,” and personal tops “Orange Crush.” With its militaristic bent and raw delivery, “Orange Crush” carries a deeply political feel despite not being all that specific. Stipe’s got a spine and the band thinks you should follow. The song is a suggestion, a whisper of rebellion, made much clearer in concert. A live recording of “Orange Crush” from the “Everybody Hurts” single opens with Stipe recalling the Army commercial: “Be all that you can be in the army.” R.E.M. would take harder stances in the new millennium, but their older material offers sketches of social commentary every so often.

One more Nate Adams reference: NAAAAATE…. NATE NATE NATE. NATE!

ALSO! I'll be hobnobbing around the Jersey next week, so don't expect any blog posts.

IN TWO WEEKS: Sibling rivalries, 1989.


Paul Tsikitas said...

Love your lists so far. This was a good year. Starfish is a terribly forgotten record. Reptile is fantastic.

Don't harsh on Come On Feel the Lemonheads. It isn't as uneven as Car Button Cloth. But the Lemonheads are quite a fantastic group once you delve into them. The self titled revival is a phenomenal record. Have you seen them live yet? It's weird cuz Dando is usually trashed.

Liking U2 more than Sonic Youth isn't all that surprising. Sonic Youth is really hard to get into as most of their stuff is just insane. U2 is more accesable and their 80s early 90s output is quite great (Brian Eno producing most of it?!?! GAH!)

Nathan said...


the pixies lyric is

"you're so pretty when you're unfaithful to me"

not faithful.



Paul Tsikitas said...

Yeah. Sonic Youth doesn't get really good until the 90's if you ask me. I mean, yeah, Daydream Nation is sweet ass and all, but it really isn't until Dirty and Goo that they are really awesome. And then, for my dime, I like their later albums the best. Whatever, I think they have aged well.

U2 is great up to a point where they just really started to not care anymore, but let's be honest here... anyone who denies U2's 80's and 90s catalog just cuz Bono is a douche just doesn't understand good pop music when they hear it.