28 December 2012

The Friday Top Five: The Five Greatest Albums From 1991 You've Probably Never Heard

If you are like me you most likely have severe psychological trauma induced by traumatic popular culture phenomenon from the eighties that you had absolutely no control over: parachute pants, friendship pins, girls with feathered hair, and Bon Jovi. Let's not forget the wave of terrible music that brought us forgettable bands like Oniogo Boingo (the only reason I remember these guys is because they were recently an answer in a crossword puzzle I was doing in the car so I could pretend not to listen to my children argue in the back of the car over the relative merits of their favorite Pokemon cards). Let's not forget Howard Jones who is solely to blame for his song, No One Ever Is to Blame. Yes, the eighties brought us a scourge of wonderful tight leather pant donning wannabe-Sabbath bands such as Ratt, Skid Row, and Cinderella. If you thought those bands were good, go back and listen to them now. Of course, the eighties were not all bad musically, and I will probably list the most fantastic artist from the eighties in another post, but for now, I would like to focus on the year 1991.

5) Teenage Fan Club, Bandwagonesque: The undisputed greatest Scottish rock band since Mogwai, their Bandwagonesque beat out Nirvana's epic Nevermind album for the number one spot by Spin magazine in 1991, and deservedly so. This power-pop quartet combines Soupy Sales like minimalistic lyrics—Soupy would ask children to write him a letter that was 50 words or less—with an old-school rock sound reminiscent of the Kinks with hummable melodies and crafty songwriting. Songs like "The Concept" deserve a place alongside those "epic" tunes in rock history such as Prince's "Purple Rain," "Bohemian Rhapsody," and that "Stairway" song.

What you do to me...
I know, I can't believe
There's something about you
Got me down on my knees

What you do to me...
What you do to me...
What you do to me...
What you do to me...

Coincidentally, Iggy Pop claims that Soupy Sales was instrumental in his 50-words-or-less approach to lyric writing.

4) My Bloody Valentine, Loveless: The cover for this album about sums up what the sonic experience is. This Irish alternative rock band found the subtle  balance between experimental sound led by guitarist Kevin Shields and the subtle, gentle nuances of Bilinda Butchers sonically sweet, soothing voice that transfixes  listeners and delivers them to a place between psychedelia and computer concert music. Not only do I have fond memories of my classmates back when I was an undergrad at a small liberal arts college in the midwest/middle of nowhere doing a stirring a cappella rendition of "I Only Said" at 3 o'clock in the morning outside of my apartment as one of my former girlfriend was visiting for the weekend, but I still listen to this album straight through for about two weeks once or twice every year. Like a good book or film, Loveless continues to deliver anew with every listening. It is like listening to Bach's Art of the Fugue—discovering new sounds, timbres, gestures within this album that keep you asking "how did I miss this?"

Oh, and the girl? They effectively sealed the deal. She was so annoyed by my friends that I don't think I saw or heard from her ever again after that weekend. I still talk to all of them twenty years later.

3) A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory: This album can be viewed as a cultural artifact that links jazz and hip hop to the same cultural roots. Upon its release, the hip hop magazine,The Source, dubbed it an instant classic and gave it its coveted five mic rating.  The lyrics are intelligent and acutely aware of pop culture and their position within it. Not only are the lyrics unbelievably solid, but the samples used on this album—which would now cost a fortune to attain the rights for—are as varied and wonderful as the album itself. Everything from "A Chant for Bu" by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers to "Fly Like an Eagle" by The Steve Miller Band. A Tribe Called Quest knows their music and is not afraid to steal, er, borrow from any source that adds to the music, and the samples do just that. They are integrated into the compositions in a way that is organic, rather than forced like many hip hop artists who do not have the breadth of musical knowledge that Tribe demonstrates. Of course, the reason that I always argue with my hip hop students that old-school hip hoppers are more acutely aware of different musical rhetorics is because unlike today's hip hop musicians/rappers, the pioneers of the movement did not grow up listening to hip hop. They were inventing it. If you listen to DJ Kool Herc, Afrikaa Bambaataa, and Melle Mel talk about the early days of hip hop, they talk about listening to funk and disco and rock and roll and incorporating the "break beats" and riffs into their own compositions. The group fuses jazz and hip hop on this album in a seamless fashion and even hire legendary jazz bassist—and former member of Miles Davis rhythm section, Ron Carter, to play on the track "Verses from the Abstract." But the samples on this album do not convolute the music. The music here is stripped down to the essentials: drums, bass, and lyrics.

