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Oct 28, 2005

The Nineties were the decade when I had to quit obsessing over pop music and deal with things like jobs, children, etc. As a result, I came to many of the decade's best albums fairly late, and I'm sure I missed some altogether. But of those I've heard, these are the best, and hey, you youngsters may even have been alive for some of them:

They Might Be Giants/Flood (1990)
A two-man band from Brooklyn comprised of two Johns (Linnell on keyboards, sax, accordion, and vocals, Flansburgh on guitars and vocals), TMBG burst onto the scene with a pair of quirky, hilarious independent albums--1986's eponymous debut and 1988's Lincoln--before Elektra offered them a contract. They might have been expected to try something mainstream for their major-label debut, but such was not the case. Oh, sure, Flood perfectly captured both their astonishing gift for melody and their deeply peculiar sense of humor, but it also displayed both a depth of feeling and a pop sensibility we might never have expected. The first single "Birdhouse in Your Soul," is insanely catchy, but its strange images of guardian angels and screaming sailors aren't exactly the stuff of your typical Top 40 hit. "Dead" is a piano dirge that discusses reincarnation as a bag of groceries, and "Your Racist Friend" is pointedly political. Then again, the accordion-based super-hero dissection "Particle Man" and the geographical dance-fest "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" aren't so complicated--they just stick in your head and never ever leave.

R.E.M./Automatic for the People (1992)
After ten years of crafting superlative folk-pop, R.E.M. stripped down their sound and transcended themselves as writers. Bill Berry stepped away from the drum kit more often, Peter Buck played acoustic guitar and mandolin, and Mike Mills' always-gorgeous basslines are enhanced by his keyboard work. Thanks to the arrangements of ex-Led Zep bassist John Paul Jones, the strings on such tracks as "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" and "Find the River" make the sound even richer, and when the whole band cranks up the electric instruments for "Ignoreland," the shift in energy is startling. It's the writing, though, that makes this album special. The stark, haunting “Drive,” the warm, pulsing“Sweetness Follows,” and the spry "Try Not to Breathe" are songs any band would envy, and they're not even the best on the album. Those would be the brilliant tribute to comedian Andy Kaufman, “Man on the Moon,” and the gorgeous, evocative “Nightswimming," which may be the best song the band ever recorded. All in all, this album was their finest hour.

The Jayhawks/Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995)
Who’d have thought, at this late date, that there was anything worth mining from the depleted seams of countrified rock? In 1992, the Jayhawks staked their claim with the critically acclaimed album Hollywood Town Hall, powered by the single "Waiting for the Sun." With the addition of Karen Grotberg on keyboards and harmony vocals, however, the band made an even better album three years later. Singer/guitarists Mark Olson & Gary Louris twist their trademark harmonies to reveal new and undreamt-of ores lurking down below. The single, "Blue," is a stunner, but the same could be said of "Miss Williams' Guitar," a tribute to Olson's wife, singer Victoria Williams, and the hard-driving "Ten Little Kids," on which Louris' fuzz-tone guitar reaches new levels of screeching feedback. The strings mixed into "I'd Run Away" turn it into an almost perfect pop song, and the cover of Grand Funk's "Bad Time" is a treat. All in all, this is a band that Johnny Cash, R.E.M., and Robbie Robertson would all dig.

Radiohead/OK Computer (1997)
Quite possibly the single best album of the 1990’s: sonically complex, lyrically evocative, and as melodic as some entire pop careers. In its depth of sound, its continuity, and its transitions from sounds to tones to tunes, it's similar to Pink Floyd at their best, but the edge in Thom Yorke's voice and the sting of Jonny Greenwood's guitar are much less grand and distant than anything you'd hear from Floyd. Finally realizing their potential from 1995’s The Bends, the band sweeps you along like a crowd of pedestrians on an escalator, from the dark thump of “Airbag,” through the shifting strums and screeches of “Paranoid Android,” along the gorgeous chimes of “Let Down,” and home again. A marvelous journey.

Barenaked Ladies/Stunt (1998)
More fun than Canada had ever before produced. As Jon Pareles of the New York Times said, "It's not easy to be hyperactive, brooding and whimsical all at once," but the Ladies pull it off with panache. The tunes are not only melodic and punchy, with a lyrical mixture of the profound and the mundane, but thanks to the rapid-fire tongue of singer/guitarist Ed Robertson and the rich, full tones of singer/guitarist Stephen Page, the band can run the gamut of emotions in the space of a single song. The smash single “One Week” is just the beginning. "Alcohol" is a snide and hilarious party anthem with a keen-eyed view of self-destruction, while "Light Up My Room" is a lovely, wistful description of a happy (?) life in an industrial wasteland. Thanks to new keyboardist Kevin Hearn, songs such as "When You Dream" and "Call and Answer" have a sonic density that gives weight to what might be a throwaway pop tune in other hands. And yes, there's no way around it, “It’s All Been Done” may be the perfect pop song. This album was a huge hit--for a reason.

