Monday, February 15, 2016

Best Albums of the Decades lists Part V: The '90s

The '90s started off well enough. Nirvana and the grunge movement hit early on, and at first, it looked as if this might be the new decade's answer to the '80s' New Wave. Then Kurt Cobain killed himself, and grunge petered out as a national movement. For a year or so after that, it seemed like alternative rock would be the next big thing, as bands like The Flaming Lips were pushed by the record companies.

But alternative didn't bring in the big bucks they were hoping for, so while alternative kept going with a relatively small and loyal audience, the music industry started looking for the next big thing.

Then it all went wrong.

Like someone who's been traumatized in a war, my memory might be a little off. But in my recollection, 2 things happened at relatively the same time, both horrible, and both somewhat akin to Skynet going online in the Terminator movies.

The first was the creation, and success, of The Spice Girls in Britain. Prefabricated bands had been tried before. As I confessed in an earlier post, one such band, The Monkees was an early favorite of mine. The Spice Girls were supposedly "involved" in writing their own music. I suspect that that involvement was of the nature of 1. A record company exec played them a song written by a professional songwriter, and 2. Spice Girls said "Ooh, that sounds niiiiice. OK, we'll sing it." In any event, their first album sold over 30 million copies worldwide. And record company executives worldwide said "Ooooooo!"

At just about the same time, a little show named American Idol hit the U.S. airwaves. Based on a British show, this little gem showed that what record-buying Americans really wanted was a bunch of pretty faces with strong voices who had nothing of their own to say but who could sing other people's songs. Preferably with about 20 notes for every syllable.

Before long, we had Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson. And pop was demolishing rock in record sales.

At this point, which was about the middle of the decade, I retreated to indie rock. It was either that, or puncture my ear drums with a screwdriver. There was still good music out there, but I had to work a lot harder to find it. So here's what I found:


Runner-up: Nevermind by Nirvana

To realize just how good Nirvana was, think about this: Dave Grohl, who fronts and writes the music for The Foo Fighters, one of the best straight-up rock bands of the last two decades, was just the drummer/backup singer for Nirvana.

Nevermind was one of the few "perfect albums" of the '90s. A dark classic, it featured not only a ridiculously popular hit that kids today still recognize in "Smells Like Teen Spirit", but also a strong second single in "Come as You Are", and a song that should be assigned to all students of criminal psychology, "Polly".

I remember hearing a live radio concert during the Nevermind tour, and being blown away. I imagined this must have been what early fans of The Who felt like.

Twenty-plus years later, I've often wondered what Nirvana's catalog would look like today if Cobain had lived. Maybe not much different. Maybe Grohl would have had to have busted out on his own. Maybe Cobain would have just burned out creatively.

Or maybe it would have been amazing.

In any event, it sucks that Nirvana only made 3 studio abums. But then again, at least we have Nevermind to remember them by.

Best Album: Memories of Love by Future Bible Heroes

I stumbled across this band by accident. I went into Manhattan one summer evening to catch the band Betty Serveert at a showcase for the CMJ Music Festival, and Future Bible Heroes were one of four opening acts.

I know many of you have never heard of this band. They're one of about four projects of Stephin Merritt, who is best know for his main project, The Magnetic Fields, and their 3-CD set, 69 Love Songs.

But make no mistake about it, this is Merritt's best album. With alternating lead vocals between Merritt and his best friend/manager/drummer Claudia Gonson, this is beyond a "perfect album".

The songs are clever and well-written, and the sound is sprinkled throughout with the electronic weirdness of keyboardist Chris Ewen.

Consider the following lyrics of "She-Devils of the Deep": "Look in their amphibious eyes/You'll be sorry/Everybody hypnotized/Winds up splattered everywhere." Or these, from "But You're So Beautiful": "One day you burned down all your dreams/With one lit match and gasoline/How did you get so old and lonely at 17?"

The songs are songs of despair, but with a sense of humor.

I've never turned anybody on to this album (or this band) who didn't thank me for it.  If you at all like '80s music and music with a sense of humor, check this album out. Future Bible Heroes are the '80s logical successors.

Next Post: The '00s