Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Best Albums of the 90s: 5-1

5. My Bloody Valentine - Loveless
Both Radiohead and My Bloody Valentine like to hug the top of most 90's lists and here they do with mine. I came to My Bloody Valentine much later, so in that way it still sounds fresh in a way OK Computer just doesn't. I could go on and on about this album, but I've delayed finishing this list for so long, I really shouldn't waste any more time. This album is essentially perfect and in that way it's hard to define. I love distortion. I love pop songs. Enter Loveless.
4. Lucinda Williams - Car wheels on a Gravel Road
In 1998 I found Lucinda with album World Without Tears, which is terribly behind schedule. It's also a bitter, emotional slog. It's kind of funny that I fell for it so hard. Especially considering how spirited and exciting Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is. As far as albums filled with great singles from beginning to end , this one is stocked tight. How country and blues can sound so engaging is hard to understand. Mostly it's her voice that still kills me.
This also represents the exact opposite kind of music I thought I'd be listening to later in my life.
3. Radiohead - OK Computer
What hasn't been said about this album? It exists outside of criticism at this point. But it's not topping this list because I don't really listen to it much anymore. Maybe Hail to the Chief burned me out, Radiohead exist in the past for me now. I'm far from embarrassed of my infatuation with the band, and who knows, I could go into a huge kick next week. But I don't play Radiohead like I play everything else in the top 5. Why it belongs here is because of how it once controlled my life. I know every crevice of this intricate, delicate album. It probably plays through my head subconsciously at least once a day.
I'm just going to say it again. I think Hail to Thief was a mistake. It was the kind of album that made me question the supremacy of Radiohead. If I could just go back to a simpler time when this album and Kid A were all that mattered. Then, just maybe, it'd be topping this list and not just appearing. It's hard to talk bad about this album, especially any piece of plastic with a magnificent song like "Let Down" on it. But this list is all about what I listen to now, and while I can recommend this album completely and openly, you may notice how my itunes hits are low.
2. Rufus Wainwright - Rufus Wainwright
I adore Rufus. This is a complete guess, but I'd be willing to beat my heterosexuality on the fact that I was the only kid in my school that listened to him in 1999. It's just a fact. He didn't play to Indiana sensibilities, nor to anything that I had previously known about myself. Much like there used to be lots of grunge bands on my list and now there are none, Rufus came at a time when I didn't think I needed him. I had no precedent for him. I didn't grow up on Broadway musicals, I don't really like singer-songwriters, and here was a gay Canadian singing some of the most beautiful music I'd ever heard. And for reasons I can't quite explain, I've been listening to him ever since. I never fell out of favor with him, never had to rediscover his back catalog. Maybe it is because I like each one of his subsequent albums (including Release the Stars!), so I've never had a reason for Rufus to be out of my life. Many of the rest of these bands had their peak in the nineties and moved downward from there (Hello Oasis!). But Rufus was just getting started, on this, his debut album.
He has never sounded like this again. It's a sprawling, ambitious album to be sure, but it's nothing compared to the bombast of the Want albums. It almost feels like Rufus unadorned, unworried about contemporary flourishes like he was on Poses, and still not ready to bring down this house on every single freaking song on an album like every other album. It's started by what happens to be my favorite love song, "Foolish Love", and ends with another stunning plea in "Imaginary Love". It careens through cabaret, waltz, and careful ballad after ballad in between.
Though I think Want I is Rufus at his most quintessential, and Poses features his best collection of songs, this is his best pure album.

The Smashing Pumpkins - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

I own essentially everything the Smashing Pumpkins have ever put their name on. Main albums not withstanding, I have most of their singles, DVDs and video cassettes. On my computer I have roughly 150 demo versions of songs. I've bought Siamese Dream three times. I have a collection of some 120 tracks of nothing but live banter. And that's on top of the numerous concerts I have in full. It's sad. But when you have a favorite band, you treat them as such and you get your hands on anything you can. And the Smashing Pumpkins are my favorite band because of this album.

