Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Top 10 Albums of the 90's -or- What I Listened to When I Wasn't Listening to the Grateful Dead

The 90’s are absolutely a defining yet bi-polar era in regards to my taste in music. I graduated from high school in 1993, so it was obviously a key time for me  as far as music goes—being full of all that teenage angst and whatnot. But I was based in Japan with the military from October of 1994 until the late summer of 1997, and of those roughly 3 years out of country I spent nearly 2 of them deployed aboard an aircraft carrier. There was no internet access (on land or at sea,) and in fact the World Wide Web was really just a novelty to me at that point—something I had heard about and saw in ports like Singapore and Hong Kong a handful of times. Access to new music and the verities of American pop-culture were limited to magazines and what little American television programming we could get in Japan. My point being, I didn’t have the daily MTV-level of exposure during those years.
Not that it would have mattered. By 1993 or 1994 I was a wholly-absorbed Deadhead. I shunned most new music in favor of collecting (via U.S. mail; on cassette) bootlegs of the latest Grateful Dead shows in the U.S. I drove my roommates absolutely bonkers with hour upon hour of Garcia-driven noodling.  Being a deadhead in the military was a bit incongruous to say the least. Hell, I could write a book about that subject actually… oh wait I did.
But I digress. Unlike my 80’s list, most of these albums I actually bought brand new and loved in the 90’s. It’s heavy on early 90’s material due to the aforementioned Dead Zone I was in for many years. It’s also heavy on hard rock/metal. That said there are a few 90’s gems in there I came to appreciate in the subsequent decades of the new millennium. So here you have it. In no particular order:

Jane’s AddictionRitual de lo Habitual*                             
Jane’s is the only artist that appears on both my 80’s and 90’s lists, and Ritual is one of my favorite albums of all time—top 10 for sure and possibly top 5 depending on my mood. I remember listening to Ritual over and over again my sophomore year in high school. Entranced by the quiet intricacies and haunting melodies of songs like Three Days, and absolutely awestruck over the power and ferocity of the opener, Stop, Ritual is just a solid, diverse, well-produced album; everything on it is amazing. *Except Been Caught Stealing that is. I feel like that song was some sort of truck stop bathroom abortion that managed to cling to its momma’s leg. How it was written or remained on the album I can only speculate. The dog barking? WTF is that? I think I disliked that song even more due to its popularity at the time. I mean, of all the songs on that album…? Really…? The rest of the album thankfully smothers it.

Skinny PuppyToo Dark Park 
Too dark what, you ask? Sounding more like a science fiction horror movie soundtrack than a conventional album, Too Dark Park is a multilayered viscera cake, full of blood-curdling gravelly vocals, hypnotically throbbing drum tracks, and a plethora of horror film dialogue samples all slathered together with an industrial array of synthesized noise that, at times, surprises you with a buried, finger-snapping hook. Honestly I think the reason I loved this album so much is because my mom hated it so much.

PhishA Live One          
I bought this album while on liberty in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. I had heard of Phish and I knew a lot of Deadheads were getting hip to them, yet it was coincidence that I found this album just a month after Jerry Garcia died. Among Deadheads there’s a contingent that hates Phish—I didn’t know this until years later nor did I ever get why there was such a vehement dislike of the band by some heads, but as those first few notes of Bouncing Around the Room bounced around the bar (I had talked the waitress into playing a few tracks) I was immediately hooked on Phish. I never came to love them as much as the Dead, but Phish is an amazingly talented band, Trey Anastasio being one of the greatest rock guitarists of our time.

PanteraVulgar Display of Power          
This album is just pure adrenaline-fueled aggression funneled through a hardcore metal band from Texas. Although I didn’t appreciate it until years after I had bought it, the production quality on this album is absolutely stellar. Dimebag Darrell is one of those guitar players that is (or was) immediately recognizable by tone and playing style—those crunchy chorus riffs often imitated but never matched. Cruising about in the scalding summertime heat of Hemet, California in my 1970 VW, I used crank that album as loud as the VW’s tinny little speakers could go. Distorted and trebly it was in the soundtrack of my summer in 1992.

