Saturday, March 8, 2014

1994, A Musical History Of Me

Most people who know me would agree: I am obsessed with the popular music of 1994.  In truth, if one were to make a graphical representation of my musical tastes, it would resemble an unevenly drawn target, with 1994 as the bulls-eye in dead center, with 1993 and 1995 being right beside it on both sides as runners-up, and other years radiating out in thinner and thinner circles, but more to the left (or pre-1994) and to the right (after 1994).  It is the benchmark by which other music I hear is judged and evaluated against.  I have affinities for other eras, notably the early roots of rock from the 1950s and 1960s, and the emerging heavy rock of the early 1970s, as well as New Wave of the 1980s, but for me 1994 remains a touchstone, and likely will until the day I cease to be.  The 20th anniversary of that year compelled me to make this, mostly because I figured if I lived another 20 years I might not remember some of the details of how I came to like or discover certain things, and I suppose 20 years is significant enough to warrant an effort like this one.

The list of albums from that time is a long one indeed, even when one focuses on just the most popular releases from the most famous bands.  Indeed much of the music from then is woven into my memories of that time, even if it is music I didn’t like at the time and still do not like now.  But there are several albums that I feel like I need to share and discuss here, if only to further cement and explain my particular affection for the year 1994 and its music.  Presented here, in no order except for a “top three” that I will save for the end, is my list:

Honorable mention: Dumb and Dumber: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

I know, I know, this is not actually “an album” per se.  But I have to at least mention it here because it is a particularly good soundtrack, which in turn spun more than one song into poplar radio singles.  I cannot think of the year 1994 or this era of music without such songs as “The Bear Song” by Green Jelly, or “New Age Girl” by Deadeye Dick, or even “If You Don’t Love Me (I’ll Kill Myself)” by Pete Droge being a part of my memories.  And those are just the best of the songs on here.  There are about two or three dud songs to skip but as a soundtrack, this might be one of the best ones out there.  Fact: in the 90s the Farrelly Brothers movies always had good soundtracks (see also: Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary).

Live – Throwing Copper

I first heard this album at my friend Bryan’s house.  His older brother played it on the family stereo system on the good speakers and I was hooked instantly to the hard edged riffs and groovy rhythms.  It would be many years before I actually paid enough attention to some of the lyrics to see how infatuated they were with Jesus, but that didn’t matter to twelve-year-old me.  All I knew was that this album rocked, especially considering tracks like “All Over You,” “I Alone,” “Top” and “Selling the Drama.”  Really there are no bad songs on the entire album, from the slow building to a hard rocking “The Dam at Otter Creek” to the slow and slightly dreamy “Horse” which is a hidden track at the end.  This album, needless to say, was in heavy rotation in my stereo system.

Offspring – Smash

This album, silly as it may sound, was extremely formative for me!  This was, you guessed it, my first ever “bad” CD.  I mean it had a picture of a skeleton on the front with the word SMASH emblazoned across in big, red letters.  It looked and sounded like it was written, recorded and packaged in someone’s garage.  One of the songs (“Bad Habit”) talked about “wrecking this fucker’s ride” and “Stupid, dumbshit goddamn motherfuckers” really loudly.  The band itself seemed, at times, to be louder than the recording equipment could handle.  The entire album rocked with a punk-like intensity (appropriate for a nominal punk band from Los Angeles) but showed some rock and grungy tendencies typical of the era also, which may explain why it was hugely successful and went on to sell 11 million copies, making it one of the most successful independent releases of all time.  But for me, songs like “Gotta Get Away,” “Come Out and Play” and especially “Self Esteem” remain as an integral part of me and one of the main strings attaching me still to 1994 and that summer.  “Self Esteem” in particular was a sort of theme song for me all through seventh grade, and the entire album was so unlike anything else I had listened to before, it opened my mind even more to other types of music and served to rock the Genesis/Phil Collins stuff out of my head (although not completely).  There is plenty of substance to be found, even if it is a bit obvious at times.  “Come Out And Play” was a screed against school violence and “Not the One” was a declaration that Gen-X’ers did not create all the problems of the world and served as a sort of “fuck you” to those who would hurl the word “slackers” them.  “Genocide,” and “It’ll Be a Long Time” were written as indictments of the military industrial complex.  “What Happened to You?” was a warning about overindulgence in drugs.  It just goes to show that not all punk music is just about sex and rock’n’roll.

