As I write this introduction, I’m listening to—at ear-splitting, drowning-out-those-damn-noisy-kids-upstairs-volume—The Who’s 1971 singles collection, Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy. What an amazing record this is. Every song is a classic that will still sound great twenty years from now. As a matter of fact, we know these songs do sound pretty good in plenty of movies today. Who would’ve thought that “The Seeker” would be used prominently in two of this year’s best films (American Beauty and The Limey)? If Chrysler would only use “Boris the Spider” or “My Wife” in a commercial, John Entwistle would never again have to tour just to keep the creditors at bay. As “Pinball Wizard” rolls by, I think to myself, “Isn’t this what all rock music should be—each song great single that causes a crackle of energy to come out of your car speakers?” I always have been, and always will be a sucker for a great hook. Heck, I’ve even caught myself humming along to that Backstreet Boys single “I Want It That Way” on occasion. Damn those NYC delis playing the “lite” station. They’re warping my fragile little mind...
Pardon me, I digress.
Some of you have been getting this annual drivel from me all this decade, some for a few years, and for the lucky few it’s your first exposure to this document, which has come to consume all my weekends from October until December each year. I never meant for this to become some sort of tradition, or something that most of my close friends ask me about this time of year. “Hey, how’s that list coming?” is the number-one sentence uttered to me every November (with “Is that your real hair,” and “You want another Rolling Rock?” close runners-up). Usually I just mumble some incoherent response. Let me say this—next year’s list will not be even close to 52 pages. 10 would be much more manageable.
The first list I put together wasn’t even sent out to anyone. It was a list of 10 records I read one morning on the air in college. How naive I was, thinking that someone getting up to listen to a college station at 8:50 on a Friday morning would even care about what records the joker on the air liked. But I did it anyway and it was a lot of fun. The first actual mailing came with the 1991 list, and even then I couldn’t do it right. I sent it out in early 1992 after getting a similar list from my friend Mike as a Christmas card of sorts. Then at the end of 1992 I started sending out the Top 20 list, which has expanded each year into the monstrosity that it is today. (And some lists this year needed to be bigger—so look out for two Top 30 lists.)
This compendium of my words and opinions is certainly not meant to inspire deep thought, and I am definitely not some obscure-analogy spouting, “this is a big cultural event” spewing, “my writing has to be better than the music” windbag critic. This is the stuff I like from approximately the past 30 years. And as I get older, I hate much more music than I like. But much of the stuff on these pages inspires me to keep listening to new music.
One final note: Longtime readers will notice the lack of a Janeane Garofalo page with lots of photos of her accompanied by my slobberings. No, it’s not due to a restraining order. I figure when you’ve been introduced to someone at a bar, and then they buy you a beer, the fantasy-fixation is pretty much over. Sometimes meeting your idols (or objects of fantasy) ends up being pretty mundane.
Enjoy the list—it’s guaranteed to last more than one subway ride or one trip to the bathroom. If not, you’ll get your money back…
P.S. I’m sorry about the lack of the personal touch on this year’s list, but trying to write over 100 personalized messages is just too much to take on.
You’ve probably read the headline above and thought, “What kind of drugs is this guy on, and where can I get some?” Please be assured I did not have an acid flashback when I wrote that. I put many hours of thought into this…well, alright, about 10 minutes of thought on the subway while I was trying to figure out where I could sit down. But hear me out on this one:
Who was the biggest artist at the beginning of this decade? New Kids on the Block, who ranked pretty high on the Forbes list of entertainers. Now if the New Kids hadn’t been so popular with those kids 10-15 years-old and so ubiquitous on the radio and MTV, do you think the timing for Nirvana would have been so perfect? After hearing that incessant brand of claptrap, young people needed something completely different to wipe it from their collective memories: Ergo, Nirvana’s success. And after Nirvana’s star faded in mid-decade, people wanted to feel happy again, which led to the bright-pop sounds of numerous one-hit modern rock wonders. And with a great economy at the end of the decade, teenagers’ parents have the dough to spend. And why not spend that disposable income on clean-cut, non-threatening boy bands (and sexy teenage females)? These kids who were under eight years-old when New Kids were at their peak, and who remember their older siblings’ love of the group, now get the chance to have their own hysteria. In fact, some of the New Kids have come back to have somewhat successful solo careers. If you told me that would happen three years ago, I would have laughed until I burst a blood vessel. In conclusion, all the music this decade owes a somewhat-twisted debt to New Kids on the Block.
So what about 1999 and the continuing teen explosion? How long can it last? Well, I predict that in 2001 something will come along to make all these teenagers forget that Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync made enough money to cause big-time adult lawsuits this year. And perhaps something will make these kids forget about Limp Bizkit and Korn as well. These two bands had some semblance of street/underground credibility at one point, but it seems to be fading away with each appearance they do on Total Request Live. By gaining all these fickle teen fans, both acts face the serious consequence of having these new fans drift away as they get older. Not that I would complain if either band drifted away for good.
The other big trend of the year was “The Latin Movement.” About 110-percent of the mainstream media for many years ignored that various Latin music acts were selling a great deal of records before this “newfangled sound” was hailed this year. And if Ricky Martin were smart, he would sleep with as many of the people at the Grammy Awards as possible. His performance of “The Cup of Life” was the only thing that gave the damn show a pulse, and launched his English career. Here’s a question: Does anyone think that Jennifer Lopez can actually hold a note without it being electronic manipulated? I didn’t think so.
Here’s a little math: Garth Brooks + soul patch + toupee = Chris Gaines = career-threatening blunder. To borrow a line from an Arn-huld or Stallone film, Brooks’ “ego wrote checks his body couldn’t cash.” The identity confusion, lack of sales and behind-the-scenes reports about the album’s lackluster performance couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. (ha ha ha ha) I bet that baseball career looks a bit more promising now.
Finally, I could go on about Woodstock ’99, but I’d only be beating a dead horse. My attitude is that kids like to burn and break stuff, and used the “high prices” of food (typical for a concert/sporting event) as a means to an end. The area where the concert was held (a few minutes from my last radio job) seems to bring out stupidity in many people—heck I worked for the cheapest, most egotistical ex-’70s-druggie-DJ-asswipe for three years for barely 10-grand. How stupid was that?
20) The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros)
We are a long way from “She Don’t Use Jelly” with this one kids. The Soft Bulletin CD booklet is designed to look like a movie poster, which is entirely appropriate. These songs are very cinematic in their scope, with strings and keyboards creating a wall of sound reminiscent of (I hate to use this critic’s cliché) Radiohead. Even that comparison doesn’t do this music justice. This album was recorded over a two-year span, and the long hours of hard work have certainly paid off. Best Tracks: “Buggin,” “Race for the Prize,” “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton”
19) Blink 182 - Enema of the State (MCA)
The punks from L.A. actually (gulp) grew up a bit. Sure, the silliness that made songs like “Josie” and “Growing Up” hits is still around (Exhibit A: Naming a song “Dysentery Gary”), but it’s tempered by a semi-serious look at growing pains of the early ’20s (“What’s My Age Again?”) and a very serious and somber look at teen suicide (“Adam’s Song”). I don’t expect Blink to become another Rage Against the Machine, but Enema shows that there’s more than just jokes going on here. Best Tracks: “Adam’s Song,” “What’s My Age Again?,” “All the Small Things”
18) Kelly Willis - What I Deserve (Rykodisc)
Kelly Willis is one of the few female icons of the alt-country movement, and has a sweet and comforting voice. It’s easy to describe why I like this album with a simple checklist: Writes with a member of The Jayhawks? Check (Gary Louris). Covers a Paul Westerberg song? Check (“They’re Blind”). Uses a former member of Green on Red on guitar? Check (Chuck Prophet). Uses a former member of The Call on bass? Check (Michael Been). Has lots of pedal steel and violin on many tracks? Check. See, all the elements to make a good album were in place. Best Tracks: “Not Forgotten You,” “Heaven Bound,” “They’re Blind”
17) Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture South Park:Bigger, Longer & Uncut (Atlantic)
Ignore the “inspired by” crap on this soundtrack, and enjoy the 12 songs from the movie that are pure genius. These songs, cooked up by Trey Parker and film composer Marc Shaiman, roast every animated film with musical numbers ever made. Best Tracks: “Uncle Fucka,” “It’s Easy, Mmmkay,” “Blame Canada”
16) Beck - Midnite Vultures (DGC)
If this album had been released earlier in ’99, it might have climbed higher on the list. Beck gets downright funky and funny on this album with reams of lyrics that just make no sense whatsoever. But when the music sounds this good, who cares? The masterpiece of Midnite Vultures is “Debra,” a longtime staple of Beck’s live set. This tale of pleading for a ménage a trois with a pair of sisters blew me away the first time I saw Beck play it. The next two times I saw him perform it only got better. Beck’s voice is a dead ringer for early Prince, while his band lays down a groove that Isaac Hayes would be proud of. The only drawback: It clocks in at a mere five minutes. A song this good should keep going for another 10 at least. Best Tracks: “Debra,” “Hollywood Freaks,” “Pressure Zone”
15) They Might Be Giants - Long Tall Weekend (Goodnoise)
The latest from TMBG is a first for the annual Top 20—it’s not available in stores. This odds-n-sods collection is available only in downloadable MP3 form from www.emusic.com. Freed from the constraints of making a proper album, the Johns have put together as varied a release as they’ve ever done—they even attempt a country song for the first time (“Counterfeit Faker”). “Older” is easily one of their best songs ever, and it’s surprising no one had tackled time conceptually like this before. (Sample lyric: “You’re older than you’ve ever been/And now you’re even older.”) Best Tracks: “Older,” “Maybe I Know,” “Operators Are Standing By”
14) Handsome Boy Modeling School - So… How’s Your Girl? (Tommy Boy)
Handsome Boy Modeling School is the collaboration between producer Prince Paul (best known for De La Soul’s debut) and DJ Dan the Automator. They bring in such friends as Beastie Boy Mike D, Grand Puba and Sadat X from Brand Nubian and D-J Shadow. But don’t be fooled—this is not your typical all-star hip-hop album. Eclectic doesn’t even come close to describing this musical mix that includes spoken word from Father Guido Sarducci (yes, THAT Father Guido Sarducci from Saturday Night Live), backing tracks that sound like that have been lifted from a Chemical Brothers album, samples from a cult sitcom (Chris Elliot’s Get a Life) and snatches of Beethoven’s Fifth. So…How’s Your Girl? is an album that merges many worlds and comes up with something that sounds completely fresh. Best Tracks: “Rock n’ Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This),” “Look at this Face (Oh My God They’re Gorgeous),” “Holy Calamity (Bear Witness II)”
13) Richard Thompson - Mock Tudor (Capitol)
