Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Year That Was 1989

We all know about watershed years, those times when all sorts of pivotal things happened in the world of this and that. For movies a watershed year was 1939 with the likes of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, and in music 1977 was a good time, with astounding debuts by Talking Heads, Television, the Clash, etc and then landmark releases from previously existing artists, for example Iggy Pop’s twofer The Idiot and Lust for Life, Bowie’s twofer of Low and “Heroes” (actually, Bowie was all over Iggy’s two albums as well) and Exodus from Bob Marley and the Wailers. (If I left out a big ‘77 album for you, please don’t scream at me, I personally can’t stand “Heroes,” it’s just one that came to mind.)

But you know, I realized a few weeks back that a couple of my long-standing favorite albums are turning twenty this year (I know!) and so I decided to check out 1989 in music on ol’ Wikipedia, and you know what…I think 1989 was a (much overlooked) watershed year in music as well.

Here are just a few examples:

Stones Roses – Stone Roses: I’ve spent a lot of time making fun of this band – a lot – and much to the chagrin of JT and J-Smith back in the day when this album was only a wee tyke of ten. I used to call their self-titled debut a great album by a lousy band. And to be fair…that statement is sorta true and false. True because aside from the debut, a handful of singles and one or two songs off the long postponed and highly disappointing (except to Simon Pegg) second and final album, these boys put out some pretty iffy stuff at best. But my statement is false because there’s no way a lousy band could produce the twice-aforementioned self-titled debut. Seriously, in a word I could describe this album thusly: flawless. I’ve never been a fan of the baggy, Madchester beats that gave us the dreadful likes of the Happy Mondays, the Charlatans and 808 State (oh Manchester, so much to answer for), but I have to admit that when it’s done right, it’s pretty fantastic. I think for me what sets the Stones Roses apart is the incorporation of more melodic pop and rock elements into the stoner-trippy-funk rhythms and strums of most of their contemporaries. Ian Brown sang with a cocky sneer that made Sir Mick look more like pantry boy than a menace and John Squire…well, he could shred when he had to and often did. In some ways this album, especially its more drug-dazed dance moments, is a bit of a guilty pleasure; but the simple fact of the matter is that it’s 100% infectious and grooves like nothing else you’ll hear from this movement or any genre that claims an influence. From the arrogant leer of I Wanna Be Adored, to the equally haughty I Am the Resurrection (yes, he’s making that reference), it’s nearly 50 minutes (well, depending on which release you have) of dangerous fun. Go get the deluxe reissue when it comes out…I know I will.

Vain – No Respect: I know you’ve likely never heard of this band. But if you have, rock! I never really went through much of a hair metal phase. I just thought it was silly. Unfortunately a lot of good bands like Def Leppard and Ratt got lumped into that mess, and then others that could have made the genre halfway legit got totally overlooked, like Pretty Boy Floyd, the Sea Hags and my personal favorites…Vain. (Incidentally, all the debut albums by those three bands came out in 1989.) The closest thing Vain ever had to a hit was the wah-wah heavy Beat the Bullet, but even then it wasn’t really close. The interesting thing about hair bands was that they were really only one or two clicks off from glam. In spite of the platform shoes and heavy make up, glam certainly gets a lot more respect from critics and music fans. Vain really straddled the line, ‘cos they had all the big dos and fast tricks of the hair boys, but enough gritty bravado to make Davy Vain’s love-angst-society-party tunes and somewhat whiny moan just a little more kick arse than their more popular counterparts. And probably what set them apart, and even kept them down, was that while Poison and Warrant did it all tongue in cheek, with a wink and smile, Vain didn’t seem to be fooling around -- when they were angry they were bad news, and when they partied they were worse. It’s a shame these guys never caught on ‘cos every song on No Respect is a good slice of amped up American rock n roll, all the subjects you wanna sing along about and plenty of fast flying solos to keep things spicy. And for me it’s one of the two most nostalgic albums on this list; reckless nights driving around PC in Casey Tuggle’s Camaro, red light racing with Mustangs and Corvettes down Harrison Avenue, egging cars, driving by the Baroness’ house, laughing a lot – and cranking Vain up to eleven.

