Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Psychobabble's Ten Greatest Albums of 1992!

The year after Nirvana kicked open the doors for a form of Rock that did not require crates of Aquanet, “grunge” was the industry’s favorite buzzword. Yet the less grungy sounds that would soon be championed as “alternative” by a press desperate to put some sort of label on all the eclecticism were already in effect. Many makers of the best albums of 1992 may have had a pair of Doc Martens in their closets, but their sounds drew on a wide variety of sources: the Girl Group sound of the sixties, punk, folk, twee pop, industrial, and synthesized minimalism. And I’m not just talking about Guided by Voices’ eclectic annual contribution. I’m talking about Psychobabbles Ten Greatest Albums of 1992!

10. Hey Babe by Juliana Hatfield

While a lot of independent groups were getting grungy or disturbingly surreal or channeling The Smiths in the late eighties, Boston’s Blake Babies were a fresh breath of pure pop. As soon as the trio split in 1992, bandleader Juliana Hatfield didn’t waste a second getting her solo career started, and she did so with her most Blake Babyish disc. Hey Babe is a smashing solo debut with all the sweet pop melody and power pop guitar work of the Babies’ best. Yet tracks like “Nirvana” (about Hatfield’s infatuation with the band with which everyone was infatuated in ’92) and “Get Off Your Knees” indicate that she could get heavier on her own than she had with her old band. Some critics sneered at Hatfield’s girlish voice and accused her of being either too self-deprecating or too self-aggrandizing, failing to realize how patronizing the former gripe is and how shortsighted the latter one is. Just as a lot of critics missed the humor in Morrissey’s tales of woe, they also let the subtle funniness of “Ugly” (“I’m ugleeeeee with a capital U”) and the knowingly absurd “Everybody Loves Me But You” soar over their heads. As over-the-top as these songs are, there is still a layer of true woe beneath them that makes them work as humor and weepy diary entries. Maybe Hatfield was channeling The Smiths after all. Not a bad band to channel.

9. Get Your Goat by Shudder to Think

By Frankensteining hard rock and indie rock with a sort of angular artiness and Craig Wedren’s otherworldly wailing, Shudder to Think forged one of the most unique sounds of the late eighties (Wedren’s predilection for performing naked with a banana balanced on his shoulder gave them a pretty unusual look too). However, it took them several tries to figure out how to put that sound to best use. The band’s first two albums found the sound coalescing but couldn’t sustain the same level of great material heard on the Ten Spot E.P. released between them. Shudder to Think finally managed to produce an album’s worth of awesomeness for Get Your Goat. Anyone could probably stitch together a bunch of disparate and difficult influences, but not every band can do it while also delivering hooks, and glammy tracks such as “Love Catastrophe” and “Shake Your Halo Down” prove that Shudder to Think was more than capable, while “Pebbles” shows just how much pop mileage they could get out of a single, bizarre line. I defy anyone to hear it and not spend the next week hiccupping “Poor little girl screaming traffic in her hair.” Shudder to Think did not go easy on their audience, though, and both Wedren’s voice and fractured pieces such as “Rain-Covered Cat” and “Funny” seem designed to clear the uncommitted out of the room. The committed should probably be committed, but they will also find themselves obsessed with a band unlike any other. Poor little girl screaming traffic in her hair.

8. Eleventeen by Daisy Chainsaw

Daisy Chainsaw is another band with recognizable influences—a bit of metal riffing, a bit of punk velocity, a bit of psychedelic flightiness— who used those influences in a totally unique synthesis. Also like Shudder to Think, Daisy Chainsaw got a lot of their personality from their freaky lead singer. KatieJane Garside presents herself as a sort of mud faerie, a waif splattered in filth whose cute coos and girly giggles inevitably froth over into serial-killer shrieks. Opening tracks “I Feel Insane” and “You Be My Friend” pretty much sum up the band’s mission: they are crazy and you will be their friend, like it or not. From there they are either slashing out outrageously killer riffs (the metal-mania “Dog with Sharper Teeth”, the ass-wagging “Love Your Money”) or trying to freak you out with aural nightmares (the queasy “Waiting for the Wolves” and “Everything is Weird”). With “Hope Your Dreams Come True”, Daisy Chainsaw pull off both in a single show-stopping package. With “Natural Man” they do the truly unthinkable by whipping off a catchy little acoustic pop tune unlike anything else on the record. Set in a bathtub, “Natural Man” also features pop’s best bait-and-switch fart joke.

