Wow…the 1990s are tricky…I think because they encapsulate my teenage years, together with numerous musical awakenings and epiphanies (both at the time and retrospectively). Every year has a number of albums that could be ‘the’ one. Anyways…here is my selection with some increasingly rambling musings…
More Sonic Youth. Acknowledging the fair distribution of credit to all members on most of the band’s output, 1988’s ‘Daydream Nation’ is for me very much a ‘Thurston album’. 1990’s ‘Goo’, however, is my ‘Kim album’ – her songs and fronting duties very much the standouts on an equally good record. Both albums are at the more accessible end of the Sonic Youth canon and supreme examples of indie/noise rock at its finest – reminiscent of Husker Du in weaving lush and infectious pop songs with discordant challenging noise and beat poetry lyrics. ‘Kool Thing’, presented here, is just as the name suggests, there are few kooler…
Highly commended releases from 1990 also well worthy of investigation include Ride’s ‘Nowhere’, Jane’s Addiction’s ‘Ritual De Lo Habitual’ and Fugazi’s ‘Repeater’.
1991 saw the advent of grunge. Which is odd, in a way, because I am increasingly convinced in at least musical terms that there was never really any such thing. Maybe it really was more of a reflection of fashion, or broader alternative culture, into which various bands fell easily within – only very few of them bore any resemblance to the next. As such, the ‘which grunge band were better’ arguments – at least amongst the highest profile protagonists – are somewhat futile. Nirvana, steeped in the legacy of 80s US alternative rock…Husker Du, Pixies, Black Flag…were ultimately a world away from the heavier 70s metal muscle of Soundgarden…who in turn differed wildly from Pearl Jam’s payment of more orthodox rock and roll dues to Neil Young and The Who. Conveniently for me, in the avoidance of such argument, in my early teens I grew to love all three bands and still do.
In this exercise though, it is Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’ that wins out for me over the brilliance of both ‘Nevermind’ and ‘Badmotorfinger’. The immediate and aggressive ‘Porch’, sat amidst an album whose spirit soars and dives through light and dark, presented here for your consideration.
Also of note this year R.E.M. (again) with ‘Out of Time’ and in relatively more obscure but equally brilliant terms – My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’ and Slint’s ‘Spiderland’.
It’s fascinating again in this exercise as well to consider within the space of a year the overlap, ends and beginnings of eras seemingly miles apart in musical terms and history. The mainstream explosion of American alternative rock through at least some of the records noted above was synchronous with the end of a previous dynasty. While admirable in terms of scope and effort, and containing a number of great songs, Guns n’ Roses ‘Use Your Illusion’ double-double album was ultimately an overblown and overweight beast – signalling the effective end of both the band and the excesses of 80s hard rock. It would have been better, no doubt, edited down to a single album, although would still I fear have succumbed to the scuzzy, raw attack of its younger noisy contemporaries.
R.E.M.’s ‘Automatic for the People’ is sometimes regarded as the beginning of the end for the band. It is the case that overall the Warner Bros output does not stand up to the 80s’ IRS years, certainly in terms of consistently brilliant albums, but for me there are diamonds to be found in an increasingly rough field right until the band’s retirement.
It is true that the big money deal saw a general shift to more radio friendly fare but that generalisation is not necessarily fair when laid at ‘Automatic…’, which is a magnificent thing. Many associate the album almost entirely with smash-hits ‘Everybody Hurts’ and ‘Man on the Moon’ – both very good songs but nowhere near the best the record has to offer. The production is notably better than in the past and the lyrics certainly more recognisable (maybe a good thing, probably not) but the songs retain wonderful and complementary streams of warmth, darkness and light. A great example of this, chosen as well for @Allofwhich, is ‘Find the river’…
The Americans further dominate my list of other favourites from the year, albeit largely less commercially successful efforts: Sugar’s ‘Copper Blue’; Soul Asylum’s ‘Grave Dancers Union’; Blind Melon’s and Rage Against The Machine’s eponymous efforts and the Black Crowes’ outstanding ‘Southern Harmony & Musical Companion’.
