Speaking of the 90s…

That decade definitely had its share of one-hit wonders and almost-hits, didn’t it? From a former record-store-clerk standpoint, there was definitely a HARD push to get everything and anything out there to cash in on The Latest Sound. This was pretty much across the board in multiple genres. I remember the weekly visits from the distribution reps as they upsold the big names as well as the copycats and the underdogs. Some of it worked, a lot of it didn’t. Sometimes the music just wasn’t as good, but sometimes it was just luck and timing.

Here’s some tunage from the 90s that I thought was well worth the attention but unfortunately didn’t get past the first few hurdles here in the US. I’m pretty sure many of you have never heard of these, or will spark that wonderful ‘oh, that song!’ memory.

Favorite Albums: Spacehog’s ‘Resident Alien’

In late autumn of 1995, having just gotten all my anger and frustration out of my system after moving back home from an extended stay in Boston, I reconnected with an old friend of mine from high school and we started hanging out. To be honest it was a friendship of convenience at the time, considering a) we’d both boomeranged back to our home town that we’d both been so vocally desperate to escape five years previous, and b) there weren’t too many others we knew of in the immediate area that we could hang out with. She and I spent a lot of time driving around central Massachusetts, listening to music, smoking cigarettes, going to a few shows here and there, and making ridiculous plans to escape the clutches of our hometown once more. She’d escape in a few years; it took me almost nine more to do the same.

Spacehog’s Resident Alien was on heavy rotation during that time, partly because she had a mad crush on the guitarist Antony Langdon. There was also the fact that their debut single “In the Meantime” was getting mad airplay on all the local alt-rock stations we could get in, and I loved that they’d cribbed Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s “Telephone and Rubber Band” and used it brilliantly as the backbone sample of the entire song. We saw them at Pearl Street in Northampton not that long after its October release, and we stayed behind after the show to mingle with the band. While the the brothers Langdon (Antony and bassist/singer Royston, later to become Mr. Liv Tyler) were their usual strange and silly selves, lead guitarist Richard Steel and drummer Jonny Cragg were more laid back and amiable. [I remember surprising Jonny by mentioning I knew him from when he played in The Hollow Men back in the early 90s!] They were an unabashedly fun band to see and hang with.

They wore their Bowie influences not just on their sleeves but pretty much all over the place. You can hear traces of most of Bowie’s 70s output throughout the entire album, going from psychedelic Hunky Dory grooves on “Starside” to bluesy Ziggy Stardust riffs on “Candyman” to ridiculous Lodger camp on “Space is the Place” and back again. There’s even a nod to Tin Machine there on track two, “Spacehog”, in which that band’s “Crack City” is quoted near the end. [This is no fluke; during their tours for this album they would do a cover of the song, which ended up on their Hamsters of Rock EP.]

I think what makes this a strong record for me is that it shows that the band was solid and confident straight out of the gate; not only could they swagger like Bowie, they could balance their sillier songs with some truly heartfelt ballads. I also liked that there was a consistent sci-fi theme throughout, whether it was implied (such as “Shipwrecked”) or direct (such as “Starside”). And ending the album with the absolutely stunning epic track “Zeroes” is always a big winner for me.

They ended up being a bit of a 90s one hit wonder for the most part, but they’ve put out three further albums (the latest being 2013’s As It Is On Earth) and each of them has their own distinct charm, a healthy dose of Bowie influence, and of course their trademark goofiness. They’re all worth checking out, but I’ll always come back to Resident Alien as a solid mid-90s alt-rock album that’s stood the test of time.

Favorite Albums: Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’

It was summer of 1991 and I was living in a rented top floor dorm room on Beacon Street facing out over the Charles and the Esplanade. I was working in the drafty basement of the Emerson College library during the day and staying up way too late at night, trying to figure out far to many screwy things in my life.

My musical tastes could have gone either way, really. Most of my friends were digging the guitar-heavy sound coming from Seattle, but I found myself veering more towards the music that was coming from across the Altantic: Britpop and shoegaze. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the swampy, heavy rock of Soundgarden and Nirvana and all those other bands (I may not have gotten along with my freshman year roommate at all, but he did introduce me to some fine Pacific Northwest bands)…I just found myself drawn more towards the, shall we say, more positive sounds coming from the UK. I was a huge fan of Jesus Jones, EMF, Inspiral Carpets, The La’s, Lush, and all the rest of them.

