According to the mighty notifications bell it’s been eleven years since I started putting words on page here. I did toy with the idea of doing ‘eleven things that have changed since’ but then that would move this blog’s wheelhouse into either the personal or political arenas into which it only occasionally dips. Though I think we could probably all benefit from taking a moment to think of how – a relatively short space of time ago – there was once a time when a certain orange defendant was just an annoying twat of a failed businessman and nobody really considered membership of the EU to be a problem.
It’s a nice thought, isn’t it?
Also – thanks to those that have read the increasingly infrequent output of this blog and creating blogs that I continue to read even if I no longer contribute so much.
Anyway, keeping with the music theme I thought I’d mark this historic moment by hurling eleven great Track Elevens at you. Once upon a time only double albums made it to eleven tracks, in the era of CD bloat many should have stopped at that point and now, while we seem to be veering a little closer back to shorter album run lengths, they typically mark an album’s closing point. There is, of course, very little scientific method to the selection and probably a few I’ve missed but, in the immortal words of The Ramones: “hey, you there – let’s get going”
Pearl Jam – Release (Ten)
Ten might not be their best album but ‘Release’ is one of their finest and works as both a great album closer and concert opener.
U2 – Acrobat (Achtung Baby)
Always good to highlight little-known bands. Achtung Baby may be a bit bloated but I’ve always had a soft spot for ‘Acrobat’ even if it took the band 27 years to recognise it and play it live (probably in some dingy basement somewhere).
REM – Nightswimming (Automatic for the People)
There are so many brilliant albums from those first few years of the 90s… and Automatic for the People isn’t even REM’s finest. The ‘Ride’ of their side may be handicapped by its first three tracks – ‘Monty Got A Raw Deal’, ‘Ignoreland’ and ‘Star Me Kitten’ probably aren’t anybodies favourites – but then ‘Man on the Moon’, ‘Nightswimming’ and ‘Find The River’ is one of the best ‘final three’ since The Wild, The Innocent… and ‘Nightswimming’ is just pure gold.
The Black Crowes – Descending (Amorica)
Amorica is a damn fine album, damn fine. In retrospect I don’t think it was just the pubes that killed it – 1994 may not have been the optimum time for a southern, blues-rock album to be welcomed by the mainstream. ‘Descending’ is both a long-time Black Crowes favourite of mine and a great album closer. I’ll get out of the 90s on this list soon I’m sure.
Bruce Springsteen – The River (The River)
When The River was briefly a single album the title track sat in the middle of the running order. Expanded to a double it still, kinda did but by lobbing it on to the end of the first half of the album Springsteen puts one of his finest songs in place as a reward for making it through ‘I Wanna Marry You’
Pink Floyd – High Hopes
Until recently a beautiful final word from Pink Floyd. It’s still beautiful.
Jimi Hendrix – Are You Experienced? (Are You Experienced)
Not necessarily stoned…
Portishead – Glory Box (Dummy)
Ah, back to the 90s. Dummy is just sublime and ‘Glory Box’ one of my favourites and they slapped it right at the end of the album.
Dinosaur Jr – What If I Knew (Beyond
Closing off their first album since the original lineup got back together with a great tune felt like a way of saying ‘more to come, stay tuned’,
The Replacements – Can’t Hardly Wait (Pleased To Meet Me)
Yes, the Tim era versions with the ’til it’s over’ was great but this – with Alex Chilton on guitar, horns and strings – is as close to perfect as they got.
The Beatles – Blackbird (The Beatles)
Technically it is track eleven… because that’s what ‘track 3 on side 2’ translates to on CD and streaming etc.
Regina Spektor – Somedays (Soviet Kitsch)
I could, and probably should, write an individual piece on Ms Spektor. Soviet Kitsch is her third album and first for a major and can be seen as the template from which all her future albums would follow: there are pure, well-crafted tunes with just the right amount of refinement while still retaining enough rough edges, quirk and personality to make it engaging and all underpinned by Spektor’s vocals – wonderfully typified by the album closer ‘Somedays’ which she also closed the show with the one time I was able to catch her live some misty years ago.
During the final planning stages of our wedding a hair over ten years ago now, aside from the song for our first dance and a few specific requests and genre preferences, our DJ was given only one hard and fast rule: “no fucking ABBA”.
Now, I know I’m in a minority here and I’ve read plenty of posts within my ‘blogging circle’ to cement that knowledge, but I can’t stand them.
So imagine my chagrin when I had the misfortune to hear the tail-end (enough to leave a bitter aftertaste) of the ‘new’ ABBA song on the radio recently, or the twitching of my eye when the approach of their new album release means I’m hit by sponsored ads on the one social media site I still use, or posts from record stores I frequent promoting the opportunity to pre-order said pile of festering shite in a multitude of colours.
However, rather than turn this into a rant about the evils of septuagenarian Swedes phoning it in (I mean, they’re not even gonna bother going on their own tour, they’re asking people to pay to watch fucking holograms!) to grab cash to feather their retirement beds one last time… I got to thinking of those bands which would make me cry hallelujah should they decide to get the band together, even for just one more ride round the block.
So, without wanting to overstay my welcome I’ll keep it at five though I’m sure I’ve missed a good few
They went out on a high with Collapse Into Now which seemed like the perfect way to end it but didn’t tour that album, instead leaving us with a reminder of just how great they were. They needed to do it after Around The Sun saw them floundering. but their last album and the recent re-releases of their seminal albums (including the soon-to-hit New Adventures In Hi-Fi) are proof positive that the Athens, Georgia band had bags of the good stuff and with all members still around and involved in music (save for Bill Berry who has stuck with his retirement from the music industry since 1997) it feels like this is one that really could still happen and live albums such as Live at the Olympia demonstrate their concert draw.
