Number 10. – Automatic for the People – REM
This is a culmination of everything that R.E.M. was. It is the last record where the band was able to successfully expand its art. At one point in the early 90s, I’m sure it must have looked as though R.E.M.’s days as a groundbreaking, innovative gang of musicians were behind them, and that they were destined, if the uneven content on “Document”, “Green” and “Out of Time” was any indication, to nip the bud of major label stardom to a degree that would invariably result in the “alternative culture” labeling them as sellouts, if they hadn’t been so labeled already. To some degree, that did indeed happen. By 1991-92, R.E.M. were no longer a band with a fresh, enigmatic sound and vision, as they had been when “Murmur” seemed to appear out of nowhere and sounded like it too. Though they had become the standard-bearers of “that alternative sound” from the get-go, their original motivations as musicians and artists seemed to be fading. They were drifting rather dangerously close to the types of pop concessions and pretensions that sank many a band in the 80s and 90s artistically, even though they were experiencing more commercial success than they ever had before. I would argue that R.E.M.’s talents as artists never gelled more thoroughly and yielded as fully formed results musically as they did here. As plaintively stated in “Everybody Hurts”, sadness is a universal human emotion. At some point in his or her life, every person has experienced some event of such unequivocal pain, loss, or disappointment that makes us grieve; disoriented, we face the world with the kind of infantile vulnerability that defines a child. We come to crave a mother’s consolation, we cry for help, and for better or worse, we redefine ourselves in the process. My depression now defines my life, impacting my grades, my social behavior, and my sense of self-worth. With breathtaking scope and startling accuracy, Automatic for the People charts this cycle of depression through Michael Stipe’s poetic lens, and in doing so, provides an ocean of hope to those trapped within this vicious circle.
Number 9. – Slanted & Enchanted – Pavement
Most people who don’t “get” this album have, in my experience, too rigid a view of what rock music is. They say things like: they don’t play in time, they sound like they are mucking around, it’s too loose, it’s too lax, the production is hopeless etc. etc. But ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ is made partially as a reaction against rock cliches. For a really good discussion of the ‘low-fi’ production of this album, check out the excellent review on Pitchfork. The long and short of it is that the fuzzy, low-budget production is part of a deliberate aesthetic and attitude. There is so much fake emotion in popular music, but you won’t find it in Pavement. These songs are often emotionally guarded, but a song like “Loretta’s Scars” offers new insights into relationships between men and women. “How can I make my body shed for you?” is a much more interesting question I am used to encountering in a love song. A lot of these songs are sad, but they don’t parade their sadness in the way that a lot of independent music does. And then they do take themselves too seriously either. If it isn’t already obvious, I think Pavement’s two first albums are about as good as indie rock gets.
Number 8. – Little Earthquakes – Tori Amos
One of those rare albums that although being candidly and painfully cathartic, can also be played from start to finish as an enjoyable and catchy pop album, and manages to not come accross as self-indulgent and self-pitying all of which pieces just falll together falwlessly. Musically, Tori admittedly doesn’t come close to reaching her creative peak and her dazzling classically trained piano playing ability doesn’t reign as thunderously as it would on later albums. But that doesn’t matter as all twelve songs, consisting mostly of majestic piano ballads or mid tempo ensembles, are all strong bodies of work. The tracks were composed as piano pieces with additional instramentation and percusssion added only as required. In the context of this album, the production works perfectly, it’s not sparse to the point of monotony, but minimalist enough not draw attention away from, but instead complement the candid confessionals and the piano playing. Lyrically too, she is not as dense and impenetrable as she has been for the rest of her career, but this too works to her advantage.
Number 7. – Selected Ambient Works 85 – 92 – Aphex Twin
This can easily be considered to be one of the best, most influential albums in the history of electronic music. It is without a doubt the pinnacle of early 90’s electronica, and has had a huge influence on artists to follow. In my opinion, the first half of the album is the best. My favorite track is the opener, ‘Xtal.’ The track starts with some light percussion, which is later joined by some female vocal samples. Toward the middle of the track a beautiful synth melody enters the mix, which also closes out the track. This is one of my favorite all-time Aphex Twin tracks. Aphex Twin is a genius. Objectively. I’m pretty sure he has one of the highest IQs in the music business, and if you’re still not convinced by my totally made-up fact, just look at the title of this album. 85-92 means that these pieces were composed between 1985 and 1992. He was born in 1971. This means that at least one of these songs was composed when he was as young as 13. Even if this wasn’t one of the best albums ever, that would still be a hell of an accomplishment.
