Friday, November 14, 2014

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1994

In 1992, the renewed interest in hairspray-free guitar-based bands that began with Nevermind opened wide. The term “Alternative” went into wide use to encompass not just the Seattle grunge scene, but indie bands from throughout the country. Major labels went into a short-lived frenzy to sign any group with shaggy hair and six strings in a way it hadn’t since The British Invasion. By 1993, groups that had previously recorded on shitty four-tack cassette machines were gaining access to relatively plush studios and making bigger, and often better, albums (though as we’ll see, some decided to keep the fi lo…very lo). If anything, ’94 was an even better year than ’93 as original Alternative acts continued to develop their voices in bold ways, great brand new groups entered the fold, and Alternative grandparents did some of their best work in years. Really, this was the peak year for nineties rock, and possibly the finest year for Rock & Roll since the sixties. While my selection for best album of 1993 was a clear-cut, no-question deal, the subsequent year was much harder to narrow down. Any CD in the upper half of this list really could be the greatest album of 1994.

10. Hips and Makers by Kristin Hersh

After spending the eighties as one of college rock’s best and most criminally underrated bands, Throwing Muses threw themselves into the nineties on the verge of serious upheavals. First to go was Leslie Langston, the band’s original bass player and one of the finest and most original musicians to ever pluck and thwack the four strings. Fred Abong filled that role for 1991’s The Real Ramona, and the Muses ended up with what may be their best record. Tanya Donelly’s maturing songwriting played a big role in that and it hit a peak with the pop-perfect “Not Too Soon”. No longer content to play George to her big sister Kristin’s John and Paul, Tanya absconded with Abong and formed Belly. And so, Throwing Muses were now two, and 1992’s Red Heaven found Kristin Hersh and drummer Dave Narcizo working a bit too hard to overwhelm with some underwhelming material. No doubt  Hersh needed to refresh her creativity. She did so by expanding the gloomy acoustic flavors of “Pearl”, the most mesmerizing track on Red Heaven, into a whole record. The brilliance of Hersh’s first solo album is that she sacrificed none of her innate electricity when working solely with acoustics. Take “A Loon”, a performance as terrifying as any you’ll hear on those terrifying early Muses albums. Her whoops are strokes of pure madness and pure inspiration. But then listen as the track soothes itself into a temple-massaging lullaby. Kristin Hersh is utilizing all the possibilities of her main instruments: voice and guitar (sometimes switching to piano, often receiving textural support from John Scarpantoni’s cello). The rest of Hips and Makers presents similarly variety, even as the mood always indicates storm clouds are hovering overhead. Hersh cries a haunted duet with Michael Stipe in “Your Ghost”, gets plaintive at the piano on “Beestung”, rages through “Teeth”, exhilarates on “Sundrops”, turns breathlessly desperate on “The Letter” or rollicking on the title track. Hips and Makers gave the impression that Hersh might not need a band at all, but it actually provided a more positive function by inspiring her to reinvigorate the Muses to make a couple of superb new albums. Fortunately, she didn’t give up on her solo career either, which continues to surprise and thrill.    

9. American Thighs by Veruca Salt

If you missed the Muses’ tormented electricity in 1994, you might have found yourself gravitating to a new band from Chicago. Unlike Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly, Nina Gordon and Louise Post were not sisters, but they seemed close as sisters, particularly when wailing in harmony on stormy numbers like “Get Back” and “Wolf”. While Veruca Salt championed sudsy rockers AC/DC (I assume I don’t have to point out the meaning behind the title of this album), their brand of Rock & Roll doesn’t sound like it would be at home in any pub. Well, maybe some sort of vampire pub. There’s an evil undercurrent to their music whether they’re kicking out the jams or going for mood on whispery pieces like “Fly” or “Sleeping Where I Want”. Their pop sensibilities are fang-sharp too, and they won a well earned big hit on alternative radio with the insidiously catchy “Seether”. Although they failed to get as much play with any of their follow up singles, tracks like “Number One Blind”, “Victrola”, and “All Hail Me” prove Veruca Salt deserved to be more than a one-hit wonder. Brad Wood, who’d produced best-album-of-1993 Exile in Guyville, worked his mid-fi magic on American Thighs too, and the results are an album that spooks you and kicks you hard up the back end in equal proportion.

