Twenty Years On: May 1998

May was a relatively quiet release month, and in retrospect I think it’s right about when the 1998 industry shake-up really started kicking in. A lot of really good bands were dropped, many of them before they were given a chance to prove themselves, or worse: many more of them due to far too high expectations on the industry’s behalf. It was starting to get really ugly about that time.

Still…many bands soldiered on and kept releasing stellar records.

Spoon, A Series of Sneaks, released 5 May. Spoon’s one album on a major label (Elektra) was unfortunately a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair, as they only stayed at that label for less than a year. They’ve since stayed with indie labels and are now considered one of the best indie bands out there.

Tori Amos, From the Choirgirl Hotel, released 5 May. I’d always been a Tori fan, even after her deliberate turn to weirdness with 1996’s Boys for Pele, and I found myself really enjoying the full-band rock sound of this one.

Global Communication, Pentamerous Metamorphosis, released 5 May. Previously released as a limited-edition extra cd for the great Britpop band Chapterhouse’s 1993 album Blood Music (it’s a reinterpretation of its tracks), it’s an amazing chill-out ambient record and a perfect partner with their previous, the also amazing 76:13. This one got a hell of a lot of play down in the Belfry during the writing of the trilogy, and the same amount in Spare Oom years later when I was revising it for self-publication. Easily one of my favorite albums of all time.

Garbage, Version 2.0, released 11 May. It took me a long time to get used to this album, as I’d originally felt it was a bit too like the first album, but with slightly weaker songs. Eventually I came around!

Godzilla: The Album, released 18 May. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I agree, it was a ridiculous movie, but it was a fun popcorn flick. And there were some pretty cool songs on it, like the above, and tracks by Ben Folds Five, Jamiroquai, and Days of the New.  I’ll even forgive them for that so-bad-it’s-good Diddy/Jimmy Page track.

Cowboy Bebop OST, released 21 May. “Tank!” is one of the best, most recognized, most loved anime opening theme songs ever. And from a visual standpoint, the opening credits are so amazingly animated, paced and edited that you can’t help but feel a chill and a thrill whenever you see it. The rest of the soundtrack is just as great — a mix of bebop jazz, moody melodies and even a few silly filler bits. Yoko Kanno is considered one of the best Japanese music composers out there.

Tricky, Angels with Dirty Faces, released 25 May. Tricky follows up his excellent Pre-Millennium Tension with an about-face that took a lot of people by surprise. There’s more avant-jazz than trip-hop on this album, and it’s not the easiest of listens, but at the same time it’s fearless and fantastic.

Sloan, Navy Blues, released 26 May. One of my favorite Canadian bands, Sloan has always put out solid, hard-rocking songs with excellent power-pop melodies. This one’s a bit harder than usual for them, but it’s still a fun listen.

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Next Up: June 1998!

Thirty Years On: May 1988

May 1988: A good portion of my closest friends are graduating quite shortly, and will be taking off in various directions for their college careers.  Thus starts the era of me being a moody bastard for about six years.  Meanwhile, after about five years of recording songs off the radio and creating my own proto-mixtapes, I finally decide it’s time for me to create my own mixes straight from my own growing collection.  I call them ‘compilations’ instead of ‘mixtapes’ because it sounds more professional, considering how detailed I get in creating them.  Thirty years later I’m still making them, digitally.

Wire, A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck, released ?? May. The second album in their ‘beat combo’ era, the band moves closer to their eventual electronic experimentation, using samples, loops, and treated instruments. I played the hell out of this album for a good couple of years after it came out.

Colin Newman, It Seems, released ?? May. In tandem with the above, Wire co-lead singer Newman dropped an even more electronic and experimental album. While the Wire album is more rock oriented, this one’s for sitting back and listening.

Heavenly Bodies, Celestial, released ?? May. A somewhat obscure album featuring vocalist and 4AD friend Caroline Seaman (who would pop up on a few This Mortal Coil albums) and a few ex-Dead Can Dance members, it’s a proto-darkwave album with a moody groove to it. “Rains On Me” got some serious airplay on a lot of the college stations when it came out.

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Nothing Wrong, released ?? May. The noise-punks from Leeds released an excellent album of sludgy, growling alt-rock that might not have been to everyone’s tastes, but those who did like it (like me) absolutely loved it.

Living Colour, Vivid, released 3 May. Loud, abrasive, political, funky, humorous, and absolutely amazing. Lots has already been said about this album, and it’s all true. I got to see these guys at UMass Amherst in 1989 (it was part of MTV’s college campus tour, with the Godfathers opening up), and they put on one hell of a great show.

Depeche Mode, “Little 15” single, released 16 May. The last single from 1987’s Music for the Masses. It’s also one of my favorite tracks from it due to its amazing dynamics, starting off quiet and delicate and ending up Wagnerian and bombastic. It’s one of those songs you need to hear in headphones to get the full power of it.