Number 6. – Doppelgänger – Curve
Doppelgänger is like jellyfish soup – if there ever could be one it would resemble this album – it would be nettling and wobbly and jellylike. Music is very gelatinous and listening to it I literally got stuck in the sound. Perhaps this album is responsible for the excuse of the electronic noise that they call shoegaze nowadays. Or perhaps it’s responsible for containing a great opening track to get the blood pumping in “Already Yours”. It’s punk, it’s industrial… but it’s shoegaze. And all these ghostly vocals dubbed on music create an atmosphere of cosmic unreality. Talk about loud, Curve’s Doppelganger has its moments of breathtaking noise that My Bloody Valentine would’ve been jealous of. Between “Horror Head” and “Faît Accompli” is a dense mixture of noise which is completely atmospheric and captivating that in a wierd sort of way, it gives me an orgasm. That record sounds almost tame compared to this sex drenched rush. You can thank Toni Halliday’s sexy, blistering vocals for that. She drives the melodies, creating harmonies that for the most part run against the electric background. The guitars are so layered and loud but they can never drown out her purrs and bedroom confessions. There’s no denying their melodies, or their noise. But there’s also no denying that Toni Halliday has the best shoegazing voice besides Liz Frasier. The power, sensitivity, and anger expressed with just a few notes in her contralto range give these songs their emotional depth. “Think and Act” is pure gorgeousness for this reason, but “Fait Accompli,” “Horror Head” “Wish You Dead” and “Lillies Dying” all accomplish this as well.
Number 5. – Dirt – Alice in Chains
Dirt is one of the darkest, depressing, harrowing albums ever made. It’s full of so much despair and pain, it contains so much anguish that it’s sometimes really hard to listen to. It’s seen as THE heroin album, because of what Layne was going through and how vivid the lyrics were and the imagery they evoked. The album is definitely about Layne’s addiction, but I think the songs go beyond that. They go much deeper and it isn’t quite as one dimensional as that, even though at the album’s heart it’s about addiction I think the songs deal with deeply personal and emotional issues that go beyond Layne’s addiction. Sometimes, the lyrical content is incredibly vivid and other times it’s so cryptic and hard to decipher. It’s one of the most absorbing albums ever, I feel exhausted and drained after listening to it. The best thing about Grunge, for me, was the different styles the best bands had. From Nirvana’s Punk Rock sensibilities, to Pearl Jam’s classic rock leanings, to The Afghan Whigs’ soul influences. Each band from the scene had something different to offer. Alice In Chains were the band whose aesthetic was closest to Metal and I think Dirt is not only the darkest album to come out of the movement, but it’s one of the darkest albums ever. Dirt is Alice In Chain’s masterpiece, their career defining album and it’s one of the best and most essential albums of the decade. It’s actually chilling, Layne invites us into his hellish nightmare and completely changes our perception of music. It’s an album that floors me, it leaves me absolutely speechless.
Number 4. – Ferment – Catherine Wheel
There have been occasions, admittedly rare, when reviewing my record collection I’ve stumbled across an album which makes me question why I resisted the compulsion to buy more by the same artist. Ferment by Catherine Wheel is one such album. Regarding my own musical motivators, Ferment pressed all the right buttons. Creating harsh, metallic rhythms as a backdrop for dark, depressive lyrics is a winning recipe in my book and Catherine Wheel are certainly adept in this area. Why I didn’t follow this up is a complete mystery as the band have released several other albums. (Since writing this review I’ve acquired nearly all the band’s back catalogue and have no regrets). The fact the band chose to drown what are particularly strong melodic hooks in droning guitars and whining feedback is usually a complete turn-off, but in the case of Catherine Wheel this isn’t the case. Part of the answer lies with the vocal style of Rob Dickinson. Instead of the expected growling, indistinct voice, his lightweight sound provides a brilliant counterpoint for the mayhem of the music around it displayed to best effect on “Texture”, “Black Metallic”, “Flower To Hide” and “I Want To Touch You”. Unfortunately that strange mixture of styles could be the reason why the band have not had the success that they certainly deserved.
