Despite another morning of waiting for the ice to dissolve from its windscreen before blasting the Ferrari’s mighty engine off of my drive and into the school-run and commute, the steady bead of afternoon sunlight in my eyes and the calling of the blogging urge has pulled me from my hibernation.
Where have I been? Fucking nowhere there’s a pandemic on and the rules change as much as that cockwomble-in-charge’s excuses do, triple-jabbed or not.
What have I been doing? The break wasn’t intended it just happened, maybe I’d lost my mojo, maybe I just needed to switch off a little. I’ve been reading a lot (potentially to be detailed later but Franzen’s latest was as excellent as expected, The Passenger is an amazing ‘lost’ novel rediscovered and Anna Karenina is proving the Russian beauty I wish I’d read sooner), using the festive break to watch films old (unlikely to be detailed later so Bad Boys 2 was as awful as I thought it would be, Face-Off has not aged well at all while Beverly Hills Cop is still a time-capsule joy) and new (Don’t Look Up suffers from split-personality only one half of which is very good, the other shite) of an evening instead of falling asleep in a cattle-truked daze. Oh, and watching Get Back*.
Of course, I’ve also been consuming music across as many formats and mediums as I can including catching up with some 2021’s finest. As Aphoristic Album Reviews points out in his fine summary of the year: putting together a list of a best albums during the year in question always feels a bit weird. What if your favourite artist surprise released a new album on Christmas Day? There’s also the fact that I don’t always get to absorb ‘new’ albums until that end of year break. Anywho, with that in mind and keeping it short and sweet, here are my five favourites of 2021.
Mogwai – As The Love Continues
Mogwai came out swinging in February with As The Love Continues. After the restrictions of 2020 (especially tougher in Scotland than here) gave them an opportunity to work distraction-free on their album, they produced one of their finest ever some 24 years after their debut and a very early and easy contender for AOTY. It bristles with great tunes, a warmth and thrust that they’ve not exhibited in a decade. A big hit with critics and fans alike it actually hit the top of the album charts here (surely that’s the first post-rock album to do so?),it felt too good to be true at the start of 2021 and, tens of plays later, still feels too good to be true at the start of 2022.
Snail Mail – Valentine
I was already hooked on this album on Spotify but after finding the vinyl under the tree this year I’ve fallen ever deeper under its spell (more reason to leave those lists until the year has passed). ‘Sold’ to me as a midway point between Hole and Lucy Dacus, Snail Mail’s second album is a glorious slab of 90’s inspired, emotionally fuelled alt-rock with real range and power.
Dinosaur Jr – Sweep It Into Space
The reunited Dinosaur Jr ‘classic’ lineup have now put out more albums than the three of their original run and one more than the various iterations of the band put out during its major label run. What’s surprising is that they’re still bitingly keen and putting out solid and inspired albums that always have plenty of great tunes on them and a lot of J Mascis’ always dazzling guitar solos. The addition of Kurt Vile as co-producer and occasional rhythm and acoustic guitar player has yielded one of their most sonically interesting and just plain-fucking-great-to-listen-to albums thus far and has been a regular spinner since it dropped in April.
Lucy Dacus – Home Video
I loved Lucy Dacus’ 2018 Historian. Why, then, it took so long for me to pick up Home Video is beyond me.. perhaps it was too much to listen to and too little time but, when my local announced a re-stock I made sure one of them had my name on and I’m glad I did: Home Video is just brilliant: Dacus goes from strength to strength here with an album richer in sound and more personal in lyrics – a compelling mix of alt-rockers and gut-wrench ballads.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – God’s Pee AT STATE’S END
Two post-rock giants releasing great albums in the same year? Yup. Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress and Luciferian Towers were ok but didn’t move me in the way that ‘old’ GY!BE and even ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend did… yet AT STATE’S END is a powerful return to that earlier form. Reintroducing found recordings and, like Don’t Bend… delivers two monumental slabs of post-rock with the band’s glorious build-ups from scratchy, static transmissions to crescendos that make your soul go ‘oh fuck YES! interspersed with a couple of drone tracks as if to cleanse the palate.
