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 – 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.

Albums of my Years – 1988

1988…. a busy year with more memories making their way through the murk. Most of them, though, are more down to Thundercats and Manta Force toys than they are the music of ’88.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m pretty sure I heard Belinda Carlisle powering though the likes of ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ and I’m sure Kylie Minogue would have eked into my years as this was the year that radio was rammed with ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ and everyone was doing the ‘Loco-Motion’. It was also a ‘Perfect’ year for Fairground Attraction and Billy Ocean told everyone to ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car’. I remember them all but I doubt they were the focus of my attention as seven/eight year old. Then again, given my own son’s ability to reference a surprising number of songs and lyrics he’s heard on the radio and claim as ‘really good actually’ – who knows, maybe I was singing along to ‘Circle in the Sand’ in the car.

A couple of bits of music trivia from the year – while I sure as hell wouldn’t claim to remember it from the time – did make me chuckle. A Florida Man (a meme in itself these days) decided it was time to sue Motley Crue. This bloke – Matthew John Trippe, to give name hime, who already had a history of mental health issues and was known to the fuzz. Sued the band, claiming that he was secretly hired to pose as Nikki Sixx  and went on to tour with the band and that he wrote and recorded with them during 1983 and 1984 . Now as claims go it’s pretty out there but the oddest thing about this was that it took until 1993 for Florida Man to drop his lawsuit.

The other is amusing more for the mental image it conjures up in my head. James Brown! The mad man that was James Brown… faced a tonne of charges in September 1988 after – presumably off his tits on PCP – he stormed into a seminar taking place in one of the office buildings he owned, waved a gun around and demanded to know who’d been using his toilets and then lead police on interstate chase. Convicted and sentenced six years, he was out for good behaviour in 1991… but the idea of James Brown storming into a meeting accusing people of using the shitter (presumably they left it looking like Baghdad) is a pretty weird one.

One of Seattle’s earliest ‘grunge’ bands, Green River – having called it a day in late ’87 – were officially done in 1988. Mark Arm and Steve Turner recruited Dan Peters and Matt Lukin and formed Mudhoney, quickly releasing their first single and EP by the end of the year and establishing themselves as one of the pioneers of the ‘Seattle Scene’. Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Bruce Fairweather meanwhile took their branch of the  Seattle Music Tree off in a different direction, forming Lords of the Wasteland (which Mark Arm – ever the bitter cynic – and co would take the piss out of with a one-off ‘Wasted Landlords’ gig) with Andrew Wood before, also in ’88, forming Mother Love Bone.

In terms of albums dropped that fall within this blog’s wheelhouse… 1988 was a very good year.  Van Halen dropped their second with Sammy Hagar on vocals, OU812 and saw it propelled to the top of the charts en route to shifting several million copies. not to be outdone (except he was in every way), Dickhead Dave released his second solo album Skyscraper which seemed like it was only titled as such so he could prattle on about what an amazing rock climber he was in interviews. Tracy Chapman released her self-titled debut in April of ’88 with songs like ‘Baby Can I Hold You’, ‘Fast Car’ and ‘Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution’ helping it shift over a million in its first two weeks alone…

Living Colour released Vivid which featured ‘Cult of Personality’ and Crowded House released their second album, the fantastic Temple of Low Men and Jane’s Addiction released the insanely good Nothing’s Shocking – ‘Mountain Song’, ‘Had A Dad’, ‘Ted, Just Admit It…’ all kick arse. Sonic Youth found time in a very busy year to set up a side-project Ciccone Youth and release The Whitey Album which featured Mike Watt and J Mascis whose own Dinosaur Jr released the faultless Bug in 1988 (though apparently it’s J’s least favourite Dino album). Speaking of faultless, 1988 also saw the release of Pixies’ debut full-length Surfer Rosa which is wall-to-wall perfect:

Soundgarden dropped their debut in 1988 too – Ultramega OK, a real over-looked item in their back catalogue. Also debuting in ’88 was an album by a group for whom the average member had already released a thousand albums: The Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1. It’s a story well told as to how the band formed – recording a b-side for George Harrison leading to famous musicians calling their famous musician friends, breaking out the instruments and acting surprised that what they produced was solid gold, but the album is always worth a listen to, if only for Dylan’s fond piss-take of his mate Bruce’s songs:

