Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Psychobabble's Ten Greatest Albums of 1993

After an excruciating late-eighties dominated by preening hair bands (Poison, Great White, etc.), paltry pop princesses (Debbie, Tiffany, etc.), and easy listening snoozers (Phil Collins, Bette Midler, etc.), everything changed, as many a schlocky VH-1 documentary has taught us, when Kurt and the gang discharged that iconic four-chord riff in 1991. Thus followed the grunge revolution that would dominate rock music through the following year. Critics and flannel-clad kids alike celebrated the gloomy new breed for deposing the poseurs—even though one would never know it by looking at the charts. Despite the apparent ubiquity of hairspray-free rock bands in ’91/’92, the top hits of those years were Bryan Adams’s “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” and Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” respectively. Even though garbage still reigned on top forty radio, the relative success of Nirvana (whose revolutionary “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was only the 32nd best-selling single of 1992), Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and their ilk jolted record execs into signing other guitar-based bands that weren’t necessarily fashion plates fit for MTV. And this was not limited to Seattle-style sludge.

While the grunge years were rendered in shades of plaid and grey, the expanded palette of 1993 was vibrantly varied. The influence of sixties psychedelia and British Invaders, seventies punk and hard rock, even country, experimental, and jazz (check out Morphine) started infusing seemingly noncommercial groups that suddenly found themselves signed to indies and majors alike. The pundits scrambled for an umbrella term for these eclectic new artists and settled on “alternative,” implying that specimens as disparate as Björk and Urge Overkill were on the same team simply because neither of them sounded anything like Mariah Carey or Wreckx-N-Effect. Women also moved to the Rock & Roll frontline in greater strength than ever before. The results were the most exciting year for pop music since the punk-punctured late seventies. Here are ten of the greatest albums to burst out of that great year, 1993.

10. Saturation by Urge Overkill

When Nirvana banished the hair metalists to the Island of Lost Aqua-Net Abusers, the leftover poses of seventies hard rock went with them. In their place was a new air of enlightenment. While one might not lament the lessening of Stones and Zeppelin-style sexism in Rock & Roll, the embarrassment that now came with tossing off a big, chunky riff or tossing ones long, luxurious hair around was kind of an unfortunate trade off. From now on, the poses of rock’s past would largely be the territory of women finally having their day on the formerly testosterone-charged playing field. Men could really only traffic in this stuff if they did so ironically. This resulted in a lot of bad music and a lot of twee popsters flashing the über-metal devil sign to get a giggle out of their shoe-gazing followers.

So maybe irony threatened to turn the formerly vital Rock & Roll into a joke once and for all (and may help account for the near death of the genre by the end of the nineties), but as far as ironic rockers go, there are none better than Urge Overkill. The key to Urge’s greatness is their genuine love of the music they seem to be parodying (seventies corporate rock), their punk roots as evident in their early releases for Touch and Go Records, and their super-sharp wit. The baker’s dozen killer tracks on Saturation aren’t funny because they sound like Boston send-ups; they’re funny because chief writers Nash Kato and “Eddie” King Roeser are funny guys who mine Fidel Castro, daytime and evening soap operas, and pick ups halted by misread sexual proclivities for song lyrics. And Saturation is not some comedy album in the vein of Weird Al, or worse yet, Dread Zeppelin. “Bottle of Fur” is a sincerely effecting power ballad about lost love. “Crackbabies” and “Stalker” are scary ravers about unusual topics. Drummer Blackie O.’s “Drop Out” is a peek at the loser teens still lurking somewhere under Urge’s designer sunglasses and velvet smoking jackets. Really, once you get past the surface comedy of Saturation after a few spins, the sincerity of a great Rock & Roll band playing great Rock & Roll is what makes it worthy of further listens and sets it apart from the works of ironists who have nothing going on below the surface. 