If this were a Top 10 it would also have included The War On Drugs’ I Don’t Live Here Anymore (a brilliant album that’s way too over-priced on vinyl to have been added to my collection and made the Top 5), Explosions In The Sky’s Big Bend (three post-rock albums in the Top 5 would be pushing it though), The Weather Station’s Ignorance and My Morning Jacket’s self-titled album while Ben Howard would’ve taken an honourable mention for his Collections From The Whiteout.
My favourite ‘Old Stuff Revisited’ release of 2021 is a tie between Tom Petty’s Finding Wildflowers and the re-cast Angel Dream (Songs and Music from the Motion Picture ‘She’s the One’) – that Rick Rubin helmed era of tunes from ’94 thru to 99’s Echo was a rich seam for Petty and these archival releases and new versions are like visiting a golden era and finding it even better than you remembered.
That was 2021… 2022 already has some promising releases on the horizon. I’m eagerly anticipating new albums from The Mysterines, Big Thief, Eddie Vedder (of course), Placebo (for the first time in a while) as well as ‘it could still happens’ like Springsteen’s Tracks 2 to name a few.
*Finding a way to summarise my thoughts on Get Back is likely to take a while
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’:
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 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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 Marvin! Your cousin, Marvin 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 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.
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.
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.
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:
It’s been a minute since I dropped a ‘here’s what I’m hearing’ post but there’s no time like the present so, in the immortal words of Marvin Gaye: let’s get it on.
Mogwai – To The Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate The Earth
New albums from Mogwai are always gonna be warmly received by me – be it soundtrack or studio – but this year’s As the Love Continues is one of their finest in years. Its’ so fucking good. In fact this, the first track on the album, is good it got my normally ‘post-rock ambivalent’ wife into the album. Just a stunning effort from the band, no doubt helped by the lack of distractions being in lockdown gave them and an easy Best Album of 2021 contender already.
Dinosaur Jr – I Ran Away
Well – another probable contender for that title is already on the way! Dinosaur Jr recently announced their new album Sweep It Into Space is en route (and pre-ordered by me of course). A new slab of Dinosaur Jr is plenty of reason to pay attention (see this post for more proof) but the new one is produced with Kurt Vile and features him on 12-string apparently. It’s the band’s first since 2016. Can’t wait!
Ben Howard – What A Day
Well, here we are with another hotly-anticipated (by me) album. Ben Howard has been a real mainstay on my stereo for years, there’s something about the vibe he taps into that’s just right up my street. His new album – Collections From the Whiteout – is produced with The National’s Aaron Dessner – and songs dropped so far feel like a lighter, though no-less adventurous sound than his last album
Jaguar Sun – The Heart
You know Spotify certainly has its drawbacks but it can also lead to great discoveries too. I stumbled by pure chance – having been listening to that fucking great Bleachers tune ‘chinatown’ which features Bruce Springsteen – a few weeks back into a playlist it was recommending me called ‘Dream Pop’ – a genre I hadn’t really paid attention to. What a fucking muppet. There’s so much gold in there that hits so may buttons for me that I’ve spent a long time immersed in it every evening and just drifting off like I’m wrapped in shimmering clouds, man. This Jaguar Sun dude has some great stuff but ‘The Heart’ is the one that I keep finding myself humming.
Philip Sayce – Black Roller Coming
Oh dude – getting back to the grittier guitars and electric blues crunch just in case you worried. I caught a Philip Sayce last year and his album Spirit Rising got a load of plays last year and into this. Loads of that sweet guitar tone and rip for when it needs turning up load.
R.E.M – So Fast So Numb
Even if they’re no longer active as a band in the traditional sense, R.E.M have been outstanding in celebrating the anniversaries of their albums with beefed up takes on all bang on their 25th Anniversary with notable beefed-up editions of their Warner Bros albums especially. This year marks 25 years since the release of my favourite R.E.M album New Adventures in Hi-Fi and I’m eagerly anticipating news of a similar treatment for it, especially as getting the original on vinyl is pretty priced way out of likelihood.
