China: 20 Years of OK Computer

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Radiohead – OK Computer

Released May 21st, 1997 on Parlophone Records

RYM:  #1

BestEverAlbums:  #1

Oh boy.

First of all, I want you to look carefully at that heading section.  Both of the sites I’ve used this year to glean “best of” rankings from – the two largest crowdsourced music ranking sites on the internet – rank OK Computer as literally the greatest album ever recorded.  That uncomfortable feeling that’s washing over you?  That tiny little intense bit of pain that’s set itself up in the centre of your brain, pulsing with madness and threatening to grow into some sort of blood-soaked brain tsunami?  That’s fifty-plus years of music critic bullshit melding with Baby Boomer arrogance to tell you that this can’t possibly be the case.  In fact, if you slap that ol’ Boomer lens on your face and look outward, such an idea is more laughable than anything else.  Surely these people have forgotten about Pink Floyd, that amalgamated Rolling Stone-fueled smug critic machine cries out.  Obviously the Beatles are objectively the greatest band ever and every single album they ever released is in fact the greatest piece of music ever recorded, hallelujah and amen, just as our forefathers and their magically mysterious Beatlemania intended.  The Stones!  Black Sabbath!  Led Zeppelin!  Any of these bands our parents grew up with and forced into our heads as collectively better than anything that came after, from 1980 onward; this, that shrill voice claims, is real music.

Increasingly, though, that condescending gate that Boomer mythology has put up across the history of modern popular music – the one that plants itself in around 1982-1984 and lets very little in if it came afterward – has been bereft of a keeper.  The internet facilitated a lengthy, often nonsensical conversation about popular music, it’s hierarchy, and it’s relative worth across decades.  That, in combination with the fact that the glory days of “alternative rock” are now (somehow) twenty years gone has led to a reevaluation of the music of Generation X and the oldest Millenials with regard to the self-interested myth-making of Boomer publications.  The same has happened in other art forms.  Cinemaphiles convinced that Citizen Kane was the greatest movie ever made probably feel that same maddening itch and pulse in their heads when it turns out that a number of crowdsourced movie rankings place Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind in the #1 slot of the best movies ever made (or, failing that, the second-most popular option, The Shawshank Redemption).  Changing demographics and the slow die-off of the Boomer generation has flipped the switch on their supposed stranglehold on real music, whatever that happens to be.  People don’t read Rolling Stone and Melody Maker and NME like they used to.  The gatekeeping paradigm shifted online around the turn of the century with the rest of print media, and so when it comes to popular music the tastemakers are far more likely to read Pitchfork and The Quietus than they are Rolling Stone.

Generational culture wars aside, though, is OK Computer the “greatest album ever made”?  An examination of that has to begin with some definitions and explanations, for the pedantic and the curious.  When we talk about “the greatest album ever made” we mean “the greatest popular music record released since 1963, when the Beatles crossed the Atlantic and ushered in the modern era of blended pop and art.”  While “Greatest Albums Ever” compilations like those found online or in the pages of Rolling Stone feature a few albums made in the 1950s, they’re mainly heavyweight bop albums that are the exception more than the rule.  The temporal range of the “Best Ever” lists coincides with the development of the album as an art form.  Popular music was, prior to the early 1960s, mainly singles-oriented.  We don’t talk about “great Elvis albums” because they were spiritually just compilations of 45s anyway.  Singles were important after Beatlemania as well (they still are) but from ’63 onward the album, as a singular piece of art, began to dominate the way people consumed pop music.  If this seems Boomer-centric, it is, but it also reflects changes in technology and distribution of physical products that lend themselves well to a Marxist analysis.

In addition to temporal analysis, there is unfortunately a racial filter involved as well.  “The Greatest Album” is always something produced in the Global North.  The Global South is completely left out of the picture, with the notable exceptions of Fela Kuti and Bob Marley.  The music of the West is prioritized; music from eastern or southern Asia is only discussed in Western media when it fits into the pre-approved Western molds.  Even within Western popular music there is a stark racial divide.  Rolling Stone‘s 500 Best Albums Ever extravaganza features precisely one black artist in the top 10, Marvin Gaye.  The crowdsourced efforts do even worse:  BestEverAlbums features no black artists in their top 10 and neither does RYM.  Tellingly, RYM’s chart has the first black artist coming in at #11 (Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue), which seems to say We’ll throw you a bone, but don’t think for one second that you really belong here to black American musicians.  This, despite the fact that all of the key pillars of modern pop music draw their inspiration at least in part from three predominately black musical movements:  the electric blues (from which rock ‘n’ roll sprang, and from which psychedelia gained it’s heft); Motown (soul, R&B, and later funk and hip hop); and jazz.  Further, both RYM and BestEverAlbums prominently feature Led Zeppelin, who made their bones on the wholesale piracy of Willie Dixon’s back catalog.  As such, any discussion of “The Greatest Album Ever” is immediately compromised by the inherent generational, cultural, and racial biases that are brought to the discourse.  This is without even getting into a post-modern understanding of what the “greatest” album even means – to deconstruct the entire process of what determines greatness and near-greatness in an extremely subjective and emotionally-driven form of expression like music would take a lifetime in itself.  To talk about it requires one to assume that there are greater overarching meta-narratives, that music is in fact sacred and driven, and that we can determine rankings of recordings on scales whose criteria make sense if you squint a lot and don’t think too much about it.