It’s a no-brainer, right? News of a Led Zeppelin reunion, even without the whisper of new material, would be lapped up like nothing else. They, too, would be minus their original drummer but it’s been done since: 2007’s show at the O2 Arena as part of The Ahmet Ertegün Tribute Concert saw John Bonham’s son Jason fill the stool for a roof-devastating sixteen-song blast that’s easily stated as the best final concert they could have given…. except of course it’s left everyone clamouring for more. Even the band wanted more. Except, that is, Robert Plant. Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham were rumoured to be working on new material together and with Plant not having it, auditioned singers including Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler (which, according to Joe Perry’s ‘Rocks’ was not only a shambolic performance but caused further havoc one strained relations in his own band) but nothing came of it.
While it used to be a case that rumours would fly up regularly, Plant’s decisive and inarguable statements that it won’t happen (“I’ve gone so far somewhere else that I almost can’t relate to it. It’s a bit of a pain in the pisser to be honest. Who cares? I know people care, but think about it from my angle – soon, I’m going to need help crossing the street.”) and his desire to keep working on new material has meant they’re less frequent now. Still, as new documentaries and re-releases of their back catalogue prove, the public desire is as strong as ever… it’s a slim one but we can dream.
I know… this isn’t gonna happen. They had a brilliant run but with Kim and Thurston’s divorce it was curtains. Thurston has kept schtum on it but Kim’s ‘Girl in a Band’ seemed just as much as a way of airing their dirty laundry in public as it did her emphasising everything in her life non Sonic Youth as though and draw as clear a line under it all as possible and comments over the years but it as a done deal.
But.. hey; this is a ‘we can dream’ list after all and there are bands out there with divorced members (probably best not to mention the on-going drama that is Fleetwood Mac but the list still includes the White Stripes) and all members are not only still putting out some great music but often working together to do so… hell, Thurston Moore’s latest By The Fire shows he’s got Sonic Youth style tunes for days.
Of all those albums I forgot back in my post about great last albums, Screaming Trees’ Dust has got to be one of the biggest ‘d’oh’s. It’s such a strong album it’s pretty much perfect, easily their best effort. And yet… The album was already four years on from their previous – Sweet Oblivion – and Dust stalled on the album charts. Following another hiatus for Lanegan to work on his third solo album, the band went back into the studio in 1999 but couldn’t find a label with interest in the demos the sessions yielded. A few shows in 2000 still failed to garner label interest in the group and they called it day.
Always seemingly the undercard of the scene, Screaming Trees have a back catalog that’s stuffed with great tunes and even the recent-ish Last Words – The Final Recordings had plenty of solid contenders and it a reunion would be welcome, except that like so many bands Screaming Trees too seem pretty dysfunctional and relationships have only strained since.
Mark Lanegan recently sent an angry retort to a tweet suggesting he was up for just such a reunion: “I don’t know how many different ways I can say it but any Screaming Trees reunion, show, rehearsal, lunch or fistfight will not include me” which has lead Gary Lee Connor to ponder: “I really question what his motives were the whole time, though. Did he just use us to get famous? I thought it was about making great music.”
Still, if bigger hatchets can be buried I’m sure there’s still a chance…. right?
Yep, I’d love to see this one but chances are it ain’t gonna happen. Mainly because I’m quite specific here: I’m talking the ‘classic’ Dire Straits lineup so chances are even slimmer.
Mark Knopfler couldn’t take the grief that came with touring on the scale that the last Dire Straits go-around had reached- after a break of five years, the On Every Street tour seemed determined to play on every street with 229 shows across a year and a half into 1992 and an era where the radio landscape was very different to that in which Dire Straits had their peak. For all its strengths both the album and the live document On The Night felt like it was time to stop and so you can’t fault Knopfler for doing so – it was too big to live.
But that was almost 30 years ago and I can’t help but think that a new Dire Straits tour done on a scale akin to Knopfler’s solo outings, where he’s not exactly playing garden sheds, might not seem so objectionable anymore and would be a much better way of saying ‘thanks and goodnight’ – especially if it were to feature Pick Withers who drummed for the band from formation through to Lover Over Gold (their finest) on a few tracks. It’d be unlikely that Mark’s brother David would be involved, though, but I kinda hope those two can at least get back on speaking terms… just take a listen to the difference in quality between their two live albums On The Night and Alchemy and the case for a better send-off is clear.
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.
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 Code, Yield 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 Clarksdalewhich 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 SomethingOn 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 5 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 mentionedpreviously. 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.
1996…. in a way it felt like we’d sneaked unknowingly past a turning point. The initial surge that had powered ‘grunge’ into the mainstream had slowed and, post-Nirvana, that scene’s leading bands were singing a darker, less commercially-sheened tune. The midway point in the decade had slipped past and the second half of the 90s would have a distinctly different flavour… MTV was moving more into programming vs music, big budget videos and gloss were becoming the norm as each pop tart tried to out do the next boyband in video stakes. It was the year that Mariah Carey told us she’d always be her baby, Deep Blue Something asked if we remembered ‘Breakfast At Tiffanys’ and we said, well that’s the one thing we’ve got. It was also the year that The Spice Girls arrived and promoted Girl Power(!) by pointing out that if we want to be their lover then, first, we had to get with their friends… I mean, I’m all for polygamy if that’s your thing, man, but that seemed a little ‘say what?’… The Prodigy were starting fires, No Doubt didn’t want us to speak while The Fugees killed us, softly, with their song, boy bands like N Sync and Backstreet Boys were dumping raw sewage in our ears at the same time as Liam Gallagher bleated about a ‘Champagne Supernover’ but we were all too busy doing the Macarena.