The Cranberries – No Need to Argue

This album really is amazing, and it stretched my musical tastes out a bit also, as it was one of the first albums I did not totally like at first listen, but grew to like more and more over time.  I bought this album for the same reason most people did in 1994: the smash lead single “Zombie” which paints a somber picture of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland and howls with a certain confrontational heaviness, especially in light of Dolores O’Riordan’s fairly unique vocals.  It’s meant to be a sad song, but it’s both so well written and so catchy that it became a hit and made girls everywhere wish they could sing like Dolores.  But this album is no one trick pony, with other very excellent tracks like “Ridiculous Thoughts,” “Daffodil Lament,” “The Icicle Melts” and the opener “Ode to My Family.”  The craft and skill of the band, and especially the vocals, are evident throughout and there are really no bad songs to be found.  I found I was more into each song the more times I heard it, and after a while I could be found playing this album front to back in my room if I felt like sitting and reading, getting work done or just thinking and contemplating life.  This is definitely a good all-purpose album and a fine addition to anyone’s collection. 

Hole – Live Through This

I’ll be honest and say I never owned this album, and indeed have never owned any Hole album in my life.  But I remember the first time I heard “Violet” crash through my speakers extremely well.  It fit right into what was going on musically at the time, which is probably why allegations that Courtney Love’s famous husband (Kurt Cobain if you need him) ghostwrote some or all of the album dog her to this day.  But it was definitely a statement album, and “Violet” was the perfect, screaming, angst-filled anthem for its time.  “Doll Parts,” while a slower song, is in the same sonic space as “Violet” but is a slower, sadder contemplation also worthy of mention here.

Beck – Mellow Gold

I also have to confess that I never actually owned this album either, mostly because aside from its ultra-famous slacker-anthem single “Loser,” I did not really know any of the songs. Quick history lesson: in 1994 if you knew of, and liked, only ONE song on an album of twelve other songs you had a few choices: 1) buy the album and hope you grew to like the rest of the songs, 2) try to find a CD single of the song you liked and buy that, 3) wait until a second single came out that you also liked (and then repeat the rest of choice #1) or 4) just not buy the album at all and end up borrowing it from a friend (and subsequently adding the one song you liked to a mix tape of other “one hit wonders” whose albums you never bought).  Hey, it was 1994 technology, what can I say?  And my stereo’s tape recorder was very busy in those days.  But I digress.  Anyway, I dare you to play the opening riff of “Loser” for anyone my age and not have them start bobbing their head on cue, whether they like the song or not.  It’s catchy as hell, and it became an anthem for slackers anywhere to sing at the top of their lungs, even if their Spanish was bad enough that they had no idea what a “perdidor” is.

Oasis – Definitely Maybe

Yet another album I never bought.  Actually the single “Live Forever” is the one I remember most, and indeed it was the band’s best-selling single from that album, reaching the top 10 in both the US and UK.  Oasis stood out from the other grunge music on the radio, but in a way that also made it fit in alongside the likes of the Cranberries and the Counting Crows.  The album after this, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, stuck with me more, but this first album opened the door, so to speak, and since it also kicked off Oasis’ long career, it bears mention here. 

Madonna – Bedtime Stories

This was Madonna’s “fuck you” album, and served as her response to the condemnation and ridicule she received for her “Sex” book.  Not all of the tracks were confrontational of course, and indeed the first two singles, “Secret” and “Take a Bow” respectively, seemed to point to a low-key album.  But the first track “Survival” charted her navigation through the difficult waters of the “Sex” book controversy and fourth single “Human Nature,” which hooked me instantly with a really hard, intense and groovy beat, was basically her shoving everyone’s moral outrage right back into their face.  Being ignorant of this controversy at the time, the song’s meaning was lost on me at first, but its passion hooked me then, and over time its message has continued to resonate.  How could it not with lines like “Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex” and “Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t speak my mind”?  She was saying, in short, “fuck you hypocrites AND your moral outrage,” and good for her for doing it.

