08 March 2011

THE BEST MUSIC OF THE '90s


A warts-and-all view of Kriofske Mix HQ, circa 1995-96

My Top Fifty Albums of the ‘90s:

# 50-41
# 40-31
# 30-21
# 20-11
# 10-2
# 1

Additionally, here are 50 great songs from the decade (in alphabetical order) out of *hundreds* I could have picked that do not appear on the albums listed above:

Air, “You Make it Easy”
Alison Moyet, “It Won’t Be Long”
Belle and Sebastian, “Lazy Line Painter Jane”
Billy Bragg and Wilco, “California Stars”
Bjork, “Human Behaviour”
Black Box Recorder, “Child Psychology”
Chris Isaak, “Somebody’s Crying”
Cornershop, “Brimful of Asha”
Depeche Mode, “Enjoy the Silence”
Emm Gryner, “Summerlong”
Fiona Apple, “Criminal”
Frente!, “Accidentally Kelly Street”
Grant McLennan, “Put You Down”
Indigo Girls, “Peace Tonight”
INXS, “Not Enough Time”
Jason Falkner, “The Plan”
Jen Trynin, “Better Than Nothing”
The Judybats, “Ugly On the Outside”
Kirsty MacColl, “My Affair”
The KLF featuring Tammy Wynette, “Justified and Ancient”
Komeda, “It’s Alright, Baby”
Le Tigre, “Hot Topic”
The Lightning Seeds, “Sense”
Liz Phair, “Jealousy”
Luscious Jackson, “Take a Ride”
M People, “Excited”
Matthew Sweet, “I’ve Been Waiting”
The Mekons, “Millionaire”
Morcheeba, “Part of the Process”
Morrissey, “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get”
Pet Shop Boys, “Miserablism”
PJ Harvey, “Down by the Water”
P.M. Dawn, “Downtown Venus”
Pulp, “Common People”
Roxette, “Sleeping in My Car”
Rufus Wainwright, “April Fools”
Saint Etienne, “Nothing Can Stop Us”
Shakespeare’s Sister, “Stay”
Smashing Pumpkins, “1979”
Soho, “Nuthin' on My Mind”
Steve Wynn, “500 Girl Mornings”
The Sundays, “Here’s Where the Story Ends”
Super Furry Animals, “Ice Hockey Hair”
Supergrass, “Moving”
Suzanne Vega, “In Liverpool”
10,000 Maniacs, “Noah’s Dove”
Terence Trent D’Arby, “Penelope Please”
Tori Amos, “God”
Was (Not Was), “I Blew Up the United States”
White Town, “Your Woman”

07 March 2011

TOP FIFTY ALBUMS OF THE '90s: # 1



1. R.E.M. – AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE

In 2004, when I blogged my 100 all-time favorite albums, Automatic For the People was number one. I didn’t spent too much time deliberating—it was one of two records (the other was Abbey Road) that changed my life (or at least profoundly impacted my musical taste) when it came out during my senior year of high school in October 1992.

As I arranged this ‘90s list, I was initially determined not to have Automatic at the top. Over the past few years, I’ve grown a little wary of this album, partially because it takes me back to my 18-year-old self—a period I have some fond memories of but would never, ever want to re-live—but mostly due to having heard it too many damn times. Oddly enough, Automatic was one of those records that took a few spins for me to fully appreciate; once it clicked, I found more to love in its complexities and nuances on subsequent listens. However, after well over a decade, I knew the record too well, and its magic faded somewhat. I dutifully still played it at least annually (usually in autumn, for reasons I’ll get into later), but whether it’s still my all-time favorite album is up for debate.

I went through phases where Apartment Life would have been number one here. It’s another record I’ve called my all-time favorite, an album that for me fits any mood or occasion. I also considered placing If You’re Feeling Sinister at the top, because it continues to age so well and still sounds extraordinarily unique, as if it could have come from nowhere else. In the end, though, I knew in my heart that I’d be putting up a front or trying to appear hip or cool (or obscure) if I didn’t place Automatic above those other two entries. Simply put, every time I hear it, it still carries an emotional charge like very few other records I’ve heard.

Wrapping themes of mortality and loss into moody, not obviously radio friendly music, it scans as an intensely personal record, so how did it strike such a chord among the masses? Although it didn’t top the Billboard Album charts (sequestered at # 2 by Garth Brooks!) or include any huge radio hits (like “Stand” and “Losing My Religion” from the band’s previous two albums), Automatic sold four million copies in this country alone. Furthermore, it’s inarguably a classic of its era that has also transcended said era—nothing about it screams 1992 and, except for the political screed “Ignoreland”, none of the lyrics explicitly reference a particular time. (“Monty Got a Raw Deal” and “Man on the Moon” focus on deceased real-life celebrities, but view them philosophically rather than as biography, nearly awarding them mythical status).

