Monday, September 29, 2008

1995 - DA RIDDLA!

Continuing what I wrote about last week regarding historical revisionism, it’s weird looking at this list for 1995 and realizing how much of it could’ve been made back when I was in high school. Jawbreaker, Face to Face, Rancid, Ben Folds Five, The Mountain Goats, and Oasis were all favorites of mine “back in the day.” I wasn’t too big of a Bjork fan then, but I did purchase Post to see what the deal was, as I found myself humming along to “It’s Oh So Quiet” fairly frequently. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I am one cool S.O.B.

Or maybe not. The only artists from this list that I actually knew in 1995 were Oasis and PJ Harvey. The Gallagher brothers blew up that year, and I can remember watching the video for “Wonderwall” ad nauseum on VH1 [NOTE: My parents banned MTV in our house]. PJ, on the other hand, was a subject of extreme revulsion for me. Batman Forever was arguably my favorite movie that year, and the film’s accompanying soundtrack was prolly my favorite compilation at the time as well. Favorites included the singles “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” by U2 and “Kiss From a Rose” by Seal, plus the morbidly silly “Bad Days” by Flaming Lips (The Riddler listens to this song about killing one’s boss like a scene or two before he kills his boss. GENIUS!) and the straight up silly/great “The Riddler” by Method Man. Oddly enough, Sunny Day Real Estate and The Offspring were on there too. And while I tolerated the filler from Brandy (which Robin rocks when he drives the Batmobile, oddly enougher 2x infinity) and Massive Attack, there was one song I skipped over and over: “One Time Too Many” by PJ Harvey. The track is all guitar and no real beat, which really pissed off my nine-year-old self something fierce. “Who the gosh dang heck does this guy think he is?” I thought. Side note: This is the only time a woman has abbreviated her name and thus gotten me to think she was a he. Nice try, J.K. Rowling. I’m on to you!

“One Time Too Many” really buggered me. I can remember wishing so dang hard that “Kiss From a Rose” was track two instead of “Time,” because it would’ve been a great transition from U2.

I was a dumb kid.

But I overcame my crippling idiocy by the dawn of the new millennium and, upon hearing “Good Fortune” and “This is Love” from 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, realized that not only was PJ Harvey totally a pretty lady, but also totally jawesome. So yeah, learning experiences abound for ol’ JTP.

10. Bjork – Post

Building off of the dance floor base she established with Debut, Post expands into all sorts of directions while maintaining a strange sense of pop intimacy. Electronic leanings still prevalent on songs like “Army of Me” and “Hyper-Ballad,” but there’s more emotion in them – in this case rage in the former and a sad/romantic hybrid in the latter. Strings are experimented with on “Isobel,” “You’ve Been Flirting Again,” and “It’s Oh So Quiet,” which boasts a big band jazz sound that is as random within the context of the album as it is without it. Everything is unified by Bjork’s vocals, though, which can jump from crooning to searing in a second. Her biggest asset is that no one can sing like her. It’s not just the notes, but the way she enunciates every word that makes her stand out.

9. Ben Folds Five – Ben Folds Five

I tend to be a wee bit too self-serious at times, emphasizing “serious” lyricists like Bruce Springsteen and Blake Schwarzenbach, but I just want you to know I can get down with goofier fair. I’m thinking, of course, of Ben Folds Five, a true iconoclast during the ’90s. Along with Tori Amos, BFF helped bring back the piano as a rock instrument. Of course, it helped that the trio included crashing drums and a heavy ‘n’ fuzzy bass bottom. Ben Folds himself has never really evolved much beyond this album – cheeky, occasionally emotional lyrics, piano parts that alternate between being pretty and being slammed, and the occasional pop cultural reference are all it takes for him, but that’s all I could really ask from him. Listening to “Philosophy” or “Jackson Cannery” is always a good time. My favorite track from the band’s debut, though, is “Underground,” which makes light of the angsty alterna-nation with campy deliveries of lines like “Hand me my nose ring” and “Show me the mosh pit” cushioned by funky music. “Everything’s heavy underground!”

8. PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love

To Bring You My Love found Polly Jean Harvey distancing herself from the blues/punk sound of her first two albums, perhaps spurred on by the break-up of her band PJ Harvey. Ditching the sound and keeping the stage name, Polly Jean settled into a slower, more expansive style on LP #3, something made abundantly clear with the opening/title track. “To Bring You My Love” is arguably one of the lesser experimental cuts on the album, but it still fucks with PJ’s formula enough to be startling. It’s slower, allowing each guitar lick and word to be more pronounced and devastating. PJ kinda stopped rocking, but man did she groove twice as hard to compensate.

