I seem to have been delving into my musical past, and in particular the nineties, an awful lot so far in 2011. I’m not exactly sure why: perhaps it’s just been discovering a handful of nights in London that cover parts of that past that I’m still fond of – so Nuis@nce and Louder Than Fuck, the latter of which really did feel like I was back in my early teens with the soundtrack. Oh yes, I was a grunge kid for a while, plaid shirts, short sleeve band T-shirts over long sleeve ones, ripped jeans, etc.
And Kitty posting a nineties playlist yesterday was the reminder enough that I needed to resurrect this week’s Tuesday Ten, that I’ve had partly written for a couple of months. Twenty years back – so, 1991 – I was just thirteen, and taking some of my first steps into Alternative music, having discovered by this point already Front 242 and Faith No More (the wonders of MTV Europe). It was a bit of a vintage year, too. So with the twentieth anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind coming up in a few months time (I’m astounded that there is no news of an anniversary re-issue yet), let’s have a look at ten great releases from that year. There are a few other suggestions on the playlists as I had more than enough to work with here.
Oh, and do tell me what I’m missing.
Tyranny >For You<
So anyway, 242. Probably one of my three favourite bands ever, this album also contains some of my favourite 242 songs. By 1991, 242 probably had little to prove. After all, three years before they had released Front By Front, easily the greatest EBM/industrial album of all, and I have to wonder just how much pressure they were under to deliver another FBF. Tyranny does have moments of sounding just like it, too – the rhythmic workout of Trigger 2 (Anatomy of A Shot) in particular – but it also has some cast-iron classics of it’s own. Like the ghostly single Rhythm Of Time and the evergreen live powerhouse of Moldavia. What 242 understood, of course, was that not all EBM needed to be 4/4 beats and stomping all over the dancefloor – they had no problem at all slowing things down and creating soundscapes of darkness and fear: like Gripped By Fear, in fact.
Another set of EBM pioneers releasing a killer album in 1991 were Nitzer Ebb, who like 242 probably released their last truly great album during this year (Big Hit had it’s moments, but otherwise has aged astonishingly badly, while try as I might I can’t love the recent comeback Industrial Complex). Ok, so it’s not all perfect, but that one-two punch of Ascend and Godhead is just brutal: and the latter track is probably the one moment where NE strayed from their EBM roots into quasi-industrial rock, and got it bang-on. Quite why they tried to repeat the trick was beyond me.
Still a work of astonishing beauty even now, Massive Attack’s debut album is one of those peerless albums that seems to exist out of time: an album that took various musical styles and vocalists, and somehow came out with an album that simply won’t age. It’s probably because those mesh of styles popularized what became known as “trip-hop”, and along with another album in this list probably did a lot to break down the walls between the dance and rock/indie crowds. My own introduction to Massive Attack actually came with the follow-up Protection a few years later, but I quickly loved this album once I did get it. It is soulful, edgy, dark and equally tender at points – and no one singer dominates proceedings. Well, actually, one does when it comes to the singles – Shara Nelson’s wonderful, rich voice is one of the reasons why Unfinished Sympathy is so revered, but I still maintain her other two contributions here – Safe From Harm and especially the skyscraping Daydreaming – are actually superior.
That other band I referred to? Primal Scream. Screamadelica remains the gold standard for any so-called indie band dabbling in dance music, and it is such a perfect synthesis of the two styles that not a single band have come even close to matching it in quality. In fact, there is so much good stuff here it’s difficult to know where to start – but even so the sunny, uplifting soul-gospel-rock of opener Movin’ On Up is a remarkable opener. Even more so when you think that for much of the rest of the album, there is nothing that sounds like it (they continued delving into sixties rock with broadly poor results on the follow-up to this, Give Out But Don’t Give Up, the sound of a band that hadn’t got a fucking clue what to do next). Higher Than The Sun suggests what they do were doing a lot of during recording this (getting off their box), while Come Together is the hippy dream made good at last. But my favourite track nowadays is the astonishing piano-house-rock rave-up of Don’t Fight It, Feel It – that when it truly kicks in about three-and-a-half minutes in sounds like the soundtrack to the greatest party on earth.