In fact, though I have hours upon hours of songs, if it weren't for this little collection (if that's what you can call a 28 song collection), I probably wouldn't care. Why such love? Maybe it was the time in my life (13 years old) when I needed an album like this to get lost in, quite like The Wall that Billy had said he wanted to emulate. But that overlooks the songs on this epic, monstrous album. I can understand how some might not like this album, but it's also one the most impeccably produced album of all time. It's loud, raucous, dangerous and ethereal. Unlike Siamese Dream it sounds like they played all these songs live. And they were able to add some electronic flourishes just underneath to give texture (something they'd lose sight of around Adore). I don't feel like defending it anymore. It's great.

I'll admit I had a devious reason for this list. The Pumpkins are getting ready to release a new album and I'm worried, so so worried, that it's going to the worst album ever made. I have reason. Look at the shitty, depressing titles. Look at the cover. It doesn't have James, probably doesn't have Darcy, and will probably rock really, really hard. But I don't want heavy metal Billy, I want dream pop Billy, the one who screamed over blankets of warm, fuzzy distortion. I, basically, want an album like this one again. But is that right? Should we place such restraints on artists. I was fairly excited when I heard that the pumpkins were reforming. Why shouldn't they? If the album sucks, then I just don't have to listen to it. Lots of great artists have made really bad albums. Most of the bad albums occurred later in their career. This is my way of dealing with something I have no control over. It has sort of worked.

PS - I've heard their first single Tarantula. It rawks like old school Pumpkins. I have hope!

The Best Albums of the 90s: 10-6

10. Yo La Tengo - I Can Hear the Heart Beat as One
If you were to sit down and construct my perfect album, a good place to start would be this one. Pop songs flushed out with mind numbing distortion. That I came to this album some 9 years late only makes me feel sorry that I didn't have it earlier. It's hard to pick my favorite moment, but their cover of the Beach Boys ranks up there. Mostly I just think of that distortion.

9. Oasis - What's the Story Morning Glory
It's passe, not cool, maybe not even correct. Sure Oasis, but this one?

My girlfriend loves this album. My friends do to. Play it at a bar and everyone fucking loves it. I'm not sure how long we have to go on pretending this isn't a great album. Maybe because it's stacked with sappy ballads, Oasis aren't even remotely cool, or the lyrics are shite.

For years I have intensely defended Definitely Maybe as the superior album, considering it both cooler and a more solid collection of songs, and it probably is. But in a straight up times listened to challenge there isn't even a contest. I'm not talking about when I was junior high, but last year. Have you listened to "She's Electric" recently?

8. Primal Scream - Screamadelica
I don't know why I listen to this album. I started listening when I lived in London for a while and every fucking copy of Mojo claimed this album as the greatest ever. I don't go to raves, I've never even heard this played at a bar. Maybe I just love the cover (Isn't it great?!).

7. Wilco - Sumerteeth
The power of Summerteeth, and why I listen to it constantly no matter what mood, is the way it wraps heartbreaking lyrics with some of most driven, gitty music imaginable. I'd like to congratulate Jay Bennet. Synth here. Hand claps there. The deeper it burrows into the pain of Twitty the more Bennet lays on the schmaltz. It's a dangerous record, one that can make a shot in the arm seem joyous. But in terms of sheer listenability, it's a stunning achievement.

6. Sigur Ros - Agaetis Byrjun
Having your mind completely fucked everyone once in a while is important, and for me it all began with Sigur Ros, a band completely different than anything I had everything I had witnessed before. Sure there was Radiohead. Sure I've listened to more difficult music. But Sigur Ros, especially on this album, produces sounds I'd never known before, and ones that I never thought I'd love so much. This album has powers.

Freshman year, Austin and I would fall asleep to this almost every night. I probably have listened to it more in my dreams than on my computer.