The 20 Guitarists List

Lists can be such a pain in the arse sometimes… and yet I’m seemingly addicted to making them. Take the whittling down – this one has taken an AGE to get together since seeing Jim over at Music Enthusiast’s some time ago now along with that of Aphoristic Album Reviews‘ slightly shorter list, especially when combined with my procrastination.

Then there’s the ordering – how do you get around that? Simple – this list isn’t in any order what so ever.

What about the title – well this isn’t a ‘Greatest’ list, there’s no way I’d ever attempt to claim that, so the less snappy title for this is actually ’20 Guitarists That I’ve Dug for Years and Will Always Tune In For’. Which is what it is, it’s 20 of my favourite players – not always the most technically proficient or even considered as a virtuoso types but those that nonetheless make the music I enjoy consistently great through their playing. That would make an even less snappy title though.

As is always the way there are plenty that don’t make the list but continually skirt the outside like non-ticket holders hanging around an outdoor show’s fence trying to grab a sonic snatch of their favourite song. Players like Mike Campbell inject a gorgeous sound into some of my favourite songs while the fluidity and wash of sound from the likes of The War On Drugs’ Adam Granduciel and his pal Kurt Vile are happy mainstays in my ears lately and if I could make this longer they’d be on the long list for sure as would Wilco’s Nels Cline or even Joe Perry or John McLaughlin… you get the point. But I needed to pick an arbitrary number and stick to it or this would never leave the notebook where I make these lists let alone spend the wrist power typing this thing up….

So, with that in mind, let’s get going so that I can think about that ‘Drummers list thing’:

Nils Lofgren

A list has to start somewhere even one that’s not in any particular order. So I’ll start off with sideman extraordinaire, a warm and extremely talented dude: Nils Lofgren.

Nils came to attention as a teenage prodigy having played on Neil Young’s After the Goldrush at just 17 and while the emergence of punk and the shift in musical tastes may have put pay to his burgeoning solo stab at stardom, he continued to put out high quality albums before joining Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band for the ‘Born In The USA’ tour. He’s worked with the Boss solidly since the E Street Band’s reunion (as well as the Greatest Hits reunion of sorts) as well as regular stints in Neil Young’s band Crazy Horse and continuing to record and tour as a solo player.

He’s a ridiculously gifted player – capable of pulling out searing leads and picking out tender acoustic work, whether he’s setting fire to other people’s songs (see his reading Springsteen’s ‘Youngstown’) or his own.

He caught my attention as a solo artist when I heard the acoustic take on ‘Black Books’ on the Sopranos way back in 2000, I could hear his solo on that (from about two and a half minutes thru to the end) daily and still love it.

Mike McCready

Mike McCready may not be on a lot of lists but the dude should get more credit for sure… he toned down his theatrics and finger-tapping to bring a blues-influenced tone and ability to the Seattle scene in a subtle but important way that no other ‘grunge’ band did.

Often referred to as Pearl Jam’s ‘secret weapon’, McCready had just begun moving away from the 80’s metal sound having gotten into Stevie Ray Vaughan just as the band got going and it’s his beautiful tone and leads that set Pearl Jam apart for me and got my ear immediately.

His songwriting contributions to the group are always worth tuning in for as his ability to take another member’s song ‘Nothing As It Seems’ and take it to a whole new level with his guitar work while live he absolutely let’s rip whether it’s absolutely rinsing the arse off ‘Even Flow’ or tearing through a perfect take on ‘Eruption’ into ‘Yellow Ledbetter’.

David Gilmour

So I have this memory… must be before my teens, before I got a CD player even so I’d put that to when I was 11… it gets foggy in the timeline.. anyway this much is concrete: I’d got one of those old midi-systems of the 80’s, you know a black plastic Aiwa thing with a twin tape deck and radio and turntable up top all in one block as opposed to the hi-fi separates of old (which, fittingly, I’m now back to). At some point I decided to get the turntable working – even buying a new cartridge for £1.50 – that’s how vividly I remember it, if only they were that cheap now.

Once I’d got it working – fuck knows why I’d done so or what I tested it on – my Dad used the opportunity to blow the dust off a couple of LPs to get me to listen to – Led Zeppelin’s IV (don’t worry, we’ll get to Jimmy) and The Dark Side of the Moon. Hearing that and David Gilmour’s guitar work was pretty mind blowing. Then, a few years later, I heard ‘Comfortably Numb’ and that second solo… fuck, I still have to stop what I’m doing and listen to it intently – what Gilmour can do with just a subtle bend. Floyd a heavy mainstay in my ears ever since.

Gilmour’s playing elevated Pink Floyd and drove their direction after the departure of Syd Barrett as much as Waters’ songwriting – without Gilmour’s playing the Pink Floyd sound we now all know wouldn’t exist. His own songs may veer toward the floatier stuff (see ‘If’ or ‘Fat old Sun’) but his playing is transportive – hugely melodic and often sprawling solos with perfect tone that I can never can get enough off.

Mark Knopfler

Imagine the brass balls on Mark Knopfler; laying down your band’s first album full of guitar-hero moves at a time that punk was ascendant and adored by the music press, and then laying down its last at a time when alt-rock and grunge was taking over. A foolish move that would’ve failed spectacularly but for one thing: Knopfler’s unassuming and quiet confidence in his guitar playing prowess.

Surely everyone by now knows ‘Sultans of Swing’ – that solo and that tone are unmistakeable and no matter how good that street performer you’ve seen doing it on YouTube is, nobody can play it in the same way and with the same feel. I read that Knopfler arrived at the famous tone by mistake – his pickup getting stuck between settings -but there’s no getting away from his sheer skill as both a songwriter and player. That tone changed in later Dire Straits records – probably as he switched to using PRS and Les Pauls as much as his red Strat – and evolved into a much warmer, enveloping tone that I could just bathe in.

I grew up with those first four Dire Straits records on heavy rotation and I’ll still pick em up and play em regularly now (Love Over Gold is easily their finest) but then I’ll also just as happily put on one of his solo records because while – some nine studio albums in – they’re no-longer as ‘all gold’ as they used to be, through those Dire Straits albums, the soundtracks, the side bands, guest spots on Bob Dylan albums and solo records the common thread is a guitar tone and fluidity that’s always worth tuning in for.

Eddie Van Halen

Oh man… Eddie Van Halen is surely on so many of these lists it’s insane. I’m not a Van Halen fan by any stretch (I’d stick my flag in the Van Hagar camp, mind, as I can’t stand ‘Diamond’ Dave) but Eddie’s playing is something else… as I’ve said before, a real ‘light the touch paper and stand back’ player who could dazzle like no other.

VH’s brand of riff-heavy stuff isn’t my cup of coffee but EVH’s playing… what he could do in terms of harmonics, building textures and then pulling out a solo with so many ‘how the fuck?’ moments stood both his band and him apart and always worth listening to especially later when it became more song-oriented than blowing open a bag of tricks and would never fail to through in a staggering solo even if the song was less than stellar (see ‘Humans Being’ below). That I’m writing about the dude in past-tense now still seems shit.

Bruce Springsteen

Given how Springsteen seems permanently associated with his butterscotch telecaster, his first album didn’t hint at a solid guitar player at the helm. But while he may well have been signed as a thesaurus-swallowing ‘new Dylan’ acoustic singer / songwriter, but before Clive Davis signed him to Columbia, Bruce Springsteen had been honing his guitar chops for years with hours upon hours of daily practice and playing “loud guitars and a Southern-influenced rock sound” in Steel Mill. Since the emergence of those chops on record – ‘Kitty’s Back’ kicking in on The Wild The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle – Springsteen’s guitar playing has been at the centre of some of his best songs. Which seems like an idea for another Springsteen post…

He might not be the most technically proficient of players but he’s all about soul and feel and his guitar lines on songs like ‘Born To Run’ are as iconic as the guitar on that album’s cover. Whether he’s picking out an acoustic melody line on ‘Blood Brothers’, chiming teak-like tone on his later ‘other band work’ or those gorgeous twangy lines of ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ or pretty much all of the guitar work’s bite and crunch throughout Darkness of the Edge of Town, Springsteen’s guitar work always gives his songs – and live performances – the edge.

Stevie Ray Vaughan

You know how sometimes you can hear something and, for reasons unknown, it’s just the wrong time, wrong place for you to get into it? Like your receptors are tuned in to the wrong frequency or something? Happened to me with Stevie Ray Vaughan: I’d heard about the dude being a guitar player of excellence, bought The Essential and just… it didn’t click there and then. BUT a few years later, holy fuck did it click. Can’t remember when but I was sitting chowing down a burger and I heard ‘Empty Arms’ and I just saw there not chewing for four minutes, how had I not paid that cd any attention… I picked that Essential album up as soon as I got home and I’ve been getting as much SRV as possible since. That monster tone and skill; sit up, shut up, pay attention and pick your mouth up off the floor.

Jimmy Page

I mean, fuck: Jimmy Page… do you even need to explain? I remember hearing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in that same sitting as Dark Side of the Moon as being revelatory… John Bonham sitting around for the best part o five minutes and as soon as he begins to get going Jimmy switches to solo mode and unleashes and absolute fucking beast. He’s gotta be the master of dynamics – ‘Ramble On’ is a benchmark – and can swing from great acoustic rhythms to monstrous riffs and scorching solos, not just on the same album but often on the same song.

Jeff Beck

And it’s hi-ho silver lining, and away you go now baby…

How Jeff Beck ever released that is beyond me but I’m sure he gets plenty fed up with it now… as Jim over at Music Enthusiast pointed out – it’s impossible to think of a rock player ‘that’s dabbled in so many genres’. Whatever genre he goes for though, one thing that’s constant is that Jeff Beck is an astoundingly great guitar player.

Prince

Back when I was starting to pay attention more to music the radio was doing a massive disservice to Prince – wasn’t helped by the whole T-A-F-K-A-P / Squiggle thing, sure – and my only real exposure was to songs like ‘Kiss’, ‘Gold’ or ‘1999’ ‘Little Red Corvette’. I mean good songs all (except for ‘Kiss’) but nothing that made me go ‘holy fuck that guy can play’ and not just because using language like that would get my mouth washed out with soap. BUT, man when I heard Purple Rain…. sure it’s his most guitar-heavy album but holy fuck that guy can play! Rock balladry can be a mixed bag but the solo on ‘Purple Rain’ is easily the benchmark by which all others are judged and can’t hit.

I’m not a huge Prince fan – not all his music blows my mind but when he strapped on his guitar it was because he knew not only could he break out in the middle of a song and play the arse off of it, but he could integrate it into a song like few others even when it’s not the strongest thing in the mix. His playing was not only versatile and inventive in style but he could go from from 0-100 in seconds flat – take how he turned the usual circle-jerk Rock n Roll Hall of Fame jam of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and blew it into the stratosphere with no rehearsal!

Johnny Greenwood

Imagine trying to wreck a song and having your guitar’s ‘eh-eh. eh-eh’ stuttering sabotage attempt sounding so good it not only makes the mix but makes the song? That’d be Johnny Greenwood and ‘Creep’. A hugely talented player – equally adept at picking up the bass, piano, viola or drums – it’s Greenwood’s versatility and skill that’s helped push Radiohead from their early days skirting the very edges of Britpop to pushing the definition of alt.rock with OK Computer and then pushing further still with each subsequent album with Greenwood always weaving something brilliant around a song’s parts.

Peter Green

No discredit to Lindsey Buckingham, he’s a fine player for sure, but for me Fleetwood Mac and their ultimate guitar sound is the glorious Peter Green and Danny Kirwan era. Green, specifically (or ‘The Green God’ as he was briefly referred to having replaced Clapton in John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers) had something special, from creating and tearing through blues-based tunes like ‘Oh Well (Part One)’ to those gorgeous instrumentals like ‘Albatross’, I can listen to *that* Fleetwood Mac and Peter Green’s playing until the cows come home.

J Mascis

There are some artists and bands that I’ll be jumping on that ‘pre-order’ link the second a new album is announced and Dinosaur Jr and Mascis’ own solo work is top of that pile and it’s all down to J Mascis’ guitar playing. Having burst onto that noise-rock scene with Dinosaur Jr’s take on ‘ear-bleeding country music’ with melodies buried in fuzz-tone up to their arse, Dinosaur Jr’s sound shifted slightly as they signed to a major in time to capitalise (well, to a limited extent) on the praise being heaped on them by the era’s alt-rock champions.

Mascis’ playing has continued to evolve and swing from epic riffs to soft melodic tunes but all with one thing in common: it’s only ever a matter of time before Mascis detonates them with a scorcher of a solo, and I’ll never get tired of that.

Chuck Berry

I can’t lay any claim to being schooled on rock and blues history from a young age, I was born in 1980 – most music on the radio while my hearing was developing was tosh. My first exposure to a Chuck Berry riff was probably the same as so many others of my generation – “Chuck, Chuck! It’s MarvinYour cousinMarvin Berry! You know that new sound you were looking for? Well, listen to THIS!”

But then you go back and hear the original and find out what Chuck was doing with Chess… man, it was like finding the skeleton of the missing link. I’ll put on a comp his first ten years and hear the blueprints for everything I dig now right there: he took the soul and tone of blues licks, sped em up and strapped em to the burgeoning rock n roll sound and seemingly invented rock guitar. More than being able to come up with a wicked lick, Chuck’s songs and lyrics can be fucking spot on too and the fact that live he’d play with pick-up bands and still bring the heat… there’s a reason he’s the legend he is.

Thurston Moore

Thurston Moore rubbing shoulders with Chuck Berry… such is the joy of these lists. What Thurston (in combination with Lee Ranaldo) bought to the front with their playing is a pretty unique sound that I dig on so many levels – experimentation with tunings, prepared and altered guitars, jams that cascade into feedback before pulling back the threads into the melody and thrash-like strumming to build hypnotic rhythms. This isn’t guitar playing of the ‘guitar hero’ style but it never pretends to be either. Standing up front with Thurston’s stack next to me probably cost me a percentage of hearing in my right ear but I’d give it again.

George Harrison

Yes, I know, George didn’t play the solo on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, but he did write the damned thing and write and play on those gorgeous tunes like ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’. Not to mention his multitude of contributions to the Fab Four’s songs and a plethora of amazing solo tunes too. Deceptively uncluttered in it’s beauty and always hitting the sweet spot in tone.

Stuart Braithwaite / Barry Burns (Mogwai)

It wouldn’t be my list if there wasn’t a nod to post-rock in here somewhere and the guitar work of Stuart Braithwaite and Barry Burns has always been what sets Mogwai apart for me in a genre that’s stuffed with great players.

Perhaps down to their influences in early genre pioneers like Slint or Kevin Shields’ My Bloody Valentine, developed a sound of their own built on towering, repeating riffs that were deceptively simple while weaving intricate melodies to build this massive sonic space that they could either explode and pick up again or find a hidden gear somewhere and blow your speakers out.

As the band have evolved to incorporate an increasing away of sounds and influences over their 25 years the guitar work has remained the powerful heart.