The groovin’ is extra fine on tunes like “Down By the Water” and “Send His Love to Me.” “Water” is chock full of fuzz and restrained energy, with Polly Jean downplaying her howl in favor of a super creepy whisper on the chorus. “Love” drops the electronic instruments for drums, hand claps, and acoustic guitar. Ultimately, the changes might sound frivolous to some, but the aura is completely different, creating the first truly haunting PJ Harvey record.

7. The Rentals – Return of The Rentals

The neat thing about simple songs is that they’re almost infinitely flexible – you can add and subtract whatever you want based on what you’ve got. This was made most abundantly clear by The Rentals. Featuring (at the time) Matt Sharp and Pat Wilson from Weezer, the band’s debut, Return of The Rentals, took some basic pop songs and topped ‘em off with Moog, violin, tons of vocals, and a dirge-y mix of guitar, drums and bass. Some people say Return of The Rentals just sounds like Weezer with more synthesizers, to which I reply, “Yeah, so?” This stuff is catchy, fun, and occasionally moving (check out “Sweetness and Tenderness”). As an added bonus, a couple of these songs (“The Love I’m Searching For,” “Please Let That Be”) are rumored to have come from Weezer’s failed Songs From the Black Hole album.

6. Foo Fighters – Foo Fighters

A year after Kurt Cobain ended Nirvana with a shotgun blast, drummer Dave Grohl dropped Foo Fighters, a side project for which he played almost every instrument, save for a guitar part here and there. Nirvana is always going to trail everything Grohl does, but the tag is at its most applicable on this first effort. Foo Fighters is easily the most schizophrenic FF album; it’s as if Grohl needed to show every different radio rock style he knew. Ballads like “Big Me” and “For All the Cows” are the best known cuts, but there’s also the blistering punk of “Weenie Beenie” and the bizarre “This is a Call,” with its lyrics about how fingernails are fun, to account for. Then there’s “X-Static.” This one hints at the epic pop rock mastery waiting to emerge on The Colour and The Shape, with its lengthy guitar intro, pounding drums, and hummable “oooo”s. The Foos got better, but that doesn’t mean you should overlook this catchy debut.

5. Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?

Just a year after dropping the genre-defining Definitely Maybe, Oasis turned out another monster hit with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. As I wrote above, “Wonderwall” was a big deal back in grade school, and “Champagne Supernova” followed suit. When I finally bought the album in high school, though, I was surprised to hear an even better song than those two: “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” The album is rife with high quality pub rock with a twinge of Beatles psychedelia, but the best of the bunch is a little more down to earth (and devoid of frontman Liam Gallagher’s vocals). Songwriter and guitarist Noel Gallagher takes over on the mic here, and he’s really not that bad of a singer. Liam’s got a better Johnny Rotten sneer, but Noel does “Don’t Look Back in Anger” justice.

There are plenty of reasons to love this song. The rolling drums, the sweet guitar solo, the tasteful use of strings, but mostly I love how this songs sounds exactly like something you’d wanna sing after a few pints at the Shanachie. “Sooooo Sally can wait / She knows it’s too late as she’s walkin’ on by / My soul slides away / But don’t look back in anger / I heard you say.” Actually, now that I think about it, I think I have done exactly that.

4. The Mountain Goats – Nine Black Poppies

While I love The Mountain Goats ’95 full-length Sweden, I have to give a slight edge to this nine-song EP. It kicks off with one of the best TMG songs of all time, “Cubs in Five.” An ode to the possibility of the Chicago Cubs ever winning the World Series, “Cubs in Five” is a bombastic series of highly improbable (but not impossible) situations similar to a Cubs sweep. Live, the song is enhanced by John Darnielle’s apt storytelling abilities, as he is wont to regale audiences with tales of the Cubs’ many failed adventures. The EP doesn’t slack off after that, thanks to the heartfelt “Going to Utrecht” and the awkward “Lonesome Surprise,” which was recorded via long distance phone call.

