Monday, July 23, 2012

Best Albums of the 90s? (Part 1)

Here's a sentence I never, ever thought I'd type: I miss '90s music.

Before I elaborate on that statement that may seem slightly horrific, let me yawp a hearty "Welcome back to Musicule" after a very long break. In recent weeks, several folks have asked me, "When are you going to blog again?" There, another sentence I never thought I'd type.

So, back by popular demand, my modest rants and raves for your reading pleasure.

It takes a lot to get my musical musicule dander up, but a recent list on Paste (which can be read here) listing its top 90 albums of the '90s did. There are some obvious entries there, but there were some glaring omissions, as least as far as I can tell. The list seemed more concerned with having a comprehensive list of critics' darlings rather than great albums from a decade that, looking back, wasn't as much of a musical drought as I had thought while I was living through it.

Thanks to the wonders of Sirius XM, I find myself listening to the 90s station more and more. Enough time has passed to recognize that Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now) and I'm Too Sexy are, ahem, classics that will stand the test of time. Scary, I know. The positive flipside is that no one will ever feel compelled to put out Mambo No. 6 as a sequel to Lou Bega's earworm.

You can have a look at Paste's list from the link above. Without discrediting the 90 albums that are there (although there are a few clunkers on there), here is Part I of a few of the albums I would have put on that list.

I should mention the rules I've set myself to:
  1. Only one album per artist
  2. No Duran Duran... and this isn't only because I'm throttling myself from my natural bias - It's because the band didn't have any albums in the 90s worth putting on here (now, before I ruffle any of my Durannie friends' feathers, it's worth pointing out that The Wedding Album has a few great tracks, but it's not a cohesive album. And I do have a soft spot for half of Liberty).
  3. I won't mention any album that's already on Paste's list
  4. The album has to be cohesive, and I don't mean a concept album: an album that feels like something you can listen to from beginning to end with it feeling like a complete piece of music. Hey kids, that how we used to listen!
  5. I'm stretching the boundaries of the 90s...the album had to come out between 1990 and 2000
Off we go, in no particular order:

Adam Ant: Wonderful - "Adam Ant" and "the '90s" aren't two terms one usually puts together in the same sentence, but Adam's last studio album was a solid effort, albeit a far, far cry from his punk roots, and even his poppier early '80s roots. And dammit, Wonderful is a great ballad.

Adam has had his trouble and struggles over the years, but it appears he's back on track. With rumors of an album being recorded and a world tour, maybe we haven't heard the last of the Dandy Highwayman

Adrian Belew: Young Lions - In the summer of 1990, I think I had this cassette playing in my Nissan Pulsar pretty much the whole time. Back then it was a great album to listen to, loudly, with the windows down. It still is. As a huge added bonus, David Bowie played a significant part on a few of the tracks here, most notably on Pretty Pink Rose, where David and Adrian have an amazing lyrical back and forth. Considering Bowie's career at that point, it's not quite clear who was riding whose coattails at the could have gone either way. One of the many things I love about this album is that Adrian always sounds like he's playing guitar like his life depended on it. One doesn't hear that too often.

Concrete Blonde: Bloodletting - Way before the Twilight Saga, there were those who had vampires on the brain thanks to Anne Rice, present company included. I absorbed Rice's first three books in her Vampire Chronicles series and even saw Interview with a Vampire in the theater (a huge disappointment that falls just short of The Phantom Menace and Godfather III). Like I said, I wasn't the only one Anne Rice had an impact on: Sting's "Moon Over Bourbon Street" is a pure homage to Anne Rice's Louis, if not a full blown audition by Sting to play the part of the vampire in future installments. While Tom Cruise isn't anyone's ideal Louis, I don't think anyone ever said, "Hey, Sting would be good in that role!" It's amazing what we're thankful for. Besides Der Stingle, Concrete Blonde provided their own Anne Rice/Vampire fetish material that we can listen to. It practically drips with humidity from New Orleans, even after the title track, which is technically the only song on the album about vampires, unless you count "Joey", which is a song about an alcoholic...a vampire in his own right.

INXS: (tie) X/Welcome to Wherever You Are - Okay, I'm violating my own rule here, but for good reason. While X and Welcome were released two years apart, I have long maintained that there's one great album here among the two of them. Both albums always felt half-baked, yet containing some great songs that would fit interchangeably on either album. So, if it were up to me, I would suggest the following tracklisting for the unreleased INXS album titled "Welcome to X":

  1. Questions
  2. Disappear
  3. The Stairs
  4. Beautiful Girl
  5. By My Side
  6. Lately
  7. Know the Difference
  8. Bitter Tears
  9. Heaven Sent
  10. Taste It
  11. Back On Line
  12. Communications
  13. Hear the Sound
This album would be darker than both X and Welcome, but I think there's a cohesive sound and tale within.

Crowded House: Woodface - Surprisingly, Crowded House only put out two albums in the 90s, and while their 1994 effort "Together Alone" was, in its own right, a great album, Woodface is the one that stands the test of time (something that cannot be said about a lot of '90s music). It also helps when Neil Finn is your band's main songwriter. Regardless of the decade, I'm convinced Neil can write an amazing song on demand. Case in point:

XTC: Oranges and Lemons - XTC was a band that had a wonderfully long history, but had far too short of a window where they were widely accessible. Oranges and Lemons marks the tail-end of that accessible period. XTC is the perfect example of a band that evolved across its career - you don't see that often. The moderate hits on this album was Mayor of Simpleton, but the whole album greets listeners with XTC at their pop hookiest.

10,000 Maniacs: Our Time in Eden - Where some bands (like XTC) constantly evolved over their careers, other bands follow an almost predictable career arc. 10,000 Maniacs did the latter almost on fast-forward. They went from indie-darling to VH1 staple in less than five years, losing their lead singer along the way. Speaking of lead singers losing their way, Natalie, we miss the twirly singer on stage with the upbeat songs. Where'd you go? Our Time in Eden was the Maniacs' last album with Natalie Merchant on much to the point that this album isn't dissimilar to Tigerlily, her first solo album that was issued three years later. Eden was an album by a band comfortable in their skin..a bit more VH1y than previous efforts, but it had a great sound. Most importantly, by 1992, the Maniacs had finally figured out how to end their songs...something they had historically struggled with. Eden had a handful of memorable songs that still sound great today.

Coming soon, in Part II, I'll reveal my favorite '90s album plus a few others that deserve recognition.

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