Hootie and the Blowfish – Cracked Rear View

Yeah, I know.  These guys went from being really successful to being something of a punch line later on, mostly because of how inoffensive and “simple” their songs supposedly were.  But you know, to me this album did not become the 16th best-selling US album of all time for nothing, and while you might say Hootie doesn’t necessarily rock like some of the other albums of this list, you have to admit a lot of the songs you know from this album (and I bet there are a few) are damn catchy, and do show a certain amount of song craft.  Hootie was “golf rock” as they put it, and it was occasionally dramatic and occasionally mellow, but seemed hooky enough to get in your head and force your feet to tap along to the beat.  Darius Rucker’s second career as a country crooner indicates he has at least SOME level of talent, right?  I think so.  Don’t listen to the movie Ted when it talks about this album!

Blues Traveler – Four

If you talk to most people who came of age in the 90s, I bet a lot of them would remember the first time they heard the irresistibly catchy “Run-Around” and its harmonica-shredding front man’s voice (and harmonica!) come across their radio’s speakers for the first time.  For me I was in the front seat of the Cadillac that would one day become my first car and my first thought was, “where in the hell did this guy learn to play a harmonica like THAT?”  To say that song, and this album, were unlike a lot of music on the radio at the time is an understatement but I’ll be damned if it was not hugely successful anyway.  Follow-up singles “Hook” and the moody “The Mountains Win Again” were also hits, but Run-Around is still, to this day, the band’s defining song, and their greatest accomplishment.  Run-Around is tattooed on the year 1994 and I think for most people my age it always will be.  To me, it’s also still as good today as it was back then and I can’t resist putting it on every now and then.

Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral

Ah, yes, Nine Inch Nails.  By the time this album had come out I was already a fan of songs like “Head Like a Hole” from the previous album Pretty Hate Machine, but nothing could prepare me for the song “Closer,” which to me is mostly what this album represents to me.  I did not own the album at the time but I could not get enough of “Closer” and its chorus which contained the word “fuck” in a very prominent way.  Keep in mind I was in 7th grade at the time before you judge me too hardly for partially liking the song for such a “naughty” indiscretion.  In the years since I have grown to know this album much better but at the time the song “Closer” served as an eye-opener for me and a segue into different types of music, especially types that challenged the establishment as much as Trent Reznor did at the time, so I find it valuable in that sense as well.

Weezer – Weezer (aka The Blue Album)

Apparently this album would not have existed without Kurt Cobain, or at least that is what Rivers Cuomo has recently been quoted as saying ahead of this album’s upcoming 20th anniversary.  Obviously songs like “Buddy Holly” and “Say It Ain’t So” are not exactly Nirvana tunes, they do show a certain catchiness and a level of craftsmanship that Cuomo credits Kurt Cobain with inspiring him to.  This album is also inexorably tied with the extremely popular music videos that were made for their best-known singles, including a “Happy Days” parody video for “Buddy Holly” which was extremely popular.  Weezer (and Cuomo) became so famous after this it nearly destroyed them, but the album has survived to become one of the best-regarded albums of the 90s, and one that stands apart from other albums of the day mostly due to its relative uniqueness.  To me this is the Weezer I prefer to remember best.

Bush – Sixteen Stone

I was actually surprised that this album came out in 1994, because to me it was still releasing hit singles in 1995 and into 1996, but upon looking it up I discovered it came out toward the end of 1994 and was slow to generate a lot of attention.  What it lacked in immediacy it made up for in staying power, with songs like “Everything Zen,” “Machinehead” and “Comedown” becoming rock radio staples, and to date the biggest (and most grunge-like) hits of the band’s career.  To me this album is a fairly good and consistent listen, with no really bad tracks to put you off putting it in the stereo (or queuing it up digitally) and listening to it front to back.  Bush started changing their sound quite a bit after this, and to me the follow-up album Razorblade Suitcase is the only one worth listening to.