HONORABLE MENTION:

Brian Eno/John Cale/Wrong Way Up (1990): Eno & Cale, neither a pop star (unless you think Roxy Music or the Velvet Underground was a pop group), show their mastery of pop music: non-Western rhythms meet digital precision, danceable, catchy, and terrific. Fifteen years old and still ahead of its time.

Nirvana/Nevermind (1991): It started “Alternative” radio, altered MTV’s playlist for all time, spawned dozens of imitators, sold millions of copies, got parodied by Weird Al, and ultimately helped kill Kurt Cobain. A cry for help that everyone heard and no one understood.

Matthew Sweet/Girlfriend (1991): The love child of Richard Carpenter and Joan Jett: the guitars grind like metal, the harmonies sugar over like bubble gum, and the tunes stick in your head like taffy.

The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy/Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury (1992): What I think hip-hop ought to be: driving, thought-provoking, challenging. Michael Franti goes where most rappers fear to tread, that rarity in rap, an expression of vulnerability.

Cracker/Kerosene Hat (1993): The opening of this record—“Low,” “Movie Star,” and “Get Off This”—may be the most audacious and arresting suite of rootsy rock & roll songs in decades. A real slap in the face.

The Dave Matthews Band/Under the Table and Dreaming (1994): The fact that we’ve all heard it played to death shouldn’t obscure the fact that this is a superb record, from the funky harmonics of “What Would You Say?” to the arpeggiated pulse of “Satellite.”

Cake/Fashion Nugget (1996): A unique mix of funky rhythms, snarling guitars, and deadpan vocals, with great covers of "I Will Survive," and Willie Nelson's "Sad Songs and Waltzes."

Robyn Hitchcock/Moss Elixir (1996): What Robyn does best: wringing gorgeous and disturbing pop songs out of his acoustic guitar. Jangly, beautiful, almost disturbingly catchy.

Ben Folds Five/Whatever and Ever Amen (1997): Every so often someone has to prove that the piano is a rock and roll instrument. Ben Folds—witty, sardonic, and sensitive—is just the guy to do it. A twisted pop gem.

Fountains of Wayne/Utopia Parkway (1999): Best known for "Stacy's Mom," this Jersey band combines Beatlesque melodic gifts with a refreshingly nerdy punk attitude. The title track is a pulsing standout, "Troubled Times" is haunting and uplifting, and "Red Dragon Tattoo" is the greatest Steve Miller Band song ever, even if SMB never heard it.

6:09 AM

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Oct 25, 2005

I started the Eighties in high school and finished them with a graduate degree. During those years, I played in a variety of bands (Terminal Mouse, the John Santa Band, Rohrwaggon, Elmo & PC, etc.), worked as a DJ at the UNC student radio station (WXYC, FM 89.3), and spent my grad school years working at a record store (the Record Bar, on Franklin Street). My best friend was a sound engineer who now owns a recording studio, while my wife's best friend was a music major who now runs an orchestra. In other words, for this decade, music was my life, which is why my attempt to put together a "Top Five 80's Albums" list for our school's New Music Club was doomed to failure--I can't possibly limit such a list to five. Here's my Top Ten list instead; in chronological order, one album per artist (and yeah, I cheated with both a Hitchcock solo album and one with the Egyptians; sue me.) If it seems a bit didactic for the grown-ups, just remember, this is for high-schoolers--people who have no memory of a President Bush with more than one middle initial.

The Pretenders/ Pretenders (1980): After leaving her native Cleveland for the UK punk scene, Chrissy Hynde formed a band that showcased both sides of her personality: the softer side, where one could hear her gift for melody, her love of old Kinks songs, and her gorgeous, quavering vibrato, and the harder side, where her fondness for explicit lyrics and her in-your-face attitude were served up with a snarl. Her love affairs with bassist Pete Farndon and guitarist James Honeyman-Scott added even more of an edge to the band's performance. All this emotional and musical energy was showcased brilliantly on the Pretenders' debut album. Side One--Remember when albums had sides? No?--kicks off with the pounding, acidic “Precious,” tears through the savagely self-critical “Tattooed Love Boys” and the driving “The Wait,” and doesn't let up. Side Two, meanwhile, shows the poppier (the single “Brass in Pocket”) and more pensive Chrissy (“Private Life” and the anthemic “Lovers of Today”), providing a superb contrast to the first part. As the album notes say, “Play this album LOUD!”