Doug Martsch (Built to Spill)

Bringing guitar-hero moves and freakouts into alt. rock style with Built to Spill, Doug Martsch creates these brilliantly arranged guitar-centric songs that I just fucking lap up – there’s always something new I discover on repeating listens from those odd timing signature changes, odd structures and mid-song breakdowns that dissolve into unashamed guitar heroics before bouncing back in. And he does it all with the same guitar he’s used for the last couple of decades (a Fender Super Strat with wiring modded to a single pick-up for those that are curious) and without any theatrics – Built To Spill went from being indie-rock down the middle with their first couple of albums to Martsch’s inspired move to bring jam-band style workouts into the genre and made it seem an effortless combination, becoming one of indie-rock’s essential guitarists in the process.

Jack Rose

I came to Jack Rose’s music by pure chance and too late. Hearing Rose’s guitar pieces was like being hypnotised and I’m still gobbling up as much of it as I can.

He took the experiments and sound of players like John Fahey as his base and created these brilliant acoustic pieces on 6 and 12 strings that took that finger-picking style, blended it with dissonance and Eastern elements that just blew my mind and opened me up to a whole new genre and way of playing that I’ll often get lost in.

Thurston Moore was a big fan – when Rose died of a heart attack in 2009 at 38 years old, Moore recorded and released an album 12 String Mediations for Jack Rose as a tribute.

Jimi Hendrix

I mean, come on, it’s a no-brainer, right? If Chuck Berry invented modern rock guitar then Jimi, literally, set fire to it and kicked it into a whole new game.

And, should those videos not load and the list is preferred in digestible Spotify-flavoured chunks:

Albums of my years – 2020

First off – yes, I’m jumping ahead by a fair leap from the last of this series. Why? Well, the original premise was to go through each of those years leading up to my 40th. Problem is I didn’t account for my own lapse in prompt posting, the restraints such an ambitious series has on getting out other posts (I’ve still a couple more Bruce posts in the tank and countless others that were in the works) and that target drifted past last October. 2020 was a bloody weird one for me, for all of us I’m sure, and while I had more time on my hands as a result of spending the majority of it on furlough (and a small part job hunting) and coming to terms with release from a toxic work environment for some years and its impact, I simply wasn’t in the mental state needed to keep a schedule and get that target home. Plus – given that it’s now still just about January – it feels more fitting now to blast out a 2020 wrap up and fill in the gaps on an ad-hoc basis.

2020 was, understandably, a real weird one in music from February onwards. Most music news focused on the cancellation of tours, delays in releases and – most sadly – those who had died after contracting Covid-19. As we got used to the new state of things artists both decided to release albums anyway or, often, had so much time off-cycle that they were able to turn around entire albums in the lockdowns that most of the world were under (and still are, here, as I type). Music news and the presentation of new music shifted into a different phase as ‘guest spots’ on TV shows came via webcams and concerts were streamed from artists’ homes and rehearsal spaces right into those of the audience. While this served a welcome relief and distraction for music lovers including myself, I cannot overstate how damaging an impact this pandemic has had and is having on the events industry.

With the news cycle this year being one of the strangest, it’s easy to forget some of the events that took place in 2020. Hell, March 2020 seems like a decade ago so the fact that, say, Pearl Jam released their first album in seven years is almost forgotten. That they too had the anticipated rollout and tour cancelled no doubt threw a spanner in the works. While we’re still on the subject of the news cycle I think we can, all of us around the right-thinking world that is, agree that the best news to come out of 2020 was the defeat of that contemptible sack of shit and a potential end to the plain insanity and ‘alternative-fact’ delirium. Well done America and thanks.

The start of the year saw reunions and reunion tours announced for bands like Genesis and Rage Against the Machine only for them to be promptly postponed, leaving them in the odd position of being together again but not really. It would be hard for a band to be together long enough to decide to break up in 2020 – a few did but nobody that you’d call any great shakes with the exception, for me, of Milk Teeth – but we lost a lot of great musicians in 2020. Thanks to Coronavirus we said goodbye to John Prine and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. Country singer and fried chicken connoisseur Kenny Rogers died at age 81 as did Bill Withers and Spencer Davis. Neil Peart, long held in high regard as one of the greatest drummers to sit on the stool, died in January, Little Richard passed away in May. We also said farewell to Peter Green, blues guitarist of choice and founder of Fleetwood Mac, Justin Townes Earle and Ennio Morricone – one of the most emotive film composers to score a film – left us in July at the ripe old age of 91. And perhaps most surprisingly, after increasing rumours of ill health, Eddie Van Halen lost his battle with cancer in October. A guitar player like no other, he was a real ‘light the fuse and watch the fireworks’ player who seemed unable to pick up an instrument without riffs and melodies falling out of him.

So what albums made it through? It was a great year for post-rock releases. Caspian’s In Circles, Toundra’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (a re-imagined soundtrack for a silent German horror film), Audiolepsia’s Waves & Particles and I Hear Sirens’ Stella Mori all got a lot of ear time in 2020.

Stone Temple Pilots released their second album with singer Jeff Gutt (I always have to double check that’s actually his name) – Perdida is ‘ok’ but it’s a long way from Core. Nada Surf’s Never Not Together is pleasant enough but nothing to really stick in the mind like Lucky and Bob Dylan emerged from years of cover albums to release his first album of original songs in eight years: Rough and Rowdy Ways. If not being able to tour is affecting anyone it’s gotta be bothering Bob – not that he’s likely to be at a loss having sold the rights to his entire back catalogue to Universal for a rumoured $350 million. I don’t think I’ve listened to the album more than once though. One I have listened to a lot and took almost as long to release is My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall II. Back in 2015 when The Waterfall was let loose on us, the band said they’d recorded two album’s worth of material and the second would soon follow…. since then nothing. Until Jim James took a walk during lockdown with his iPod and heard the songs again, prompting its release shortly after. It was worth the wait but I’m itching for some ‘new’ MMJ…

I started getting into Courtney Marie Matthews in 2019 and was pretty chuffed when she released Old Flowers in 2020 – a gorgeous album with lots of brooding and burning guitar leads buried in a lush atmosphere supporting her great vocals. ‘If I Told’, in particular received many a repeated listen:

In a ‘back from the past’ file you’ll find Bush – known for finding more success in the States on the back of the post-Grunge boom than in the UK – but they’ve been back together for a while and putting out music that’s pretty bloody strong considering, their 2020 album The Kingdom got a good few streams my end as did Alanis Morissette’s Such Pretty Forks which is a surprisingly strong and consistently good album given I’d almost completely tuned out of new music from Alanis for over a decade. Somewhere in there I also discovered the music of Rose City Band in 2020 – via a real vibe of an album Summerlong that you could just put on loop and drift away to somewhere else in your mind.

Milk Teeth released their second album, following a series of EPs,  a self-titled effort brimming with their mix of 90’s inspired punk and rock before calling it a day. Down In the Weeds, Where the World Once Was found Bright Eyes returning nine years after their last effort with a much strong effort that I was expecting though I’ve yet to part with coin for it. One I happily did part with coin for was Thurston Moore’s By The Fire – a great album that’s probably the strongest of his post-Sonic Youth and, with Steve Shelley handling a lot of the drum duty, is as close to that band’s sound as you’re gonna find on a new release. Big Thief were a big discovery for me in 2019, in the space of a year I went from not having heard of them to grabbing each of their four albums (two of which were released in 2019 alone) and getting very quickly addicted. For some reason I was a little late, then, in listening to Adrianne Lenker’s 2020 release Songs and Instrumentals but I’m glad I did – it’s my favourite of her solo work to date and very much worth a listen.

Billy Corgan decided to stop being a moaning dickhead long enough to make another Smashing Pumpkins album – Cyr is a double album in which I doubt there’s even a single good album. Someone really, really needs to tell him ‘nah’ more often.

For all that, when it comes to new music (as opposed to the discovery of new-to-me bands and older music that seemed to dominate 2020 for me listening wise), there were two albums that got the most ear time with me and it’s unlikely to be any surprise which. Both had been the subject of rumours swirling ahead of their actual drop and both proved a very welcome relief in terms of both quality and distraction from the world’s troubles.

So let’s do this:

Bruce Springsteen’s 2019 album Western Stars, his first since his residency on Braodway, was a a real outlier in his catalogue. A ‘solo’ album in the sense that it wasn’t an E Street Band affair but nonetheless bathed in sound. There was to be no tour. A ‘live’ film and soundtrack quickly followed and then the rumours started as Bruce mentioned he’d started writing for ‘the band’. And then, when we needed it most after half a year thwarted by lockdowns and pandemic, the announcement came: the new Bruce Springsteen album, backed by the E Street Band, Letter To You was coming. Not only that, but it was recorded in a matter of days, live in the studio, minimal overdubs! Could it be? Could the sound of the E Street Band in its prime – Bruce hadn’t recorded live with the band without at least demoing the material since the early 80s – without the interference of extra layers and gimmicks that had afflicted his last three albums (even Western Stars couldn’t escape it) all produced by Ron Aniello? The answer was very much ‘yes, yes and YES!’

Letter To You is Springsteen’s finest album since Magic and the sound of the E Street Band (with the Charles Giordano and Jake Clemons filling in for the faithful departed) at its glorious best in a way it hasn’t been captured on ‘tape’ in a long-ass time. The album moves with a confidence and power that I honestly didn’t expect was there anymore. There’s something both comforting and exciting about hearing that sound on new songs that just makes you want to head straight back to the start after finishing the album.

It’s a joy to hear those older (‘Janey Needs a Shooter’, ‘If I Was The Priest’ and ‘Song for Orphans’ date back to ’72) songs songs dusted off and, at last, given life. The newer songs – which all came quickly to Bruce once he started playing a guitar given to him by a fan – sit amongst his best. There’s at once a sense of ‘this is who were then and this is who we are now’ as there’s no getting around the fact that time marches on (hell, it’s there in his voice) while at the same time letting you know that there’s still gas in the tank to go.

While Western Stars was an album that wouldn’t really transfer to the world’s stadiums and arenas, Letter To You brims with songs that need to be heard live – let’s hope that tour can happen soon.

And that just leaves…

Pearl Jam – Gigaton

Once upon a time you could set your clock by Pearl Jam releases. Every 18 months or so you’d get another slab of the great stuff. But that schedule, sadly, is close to 20 years ago… gaps between albums started to get longer: nearly four years separated Riot Act and Pearl Jam, another three until Backspacer, then four again before we got Lightning Bolt and then…. the longest wait to date came to end this year with Gigaton, their first album in seven long years and their first since 2006 with a new producer; sessions and work with Brendan O’Brien not hitting the mark for the band (or fans, see ‘Can’t Deny Me’).

As a long time fan, I was growing tired of the rumours – the fake supposed track lists and titles (some better than others, most featuring ‘Of The Earth’ and ‘Can’t Deny Me’ as attempts at validity), the ‘massive tour featuring both small venues and stadiums in each city’ and claims of ‘two new albums and an Ed solo’. It would come when it would come. And then, early in 2020, there were some very real hints, snippets of a strange new sound doing the rounds, an app and map to hunt down images around the world, an album cover and, finally, the email from Ten Club arrived ‘Dance of the Clairvoyants’ – it was time!

Now, I’ll be honest, at first I was a little ‘do what?’ But by the end I was hooked and going back for another spin – a lot more than can be said for ‘Can’t Deny Me’. It’s definitely Pearl Jam but it’s Pearl Jam sounding more focused and engaged than they have on record for a while, working with Josh Evans had clearly allowed them to take a freer approach to their experimental side in the same way as working with Tchad Blake and Adam Kasper had. If this was a sign of what was to come on Gigaton a) sign me up and b) what’s next? Well, ‘Superblood Wolfmoon’ showed that ‘DOTC’ was a deliberate left-field choice, it was a more straight-ahead song but, again, the band sounding tighter and more ‘on’. From the conversations online I saw, it did the job of shutting up those bemoaning DOTC’s ‘weird’ sound. And then came ‘Quick Escape’ and I new that Gigaton was going to be great:

It’s a belter of a song, guitars to the forefront and a scathing lyric  – “crossed the border to Morocco, Kashmir to Marrakesh, the lengths we had to go to then to find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet”. What was I expecting – an album with the experimental textures of Riot Act with the power and engaged lyrics of Pearl Jam. What I got was exactly that and it’s fucking great – even though ‘Buckle Up’ took a lot of listens to not skip.

Since Binaural I’d started to consider Pearl Jam a band of second halves on their albums – from the mid point on things got tastier. ‘Light Years’ through to ‘Parting Ways’, ‘Nothing As It Seems’ through ‘All Or None’, ‘Just Breath’ onwards etc is where you found the juicier cuts of meat. But Gigaton is not only front-loaded, the mid section is dazzling – ‘Seven O’Clock’ is easily Vedder’s wordiest lyric and is powered along by a melody that has the rare distinction of being a ‘Ament, Gossard, McCready, Vedder’ composition, and ‘Take The Long Way’ is one of those great Matt Cameron composition – and closes strong with ‘Comes Then Goes’, ‘Retrograde’ and ‘River Cross’, Vedder’s touching lament on fear and the nature of doubt in life underscored by an antique pump organ (the take used retained from a 2015 demo for the song).

I’ve played this album through so many times this year I’ve lost count – I even picked up the CD too (as Pearl Jam don’t seem to grasp download codes with their vinyl) so I could spin it in the car on my new commute – and am still not tired of it. Pearl Jam haven’t sounded so consistently engaged and willing to ‘go for it’ in pushing their sound for years and it’s a joyous listen that, in a year of turmoil, managed to provide an uplifting soundtrack. It’s an easy choice for me to highlight this as my album of 2020 on so many personal levels.

Albums of my years – 1998

1998 was the year that we figured fuck it; if Bruce Willis can blow up an asteroid then Nic Cage can be an angel and Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bollocks can be witches. Oh, and cinema goers had to contend with Death having Brad Pitt’s looks and flicky hair. Thank fuck for the Coen Brothers and the mighty Big Lebowski – now there is a classic movie and great soundtrack.

On the subject of soundtracks – Aerosmith didn’t wanna miss a thing in ’98 and the Goo Goo Dolls would give up forever to hold us, isn’t that sweet? Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page wanted us to come with them as they married  the riff from ‘Kashmir’ to some mutterings about a monster, elsewhere Lenny Kravitz wanted to ‘Fly Away’, Shania Twain was convinced we were still ‘the one’ – probably because, as Stardust pointed out, music sounds better with us – and 2Pac’s ‘Changes’ reminded us all what a great piano tune Bruce Hornsby and the Range had in ‘The Way It Is’ long before Pierce wrote it for Greendale Community College. Oh, and Metallica MURDERED Thin Lizzy’s ‘Whisky In The Jar’ for their own financial gain. Bastards.

At some point, Dave Navarro had apparently turned up to a Red Hot Chili Peppers practice off his tits on drugs. He was asked to leave the band in March. Flea – having convinced a near-death and poverty John Frusciante to entre rehab at the start of the year – asked him to rejoin in April ’98. Frusciante rejoined his bandmates and production on their next album soon got underway. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler took a tumble onstage and broke his leg causing delays to their Nine Lives Tour (to remind people why it would be worth waiting and to fulfil their Geffen contract they released the live album A Little South Of Sanity) and Pearl Jam’s first music video in six years premiered on MTV’s 120 Minutes:

On the subject of MTV – Total Request Live aired for the first time in ’98, just in time for Britney Spears’ god-awful arrival. On the plus side we said hello to bands including Aereogramme (massively missed), The Album Leaf, Metric, My Morning Jacket and Rilo Kiley who all formed in 1998.

