Monday, November 30, 2015

Review: 'The Jam: About the Young Idea'


There aren’t a lot of artists who can claim they inspired an entire musical movement, at least not after the sixties when The Beatles, Beach Boys, Dylan, James Brown, Hendrix, The Who, and quite a few others each marched through the decade followed by a parade of pretenders. The Jam are one of the few late-seventies bands that can claim they got a movement going when their power-pop spin on punk and Mod style inspired a ton of British groups to pick up Rickenbackers and look sharp. Those who weren’t as musically inclined just became the kinds of life-long, pop-as-lifestyle fans usually reserved for boring traveling acts like The Grateful Dead. So it’s fitting that fans get a good deal of screen time in the recent Sky TV documentary The Jam: About the Young Idea. This emphasis on the people who love Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton, and Rick Buckler is what distinguishes Bob Smeaton’s film from the usual by-numbers rock doc. The presence of fans such as fellow famous-guy Martin Freeman; Derek D’Souza, who ended up photographing the band professionally; Keiko Egawa, a fan who essentially moved from Japan to London so she could see The Jam live; and Dave Pottinger, a kid barely in his twenties whose blog continues the Jam-worship for a new generation—and somehow maintains his cool when he gets to interview Weller— is the heart and soul of About the Young Idea.

Weller, Foxton, and Buckler are also in attendance to walk us through their band’s history in more typical fashion, though there are also some nicely distinctive moments when the film’s stars are on screen, like when Weller and founding member Steve Brookes pull out their acoustic guitars to jam on some Everly Brothers and Larry Williams tunes. Long time fans probably won’t learn anything new, and any post break-up frictions are ignored (Foxton and Weller supposedly didn’t speak for twenty years after Weller quit the band at the height of their success), but they will certainly appreciate spending 90 minutes with their favorite band now-and-then (via classic archival stage and video footage). Most of all they should appreciate seeing themselves reflected on screen by a diverse lot of Jam fanatics.

Eagle Rock Entertainment’s new blu-ray of The Jam: About the Young Idea supplements the main feature with additional interview footage that finds Weller, Foxton, and Buckler visiting their boyhood homes; full performances by Weller and Brookes; and Pottinger’s complete interview with Weller. More essentially there are full-length performance clips from London’s Rainbow and NYC’s Ritz only seen in brief clips in the movie. The video is pretty blurry, but the audio is full-blooded. The big bonus on this set is an extra DVD featuring The Jam’s full performance on Germany’s Rockpalast in support of Sound Affects. The video is fairly rough but better than the bonus clips on the blu-ray and the audio is similarly excellent. So is the main attraction, who give a vital, intense performance. You may find yourself putting this extra feature into heavier rotation than the documentary it supports.

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 61


The Date: November 30
The Movie: Dragonslayer (1981)
What Is It?: Complex and elegiac fantasy about a callow young man who must complete a journey for an old wizard so he can vanquish a virgin-eating dragon during a solar eclipse. The hilariously named Vermithrax Pejorative is the single greatest realization of a dragon on film.
Why Today?: On this day in 3340 BC, a solar eclipse is recorded in stone for the very first time at the Megalithic Monument in Ireland.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 60


The Date: November 29
The Movie: Suspicion (1941)
What Is It?: Alfred Hitchcock’s kooky noir flummoxes expectations by casting Cary Grant as a potential creep who may be plotting to moider perpetually anxious Joan Fontaine. That glowing glass of milk is certainly suspicious…
Why Today?: On this day in 1986, Cary Grant dies.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 59


The Date: November 28

The Movie: The Big Heat (1953)

What Is It?: Fritz Lang takes film noir to its darkest extremes with this tale of a widowed cop who channels his grief into bringing down the crime syndicate responsible for his wife’s death. The divine cast includes Glenn Ford, Lee Marvin, Jeanette Nolan, Carolyn Jones, and serial scene-stealer Gloria Grahame.