But, if none of these make the cut as ‘featured’ for 1988, then what have I missed? Well, it’s not like I didn’t drop enough hints or the build up wasn’t kicked off a couple of years back:

Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation

Sonic Youth’s fifth album, released in October of 1988, is their masterpiece. It went on to massive acclaim from critics and continues to be cited as genre defining in every write up or re-release (I broke my no multiple-formats rule to get my hands on the 4lp expanded edition) since and is beloved by fans. Daydream Nation got the band their major label deal with Geffen (along with some creative accounting and rounding up of album sales to date) – which in turn allowed Kurt Cobain to think maybe it wouldn’t be selling out to have a chat to the same label – and has been referred to reverentially and held up as a massive influence from bands small (including my own last effort) to large in the alternative / indie rock genre. It’s fucking flawless.

I got into Sonic Youth via Goo (their major-label debut released in 1990) and the song ‘Tunic’. Having quickly picked up a couple of other albums, discovering Daydream Nation was like finding the moment everything clicked for their sound – it’s where all the improvisations and sonic experiments gelled with the drive toward writing ‘song’ structures and melodies without any sacrifice of either element.

This is one of the few albums that I listened to so frequently that the CD gave up the ghost and needed replacing. It’s one of those that I can just put on and lose myself in from start to finish – I even enjoy ‘Providence’. For me it’s akin to a concept album and ‘Providence’ provides the breather, the bridge between the album’s first ‘half’ and the likes of ‘Kissability’ and the 14-minute ‘Trilogy’.

There’s a real balance of Lee / Thurston / Kim songs – it would be a while before that came back as Goo and Dirty would feature just the one and Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star would be devoid of Ranaldo’s vocals – anyone who’s hip to his solo work will agree that that’s a crying shame and I’m pretty sure it lead to a lot of tension in the band too.

However, on Daydream Nation all that – and the bands collapse – were way off in the future. This album is the sound of all the pieces locking into place and firing on full capacity – much like albums like Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zep’s IV or Radiohead’s OK Computer, My Morning Jacket’s Z – a band playing at its strength and revelling in its abilities, almost as if they *know* they’re onto a real winner that will stand the test of time (and only time will tell if you pass that test….).

I also had the pleasure of seeing the band perform it in its entirety at London’s Roundhouse some years back – it was standing in front of Thurston’s speaker stack that cost me some of the hearing in my right ear.

 

Albums of my Years – 1987

The oddest thing about the entry for this year is that as 1987 was welcomed by the world I, having been born in October, was a few months past my sixth birthday so I’m sitting here knocking words into shape about the year in which I was the same age as my son is now.

Given how precious little I can now remember from that time, I’ll admit I’m a bit saddened at the prospect that all of these memories I hold dear with him, he may not. But it may just be that my own memory is shit – I can’t remember what was said in a meeting last week let alone what happened in 1987.

It also means that I know he’s absorbing music in much the same way I would have done but is probably exposed to a lot more variety as he enjoys listening to both music played in my car and on the radio in my wife’s – who listens to a much more contemporary station. Which would explain why he knows what ‘Bad Guy’ by Billie Eilish sounds like and can ask Alexa for something called Dance Monkey, amongst others…. when he’s not using it to set fart timers.

That he’s referenced the orange tub of turd in charge of America and the shaggy-headed fucktard* currently residing at 10 Downing Street makes me think that by ’87 I was probably paying attention to the news and the world beyond He-Man and Thundercats. Shit, just by typing those words I’ve opened a floodgate of memories which give me hope. Still, at the time, those big songs on the radio that might have been perverting my young brain included the future-meme that was Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ and Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’. In fact I do have a distinct memory of being in the car with my Dad at one point this year as Ms Houston was being interviewed by Steve Wright on BBC Radio One (how’s that for a flasback) – I remember this as my Dad found it amusing and frustrating in equal measure how she would add ‘you know?’ to every other sentence.

1987 must have been a mega year for hairspray manufacturers. Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ topped the US charts and was the year’s biggest selling single, Def Leppard (what’s got nine arms and sucks?) released Hysteria – apparently the longest rock album ever on a single LP at just over an hour – and Axl Rose welcomed everyone to the jungle with a weird shimmy dance as Appetite for Destruction dropped in July ’87. It would go on to become the best selling debut of all time, having shifted something daft like 30 million copies. That’s a lot of Mr Brownstone. It’s a safe wager that all these poodle-perms and teased-dos were assisted in their rise by MTV – MTV Europe launched in ’87 too, the first video played was Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ the animation of which was probably already out of date.