I would not discover Belly until two years later at Glastonbury, however (and I have given this some considerable thought) they would become my favourite 90s band. Indie-pop at its finest…I love every song on each of the band’s two albums and much Tanya Donelly-related output besides.
Debut album ‘Star’ was a somewhat unexpected success with ‘Feed the tree’ dominating MTV and other alternative media output, along with fellow singles ‘Gepetto’ and ‘Slow Dog’. The songs bear a complexity over and above straightforward pop, with hints of Americana and folk throughout – highlighted particularly in the latter track…
Again a ridiculously good year, with all of the following deserving of top spot in their own way: Suede’s ‘Suede’; Bjork’s ‘Debut’; Slowdive’s ‘Souvlaki’; Cracker’s ‘Kerosene Hat’ and The Lemonheads’ ‘Come On Feel The Lemonheads’.
If Belly weren’t my favourite 90s band, then Weezer probably would be, and ‘The Blue Album’ is my favourite Weezer record.
The album gained widespread notoriety for ‘Buddy Holly’, a wonderfully catchy pop song with a brilliant and inventive Spike Jonze video placing the band in the ‘Happy Days’ world, yet there is much more to the record. Appropriately following Belly’s ‘Star’ in this list of sorts, it is another astounding debut release – mixing fiendish pop with slacker cool, surfy garage with epic rock, all underpinned by seemingly personal lyrics that remain generally cryptic but equally accessible to the audience. The melancholy ‘Undone – The Sweater Song’ a great example of this. The band’s energy and wonderful relationship with their fans also stands them up as one of the best live acts I have ever seen.
Embarrassingly good runners-up here too: Jeff Buckley’s magnificent ‘Grace’ (although see the Sin-e live ep/album for his best releases); Portishead’s ‘Dummy’; Green Day’s ‘Dookie’; the Manic’s ‘The Holy Bible’; and Therapy?’s ‘Troublegum’ (which opens with maybe the best three lines of any album ever).
As mentioned earlier, my first (and it would transpire, only) visit to Glastonbury would see me fall in love with Belly, and with Tanya Donelly. The band’s second (and sadly final) record, ‘King’, saw progression to a more expansive sound and broader deeper themes than its relatively simple older sibling – maybe with echoes of Donelly’s (step-) sister project ‘Throwing Muses’. It again is a terrific record, albeit one which maybe didn’t fit with the commercial tastes of grunge and Britpop at the time (more fool everyone) and I really could pick any one of the tracks for presentation here. ‘Seal my fate’ wins, for the searing, soaring, vocal alone…
Also for consideration from 1995…The Longpigs’ ‘The Sun Is Often Out’; Everclear’s ‘Sparkle & Fade’; Elastica’s ‘Elastica’; Pulp’s ‘Different Class’ and Supergrass debut ‘I Should Coco’.
A mention here as well for what I believe is probably the best track, certainly in British terms, of the 1990s. Amidst much of the Britpop nonsense that would come and go stands ‘Yes’ by McAlmont & Butler – a seemingly timeless track – almost orchestral, with echoes of Phil Spector’s work, and David McAlmont’s soaring, nigh-on impossible vocal. There is none more feel good.
Another debut…Belle & Sebastian’s ‘Tigermilk’. Sat well outside of the mainstream indie production line (literally, in terms of a very limited initial pressing), the album would set the band on the way to now almost legendary status in the continuously brilliant alternative Scottish canon – and deservedly so.
The band’s unmistakable soulful melodies and harmonies, right from the off, are laced with humour, sadness and social observation – creating stories, soundscapes and kitchen sink cinema. ‘The State I Am In’ demonstrates this very well…
Other favourites from 1996: Barry Adamson’s (extraordinary) ‘Oedipus Schmoedipus’ (a relatively recent discovery of fucked up soundtrackery); Placebo’s ‘Placebo’; and the wondrous ‘Fuzzy Logic’ of the incomparable Super Furry Animals.
