Monday, September 1, 2008

1991 - the most important something of all something something

I’m not sure if you’ve heard about this before, but 1991 was an important year for rock music. There was this band from Washington state, called The Nirvanas, and their major label debut, The Nevermindings, took hold of the public’s collective imagination (where magic comes from!).

To be honest, this is the first list so far in this series that almost feels redundant. I hope I’m not spoiling anyone’s fun by telling you this early in that Pearl Jam and Nirvana are included here. Or that I, a music critic, really love My Bloody Valentine. It’s really weird to think about what independent music was doing in ’91, since the lines between underground and mainstream were so thinly divided. So when I look over my list, I really have no concept of how obvious it is, to an extent. Loveles was a huge record to me, but 17 years later, it still hasn’t gone platinum. But I know I could find thousands of folks who were just as affected by it as me (high-five Tsikitas, O’Riordan, and such!).

But that’s part of the excitement. I’ve never claimed to have very obscure tastes, but as rock and/or roll becomes more and more marginalized in radio, television, and retail outlets, on a certain level, I do feel that my preferences in what’s coming out now are more underground than what rock was producing in ’91. Everything was surfacing then. Hair metal was dead. Of course, it could just be that since I wasn’t really old enough to look for much, maybe this list’s populism is just as much affected by ignorance. I don’t know. But I do that Nirvana is still better than most.

10. Temple of the Dog – Temple of the Dog

Started as a tribute to deceased Mother Love Bone lead singer Andrew Wood between the remaining members and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, Temple of the Dog wasn’t really meant to be anything more than a one-off. Soundgarden blew up, though. And those guys from Mother Love Bone? They went on to form Pearl Jam. Suddenly this touching ode went huge, powered by the monster hit “Hunger Strike,” a duet between Cornell and future Pearl Jammer Eddie Vedder. What’s funny is that “Hunger Strike” ended up being a single specifically because it had Vedder on it. The rest of the album is powered by Cornell’s pipes, and man can he belt ‘em out. Temple of the Dog sounds very much like a Pearl Jam record – classic rock filtered through an alternative lens – but much more expansive, especially in the second half. Temple of the Dog reunites on occasion for a handful of shows, but the band has never been more than an act of love by some friends, which I respect.

9. Pearl Jam – Ten

The group that spawned a million bar bands, Pearl Jam has always been better than most folks give them credit for. A lot of people in the early ’90s hated PJ for sounding “professional” (i.e. – capable of playing instruments), and historical revisionism has made this backlash even worse. As Chuck Klosterman once pointed out, Pearl Jam was more popular than Nirvana by the time Kurt Cobain committed suicide, but no one ever seems to admit to liking Ten more than Nevermind (myself included). Oddly enough, it’s that same professionalism that has helped make Pearl Jam the last band standing in a way. Rage Against the Machine and Stone Temple Pilots are doing the reunion festival circuit, and Mudhoney and The Melvins are still cranking out records (Smashing Pumpkins don’t count), but Pearl Jam still packs stadium shows. Just like a classic rock band.

Ten was Pearl Jam’s debut, birthed by the glam-metal lovers from Mother Love Bone and a poetic surfer named Eddie Vedder. As many have pointed out, Ten doesn’t have 10 songs (11, actually), but whatever. There’s a wealth of hard rocking hits here. “Jeremy,” “Even Flow,” “Once,” and “Alive” are all here. Powered by Vedder’s uniquely strong yet whiney vocals, Ten is one of the few multiplatinum records that exists between rock classics, guilty pleasures, and the ether. I love it.

8. The Nation of Ulysses – 13-Point Program to Destroy America

Bridging the gap between Minor Threat and Refused, The Nation of Ulysses made hardcore much smarter in ’91 with 13-Point Program to Destroy America. Chaotic and fierce, yet somehow always hook-laden (My God, have you heard “Spectra Sonic Sound?”), Nation was a band that could rock your face off while teaching you a thing or two about the world. Granted, the lyrical meanings kind of get lost in these dirges, but crack open the booklet, and you’ll find some serious political discussion that goes much deeper than “fuck the police” or “smash the government.”

The Nation of Ulysses brought a touch of class to hardcore as well. Decked out in suits, and schooled in older genres like soul, ska, and doo-wop, The Nation of Ulysses really rose above the chest-beating popularized by the NYC and Orange County music scenes. Refused blatantly ripped off the aesthetic, but they took the music even further, so I’ll let it go.

7. Jawbox – Grippe

Government Issue bassist J. Robbins fully arrived in 1991 as a songwriter with a band of his own, Jawbox. Grippe was one of two Dischord-released albums by Jawbox, and in spite of all the post-hardcore aggression, I can hear a definite form that defies noisecore wankery. Like Pearl Jam, Robbins was always a little more interested in musical professionalism, and that’s why his production has always been a little bit cleaner. While I tend to favor lo-fi, a Robbins production has always sat well with me – the guy knows what he’s doing. Same goes for his songwriting. I love Robbins’ new-ish band, Channels. I love the Robbins-era GI. Still haven’t heard Burning Airlines, but I’m working on it. As for Jawbox, well, I must say they should have been much bigger than they were. Grippe was the band’s first record, and each album afterwards refined their fine blend of pop and hardcore. Get ready to see more Jawbox in this series; they only kept getting better and better.