Pixies – Alec Eiffel
As much as I love new Pixies music arriving, they’re another band that are aware of their legacy and the value it has to fans and have treated us to similar revisiting of their albums, albeit on their 30th anniversary. Expanded takes on Dolittle and Come on Pilgrim… It’s Surfer Rosa were treasure troves of additional material while last year’s Bossanova was a great pressing of a classic. This year marks 30 (shocking) years since the last album in their initial run – Trompe Le Monde and another I’m in eager anticipation for.
Side note: while we’re talking new music and spins… I heard the new Foo Fighters album and fell asleep. I’ll leave it at that.
Here we are, 1991 – “the year punk broke.” This was the year in which grunge music broke through. Still in its infancy, though, the genre wasn’t the force in terms of sales it would become over the next couple of years. While Nirvana’s Nevermind (released in September) would be propelled by the surprise hit of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, metal was still a massive force and it would be Metallica’s ‘black’ album that became the year’s biggest seller along with the double wankfest of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion 1 & 2 selling massive figures and Garth Brooks, still a good few years away from turning into Chris Gaines, was making money as fast as they could print it.
In February, James Brown was released from prison on parole after his bizarre ‘89 episode – presumably the wardens were fooled by his cape routine and feigned exhaustion. Years away from revelations of child abuse, Michael Jackson renewed his recording contract with Sony records for $65 million – that’s a lot of monkey food. The Rolling Stones also signed a new deal with Virgin Records and Aerosmith – riding high on the back of their comeback and the success of Pump, signed a $30 million deal with Colombia Records / Sony Music, though it wouldn’t be until 1997’s Nine Lives that they would release anything for the label.
On March 20th Eric Clapton’s four-year-old son, Conor, died after falling from the 53rd-floor window of his mother’s friend’s New York City apartment. The loss of his young son, with whom he had only just realised his role as father took a heavy toll and inspired the song ‘Tears in Heaven’.
The film ‘Robin Hood; Prince of Thieves’ was released in 1991 and, from it, Bryan Adams’ ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ took the piss at number 1 in the UK for sixteen weeks. Also, in the world of soundtracks and infinitely more culturally and artistically more significant than Christian Slater’s English accent, ‘Baywatch’ returned in 1991 for a second season of slow motion running, drama and acting almost as convincing as the breasts on its female stars, kicking off with a new theme song:
On November 23rd, after years of speculation and insulting suggestions from the press, Freddie Mercury released a statement confirming that he had tested HIV positive and had AIDs. The statement didn’t say that Mercury was close to blind and could no longer leave his bed. Less than 24 hours later Mercury passed away from bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS. He was just 45.
Devo called it a day in 1991 as did Galaxy 500, NWA, Talk Talk, Talking Heads and The Replacements who played their last show together (minus drummer Chris Mars who had quit in 1990 ) in July at Chicago’s Grant Park, with each member leaving during the set with their respective roadies taking their places. Meanwhile Belly, Cake, The Chemical Brothers, Counting Crows, Heatmiser (featuring Elliott Smith), Incubus, Oasis, Portishead, Rage Against The Machine, Refused and, er, The Wiggles all formed in 1991.
So what about album releases? Well… Dickhead Dave got the year off to a cloudy start with the release of his third solo album A Little Ain’t Enough (despite the fact that a little of him is way too much). Still doing well with Sammy Hagar, Van Halen would release the imaginatively For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge in June and while its title is a little Spinal Tap (Hagar wanted to call it ‘Fuck’ but was, in a pure ‘Really? And you believed him?!’ moment, was told by Ray Mancini that ‘Fuck’ was actually an acronym for what would become the album’s title), it’s a strong slab of good stuff that includes quite a few of my favourite VH riffs.
1991 also saw the final album from Dire Straits – On Every Street. As recently surmised by Jim over at Music Enthusiast: There was some good stuff on it but Brothers in Arms had come out in 1985 and six years in the pop world is an eternity. Knoplfer’s other production credits for the year came from a seminal release from Bob Dylan:The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. One of my go-to Dylan volumes, this is one of those sets (like Springsteen’s Tracks) which always makes you wonder how the fuck some of this stuff was left off, like this cut from the Knopfler-produced sessions for Infidels (a fine, fine album):
Tom Petty re-teamed with the Heartbreakers for 91’s Into The Great Wide Open which, following the success of Petty’s Full Moon Fever was produced by Jeff Lynne. A lovely album, it was stocked with singles like such as ‘Learning To Fly’ and the title track along with great cuts including one of my favourites – ‘Two Gungslingers’.