Why Today?: On this day in 1923, Gloria Grahame is born.

Friday, November 27, 2015

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 58


The Date: November 27
The Movie: Eyes without a Face (1960)
What Is It?: Elegant yet grisly French horror in which an egomaniacal surgeon kidnaps young women so he can sew their faces onto his daughter’s faceless skull. The final shot reminds me of the cover of Procol Harum's first album.
Why Today?: On this day in 2005, Dr. Bernard Devauchelle completes France’s first successful face transplant.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 57


The Date: November 26

The Movie: King Kong (1933)

What Is It?: More ape business: a bunch of jerky explorers strut onto a secluded island, kidnap a giant gorilla, drag him to NYC, secure him with rubber bands while exploiting him in front of a bunch of slack-jawed richies, whine when he breaks free, and murder him. Willis O’Brien’s magical stop-motion effects will make you want to punch a computer in the face.

Why Today?: Because of this.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 56


The Date: November 25
The Movie: Planet of the Apes (1968)
What Is It?: Chuck Heston crashes his rocket ship on a planet populated by simian slavers, falls in love, has a few laughs, etc.
Why Today?: On this day in 3978, Chuck Heston crashes his rocket ship on a planet populated by simian slavers.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review: 'Beach Boys’ Party!: Uncovered and Unplugged'


There was an astonishingly natural progression from Beatle album to Beatle album as Revolver built on the developments of Rubber Soul while Sgt. Pepper’s inflated the ones on Revolver and so on. The Beach Boys were another matter. This is largely because Capitol, the label that treated The Beatles’ artworks so shabbily in the U.S., placed unfair demands on its top American act. Brian Wilson most certainly is that rare example of the pop genius, but even a genius needs time to replenish the inspiration reservoir. Capitol had little respect for such matters, so Wilson and his band were forced to intersperse a relatively uninspired album like Shut Down Volume 2 or an assemblage of new and old tracks like Little Deuce Coupe among the excellent LPs like All Summer Long and Surfer Girl or jumble filler with masterpieces on Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!). This surely frustrated Brian Wilson, especially after he heard Rubber Soul, which blew him away because of its consistent quality and mood. Hearing that album in late 1965 is what drove him to create his defining work, Pet Sounds. Had that album followed Summer Days, The Beach Boys’ catalogue might have started to seem as though their work was finally progressing more naturally.

Instead, Capitol demanded more product for the coming holiday season. So The Beach Boys decided to knock out a record as hastily as possible, gathering in the studio with nothing more than a couple of acoustic guitars, bongos, their flawless harmonies, and a bunch of covers they could dump out for the Christmas shoppers. Mike Love devised the idea to dub on some chattering and beer-glass clinking to give the impression that the tracks were cut at one of the guy’s houses during a party instead of at Western Recorders Studio in Hollywood.

Beach Boys’ Party! is hardly among the band’s greatest albums, but a project that began as a sloppy stop-gap before becoming a full-fledged gimmick has had a pretty impressive life. Not only did it spawn the last of the old-style Beach Boys hits with a cover of The Regents’ “Barbara Ann”, but it was a genuine predecessor to the “unplugged” fad of the nineties. And though it was a definite backwards step after Today! and the best of Summer Days, it did contain some very good music that is easier to appreciate today than it must have been fifty years ago when albums like Rubber Soul, Highway 61 Revisited, Otis Blue, and My Generation were new releases. Today, it’s easy to enjoy the ace trilogy of Beatles covers, Al Jardine’s sincere take on “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, and Mike and Brian’s angelic harmonies on the should-be-considered-a-classic “Devoted to You” without feeling forced to compare this music to anything The Beach Boys or any other band was doing at the time.