Another album as epic in scope on the same label (Creation) in 1991 had very different results: rather than selling shitloads as Screamadelica did, it very nearly bankrupted the label too. As a bit of business this album was an epic failure, but as a work of art it really is something else. Shoegaze taken to extraordinary extremes in production and volume, it’s been the blueprint for god-only-knows how many albums since, but once again none of them quite manage to match up to this. I still love the opening intensity of Only Shallow more than anything, though – that kickdrum intro, before a whole squadron of guitars fight a pitched battle, and then that voice drifts into view. For an album of such squalling mayhem and depth (there is layer after layer after layer of sound to dig through here), though, it’s an album of utter beauty and fragility at it’s heart. Notable also for the long-promised remaster and reissue that is now somewhere near two years late. Will it ever get released, I wonder.
Talking of intensity, David Yow and his cohorts unleashed this thirty-minute blast during 1991, and I still maintain that it is their best album (although Puss from Liar possibly sneaks it in the best song stakes). They may have gained a little from having that split-single with Nirvana – it’s certainly how I heard of them first – but it’s kind of entertaining to think just how many people got lured in by that and then were fucking terrified when they heard David Yow snarling all kinds of wierd shit into their ears. Especially the wonderousness of Mouth Breather, underpinned by that wickedly coiling riff, or the just plain fucking wierd Lady Shoes. Oh yes.
Yerself Is Steam
Talking of wierd: I think it’s fair to say that of all of the bands featured this week, this band is the one that no-one perhaps expected to still be going twenty years later. Deliberately odd and difficult – and, I’d suspect, spaced out on fuck-knows what, judging on some of the songs here – it still has moments of exquisite beauty here, and none of them are the throwaway Car Wash Hair. Instead go for the the wistful Chasing A Bee and the taut, distorted balladry of Frittering. And it is in those moments that it’s clear that they always had an album with the commercial potential of Deserters Songs, they were just waiting for the dust, and their heads, to clear first. That it took less than ten years is the most surprising bit.
Remember when the Pumpkins and Bill Corgan weren’t a laughing stock, not having to (barely) trade on past glories? I long since gave up on anything new being even remotely passable, and instead content myself with the fact that for a few years in the nineties, the Smashing Pumpkins released two quite glorious albums – and another that would have been great if only they’d kept it to one CD. But it all started with this, and I still remember getting a copy of this from a friend on one side of a C90 (I can’t remember what was on the other side). I was sold by the end of the intro to I Am One, frankly.
Levelling The Land
I wonder sometimes whether this album is, more than any other in this list, very much “of it’s time”. A more innocent time for me, but for those older than me and of an “alternative” persuasion, this was perhaps the soundtrack of the beginning of the end of the party era that seemed to encapsulate the turn of the decade. As free parties (or raves, if you must), were cracked down upon ever harder, and even as Margaret Thatcher left power the left-wing felt ever more isolated. So this was a defiant shout back, that addressed said politics, and also crucially had moments of enormous fun (The Riverflow in particular), and was phenomenal live. Folky-punk rock never really got any better than this.
Finally, it kinda had to be this. Like it or not, this album opened the floodgates for a “golden age” of alternative music, where it was easy to obtain, easy to find (even in the pre-internet age), and there were fucking loads of bands all trying different things to be heard. And yes, some of them were shit, record company constructs to cash in just like every other genre that gets huge. But there were many diamonds in the rough, and this was (obviously) one of them. Twenty-six million copies of this have apparently been sold, and I think it’s fair to say that many of those buyers would still struggle to find a bad song on this even now. Yes, some moments from this have become over-familiar and over-played, perhaps, but I still never get tired of any of them. And while it is front-loaded with the singles – four of the opening five songs – it’s strength is beyond those. As for how many bands this has influenced? Well, go and check how many covers you have of songs from this album, for a start. There are more you might think.