Alice in ChainsDirt     
Another summer of ’92 soundtrack (that was a great summer by the way,) Dirt, is Alice in Chains at their best. The album has more substance and better songwriting than the previous release yet retains the raw, hard rock sound that was lost on subsequent albums—all good albums mind you, Dirt just stands far above the rest. Layne Staley’s drug-inspired lyrics are blatantly foreshadowing given the unsurprising circumstances of his death.

Snoop Doggy DoggDoggy Style            
This will likely surprise those of you that actually know me. I never cared much for rap in the 90’s. I did have a Run DMC tape and Licensed to Ill in the 80’s, but as my listening tastes gravitated towards alternative music I was one of those people that said things like “you can’t have ‘crap’ without ‘rap.’” I ended up with an MP3 of Doggy Style about 5 or 6 years ago and I love it. I don’t know why I love it—it’s vulgar, immature, and misogynistic. It glorifies murder, drugs, and that whole gangsta lifestyle, but damn it’s got good hooks.

Rage Against the MachineRage Against the Machine                
I was stationed in San Diego in early 1994 when I picked up this album. I had actually seen Rage play for about 10 minutes on the side-stage at Lollapalooza II at Irvine Meadows in ’92 (have I mentioned the summer of 1992 was a good one? Yeah…) I don’t remember them making a particular impact on me then, but when I bought the album… Holy. Shit. I remember reading the liner notes, and there was something to the affect that “no synthesizers were used, etc. etc.” Tom Morello made all that funky noise with just a guitar? Rage was also a pioneer in incorporating rap and hip hop into metal and arguably spawned a genre.

Tom PettyWildflowers             
Tom Petty has never been one to break ground in the music world. The songs he and the Heartbreakers compose are not revolutionary by any stretch and they fit nicely into a sort of adult contemporary/classic rock radio genre while appealing to a younger crowd (at least in the late 80’s/early 90’s.) So why is there a Petty album on my list? And why this particular album? Petty may have not been groundbreaking, but his song-craft is solid, more so when he leaves the Heartbreakers behind. Every song on Wildflowers is superbly written and exquisitely produced. Revolving around and interweaving themes of love, lust, alienation, and, well, life, the content of the album is easy to relate to while being listenable and enjoyable in every regard.  

CakeFashion Nugget                
The first time I heard The Distance, I remember thinking, “what kind of Jock Jams crap is this?” My opinion of the song was certainly tainted due to the fact that the first time I heard it I was at sea, trying to get some sleep whilst my berthing-mates unwound playing spades and cranking various albums of which I had no desire to listen. 10 or so years later the album found its way into my possession and I realized what an absolutely superb album Fashion Nugget is. I mentioned on my 80’s post I’m a sucker for rock songs with non-traditional time-signatures. Nugget has that. And they have a trumpet (or is that a fugal horn?) And they do the raddest freakin’ cover of a Gloria Gaynor song I have ever heard. Okay, it’s the only cover of a Gloria Gaynor song I’ve ever heard but you get the picture.  

White ZombieRoute 666; Devil Music Vol. I    
For the last album on my list (even though it is in no particular order) I take it back to my High School days. This is the only White Zombie album I own or care to own. It’s a blend of fat guitar riffs, a driving rhythm section, and kitschy horror-movie samples. This is a well-crafted metal album that makes fine use of clean studio production and vivid songwriting imagery while keeping the old head-a-banging the entire time. My favorite sample: “do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?” I’ve wondered that myself sometimes…

I’ll throw in a few honorable mentions this time:

Depeche ModeViolator          
They continued the trends of Black Celebration and Music for the Masses with Violator. Great production and great songwriting.

Temple of the DogTemple of the Dog               
Grunge era Seattle super-group with Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder on vocals? What more can I say?

The Black CrowesThe Southern Music and Harmony Companion         
I love this album for the same reasons I love Wildflowers.

MetallicaMetallica (the black album) Leaving any hint of sophomoric production quality behind, Enter Sandman is probably one of the best opening tracks for a metal album ever.