Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Psychobabble’s Fifteen Greatest Albums of 1995

1995 continued the strong streak begun on the college airwaves two years before. This year there were few monumental new comers, but the artists who had been at it since the beginning of the decade produced some of their most mature work to date, and it was those disc’s that constituted the year’s very best. Little did most of them know that the craze for guitars and intelligent lyrics composed by genuine artists was about to peak, that girls from the spice shelf and boys from the backstreet were lurking around the corner, intent on returning popular music to its most inane state once and for all. 

15. Lamprey by Bettie Serveert

On Palomine, Bettie Serveert introduced a brand of indie rock that could by cuddly as the big-eyed puppy on the cover or noisy as a pit bull fight. Their second album, Lamprey, arrived with much slicker production. That may have violated some statute in the indie law book, but the wildness of Peter Visser’s guitars and the boom of Berend Dubbe’s drums, so upfront in the mix, retained the raw power of Palomine. Carol van Dijk’s red wine voice is richer than ever. Like Palomine, Lamprey consists of brooding dirges and sparkling pop sweets, but it really goes out of its way to emphasize the contrast between those styles by interspersing them evenly throughout the record, so the emotionally bare epic “Keepsake” leads into the sparkling single “Ray Ray Rain”, which lurches into the groaning and churning “D. Feathers”, which gives way the pounding and uplifting “Re-Feel-It”, and so on. The format may have been devised to keep listeners engaged. They would have been anyway with so many terrific songs in order. 

14. Personal Best by Team Dresch 

With members who’d done time in Dinosaur Jr., Screaming Trees, Hazel, Calamity Jane, and others, Team Dresch was a sort of indie-punk supergroup. That novelty and their stance as leaders in the homocore movement were not nearly as important as the sheer power of the music they made together. Personal Best is one of the great nineties punk albums, a triumph of viciousness and superb musicianship. The complex guitar interplay of “She’s Crushing My Mind” is as beautiful as the tempo and screaming chorus are terrifying. While tracks such as “Fagetarian and Dyke”, “Hate the Christian Right”, and “#1 Chance Pirate Radio”, which celebrates Sinead O’Connor’s famed SNL appearance, make the band’s politics explicit, love songs actually rule Personal Best, and they can be incensed screeds (“She’s Crushing My Mind”), rollicking kiss offs (“Freewheel”), or romantic reveries (“She’s Amazing”). “Fake Fight” and “Growing up in Springfield” draw the two main themes together as the simplicity of love is complicated in a world that demonizes homosexuality. Fortunately, that situation is not quite as horrible today as it was in 1995, but the power of Personal Best to thrill, chill, and rock listeners into rubble has not changed one pinch in past twenty-odd years. 
13. Different Class by Pulp

 Jarvis Cocker was the urbane face of Brit Pop, waxing wiseass about sex and social class. He cooed, purred, and wasn’t ashamed to break a sweat no matter how cool his songs may be. The coolest crop came on Different Class, a masterful collection of tracks that may take a while to warm up to but reveal their brilliance more and more with each new spin. The first thing likely slap you is the anthemic excitement of dance-floor crowders like “Common People”, and “Disco 2000”. Then their sentiments will start to sink in, which could halt the unison bouncing for several minutes as you ponder the withering cynicism beneath the beats. The sentiments of “Mis-Shapes” may interrupt the grooving with more revolutionary thoughts, while you may stop swaying to “Underwear” and drop to the floor in hysterics as soon as Cocker starts singing about the awkward underbelly of seduction. Producer Chris Thomas shapes Different Class with all the imagination and skill he’d showered on “The White Album” and Country Life, and Anne Dudley’s string arrangements are indispensible to this triumph of attitude, melody, performance, and words. 

12. Elliott Smith by Elliott Smith

On his 1994 debut, former Heatmeiser guitarist Elliott Smith mapped out the hushed acoustic direction he would perfect when he perfected his song craft on his second record the following year. Smith’s tales of isolation and addiction are so chilling on his self-titled disc because there’s none of the Stones’ zonked smirking behind the scoring and shooting. He sounds backed into a corner without an ounce of fight left in him despite strong statements like “No bad dream fucker’s gonna boss me around.” His voice and picking are too delicate for the forcefulness of his words to register. That chilling weariness seems to undermine the idea that Smith was not really in dire shape and merely creating characters and reporting on the things he saw around him, which is the common story being told by those closest to him. Even if they are right—and one can only hope they are—the songs on Elliott Smith create such a clear image that this music would lose none of its power even if it turned out it was made by a happy-go-lucky jokester who’d faked his own death. Is it possible to listen to this stuff without picturing an unfurnished squat lit with only a single candle? Few albums suggest such a concrete atmosphere, and few songs are as equally beautiful and terrifying as “Needle in the Hay”, “Coming Up Roses”, “St. Ides Heaven”, “The White Lady loves You More”, and “The Biggest Lie”.

