Monday, October 6, 2008

1996 - All right, you alien assholes! In the words of my generation: Up Yours!

My favorite movie in 1996 was Independence Day, something I will argue the validity of to this very day. I also loved Calvin and Hobbes a ton. The last strip ran on the last day of 1995, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I eventually accumulated all of the strip’s anthologies.


I didn’t listen to any of these albums in 1996. I heard four of them in high school. Six of them came later, in college. The most recent obsession of the bunch is The Wrens’ Secaucus, which I still can’t spell on the first try. Don’t let that dissuade you from checking it out, though.

I have specific memories about each of these records that I’ll share with you in a bit, but there isn’t much of an overlapping theme to bind them together. Some years are just OK, I guess.

…wait! OK. SO. 1996 was a very good year for punk records, even though the mainstream was done with the genre by then. Face to Face recorded their (arguably) best album. The Bouncing Souls massively improved on the promise of their debut The Good, The Bad, and The Argyle with the rapid-fire conciseness of Maniacal Laughter. Jawbox tried to bring some integrity to major label albums with their severely underrated last release, and Avail and Discount kicked ass from way down in the underground. So yeah, everything’s connected after all. Everything is OK. Remember to breathe kids!

10. The Fugees – The Score

No one has ever asked me for advice regarding hip-hop, ever. And no one probably ever will. Overall, the genre doesn’t interest me. I’ll hear the occasional beat that impresses me (Kanye West is a great composer and a horrible, horrible lyricist), but rarely do I hear a rapper who can consistently tell a story without falling back on genre clichés that include, but are not limited to, “the game,” “the struggle,” “the haters,” and “the bitches.” Easy topics all, they either interrupt whatever narrative flow was being worked on, or completely dominate a track, making for a song that I could barely give a shit about. Of course, that’s assuming I can even make out what’s being said. While I can enjoy the muddled vocals of Kurt Cobain or Ian MacKaye, I get bored easily if a rapper is unintelligible. Hip-hop heads always tell me rap is all about the lyrics and the lyricist, which are also the two things that usually keep me from listening to the genre.

None of these problems pertain to The Fugees’ The Score. In fact, the only problem with the album is that I’m a white kid in the suburbs, and so removed from the concept album’s story that I actually feel kind some white guilt for liking it.

That said, The Score is my favorite rap album (and the only one on this list…), boasting strong vocals, chill beats, a solid story arc, and a sense of humor. Lauryn Hill in particular has some funny critiques of the rap genre, simultaneously serving as an example of what the style could really offer. Favorite quotes include: “[after dropping a ridiculous number of references to pop culture and science] And even after all my logic and my theory / I add a muthafucker so you ignant niggas hear me” and “I could do what you do easy / Frontin’ niggas give me heebee jeebees / So while you’re imitating Al Capone I be Nina Simone / And defecating on your microphone.” If someone can find me a rap album this evocative, I’d be more than willing to listen.

9. The Wrens – Secaucus

Fun fact: I was introduced to The Wrens’ psychedelic take on They Might Be Giants/Pixies’ power pop through Drive-Thru Records. See, the label which was at one point home to New Found Glory, The Starting Line, and fucking Finch put out a compilation entitled You’ll Never Eat Fast Food Again. The Wrens were locked out of recording by their label Wind-Up, who wanted another Creed, so the Reines siblings saw fit to slip in a couple tuneskis under the radar for the American public. “Miss Me” and “This Boy is Exhausted” left me hungry for more in 2000, but it wasn’t until years later that I got to hear The Meadowlands, the album from which the songs came from.

All of this is a lengthy introduction for Secaucus, however. But then again, that’s what getting into The Wrens was like for me. Meadowlands took forever to come out, and Secaucus and Silver, the band’s other two albums, were out-of-print thanks to the d-bags at Wind-Up. They eventually got rereleased, though, and I finally got to experience The Wrens’ needling guitars, driving percussion, and out-of-key but strident vocals. Of the band’s three albums, Secaucus is my favorite. Silver is a little too green, and while Meadowland’s subtle indie pop is lovely, Secaucus sounds like the band I thought I would love back when I was just a freshman in high school. Fast and catchy and dissonant and careening and slightly touched with a case of the crazies, The Wrens ’90s output was stunted yet incredible. Scott Stapp can eat my shit.