Richard Thompson has been making good records for as long as I have been alive, but some are a bit better than others. Mock Tudor is one of those better records. It’s more focused than the rest of his music this decade—it’s a concept record about the suburbs of London from when Thompson was a child until the present. This album’s secret weapon is Thompson’s son, Teddy. He’ll soon be a recording artist in his own right, but for now Teddy helps his father’s album shine with spot-on harmonies on tracks like “Bathsheba Smiles” and “Crawl Back (Under My Stone).” Mock Tudor’s centerpiece is the epic “Hard on Me,” with two guitar solos by Thompson that would make anyone this side of Eric Clapton want to give up playing the instrument for good. Best Tracks: “Hard on Me,” “Cooksferry Queen,” “Bathsheba Smiles”
12) Chemical Brothers - Surrender (Astralworks)
I missed the boat on all electronica; it was supposed to be the “next big thing” two years ago, and due to the hype I completely ignored all music released in the genre. But somehow my mind and ears have opened up to the sound of drum loops, sampled voices and electronic beeps and bloops. This doesn’t mean I’m going out and hitting all of Manhattan’s trendiest clubs—as a matter of fact, I prefer listening to Surrender at home. I get sucked in and transported to a different world for a while. The Chemicals are also smart at what they do because they rope in some stellar collaborators (New Order’s Bernard Summer, Noel Gallagher from Oasis) to create good songs, something lacking in much of this type of music. The cover of Surrender sums my listening experiences with this album—sometimes lying down and resting, other times standing up and reveling in the sounds. Best Tracks: “Out of Control,” “Let Forever Be,” “Hey Boy Hey Girl”
11) Art of Noise - The Seduction of Claude Debussy (ZTT/Universal)
Here is the most unlikely entry on the list. Yes, this is the same band that brought you covers of the Peter Gunn theme and Prince’s “Kiss” with Tom Jones on vocals in the ’80s. However, at the end of the ’90s, Art of Noise is a band dabbling in techno, opera and spoken word, all at the same time. A loose story about the life of modernist French composer Claude Debussy, with soothing narration from actor John Hurt, ties together the 13 tracks. Describing exactly what this album is like is problematic: It’s worth at least one listen if you get the chance. Best Tracks: “IL Pleure (At the Turn of the Century),” “Rapt: In the Evening Air,” “Dreaming in Colour”
10) Mojave 3 - Out of Tune (4AD)
The sound of Mojave 3 could be described as England’s answer to the alt-country scene in the US. Singer-guitarist Neil Halstead has a distinctly British voice, but the playing behind him, with lightly strummed guitars and the occasional shimmering pedal steel, sounds distinctly Nashville in origin. “Caught Beneath Your Heel” is one of the most hypnotic songs of the year, slowly pulling you in with the gospel-like vocals of guest singer Lisa Millet. Out of Tune is an appropriate title, as this album sounds nothing like else I’ve heard out of England recently, and certainly nothing that would be commercially successful in the US. It’s a perfect background album to relax and forget your troubles. Best Tracks: “Give What You Take,” “Caught Beneath Your Heel,” “Who Do You Love”
9) Moby - Play (V2)
Moby’s been a pioneer in the techno world for much of this decade, but he abandoned much of that sound for his last studio album, Animal Rights, by making a somewhat straight-ahead rock album. With Play, he dives back in the electronic pool, with outstanding results. The bulk of the album features samples of ’50s field recordings of folk artists set to sympathetic loops to create at times funky (“Honey”), at other times sad (“Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad”) pieces of music. Play is one intriguing album, and it’s worth a couple of extra spins to let it all soak in. Best Tracks: “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad,” “Honey,” “Bodyrock”
8) Los Lobos- This Time >(Hollywood)
Trying to describe what Los Lobos do on their records could fill a book. Funky grooves, traditional Spanish music, slinky blues numbers and sweet ballads are just some of the territories this quintet have covered since 1992’s sonic breakthrough Kiko. This Time displays just how many types of music this band has mastered. “High Places” is perhaps the group's closest venture to hard rock, as the guitars of David Hildago and Cesar Rosas jab and strum this mighty riff into the ground. “Some Say Some Do” continues the tradition of socially conscious songs Hildago, Rosas and lyric-writer Louie Perez have always excelled in creating. This Time proves once again that Los Lobos are one of the finest bands in America, and perhaps the most underrated. Best Tracks: “High Places,” “This Time,” “Cumbia Raza”
7) Brilliantine - My Life and the Beautiful Game (Deep Reverb)
Brilliantine is the brainchild of ex-Dambuilders singer Dave Derby, a band you’d most likely remember from the modern rock hit “Shrine” a few years ago. My Life and the Beautiful Game is his second outing since the band split, and my favorite late-night album of this year. Most of the album was recorded at Derby’s home, and has that immediate living room feel. Rarely does lo-fi recording sound this good, but pop gems like “Better Life” and “We Gonna Live Forever” would be great if they were recorded in a subway on an out of tune guitar and some tin cans. Of course, nobody wants to make an album like that, thank goodness. Check out www.deepreverb.com to find out where you can get this fine record. Best Tracks: “Better Life,” “Madeline,” “Underwater Camera”
6) Fountains of Wayne - Utopia Parkway Atlantic)
I hate to see the sophomore slump hit a fine band. But that’s the case with Fountains of Wayne. Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger struck paydirt with “Radiation Vibe” from their self-titled debut, and then came back with a bag full of outstanding pop tunes for Utopia Parkway. But no one heard them. This, my friends, is what happens when a record company releases your album but really doesn’t care what happens after that. It’s indeed a shame, as Utopia Parkway is the best album I’ve heard in ages about the city in which I reside. Tales of New York and its surrounding suburbs fuel these incredibly hooky and intelligent songs. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy before it’s out-of-print. Best Tracks: “The Valley of Malls,” “Red Dragon Tatoo,” “Denise”
5) Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - Echo (Warner Bros)
Tom Petty’s best music has usually coincided with problems in his life. Record company problems bred Damn the Torpedos, he broke his hand struggling to get Southern Accents right and Full Moon Fever was recorded after his house burnt down. Echo is no exception to the rule, arriving two years after Petty and his long-time wife divorced. On a couple of songs the usual post-breakup bitterness seeps in (“This One’s for Me,” “Rhino Skin”), but this is an album filled with characters who are picking themselves up, dusting themselves off and getting on with life. “Room at the Top,” “Won’t Last Long” (as in, “I’m down but it,”), “Billy the Kid” (the chorus, “I went down hard/Like Billy the Kid/But I got up again”) and “One More Day, One More Night” all strike the same chord of bouncing back from the crap that life hands you. It’s a good sentiment that’s unfortunately missing from most music today. Let this echo ring over and over again. Best Tracks: “Room at the Top,” “About to Give Out,” “Swingin’”
4) XTC - Apple Venus Volume One (TVT)
“Good things come to those who wait” is a cliché that was never truer than XTC’s Apple Venus Volume One. It’s been seven years since their last effort, and they’ve lost a member (guitarist Dave Gregory), but Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding haven’t lost their ability to create some of the finest pop songs you'll ever hear. Partridge calls Apple Venus Volume One an “orchustic” album, due to the extensive use of strings for the instrumentation. From the opening sounds of plucked strings on “River of Orchids,” you know that you’re in for a sonic treat. The band doesn’t leave their Beatle-esque sound behind for the orchestra pit, however—“I’d Like That” and “Frivolous Tonight” are songs you’ll be humming after just one chorus. And speaking of Beatle-esque, “Your Dictionary” is as bitter of an indictment of an ex-loved one as John Lennon ever wrote. If you like this, don’t forget to check out Homespun—it’s the demos of the songs on the album, and reveal a little bit of the creative mind at work. Best Tracks: “Easter Theatre,” “Your Dictionary,” “Harvest Festival”
3) Old 97’s - Fight Songs (Elektra)
From the opening notes of “Jagged” to the final strum on the album-closer “Valentine,” Old 97’s strike the perfect balance of pop, rock and country that warms the cockles of my heart. Fight Songs is filled with one gem of unrequited love (my favorite topic) after another. And as I write this, it’s still priced under (or around) 10 dollars at most record stores. That’s quite a bargain for a fine work of music such as this. So go pick it up—have I steered you wrong before? Wait, don’t answer that... Best Tracks: “Nineteen,” “Lonely Holiday,” “Busted Afternoon”
2) Bottlerockets - Brand New Year (Doolittle)
I’m trying to come up with the words to describe how perfect of a rock album this is. And when I say rock album, I mean one of those stupid, big riff-filled, pounding a six pack of beer to, ROCK in capitol letters type of albums that came out in the ’70s. It’s like a Molly Hatchet or Outlaws record, but done by people who have talent. The guitars just sound dirty and grimy, the way I remember records sounding. Singer Brian Henneman spits out lyrics (in “Headed for the Ditch” and “White Boy Blues”) like someone stole the last shot of whiskey he ordered. Heck, there are even two songs (“Alone in Bad Company” and “I’ve Been Dying”) that have two 12-string guitars playing at the same time—that’s at least 12 more strings than most songs made nowadays! To top it all off, Brand New Year’s title track is the perfect song to usher in the new millennium (“Brand new year/Same old trouble/Stroke of midnight won’t change a thing”). I like this album so much that one day when I had my apartment all to myself I listened to it five times in a row. Brand New Year is a shining example of what all rock should be. Best Tracks: “Gotta Get Up,” “Alone in Bad Company,” “Brand New Year”
1) Wilco - Summerteeth (Reprise)
Wilco’s third album (fourth, if you count Mermaid Avenue, the collaboration with Billy Bragg) sees the band moving further and further away from the alt-country/ “No Depression” sound of their debut, and yet getting better and better. Summerteeth is a stunning combination of baroque-type-pop, slithering funk and straight-ahead rock, and a heartbreaking ballad or two. Singer Jeff Tweedy can be bleak and lonely (“We’re Just Friends”) one moment, and just as easily in love (“My Darling”) the next. Guitarist Jay Bennett contributes more than ever on his second instrument, keyboards, using swirling organs, ancient sounding synths and grand pianos to provide a dense layered effect, sometimes all on the same song (“I’m Always in Love”). Tweedy’s tendencies to write lyrics about violence against women from a first person perspective (“She’s a Jar,” “Via Chicago”) are a bit disturbing at times. However, that does add the teeth to the up-tempo, “summer” type sounds that prevail throughout. In the ten years I’ve been doing this list, it’s never been this easy to pick out the number-one album of the year. Summerteeth was released in March, and nothing even came close to touching it the rest of 1999. Wilco doesn’t create any new type of music—they just take everything we’ve heard and make it better. This year I saw Wilco perform seven times, which is the most I have seen one band not based in New York in a calendar year. And if they were playing somewhere easily accessible by mass transit before the year was up, I’d go again in a heartbeat. I know I’m going out on limb, but I think Wilco is the best band on the planet right now. Albums like Summerteeth remind me why I became a devoted music fan in the first place. Best Tracks: “ELT,” “A Shot in the Arm,” “We’re Just Friends”
20) Foo Fighters - “Learn to Fly” (Roswell/RCA)
Dave Grohl scores yet again with his uncanny ability to pen catchy songs that grow on you with each listen. And the video is a hoot!