Toadies – Rubberneck

This is yet another album that I never owned when it was popular, and indeed much of it I recognized only years later when I finally bought the entire album and listened to it all the way through.  The elephant in this room, obviously, is “Possum Kingdom,” which is a splendidly swampy, muddy, dirty track with vaguely vampiric lyrics and an off-time beat, a song that never fails to produce a positive (and vocal) reaction from audience members every time I have played the song live in the various bands I have been in.  Other hits included the similarly grungy “I Come From The Water,” and “Backslider,” both of which are also vaguely off-time and very catchy.  Toadies are a band that has endured, after only one break-up, until today and a lot of that underlying talent is obvious on this album.

Collective Soul - Hints, Allegations & Things Left Unsaid

Oh look, another album I didn’t own when it was out!  But I do remember the song “Shine” from the album very, very well, as do the band’s fans.  This band never really stopped once it started, and still releases music pretty regularly.  At the time this album came out, I always confused the singles from it and its follow-up and it took me re-discovering the music years later to untangle them.  The album itself shares one trait with the debut album by Foo Fighters: the fact that it began as just a demo by the lead singer and became and “album” by a “band” only after “Shine” became a smash and Ed Roland figured he should create an actual band to tour and record more music with.  This album, to me, is trumped by its follow-up but songs like “Goodnight, Good Guy” and “Breathe” are worth listening to anyway.

Stone Temple Pilots – Purple

Stone Temple Pilots brought blends of 60s psychedelia and 70s rock to 90s alternative music, and came out of Southern California (after gaining a following in San Diego) with a different musical flavor that, while it didn’t exactly blend in with the Seattle grunge stuff on the radio, it certainly stood beside it as something equally meaningful and pretty damned talented also.  Purple was STP’s second album and produced hits such as “Vasoline,” “Interstate Love Song” and “Big Empty” but album tracks such as “Still Remains” and “Unglued” are very good listens also.  The whole album is another one that’s great to just put on and listen to all the way through, but this is something I only did years later when I actually owned the album.

Alice in Chains – Jar of Flies

This is the first and only EP on this list, but then this was no simple EP, and indeed it set a record by being the first EP in music history to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 chart, and is the best-selling of Alice in Chains’ other albums and EPs.  I’ll be honest: I never owned this when it came out, but its tracks were on the radio so much at the time I didn’t need to.  And as a single body of work, it makes a melancholy listen with very dark, brooding songs set to a very slow, plodding tempo.  But one cannot deny the craftsmanship and raw talent of the songs themselves, and with the exception of the last track which is very unlike the other six, there isn’t a bad song on this album.  “Rotten Apple,” “Nutshell,” and “I Stay Away” are all classics, but “No Excuses” is a track that belongs in the 1990s Grunge Music Hall of Fame for how good it is.  The song itself is a prophetic track about the band’s ups-and-downs, past, present and future, due to Layne Staley’s battles with heroin, and to this day it remains hauntingly prophetic but undeniably good and well-written.  It also remains one of the few songs from this era that I cannot even attempt to play well on the drums.

R.E.M. – Monster

Monster was the album that nearly killed R.E.M., both during its recording (the band nearly broke up recording the album) and its subsequent nearly two-year tour, during which three members of the band had serious health problems needing immediate surgery (Bill Berry had a brain aneurysm, Michael Stipe had a hernia and Mike Mills had an intestinal adhesion removed).  It was also unlike most other R.E.M. albums in that it was more titled towards rock and grunge, and contained textured, distorted guitars instead of acoustic guitars and mandolins like previous albums.  It also was written “in character,” as Michael Stipe adopted a “Which one’s Pink?” type of detachment from his own fame and questioned the nature of fandom and band worship.  The songs themselves are groovy, occasionally trippy sounding, and very moody.  The first track is the most accessible, the enjoyable “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” and other gems include “Bang and Blame,” “Circus Envy” and the slower, “Strange Currencies.”  I like this album well enough as a body of work attached to the time in which it was released, but sonically it stands apart from other R.E.M. albums in a way that ties it more to other things released in or near 1994 more so than other R.E.M. albums.  For me this album sets the stage for its follow-up, an excellent release which was comprised of Monster tracks that never made it onto Monster, and other things they wrote during Monster’s long and arduous tour.  But Monster still deserves to be considered a classic, even if it is a classic tied inexorably to its era.