Still there were a lot of great records released in 1987 too, many of which fall right into this blog’s arena and my collection. Not counting Bruce Willis’ The Return of Bruno for very obvious reasons.

Hüsker Dü released their final album Warehouse: Songs and Stories and broke up following the tour to support it, which I’m sure cheesed of Warner Bros. as it was only their second album for the label. Prince returned to form with Sign o’ the Times and Sonic Youth delivered the near-perfect Sister in June, weighing in at very healthy ten tracks that shifted their experimentation further from their no-wave origins and closer to traditional song-structures.

Sonic Youth’s SST label-mates, and another big name in my record shelves, Dinosaur Jr released their unimpeachable You’re Living All Over Me in 1987 and fellow Massachusettsians(?) and one of Boston’s finist, The Pixies released their first – the mini-lp Come On Pilgrim – which I always say in the style of John Wayne.

Meanwhile Boston’s Bad Boys decided ’87 was the time to kick-off their comeback proper. Fresh from rehab (though opener ‘Hearts Done Time’ was crafted by Perry and Desmond Child while Steven Tyler was still ‘in’) and feeling a lust for life and health, Aerosmith shifted direction a little – a glossier sound thanks to the production of Bruce Fairbairn and, at the suggestion of  A&R man John Kalodner, written with outside songwriters such as Desmond Child, Jim Vallance and Holly Knight. All names that would be associated with the likes of Bryan Adams, Bon Jovi, Tina Turner and a certain flavour of 80’s American ROCK. Still, with sales in the millions, a volley of hit singles and videos that reintroduced to the group to the charts and introduced them to a whole new audience, the formula clearly worked. For my money, though, it’s the lesser of their ‘comeback’ albums and the best songs are the least ‘buffed’:

The Go-Betweens released their fifth album, Tallulah, in ’87 and Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust arrived in  August of the same year – often cited as the best Australian album and home to ‘Beds Are Burning’ which did Top Ten / Twenty business around the globe. R.E.M released Document in this year, it was their last for I.R.S and their first with producer Scott Litt – with whom they’d work with through to New Adventures In Hi-Fi. George Harrison released Cloud Nine in 1987 – while it followed a five year hiatus it would actually be the last of his studio albums released in his lifetime, we miss you George. Massively well-received it also give him a Number One single:

Having been declared a spent force creatively in 1985, Pink Floyd proved it was anything but having gotten rid of its “dog in the manger”.  Having begun work on the next band album in November ’86, David Gilmour put together the musicians he wanted involved and wisely took the call from Richard Wright’s wife when it came to the keyboards. While both Nick Mason and Wright were a little too rusty following both an extensive lay-off and years of Waters’ bullying respectively to play much on the album, the presence of both on the album gave the now Gilmour-led project the stamp of credibility it needed as legal battling and bitching between the Floyd and Waters camp continued throughout – at one point the band relocated to L.A for recording both as part of the arrangement to allow producer Bob Ezrin time with his family (Ezrin chose working on a new Gilmour-led Pink Floyd album vs Waters’s solo record based on his memories of The Wall sessions with Roger) and so that the time delay would reduce calls from solicitors. While A Momentary Lapse of Reason is far from a great Pink Floyd album, it’s pretty fucking good and has plenty of songs on it that stand up to repeated listens and the recent remixes for The Later Years shows just that.

Meanwhile the tour to support it began before the album was released.  Roger Waters threatened to sue promoters if they used the Pink Floyd name, which many decided to say ‘fuck you’ to – helping some shift 60,000 tickets within hours of release. Gilmour and Mason funded the start-up costs themselves and the tour became the year’s most successful – beating box office records everywhere it went. Which probably helped Mason buy back the Ferrari 250GTO he’d had to sell to raise funds. I seem to recall reading that it grossed more than the next two best-selling tours of the year combined.

