Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sam's Top 50 Favorite Albums of the '90s (Part 2)

Here’s part 2 of my Favorite Albums of the ‘90s countdown! Check out part 1 here.

40. Weight by Rollins Band (1994)

Henry Rollins formed Rollins Band shortly after Black Flag broke up in 1986. Henry and company didn’t have much success in the mainstream until 1994’s Weight, carried by the MTV staple, “Liar.” My favorite thing about Rollins Band is the band’s tendency to go into jazz territory. You can definitely hear it on “Liar,” which is honestly one of the best songs of the ‘90s. Weight is a great album because it doesn’t try to be a Black Flag record. Henry’s biting self-examination and snark come through loud and clear, even with all that wonderful instrumentation. There are so many great songs on this album—“Fool,” “Wrong Man,” “Shine.” Henry, you clever bastard.

39. S.C.I.E.N.C.E. by Incubus (1997)

Most people tend to cite Make Yourself as Incubus’ best album and conveniently forget about S.C.I.E.N.C.E. This is a crime. Incubus used to be a funk metal band before they hit it big with “Drive.” This album (plus the first album, 1995’s Fungus Amongus) is some funky shit. There’s some fantastic bass work (and we all know how much I love bass guitar) and frontman Brandon Boyd lets it all hang loose like a young Anthony Kiedis. The energy never lets up, especially on songs like “Redefine,” “Glass” and “A Certain Shade of Green.” And what exactly does S.C.I.E.N.C.E. stand for? Southern California's Incubus Enters Nevada Carrying Equipment (among other things).

38. Becoming X by Sneaker Pimps (1996)

Have I mentioned how much I love ‘90s electronic music yet? No? Well, this is a good album to start with. I actually grew up listening to this album (and others like it), so I always assumed everyone knew the SneakerPimps. Becoming X was their first (and best) album. It mixes downtempo and trip-hop with a pixie-like female vocalist (the lovely Kelli Dayton). This album has always been one of my favorites because there’s so much going on. On one hand, you have ultra-cool electronic powerhouse tunes (“Low Place Like Home,” “Walking Zero”), and on the other hand, you have super sleek downtempo tunes (“Post Modern Sleaze” “How Do”). It’s equal parts badass and beautiful.

37. Evil Empire by Rage Against the Machine (1996)

Objectively, RATM’s self-titled debut is probably the better album. But I just love Evil Empire more. It’s just balls-to-the-wall, take-no-prisoners awesome. “Bulls on Parade” and “People of the Sun” are really strong singles, but “Tire Me” (which actually won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance) is a real highlight. “Roll Right” and “Year of tha Boomerang” are just as heavy. Evil Empire was the band’s second to last studio album (not including Renegades, which was a covers album), but it’s definitely better than the last album, 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles (unpopular opinion?). And just try to tell me that you don’t immediately feel like a badass every time “Bulls on Parade” comes on in your car. “They rally round the family / With a pocket full of shells.” Ugh, that delivery. Zack de la Rocha is too cool for this world.

36. Call the Doctor by Sleater-Kinney (1996)

Sleater-Kinney kind of straddles the line between the riot grrrl movement and a more generalized form of punk rock (though this album was compared favorably to Heavens to Betsy’s Calculated, a riot grrrl staple). Either way, Sleater-Kinney definitely delivers on Call the Doctor. Clocking in at just 30 minutes long, the album goes beyond the common riot grrrl themes of gender roles and explores the commoditization of people. Call the Doctor just proves that maturity and raw anger are compatible with each other, especially when they come from girls like Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Lora Macfarlane.

35. Live Through This by Hole (1994)

Forget whatever qualms you may have with Courtney Love for a second and actually listen to this record. Surrounded by the death of two important people in her life (Kurt Cobain and Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff), Courtney and company churned out one of the most personal and painful albums of the ‘90s. Though not as visceral as Pretty on the Inside, Live Through This is a delicate mess (and I mean that in the best way possible). Courtney floats between deep-seated rage (“Violet,” “Gutless”) and subdued misery (“Doll Parts,” “Miss World”) so easily. She may not be the best singer in the world, but you can still hear every emotion in her voice. Whether you believe Kurt Cobain really wrote all the songs on the album or not, you have to admit that Live Through This is perfectly executed.

