Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Best Albums of the 90s: 15-11

15. Beck - Odelay
Beck is strangely unlistenable now. I once considered him a genius. In the summer of 1999, my number 1 album of the year was Midnite Vultures, an album I thought was revolutionary and complex and now consider incredibly tame. Same thing with Mutations. I used to listen to it . Mellow Gold has a ramshackle feel to it, that is easy to love and equally annoying. And poor Odelay. Once destined for pantheon status as on of the landmark albums of the 90s and of all time, is now slowly fading. But it's also the only great Beck album (though I'll still stand by most of Sea Change) and deserves to be looked at again.

14. Nirvana - In Utero
I don't get Nevermind. As the one album from the nineties that ever touches lists of great albums, it remains a complete mystery to me why it does so constantly, all the time, and without irony. Nevermind bugs the hell out of me, not because I hate the songs, but just the production. It's glossy and well manicured. Maybe blame Butch Vig, but it sounds dated. In Utero? It's still hits really, really hard. Maybe it was Girl Talk that reintroduced me to those drums in Scentless Apprentice, but they are massive. But this has always been my favorite Nirvana album, maybe I liked the darker shades of Kurt, and especially All Apologies. But when I think of Nirvana this is always the first album that comes to mind.

13. The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin
This was another album that I came to after the fact. I was even late to the game on Yoshimi, an album that I immediately fell for. But the Soft Bulletin is something different, and I wasn't quite ready for it when I found it. It's dark, warped, and not nearly as playful as Yoshimi. It took time, but while Yoshimi sounds tied to its time, the Soft Bulletin sounds better every time I return to it. The power of the Soft Bulletin is how it wraps it's songs in some of the most impressive production techniques, and yet each one of these strange tunes could stand neatly on its own if played on an acoustic guitar. There aren't many Flaming Lips songs you can say that about.

12. Belle and Sebastian - If Your Feeling Sinister
One of my favorite things to witness in New York is when someone puts Belle and Sebastian on the jukebox at some indie dive. It's so quiet compared to whatever came on before that everyone sits around wondering if anything is playing. A shock runs through the room. They get real quiet. Is it broken? But slowly a little acoustic guitar strum appears, and that little croon pops up. By the second verse, it becomes more evident, and when everyone finally notices that it's the Belle, they usually smile and comment that, isn't that nice, Belle and Sebastian is playing. As quiet and peculiar as this album is, for some reason it sounds best with a lot of people listening to it. That Blake is usually responsible for the play is another matter.

11. The Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream / Pavement - Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

Out on tour with The Smashing Pumpkins Nature kids, i/they dont have no function I dont understand what they mean And I could really give a fuck.

It's come to my attention over the past years that these albums are essentially one and the same. These artists have much more in common than anyone would like to believe. Both are highly adventurous albums, which signaled both groups most commercial work. That the Pumpkins sold millions upon millions more than Pavement is beyond question. Why they both remind me of each other, even if though it's obvious that they didn't like it each other, is the subtle ways each one tries to act like the other. The similarities even go down to their album titles.

I believe it deep down, a fact that I think was backed up with Pig Lib, that Stephen Maulkmus wishes he had a muscular rock band behind him. Sure the charm would be gone, but he'd be able to indulge his prog rock instincts. What is "Stop Breathing", other than an excuse to, however awkwardly, solo? And because Maulkmus is a much better guitarist than he has any right to be, he wants to break away at every moment, but stumbles when he sees the rest of the band not catching up.

And in that same way, Billy wishes he could be as cool as Malkmus. It's really obvious. Billy wants so often to be cool, but he couldn't be further away. So he hides his lyrics in vague meanings and tries to sound smarter than he is to counter the affect. But maybe I'm stretching things. The best part about each one of these albums, is how they try for each others glory and end up stumbling over their own unique vision. Crooked Rain's awkward walk is half of it's charm, and Siamese Dream would stumble over itself if it were even sort of cool.

Even if you discount the duality in both of their album titles, the similarities run deep. They should really end their feud and create a supergroup. Now that would be an album.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Best Albums of the 90s: 20-16

20. The Beastie Boys - Check Your Head

Man, I listened to a whole bunch of Beastie Boys in high school. It reached full fruition after Hello Nasty. And then began the steady decline. First dropped off their annoying debut, and then Ill Communication (has anyone ever listened to the last 10 songs of that album?). And as much as I loved Paul's Boutique, it seems juvenile at this point. I'd probably need to give it another listen. But this album. It seems as wildly experiemiental as the first head scratching time I listened to it.

19. Bjork - Homogenic
Good god that bass. The first time I heard the Hunter, I didn't really know how to react. What was that? There had been nothing in my Midwest upbringing that could have prepared me for that assault. Something so unique, mysterious, and deliberately weird was the exact opposite of what I was listening to at the time. And it still, more or less, feels the same way. I don't know where Bjork came from or what she hopes to accomplish, but I still have dreams about the collapsing set in the "Bachelorette" video. Maybe that's because they played it on MTV. Really. I guess that's what youtube is for no adays.

18. Blur - 13
I was once attacked by an angry Irish waitress when I admitted I liked Blur's albums. Great singles, maybe, she said, but all their albums are crap. I then countered that my favorite album was 13, and she said "oh that's different." Yes, it is different. Nothing by them really sounds like this album, one that can happily be described as an absolute mess. While all the rock bands in the late nineties were making electronic albums, trying to shift up their beats, Blur used tape hiss and amplication to dramatically change the clean tones of their previous albums. It's an atricious mess, with not a few unlistenable moments. But it's always exciting, always ready to shift under your feat.
17. Radiohead - The Bends
After OK Computer imprinted itself in my head, it was only a matter of time before I moved back to The Bends. And much to my surprise, it's as much of a statement as its big brother. Sure the songs are great-it probably has better singles than OK Computer-but the reason I return to this album is because of those guitars. They are everywhere. I doubt there is a powerchord on this whole album, but each distorted burst seems to land with as much force as a Pete Townsend whirl wind. I konw it doesn't sound intellectual to pass off a moody, somewhat depressing album as having great guitars, but whatever.