9. Modern Life is Rubbish by Blur

Just as the influence of Boston and KISS is unmissable in the work of Urge Overkill, Blur’s favorite bands are equally on display on their second album. After the trendier, less poppy (yet still good) debut Leisure, Blur fully resigned themselves to the artists they love most on Modern Life is Rubbish: The Beatles, Syd Barrett, Small Faces, The Jam, and especially, The Kinks. Damon Albarn shared Ray Davies’s very British mode of satire and social commentary. His distinctively unrefined Cockney yap made it all distinctively Blur-ish and unified an eclectic platter of hippity-hoppity anthems (“For Tomorrow), noisy rockers (the exhilarating “Advert”), herky-jerky nouveau-new wave (“Pressure on Julian”), breezy pop (“Star Shaped”), wistful ballads (“Blue Jeans”), music hall (“When the Cows Come Home”), power pop (“Turn It Up”), and psych searing (the amazing single “Chemical World”) and creeping (“Oily Water”, “Miss America”). The one downside of Modern Life is Rubbish is that it’s a bit unwieldy; a problem not unique in the CD age when groups were too eager to take advantage of all seventy-five minutes the medium afforded (Blur really takes advantage by filling the album with fifty tracks of four-seconds of silence). They’d get this tendency under control on their next and best-yet album, Parklife.

8. Altered Beast by Matthew Sweet

Pure pop’s guiding light of the nineties had actually been making records since the mid-eighties, but Matthew Sweet didn’t make much of a mark until he hit on a more organic sound with 1991’s Girlfriend. That record was the freshest and most refreshing in a year overcast with Seattle storm clouds. Yet there was darkness on Girlfriend in the depressed longing of “Winona” and “”Nothing Lasts”, the crisis of faith “Divine Intervention”, and the outright anguish of “Don’t Go” and “Holy War”. On Altered Beast, Matthew Sweet totally embraced that tendency and ended up with a record not as critically lauded as his previous one but a hell of a lot meaner. The slickness of Girlfriend is eschewed for raunchier, more jagged production that Richard Lloyd (of Television) slices up with gnarly, crazed guitar lines. But it is Sweet who makes Altered Beast so harrowing. While the innate sweetness of his voice will never be mistaken for Cobain’s tortured shriek, his lyrics are dead dark throughout. He sneers about how he “don’t like knowing people” and “don’t like people knowing about me.” He begs for death on “Someone to Pull the Trigger” and explains why on “Reaching Out”. He stares down some ugly truths (twice!). He mourns a relationship on “Time Capsule”. As nasty as these songs are, and as acidic as the presentation often is, Sweet maintains his hold on his retro-pop sensibilities, rolling out as much sublime melodicism as he did on Girlfriend. He also puts together a crack assortment of retro-supporting musicians that includes Lloyd, Mick Fleetwood, Pete Thomas, and Nicky Hopkins. Holy shit!

7. Rid of Me by PJ Harvey

Altered Beast sounds lo-fi compared to Girlfriend, but it sounds like Dark Side of the Moon compared to Rid of Me. PJ Harvey’s second album is one of the worst sounding great albums and it was recorded by perhaps the biggest producer of the nineties. Steve Albini’s sound could be overpowering, as it is on a record a bit further down this list, but on Rid of Me, it is tinny, hissy, overly compressed, claustrophobic. In a way, this is fitting, because Polly Jean Harvey’s vibe is so uncompromisingly tense. This is one jaw-clenching record, even when drummer Robert Ellis breaks out of his shackles on the title track and when Polly starts bellowing and screaming. Rock & Roll is the great liberator, and the nineties was the time when women rockers were finally liberated from the back of the bus, but Harvey sounds like she’s been stuffed in the luggage rack and is shouting for someone to let her out. She’s a caged beast, but not the kind that cowers in the back corner of the cage; she’s the kind that will swipe out with claws extended if you’re stupid enough to get too close to the bars. This makes for a terrifying listening experience particularly when you listen closely enough to hear the shit she’s saying on raw numbers like “Rub ‘Til It Bleeds”, “Legs”, and the monstrously threatening “50 Foot Queenie”, all of which blend sex and violence to the most disturbing degree. The music is equally nerve shredding. Most of the record sticks to the monochromatic guitar/bass/drums grind of  “Man Size”, but the Psycho-string arrangement of “Man-Size Sextet” is an early indicator of the eclecticism that will make the rest of PJ Harvey’s career so enthralling.

