Depeche Mode: Violator (1990)
I was there for every stage of Depeche Mode’s evolution, without ever taking much notice of them. They’re the kind of band who show up on every ‘alternative’ music show without ever being quite alternative enough to be cool. Well, that was true for much of the Eighties at least. “Just Can’t Get Enough” was just a blast of dorky electro-pop (though a high quality example of one) when it was released in 1981, and the film clip showing a bunch of self-conscious new-wavers out socialising didn’t help the image much, Vince Clarke was their hook-meister, and when he left soon after for solo projects and Yazoo, the band took a turn toward industrial pop. Those mid-Eighties albums were ok, which is about the worst thing you’d want to be as a band; ‘ok’ doesn’t get noticed. I don’t know what happened, but somewhere around the end of the decade Depeche Mode… well, they flowered. The progression now seemed inevitable and the band appeared confident and expressive. Violator was the moment of perfection for them – a wonderful intermeshing of synth lines, doomy goth attitudes, poppy melodies, deep bass runs, and just a little echo of their arty industrial past. The gravitas and confidence they bring to songs such as “Personal Jesus”, “World in My Eyes” and “Enjoy the Silence” indicate a band totally on top of their game. And the quieter tracks insinuate their way into your mind. Dave Gahan and Martin Gore always had an instinct for the commercial, but it’s gratifying to see that they worked to harness it to their vision rather than diluting what they had in pursuit of accessibility. Like Talk Talk (who took an entirely different path), Depeche Mode showed that if you’re good enough to score a hit, you’re good enough to make a difference, as long as you stay true to yourself.
Enjoy the Silence
Ben Folds Five: Ben Folds Five (1995)
There’s a reason why “Julianne” and “Underground”, the lead singles from this album, leapt out of the airwaves in early 1996. Male posturing, angst and whining were reaching a peak around this time in the US, and there was a need for something less portentous and pretentious. This album provides it. Admittedly, it leans a little towards smart-assery, but it’s done with such verve that it’s difficult not to like it. And the songs are so sing-along-able; the melody lines are crisp and poppy, and there’s a real sense that Folds is having loads of fun. The main thing he has in common with Todd Rundgren is a talent for cutting through his own complicated arrangements (it’s why the songs here always sound so busy – they’re working overtime to resolve themselves). And the only thing he has in common with Billy Joel is that he plays the piano. The difference there is really that Folds just thinks he’s a great idea for a song, whereas Joel really believes that music is a way for people to get to understand, forgive and empathise with him. Folds uses sanctimony as a device, Joel uses it as a philosophy. Well, at least that’s true about Folds for this album; “Brick” from the follow-up descended into pathos, something that didn’t happen on the debut. You can pick your highlights – the entire first half is great, and even relative filler like “Uncle Walter” and “Sports and Wine” works well within context. At its best, this album is a thrilling high-energy joyride with riffs and hooks spilling all over the place; and even at its most maudlin it doesn’t descend into cliche or tendentiousness. It’s so different to everything else from its time that it’s worth owning just for that.
Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted (1992)
Probably the most confusing album I’ll have to deal with, at least in terms of why I think so much of it. I love it and respond to it in a way that doesn’t work for me with any of their other albums. When people love Pavement, they generally like everything. I really only listen to this. I also completely understand why many people simply won’t connect with it. It possesses an oddness and lack of flow that just doesn’t feel consistent. But these songs are so strong, to me it makes no difference at all. Another thing that bothers me is that Pavement are seen as the pioneers of the ‘slacker’ movement, but I see very little that’s slacker about Slanted and Enchanted. There’s some real attack on, say, “No Life Singed Her” or “Conduit for Sale!” The slacker label this album seems to attract is a little misleading anyway, as all the songs are sharply conceived and economically performed; although Pavement became more professional in their outlook and disciplined in their playing on future albums, they were never more creatively driven than they are here. It positively brims with ideas, and burns with inspiration. The songs jolt a bit because they don’t follow conventional structures. Listen to the distorted shouting here and there, or the Fall rips in a number of the tracks, and you might be a little put off. But closer attention reveals clever and sweet melody lines in nearly every song, and order even where structures are inverted or twisted out of shape. And then there are pop gems such as “Summer Babe” or “Here”. It’s a fabulous listen, and possibly in the top five albums of the entire decade. Oh, and get the Luxe and Reduxe re-issue; it’s a massive collection of tracks, but they’re all high quality
Pulp: Different Class (1995)
I don’t know, I always feel as if this album ought to have dated badly. It was so integral to the Britpop movement, and it so much defined the time you’d think it’d have a hard time escaping it. The cover art and packaging look dated – though they were consciously retro at the time, to be fair. But whenever I put Different Class on, it feels as fresh and new and brash and snotty as ever. Well, they ought to have known their stuff by this time. The band had nearly lasted two decades, and it had been four years since they’d first got a break. They were your typical ‘overnight success’ with a career’s worth of music behind them. At any rate, Different Class exposed the dark heart of the Britpop revolution. Most of the songs deal with either class struggle or some level of obsession. Jarvis Cocker’s gift is that he doesn’t just manage to bring his vignettes to life, he really lives them, and buries his way deep into the characters he portrays. Take hit single “Common People” for instance – it’s done with snarling barbs and sneering put-downs, but at the end you know he’s right to take that slumming rich girl down. “Underwear” and “Pencil Skirt” are even more startling, sexual intimidation delivered with such irony and wit they’re seductive. Musically it has the sunny grandiosity of all Britpop, so it’s an easy listen. Vocally and thematically it’s more challenging, with Jarvis Cocker coming on all Jimmy Porter with an extra dollop of self-awareness. Blur demonstrated on a number of occasions in the mid-nineties that they couldn’t do social commentary without sounding arch. Pulp managed it without even stretching themselves.