Peter Gabriel/ Peter Gabriel (aka III/Melting Face) (1980): Gabriel left Genesis in 1975 and promptly confused music fans everywhere by naming each of his first three solo albums Peter Gabriel. Thus, they're usually identified by their cover art; this one features a treated Polaroid photo of Peter's face, which appears to be flowing away like hot wax. It's unnerving, much like the lyrics, all of which address issues of mental illness or social alienation. Topics like prejudice (“Not One of Us”), nationalism (“Games Without Frontiers”), obsession (“No Self Control”), and assassination (“Family Snapshot”) make for intense and thoughtful, but not cheerful, material. Moreover, Gabriel and producer Hugh Padgham decided to give the sound of the album a twist as well, adding a “gate” effect to Phil Collins' drums (which Collins liked so much he borrowed it for his later work) and removing all the cymbals. As a result, every track has a dark and ominous rumble underneath, and the searing guitars (by Robert Fripp, XTC's Dave Gregory, and the Jam's Paul Weller, among others) are that much more searing as a result. The epic finale, the anti-apartheid anthem “Biko,” nearly explodes from suppressed pain and rage. An easy album? Maybe not. But a great one.

XTC/ Black Sea (1980): XTC began as a quartet of snotty, hyperactive kids from the dead-end industrial town of Swindon, England, but by this, their fourth album, they'd morphed into a crack performance unit with a hard edge, a wry sense of humor, and a positively Beatlesque sense of melody. With guitarist Andy Partridge and endlessly creative bassist Colin Moulding each contributing a set of great songs, the band cranked up their amps a little more, put their politics on their sleeves, and produced an album with the power of a battleship. (That the band is wearing vintage deep-sea diver outfits on the cover is perhaps no coincidence.) The album opens with Partridge's caustic caricature of suburbia, "Respectable Street," flows seamlessly into Moulding's quirky, bouncy "Generals and Majors," and rushes headlong into the near-rap anti-nuclear dance-fest "Living Through Another Cuba" without a pause. By the time drummer Terry Chambers kicks off the thunderous "Towers of London," you may as well have chained yourself to a locomotive.

R.E.M./ Murmur (1983): As Rick Miller once pointed out, everyone who bought this album sang along with it in the shower, and not a one knew the words. That's how infectious R.E.M.'s melodies were on their full-length debut. The ear first notes Peter Buck's jangly Rickenbacker guitar (the first to make a big splash in rock since the Byrds) and Michael Stipe's sinuous baritone, but what holds the band's sound together is the fluid power of Mike Mills' bass and the harmonic sweetness of Mills' and drummer Bill Berry's backup vocals. The band sounds straightforward but isn't--there are depths and twists and shadows there, just as in the kudzu tangle on the cover, and the production team of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon do their best to show them off. The propulsive single, "Radio Free Europe," could be about anything, but it's mostly about the wonderful sound of Stipe wailing "Raaaaydeeeeeohh staaaayshonnnn..." as the song accelerates from E to F#. "Talk About the Passion" adds a plaintive cello to Stipe's disconnected quasi-religious images, while Buck throws an unexpected wail or two into the piano ballad "Perfect Circle." This is the raw batter from which one of rock's great careers would be baked. Have a taste.

Robyn Hitchcock/ I Often Dream of Trains (1984): Hitchcock formed the Soft Boys in the heyday of punk, but his own influences were more psychedelic: Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and the original leader of Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett. When the Soft Boys split, Hitchcock began a solo career that continued their tradition of punk energy, catchy melodies, and bizarre lyrics about prawns, vegetables, and death. In 1984, however, Robyn stripped away everything but his guitar (plus the occasional piano and sax) to create this haunting, meditative beauty. Gorgeous acoustic landscapes ("Heartfull of Leaves," "Trams of Old London") are paired with psychosexual musings ("Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl" and the a capella classic "Uncorrected Personality Traits") and philosophizing about impermanence ("My Favorite Buildings") and faith ("Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus.") The title track, a lilting guitar waltz, perfectly captures the album's wistful but never somber tone. You'll never find a more personal glimpse of one of pop music's most fertile and imaginative minds.

Billy Bragg/ Talking with the Taxman About Poetry (1986):
Bragg began his career as a busker, a guy singing songs in London's subway stations for spare change, but by this, his third album, he had broadened his original one-man-and-an-electric-guitar act, adding a few backup singers, some bass, a little percussion, some keyboards, and a trumpet or two, all creating a rich and engaging variety of sounds. Lyrically, his traditional left-wing folksinger stance remained, but his gift for capturing the details of a love affair had grown still stronger, making Taxman a rich combination of the political and the personal. The former impulse gives us the anthemic "Ideology" ("When one voice rules the nation…it doesn't mean their vision is the clearest") and the catchy "Help Save the Youth of America." It's the latter impulse that makes the album great, however; Bragg always packs up the abstract qualities of love in a container of concrete details--the ice cream and chocolate kisses in "Greetings to the New Brunette," the glossy catalogues in "The Marriage," or the blood tests in "The Warmest Room"--that make the lovers seem like people you know (or maybe like you.) When the haunting, heartbreaking "Levi Stubbs' Tears" tells of a battered, abandoned wife whose only comfort is an old Four Tops tape, you'll know you're in the presence of a master storyteller.