Before Automatic, I admired R.E.M. at a distance, enjoying their radio hits but not rushing out to gobble up their back catalogue. Then, a week before the album came out, I heard its lead single “Drive” on the radio and took notice—something about that minor-key guitar arpeggio and the song’s fluid, dynamic shifts from urgent, stripped-down acoustic splendor to charged electricity and back again startled me. I bought the album days after its release, listened to it on shuffle a few times (as was my peculiar ritual at the time—I got my first CD player earlier that year, so the ability to shuffle tracks still held that novelty for me), liked some songs more than others (“Everybody Hurts”, in which vocalist Michael Stipe talks a friend out of committing suicide immediately stood out) and that was that.

A week or two later, sprawled out on my bed one Friday evening, I listened to the album (perhaps in order!) and when the Andy Kaufman tribute “Man on the Moon” came on, I suddenly felt the music’s pull—in particular, its outgoing, sing-along melody, cathedral-like expansiveness and tremendous warmth. Soon, other songs similarly resonated: “Sweetness Follows” applying a soothing balm to death’s pain, “Nightswimming” capturing the melancholy glow of a faint but significant reminiscence, “Try Not to Breathe” casting a light unto the darkness with its sway and verve, “Find the River” providing a lovely conclusion with wisdom and grace.

Automatic’s fixation on memory and loss and its pastoral, acoustic folk hues forever link it with autumn in my mind; of course, first hearing it during that season also factors in. I now occasionally skip over “Everybody Hurts”—I still love the song but its intensity is sometimes too much for me to bear. I’ve never felt suicidal (nor had a close friend who has), but the song just slays me for how emotionally naked it is. This urgency and willingness to go out on a limb and open yourself up to the rest of the world reaches its peak here, but you can feel it throughout the album. The fact that millions of other people felt it too lends Automatic a sense of awe rare for any album.

03 March 2011

TOP FIFTY ALBUMS OF THE '90s: # 10-2



10. Morcheeba – WHO CAN YOU TRUST?
This trio was initially far hazier and mellower than most trip-hop collectives. Apart from a beatless orchestral interlude, everything here sounds the same, and for once that’s a good thing—this is a chill out album with hooks (languorous and sneaky as they may be), plus Skye Edwards’ smoky, sultry vocals register as vital signs, not as chilly detachments.


9. Sam Phillips – MARTINIS AND BIKINIS
The closest Phillips ever came to attracting more than a cultish audience was with this sharp, sly, album-length Beatles homage. From “I Need Love” to “Baby I Can’t Please You”, she was never so user-friendly or comfortably retro again. Thus, occasional left turns like the clanging “Black Sky” or the submerged, ominous cover of Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” that she goes out on seem all the more startling.


8. Portishead – DUMMY
For all of its noir-drenched gloom, this landmark set remains accessible and oddly inviting because Geoff Barrows and Beth Gibbons paid as much mind to melody and song structure as they did to tension, texture and cannily-employed samples. They had a keen sense of humor as well (“Nobody loves me / it’s true / (pause) / not like you do”), even if steadily shattering laments like “Glory Box” and “Roads” left a more indelible impression.


7. Concrete Blonde – BLOODLETTING
Still one of rock’s most underrated vocalists, Johnette Napolitano makes up for a lack of technique with how her beguiling wail magisterially fills a space. Although the title track established her band as favorites in Goth circles, the album’s bulk is less theatrical and brooding. She supposedly wrote these songs in a rush after deciding not to break up her band, and their urgency comes through in undulating detail.



6. Saint Etienne – SO TOUGH
Using an up-to-the-minute cut-and-paste aesthetic, this trio curates a music geek’s joyride through decades of pop effluvia from a decidedly British viewpoint. In a series of wild juxtaposes, heavenly strings and wide-eyed innocence sit next to a swirling guitar loop sampled from a Rush song, and the soaring, sighing seven-minute impressionist epic “Avenue” never loses its footing even as it threatens to be forever whisked away by the wind.


5. The Magnetic Fields – 69 LOVE SONGS
Living up to its title, this sprawling triple album contains said number of songs sung by five vocalists in at least twenty-five genres. An extraordinary act of chutzpah for leader/composer Stephin Merritt or his successful bid to be a modern-day Cole Porter? Both, actually—the talent and dedication put into this massive, singular project is such that you almost believe every word, even when deliberately cloaked in irony and pastiche.


4. Everything But the Girl – AMPLIFIED HEART
On first listen, every note seems smooth, sophisticated, carefully chosen and executed, like aural wallpaper for a subdued cocktail party. Then, you notice the raw, messy emotions beneath the glassy veneer; the lyrics surge with longing, regret, disappointment, melancholy, resolve. Although one could interpret a sense of romantic breakdown and failure in the subject matter, after a series of tinny, overproduced EBTG releases, the remarkably stripped-down, elegant music carries with it the promise of rebirth.