On the heavier side of the year’s releases, Metallica’s Metallica (the answer is none, none more black’) was 1991’s monster – it spawned the classics ‘Enter Sandman’, ‘Nothing Else Matters’, ‘Sad But True’, ‘The Unforgiven’ … and would sell more than 16 million copies in the US alone.
One of my all-time favourite bands, Dinosaur Jr released their major-label debut in 1991. Green Mind is a great mix of J Mascis’ ferocious guitar playing, matching melody to walls of fuzz and power with a growing songwriting sensibility. It’s practically a J Mascis solo album as he not only produced by played most of the instruments too with original drummer Murph only playing on three of the album’s songs. Bass player Lou Barlow had been kicked out a year or two prior and would document this in ‘The Freed Pig’ on his new band Sebadoh’s album III, also released in 1991.
1991 is the year that the world was first introduced to Eddie Vedder. First via the Temple of the Dog album – discussed at length in 1990’s post. Released in April it was received well by those all-important critics but failed to chart… it would take a little more awareness of the key players for the momentum to build. Still it wouldn’t take long: preceded by the singles ‘Even Flow’ and ‘Alive’ Ten was released in August. A stunning debut, it would gradually build a following as the band hit the road hard to support it just as the grunge explosion began getting underway. I’d put it as a featured album or I wouldn’t be worth my salt as paid-up Ten Club member but I’ve already featured the album and rules are rules. Still, here’s a Stone-cold classic:
Another classic was dropped in 1991: Slint’s Spiderland. Their second and final album, Spiderland was a slow-burner and its popularity within the music world grew with time as it gradually found its audience and proved a massive influence on the post-rock genre.
Back over here, another genre-definer was released – My Bloody Valentine’s shoegaze classic and gem of an album Loveless eventually arrived in November after two years of recording, 19 studios and contributing to the bankruptcy of its label. Hailed as a ‘virtual reinvention of the guitar’ Loveless left a long shadow on the scene and would find new ears and inspire lots more for years to come – just as well as it took 22 years for the band to follow up.
Another great of the genre, Slowdive, released their debut Just For A Day in ’91 but it was Massive Attack’s Blue Lines that rightly stole a lot of column inches over here that year:
As if the year wasn’t bursting enough with big albums, REM chose 1991 to release their Out Of Time and find themselves catapulted to the level of MASSIVE with singles like ‘Shiny Happy People’ (I still think it’s naff) and ‘Losing My Religion’ sitting alongside beautiful album tracks like ‘Low’ and ‘Half a World Away’. It was major hit time too for Crowded House with the great Woodface arriving in July of ’91 and doing the business worldwide. It’s stuffed with great songs (though my favourite Crowded House album was a couple of years off) that would go on to become much-loved hits.
Another band to breakout in ’91 – Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik found the band taking a different musical tact than previous and seeing monster results and was one of those early albums that would be regarded as a mainstay of the ‘alternative’ boom that would jump all over the 90’s. A band that really really deserved to be part of the 90’s alternative explosion but would break up before the decade was halfway through – Pixies released their fourth and greatest album in 1991: Trompe le Monde.
As the Pixies released their final album, Smashing Pumpkins released their debut in ’91 with Gish. Corgan’s monstrous cockwomble status and ego aside, they’d prove one of the scene’s finest in years to come. As we’re getting back to the ‘grungier’ part of the alternative scene, one of the genre’s too oft-overlooked acts The Screaming Trees released their fifth album Uncle Anesthesia in January. It was their last with drummer Mark Pickeral and their first for major-label Epic. While it didn’t have the impact the band or label hoped for – the musical world was still waking up to the genre, to be fair, it was produced by Terry Date and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Date also produced 1991’s Soundgarden album Badmotorfinger. Their first with bass player Ben Shepherd and released on September 24th 1991, Badmotorfinger is an absolute stonker and features some of Soundgarden’s greatest songs.
