Friday, January 22, 2016

Radio 1990s: 30 or so of my favorite albums from the decade before the last one

Not that I need an excuse to backtrack or compile another list, but with the recent deaths of Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland and Natalie Cole (who had her greatest commercial success with 1991's Unforgettable… with Love), the timing is perfect for a celebration of my second-favorite decade. Let the '90s nostalgia begin!

Automatic for the People: R.E.M. (Honorable mentions: Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi) This is an alphabetical list, but if I were counting them down like Casey Kasem in the '70s and '80s, this one would very likely still be on top. R.E.M. released many great albums in a 28-year recording career (yes, that's correct: right up to the underrated end), but none showcased the band's gift for seamlessly blending beautifully contemplative rock elegies with socially aware pronouncements and blistering political indictments quite like this one. Speaking of the latter musical specialty, I've long stopped trying to resist the urge to listen to the Reagan/Bush Sr.-bashing "Ignoreland" on repeat.


Badmotorfinger: Soundgarden The best of grunge. Sorry, Nirvana fans. Nevermind is basically pop music with messy vocals and crashing guitar. Badmotorfinger, though, is precious metal. "Outshined," "Slaves & Bulldozers," "Jesus Christ Pose," and "Mind Riot" not only actually live up to the other band's name, but I'd take them over pretty much everything Kurt Cobain and company ever did.


Behaviour: Pet Shop Boys I loved PSB from the moment I first heard "West End Girls" in 1986, but nothing the duo did in the '80s prepared me for the accomplished musicianship, technical precision and exacting social and personal observations (the latter most notable on "Being Boring," the perfect eulogy for the '80s AIDS generation) of this, the second masterpiece of the next decade, coming about a month and a half after George Michael's similarly left-turning Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1.


The Bends: Radiohead I still can't fathom that I kind of hated this when I first listened to the advance on my Walkman (how '90s, right?) during a morning jog through Paris in 1995. Alas, "Black Star" would go on to have a more lasting effect on me than anything I saw at Musee du Louvre that trip (Mona Lisa included)… but then, I've always been more of a Musee Rodin and Musee Picasso kind of art lover.


Chorus: Erasure Having dropped in October of 1991, two months after I moved to New York City, Chorus in inextricably linked to my early love of New York City. Naming your album after the catchiest part of a song means you'd better have some damn good ones and Chorus delivers without skimping on the gravitas that Vince Clarke and Andy Bell would toss out completely for 1992's campy UK-chart-topping Abba-esque! EP.


Coming Up: Suede (Honorable mention: Suede) While the Britpop crowd was busy arguing Oasis vs. Blur, Suede produced what I consider to be the '90s subgenre's greatest hit.


Diva: Annie Lennox (Honorable mention: Medusa) The one that guaranteed her status as an enduring musical icon and one of the decade's most appropriate uses of the overused titular phrase. I read somewhere that Clive Davis called her "very brave" - and to her face! - for taking such a musical dare. It must have been one of the few times in recorded history that the man famous for always knowing what would sell was dead wrong. (The others were when he pretty much ruined the U.S. chart careers of Lisa Stansfield and Taylor Dayne by insisting they both release Barry White covers as album-introducing singles.)


For the Cool in You: Babyface In early 1995 I went on the road with Babyface for a People magazine story, and when I requested a quote from Madonna, who had just earned her career-best hit on Billboard's Hot 100 with Babyface's "Take Bow," she came back with "I worship the ground he floats above." How's that for, like, a prayer. I imagine that his 1994 solo album is a big part of the reason why she kneeled at that altar.


Fumbling Towards Ecstasy: Sarah McLachlan In addition to how powerfully its songs spoke to me in 1994, Sarah's pre-Lilith breakthrough cemented my future use of "towards" over "toward."


Harvest Moon: Neil Young The perfect soundtrack for lying on a twin mattress on the floor of a studio apartment on a rainy evening in New York City's East Village with your first true love. And yes, I know this from experience.


Homebrew: Neneh Cherry More than two decades after Cherry's sophomore jinx, I'm still waiting for someone to explain it to  me. How does the follow-up to a debut that garners an artist a Best New Artist Grammy nomination and two Top 10 singles fail to even graze the lower reaches of the Billboard 200 album chart - especially one as universally acclaimed as this one. Clearly Cherry's trailblazing hip-hop folk (which would make solo Lauryn Hill a superstar by the end of the decade) was too ahead of its time.