PJ Harvey: Dry (1992)
I’m often perplexed as to exactly what it is that draws me to an sound or a genre, and why I often can’t pick up on quality immediately with some artists. When a ‘difficult’ album does eventually open up for me, I wonder why I couldn’t see its virtues in the first place. Dry is one of those, though I think perhaps in this case I know what’s going on. The voice is immediately identifiable and individualised, but I can’t escape the notion that Polly Jean Harvey is singing at me rather than to me. That is, I think, why I first shied away from her work. Far from being a criticism though, I think that’s the great strength of this album; you have to work to get at it, and the reward is greater when you get there. You have to come to her. Dry has been described as a marriage between blues and post-punk, but to me it sounds like it’s all derived from blues. The idea seems to have been to develop the musical atmosphere that best suits the voice, and then let the vocals transform it into a unique creation. And thanks to Harvey’s amazing voice, the whole album is raw, primal, bare and very honest – I won’t say ‘revealing’ as the themes are pretty murky, and Harvey is a complicated person. But it ropes you in like a steer – try listening to “Hair” without getting involved, for instance. There’s really nothing you could call a flourish here, nothing extraneous, no indication that Harvey is looking to be approved of. Choosing between this and her next album, the Steve Ablini-produced Rid of Me, is a matter of taste as much as anything else. They’re both excellent. In fact, she has barely put a foot wrong throughout her career. I prefer this because it is the most direct embodiment of Harvey’s style, the least ‘produced’.
Jane’s Addiction: Ritual De Lo Habitual (1990)
We’re in an era here – roughly 1987-1993 – where my listening experience shifted from understanding musical artists largely via their singles output – the stuff I would see on TV or hear played on the radio – to purchasing albums on the strength of singles. I didn’t yet seek out albums for their own sake, or pursue recommendations from others all that much. But around this time albums mattered increasingly more to me. I bought Ritual de lo Habitual on the back of “Been Caught Stealing” which came across as both catchy and complex. The album is too, but not in a way representative of the single. It’s an odd one, because it really doesn’t flow at all. The first few tracks lead the listener in a certain direction – punchy, defiant, aggressive rock in 3-4 minute bursts. “Stop” is a textbook album opener, in fact, a brash statement of intent, and it’s followed up with variations on the general attack, with modulations of tempo but plenty of abrasion. But then, after “Been Caught Stealing” softens you up, just when you’re ready for another aural assault, it’s as if they collectively said, “Aw, fuck it, let’s make a different album.” They swing straight into an 11-minute slow-tempo, confessional epic. And then another one nearly as long. And then another one, in waltz time! And they close it out with “Classic Girl”, which actually slows the tempo down further. It works because the songs are all high-quality, but it is disorienting. You feel as if you’re being gradually unwound. What I’m saying is that it’s impossible to put this one on to reinforce a particular mood, because you’re going to end up somewhere else entirely.
Been Caught Stealing
Mercury Rev: Deserters Songs (1998)
The rise of the soundtrack as a musical statement has given rise to albums that sound like soundtracks. While soundtrack albums have been around for decades, and functioned as mood-establishers at least since the spaghetti westerns of the Sixties, the genre produced more evocative and introspective works around the Eighties (think Paris, Texas or Koyaanisqatsi), and appears to have given inspiration to artists to create works that are less ‘conceptual’ as such, and more soundscapey. You didn’t see a lot of truly introspective, orchestral bands who just play like that until the Nineties. I’m quite pleased about that development, not so much because it’s the kind of music I gravitate to, as that mainstream music began to simplify (and infantilise, for mine) in the Nineties, confining itself gradually to the twin themes of narcissism and selfish love. Moody, abstract work such as this acted as a continual modifier to that. The band itself had a history almost as calamitous as that of the Flaming Lips, and a lot of that fed into their music, lending it a quirky tension and edge. By the time of Deserters Songs, nearly ten years and four albums in, the music had developed a deep resonance and a sense of resolution. They have the grace of a psych case deeply at peace with himself. The little forays into orchestral flourish, jazzy interlude or repetitive art piano don’t seem out of place at all, and they frequently break out into beautiful melodies, as in “Goddess on a Hiway ” or “Holes”. It takes a little time to settle into this album, possibly because it’s so fully integrated it’s like a barrier to the outside world. But once you’re in, you’re in to stay, and it rewards further listens afterwards.