19) Rahzel - “All I Know” (MCA)
The astonishing human beatbox of The Roots steps out on his first solo single. Rahzel displays that he’s more than just a freak of nature with a rap that hop scotches through several different styles in four minutes.
18) Megadeth - “Insomnia” (Capitol)
A Megadeth song with a violin solo? This is a sign the apocalypse is coming my friends, but it won’t seem as bad if you play this tale about a severe lack of sleep.
17) Widespread Panic - “Dyin’ Man” (Capricorn)
One of the leading jam/neo-hippie bands of the day show their funky side, fusing their beats with the scratching of Colin Butler from Big Ass Truck (I don’t know much about them, but I love the name). More ditties like this, and the Panic will break out of the patchouli pack.
16) Tin Star - “Head” (V2)
Hearing this song for the first time was like diving back into the early ‘90s and playing a Stereo MC’s record. Remember “Connected?” If not, listen to this and you will.
15) Santana featuring Rob Thomas - “Smooth” (Arista)
I never thought the day would come where I would mention anything connected to Matchbox 20 in a positive way, but here’s the exception to the rule. A well deserved smash—look out for it at Grammy time next year.
14) Blink 182 - “What’s My Age Again?” (MCA)
Yes indeed, nobody likes you when you’re 23. But apparently people like seeing these guys run around naked in their videos.
13) Smash Mouth - “All Star” (Interscope)
Perhaps the lyric should be, “Hey now/you’re an all star/got another hit/that gets play.” And do lyrics get any better than “I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed?”
12) Thisway - “Nice” (Reprise)
The third single from this New York quartet’s debut, “Crawl,” has gotten lots of play on the WB network, but their second single is the one that should have dominated the airwaves over this past summer. It’s one beautiful song about a May-December relationship.
11) The Mavericks - “Things I Cannot Change” (Mercury Nashville)
Here’s yet another gem from the best country band that’s not a country band, which features the incredible vocals of Raul Malo. This guy could sing the menu at McDonald’s and make it sound good.
10) Garbage - “When I Grow Up” (Almo)
When I grow up, I hope I’ll be stable. But until then, I’ll enjoy singing along to Garbage songs.
9) Semisonic - “Secret Smile” (MCA)
One of 1998’s finest songs becomes one of 1999’s best singles. Singer Dan Wilson has knack for melody.
7) Lit - “My Own Worst Enemy” (RCA)
One morning I woke up and this song came on. Then I realized I was living the song at that exact moment. I’ve loved it ever since.
6) Citizen King - “Better Days (And the Bottom Drops Out)” (Warner Bros)
If you listen hard enough, you can actually hear the kitchen sink being used in this track.
5) Buffalo Tom - “Going Underground” (Ignition UK)
One of Boston’s finest covers one of England’s finest, The Jam. The track is available only as an import right now, but look for a US release of the Jam tribute album early next year.
4) Fatboy Slim - “Praise You” (Astralworks)
Another 1998 holdover that I always thought would make a great single. For once, I was right. Now pardon me, I feel the need to go breakdance in a mall…
3) Old 97’s - “Nineteen” (Elektra)
This is the kind of song that I hold out hope to hear on Z100 here in New York, or any Top 40 station around the country. It’s short; it’s easy to sing to after one listen, and it’s a natural for teenagers to identify with. If we could somehow just siphon off some of those Christina Aguilera fans into a fan base for this song, Old 97’s could sell enough records so they could continue making albums for years. That would make the world a better place.
2) Rufus Wainwright - “April Fools” (Dreamworks)
The first time I heard Rufus, I hated his debut album—his voice especially. Fast forward eight months later. I’m at a party in Brooklyn, and I’ve become one of those end-of-the-festivities guests that just won’t leave. Then someone put on this song, and I was leveled by it. “April Fools” is optimistic, pessimistic and confusing all at the same time in the chorus (“And you will believe in love/And all that it’s supposed to be/But just until the fish start to smell/And you’re struck down by a hammer”). What the heck does that mean? I like this song so much that I have listened to it three times in a row just trying to type up this paragraph.
1) Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - “Room at the Top” (Warner Bros)
Tom Petty has written many a fine song about lost love in his career, but few have seemed this personal, especially in light of his divorce before making Echo. There’s a point where Petty sings (“Yeah like they do on those things on TV/I love you/Please love me/I’m not so bad/And I love you so”) that’s so touching and tender that you can almost hear his heart breaking (pardon the pun). It’s a great song, by one of the greats.
COMPILATIONS OF THE YEAR
Beastie Boys - Anthology: The Sounds of Science
This 42-song, two-disc collection from one of the most important groups of the past 15-years includes tracks you know (“Fight For Your Right,” “Sabotage,” “Intergalactic”), the tracks you should know (“Time for Livin’,” “Remote Control,” “Egg Raid on Mojo”) and tracks you haven’t heard before (“Alive”) which all adds up to one outstanding album. Great care has been taken in sequencing these divergent tracks to flow from one style to another—disc two’s opening punch of “The Biz vs. The Nuge” from Check Your Head into “Sabotage” puts these tracks in a new, refreshing light. Add in the witty liner notes about each song from the band and you have one great stocking stuffer.
Various Artists - Rushmore Soundtrack
Director Wes Anderson picked most of the ’60s British rock that dominates this album. Any album that can make me enjoy Cat Stevens for the first time—ever—is a work of art. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score compliments cuts by The Faces, The Who and The Kinks to create one of the best soundtracks ever.
REISSUES OF THE YEAR
Meat Puppets - Meat Puppets, Meat Puppets II, Up on the Sun, Out My Way, Mirage, Huevos, Monsters
Rykodisc won my heart with the exhaustive Frank Zappa catalog remasters, and they do it again here with Phoenix, Arizona’s weirdest export besides Charles Barkley. Meat Puppets II is the album that changed Kurt Cobain’s life, while Up on the Sun features some of the trippiest tunes you’ll hear a supposed “alternative” band do. I enjoyed many a morning at work this year listening to these discs, which also include great liner notes by drummer Derek Bostrom and a ton of bonus tracks.
DISCOVERY OF THE YEAR
These six guys from my home stomping grounds of Albany, New York seemed to always be on the radio when I was growing up. Most people remember them for “I Wanna Be a Lifeguard,” (and that all their last names were Blotto) but this was no group of one-hit wonders. Tracks like “Metal Head” and “She’s Got a Big Boyfriend” still shine today. I picked up a compilation this year called Collected Works after hearing that drummer Lee Harvey Blotto had died, and felt like I stepped back in time when I pressed play. And perhaps someday I’ll make more moves than Allied Van Lines…
CONCERT OF THE YEAR
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - The Meadowlands, East Rutherford, New Jersey 8/1/99
Speaking of traveling back in time, 14 years ago I saw my second concert ever—Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Giants Stadium. I returned to Jersey this year to experience Bruce in an arena. I hate to sound so hokey, but the entire evening was magical. I had forgotten where our seats were, and once we got in on the floor, we realized these were going to be good seats. Very good seats. Sixth row good. When the band hit the stage, it was like a jet taking off with the noise. But from the opening notes of “Backstreets” to the closing song, the new “Land of Hope and Dreams,” it was a cathartic, life-reaffirming event. I tapped into that exhilarating feeling I had when I first started going to concerts. “Born to Run” and the cover of “Trapped” sent me to heights I have rarely attained in my life.
I know that this is going to be another record year at the movie box office, but it seemed to take about 9 months before anything good actually hit the silver screen. Of course, the fall being a great time for movies meant it was difficult to get to see everything. So this list could have been different if I had gotten my ass into a cineplex to see Dogma, Felicia’s Journey, Boys Don’t Cry, and if it was in theaters now, Man on the Moon. By the way, my pick for worst movie of the year—The Blair Witch Project, hands down. Out of the 40 flicks that I did see, here’s some I did enjoy...