The start of the year saw the end of what seemed like such a perfect and completely natural marriage between Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. Still, it was wedding bells for Meg White and John Anthony Gillis who were married in September – he’d take her last name and change his first name to Jack before the two formed The White Stripes a year later. Madonna got off to a bumpy start in ’96 – in the good news column for Madge her stalker was jailed on five charges of assault, stalking and threatening to kill her. However, she then received a lot of flack in Argentina including death threats after it was announced she was to play Eva Peron.
Bono had a weird shakeup too – the plane he was on (which belonged to Jimmy Buffet – who was, random aside, responsible for Harrison Ford deciding to go for an earring) was mistaken for a drug-dealers plane and the Jamaican authorities opened fire. Either that or they really really didn’t care for Passengers’ Original Soundtracks 1.
In what feels like a very ‘1996 MTV’ story – a judge ruled against Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson who were trying to prevent someone publishing photos from a home movie that had been stolen from their home… I guess they must have been doing something embarrassing…. Speaking of MTV – MTV2 was launched in 1996. Now there’s a channel I watched a lot of. Launching with Becks’ ‘Where It’s At’, it was the network’s answer to critics that complained they didn’t show enough music videos anymore and, at least that I remember, showed videos of a more alternative bent.
Having released the first double rap album earlier in the year, Tupac Shakur was shot on the way home from the Mike Tyson and Bruce Sheldon fight at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Shakur died from his injuries six days later. He was just 25 years old. Sticking with guns… one of my most hated things… Sheryl Crow’s self-titled album angered Wal-Mart who announced they wouldn’t be selling it thanks to the ‘Love Is A Good Thing’ lyric “”Watch out, sister, watch out, brother/watch our children while they kill each other/with a gun they bought at Wal-Mart Discount Stores.” Let’s face it if you’re getting shirty about people pointing out the dangers of the guns you stock and still insist on selling them… well, you can fuck yourself in my book.
1996 marked the end of a beautiful relationship as tensions between Sammy Hagar and the Van Halen brothers reached their logical conclusion and created a real soap opera instead. Having recorded the song ‘Humans Being’ (great tune) for the ‘Twister’ (naff movie) soundtrack, Hagar left for home on Fathers Day. Eddie didn’t care for Hagar’s vocal and renamed the song and wrote the melody – which ticked off Hagar of course. The band were meant to record two songs for the soundtrack but Hagar was in Hawaii for the birth of his daughter so the Van Halen brothers recorded an instrumental instead. There were also disagreements over a planned ‘Best Of’ – Hagar wanted to work on a new album instead and suggested it should be a ‘Roth era’ only volume or that there should be separate volumes per singer (which, of course, would follow years later)… with more arguments and tensions boiling over and probably not helped with Eddie Van Halen calling David Lee Roth to work on two new songs for the upcoming comp. Hagar left.
Enter Roth and Roth’s gob. After recording two new songs – which were both released as singles – the band, with Roth, made their first appearance together in over 11 years on the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards where they were presenting Beck with an award. Well, that was the plan but somewhere in Roth’s head it turned into a “HEY LOOK AT ME! I’M DAVID LEE ROTH!” Which pissed off EVH – along with some apparent spiteful comments from DLR about Ed’s upcoming surgery needs – and the band soon announced that Roth, too, was out. Again. And some guy called Gary Cherone from Extreme was in instead…. while Roth claimed he was an ‘unwitting pawn’ in Van Halen’s publicity stunt. Never a calm day in the Van Halen camp. Best Of – Volume 1 hit Number 1 in the US…
So it was goodnight from Van Hagar in ’96 and 4 Non Blondes, Belly, Crowded House, Extreme, Fleetwood Mac (briefly), Heatmiser, The Kinks, Jawbreaker and Ride. Meanwhile Calexico, Coldplay, Dropkick Murphys, Fly Pan Am, Linkin Park, Queens of the Stone Age, The Shipping News, The Shins and Wolf Eyes were among those bands formed in 1996.
So, who released what? Well…
Tori Amos released her third album Boys For Pele and was sued when some bloke crashed his car after being distracted by a billboard promoting the album. The picture was of Amos breastfeeding a piglet. As you do. It was third album time for Frank Black too who released his The Cult of Ray in 1996 and The Cranberries who released their third album To The Faithful Departed.
Tortoise released one of post-rock’s most revered albums Millions Living Will Never Die in January and Palace, or Palace Music, Palace Songs, Palace Brothers or plain old Will Oldham – before he started trading under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy – released the equally well regarded Arise Therefore. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ninth album Murder Ballads was a great drop for ’96 – made up of new and traditional murder ballads with guests including P J Harvey and Kylie Minogue who duetted with Cave on the single ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ which gave the group a hit and pushed the album into big numbers.
The Afghan Whigs released Black Love, The Cure released their tenth and mixed-bag album Wild Mood Swings and, following the demise of Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler’s first non-soundtrack solo album Golden Heart arrived in March. Dripping in Knopfler’s guitar, it was clear he was still trying to find his sound as a solo artist and there’s probably a bit too much filler on it, though the title track and ‘Darling Pretty’ are pretty good. Speaking of solo artists finding their sound, Paul Westerberg released his second solo album Eventually – three years after his first. Eventually gets a real bad rap that’s unfair – it’s got some great Westerberg songs on it like ‘Love Untold’, ‘Once Around The Weekend’, ‘Angels Walk’ and the tribute to the recently departed Bob Stinson ‘Good Day’. That it’s an album of two producers – Brendan O’Brien and Lou Giordano – it’s a really strong effort and there’s not a track on it I skip when I spin it.