Beach Boys’ Party!: Uncovered and Unplugged makes it even easier to appreciate this music, as Mark Linett’s new stereo mixes strip away the faux “party” chatter that was often very inappropriate on the original album, especially when the guys make a mockery of Al’s Dylan tribute. This new double-disc set also fills in the story with versions of numerous songs that didn’t end up on the original album, which really would have been better if it had lost novelties like “Alley Oop” and “Hully Gully” or piss-takes of the band’s own “I Get Around” and “Little Deuce Coupe” and used Brian’s attitudinal yet good-humored version of Dion’s “Ruby Baby” or a hootenanny-turned-funky version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” instead. There are also some fascinating song choices that shed light on other grooves in the band’s discography. The boys try out Leiber and Stoller’s “Riot in Cell Block No. 9”, which Mike Love would later rewrite as the little-loved “Student Demonstration Time”. There’s an abortive attempt at “Ticket to Ride”, the song that inspired “Girl Don’t Tell Me”, and a fleeting tease of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”, a song that Brian would remake years later. Uncovered and Unplugged may not be the monumental release that the Pet Sounds or SMiLE Sessions were, but then again, it is not a document of a monumental work. It is, however, a document of a very interesting and a very fun one. Uncovered and Unplugged also affords an opportunity to hear something precious you won’t hear on those Pet Sounds or SMiLE sets: The Beach Boys playing in the studio as a real band. It’s worth the price of admission for that alone.

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 55


The Date: November 24

The Movie: Yellow Submarine (1968)

What Is It?: Cartoon Beatles traverse an acid-infused wonderland to vanquish the music-loathing Blue Meanies and sing selections from their psychedelic era. The wonderful music and eclectic pop-art animation will make you forget that John, Paul, George and Ringo aren’t supplying John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s speaking voices.

Why Today?: On this day in 1974, Donald Johnson and Tom Gray discover half a skeleton of an extinct hominid, which they nickname “Lucy” because they dig “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Review: 'Star Wars: The Original Topps Trading Card Series Volume One'


In the days before Star Wars made its VHS debut, the most complete way to gaze at its weird creatures, personable robots, and supersonic ships outside a movie theater was on Topps’ trading cards. Across five color-coded series, you could see C-3PO and R2-D2 hanging out on Tatooine or hanging out on Tatooine from a slightly different angle, Darth Vader and Tarkin glowering against a crudely airbrushed background, Luke Skywalker posing in scenes ultimately deleted from the film, or much clearer views of dewbacks and the stuff inside the Jawas’ hoods than we got on screen (not to mention some genuinely fabulous behind-the-scenes pics). Then you’d toss away that molar-splintering stick of powdered “gum,” peel off those impossible-to-remove stickers, and slap them on your bedroom door to your mother’s eternal exasperation. Sure they were pretty grainy, sometimes blurry, but the cards were right up there with Kenner’s toys and Marvel’s comics for essential Star Wars items in the late seventies.

Considering how essential Topps’ cards were when the world was still shuddering from its first wave of Star Wars-mania, it’s surprising that it has taken so long for them to be anthologized. The wait may have been long, but Abrams Books and annotator Gary Gerani have more than done right by those cards that gave us uncoordinated geeks something to trade while the golden boys flipped their baseball cards. Gerani was one of the guys who convinced Topps to take a gamble on George Lucas’s bizarre new space fantasy so soon after its Star Trek cards had flopped, and his commentary makes a book that could have just been 500 pages of nostalgia-stirring images into a book truly worth reading. His introduction and card-by-card commentaries are written from the perspective of a true fan, and his friendly tone makes all the trivia a fun read (more trivia: Gerani wrote the terrific cult horror flick Pumpkinhead!).

Abrams’ presentation is top-notch too. The waxy dust jacket recaptures the texture of the original card packages splendidly, while the images of those awful, awful gum sticks—intact on the front cover; shattered on the back—reveal a sense of humor too often missing in tributes to a flick that never needed to be taken as seriously as it often is. Initially, I was a bit disappointed that the cards weren’t blown up a bit bigger on the pages and that so much space was wasted on white borders, but considering that their images aren’t of the highest quality, it’s actually probably for the best. We should also be grateful that those low-resolution images were kept true to the original cards and Abrams did not subject them to some sort of “special edition”-style rebuff. Nostalgic authenticity is definitely the name of the game with a book like this.