11. 100% Fun by Matthew Sweet
Matthew Sweet is the extrovert flipside to Elliott Smith’s unique blending of Beatlesque melody and self-loathing. Smith probably would not have sang anything as upfront as “Sick of Myself”, and though his later solo records had music as raucous, he never would belt like Sweet. Yet Matthew Sweet is still a big contrast to someone like Kurt Cobain, who shrieked against himself. As nasty as the sentiments of “Sick of Myself”, “Not When I Need It”, and “We’re the Same” are, the delivery is always as sweet as the man’s name. So the intentionally ironically titled 100% Fun is an album that may endure better than—forgive me—Nevermind or In Utero for us current grown ups long removed from spending the mid-nineties moping around college campuses, because even as we may have grown out of the very-nineties “everything is shit” attitude, we will never grow out of loving the kind of timeless power pop Sweet rolls out on 100% Fun

10. Woman's Gotta Have It by Cornershop

  The Brit-pop groups tended to fetishize sixties pop, so one might assume Cornershop was just doing the same by playing a form of music that would be easy to shorthand as “indie raga rock.” However, for this group led by brothers Tjinder and Avtar Singh, the Indian elements were not merely the “exotic” decorations they were in The Beatles and Stones raga rock dalliances. Cornershop’s sitars and tablas are part of the fundamental foundations of the dance-party grooves “6 A.M. Jullander Shere” and “My Dancing Days Are Done”. Killer tracks such as “Hong Kong Book of Kung Fu” and “Roof Rack” drone indie-style without the explicit raga elements. So do “Wog” and “Jansimram King”, but Tjinder Singh’s culture remains an important factor as he ponders his status as a “western oriental” and slips into Punjabi. The face-melting “Call All Destroyer” drops everything but a few pointed words and a gnarly riff. It’s as explosive as any kind of rock got in 1995. Woman’s Gotta Have It is as diverse, fierce, uncompromising, and fun. 

9. King by Belly

Liberated from playing second fiddle in Throwing Muses and The Breeders, Tanya Donnelly apparently ran the first Belly album as a virtual one-woman show, and its creepy intimacy made Star one of the very best discs of 1993. The album also had the hit-worthy material to help it rise up from the underground, and Donnelly capitalized on the success of “Feed the Tree” and “Gepetto” by writing even bigger hooks for the second Belly album. King has a decidedly different feel from its predecessor, with more of a band vibe and flawless production from old pro Glyn Johns. Consequently, it wasn’t as uniquely enchanting as Star, but it still boasted great songs and great sound. Tracks like “Puberty”, “Silverfish”, and “The Bees” proved that Donnelly hadn’t curbed her strange lyricism for Belly’s big stab at stardom, while “Super-Connected” revealed that she may not have been 100% happy that she’d taken that stab. Unfortunately, it failed to pay off when the album didn’t do half the business that Star did, leading to Belly’s demise. At least they went out with an excellent album worth keeping in rotation— the exhilarating title track alone would make King transcend its time.

8. Exit the Dragon by Urge Overkill

Urge Overkill were another band on a big boost from recent successes in 1995. They’d knocked out college radio with the subversively corporate rockers “Sister Havana” and “Positive Bleeding” in 1993. The following year, Quentin Tarantino scored Mrs. Mia Wallace’s OD with Urge’s 1992 version of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”. Like King, Exit the Dragon sounds like another polished attempt to grab the pop crown, but whereas King exuded joy (only occasionally despite its lyrics), Dragon found Nash Kato, Eddie “King” Roeser, and Blackie Onassis dropping the James Bond-meets-Boston act to howl in despair. The band’s real-life drug issues and interpersonal problems dominate a record that seems to consciously try to recapture the dark decadence of Exile on Main Street without resorting to Urge’s usual parodic kitsch. Even the nearly nine-minute tribute to murdered pop singer Selena feels sincere. Forget the velvet jackets and comedy code names; Exit the Dragon is a sincerely powerful Rock & Roll album and a sincerely harrowing one too. As was the case with King, it also marked the end of one of the nineties’ best bands, but this time the band’s own issues were probably as much to blame as the public’s indifference.