34. So Much for the Afterglow by Everclear (1997)

I think I mentioned Everclear’s appeal in my Everclear entry, but I’ll just reiterate it here: this band’s albums are great because they hide dark subject matter in poppy hooks. So Much for the Afterglow is a little more radio-friendly than Sparkle and Fade, but I still think it’s the better album. The singles are perfect because they have dark themes, but sound great on the radio. “Father of Mine” is my go-to example because, well, look: “Father of mine / Tell me, how do you sleep / With the children you abandoned/ And the wife I saw you beat?” Most of the songs on this album have the power to make me head-bang while sobbing—they’re so catchy, but the lyrics get me every time. “Amphetamine” is my personal favorite not just because of the lyrics, but also because of the string arrangement at the end. Gorgeous.

33. Crash by Dave Matthews Band (1996)

Yes, I genuinely like Dave Matthews Band. Why is that a problem? I know very few people who really dig DMB and I still don’t understand why people hate this band. Okay, maybe I have some idea—not everybody likes jam bands. Or bluegrass. Or jazz fusion. Wait, why do I like this band again? Oh right, because of this album. Crash is arguably DMB’s best album (though it may be tied with Under the Table and Dreaming). There’s just something whimsical about Crash, especially on my favorite song, “Crash Into Me.” It kind of sounds like a fairy tale (minus the creepy parts like, “Oh, I watch you there through the window / And I stare at you / You wear nothing, but you wear it so well”). I do realize there’s nothing I can really say about this album (or this band) to sway a non-fan’s opinion, but I will tell you that Crash makes me really happy whenever I hear it. After all, my happiness is really the deciding factor when it comes to choosing music to listen to, right?

32. Rid of Me by PJ Harvey (1993)

I had a really hard time choosing between this album and PJHarvey’s previous album, Dry. But when I really think about it, Rid of Me is stronger. It’s aggressive and distorted and just raw. I think having Steve Albini record the album was a great choice. He captures the primal qualities of each instrument so well, including PJ’s voice. And oh, her voice. Polly Jean has a vocal style all her own. She manages to sound both angelic and bitter at the same time. And there’s a sensual quality underneath that’s so smoky and mysterious. You can hear it on songs like “Rub ‘til it Bleeds,” “Rid of Me” and “Ecstasy.” Rid of Me as a whole is controlled chaos. It’s destructive, yet beautiful.

31. Post by Björk (1995)

Speaking of female artists with amazing voices, here’s Björk’s first (and definitely not last) appearance on this list. Post was the first Björk album I really got into, mostly because of the song “I Miss You” (along with the ultra-cool, ultra-weird music video). Even if you don’t like her music, you have to admit that this woman is incredibly talented. She has an amazing vocal range and a totally unique style. Post has some of the dance elements of Debut, but it leans more toward the experimental style of later Björk albums. There’s a healthy mix of heavier electronic tunes (“Army of Me,” “Enjoy”) and softer ballads (“Possibly Maybe,” “You’ve Been Flirting Again”), which just accentuates Björk’s versatility. This isn’t my favorite Björk album (you’ll see that one later), but it’s pretty close. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Blind Melon

Sound Familiar?
“No Rain”

Who Are They?
The neo-psychedelic wet dream of every hippie in the ‘90s.

Three Mississippi transplants, a Pennsylvania misfit and some guy from Lafayette, Ind. got together in 1990 to start a band. And just where did a bunch of hippies get a name like Blind Melon? From a Cheech and Chong character, of course! (The character was Blind Melon Chitlin.)

After the band released a four-song demo called The Goodfoot Workshop in 1991, Capitol Records came running with a contract. Blind Melon gained even more industry attention from Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose, who just happened to be a good friend of frontman Shannon Hoon. (Fun fact: Shannon provided backing vocals on the GNR track “Don’t Cry,” along with other songs from Use Your Illusion I and II.)

The band hooked up with producer Rick Parashar (who produced Pearl Jam’s Ten) and released its self-titled debut in 1992. Blind Melon initially sold poorly, but once MTV got a hold of the video for “No Rain,” the album shot to #11 on the Billboard Top 40 chart the following year.