3. Face to Face – Big Choice

Originally released in 1994, Face to Face’s Big Choice comes in at numero tres for 1995 due to some sweet bonus tracks from its rerelease a year later. And while the band tends to discuss Big Choice's recording sessions as being poop-tastic, the end result is one of the finest pop punk records of the ’90s. Big Choice is basically just Don’t Turn Away with better hooks, and that should be all you need to know. But if ya need more, here goes: Face to Face found a middle ground between catchy sing-alongs and blisteringly fast punk songs here. The band was always blessed with ridiculously good bassists, and original member Matt Riddle shines here, proving that just because punk is founded on three chords doesn’t mean it can’t move beyond that. Drummer Rob Kurth was a bit unreliable live, but his studio renditions of the almighty fast beat are flawless. And then there’s frontman Trevor Keith. I’ll say it here and now, Trevor Keith had one of the best singing voices in ’90s punk. Snotty without being whiney or unintelligible, dude’s vocals carried. With these three key players in place, it makes sense that Big Choice was one of the most important punk records in my life during high school, and it still rocks my face off all these years later.

2. Rancid - …And Out Come the Wolves

The year after Offspring and Green Day broke punk to the mainstream, Rancid had a blow-up of their own with …And Out Come the Wolves. Spurred on by the singles “Time Bomb,” “Ruby Soho,” and “Roots Radicals,” the record eventually went platinum and got major labels talking about punk’s commercial viability. Rancid stuck by indie Epitaph, though, which is probably for the best since that decision allowed the band to experiment more with ska and hardcore on later albums.

As for me, well, …And Out Come the Wolves is probably one of the albums I spent the most time driving around with. This perfect is perfect for two people since Lars Frederickson and Tim Armstrong share most of the vocals. I remember a lot of finger pointing and shouting whenever it came time for “Ruby Soho,” especially at the end when Tim and Lars start singing different parts. I also recall making epileptic air guitar movements whenever Matt Freeman had a solo (Check out “Maxwell Murder,” sucka!).

1. Jawbreaker – Dear You

I’ve written so much about the importance of Jawbreaker and Dear You to me that I’m starting to run out of things to say, but here goes:

Why the fuck wasn’t Dear You the biggest album of 1995?

Backed by producer Rob Cavallo, who was still hot from handling Green Day’s Dookie, Jawbreaker tackled a major label and tried to use the accompanying recording budget to make a record unlike anything they’d ever done before. Sure, Dear You’s more complicated songwriting has a connection to 1992’ Bivouac; plus there are flashes of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy’s pop punk style in songs like “Oyster” and “Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault.” But overall, this one’s a loner, babe. Long, dirge-y, hopeless tracks abound.

One of those sad sack ditties, “Accident Prone,” has constantly come back to influence my life time and again. “Jet Black” is probably my current favorite, and “Save Your Generation” is very nice, but I used to ritualistically spin “Accident Prone” on repeat for hours every night. As I’ve written before, Blake Schwarzenbach had a knack for writing hyper-specific songs that really only applied to him but somehow managed to describe exactly how I was feeling. So while “Accident Prone” is about Schwarzenbach’s struggles with depression, what I hear is a song about my struggles with meeting women.

I am not a sexy man. Nor am I a particularly strong one. And I’m OK with that now, because I’ve found a woman who thinks I am sexy and strong (and has thought as such for over two years now. And no, I’m not paying/drugging her). But for a good while there, it was pretty hard to feel good about myself. I'm not particularly social, but I’ve never been too hard-up for friends. That said, I am terrible at socializing with women. I’m a bundle of nerves and insecurities and personal boundaries and transparent intentions.

Whenever I listen to “Accident Prone,” I always come back to the lines “I learned your name without words / I used my eyes / Not my hands.” To me, those words sum up how completely into one girl I foolishly was in high school, even though she had no reciprocation whatsoever (and was very aware of my infatuation). I tried to respect her lack of interest in me, and we actually managed to sustain our friendship for a long time before I finally decided I couldn’t handle the situation anymore and moved on. I came back to the song again in college, listening to the single edit and the album cut back-to-back sophomore year. And while this helped me get through my angst-filled existence, I’m OK with being happy instead. Plus, my girlfriend bought me an original blue pressing of Dear You as a graduation present, so I’m clearly better off with her. Wubs!

I would also like to mention that I enjoy Adam Pfahler’s drumming on this track a lot.

NEXT WEEK: four chords and the spite to use them, 1996.

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