Oops! I’m a month late on this, so this is going to be a slightly longer one, encompassing the various releases I’ve been raving about from June to September. Enjoy!
Silversun Pickups, Widow’s Weeds, released 9 June. Always twitchy, always off-kilter, and always amazing.
Hot Chip, A Bath Full of Ecstasy, release 21 June. A rather laid back and mellow record for them, bu this style suits them extremely well.
Hatchie, Keepsake, released 21 June. One of my favorite finds thanks to KEXP, they’re good alt-poppy fun with some killer bass riffs!
Drab Majesty, Modern Mirror, released 12 July. Highly recommended if you like that 80s gothy synth sound. Definitely reminds me of Clan of Xymox.
311, Voyager, released 12 July. As said before, whenever 311 drops a record I will always pick it up. Good funky fun.
DJ Shadow featuring De La Soul, “Rocket Fuel” single, released 24 July. Another KEXP find, this has to be one of my top favorite songs of the year. It’s a fantastic throwback rap tune you’d have heard in the late 80s. Definitely a nod to Run-DMC on this track.
Jay Som, Anak Ko, released 23 August. Light and lovely guitar alt-rock topped with dreamy vocals. But not shoegaze! “Superbike” is another track that’s been stuck in my head for months.
NAVVI, 25O2 EP, released 30 August. Filed alongside HAELOS as one of my go-to bands for blissful dance alt-pop. It’s a short five-song EP, but it’s got some ace tunes on it.
Tennis System, Lovesick, released 6 September. This band reminds me of Swervedriver with their loud and dissonant shoegaze guitar crunch. Surprisingly a great listen for my writing sessions!
Pixies, Beneath the Eyrie, released 13 September. The long-awaited new Pixies record is strangely spooky this time out. I’m not too surprised considering Frank Black’s forays into weird subject matters, but the creepiness translates well in this case.
Brittany Howard, Jaime, released 20 September. The Alabama Shakes singer brings us an amazing soulful and jazzy solo record filled with blazing funky riffs. Excellent stuff.
blink-182, Nine, released 20 September. We got to see this band live at Outside Lands this year and they were just as amazing as I thought they’d be. Older and ever so slightly more mature, they’re still tight as hell.
The Beatles, Abbey Road Super Deluxe Edition, released 27 September. Of COURSE I have to have this on the list! I’ll give you all a much more detailed response to the release once I finally get my copy (it’s in the mail at this time), but from what I’ve heard via streaming, Giles Martin has remixed it just enough to improve on what is already a fantastic album. The extras are also a hell of a lot of fun!
…Liverpool! Our UK trip this year featured a few days up north via train to the home of the Beatles. I’ve wanted to visit the city for years, and though I wasn’t quite sure what to expect other than a mix between a tourist trap (mainly the city centre) and a proudly working-class atmosphere, but I can say that I fell in love with it in less than a day.
We stayed at a hotel downtown, not that far from the city’s major shopping district and a short walk to the docks. Somehow we arrived during absolutely gorgeous weather — slightly windy but otherwise clearish skies — so most of our time was spent walking hither and yon and taking all sorts of pictures. We also got to take a two-hour bus tour around the city and its outskirts to hit a huge amount of Beatles-related points of interest.
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.
Oasis is a band you either love, or love to hate. I’ve been a fan of them probably since hearing “Live Forever” on WBCN way back in the day (I love how it starts off with its slow, slinky drums before Liam Gallagher’s northern sneer kicks in). And those who are fans have their own particular favorite record of theirs…the fans-from-the-beginning will of course sing the high praises of their 1994 debut Definitely Maybe, and the majority will agree that 1995’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? is indeed a fine album. They will also most likely agree that 1997’s Be Here Now is a bloated and self-indulgent mess. And…yeah, all their other albums tend to be seen as leftover table scraps.