8. The Stars are Insane by Versus

NYC’s Versus were another band with a Liz Phair connection. I saw them open for Guyville’s exile at the Academy the same day we all found out what happened to Kurt Cobain. It was one of the very, very, very best shows I’ve ever seen, partly because the terrible news united the audience, partly because Liz was playing in such a good humor despite that and playing songs from such an amazing album, and partly because the opening act was great. Screaming his fucking brains out on the blood-curdling “I’ll Be You”, Richard Baluyut offered the catharsis we couldn’t really expect someone as low-key as Liz to provide. I then went on the hunt for Versus’s debut album, and when I finally tracked down a copy of The Stars Are Insane, I learned their fire and moodiness transferred from the stage to digital disc very well. Like the two albums that precede it on this list, The Stars Are Insane is kind of grey-toned. Fast or slow, the songs are gloomy, the production is murky, the vocals are buried down deep. That’s all part of Versus’s allure. Good songwriting is key too, and Baluyut and bassist Fontaine Toups pack the disc with excellent tracks that transcend their sometimes dated obsessions. “River” deals with the death of River Phoenix. “Solar Democrat” rages about mid-nineties politics in a vague manner (that vagueness probably reflects the fact that things were actually relatively good in America circa 1994). There are indie anthems (the ghostly “Thera”), minimalist drones (the stunning “Deseret”), punk screeds (“Solar Democrat”), slow burns (“Janet”), and straight poppers (“Wind Me Up”, the only think here that could pass for happy—assuming you ignore the lyrics). The Stars Are Insane established Versus as a band to watch, and they fulfilled that promise with their excellent second album, Secret Swingers. I’m so glad I didn’t stay home to mourn Cobain that April 8th.   

7. Pony Express Record by Shudder to Think

Great as they all are, the previous three artists on this list are pretty easy to define (Kristin Hersh = gothic folkie, Veruca Salt = hard Rock & Rollers, Versus = indie). Good luck trying to define Shudder to Think. Their guitars hit with hardcore impact. Their structures and meters shift like King Crimson’s. Their lyrics would make William Burroughs scratch his head (and then shoot up). And then there’s Craig Wedren’s voice. That voice! You may have heard it a-whooooo-ing in the theme song of the definitive nineties sketch comedy show, “The State”. Keening, falsetto-y, hiccuping, whispering, husky, screaming: Craig Wedren’s voice may be at home in a haunted house, but it has no place in Rock & Roll. And yet… of course it does, because Shudder to Think is a fucking great Rock & Roll band, and the way they appropriate the kind of riffing you’d hear on a Zeppelin album reveals that they really do love Rock & Roll. The usual mullet-headed Zep freak might punch you in the face if he caught you listening to Craig’s come-hither cooing. That’s OK, because a true Shudder to Think fan would then lick that bonehead’s face and send him running in the other direction. That about sums up Pony Express Record.

Oh… and my mouth is a cold sore display case.

6. Parklife by Blur

We’re on more familiar ground here, particularly because Blur always wore their influences so proudly on their Ben Sherman-tailored sleeves. The Kinks. The Beatles. Scott Walker. Syd Barrett. The Jam. The Clash. The Stone Roses. They hired Quadrophenia star Phil Daniel’s to monologue the title track of Parklife. This was their breakthrough album on a number of levels. They tightened up their songs, tidied up their production, and scored a massive cross-over hit with the discofied opening track “Girls and Boys”, which is probably one of the most misleading hit singles in pop history. The rest of the album is actually a lot better than that track (which is pretty great despite its eternal associations with MTV’s Spring Break bullshit). Track after track, Damon Albarn just keeps hitting it across the pitch. Like a modern Ray Davies, he introduces us to a neighborhood of citizens colorful in their greyness: the rut-stuck couples of “End of a Century”, Tracy Jacks, who attempts to escape his rut with a bit of impromptu streaking, the wasted weekend revelers of the punked-up “Bank Holiday”, the misguided yank-o-phile of “Magic America”, the officious people watcher of “Parklife”. With such an amazing roster of characters dancing across such an amazing assortment of songs, it’s amazing that there was any kind of Brit-pop rivalry between the amazing Blur and the mediocre Oasis and more amazing—and fucking asinine— that Oasis seemed to win that duel. Who can blame Albarn for being so cynical?

