January 1st, 2000 was not the end
of the second millennium AD. Likewise, it was not the beginning of the third millennium.
Those things happen on January 1st, 2001. As I am writing this, I realize this point will
be moot by the time of its' publication, but I should mention: none of this will save any
computers. Let alone the one I am writing this on.
One thing that did end, however, is the 1990's. And so, someone (the
editor) thought it would be a good idea (fill up some space) if some announcer who had
been here at least through the 1990's (me), put together a list of the best albums of the
I encourage you, then, to take this top fifteen list with a hefty grain
of salt, and as an alternative consumer friendly list of good stuff that would be pretty
interesting (even indispensable) to own. Of course, debate is inevitable.
#15-Los Lobos: Kiko (1992, Slash/ WB)
Los Lobos (in this formation and those of the Latin
Playboys, Los Super Seven and Cesar Rosas) have produced some of the best music of the
last two decades, but this album was an apex of the many directions they have pursued.
Aspects of blues, rock, r & b, mariachi and more can be found here, with great
songwriting. Check out the great "Dream in Blue," "Saint Behind the
Glass" and "Wake Up, Dolores."
#14-Negativland: Free (1993, Seeland)
After flirtations with lawsuits over their
Casey-Kasem-cuss-fest remake of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For,"
Negativland again took their sampled audio clay and sculpted perhaps their best album, on
all American themes like religion, consumerism and guns. It's an aural pastiche of Larry
King, 7-Eleven commercials, Timothy Leary and motivational recordings. Check out "I
Am God," "The Gun and the Bible" and "The National Anthem."
#13-De La Soul: ...Is Dead (1991)
A great sophomore piece of work from De La and Prince Paul
(see also #10), "...Is Dead" threw down raps about family problems ("My
Brother's A Basehead", "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa"), the
peculiarities of limited fame ("Bitties in the BK Lounge," "Ring Ring Ring
(Ha Ha Hey)") and the line between their style and the developing styles of hardcore
(for instance, the rise of "Gangsta" styles). All accomplished with the
requisite funkiness and semi-surreal sense of humor. And speaking of surreal...
#12-Tom Waits: Bone Machine (1992, Island)
"I'm goin' out west where the wind blows tall/
And Tony Franciosi used ta date my Ma..." How can you not love a line like that? In
terms of his lyric writing, Tom Waits has always made the sleazy side of life come alive
in his songs. Since Swordfishtrombones, however he's combined those themes with a
low-down, bluesy, trash-can-bangin' musical ethic, which launched his stories of the
lowlife into the mythic stratosphere. He continues this idea on 1992's Bone Machine,
once again wrenching music from all sorts of metal and wires (and ably assisted by such as
Les Claypool and Marc Ribot). And need we mention what a beating he gives his voice?
"Goin' Out West," "Earth Died Screaming," "The Ocean Doesn't Want
Me Today" and "Jesus Gonna Be Here" warp rock, folk, ambient and spiritual
traditions into a new paradigm. Even Elvis Costello has tried to capture something like
Waits' brand of lightning in a bottle, partially by hiring Waits' old sidemen. As good as
those attempts were, however, there can be only one Tom Waits.
#11-Cassandra Wilson: New Moon Daughter (1997, Blue Note)
That beautifully husky female voice. That choice of
tunes to cover. Her own writing. These are all reasons to pick this album up and give it
permanent home on your CD changer. Is it jazz? Is it rock? Is it folk? Are you the kind of
person who likes when musicians force this question? Then you will love this. Hear her
jazzified vocal on the old Monkees' hit "Last Train to Clarksville," or her
ambient version of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon," or the Hank Williams tune,
"I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," or the sultry seduction of her take on U2's
"Love Is Blindness," or her great originals like "Solomon Sang." Or...
well, you get the idea.
#10-Vernon Reid: Mistaken Identity (1997, Epic)
Whatever happened to "Living Colour"?