Goddess on a Hi-Way
Sonic Youth: Goo (1990)
Watching critical evaluation try to keep up with Sonic Youth is quite fascinating, if only because I’m not sure there’s anything much to keep up with – the idea that they’re significant while not transparent about their ambitions makes it very easy to over-explain them. The way I see it, Sonic Youth really didn’t make a stab at defining or capitalising on or keeping up with any directions or trends in particular. Daydream Nation marked a musical progression, but only on their own terms. And when it came to making Goo, where a band that had attracted wider attention was lured to a major label, there was a pretence toward the mainstream but not a lot more than that. Half of Goo is riffy, hook-oriented, hummable. The rest is sonic squall. It seems they (or their label) have more-or-less front-ended the accessible pieces, as five of the first seven tracks (including break-through hit “Kool Thing”) are pretty easy on the ear for them. After that comes “Mildred Pierce”, which pulls a reasonably standard track to pieces toward the end; “Cinderella’s Big Score” which is more chanted than sung; “Scooter and Jinx” which is a minute of white noise; and lastly “Titanium Expose”, not a million miles away from anything on Daydream Nation. And while there may be a question as to whether the track-listing was a concession to the label, the subject matter should put paid to that – the best-known tracks are a lacerating feminist tract and a meditation on the death of Karen Carpenter. The balance has never been more in favour of accessibility than it was here, but that still places Sonic Youth and Goo in the marginal category. I listen to this the most of any of their albums, but I’m aware that it’s a mainstream-friendly variation of their fundamental independent guitar-barrage sound, not a new direction or anything like that.
Neil Young: Sleeps With Angels (1994)
This is a genuinely intriguing album. Young spent most of the Eighties trying out different styles, and people generally regard his output in that period as inferior, with the electronic Trans the nadir. It’s probably a little unfair on him, but the output was definitely uneven His return to form in 1989 with Freedom felt like that period simply didn’t happen. He continued to be adventurous with his music but more in the way he was in the Seventies. Young likes to push his emotions to the limit in looking for inspiration – consider the brutal rush of Tonight’s the Night, which was the result of tragedy close to Young’s heart – and here he’s drawn on Kurt Cobain’s suicide to meditate on death, violence and life’s emptiness. It’s at its most explicit on the title track, but it really infects everything here. Sleeps With Angels, for mine, harks back to After the Gold Rush with its mood of stoic and cautious optimism in the face of life’s vicissitudes. It’s Young in a brooding, melancholy state of mind – in my opinion the most rewarding of his moods. It’s to Young’s eternal credit that he can go to dark places and make something uplifting and beautiful out of it. There’s certainly a lot more of what you’d call melody on this one, and some of the tracks – particularly “My Heart” and “A Dream That Can Last”, which bookend the album – are quite beguiling. The massive 14-minute opus “Change Your Mind” serves as an anchor for the other songs, and never wears out its welcome. As much as any of Young’s catalogue, this album easily fits the descriptor ‘majestic’. The quiet power it exudes is quite brilliant, and it makes for a very underrated album.
Change Your Mind
Prime of Life
Fatboy Slim: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby (1998)
Norman Cook is a bit of an Eighties/Nineties journeyman, starting out with indie-pop group the Housemartins, and then lending his talent to a number of other projects before settling down to stamp his mark with Fatboy Slim. And this really is a showcase. Let’s be honest here, there’s virtually no depth to this album at all, that’s not what it’s designed for. But by the same token, it’s not cynical either; it’s done with love and it’s designed to impress. It’s not every week, or month, or even year, that this much care is taken in creating an album whose only function is to get you to dance; so for that alone the achievement here is laudable. The Fatboy Slim franchise announced itself a couple of years earlier with Better Living Through Chemistry, and that was an impressive album, but this one is a lot more fun. It’s Norman Cook at his exhaustive best, breaking out big beats and massive hooks and mashed-up styles in a totally infectious riot, strutting about like he owns the place. Techno dance had already become quite a thing by the late nineties, and DJ-as-Performer was starting to be taken as read. All that was left really was to perfect the style, or to fragment further into sub-genres. Cook has taken the former route here, and on tracks such as “The Rockerfeller Skank”, “Praise You” and “Right Here Right Now” he created defining moments. And what the album lacks in depth, it more than makes up for with vast cinematic breadth. The singles are mostly forefronted, but I’m just as much enamoured of “Love Island” and “Acid 8000” as any of the more celebrated tracks.
The Rockerfella Skank