‘Do The Evolution’ – which marked Pearl Jam’s first music video since ‘Oceans’ – wasn’t released as a single but was taken from the band’s 1998 album Yield. Seen by many as a ‘return to form’ because it was more accessible than No CodeYield marked another great album from the band and one that I can listen to front-to-back repeatedly. ‘Given To Fly’, ‘Faithful’, ‘Lowlight’, ‘MFC’, ‘In Hiding’…. it’s just stuffed with some of the band’s greatest tunes and is a real ‘band’ album with just two ‘Vedder/Vedder’ songs.

Plus, to round off what was a great year for Pearl Jam they released their first live album Live On Two Legs at the tail end of ’98 too – it remains one of the best entry points to the band given how much of what they are as a band is thrown up there on the stage. Yet I’ve discussed both of these albums at length in previous posts here and here.

I’ve also spoken pretty deep on one of the year’s other bumper releases – Bruce Springsteen’s Tracks – which, for Springsteen fans, was like getting four new albums in one hit – at least three of which featured some of his finest work.

There was a weird… shift I think in the air at this point in the 90s. After the wave of ‘grunge’ had passed there was a rise in… I don’t think you’d call it ‘soft rock’ but it was a kind of ‘soft Alt.’ with bands like Matchbox 20 starting to cut through on the back of ‘3 a.m’ and ‘Real World’ and from their ’96 album while bands like Train released their self-titled debut and the Goo Goo Dolls’ Dizzy Up The Girl started churning out singles like ‘Black Balloon’ and ‘Slide’. Kind of Alt. with less bite… something to slot into TRL I suppose.

One band that may have inadvertently been lumped into that category but not quite fitting in is Semisonic – they’re second album Feeling Strangely Fine is a cracker of extremely well-crafted tunes that bely their radio-friendly first takes.

Van Halen spat out Van Halen III in 1998… and that’s all we’ll say about that.

Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland released his first solo album 12 Bar Blues and with Alice In Chains in a state of ‘what the fuck?’ with Staley’s addiction rendering any band work unlikely, Jerry Cantrell released his first one too with Boggy Depot. It’s pretty decent though not as good as his next would be and a little self-indulgent as is sometimes the way with these things.

One really good solo that arrived in 1998 was that of Neil Finn. Following the end of Crowded House – and not having put anything out in his own name before – Try Whistling This arrived in June. A fair bit of an experimental vibe compared to that of his former band (probably where the title came from), I’m fairly new to Mr Finn’s solo work but I really dig this one. I also really dig Colin Hay’s Transcendental Highway which was released in ’98 too.

Air released the brilliant Moon Safari in 1998 – seriously, these posts are making me feel old as balls because it’s insane to think that ‘All I Need’, ‘Sexy Boy’ and ‘Kelly Watch The Stars’ are now 22 years old:

As too, weirdly is Board of Canada’s awesome Music Has The Right To Children which is another of those classic albums that define a genre. Though given that they’ve only released four albums across the last 22 years it’s understandable to be surprised by its age.

Less surprising is Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Walking Into Clarksdale which also featured John Bonham’s son Jason on the skins. Oddly enough I bought this one new at the time, not sure how that happened but it’s not a bad effort from the fellas though obviously not enough to keep Plant tuned to the idea of more Zep stuff over the years.

Seattle’s Death Cab For Cutie released their debut in 1998, the much-loved Something About Airplanes while a newly reunited (minus Nate Mendel who stuck with Foo Fighters) put out their third album – the brilliant How It Feels To Be Something On and Neutral Milk Hotel released their much-lauded In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

All good albums as is Spoon’s A Series of Sneaks and Beck’s sixth (sixth!) album Mutations and The Afghan Whigs’ 1965. Taking a departure toward a darker, more eltronica vibe, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore hit shelves in June – still a really decent album with tunes like ‘Ava Adore’, ‘Perfect’ and ‘Once Upon A Time’ still doing the business for me. Still, Corgan knows his away around writing a tune and a half as evinced by Hole’s Celebrity Skin which had his name against writing credits for five of its twelve tracks – it still holds up today as a decent album.

Lenny Kravitz released his imaginatively titled fifth album which felt pretty lacking compared to previous efforts and it wasn’t until the following year and the stapling on of his ‘American Woman’ cover that it really gained any momentum. I remember reading Q magazine one month in ’98 – they recently shuttered sadly – and their featured reviews were for Manic Street Preachers’ This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours  and Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions. Pretty sure that, in the rush to ensure they didn’t apply the right level of praise to something that was gonna sell they gave 4 stars to the Manics and 3 to Shezza. Hindsight being what it is I think they should’ve both had the 3  This Is My Truth… is pretty overcooked whereas The Globe Sessions remains a solid listen that blends her first two albums with a slightly parred-back production but the songs aren’t quite as strong.  On the other hand I thought that Alanis Morissette’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie was better than Jagged Little Pill if a little less immediate.

1998 was also the year The Offspring borrowed a “Gunter glieben glauten globen” from Def Leppard for ‘Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” from their massive-selling Americana. The Cardigans changed gear a little for their Gran Turismo album which spawned hits in ‘My Favourite Game’ and ‘Erase / Rewind’ and Buffalo Tom were Smitten with the last album of their original run.

Sonic Youth released a couple of strong ‘experimental’ efforts in SYR3 and Silver Session For Jason Knuth and dropped A Thousand Leaves on us in May. Recorded in their own studio it meant the band had more time for longer, improvised songs and turned in one of their strongest to date.

Eels’ strongest, in my opinion, Electro-Shock Blues was also released in 1998 as was Jeff Buckley’s Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk  – made of polished studio tracks and demos from sessions for the album he was working on at the time of his death ‘My Sweetheart, The Drunk’. Even unfinished these songs are fantastic and show a real progression in his songwriting – ‘Nightmares By The Sea’, ‘The Sky Is A Landfill’, ‘Everybody Here Wants You’… there’s so much here that’s great that it just makes his passing all the more frustrating.

REM released their first album without Bill Berry. Up which, for some reason, was accompanied by the band using the phrase ‘a three-legged dog is still a dog’ in the press, was a bit of a departure and a push toward a more experimental vibe. It’s not bad – the only real stinker in their catalogue is Around The Sun – and has some great tunes on it like ‘Daysleeper’ and ‘At My Most Beautiful’ though wasn’t as consistently strong as previous efforts.

So, where does that leave us? Oh, yes:

Elliott Smith – XO

I wasn’t listening to Elliott Smith yet in 1998. Man, I was getting into Radiohead and delving back into their first couple of albums too. I passed my driving test in ’98 and was listening to a lot of stuff that I’d thrown onto compilation tapes which would have included those Aerosmith comps I’ve mentioned previously. I got into Elliott Smith big time a couple of years later on the back of Figure 8. I was into him enough for his passing to be a real ‘what the fuck?!’. When I did get into the dude from Omaha though mostly associated with Portland’s music it was XO that did it for me and still does.

I can also imagine that, on the back of Either / Or – released just a year previous – the idea of Elliott Smith being signed to a major label would’ve been pretty unexpected. His records had done pretty well with the critics and music community but they weren’t exactly about to pull a Smash. Yet here’s the thing – Gus Van Sant dug Elliott’s music and selected it to form part of the soundtrack to his ‘Good Will Hunting’ film. Suddenly cinema goers and the larger world were tuned in to some of Smith’s finest tunes like ‘Angeles’, ‘Between the Bars’ and ‘Miss Misery’ which kind of made up for it dumping Ben Affleck into the movie world like a turd in a swimming pool. ‘Miss Misery’ was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song – it lost out to Celine Dion which was probably a blessing for Smith. Elliott Smith performed at the ceremony too which must have been more of a surprise for his fans than his nomination was for everyone else but it turned out he did it only because when he wasn’t keen the producers told him it would be performed regardless – with or without him. Nor did they want him sitting in a chair. So he performed with the orchestra and wearing his white suit. When Madonna – who it turns out was a fan – announced Celine Dion as the winner she even gave a sarcastic ‘what a shocker!’. Thankfully the night before he’d performed a solo acoustic version for the world to see too on ‘Late Night With Conan O’Brien’.

I digress though – what all of the above meant longer term though is that major labels woke up. Elliott Smith signed to DreamWords Records. Unfortunately he also waged a real heavy war with depression even trying to kill himself by throwing himself off a cliff while heavily intoxicated – another battle he would fight constantly. A tree would save him by badly impaling him.

However, night after night through the winter of 1997/1998 Elliott would settle in at the Luna Lounge in Manhattan and write songs.  This was a real prolific period for him and the songs he wrote during this time would feature on his next album: 1998’s XO.

XO is a much fuller-sounding record than Smith’s previous albums. The production and sound are practically Beatles-esque at times with baroque-pop arrangements and making use of every acre of the studio. He always had a knack for coming up with great melodies but here they’re thrown into greater relief with the richer accompaniments and detailed arrangements.

But don’t be fooled. As much as the sound and melodies proved that Elliott was making great leaps and strides as a songwriter and at creating the ‘perfect pop song’ as it were, the lyrics stuck true to his intense introspection and darker subject – like ‘Baby Britain’s tales of alcoholic binging set against one of his lighters and bounciest beats yet:

That’s what makes XO so good for me – you don’t catch the songs on the first take, it’s an album that not only holds up to repeated listens but reveals more. You get caught on the tune and sound then it’s “wait, what did he just sing?” and you realised that along with creating alluring and well-crafted arrangements he’s getting so much better at writing the kind of lyrics that make you stop and pay attention.

XO was met with well-deserved praise when it was released and still makes lists of the ‘best record of <insert decade / genre / subject here’ variety.  It’s a real high-point in his catalogue – he’d only have one more studio album released in his lifetime – and a massive favourite of mine. As wonderfully created and light the arrangements are, there’s still something so very much of its time for me about the album, even its cover, in that tail-end of the decade and baring enough of a marking of that very-90’s alternative feel that so many would seem to be keen to wash away as the next decade dawned.

Which means we have another 21 of these to go….

 

 

 

Albums of my years – 1995

Wow: 1995. It was like ten thousand spoons when all you needed was a knife, and other things that weren’t actually ironic. Don’t you think?

It was the year that Bjork insisted ‘ It’s Oh, So Quiet’, that Oasis had everyone trying to figure out what the fuck a ‘Wonderwall’ was (everyone except George Harrison), Lenny Kravitz probably looked at Britpop before declaring that ‘Rock and Roll Is Dead’, Supergrass however decided that, actually, everything was ‘Alright’ and Bryan Adams asked us if we’d ever really, really ever loved a woman. But nobody could answer him because we were probably all too busy humming The Connells’ ’74-’75’.

It was the year of Batman Forever – a god awful film (which would only be surpassed in terms of ‘holy shit, Batman, what’s that smell’ when Joel Schumacher decided that Batman & Robin should also be made) with a killer soundtrack that somehow eschewed the expected and threw in great tunes from U2 (‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’), PJ Harvey, Mazzy Star, The Offspring, The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave and Sunny Day Real Estate! Oh and a song by Seal about getting hot and steamy in a florists.

It was the year Mel Gibson assured us, in a Scottish accent as good as Sean Connery’s Russian, that his freedom couldn’t be taken, Kevin Costner’s Waterworld sank to the murky depths from which it sprang, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino stalked each other in Heat and Woody met Buzz. Yup; Toy Story was released 25 years ago.

Back in music, Tommy Lee married Pamela Anderson and had a very secret and private honeymoon where they most likely stayed in and read Russian literature to each other.

Bruce Springsteen called the E Street Band for a somewhat awkward and brief reunion to record some new tracks for his Greatest Hits album – captured on the ‘Blood Brothers’ video. The group cut ‘Secret Garden’, ‘Blood Brothers’ and re-recorded earlier tunes ‘This Hard Land’ and ‘Murder Incorporated’ along with ‘High Hopes’ (much better than the version later released) and ‘Without You’ which would appear on the Blood Brothers EP. This isn’t a Bruce post but I’ll also point out that if Bruce is in a studio with a band – not just any band, mind, the E Street Band – then you can bet your arse there’s gonna be more than that recorded. There was also ‘Back In Your Arms’ which would see the light of day on Tracks, ‘Missing’ which would appear on Sean Penn’s ‘The Crossing Guard’ soundtrack, and ‘Waiting on the End of the World’ which has been punting about on YouTube etc for a while. But… there was also an early take on ‘Dry Lightning’ and other tunes which he’d tried with a smaller band in 1994 such as ‘Nothing Man’, ‘Dark and Bloody Ground’, I’m Going Back’, ‘Angelina’ and more thrown in the vaults never to be heard from again… unless there’s a Tracks 2 coming.

Jerry Garcia crashed his car in January but was uninjured. However, having relapsed into drug addiction, he checked himself into rehab later in the year though died in his room in August after suffering a heart attack. He was 53. Also lost to the music world in 1995 was Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon. Hoon was found dead after a night of binging on drugs after what he felt was a disappointing show. He was 28 and left behind a daughter who was only months old. Addiction is a terrible fucking thing. I can’t tell you how angry I get when I see children losing parents to it.

Tired of the vast scale and drama that Dire Straits had become, Mark Knopfler called it a day for his band in 1995. I’m pretty sure that, as good as one last show would be (even if you don’t push it and ask for David Knopfler to take part too), a reunion won’t happen. Sunny Day Real Estate, Slowdive and Kyuss also called it a day in ’95. However, on the flip side of that coin, it was ‘hello’ to Alabama 3, Biffy Clyro, Blonde Redhead, Cursive, Eels, Elliott, Faithless, Idlewild, Mansun, Matchbox 20, Mogwai (fuck YEAH!), Mojave 3 (formed with former Slowdive members), Semisonic, Sleater-Kinney, Slipknot, … and er… Death Vomit, who all formed in 1995. Which kind of makes up for the fact that Nickelback also chose this year to start slowly murdering music.

R.E.M were having a pretty shit time of it on their Monster tour – Michael Stipe suffered a hiatal hernia, Mike Mills needed an appendectomy and Bill Berry left the stage during a concert in Switzerland after he suffered a brain aneurysm. Still, somehow during all these they’d be finding the time to put together the songs that would form their next, and finest, album. But that’ll have to wait until the 1996 post… so what dropped in 1995? Well, sticking in this blog’s wheelhouse, Van Halen released Balance their last album with Sammy Hagar and the last time they’d hit the top spot.

Slowdive also released their final album ahead of their breakup, Pygmalion was a real solid dose of the great stuff and, thankfully, the band would eventually reunite and drop another great new album some decades later. Sunny Day Real Estate’s aforementioned break-up took place during the recording of their second album, so by the time they handed it over to Subpop the label found themselves in the unpleasant situation of having a much-anticipated album but from a band that no longer existed and had no interest in it or promoting in. The lyrics weren’t finished and the “just make it pink” direction for the artwork was taken literally by the label who released it as LP2 in 1995 and yet, somehow, it’s a bloody brilliant album and one that gets a regular play on my turntable.