Primal Scream’s “Loaded” was already all over the place since the single dropped way back in February of 1990, with its ‘Hey Jude’ chord progression and Stones-y grooviness, not to mention the great opening salvo, a quotable sample from The Wild Angels. It was a blissed-out remix of “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have” from their 1989 self-titled second album and it caught on like gangbusters on both sides of the pond. I couldn’t go a day without WFNX playing it and raving about it.

By September I’d moved in to an off-campus apartment with my friend Lissa and scraping by with the library job, but somehow I was able to save up to buy a few albums here and there when I wasn’t furiously dubbing other peoples’ collections. There was a ton of great UK music coming out at the time and I wanted as much as I could get.

I remember first hearing Screamadelica at the basement Strawberries in Harvard Square over in Cambridge. It was one of the first times I spent an extended time in a record store for the sole purpose of listening to an entire album, it was that phenomenal. Primal Scream had been a semi-psychedelic indie band for a few years by then, but for this album they’d shifted in the direction of house and techno. The mix of the two genres worked perfectly for the MDMA-soaked rave scene blossoming in the UK.

“Movin’ On Up” is a wonderful opening track for the album, stating its case with a celebratory gospel chorus. It’s a simple ‘all you need is love’ song full of positive vibes, but it does its job perfectly. We’re going on a trip, and it’s going to be amazing.

It’s followed up by a beat-heavy headtrip cover of Roky Erickson’s “Slip Inside This House” originally from 1990’s Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye tribute album. This also sets the tone for the rest of the album, with the tracks bouncing between fun and funky guitar-centric songs and extended techno beats.

A few tracks later I’d be blown away by one of the most gorgeous, head-trippy tracks I’d ever heard and still one of my all-time favorite songs of that era, “Higher than the Sun”. It perfectly captures the sound of 1960s psychedelic rock and intertwines it seamlessly with the LSD-laden dreamlike feel of rave.

The first side of the US cassette ends with a unique mix of another fun uplifting track, “Come Together” (which samples, of all things, Sex, Lies and Videotape!). [The UK version of this track is a different longer mix.] It’s a bookend track similar to “Movin’ On Up” both in its positive mood and message, and finishes off Side One on a pleasing, celebratory note.

Side Two opens up with the now-popular “Loaded”, and the rest of the album starts veering towards the after-party comedown, with slowly drifting tracks like “Damaged” before returning with an extended experimental retake of “Higher than the Sun”. It all ends with the quiet contemplation of “Shine Like Stars”.

Screamadelica is a record for partying and after-partying, but it’s also a record for sitting down and listening, and that’s one of the main reasons I gravitated towards it. Andrew Weatherall’s amazing co-production work on it makes it pleasurable whether you’re grooving to it on a crowded dance floor or kicking back on your bed with headphones on.

I highly recommend getting this record into your collection if you don’t have it already. [The 2011 twentieth anniversary version provides a great extended review of this album, including numerous mixes, remixes and b-sides.]

Twenty Years On: Spring 1999

Time to catch up on the 20YO series again! This time out we have a whole slew of fine records that became my favorite records of that year. Many of them were played heavily during writing sessions in the Belfry, but many of them were also getting play in my car as I expanded my weekend pleasure drives and long commutes. I was still feeling that nudge of discomfort coming from various angles (mean boss, low funds, frustration with my writing projects), but at the same time I felt stronger and more confident than I’d ever felt that entire decade.

Porcupine Tree, Stupid Dream, released 6 April 1999. I didn’t discover PT until their next album (2000’s Lightbulb Sun) but I immediately checked this album out once I did, and it became one of my favorite mid-catalog records of theirs. Steven Wilson (you may know him now as the producer behind all those 5.1 remixes of classic albums getting released lately) and the rest of the band really found their niche with this record, easing back on the extended jamming and leaning towards more concise melodies. Highly recommended, whether you’re a prog fan or not.

Ben & Jason, Hello, released 9 April 1999. Ben Parker and Jason Hazeley were a UK duo that wrote and sang absolutely gorgeous indie folk but avoided the sometimes saccharine twee of most other bands in that genre. They only put out three records and a handful of singles but they were one of my all-time favorite finds at the time. Definitely worth searching for if you can find them.