Badmotorfinger is one of those classic albums that proved a breakthrough for Soundgarden. Already veterans of the Seattle music scene, Chris Cornell and co’s third album helped them reach the burgeoning alternative rock / grunge fanbase with singles like ‘Rusty Cage’ and ‘Outshined’. However, it would be another album released on the same day that busted everything wide open for the likes of Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam to storm through… Nirvana’s Nevermind.
There’s a great scene in the 1996 documentary Hype! (available to watch on Prime and well worth doing so) in which Sub Pop staff discuss how, toward the end of 1990 they felt the storm of the scene that was building in Seattle had passed and would soon wind down, the focus would shift and things would return to normal… and then a band with a relatively small following but plenty of buzz about them dropped a song called ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
It’s overplayed and perhaps the most obvious choice to play but it’s a fucking classic for a reason. It did so phenomenally well for a reason – it’s a great tune that propelled the album Nevermind, the band and pretty much an entire scene into a new league. It’s one of those albums I play so often that I know every word. It’s not my favourite Nirvana album but it contains so many of my favourite Nirvana songs (and one of my all-time favourites in ‘Breed’) that I still get bemused – I’m too old to get bothered and riled up anymore – when people say “oh but it sounds too commercial” or “Kurt hated it”. No, he didn’t and no, id doesn’t. He loved it but needed to distance himself from it for fear of being seen as a sell-out. I fucking hate that aspect of the scene and music fans in general that mean artists are so worried about how it would be perceived as ‘not punk’ and blame that for the demise of it, and Kurt’s state of mind, and the rise of the absolute dog shit on the radio today….
However: that’s a boatload of great albums and yet these aren’t the ‘featured’ albums for the year. So, what’s it to be for 1991? Well, you may not have heard of this band, but:
U2 – Achtung Baby
“You who?” I hear you ask. “Is that the submarine that stole an enigma device?”
I give U2 an occasional jibe on this blog – like; what’s the difference between God and Bono? God doesn’t walk around Dublin thinking he’s Bono – but for good reason, as the years have gone by their recorded merit has deteriorated as Bono’s ego and the extravagance of being ‘the biggest band in the world’ grew in its place. The reason I do this is pretty simple really – U2 used to be great and they’ve made some absolute first class albums, the best of which (in my opinion) is Achtung Baby.
As the band’s popularity sky-rocketed in the 80’s and following the massive success of The Joshua Tree, U2 had started to get a little too caught up in trying to be serious and – as Bono said of Rattle and Hum: “We looked like a big, overblown rock band running amok.” That album and concert film summed it all up really: they’d gone from penning great tunes to paying too much attention to the look of it and were too self-serious. I mean; thank fuck for Bono taking a moment in‘Silver and Gold’ to lecture us on apartheid before clumsily telling Edge to ‘play the blues’. It had stretched a little thin so when, at the end of that tour, Bono announced the band had “to go away and…and dream it all up again” it was probably welcome.
But I don’t think anyone was expecting Achtung Baby. It’s a total reinvention – while the band’s ethics and singing about the connections between people remained, everything else was a total reinvention. The way the band presented themselves changed – from Bono’s wrap around shades and black leather to the discovery of irony and dark humour in interviews with a bit of danger and the sound… the chiming sound of the 80s was seemingly buried now in distortion and lurching rhythms and textures not previously associated with the band as the emerged into the 90s with their first single ‘The Fly’:
I adore Achtung Baby – there’s not a song on it I’ll skip, even if I didn’t really want to listen to ‘One’ for a while as it became so omnipresent, it was always tracks like ‘Zoo Station’ and ‘Until The End of the World’ (in my favourite songs of all time list) that kept me coming back to it. I’m surprised my copy of it still plays it’s been slipped into so many different car CD players and stereos over the years, the case is pretty much battered and the booklet’s edges scuffed.