So, if we frame the discourse with an admittance that we are talking about a narrow spectrum of available music that carries with it unfortunate biases with regard to race, sex, and culture, is OK Computer the greatest album ever made?  It becomes, at this point, a matter of comparison:  what did the Boomers uphold as the greatest records, and how does OK Computer compare with them.  If we look to the crowd again, there is some definite overlap in the top 10 of both RYM and BestEverAlbums.  The Beatles show up, of course, with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon is there, as befitting an album that spent a legendary 420,000,000 weeks on the Billboard charts.  The Velvet Underground & Nico is there, for reasons I went over several weeks ago.  Led Zeppelin IV is there, because nothing goes better with a bong load than some Stairway, maaaaaaan.  These are the usual suspects when Boomers and Boomer aficionados start listing the best albums ever made.  The Beatles provide fey psychedelic weirdness backed with impeccable melodies and song structures that experimented but didn’t break the mold entirely.  Pink Floyd crafted epic guitar-driven songs that were at once adventures into space and examinations of the dour nature of the English personality.  The Velvet Underground made it okay to be messy and to let a lot of your mental anxiety shine through.  Led Zeppelin glamoured listeners with the irresistible call of pure volume.   Where does Radiohead fit in with this?  Pretty much everywhere.

Right from the beginning, the thick, overdriven strings that open “Airbag” promise something different.  It’s as though Loveless were reborn, cured of the opiated languor that permeates that album.  The guitars take the experimental leads that people like David Gilmour and Robert Fripp imagined and plays with them, smudging and expanding and blurring until the guitar becomes an alien and interesting instrument all over again.  Thom Yorke’s voice hangs haunting and sodden with deep existential dread over the viscous liquid that roils beneath it, summing up the horror and paranoia of modern life in the form of a story about the time an airbag saved his life in a car accident in the mid-1980s.  And that’s just the first song.  “Paranoid Android” ups the ante significantly.  Johnny Greenwood’s guitar figure is unsettling – creepy, even – and Yorke’s vocals only amplify that.  Written in four parts, much like John Lennon’s “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, the song is central to the album’s mixed feelings about human existence and capitalism.  Described by Yorke himself as “about the dullest fucking people on Earth”, the song has its roots in the time Yorke found himself in an L.A. bar surrounded by vapid rich assholes high on cocaine and themselves.  There’s a sense of disgust with that sort – capitalists, and by extension, capitalism – that runs through much of the album.  “Subterranean Homesick Alien” speaks of isolation and the feeling of being alien from one’s own culture; “Let Down” is about the hollowness of corporate-sponsored sentiment and the similarity of pop songs and advertisements.  “Electioneering” summons a Chomsky critique of capitalist society, while “Climbing Up The Walls” turns that critique inward, examining the headspace of paranoia and distress.  “No Surprises” combines the two, finds the soul-sucking job on par with soul-sucking politics, and whispers about the handshake of carbon monoxide in search of an exit.  “Lucky” brings the album back around again, imagining a plane crash to complement the car crash that started the album.  “The Tourist” is like a ghost in the wreckage of this suicide and loss of control, imploring the listener to stop rushing through life and take the time to enjoy or at least acknowledge the experiences around them.

Musically, OK Computer is an impressively dense album.  The strings that herald the arrival of “Airbag” return in differing forms throughout the album, to greatest effect on “Climbing Up The Walls”.  On that track, the theme of internal chaos is mirrored by a backdrop of sixteen violins, each tuned a quarter-note apart from each other and inspired by “Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima”; Johnny Greenwood’s orchestral arrangements would, in the 21st Century, be one of the band’s most enduring strengths.  Filtered and fiddled keyboards play a large role in the album as well, especially on “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, “Let Down”, and the Beatles-referencing “Karma Police”.  Greenwood and Ed O’Brien layer guitar in sinuous, overlapping ways, outdoing David Gilmour on the mournful wail of “Lucky” and drowning out Zeppelin on both “Paranoid Android” and “Electioneering”.  There are even post-modern (for the era) flourishes in the form of drum machine programming, dub approximations, and neo-classical arrangements.  Few bands in history have ever been able to blend the sacred and the profane in a way that transcends both; none of them have made it sound as utterly seamless or integral to the human experience as Radiohead on OK Computer.