Another bloody strong and oft-overlooked 1996 album came from Stone Temple Pilots with their third Tiny Music…. Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop. By this point in the band’s career Scott Weiland was pretty well into his drug addiction and trouble was circling with cancelled tours and drug busts but this is a great album. After the explosion of their first album, Rage Against The Machine released their second: Evil Empire. I think of the group’s three studio efforts this one gets my vote – ‘Bulls on Parade’, ‘People of the Sun’… fucking ‘Vietnow’! Amazing album.
Modest Mouse released their debut album This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About and Dave Matthews Band Crash was their second and went bonkers in sales terms thanks to the presence of ‘Crash Into Me’ in seemingly every soppy bollox scene on TV while the power of being ‘Popular’ helped Nada Surf’s High / Low share many of the same shelves (though not as many). Jimmy Eat World’s Static Prevails (a cracking album) was released in 1996 too as was Fiona Apple’s Tidal.
If we wanna talk about albums that define the year then, at least this side of the Atlantic, this was the year of Manic Street Preachers’ Everything Must Go. An absolute power house of an album it was the group’s first as a trio following the disappearance of Richie Edwards and was a massive success both commercially and critically. A determined approach and change in sound heralded a new era for the group and shifted in the millions. Songs like the title track, ‘Kevin Carter, ‘Australia’ and, of course, ‘A Design For Life’ were everywhere in 1996 and just hearing any of them send me straight back to ’96.
The same could also be said for Kula Shaker who – with major-label backing seeking to look for ‘the next Oasis’ phenomenon – released their psychedic-rock tinged album K in 1996 and radios here began blasting ‘Hey Dude’, ‘Tatva’ and ‘Govinda’ with enthusiasm. Not a bad summer to buzz between stations really.
Back Stateside and The Black Crowes, following the disappointing sales of Amorica decided to rehash the album minus the pubes on the cover and, sadly, minus the quality and tunes, Three Snakes and One Charm was their weakest to date even with ‘Good Friday’. Soundgarden prepared and released what would be their final studio album for sixteen years: Down On The Upside. Helmed by band and Adam Kasper, Down On The Upside is still a bloody fine album and one I’ll return to just as often as Superunkown.
One from 1996 I do play a lot more though is Screaming Trees’ Dust, the groups final and finest effort. Songs such as opener ‘Halo Of Ashes’ and the following ‘All I Know’ and ‘Look at You’ offer superb, textured sounds that still pack plenty of punch and anchored down by Lanegan’s distinctive vocals. ‘Dying Days,’ later offered up as a single, features some delicious blues guitar work courtesy of Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready as Lanegan sings on the falling state of Seattle. Absolutely five star album and one of the most over-looked of the ‘scene’.
Often accused of ripping off the Seattle sound, Bush released their second album Razorblade Suitcase in ’96. This one had a fair few spins from me over the years but not as many as their debut, ‘Swallowed’ is a pretty decent tune. Weezer also released their second album Pinkerton in 1996. Pinkerton is one of those albums that’s become so beloved and heralded as a band’s highpoint it’d be hard to write anything about it that hasn’t already been – songs like ‘Tired of Sex’, ‘Pink Triangle’, ‘Why Bother?’ are great but, at the time, it was a bit of a flop – it was more personal and harder in sound than the group’s first album and, after the tour to promote it and shell-shocked by the reaction, the group went on a five year hiatus. During that time, though, it began building a cult following and bands began citing it as an influence. Despite this, though, Rivers Cuomo wouldn’t embrace it again for years, seeing it and its following as an embarrassment until 2008 by which time retrospective reviews from the same publications that had panned it on release were awarding it 10/10. It’s a strange world.
Tom Petty And the Heartbreakers soundtrack to the pretty-cack-really movie She’s The One arrived in ’96 and features a stack of great tunes from Petty and co including ‘Walls’, ‘Angel Dream’, ‘California’, ‘Change The Locks’… it really should be considered as one of their best. It was the first Heartbreakers album to be produced by Rick Rubin who’s name also graced Johnny Cash’s Unchained this year – the second of JC’s ‘American’ albums it actually featured Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers essentially serving as Cash’s backing band as he covered songs like Soundgarden’s ‘Rusty Cage’, Geoff Mack’s ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ and Petty’s own ‘Southern Accents’ alongside a couple of originals across a stronger album than 94’s American Recordings.
TV sets were spewing ‘Baywatch’ in 1996 according to E – Eels Beautiful Freak was released this year and is still a regular play in my collection. Not my favourite of the group’s it’s still a fine album with ‘Novocaine for the Soul’, ‘Susans House’ and ‘My Beloved Monster’ (long before its application to a green ogre) doing the business on repeated listens. Also doing well on repeated listens is Wilco’s Being There, the group’s second. Following the death of Shannon Hoon, Blind Melon’s remaining members put togehter Nico from unreleased songs and tracks started by Hoon and finished by the band with proceeds going into a college trust for Hoon’s daughter Nico. It’s actually the first Blind Melon album I got hold of – back in the days when Fopp were still a real thing rather than a HMV in different clothing – for a fiver and enjoyed immensely, still do. For a ‘rag bag’ album it works pretty damn well.