Sunny Day Real Estate’s tight rhythm section of Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith weren’t idle long, though – a chap called Dave Grohl needed a band and pronto. Grohl’s self-performed Foo Fighters album was released in mid-95 and he needed a group to take it out and play the arse off it. Goldsmith’s tenure would be… troubled at best but Mendel remains in Foo Fighters to this day as does Pat Smear (albeit having left then returned a few years later) and the first album has since shifted a few million units even if Grohl still insists it was never actually meant to be an album. While its composition and recording means it sounds very much unique within the Foo’s catalogue, it’s a great album and one of the year’s best:

No post-breakup blues from Kim Deal in ’95 – following the demise of the Pixies and sister Kelley’s drug bust putting The Breeders on hold, she formed another new band and The Amps released their only album Pacer the same year. She’d also pop up on Sonic Youth’s ‘Little Trouble Girl’ from their album Washing Machine – another corker from the band packed with great tunes like ‘Becuz’ and ‘Junkie’s Promise’ though not quite up to their promise.

Meanwhile, formed out of the ‘remains’ of Uncle Tupelo, Wilco released their debut A.M and Australian teens Silverchair released their debut Frogstomp which was, correctly in this instance, seen as their attempt to sound as identical to those bands they were enamoured by as they could (they’d get better) but was still pretty decent when you consider it’s an album by three 15 year olds.

Having recorded her debut at a similar age, Alanis Morissette released an altogether different album in 1995 to her two previous Canada-only albums; Jagged Little Pill was one of those albums that seemed to define the year with singles like ‘Ironic’, ‘You Oughta Know’, ‘One Hand In My Pocket’ playing from stereos everywhere as their videos seemed just as dominant on MTV (remember – it still played music back then) on their way to becoming part of pop-culture. Reviewed in retrospect it’s still a powerful album dominated both by Alanis’ vocals but by the ‘angst’ of it, Glenn Ballard’s production and the  sheer consistency of it.

Ben Folds Five released their self-title debut in 1995 as did Garbage whose album contains some absolute belters like ‘Stupid Girl’ and ‘Only Happy When It Rains’. Blind Melon’s second album Soup was released just 8 weeks before singer Shannon Hoon’s death. It’s a real move forward from their debut and was received with a lot more positivity from critics – songs like ‘Galaxie’ and ‘2×4’ are always good to hear. Tindersticks released their second (and second self-titled) album in ’95 and I can never hear songs like ‘My Sister’ or ‘Tiny Tears’ enough.

Neil Young’s Mirror Ball was released in ’95 – recorded in just a couple of weeks toward the start of the year with Pearl Jam as his backing band minus Vedder who was dealing with a stalker issue though still appeared on a couple of tracks. The group – without Eddie – would tour Europe with Neil to promote the album. Bjork’s Post arrived in 1995 and, beyond the annoying ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ included the amazing ‘Hyperballad’ and the Red Hot Chili Peppers released their only album with ex-Janes Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro with One Hot Minute and proved that what looks good on paper doesn’t always work. It’s not… terrible.. but the combination of Navarro and RHCP could’ve been a lot more potent than it was.

Jumping back across the Atlantic to make an abrupt change in sound and scene, one of the few positives about Britpop for me was that it – much like ‘grunge’ in the US – allowed over bands who were ‘kinda but not quite’ Britpop to get attention and success. Released at the height of it, Pulp’s Different Class remains – unlike many of that era – highly listenable with ‘Common People’ and ‘Disco 2000’ absolute classics. Meanwhile, Radiohead were preparing the nails for Britpop’s coffin…  The Bends was released in March 1995 and is a stone-cold fucking classic. The term ‘massive leap forward’ seems to have been invented just for the shift from Pablo Honey to The Bends. Yes it’s the shift in songwriting and approach that would reach perfection on OK Computer but The Bends is pretty damn perfect in its own right – ‘Just’, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, ‘High and Dry’, ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’… It’s just insanely good.

Popping back State-side for the last push…. Elliott Smith’s second solo album was released in 1995 too. The self-titled album, perhaps best-known for ‘Needle In The Hay’ is another favourite and is too oft-overlooked in his catalogue. Pavement released their third album, the great Wowee Zowee in April 1995 and, despite what the critics said at the time, it’s one of their best.

How do you follow-up an album as amazing as Siamese Dream? Well, if you’re Billy Corgan you go bigger, of course. Bigger and grander by far. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is a monster of an album – a whopping 28 tracks covering seemingly every spectrum of the Pumpkins’ sonic sweep from tender, string-laden beauties like the perfect arrangement of ‘Tonight, Tonight’ and the gorgeous ‘Porcelina of the Vast Oceans’ to the fiercer, heads-down rippers like ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ via the all-time classic ‘1979’. It could so easily be at the ‘top’ of this list, it’s great album and a real favourite but… it’s just too fucking long, Billy; what the hell man? Talk about ‘cd bloat’…

Former poodle-haired rockers Bon Jovi have come in for a bit of slack on this blog but These Days was not like any other Bon Jovi album – shorn of over-wrought production (albeit far too temporarily) These Days struck a much more mature and cheese-free approach and deserved its surprising presence on many a ‘best of the year’ list at the end of 1995 with many suggesting that, were it recorded by anyone else, the album would’ve been ranked higher still. New Jersey’s more-famous son Bruce Springsteen had another album up his sleeve in the decade’s middle year. Having released Greatest Hits in February, complete with an E Street Band powered video for ‘Murder Incorporated’, Bruce threw a complete left at the end of the year with November’s released of The Ghost of Tom Joad. His second ‘solo’ and mainly acoustic album it’s great but… I’ve already featured The Ghost of Tom Joad so cannot sit it here at the top either…

There was another import self-titled release in 1995, the final album from the Layne Staley fronted version of Alice in Chains. Alice In Chains feels to me like a sonically different beast to AIC’s two previous albums, steering closer to the melodies of Jar of Flies than the heavy-riffing of Dirt and while the subject matter for lyrics is still pretty dark, it makes for an easier listen and is lighter in its sound with ‘Grind’, ‘Brush Away’ and ‘Heaven Beside You’ sitting amongst my favourite Alice In Chains songs.

Which, looking at my shelves, really only leaves…

Mad Season – Above

Sure there were undoubtedly bigger, more important and more well-received albums in this year and I’ve know doubt that any of those mentioned above would happily slot in here but when I think of 1995 in music now it’s Mad Season’s sole album Above that pops up almost instantly.

A ‘grunge supergroup’, Mad Season was formed by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Screaming Trees’ Barrett Martin, Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley and John Baker Saunders. During early sessions for ’94’s Vitalogy, McCready had entered into rehab for drug and alcohol addiction and had met bass player John Baker Saunders there. The two returned to Seattle and began playing with Barrett Martin. It was McCready who bought in Layne Staley to sing in the hope that being around sober musicians and having a new project would help push Layne to get clean himself.

I remember the first time I heard Above will deep-diving into my then newly discovered love for ‘grunge’ and realising it was nothing like what I was expecting. I don’t know what I thought it would be – like Layne fronting Pearl Jam perhaps…. but it’s something somehow both distinctly different to the sound of those two most famous of its ingredients yet still familiar enough to let you know where its roots lie.

Instead of AIC’s heavy riffage, there’s more of a bluesy sway to a lot of Above thanks to Mike McCready’s awesome playing. Mark Lanegan stopped by to sing on a few songs including ‘Long Gone Day’ and ‘I’m Above’ incase more was needed to apply a ‘supergroup’ tag. It’s not a perfect album but it’s still a favourite. You get a sense that the members are using the opportunity away from their main gig to try a few things out and push in a different direction – always something worth going for – and I think, for the most part it works.

But it’s also important to remember that this is a first album, it wasn’t conceived as a one-off it’s just how fate took it. I can’t help but think that they would’ve gone on to better. I mean, the music for two songs were written before Staley was recruited, the rest within a week and Layne completing his lyrics in just a few more days. All at a time when AIC were preparing their next album, Pearl Jam were coming off the back of Vitalogy… had time allowed the group to get it together again after touring and feeling each other out more as players and the group’s capabilities the next album would’ve soared.

As it was they’d play a good few shows in early ’95 to promote the album but soon their ‘day jobs’ started to call their attention and so Mad Season took a break. By the time they tried to revive the group for another go in 1997, Staley’s addiction had taken such a toll on his health that he was no longer interested or, probably, capable. His last live performance was in July 1996. The remaining members began instead working with Mark Lanegan on some new songs and adopted a new name – Disinformation – to reflect the change in lineup. Conflicting schedules would make it difficult for work to progress and then, in 1999, John Baker Saunders died after a heroin overdose. McCready continued to work with Pearl Jam, Lanegan forged a successful solo career and Martin – after Screaming Trees ended – would tour as REM’s drummer having played on their album Up along with forming Tuatara with Peter Buck. In 2002 Layne Staley would also succumb to his drug addiction.

As such, Above is that single-shot blast of greatness from Mad Season and captures a brief, fleeting moment in time when these great players were able to make it work. It also sounds so very 1995, surely this was the only time when a side-project could get such major label support and promotion.

Albums of my years – 1994

I want you to go in that bag and find my wallet. Which one is it? It’s the one that says…. Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. 1994, the year of Pulp Fiction, Forest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption and Natural Born Killers. It’s the year that Jim Carey rubber-faced and over-acted on cinema screens in not one,  not two but 3 hits of his schtick: The MaskAce Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb and Dumber and Hugh Grant stammered his way into Andie MacDowell’s delicates in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

In music it was the year that Lisa Loeb implored us to ‘Stay’ because she missed us, Whigfield was preparing for ‘Saturday Night’ (dee dee nah nah), All-4-One swore about something, Boyz II Men announced they’d make love to us, we were all Maria Carey wanted for Christmas and Big Mountain assured us they loved our way, baby.

It was a big year for Aerosmith – they released their Geffen-era hits album Big Ones having headlined the Saturday night at Woodstock 94 – according to Tyler it “rained like a cow pissing on a flat rock” during their set, opened their own Mama Kin Music Hall in Boston, seen singles ‘Crazy’ and ‘Deuces are Wild’ still manage to do the business in a music scene already rapidly changed since their recent reemergence and become the first major band to premier a new song on the Internet; the Get A Grip cast-off ‘Head First’ was downloaded for free by 10,000 CompuServe (remember them?) subscribers in 8 days.

This side of the Atlantic, the ball-ache of Oasis vs Blur (neither, thanks) was underway with the rise of Britpop as Parklife and Definitely Maybe began being milked for songs to fill the airways. Albarn figured he, and Britpop, were there to kill off grunge. The conceited prick that he was, told NME in 1993 that “If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I’m getting rid of grunge. People should smarten up a bit, be a bit more energetic. They’re walking around like hippies, stooped, greasy hair… It irritates me.” Yeah, because Blur,  Oasis and Britpop was all about looking smart and not lolling about the place like twats:

 

In ‘grunge’, though, things went very dark in ’94. On March 3rd, Kurt Cobain overdosed on Rohypnol and champagne in Rome and slipped into a coma. A few weeks later, back in the US, police confiscated four guns and twenty-five boxes of ammo from his house after Courtney Love dialled 911 fearing he was suicidal. An intervention on the 25th March saw Kurt agreeing to enter rehab – he checked in to the  Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles on March 30, 1994. The next evening he went outside for a cigarette, scaled the six-foot-high fence, hailed a cab and flew back to Seattle, sitting near to Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Duff McKagan. While he was spotted in various places throughout Seattle over the next couple of days, nobody could pin down his whereabouts – Love hired Tom Grant, a private investigator, on April 3rd to find Cobain. On April 8th, 1994 an electrician called Gary Smith (who had been hired to install a security system) found Kurt Cobain’s body on the floor of the musician’s home – Smith thought Cobain was asleep until he saw the shotgun pointing at his chin. Kurt Donald Cobain was 27 when he c omitted suicide. His daughter hadn’t yet reached her second birthday. Cobain had, an autopsy would reveal, taken his life on April 5th, his blood contained a high concentration of heroin and traces of diazepam.

I think it’s fair to say that while the ‘grunge’ scene was already marked by some pretty horrific incidents – Andrew Woods’ death in ’90 and the brutal rape and murder of The Gits’ Mia Zapata to name but two – Cobain’s suicide marked a real tangible shift. It’s become a sort of time-marker for the scene in a way with everything after being viewed in relation to it. Even with amidst the phenomenon the Seattle scene had become, the members of the musical community were still close and Cobain’s suicide was a blow to all.

Hole’s Live Through This was released a week after Cobain’s death. I guess in ’94 it was a lot harder to stop wheels that were already in motion because, just saying, you’d kinda think you might wanna not release an album with such a title a week after your husband put a shotgun in their mouth… Heroin is a cunt of a drug; shortly after the release of the album and just ahead of a scheduled tour to promote it, on June 16th, Hole’s bass player Kristen Pfaff was found dead in her apartment following a heroin overdose.

Nirvana’s Unplugged album, recorded in November ’93 and released in November in 1994 arrived after plans for a double album called Verse Chorus Verse which would compile the bands live performances on one disc and the full unplugged set on the second, fell through in August (compiling it was too emotionally draining for the surviving Nirvana members). It’s widely held as one of the best unplugged sets released and marked a touching final Nirvana release.

So what was released in 1994? Well, to put it succinctly; a fucking lot.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse released  Sleeps With Angels, the title track written about the death of Kurt – who’d quoted Young in his suicide note, while REM released their much-maligned Monster which was dedicated to River Phoenix with the track ‘Let Me In’ a tribute to Kurt. Monster is a great album let down, in my opinion, by poor mixing – I always thought that a good chunk of the songs felt buried in a mix that, it turned out, producer Scott Litt also regretted after burying the vocals low in the mix and under distortion in an effort to keep up with the ‘grunge’ sound of the time. Thankfully last year’s 25th Anniversary reissue featured Litt’s remix of the album and gave it the sound it should have had in 1994:

Weezer was introduced to the world in 1994 with their self-titled debut (which would become known as the Blue album) which still stands as one of their finest collections – ‘Undone’, ‘Say It Ain’t So’, ‘Only In Dreams’, ‘My Name Is Jonas’, ‘Buddy Holly’…. all on here. While Rivers and co went Blue, The Stone Temple Pilots went Purple with their second album – also a great slab of the alternative-flavoured good stuff that’s stuffed with some of their finest too:

It’s weird to think but 1994 also saw the debut of Jimmy Eat World with their self-titled debut. I’ve a lot of time for early JEW and their first album is worth a listen for the curious but it’s still early days. In terms of debut albums in 1994 it’d be hard to beat Portishead’s Dummy. Popularising trip-hop, winning the 1995 Mercury Music Prize and just gobbling up acclaim, it’s an album that’s pretty much unlike anything else released that year and I think even they have yet to top it.

