Twenty Years On: February 1998 in Review

Welcome to another edition of Twenty Years On!  It’s February 1998, and I’ve started to take it upon myself to order imported albums for my store that I think will sell.  I’m reading all the British music magazines and reading the reviews, and for the most part I do a pretty good job.  Though I may also order a few imports for my own purchase…

Ultrasound, “Best Wishes” single, released 1 February. The major label (Nude UK) debut for this psychedelic Britpop band was an unexpectedly calm track and a one-eighty from their previous small label (Fierce Panda) single, the raucous “Same Band”. A piano-only version of this would later show up as a hidden track on their first album.

Primal Scream, “If They Move, Kill ‘Em” single, released 1 February. After the blissed-out Screamadelica and Stones-y Give Out But Don’t Give Up, PS would return with something equally unexpected: jazzy dub electronica, with 1997’s Vanishing Point. Critics loved it, and fans, once they got used to it, called it a brilliant success.

Catatonia, International Velvet, released 2 February. The Welsh band’s second album might not have made as big a splash as they’d hoped in the UK, but they certainly knew how to write catchy and fun alt-pop singles filled with brightness and humor.

Ian Brown, Unfinished Monkey Business, released 2 February. The former lead singer for the Stone Roses released his first solo album nearly four years after the Roses’ last one, and it’s full of oddities as well as catchy riffs. It’s missing the sunshine-psych sound of his former band (and definitely sounds like demos in places), but it also shows that he’s a strong songwriter lyrically and musically.

Pearl Jam, Yield, released 3 February. The wildly popular Seattle band returned to the airwaves with a classic album that channels both their Ten/Vs sound as well as the angular and punkish No Code. They also returned with their first official video since 1991’s “Jeremy”, co-directed by Todd McFarlane, then known as the creator of the Spawn comic book.

Roni Size/Reprazent, “Brown Paper Bag” single, released 10 February. Taken from 1997’s New Forms album, this fantastic track is a perfect example of the drum & bass sub-genre that popped up around that time. Size and his group were one of the best of their style, seamlessly mixing electronic dance and smooth jazz.

Curve, Come Clean, released 16 February. The group’s third album came nearly five years after their previous one (during which time they’d dissolved, done some solo work, and regrouped two years later and released a few rare singles).  It contains the signature guitar-driven heaviness but with a harder, more acidic edge.

Loreena McKennitt, “The Mummers’ Dance” single, released 17 February. McKennitt was part of the new-age/folk/Celtic wave of the mid-90s (thank you, Riverdance) and had a very strong following, enough to release a remixed version of a track from 1997’s The Book of Secrets album. This version would get significant airplay on many alternative stations around this time.

theaudience, theaudience, released 23 February. An amazing British power-pop band that really should have been a hell of a lot more popular than they ended up being. The entire album is filled with catchy riffs, smart and clever lyrics, and sung by the wonderful Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Alas, they were not only a band that suffered from the Universal/PolyGram merger (a sampler EP for the US was put together but disappeared soon after), their guitarist and co-songwriter quit the band soon after, breaking them up. Ellis-Bextor, thankfully, went on to become a popular solo singer in her own right just a year or so later. Highly suggested to add to your collection if you happen to find it.

Craig Armstrong, The Space Between Us, released 24 February. Armstrong is more known for film score composing (including numerous Baz Luhrmann movies such as Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby), but he’s also released a handful of gorgeous albums full of rich ambiance.  His work is perfect for chilling out — and also perfect for background music during writing sessions!

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Next Up: March 1998!

[Note: I know, I know…I skipped Neutral Milk Hotel’s In an Aeroplane Over the Sea from 10 February. While I understand and appreciate its ridiculously huge cult status, I’ll admit I’m not that much of a fan and decided not to list it here.]

Dialing it back — just a little bit

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Quite possibly my favorite scene from a Prince movie…

One of my many resolutions for this year was to dial back the music purchasing.  And let’s be brutally honest here — I purchase a LOT of music.  Other guys with midlife crises buy sports cars or hang in their mancaves, I obsess over discographies and release dates.  Go figure.

Anyway, I’ve realized that while I do like to surround myself with a lot of tunage, I really have to dial it back.  Not the listening part of it, no — just the buying.  I came to this realization when I started going through my purchases over the last five or six years just to give them a listen, and noticed that a sizeable amount of these albums didn’t stick with me.  They were good albums and I liked them at the time…but five years on, I don’t remember this or that album at all.  Which is fine if I was still a cd purchaser, but you can’t sell mp3s back to Amoeba, can you?  I’m stuck with these puppies.