Is that it? Fuck no: 1996 gave us a lot more great albums. How about the second album from Counting Crows? Recovering The Satellites came three years after the band’s debut (better get used to that gap) and is a much stronger collection really though without the immediacy of August And Everything After so it didn’t go down quite as well in terms of sales. But check it out; ‘Angels of the Silences’, ‘Daylight Fading’, ‘Children In Bloom’, ‘A Long December’, ‘Goodnight Elisabeth’…. This is a great album. Hell, those first three Counting Crows albums are all really blood good but there’s something about this one, that stands out for me. Speaking of sounds that do it for me; Sheryl Crow released her second, self-titled album in 1996 and the sound – courtesy of Tchad Blake and Mitchel Foom – with a sort of off-balance production coupled with her strongest set of songs and some real genuine hits, made Sheryl Crow a deserved hit this year.
Are we there yet? Well it would be pretty remiss of me not to mention a couple more like Tool’s astounding Ænima. Dedicated to Bill Hicks and tacking a similar stance (goodbye you lizard scum) on the title track, Ænima is a stonking album of heavy, complex rock with unusual time signatures and dripping in aggression and cynicism that actually managed to reach number 2 on the charts. Oh and then Pearl Jam released their fourth album – the astonishingly great No Code. Recorded amidst tension and, as Stone Gossard later described it, ” just kind of winging it and trying stuff that maybe didn’t quite work… But you listen to it ten years later and go, ‘Fuck! That’s jamming!’” A further move away from the spotlight, another deliberate left turn from the glare of Ten etc, No Code is a massively rewarding listen and one of my favourite Pearl Jam albums.
But I’ve already highlighted No Code in detail before so it can’t be my pick for 1996, which can only leave:
REM – New Adventures in Hi-Fi
“Look up and what do you see? All of you and all of me
Fluorescent and starry, some of them, they surprise.” Man I remember sitting in the back of a car somewhere in August of 1996, the radio on and hearing the ‘new REM single E-Bow The Letter’ and just ‘wow’ – something in my head going ‘click’. Those opening words… I had no idea what an E-Bow was then (and as many times as I keep thinking to get one I still haven’t) or what it was about but that sound, that song… that went in and made me sit up and pay attention to REM all over again. It’s also got to be one of the least likely lead single choices out there, dropping a song like that in the summer as your first single… especially given the attention the band had gotten after resigning with Warner Bros for what was rumoured to be the largest record deal made at that point and here, with the comparative ‘meh’ response to Monster behind them they drop a song like ‘E-Bow The Letter’ to radio.. fuckin-a.
New Adventures In Hi-Fi has it’s origins in watching Radiohead. Radiohead supported REM on tour in ’94/’95 and recorded the basic tracks for The Bends during soundchecks and while on the road. REM had been talking about making a ‘road album’ for a while and so borrowed their technique with most of the songs recorded either live or at soundchecks with four additional songs being recorded in the studio at the start of ’96. Those four additional songs were the opener ‘How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us’, ‘E-Bow the Letter’ (to which Patti Smith added vocals), ‘Be Mine’, and ‘New Test Leper’. As the rest were recorded on the road they feature the band’s touring members and have a real sense of immediacy and looseness that I guess came from not being stuck in the studio for long periods of time. According to Mike Mills they wanted to catch the “spontaneity of a soundcheck, live show or dressing room.” I think they succeeded.
I think what I enjoy so much about New Adventures In Hi-Fi is that it covers the full spectrum of the ‘REM sound’ – the country-rock / folkier vibes of Out of Time and Automatic.. with the harder edge they’d pushed for with Monster – across the album yet the consistency is so high. After this – with the exception of the immediate follow-up Up – I don’t think they’d be this varied in sound across one album until their last, Collapse Into Now, and neither of those have such a consistently high benchmark in terms of quality. It’s all so fucking good.
As it’s a ‘road album’ there’s a sense of movement to it and quite a few of the songs touch on this – the above, awesome ‘Departure’, ‘Leave’ (which also made it to the soundtrack of ‘A Life Less Ordinary), ‘Low Desert’ – and there’s a sort of in-transit vibe to the album overall that I really dig. It would be the band’s last with Bill Berry who would leave in 1997 and become a farmer (really) and captures the band at their peak – all glad to be healthy and alive after a shocker of a tour which, as touched on in the ’95 post, saw Berry suffer an aneurysm which required immediate surgery, Michael Stipe suffer a hiatal hernia and Mills needing an appendectomy, tight after touring for the first time in years and at the top of their game in songwriting.
New Adventures In Hi-Fi was my first REM and remains my favourite. I’m really hoping next year heralds a 25th Anniversary treatment that’s already been rolled out for their other albums. Oh, and you gotta love the album’s closing lines: “I’m not scared, I’m outta here.”
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 Mask, Ace 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 – Diarypretty 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.”
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.
WordPress has conveniently pointed out that Saturday was the 8th Anniversary of my first post on this blog.
For that post I looked at a couple of things beginning with Z. I’m not about to go through the whole alphabet – William over at a1000mistakes has done that and I don’t think I could to the same – so let’s carry on going backwards instead and go for the 18th (8 back from 26) letter of the alphabet: R
R is for Radiohead, R.E.M, The Replacements and Rollings Stones all of whom feature to varying degrees of heavy in my record collection as well as on this blog. It’s also for Rogue Wave and Rilo Kiley who formed part of that early-2000s alt/indie revival that I so enjoyed and occupy a good few spaces on the shelves alongside other ‘R’ artists Damien Rice and some Chili Peppers of the Red Hot variety (I also caught these guys live back in 2001), The Raconteurs, Refused, Rage Against the Machine and one of my favourite singers ever, Otis Redding.. so I’ve put together a quick ‘R’ playlist featuring a couple of my favourites from the above. Sticking to no more than two per artist proved tricky for some but the trickiest bit was trying to get it to flow when the only thing some of these have in common is the letter R. This proved impossible so this is in purely alphabetical:
It’s also for Rainbow – not as in the kids TV show with Geoffrey, Bungle, George and Zippy but as in the band Ritchie Blackmore formed after Deep Purple’s shift in sound didn’t agree with him and is perhaps suitably best known for the belter ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ which features singer Graham Bonnet and one of rock’s ultimate drummers, Cozy Powell. It seems like I must’ve heard a thousand times as a kid and still enjoy, so:
R is also for Rearviewmirror, one of my favourite Pearl Jam songs and any opportunity to put a little Pearl Jam in a post is a welcome one*:
Also neatly slotting under this one is Romania, which is almost a blog unto itself but as we’re covering R it seems like an opportunity for a roundup. As mentioned in the Out of Europe series (which I need to get back to know those cock weasels pulled the trigger), it’s a country to which I owe so much and have a huge amount of love for despite its contradictions. I’ve been trying to keep my ear in for Romanian music and I’ve got an ongoing playlist on Spotify which I’ll also embed below, should you be so inclined.
