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The University of Hartford

Okay. Just so we're clear...A Best of the ‘90’s
by Moondog

    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 decade.
    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 of"Uptown Drifter."

#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, though).

#7-Various Artists: Natural Born Killers Soundtrack (1994, Epic)

    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, Epic)

    Before the decade began, there was a band called the Toll, which, I believe, sucked. I don’t think I was alone on this. At first, I thought it was merely their hackneyed reliance on politically correct themes which they couldn’t 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 Rocha’s muscular and equally intense raping style; it was overpowering. And the new thing here was the aggressive stance of it all. You don’t 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, Mercury)

    For his first project on his new label, Elvis Costello delivered a knockout. Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach have done for each other what Costello’s Paul (continued on page 11) McCartney collaborations could not quite do; absolutely demand new consideration for both their works. For Elvis, Bacharach’s musical muscle adds proper polish and depth to his won tunes, while Elvis’s sharp lyrical sensibilities can make you forget all about "That’s What Friends Are For." Bacharach also, it seems, did some vocal coaching with Elvis. The results show. It’s Costello’s most consistently strong vocal work since Imperial Ballroom."
    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 city’s 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, 1995’s Grace.
    His vocal range, both in pitch and dynamics, was startling. It whirls to intense heights in the album’s title track and draws you closer in on tunes like the jazz comer "Lilac Wine" and his masterful version of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah." He delivers a beautiful rendition of Benjamin Britten’s "Corpus Christi Carol," and rocks out on his original tune, "Eternal Life." The biggest single, the mind-blowing "Last Goodby" made MTV’s "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 Nirvana’s Nevermind. I’m unhappy enough about what happened to Buckley, but I think I’m still a bit pissed off at Kurt Cobain for just ending his life. Oh, don’t get me wrong: I’ll still play Nirvana. I’ll 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 already.

#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' second album.

    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,
Moondog

Copyright©WWUH: January/February Program Guide, 2000

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