Heathen Chemistry from 2002, however, is a band finally deciding to mature. By this time, bassist Paul ‘Guigsy’ McGuigan, guitarist Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs, and drummer Tony MacCarroll had left the band, replaced by ex-Ride bassist Andy Bell, guitarist Gem Archer and drummer Alan White. The ever-feuding Gallagher brothers were the only remaining original members. Perhaps the newer line-up was a plus, as it changed their sound considerably. Heathen Chemistry sounds like a band finally taking themselves seriously and it contains some of the Gallaghers’ finest songwriting.
The record kicks off with first single “The Hindu Times”, a strong rocker similar to those from Definitely Maybe with an added nod to psychedelia, with a noted sitar-like riff from Noel. Unlike their previous records, this sounds a hell of a lot less like posturing and more like an honest love song.
It’s followed up by interesting deep cuts “Force of Nature” (a boozy Lennonesque blues track featuring Noel on vocals) and “Hung in a Bad Place” (a boisterous two-chord rocker) before hitting gold with the powerful and lovely ballad “Stop Crying Your Heart Out”. It might be yet another nod to their heroes the Beatles — this one definitely has a 1967 Pepper feel — but it’s a gorgeous song and one of their best. I sometimes wish they’d play this rather than “Wonderwall” on the radio!
It’s followed immediately by what would end up as the fourth single from the record, “Songbird”, and the first single written by Liam instead of Noel. It’s a short and simple semi-acoustic ballad that has perhaps a bit of REM in there, but it’s a nice track and shows that Liam’s songwriting had improved vastly over the last few years.
And to fill out the first half of the album, Noel comes back with a fantastic track and third single “Little By Little” — a double-A side with a later track we’ll hit momentarily — and it’s a deeply personal one compared to their previous songs. It’s one of Noel’s best to date, and one can tell he put is all into it.
The second half kicks in with a brief instrumental interlude, “A Quick Peep”, written not by a Gallagher this time out but Andy Bell. It’s like a miniature entr’acte before we’re brought back into the sunshine glow of yet another Beatles nod, “(Probably) All in the Mind”. Intriguingly, this song sounds a bit more like late-60s Stones than Beatles, despite the obvious title reference to Yellow Submarine and the White’s drumming nod to “Ticket to Ride”.
It’s followed by “She Is Love”, the other half of the above-mentioned double-A single, and it’s another powerhouse track from Noel. It’s a nice acoustic track that is not only devoid of any of the trademark Oasis swagger, it’s full-on that trademark Oasis psychedelia and full of heart and joy.
Next up is an amazing song written by Liam that definitely should have been a single. It’s dark and brooding, and while the lyrics and subject matter may be a bit simple compared to their other more well-known songs, it’s nonetheless a stellar track that helps finish out the album.
The last song (plus its hidden track “The Cage” at the far end) is “Better Man”, which feels like another stab at post-Beatles Lennon, especially during his Some Time In New York phase. It’s grouchy and full of sloppy, crunchy blues guitar. It does feel a little bit like an afterthought but it’s actually a perfect final song for the album as it helps end it on a positive, uplifting note. It’s the band closing out the record on a loose, freeform jam that makes the entire record worthwhile.
I wouldn’t say Heathen Chemistry is Oasis’ best album, nor is it the most perfect one, but for me it’s their most consistently enjoyable. It was a step in the right direction for them, one they needed to take after working on the same classic sound over multiple records. The new style was hinted at with 2000’s Standing On the Shoulder of Giants, but that particular record felt more like a transitional one than a thorough evolution. This was Oasis growing up, and it fit them incredibly well.
It shows even now in the brothers’ solo output; Noel’s latest work with his High Flying Birds moniker shines with his stellar songwriting chops, and Liam’s work both with Beady Eye (essentially Oasis sans Noel) and on his own is just as strong. They may still be the same quarreling brothers who can’t be in the same room without eventually throwing a punch (their verbal snipes at each other on Twitter and elsewhere are often quite hilarious), but that hasn’t gotten in the way of them remaining fine musicians.
