Albums of my Years – 1991

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U2 – Achtung Baby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Albums of my Years – 1983

1983… A Merman I Should Turn to Be…

Man, I’m slipping with these already and I’m only three in… In 1983 the Empire was defeated, Superman split himself in two to fight with himself and Tom Cruise created a new visual that would henceforth be associated with Bob Seger’s ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’…  Not that I was able to catch any of this on screen at the tender age of two or three.

Nor did I have any awareness of the music world in 1983. I’m sure I heard many a radio hit of the day from The Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ to Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’ in one way or another but my recollections of them are as likely or valid as that Orange Clown’s tax returns.

1983 saw Michael Jackson’s Thriller – released the previous year – hit the top of the charts in the US. It would spend 37 weeks there eventually. During which time CDs went on sale in America where the Beach Boys were banned from the Fourth of July festivities in Washington – then Interior Secretary (which apparently doesn’t involve dictating wallpaper and furnishing choices) James G Watts stated that rock bands attracted “the wrong element”.  Turned out President Reagan felt a bit cheesed off by the decision as he was a Beach Boys fan – Watt apologised and received a gift from the Pres – a plaster foot with a hole in it.

The Rolling Stones were quids in – not that they were strapped for cash, mind – as they signed a $28 million contract with CBS, a then-largest recording contract ever. Money isn’t everything, though – Jagger and Richards were increasingly stroppy with each other and, the following year, Mick would sign a solo deal with CBS and while the band would drop Undercover in ’83, it would be another 3 years until their first album under their new label and contract.

Both Mick Jones (The Clash) and Dave Mustaine (Metallica) got their marching orders this year. Some decisions made in 1983 worked out well – such as agreeing with the management-employee that said “yeah, Johnny Electric is a shit name, just call the band Bon Jovi” (or words to that effect).  Others didn’t work out so well – like an off-his-tits on cocaine Marvin Gaye, convinced that there were multiple plots to kill him, gave his father an unlicensed Smith & Wesson.38 special calibre pistol for Christmas. Must have been an absolute sod to wrap that.

Simon and Garfunkal called it quits, again, in 1983, as did Sly and the Family Stone, Humble Pie and The Who.  Meanwhile Bon Jovi, The Flaming Lips, Guided by Voices, The La’s, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Noir Désir and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds all formed in 1983.

Dire Straits, following the success of Love Over Gold, released ExtendedancEPlay, which contained the worst song they ever committed to tape in ‘Twisting by the Pool’. Sonic Youth dropped their debut full-length, Confusion Is Sex – though, as much as I love Sonic Youth, I wouldn’t call it essential. This one is unlikely to be known to many as it barely made a ripple and, much like the band themselves, sank without a trace shortly thereafter but… a band called U2 released their third album War in 1983, with songs celebrating New Year and pointing out just how frustrating Sundays can be:

I wonder what they’re up to these days. Maybe they found a trade and took an apprenticeship somewhere….

ZZ Top dropped Eliminator, which catapulted them to MTV stardom, in March of ’83 while Pink Floyd released Roger Waters’ rant The Final Cut – needless to say it’s not my pick of the year. Mark Knopfler stepped away from the Dire Straits name for the first time with his first solo and soundtrack album Local Hero:

Men at Work’s Cargo – which featured the classics ‘Overkill’ and ‘It’s a Mistake’ – also arrived in 1983 as did, keeping in this blog’s wheelhouse, albums from REM (their debut Murmur) and The Replacements with their brilliant Hootenany on which they really started pushing away from their early punk sound and hinted at what was to come:

I think it’s fair to say there were a lot of solid albums in ’83 that I could quite happily feature on these ‘pages’ – Billy Joel (who I don’t often tip a hat to) released the hit-stacked Innocent Man – which I remember picking up on cassette at some point in time, Bob Dylan dropped back into non-religious music with the brillian Infidels and, much to the frustration of produce Mark Knopfler (who was having a busy ’83) left ‘Blind Willie McTell’ from its track listing while Tom Waits started his journey into the abstract with Swordfishtrombones.  Having boosted David Bowie’s Let’s Dance to a different level with his guitar playing earlier in the year, Stevie Ray Vaughan released, with Double Trouble, his phenomenal debut Texas Flood:

So what gets my pick for my favourite album of 1983…. well, there’s been a couple of their tunes on the entries to date but this the last year in which they could possibly feature because….

The Police – Synchronicity

Released pretty much bang on halfway through the year on June 17th, Synchronicity spawned 5 singles, all of which hit the Top 20 in the UK with the ubiquitous ‘Every Breath You Take’ hitting the top spot here and across the pond. It gained near unanimous praise in the press, interrupted Thriller‘s stay at the Top of the US chart as it traded places to notch up 17 weeks at number 1, picked up a Grammy Award, continues to be named as one of the best albums of the 80s and pop up in Best Albums lists but would be the band’s last.

It was recorded by a band already pretty much falling apart, watch any documentary or interviews with the members and you get an idea of the tensions that drove The Police.  The band members would record from different parts of the studio – Stewart Copeland (fucking awesome drummer) would drum from the dining room, Andy Summers in the studio itself (it was recorded on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, it’s a hard life) with Sting recording from the control room. Any overdubs were done one member at a time.