The album was gotten underway in Berlin, at Hansa Studios (where Bowie and Iggy Pop famously recorded four albums in 1977) in October 1990 as the band sought inspiration from the reunification of Germany. Instead it nearly broke the band as they argued over songs and the musical direction until they had a eureka moment with the writing of One which came in an improvised session as they worked on the arrangement of an early version of ‘Mysterious Ways’. As overplayed as it would become, it remains a great song (I really dig a lot of the vibe on this album including the artwork and the Trabants of the original video):
Just look at the list of singles released from the album alone: ‘The Fly’, ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’, ‘One’, ‘Mysterious Ways’ and ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses’ – if any one of these comes on the radio you’re not likely to be changing channel.
But then there’s the tracks that weren’t released – and they’re all just as good. Take ‘So Cruel’, ‘Acrobat’ or ‘Love Is Blindness’ as examples:
The lyrics aren’t millions of miles away from territory they’d wandered previously – “And you can dream, so dream out loud, you know that your time is coming ’round,
so don’t let the bastards grind you down” – but there’s a little more darkness and questioning here and, instead of being married to obvious ‘anthem’ sounds, there’s an edge (and Edge’s playing) to the songs on Achtung Baby with a metallic distorted bite, that borrows from industrial, electronic and the alternative rock scene that sits so sublimely with these songs and reveals more each time.
It shifted somewhere in excess of 18 million copies and ushered in U2’s Zoo TV Tour which was both so very 90s and completed their reinvention. It was the start of a new journey musically – from here to Zoorapa (also containing great tunes) to Pop which could’ve been another masterpiece if they’d been allowed time to finish it – and in terms of touring as the set grew from Zoo TV to Pop Mart and giant lemons. At no point, though, would it be as wholly and compellingly perfect again as it is on Achtung Baby*.
*After Pop‘s lacklustre reception, the band ducked away for a while before returning with a Best Of which captured 1980-1990, the reception to which buoyed their ‘back to basics’ All That You Can’t Leave Behind album in 2000. It’s a decent enough collection though a little sticky-sweet and twee, they’d lost the bite they found in the 90s. A second Best Of covering 1990-2000 must have reminded them of it again as at least half of 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was really good and buzzed as well as chimed. After that though, for me, it was lost. Especially when they told me to get on my boots…
Taking a momentary pause from the Pearl Jam series for, as those playing along at home may have sussed our, the final three all dropped between 1993 and 1996 and I thought it was time to take a quick gander at the newer stuff spinning right now.
This is fairly genre-specific. I’m not about to jump any sharks and start discussing Eminem’s ‘diss track’ (this is something that baffles me as a concept) or even start talking about the new Paul McCartney stuff (some of the worst material I’ve heard from the former Fab that didn’t involve frogs). While I have heard the new Smashing Pumpkins track I must have dozed off listening to it so it’s not going to be appearing here.
Mogwai – We’re Not Done Yet (End Title)
Another year another new Mogwai album. Well, sort of. These dons of post-rock have seemingly hit a real stride in terms of output as there’s a been a release per year of late alternating between ‘studio’ and ‘soundtrack’ album. Their soundtrack albums are different to their ‘own’ as the music is, obviously enough, written to suit someone else’s vision / story but each have been strong and worth additions to their catalogue (take Atomic as a prime example). Kin the film would appear to be destined to be seen by nobody: a box office and critical bomb. Kin the soundtrack should be heard by many – it’s a great, moody, sci-fi soundtrack that feels like it could just as easily blend into the background on Stranger Things (yes, I’m a very recent convert all binge-watched up to speed).
Jim James – Just A Fool
Back in 2015 My Morning Jacket were talking up the possibility of a very quick follow up the then-new The Waterfall on the back of how much material they’d written and recorded in those sessions. It hasn’t happened and can’t see it happening any time soon. Instead we got three solo albums from Jim James: one patchy, one a continuation of his covers project and this year’s Uniform Distortion which I picked up from the record store while collecting my pre-order of Kin. Uniform Distortion feels actually like a very fine MMJ album and is well worth exploring.
Kurt Vile – Loading Zones
There’s a new Kurt Vile album dropping later this year and I’ve already got it on pre-order. I got hooked on Vile’s sound following Smoke Ring For My Halo. There’s something hypnotic about Vile’s sound and once you’re hooked.. well.