Fairground Attraction, The First of a Million Kisses, released 16 May. It took me years to finally buy this album, but I remember the above track getting played incessantly on WMDK and the other AOR stations in the area. A fun and irresistibly catchy tune. The rest of the album is great too!

Compilation: Stentorian Music, created 20 May. The first of many compilations was an ongoing experiment of a themed mix; this one featured songs from groups like The Sisters of Mercy, Love and Rockets, The Cure, and The Screaming Blue Messsiahs among others, and designed to be played loud. It was put on a 60 minute tape and it came out reasonably well, considering.  Not bad for a first try.

Compilation: Preternatural Synthetics, created 20 May. Yeah, even then I knew I was getting a bit ridiculous with the titles, but it was just something for fun, after my titling the old radio mixtapes with corny ‘Love & Rock & Roll’ titles. This one was a 90-minute tape featuring all synth and/or electronic-sounding bands, such as Pet Shop Boys, New Order, Depeche Mode, and so on. It’s a perky mix, and rather enjoyable!

The Timelords, “Doctorin’ the Tardis” single, released 23 May. A ridiculous single from the KLF/Justified Ancients of MuMu/JAMMs/etc. gang.  Mixing Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Part 2” and the Doctor Who theme, it’s one of those earworms that the college crowd loved.

Camper Van Beethoven, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, released 24 May. Another college rock band that went from indie (Pitch-a-Tent) to major (Virgin) in 1988, this record was indeed beloved by a quite a few fans, both old and new.  I particularly loved this single, which also got a lot of play on the AOR stations.

Morrissey, “Everyday Is Like Sunday” single, released 31 May. Say what you will about his current nutjob shenanigans, his early post-Smiths records were fantastic. This second single from Viva Hate was another ‘borrowed’ single that popped up at the radio station I worked at. I soon fell in love with the gorgeous deep cut “Will Never Marry”, which would end up on quite a few of my future compilations.

The Sugarcubes, Life’s Too Good, released 31 May. This album was an instant hit for the college crowd, with its eclectic mix of often bizarre lyrics, infectious melodies and the balance of its two lead singers: the pixie-like Bjork and its weirdo horn player, Einar. Not to mention its dayglo album cover! Another band I got to see at UMass Amherst around that time.

Next Up: June 1988!

Recent Purchases, April Edition – Part II

It was a busy first part of the month, and the rest of it wasn’t half bad either! Here’s some more great recent tunes I’ve been spinning lately…

The Damned, Evil Spirits, released 13 April. Of course this band would release an album on Friday the 13th! And it’s a damn fine record, in my opinion very similar to their early 80s output. In fact, it kind of reminds me of The Black Album, one of my top faves of theirs.

Juliana Hatfield, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, released 13 April. JH provides an excellent tribute to one of her childhood heroes with perfect and solid covers. It’s funny how ingrained in my head all these songs are, as my sisters owned most of the 45s!

A Place to Bury Strangers, Pinned, released 13 April. A bit of a change in the band line-up makes them sound a bit like Slowdive vocally and a hell of a lot more like Joy Division musically. Their wall-of-noise production hasn’t changed, though, and that ties it all together in an aggressive post-punk way.

Manic Street Preachers, Resistance Is Futile, released 13 April. The Manics return with another solid album of post-Britpop rock. They’ve always been more of a UK phenomenon, never quite catching on here in the States, but they’ve always been a consistently fine band.

Jesus Jones, Passages, released 20 April. I know, right?? Their last album was ages ago, but they’ve returned (thanks to PledgeMusic) with a damn fine album of songs worth checking out. Heavy on the guitars and rocking grooves as always, they deliver just what you’ve been hoping to hear.

Kimbra, Primal Heart, released 20 April. A little odd, but always fascinating. A fun groovy little album to sit back and relax to.

Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer, released 27 April. This album SO worth all the hype that’s been thrown at it. It feels like she’s rewritten Prince’s Dirty Mind, with all its funk grooves and uninhibited sexuality, but that’s definitely NOT a complaint. It really is an amazing album.

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Coming Soon: May releases!

Recent Purchases, April Edition, Part I

It’s a good thing I’ve been streaming these albums and downloading them a few at a time, because all these single major release dates are gonna bankrupt me. Lots of really fun albums at the start of the month, so we’ll have the rest of April featured in Thursday’s post!

Sloan, 12, released 6 April. A great band that’s been around since my college days, releasing a great album of alternative power-pop gems. Each band member wrote 3 songs each, and all twelve of them are solid.

MIEN, MIEN, released 6 April. This is one of those ‘I have no idea what I’m listening to but it’s amazing’ albums I often stumble upon. It’s like an unexpected mix of motorik, psych, goth, and Britpop, and it works. Extra points for making a spot-on Stan Brakhage homage for a video!

Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Sex & Food, released 6 April. UMO once again provides a wonderful album of lite funk, weird grooves and strange ideas. Sometimes they sound like Steely Dan (like with this track), other times they sound like badass grunge.  You’re never quite sure where it’s going, but it’s a fun ride.

Eels, The Deconstruction, released 6 April. Mark Oliver Everett returns from a four-year hiatus with a mix of slightly weird yet irresistible tunes on love, loss, and a fresh lease on life. It kind of reminds me of Beck’s Morning Phase: intensely personal yet uplifting at the same time.

Wye Oak, The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs, released 6 April. One of my top favorites this month. I’d heard of the band and had one of their older albums, but this one floored me upon first listen. Quirky and angular with melodies similar to Lamb, they’re just fantastic.

The Family Crest, The War, Act I, released 6 April. A local favorite (parts of the above video were filmed only a mile or two from our apartment!), they bring an amazing amount of energy to their music, whether it’s happy or sad. Definitely worth checking out.

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Up Next: More April releases!

Favorite Albums: The Osmonds, ‘Crazy Horses’

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Yeah, yeah, I can hear y’all from here: oh god, he’s finally run out of things to blog about.  But hear me out:  I’ve been obsessed over this wonderful 1972 gem since I was a little kid when I used to listen to my sisters’ old beat up copy.

Why the Osmonds, you say?  Well, for starters, this is most definitely not your Jackson 5 wannabe album with sugary confections like “One Bad Apple” or feel-good grooves like “Down by the Lazy River”.  This is the five brothers taking an unexpected and amazingly competent turn into rock territory.

We’re talking about taking a page from freakin’ LED ZEPPELIN, fer pete’s sake:

It doesn’t hold a candle to “The Immigrant Song”, sure, but you gotta admit it’s got a hell of a punch. Their longtime fans didn’t know what the heck to think of it, but radio stations loved it and got it major airplay.

A few tracks later we get a goofy Beatlesque riff that I’m surprised more ukulele-playing hipsters haven’t covered, with “Girl”.

There’s also the groovy MOR sound of “What Could It Be”, which could easily be a song by Badfinger or The Raspberries:

…and the fantastic “Crazy Horses”, which is just as bananas as it is badass.

And my favorite track from this LP, “Hey Mr Taxi”, which sounds like they were trying to record their own version of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”, complete with all the noise, distortion and wailing guitars slowly going out of tune.

It’s does have their signature sugary pop as well, such as the swinging “Julie” and the ballad “That’s My Girl”.  There’s even a jamming groove dedicated to their home state, “Utah”.  There’s a nice comedic Looney Tunes touch at the end of the record with a twenty-one-second track called “Big Finish” that gives a teasing nod to their previous sound.

It’s definitely a trip to listen to.  While their previous album (Phase III, which had come out only nine months earlier) toyed a bit with rock, for the most part it stayed firmly in the pop category.  Their follow up after this one, their semi-religious concept album The Plan (released nine months after Crazy Horses) is even more of a head trip, with woozy blues, psychedelic joyrides and even the occasional horn-laden showstopper.  After that they’d return back to their safe haven of lite rock and MOR, and Donny and sister Marie would become a 70s television staple.

So yeah — I admit it.  Crazy Horses is a ridiculously fun album, and I still love it after all these years.

Favorite Albums: Concrete Blonde, ‘Concrete Blonde’

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I’m trying to remember when I first heard of this band, because I heard of them from multiple places at the same time.  I remember seeing the advertisement for their debut album popping up in all the music magazines.  I remember “Still in Hollywood” getting play on the early episodes of 120 Minutes (it’s the first song of the first episode I ever taped) and occasionally hearing it on the radio.  I remember seeing a lot of positive reviews of it from both journalists and other musicians.

Concrete Blonde was one of those LA-based bands that flew way under the radar in the mid 80s…a critical and industry favorite but never quite hit the big time. They weren’t as punk as X, and they certainly weren’t glam like most of that scene’s metal bands, either. They were an eclectic mix of hard rock and blues, with a bit of country and folk thrown in. Led by bassist and singer Johnette Napolitano and guitarist James Mankey (he and his brother Earle had previously worked with fellow LA weirdos, Sparks), they had turned their previous band Dream 6 into something unique; it was the hard sound of the back streets of LA. It wasn’t about violence or degradation, though…it was about trying to survive, one day at a time.

This was one of those albums that I dubbed off one of my friends early on, but I ended up with my own copy soon after. I loved Johnette’s smoky voice with all its occasional cracks and growls — it was like hearing a more world-weary Ann Wilson — and I loved the ragged melodies.  It was the sound of exhaustion, the sound of refusing to give up even when the world was bearing down on your shoulders.

And I especially loved their cover of George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness”, which turned the song from a warning about the music industry to something more sinister.