6. Fuzzy by Grant Lee Buffalo

No group embodied the UK sound more resoundingly than Blur did in 1993. Grant Lee Buffalo was doing the same thing for America. The LA band’s sound is as expansive and majestic as the purple mountains, Grant-Lee Phillips’s affected drawl recalling General Lee’s side of the border more readily than the singer’s Stockton hometown. By adopting a Southern persona despite a Northern California origin, Grant Lee Buffalo might be the Creedence Clearwater Revival of the nineties, but their music is much closer to the rustic spaciousness of The Band. Phillips is a master storyteller (though a more abstract one than Robbie Robertson) and an utterly masterful singer. That voice! Velvety in its low range, ghostly in its falsetto, a crescendo in its howling middle. Rock & Roll hadn’t produced a singer of such depth since Van Morrison (one of Phillips’s idols). Though Phillips’s voice is Grant Lee Buffalo’s most audacious instrument, bassist, keyboardist, and producer Paul Kimble is responsible for creating the swooning, panoramic landscape over which that voice floats and wails. Kimble’s Spector-esque way with the echo knob is as integral to the magic of Fuzzy as is his antiquated pump organs and pub pianos, Phillips’s fuzzed up twelve-string acoustic guitar, and the Grand Canyon boom of Joey Peters’s drum kit. The songs are wonderful too, particularly the aching title track and “The Hook”, the rousing “Shining Hour”, the churning “Wish You Well”, the rollicking “Dixie Drug Store”, and the intensely brooding “Stars N’ Stripes”. In 1993, Fuzzy seemed like a debut record that couldn’t possibly be topped. In 1994, Grant Lee Buffalo toppled that notion with their masterpiece, Mighty Joe Moon.

5. Last Splash by The Breeders

The late-eighties was a pretty dire time for music, but it wasn’t totally devoid of good stuff. You just had to be savvy enough to find your local college rock station so you could hear The Pixies and Throwing Muses, the era’s two greatest bands. Both demented products of the same New England scene, they were also buddies, and when they began splintering in the nineties, Pixie Kim Deal hooked up with Muse Tanya Donelly to form The Breeders. While their first album, Pod, inched closer to Donelly’s pop sensibilities, she had left the band by the time they recorded Last Splash, which reveled in Deal’s total weirdness. The weirdest thing about the record is that it became a big crossover hit on the strength of “Cannonball”, a totally bizarre distort-o-voiced dance groove with the rubberiest bassline this side of Bootsy Collins’s house. “Cannonball”—and the rest of Last Splash —exemplified how gloriously upended the pop scene was in ’93. Before that year it was absurd to think that a band could break out with such angular avant gardism, which also bubbles through on a kick line of bizarre album tracks: “No Aloha”, “Roi”, “Mad Lucas”, “Hag”. Not that The Breeders had completely leaned away from their pop inclinations, which breeze through the sighing “Do You Love Me Now?”, the Beatlesque “Invisible Man”, the Who-esque “Divine Hammer”, the ass-kicking “Saints”, and the country whimsy of “Drivin’ on 9”. Deal’s kooky sense of humor, however, keeps these songs well clear of normalcy.