Pixies – Doolittle: Everyone loves the Pixies. Well, obviously not everyone, ‘cos they’re hardly a household name. But everyone who should does. You know what I’m sayin’? I mean these guys are gods, legends, leviathans amongst college/indie rock, and each of their four albums have made the “top whatever” lists for countless demographic/publication polls over the years. However, I would wager that a good 98% of fans would name Doolittle as their overall favorite, as well as a desert island disc for any occasion. To me this album runs like a greatest hits, a near perfect set (with Silver being the exception) of quirky-catchy rock tunes spearheaded by Black Francis’ endearingly plaintive howl, back-driven by the tight as nails Deal-Lovering rhythm section and fleshed out with sonic blasts of pure energy that only Joey Santiago and his Les Paul Gold Top could possibly muster. My first exposure to the band was via MTV and the Here Comes Your Man video, which I detested – and liked the song even less. But I was young and dumb and Robert Smith was king and these off beat but normal looking mouth hangers just weren’t doing it for me. So, a couple of years later it was a hard sell when a friend of mine wanted to pop a tape of theirs in the cassette player of my car. I wish I could say that tape was Doolittle, but it was actually Bossanova, and yet my love of that album soon brought my ears to the one we’re focusing on now, and I finally understood what it meant to be a Pixies fan…and even liked Here Comes Your Man (but not Silver). Brash and boisterous, some of the greatest hooks, riffs and screams you’ll ever want to hear, this is pop music held up against the fat/skinny mirrors at a carnival, all the melodies coming at you (and sticking) from a direction you don’t expect, even after the 25th, 250th and 2500th listen (and I’m somewhere in between those last two). At times fun (Here Comes Your Man, La La Love You), a slight bit unnerving (I Bleed, Hey), a touch thoughtful (Wave of Mutilation, Monkey Gone to Heaven), sometimes just straight rockin’ (Mr. Grieves, Crackity Jones) but never dull (besides Silver), if you’re looking for music that’s as immediate as it is obscure, look no further.

New Order – Technique: I think this is my favorite New Order album, or it would be if that bloody awful Fine Time wasn’t on there. Still, a bad NO song is better than anything by Happy Mondays, so… What I love most about this album is how well it rocks. New Order have often been acknowledged for making dance music “cool,” and deservedly so ‘cos they did it in a way that was innovative and unique, remaining equally of the moment in which it was inspired as well as timeless and fresh today. For me Technique is a MUCH underrated, overlooked and almost thrown to the wayside album from their classic 80s heyday. It seems most fans agree that Movement was the band shedding their Joy Division skin, Power Corruption and Lies saw them experimenting with where they wanted to go, Low-Life and Brotherhood and all those singles around those days established them as innovative pop icons…and then oh yeah, Technique. Well, whatever, ‘cos this album takes all the best stuff they were doing before and ties it up in a tech-bow (see what I did there?). And that’s why it’s so endearing to me, ‘cos while there are some fantastic and truly rave-worthy acid house dance tracks on here (Round & Round, Vanishing Point), there are just as many that simply play out like a rock band (All the Way, Love Less, Run), and these latter are not only my favorite tracks on the album, but some of my all time favorite from the entire New Order catalog. I guess the thing with Technique is that it’s a bit of a transition album, from the dance-punk highlights of the mid 80s to the more earthy, introspective textures of Republic (the other contender for my favorite NO album), after which they inexplicably stopped for eight years before 2001’s Get Ready, which showed them doing “their thing” in the light of the 21st Century. But if you want a good summary of the band’s sound that’s also a good and proper album (as opposed to a ‘best of’ or singles collection), Technique is the way to go. I would not lie.

Tom Petty – Full Moon Fever: I just watched a great documentary on Tom Petty that covers his entire career. And when it came time to talk about his solo debut, boy, it really got a lot of flack from band mates (understandably) and the record label (who said it didn’t sound like him…say what?) and just about everybody who heard about it besides anyone who was actually working on it. The song that caught the most grief? Free Falling. I kid you not. Two words: Their bad. Everyone knows that this was a juggernaut of an album, TP’s biggest to date, and spawned five hit singles, two of which are rock anthem classics (amongst several others that TP has penned). I’m not a huge expert on Tom but I’ve heard most of the cannon, at least every stage of it, and to me this is the Tom Petty album. Sure, it’s more radio ready, less ruckus and red-eye, but lets face it, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were always a sort of weird hybrid of Lynyrd Skynyrd swamp rock and Flock of Seagulls synth pop…it was a logical step of many to choose from, and it paid ol’ Tom back to the tune of like 5 million copies sold in the US alone. But more than just being a popular album, it’s also a good one, with Petty at his witty, satirical and just straight rockin’ best. If you were a dumb kid like me who loved everything about rock n roll at the time this came out, this album was a godsend. And what’s great is that it’s just as good at age 20 as it was upon conception.

Since you know the hits, here are a couple of key album cuts:
Love is a Long Road
A Face in the Crowd