Voodoo Lounge was definitely not The Rolling Stones’ debut – a pretty decent Stones album (I have a huge amount of time for ‘Thru and Thru’) it’s their 20th and, not to be considered ‘out of touch’ with the musical zeitgeist, they announced the Voodoo Lounge Tour by arriving on JFK’s presidential yacht… meanwhile Pink Floyd released what would be their final studio album, one of my own favourites, The Division Bell. Pink Floyd’s last album didn’t go down as well as it should have at the time but I think it’s aged very well and stands as a much stronger farewell than A Momentary Lapse of Reason and a million times stronger than The Final Cut would have been.

Demonstrating just how much the musical world had shifted since both the Stones and Floyd released their previous albums, both were massively outsold by an independent release from a punk-rock band from California – not that one. The Offspring’s Smash, released on Epitaph, became the best selling independent record of all time with more than 11 million shifted to date – don’t worry, Gilmour and Mick & Keith cleared up BIG time when it came to tours behind The Division Bell and Voodoo Lounge.

Oddly enough, as a lot of older artists found themselves a little out of touch in ’94, Johnny Cash chose this as the year to prove he was still very much a force to be reckoned with. With major labels deciding the sun had set on Cash’s career, he was offered a contract with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label. Produced by Rubin, and recorded in the producer’s living room and Cash’s own cabin, American Recordings was a stripped-back collection of well-chosen covers and originals that became one of the year’s and Cash’s finest albums and usher in a decade of commercial and critical acclaim for the Man in Black.

Fittingly, Nine Inch Nails also released their second album The Downward Spiral in 1994 featuring ‘March of the Pigs’, ‘Closer’ and ‘Hurt’ which Cash would go on to cover in 2002. Oh, and Rick Rubin would wave his magic wand again in 1994, producing Tom Petty’s superb Wildflowers – the long-awaited reissue of which with a second-disc’s worth of extra material looks a lot closer now.

Still with me? Pretty strong list so far, right? Well what about the Tori Amos’ Under the Pink, also released in 1994? ‘Cornflake Girl’, ‘Pretty Good Year’, ‘God’? No? … or Green Day’s Dookie which arrived at the start of ’94 and went on to shift 20 million copies on the back of songs like ‘Basket Case’ and ‘Longview’.Weight – the Rollins Band’s fourth album which hit hard with ‘Liar’ and Mark Lanegan released his finest album, his second, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost AND Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released the phenomenal Let Love In in 1994 too.

But then there was also the debut from Seattle’s Sunny Day Real Estate – Diary pretty much defined the second-wave of emo and is an absolute classic. ‘Lightning Crashes’ and ‘I Alone’ helped push Live’s Throwing Copper on to massive figures and Built To Spill got the car with their second album There’s Nothing Wrong With Love – already a leap forward their next, in 1997, would be a real genre-definer.

That’s a pretty fucking strong list of albums for a year. But 1994 also heralded Sonic Youth’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star – the Butch Vig and band helmed album included ‘Bull In The Heather’, ‘Starfield Road’ and ‘Winner’s Blues’ – and Dinosaur Jr’s Without A Sound is another 1994 album- easily one of their best with ‘Feel The Pain’, ‘I Don’t Think So’ and ‘Get Out of This’ coming to mind as standouts. If you’re not familiar with them how about this:

Yup; Soundgarden’s genre-defining Superunknown was released in 1994 too! I mean… it’s just the best thing they ever did. It’s such a varied and accomplished slab of the great stuff…

The Cranberries released No Need to Argue in 1994 and ‘Zombie’ got stuck in everybody’s head, in their heeaaad…. Elliott Smith released his debut solo album, Roman Candle and The Black Crowes released their sublime third album, Amorica. After scrapping an album (Tall – the sessions for which can and should be checked out on 2006’s Lost Crowes), The Black Crowes re-recorded the material with a different producer but then shot themselves in the foot by releasing what could arguably be one of their greatest albums with a cover that many retailers wouldn’t touch thanks to the clock-springs poking over the top of the US-flag thong.

Oh and Pearl Jam released what I still consider their finest – Vitalogy. But I can’t consider that as a featured album as I’ve already covered that one here. However, as close a call as it would be, for me there’s only one album that stands head and shoulders above the pack for 1994:

Jeff Buckley – Grace

I could talk for pages about Grace. I discovered this album at some point in the late 90’s – one of those cases of reading about it often enough to be inclined to check it out. I remember reading about how Buckley had both the voice of Plant and the guitar sound of Page and remember putting it on and being blown away.

Initially met with poor sales, Grace‘s popularity and reputation seems to have grown with each passing year, with Buckley’s own myth – the son of Tim Buckley whom he met only once (at 8 years old), possessor of an amazing talent who made only one album before his early death….  thing is, with myths the reality is often disappointing. Grace, however, is fucking amazing.

So here are just five things I love about Grace:

1) Mojo Pin

I’m not going to say every track is a reason to love this album. Though that could easily happen.

Mojo Pin is the best kind of opener. An absolute belter of a song that manages to contain every element you’ll find on the album itself: psychedelic leanings giving way to Zeplin-esque blues and hard rock propelled by a surging guitar; lyrics that hint at the spiritual, a love lost; rising and crashing melody and, of course – that voice.

2) The Sound

The Legacy Edition of Grace comes with a Making Of.. DVD. It suggests Jeff was hard to pin down musically and could be compulsive, over-flowing with ideas as he was. When making Grace they had to have three different band set-ups available at any time in order to accommodate his ideas. Not the smoothest of productions by any account and yet the final sound is amazing.

I don’t know enough to say it’s down to the recording equipment, the sound engineer or the production – all I know is that the richness of sound is beautiful and is probably down to Andy Wallace who produced, engineered and mixed the album (adding to a CV that included mixing duty for Sonic Youth’s Dirty,  Nirvana’s Nevermind, Rage Against the Machine, L7…).You can hear every element, perfectly balanced. The plectrum on the strings, the slip of a hand on a neck, you get the sound of real music being played – nothing artificial about it. A warm, enveloping sound.

3) Track 6, 02:18- 03:08

These points are all interlinked it seems for the element that adds to the richness of that sound is the band that Jeff built around himself. Signed as a solo artist – the Live At Sin-e album highlights several points that inform Grace as well as realise that here’s a guy with songs that would really benefit from a band – Jeff didn’t always manage to reign it all in to a concise, well-formed song. Early versions of tracks that would make Grace meander more – both on Live at Sin-e and last year’s RSD release In Transition –  and he pushes his voice a little too much, not yet there with his most unique instrument.

It’s also clear that Jeff needed a full band to truly capture and develop his ideas. One of those musicians bought in, toward the end, was guitarist Michael Tighe. Tighe bought something else to the mix – the song ‘So Real’. Buckley would add a chorus and a few lyrical changes and the song was so strong it pushed off Buckley’s own Forget Her from the final album. From that, between 02:18 and 03:08 is pure chainsaw-guitar magic wrapped up with a near-whispered “I love you, but I’m afraid to love you.”

4) Covers

Not the head shot that graced the cover, but the choice of covers here – that Buckley felt sufficiently strong about to include over his some of his over originals.

The now-famous take on Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is easily the definitive version of a much-covered song. A perfect tune to showcase Buckley’s vocal prowess, it’s flawless. Enough has been written about it that I can’t / shouldn’t go into it too much here – but I will say that just when I think I’m bored of it, I’ll here it again and hear something new in his reading of it and suddenly it’s perfect again.

‘Lilac Wine’ is transformed from a cocktail-lounge song into a near mystical experience that just-about manages to keep a lid on Jeff’s voice. Then there’s a take on Britten’s hymn ‘Corpus Christi Carol’, which, in Buckley’s hands, is more of a lullaby.

Jeff’s takes on each of these songs does what any good cover should – transform it into something new.

Even the choice of these songs is notable. This was 1994. The post-Nevermind alternative music scene still on the rise and yet here are tunes plucked from Nina Simone’s repertoire and a hymn first heard in 1504.

Of course, the over, more practical reason for the inclusion of three covers is that Buckley didn’t yet have enough material of his own that was up to inclusion. Though his song writing was moving forward (those tunes written by Buckley alone include’ Last Goodbye’) it wasn’t there yet and, sadly, we’d never get the chance to discover why because….

5) A One-Off

One of those elements that makes Grace so special is frustrating and tragic in equal measure; it’s all we really have in terms of a fully-realised document of his talent.

On the evening of May 29th, 1997, Jeff Buckley went for a swim in the Mississippi. Fully clothed, wearing his boots and singing the chorus to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’. He’d been swimming in the channel before. The roadie who was with had stayed on shore, moved a guitar out of the way from a passing tugboat’s wake, looked back out to the water to find Buckley had vanished. It would be five days before his body was found. His death, at the age of 30, was ruled as an accidental drowning.

The album he was working on at the time would never reach fruition. A compilation of those songs he was working on for it would be released a few days shy of a year after his death. Critically well-received, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk showcased a new leaning for Jeff, tighter, harder and at times darker, the songs gathered across the two discs showed a marked evolution in his song writing. It’s a tantalising glimpse, a painful “what if?” that no amount of reissues or vault-digging can ever answer.

As such Grace remains the only final, definitive recording by Jeff Buckley. A true one-off.

Albums of my Years – 1993

1993: John Hammond spared no expense on his dinosaur theme park, Bill Murray lived the same day over and over, Harrison Ford searched for a one-armed man, Robin Williams looked like a lady (dude) and Matthew McConaughey loved high-school girls, man – “I get older, they stay the same age.”

In music it was the year that Whitney Houston dominated the charts singing about her favourite form of coordination (hand – eyeeeeeeee), DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince shook the room, Lenny Kravitz needed to know which way we were going, Bruce Springsteen showed MTV who was Boss by taking his electric guitar to his Unplugged performance and Meat Loaf left us all wondering just what it was he wouldn’t do for love*.

It was the year that the BBC Radio 5 interviewed Frank Black and found out that Pixies were finished… ahead of the other band members knowing. Black would call guitarist Joey Santiago to break the news but let Kim Deal and David Lovering know via fax.  New Order, Skin Yard (influential Seattle band featuring producer / engineer Jack Endino), Echo & The Bunnymen and, er, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch also called it a day in 1993. However – on the bands formed side; this was the year that gave birth to At The Drive-In, Ben Folds Five, Daft Punk, Embrace, Garbage, Jimmy Eat World, Modest Mouse, Reef, Spoon, Supergrass and Wilco.

It was also a bumper year for great albums, plenty of which still feature heavy on rotation here. Fairly new discovery for me, Band of Susans dropped their fourth album Veil which tour off into a more experimental direction just as contemporaries Sonic Youth were steering toward song-focused albums. It’s a tricky one to define – it’s like a glorious hybrid of the noise-rock school that SY emerged from with punches of alternative rock and shoegaze mixed into what one critic called an “epic swell of guitar and noise:”

Speaking of shoegaze; Slowdive released their second, possibly finest, album Souvlaki in 1993. Dinosaur Jr released their phenomenal Where You Been – a real scorcher probably aided by the fact that it was recorded with a full band though it would be drummer Murph’s last with the band until the original lineup reconvened over a decade later.  However, Dinosaur Jr classics ‘What Else Is New’, ‘Start Choppin’ ‘Get Me’ and ‘Out There’ all feature on this album though I should probably state that I don’t think Dinosaur Jr have ever made a bad album.

Not an outright classic in itself, though one with at least four good songs on it, Radiohead’s debut album Pablo Honey arrived in 1993 and introduced the world to the band via the inescapable ‘Creep’ while Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? marked the arrival of The Cranberries.

 

Having already asked us once, Lenny Kravitz repeated the question by naming his third album Are You Gonna Go My Way? – while Mama Said edges it in my books, it’s still a blast of the good stuff, as was Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen also released in 1993. Picking up on the experimentation with electronic and dancier vibes of Achtung Baby and running with it, U2 released the oft-overlooked Zooropa in 1993. Very much a different trip to anything else in their catalogue, Zooropa began life as an EP to promote another leg of the Zoo TV tour, Bono figured he’d push for a full album instead… it would be easy to say it does feel like an over-stuffed EP but there’s plenty of great tunes on it that make it well worth adding to the shelves including the title track, The Wanderer which featured Johnny Cash before his American comeback and ‘Stay (Farwa, So Close!)’:

PJ Harvey released her brilliant second album, Rid of Me and Kate Bush chose 1993 as the year for The Red Shoes which was not only her first album for four years but would be her last for another 12.

With Pixies having broken up at the start of the year, Kim Deal’s the Breeders dropped their second and most well-known album Last Splash in August and the single ‘Cannonball’ becoming their biggest ‘hit’ and propelling the album to platinum status. Meanwhile, having recorded it in 1992, Frank Black released his self-titled debut in 1993 as well. Still close to the sound of Pixies in many ways (including additional guitar work from Joey Santiago), Frank Black is a great album packed with great tunes that build on the Pixies sound.

Speaking of solo albums following the dissolution of great bands – Paul Westerberg’s first solo album 14 Songs also arrived in 1993 – it’s another cracking collection of songs that I still play and have expanded upon on this very blog. Also making a solo debut, though I don’t think The Sugarcubes would be mentioned in the same breath as either The Replacements or Pixies, Bjork’s Debut also appeared this year, featuring the brilliant tunes ‘Human Behaviour’ and ‘Big Time Sensuality’. It was also debut time for Sheryl Crow who’s Tuesday Night Music Club was released in August 1993. I tuned in around this time and while I have more fondness for he next couple of albums there’s no denying that Ms Crow’s debut has both a great sound in terms of production – very much of its time – and is stacked with great tunes like ‘Run Baby Run’, ‘All I Wanna Do’, ‘Can’t Cry Anymore’ and ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ to name but four.

Now… here’s the thing. The above are undeniably strong albums and they’re all very much regulars on my stereo to this day. And yet there’s more and choosing between them is a tough one for me. See, 1993 heralded the arrival of Pearl Jam’s second album Vs. which is one of my favourite Pearl Jam albums – but I’ve covered that one at length as well so can’t feature it here too (rules are rules).

When it comes to staggeringly good debut albums, Counting Crows’ August and Everything After has got to be high on the list. AllMusic suitably claims this album “burst(s) at the seams with both dominant pop harmonies and rich, hearty ballads” – there’s just so much on this that – especially in the age of CD bloat – it’s all wrapped up within 11 tracks. It’s such a rich feast in terms of both the sound (thanks to T Bone Burnett’s production) but with beautiful melodies and lyrics that pack so much into them without becoming lost in a wash of words for the sake of it as some of Duritz’ later songs would. I must have spun this album more times than I could count and I still never skip a track, though perhaps ‘Omaha’ doesn’t get as much attention as, say, ‘Anna Begins’, it’s such a great album…

Then there’s the second album from Smashing Pumpkins: Siamese Dream also one of my favourite albums. It was a massive leap forward for the band and really threw their hat into the ring as one of the foremost alternative bands of the nineties. Songs like ‘Today’, ‘Cherub Rock’, ‘Disarm’ are amongst those that are appropriately considered hallmarks of the genre. Produced by Butch Vig, who was riding high following his production of NevermindSiamese Dream is not only the Smashing Pumpkins’ finest, one of the best albums of the 90’s but one that belongs on Greatest Album lists full stop.