(Fun fact: The “Bee Girl” in the “No Rain” video is Heather DeLoach. She did a bit more acting after her debut, but eventually became a small business owner in California. She currently runs a company that makes specialized candy bars for special events: Sweet Bee Candy Stations.)

Blind Melon toured extensively in support of the album, landing opening slots with Neil Young, Lenny Kravitz and The Rolling Stones. Shannon and company even made an appearance at Woodstock ’94. (Watch this incredible performance of “Soup.”)

Unfortunately, Shannon had a major drug problem during this time, so he was in and out of rehab during the tour and the recording of the band’s second album, Soup.

Soup was released in 1995, but failed to achieve the same success as the band’s debut. Blind Melon went back on tour, which went against the advice of Shannon’s drug counselor. After just a few weeks on the road, Shannon was found dead on the tour bus of a heart attack caused by a cocaine overdose.

The surviving members of Blind Melon decided to continue without Shannon, but it would take them over ten years to find another vocalist. They released an album of outtakes and demos called Nico in 1996 (named after Shannon’s 13-week-old daughter).

The band officially disbanded in 1999 after failing to find a replacement vocalist.

Where Are They Now?
Back together (with a new vocalist) for the occasional one-off show.

Blind Melon reformed in 2006 with new singer Travis Warren. The new lineup released an album in 2008 called For My Friends, but chances are you’ve never heard of it. I’m sure most Blind Melon fans refuse to listen to releases that don’t include Shannon Hoon. But who can blame them?

The original members of the band dropped Travis shortly before the end of the new tour, then called it quits for a second time.

(Fun fact: During this second hiatus, rhythm guitarist Christopher Thorn briefly played with Awolnation.)

The band reunited yet again in 2010 with Travis as lead vocalist, but didn’t release any more new material. Instead, the grown-up hippies decided to play a handful of shows for fun. According to drummer Glen Graham, Blind Melon currently has no plans to record anything new.

But Why Blind Melon?
I guess because it just came to my attention that “No Rain” is 20 YEARS OLD. I am only two years older than that song. This is ridiculous.

What Does Sam Think?
Now, I’ll admit that I only knew Blind Melon for “No Rain” (and be honest, you probably did, too). But I started listening to the band’s discography recently and holy shit, it’s fantastic.

“No Rain” is much poppier than most of their other songs, but don’t let that deter you. If you’re a fan of jam bands, you’ll like this. Blind Melon isn’t necessarily a jam band, but it’s also not a pop rock band that plays songs exclusively about “tea for two.”

This is an alternative band that successfully incorporated neo-psychedelia, folk and blues into its music without sounding dated. Take the track “Sleepyhouse” from the self-titled album, for example. It features a sitar (which is honestly one of my favorite instruments), but it’s not trying to be Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles. There’s just enough sitar to make it interesting (and really soothing).

I don’t think Soup is as good as the first album, but it’s still great. It has more of a low-key sound. What’s missing is the experimentation of tracks like “Sleepyhouse,” along with a couple more lighthearted tunes. Granted, Shannon Hoon was dealing with a massive drug problem at the time Soup was recorded, so I guess asking for some happier songs is a little out of the question.

Speaking of Shannon, let’s discuss the politics behind replacing a deceased band member. Plenty of ‘90s bands have done this already (Alice In Chains and Sublime are prime examples). But can you really replace someone like Layne Staley or Bradley Nowell or Shannon Hoon?

I think the only way to look at this kind of decision is to think of the deceased member’s replacement as a completely different musician. Why? Because they are. Travis Warren isn’t trying to be Shannon Hoon, just like Rome Ramirez isn’t trying to be Bradley Nowell. You can’t blame the surviving members for wanting to continue making music.

Of course you’re allowed to believe that Blind Melon is not the same band without Shannon. That’s understandable. He was a great frontman and he wrote some amazing songs. But he succumbed to a problem that plagued many musicians in the ‘90s, and that is the greatest tragedy.

But remember Blind Melon for the good times, not the bad. And make it your goal in life to be as happy as the “Bee Girl.”