So…maybe I should figure out a way to dial that back.

As I’m an Amazon Prime member and thus an Amazon Music user, I have my own perfect streaming service.  (Many of you know that I’m not an avid user of services like Spotify…I have weird and quite varying tastes and I break algorithms easily.)  I can use it to listen to albums multiple times to see if it sticks with me before I buy it.  Which is what I’ve been doing the last few weeks.  I’ll give the albums at least three or four listens before I decide to buy it now.  I’ve successfully weeded out a few titles like that already, so this will save considerable money (and hard drive space) for me.

I’m quite curious to see how this will affect my overall purchasing over the year!

Favorite Bands: The The

The The, aka Matt Johnson and an always-shifting list of band members, has had quite an interesting musical history.  Numerous alleged albums never released or rejected by labels (See Without Being SeenSpiritsThe Pornography of DespairGun Sluts, and Karmic Gravity) and extremely hard to find singles are balanced out by six official albums, three soundtracks, and one box set.  [I’m yet to order those soundtracks, as they’re import-only.]

Johnson’s writing style is quite different from a lot of post-punk and college rock bands from the same era.  His lyrics can be both volatile and tender; he was never afraid to say what was on his mind, whether it was anger or love.

His first album, Buring Blue Soul, was released in 1981 under his own name and features a more angular sound inspired by Wire (BC Gilbert and Graham Lewis worked with him on a few tracks). It’s a bit of a strange album, but it’s worth it just to hear how creative he was at the beginning.

1983’s Soul Mining, however, is considered one of his best albums, featuring a full band sound, excellent production and tight songwriting. Some of his best-known songs are from this LP, including “This Is the Day”, “Perfect” and “Uncertain Smile”. [Check out the phenomenal extended piano solo, played by Squeeze’s Jools Holland, in that last track.]

In 1986 he released an eight-song opus about love, sex, hope and death called Infected, complete with an extended video production featuring visuals of all the tracks, filmed all over the globe. It’s harsh and unrelenting, but it’s an incredible journey from start to finish.


(this one features the vocals of Neneh Cherry, just a few short years before her own breakout)

He followed that up three years later in 1989 with Mind Bomb, featuring a wider world view: war, violence, politics, post-Reagan/Thatcher life, and yes, even love. It also features Johnny Marr, fresh out of the Smiths and the Pretenders, who would stay with him for one more album.


(a breathtaking duet with Sinead O’Connor)

In 1990, he’d sneak out a single that remains one of my favorite The The tracks, “Jealous of Youth”. It would also surface a few years later on the Solitude EP.

In 1993 he returned for another full-band album, Dusk, which fit quite nicely into the sounds of commercial alternative rock, and gave him some serious airplay. That didn’t keep him from releasing his bare emotions, however…

He followed it up two years later with…a Hank Williams cover album? I’ll admit it’s not one of my favorite The The albums as I’m not entirely sure what he was aiming for here, but hey… it’s still pretty good!

He wouldn’t reappear for another five years, with 2000’s Naked Self. It’s a much calmer affair…moodier, but calmer. It’s definitely worth picking up.

…and from there, he vanished from public view, working here and there on scores and soundtracks (Moonbug, Hyena and Tony, all under his The The moniker, plus numerous art films) as well as an occasional shortwave radio show over the years, only resurfacing recently with his Radio Cinéola box set and a documentary called The Inertia Variations. At the moment there’s rumors he’s working on a new album, but time will tell…

We are GROOT

Okay, so my posts are a little off the start of this week due to our visit down to Anahiem to go to Disneyland for the long weekend. It was fun, the weather was much warmer and brighter, and I may have even gotten a bit of a tan out of it! That said, It is kind of strange to be walking around the area known for its cheery, poppy, family-friendly atmosphere and hearing the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy 2 at the same time. A bit of a mental disconnect, but a pleasant one!

So while I get myself back up to speed, here’s some more tunage from that very weird and absolutely hilarious movie.

PS. We did in fact see Groot at California Adventure! 🙂

PSS. Yes, I actually remember these songs when they were new. I am that old. Turning 47 next Monday!

Con Panel Idea: next-gen SF/F in music

This past weekend I had this grand idea of creating a panel for the three SF/F conventions that we’ll be going to this year, provisionally entitled ‘The Next Generations of Science Fiction and Fantasy in Music’. I mean, come on — me, a genre writer and a music obsessive? I’d be a perfect moderator for this one. [Mind you, part of the reason why I called it ‘the next generations…’ is because I’ve been to many of these music-themed panels in the past, but alas, they’re always focused on filk, Canterbury folk, and 60s-70s prog rock. I’m not dismissing those, but it’s high time we updated the playlist on this panel idea.]