But… it’s not my featured album of 1987. I mean Bruce Springsteen also released an album this year – one of his finest; Tunnel of Love. Yet I’ve already waxed lyrical on that and rules are rules. So, let’s talk about…

The Replacements – Pleased to Meet Me

““How can the Replacements be the best band of the 80s when I’ve never even heard of them?” Jon Bon Jovi

That’s easy, Jon. Pull up a chair, tuck back your hair and open your ears a mo… The Replacements were the band that should have been, but never were. Their own worst enemies, they were a band that, across the course of the decade, punched out six albums that charted Westerberg’s development into a songwriter par-excellence, stuffed to gills with gems and killer hooks that saw them develop from their start in Minneapolis’ punk scene to making one-last gasp at the stardom that forever eluded them before falling apart as the nineties started.

Own worst enemies you say? That’s right, Jon Bongiovi – their history was no Bed of Roses. For all their  great tunes, they couldn’t quite seem to let go of the punk / silly stuff. So for every ‘I Will Dare’ or ‘Unsatisfied’ there would be a ‘Gary’s Got A Boner’ or ‘Lay It Down Clown’ that, while delighting their already devoted fanbase when wheeled out live, wouldn’t give them the consistently ‘great / solid’ album that would transfer to mainstream sales. They’d also handicap their success with their on-and-off stage behaviour and ramshackle live performances that often ended with songs being abandoned half-way through after a flubbed line or riff. Whether they really didn’t care or wanted to look like they didn’t care…. “I don’t know”.

I came to The Replacements far too late – not that it’s ever too late to discover a band, but they’d long since ceased to be when I got into them and even Paul Westerberg had stopped releasing albums proper when I finally decided to check out the band that I’d read about and seen cited as important and influential seemingly everywhere.

Pleased to Meet Me was released in 1987. You probably didn’t hear it, JBJ, because you were giving love a bad name around the world. It’s the band’s fifth album – and their first and only album as a trio after founding member Bob Stinson left / was asked to gtfo in ’86. I’ve read somewhere that, in fact, his departure is a stain on Westerberg’s character: having completed court-mandated rehab less than a month earlier, a clean and sober Stinson was told to ‘either take a drink, motherfucker, or get off my stage.’ Stinson died in 1995 of organ failure after years of drug and alcohol abuse.

This was also their second major-label album and, likely, one for which Sire were starting to wonder if they’d ever take it seriously enough to give them a product that would break the band in the way Westerberg’s songs deserved.

For my money Pleased To Meet Me is as close as they’d get to perfect. The songs on their next, Don’t Tell A Soul were still good albeit written looking for an ‘anthem’,  but it was two years away – during which it would become clear it wasn’t really going to happen – and would be killed by poor production.

Pleased To Meet Me was produced by Jim Dickinson – I’ve no doubt chosen as he produced Big Star’s Thrid and it Paul Westerberg would “never travel far, without a little Big Star.”

It’s their best-sounding album thanks to the production choice. It’s big, punchy and strong where it needs to be but still remains rough enough round the edges to keep its charm and the band’s sense of humour and ethos intact. Rolling Stone called it “an album alive with the crackle of conflicting emotions and kamikaze rock & roll fire.”

It’s got great Replacements songs all over it, from ‘Alex Chilton’ to ‘The Ledge’ for which a video was made but quickly banned by MTV as it dealt with suicide. They didn’t really do videos in general so it wasn’t a shocker. No flying across the crowd in a harness or looking wistfully out of the windows of a jet liner for them, Jon. Their only real video to this point was a black-and-white video that didn’t even  show the band, just a loudspeaker vibrating to the music. No wonder you hadn’t heard of em.

And while they weren’t quite ready to play it straight, the token ‘silly’ track ‘I Don’t Know’ comes across more as a bluesy, jam feeling workshop that’s more self-mocking than it is juvenile: ‘one foot in the door, the other one in the gutter’, ‘Do we give it up? (I don’t know)….. Can I borrow your hairspray?’ Yeah, I know, Jon, they used hairspray too, but when they sang ‘why don’t you get a haircut, sister?’ at Paul it didn’t make the news. Meanwhile the saxophone featured would also drip over into next track ‘Nightclub Jitters’ which continued Hootenanny‘s genre experiments with aplomb.