As a bonus, there is also a small packet of two cards and two stickers tacked to the inside cover, but the big question on original collectors’ minds must be “So is that infamous card depicting C-3PO with a grotesque boner included?” I’m happy to say, yes…yes it is. So feel free to buy Star Wars: The Original Topps Trading Card Series Volume One with confidence. You won’t be disappointed.

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 54


The Date: November 23
The Movie: The Body Snatcher (1945)
What Is It?: Boris Karloff gives his most gleefully macabre performance as a grave robber in Robert’s Wise’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale. It's a slow burn, but worth watching for Karloff and a very spooky denouement. Lugosi's underused though.
Why Today?: On this day in 1887, Boris Karloff’s is born.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 53


The Date: November 22

The Movie: Death Race 2000 (1975)

What Is It?: Paul Bartel’s brilliant cult movie lampoons the media and public’s thirst for blood with a competition in which a colorful crew of wacky racers score points for each pedestrian they mow down.

Why Today?: Today is Go for a Ride Day.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 52


The Date: November 21

The Movie: Countess Dracula (1971)

What Is It?: Ingrid Pitt radiates frenzied energy as Elisabeth Bathory, the infamous aristocrat who bathed in virgin blood to maintain her youthful complexion. One of the best later day Hammers.

Why Today?: On this day in 1937, Ingrid Pitt is born.

Friday, November 20, 2015

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 51


The Date: November 20

The Movie: The Bad Seed (1956)

What Is It?: Mervyn LeRoy’s adaptation of William March’s genuinely scary novel about a monstrous little girl is too long by 40 minutes, but its camp value is priceless.

Why Today?: Today is Universal Children’s Day.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 50


The Date: November 19
The Movie: Trainspotting (1996)
What Is It?: Skinny, sweaty Scottish dudes shoot up, spot trains, have horrifying hallucinations, and take triumphant swims in vile toilet bowls to a snappy Brit Pop soundtrack.
Why Today?: Today is World Toilet Day.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review: 'Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back" Blu-ray


OK, so just for a moment, put yourself in his Cuban-heeled boots. Imagine you’re exceptionally intelligent, exceptionally witty, exceptionally talented, and exceptionally self-conscious. Imagine the media has yoked you with the responsibility of being the voice of your generation and incessantly bombards you with inane questions like “What is your real message?” Imagine the media is also trying to find the next you, and when it does so, it’s a meek young man singing a fairly inane love song. Imagine you’re also a 23-year old kid. Well, then you might have come off a bit the way Bob Dylan comes off in Don’t Look Back.

D.A. Pennebaker’s document of Dylan’s 1965 London tour is not flattering to our little idol, but how could it be under such circumstances? How could Dylan not have been so acidic, so mean when confronted with a flailing student journalist or Donovan offering “To Sing for You” (with all due respect to Don, who made some fabulous music, coming to Dylan with his particular song is like facing off against a howitzer armed with a peanut—and Donovan does put in a specific request for Dylan’s landscape-razing anthem “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”).

Don’t Look Back is not comfortable viewing, but it is truthful in its refusal to whitewash or romanticize Dylan’s edginess at a time that must have been both exhilarating and intensely challenging for him. Its truth is what makes Don’t Look Back a superb documentary, and the shards of song scattered throughout keep our subject in perspective. When Dylan is singing stuff as monumental as “It’s All Over Now”, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (in a super-influential music video sequence), and “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (in a flashback to 1963), it’s hard not to understand his egotism or the media’s insistence on making him his generation’s voice. In retrospect, it’s also hard not to think those journalists were at least a little right, and when we hear the kind of fatuous nonsense a reviewer phones in to his periodical after watching Dylan live, it’s hard not to sympathize with Dylan’s irritation with those journalists.