And now, our Top Three:

Green Day – Dookie

OK, fine, yes, laugh at the fact that an album named after shit, made by a band named after marijuana, made my Top 3.  But it cannot be denied that this is an album that was hugely popular upon its release, and is still popular today.  It produced multiple hit singles and sold 10 million units in the US alone.  But more than that, it put Green Day itself on the map, which to this point was a small band no one had ever heard of up in Berkeley.  A major label record contract cost them their longtime friends up in Berkeley but introduced them to America, and more importantly they managed to capture the slacker generation in a way that was punk, was rock, and also managed to stand beside the angst of grunge rock and be counted as an equal.  Songs about masturbation, and break-ups, and sexual experimentation, and most importantly getting high, are not exactly mature subjects, but then maybe there was a certain maturity about broaching such subjects in popular music anyway.  It certainly spoke to people around my age and a bit older, and gave voice to the general feeling of disaffection one can feel growing up in suburbia.  The sameness of your surroundings becomes a sort of calling card, and an identity.  Purpose is always something that is sought in such surroundings, and it can be said that the music itself gave voice to these feelings of angst and the desire to indulge in drugs or sex to escape them.  OK, it might not be high-brow art to most people.  But to me this music and the time of its release are inseparable, and listening to this album today still makes me recall buying it off of my childhood friend Bryan, taking it home and listening to it for the first time like it all happened yesterday.  For better or for worse, the album named after shit will always be a special part of my past.

Nirvana – Unplugged In New York

I love this album.  I LOVE this album.  I’m not sure you understand when I say I honestly love every single nanosecond of this album, and this remains one of my all-time favorite albums of not just this era, but any era of music.  Over the years I have proclaimed its greatness, defended it to skeptical people, and engaged in arguments with people who doubt whether it should be called “an album” since it’s really a compilation and a live concert recording, much of which does not even include songs by Nirvana, but rather such luminaries as the Meat Puppets, the Vaselines, David Bowie, and Lead Belly.  But I care not for such doubts and petty criticisms because the simple fact is: this album is amazing, was amazing, and will always be amazing.  Part of its fame comes from the fact that it was released after, and for many reasons because of the recent death of Kurt Cobain, a scant six months after the show was recorded and only four months after it first aired on MTV.  The special aired on a virtual loop on MTV after Cobain’s suicide, and it was felt that demand was sufficient for the material to find release on an album, first as part of a box set that was scrapped due to emotional pain preventing Dave Grohl and Krist Novaselic from picking appropriate material, and then finally as a standalone album, released almost one year after the show originally took place. 

But its troubled history aside, this show was unique in the same way Nirvana itself was unique.  Instead of playing high-water hits and treating the show like any old concert, Cobain insisted on a laid back feel with everyone sitting, surrounded in black candles and lilies, and playing a set filled with more esoteric tracks that more resembled music Cobain himself liked rather than what MTV felt the audience wanted to hear.  Hell, it was not even truly “Unplugged” since Cobain’s guitar was plugged into an amp and effect pedals.  But the unusual nature of the show worked, despite Cobain suffering from heroin withdrawal symptoms the whole time and rehearsals not going particularly well beforehand.  The whole concert was taped in one take, making the show even more distinct from others like it.  The Meat Puppets set of three songs is a particular high point that I must mention, with the song “Lake of Fire” being a particular favorite of mine to this day.  But all the songs work, in their own way, and fit together in a somewhat unexplainable way, from “About A Girl” at the beginning and all the way to “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” at the end.  It is rightly regarded as a musical high point for the band itself, and a statement by Cobain himself affirming his intrinsic talent and genuine love for performing.  During the show you see all the trouble surrounding it, whether it be drug issues, pissed off MTV producers or bad rehearsals, melt away amidst a sonic backdrop that moves you, and that transports you somewhere else entirely.  It all fades away, leaving only the music.  As it should be.