However, also released in 1993…

Nirvana – In Utero

It would be virtually impossible for me to choose between some of the above – especially the last three – albums from 1993 were it not for the fact that Nirvana’s finest and, sadly, final album was also released in the same year as so many strong contenders for the crown. But, on September 21, 1993 – having been recorded by Steve Albini over two weeks in February.

Interesting side note and one fact that I always find interesting is that Steve Albini – known as a producer of independent releases and for his band Big Black – took a flat fee of $100,000 for his work recording and producing In Utero despite suggestions from Nirvana’s management company to take percentage points on record sales. I think, though my recollection may be fuzzy, when Dave Grohl mentioned how much he could’ve made from the album given that the album has shifted over 5 million, Albini said something along the lines of “you pay a plumber for the job when he does it, you don’t then send him a cheque every time your taps work”.

In Utero is a notably harder and rawer sounding album than Nevermind was. As sales for everything out of Seattle took off and media focused its attention on the city’s ‘scene’, the foremost proponents of ‘grunge’ were obviously getting pissed off with it – Pearl Jam’s Vs. is a far punchier and angrier beast than Ten – and Cobain himself was distancing himself from what he saw as the commercial sheen of his group’s second album. For a scene that grew out of the punk movement, it must have seen a necessary step to proving that you weren’t ‘corporate rock sellouts’. Either way, the albums the shift produced were outstanding.

With Albini’s mix seeming to cause concern at Geffen – Kurt would say “The grown-ups don’t like it” – the band themselves started to have doubts and asked Albini to remix it. He refused: “Kurt wanted to make a record that he could slam down on the table and say, ‘Listen, I know this is good, and I know your concerns about it are meaningless, so go with it.’ And I don’t think he felt he had that yet … My problem was that I feared a slippery slope.” With Albini nixing a remix, it would be Scott Litt (known for his work with R.E.M) that would remix and augment a number of the album’s tracks. For all the concern that Geffen’s initial feedback had raised, Litt only worked on two songs – the rest of the album was left as is, save for a little raising of the vocals and sharpening of the bass. They needn’t have fretted: preceded by the single ‘Heart Shaped Box’, In Utero topped the charts (not that this was the band’s chief concern) and received widespread acclaim from critics and their audience.

For me this album is as good as it gets in terms of Nirvana – it felt like they were at the peak of their game. Cobain’s continuing growth as a songwriter now matched with the passion and ‘punk’ leaning of their first record was the perfect combination. Tighter than a duck’s arse thanks to the touring and promotion of Nevermind with Dave Grohl now fully ensconced behind the drums and contributing the guitar riff for ‘Scentless Apprentice’, In Utero feels like fired up answer to any critics that doubted them as a flash in the pan.

Rolling Stone managed to get it right in their review: In Utero is “a lot of things – brilliant, corrosive, enraged and thoughtful, most of them all at once. But more than anything, it’s a triumph of the will.”

Of course, it also manages to capture just how dark and nihilistic Cobain’s lyrics were getting. It’s front-loaded with the blazers – ‘Serve the Servants’, ‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘Rape Me’ and ‘Dumb’ – but then there’s the harsher side of the album – songs like ‘Milk It’ and ‘Very Ape’ and, finally, ‘All Apologies’: “Everything’s my fault, I take all the blame.” Kurt was coming apart almost by the day and it’s all on here to hear.

Hindsight is though, of course, 20-20 and it’s easy now to listen to Nirvan’s final album and point to the signs. At the time, though, nobody could have known. It was, and still is, ‘just’ a massively engaging and powerful album not a cry for help or suicide note and that’s how it should be remembered.

I’d love to know where the band could have gone from here. The ‘You Know You’re Right’ song from the compilation Nirvana gives promise for an even better sound than In Utero but given Cobain’s state of mind toward the end it’s an unanswerable question – numerous times he talked of, and drafted letters to band members calling for, the dissolution of Nirvana. He was going to work with Michael Stipe on a strings-based sound for an album… he could have done so many things but… well, this isn’t that post. In Utero is the glorious sound of Nirvana doing everything right even if it isn’t the easiest of listens.

*I sincerely doubt it’s that, pervert.

 

Albums of my years – 1992

Schwing! Party on! Way! Excellent! Oh, my, God Becky, look at her butt…. It’s 1992!

The year that Wayne and Garth hit cinema screens, that Aladdin showed Princess Jasmine a whole new world, that Whitney said she’d always love Kev, Bill Clinton defeated George H.W Bush in the US Presidential elections and Def Leppard asked a very, very important question:

1992 is the year Nirvana toppled Michael Jackson from the top of the chart and ‘grunge’ began its ascendancy in sales and popularity – Nevermind hit the top spot in the US on January 11th. A month and a half later Kurt Cobain would marry Courtney Love on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii with just 8 guests, including Dave Grohl. Cobain wore his pyjamas for the ceremony.

1992 was the year the world was introduced to the be-mulleted turdburger Billy Ray Cyrus and his Achy Breaky Heart, the 9 million people that bought his debut album in its first year have got a lot to answer for.

In May, John Frusciante left the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Rolling Stone digitally removed him from the photo on their upcoming cover feature), having been overwhelmed by the band’s new level of success and becoming a little unhinged… as the band’s world tour got underway he began hearing voices in his head telling him “you won’t make it during the tour, you have to go now.” Already enjoying plenty of drugs, when he returned to California Frusciante’s depression lead to a deep dive into full-on drug addiction that would keep him in its grip until 1998 when, suffering with a lethal oral infection and arms ravaged with abscesses, he’d check into rehab and enter sobriety. However, in 92, that was a long, dark six years away.

Speaking of overindulgence  – 1992, Guns ‘N’ Roses’ ‘November Rain’ clocked into the record books as the longest single to enter the Top 20 at 8 minutes and 57 seconds and its video’s budget of $1.5 million became the most expensive of all time (at that point). Similar indulgence would be applied to the video for ‘Estranged’ (which added another 40 seconds in song length)a year later when a rumoured $4 million was spent on Rose and co – ah the day’s when MTV actually played music videos to the extent that labels were willing to spend that much dosh courting airtime.

They probably needed to placate some fans – at a concert in Montreal in August, opening act Metallica’s James Hetfield was burnt by a pyrotechnics blast, he suffered second and third degree burns to the left half of his body, both arms and left hand, causing them to cancel the second hour of their show. When Guns ‘N’ Roses took the stage Axl Rose (did he ever perform a full concert on time?) decided his voice wasn’t up to it’s usual sound of a cat having its testicles removed without anaesthetic and called it quits for the night. Instead of being relieved at not being asked to “give me some reggae“, the fans were a little pissed off. So they decided a riot was in order, which spilled to the streets with overturned cars, smashed windows, looting  and setting fires.

At the end of August, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain was born after god knows how much drama and magazine reporting on the couples’ drug use during pregnancy… which, Love being Love, no doubt enjoyed stirring up for the sake of attention.  It meant that child welfare services launched an investigation into their parenting abilities and Frances was removed from her parents’ custody for a short time when she was two weeks old. There’s a real ugly and grim side to the world of celebrity and sometimes the consequences aren’t considered by its actors while they court it… but hindsight is a wonderful thing full of ‘if only’s and ‘why didn’t somebody’s… and there were times when the Courtney Love show seemed of more interest to the press than the music Nirvana made. Perhaps to remind people of the fact that there was more to Cobain than headlines, Geffen kept the momentum going with the release of Incesticide in December – a collection of b-sides, outtakes and demos that’s still better than a lot of the studio albums released in 1992.

Speaking of controversy – presumably having had enough of singing about being ‘Like a Virgin’, Madonna went full on erotic with Erotica in ’92, a concept album about bumping uglies which was accompanied by a ‘book’ of soft porn photos – ‘Sex’. It was an edgy time.

Pearl Jam rounded off a very busy 1992 – which saw Ten find its way into homes across the world, the band touring Europe, demoing songs for their next album and putting on the free ‘Drop in the Park’ concert for 33,000 fans in Seattle – with Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready joining acts including Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash and Tracy Chapman to see Sinéad O’Connor get booed by an audience still angered by her ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II on SNL – who knew Dylan fans were such devoted Catholics. Oh, yeah – I mean they joined other acts at a tribute concert to mark 30 years of Bob Dylan’s recording career.

Speaking of Bob – in 1992 he released Good As I Been To You. A collection of traditional folk songs and covers that was so well received he’d follow it with another collection of covers the following year…. just wait until he’d release nothing but covers and Christmas songs for decade.

Meanwhile Bush, Built To Spill, The Cardigans, Everclear, Feeder, Silverchair, Stereophonics, Sunny Day Real Estate, Tindersticks and Weezer were all amongst those bands forming in 1992.

Making the most of studio time allocated to recording ‘Would?’ for Cameron Crowe’s ‘Singles’ (also released in 1992) the previous year, Alice in Chains also recorded ‘Rooster’ and all the songs that would end up on February’s acoustic EP – Sap – the songs for which were left mostly acoustic after drummer Sean Kinney dreamed about making just such an EP with that title. I’m not sure basing career decisions on the dreams of a drummer is always the best approach (I heard Ringo dreams of murdering kittens) but Sap is a great addition to anyone’s shelves:

It’s also a much lighter listening experience than their next release of 1992. Arriving in September following the singles ‘Would?’ and ‘Them Bones’, Alice In Chains’ second album Dirt is an undeniable classic of the genre and still gets many a play on my stereo – though it’s an intensely dark and heavy listen in both sound and subject matter as Layne and Cantrell made no bones about drug addiction along with depression, pain, anger, war and death forming the inspiration for lyrics. ‘Sickman’, ‘Junkhead’ and ‘God Smack’ are the obvious contenders, all referencing heroin use while ‘Rooster’

Layne Staley would later come to change his mind on having sung so openly about his drug use –  “I wrote about drugs, and I didn’t think I was being unsafe or careless by writing about them … I didn’t want my fans to think that heroin was cool. But then I’ve had fans come up to me and give me the thumbs up, telling me they’re high. That’s exactly what I didn’t want to happen.” Thankfully, all of these dark and potentially ‘I can’t listen to that’ lyrics were both well crafted and strapped to some fucking awesome music:

Afghan Whigs would released their third album  Congregation in 1992, The Cure gave us Wish and provided DJs the world over with an easy gimmick by playing ‘Friday I’m In Love’ at the end of each working week – though the standout track for me is ‘From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea’ – Manic Street Preachers dropped their debut, Generation Terrorists.

Pantera released one of the decade’s heaviest  – Vulgar Display of Power and Rage Against The Machine declared that, fuck you; they won’t do as you tell ’em on their astounding, genre-bending powerhouse self-titled debut whose iconic cover art continues to find new homes and delight to this day thanks to its sheer force and unbridled passion in the delivery. Though they’d release another two studio albums in their career (not counting covers), nothing would match Rage Against The Machine in terms of immediacy and impact, not quite a breath of fresh air but a kick in the balls with a pair of heavy boots.

On a different end of the sonic spectrum – another 1992 debut came from Tori Amos whose Little Earthquakes was her first ‘solo’ album and featured the great tune ‘Precious Things’ along with eleven other cracking songs.

The Black Crowes got together with producer George Drakoulias to make what could be considered their finest album: The Southern Harmony and Musical CompanionA much bluesier, more maturing sounding album than their debut, their second album was powered to the top of the charts thanks to its four singes and stand out tracks – ‘Remedy’, ‘Sting Me’, ‘Thorn in My Pride’ and ‘Hotel Illness’.

Two other debuts in 1992 came from Stone Temple Pilots with Core and Blind Melon whose self-titled album probably gets more repeated plays than STP’s who never really did it for me to the same degree as others of that scene (though their fifth album Shangri-La Dee Da is an exception to that rule). In Shannon Hoon, Blind Melon had a great frontman and singer. ‘No Rain’ is one thing and may have done so well that Bee Girl graced the cover of the album, Blind Melon, but songs like ‘Tones of Home’ or ‘Change’ are real keepers. Both bands would lose their singers and try and keep going but I don’t think either will ever tap the same vein again in the way in which Alice In Chains have managed to do with William Duvall… but that’s a different blog.

Nearly five years after his last album and three since telling the E Street Band members he wouldn’t be needing their services for a while, Bruce Springsteen emerged with two new albums in 1992 – the first of which, Human Town having been sparked off by three instrumental tracks written by E Street Band member Roy Bittan… who would also produce the album. While needing another song to finish Human Touch, Springsteen wrote another album instead, the superior (of the two) Lucky Town. Released on the same day, the albums… well I’ve written on both Human Touch and Lucky Town already but while they’re not his worst (that still hangs on High Hopes) they’ve not been as well-received as his other albums. As Bruce would later acknowledge that, had it not been for his father he “would have written just happy songs – and I tried it in the early ‘90s and it didn’t work; the public didn’t like it.” Still, while in the recordings for, say, Darkness On The Edge of Town, The River and even Born In The USA there was enough material for a further three or four great albums – if you cull the dross from these two there’s enough for one great album there.

Having chosen not to tour behind Out Of Time REM had gotten straight to work on new songs, including the demos for ‘Drive’, ‘Try Not To Breath’ and  ‘Nightswimming’ which had been recording during that album’s mixing at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios. Automatic For The People is one of those albums that’s been written about so many times and for good reason: it’s a fucking classic. It is chock-a-block with great songs, I don’t think there’s a bad one on it and, given that I don’t think it’s their best, that’s insane. From opener ‘Drive’ through to the closing ‘Find The River’ via the lighter radio-staple ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ (nothing to do with Jamaica, the lyric is “Call me when you try to wake her”), the gorgeous ‘Nightswimming’  and the colossal hit ‘Everybody Hurts’, it’s all gold. While clearly the same band, it stands apart from the sounds of Out Of Time and here I’ll refer to the Rolling Stone review for the album which sums it up suitably: “”This is the members of R.E.M. delving deeper than ever; grown sadder and wiser, the Athens subversives reveal a darker vision that shimmers with new, complex beauty”

Which only leaves my choice for featured album of 1992…

Buffalo Tom – Let Me Come Over

Let’s hop in the DeLorean and set the time circuits for October 2000 – we were all able to go outdoors and meet people, Donald Trump was just a prick who’d tried to get the nomination of the Reform Party and I, still at uni was a regular regular reader of Uncut Magazine. An actual printed music monthly as the internet then was… different. I remember scouring their Unconditionally Guaranteed CD each month for the one or two tracks that will make me sit up and pay attention and inspire greater digging. As a side note I really should do this again as the last time I did I discovered Big Thief and a few more enjoyable tracks.

There’s only one track on the October 2000 CD though that grabbed me: Taillights Fade by Buffalo Tom, a band from Boston who were releasing a career-spanning Best Of just as they kicked off a seven year hiatus.

It meant I picked up Asides From as soon as I could and, having played it through repeatedly without skipping a song, set off rapidly exploring and collecting their back catalogue. Of the now 9 studio albums the band has put out since forming in 1986, their third album, released in 1992, Let Me Come Over is held up by many as their finest hour (well, 51 minutes) and while it’s probably their biggest seller, I doubt it’s all that known. Hell, if I asked you to name me five Boston bands I imagine the list would include Aerosmith, Pixies, Boston (real original name lads), The Cars, Dropkick Murphys or even the Lemonheads or The Mighty Mighty Bosstones before Buffalo Tom (the Buffalo is borrowed from Springfield). And I think that’s a crying shame.