Oh, and speaking of horns, it’s also got the final recording run at ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’, easily one of their best tunes – I love the one-liner “Jesus rides beside me, he never buys any smokes” – all nagging riff and catchy beat, albeit without the earlier version’s ’till it’s over’:

But I jumped ahead to the final track there, sorry. ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ is preceded by another Westerberg classic, one that he once called the first good song he’d written. It’s a simple love song about a couple who never got to meet (something which Westerberg’s solo songs would come back to a few times over the years to come) – a man keeps seeing a woman up in the skyway “wonderin’ if we’ll meet out in the street” only, when he finally sees her out in the street – where he usually catches his ride, he’s in the skyway: “there wasn’t a damn thing I could do or say.” It’s simple, yet perfect. Yes, Jon, it’s fucking streets away from ‘Never Say Goodbye’, ok? Don’t even try…

Allmusic’s summary of this one sums it up: it was the last time the band “could still shoot for the stars and seem like their scrappy selves and, in many ways, it was the last true Replacements album”. Pleased To Meet Me is my favourite Replacements album. As I worked my way back through their catalogue after getting Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was it’s the album that I’d play through the most, so it’s only fitting that it sits here as my choice of 1987’s releases.

On to 1988… and no, New Jersey isn’t there, Jon. No laying your hands on this list.

*definitely not his words

Albums of my Years – 1986

No 2019 roundup here – if I manage to keep to schedule  on these that one should arrive in late October.  Instead we roll past the halfway mark of my first decade: 1986.

It’s an odd year for music this one. I have vivid memory of the songs of this time – given that radio still plays a lot of them it’s no real surprise. I also have a clear memory of a walk home from school (we lived about 10 minutes’ walk from my primary school) and seeing a smashed cassette on the ground and having, at the time no idea who Bon Jovi were or why someone would have stomped on Slippery When Wet (my guess, now, is that they couldn’t hear ‘Without Love’ one more time without going loco).

Jon and his hairspray-loving mates didn’t really kick in over here in the same way as the US.  ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ did hit the top ten later in the year but here the radio was ruled by songs like Madonna’s ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ (True Blue was released in June and went on to bonkers numbers in sales) and Surivor’s ‘Burning Heart’ or, even worse Diana Ross’ ‘Chain Reaction’ and Boris Gardiner’s ‘I Wanna Wake Up with You’ that still haunts my brain. The Communards’ take on  ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ saw off the horrors of Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady in Red’ and Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’ for the title of biggest single. Dark times on the radio.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held its first induction ceremony in January ’86. The ceremony took place in New York and first inductees included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry (inducted by Chuck devotee Keith Richards) along with The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and record producer Sam Phillips.

Bob Geldof picked up an award in ’86, he was awarded an Honorary Knighthood for his Band Aid / Live Aid work, though as he’s not a citizen of the Commonwealth he can never be Sir Bob…

In August, guitarist Bob Stinson was out of The Replacements, the group he founded, with the old ‘creative and personal differences’ explanation being wheeled out. Stinson preferred the faster, louder sound of the band’s earlier songs while Paul Westerberg’s growth as a songwriter was taking him down the quieter, introspective route with songs like ‘Here Comes a Regular’. Bob’s drug and alcohol abuse only made the situation worse.

Late September, Metallica were on tour in Sweden promoting Master of Puppets and members drew cards to determine which bunks on the tour bus they would sleep in. Bass player Cliff Burton won and chose to sleep in Kirk Hammett’s bunk. Next morning, as the sun rose, the driver lost control and the bus skidded and rolled over several times. The rest of the band were ok but Burton was thrown out of the window. The bus fell on him, pinning him  to the ground and killing him. While detectives would point to the lack of ice and the skid marks being exactly like ones seen when drivers fall asleep at the wheel, the driver was cleared of any fault. Burton would be replaced by Jason Newstead who would remain with the band until 2001.

It was goodnight from The Clash in ’86 as what was left of the band disbanded as did Men At Work, ELO and The Firm, the short-lived Paul Rodgers and Jimmy Page supergroup. However, The Afghan Whigs, Band of Susans, Boards of Canada, Manic Street Preachers, Slint, and two of Boston’s finest – The Pixies and Buffalo Tom all formed in 1986, putting the scales firmly in the positive.