10) Office Space
Mike Judge’s live action directorial debut takes a sly look at life in the cubicle world, with a great performance from Stephen Root (Newsradio). Seriously, I like this movie. I am not joking.
9) Mystery Men
Was I the only one who saw this? It was good, I swear.
8) The Iron Giant
Ex-Simpsons director Brad Bird brought back the classic ’50s animation look to the big screen, and created a touching and funny film to boot.
7) The Sixth Sense
Bruce Willis can act? I say this again, Bruce Willis can act? That’s more shocking than the surprise ending to this unlikely blockbuster. If Haley Joel Osment doesn’t pick up an Oscar nomination for his amazing performance, may dead people haunt academy members.
6) Being John Malkovich
A complete mind-fuck of a film—literally for Mr. Malkovich. Spike Jonze graduates from directing great videos to an astonishing big screen debut.
5) The Limey
Terence Stamp tears it up as an English hood come to extract revenge in Los Angeles for his daughter’s death.
4) American Beauty
Kevin Spacey is absolutely brilliant as a man experiencing the worst mid-life crisis ever.
Bill Murray got robbed of an Oscar nod for this film, which went into wide release this year. He made me remember that Saturday Night Live was once funny.
2) South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
Picking on censorship is an easy target, but this film did it with such flair, it was hard to resist. Much better than any episode of the TV series.
1) Fight Club
Wow. That is what I said when this movie was over. I couldn’t describe exactly what is was about, but it rocked. It was like seeing a great concert. I never thought I’d like a Brad Pitt film.
There are a few people who have altered, shaped, poked and prodded my musical tastes since I was a three-year-old: My grandfather, a long standing member of the Columbia House Country Music Club; my aunt, who always sang along to the pop hits of the day from 1974 to 1981; and my friends Cliff and Dave. But perhaps no person has influenced my musical taste more than Mike Faloon. Mike and I met in 1987 at our freshman college orientation—he says we struck up a conversation because I was wearing a Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers shirt from the Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) tour, but I honestly don’t remember. Our friendship grew when Mike became the music director of our college station and started adding in a lot of excellent music to the rotation. Here’s a partial list of bands that Mike has directly introduced me to: Soul Asylum, Goo Goo Dolls, Green Day, The Posies, The Connells and Fastbacks. Mike also ended up creating some of my favorite music of this decade as the drummer for the New York trio Egghead. He now bashes the skins for Kung Fu Monkeys, runs a small label based in Queens called Dizzy Records, and is the publisher of the ‘zine Go Metric and a new baseball mag called Zisk. Even with all these projects, we found the time to sit down to have some lemonade and iced tea in New York’s East Village of NYC, see what his favorite records of the ’90s were, and discuss the curse of The Kinks.
SR: So these are your 10 favorite albums of the decade…
MF: And it pained me to leave things off this list.
SR: Well, that’s what lists are for, to bring pain. So we’re going to go through this in alphabetical order. What’s first?
MF: It would be the Modern Life is Rubbish LP from Blur. (SBK Records 1993)
SR: Interesting choice. I thought you were more of a Parklife-kind of fan.
MF: I was until I heard this. I actually went and got [their albums] in reverse chronological order, and this is one of the rare 70 minute CD’s that needs to be 70 minutes.
SR: Really? How many songs are on this thing? (grabs disc) There are 17 songs…
MF: Well, they list 17, but they actually have two bonus tracks, so it’s a full-fledged double album. And it’s all good. The title is so accurate.
SR: Now what was the first Blur album that you got?
MF It was Parklife, which you gave to me.
SR: Oh that’s right, back in the day, because I thought it was Kinks-like.
MF: Another thing that’s nice about Modern Life Is Rubbish—no band photos.
SR: Well that’s good, they’re ugly guys…
MF: But they don’t think they are. Let me just double check…well, there is this drawing of them…
SR: That doesn’t count.
MF: In addition to the lyrics, it has all the keys and the chords of the songs. But I’m a drummer, so I don’t know those things.
SR: Funny how that works for all drummers.
MF: This is a magnificent record. I haven’t heard their last record, but I hear no one liked it.
SR: Yeah, it’s crap. You could borrow it if you want, but do so at your own risk.
MF: I should note that it’s the Kinks-like quality [of Modern Life] that snared me.
SR: Alright, what’s next?
MF: Boris the Sprinkler—
SR: Get Mega Anal! (Bulge 1997) (laugh) I bet you won’t see this title at Walmart any time soon.
MF: Oh no. This man is a genius!
SR: And looking at the back cover photo, people wearing cheese heads must mean they’re from Green Bay.
MF: They’re proud to be from Green Bay. It’s not just a novelty record. That’s just the knee-jerk reaction to a guy like [singer] Rev. Norb.
SR: Even with song titles like, “Ain’t Nobody Rocking at the Vegetable Factory?”
MF: It’s just inspired…“Sheena’s Got a Microwave,” “Scratch My Yahtzee,” they come up with the titles, and they back it up with great tunes. This is the best record they’ve done.
SR: Anything else about this record we should know?
MF: After it goes through its 14-song cycle, it repeats those same 14 songs in alphabetical order. And I believe they’re the first band to do that, and I hope no ever does it again because it’s really annoying. Sprinkled in among those bonus tracks are three different versions of songs on the album, so the longer you wait, the more you are rewarded. And at the very end of it is a call from two guys taunting Rev. Norb about how the Packers were going to lose to the Patriots in that year’s Super Bowl. That didn’t happen, so that’s why it’s on the CD.
SR: That’s yet another double album. So are there going to be any records under 70 minutes on this list?
MF: Actually, one of my criteria for a good record is that it has to be short, usually.
SR: So next is…?
MF: Well, talk about pulling hair over an album selection. Everyone’s obviously going to have a Figgs record on their list.
SR: Well, of course.
MF: The only question is which one.
SR: All three are very fine-quality records, and they’re a band that’s released stuff only in the ’90s, which makes it more difficult to choose.
MF: So, why, you ask, do I pick The Figgs Couldn’t Get High? (Absolute a Go Go 1998) One reason—[Singer-guitarist] Guy Lyons, at the top of his game.
SR: And in typical following The Kinks fashion, he then left the band.
MF: And, not that this detracts from the other records, it’s the shortest one. So when you finish, you’re likely to hit play again since it’s over quicker.
SR: 12 songs over 32 minutes is hard to beat.
MF: Right, and the variety is better too. Their slow songs on here are better than their slow songs have ever been. I’ve always liked their slow songs, but they really nail it here. I also like [singer-guitarist] Mike [Gent’s] liner notes.
SR: I think liner notes are an underrated art form nowadays.
MF: I know some people who have never even seen a copy of this record, so I hope The Figgs sign with someone someday that is interested in reissuing this record.
SR: And of course The Kinks connection was strengthened this year when you released The Figgs covering “Johnny Thunder” on the compilation [Daydreaming with an Empty Station Wagon] on your own label.
MF: And they’ve recorded three Kinks covers to date, so the Figgs-Kinks connection is strong.
SR: So the Kinks are running through almost everything here.
MF: They’re the best band of all time. I know this to be true.
SR: So what’s next?
MF: Next is this band called Glue, and it’s called Machine Keep Me Warm (Fantastick! 1994). I was working at ASCAP at the time, and I was listening to WNYU. And this amazing song comes on, and it sounds just like a Kinks song, circa 1966. So that thing that you always hope happens
when you listen to the radio happened—I wrote down the name of the song, went to the store,
found the record and loved the record.
SR: That never happens! (laughs)
MF: Well, the tale takes a more realistic bend after that. So I wrote to the band, and I got down on my knee and pledged allegiance to them, hoping there were other recordings. But I never heard from them. I’ve never seen this record reviewed, I’ve never heard of this band in any other context. My theory is that this is the Snuffalupagus of my CD collection. As a matter of fact, you may not even be able to see this disc.
SR: (Laughs) Well, it does look like it’s fading out as I stare at it, like it doesn’t really exist. You may have actually dreamt that record into reality.
MF: A totally satisfying record; I listen to it all the time.
SR: And next you have…a record that doesn’t really need an introduction, Frosting on the Beater, from The Posies (DGC 1993).
MF: When you listen to the Posies, the hook is the Ken [Stringfellow] and Jon [Auer] vocals, and this is the record where it all comes together. Everything worked out.
SR: Except for the fact that it was a commercial failure.
MF: That’s just kind of a forgone conclusion for all of my choices.
SR: It’s funny to me that it was their third record, and third different lineup behind Ken and John.
MF: But they always sounded like a tight-knit band, not a couple of guys backed by some total strangers.
SR: There’s also three shoulda-been hit singles on here—“Dream All Day,” “Flavor of the Month”and “Definite Door.”
MF: “Flavor of the Month” is the kind of thing these guys should be putting their kids through college on.
MF: I think that this is another record, like all of these, that will stand the test of time. And it was released at the height of the Seattle thing, and I could never figure out why people would
always ignore bands like The Fastbacks and The Posies.
SR: Great record, just a great record.
MF: This next record came out last year, it’s The Rondells, Fiction Romance, Fast Machines
(Smells Like Records 1998). I don’t think any them were out of their teens when they made this record. It’s one perfect pop song after another.
SR: Where are they from?
MF: They did this album while they were in New Mexico, but they’ve since relocated to Washington, DC. It’s not a true full-length in the sense that this collects two compilation songs and songs from 7” singles, but it’s got Phil Spector-like songwriting. It’s not as intense, but it’s in that vein. The female singer has a great voice, and they never clutter things up. They keep things nice and simple. As a matter of fact, the drummer plays while standing, and uses only a
high hat, snare drum and kick drum. And at certain songs in their show, he won’t play
eighth notes on the high hat, he’ll do it on the keyboard with his stick resting between his fingers. It doesn’t sound like an Elvis Costello record, but it’s similar to an Elvis Costello record in that the guitar is really just kind of an accessory. On a record like Trust, it’s all the rhythm section and the keyboards, and in a simplistic way this Rondells record is the same thing.