And yet another brilliant, brilliant, debut release…Grandaddy’s ‘Under The Western Freeway’…
Part Americana, part psych, part noise-pop and an indication of the glories that would follow in the band’s future releases (more on that to come…) – favourable comparisons with lo-fi contemporaries such as Pavement are left behind with occasional steps beyond the real world. Musically the album is complex and at times very clever – wrapping the acoustic and electronic, the orthodox and the experimental, up in neat little packages.
‘A.M. 180’ is one of my all-time favourite songs. A sober Bear very nearly lost himself completely when experiencing it live for the first time at End of the Road in 2012.
Special mentions also to Radiohead’s landmark piece ‘OK Computer’ and the majesty of Spiritualized’s ‘Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’.
I regard the next three years’ albums of choice as an other worldly collective, created and existing in some distant space and time, and before sitting down to this exercise experienced a mild panic that I would have to choose between two or even three of them. It is with an almost divine, or maybe that should be cosmic, sense of justice that in actual fact they were released in consecutive years.
The success of Mercury Rev’s ‘Deserters Songs’ surprised everyone upon its release, including to some extent I imagine the band themselves. The album began as an entirely personal project for both frontman Jonathan Donohue and guitarist Grasshopper – cathartic, even, and with little commercial focus – following a difficult few years both individually and as a band. Creative impetus, however, had been provided for Donohue following collaboration with the Chemical Brothers and the subsequent involvement of producer Dave Fridmann (and, by proxy, Donohue’s old band The Flaming Lips) would support the band’s development of something very special indeed. The album’s themes are often bleak – focusing upon escape and abandonment – but retain a sense of hope and redemption throughout, all of which sits in a vivid cinematic landscape. Now rightly highly regarded in both critical and audience terms, it will remain a timeless work of art.
‘Goddess on a hiway’, actually written years previously during Donohue’s time with the Lips, is my favourite song on the record…
Other notable 1998 releases include the criminally little-well-known ‘Good Morning Spider’ by Sparklehorse and the raw, often flawed and occasionally brilliant promise of what could have been in the posthumous release of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Sketches for my sweetheart the drunk’.
I’ll single out as well a track I discovered while in Australia on my travels…The Living End’s ‘Prisoner of Society’ – one of my all-time favourite pop(ish)-punk tracks, complemented by an awesome lo-fi video…
The Flaming Lips had already been going for ten years when in 1993 the track ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ brought them into the consciousness of college rock, MTV and the wider world.
It would be ‘The Soft Bulletin’ though that would take the band to (at times maybe unwelcome) levels of renown and success. The record as a whole is far more accessible than the acid punk and experimentalism of much of the band’s earlier work, yet still retains complex psychedelic themes and arrangements which will always signal the Lips at their very best. In some respects, the album in both form and content would provide some degree of structure to a band that up until that point and never really known what it wanted to be, and set them on a broad path to the adoration and cult status that they receive today – still creating unique and inventive art. Ironically…the levels of associated success would at times come close to destroying both the band and individuals within it but very thankfully all have come through it.
It is an extraordinary record by an extraordinary band, and I will always love both. The Lips, both in concert and on record, live in other worlds of light and dark, yet at the bottom of it all is always a sense of the goodness and hope that exists across humanity – it is a privilege on any level to be part of that.
It is no coincidence that the record was produced by Dave Fridmann in tandem with his work on Mercury Rev’s ‘Deserter’s Songs’ (see 1998) – there is very much a symbiotic relationship between the two records in musical, thematic and philosophical terms – evidenced by the bands touring in partnership as well.
My favourite track from the album, the opening number, has so often opened the band’s performances I’ve been fortunate enough to witness. It is always thrilling, and wonderful, and heartbreaking, and joyous, and, well…
Just one last album from the nineties and a world away from my staple fare…’Surrender’ by The Chemical Brothers…which I believe is their best. A very definite move away from the big beat of the first two albums…with a psychedelic feel that is at times tempestuous and at others utterly dream-like. The epic build and then break of ‘The Sunshine Underground’ is like nothing else before or since. Magic.