Which means that between now and early March when FOGcon happens, I’ll need to do some playlist making. Radiohead will of course make an appearance… who else should I include? NOTE: I know my list below so far isn’t all that inclusive (considering I threw this together off the top of my head in a half hour), so if you can think of any music from women/PoC that I can add to the list, it would be most excellent. Thanks!


(Yeah, I know this one’s an instrumental, but I’m tempted to play this one as an excellent example of SF in music video.)

Time Keeps on Slippin’ Into the Future

I know, this time of year I always start writing one of my patented nostalgic ‘this time of year I…’ posts.  This one’s probably no different.  Maybe a little bit meta this time around.

Given that thirty years ago, we were going from 1987 into 1988 — two classic years of college rock containing some of my all-time favorite albums — I got to thinking not so much about the music of the time or what I was going through at the time (for once!) but the passage of time itself.

About this time thirty years ago, I was working my meager internship/job at WCAT, then an AM-only radio station, slogging through my junior year.  The station had a listen-at-work playlist, with Red Sox and local color on the weekends.  Kinda sorta current music, maybe a few years behind with a few recent lighter tracks dropped in.  Which meant that I still had a bit of a connection to the pop charts.  The fourth-quarter wave of new releases had quieted down to a trickle, as expected.  I spent most of December listening to the music I’d purchased so far, listened to the students on WAMH play their last shows for the semester, checked out some of the year-end countdowns.  I was still making the radio tapes but hadn’t yet started making the mixtapes in earnest yet (that wouldn’t happen for another few months).

I was listening primarily to my favorite releases from the last few months: Music for the Masses, Strangeways Here We Come, Happy?, Floodland, The Lion and the Cobra, Bête Noire, Savage, Earth Sun Moon.  I’d read Rolling Stone and Spin and watch 120 Minutes for release news, but for the most part I had no idea what else was coming out.

As far as I knew, I wasn’t going to expect anything too exciting.  I didn’t have too much access to more intensive music journals at the time.  I’d heard that Morrissey was working on a solo album, that The Cure were going on tour, but that was pretty much it.  So I went into 1988 in my usual teenage way, being the moody bastard and plugging away at my writing and all that.

I had no idea, probably not until maybe halfway through the year, that 1988 would end up being one of my favorite-ever years of college rock.  I knew then and I know now that part of this was due to the music being there at the same time as a cherished time with close friends.  But part of it was also me letting myself get totally immersed in the sound, even more so than ever before.

Years later, the same thing happens.  I never quite know if the upcoming year is going to be stellar, merely okay, or just plain dull until we’ve gotten almost halfway into it.  And whatever I happen to be doing in my life does play a part in it as well.  [I think of 2012 as a more recent example, which had a bevy of excellent releases, plus I was headlong into the Big Honkin’ Trilogy Revision Project for most of that year.  And 2006 is on the other end of the spectrum, as I had a lot going on in my life and I hardly remember any of its album drops.]

I’m looking forward to 2018, to be honest.  Despite what’s going on in the big wide world, I’m in a much more positive place emotionally and mentally, and I’ve got some exciting creative plans that I’m looking forward to.  I’m not about to put high expectations on whatever music comes my way next year, but if it ends up being stellar, I’m not going to complain!

 

Coming Soon: The Best of 2017

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Thom Yorke is waiting anxiously for my end of year lists

Yep, it’s that time of the year again, where I’m juggling the Day Job, Christmas present purchasing (and wrapping, and mailing), whatever writing project I happen to be working on, posting my year-end review at the writing blog, creating my Best of Year compilation, and posting my Best of Year lists here.

As usual, I’ll hold up until the last week or so of this month before I post those last two, because I like giving December releases a chance at impressing me.  (Like the new U2 album, for instance.)  I will say 2017 has been quite an interesting year musically; it seemed like Nearly Every Single Band Jonc Loves put out an album this year!  And lots of solid career retrospectives.  There were also a lot of new finds that blew my mind as well.  I’m not sure if I can call it a banner year, but it certainly was quite enjoyable tunage-wise.

If anything, listening to music was definitely a highly-welcomed and much-needed escape from the ups and downs of Real Life.  And I’m pretty sure you know what my biggest headache was; the Day Job was the least of my stresses.  I won’t say I’m a pessimist in general, though I know all too often I let myself fall down that rabbit hole.  I kept a distant eye on what was going on, and I had my tunes to keep me sane and slightly distracted so I could stay positive.  And for that I’m eternally grateful.

More to come!