Number 3. – Check Your Head – Beastie Boys
How do you follow an album like Paul’s Boutique? Most bands would do more of the same, but not the Beastie Boys. Instead of continiuing with the sampling and over the top lyrics, they return with a grittier, funkier, darker album with more politically tinged rhymes and a touch of punk for good measure. And the strange thing is, less than half of the 20 songs on the album are even rap. With this album, the Beastie Boys showed they were much more than your average hip-hop group, they weren’t afraid to take risks and change styles and genres at will, and for that, I think ‘Check your Head’ is an underrated masterpiece. This is without a doubt one of the most interesting and varied records i have ever heard, let alone for hip-hop. I suppose it reinforces my love for the out-of-step, but the moods and styles this record goes through without being pompous or ridiculous or jarring is amazing to me. Its funny because on all their other records (before and after) they have a variety of elements but only on this one do they bring them all together, and it works! I especially love the instrumentals featured here. It’s impossible to categorize this album and that’s what makes it a bona-fide classic. A hodge-podge of rap, funk, rock, punk and jazz fusion, this album proves that the Beastie’s musical purview is limitless. All three of them are very proficient at playing their respective instruments and none of the three sicks out ahead than the others. Check Your Head” is my favourite Beasties’ album because it has something for everyone – it’s such a juxtaposition of styles that works incredibly well as a cohesive whole.
Number 2. – Rage Against The Machine –
Rage Against The Machine
Rage Against The Machine is the amazing debut of this revolutionary band. When I was just getting into music I used to think this was the best thing out there and it really is something. In your face songwriting, explosive riffs and pure unadulterated ANGER are what Rage promises and with their self entitled they certainly deliver. The 4 angry young men who make up the band are Zach de la Rocha, a unique singer (well rapper i guess) who spits out pure hate and has some extremely strong vocal chords considering the intensity of some of his screams. Tom Morello is the guitarist and he really has a style of his own. His riffs are one of the best things about the band, and instead of taking solos he makes awesome noises come out of his guitar. Rhythm section is comprised of Timmy C on bass, a great player with an excellent approach to the instrument and drummer Brad Wilk who definately fits in well with Rage’s style. This was their best album, basically because it was their first, and they had the most power and anger in them at that time. The lyrics are fairly out there, usually spreading awareness of injustices that go on all over the world. If that sort of thing gives them the fire inside to write this kind of music then good for them. Saying I understand what he really tells me is probably not true but I can relate to it. And it’s not like “relate” in Human Traffic or in other words, when you’re on pills. I do relate. Well, I guess we all relate to “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” or “Burn, yes, you’re gonna burn” in some way, sometimes. It does not have to be about fighting for a specific purpose. Zack might say you have interpret his songs his way but there’s no one correct almighty way although I have to admit the sense of freedom is intense and dominant. All the songs are strong but not offensive, rough but not raw, (and oddly enough) beautiful!
Number 1. – Angel Dust – Faith No More
Expectations to do a follow up of The Real Thing made plenty of fans to curse Angel Dust for not doing the exact same material. Faith No More dropped the giant WTF bomb known as Angel Dust on an unsuspecting world marked the controversial and influential masterpiece. 1992’s brilliantly warped Angel Dust aggressively defied industry and fan expectations alike by serving up a dark, difficult and occasionally disjointed set of 13 songs that was far too clever and ahead of its time for its own good. Doing the exact same album will indefinitely lose Angel Dust‘s identity for the sake of celebrating the previous album that made the band’s breakthrough. It was a power struggle instead; one that saw guitarist Jim Martin marginalized from the creative process and, later, expelled outright. But all this tension led to more inspired lunacy, as evidenced by the dance-infused “Midlife Crisis,” homoerotic “Be Aggressive.” The music here is extremely hard to categorize. The best overall tag here is experimental alternative rock/metal, but even that feels a bit unfitting. There’s a distinct funk influence in many of the songs, especially “Land of Sunshine”, the lyrically witty “Be Aggressive”, the symphonic “Kindergarten,” or the melodic “Everything’s Ruined.” Progressive rock influences creep their way in throughout the entire album, as do jazz and hip hop tendencies. There’s even a country music influence in “RV”, which illustrates Mike Patton’s hilarious satirical parody on American “white trash”. Picking a standout track on Angel Dust is virtually impossible since they’re all examples of the eclecticism. Record label executives were quite concerned with all of the sampling on Angel Dust, but I can’t imagine listening to the album without it. The whole listen is a gathering the genres of rock, pop, funk, alternative, prog, goth, & thrash blends so many things together to make it one of the most unique and hard-hitters of the era. This album is a shining example of how adept each and every member of FNM were with their instruments. Especially when it comes to composing and creating great songs as a combination of 5 talents who each had their own voice, yet, somehow, they were able to combine those distinct voices in a way that totally made sense. Each song has a different style but each are done with 100% conviction that giving any less credit to Angel Dust is an insult to musical evolution, excellent musicianship, & ambition itself.