Monday, September 8, 2008

1992 - i'm not talking about some Beatles' song / written 100 years before I was born.

My kid brother, Sam, was born in 1992. Like my sister (1989), he got a better birth year for music than I did. Not that I’m jealous about that at all. I think part of the reason why I envy my sister is that her music taste is much more in line with mine than Sam's, but still off on its own tangent. She doesn’t rock Fugazi or The Stone Roses much, which kind of bums me out. My brother, on the other hand, is your prototypical prep school kid. A high school sophomore, he listens to jam bands, hip-hop and classic rock. So while that gives us Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen in common, that only accounts for like 1/3 of his tastes. The little rap I like (Common, Fugees) is boring to Sam. Fun fact: I once tried playing him Common’s Be in an effort to bond; he fell asleep like three songs in. He’s more into Jay-Z (which I respect more than I like) and Lil Wayne (Tha Carter III is either the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, musically or otherwise, or a performance art piece on par with Andy Kauffman).

The reason why I bring this up is this: Music is a great way to make friends, but it’s also good at wrecking them. Sam and I have never really bonded over music outside of the examples mentioned above, and our relationship has stayed pretty strong for the last decade or so. My sister, Maria, and I, on the other hand, have had plenty of fights over music because our tastes aren’t different, just divergent. Isn’t weird when the things that bring you together push you apart?

10. Jawbox – Novelty

Among other things, here’s how I know that 1992 was a kickass year for music: My favorite Jawbox record has the lowest ranking for its year. The first J. Robbins album I bought kicks off with the snarling post-hardcore guitar squeal of “Cutoff,” a muscular yet ethereal tune from an album rife with succulent rocking. Last week, I wrote about how Robbins was better than the average underground musician because he knew how to record music; same goes for his guitar work. As great as the music in the early ’90s was, a lot of bands had shitty guitar players (Dear Pavement, to paraphrase Beavis and Butthead, please try harder). Not so with Jawbox. Robbins had a solid backing in hardcore/metal/thrash, and he put it to good use. Novelty fits a specific niche for me; it’s aggressive and technical like a metal album but down-to-earth like a hardcore record.

9. Face to Face – Don’t Turn Away

Oddly enough, I got into Face to Face through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, courtesy of the band's Ignorance is Bliss song “The Devil You Know (God is a Man).” Ignorance is Bliss, of course, is the black sheep of the Face to Face catalog, as it’s the band’s only non-punk, art rock record. I didn’t mind though; when I followed up my Ignorance is Bliss purchase with the band’s pop punk albums, like Don’t Turn Away, I just rolled with it. See, there are different kinds of awesomeness in the world.

Don’t Turn Away is a solid first album, boasting some of Face to Face’s most popular live material, such as “Disconnected,” “Walk Away,” and “I’m Trying.” There’s little variation, but who cares? The tunes are catchy, quick, and rocking. Like J. Robbins, frontman Trevor Keith applied his metal background to punk to create something that was sleeker without sounding overcommercialized. One of the greatest pop punk bands of the ’90s, and still underappreciated in my opinion, Face to Face began their amazing album streak with ’92’s Don’t Turn Away.

8. Tori Amos – Little Earthquakes

The only reason I like Tori Amos is because my girlfriend Michelle is a superfan. By this, I mean Tori Amos has a lot of tics (weird vocal habits, bizarre lyrics about sex and rape and femininity) that are an acquired taste, and it’s only through the power of love (or something stupid like that) that I was able to learn to dig Tori’s groove. Michelle eased me into Amos through her early records, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink. Little Earthquakes continues to be my favorite Tori album, as it bears a solid balance between traditional songwriting and personal lyrics. When people say Tori Amos is insane, they’re prolly thinking of Boys for Pele, and they’re kind of right.

Little Earthquakes, though, manages to get to the point more often than not, with solid rockers like “Precious Things” and “Crucify” and the quieter “Leather” and “Silent All These Years.” Then there’s “Me and a Gun,” an a cappella about Tori’s rape experience. This song is so personal and gut-wrenching that Michelle refused to play it for me for months because she didn’t want me to see her cry. On the flip side, though, there are empowering, fun anthems like “Happy Phantom” and b-side “Take to the Sky (Russia).” Little Earthquakes is a fully rounded album, a polychromatically emotional endeavor that touches the human spirit with its fine piano compositions.

7. R.E.M. – Automatic for the People

Automatic for the People is one of the best R.E.M. albums of all time, and also the worst thing to happen to their career. Everything the band’s done post-1992 has in some way been in reaction to Automatic, whether as a 180 turn (Monster, Accelerate) or as a rehash (Up, Around the Sun). So, as the last great R.E.M. album, Automatic has a lot of baggage attached to it. But once this honest, heartfelt album starts playing, all of those concerns fade from my mind. Sure, “Everybody Hurts” is a little over the top, and “Star Me Kitten” will always sound fucked up after hearing the William S. Burroughs version, but as a whole, it’s a great pop record. “Drive” is totally rocking despite its mellow brethren, “Man on the Moon” is infectious, and have you freaking heard “Nightswimming?” Continuing the trend of making the second-to-last song the best, a la “Country Feedback” on Out of Time, “Nightswimming” is a simple piano ditty about the secret joys of summer. I think of this song whenever I remember my own nightswimming with Nate Adams and Sam Fran Scavuzzo circa July 4, 2008. Well, that and their one roommate who decided to swim naked.

