Monday, November 24, 2008

Top 5 Albums of the 90s

Whereas most of my generation seems to have some kind of 80s obsession, (see T5E reader David L's blog article on the subject) I'm a much bigger fan of the 1990s. The 90s undoubtedly had better music, better TV and better movies, not to mention that we actually experienced the 90s. (I'm tired of people in my graduating class saying "Remember [80s sensation]?" No, I don't remember that, and neither were you. You weren't born yet.) Today I begin a recurring series of lists on the 90s, starting with my Top 5 Albums.

The state of music in the 1990s was unique - the popular stations were equally shared by mindless cookie-cutter pop and deep, introspective alternative rock. This balance, I think, improved both genres. Pop's simplicity had limits, and could remain fun to listen to, and rock had to have catchy melodies and memorable lyrics. Today, I fear that both genres have suffered from the loss of this balance.

My list today is, though, all alternative records. This is, like any of my other lists, based on my own personal tastes.

5. Yourself or Someone Like You - Matchbox 20
Six hit singles don't lie. "Real World", "3AM", "Back2Good" (stupid 90s title, I grant you) "Long Day", "Push" and "Girl Like That", plus "Kody", which wasn't a single but got a fair amount of MTV play (this is before MTV plunged off the deep end). The epitome of fine 90s Post-Grunge, Youself or Someone Like You was angry, aggressive, but still open and accessible.

4. Weezer (The Blue Album) - Weezer
This one's a no-brainer. "My Name is Jonas", "Buddy Holly", "Say it Ain't So" and "Surf Wax America" are still recognizable rock anthems. Weezer's self-titled debut influenced dozens of bands to follow. The Blue Album set the standard for rock albums for the remainder of the decade.

3. Bringing Down the Horse - The Wallflowers
Considering that every Wallflowers album prior to or following this one is mediocre at best, you have to give the bulk of the credit for this album's near-perfection to producer T-Bone Burnett, who only two years earlier had crafted the first Counting Crows record into a work of sheer genius. In this album (and this album alone) Jacob Dylan is able to cast off his legendary father's shadow and establish himself as a songwriting force to be reckoned with; Bringing Down the Horse is miles above anything Bob Dylan put out during the 90s. From beginning to end, Burnett and The Wallflowers create a full, enveloping sound, offering lyrical brilliance and a long series of great hooks.

2. Whatever and Ever Amen - Ben Folds Five
"Brick" is only the tip of the iceberg. Yes, the haunting abortion elegy is a memorable, lasting 90s hit, but to ignore the other 12 masterworks would be criminal. Every track on this album is approaches perfection. "One Angry Dwarf & 200 Solemn Faces" is an introduction to Ben Fold's own variety of "fun anger". "Fair" demonstrates the band's ability to take a story of misery and pain and make it boppy and peppy. "Selfless, Cold and Composed" is the best, most emotionally real break-up song of all time. (In contrast to the previous track, "Song for the Dumped", which is the most fun break-up song of all time.) "Evaporated" is one of the most finely-crafted ballads ever written, emotionally gripping and melodically hypnotic. (Though those of us who like to cover Ben Folds songs on piano find the use of two pianos on the studio track extremely frustrating.) As a whole, Whatever and Ever Amen uses the entire emotional spectrum, and like a fine meal, leaves the listener exhausted, but satisfied.

1. August and Everything After - Counting Crows
"Stepped out the front door like a ghost into a fog, where no one notices the contrast of white on white"
An introduction to the mind of Adam Duritz, tormented poet laureate of the invented genre of English Major Rock. Duritz has a psychological condition called a "dissociated disorder," which in essence makes life feel like a prolonged, absurd dream. August and Everything After is filled with dreamlike images, perfect poetry of a man only half of our world. "'Round Here", "Anna Begins" and "Sullivan Street" are perfect songs. They are perfect. They represent the finest poetry in alternative rock, melodies that stay with you for decades, and again, the fine production talents of Mr. T-Bone Burnett. There is no single sound on this album that feels unnecessary, and nowhere does it seem as if something is missing. Most of the Counting Crows archive is excellent, but August is a masterwork from beginning to end.


David L said...

I think this is the first time you have ever plugged my work. Awesome.

The 90s certainly had better music that the 80s... hell, most any decade has better music than the 80s.

He's some albums you missed, judged by *my* musical tastes.

5. Flood - They Might Be Giants
Barely qualifying for the list being released in 1990, I still felt that TMBG should be represented somehow on this list. Not all of their best songs, but consistent material.

4. Odely - Beck
Beck covers every possible crevice of music he can with this album, including hits such as "Devils Haircut" and "Where It's At".

3. Dirty Boogie - Brian Setzer Orchestra
Dude. Brian Setzer is awesome. The Brian Setzer Orchestra is the definitive swing revival band. This album has Jump, Jive An' Wail and The Dirty Boogie, not to mention the Grammy winning Sleepwalk. Still not enough? How about the cover (is it a cover?) of Rock This Town?

2. Bat out of Hell II: Back Into Hell - Meat Loaf
After about a decade of mediocre albums, Wagnerian rockstar Meat Loaf finally reunited with songwriter Jim Steinmen for a sequel to the classic Bat Out Of Hell album. The result is pure Meat Loaf. The songs are long, the arrangements are complex and lyrics are reminiscent of a time that has since past for many - in other words, exactly what the fans were waiting for. From the opener, I'd Do Anything For Love (featuring a duet that harkens back to a certain song from a certain album...), to the personal storyline of "Objects In The Rearview Mirror..." to the Morrisonesque poetry thrown into the middle of the album, this album would be in the number one stop spot if not for the next album...

1. Unplugged in New York - Nirvana
This was before the whole "unplugged" concept became a marketing gimmick. What more can be said about this album? It showed what the band could have been had Cobain not died by his own hand. Only a couple of songs were bona fide hits - the rest were covers or album tracks perfectly arranged. The lead song (About A Girl) is still one of the band's better songs. The album's real strength is the cover songs. At one point the Meat Puppets join Nirvana on stage to perform a couple of their hits, including Plateau and Lake Of Fire. Of course, there is the celebrated adaption of Bowie breakthrough hit The Man Who Sold The World which many (including myself) consider better than the original. As far as I'm concerned, the high point of the album is the last song: the emotional, complexly arranged cover of the blues standard Where Did You Sleep Last Night. Listen to it. Absorb it. Think of what could have been.

Jenny said...

A fabulous list, superbly written. ::bows::

Mike! said...

Wow. I know... [counts] two of those.

Dylan Roth said...

To David - I totally agree about Flood. It totally deserves an honorable mention here. I'm not wild about Beck and I think you're overstating The Dirty Boogie a little, but it is a matter of opinion.

I knew someone would comment as to the lack of Nirvana. I'm not a grunge fan, honestly. I think there's a reason why it was so short-lived, but I won't deny its importance to the evolution of rock. Interesting note, tho: my parents were at the "Unplugged" concert.

David L said...

I just spit out a little bit of my drink at that last line. DAMN!
Of course our lists will be different. We both openly stated they are according to our own tastes. I'm not a fan of several of the bands you mentioned, but I appreciate their contributions to music just the same. I'm not big on grunge as a whole, but I like Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Cobain fascinates me. Also, I'm just a pretty big Brian Setzer fan. What can I say?