Hoodoo: Alison Moyet There were no hits on par with "Don't Go" or "Invisible" (a true mystery, since "It Won't Be Long" sounds like the mainstream smash Alison never had - at least not in the U.S.), but her genius has never sounded as effortless as it does here. Song for song, the bridge between '80s Alf and her post-millennial comeback qualifies as the sturdiest stuff of her career.


Ingenue: k.d. lang It so perfectly captures the beauty and the pain of unrequited love that it makes me thankful to have experienced it for myself.


Life: Simply Red Thanks to this album playing on repeat (seriously, it's not just about "Fairground"), unpacking after moving into my 34th Street apartment in 1995 was the best relocation experience I ever had during my 15 years in New York City.


Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1: George Michael The sound of a former teen idol starting to go off the rails, which makes it George's most affecting and compelling work.


The Long Stretch of Lonesome: Patty Loveless At twentysomething, I knew a brilliant musical rumination on the middle ages when I heard one. "What makes you grow old is replacing hope with regret" from "Too Many Memories" are words to mature to.


99.9 F Degrees Suzanne Vega "If sand waves were sound waves what sound would be in the air now? What stinging tune could split this endless noon and make the sky swell with rain?" Brilliance.


Post: Bjork (Honorable mention: Debut) I once met Bjork at a listening party for The Sugarcubes' third and final album, Stick Around for Joy, and when I went over and introduced myself, she completely ignored me. Her first two solo albums are the reasons why that's not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about her.


The Red Shoes: Kate Bush At once her most accessible opus and her most confusing one. It's accessible because the song structures approach conventional, confusing because it contains so many things no one would have expected from Kate Bush. I never thought I'd hear her sing "Don't want your bullshit/ Just want your sexuality" until I heard it here, and if you had asked me to name the one singer Prince would never get his purple paws on, Kate would have topped my list. I'm so glad I was wrong because her canon would be incomplete if "Why Should I Love You" wasn't there to totally befuddle and thrill us at the same time.


Seminole Wind: John Anderson Among life's simple pleasures, few things are up there with a straight tequila night, and "Straight Tequila Night" is one of them. Essential as it is, it's one of the lowlights of one of the decade's two best country albums.


Symphony Or Damn: Terence Trent D'Arby As brilliantly eclectic as anything Prince ever did and Terence would no doubt agree.


The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion: The Black Crowes The kind of kick-ass album where your favorite song changes every time you listen to it. Mine generally falls somewhere between tracks five to nine: "Sometimes Salvation," "Hotel Illness," "Black Moon Creeping," "No Speak No Slave," and "My Morning Song," with "No Speak No Slave" usually coming out on top.


To Bring You My Love: PJ Harvey PJ flirts with rock & roll convention. Of course, when an album's "hit" is a moaning rocker delivered from the point of view of a woman who's drowned her daughter, rock & roll convention is perfectly relative.


Turbulent Indigo: Joni Mitchell My desert-island Joni album, and anyone who's ever heard me go on and on about Blue, knows that's saying a lot.


Vauxhall and I: Morrissey (Honorable mention: Your Arsenal) A coming-out album on par with (and possibly even surpassing his 1988 solo debut Viva Hate). From the moment he opens the album opener, "Now My Heart Is Full," by singing, "There's gonna be some trouble/ A whole house will need rebuilding/ And everyone I love in the house will recline on an analyst's couch quite soon," you just know he isn't fucking around.


Welcome to Wherever You Are: INXS They probably could have coasted, releasing a few more inferior sequels to Kick (which is pretty much was X was), but instead they opted to break out the test tubes. The result: The best INXS album that isn't Kick or The Swing.


What Silence Knows: Shara Nelson (Honorable mention: Friendly Fire) The reason why she won't forever be known merely as the voice of Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy." Well, maybe she will be…but not by anyone who's actually heard her two solo albums.


When the Pawn…: Fiona Apple So brilliant I once spent an entire Sunday evening raving about it to Leonard Cohen's son. How often does that happen?


You Gotta Sin to Get Saved: Maria McKee Without it, I might still be sleeping on the genius of Van Morrison, whom the former Lone Justice singer covered to perfection twice here.

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