SR: And there’s no Kinks connections to this one?
MF: Not as far as I know.
SR: Alright. Now we’re shifting to what you have here on vinyl.
MF: This is the second Servotron record, Entertainment Program for Humans. (Second Variety/Lookout 1998)
SR: These are the guys that dress up in the costumes like robots, right?
MF: Well, yeah, but let me qualify that. To say they wear costumes would imply that they are humans dressed as robots. They are under the impression that they ARE robots.
SR: Oh, they ARE robots. It is not a concept, it’s their way of life.
MF: To describe Servotron…it’s like all the ideas that Devo came up with scattered across their albums, Servotron do all on one record. I appreciate what Devo did, but I don’t really love any records of theirs start to finish. This one I do. I think underneath their sense of humor Devo wanted to be taken seriously, but there was some bitterness that they weren’t taken seriously. Servotron are just going to annihilate you.
SR: (Laughs) That makes it almost hard to enjoy an album if they want to kill you.
MF: Unfortunately, I think they have broken up, which is a shame. They played a pretty straightforward live show, but their goal is to entice humans to insult them, and then return those insults, And, if you’re within striking distance of the drummer, he’ll throw a stick at you. It’s out-and-out animosity between the two parties…
SR: Sounds like every date I’ve ever been on. (laughs)
MF: Maybe you should date robots then…
SR: Maybe I should.
MF: I don’t know how this record will stand up over time…
SR: Well, if the world is taken over by robots, maybe this will be the soundtrack for their generation.
MF: Maybe I picked this out of guilt, in case they do exterminate us, I want to go on the record as supporting them from the beginning.
SR: That’s a good thing to do. So what’s next? Ah yes, an album that came close to making my list, Weezer’s Pinkerton (DGC 1996).
MF: This is the that album years from now that everyone’s going to pretend they loved when it came out.
SR: But no one liked it when it came out. Even I didn’t like it.
MF: It took me a while because they picked the wrong song as the single, “El Scorcho.” This is a stunning piece of work. I was just listening to it the other day, and I realized just how disturbing the lyrics are. This guy has got some issues to work out.
SR: They should have picked “The Good Life” as the first single. It killed this record.
MF: The band sounds so much better than the first album, and I love the first album. It’s like listening to a document of a guy falling apart.
SR: My favorite song is “Why Bother,” and that’s just a “I’m tossing in the towel” kind of song. Did you ever see them live on this record?
MF: No, I’ve never seen them.
SR: I didn’t like this record until I saw them. It was me and a bunch of 16 year-olds, and Weezer ended up rocking my world. I went back to this record, and I realized it’s exactly like seeing them live.
MF: That’s one case where the 16 year-olds got it right. I wasn’t there seeing them. I don’t know if they’ll make another one, and even if they never do, this one’s gonna surface as one of the best of the era.
SR: Okay, we’re down to the last two here…
MF: Next is The Wrench, Worry When We Get There… (New Red Archives 1993) Too smart for punk rock kids and too punk for the pop kids.
SR: They just didn’t fit anywhere.
MF: But it’s the perfect mix of the two. It’s such a great album. A great live band. Co-produced by Robby Takac of the Goo Goo Dolls, but from what I understand, Robby’s production skills consisted of getting high and goofing around with the band. So I think credit has to be given to Armand John Petri, who produced some early Goo Goo Dolls albums.
SR: But there’s something to be said for a guy who will do that for a band…
MF: I don’t know about that. I still listen to this record all the time. It’s like that mid-’80s Hüsker Dü/Replacements-style of adults playing punk rock kind of thing. And the lyrics are like [Soul Asylum’s] Dave Pirner at their best. It’s kind of like a 13 song greatest hits record.
SR: But they never made another record.
MF: Sadly, yes. Two of the guys still play in a ’70s cover band in Buffalo called
The Vinnie Barbarino Experience.
SR: Ouch. I bet they make more money doing that than they ever did in The Wrench.
MF: That’s the sad truth. And a footnote to the Vinnie Barbarino Experience, they once had a band open for them by the name of Hootie & the Blowfish.
SR: Oh my. And now the final album. Yes, I assumed there would be some Young Fresh Fellows representation on this list.
MF: Yes, Electric Bird Digest (Frontier 1991).
SR: Does this have “Hillbilly Drummer Girl” on it? That’s a great song.
MF: Yes it does. This was the second album to have Kurt Bloch [of The Fastbacks] on it, and it has some of his songs, which is a plus. I always liked the diversity of the band, but this time they were a little more focused, and it was more cohesive. After we graduated from college, this is all I listened to. I just left it on my turntable. And it numbed me to the fact that I was working at a mall record store. That’s a sign of a successful album.
SR: That’s the definition of successful record if it can do that for you.
MF: And we mentioned the overlooked bands of the Seattle scene, and these guys are it. My two favorite bands of all time are The Kinks and Young Fresh Fellows—draw your own conclusions. And to link it back to another band, The Figgs and Young Fresh Fellows played together one time and [their singer] Scott McCaughey came out and did “Hillbilly Drummer Girl” with The Figgs. I think the Fellows are one band you can never go wrong with. It doesn’t seem like eight years since this record came out.
SR: Well, a decade is a long time. Sometimes it’s even 10 years long.
Mike’s Honorable Mentions:
Decibels - Create Action
Elastica - Elastica
Possum Dixon - Possum Dixon
Superchunk - Foolish
The Tortillas You Wanted - The Tortillas You Wanted
The Top 30 Albums of the '90s
30) Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians - Perspex Island
Slick is not the term one would use to describe Robyn Hitchcock’s music over his 20-year plus career. Quirky, odd, psychedelic, maddening and confusing are words I have seen associated with the man who started out as a Soft Boy in the ’70s and entered the ’90s with a backing band of Egyptians. Perspex Island was a 180-degree turn after 1990’s solo acoustic album Eye. Hitchcock’s label at the time, A&M, decided they didn’t want to release the album, saying they couldn’t market it correctly. So Eye was issued with very little fanfare on Twin/Tone (early home to Soul Asylum and The Replacements). The next year, Hitchcock delivered an album that streamlined some of his lyrical quirks and sounded like slick, radio-friendly pop. Surprisingly, the first single “So You Think You’re in Love” actually made the Billboard Hot 100, peaking in the mid-40s. This new slick approach wasn’t enough to guarantee sales, but did make for one mighty fine album. “Oceanside” and “Ultra Unbelievable Love” are bright sunny pop songs that shine with Paul Fox’s pristine production. And “So You Think You’re in Love” is one of my favorite songs of this decade, but that’s something for another list…
Year Released: 1991 Top 20 Position: 4
29) Son Volt - Trace
When a band breaks up, it’s almost a cardinal rule that the new bands the members start won’t be half as good as the original. Of course, there’s always the exception that makes the rule, like the bands that followed in the wake of Uncle Tupelo. The St. Louis trio helped launch the alt-country movement in 1990 with their debut No Depression, which mixed the passion of punk rock with the stellar song styles of old school country. The group’s two songwriters, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, each had enormous amounts of praise heaped upon them, and each gained a devoted following. After three more albums, the impossible strain of carrying the alt-country movement (by this time labeled “No Depression”) fractured Uncle Tupelo. Jeff Tweedy, whom many fans looked at as the weaker writer in the band, took Tupelo’s rhythm section and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston to form a new band, Wilco. That group released a fine debut album in mid-1995. Jay Farrar—the “dark one” in Tupelo—spent some time driving from New Orleans to St. Louis, and used that trip to pen some new songs. Farrar reunited with Uncle Tupelo’s original drummer, Mike Heidorn, found the guitar and bass combo of the Boquist brothers, and made a classic album of American heartland rock. From the opening song’s tale of driving through Louisiana and listening to the heaven of AM radio (“Windfall”) to thoughts about pondering life while behind the wheel (“Route”), not to mention a minor rock hit (“Drown”), Trace is perhaps one of the most perfect driving albums ever. I can almost imagine being in the car with Farrar on his drives (except we wouldn’t be speaking, because he’s one of the worst interview subjects ever). Trace didn’t help launch a movement, but I’m sure it’s launched a nice drive or two.
Year Released: 1995 Top 20 Position: None
28) The Figgs - Couldn’t Get High
Power Pop: I have used this description for albums and bands approximately 863 times in the 10 years I’ve been doing this list. The Figgs are the living definition of this term—if you look it up in Webster’s College Dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Couldn’t Get High. From the opening riff of “Said Enough,” High shines with hooks big enough to catch a whale. The album also takes on a bittersweet quality, as it was released shortly after guitarist Guy Lyons left to pursue a college education, just as his songwriting was reaching new heights with gems like “If That’s What You Want” and the tender “Blinked My Eyes.” Couldn’t Get High also conforms to one of my rules of rock: If it has 12 songs and clocks in under 35 minutes, it must be good. In my original review of High, I neglected to mention the production by The Dictators' Andy Shernoff. So now I say, “Good job Andy, very good job.” And I say to you, dear reader, that if you see this album in a record store (or any Figgs album), please buy it. Consider it a repayment of anything I might have done for you in the past.
Year Released: 1998 Top 20 Position: 16
27) Goo Goo Dolls - Superstar Car Wash
Everybody knows who the Goo Goo Dolls are now—three major hit singles can up the profile on anyone’s career. But at the beginning of this decade, they were just a trio of hard-working guys from upstate New York who kept day jobs while pursuing rock stardom. Their third album, 1990’s Hold Me Up, was their first to be distributed by a major label, but had little success. Superstar Car Wash saw the Goos paired up with a somewhat big producer, and a little pressure to deliver a hit. Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg (whom the Goos were accused of sounding too much like) even wrote the lyrics for the album’s first single, the mid-tempo acoustic number (hmm, sounds familiar) “We Are the Normal.” But that softer first release took away from the incredible rock masterpiece they delivered. Polished yet punkish, Superstar Car Wash opens with the band’s best song ever (in my opinion), “Fallin’ Down.” The guys must think so too, since it’s one of only three pre-“Name” songs they do in concert nowadays. Every song crackles with passion and energy, but with a focus not displayed on their previous albums. I can’t listen to this album at work because I’d want to air guitar or air drum to every track, slashing my productivity down to nothing. The boys from Buffalo went on to sell millions of albums with their next two records, but this was their shining moment.