4. Star by Belly

Although Pod exudes Tanya Donelly pop, she didn’t have as much input into the album as she wanted. Having left Throwing Muses because she knew she’d always play second fiddle to stepsister Kristin Hersh, Donelly ended up basically playing that same instrument behind Kim Deal in The Breeders. So she split to form Belly, a revolving door band of which she was the one stable member. Of course, there is little that is stable about the death-obsessed surrealism she spews on her band’s divine debut record, Star. The album balances Donelly’s witchy atmosphere and pop adeptness beautifully across a hefty fifty minutes and fifteen songs that never feel like the usual CD-age gluttony. That’s because each one of these songs is perfect, from “Someone to Die For”, the creeping miniature that opens the set, to “Stay”, the gorgeous, twilighty ballad that closes it. In between, Belly whip up torrents on “Angel” and “Dusted”, infect the ears with the sugar-crusted pop of “Gepetto” and “Feed the Tree”, get the legs swinging with the euphoric “Slow Dog”, terrify with “Low Red Moon”, and enchant with “Untogether”. Donelly makes the most of her dodgy pitch with seductive coos, tortured wails, and joyous whoops. Star is resplendent in the influence of trippy sixties pop that returned in the nineties but never slips into self-consciously retro pastiche. A great, great album as fresh today as it was twenty years ago.

3. In Utero by Nirvana

Although it wouldn’t be known for several months, 1993 was the year that the poster boys for the revitalizing of Rock & Roll in the nineties released their final studio album. Everyone knew Kurt Cobain had problems, but even as desperately as he flaunts them on In Utero, few could imagine things would end as they did in April 1994. In ’93, he was just one of many rockers crying out from the abyss. It was a fashionable thing to do. Yet the authenticity of Cobain’s scream was unmatched, and it helps distinguish In Utero from its much more polished predecessor. Nevermind is just another pop album compared to In Utero. Here Nirvana fully realized their arty noise without compromise. Cobain said the band’s management and label hated the abrasive record and wanted “another Nevermind.” This is a typical record business attitude, and it’s a very good thing that Nirvana loathed that attitude as much as they did, because In Utero is their best album. Butch Vig’s pseudo-metal production did a disservice to Nevermind’s raging songs. Steve Albini built In Utero on the heavy bedrock that his Rid of Me lacked. In Utero is one of the most full-bodied records ever made, and Dave Grohl’s drums never sounded so gargantuan. He gets ample opportunities to show off his skills as he beats the bloody fuck out of his kit on “Scentless Apprentice” and the stop-start horror show “Milk It”. On that track Cobain pukes the flames of hell with an abandon nowhere to be found on Nevermind. This shit would have made all those jocks who bought the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” single piss in their mesh shorts. But Cobain had too much love for the simple pop song to bulk up In Utero with wall-to-wall noise bombs. “Serve the Servants” sounds like “Help!” blasted through a blown-out woofer. “Heart Shaped Box”, “Pennyroyal Tea”, and “Rape Me” offer more classic LOUD-quiet-LOUD dynamics to please the Nevermind crowd, though the latter song’s lyrics ensure it would never be ready for radio. “All Apologies” and “Dumb” are beautiful compositions that showcase the depth of Cobain’s talent. The guy was a fucking great songwriter, able to tap into the simplicity that made John Lennon’s early songs so instantly pleasurable and the emotional rawness that made his later ones so tormenting. How Kurt Cobain might have developed that talent beyond In Utero is one of rock’s saddest unanswered questions.

2. Gentlemen By Afghan Whigs

One of the most interesting consequences of Kurt Cobain’s stardom was that a whole generation of new rockers tuned in to his politics, particularly his feminism. Thus Nirvana didn’t just do away with hair metal’s cod-swagger, they also diluted its cock-wagging sexism (though plenty of hip hop artists were happy to put some juice back into it). Almost overnight it became painfully unhip to regurgitate the sexism that had been one of rock’s favorite ingredients for some forty years. In fact, a lot of musicians became so self-conscious about coming off as cock rockers that they avoided sex altogether, opting to hunch at center stage while staring down at their Converse All-Stars. Not very interesting. This left sex largely to gutsy female rockers like PJ Harvey and the next and last artist to appear on this list.