7. Wowee Zowee by Pavement

After defining themselves as the ramshackle, irony-peddling, genre-dabbling indie rock band of the nineties with Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement perfected each of those elements on their follow-up. Wowee Zowee was not quite as well received as Crooked Rain at the time, perhaps because there’s so much of it to absorb before turning in that witty record review before deadline. Exile on Main Street had the same problem, and in both cases, a bit of time and attention revealed greatness. Pavement sometimes feel as though they’re riffing on other artists across their album’s 18 tracks: Bowie’s grand space folk on “We Dance”, Village Green-era Kinks on “Brinx Job”, Nirvana on “Flux = Rad”, the Muppets on “Serpentine Pad”. However, Steve Malkmus’s inimitable warble and wacko way with words always prevents the album from ever falling into pastiche. Really, Wowee Zowee is just a great—and very extensive—collection of wonderfully written pop songs.

6. The Bends by Radiohead

Radiohead seemed a pretty typical nineties indie band when they released their first album in 1993. The over-the-top self-loathing and LOUD-quiet-LOUD dynamics requirements of post-Nirvana rock was in full effect on Pablo Honey, and though it had its share of excellent songs and one massive college radio smash, there was nothing on it that really indicated a band with the staying power and influence of the Radiohead we now know. That changed with The Bends, which explodes with the confidence of a band that has just discovered who they are. And who are Radiohead at this point? Well, they aren’t quite the abandoned, borderline proggy experimenters they’d become with OK Computer, but they are a guitar-based group that embraces less traditional electronic noises, views their contemporary world as alien and chaotic, and writes brilliant melodies that fight through all the noise and chaos. For wall-to-wall excellent songs, The Bends beats all other Radiohead albums (though the fact that great songwriting isn’t necessarily the most exceptional thing about this exceptional band means it also isn’t necessarily their best album). They slam out chorus-driven anthems like the title track, “Bones”, “Black Star”, and “Just”; stop the show with gloriously moody mopers like “Fake Plastic Trees”, “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was”, and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”; and even toss out a superb Beatles replicant with “My Iron Lung”. The Bends proved Radiohead was anything but another whiney bunch of creeps who could locate the “on” switches of their Big Muff peddles. Its success made it possible for them to do anything they wanted to do, and that’s exactly what Radiohead has been doing for twenty years. We’re lucky to have them.

5. The Great Escape by Blur

As we’ve seen, a certain amount of sprawl and a great deal of eclecticism really defined rock in 1995. Blur had been indulging in such things since 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, so The Great Escape wasn’t exactly a radical change of pace when they dumped it out two years later. Yet theire way with eclecticism and sprawl had reached a real peak, though as was the case with Wowee Zowee, a lot of critics didn’t really get it at the time. Today it feels like the definitive Brit Pop album, with its blatant worship of Ray Davies, self-deluding characters, and subtlety-devoid criticisms of classism. Damon Albarn really lets his bitterness fly here, which may have put off some listeners, but it’s all so deliciously tuneful and brilliantly produced that The Great Escape goes down like one sweet pill. It is also a marvelous showcase for exceptional musicianship: Alex James’s disco bassline on “Entertain Me” is enough to earn him a pedestal in the bass player’s hall-of-fame. Still, it’s the songs that makes The Great Escape truly great, and Blur would never again write material as marvelous as “Best Days”, “The Universal”, “Charmless Man”, and “Mr. Robinson’s Quango” after they decided to follow the more experimental path Radiohead laid after 1995.

4. University by Throwing Muses

With Tanya Donnelly’s departure after 1991’s The Real Ramona, Throwing Muses was reduced to a duo, and Kristin Hersh and David Narcizo did their best with the tough but unfocused Red Heaven. After recruiting their former roadie Bernard Georges to pick up the bass, the Muses really became a band again, and they sound utterly revitalized on University. Hersh’s material matches the group’s regained strength; the firm line-up delivering an assortment of accelerated rockers (“Bright Yellow Gun”, “Shimmer”), dizzying funhouse rides (“Calm Down, Come Down”), mood pieces (the magical “Crab Town”, the stormy “No Way in Hell”, the spooky title track), pop desserts (“That’s All You Wanted”), and intense dirges (“Flood”, “Fever Few”) with pro consistency. While Georges’s driving bass work doesn’t have the dazzling quirk of ex-Muse Leslie Langston’s asymmetrical slapping and plucking, his solidity gives the band a thicker sound that makes Hersh’s more mature material retain the punky power of old. Her thunderheads hang over it all, keeping the atmosphere as intense as the performances.