On the back of their first two albums, released in ’88 and ’90, Buffalo Tom had been branded as Dinosaur Jr Jr. Given the use of fuzz in the guitar tones and the fact that the albums were produced by J Mascis himself, it was an easy tag to apply. It wasn’t entirely accurate though as their third album would show. It would also mean that the band – now supported by RCA Records as well Beggars Banquet, would get a second go around in their bid for breakthrough as ears were pricking up whenever alternative rock was played on radios around the world.

With J presumably far too busy now as Dinosaur Jr’s major label push took other and with the band’s songwriting needing a different production approach and less use of the overdrive pedal, Let Me Come Over was helmed by Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade. It was a massive leap forward. The sound on Let Me Come Over is painted with a much more layered approach and subtle brush – there’s a lot less shouting, acoustic guitar overdubs, more intricate compositions that feels like the band working as a piece rather than individual instruments with more mature and insightful lyrics.

Pitchfork have said of Buffalo Tom that they “wrote sharply observed conversational lyrics because it was too hard to be obscure.” Perhaps that’s why they were never able to break through – the songs are great; they’re well written, well played and the lyrics are clever and to the point at a time when alternative music was trying to be considerably more obtuse / mysterious in its song meanings and lyrics (hell, Ten didn’t even contain the song lyrics printed in anything resembling legible). It shouldn’t, though, detract from what’s a great set of songs and easily their strongest album.

Songs like ‘Mineral’ and ‘Taillights Fade’ (which it turns out is a favourite of Eddie Vedder who bought Bill Janovitz on stage with Pearl Jam on both nights they played Boston in 2018 much to the delight of fans and Bill to run through the song) are undoubted highlights that show off the band’s improved songwriting – drummer Tom Maginnis (the ‘Tom’ in the band name) points out in Asides From: “we were beginning to find our inspiration as songwriters and a sound of our own as a band”.

But the more straight-ahead rockers on the album like ‘Stymied’, ‘Saving Grace’ and ‘Velvet Roof’ also sound significantly sharper and more focused than on both the band’s previous direction – benefiting both from the less-cluttered production,  and the band members’ improved playing after constant touring.

I read something suggesting that Buffalo Tom were ‘always the bridesmaids’ of the alternative rock movement, having never quite broken through in the way they deserved – Let Me Come Over was probably as close as they’d get but perhaps they just weren’t edgy enough for the musical climate that was brewing at the dawn of the 90s. Regardless, and perhaps even because of their underdog status, Buffalo Tom are one of my favourite bands to this day and Let Me Come Over gets a regular spin on my turntable.

Following a seven year hiatus, Buffalo Tom got back together in 2007 and put out Three Easy Pieces, followed in 2011 by Skins. Only playing select, occasional shows, it’s safe to say the band is semi-retired these days – though they put out their best album since Let Me Come Over in 2018 with Quiet and Peace. Bill Janovitz developed a side-career as a real-estate agent but has put out a couple of fine solo albums and has also written two books on The Rolling Stones. I, and I’m sure other fans, would love it if he were to chronicle his own band too.

 

 

Albums of my Years – 1991

Here we are, 1991 – “the year punk broke.” This was the year in which grunge music broke through. Still in its infancy, though, the genre wasn’t the force in terms of sales it would become over the next couple of years. While Nirvana’s Nevermind (released in September) would be propelled by the surprise hit of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, metal was still a massive force and it would be Metallica’s ‘black’ album that became the year’s biggest seller along with the double wankfest of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion 1 & 2 selling massive figures and Garth Brooks, still a good few years away from turning into Chris Gaines, was making money as fast as they could print it.

In February, James Brown was released from prison on parole after his bizarre ‘89 episode – presumably the wardens were fooled by his cape routine and feigned exhaustion. Years away from revelations of child abuse, Michael Jackson renewed his recording contract with Sony records for $65 million – that’s a lot of monkey food. The Rolling Stones also signed a new deal with Virgin Records and Aerosmith – riding high on the back of their comeback and the success of Pump, signed a $30 million deal with Colombia Records / Sony Music, though it wouldn’t be until 1997’s Nine Lives that they would release anything for the label.

On March 20th Eric Clapton’s four-year-old son, Conor, died after falling from the 53rd-floor window of his mother’s friend’s New York City apartment. The loss of his young son, with whom he had only just realised his role as father took a heavy toll and inspired the song ‘Tears in Heaven’.

The film ‘Robin Hood; Prince of Thieves’ was released in 1991 and, from it, Bryan Adams’ ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ took the piss at number 1 in the UK for sixteen weeks. Also, in the world of soundtracks and infinitely more culturally and artistically more significant than Christian Slater’s English accent, ‘Baywatch’ returned in 1991 for a second season of slow motion running, drama and acting almost as convincing as the breasts on its female stars, kicking off with a new theme song:

On November 23rd, after years of speculation and insulting suggestions from the press, Freddie Mercury released a statement confirming that he had tested HIV positive and had AIDs. The statement didn’t say that Mercury was close to blind and could no longer leave his bed. Less than 24 hours later Mercury passed away from bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS. He was just 45.

Devo called it a day in 1991 as did Galaxy 500, NWA, Talk Talk, Talking Heads and The Replacements who played their last show together (minus drummer Chris Mars who had quit in 1990 ) in July at Chicago’s Grant Park, with each member leaving during the set with their respective roadies taking their places. Meanwhile Belly, Cake, The Chemical Brothers, Counting Crows, Heatmiser (featuring Elliott Smith), Incubus, Oasis, Portishead, Rage Against The Machine, Refused and, er, The Wiggles all formed in 1991.

So what about album releases? Well… Dickhead Dave got the year off to a cloudy start with the release of his third solo album A Little Ain’t Enough (despite the fact that a little of him is way too much). Still doing well with Sammy Hagar, Van Halen would release the imaginatively For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge in June and while its title is a little Spinal Tap (Hagar wanted to call it ‘Fuck’ but was, in a pure ‘Really? And you believed him?!’ moment, was told by Ray Mancini that ‘Fuck’ was actually an acronym for what would become the album’s title), it’s a strong slab of good stuff that includes quite a few of my favourite VH riffs.

1991 also saw the final album from Dire Straits – On Every Street. As recently surmised by Jim over at Music Enthusiast: There was some good stuff on it but Brothers in Arms had come out in 1985 and six years in the pop world is an eternity. Knoplfer’s other production credits for the year came from a seminal release from Bob Dylan:The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. One of my go-to Dylan volumes, this is one of those sets (like Springsteen’s Tracks) which always makes you wonder how the fuck some of this stuff was left off, like this cut from the Knopfler-produced sessions for Infidels (a fine, fine album):

Tom Petty re-teamed with the Heartbreakers for 91’s Into The Great Wide Open which, following the success of Petty’s Full Moon Fever was produced by Jeff Lynne. A lovely album, it was stocked with singles like such as ‘Learning To Fly’ and the title track along with great cuts including one of my favourites – ‘Two Gungslingers’.

On the heavier side of the year’s releases, Metallica’s Metallica (the answer is none, none more black’) was 1991’s monster – it spawned the classics ‘Enter Sandman’, ‘Nothing Else Matters’, ‘Sad But True’, ‘The Unforgiven’ … and would sell more than 16 million copies in the US alone.

One of my all-time favourite bands, Dinosaur Jr released their major-label debut in 1991. Green Mind is a great mix of J Mascis’ ferocious guitar playing, matching melody to walls of fuzz and power with a growing songwriting sensibility. It’s practically a J Mascis solo album as he not only produced by played most of the instruments too with original drummer Murph only playing on three of the album’s songs. Bass player Lou Barlow had been kicked out a year or two prior and would document this in ‘The Freed Pig’ on his new band Sebadoh’s album III, also released in 1991.

1991 is the year that the world was first introduced to Eddie Vedder. First via the Temple of the Dog album – discussed at length in 1990’s post. Released in April it was received well by those all-important critics but failed to chart… it would take a little more awareness of the key players for the momentum to build. Still it wouldn’t take long: preceded by the singles ‘Even Flow’ and ‘Alive’ Ten was released in August. A stunning debut, it would gradually build a following as the band hit the road hard to support it just as the grunge explosion began getting underway. I’d put it as a featured album or I wouldn’t be worth my salt as paid-up Ten Club member but I’ve already featured the album and rules are rules. Still, here’s a Stone-cold classic:

Another classic was dropped in 1991: Slint’s Spiderland. Their second and final album, Spiderland was a slow-burner and its popularity within the music world grew with time as it gradually found its audience and proved a massive influence on the post-rock genre.

Back over here, another genre-definer was released – My Bloody Valentine’s shoegaze classic and gem of an album Loveless eventually arrived in November after two years of recording, 19 studios and contributing to the bankruptcy of its label. Hailed as a ‘virtual reinvention of the guitar’ Loveless left a long shadow on the scene and would find new ears and inspire lots more for years to come – just as well as it took 22 years for the band to follow up.

Another great of the genre, Slowdive, released their debut Just For A Day in ’91 but it was Massive Attack’s Blue Lines that rightly stole a lot of column inches over here that year:

As if the year wasn’t bursting enough with big albums, REM chose 1991 to release their Out Of Time and find themselves catapulted to the level of MASSIVE with singles like ‘Shiny Happy People’ (I still think it’s naff) and ‘Losing My Religion’ sitting alongside beautiful album tracks like ‘Low’ and ‘Half a World Away’.  It was major hit time too for Crowded House with the great Woodface arriving in July of ’91 and doing the business worldwide. It’s stuffed with great songs (though my favourite Crowded House album was a couple of years off) that would go on to become much-loved hits.

Another band to breakout in ’91 – Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik found the band taking a different musical tact than previous and seeing monster results and was one of those early albums that would be regarded as a mainstay of the ‘alternative’ boom that would jump all over the 90’s. A band that really really deserved to be part of the 90’s alternative explosion but would break up before the decade was halfway through – Pixies released their fourth and greatest album in 1991: Trompe le Monde.

As the Pixies released their final album, Smashing Pumpkins released their debut in ’91 with Gish. Corgan’s monstrous cockwomble status and ego aside, they’d prove one of the scene’s finest in years to come. As we’re getting back to the ‘grungier’ part of the alternative scene, one of the genre’s too oft-overlooked acts The Screaming Trees released their fifth album Uncle Anesthesia in January. It was their last with drummer Mark Pickeral  and their first for major-label Epic. While it didn’t have the impact the band or label hoped for – the musical world was still waking up to the genre, to be fair, it was produced by Terry Date and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Date also produced 1991’s Soundgarden album Badmotorfinger. Their first with bass player Ben Shepherd and released on September 24th 1991,  Badmotorfinger is an absolute stonker and features some of Soundgarden’s greatest songs.

Badmotorfinger is one of those classic albums that proved a breakthrough for Soundgarden. Already veterans of the Seattle music scene, Chris Cornell and co’s third album helped them reach the burgeoning alternative rock / grunge fanbase with singles like ‘Rusty Cage’ and ‘Outshined’. However, it would be another album released on the same day that busted everything wide open for the likes of Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam to storm through… Nirvana’s Nevermind.

There’s a great scene in the 1996 documentary Hype! (available to watch on Prime and well worth doing so) in which Sub Pop staff discuss how, toward the end of 1990 they felt the storm of the scene that was building in Seattle had passed and would soon wind down, the focus would shift and things would return to normal… and then a band with a relatively small following but plenty of buzz about them dropped a song called ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

It’s overplayed and perhaps the most obvious choice to play but it’s a fucking classic for a reason. It did so phenomenally well for a reason – it’s a great tune that propelled the album Nevermind, the band and pretty much an entire scene into a new league. It’s one of those albums I play so often that I know every word. It’s not my favourite Nirvana album but it contains so many of my favourite Nirvana songs (and one of my all-time favourites in ‘Breed’) that I still get bemused – I’m too old to get bothered and riled up anymore – when people say “oh but it sounds too commercial” or “Kurt hated it”. No, he didn’t and no, id doesn’t. He loved it but needed to distance himself from it for fear of being seen as a sell-out. I fucking hate that aspect of the scene and music fans in general that mean artists are so worried about how it would be perceived as ‘not punk’ and blame that for the demise of it, and Kurt’s state of mind, and the rise of the absolute dog shit on the radio today….

However: that’s a boatload of great albums and yet these aren’t the ‘featured’ albums for the year. So, what’s it to be for 1991? Well, you may not have heard of this band, but:

U2 – Achtung Baby

“You who?” I hear you ask. “Is that the submarine that stole an enigma device?”

I give U2 an occasional jibe on this blog – like; what’s the difference between God and Bono? God doesn’t walk around Dublin thinking he’s Bono – but for good reason, as the years have gone by their recorded merit has deteriorated as Bono’s ego and the extravagance of being ‘the biggest band in the world’ grew in its place. The reason I do this is pretty simple really – U2 used to be great and they’ve made some absolute first class albums, the best of which (in my opinion) is Achtung Baby.

As the band’s popularity sky-rocketed in the 80’s and following the massive success of The Joshua Tree, U2 had started to get a little too caught up in trying to be serious and – as Bono said of Rattle and Hum: “We looked like a big, overblown rock band running amok.” That album and concert film summed it all up really: they’d gone from penning great tunes to paying too much attention to the look of it and were too self-serious. I mean; thank fuck for Bono taking a moment in ‘Silver and Gold’ to lecture us on apartheid before clumsily telling Edge to ‘play the blues’. It had stretched a little thin so when, at the end of that tour, Bono announced the band had “to go away and…and dream it all up again” it was probably welcome.

But I don’t think anyone was expecting Achtung Baby. It’s a total reinvention – while the band’s ethics and singing about the connections between people remained, everything else was a total reinvention. The way the band presented themselves changed – from Bono’s wrap around shades and black leather to the discovery of irony and dark humour in interviews with a bit of danger and the sound… the chiming sound of the 80s was seemingly buried now in distortion and lurching rhythms and textures not previously associated with the band as the emerged into the 90s with their first single ‘The Fly’:

I adore Achtung Baby – there’s not a song on it I’ll skip, even if I didn’t really want to listen to ‘One’ for a while as it became so omnipresent, it was always tracks like ‘Zoo Station’ and ‘Until The End of the World’ (in my favourite songs of all time list) that kept me coming back to it. I’m surprised my copy of it still plays it’s been slipped into so many different car CD players and stereos over the years, the case is pretty much battered and the booklet’s edges scuffed.

The album was gotten underway in Berlin, at Hansa Studios (where Bowie and Iggy Pop famously recorded four albums in 1977) in October 1990 as the band sought inspiration from the reunification of Germany. Instead it nearly broke the band as they argued over songs and the musical direction until they had a eureka moment with the writing of One which came in an improvised session as they worked on the arrangement of an early version of ‘Mysterious Ways’. As overplayed as it would become, it remains a great song (I really dig a lot of the vibe on this album including the artwork and the Trabants of the original video):

Just look at the list of singles released from the album alone: ‘The Fly’, ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’, ‘One’, ‘Mysterious Ways’ and ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses’ – if any one of these comes on the radio you’re not likely to be changing channel.