7. Congregation by Afghan Whigs

There are germs of Afghan Whigs’ roguishness and soul leanings on Up In It, but the unique approach that separated them from the generic grunge scene didn’t crystallize until Congregation. The band’s third album is not only focused in vision with its fixation on back alley sexual politics, self-loathing, and chemically induced surrender, but also totally consistent in quality. Up In It jumbled great songs with more forgettable ones. Congregation shuffles really good tracks (“Kiss the Floor”, “This Is My Confession”, “Let Me Lie to You”) with really great ones. Greg Dulli lets himself go completely with “I’m Her Slave”, the piano-driven “Turn on the Water”, “Conjure Me”, “Dedicate It”, and the incredible bonus track “Miles Iz Ded”. You can practically hear the drool splattering against the mic. On the acoustic “Tonight”, the mania lets up but the intensity doesn’t. It’s a bit of a preview of the more textured tone to come on the Whigs’ masterpiece, Gentlemen, and there is a bit of a transitional flavor to Congregation, but the album still holds up as a harrowing experience on its own. Plus a cover of “The Temple” is the most listenable thing Jesus Christ Superstar ever spawned.

6. Smeared by Sloan

Anyone who came to the Sloan party a little late might be surprised by the band’s beginnings. While Cheap Trick-Meets-The Beatles power pop ruled the mass of Sloan’s future recordings, they entered the Halifax scene with a noisier, indier sound deeply indebted to Isn’t Anything-era My Bloody Valentine. The band’s signature poppiness was not exactly absent in songs too catchy for the real Valentine. In fact, if you drain off the rivers of feedback that drown “Underwhelmed”, “I Am the Cancer”, and “Take It In”, those tracks would be fit for Twice Removed— and you wouldn’t even have to strip much from the appropriately sweet “Sugartune”, the dreamy “What’s There to Decide?”, or the rapturous “500 Up”. “Raspberry”, “Marcus Said”, “Left of Center”, “Lemonzinger”, and “Two Seater” are edgier, more innately dissonant, and further removed than twice from subsequent Sloan discs. These are the tracks that make Smeared cool and unique, though the poppier ones are what make it excellent.    

5. Automatic for the People by R.E.M.

R.E.M. had been genuine pop stars for a few years by 1992, so they could afford to cash in on some of that commercial cred by taking their music in a moodier direction than that of Green or Out of Time. While those albums had strong flashes of the dusky, acoustic mood that dominates Automatic for the People, they balanced them with a lot of shiny, happy pop tunes. Aside from the giggly Dr. Seuss/Tokens tribute “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” and the oddly romantic Andy Kaufman memorial “Man on the Moon”, Automatic keeps its chin down and its brow furrowed. This is even true when lyrics about the naked bliss of swimming at night (“Nightswimming”) or fucking (“Star Me Kitten”) don’t reflect such grimness. That dark tone makes Automatic for the People enchanting as a whole, even if its relentless pop-culture referencing is a bit too cute and its centerpiece “Everybody Hurts” is a lyrically and musically insipid ball of corn that demands a sprint to the “next” button on your CD player. When it’s at its best, as it is with the elegant “Nightswimming”, the clashing “Ignoreland”, the bitter “Monty Got a Raw Deal”, and the woozy “Sweetness Follows”— a far less cloying boost of encouragement than “Everybody Hurts” — Automatic for the People is automatically one of R.E.M.’s best albums.

4. Marvin the Album by Frente!

At a time when thick, grungy guitars brewed in Seattle were the major rage, Frente! must have seemed as though they came from another place. For us Americans, they did come from another place—Australia—and I say “must have,” because the band wasn’t really known in the States until their debut album was finally released (with the addition of their cover of “Bizarre Love Triangle” and the moving “No Time” and the loss of a couple of minor tracks) in 1994. That’s when there was more of a framework for their sunny, Kinky pop within the more expansive “alternative” scene, and Marvin the Album does feel perfectly in tune with the multi colors of ’94 when likeminded artists such as The Cardigans, Parklife-era Blur, and ¡Simpatico!-era Velocity Girl did their thing. So in its way, Marvin the Album both looks back to fresh sixties pop and forward beyond the dull grays of grungy ’92. Each track is a lovely little nugget, and though Angie Heart’s mile-wide smile is audible across most of them, Marvin is no village idiot. It begins on a melancholic note with the dusky “Girl”, revisits that mood on “Pretty Friend” and the break-out single “Labour of Love”, broods on “Reflect”, and expresses outrage while playing the roles of El Salvadorians amidst a Civil War on the jazzy “Cuscatlan”. That being said, the prevailing mood is happy, and “Accidentally Kelly Street”, “Most Beautiful”, “See/Believe”, “Ordinary Angels”, and “Dangerous” could be prescribed as mood altering drugs.

3. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Original Soundtrack) by Angelo Badalamenti

Fans were furious when Twin Peaks got the axe in 1991. Many were flummoxed when David Lynch served up its feature-film prequel/sequel the following year, though critical assessment of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me has certainly improved in recent years. Less controversial is its soundtrack album, which has even been called the “best ever” by the NME (not to mention ME without the N). Maestro Angelo Badalamenti revisits and expands some themes used in the series, taking the simple synthesizer pieces “New Shoes” and “Audrey’s Prayer” and swelling them into the sensuous pure-jazz title theme and the stunningly beautiful “Questions in a World of Blue” featuring Julee Cruise’s sad serenade respectively. Beyond similar jazzy (“The Pine Float”, “Don’t Do Anything [I Wouldn’t Do]”, the too dreamy “Moving Through Time”) and somberly synthy (the spellbinding “Voice of Love”) pieces, Badalamenti and Lynch, himself, add colors new to the Peaks palette. There’s Lynchs punishing blues “The Pink Room”, which pulses on a sneering string bass riff, Badalamentis own manic beatnik vocal on the rocking “A Real Indication”, and one shadowy nook too dark and scary to describe called “The Black Dog Runs at Night”. A mind-bending medley feels like a mini-Badalamenti’s Greatest Hits by morphing from nostalgic fifties pop to one of his saddest synth themes to a particularly tear-jerking take on “Laura Palmer’s Theme” to the familiar yet still transcendent TV theme song. As the cherry on this slice of pie, the Little Jimmy Scott-crooned “Sycamore Trees”, one of Badalamenti and lyricist Lynch’s most mysterious concoctions, gets a second life after its use in the gob-smacking final episode of the TV series. You may hate the film, but Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is an irresistibly dreamy slice of music.

2. Propeller by Guided by Voices

Guided by Voices hit their first major artistic peak in 1990 with the conceptual Same Place the Fly Got Smashed, but that didn’t matter much when Robert Pollard was in debt from self-financing albums too few people bought. Having lost core members Mitch Mitchell and Kevin Fennell, Bob suspected that his band was coming to an end and resolved to make one final GBV disc. This fond farewell would blossom into a true labor of love finding the guys individually customizing each of its 500 LP sleeves and selecting the very best of Pollard’s bottomless barrel of tunes. Since there wasn’t the controlling feel of the essential indie rocker Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia or the doomy Same Place, Propeller ended up as the most eclectic GBV release yet, highlighting everything the band did so well and often doing so filtered through a cheap cassette four-track machine. There were pastiches of big arena rock (“Over the Neptune”), psychedelia (“Mesh Gear Fox”, “Weed King”), heavy metal (“Lethargy”, “Some Drilling Implied”), and hot-rod rock (“Quality of Armour”, “Exit Flagger”), as well as classic Uncle Bob power pop (“Unleashed! The Large Hearted Boy”) and pure weirdness (“Particular Damaged”, the odds-and-sods medley “Back to Saturn X Radio Report”, “Ergo Space Pig”). There were also touches of tremendous beauty with “Red Gas Circle” and “14 Cheerleader Coldfront”, a collaboration with prodigal band mate Tobin Sprout. And so through various circumstances, the album that was to be Guided by Voices’ goodbye pulled the unexpected trick of setting all the essential elements of the band’s “classic” era—ultra-lo-fi recording, unfettered eclecticism, Tobin Sprout—into place. Propeller ended up vivifying interest in the band, which would go on to make a string of albums that launched them into lo-fi legend. GBV! GBV!

1. 99.9F° by Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega had already proved she was much more than some wan NYC folkie when she made the mysterious, multi-layered Days of Open Hand in 1990, but not enough people heard that record for it to really change her rep. Then a few months later, the production team known as DNA made a dance remix of the a capella “Tom’s Diner”, which became a huge hit and a surprisingly successful marriage of Vega’s literacy with a harder dance sound. Perhaps that is what inspired her to go further out on a limb with her next personal project. With the assistance of producer Mitchell Froom, Vega created a near-industrial landscape totally distinct from any of her previous sounds and received her sharpest support yet from such aces as Richard Thompson, Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, and MVP Bruce Thomas, who contributes some of the most memorable bass lines of his career, which is saying a lot. Vega puts such collaborators to good use with her best selection of songs. While 99.9F° is not exactly a concept album, there is a running theme of the body running off course as Vega tells the tales of a patient dizzy after receiving a traumatizing diagnosis (“Blood Makes Noise”), a woman coolly noting the feverishness of her lover (the title track), a woman imagining the object of her desire is addicted to diagnosis (“([If You Were] In My Movie”), a child being examined for sexual abuse (“Bad Wisdom”), and former golden boys and girls finally hitting bottom (“When Heroes Go Down”). In the twisty “As Girls Go”, she stands back in amused confusion as a man takes full control of his body by slipping into a more suitably feminine skin. With “In Liverpool” she creates her absolute masterpiece, a transcendent showcase of production grandeur, Beatlesque tunefulness and arpeggios, Gothic-romance poetry, and intense longing. The over-heated bodies often at the center of such lyrics receive complimentary textures and temperatures in a record that sounds as fiery as its flame-engulfed cover image, both because of Froom’s steam-works production and Vega’s embracing of her voice’s latent sexiness. All of this makes for not just the best album of 1992 and one of the best albums of the 1990s, but one of the best albums of the entire pop era.  

5 More Great Albums from 1992
Good by Morphine
Palomine by Bettie Serveert
Slanted and Enchanted by Pavement 
The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion by The Black Crowes
Wish by The Cure
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