Elvis Costello/ King of America (1986): After nearly a decade together, the relationship between Elvis and his band, the Attractions, was fraying (they play on only one track), so when he recorded this album, he went to L.A. and found a bunch of session musicians, plus producer T-Bone Burnett. As a result, this album is an exercise in Americana, with twangs and strums and steel guitars around every corner, and it's magnificent. Elvis has never sounded more regretful ("I wish that I could push a button/ And talk in the past and not the present tense"--"Brilliant Mistake"), more snide ("He stood five feet tall/ In his elevator shoes and stovepipe hat"--"Glitter Gulch"), or more sorrowful ("We'll build a bonfire of our dreams/ And burn a broken effigy of me and you"--"Indoor Fireworks"). His songwriting has never been stronger, and his tale of two G.I. Brides emigrating to New Orleans, "American Without Tears," is one of his all-time best. His career has been in a long downward spiral, but on this album, at least, Elvis captures everything we used to love about him.

Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians/Element of Light (1986):
With former Soft Boys Morris Windsor (drums) and Andy Metcalf (bass) back in the fold, Robyn formed the Egyptians, a combo that let him give his muse an electrified rock-and-roll outlet. Their debut, Fegmania!, was a hit on college radio, but this is their masterpiece, combining the anti-Reagan thrash of "The President" ("When I hear the word 'democracy,' I reach for my headphones"), the propulsive rocker "If You Were a Priest," and the bizarre, Poe-like song-story "Lady Waters and the Hooded One." The writing is sharp, the arrangements beautiful (especially on wistful songs like "Winchester" and "Airscape"), and Hitchcock's lyrics as peculiar and thought-provoking as ever. A great rock record.

U2/ The Joshua Tree (1987): An obvious choice? Maybe. But this is the album that transformed U2 from college radio darlings with a couple of hits into the biggest band in the world. With producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois returning from The Unforgettable Fire, the band turned their trademark wall of sound into something that was still grand, but more precise and more subtle; witness the chiming, repeating guitar figure that the Edge uses to open the album on "Where the Streets Have No Name," or the pensive piano on "Running to Stand Still." Rarely has a band paid more attention to dynamics, and rarely has it paid off so well. Bono's voice is in fine form, and though his lyrics sometimes cross the line into pretentiousness, there's undeniable power in his portraits of addiction ("Running to Stand Still") and life under oppression ("Mothers of the Disappeared"). The climax is probably "One Tree Hill," a prayer for a departed friend that combines a sense of loss with sheer rock passion ("I'll see you again when the stars fall from the sky/ And the moon has turned red over One Tree Hill") to create a sweeping, uplifting vision. If this album is an obvious choice for this list, well, there's a good reason.

Pixies/ Doolittle (1989): From the first moment I heard the opening chords of "Debaser," I was hooked; never before had I heard an album that so perfectly coupled soft, dark, unsettling sounds with hard, metallic thrashing. I would hear another within two years, though--Nirvana's Nevermind, which Kurt Cobain admitted was patterned very consciously on Doolittle's sound. The Pixies' combination of strengths would appeal to Cobain--their love of loud-quiet-loud dynamics, their disturbing lyrics ("Got me a movie, I want you to know/ Slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know"--"Debaser"), the distorted sting of Joey Santiago's guitar, and above all the yowl of singer/guitarist Black Francis (later Frank Black). It's not studio effects--when he does "Tame" or "Crackity Jones," that yelping and howling is all happening in his throat. The album is not all thrash, though--"La La Love You," sung by drummer David Lovering, is downright poppy, while the single, "Monkey Gone to Heaven," comes off as an apocalyptic eco-fable, and "Here Comes Your Man" is a jangly, tuneful recasting of a Velvet Underground classic. If you're looking for the point of transition from the Eighties to the Nineties, here it is.


HONORABLE MENTION:
Squeeze/ Argybargy (1980) A triumph of Brit-pop: tuneful, catchy, lyrically sophisticated. A classic.
Talking Heads/ Remain in Light (1980) The fusion of new wave with pan-global funk, featuring the triumphant "Once in a Lifetime."
Dire Straits/ Love Over Gold (1982) Epic in scope, gorgeous in execution, held together by Mark Knopfler's superb guitar work.
Tom Waits/ Rain Dogs (1985) Skid row goes around the world--half opera, half blues, all surreal. Utterly brilliant.
Balancing Act/ Three Squares and a Roof (1988) Acoustic guitars and miscellaneous percussion framing songs both quirky and beautiful.

6:29 AM

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