Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Under-Appreciated Albums, Part 3: The '90s (Part 1)

I had a more difficult time trying to find albums from the '90s that are truly under-appreciated. While I did find a few a few that are straight up ignored, I think there are a bunch more that simply aren't loved enough. Perhaps this is because at some point in the late '90s, I began to develop better taste. I also got pretty good at researching what to listen to (thanks, Internet) and I think I have pretty good coverage of most of the good stuff that was released during the decade. The result of this is that there may be albums that are under-appreciated, but I just don't realize it. Like Deserter's Songs. Does everyone else think that's a classic? Probably, but maybe not. How about Ladies and Gentlemen...? Again, I don't really know. All of this is a preamble to say that these might seem pretty arbitrary to someone else because they're only really under-appreciated in my mind. Regardless, listen to them.

Morrissey - Vauxhall and I (1994)

A couple years ago, I had finally become a little tired of listening to the Smiths. After going through a months-long phase that saw me completely wear out The Queen is Dead, Strangeways, Meat Is Murder, and, especially, Louder Than Bombs, I thought I was done with all things Morrissey for a while. I hesitated to move on to Morrissey and Johnny Marr's separate post-Smiths output because I thought that one probably couldn't work without the other, and I had heard that Morrissey's solo stuff was just kind of OK. I did my diligence anyway and finally decided that, if I was going to give solo Morrissey a shot, that shot would be taken with Vauxhall and I.

Holy shit this album is amazing. It is very much a Morrissey solo album - the focus is entirely on his voice and lyrics (with one exception that I'll discuss in a minute). The arrangements are elegant and smart and do their job of not detracting from the star of the show. "Now My Heart Is Full" is an album high point and a wonderful opener. It includes one of my favorite lines ever: "loafing oafs in all night chemists / loafing oafs in all night chemists." I think it's awesome that he just used the same line twice to fit the song and it somehow turned into some sort of rallying cry--I want to throw my fist in the air when I hear it. The album moves along with solid cuts like "Spring-Heeled Jim" and hits its second of three high points with "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get," one of Morrissey's funnier songs with awesome lines like "I will be in the bar / with my head on the bar" and "Beware, I bear more grudges / than lonely high court judges." Usually, I hate funny songs, but this one is an exception. The third high point is one of my favorite single moments in all of popular music. "Speedway," the album's closer, starts out with a short vocal and a sound that could be an engine revving or a chainsaw. The song moves along building tension until about the 2:50 mark when the drums start to kind of act up and Morrissey starts talking about lies and guilt by implication and being true to "you." Then, the moment, the last fifteen seconds where those vicious drums never fail to make me shiver.

Not enough people love this album. I understand why it's not mentioned in the same breath as the Smiths' classic output: because it's not the Smiths. It is, however, incredible in its own regard and deserves to be appreciated by both those who ignore Morrissey's solo output because they only love the Smiths and those who ignore Morrissey's output because they hate the Smiths.

Rancid - ...And Out Come the Wolves (1995)

This is one of the few albums I've either discussed or will discuss in this series that I've loved since it was released. I guess I was a junior in high school when it came out. During that time, I had questionable taste in music. I had just discovered Oasis, which eventually lead to Radiohead, which eventually lead to everything else, but my CD collection was generally full of the kinds of music that a suburban preppy kid would have. It may or may not have included Hootie and the Blowfish (okay, it did, although I maintain that Fairweather Johnson actually holds up kind of well--shut up, Jim). One genre of music that I had absolutely nothing to do with was punk. I didn't like Green Day, I hadn't even heard of the Ramones, and I think I knew who the Sex Pistols were, but if I did it was only because of Johnny Rotten's sporadic and completely insane appearances on MTV. I don't really know why I bought ...And Out Come the Wolves. I think I maybe heard "Ruby Soho" on the radio or something and gambled on it at my local Sam Goody.

I don't think I can pick out the highlights because all the songs are the same amount of good. That amount is very. "Ruby Soho" was the first song that attracted me to the album, but since then I think each song has been my favorite at one time or another. I'm listening to it as I type and I think "Journey to the End" might be my favorite this time. Critics of this album charge that Rancid is trying too hard to sound like the Clash. While that may be true, it works well, along the same lines as Interpol trying to sound like Joy Division on Turn on the Bright Lights. Rancid certainly follows the Clash's blueprint, but ends up with an album all their own. Other critics charge that the album is a departure from Rancid's more hard core roots (as on their self-titled debut and its follow up, Let's Go). Again, this may be true. But what's different about ...And Out Come the Wolves is that, while most underground bands' attempts at the mainstream are either failures or are commercially successful but betray their original sound, Rancid's attempt is a smashing success. This is as much a pop album as a punk album, but not the slightest bit pop-punk.

The album is basically ignored by the new music press. I'm not sure why. I think because it falls through the cracks as an album that didn't completely break through commercially, but isn't under the radar enough for it to be considered underrated. That's a shame because this is a terrific album from top to bottom.

R.E.M. - New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)

I think this is R.E.M.'s best album. It doesn't have the historic and influential cache of Murmur and doesn't include a single track as beloved as "Losing My Religion," but I think it's the best. It's unfortunate that it was released right after Monster. I think, after that abomination, a lot of people gave up on R.E.M. and consider their career to have sort of ended with Automatic for the People. It's a mistake. Both this album and (spoiler alert) Up are excellent and don't get their just due.