You can't be the funny naked guy if no one laughs.

6. Soul Asylum – Grave Dancers Union

For a couple of years, Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner was totally cool, by which I mean he banged Winona Ryder and wrote the 12 great rock cuts that comprise Grave Dancers Union. Pirner might not be the greatest lyricist of the era – not as humorous as Kurt Cobain or as deep as Blake Schwarzenbach – but as far as straightforward scribes go, he’s tops. Grave Dancers Union was the biggest Soul Asylum record, thanks to hits “Runaway Train,” “Somebody to Shove,” and “Black Gold,” and while those are the strongest tracks, there’s still plenty to love. “Without a Trace” stays true to the older rock roots the band shared with Pearl Jam, but explores areas (the mafia and a hooker) that Eddie Vedder wouldn’t have touched on; “Get On Out” stomps around; and “The Sun Maid” is a mellow ending that doesn’t make much sense. Overall, Grave Dancers Union was a great pop rock album. Not a mind blower like some of the others on this list, but its steadiness makes it a reliable spin regardless of mood.

5. Green Day – Kerplunk!

Kerplunk! isn’t that different from Green Day’s first album, but it’s still an improvement in every way. The band gained a better drummer in muppet-faced Tré Cool. Frontman, Billy Joe Armstrong developed ever so slightly as a songwriter – dig that early version of “Welcome to Paradise – and as for bassist Mike Dirnt, well… he’s always been awesome. Pop punk done well.

4. Lemonheads – It’s a Shame About Ray

Like Soul Asylum, Lemonheads delivered a dependable collection of pop rock tunes with It’s a Shame About Ray. Lemonheads had an edge over Soul Asylum, though – frontman Evan Dando always had a knack for hooks, and his songs are usually interesting regardless of their subject matter. On top of that, Dando got some help from fellow songwriter Juliana Hatfield, who supplied bass and back-up vocals. I’d love to see a Dando/Hatfield tour… so many cute jams!

It’s a Shame About Ray is famous for the re-issue add-on of “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkel, but the originals are great too. “Alison’s Starting to Happen,” the title track, and the peppy “Rockin Stroll” have a country-tinged familiarity. I love it.

3. The Nation of Ulysses – Plays Pretty for Baby

I always favor hardcore bands that do things kind of differently, and that’s why I love the doo-wop/ska fusion on The Nation of Ulysses’ second album Plays Pretty for Baby. Like Fugazi, the band presented listeners with a post-hardcore dissonance attached to missives about the importance of maintaining both a personal identity and sense of community, not to mention saving the dang planet. More than anything, though, I love how The Nation wrote about living in the moment when it came to music. I’m a sucker for songs about songs, and “N-Sub Ulysses,” with its lines about going beyond The Beatles and “the real anti-parent culture sound,” is one of my favorites

2. PJ Harvey – Dry

Oh my sweet siren, Polly Jean, how I love just about everything you’ve done (Uh-Huh Her aside). While she’s gone through a few musical transformations, Polly Jean has pretty much always been really good at talking about really sad things (Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea aside). Her original trio, called PJ Harvey (I know, confusing, right?), put out two studio albums, Dry and Rid of Me. Dry came first in 1992, offering a slew of sexy, bluesy punk rock jams. Fronted by Polly Jean’s bewitching howl, the band tore through romper stompers like “O Stella,” “Dress,” and “Sheela Na Gig.” Riot grrl was supposed to be the “angry woman” movement during this period, but Polly Jean out-rocks all of them.

1. Jawbreaker – Bivouac

The bass solo from “Big.” The opening drum fill from “Shield Your Eyes.” The dissonance that pervades “Bivouac.” The angry rant that is “Tour Song.” And every lyric from “Chesterfield King.” These are the thrilling moments that define my life, encapsulated in punk rock songs far more expansive than the genre name implies. I can still remember the first time I listened to Bivouac. It was freshmen year of college. I hated my roommates for being drunk fucks. I hated my parents for giving away half my stuff so my brother could move into my room back home. I hated my high school friends for moving away, doing too many stupid fucking drugs, turning into egotistical jerks, or some combo of the three. The morning after purchasing Bivouac on a South Street trip, I popped the album into my portable CD player for the 10 minute walk to class. “Shield Your Eyes” got me out my door, but it was the bass solo from “Big” that made me want to live again.

I spent a few more days with the album, slowly digesting its sludgy contents. Dear You got me through some tough times in high school, but 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, purchased during my anti-pop punk phase senior year, didn’t sit too well with me. Bivouac reaffirmed my belief in Jawbreaker. Plus, it kept me from stabbing my roommates to death, in spite of all the parties, robberies, and sexual encounters they forced me to see.

NEXT WEEK: Cinderella's big score, buying myself a gray guitar, 1993.

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