When the world brings us down or drives us crazy, we try to find temporary reprieves to help us recharge so we can face it again. For me, that reprieve has always been music. It”s helped me find clarity when my brain and emotions are in overdrive, it’s inspired me to find new ways to face tough situations. (Not to mention its near-constant ability to inspire my writing!)
One of my favorite ways of taking this break over the years has been watching the music videos of World Order. It’s the brainchild of musician/goodwill ambassador/former mixed martial artist and kickboxer Genki Sudo. Their visual style is that of business suits and robotic movement, hinting at the stereotype of the lifeless Japanese businessman. The music itself is pop-idol dance, but it fits their visuals so perfectly that it’s hard not to love them.
Their videos are always such a joy to watch; they’re clever and creative, and they always provide a positive message even in the face of adversity, which happens to be Genki Sudo’s motto: We Are All One. Enjoy! And stay for the end of the videos, as they nearly always leave us with a nice easter egg.
Bonus: I do love that they even wrote a song about a certain “leader”… 😉
REM’s first release for their freshly-inked deal with Warner Bros Records, having moved on from their indie years with IRS, usually gets passed over due to the albums surrounding it: 1987’s Document features two of their biggest commercial hits, “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”, and 1991’s Out of Time features “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People”. What does 1988’s Green have, though? It’s a bit disjointed (on purpose), it’s a shift away from their classic pastoral folk sound (on purpose), and even its lyrics are less obscure and more understandable (again, on purpose). But it’s a hell of a fine album with some absolutely stunning and gorgeous tunes from start to finish.
REM has always worn their politics on their sleeves (this particular album contains a recurring theme of environmentalism), and in the release of Green was actually timed to coincide with the 1988 Presidential election with a brilliant promo postcard sent to record stores and radio stations:
While the ’88 election may not have finished the way they’d hoped, that didn’t stop them from continuing to use their voice for progressive reasons. Though this particular album may not be as overtly political as some of their previous releases, it certainly did bring issues to light by revising how they wrote their music. Singer Michael Stipe had requested the band “not write any more REM-type songs” in order to change their style.
As was becoming habit, the album kicks off with a lively, upbeat pop song, literally called “Pop Song ’89”, welcoming the listener to tune in and have a bit of fun. The video for the single (released in May 1989 and directed by Stipe himself) is goofy fun, featuring four topless dancers — including himself. When MTV asked to censor the video for airplay, he cheekily responded by providing an edit with black bars on all four bodies.
It’s quickly followed by another uptempo rocker, “Get Up”, which seems to actually be about asking someone to get up and out of bed. [Wikipedia states that in the late 90s, Stipe told an audience that this is indeed the case and was about bassist Mike Mills, who had been oversleeping during the sessions.] It became the fourth single from the album, and while it didn’t dent the charts, the video did start the career of one CalArts student named Eric Darnell, who went on to be a successful director of several CGI-animated movies like Antz and Madagascar.
Next up is a change of pace, hinting both at their earlier folk sound and later mandolin-heavy sound, with “You Are the Everything”. It’s a simple love song, but it’s a gorgeous one, and one that I’m pretty sure I used on a mix-tape to my then-girlfriend some months later.
Returning to the upbeat pop sound, they return with the fun and goofy “Stand”, right up there with “Can’t Get There from Here” as proof that the band definitely has a sense of humor. It’s such a chipper song that it’s hard to take seriously — even Stipe cracks himself up at the end of the video. This would be the second single from the record, and still gets airplay to this day.
It’s followed up, however, by a one-two punch of darker, more somber songs to finish up the first side of the record, with “World Leader Pretend” and “The Wrong Child” — both songs that at first listen seem to be about other people, but in actuality are about the narrator. One focuses on the inner turmoil of breaking down self-imposed barriers, while the other focuses on the outer turmoil of social acceptance. Both are about the strength needed to change and accept the self despite its physical and emotional obstacles.