I’ve also been able to up my game since starting this blog in terms of finding and reading more fiction from Romanian authors, so much so that I can even share five recommended Romanian reads with you:
Wasted Morning – Gabriela Adameșteanu: this one slots into my Top Ten of all time
For Two Thousand Years – Mihail Sebastian: also very much worth checking out is his Journal 1935-1944 which is a real eye-opener in terms of Romania’s treatment of the Jews during WW2 and will make you think differently about the next author too.
Youth Without Youth – Mircea Eliade: the shelves in our library here have many a story by Eliade on them in both English and Romanian, there’s a plethora of short novellas and volumes of short stories as Eliade (as much of a dick as he was to his friend) was a prolific writer and his work is often surreal and deals with a lot of spiritual stuff. This is my favourite and a full length novel that was adapted into a film by Francis Ford Coppola in 2007.
Forest of the Hanged – Liviu Rebreanu: I’ve read very few WW1 novels and this is a great one which really takes off and develops into an exploration on the themes of identity, faith and, of course, how ordinary people change in the face of the extraordinary.
The Book of Mirrors – EO Chirovici: a much more recent (2017) effort that caused a real stir as this was Chirovici’s first novel written in English and was grabbed by publishers in 23 countries in 2015, landing him a likely seven-figure sum just in publishing deals way ahead of its actual publication. It’s also very very good.
Since the start of the new millennium, Romania has also been experiencing something of a revival in terms of it’s film industry, with some really great films picking up acclaim and awards throughout the world. I’m nowhere near as up to speed with these as I’d like to be but, if you’re looking for a good film and fancy seeing what Romania has to offer in this arena you’d do well to check out these.
I think that’s R covered.
*Gigaton review coming just as soon as I can express my thoughts coherently.
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 Adventures… Lifes 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.
It’s not the easiest thing to go out on a high note, just ask George Constanza. Seinfeld managed it. So did the Sopranos, come to think of it. Some just drag it out too long. The lifestyle and money too good to turn down after syndication kicks in perhaps. Joseph Heller was once told by a reported that he hadn’t written anything since that was as good as Catch-22, to which he responded “who has?”
It’s even trickier for musicians to do so – very few go into sessions with a definitive “this will be the last time” approach, some call it a day following poor reception to a bad album and others leave this mortal coil with their last recorded output barley touching their former dizzying heights.
Were Dylan to meet Elvis tomorrow, for example, I doubt it could be said that he’d left a great final record in Triplicate. At The Drive In and Refused almost managed it – but then they got back together and managed to slap their legacy in the face with a bloody great fish.
I go these lengths to point out that a good final album isn’t all that common as a build up, of course, to sharing my list of Ten Great Final Albums. Displayed below in no particular order but with two qualifying criteria: ‘only’ albums (Jeff Buckley’s Grace for example) don’t count and nothing posthumously released is eligible.
Nirvana – In Utero
Originally it was going to be called I Hate Myself and I Want To Die as a joke. Cobain’s piss take of how he was so often portrayed as “this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time.” In an attempt to distance themselves from the overwhelming popularity of Nevermind and sheer off the sound of Vig’s production that – despite loving it at the time – Cobain would slate publicly as too commercial, Nirvana recorded In Utero with Steve Albini.
As raw and uncompromising an album as a major like Geffen would allow. There’s a lot of talk and mumbling about how the label insisted on having it remixed and polished by Scott Litt (known at the time for work with REM and The Replacements) but the band had already approached Albini to remix it but the producer refused – claiming he’d recorded exactly the ‘fuck you’ ablum Kurt had asked for and wouldn’t released the master tapes to be remixed by someone else. After much back and forth he relented and Scott Litt and Andy Wallace were allowed to work on some of the songs.
In Utero ranks as my favourite Nirvana album and would certainly feature high on my all-time list. ‘Serve the Servants’, ‘Scentless Apprentice’, ‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘Dumb’…. it’s not only stuffed full of killer tunes but the whole album feels so intense and powerful. The only thing that bugs me about it is that it still showed so much more potential for what was to never come. As a final album, though, it takes some beating.
Chances of a follow-up: None. Well, the surviving members of Nirvana could cut some new material with a different vocalist but then they’d probably chose someone crap like a former Beatle and call it something else entirely.
Sonic Youth – The Eternal
Boy does it pain me to talk about Sonic Youth having a final album. However, The Eternal, released in 2009 and their 15th studio album – is Sonic Youth’s final studio album. To quote from a previous post about them, Sonic Youth were one of the greatest things to blow my ears apart, literally; I’m convinced that the hearing in my right ear has never been the same since I was close to front row and very close to intimate with Thurston Moore’s amps as they performed Daydream Nation in its entirety at Camden’s Round House.