J Mascis – See You At The Movies
Oddly enough, there’s a direct line between Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis and Kurt Vile in terms of style and sound and the two have often shared a track. It’s fitting, then, that Mascis has a new solo record dropping this autumn too – his solo work is less wall-of-sound guitar than the Dino albums but he’s started mixing his trademark guitar solos and shredding into his folksier / acoustic solo stuff to strong results so I’m looking forward to Elastic Days – also on pre-order from my not-quite local dealer.
In 1989 after touring behind Bug, escalating tensions and frustrations lead to Lou Barlow being booted out of Dinosaur Jr. He should have seen it coming; when the group first played together they were called Mogo and the seemingly shy and reticent guitar-shredder Mascis wasn’t upfront, the frontman was Charlie Nakajima who lasted precisely one show after using that stage as a platform for a lengthy anti-police tirade. Appalled by Nakajima’s actions but “too wimpy to kick him out” (J’s words not mine), Mascis instead asked drummer Murph and bassist Barlow to form a new band without Nakajima.
Despite his slacker vocals and aforementioned demeanour, Mascis was something of a control-freak with whom communication was a continual burr. By the time of Barlow’s dismissal they’d created a trilogy of legend-forming and hugely influential albums and had begun to scratch at commercial success with songs like Freak Scene and their cover of the Cure’s Just Like Heaven. What followed for Dinosaur Jr was a major-label deal, the subsequent change in mix/production dynamics with lyrics and vocals being pushed higher in the sound, getting caught up and buoyed forward by the changed landscape formed by Nirvana’s Nevermind, the departure of drummer Murph, their most commercially successful album and song in Without A Sound and Feel The Pain before the seemingly inevitable drop-off in sales, major-label disinterest and J’s retiring of the band name in 1997.
After a few solo Mascis records (under the name J Mascis and The Fog) and Barlow taking swipes at J in numerous Sebadoh songs, the unexpected happened; the “classic” line-up reformed in 2005 for a tour promoting the reissue of their first three albums. Even more unexpectedly; the reunion held all the way to the studio for release of the first album of Dinosaur Jr’s Third Act; Beyond. Whether it be down to the mellowing out that time, age and even parenthood bring, better communications or just the ease in pressure that comes from realising they’re not expected to make a “Smash Hit Album” but they’ve now outlived both their first ‘classic’ run of ’84-’89 and the band’s major label period of ’90-’97 and are still going strong.
Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not – as with the three albums that have preceded it – makes a formidable mix of the band’s early heaviness and the tighter, song-oriented structure that came with the major label sound to create a perfect balance off fuzz-heavy riffs and deft melodies all underpinned by J’s trademark soloing and softly-spoken, stoner-like vocals.
Stripping back a touch on the spread of sound featured on 2012’s I Bet On Sky, Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not is a much taughter and fiercer sounding affair. Opener Goin’ Down tears through at break-neck pace and the following Tiny rips along at a cracking pace and clocks in at just 3:12 of precise intent – cramming in heavy riffs, rolling bass lines, thundering drums and J’s solo without an inch to spare.
Those Mascis solos do take the spotlight throughout but with due cause and never sounding too heavy-handed in their placing. When I mumbled about I Bet On Sky I mentioned that albums of Dinosaur Jr Act 3 are of a formula, with anticipation for the inevitable guitar break but that “his guitar tone is beatific. His phrasing and fluidity mean that when each song breaks it’s more like being wrapped up in a warm blanket.” This still holds; Mascis’ guitar is still the star attraction on Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not, especially on I Walk For Miles and I Told Everyone.
In the interests of democracy or as proof as to how far they’ve come in terms of dissipating tensions – Barlow gets a couple of his tracks on each of the band’s latest albums. Here Love Is… stands out as the strongest, it’s structure calling to mind Led Zep’s III era folkiness before giving way to Mascis’ guitar while it and the album closer Left/Right are both stronger, more comfortable-sounding tunes than any of his which have graced albums since Beyond. Whereas on previous albums they’ve been something of a sore thumb and almost halted the flow, here they slip in gel more cohesively than every before.