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sam's Top 50 Favorite Albums of the '90s (Part 1)

Greetings, my dear readers. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re probably wondering why the format is different this week. Well, it’s because you’re in for a treat. This week, I’ll be starting a countdown series. The first countdown will be my Top 50 Favorite Albums of the ‘90s. Notice that I said “favorite” rather than “best.” These are my personal choices, so I don’t want to hear any cries of, “But why is this album higher than this album?” or, “Where’s this album by my favorite band?” If you don’t see your favorite album on my list, you can always suggest that I listen to it (if I haven’t already).

This list will be updated every other week because I’d like to do some regular entries in between. So next week, you will see another artist spotlight. The week after next, you’ll see the next part of the list, and so on. So sit back and enjoy my fangirlery!

50. Grace by Jeff Buckley (1994)

I need to get something off my chest, guys. Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” is the best version of the song. Period. If you don’t agree, you’re wrong. Sorry, not sorry. That will be my only objective statement on this list, I promise. But I just have strong feelings about that song. The rest of the album is just as gorgeous. Jeff can croon like an angel. His voice just tugs at my heartstrings. I’m not sure if that’s because he was genuinely talented, or if it’s just the mystical feeling of listening to a musician who died too young. I’ve heard the argument that most Jeff Buckley fans tend to glorify his music because of his early death (much like Nirvana fans tend to hold Kurt Cobain up as a “grunge messiah”). But I think Grace holds up as a solid, moving album. With songs like “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” and of course “Hallelujah,” Jeff knows how to reduce even the most stoic listener to tears.

49. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) by Wu-Tang Clan (1993)

I wasn’t really a huge fan of rap until I got to college and started listening to some old school ‘90s rap. A lot of my friends were really into Wu-Tang Clan, so I had to see what the big deal was. Enter the Wu-Tang is probably the rawest rap record I’ve ever heard. There’s no flashy production here—it’s all visceral. I know I’m just a middle class white girl, and I won’t pretend that I can relate to any of the songs on this album. But I can definitely appreciate the beats and the delivery. Enter the Wu-Tang takes no prisoners. The first track, “Bring Da Ruckus,” is basically a call to arms. These guys don’t fuck around and neither does this album.

48. Bridges to Babylon by The Rolling Stones (1997)

I grew up in a Rolling Stones household. My dad is the biggest Stones geek on the planet, so naturally, I’m familiar with the majority of the band’s extensive catalog. While I do appreciate classic Stones, my favorite album is (not surprisingly) their ‘90s release, Bridges to Babylon. These guys kind of took an awkward turn in the ‘80s (accentuated by the Mick Jagger/David Bowie phenomenon that is “Dancing inthe Street”), but by the time the ‘90s rolled around, the Stones got their groove back. This album is exactly like classic Stones, but it’s got enough of the old sound to complement the new sound. “Flip the Switch” and “Gunface” have some great guitar work from the great Keith Richards, and even the slower tunes (especially “Saint of Me”) have a quiet power. There are probably some Rolling Stones purists out there who like to ignore the band’s later work, but Bridges to Babylon can definitely stand up with the greatest Stones albums.

47. Red Medicine by Fugazi (1995)

As if this list wasn’t already all over the place genre-wise, here’s a post-hardcore album to throw into the mix. Punk rock took many forms in the ‘90s: grunge, pop-punk, emo and post-hardcore. Post-hardcore was a little harder for people to swallow, but it’s honestly the most interesting mutation. While I’m sure a lot of Fugazi fans wouldn’t choose this album as their favorite, it was my introduction to the band. I heard “Do You Like Me?” and I was hooked. Those messy, raunchy riffs at the beginning of that track definitely rubbed me the right way. A lot of the other tracks are a bit more experimental, and I think that turns off some of the pop-punk kids, for example. These aren’t three-chord races to the finish line—these songs are meticulous and aggressive.