Listening to SY for the first time was like getting a key to a room full of ‘next-level music’. It was music that didn’t give a fuck – pure punk in that respect yet somehow effortlessly cool. No regard for standard tuning. No regard for form and traditional structure. No regard for anything but the feel. And it all made sense. Explosive and experimental guitars that powered through songs that always managed to feel both on the brink of collapse yet tight and in control. A three-decades long career stuffed with ground-breaking work based on the guitar work of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore with vocals from both along those of bass player Kim Gordon. And then, suddenly, it was over as the divorce of Gordon and Moore collapsed amidst rumours of mid-life crisis infidelity on the part of Moore. Their latest album The Eternal very quickly became their final album.
In many ways, even down to the title, it’s a fitting final album. It contains some of their finest songs and showed that, more than 25 years on from their debut EP, they were still evolving and making great music. Songs like ‘Sacred Tricksters’, ‘What We Know’ and ‘Anti-Orgasm’ sit among their best and the album, for all it’s sonic experimentation and guitar freak-outs, is one of their most consistent and accessible as though, no-longer on a major label, they were interested in as many people as possible getting into their songs.
Chances of a follow-up: Very very slim. While drummer Steve Shelley has worked on projects with both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, the acrimonious dissolution of Moore and Kim Gordon’s marriage points to Sonic Youth as wrapped up.
Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland
Given the sheer amount of posthumous compilations of ‘previously unreleased’ recordings or ‘intended next albums’ you’d think that Jimi Hendrix spent more time in the studio than he did anything else. However, there were only three studio albums released in his lifetime (all recorded with The Jimi Hendrix experience and released within an 18 month period).
Jimi’s final studio album Elecrtic Ladyland is a stone-cold classic. A double album that contains pure gold. Take Hendrix’ reinvention of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ which was so good it overwhelmed Dylan himself, take ‘Crosstown Traffic’, take ‘House Burning Down’ or take the 15 minute long jam of ‘Voodoo Chile’ with Steve Winwood’s organ whirling away – which itself led into what is easily one of the greatest songs ever put to tape: Voodoo Child (Slight Return). Apparently – the Experience returned to the studio the next day to find cameras rolling for a documentary, rather than try and repeat the magic of the previous night’s jam session, they improvised it on the spot and a monster was born:
Chances of a follow-up: got a shovel?
Band of Susans – Here Comes Success
Band of Susans I got into far too late – some 20 years after they called it a day. Born out of the same New York noise rock scene that gave us Sonic Youth but with a more layered, complex sound that saw them draw comparisons to shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine woven into an experimental mix. The original lineup had three women named Susan and always had just as many guitarists. In their ten year life as a band, with fairly fluid lineups around the three Susans (which eventually became just the one, Susan Stenger) they put out five stonking albums of guitar-centric music that was markedly different to the field in which they were often lumped but never really found as wide an audience as they deserved.
Here Comes Sucess – complete with sarcastic title – is arguably their finest work and one of the best records I’ve discovered in the last year or so. Nine songs that all kick around the seven minute mark. All slow burning, hypnotic worlds that revolve around Stenger’s bass lines with intricate and explosive guitar workouts.
Chances of a follow-up: All members are still active in music in one way or another but given how little attention was paid to the band, their split or – if the low level of monthly listens the band receive on Spotify is any indication – their back catalogue, I’d say none.
Elliott Smith – Figure 8
If I can bring myself to do so there will be a wider-scoping post on Elliott Smith. However…. there was supposed to be a double album. Something to do with record contract obligations with DreamWorks. Smith had graduated to the major label after the success of Either/Or and his exposure via the Goodwill Hunting soundtrack. But he also fell into depression. Following on from Figure 8, Smith went through a troubled period of addiction, paranoia and all kinds of trouble before cleaning up. He had a clearer state of mind, sessions were underway with a good number of tracks recorded and mixed. However, Smith died on October 21, 2003 at the age of 34 from two stab wounds to the chest (which was reported as suicide but officially left open with the question of homicide). As such Figure 8 remains his final recorded statement and it’s a beauty.
Full of lush production, pop-like song structures that wear their Beatles influence on their sleeve and pretty much every instrument played by Smith, Figure 8 contains some of Elliott’s finest songs from ‘Son of Sam’ to ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’, ‘Easy Way Out’, ‘Pretty Mary K’… A real loss.
Chances of a follow-up: soon to be released on St. Peter’s Gates Records.
REM – Collapse Into Now
How do you bow out in style? REM’s the closest any act has gotten to following the Seinfeld route of stopping at the top before things go south. Well, if we ignore Around The Sun that is. Guitarist Peter Buck has said that, as the band entered the studio to record “We got together, and Michael said, ‘I think you guys will understand. I need to be away from this for a long time.’ And I said, ‘How about forever?’ Michael looked at Mike, and Mike said, ‘Sounds right to me.’ That’s how it was decided.”
Collapse Into Now is a great final album, it’s nothing but strength. Following the all-out single-focus return to form of Accelerate, REM’s final album paints with every brush at their disposal – it has the odd effect of listening to a new album as a greatest hits. All of these songs are new yet there are echoes of their finest work across each. I’ve written a full post on this one before so won’t repeat myself but will point out that I still consistently pull Collapse Into Now off the shelves and don’t skip a single track. ‘Discoverer’, ‘All The Best’, ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’, ‘Oh My Heart’… all gold. Perhaps, most likely probably, because they knew it was their last, the band put their all into this and created a final body of songs they could be proud of. I’m just glad they didn’t decide to call it a day after Around The Sun.