5. Brutal Youth by Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello seemed to lose direction when he stopped working with The Attractions after the fierce Blood and Chocolate in 1986. There were still lots of great songs, great performances, and interesting ideas, but they did not  coalesce into perfect wholes on Spike or Mighty Like a Rose. In 1994, Elvis once again called on the assistance of Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas, and even archenemy Bruce Thomas (and when he didn’t use Bruce, he used another longtime collaborator, Nick Lowe). Perhaps this is what brought some clarity back to Elvis’s vision, because Brutal Youth is doubtlessly his best album since Blood and Chocolate, and his best album to not feature the words “and The Attractions” on its cover, even if it probably should have. The band doesn’t deserve all the credit, as Elvis brought his strongest batch of songs in years to the studio. He rocks out on instant classics like “Pony St.”, “13 Steps Lead Down”, “My Science Fiction Twin”, “All the Rage”, and the absolutely skull-crushing “20% Amnesia” (that cold open makes me go nuts). His ballads are top-tier too, with “You Tripped at Every Step”, “London’s Brilliant Parade”, “Still Too Soon to Know”, and “Favorite Hour” being some of the most poignant of his career. That clarity extends to his lyrics as he deals with self-help programs, hell, his hometown, his dark side, the usual romantic complications, and military rape in ways that are accessible without sacrificing his intricate wordiness. Brutal Youth did not receive across-the-board great reviews because a lot of critics have a problem with producer Mitchell Froom’s signature clanking clutter. Screw that. I love Froom (particularly his work with ex-wife Suzanne Vega), and much of the personality and sonic surprises of Brutal Youth are his doing.  

4. Emmerdale by The Cardigans

The Cardigans are almost as misunderstood as Mitchell Froom. Blame “Lovefool”, the gigantic pop hit of 1996 that annoyed as many folks as those who bought it up. The too-hip TV show “Orphan Black” even used it to show how square the soccer mom clone is. Once again, screw that. “Lovefool” is a really good pop song, and The Cardigans are an absolutely spectacular pop group. This is never clearer than when spinning their debut album. Originally released exclusively in the band’s native Sweden (and later given a Yesterday & Today-style butchering so it could be merged with their second album, Life, for international release), Emmerdale is unbelievably fresh. It is humorous and conscious of its own pop roots (think Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, Village Green-era Kinks, Brigitte Bardot, Sérgio Mendes) without ever being cynical or boringly ironic, even when the group is lounging their way through an unrecognizable cover of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”. Each song is a little masterpiece (particularly “Sick & Tired”, which has the best flute riffing outside a Tull album, the brooding “Black Letter Day”, the breezy “Over the Water”, and the joyously jangling “Rise & Shine”) played by a rhythm section as crisp as a December morning and sung by a voice cool, cute, and commanding.

3. Bee Thousand by Guided by Voices

Discouraged by a lack of support from their families and the world outside of Dayton, Ohio, Guided by Voices almost called it quits after 1992’s Propeller. That album was so strong that it gave their career a blast of adrenaline, and they started the whole damn thing up again. Propeller was a mix of proper studio recordings and ones they cut on four-track cassette. Ironically, after gaining wider attention they decided to stick with lo-fi cassette recording and made Vampire on Titus, an album as monochromatic as Propeller is Technicolor. For their next album, they continued to strip away all fidelity but returned to the variety of Propeller. The resulting album is the favorite of many a GBV hot freak and one of the nineties’ greatest. Bee Thousand is like a 36-minute “The White Album” recorded in McCartney’s basement if he and the other Fabs spent their days guzzling warm MGD instead of licking LSD. There’s so much going on— pseudo Mersey beat and synth pop, raga rock, prog, avant noise, folk, metal, weirdo soul, torch balladry, droning, elves, demons, robot boys, buzzards, dreadful crows—and it all goes by so quickly under such a dense layer of white fuzz that its easy to miss the song craft on first listen. That it requires true immersion to fully appreciate is one of the coolest things about Bee Thousand and a key explanation for the cult it developed. I don’t necessarily think that it’s the best Guided by Voices album (my opinion on that topic is so unpopular I dare not reveal it'll have to wait a few years for Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1999 for that), but there is no better example of why they are a band like no other.