The Cure – Disintegration: What could I possibly say about this album? I’ve referred to it, usually as the Big D, probably close to a dozen times or more in the history of this blog. Why do I call it the Big D? Well, because for one thing this is a big album; over 71 minutes long, with big songs, averaging close to six minutes each, with a big, epic, layered, weighty sound that absolutely drenches the listener in a near suffocating blanket of beautiful melancholy and world-weary imagery. Plus, this is where Mad Bob and the boys had their first big “hit” with Lovesong so it was a commercial breakthrough as well. Most importantly, it was a big (understatement) part of my life when I was 15 years old, already a few years immersed into music, but seriously starting to look for genres that were not like what was readily available on the radio. I would listen to this album constantly, as loudly as possible (per instructions within the liner notes), always alone in my room, often with the lights out, staring at the ceiling or the darkness or the light between the curtains and projecting myself 150% into everything Robert was singing about – from the aching lost-love of Pictures of You and Last Dance, to the isolation of Plainsong and Closedown, to the nightmare strangeness of Fascination Street and Lullaby, to the ultimate despair of Prayers for Rain and The Same Deep Water as You – it all spoke to me, absorbed me and at the time defined me. But for me the icing on this bittersweet cake (especially now that I’m older), worth the cost of the album and the three greatest back-to-back string of songs on an album by the Cure or any other artist, is the closing three tracks: Disintegration, Homesick and Untitled. The title track’s tumbled, cascading montage of deceit, disloyalty and damnation builds itself into a frenzy and literally explodes before disintegrating (oh yes) into the soft, downbeat piano phrases of Homesick, an aching and self explanatory number that then segues perfectly into the aptly named Untitled – who could put a name to a song where one “never quite knew” exactly what to do, realizing the problem is within themselves and now all is lost. Everything the Cure is widely known for (all the doom and gloom, which we know of course is not 100% accurate) can be summed up in these three songs and this last, unnamed track in particular; a rather fitting moniker for a band so difficult to define. I don’t really listen to this album any more, as there are two or three others that I’ll pick up first when in a Cure mood. And not because I think it’s aged poorly or not what I remember it to be – the Big D is all it once was and more – it’s just that in my fast paced, no time, work-a-day adult life, I just don’t have the leisure, the need if you will, to sit in a dark room and listen to the most depressing record ever pressed to wax and pine after girls whose names and faces I no longer recall and have no desire to. The Cure never made another album like this, nor could they have. While earlier affairs such as Pornography and The Top were equally (if not more) bleak, they were never as elegant, never as openly sentimental, never so quietly loud as Disintegration.

B-52’s – Cosmic Thing: Scoff if you like, but I love this album and I think it’s simply the best thing our fun pals from Athens ever put out. The first time I heard it was at the local college radio station in PC where I was working for part of a dual enrollment class with my high school. (GO DOLPHINS!) There were a couple of girls in that class who were seniors and “alternative cool” and very excited about this album coming out, and since they’d sorta taken me under their wing, they wanted to make sure I heard it. I was both happy to oblige and happy with what I heard…but the fact that hits like Roam, Love Shack and Deadbeat Club were all over the radio, MTV, shopping malls and elevators, I never felt the need to run out and purchase the album. When I got to college several of my friends owned it, so again, all I had to do was pinch it from their stash to get my fix. But then I found myself in my mid 20s and in a bind…’cos nobody I saw frequently had ready access to it and baby needed another hit, so I bought it for myself. What I love most about this album is that while the hits are each a confectionery contagion, the real gems are in the album tracks, where our buddy Fred Schneider gets more time at the mic and where the punk-club roots of their earlier years get a nice airing out. This is most evident on the tribal, environmental rant Bushfire and the slinky, sultry Topaz. Cosmic Thing was sort of a weird hit for ’89 ‘cos it was like a last minute throwback to the synth pop of the earlier part of the decade, especially at a time when big hair at the top of the charts was most likely on dudes. Also, in its own fashion this album paved the way (along with the Cure’s Disintegration and REM’s Out of Time) for “alternative” to hit big and see its commercial heyday a few years later. But we won’t fault the B-52’s for that, ‘cos the road they paved to get us there is still golden.

Three quick ones:

Bob Dylan – Oh Mercy: Produced by Daniel Lanois, this definite return to form (as in consistently good material) is slick in all the right ways, and Most of the Time is simply the greatest break up song ever. Though not quite the full comeback folks had been hoping for (Under the Red Sky was a turkey), it still gave the people hope.

The Sugarcubes – Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week!: After the first album folks stopped paying attention until Bjork went solo, which is a shame ‘cos the Sugarcubes’ second album is pretty fantastic and the originator of the “whoop-whoop” siren (Speed is the Key).

The Replacements – Don’t Tell a Soul: This was my first introduction to the Mats via I’ll Be You on MTV, but when I looked for this album all they had was Pleased to Meet Me, so I got that instead – and it’s honestly the better album. But Don’t Tell a Soul is good too.

So, happy birthday, guys! I know you're not old enough to drink yet, but at least you can get into the club.

This post here is basically the inauguration of a new series I’m installing called “The Year That Was,” where I’ll either be picking the one monumental album for any particular year, or as in the case when there are too many to choose from, simply doing a run down of my personal favorites. It’s sure to be a hoot, so c’mon back.

And yes, I know I’ve not done my latest random release, but I’ve been distracted. Like you care anyway…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really agree with your opening comment about the Pixies. Lou Reed was quoted as saying "Not very many people heard the Velvet Underground, but everyone who did started a band." Which is to me the quintessential VU quote. I think you sum up the Pixies extremely well with this conflation of your phrasing: "Not everyone loves the Pixes, but everyone who should does."