Well, I do recall them catching up with vocalist Corey Glover on some VH1 show or another.
Vernon Reid, however, has ducked below the major media radar. Too bad for record sales,
but that could be what allows him to take part in such a freewheeling little experiment as
this. He produced this effort with famous jazz producer Teo Macero and hip-hop avant
gardesman Prince Paul (hear his efforts on #13). Together, they combined funk, speed metal
riffs, skillful sampling, lush string arrangements, jazzy grooves, Don Byron's reed work,
and a cameo by Laurence Fishburne, to create a mind and genre bending stew, dealing with
concepts of soul, self and society. Hear "Important Safety Instructions,"
"Mistaken Identity," the lush "Unborne Embrace," and the easy groove
#9-Bjork: Post (1995, Elektra)
Bjork Gudmundsdottir left her band "The
Sugarcubes" at the turn of the decade, turning toward a solo career. She released
"Debut," which began to reveal the limits of her range as a vocalist and
performer. Then came "Post" which destroyed those limits. With the brassy
show-tune styled "It's Oh, So Quiet" (Yoko Ono should have tried this kind of
thing way back when), Nellee Hooper's John Barry-ish strings on the haunting
"Isobel" (will they hurry up and have Bjork and Nellee work on a James Bond
theme already?), the lumbering metal techno-monster that is "Army of Me" (put to
good use on the "Tank Girl" soundtrack), the shifting dynamics of
"Hyper-Ballad" and the chugging polyrhythms of "I Miss You" (with drum
and bass man Howie B), Bjork charms her way through an album of diverse musical moods.
#8-Beck: Odelay (1996, DGC)
Beck parlayed the images and ideas he first explored
with "Loser," and his lesser known "Soul Suckin' Jerk" from his album Mellow
Gold into a ground breaking Grammy winner (and how often do those words go together?).
Odelay was a follow-up to those songs like 1999's Midnite Vultures was the
follow-up to Odelay, but the truth was Beck released other albums in the meantime
(consider One Foot in the Grave or the Latin flavored Mutations). Odelay was,
like "Loser," full of mutant-white- rash-lifestyle lyrics & hip-hop rhythms
and noise-rock sounds. With the help of the Dust Brothers (they of the Beastie Boys' Paul's
Boutique and (urgh) Hanson's Mmmbop) on "Where It's At," "High 5
(Rock the Catskills)," "Hotwax" and "The New Pollution" he lays
down such surreal and funky loops and stories that he comes off like a neo-George Clinton,
spinning an organic myth around his tales of minimum-wage getting down (Midnite
Vultures may be better still, but my inner jury is still out on that. Fine album,
#7-Various Artists: Natural Born Killers Soundtrack (1994,
On the surface, the NBK soundtrack is quite
similar to its' fellow Tarantino film soundtracks for Pulp Fiction and Reservoir
Dogs. However, unlike those relatively polite aural pastiches of movie songs and aural
clips from their films, this one wants to eat your young. Quite fitting in a way, since
Oliver Stone's film follows a similar "by any means, necessary or not"
aesthetic. Trent Reznor produced much fine product in the 1990's (The Downward Spiral
is certainly some of it), but his work as producer of this album is unique, even in his
ouevre (did I just say "aesthetic" and "ouevre" in the same paragraph?
Mein Gott...). His own tune "Burn" debuted on record here, but the mix is the
star here. The sounds of L7's "Shitlist" accompany Micky and Mallory's diner
rampage. Cowboy Junkies' "Sweet Jane" accompanies spacey musings by the pair on
their "star-crossed" love. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Rage Against the Machine
combine during a prison riot. Notably, however, Patsy Cline's "Back in Baby's
Arms," and the Leonard Cohen tunes that bracket the album stand mostly alone.
Combined with Tarantino's witty dialogue bits (although he disavows complete script credit
for the finished film) only add to this odd melange of violence, romance and (mostly)
media gone mad.