Year Released: 1993 Top 20 Position: 2
26) Whiskeytown - Strangers Almanac
The best and worst thing about my chosen career is that there are always new albums coming my way. The best part is getting to listen to new and inspiring bands once in a while. The worst part is that sometimes you don’t catch everything. I’m pretty positive that when Whiskeytown’s major label debut came out, I listened to two songs, if that, and immediately shipped it into my company’s music library. It wasn’t until the next spring when talking with their publicist about some albums, he said, “I’ll send you a copy of the Whiskeytown album.” I tried listening at work, and that just wasn’t the right environment. So I started listening to Almanac as I went to sleep. This was the perfect time and place. There are only a couple of songs that really rock, so there’s no danger of waking up from a screaming guitar solo. Songwriter Ryan Adams wrote some of the saddest songs of this decade, and his apparent depression makes my own depression seem not that bad. How full of self-loathing must you be to write a song called “Excuse Me if I Break My Own Heart Tonight?” And if anyone has written a better song this decade about the ups and downs of love than “16 Days,” I’d be mighty surprised.
Year Released: 1997 Top 20 Position: None
25) Public Enemy - Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black
Public Enemy’s trilogy of great records wrapped up (after It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet) with the first P.E. album not to be produced by the legendary Bomb Squad. Black Planet picked up the most praise in this decade, but that record is just too much at once. Apocalypse simplifies the music, placing more importance on the rhymes. The stunning indictment of Arizona’s lack of support for a Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday in “By the Time I Get to Arizona” became a political lightning rod when its controversial video came out, but that overshadows the fact it’s one of the most soulful rap songs ever. And as time went on in my broadcasting career, “How to Kill a Radio Consultant” sounded more and more like a really good idea. Even without all these songs, Apocalypse 91 would have made this list for the inclusion of P.E.’s collaboration with Anthrax on “Bring the Noise.” This track set the path for all rap-rock mixes since. Of course, this might be a bad thing considering the Limp Bizkit’s and Korn’s of the world…
Year Released: 1991 Top 20 Position: 6
24) Dinosaur Jr - Where You Been
If you took a poll of Dinosaur Jr fans and asked them their favorite album, probably 9 out of 10 would not choose Where You Been. J Mascis and company had left indie land two years prior, and I remember meeting some people at the time who wouldn’t bother to listen to this album because Dinosaur Jr had “sold out.” Well, I wish every band could sell out this well. I wrote back then that, “This album takes all those nasty ’70s influences [we] have, and makes them into an album we can enjoy, guilt-free.” I still believe that today. The second part of the single “Start Choppin’” is a complete disco beat, with string arrangements that sound like they were meant for Led Zeppelin’s House of the Holy, timpani that could have been sampled from a Moody Blues album and all the guitar tones that sound stolen from Neil Young circa 1974. This “everything but the kitchen sink” production is what makes this album a treat to crank up.
Year Released: 1993 Top 20 Position: 1
23) Soul Asylum - Let Your Dim Light Shine
This album is a shining example of how expectations—or worse yet, negative expectations—can cloud one’s judgment. 1992’s Grave Dancers Union was, umm, a “Runaway Train” of a hit, but was 100 times more slick than any of Soul Asylum’s previous efforts. When the radio station I was working for got Shine’s first single, “Misery,” I was disappointed. Just three months earlier the band—with new drummer Sterling Campbell—had performed “Hope’s Up” from the as-yet-to-be released disc on Letterman, and it rocked. “Misery” seemed to be the complete opposite. I figured dating Winona Ryder had gone to Dave Pirner’s head and ruined his muse. But a funny thing happened to my disappointment. I packed up most of my belongings when I moved to New York, and only had a couple of CD’s and tapes available. One of these tapes was Foo Fighters’ first album and Shine. Since the commute to my first NYC job took 90 minutes, this tape became a fixture in my Walkman. With each listen, a clearer picture of Shine was formed in my mind. “Misery” wasn’t a slow meandering lament—it was an uplifting anthem for everyone who’s had a crappy job. “Bittersweetheart” became one of Pirner’s best pop songs, while “Nothing to Write Home About” summed up my angst, nervousness and apprehension about whether moving was the best choice. “Hopes Up” was always a gem, so much so that it was the very last song I played on the radio. Shine had slipped down my favorites chart until this year when Soul Asylum played a gig in town, with no record to promote, no new songs to debut, just a great set of good music. Seeing people pumping their fists and pogoing rekindled my love for this little band that no one seems to like now. Okay, it was just my first pumping and me pogoing, but it was still a good time for all.
Year Released: 1995 Top 20 Position: 2
22) Matthew Sweet - Girlfriend
I distinctly remember the first time I heard a song from this album. I was driving around my old college town of Ithaca, New York when the first single, “Divine Intervention” came on the radio. I disliked it, intensely. I kept thinking, “Who the fuck is ripping off Neil Young so badly?” The guitar line sounded like it was stolen from Young’s Zuma album, and it had this rather ridiculous fade-out then fade-in jam at the end. So when a few months later I heard this incredible pop song called “Girlfriend,” I was amazed. The combination of blistering guitar work and luscious harmonies was just too irresistible to pass up. Songs like “I’ve Been Waiting” and “Looking at the Sun” got stuck in my head for days after hearing them. Mr. Sweet has carved himself a fine career over the past eight years, but nothing has topped this pop masterpiece. And yes, I came to love the Neil Young rip-off as well.
Year Released: 1991 Top 20 Position: None
21) R.E.M. - Up
I distinctly remember the day that Bill Berry announced he was leaving R.E.M. in October of 1997. My first thought was, “Well, that band is done.” But Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills decided to carry on as a trio. So when a year later Up was released, I was anxiously awaiting the results. My first impression? “This sucks.” It was dark, it didn’t sound anything like R.E.M. at all, there were lyrics printed in the booklet and—for goodness sake—the first song used a drum machine. But after a few late night listens, I started to understand Up more. This was a new band, making the hole left by Berry a point to take off from. Odd percussion weaves in and out, old keyboards sounds come and go, and Stipe’s voice is in top form. In the past year, my favorite song on Up has become “Falls to Climb.” One verse of it mirrors the state of R.E.M.—battered, but not beaten; “A weakling on its knee/Is all you want to hear/And all you want to see/Romantically you’d martyr me/And miss this story’s point/It is my strength, my destiny.” Thankfully, R.E.M.’s story is far from over.
Year Released: 1998 Top 20 Position: 2
20) Green Day - Dookie
Ah, the punk rock explosion. Doesn’t it seem like the summer of ’94 is an eternity ago? Everything on the airwaves was punk rock, and it was all led by these kids from Berkley, California. Calling Dookie infectious is like calling Creed and 311 untalented—it’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. The songs all have huge hooks, and producer Rob Cavallo puts just the right amount of pop sheen on songs like “Basket Case” and “When I Come Around.” As I listen to this album, I remember how much I was starting to hate my radio job and the fact that I could play songs from this album at least made it bearable. Of course, the fallout from Green Day’s explosion was the swath of untalented punk-type bands that record companies tried to foist upon us, completely ruining any momentum punk rock had with the general public. Hopefully the kids that heard tales about masturbation and edited curse words in “Longview” didn’t turn out to be warped teenagers. Oh wait; maybe that explains the popularity of ’N Sync…
Year Released: 1994 Top 20 Position: 4
19) Lemonheads - It’s a Shame About Ray
So when exactly did Evan Dando become a joke? How stupid can one person be? I mean, one moment you’ve made a 12 song, 30 minute pop gem (13 songs when “Mrs. Robinson” was added), the next you’re a junkie writing about Rick James and singing with him. Ray is a testament to the talent that Dando stupidly threw away this decade. I can only imagine how many more smart, engaging pop songs he could have written. And don’t get me started about his treatment of Juliana Hatfield.
Year Released: 1992 Top 20 Position: 12
18) Elastica - Elastica
Elastica may be the Boston or C.S.N. of our generation. After bowing on the scene with a great debut single (“Connection”) in 1994 they followed up with an amazing debut in 1995. But nothing since. People won’t even remember the band when they release a follow-up. Elastica’s debut stole liberally from late ’70s British music, and I’m usually not into such derivative music. But if you can make it sound this good, steal away. Another joyously short album that’s over before you know it, Elastica features the best song about male impotence I’ve ever heard, “Stutter.” (Actually, it’s the only one I’ve heard.) The line, “Is it something you lack/When I’m flat on my back” just cuts to the bone. And who couldn’t like an album that closes with a song extolling the virtues of Vaseline? (Insert your own joke here.) I’m not sure why it’s been so long between albums from these Brits, but singer Justine Frischmann had better get some inspiration quick.
Year Released: 1995 Top 20 Position: 1
17) Billy Bragg & Wilco - Mermaid Avenue
If I made this list a year from now, this album quite possibly could be at the top. This collaboration of Billy Bragg and Wilco putting music to Woody Guthrie’s words was an inspired one, but as time has passed, been revealed to be a difficult one. Bragg and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy disagreed so much about mixing the songs that were recorded that lawyers were called in to hash out a compromise so the album could finally be released. So perhaps Mermaid Avenue is also a good example of how tension can create extraordinary art. No one knows what kind of melodies Guthrie had in his head when he wrote these witty, insightful, touching, moving words, but I think he would have to be pleased with the spirit these five musicians perform with. “California Stars” and “At My Window Sad and Lonely” are two of the sweetest songs about longing for love I’ve heard in the past few years. And as I said last year, any album that makes me enjoy Natalie Merchant (who sings lead on one track) is doing something right. Billy Bragg hopes that he and Wilco can put aside the rancor created at the end of the recording process and perhaps tour behind this album, and a second volume scheduled to be released next year. That would be a show worth paying any amount of money for.