2) Lenny Kravitz, Mama Said: Long before he played the role of Cinna in The Hunger Games, Lenny—son of television icon Roxie Roker who played Helen Willis, half of the first interracial couple on the Jeffersons, was making music. Good music. The follow up to his controversial debut album, Let Love Rule, Mama Said contains the same gospely, funky earthy quality as Let Love Rule, but is not overpowered by Kravitz's early musical influences. Some of the highlights of this album are the tunes "Always on the Run," co-written by former Guns-n-Roses guitarists Slash, and "All I Ever Wanted," which was written in collaboration with Sean Ono Lennon. "Always on the Run is a staple of my iPod "I'm-Going-to-Kick-Your-Ass-Running-Next-to-Me -on-the-Treadmill" Mix. Lenny's voice is really versatile throughout his career. He can sing slow, passionate gospel-like tunes using his falsetto like on "Fields of Joy," and "Stand By My Woman," or rock it out with his trademark bluesy growl on tunes such as "Always on the Run," and "All I Ever Wanted." If you do not own this album, or his debut album, Let Love Rule, please stop reading this immediately, run to your local CD emporium and purchase a copy of each. Please feel free to download them both from the Steve Jobs memorial music store as well (a.k.a. iTunes).

1) The Pixies, Trompe le Monde: Not only is Trompe le Monde one of the greatest albums of 1991, or of the nineties, but it considered by connoisseurs of fine music everywhere to be one of the greatest rock albums of all time. The fourth and final studio album by this Boston based neo-punk rock outfit is one for the ages. Lime Lizard's Michael Bonner said that it was a strong contender for best album of the 20th century." What makes the album so wonderful is the succinctness of the tunes—the longest song on the album , U-MASS—is only 3:01 coupled with an incredibly inventive harmonic language rarely indicative of anything in rock music, let alone punk-influenced rock music. You do not expect the music to take you to some of the places it does, and because a lot of it moves at about a million miles per hour, it does so with such force and ease that makes it mesmerizing. They do an outstanding cover of "Head On" by The Jesus and Mary Chain and their tunes "Distance Equals Rate Times Time," and "Alec Eiffel" leave you wanting to run a marathon, or at the very least, pedal a little bit harder. Their track "Space (I Believe In)" is one of the most clever lyrically on the album. Looking for someone to come and fill up some empty "space" on one of their tracks, they brought in a percussionist who added to the mix. So, the song became about him:

We needed something to move and fill up the space
we needed something this always is just the case
jefrey with one f jeffery took up his place
sat on a carpet and with tablas in hand took up the chase
jefrey with one f jefrey
now it occurred to me as he drove away
d= r x t
spacious (he's so) spacios
(i belive in ) space
jefrey with one f jeffery
now i'm going to sing the perry mason theme
(he's so) spacious
(he's so) spacious
(he's so) spacious
jefrey with one f jeffery
jefrey with one f jeffery
jefrey with one f one f.

Before you dismiss the seemingly austere text, give a listen and decide for yourself.

Until next time. Train Smart.


KovasP said...

Great list, hard to believe it's been so many years since these were released!

Unknown said...

My Bloody Valentine was as great album!

If my memory serves '91 was a remarkable year in terms of iconic records. Comparable to the '83 NFL Draft for QBs! Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden. I also saw Metallica and GnR in concert the summer of '92 - think it was for the Black Album and Use Your Illusions, which were released in '91, I think, they could have been out in '90. Oh, and Alice in Chains had the Dirt Album, which may have been a little later. Thanks for the walk down memory lane!

George said...

I own four of the five. (Curse you, My Bloody Valentine!) I actually like Mama Said more now than I did then. I considered putting Teenage Fan Club on our road trip mix this week. Too bad that 2 Live Crew's Banned in the USA didn't come out a few months later, because I'm sure it would have made your list.

rwithrow said...

I agree with all but LK,he never seemed very original to me. If you like that Teenage Fan Club disk check out their inspiration from the 70's,Big Star.

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