Side Two kicks off with one of my favorite REM songs and the most overtly political song off the album, “Orange Crush”, and the album’s first single. It’s powerful and relentless in its energy, even during the breakdown halfway through. It has a deliberately mixed message, seeming to be pro-military while consistently reminding us of its horrors (the title refers to Agent Orange, used as herbicidal warfare in Vietnam).
It’s followed up by another song that uses this deceptive messaging to great effect: the positive and upbeat “Turn You Inside-Out” may sound like a fun rocker of a track, but its lyrics barely contain its bile. Its message seems to be “I could make your life really fucking miserable right now, but I’m going to be the better man instead.” During a stop on their subsequent tour, Stipe would dedicate this song to Exxon, whose Valdez oil tanker had struck the Alaskan coastline and spilled thousands of gallons of oil.
The record comes to a close with three deep tracks that have their own special charm, starting with “Hairshirt”, with its tender message of remaining human in the most adverse of situations. [This seems to be about Stipe’s methods of dealing with fame and privacy; he would later have a conversation with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke about this very thing, inspiring Yorke to write “How to Disappear Completely”.]
It’s followed up with “I Remember California”, a surprisingly post-apocalyptic tale of a west coast decimated by rising oceans and climate change. It’s haunting in that it’s not so much about the destruction (or even the destructive powers), but the sadness about What Used to Be, through the eyes of someone who can no longer return.
The record ends on an unexpectedly high and positive note with an upbeat untitled song (officially called “Untitled Eleventh Track” on some discographies) where, at the end of the day, despite its struggles and frustrations, we are all here for each other. [It’s been said that drummer Bill Berry thought the drum pattern for this song was so stupid he refused to play it; guitarist Peter Buck fills in instead.] The song does seem a bit like an afterthought or an epilogue, but it does help bookend the album quite nicely.
I remember listening to this record a hell of a lot during my senior year in high school. I also remember quoting many of its lyrics on the blackboard in my first period Humanities class (a friend and I often wrote a ‘quote for the day’ before class started, and the teacher didn’t seem to mind at all). I would see them on tour in early April 1989, with Indigo Girls opening up — thus introducing me to yet another fantastic and long-loved band. The album has always stayed with me over the years as their most accessible and enjoyable from start to finish. It pretty much cemented my love for the band. It’s not their most popular, but for me it’s their most solid and most adventurous work.
Hello and welcome to another episode of Thirty Years On! At this point in time I’m winding down the remaining weeks of my high school years…all the term papers handed in and graded, all final exams about to be taken, and future plans made. I’ve gone to an open house at Emerson College, which I’ll be attending that September. The biggest change at this time is that I’m going out with a lovely girl introduced to me by a mutual friend, which changes my emotional outlook considerably at the time. [Decades after our split, we’re still friends and talk online occasionally, by the way.] I’m focusing more on my poetry and lyrics than my novels, and in hindsight I realize that helped me get out of that creative rut.
I graduate in early May. My old friends from the year before have just come home from college temporarily and take me out for a celebratory dinner. I’m thrilled to spend more time with them again. I’m prepping myself for a new life in a new city. Now all I have to do is survive a few more months in my hometown. The waiting drives me absolutely bonkers, and there’s also the fact that I’ll have a newly-minted relationship turning into a long-distance one pretty soon. It’ll be a hell of a tough balance.
The Cure, “Lullaby” single, released in the UK on 4 April 1989. After waiting nearly a year for new music from one of my all-time favorite bands at the time, I was utterly blown away by their new sound. It wasn’t the upbeat alternarock of their last few albums, that was for sure. I’d first heard it on 120 Minutes and then on WAMH and I was hooked. I picked this twelve-inch up at Main Street Music down in Northampton (roadtrip with Chris, natch). I especially enjoyed the bizarre throwaway b-side “Babble” with its crying-baby samples and “shut up shut up” lyrics.