Year Released: 1998 Top 20 Position: 6
16) Beck - Odelay!
Every rock critic in the world has written, or will write, about how great this album is before the year is through, so I won’t add to the pile of wordy crap. I will say that one thing that’s been overlooked on this album is the great job the Dust Brothers did in co-producing this album—they’re not credited as co-songwriters on most of the tracks by accident. I think what amazed me most about this album is how well Beck and his band could pull them off live. After seeing him for the first time in 1997, I went back to this record and enjoyed it even more. And personally, I think it will be hard for him to ever top the quality of “Jack-Ass.” I get something new out of that song each and every time I hear it.
Year Released: 1996 Top 20 Position: 8
15) Liz Phair - Exile in Guyville
Read any critics’ poll concerning this decade, or heck, plenty of record reviews of female artists who speak in frank sexual terms in their lyrics, and a mention of Liz Phair or Exile in Guyville will invariably pop up. I’ve read so many reviews where people bent over backwards trying lavish praise in ways that no one had ever written, I starting thinking that these people whacked off onto their keyboards while listening to Guyville. Yuck, that’s not a pretty image if you think about what many male music critics look like. Bleech. I’ll be back in second, I have to go get sick…okay, that’s better. Where was I? Oh yes, Liz Phair. I’m not going to bore you by being yet someone else trying to explain what this album meant to the “women in rock” movement. What I will share with you is three observations about this album. One, I liked it much better once I got a cheap cassette copy for 3 bucks at one of my favorite record stores, The Last Unicorn in Utica, New York (may that location rest in peace). I started listening to it in my car a lot, and when you’re extremely tired at 6:30 am, this album sounds great. I still have that cassette. That leads to my second observation—it’s a great album for any point of the day. I have listened to it driving in the early hours of the morning, jogging through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, driving 75 mph on a sunny day with the windows down on the New York State Thruway, and through very bad snowstorms. Great albums can fit whatever location you happen to be in. My third observation is that the sound of this album is very immediate—it sounds like it could have been recorded in the small living room behind me right now. That smallness makes these songs that much more personal and direct. Speaking of direct, it doesn’t get much more direct than this stanza from “Divorce Song:” “And the license said/You had to stick around until I was dead/But if you’re tired of looking at me/I guess I already am.” Ouch.
Year Released: 1993 Top 20 Position: None
14) Chris Whitley - Living With the Law
The advantage that music has over many of the “fine” arts it’s the portability. You can bring a Walkman to jog with, have a CD player in your car or you can bring a guitar to entertain your buddies around the campfire with drunken renditions of Jimmy Buffett’s greatest hits. It’s obvious that the location in which you’re listening to the music can alter your mood or alter your response to it. My favorite place to listen to music is while I’m behind the wheel of the car. Indeed, I’ve had things go wrong with my vehicles (flat tire, automatic transmission get stuck in low gear, entire exhaust system fall off) that I’d didn’t notice until much later because I had the music so loud in the car, singing my lungs out. My second favorite place to listen to music is right before I go to bed. I’ve had some people get a bit insulted when I tell them I use their music to fall asleep, until I explain how valuable that pre-sleep album is to me. Hearing relaxing music keeps my mind off of the day’s problems. I can lay awake for 2 hours running a mental marathon thinking about things before finally drifting off. So in the 11 years I’ve been falling asleep to discs, I have found a few gems I might have missed otherwise—Living With the Law is one of them. The first time I spun this album in September of 1991 I was sick with some sort of flu and had a bad fever. When I popped Law on, the meshing of the old west sound of slide National acoustic guitars and atmospheric synthesizers was exactly what I needed. Whitley’s voice is an odd mix of a gruff old man and sweet falsetto that shouldn’t work, but does. Law was the first album that Daniel Lanois disciple Malcolm Burn produced, and he learned quite well from his mentor. Law sounds ancient yet new at the same time, like someone remixed those old folk recordings from the ’30s.
Year Released: 1991 Top 20 Position: 3
13) The Afghan Whigs - Gentlemen
First things first—Afghan Whigs mastermind Greg Dulli is a dick. He’s an asshole, a prick, a bastard, and an all-in-all stupid annoying fuck. And guess what? I got that impression from just a five minute interview with him three years ago. I can understand exactly why a security guard in Austin, Texas almost bashed his skull in last December. But being a jerk never took away from anyone’s artistic ability—just ask anyone who’s worked with Elvis Costello. Dulli put all of his sexist, macho, asshole tendencies into writing this record, and it’s a masterpiece of braggadocio. When he sings lines like “I got a dick for a brain,” (from “Be Sweet”) you totally believe him. Of course, even dicks have feelings, some of which are too close to the bone for them. Jocks will pick on the small guy in the locker room to prove they’re “men”—Dulli picked a female singer to vocalize his most self-loathing lyrics, “My Curse.” This is a tremendous song. Guest singer Marcy Mays gives the performance of her life in one of the saddest and most moving songs of this, or any decade. I will admit I would have missed the record totally if not for my friend Gina, who kept playing songs from it at the record store I hung out at while I did my laundry. Of course, it probably wasn’t healthy for any single person to be into this record as much as I was, but at least I’m not Greg Dulli.
Year Released: 1993 Top 20 Position: None
12) Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Sleeps with Angels
In 1994 the suicide of Kurt Cobain sent a shock wave through music fans and the music industry. The “spokesman for Generation X” was gone, with no explanation except a rambling suicide note quoting Neil Young lyrics (“It’s better to burn out than to fade away”). How Neil Young must have felt, I’m sure we’ll never know exactly. But the album he was working on at the time was certainly changed by Cobain’s death. Cobain and Courtney Love’s relationship directly inspired the title track to Sleeps with Angels. It sounds like Crazy Horse channeling the spirit of Nirvana in their own “Godfather of grunge” way. Let’s face it—Sleeps with Angels is not a lighthearted record. Angels was Young’s second studio album of this decade with his longtime collaborators, and it’s another classic. The Horse doesn’t rage like they did on 1990’s Ragged Glory or 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps—this time around they’re quiet and groove-oriented, showing off nuances that haven’t been heard from them in 20 years. All of Young’s classic albums have had two songs that mirror each other and tie the whole picture together—Ragged Glory has “Love and Only Love” and “Love to Burn,” Freedom the acoustic and electric versions of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and the acoustic and electric “My My Hey Hey” bookend Rust Never Sleeps. But Sleeps with Angels has three sets of songs that are twins. The tack piano-driven “My Heart” and “A Dream That Can Last” chronicle a man searching for love, and then reveling in it when he gets there. “Western Hero” and “Train of Love” have virtually the same music, and share thoughts of the wild frontier. But the centerpiece of the album is the pairing of the 15 minute “Change Your Mind” and the 7 minute “Blue Eden.” “Mind” is a long jam that is so hypnotic it seems to only last about 3 minutes. “Blue Eden” swipes lyrics from “Mind” and couple of other songs on the album and works this slow, incessant riff into the ground. The darkness that permeates the album’s mood comes to a head in “Driveby,” inspired by an actual shooting of friend of the band. Young sounds as if his tears will overcome him at any second as he sings, “It’s a random kind of thing/Came upon a delicate flower.” The mood is only broken by the throwaway “Piece of Crap,” but even that’s a pretty dark song. I think that Young considers this album a bit too personal for concert consumption, as he’s only played songs from it live five times. It’s a crime in that respect, as this piece of work ranks as one his finest to date.
Year Released: 1994 Top 20 Position: 1
11) Pearl Jam - Yield
Okay, how many bands survived the initial early ’90s “alternative” gold rush with some commercial clout and improved artistically with each album? ...I’m waiting. Time’s up. There’s only one—Pearl Jam. I am convinced that I am the only person on this planet that became a fan of the band after their über-successful 1991 debut, Ten. That remains my least favorite album of P.J.’s five studio discs. Versus (1993) and Vitalogy (1994) were both reactions to that success, while No Code (1996) displayed a band trying to find somewhere new to go, tentatively heading down the paths of punk and Neil Young soundalikes. Yield is where all these lessons came together. From the scorching “Brain of J” to the wistful “All Those Yesterdays,” this is the album where all the members of Pearl Jam delivered. This wasn’t just Eddie Vedder singing about his fears, hopes and dreams—this was Jeff Ament writing songs (“Low Light,” “Pilate”) that weren’t puzzling like his side project, Three Fish. This was Stone Gossard perhaps pondering the band’s ill-fated attempt to get around Ticketmaster in “No Way.” This was Mike McCready writing great riffs for Vedder to put some of his most thoughtful words to (“Faithful”). And this was the album that displayed even more of the sense of humor that is in this band, somewhere (“Do the Evolution”). What I wrote last year about Yield I believe still applies—“There aren’t any huge messages in this album; this is just a fine band making something we need more of—an intelligent, sensitive, sometimes silly and contemplative rock album.”
Year Released: 1998 Top 20 Position: 1
10) Wilco - Summerteeth
I won’t ramble on too long or waste too much more ink on Summerteeth, since you’ve already read the 1999 list. And maybe if this album weren’t so fresh in my mind, it wouldn’t be this high up. But I think that five years from now people will look at Summerteeth and say, “that album was really something.” Of course, this album had an advantage over every other 1999 album—I got it 1998. When that advance copy arrived just after Christmas, it was like getting a belated gift. So once again, if you haven’t gone out and picked it up, do so now. Great music like this deserves to be heard as much as possible.