New Adventures works on two levels. First, it simply has great songs. "So Fast, So Numb" and "Electrolyte" are among the band's best, and there are really no sub-par tracks. I think "E-Bow the Letter" might be my favorite R.E.M. song, especially the live version with Thom Yorke singing Patti Smith's part. "Leave" is also awesome--that siren sound that I guess was made with a guitar that lasts almost the entire song is disarming and tense. I love the bit where it goes away for a few seconds at the end only to come back for an encore. The second level where the album works is the concept, which is not hidden: this is a road trip album. It smacks you in the face when you first see the album art's shots of wilderness, presumably somewhere in the American West. In case you didn't get it there, the first track, "How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us" drives the point home. That the album was mostly recorded on the road during the band's 1995 tour serves to drive the point home further.

Going back through old reviews, I see that New Adventures was reasonably well reviewed when it came out and people were happy that it was reissued recently. But I don't remember seeing it on too many best of the '90s lists, and I certainly don't see it cited when R.E.M.'s best output is listed and discussed. I'm actually not sure how well-regarded this album is. But it's definitely not well-regarded enough.

Twelve Caesars - Youth Is Wasted on the Young (1998)

These Swedes*, now known as simply Caesars in the US, are best known for having a couple of songs in commercials. The first one is what initially drew me to them, "I'm Gonna Kick You Out," from, I think, a Smirnoff Ice commercial (I remember that it took place in a laundromat). The second is the more popular "Jerk it Out" from an iPod commercial and also about a million video games. I remember a friend of mine finding "I'm Gonna Kick You Out" somewhere on the Internet in '02 or so, and us being excited that the whole song was as good as what the snippet from the commercial promised. I think I then bought Youth is Wasted on the Young off of eBay because it was an import and pretty tricky to find (it was later re-released in the US in 2003 as 39 Minutes of Bliss). I immediately loved it because the garage sound fit in perfectly with the other stuff I (and everyone else) was listening to: the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Hives, etc. The songs are great--the record is full of catchy songs that combine new garage and the Kinks. But what makes this album so impressive is when it originally came out: fucking 1998, three full years before the new garage explosion.

Listening to the album now, it's still great, but it's pretty unremarkable when compared to the other bands that were popular in 2001-02. The difference is that no one name checks this record in the same breath as those other ones (Is This It, White Blood Cells, Veni Vidi Vicious, etc.). And I guess they probably shouldn't. They should name check it as a predecessor to those records and an ahead-of-its-time classic. If this album had been released in 2001, it would be a fixture in most good record collections.

*That's a good band name.

--Jim Powers

7 comments:

Alex said...

Two other what I think are under-appreciated albums came to mind when I was reading this:

1. The first is Clouds Taste Metallic by the Flaming Lips (1996, I think). Everyone always thinks of Transmission as being their big breakout/90210 moment and then move right along to The Soft Bulletin as the next definite Flaming Lips moment. Clouds Taste Metallic doesn't have a bad song on it and I would maybe consider it the most listenable album in their catalog. I thought of this because I was listening to this album around the same time I was listening to ...And Out Come the Wolves.

2. When reading what you wrote about Twelve Caesars, I couldn't help but think of Jonathan Fire Eater's Wolf Song for Lambs (1997). I feel like the Strokes owe a lot to these guys. And I'm not sure if this album is underappreciated, but I feel like barely anyone has heard it regardless of how "influential" some rags say it is. It's a great record.

Alex said...

Also, after reading this I listened to ...And Out Come the Wolves for maybe the 500th time. My favorite songs this time were "Time Bomb" and "Junkie Man."

Brian said...

I love Vauxhall and I. It's really Morrissey's only solo album that I do like. All the rest are, as you say, just kind of OK. Bona Drag is pretty good, but it's a singles/b-sides comp, so it might not count as an "album" per se. I hear/read good things about Your Arsenal as well.

An album I would add to this list is the self-titled (and only) album by The La's. It made a minor splash in the UK when it was released in 1990, but, as is usually the case, that success didn't translate in the States. Everyone knows the single "There She Goes" (because it's incredible), but not enough people appreciate the whole record. It's just hook after hook after hook. The La's is also a bit anomalous in that it's a straight-up guitar pop album released during Madchester's heyday and during the rise of Britpop--which might account for its relative un-success.

Travis said...

1. Jim, Everything you said about New Adventures was spot-on. Personally, I try to be stingy with my rewarding of 5 stars to songs on my ipod, and New Adventures has three 5 star songs (Leave, So Fast, So Numb, Ebow). No small feat.

2. For some reason I hated Rancid when they came on the scene. I don't know if it was because I didn't like their jerk-off name, or I didn't like their jerk-off faces, or I just didn't like how hard MTV pushed these jerk-offs. However, unlike my similar dislike of Pete Yorn, this one was not justified, as I finally gave this album a chance a couple of years ago, and it's really good.

3. I'm excited about this Jonathan Fire Eater Alex speaks of. I've never heard of them. If only there was some way I could track down one of their albums...

4. Thanks Brian for reminding me of that song. Now I have to listen to Interior Crocodile Alligator to clear my head.

Brian said...

Oh, Travis, you know you love it.

I was listening to Document (the R.E.M. album) this afternoon and it struck me how markedly different it is from Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, and Lifes Rich Pageant--at least sonically. To my ears, it's the first album that really sounds like them, and I think that's what's so great about New Adventures, too. It's looser and less formalist than Automatic, but less obfuscated than Murmur, and 100% R.E.M. Its intents and its contents couldn't be clearer, and I agree it is one of the better albums in their catalog.

Finally, why does everyone hate on Monster? I think it's awesome; I've loved it since it came out. It's like the band said, "You bet your asses we can make a big-guitar record." And they did it.

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