#6-Rage Against the Machine: Rage Against the Machine (1993,
Before the decade began, there was a band called the
Toll, which, I believe, sucked. I dont think I was alone on this. At first, I
thought it was merely their hackneyed reliance on politically correct themes which they
couldnt back up with their music. Or was it that they expounded on these themes of
social justice while seeking rock stardom through a major label. Rage Against the Machine
confirmed to me that I was right the first time. When this hit the station in 1993, it
took me awhile to warm up to it. But when I did, WHEW! All that funky, loud, and ambitious
music backing up Zack De La Rochas muscular and equally intense raping style; it was
overpowering. And the new thing here was the aggressive stance of it all. You dont
like things the way they are? THEN YOU CAN CHANGE THEM! So much for eighties
Regan-era liberal defeatism.
#5 Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach: Painted From Memory (1998,
For his first project on his new label, Elvis
Costello delivered a knockout. Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach have done for each other
what Costellos Paul (continued on page 11) McCartney collaborations could not quite
do; absolutely demand new consideration for both their works. For Elvis, Bacharachs
musical muscle adds proper polish and depth to his won tunes, while Elviss sharp
lyrical sensibilities can make you forget all about "Thats What Friends Are
For." Bacharach also, it seems, did some vocal coaching with Elvis. The results show.
Its Costellos most consistently strong vocal work since Imperial
The songs about heartbreak and infidelity are leavened by flashes
of wit, though only when absolutely necessary. In "Toledo," the singer worries
over being found in an affair, while musing over the contradictory history of the
citys name ("...does anybody in Ohio/ Dream of that Spanish Citadel?").
"Tears at the Birthday Party" is a cartooned pity party for a dumped man still
longing for his former love ("Now I see/ I see you share your cake with
him..."). "God Give Me Strength" (written for the film Grace of My Heart)
is delivered in appropriately overwrought fashion, however, as are "My Thief"
and "This House Is Empty Now." With lush arrangements, and Elvis usual
brilliant writing, these pop tunes will stick in your head. You may, however, never want
them to leave.
#4 Jeff Buckley: Grace (1995, Columbia)
When the brilliant Jeff Buckley died in a riverboat
mishap on May 30th, 1997, American music lost a major talent. This is unquestionably best
demonstrated on the only full-length album he released during his lifetime, 1995s Grace.
His vocal range, both in pitch and dynamics, was startling. It whirls
to intense heights in the albums title track and draws you closer in on tunes like
the jazz comer "Lilac Wine" and his masterful version of Leonard Cohens
"Hallelujah." He delivers a beautiful rendition of Benjamin Brittens
"Corpus Christi Carol," and rocks out on his original tune, "Eternal
Life." The biggest single, the mind-blowing "Last Goodby" made MTVs
"Buzzclips," which often seems to mean "Do not play during the daytime
EVER." The promise of this son of the late singer/songwriter Tim Buckley seemed to
just be starting to be fulfilled before his unfortunate death.
Perhaps the nature of his death is what puts Jeff Buckley on my list
and not Kurt Cobain and Nirvanas Nevermind. Im unhappy enough about
what happened to Buckley, but I think Im still a bit pissed off at Kurt Cobain for
just ending his life. Oh, dont get me wrong: Ill still play Nirvana. Ill
just be mad.