Year Released: 1999 Top 20 Position: 1
9) Sugar - Copper Blue
I’ll admit I got to the Bob Mould party pretty late. I never heard the guy, or his band “Husker Do,” until 1989 when I hosted a show on my college station called Double Feature. (Those of you from IC may remember it—those in radio will likely remember the hysterical promo one Craig C. Bailey voiced for the show.) On each and every Tuesday, to wrap up the day’s worth of double shots, (gee, “Two for Tuesday,” what an original concept) we played two albums in their entirety. The first album I spun on the first show I hosted was Mould’s Workbook. When it was over, I was very impressed, and over time I started playing his other stuff. The next year his second solo album, Black Sheets of Rain, was released, and I became a Mould junkie. One year after that, he played a solo acoustic gig at Ithaca’s legendary (hee hee) club The Haunt. He played all his solo and Husker Du hits, along with some really great new songs. These new songs ended up becoming a good portion of Copper Blue, the debut album from Mould’s new power trio, Sugar. When I got the disc, my stuff was in storage, and I was living at a hotel before moving into my new apartment in Utica. So I taped Copper Blue at the radio station I had started working at, putting Automatic for the People on the other side. That cassette came so close to wearing out over just two months time. When I drove back to my old stomping grounds in Ithaca each weekend, Copper Blue was the album that propelled me there. The sound of these three guys playing is so tight that you’d think they were all connected together like siamese triplets. “A Good Idea” is a blatant Pixies rip-off, but it’s so well done that it’s what we call an “homage.” “Helpless” has this circular type riff that I’m sure Bob has written in his sleep hundreds of times, while “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” is one shoulda-been a hit. It’s also hard not to be moved by the emotions stripped raw by a lover’s death in “The Slim.” I get goosebumps every time I listen to it. With all this greatness, I have to ask, why wasn’t this a huge multi-platinum album? Why?
Year Released: 1992 Top 20 Position: 2
8) Pavement - Brighten the Corners
Pavement won over ever critic on the planet with their debut album, 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted, and did almost the same thing with 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. So I know that I am in the minority by considering Brighten the Corners their best album so far. No matter, this is one beautiful and majestic recording, and Pavement’s most accessible…well, I use that term loosely when it comes to Pavement. The guitars of Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg intertwine to create a symphony of mid-tempo delights in songs like “Shady Lane” and “Type Slowly” are just downright pretty. The lyrics, as usual, are puzzling at times and completely baffling at others. An example from “Transport Is Arranged”: “The grammar police/Set me up with your niece/Walk to Baltimore/And keep the language off the streets.” Huh? That sentence alone could keep a ‘net chat room busy for days. And the track “Date with IKEA” has come in handy in many mix tapes for people moving, for which I am very thankful.
Year Released: 1997 Top 20 Position: 2
7) Soundgarden - Superunknown
Ah, the sound of grunge being killed off. Superunknown was released exactly one month before Kurt Cobain offed himself, and I think both sounded the death knell for that brief shining three year period where the flannel I wore as a kid became hip again. Superunknown arrived three years after Soundgarden’s breakthrough, Badmotorfinger, and it heralded the arrival as Chris Cornell as a singer, not just a screamer. He’d shown some of this in the Temple of the Dog project, but his new vocal abilities came to the forefront on slower songs like “Back Hole Sun,” “Fell on Black Days” and “Like Suicide.” Not that this is a Cornell-only record—each member of the band contributed songs, the first time Soundgarden had done that on any album. Superunknown also contains some of the best riffs of the decade. The opening punch of “Let Me Drown” and “My Wave” makes it almost impossible to not start playing an air instrument. I distinctly remember hearing this album for the first time—riding with a co-worker to pick up my shitty car from the garage for an umpteenth time—and being blown away its scope. Even after playing it on the air too many times to count, I’m still impressed by the sound of “Black Hole Sun.” This was the sign that Soundgarden had moved on from the screaming days for good. Year Released: 1994 Top 20 Position: 2
6) Los Lobos - Kiko
Just before this magnificent album was released, I had heard about how Kiko was “a change of sound” for Los Lobos. This was somewhat of a mystery to me. The band from East L.A. had been making fine albums up to that point, what the heck did they need to change for? My doubts were erased after just my first listen. There’s no way to adequately describe this album and its landmark of sounds. Kiko is the sound of a band creating a new type of music that has its outside influences, but is also something no one had ever done before. “Kiko and the Lavender Moon” starts with a cowbell, then a sax riff, then accordion, a few stringed instruments and then some sounds that I don’t know where they came from—just amazing. A couple of songs sort of sound like the old Lobos, but even they have been twisted a bit. Accompanying all these crazy songs and grooves are great songs too. “Reva’s House” and “Peace” are two of the best this band has ever laid down. If you’re thinking of buying any of the albums on this list you might not yet own, I suggest Kiko should be your first stop.
Year Released: 1992 Top 20 Position: 4
5) Radiohead - OK Computer
For about a year after Radiohead released their third disc, about 90% of the musicians I interviewed would name one album as their favorite—OK Computer. It was like some sort of cult after a while. At first I thought, “I like this album as much as the next guy, but isn’t this a bit of overkill?” But upon second thought, probably not. OK Computer heads in a direction unlike any other release of this decade. Bizarre tempo shifts, strange sounds and dark and oblique lyrics usually never connect with people like this album has. I can honestly say that my love of this album grew in 1998 as I started visiting the local tavern down the street. Late at night, staring at a pint of beer with other lonely souls, I really started to get into this album. I’m not saying you have to be loaded and depressed and in a smoky bar to dig OK Computer, but it does help. The only downfall of the massive critical success of Radiohead—the sound alike bands. Hopefully it won’t dilute what these inventive chaps do next.
Year Released: 1997 Top 20 Position: 5
4) Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Ragged Glory
“I guess Neil Young is the king of rock n’ roll. I don’t see anyone standing as tall these days.” That was the opening line of Kurt Loder’s review of Ragged Glory in Rolling Stone in September 1990. That four-and-a-half star review psyched me up even more for the forthcoming album, which was in stores a week after I picked up the copy of Stone. The Tuesday it came out I busted out of class and sped down to the record store, bought the album, and sat listening to it twice during my three hour break between classes. It was everything Loder had written about, and then some. And even though Loder made the critical mistake of saying it had been 10 years since Young and Crazy Horse has worked together (it had been just three years earlier, on 1987’s Life), he did nail the essence of this glorious guitar-filled album, which is rare for any reviewer to do. Ragged Glory is perhaps one of the most aptly titled albums ever—no one has ever mistaken Crazy Horse for a slick studio band like Toto, but the roughness is perfect for these songs. Feedback wails everywhere, lasting for almost 45 seconds at the end of some songs. “Fuckin’ Up,” as in, “Why do I keep?” is pure genius, plain and simple. What amazes me most is that this album came just a year after another great album from Young, Freedom. They’re aren’t too many artists that have had such a burst of creativity 25 years into their career.
Year Released: 1990 Top 20 Position: 1
3) Nirvana - Nevermind
I’ve been thinking, sitting at the keyboard listening through the first five songs of Nevermind, trying to see if I can come up with some new witty insight into this album that helped change the direction of music the first part of this decade. I’ve come to the conclusion I can’t, so I’ll just share a couple of memories. I can say that I’m probably one of the few people who have on tape the very first time they ever heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” My radio compadre Scott invited me to share his Friday afternoon shift during Homecoming Weekend at Ithaca College in 1991. In the third hour he told me about this new Nirvana single, and how they were now signed to Geffen. After “Spirit” was over, I was impressed, and thought it rocked. But who knew that millions of other people would think the same way. I also remember buying Nevermind in November at—like many teens did, I imagine—a mall record store. I also picked up the new albums from Robyn Hitchcock, Public Enemy and Red Hot Chili Peppers. I look back on that day as perhaps the best shopping I’ve ever done in a record store, as only the Peppers did not make this list. Year Released: 1991 Top 20 Position: 16
2) Bob Dylan - Time Out of Mind
Did anyone in their right mind think Bob Dylan could make an album in the 1990’s that would stand up with his best works? No, I think not. Can he make an album this good ever again? I’m doubtful, but wouldn’t bet against him. Dylan’s songs on this album range from being heartbroken (“Standing in the Doorway”) to, well, being heartbroken (“Cold Irons Bound”). He sings like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders and he’s trying to use the wisdom of his 56 years to deal with it. In concert, these songs take on more of an aggressive edge, like Dylan is using his boxing skills (really, he does box) to fight off the bleakness that the tracks carry. “Not Dark Yet”—one of the my favorite Dylan songs ever—focuses on the end of one’s time on earth with an honesty rarely seen in music: “I was born here and I’ll die here against my will/I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still/Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb/I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from/Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer/It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”
Year Released: 1997 Top 20 Position: 1
1) R.E.M. - Automatic for the People
Automatic for the People and Time Out of Mind are both concerned with mortality, but in somewhat different fashions. Dylan considers his own, while Michael Stipe’s lyrics deal with the feelings of the people left behind. This album came out three weeks after my grandmother died, so I connected with it immediately. “Everybody Hurts” and “Sweetness Follows” are so insightful, touching and sensitive that it’s hard to believe there are even better tracks on the album. I’m hard pressed to find any album that ends with three finer songs that “Man on the Moon,” “Nightswimming” and “Find the River.” Even the “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” is pretty good—probably the best instrumental this band has done. Stipe enunciates more clearly than on previous albums, Mike Mills provides top notch keyboard work throughout, Peter Buck further explores his “no electric guitar” edict and Bill Berry keeps it all centered. Rarely does everything click on an album. On Automatic, everything (and everyone) does.
Year Released: 1992 Top 20 Position: 1
Bad Religion - Stranger Than Fiction (1994)
Blur - Parklife (1994)
Buffalo Tom - Big Red Letter Day (1993)
The Jayhawks - Hollywood Town Hall (1992)
Metallica - Metallica (1991)
Oasis - Definitely Maybe (1994)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Songs and Music From the Motion Picture She’s the One (1996)
Superchunk - Foolish (1994)
Weezer - Pinkerton (1996)
The Wrench - Worry When We Get There… (1993)