There were a lot of album releases in 1986 but, in terms of what would fall in my listening orbit, it’s a slim entry of a year. Metallica’s Master of Puppets which contained not only the stonking title track but ‘Battery’ and ‘Orion’ arrived in March and Van Halen, now fronted by an actual singer called Sammy Hagar, dropped 5150 a couple of weeks later – it was the first of their run of four albums with Hagar, all of which would hit Number 1 on the charts. The glorified strip-club MC that previously fronted their band dropped his own debut Eat ‘Em and Smile in July.  While Dickhead Dave had Steve Vai, there’s no comparing to EVH, even when he’s in ballad-mode, the guy drips riffs and tricks:

In a similar arena-bound genre, Bon Jovi unleashed Slippery When Wet in ’86 with it going on to shift something like 30 million copies.  Meanwhile debuts this year came from Bruce Hornsby and the Range who, just for fun, said ‘get a job’, Big Black, Steve Earle and Crowded House whose strong, eponymous first album featured some absolute great tunes and one of their biggest singles to date:

Having dropped two belters in 1985 you’d be forgiven for expecting Hüsker Dü to take a breather but, instead they released Candy Apple Grey via their new major label Warner Bros. and shifted ever so-slightly enough from their hardcore punk sound to create what could be considered one of the first college-rock records. Former SST label-mates Sonic Youth released EVOL in 1986. It’s a real favourite of mine, possibly in the Top 5 of their albums – it’s their first with Steve Shelley on the drum stool and marks the turning point from the whole ‘no-wave’ to the sound they’d perfect over the next few years (1988 is pretty much a done-deal).

Bruce Springsteen topped the charts toward the end of 1986 with Live 1975 – 85. This (until then) career-documenting box set broke records for pre-orders and remains an absolute must in terms of both Springsteen’s catalogue and live records.. I mean I could feature this as it wasn’t covered in the Least to Most series but going for a live album would open up the ability to include compilations and … well I don’t think it can count. So, that leave:

Lifes Rich Pageant – REM

I got into R.E.M around the release of ‘E-Bow the Letter’ single in 1996. By that time it was impossible not to know who they were, this was after ‘Everybody Hurts’ and ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’ etc had been riding the airwaves for a few years but it was that song that properly hooked me when I heard it on the car radio one day.  From there, as with so many other bands, I went back and scouring and collecting the back catalogue and discovering R.E.M’s IRS albums was almost like finding the work of a different band.

My second-favourite R.E.M album behind New AdventuresLifes Rich Pageant was the band’s fourth and strips away the murky sound of Fables of  the Reconstruction for something dramatically more direct and punchy sounding – well, certainly in terms of early R.E.M.

The choice of Don Gheman as producer is an odd one – the dude was known for his work with John Mellencamp and you’d be hard-pushed to listen to ‘Jack and Diane’ and think ‘this is the sound those dudes who did Harborcoat need’ – but it works, even if they didn’t work together again. Songs like ‘Just a Touch’ and ‘Begin the Begin’ are the clearest beneficiaries and were the hardest the band had sounded at that point, paving the way for future tracks like ‘Drive’ and Accelerate:

Stripping away the deliberate cloud in the sound and opting for a crisper approach may have been down to the fact that Stipe was becoming increasingly confident as a singer and as a songwriter with lyrics that were now taking on political and environmental / ecological themes like the one-two punch of greatness that make up ‘Fall on Me’ and ‘Cuyahoga’, which are underpinned by Mike Mills’ harmonies and rolling bass lines:

For me this is the album where R.E.M step away from the fog and sound both contemporary and forward-thinking. While it sounds very much of the time it isn’t bound by it either. It’s riddled with the sounds and hallmarks of what would soon be pegged as the R.E.M sound but still sounds fresh and exciting some three decades plus later and when you listen to the great live albums the band have made, some of the biggest cheers are reserved for songs from early albums like Lifes Rich Pageant – because they’re brilliantly crafted nuggets written before all the weight of expectation that would soon greet every R.E.M album and remain highlights in a catalogue stuffed with great tunes.

My only issue with this album isn’t the apostrophe. It’s the fact that the track listing on the back of the album isn’t correct. It’s never been and has never been corrected either, it drove me bonkers at first and it still gets me each time I listen to it.