But then there’s the tracks that weren’t released – and they’re all just as good. Take ‘So Cruel’, ‘Acrobat’ or ‘Love Is Blindness’ as examples:

The lyrics aren’t millions of miles away from territory they’d wandered previously – “And you can dream, so dream out loud, you know that your time is coming ’round,
so don’t let the bastards grind you down” – but there’s a little more darkness and questioning here and, instead of being married to obvious ‘anthem’ sounds, there’s an edge (and Edge’s playing) to the songs on Achtung Baby with a metallic distorted bite, that borrows from industrial, electronic and the alternative rock scene that sits so sublimely with these songs and reveals more each time.

It shifted somewhere in excess of 18 million copies and ushered in U2’s Zoo TV Tour which was both so very 90s and completed their reinvention. It was the start of a new journey musically – from here to Zoorapa (also containing great tunes) to Pop which could’ve been another masterpiece if they’d been allowed time to finish it – and in terms of touring as the set grew from Zoo TV to Pop Mart and giant lemons. At no point, though, would it be as wholly and compellingly perfect again as it is on Achtung Baby*.

 

*After Pop‘s lacklustre reception, the band ducked away for a while before returning with a Best Of which captured 1980-1990, the reception to which buoyed their ‘back to basics’ All That You Can’t Leave Behind album in 2000. It’s a decent enough collection though a little sticky-sweet and twee, they’d lost the bite they found in the 90s. A second Best Of covering 1990-2000 must have reminded them of it again as at least half of 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was really good and buzzed as well as chimed. After that though, for me, it was lost. Especially when they told me to get on my boots…

Seven!

This one started as a joke, a throwaway comment… but then, I like the idea of a ‘theme’ or ‘write about this’ approach so took a look at seeing what I could put together for the number 7.

Well… staying within this blog’s wheelhouse, there’s ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ according to Queen and Wonders of the World for Fleetwood Mac, both decent tunes. Perhaps most famously now it apparently takes more than a ‘Seven Nation Army’ to hold back Jack White:

Aside from being ridiculously catchy, ‘Seven Nation Army’ has probably made Jack White more money than anything else he’s done. While their label was initially reluctant to release it as a single in 2003, The White Stripes’ single was moderately successful in the charts (hitting and peaking at, fittingly enough, number 7 here), its usage in about a gazillion sporting events, broadcasts and adverts has netted its writer millions on its way to becoming what’s got to be the second-most recognisable guitar phrase ever (nobody’s gonna top ‘Satisfaction’).

There are also ‘Seven Curses’ and ‘Seven Days’ on Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (now THAT is a great collection of Dylan tunes) but only ‘7 Seconds’ for Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry.

On a more recent note there’s also ‘Seven O’Clock’ one of the standout tracks on the new Pearl Jam Gigaton* and what kind of fan would I be if I didn’t take the opportunity to feature it and it’s glorious lyric ”Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse they forged the north and west, then you got Sitting Bullshit as our sitting President”:

On the subject of Pearl Jam, there’s also 7 Worlds Collide – a musical project of Neil Finn (Crowded House, Split Enz and a raft of great solo albums).  Taking its title from a line in Crowded House’s ‘Distant Sun’, the project bought Finn together with a number of other musicians for a series of shows in support of charities. The group featured contributions from Eddie Vedder, Johnny Marr,  Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway, Tim Finn and many others – and a record , 7 Worlds Collide: Live at the St. James, was released in 2001 with tracks from a series of 5 shows at the venue and still gets taken off my shelves for a spin or three today. I’ve not checked out the studio album the project – with a pretty different ‘cast’ – put together a few years later but it still warrants checking out given that the set revolves around some of Finn’s strongest tunes along with a few written by his guests at the time:

Now, here’s a thing: I’ve often had a theory that the seventh track on album can often be one of the strongest. It’s not always the case, of course, and will depend on artist etc but my logic is that it’s the key point at which to drop a great tune and keep the listener’s ear into the second half of an album.  With this in mind I took a rummage through my records then realised I could save myself a huge amount of time and use Spotify… duh.

With that in mind, there are loads of albums in which the seventh track is not only bloody strong but ranks among the best on that album. Take ‘Us and Them’! Or ‘Ramble On’… easily one of Led Zep’s greatest with that seamless switch in gears… or the actual title track on Highway 61 Revisited! There’s a wealth of great track sevens and, sticking to the ‘no more than 2 per artist’ rule I’ve oft imposed upon myself on this blog, I put together a playlist of great Track Sevens, enjoy:

*Moving away from Brendan O’Brien’s production sets it in with Binaural and Riot Act in terms of the band’s embrace of different sounds and vibe but I think it’s better than both of those, it’s easily their strongest set in some time, possibly since Yield.

Albums of my Years – 1990

Ah 1990 – the start of the decade to which this blog returns so often in its internet-powered DeLorean.

At the start of 1990 a platform on which many of the decade’s biggest names would appear over the coming years kicked off in January; MTV Unplugged aired for the first time in January, featuring Squeeze.

Billy Idol took a spill on his motorbike in February, breaking a fair few of his bones. It meant that the major role Oliver Stone had in mind for him in ‘The Doors’ was reduced to a bit part and, in a very curious twist of fate, the role of T-1000 in the upcoming ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ had to be recast entirely having originally been written for him. That would have been a very different film.

On March 16th, Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood was found in a comatose state by his girlfriend Xana La Fuente. Having struggled with a drug addiction for some time previous, he’d overdosed on heroin. He was placed on life support in hospital, however the haemorrhage aneurysm he’d suffered meant that he’d lost all brain function. After friends and loved ones had said their farewells to one of the Seattle music scene’s beloved and promising figures, his life support was switched off and he passed on March 19th. Mother Love Bone’s debut album Apple would be released in July.

In April a promising band from Aberdeen, Washington got together with a producer called Butch Vig in between tour stops to record a few tracks for their second album. Nirvana were still signed to Sub Pop but were already looking to make changes. After recording a few tracks with Vig, Cobain and Noveselic weren’t thrilled with either their label or drummer. Very soon Chad Channing would leave Nirvana and demos from the session in Madison would be landing on the desks of keen major labels. Melvins front man (and general knob head) Buzz Osborne introduced Nirvana to Dave Grohl – probably because he wanted his own drummer back as Dale Crover had been sitting-in as the band toured with Sonic Youth. By the end of 1990 Nirvana had a new drummer in Dave Grohl and were signed to DGC Records following the advise of Kim Gordon and Soundgarden manager Susan Silver (hence; “forever in debt to your priceless advice”). They’d give Butch Vig a call again in 1991…

In August, the Alpine Valley Music Theatre welcomed all-star encore jam session with Stevie Ray Vaughan and members of Eric Clapton’s touring entourage. As there is only one road in and out of the venue, the band took a helicopter on to Midway International Airport. However, having taken off in foggy conditions with limited visibility, the helicopter crashed into a nearby ski hill. Pilot Jeff Brown, agent Bobby Brooks, SRV’s bodyguard Nigel Brown,tour manager Colin Smythe and Stevie Ray Vaughan were all killed. Vaughan was just 35.

Mother Love Bone guitarist Stone Gossard, devastated by the loss of Wood, had spent his time following Wood’s death writing significantly harder-edged songs. He got together with another guitarist for a couple of jams and it was Mike McCready who suggested Stone give his former band mate Jeff Ament a call to get involved with the music they were putting together. The then-trio put together a five-song tape to use in recruiting both a drummer and singer. They sent the tape to Jack Irons, the former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer, to see if he’d be interested in getting behind the drums for the new band. Irons had just formed a new band called Eleven and passed but, at their request, said he’d share the tape with any singers he knew that might be suitable. He knew a dude called Eddie Vedder….  Vedder listened to the tape before heading out for a surf where inspiration struck: he  then recorded the vocals to three of the songs (“Alive”, “Once”, and “Footsteps”) as part of what became known as the Momma-Son trilogy. He sent the tape back and within a week Vedder was part of the band. Mookie Blaylock – as the band was then called – played their first gig at Seattle’s Off Ramp on October 22nd 1990.

Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, who had been roommates with Andrew Wood, started writing a few songs in tribute to his friend as he headed out on tour in Europe a few days after his passing. As the music was outside of Soundgarden’s wheelhouse, he approached Ament and Gossard with the idea of recording the two songs and putting out a single. Rounding out the lineup with Mike McCready and Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron, Temple of the Dog was formed and the idea of a single was put aside for an EP which became an album recorded in 15 days. It was the first album to which Eddie Vedder would contribute – during the recording of ‘Hunger Strike’, Cornell was having difficulty putting the vocal parts in place during a practice so Vedder (having just flown up from San Diego to ‘audition’ for Ament and Gossard) stepped up and, according to Cornell; “sang half of that song not even knowing that I’d wanted the part to be there and he sang it exactly the way I was thinking about doing it, just instinctively.”

Along with Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog, 7 Year Bitch, Blind Melon, Tool, Tortoise, Truly and The Verve all formed in 1990.

So what about album releases in 1990? Buffalo Tom’s second album Birdbrain, again with J Mascis assisting in production, dropped in ’90 as did Jane’s Addiction’s second album, Ritual de lo Habitual, both of which stocked with great tunes though only one contained a track about shoplifting that would be played to death despite it being one of the album’s weakest songs.

Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan also released his debut solo album in 1990 – The Winding Sheet marked a real move away from the sound of Screaming Tress and, while not his finest, is well worth a listen. There was also a debut from The Breeders – a band started by Pixies bass player Kim Deal as a response to her growing lack of fulfilment in that band. Pod was made for a tiny budget and recorded in something daft like ten days but went down a storm, with Kurt Cobain often citing it as amongst his favourite albums.

Meanwhile, in a genre that seemed a thousand miles away a band that would later come to curse the advent of the Seattle Sound*, The Black Crowes released their storming blues-rock, hard-southern-rock first album Shake Your Money Maker. Not gonna lie; I like this one a lot, it’s an unabashed blast of the good stuff from start to finish that always goes down well.

Speaking of that scene which would become so dominant in the next couple of years, Alice in Chains got a jump start and released Facelift, their first album, in 1990. I mean, just take a look at some of the tracks on it – ‘We Die Young’, ‘Man in the Box’, ‘Sea of Sorrow’… ‘Bleed the Freak’, ‘Love, Hate, Love’…… it’s an absolute benchmark of an album that should be included in all kinds of lists and still is. It was the first ‘grunge’ album to go reach Gold status (in September ’91) though its sales would soon be eclipsed by other bands of that scene, Facelift remains a great album.

Across the Atlantic, another debut was released in 1990; the first and only album from The La’s; The La’s. The recording, release and end of the band’s career is a hell of story that’s worth it’s own post alone one day but their sole album remains a classic some thirty years on and I still remember feeling gobsmacked standing in the crowd at Wembley Arena in 2000 as Eddie Vedder started pontificating on it from the stage before breaking into a cover of ‘Timeless Melody’:

Not just a year of great first albums, 1990 saw the final album from The Replacements, All Shook Down – a great group of tunes that Paul Westerberg had originally intended to be for a solo album before his management persuaded him otherwise – more on that can be found here.

Having completed work on The Breeders’ Pod in England- Kim Deal headed back to the US and joined the rest of the band in LA as Pixies recorded their third album – Bossanova, released in August of 1990.  An absolute classic, Bossanova is a great album and contains a wealth of great tunes like ‘Velouria’, ‘Dig for Fire’, ‘Allison’ and is a regular in my car to this day.

Again, it’s an all-time favourite of mine but it was released in a year that was already beginning to feature some of those albums I’d mark as such, especially…

Sonic Youth – Goo

At some point in my 20s I’d reconnected with a friend I’d worked with before who had then gotten a job in a record shop (well, cds). He was in a band and I gravitated toward the scene, we’d all hang out, get small and absorb music and go to band practice etc…

At some point I needed a new place to live and ended up moving into this guy’s flat for a while. It was above a bakery which meant that it was like an oven in the summer and, at night, often impossible to sleep because the threshing machine beneath my room would kick off and clatter into the early hours…. heady days. It was there I discovered Sonic Youth and Goo. I still distinctly remember sitting there as my friend queued up ‘Tunic (song for Karen)’ for the first time. I may have been a little… baked, I can’t recall for sure but what I do remember is being hypnotised by it and very quickly becoming obsessed with it.

Released in June 1990, Goo is Sonic Youth’s sixth album and their first for DGC. In an attempt to test the humour of their new label they gave the album the working title ‘Blowjob?’ – I doubt there’d be so many t-shirts featuring its iconic album art (created by Raymond Pettibon) if they’d pushed too hard on that.

Aside from my own love of the band, Goo is apparently responsible for Placebo. Brian Molko has said that ‘Kool Thing’ was the first Sonic Youth song he heard and, were it not for Sonic Youth, he wouldn’t have started his own band. ‘Kool Thing’ is a delicious piss-take of a song; Kim Gordon had interviewed LL Cool J the previous year for ‘Spin’ magazine, she was a big fan but found his lack of interest in anything other than himself and his grossly misogynistic views appalling. ‘Kool Thing’ is both a send up of his attitude (Chuck D providing the seemingly disinterested responses) and her left-wing politics.

The exposure of ‘Kool Thing’ and a lot of press helped Goo shift a massive amount of records for Sonic Youth – by December it had shifted 200,000 units, much more than their new label had hoped for – and, as their most accessible (even to date I think this still holds) garnered a huge amount of positive press. Rolling Stone’s review got it pretty spot on in, if a little daft in its phrasing, referring to it as a “brilliant, extended essay in refined primitivism that deftly reconciles rock’s structural conventions with the band’s twin passions for violent tonal elasticity and garage-punk holocaust”.

1990 was the perfect time for Goo – this thing called ‘grunge’ was started to arrive on the scene, people were getting fecked off with the likes of Guns ‘N’ Roses and big stadium ‘rawk’. Hairspray bands were dying – Jon Bon Jovi was a year away from a haircut – and while punk hadn’t ‘broke’ just yet, it was about to; Goo was released at a time when the audience for its music was ripening. They and contemporaries like Dinosaur Jr had put in the groundwork for years before building up their own audience through hard work and harder touring and would now be championed by bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, granting their music an even greater level of exposure to an audience hungry for this new alternative (even if they were already five albums in to a stellar career).

For me, the discovery of Sonic Youth’s Goo came along at a time when I was wide open for music and, in my mid-20s, at my most receptive state for it. These were heady, carefree days and I could dive headlong into a love affair with a new-to-me band like Sonic Youth, which is what Goo made me do. This album helped me discover a band that ranks among my favourites and I couldn’t even put a conservative estimate on the number of times I may have listened to it. Daydream Nation is undoubtedly their finest but Goo is both a very close second and a personal favourite.

 

 

*In a recent interview, one of the brothers Robinson revealed that they hated everything out of this scene as they felt that the grunge and Seattle inspired alternative shift in music robbed them of greater success they felt due.