8. Avail – 4AM Friday

Every once in a while, I catch a band’s live set well before I’m ready to appreciate it. Such was the case with Avail, whom I saw open for The Bouncing Souls my senior year of high school. Had I been more familiar with the group, I prolly would’ve shit my face out after hearing tunes like “Simple Song,” “Armchair,” and “Monroe Park” in concert. But I‘m a crumb bum, so I lost out on that venture. Four years later, I’m an Avail convert, and I’d love to see these guys play again. I’ve seen bassist Gwomper play with Smoke or Fire, and Tim Barry is coming through on an acoustic tour soon. Now if only I could put all these elements together… Until then, I’ll just have to settle for hearing this band’s Southern-tinged punk/hardcore on CD.

7. Rage Against the Machine – Evil Empire

Bow-wow-wow-ow. Bow-wow-wow-ow. This is for the people of the sun (It’s coming back around again!)! Wow-wow wicka wow-wow wicka wicka wicka wow-wow wicka wow-wow wicka wicka wicka. Go wit it now! The microphone explodes! Vietnow! Yeah yer tryin’ to tire me, tire me! Year of tha boomerang! Free Mumia!

6. Discount – Ataxia’s Alright Tonight

For a second, I almost thought that calling Discount underrated was a cliché. But the band has less than 200,000 plays, so clearly I’ve got more overhyping to do. Ataxia’s Alright Tonight was the band’s debut, and man did it bring the poetic, pogo-worthy pop punk hard. Frontwoman Allison Mosshart is one of my favorite lyricists of the ’90s – she creates intimate scenes in her songs without getting too overwrought or corny or condescending. Her early work has a sort of adolescent sweetness, a purity that would eventually drop away by the time she formed The Kills a few years ago. And while there’s nothing wrong with The Kills (now that they no longer rip off early PJ Harvey…), I’ll always love the way Mosshart emoted over Ryan Seagrist’s gritty guitar. The group’s faithful/awesome cover of R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is pretty rad too. For fans of Saves the Day, Paramore, Jawbreaker, and shit that don’t stink.

5. Bouncing Souls – Maniacal Laughter

Few punk bands have shaped my life as thoroughly as The Bouncing Souls. See, they were one of the first punk groups I ever got into, with Green Day, Nirvana, The Ramones, and New Found Glory being the only previous contenders for my heart. And while I swear allegiance to all things Jawbreaker, there are few bands with the Souls’ creative output – seven albums so far, and they’re all freaking incredible bursts of positive, oi-style punk. With a new album in the works for 2009, I’m sure that streak will soon go up to eight. While the band’s debut, The Good, The Bad, and The Argyle was noticeably absent from my 1994 list (it was a damn good year), I would be even more remiss if I didn’t include the seminal Maniacal Laughter.

Considered by some to be the band’s best record, Maniacal Laughter is 24 minutes of fist-pumping fun, stocked with some of the Souls’ best-loved tunes: “The Freaks, Nerds, and Romantics,” “Lamar Vannoy,” “Here We Go,” “Argyle,” and, of course, “The Ballad of Johnny X” appear here. The group’s style has always been dictated by their choice in drummers, and the Shal years have a sloppy street punk feel. The Soul’s inclusiveness is enhanced by the raggedy “this could be your band” playing.

Jawbreaker and Discount make me introspective, but the Souls make me happy. They make me think about unity, about being connected with everyone and everything. Every Souls crowd I’ve ever experienced has been good to each other, helping up people who fall, avoiding excessive violence, and shouting the lyrics as loud as possible.