Chances of a follow-up: I mean…. you can never say never, right. Not while all members are still alive and well and engaged musically in some form… there’s group projects and meetings for the ongoing ‘business’ side of REM’s catalogue but I, sadly, don’t see it happening. I don’t think they have anything to prove and if their hearts aren’t in it…
The Replacements – All Shook Down
The Replacements were already kind of over before All Shook Down. It was supposed to be a Paul Westerberg solo album but before recording could get underway his management talked him into making one last Replacements album from the material.
As such All Shook Down features a few session musicians but not to the point of it not being a Replacements record – there are no additional guitarists or bass players listed so it’s a safe bet to assume that Paul Westerberg and Slim Dunlap handled guitar parts with bass either missing from some songs or handled by Westerberg when Tommy Stinson wasn’t about (Westerberg’s solo albums often did away with bass altogether). Perhaps as a side effect of the material’s original intention, it’s one of the most consistent Replacements albums recorded without a single foray into ‘Lay It Down Clown’ territory.
The album is full of strong songs and I’m sure that if such a solidly great album come sooner in their career they would’ve finally secured the attention / success they deserved. As it is, this collection of tunes such as ‘Merry Go Round’, ‘Sadly Beautiful’, ‘When it Began’ and ‘Someone Take The Wheel’ makes for a fantastic swansong.
Chances of a follow-up: unlikely. Original guitarist Bob Stinson died in 1995, replacement Slim Dunlap suffered a severe stroke in 2012 and could not take part in the reunion shows while drummer Chris Mars has given up on music to focus on his art. The well-deserved lap of honour tours that followed the reunion in 2012 of Westerberg and Stinson yielded an aborted attempt at recording new material with the old ‘just didn’t feel right’ results.
The White Stripes – Icky Thump
Ah the White Stripes… while I’ve got no real time in Jack White these days, there’s no denying that The White Stripes generated a great deal of catchy and solid tunes in their 14 year career together. The tour behind their last album, Icky Thump, was called short in 2007 after Meg began suffering acute anxiety. Quits were called by the duo as a band in 2011 after a period of inactivity.
Oddly, Icky Thump is not only the last White Stripes album but also my favourite. I love the title track, the hook of ‘300 M.P.H Torrential Outpour Blues’, the daftness of ‘Rag and Bone’ and stomp of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You’re Told)’. ‘Conquest’ aside, there’s not a song on Icky Thump I don’t enjoy. For my money it’s the strongest entry in their catalogue, a leap on from the already great Get Behind Me Satan and Elephant and I was really hoping they’d continue that trajectory. Ho hum.
Chances of a follow-up: Meh. Jack seems too busy being all kinds of a muppet and Meg… where is Meg?
Nick Drake – Pink Moon
Another career and life cut far too short and another on this list with only three albums left behind. Nick Drake died at just 26 – an overdose of antidepressants that was ruled suicide. He disliked both performing live and giving interviews which helped keep him so under the radar that his albums barely registered during his lifetime; not one of them sold more than 5,000 copies while he still drew breath. His three albums are beautiful, minimal yet deeply affecting records of tender melody and soul that I never tire of and ‘River Man’, ‘Time Has Told Me’ and ‘Place To Be’ would certainly be in the long and short lists of my favourite songs.
There’s no video footage of Nick Drake as an adult – only still photographs. It wasn’t until his albums were released in a box set – Fruit Tree – some five years after his death that the music world began to pay attention. To the point that Drake’s final album – Pink Moon – would be included in Rolling Stones’ list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: “Drake recorded his last album in a couple of nights, delivered the tapes to Island Records and checked himself into a psychiatric ward. If the music were as dark as the lyrics, it might be unlistenable. But Drake’s soothing vocals and unadorned acoustic picking make Moon unfold with supernatural tenderness.”
Chances of a follow-up: I’m running out of pithy comments about resurrection..
Pink Floyd – The Division Bell
“Pink Floyd is a spent force creatively.” Roger Waters
“Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” The Dude, or His Dudeness … Duder … or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.
Man it’s a good thing nobody cares what Roger Waters says as much as he thinks they do. Don’t get me wrong, A Momentary Lapse of Concentration isn’t a great album by any measure but it paved the way forward for a Pink Floyd without that knobhead ordering people around and dictating dreary songs about soldiers and Thatcher. 1994’s Division Bell, though, is a fucking awesome album and ranks in my Top 3 Pink Floyd albums on any day of the week.
Without the legal problems that surrounded the recording of its predecessor, The Division Bell sessions were relaxed and songs were born out of lengthy jams and improvisations with music predominantly coming from Gilmour and Richard Wright – the album would feature his first lead vocal since DSOTM. Which is fitting as The Division Bell, for all its then contemporary touches, is the closest the band had come to sounding like ‘classic’ Floyd since before The Wall. Every time I slip this one into the CD player I find something else to love. The opening trio of songs is unimpeachable, ‘Marooned’ is a great tune, ‘Coming Back to Life’, ‘A Great Day for Freedom’, ‘Lost for Words’ are spot on and underpinned by Gilmour at his finest in terms of both voice and the fluidity and beauty of his playing. Oh, and in ‘High Hopes’ they had the perfect final Pink Floyd song.
Chances of a follow-up: Nah… While Nick Mason doesn’t consider the band broken up David (never Dave) Gilmour seems content with the odd solo album and colossal tour playing the usual Floyd-heavy quota of tunes to keep him in comfortable retirement. Richard Wright left us in 2008 and Roger Waters has yet to raise sufficient moneys to fund the removal of his head from his own rectum where it’s been stuck since the early 80’s.