Pennbaker didn’t just capture candid footage of Dylan doling out tongue-lashings and powerful music. He also shot it beautifully despite the hand-held, minimal-set-up camerawork that lends the film its fly-on-the-wall flavor (or as journalist Greil Marcus tells Pennebaker, its “porno movie” aesthetic). The black and white picture is sometimes low contrast (though not in concert where Dylan appears as if etched in black velvet), but it has a soft and natural look that is quite atmospheric. Criterion’s new blu-ray of Don’t Look Back captures it cleanly and authentically.

Copious bonus materials that pay tribute to both Dylan and Pennbaker will keep you busy for hours. The Dylan-centric pieces include a brief audio outtake from Martin Scorsese’s doc No Direction Home in which the singer discusses the simplicity of the filming, how he got used to constantly having cameras poked in his face, and his popularity in England. There is a selection of five songs that play over a single still of him on stage that expand the musical content that isn’t the feature film’s main focus. The song selection is great—“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, “To Ramona”, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, and “It Ain’t Me Babe”—and so is the audio quality, but the lack of a “play all” option is baffling. There’s also a very cool tribute from Dylan super-fan Patti Smith, who talks about how both Dylan and his tour manager, Bob Neuwirth, helped her own rock-star career.

Neuwirth, who plays a prominent role in Don’t Look Back, gets his own sit-down with D.A. Pennebaker in a new half-hour featurette and an audio commentary from 1999, but it is the director who dominates most of the other bonuses, which include a half-hour documentary, an interview with Greil Marcus, and a selection of three of Pennebaker’s short films: “Baby”, which finds his toddler daughter romping at the zoo, “Lambert & Co.”, which chronicles the audition of a jazz vocal combo, and “Daybreak Express”, a color sketch of sunrise in Manhattan that is much more stylized than any of his other naturalistic films included on the disc. Appropriately, music plays a key part in all of these shorts.

Finally, there is an alternate version of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video shot at a park instead of a back alley (Pennebaker selected the right take for his film), and most significantly, an hour and a half of Don’t Look Back outtakes included in a feature called 65 Revisted ported over from the 2006 DVD and a new sampling called Snapshots from the Tour. Dylan is sometimes on the sidelines when the new outtakes are at their most interesting, like when Joan Baez and Marianne Faithfull sing a spellbinding duet of “As Tears Go By” or Albert Grossman, Alan Price, and another member of Dylan’s entourage debate the distinctions between blues, jazz, and gospel. The outtakes on both featurettes also include several full performances of songs (as well as a partial solo preview of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”) and Dylan being more sincere with journalists, fans, and friends than we see him being in the final cut. These outtakes are essential companions to the feature, unmasking the artist and the human being so often disguised in Don’t Look Back.

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 49


The Date: November 18

The Movie: Suspiria (1977)

What Is It?: Jessica Harper takes up residence at a Munich ballet academy and uncovers a nest of witches. Dario Argento’s masterpiece strings together a series of nightmare set pieces and builds to a demonic fairy tale climax. You could do the back stroke in all the phony blood splattered throughout this picture.

Why Today?: Today is National Occult Day.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 48


The Date: November 17

The Movie: Seconds (1966)

What Is It?: John Frankenheimer’s psychedelic sci-fi mind-bender rebuilds doughy, middle-age John Randolph as virile, young Rock Hudson. Hudson is so good you won’t even care that he was middle-aged himself when he starred in this movie.

Why Today?: On this day in 1925, Rock Hudson was born.

Monday, November 16, 2015

"The Monkees" Alternate Song Track Guide


When “The Monkees” makes its Blu-ray debut as a limited edition box set on January 29, 2016, it will arrive with enough bonus material to stuff the trunk of the Monkeemobile. Aside from the feature film Head, the most important of these bonuses will be alternate song tracks that Monkee-wrangler Andrew Sandoval recently announced will be part of the set. These tracks are so important because not all of us were lucky enough to watch the series when it originally aired. So if you caught episodes for the first time as reruns during the summer 1967 hiatus or as Saturday afternoon reruns during the 1969-1970 season, you may be used to very different songs in certain episodes. In some cases, the replacements greatly changed the tone of the episode. Imagine The Monkees frugging in Hell (“The Devil and Peter Tork”) to the insipid “I Never Thought It Peculiar” instead of the acidic “Salesman”. Whoops!