Albums of my Years -1985

1985…. I started school in ’85 and have some vague memories that break through the dust. Not many, mind. I know the year’s big film releases that would wind their way into heavy rotation in my VHS / DVD collections in years to come – Back to the Future, Fletch, The Goonies, Spies Like Us, Fletch and the amazing Subway – were fighting what was the year of Stallone at the Box Office as he flexed his way through Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II (doesn’t that make it Second Blood, or Still Bleeding?) just as Arnie’s biceps dominated Commando and Red Sonja and Bruce Springsteen’s guns were shown off across stadiums as Bossmania took hold and the tour promoting Born In The USA moved from arenas to stadiums as it went on to becoming the year’s biggest selling album.

Meanwhile as I was starting my reading journey with a book called ‘Look’ (I vividly remember this one; ‘look’ repeated throughout and with increasing frequency) I was no doubt singing along to whatever was playing on my Dad’s car radio – if my own son’s behaviour is a guide – which, in 1985 England meant Tears for Fears’ ‘Head Over Heals’, Paul Young’s ‘Every Time You Go Away’, maybe Madonna’s ‘Crazy for You’ and, undoubtedly, Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ or ‘Walk of Life’* as they dropped their game-changer Brothers In Arms in 1985. Aside from catapulting the band to a new level, it was the first album to sell more copies on CD than vinyl, its high sound quality suiting the format having been recording entirely digitally.

Pretty sure that Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’ must have featured heavily on the radio that year, or ‘Top of the Pops’ as it’s stuck in my head like a MAGA hat on a redneck and I’m confident I wouldn’t have looked it out for myself:

‘Diamond’ or, as I like to call him, ‘Dickhead’ David Lee Roth decided his vaudeville style twattery and ego were best suited to a solo career and quit Van Halen in April of `85. Another ego to decide he was better off without a phenomenal guitarist was Roger ‘don’t call me easy-going’ Waters, who announced that Pink Floyd was “a spent force creatively” and would, upon realising that when driven by Gilmour it was anything but, spend many a year in legal battles for control of the band’s name (turns out it wasn’t his after all) and whatever else he felt he could bitch about.

After 1984’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ single questioned meteorological facts, Band Aid expanded into the massive Live Aid concerts in July 1985 with concerts at Wembley – for which, somehow, U2 managed to sneak their way onto the performer list – and Philadelphia. Presumably because if one crowd had been forced to suffer, it was only fair for the Yanks to endure too,  Phil Collins decided he needed to be at both, carbon emissions and jet fuel be damned, and used Concorde to get across the pond to help Led Zeppelin play their first show since Bonham’s death in what Page would later call a  “pretty shambolic” performance marred by more than a slap-head drummer.

Zeppelin were sued in 1985 by American blues singer Willie Dixon – he believed their ‘Whole Lotta Love’ was a little too similar to his ‘You Need Love’. It was settled out of court and the credits for that song on my copy of Led Zeppelin II are for Page, Plant, Bonham, Jones, Dixon.

On one side of the Atlantic, a bloke called Axl Rose and his mate Izzy Stradlin formed a new band called Guns ‘n’ Roses and found a guy from Hampstead, London in a top hat shop and decided he should play too. On the other side of the Atlantic – at a school in Abingdon, Oxford to be precise – five friends formed a band called On A Friday. The band was named after the day they got together to rehearse each week in their school’s music room. A few years later, still together and now with label interest, they decided to take a new name from a song ‘Radio Head’ on a Talking Heads album. I think it’s clear which of 1985’s new bands would make the better contribution to music.

Aside from the aforementioned Brothers In Arms – and I can’t give Dire Straits a third feature, 1985 gave birth to a number of sterling albums that would sit right in this blog’s wheelhouse. Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs dropped toward the end of the year and threw about every style Tom Waits could muster at the listener, continuing the direction he’d moved to with Swordfishtrombones.

The tail end of 1985 saw Aerosmith release their first album since the previous  year’s return of Perry and Whitford and their first for Geffen, the much overlooked Done With Mirrors. In hindsight this one gets a bum deal. It’s real strong album, perhaps their best since Rocks and their first since then – and their last – written without any outside songwriters. It’s got the same wise-cracking lyrics and riff-heavy tuneage as Permanent Vacation but without the Bruce Fairbairn polish that buffed that album into a mega-seller. Instead, Aerosmith turned to Ted Templeman to produce Done With Mirrors as the Van Halen producer wanted to capture the band’s  “out of control freight train” sound. He didn’t quite succeed though and poor packaging, interest and commercial returns meant many thought the writing was on the wall for the band…  rehab and a massive comeback lay head instead but there’s still a lot of good on Done With Mirrors.