3. Ivy – APARTMENT LIFE
Still the best used-CD store impulse purchase I’ve ever made (without having heard any of its contents), this album beautifully captures of ennui of city living near the fin de si├Ęcle. From the first crisply strummed chords of opener “The Best Thing” to the overlapping vocals fading into the ether on closer “Back in Our Town”, these songs shift between sun-soaked ecstasy, moody reflection and glistening calm, all punctuated by Dominique Durand’s French-accented croon. It’s a perfect soundtrack for almost any occasion.


2. Belle and Sebastian – IF YOU’RE FEELING SINISTER
This wasn’t the band’s first album, but it was the first one most people heard. To discover it is to stumble upon an anomaly in pop music, an alternate universe that has nearly nothing to do with rock star celebrity or artistic pretension. These literate, bittersweet songs begin quietly (barely audible at times), then gradually build, adding on piano, trumpets and strings until the chorus swells with Stuart Murdoch’s fey warble exuding a force you never guessed it had.

Check back in a few days for the number one album (and more)! What could it be, what could it be???

01 March 2011

TOP FIFTY ALBUMS OF THE '90s: # 20-11


20. XTC – NONSUCH
Slightly ahead of their time as usual, this splendidly overstuffed salvo appeared at the height of an alternative nation obsessed with edgy rock, predating the return of Britpop by a few years. That it went mostly unheard at the time nearly lends it a sense of awe now, whether it’s aiming for the pastoral (“Wrapped in Grey”) or the jugular (“The Ugly Underneath”).


19. Soul Coughing – RUBY VROOM
Forget Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins—this was alternative rock, in which “vocalist” M. Doughty talked/scatted/halfway sung over stand-up bass, live drums and a symphonic array of samples (anticipating The Avalanches by half a decade). More beat poetry than white-boy hip-hop (with “Bus to Beelzebub" a gleeful mixture of the two), it hasn’t dated at all.


18. Eric Matthews – IT’S HEAVY IN HERE
Since Matthews’ chamber pop seemed so entirely out of time in 1995, it’s no surprise that it has aged so well. The catchy opening “Fanfare” remains his best song and a strong entry point, but it leads to various tangents and hidden passageways: the lyrics give precious little clue as to what he’s singing about, but the delicate, stripped down arrangements conjure a secret, special place I never tire of returning to.


17. Steve Wynn – KEROSENE MAN
Former Dream Syndicate leader Wynn is perhaps my favorite unsung singer/songwriter. Although a bit slicker than subsequent efforts, his first solo album still serves as a good gateway into his back catalogue. Veering from jangle pop and twangy country rock to guitar grunge and even a little noir tango, it’s nonetheless a coherent sampler.


16. Tori Amos – LITTLE EARTHQUAKES
How did a record this intensely personal resonate with so many people? Amos not only updated Joni Mitchell’s confessional girl-and-a-piano style for a different age, she also made it her own—even the Kate Bush comparisons seem simplistic now. After all, the young Kate never came up anything like “Silent All These Years” or a “Me and a Gun”, just as the young Tori set an impossibly high standard she arguably hasn’t matched since.



15. Ani DiFranco – DILATE
On her most focused, complete studio album, DiFranco sings of a love affair’s dissolution and aftermath—not an original template to follow, but in her hands it never feels obvious or heavy-handed. Kicking off with possibly the most scathing “fuck you” ever recorded and concluding with quiet resignation and possible enlightenment, she works through personal demons while sustaining your attention every step of the way.


14. Saint Etienne – TIGER BAY
Only knowing the altered U.S. version, I vastly underrated this release until I finally heard the original U.K. edition with the correct sequencing. The most cinematic of St. Et albums, it's an ever-changing canvas of electronic symphony, hushed folk and flamenco disco, but get the version with this cover: you need to hear the seven minute whole of “Western Wind/Tankerville” in order for closer “The Boy Scouts of America” to make its wallop of an impact.


13. Pet Shop Boys – VERY
Ostensibly Neil Tennant’s larger-than-life coming-out party, this is an intriguing turning point for the Pets. Still carefully cloaked in irony and metaphor, these songs further expose the emotional, vulnerable core beneath the surface while maintaining a sense of renewal and ecstatic joy: who else could reveal the yearning and poignancy lurking within the glorious camp overtones of The Village People’s “Go West”?



12. Aimee Mann – I’M WITH STUPID
Wiping away some of its predecessor’s gloss, Mann’s second solo outing turns up the fuzz-tone guitars and tightens the melodies until they gleam like late-period Beatles (or, in the case of “Superball”, Josie and the Pussycats if they really rocked). Rarely has any artist channeled her misery into something so tart, therapeutic, caring and merciless—not for nothing is “You fucked it up” the first song's first line.


11. Blur – PARKLIFE
Unlike their more homogenous efforts, this one’s all over the place stylistically, chewing up, spitting out and recontextualizing British bands of yore without ever sounding derivative. Yet, it dexterously holds together, indulging in cheeky wordplay (the chorus of “Girls and Boys”) over a mutation of genres. Fortunately, they also balance their skepticism with at least some affection for their suburban middle class roots.