3. Life by The Cardigans

University is like getting caught in a rainstorm. Life is like getting smashed in the face with sunshine. Sweden’s Cardigans heighten the cheerily daffy retro pop sounds they introduced on Emmerdale on their second album. The swirling Studio 54 dance “Carnival”, the cheeky cocktail party soundtrack “Gordon’s Gardenparty”, the cuckoo children’s song “Pikebubbles” (a crazed skit about a severely paranoid father), the plucky “Tomorrow”, the spy flick-theme spoof “Travelling with Charley”, and the insane epic “Closing Time” all smack of straight-up parody, but they are also brilliantly conceived pop productions, as tuneful as the best of The Beach Boys and Kinks (two obvious influences on the mayhem). Life also recalls sixties pop in the shoddy way it was treated outside the band’s native country. The four craziest tracks were clipped and replaced with songs from Emmerdale in the U.S., while Life lost three of those songs and gained five Emmerdale tracks elsewhere in the world. When The Cardigans returned the following year and made a genuine international hit, no record company would treat their extraordinary pop art so frivolously again.

2. The Dirt of Luck by Helium

The first extended blast of Helium came in 1994 with their doomy EP Pirate Prude, a short story in half-a-dozen tracks about vampires and prostitution. Mary Timony’s lurid tales fit for a Halloween night really flowered on her band’s first LP the following year. The Dirt of Luck is populated by skeletons, gorgons, and damaged creatures of other sorts. The music growls like a dragon, whispers like a ghost, clatters and clangs like dancing bones, and whooshes and whistles like a psychedelic UFO. Imagine if Sonic Youth and the Groovie Goolies formed a super-group, and The Dirt of Luck will start coming into focus. I hope that glib image does not downplay Timony’s song craft, which is fully formed on tracks like “Superball”, “Oh the Wind and the Rain”, and “Honeycomb”. However, Timony is at her most bewitching when bashing a few chinks in her pop craft, sculpting gnarled pieces of witchcraft like “Pat’s Trick”, “Trixie’s Star”, “Medusa”, and “Skeleton”. And why hasn’t a filmmaker scored a creepy, retro sci-fi movie with “Comet #9” yet?

1. Alien Lanes by Guided by Voices

After nearly a decade of being Dayton’s best and weirdest local band, Guided by Voices finally grabbed national attention with 1994’s Bee Thousand. The recording’s ultra-lo-fi fuzz, Robert Pollard’s deranged way with words, and his tendency to wrap up songs after a single verse and chorus did nothing to tamp down the supreme catchiness of the record’s 20 tiny tracks. On Alien Lanes, Bob and company loaded a marathon 28 songs onto a single album, and incredibly enough, his pop mastery was even sharper than it had been on Bee Thousand. A wiser bandleader probably would have taken delicious morsels like “A Salty Salute”, “As We Go Up, We Go Down”, “Game of Pricks”, “Closer You Are”, “Blimps Go 90”, “Always Crush Me”, and “My Son Cool”, padded them past the two-minute mark, and kept some of them in reserve for the next album. Bob, of course, always had another 28 tunes right in the pipeline (eh…who am I kidding? Another 128 tunes is more like it), and never wasted time overworking songs that were already perfect. Balancing such mid-length miniatures are enticing transitional crumbs like “Hit”, “Gold Hick”, “Big Chief Chinese Restaurant”, and “Pimple Zoo”, and true-blue two-minute-plus epics like “Watch Me Jumpstart”, “Motor Away”, “My Valuable Hunting Knife”, and “Chicken Blows”. Whether they are super short, medium-short, or long-short, the songs on Alien Lanes are consistently marvelous, each one exactly as it should be. One more second of the spine-chilling “Auditorium” is totally unnecessary when it explodes into the exhilarating “Motor Away” at just the right moment. And when you hear that songs simple message of finding freedom behind a steering wheel, escaping all the bad relationships and fake friends, you know you’re not sitting in the lap of some guy playing intellectual games with pop conventions. This is music written by a man sincerely enraptured by the basic joys and power of Rock & Roll, a man who finds its sounds and history so inspiring that he wants to scoop it all into his head and spew back out in his very own fashion. Alien Lanes is a work of total joy and inspiration. Drag-ass critics often whine that “Bob needs an editor,” but you’d deserve to get your hands edited off your wrists if you tried editing one tune off of Alien Lanes.

P.S.- Tobin Sprout’s songs are fucking great too.

Seven More Great Albums from 1995

Spool Forka Dish by The Blue Up?

Elastica by Elastica

Foo Fighters by Foo Fighters

I’m with Stupid by Aimee Mann

The Rapture by Siouxsie and the Banshees

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by Smashing Pumpkins

Only Everything by Juliana Hatfield
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