And yet it never sounds disjointed. Synchronicity is the sound of a band at the peak of their powers. NME’s review from the time described it as “a mega-band playing off glittering experimentation…. the music fuses intuitive pop genius with willfully dense orchestration so powerfully dense it stuns.”

And that’s why I rank Synchronicity as their finest – The Police were masterful songwriters yet, like so many other, they almost fought against it as if it were wrong to create perfectly crafted melodies – they came up in the punk movement so tried to hitch a ride on that scene’s energy, then there was the insistence of trying to shove reggae into the mix, with Sting’s god awful forced accent. I agree with Elvis Costello’s statement at the time: ‘Somebody should clip (him) round the head and tell him to stop singing in that ridiculous Jamaican accent.”

So while I love a huge amount of The Police’s music, Synchronicity, where they finally ditch all that and create beautiful melodies and textures – is the album that I happily sit and listen to all the way through. I can’t recall when I first heard it -growing up after it was released it feels like ‘Every Breath You Take’ has always been there, but even after hearing it so many times it never bores:

Though my favourite on this album is ‘Synchronicity II”, I love the drive and energy of the song and the fact that it’s couple to those lyrics; “Another suburban family morning, Grandmother screaming at the wall. We have to shout above the din of our Rice Crispies..” I can’t think of another song that mentions Rice Crispies or take its inspiration from Carl Jung…. and then references the Loch Ness monster.

The videos….  I think they were all by Godley and Creme (ex 10CC). A duo whose first music video was for their own single ‘An Englishman in New York’ (funny, that) who directed so many pivotal music videos of the 80’s which all had a distinct feel that connects to memories of my youth so vitally that it’s impossible for me to listen to these songs – pretty much the entire second half of this album was released as a single – and not be transported back to that time.

I’ll finish with ‘Wrapped Around Your Finger’ – the video for which spawned one of my favourite Andy Summers quotes and points out just how clearly the writing was on the wall for the band. Godley & Creme filmed it a little unusually – the music was played fast and Sting – who  loves the video “It’s incredibly atmospheric, and I think the set design is brilliant” – mimed at high speed so that when played at normal speed it gives a weird slo motion affect. Andy Summers pointed out: “I was kind of pissed off about that one. I’ve never been much of a fan of that song, actually. Sting got to shoot his part last in that video and made a meal of knocking all the candles out. Fuck him.”

Out of Europe: An Irish Top Five

Of all the stupidity and upheaval that the colossal butt-fuck of an idea called ‘Brexit’ that so many fools were goaded and misled into voting for is likely to cause, one of the biggest potential quagmires is the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, thrown into even greater murk by that soulless banshee May’s desperate tactic of clinging to power by giving a massive bung to the D.U.P in utter disregard to the issues it throws up with the Good Friday Agreement.

As such I thought it fitting for this Out of Europe series to draw up a quick Top Five from Ireland who, while we continue to be lead blindfolded into a dead end, will remain in the blissful embrace of Europe. And, as we’ll be tearing Northern Ireland down with us, acts from that island’s north east tip don’t qualify.

My Bloody Valentine – Only Shallow

Formed in Dublin in 1983(!), My Bloody Valentine’s opus Loveless took two years to record (that’s nothing, it would be 27 years before they followed it up) and its extensive production costs got them dropped from their label but, fuck me, it’s amazing.

God Is An Astronaut – Forever Lost

A post-rock band who’s sound, according to that fabled source Wikipedia, “employs elements of electronic music, krautrock, and space rock.” I cannot for the life of me remember how I found them but I’d often listen to their second album – which this is from – at the gym.

Damien Rice – Rootless Tree

Success is often a real fucker. Look at what it did to Kurt Cobain. Damien Rice seems similarly unimpressed by it. When songs like ‘Canonball’ and ‘Blower’s Daughter’ pushed his solo debut O into so many peoples’ cd collections he withdrew and pushed against the tide. He’d only wanted to make the one album but his label pressed him into releasing 9 (from which this is taken) which leaned a little darker and met massively mixed reviews. It would be another 8 years before he dropped anything else. I like the line “fuck you, fuck you, love you and all we’ve been through.”

The Frames – Revelate

Dublin’s Glen Hansard is a busy chap. Aside from a solid solo career and frequent touring supporting and playing with Eddie Vedder he’s part of the folk-rock duo The Swell Season and continues to front the Irish rock band The Frames which he started in 1990. Oh, and he acts too – he starred in the film ‘Once’ and some other film called ‘The Commitments‘.

U2 – Until The End of the World

This band is certainly more of a cult act, probably little-known outside of Ireland. Despite what I can only assume are poor-to-middling sales they’ve been around a while now occasionally flirting with some good write-ups in the local press, bad haircuts and have even played a few venues outside of their native Dublin despite their singer’s clearly shy and introverted demeanour.

Honourable mentions to the blues of Rory Gallager and The Cranberries’ Dreams