Monday, September 15, 2008

1993 - regarding perfect blue buildings.

Up until now, there haven’t been too many women on my countdown. Sure, bassists Kim Deal/Gordon have shown up for Pixies/Sonic Youth, and Tori Amos and PJ Harvey debuted last week for 1992. But overall, these rock lists have been pretty dude-centric. I have no legitimate excuses for that; I could argue that my love of Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell hasn’t been accurately portrayed, or that my favorite lady-led band of all time, Discount, hasn’t shown up yet, but those don’t really justify much. I feel bad, because of this belief:

Women rock.

With fewer women in music, the ones who shine really shine. Looking back on my high school years, most of my female friends (and there were many – chicks dig nonthreatening, potentially gay dudes) weren’t musically inclined, with the exception of Julia Ellis (trumpet), Jenna Daugherty (bass), and Allie Interrante (lead vox in my high school band for a brief period). I don’t know why that turned out so. I mean, my friends were still passionate about music. Country, metal, emo, and punk were all discussed on a regular basis. They went to shows and bought the merch and memorized the lyrics (I’m only good at two out of three). But only a handful of them were actually musically active. And that bothers me. Coming from a punk background, I was told that anyone can do anything, which to me means that qualities like gender (and race, and ethnicity, and economic background) only determine where you start out, not what you do. The point of punk was that anyone can create music. But in practice, the genre is still kind of a boy’s club. I would love to see more women in music.

1993 had some incredible albums bearing a woman’s touch. Smashing Pumpkins bassist D’arcy Wretzky may not have been too prominent in the band’s songwriting, but PJ Harvey and Bjork were all prominent women entirely in charge of their compositions and image. Tori Amos had this annoying habit of releasing albums on the cusp of a year, so Under the Pink wasn’t out just yet, but she had plenty of singles floating around.

I’m not really sure what I was hoping to establish with this preamble. Sorry for that. In summation, estrogen + music = very nice.

10. Pearl Jam – Vs.

Pearl Jam is nothing if not a reliable rock band. Vs. doesn’t stray too far from the template set up for Ten, but it’s still a high quality classic rock album. I’ve always felt weird about using the term “alternative,” since I see so many connections between classic rock and alt rock bands like Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins. Even the alt bands with roots in underground genres like punk and post-punk are still coming from something much older and established. But enough about that. Vs. solidified Pearl Jam’s reputation, pushing them over Nirvana, even though no one wants to admit it. Tons of bands have tried to cop a feel from the band’s mix of bar band riffs and mucus-laden, evocative vocals (Nickelback, Creed, etc.), but Pearl Jam remains the best.

9. Fugazi – In on the Kill Taker

I know I just wrote about how important a non-masculine viewpoint is above, but man alive do I love the guys in Fugazi. In on the Kill Taker didn’t change Fugazi’s formula too much, although the band is ever so slightly softer than on Steady Diet of Nothing. It’s these tweakings that make me love each Fugazi record separately and as a whole. This is the point where the group started drifting away from post-hardcore into a more indie rock spectrum, but there’s still the frenetic drums, the crunchy, squealing guitars, and that fabulous energy from vocalists Greg Picciotto and Ian MacKaye. COME BACK FUGAZI.

8. Propagandhi – How to Clean Everything

Ah, the early ’90s, when every Fat Wreck band sounded like NOFX. Propagandhi eventually found their own metal-tinged identity, but on How to Clean Everything, the band sounded exactly like Fat Mike and co. There was one key difference, though: They were actually better than NOFX. Lead vocalist/guitarist Chris Hannah relied a bit too heavily on profanity in the early days, but his anger still comes through brilliantly. Future Weakerthans frontman John K. Samson added a dash of eloquence on the few tracks he sang on, though, which was nice of him. How to Clean and its sequel, Less Talk, More Rock, caught the band back when it still had a sense of humor, which is appreciated considering how many depressing socio-political topics the band covers: corporate oppression, flag burning, corrupt politicians, and sexism. COME BACK PROPAGANDHI.

7. Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream

Siamese Dream is the official driving album for Michelle and me. It started the first time we drove up to Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada. That’s an eight hour drive if you’re lucky; I believe it took us about 10.5. Siamese Dream kept us awake during the Pennsylvania portion of the drive with its hour’s worth of atmospherically tinged, classic rock-influenced alternative tunes. Now, I was a Pumpkins fan in middle school, and I’ll defend the eff out of Machina if you push me. But as I got into Tool and punk rock in high school, the Pumpkins kinda fell by the wayside, until that trip. Driving through mile after mile of barren Pennsylvania hills in the winter time, I felt so exhilarated by Billy Corgan’s guitar pyrotechnics and Butch Vig’s dreamy production. Vig had already cemented his role in music history with the pop sheen he gave Nirvana’s Nevermind, which makes his more muddled work on Siamese Dream all the more pleasantly surprising.

And for the record, “Cherub Rock” owns, despite the lyrics. Also, BREAK UP SMASHING PUMPKINS.

6. Bjork – Debut

Given that she was always the best thing about The Sugarcubes, it’s surprising that Bjork didn’t release her first solo album until seven years after her band’s formation. Debut is a thrilling opening salvo of dance beats, experimental strings, and that voice we all love (or very, very strongly hate). A lot of ’90s club music hasn’t aged well, but 15 years later, Debut still holds up. The record hiccups on “There’s More to Life Than This,” which was recorded live in a bathroom stall for some reason, but only in terms of audio quality. The track is still pretty awesome. Bjork got much weirder later in life, but Debut is a solid album that even casual pop fans can love.

5. Flaming LipsTransmissions from the Satellite Heart

Yes, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart contains the novelty single “She Don’t Use Jelly,” but I’d argue that it wasn’t actually a novelty tune. It’s just your average slap happy Wayne Coyne song about something oddly specific. Transmissions from the Satellite Heart contains 11 lovely ditties, all of which follow the “Jelly” pattern: Incredibly joyous and silly, but also kinda rocking and heavy. “Turn It On” and Pilot Can at the Queer of God” are a delightfully crunchy two-hit combo. “She Don’t Use Jelly,” though, will always be my favorite Flaming Lips song. Obvious choice? Yeah, but prove me wrong! Overall, I prefer the heavy, dirty Flaming Lips circa Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic to the cleaned up space pop of The Soft Bulletin and beyond, but that’s kind of like comparing burritos and pizza – I’m gonna be stoked either way.

4. PJ Harvey – Rid of Me

Here’s one of two awesome albums from '93 helmed by Steve Albini, a big name producer with an indie sensibility. Here’s my thing about hi-fi recording techniques: Clarity in recording is constantly being redefined, just like CGI in a movie. It’s always better in the here and now, but in a few years it’ll be dated. I’m always amazed by how lifeless a lot of late ’90s rock bands sound now, having gone through a musical baptism in high school. I’ve already written about how bad a lot of ’80s big money productions sound; the vocals are always pushed too high in the mix, the music is always buried and mutilated and oversimplified, and the result is something that sounds nothing like a live band (and I prize live performance).

Lo-fi, however, will always sound the same. Tape hiss is tape hiss is tape hiss. The vocals might be indecipherable (a la Four Minute Mile), but the result is much more raw and invigorating (r.e. – every pre-4 A.D. Mountain Goats album ever). With Albini, you get the best of both worlds, though. His production on PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me is rougher than most albums, something perfectly suited for Polly Jean’s harpy howl and heavy blues riffs. The album was mostly recorded live, and it sounds it. But Albini is still a professional to a certain extent; he captures amazing performances from Harvey’s band. And while the vocals are lower in the mix, you can still clearly make out everything Polly says.

I’ve obviously gone on a bit of tangent away from the actual performer, but I want to give Albini credit for one more thing: Rid of Me is mixed awfully low compared to a lot of albums, so while it might not sound too good on a car stereo, it’ll certainly rattle your brains on some headphones.