46. Dear You by Jawbreaker (1995)

Speaking of punk rock subgenres, let’s talk about Jawbreaker and emo movement of the early ‘90s. When I say “emo,” the first band that probably comes to mind is My Chemical Romance. Am I right? Yeah, I thought so. Believe it or not, MCR didn’t start the emo movement. It started back in the mid-‘80s and it had nothing to do with eyeliner or vampires or bad haircuts. Though bands like Rites of Spring and Embrace actually pioneered emo (or “emotional hardcore”), Jawbreaker and another band called Sunny Day Real Estate (who also makes an appearance on this list) reinvented it. Jawbreaker was a bit closer to the original emocore sound than Sunny Day Real Estate, though. Dear You is the band’s most polished-sounding album, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of it. My personal favorite track is “Chemistry,” which has this perfect mix of aggressive guitar riffs and a nice, melodic chorus with clever lyrics.

45. Tragic Kingdom by No Doubt (1995)

If you read my entry on No Doubt, you’ll recall that I’m in love with Gwen Stefani. Tragic Kingdom-era Gwen is the best Gwen because she was just so spunky. And yes, I do realize there are other people in the band, so let’s just talk about Tragic Kingdom in a musical sense. Again, looking back to my No Doubt entry, it’s pretty obvious that I love this album. It’s one of the most inventive albums from the third wave ska movement because it incorporates more than just swing-style beats and a trumpet/trombone chorus. “Don’t Speak,” for example, is a gorgeous ballad that you wouldn’t normally hear on a ska album. There’s even a Spanish-style guitar solo. Beat that, Reel Big Fish.

44. Hello Nasty by Beastie Boys (1998)

I know most people would choose Ill Communication over Hello Nasty, but I’m not most people. This is my favorite Beastie Boys album because it features some of the best Beastie Boys songs. “Intergalactic,” “Electrify,” “Super Disco Breakin’”—these are fantastic tunes. When I was younger, I would attempt to dance to “Body Movin’” and my parents would laugh at me, but dammit, I loved that shit. If you get me drunk enough, I will dance to every single song, and I will do those horribly embarrassing moves that I probably shouldn’t do in public. The Beasties bring out the best in me, you know? And God rest MCA’s soul. That man helped create some awesome music and I still upset when I realize he’s gone. But we still have albums like Hello Nasty to remind us that the spirit of the Beastie Boys will never die.

43. Diary by Sunny Day Real Estate (1994)

Oh hey, remember when I said you’d be seeing Sunny Day Real Estate on this list? Didn’t think you’d see them so soon, huh? Like Jawbreaker, these guys reinvented emo in the early ‘90s. Diary was the band’s first (and probably most successful) album. There’s something urgent in its tone and the sound helps bridge the gap between post-hardcore and the later forms of emo. It’s powerful (even if you can’t understand most of Jeremy Enigk’s lyrics). Some personal highlights include “The Blankets Were the Stairs,” “In Circles” and “Pheurton Skeurto.”

42. Purple by Stone Temple Pilots (1994)

This band gets a lot of shit, but they made some damn good music back in the day. I’ll admit that STP’s first album, 1992’s Core, was kind of a grunge rip-off, but Purple, the second album, was so much better. The band incorporated some psychedelic rock influences and Scott Weiland’s lyrics and vocal delivery vastly improved. Purple also had three perfect singles: “Vasoline,” “Interstate Love Song” and “Big Empty.” I still believe “Interstate Love Song” is one of the best songs of the ‘90s because of its simplicity. It has a Southern rock feel to it, but there’s a pop undertone there that makes it so much more accessible. STP wasn’t a grunge band by any means and I think most people would agree with me. Scott Weiland and company were vastly more creative than their contemporaries. It’s a shame that Scott and the rest of the band went their separate ways (but I can always hope for a reunion).

41. Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins (1993)

This album was tough to place on the list because on one hand, it’s technically perfect. On the other hand, there is one SmashingPumpkins album that I love way more than this one. But let’s concentrate on this one. Siamese Dream is the definition of a flawless album. I seriously struggle to find anything wrong with it (though I do know too many people who hate “Today,” but whatever—I like it). Billy Corgan was obsessed with making this a great album, so much so that he often overdubbed James Iha and D’arcy Wretzky’s guitar and bass parts with his own playing. But the result was a record that felt so incredibly massive, yet so controlled. “Geek U.S.A.,” along with being my second favorite Smashing Pumpkins song ever, is the perfect example of this sentiment. It condenses a three-part epic into five glorious minutes. And that’s what Siamese Dream is—a glorious epic.