As someone who wasn’t even born during those years, I first discovered “The Monkees” in the mid-80s when it aired on MTV, Nick-at-Night, and in syndication on weekday mornings on channel 9 WOR-TV in New York. These reruns were a jumble of the originally aired episodes, 1967 replacements, and in a couple of cases, ’69/’70 replacements. As a nostalgia junkie, I long to rewatch “The Monkees” with the songs I remember from my youth. In “Success Story”, Davy forever broods on the beach to “Shades of Grey”, not “I Wanna Be Free”. “Midnight Train” is the soundtrack to the guys getting ready for their big party in “The Chaperone”, not “This Just Doesn’t Seem to Be My Day”.

Now, Sandoval apparently said that there will be alternate song tracks for “some” episodes. This is either a reference to the fact that only 32 of the 58 episodes aired with alternate songs or that only some of those 32 episodes will appear with alternate songs. We will only know when all the specs of the still-a-work-in-progress- box set are announced. In any event, if only some of the episodes that aired with alternate songs are included, you may want to figure out which ones are present and which ones are absent. I know I will, but when I went looking for a guide to the episodes that featured alternate songs in reruns, I couldn’t find one. Thanks a lot, Internet! Steve Urkel has his own Wikipedia page, but I can’t find some pretty basic information on one of the most enduring TV shows of the sixties.

So, with a little (lot of) help from Andrew Sandoval’s essential book The Monkees: The Day-By-Day Story of the 60s TV Pop SensationI put together my own guide to the alternate song tracks used on reruns of “The Monkees”. Maybe you’ll find it useful too.

1967: Summer Hiatus Reruns

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 47


The Date: November 16

The Movie: Easy Rider (1969)

What Is It?: Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda explore the American South on their motorcycles and conclude that this probably wasn’t a smart thing for a couple of long-haired hippies smuggling cocaine in their gas tanks to do. A New Orleans acid trip is the centerpiece of the film, and its haunting authenticity suggests the cast and crew really did their homework on this scene.

Why Today?: On this day in 1938, Dr. Albert Hofmann first synthesizes LSD.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 46


The Date: November 15
The Movie: Misery (1990)
What Is It?: Trash-fiction super fan Kathy Bates makes trash-fiction author James Caan sorry he decided to kill off beloved character Misery Chastain. Humor silly and nasty seeps into scenes of miserable torture.
Why Today?: Today is something called I Love to Write Day.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 45


The Date: November 14

The Movie: I Married a Witch (1942)

What Is It?: Veronica Lake is great fun as a witch who makes Fredric March miserable after his ancestor condemned her to burn at the stake three centuries earlier. Lake’s real-life torture of March while making the film makes it all the more fun to watch.

Why Today?: On this day in 1922, Veronica Lake was born.

Friday, November 13, 2015

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 44


The Date: November 13
The Movie: The Intruder (1962)
What Is It?: Roger Corman, the so-called “King of the B-Movies,” makes a “message film” infinitely more fearless than any other such picture of its era. William Shatner is chilling as a despicable shit stirrer who travels south to incite a violent backlash against school integration.
Why Today?: On this day in 1956, the Supreme Court outlaws segregated buses in Alabama.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 43


The Date: November 12
The Movie: Rear Window (1954)
What Is It?: Hitchcock’s most satisfying formal experiment locks Jimmy Stewart in an apartment and leg cast for two hours, allowing Grace Kelly to embody the film’s adventurous spirit. The backyard set is one of cinema’s most enchanting.
Why Today?: On this day in 1929, Grace Kelly born.

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
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