2. Whip Smart by Liz Phair

In ’93/’94, I was absolutely obsessed with Liz Phair, preaching to anyone in earshot that they had to own Exile in Guyville. When her second album was scheduled for release on September 20, 1994, I put in a time-off request at work  for that date so I could hole up in my room and spin Whip Smart over and over. I was struck by two things upon the first of those spins: I loved it and I was surprised by how quickly it went by compared to the double-length Guyville. If that debut was a big bed of emotion to sink into, this new one felt like a scrumptious piece of candy to pop into your mouth. Actually, Whip Smart is only 14 minutes shorter than Exile in Guyville with just four fewer songs. Plus there are fewer miniature pieces and more epics. Phair stretches some of these tracks with hypnotic, lyrical chants. “I won’t decorate my love.” “You gotta have fear in your heart.” “When they do the double-dutch, that’s them dancing.” These lines actually summarize where she’s at on Whip Smart pretty well. It is uncompromising, even as she flirts with more polished pop production (almost every song actually features bass guitar this time!). It is paranoid (see “Jealousy”). It also has a wonderful knack for transforming simple memories and nostalgia into something mythic. The opening track reworks “Chopsticks”, the first song all piano students learn, into a ribald memoir about summer camp and one-night stands. “Dogs of L.A.” places Buddha amongst the California detritus she remembers roaming through, which casts a spiritual aura over a song of coming-of-age bonding. The enchanting title track portrays little girls games as ritualistic dances. But let’s not get too overly analytical, because really, Whip Smart is awesome because it has a bunch of awesome songs. “Supernova”, “X-Ray Man”, “Support System”, and “May Queen” are some of the most ass-kicking tracks of 1994. “Shane”, “Nashville”, “Dogs of L.A.” are “Alice Springs” are some of the most magical. Whip Smart is the sound of Liz Phair reaching a bit beyond the lo-fi textures of Exile in Guyville and getting it just right. Sadly, she’d start over-reaching pretty soon.

1. Mighty Joe Moon by Grant Lee Buffalo

If Whip Smart didn’t quite replicate the panoramic vision of Exile in Guyville, there was a new album in 1994 that really felt like a trip across America. Grant Lee Buffalo debuted with Fuzzy, a terrific album with really good songs and a really good sound grounded by Grant Lee Phillips’s distorted acoustic guitar. Mighty Joe Moon magnifies those strengths a hundred fold. This album is a masterpiece of perfectly matured songwriting and breath-taking instrumentation. The group dusts off archaic instruments like ancient pump organs, dobros, mandolins, banjos, marimbas, banjos, and tablas to animate Phillips’s superb songs. His endlessly expressive voice is the groups finest instrument of all. His songs are consistently remarkable. You’d have to go back to All Things Must Pass to find a composition as perfectly conceived as the aching, soaring, meditative “Mockingbirds”. “Lone Star Song”, “Sing Along”, “Lady Godiva and Me”, “Happiness”, and “Honey Don’t Think” are also tremendous, Phillips casting his visionary net widely enough to encapsulate America’s history of violence and narrowly enough to ensnare his own dark moods. Bassist/keyboardist Paul Kimble produces, and his sound is dense, but expansive, like a folk ensemble using the Grand Canyon as an echo chamber. Everything sounds large no matter if it’s the sinister onslaughts of “Sing Along” or “Demon Called Deception” or the delicate whispers of “It’s the Life” or “Rock of Ages”. Mighty Joe Moon is a classic of American Rock & Roll in the tradition of Blonde on Blonde, The Band, and After the Gold Rush. It takes an album like that to be the best in a year with as many fabulous albums as 1994. 

Ten More Great Albums from 1994

Amorica by The Black Crows

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain by Pavement

Foolish by Superchunk

Monster by R.E.M.

¡Simpatico! By Velocity Girl

Teenager of the Year by Frank Black
To Bring You My Love by PJ Harvey
Twice Removed by Sloan
Unplugged in New York by Nirvana

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