4. Jawbox – Jawbox

Can we come together as a nation and say, “Hey Mr. President! Jawbox ruled. On an unrelated note, you’re really bad at your job!” Jawbox broke up not long after releasing their self-titled album, but at least they went on a kickass note. While the group’s Dischord years were all about grinding nonstop, Jawbox found the group experimenting with tempos more. The album has an ebb and flow sequencing to it, starting off powerfully with “Mirrorful” and “Livid.” Then the vibe mellows out for the slow groove of “Iodine” before bursting into the manic intensity of “His Only Trade.” “Trade” is one of my favorite Jawbox songs ever, thanks to the frenetic drum part and overlapping vocals – the song is so fast J. Robbins can’t sing all the words by himself. The off-time “Chinese Fork Tie” pounds out its own special place in my heart too, as do the crazy club-stompers “Won’t Come Off” and “Empire of One.” The record also boasts a great hidden track, a cover of Tori Amos’ “Cornflake Girl,” further confirming Amos’ place in rock music.

3. Face to Face – Face to Face

When George W. Bush beat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, I was scared, depressed, and angry. Bush stole the election from Al Gore, and then proceeded to rape and pillage our country with unnecessary, misdirected, and ill-advised wars, the removal of our American rights, and the destruction of our funds/resources. Why the hell did my countrymen hand this madman a second term? I couldn’t handle it.

Around the same time, I picked up Face to Face’s self-titled third record. The band wrote the album during a period of transition; Matt Riddle was gone and new bassist Scott Shiflett was in. Shiflett was too new to give input on material, so it was up to Trevor Keith to hit a big one. Luckily, he managed to provide Face to Face with 12 astounding pop punk cuts. The song that helped ease my weary Democratic head was “I Won’t Lie Down.” Four years later, it’s still my favorite song on the album, although “Ordinary,” “Blind,” and “Everything’s Your Fault” certainly vie for that slot.

I felt like the protagonist in the song, “screaming at the same blank wall.” My fellow Americans blatantly ignored all of the facts against Bush. Why? “Everyone can’t be right / But everyone will decide / I’m not afraid of the price I pay / I won’t lie down as you walk away,” goes the chorus. Keith tends to leave his lyrics ambiguous, and this song really could be about arguing over lunch for all I know. But these lyrics from 1996 not only summed up how I felt in 2004, but also gave me hope for change. Per the song’s suggestion, I decided I wouldn’t lie down and keep on hammering away at our fascist regime.

Obviously, this didn’t work, since Bush is almost done his second term. However, in the time since the ’04 election, the Democrats seized control of Congress, something I helped by putting Bob Casey Jr. in the Senate (pro-gay rights, pro-contraceptives, anti-drilling in Alaska, anti-Iraq war, pro-health care for kids. No wonder he comes from one of the most beloved Pennsylvania political families of all time). Hopefully, Barack Obama will take the White House. I don’t think I could handle a John McCain regime, although I’m sure Face to Face might help to dull the pain ever so slightly.

2. Weezer – Pinkerton

Parking lots, high school infatuations, and existential angst. Also, I listened to this album a lot during my second trip to Otakon in Baltimore. I’m willing to bet you share at least ¾ of these experiences.

1. Counting Crows – Recovering the Satellites

Sweet Christ this one was a tough call. Weezer’s Pinkerton is one of my favorite albums, rife with emotional imagery. But it’s at times too raw. I can listen to “The Blue Album” any whenever; I have to be in the proper mental state in order to handle Pinkerton. And it is this specificity that gives Counting Crows’ Recovering the Satellites a slight edge, because it’s just as emotional – albeit not as blatantly confessional – but with a more amicable rock quality.

Of course, when I say Satellites is less raw than Pinkerton, I really only mean lyrically. Vocally, Adam Duritz shreds himself hoarser than Rivers Cuomo does on cuts like “Angels of the Silences” and “I’m Not Sleeping.” These songs are muscular but also heartfelt, boasting soulful introspection blended with searing guitar licks – check out the white hot solo from the “Angels.” At the same time, though, there’s plenty of softer moments, like the closing numbers “Long December” and “Walkaways,” which turn the depressing into pop magic. This record is laced with great guitar and piano moments, not to mention some good old passion. Pinkerton enhances my somber moments, but Recovering the Satellites allows me to drink them in, and it is for that reason that I love Duritz so much.

NEXT WEEK: a potentially compelling argument for the validity of Third Eye Blind, plus some indie shit, 1997.

1 comment:

Paul Tsikitas said...

Ugh. Third Eye Blind... I can't wait to rip you a new one.