The one group of young bucks to really buck this cock-less trend was The Afghan Whigs. Having started as another bunch of grungy scruffs with flannel shirts tied around their cut-off sweat pants, the Whigs had evolved into R&B-worshipping slick-o’s in baggy black suits and two-tone wing tips by 1993. Their glamour was as antithetical to their peers’ images as was their willingness to get their hands dirty in the muckiest aspects of sex. In 1993, no other rocker but Greg Dulli would have warbled anything as caked in machismo cheese as “Ladies let me tell you about myself; I’ve got a dick for a brain and my brain is gonna sell my ass to you.” That line also betrays the self-loathing that oozes through the wild and withering Gentlemen. Jagger and his progeny were only too happy to use women and throw them away. It’s not so easy for Dulli, who gets entangled in a relationship that inevitably hits a brick wall in this despondent song cycle. There is no joy in his sex, no confidence in his swagger, and no macho escape-hatch from the feelings that get in the way of his penile escapades. On “What Jail Is Like”, “Debonair”, “Gentleman”, and “Fountain and Fairfax” the music is as tumultuous as the message is dejected. On “When We Two Parted”, the instrumental “Brother Woodrow/Closing Prayer”, and “My Curse”, on which guest vocalist Marcy Mays gives voice to Dulli’s opponent in romance, it is transcendent. On Gentlemen, The Afghan Whigs became one of the few male bands of 1993 to deal with sex directly, and the only one to have the guts to admit how fucking complicated it can be.  

1. Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair

When sex was basically taken off the table for dudes in 1993, no one was happier to pick it up and claim it for the ladies than Liz Phair. Her gob-smacking debut double-album Exile in Guyville could have been read as a response to Gentlemen if it wasn’t already intended to be a response to the Stones’ Exile on Main Street (one of the Whigs’ favorite albums, incidentally). That Guyville was supposed to be a track-by-track answer to Main Street was basically a gimmick to help Phair and producer Brad Wood arrange the songs, and it doesn’t hold up that well under close scrutiny. She didn’t need any gimmicks anyway because her record—as Stonesy as the mesh of guitars and Wood’s behind-the-beat drumming are—is utterly unique. The production is lo-fi, only a bit more sonically plush than Phair’s famed “Girly Sound” demo tapes, which made her name in the underground. When Exile in Guyville was released, she became a veritable alternative It Girl. Her more outrageous lyrics made great copy (“Fuck and run— even when I was twelve,” “I can be a real cunt in spring,” “I want to be your blow job queen”, etc.). Her pretty Midwestern looks looked good in photos illustrating those lines, but these are just more gimmicks that trivialize Phair’s incredible talent. Guyville announced her as a legit rocker (at least in the years before she decided she’d rather be Sheryl Crow than Keith Richards), the possessor of an unrefined though expressive voice, and an individual lyricist with a better sense of humor than a lot of her devotees recognized. While her tales of sexual and romantic woe can stir pathos— especially when set against such gorgeously lilting tunes as “Dance of the Seven Veils”, “Canary”, “Explain It to Me”, “Shatter”, and “Gunshy”—there is wonderful exuberance in the defiant single “Never Said”, “Help Me Mary”, “Soap Star Joe”, “Strange Loop”, and the thoroughly empowered “6’1””. Even when her heart’s getting broken, Phair doesn’t want anyone thinking she’s a victim. After all, as the creator of the greatest album in a year flooded with great albums, she is the one who came out on top.

Ten More Great Albums from 1993

Become What You Are by The Juliana Hatfield Three

Copacetic by Velocity Girl

Cure for Pain by Morphine

Debut by Björk

Into the Labyrinth by Dead Can Dance

Manos by The Spinanes

Pablo Honey by Radiohead

Vampire on Titus by Guided by Voices

Whatever by Aimee Mann

Zooropa by U2
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