Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Year That Was - 1990

1990…unreal how long ago that was…I was a sophomore/junior in high school, started my first job, joined my first “real” band (i.e. we actually played shows), experienced the “magic summer,” dated some dumb girl, etc. Also, some pretty great music came out and was enjoyed by many, despite the likes of Madonna, MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice dominating the airwaves.

Here are a few, though not all, of the great albums still not quite old enough to drink…

The Chills – Submarine Bells: One of my favorite discoveries from a few years back while exploring all the musical wonders of New Zealand, the Chills are a brand of pop that is warmly familiar and yet like no other. It’s rare to find an artist who can so aptly cover the polar spectrum of purest joy and fiercest anger, but Martin Phillips’ bittersweet view of life tops both heights with a whimsical passion that is as emotionally striking as it is aurally satisfying, and does this no better than on their US debut, Submarine Bells. Heavenly Pop Hit is just that, absolutely one of the most uplifting pop songs ever written, while Familiarity Breeds Contempt’s viciously abrasive assault could almost isolate the listener if it weren’t such an intriguing pleasure, and there’s plenty of the in between as well. From the lullaby trance of Singing in My Sleep to the beat all bravado of The Oncoming Day, the Chills will pick you up and put you back down again, winded but worth the ride.

The Church – Gold Afternoon Fix: This was the follow up attempt at capitalizing on the mainstream success of Under the Milky Way and Starfish, and it shows. The problem isn’t the songs, which are often as ambitious and rewarding as anything the Church had released before, but the radio-ready sound (even with the same team as Starfish) and a somewhat distracting use of drum machines (sticks man Richard Ploog was dismissed during recording) marring an otherwise fantastic album. Thankfully the production isn’t so slick or dated as to really detract from the overall listenability of Gold Afternoon Fix, but the same approach as Starfish or even Priest = Aura would have kicked this album from a 3-star grade to 4 at least. Also, Gold Afternoon Fix officially signaled the end of the Church’s psychedelic-jangle “heyday” as their next album, the aforementioned Priest = Aura, would bring what many consider their masterpiece and find them exploring new avenues of adventure they’ve yet to exhaust nearly twenty years later. Check out Metropolis


Robyn Hitchcock – Eye: For me this is the album that began my slow process of falling gaga for Robyn H and all the fun, quirky tricks up his sleeve. My friend (clean) Steev was a huge fan but I thought a lot of the Egyptians stuff was a bit overblown at the time (and in some cases the dated production still makes that the case), but Eye was stripped almost to the barest of bare, just Robyn, his guitar/piano and his wit voiced by two parts Syd Barret, one part Monty Python. But it’s not all kooky good times and laughs, in fact more often than not it isn’t. Hitchcock’s visions may be giggly and obtuse, but even at their most playfully bizarre there’s an underlying current of realism that is poignantly observant and even calculatingly sinister. The characters described in Cynthia Mask, Queen Elvis and Aquarium are very dark but very real, reflecting an inner demon in all of us that peeps out from time to time. But it’s not all subtext and subterfuge, and open faced sing alongs like Beautiful Girl and Satellite round everything out to a nice, even pitch.

Depeche Mode – Violator: Man, I don’t want to say too much about this album ‘cos words cannot express the pure majesty of these songs. If you’ve heard Personal Jesus and Enjoy the Silence you’re only just scratching the surface of the treasures to be found. Violator is more than a collection of back-to-back great songs; it’s a suite of musical emotion – dark, sexy and danceable – harnessed by an artistic ambition that literally comes once in a career. Simultaneously grand in scope and understated in delivery, this is a masterpiece both timeless and of its own era, impossible to duplicate or build upon. While DM’s road to this novel wonder can be traced, it’s better to simply let Violator stand on its own as what it is, and nothing more, because that is enough.