#3-Matthew Sweet: Girlfriend (1992, Zoo)
Well, Matthew Sweet hasn't died yet, thank God (and
I sincerely hope I didn't curse him by saying that). Following a career in several bands
from out of Athens, GA from the early 80's and a stint with Anton Fier's "Golden
Palominos," two less than successful A&M solo albums and during the break-up of
his marriage in 1990, Matthew Sweet recorded an album of songs about the loss of faith
("Divine Intervention," "Holy War"), obsessive longing
("Winona," "Day for Night") and Carpe Diem seduction attempts
("Girlfriend," "Evangeline"), and somehow made it come out both as an
honest confessional, and as tasty accessible guitar pop. When he beckons a lover,
"Speak to me with your sweet voice," in Crosby, Stills and Nash worthy
harmonies, she could barely notice the unfortunate undertones when he says "It's as
close as I get to love." Like Sting's "Every Breath You Take," you'll find
it a wonder that such delicious pop product can so skillfully conceal a deeper, darker
side. And did I say Crosby, Stills and Nash and not Young? A country-esque Neil Young
influence is even more on display on songs like "Winona" and "You Don't
Love Me" with Greg Leisz's wonderful slide guitar, augmenting Robert Quine's
wonderful out of nowhere leads and solos (check out the especially disturbing "Don't
Go," where he augments Sweet's lyric about the funeral of a loved one (with possible
guilt implied) with his frightening and intense departures off the themes). You'll love
it. You'll invite it into your collection. Then songs like "Thought I Knew You"
will fester and sting... and you'll love it even more.
#2-Sarah McLachlan: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1994)
What else can you say about this woman? I can say I
was first made cognizant of her with Gary ("The Microwave Brain" of the Greatest
Show from Earth) Levin's program guide interview with her, and played some of her stuff,
but this is the big one, the monster that created Lilith Fair and launched a new era of
commercial acceptance of women in music. "Possession," inspired by the supposed
state of mind of a stalker, becomes, lyrically, an increasingly discomforting picture of
passionate obsession. Vocally, McLachlan delivers a passionate and disquietingly beautiful
performance which is equal to the madness. "Good Enough," on the other hand,
doesn't mincewords in its' defiance of dysfunctional, abusive relationships. Likewise,
"Hold On" is a portrait of a painful deathwatch, written about a spouse who
stands by her husband while he wastes away from AIDS. McLachlan uses a jazzy waltz rhythm
to drive "Ice Cream," an appealingly romantic little ditty, which throws in the
little idea that "everyone here knows how to fight... (and)... cry." McLachlan
comes across as very honest in her writing and music... and if I keep trying to describe
her music, I fear I may get a bit more dishonest. Just go out and buy it if you haven't
#1-PJ Harvey: Dry (1992)
At age 22, Polly Jean Harvey formed a trio with Rob
Ellis on drums and Stephen Vaughan on bass. They made a very nice disturbing album a year
later. That was Dry and it rocked like crazy. By the way, just to confuse things,
PJ Harvey is actually the band's name. Don't call Polly Jean "PJ", O.K.? And can
someone explain to me why I hear "blues" every time I hear her sing, when she in
no way seems to have consciously emulated any blues singer I ever heard of? And what about
that writing? In "Sheela-Na-Gig," a lover shuns her advances as "mere"
"sinful" exhibitionism. "Happy and Bleeding" equally confronts the
potential lover with... uh, you know. In "Hair," she becomes Delilah, admiring
her Samson's strength, coveting his power (yeah, I know; but let's take it out of the
Freud context, hah?), and it's all done to a swinging, seductive rock beat.
"Dress" brings a cello into the proceedings, in a mad tarantella, which, quite
apart from the lyrics, which is better: air cello, air guitar or air drums? It raises a
difficult question there, indeed. As does "Joe," although the question there is
complicated by excellent work from all sides. The tempo and rhythm are insanely catchy,
thrusting forward Harvey's lyrics about uncertainty, betrayal and desperation. It was a
revelation when I first heard it, and still is one of the hardest rocking, best written
stuff by any female artist since Chrissie Hynde and the "original" Pretenders'
As 1999 closes (31 days left at this writing), I
should mention that Matthew Sweet's new album remains unheard by me, so with that and
other artists as yet unknown ahead over December, there could still be ten better albums
ahead. Yeah, right. Happy new year, and I hope the only thing you have to horde will
be UH Radio. Although, I encourage sharing.
Keep your feet,
Copyright©WWUH: January/February Program Guide, 2000