At the same time, it could be beautifully delicate and tender, such as with “Make Me Cry”, the only accompaniment being Mankey’s acoustic guitar strumming and the occasional overdubbed harmony.

And it was all bracketed by the song “True” — a vocal and an instrumental version — that veered into a bluesy almost Springsteen-like ‘we’ve got to get out of here’ that sets the entire tone for the album.

This isn’t an album that I’d put on repeat or have stuck in my player for weeks on end; this is an album that I occasionally pull out to savor and enjoy. (I did, however, have it on repeat for about a month in the summer of 1989 when I was working for the DPW. It fit my then-current mood of wanting to escape my hometown quite nicely.)  It does feel ever so slightly dated, mostly due to its production; the drums are all flat and there’s a distinct lack of low end, which is a pity considering Johnette really hammers that bass on this record. It’s still a wonderful album and a great example of mid-to-late 80s college rock.

Years later when I started writing Can’t Find My Way Home for the first time (this was around 2009, I believe), I found myself returning to this album as one of a handful of record that fit the mood of the story. And now that I’ve resurrected that writing project again, it’s returned to my playlist.  It’s still one of my favorite albums after all this time.

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You may of course remember their eventual rise to minor fame with 1990’s Bloodletting album and their radio hit “Joey”, or their cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” for the film Pump Up the Volume from the same year, but they never quite achieved that same level of success after that. They put out a handful of albums between 1986 and 1994, and two more in 2002 and 2004, and they’re all worth checking out.

Twenty Years On: April 1998

April 1998: I’d just broken in a new notebook to continue the longhand writing of The Phoenix Effect, the predecessor of the Bridgetown Trilogy, still writing it in the mornings before starting my Day Job at HMV.  It was also around this time that I’d started ramping up the road trips in my trusty ’92 Cavalier, making weekly trips all around Massachusetts and New Hampshire for comics, books, and used cds and tapes.

Stabbing Westward, Darkest Days, released 7 April. Louder and angrier than their previous albums, yet more melodic and introspective. Saw these guys open up for Depeche Mode later in the year and they were by far one of the loudest bands I’d ever heard in my entire life.

Tones on Tail, Everything!, released 7 April. Okay, technically it’s missing 3 remixes (which were released as a promo EP called Something! the same day), but essentially this is the entire discography of the band that features Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins (Bauhaus, Love & Rockets) and bassist Glenn Campling. More post-punk than Bauhaus and not quite as psychedelic as early LnR, but just as fantastic.

Massive Attack, Mezzanine, released 20 April. I just mentioned this one in a previous post about perfect albums, and this is indeed a perfect album. While previous albums Blue Lines and Protection were great trip-hop platters, this one blows them both away. The cover outside fits the sounds perfectly: dark and dangerous moods like the beetle, and delicate and spacious as the white background. And “Teardrop” is indeed one of the best 90s songs ever, and up there as one of my favorite songs of all time.

The Urge, Master of Styles, released 21 April. This band could easily be confused with metal-funk buddies 311, but they’re just as bright and fun. Nick Hexum from 311 pops up on their surprise hit from this album. They’d put out a few more albums over the years, though never quite achieve huge success.

Bernard Butler, People Move On, released 21 April. The ex-Suede guitarist released his solo debut, and it’s a hell of a great album. I know numerous Britpop aficionados who swear by this record. It didn’t quite click with me right away, but eventually I realized just how fantastic it really is. Definitely worth checking out.

Dave Matthews Band, Before These Crowded Streets, released 28 April. A much darker, maybe even a bit weirder album from the DMB gang, I seem to remember it dividing fans. Some (like me) loved it for its evolution away from his poppier jam-band style and more into straight ahead rock, while others wanted more of his pop-single sound. Regardless, it’s a great record.

Eve 6, Eve 6, released 28 April. This was a band that I found myself listening to far more often than I expected to, and it’s due to their flair for writing extremely catchy hooks and fun lyrics. A perfect example of the great readio-friendly alt-rock that was out there at the time.

Francis Dunnery, Let’s Go Do What Happens, released 28 April. I believe I first heard “My Own Reality” from a CMJ cd mix, but as soon as I got a promo of the album I was hooked. Dunnery’s music is quirky and introspective and amazingly catchy. His solo career has been relatively obscure and laid back, but he’s also a fantastic producer and backing musican, having worked with Ian Brown, Chris Difford, and Robert Plant.

VAST, Visual Audio Sensory Theater, released 28 April. One day the WEA rep handed me this album and said “listen to this, it definitely sounds like something in your wheelhouse.” How right they were! Jon Crosby’s one-man band is a tour de force of epic soundscapes, alternating between hard alt-rock, goth, and delicate balladry. And he’s still going strong 20 years later, putting out his own albums and EPs at his own website.

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Up next: May 1998!