Afghan Whigs – Up In It: G-Dulli was still honing his chops on AW’s second album, but he was certainly pointing in the direction that led to later classics like Congregation (an anthem of my senior year) and their finest, most menacing album, Gentlemen. Here we get the beginnings of their definitive “Motown punk” sound, full of swagger, sleaze, smooth-talk and screams to make your hair turn white. Check out Retarded for some of the latter.

Sonic Youth – Goo: Sonic Youth’s major label debut was neither a disappointment nor a shattering breakthrough, but simply continued in the more cultivated “pop” vein Daydream Nation and Sister had already begun, which was a sigh of relief for most longtime fans. Perhaps the production is a bit more glossy, but this is more ironic than anything as the noise from before is as prominent as ever and the songwriting just as obscurely accessible. I mean who else but Kim Deal could sing an ode to Karen Carpenter so openly genuine and yet undeniably punk? Goo tends to be an album that folks like to reference yet no one ever listens to, in spite of the fact that it contains some of their most well loved songs, including Dirty Boots, Kool Thing and Mote.

Pixies – Bossanova: This was the first Pixies album I heard, owned, loved. As Pixies albums go this one is hard to categorize (as if any of them aren’t), but if I had to sum it all up it in two words, it would be: heavy space. I’m not really sure why, aside from maybe the planetary cover, ‘cos Black Francis’ obsession with space travel didn’t truly bloom until Trompe Le Monde. Yet listening to Bossanova I can’t help but feel like I’m being taken off world to not only other solar systems but other dimensions in time. There is no other album like this one, including other Pixies albums, because it’s denser, louder, broader – heavier – than anything they did before or after. Whereas previous efforts found them bounding flirtatiously over several different genres, Bossanova is a focused bullet train of pure rock energy, only letting up long enough for you to catch half a breath and then taking off again with twice the fury. Though some folks will lament that this is a step down from the 1-2 punch of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle (they are wrong), a lot of fan faves are here as well, including Velouria, Allison, Is She Weird and Dig for Fire. Yes, Bossanova is a slight departure from the first two albums, but not so far removed as to not be identified as the Pixies, which begs the question, “And how does lemur skin?”

Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas: You only really need one Cocteau Twins album, and it’s this one. I didn’t know that back in 1990, but I didn’t know anything else about them then either. Regardless, Heaven or Las Vegas shows the band in a further, but logical, transition from the icy, mechanical post punk of their first several releases. A major difference is live drumming, which loosens things up quite nicely, giving the swirling, atmospheric textures of guitar and keyboards room to stretch out and get into your head. Another noted change is that Liz Fraser’s vocals are not only intelligible, but actual real human words that other folks can speak; not that she still doesn’t lilt on in her own language, which I do love, but the seamless blend of going in and out of one and then the other only adds to the mystery of the experience. For all practical purposes this is one of the earliest instances of dream pop in a fully realized form, not just paving the way (as previous efforts had as well) but setting the stage, rigging the lights and pulling back the curtain for shoegaze, ambient pop, space rock and, to a lesser degree, Brit pop. It’s a unique and beautiful moment in music and everyone should try it out at least once. Try on Iceblink Luck for size.

Ride – Nowhere: There’s not much that I can say about this album that hasn’t already been said, even if many folks have never read it. Ride was simply one of the greatest bands of all time, not just the shoegazing era, all time. The proof? Well, Nowhere is included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, you dig? And you know what’s funny? I like their second album, Going Blank Again, even more than Nowhere. I’ve already said this a couple of times in this post, but you won’t hear another album like this one from Ride or anyone else. No other album is so delicately beautiful, so heartbreakingly simple, and yet so viscerally engaging or emotionally complex. All of that can be summed up with the song Decay (or Polar Bear, or In a Different Place, or…). And then when you add the perfect pop bliss of Vapour Trail and Taste, the remorseful angst of Here and Now and the drawn out, brooding growl of the title track closer, there’s no questioning why Nowhere is one of the 1001 albums you must hear before you die.

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