Jesus and Mary Chain’s debut Psychocandy also appeared in November, with the absolute classic ‘Just Like Honey’ destined to be a heavy player on future playlists. Hüsker Dü managed to pop out two gems in 1985 which meant New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig gave us 29 cracking tunes like ‘New Day Rising’, ‘Celebrated Summer’ and ‘Makes No Sense at All’ – of the two I still spin New Day Rising more.

Another rising album from ’85 that could easily sit as the featured album for the year -Sonic Youth released their second album Bad Moon Rising in 1985. Still more noise than tune oriented, it’s a huge leap forward from Confusion Is Sex and it’s hear you can find, in the segues between songs and in the structures, the sound and style that would be (de)tuned to perfection across their next three albums onward. The Replacements Tim could so easily sit at the top of this list too. It’s a HUGE leap for the band and a fucking great album, easily a 4 1/2 out of 5 for me. The only duff moments for me are ‘Lay It Down Clown’ and I really don’t like ‘Dose Of Thunder’ but these are but fleeting, easily skipped down points on an album otherwise choking with gold like ‘Bastards of Young’ ‘Kiss Me On The Bus’ and ‘Left of the Dial’ to name but a few.

So where do we go from here for my ‘featured’ album of 1985, the one I’ve listened to most and associate so strongly with that mid-point of the decade? It might be a surprise, a bit of a curve ball from left field (is that the right phrase?) given the above but it’s…

Hounds of Love – Kate Bush

Kate Bush’s fifth album is, to me, the album of the year. It’s the one I’ve listened to most over the years and one I continually revisit.

I also get a kick out of the fact that, as it had been a good three years since her last album The Dreaming, which itself had failed to produce anything resembling a ‘hit’ single, Ms Bush had found herself subject to a ‘where are they now?’ style column just a week or two before she debuted the amazing ‘Running Up That Hill’:

Hounds of Love is an album of two halves. Side One is ‘Hounds of Love’ – a near-perfect ‘pop’ record (I use the ” because in ’85 pop veered from the sounds captured on Side One of this album to utter tosh, perhaps ‘grown up pop’ would b more accurate) while Side Two is ‘The Ninth Wave’ – a concept-piece  Ms Bush described as being about ” a person who is alone in the water for the night. It’s about their past, present and future coming to keep them awake, to stop them drowning, to stop them going to sleep until the morning comes.”

Now take a moment to consider just how perfect a collection of soon-to-be hits Side One is: ‘Cloudbusting’, ‘Hounds of Love’, ‘Big Sky’ and ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’ would all be released as singles, all charting in the Top 40, three of them Top 20 and ‘Running…’ becoming her highest-charting single of the decade.

These were big, unabashed songs of drama and heart with the most sublime sound and production that, while very much of its time still sounds as evocative as it did 34 years ago. This is the wide-open panoramic sound that would be so wonderfully applied during this decade; pop sensibilities and sheen tied to songs of substance.

As for the second side… Just put the needle down and get absorbed. “The Ninth Wave was a film, that’s how I thought of it,” Kate would later tell BBC Radio 1 in 1992. Seven great tunes tied together by this concept that both work as a piece and individually:

The sound of Kate Bush loomed large in the 80’s. I know my Dad had a copy of The Whole Story – the compilation released in ’86 – which featured three songs from The Hounds of Love and it would get a lot of play, so these are sounds I absorbed and have stayed with me.

I got my copy of The Hounds of Love some years later. It’s an original pressing bought for less than a tenner somewhere before both the recent reissues and jump in record prices and I’ve spun the arse off it.

The now defunct Sounds magazine ran a review that summed it up: “dramatic, moving and wildly, unashamedly, beautifully romantic… If I were allowed to swear, I’d say that Hounds of Love is f***ing brilliant, but me mum won’t let me.”

It’s my blog and I can so I’ll say Hounds of Love is fucking brilliant – just pure bliss to listen to from start to finish. Yes, she may well have been (and could still well be) off her nut but that touch of crazy, wild abandon adds greatness to an album lush in sound and layers that just begs to have the needle dropped on it at each opportunity.