Xymox, Twist of Shadows, released 10 April 1989. I’d been a fan of this band since hearing their fantastic “Muscoviet Mosquito” on the 4AD compilation Lonely Is an Eyesore. By this time they’d moved away from their colder goth sound and embraced a more snythpoppy mood that fit them quite well. This is an excellent album that combines rich moods and dance beats without sounding soulless. Highly recommended; they just released an expanded remaster of this earlier this year!
Pixies, Doolittle, released 17 April 1989. There was always cause for celebration for a new Pixies record in Massachusetts, especially out yonder in the Pioneer Valley, and this one fast became a favorite of pretty much everyone. While less ear-splitting than Surfer Rosa, it still provided quite a few memorable tracks that would become fan favorites for years to come.
The Cure, “Fascination Street” single, released in the US on 18 April 1989. The lead-off single for this side of the pond was a much stronger — and angrier — track that held a power I hadn’t heard from the band probably since their Pornography album. If their upcoming record was going to be as damn good as their two singles, then it was gong to be pretty friggin’ amazing.
Wire, It’s Beginning to and Back Again, released May 1989. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this particular record, on the other hand. Wire had been a huge favorite of mine the year previous, but instead of a new album with new and intriguing music, they’d gone in a slightly different direction; this was a record borne out of sound experimentation and live recording. Half the tracks were reinterpretations of songs from their last two albums and singles, with maybe one or two new songs added. (And the second new single, “In Vivo”, only available on cd. Because of this I never got around to hearing it for another year or so.) In retrospect it is an interesting record, but it’s not exactly a must-have unless you’re a dedicated fan.
The Cure, Disintegration, released 2 May 1989. “This music has been mixed to be played loud so TURN IT UP.” So says the liner notes on the Cure’s eighth and by far most popular and most-loved record. And turn it up I did, when I bought it on cassette the week it came out. From the glorious crash and downpour of synth strings on the opener “Plainsong” to the sad goodbye of a slightly out of tune melodica on the closer “Untitled”, it is so aurally immersive it’s almost impossible not to be drawn in by its beauty. It’s a completely perfect album on so many levels.
Bob Mould, Workbook, released 2 May 1989. Almost completely obscured by the above, Mould’s debut solo album, recorded after (and in some ways in response to) his acrimonious split from Husker Du, is a gorgeous masterpiece itself. He’d wanted to record an album that was the antithesis of the noisy punk he’d been known for, to prove he could write solid songs that were more melodic and acoustic. It as a smashing success for both critics and fans, paving the way for a successful long term career.
The Godfathers, More Songs About Love and Hate, released 9 May 1989. These British punkers followed up their brilliant Birth School Work Death with a record that leaned less on their psych-rock origins and more on their other influences, including Johnny Cash. There’s a fun raucousness on this record and doesn’t take itself entirely seriously sometimes, but it’s a solid album.
Tin Machine, Tin Machine, released 23 May 1989. This record divided Bowie fans something fierce when it came out. Some (like myself) thought it was an excellent about-face from the sterile pop-rock he’d been attempting for most of the 80s; some thought he was an old man past his prime trying to be relevant by playing hard rock out of his league; some had no idea what to make of it and ignored it completely. It’s full of anger, humor, and relentless power, and Bowie pulled it off brilliantly.
Public Image Ltd, 9, released 30 May 1989. This was a slow burner for me; while it had the groove and melody of 1987’s Happy? (which was a big favorite of mine), it also felt a little bit like a retread of that album, only with slightly longer songs and not nearly as much humor. Over the years I’ve come to enjoy it, however. It still feels a little overlong, but it’s still solid.
Of course, now that I’ve revived the “___Years On” series, I’m half tempted to do some more reviews of previous years, especially the 1985-1987 era when post-punk started to sneak its way into the US mainstream, little by little, paving the way for the classic alternative rock albums and singles we all know and love.
Not to mention that I’m half-tempted to revive the Walk in Silence book project, which I’d put on the back burner quite some time ago.