Now, getting back to Polly Jean (finally), what can I say? Rid of Me is the more assured follow-up to Dry. It’s a more even listening experience, and few people have been able to replicate PJ’s take on heavy blues music (Looking at you, The Kills). Part Black Sabbath, part Patti Smith, all awesome, Polly Jean took a lot of rock’s clichés (desire for power, sex, and sexy power), and grabbed hold of them. The title track establishes her command of her body with lines like “Lick my legs / I’m on fire / Lick my legs / of desire.” And do I even have to describe “Rub ‘Til It Bleeds?” Throw in a jaw-dropping Bob Dylan cover (“Highway ’61 Revisited”) and you’ve got one of the best albums of the ’90s.

3. Tool – Undertow

Tool and Our Lady Peace were the first rock bands I ever felt were my own. I was introduced to Tool through their then-new album, Lateralus, but I quickly gobbled up the rest of their output in the coming months. I actually worked my way backwards, buying Ænima, and later obtaining Undertow and Opiate on the same day. Tool got wedged in with the alternative crowd, but I prefer to think of them as a metal band that simply sidestepped all of that genre’s shittier trappings (kinda like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden). You’ve got the crazy time signatures, the searing guitar solos, and one hell of a frontman.

For a long time, Undertow was actually my least favorite Tool album. Ænima had the more explicit displays of anger (“Eulogy,” “Hooker With a Penis”), which I could relate to as a youth. That album’s lyrics sound a little more juvenile to me today, though, elevating the less raging but still totally bitching missives on Undertow to shine through for me. Not that I ever disliked this album. I’m just saying I’ve grown to love it more and more with the passing of time. Plus, Undertow introduced me to that lovable scamp, Henry Rollins, with the song “Bottom.”

2. Nirvana – In Utero

Spin once explained the difference between Butch Vig’s production on Nevermind and Steve Albini’s work on In Utero as the same as watching someone getting punched in the gut, and actually being punched in the gut. That sounds about right.

In my opinion, Nirvana never made a bad record, and after hearing “You Know You’re Right,” I really think they had at least one more good album left in them. As is, though, their last complete studio statement is In Utero, an ugly, dissonant punk rock album riddled with sarcasm about deadbeat parents (“I tried hard to have a father but instead I had a dad”), the music industry (“Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”) and Kurt Cobain himself (“Teenage sex had paid off well / Now I’m bored and old”). The whole thing is violent and noisy and still catchy as hell. I dare you to walk around screaming, “HEY! WAIT! I GOT A NEW COMPLAINT!” Pretty soon you won’t want to stop.

1. Counting Crows – August and Everything After

I love Adam Duritz. I dig him so much I wanna punt Michelle Tanner every time she says “Counting Cows.” Not only is Duritz one of the most detailed and expressive lyricists of the ’ 90s, he’s also one of the most giving. While it took him a long time to adjust to fame, Adam now maintains a pretty open relationship with fans through the Internets and stage performances. Live, he makes it a point to register folks to vote, and even passes out petitions and pamphlets related to various topics like spousal abuse, animal rights, and more. A lot of people slag him for being a whiny bastard, but then again, a lot of people are stupid jerks.

August and Everything After is a stand-alone in the Crows’ discography in that it’s the only album written from a pro-fame perspective, as heard on lead single “Mr. Jones,” but otherwise it’s pretty much in tune with the rest of Duritz’s lyrical musings – sad but searching, achingly beautiful. Musically, August catches the band at their loosest and most acoustic. Recovering the Satellites aimed for being a loud pop rock record, but August is nearly a folk album thanks to songs like “Omaha,” “Raining in Baltimore,” “Perfect Blue Buildings,” and “Anna Begins.” Not that the guys don’t cut loose here too. “Round Here,” “Rain King,” and “Mr. Jones” are pretty rocking, and “A Murder of One” is one of those skin-tingling, transcendent moments. The song is an origin story about the band’s name, an exercise in poetic imagery, a pro-feminist/anti-abuse anthem, and a damn fine rock song.

NEXT WEEK: the boat dreams from the hill, Superman skivvies, a pretty good year, 1994.

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