Electronic, Twisted Tenderness, released 17 April 1999. The third and last album from Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s side project, this is a fantastic album and in my opinion the best and tightest of them. It got a delayed and ignored release here in the States, which is too bad, because there are some really strong singles on this one. And quite possibly my all-time favorite version of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”, featuring some of the best Marr guitar work I’ve ever heard.

Ultrasound, Everything Picture, release 17 April 1999. Another import find that quickly became one of my favorite records at the time. It might be a bloated overlong mess but it’s a hell of a lot of Britpop/psych-rock fun and I still give it a spin every now and again.

Lamb, Fear of Fours, released 17 May 1999. Lamb is a fascinating electronic band in that they’re more about exploring and experimenting with soundscapes than they are about being played in a club, and I’ve always loved their records. This one’s fascinating in that it’s an experiment in unconventional time signatures, with very few tracks actually being in 4/4 time. (Track 4 is even untitled, and features nothing except a seven-second single bleating synth sound.)

Moby, Play, released 17 May 1999. Say what you will about his bouts of sort-of-creepy weirdness in his latest memoir, Play remains an excellent record and worthy of its accolades. It’s clever, inventive, and a wonderful listen.

Travis, The Man Who, released 24 May 1999. This record broke them in the States (where it was released a few months later). It’s less noisy than their debut record but it’s a lot more introspective, and truly shows just how great they are as songwriters. Every single track on this record is wonderful, even the hidden tracks! [This is the record they were touring on when I met the foursome after a show in Boston; they were all lovely people and I’m glad they made it as big as they did.]

Smash Mouth, Astro Lounge, released 8 June 1999. Yeah, I know, I could easily have used the “All Star” meme here, but I didn’t, because the rest of this album is actually pretty damn great! It’s a fun listen — it’s tighter and perhaps a bit poppier and more commercial, but that works to their advantage here.

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Coming up soon: Thirty Years On, in which I briefly talk about The Best Album Ever! 🙂

Sifting through old data

I’ve been doing some major cleaning back here in Spare Oom thanks to buying new furniture, and let me tell you, it’s been a wild ride on the Wayback Machine lately.

One of the things I’ve been doing the last week or so is going through my old 3.5″ floppy disks; I had three file boxes full of them that have been collecting dust and slowly degrading, so I figured it was high time that I saved what I could to an external drive, deleted what I didn’t want, and recycle the whole lot once I’m done. The earliest of these date back to 1994 when my ex-gf and I were writing True Faith. Every document dated up to around 1999 was a WRI file, given that I used MS Write exclusively until I finally got a copy of MS Word.

So as you can imagine, I’ve got all these songs in my head from that era that fit nicely with The Future Is Internet. Some of the songs are from horrible-but-great SF films like Johnny Mnemonic and Strange Days and Virtuosityand Hackers, while others were part of my ongoing writing soundtracks for TF and thereafter into The Phoneix Effect.

Enjoy some mid-90s Tunage Of The Future!

Favorite Albums: Duncan Sheik

Just before i started my job at HMV in late 1996, a new record popped up that hit the airwaves of both alternative rock and pop stations; even though it was primarily filtered down to Adult Alternative for its easy and melodic sound, the songwriting was so unexpectedly tight and adventurous that it got picked up everywhere. It was not the bombast of Collective Soul’s self-titled record, or the earnestness of Live’s Throwing Copper; it was simply a lovely album to listen to.

But that lightness is betrayed by darker, gloomier lyrics. James Hunter of Rolling Stone likened Sheik’s music to Talk Talk and The Smiths, perhaps for that reason: the musicianship is top notch from start to finish, the melodies are wonderfully creative but not overly complex, and the songs definitely get stuck in your head.

If you’ve only heard “Barely Breathing”, I suggest you check out the rest of the album — it’s definitely worth it.

Bonus Track: A year and a half later he popped up on the Great Expectations soundtrack from early 1998 with another fabulous track, “Wishful Thinking”, which got a lot of airplay at the time.

His later albums unfortunately did not get the attention they should have — partly due to changing tastes and partly due to the late 90s industry shake-ups — but they too are well worth looking for. He’s also kept busy since the mid-00s by writing and scoring music for multiple stage plays and musicals, his best known being Spring Awakening.