6. Fugazi – Steady Diet of Nothing

Fugazi was always a humorless band, but they never got more severely serious than on Steady Diet of Nothing. This is the kind of album I don’t listen to often (13 Songs is still my favorite), but not because I don’t love it. On the contrary, Steady Diet of Nothing is a great political mindfuck of a record. “These are our demands / we want control of our bodies,” Ian MacKaye says on track two, “Reclamation,” and it’s a bold statement from a bold era. All records are experiences (duh), but Steady Diet is the type that forces you to reevaluate your life and really push for what you believe in.

5. U2 – Achtung Baby

Achtung Baby was the last gasp of greatness from U2 for almost a decade, but let’s focus on the positives. The ’90s would see the band pulled away by conflicting influences, but Achthung Baby marks the moment before everything fell apart. It was almost the last time The Edge wrote a good guitar song (“Zoo Station,” “Mysterious Ways,” “Until the End of the World”), almost the last time Bono wrote a kickass socio-political anthem (“One”) and heartfelt personal conversations (“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”), and pretty much the last time they really rocked. Obviously, hindsight makes this album kind of depressing, and I think a lot of U2 fans wished the band broke up after this one… maybe even earlier. As for me, well, I think Achtung Baby sounds pretty gosh dang good, and it’s not like they had the biggest dry spell before whipping up All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

4. R.E.M. – Out of Time

The first R.E.M. album I ever bought is also the weirdest. While I knew a handful of the band’s singles, nothing could’ve prepared me for the slightly funky “Radio Song,” a mash-up between R.E.M. and KRS-One. Indeed, I came for the more well-known singles (“Losing My Religion,” “Shiny Happy People”), but I stayed for the awesome album cuts. Out of Time boasts my favorite R.E.M. song, “Country Feedback.” And while I prefer the live version from the In Time deluxe edition, the lyrics from either performance will do. There was once a time when frontman Michael Stipe was very insightful and evocative and powerful, and the longing and the anger and the resignation in “Country Feedback” is amazing. I actually once wrote a short story in one of my fiction writing classes based around the main character listening to this song. In other words, I’m a total weiner for this album. As for Out of Time, it’s arguably one of R.E.M.’s best rock albums, and depending on your mood, their best overall. The music is catchy alt-rock-pop, and the back-up from The B-52s’ Kath Pierson ensures that the vocals are always awesome.

3. Nirvana – Nevermind

Everyone credits Nevermind for killing hair metal, but I think it also needs to be said that Nevermind makes a lot of alternative rock albums sound just as irrelevant. This rare mix of pop, aggression, and humor (like Pixies!) with a quiet/loud dynamic (like Pixies!) was never quite achieved by the Korns and Creeds of the world. Other than that, is there really anything else to say about this one? Oh wait; Dave Grohl needs to play drums again.

2. Billy Bragg – Don’t Try This At Home

I first learned about Billy Bragg through Rancid and Discount (I wonder if they’ll pop up in future lists…?), but I didn’t really hop on the train until the summer of 2007, when I picked up the Don’t Try This At Home re-release. The bonus disc is pretty cool, but the album is even better. Opening with the crazed chords of “Accident Waiting to Happen,” Bragg gets right into spouting his opinions on just about everything, from friends’ lives to sexual politics to that dang government. Discount's covers of “Accident Waiting to Happen” and “North Sea Bubble” inspired me to pick this album up, and I was excited to hear even better tracks than that. “Sexuality” is corny, but very moving for its pro-homosexuality leanings, and the title track is just straight up catchy. Thus began my love affair with Mr. Bragg and his abrasive brand of protest folk music.

1. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless

I need to get to one of these My Bloody Valentine reunion gigs. All I really need to hear is “Only Shallow.” After that, I can go. I might even be able to die feeling fulfilled. The dichotomy between Belinda Butchers’ dreamy verses and Kevin Shields demonic howl of a guitar line in between those verses is perfect. It’s possibly the ultimate synthesis of ambiance and brutality, or something equally over-the-top. The rest of the album slips more into textures than songs, which turns some folks off, but it really just helps make Loveless one of my favorite “thinking” records. When I’m lying in bed, when I’m looking at the ocean, when I’m feeling ever so slightly in the mood for an otherworldly experience sans drugs, I put on Loveless.

It was thrilling for me to hear Japancake’s cleaner take on Loveless, though, as it reveals that there really are structures underneath. It’s not just noise, although there is plenty of that too. Loveless is one of the most beautiful albums I’ve ever heard, crafting soundscapes in my head.

I made it through this entire piece without referring to MBV’s “swirling guitars” once. Wait, fuck…

NEXT WEEK: three chords, yeah they’re yours, we stole ‘em from your bottom drawer, 1992.

1 comment:

Paul Tsikitas said...

Yeah. Loveless is pretty fucking brilliant. It's an album that goes beyond music, which makes it so great. It's if Brian Eno instead of doing ambient music did hard rock. Yeah I know I blow Eno's dong, but hey... what can I say.

Anyways, good list again. Surprised Temple of the Dog made it, although I completely agree with what you say. Didn't know you were that into it. I feel like it's a forgotten classic.