16. R.E.M. - New Adventures in Hi-Fi
My favorite 80s R.E.M. album is probably Reckoning, a rambling, loose collection of songs that they had largely written during the tour for their debut album Murmur. It's quick, passionate, and largely devoid of studio trickery that had peppered Murmur. My favorite 90s album by R.E.M. is probably New Adventures in Hi-Fi, a long, rambling collection of largely rock songs written and recorded during the Monster tour. It almost entirely devoid of the warped wall of guitars of its predecessor, and somehow rocks even harder. While it's fun hearing R.E.M. record what is essentially a live album, there are moments of great fidelity that help break the album up. The best is "E-Bow", with it's refrain about "aluminum tastes like fear", that sounds menancing and beautiful at the same time. I like all of R.E.M.'s 90s albums, it wasn't until Around the Sun that they blew it. And I probably should have more on here. From here it probably would go Out of Time, Monster (grossly underrated), Automatic for the People, and finally Up--a cheerful little record that is just a tad too long. But it's New Adventures that I play the most.

The Best Albums of the 90s: 25-21

This isn't a guilty pleasure list. We've done that before. And now is not the time. I can't put on albums I'd like to say I hate but secretly listen to occasionally (STP's Tiny Music...Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop, Green Day's Dookie). This is about what I consider the best of the 90s. This list has been much harder than I thought it would be.

It's funny how much things have changed, how many things I declared as permanent have changed. I listened to a lot of grunge rock as a kid, and not much is left. Same thing with rap. I listened to a lot of gangsta rap in middle school, and while it's a good nostalgia trip, it's not great.

Some things didn't surprise me. By my senior year of high school, I had kind of figured out that no one really liked the Stone Temple Pilots, and for good reason. But some things have surprised me. By 2002 I had fallen in love with Weezer's Pinkerton, and my love was only confirmed by the vast majority of students at college. But after two brutally bad albums, I can't with any feeling listen to them.

About half of these albums I found after the 90s had died. I thought this would be such an interesting exercise, to look back at what I remembered, and what I listen to now. We're constantly reevaluating the past, but until now the 90s always felt so close. But they are so, so far away.

I also wanted to see what other people thought. What have a forgotten about, never explored, or need vindication about. It begins now.

25. Cornershop - When I was Born for the 7th Time
Cornershop were my little secret in high school. It was hard to admit to people that "Brimful of Asha" is your favorite song of the summer, especially when it's not the Fat Boy Slim remix. It's just not many times you can become infatuated with a Indian/British hodge podge of hip hop, country, Ginsberg instrumentals, and a completely serious version of Norwegian Wood sung in Indian. And unlike a lot of my weirder loves during the time, this one still sounds just as fresh as when it first come out. I especially love "Good Shit", where he repeats the title over and over and makes it sound so darling.

24. Pearl Jam - Vitalogy
Time hasn't been that kind to Pearl Jam. I have every single one of their albums and starting at about my Junior Year in college I haven't listened to them. Except, that is, for this one. Their dour mood seems forced now. Glum might be the better word. But if someone asked me what grunge was and why it was so popular, this is what I'd hand them. Weird, dark, heavy, melodic, and just arty enough to have edge. Vs still rocks like a monster, but after 10 years, this one still sounds the best. Why? Maybe it's the deliberately stripped down production, but I think the main reason is that's its the first time they didn't take themselves so seriously. Song about bugs? Check. Jazz freak folk outs? Check. Self-loathing grunge? You betcha...

23. Wilco - Being There
I never got Wilco until Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, so imagine my surprise when I went back two albums and found out that they were a happy-go-lucky rock band. Big huge riffs? Catchy choruses? How about really great classic rock solos? In "Heavy Metal Drummer" they may have talked about watching those "heavy metal bands, I used to go see on the landing in the summer", but this album beckons for such an event. It sounds kind of silly, but the 90s had a lot of dull rockers, and this one showed me that rocking seriously didn't have to be so studied and mechanical. Playing really loud guitars could actually be a whole lot of fun.

22. Oasis - Definitely Maybe
One of my favorite past-times is defending Oasis. Especially to the people who believe Oasis only wrote weepy acoustic ballads. The first place I start is with "Supersonic", and then move to "Columbia", and end with "Cigarettes and Alcohol". Usually people either cup their ears in defense of the abrasive distortion, or admit what I always knew, that Oasis, in their infancy, were a seriously great rock band. While they'd become a boring stadium touring dinosaur so very quickly, none of these songs is plagued with the boring rock conformity that strangled Oasis later in their life. Whether they incorporated shoegaze, disco, or blues riffs, it's a marvelous debut and one that most people are surprised to hear.

21. U2 - Achtung Baby
My favorite U2 album, Achtung Baby is the only one that doesn't seem indebted to its time. As great as Joshua Tree is, the moment those reverbed guitars hit the speakers the only thing I can think is: "it's the 80s." And as much as I like Zooropa, it's buzzing dance oriented songs sound very much of the 90s. But Achtung Baby, for some crazy reason, still feels modern to me. The songs don't stray much from normal rock construction, there are still lots of verses and choruses, but the execution is detailed and infinitely pleasurable. "One" will probably never get old, but I always loved "Even Better than the Real Thing". I like the sex god Bono. But that's just me.