Twenty Years On: Spring 1999

I’d have to say 1999 was kind of a weird time for me, as it had some smashing highs and some really frustrating lows for me. While I still loved my record store job at HMV, things had changed there, and not necessarily for the better. The new manager and I often butted heads, and I also found my shifts often being pushed to weird hours to cover someone else’s plans. I’d gotten frustrated with the fact that my sci-fi novel (The Phoenix Effect) was getting no bites from publishers and its sequel was soon to be aborted when I instead chose to completely rewrite the whole damn thing.

Radio was also getting more frustrating to listen to, the more melodic sounds of 90s alt-rock getting replaced by what I’d call ‘meathead alt-metal’, with the drop-tuning and growling (and sometimes unfortunate white-boy-rapping) of Korn, Limp Bizkit and Marilyn Manson. I started listening to less radio and more of my own collection, which of course had already grown considerably in the last couple of years. On the plus side there, I’d discover a lot more imports and obscurities that became some of my favorite records of the time.

The Supernaturals, A Tune a Day, released 8 February 1999. I was pretty heavy into the imports at this time. I would read the British music mags religiously, checking out the news and reviews and following up accordingly, ordering a copy or two for the store. A lot of it was hit or miss, and most of the time I’d be ordering a copy simply for my own collection. The Supernaturals are one band that got some minor reviews in Mojo and elsewhere but kind of vanished soon after. I really dug the alternapop of this record, though.

Annie Christian, Twilight, released 8 February 1999. The same goes with Annie Christian…they were part of a newer British wave of guitar groups that wrote some really nifty tunes that unfortunately got ignored by pretty much everyone.

Tin Star, The Thrill Kisser, released 9 February 1999. Now THIS record is groovy and quirky as hell and more people need to know about it. The “Head” single got some minor airplay on the alt-rock stations, and every now and again I’m pleasantly surprised when it resurfaces. This record got a hell of a lot of play during my writing sessions. Well worth searching for and checking out.

Lit, A Place in the Sun, released 23 February 1999. These guys could easily be filed away in that same meathead alt-metal gang, considering their biggest hit is about being an alcoholic loser…but they do it in style with catchy riffs and fun tunes. Bonus points for providing a nude cameo of Blink-182 (following up their “What’s My Age Again” streak) in their video for “Zip-Lock”, another radio favorite.

Jimmy Eat World, Clarity, released 23 February 1999. Before the enormous success of 2001’s Bleed American, this band was a favorite of the emo crowd, and “Lucky Denver Mint” was a minor hit on a lot of alt-rock stations. Their early records are definitely worth checking out as well.

Badly Drawn Boy, It Came from the Ground EP, released 1 March 1999. This one remains one of my favorite import finds from the HMV years, and it’s one of BDB’s best songs, and really should have gotten a hell of a lot more attention than it did. I always play this one loud because it’s just that awesome.

3 Colours Red, Revolt, released 2 March 1999. Yet another fantastic alt-rock album criminally obscured by alt-metal radio and record distributor shenanigans of the day. “Beautiful Day” is a gorgeous tune that has the epic quality of Bends-era Radiohead. Had this come out a few years earlier or later, it may have been a much bigger hit.

Blur, 13, released 15 March 1999. Blur, on the other hand, was the Britpop band that survived the late 90s fallout of their scene by way of changing up their sound considerably. Their 1997 self-titled record introduced a much heavier and more experimental sound, while this record exposed their more emotional (and emotionally fraught) side.

Various Artists, The Matrix OST, released 30 March 1999. Say what you will about the trilogy, the first movie definitely changed the entire game of American science fiction movies by being fiercely original, relentlessly creative, refusing to rely on tired tropes, and introducing some of the best jaw-dropping special effects ever made up to that point. And it had one hell of a great soundtrack that just had to be played as loud as possible.

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The last year and a half of my HMV tenure may have been fraught with irritations and stress, but it also provided me with a ton of excellent music that would keep me busy and entertained. This was the peak era of my weekend road trips to comic stores, book stores and Boston, and it was also an extremely creative time for me as well, even if my current project was about to be completely restarted from scratch. My social life was nil, but that was the least of my worries, as I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, and I was actually getting paid enough to be able to afford it to some extent. I’d dug myself out of an extremely deep depressive funk, and despite managerial frustration, I refused to fall back into that trap again.