Soundgarden – Superunknown

It was tough picking any album over Unplugged In New York, but if any album was up to the task, it’s this one.  I actually have to admit that, while shorter, I actually think Unplugged In New York has is a more solid album all the way through, but Superunknown was an amazing achievement, and is still regarded today as one of the most essential and important albums of the “grunge” era, possibly second only to such albums as Nevermind or Ten, or some would say, Badmotorfinger.  To me though, Badmotorfinger was where Soundgarden broke through, but Superunknown was when they truly arrived, as a band and as a musical force to be reckoned with.  The history of the band until a few years ago was that this album was their high water mark, unequaled by Down On The Upside, the much-awaited follow-up two years later, after which the band broke up for over a decade amid creative tensions.  Because of this, for many years, this album was my touchstone, my historical relic and the proof, in disc form, that this band did indeed once rule the musical world, if only for a little while.  Much in the “grunge era” was fleeting, but many different bands had their moment.  This album was Soundgarden’s moment at the very top of the heap, basically.

And what can I say about the tracks themselves?  Mostly they speak for themselves, whether we’re talking about “Let Me Drown” or “My Wave” which both open up the album in thundering fashion, or the darker and more brooding angst-filled anthems like “Fell On Black Days” or “The Day I Tried To Live” which both capture the general disaffected anger at the establishment prevalent in much of grunge’s musical catalog.  Songs like “4th of July” and “Mailman” and “Limo Wreck” all take the listener on moody musical journeys, and songs like “Kickstand” and “Like Suicide” rock like any band rooted in 70s rock and punk influences should.  But the all-time classics here can be summed up thusly: “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun.”  “Spoonman,” besides being the only song I know with a goddamn spoon solo in the middle of it, is just an amazing rock song that is irresistible and impossible to not rock out to anytime you hear it.  But for me the biggest impression is made by “Black Hole Sun,” a creepy sonic journey that is one of the few songs that I still associate, at least somewhat, with its famous and oft repeated music video which included comically distorted, amused-looking and vacantly staring people whose fake smiles twisted into an unrecognizable rictus as the camera zoomed in.  It was enough to give a younger viewer nightmares, but the twisted visuals seemed to actually fit the song.  The biggest memory I have though is something I’ll admit is a bit silly: a kid I knew in 7th grade once asked me to stop talking to him, Seinfeld episode style (the one where Elaine’s boyfriend cannot speak to anyone or be distracted every time “Desperado” plays on the radio), as he closed his eyes and got lost in the song, mouthing the words as he walked away.  It made an impression, I must say, stupid as that may sound.  Over the years my love for the song, and this album, have only grown, matured, and deepened.  And I finally did hear this music played live during a reunion show in 2011 at The Forum in Los Angeles.  It was just as amazing live.  What better proof did I need to keep liking it?

So that’s me.  Anyone seeking to understand where my music history, and where the very bedrock foundation of what I like came from, that’s a large part of it right there.  To close this rumination out I want to try a bit of lyrical craftsmanship of my own, and I hope you’ll pardon my indulgence after so many words.  If you made it this far, kudos to you, and enjoy.

Sonic backdrop of a youth so long ago
Memories to the tune of a dropped D
Each time hearing it again takes me back
Somewhere wandering a desert in my mind

Moments recalled by strumming of notes
The scene is crafted by grooves and chords
Jangling, they speak of angst and disaffection
The one on the outside is now in

The slackers and the X’ers, ones who don’t belong
Voices screaming and now are finally heard
I join their crusade each night from my room
I fight a sonic war with discs and tapes

All that begins is also destined to end
The message is wrapped in corporate paper
Soon what’s in is out once again
Rock and grunge soon become Third Eye Blind

Those days are gone never to return again
Many of the windows long boarded and doors locked
The Wherehouse now an empty pad, Tower an empty lot
But the music is one thing I’ve still got