The band are clearly getting on well and working together better than ever before and while the ‘if it ain’t broke’ adage can certainly apply to many of the tracks here, songs such as Lost All Day and, particularly, the changing dynamics of Knocked Around show that Dinosaur Jr remains a band willing to stretch its sound and try new ground rather than generate a few more tracks to drop in between Forget The Swan and Lung during the payolah tours.
I’ve yet to catch them live – I wondered recently how they tackle the subject of playing those songs recorded during Barlow and Murph’s absence from the band. Do they include them or do they go the Van Halen route of pretending a huge part of the band’s history and it’s most commercially successful and wider-known tracks don’t exist (in my mind and a little off-topic I’d call this route as stupid a decision as getting Roth back in the fold in the first place was but then the idea of Diamond Dave trying Right Now is as farcical as any part of his hammy vaudeville act) or do they let bygones be bygones and go for the crowd-pleasers? I was very glad then, to see, thanks to SetListFM, that their set lists from recent tours include a good mix of old, mid and new era tracks. I suppose it’s further testament to just how well they’re getting on.
I’ve had this album for just a couple of days now but it hasn’t left my CD player since then (I’ll have to wait a little longer for the vinyl) and cannot see a way this doesn’t make the Best Of 2016 list.
I’m aware that when I’ve muttered about new albums from ‘big’ names – referring, that is, to their importance in my music taste-range – I’ve been pretty negative. There have been more than a few albums released this year that I’ve loved (whether or not I’ll end up doing a Best of 2012 is another thing) so I thought I’d start mentioning a couple of those instead of just slamming new albums.
One of those bands that were always around but I never really acknowledged or paid attention to almost until it was too late, was Dinosaur Jr. By the time I got round to checking out one of their albums it was their comeback disc Beyond. It was being hailed as a ‘return to form’, and people were ecstatic as it was ‘as if they’d never been away’ – except to me they hadn’t really because this was the first time I was listening and knowing who was playing. I played the arse off that album. It absolutely slayed me. So much so that within a pretty short space of time I’d gotten the rest of their stock – my wife even managed to find the otherwise “bastard to locate at a decent price” Without A Sound for me in Paris. Suddenly the buzz around Beyond made sense. It was a phenomenal return to form after the lucklustre release J. had made during the 90’s with other musicians under the name of Dinosaur Jr. Which is odd because I really liked his two efforts with The Fog – so much better than, say, Hand It Over.
From that point I’ve been eagerly awaiting new Dino albums (or the recent J. Mascis solo record) and was not disappointed either with Farm or this year’s I Bet On Sky. It’s true that the three albums are all very much similar (even excusing the use of keyboards on opener Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know); 10 or 12 songs, the bulk of which are sung by J and contain either hurried or gently fuzzy rocking leading up to the point at which J can’t hold back any longer and lets loose the guitar solo that continues until the end of the track. And you know what? I bloody love it. The melodies are a world clearer than they were on the bands original trio before the lineup became a rotational club, J’s a lot more confident at the old singing game and his guitar tone is beatific. His phrasing and fluidity mean that when each song breaks it’s more like being wrapped up in a warm blanked of tone. Somehow each time he breaks it sounds different and he finds something new on that guitar neck.
After my wife and I recently dug back into the 90s I was flicking through a book she got me last Christmas. It’s the photo collection Grunge by Michael Lavine and with a bit of text from none other than Thurston Moore. There’s a bit of a love-in with Thurston and J – Thurston (along with his basement and daughter) were in the video for Dinosaur Jr’s Been There All The Time and J played some shit-hot lead on Thurston’s amazeballs solo lp Trees Outside The Academy. Anyway there’s photo of Dinosaur Jr in there and – at the back of the book – a summary of all the bands featured within. Thurston’s summary of Dinosaur Jr reads:
“Awesome heavy melodic power trio from Amhers, Massachusetts…. Gerard Cosloy convinced the band to record an LP fr his Homestead imprint and it, along with its successor, You’re Living All Over Me, released on SST, became indelible blueprints for a generation of extreme yet beautiful guitar love core”
I like that phrase “guitar love core”. While the original trilogy was certainly something and the years in between yielded a few gems too I think the most recent clutch of albums from the band a lot more of a guitar love in. Plus it game on a gorgeous slab of purple vinyl and nice, high-quality gate-fold too.