Part of that transcendence comes from the album’s influences, of which the band has been quite forthcoming.  The initial inspiration for the sound of OK Computer came from Mile Davis (as seen above) and his 1970 avant-jazz Bitches Brew.  Further inspiration came from Elvis Costello and the Beatles, as well as soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone (he of the indelible popular sound of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns) and Krautrock band Can, who were known to use the recording studio as an experimental lab.  Another part comes from the surroundings it was recorded in.  Like many English rock bands before them, Radiohead chose to record in an old English mansion, St. Catherine’s Court.  The acoustics of the place can be heard especially well on “Exit Music (For A Film)”, which was recorded in a stairwell, and “Lucky”, which was recorded in a ballroom in the witching hour.  Most of the album was recorded live, with the band unwilling to potentially destroy a good thing through retakes and overdubs; Thom Yorke went with a one-take-and-done approach to his vocals, fearing that he would start to doubt everything if he stood around and thought too much about it.

The greatest album ever recorded, though?  I think you can make a strong argument for it – as I’ve laid out above.  It out-Floyds Floyd.  It doesn’t ride the swampy concerns of a minority artist, like Zeppelin.  It paints a more accurate picture of 1997 (and beyond) than the Beatles ever did in 1967.  It flows and carries on, without ever coagulating or getting bogged down in disappearing into the band’s own head.  Thom Yorke, upon being asked about the critical explosion of goodwill that greeted the release of the album, protested that Radiohead didn’t set out to create art, they just wrote pop songs.  The counterpoint to this of course is that the best artists never set out to create Art, with the capital intact and all the pompous weight that is loaded into the word present and accounted for.  They set out to replicate what they’re seeing, reading, or hearing in their head, and if they’re good enough people will find some reflection of themselves or their lives in it, and embrace it accordingly.  In the neo-liberal, corporate-driven, emotionally artificial and distant world of the Washington Consensus, there is a lot of reflection to be found in OK Computer, lyrically, musically, and spiritually.  Many talk about tapping into the zeitgeist.  OK Computer actually does it.

 

 

China: 20 Years of Mag Earwhig!

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Guided By Voices – Mag Earwhig!

Released May 20th, 1997 on Matador Records

Guided By Voices was never supposed to be a full-time thing.  Formed in the late 1980s as a real band, it slowly morphed into a revolving door of Dayton, Ohio musicians – basically anyone who would come over and drink with 4th-grade teacher Robert Pollard.  1992’s Propeller caught Pollard by surprise when it found a listener base in the wake of the Alternative Revolution, a base that expanded exponentially with the one-two punch of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes.  Under The Bushes Under The Stars, a 1996 album recorded with Pixies bassist Kim Deal, solidified that base, but by 1997 Pollard was pushing at the boundaries of what was possible with his new found underground rock star status, a status that had finally allowed him to ditch his day job and pursue his high-kicking rock frontman dreams full-time.  To this end, he got rid of the 1992-1996 Guided By Voices lineup and hired Cleveland garage band Cobra Verde to be his backing band; the first record of this lineup was Mag Earwhig!, the last great Guided By Voices album.

Mag Earwhig! is at once much more professional sounding than previous Guided By Voices efforts (except perhaps for the “sterile-sounding” REM-aping 1986 EP Forever Since Breakfast) and as a result it can be jarring for a listener who has been going through the band’s ridiculously lengthy discography.  The joke of this is encapsulated in the sketch-song “I Am Produced”, which finds Pollard musing on all the prepping and packaging that goes along with bigger recording contracts and studio time.  As a “pro-level” GBV record, it’s still messy and filled with a certain willful need to colour outside of the lines; “The Old Grunt”, “Are You Faster?”, “Choking Tara”, “Hollow Cheek”, and the title track are all barely filled-in sketches in the vein of what studded the length of Bee Thousand.  At the same time, there are any number of songs that point the way toward the rock-melody-genius three-minute British Invasion style tracks that would comprise the band’s output up until 2004; “Bulldog Skin”, “Not Behind The Fighter Jet”, “Portable Men’s Society”, “Jane Of The Waking Universe”, and the utterly sublime “The Colossus Crawls West” are among the best of Pollard’s compositions, overall, but it is interesting that the best track on Mag Earwhig!, the high-energy “I Am A Tree”, is actually a composition by Cobra Verde’s Doug Gillard.

After, GBV would release a major label debut, Do The Collapse, that was a crushing bore, with few exceptions.  They would release some solid albums after that, both before the 2004 breakup and after the 2012 reunion, but none would hold a candle to the classic lineup or to Mag Earwhig!.

 

China: 20 Years of The Color And The Shape

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Foo Fighters – The Color And The Shape

Released May 20th, 1997 on Capitol Records

BestEverAlbums:  #241

The Color And The Shape was the moment in which Dave Grohl stepped out of the shadow of Kurt Cobain and assumed the mantle of a rock star in his own right.  The year was 1997.  Cobain had been dead for 3 years, and by and large grunge rock had died along with him.  1996-1997 had been a bad year for bands who had tried to keep the genre going; Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase and Live’s Secret Samadhi both failed to live up to sales expectations, Pearl Jam’s No Code drove off the casual music fans in droves, Layne Staley’s crippling heroin addiction ground Alice In Chains to a halt, and in April of ’97 Soundgarden broke up.  Hip hop, big beat, and ska were the big things for mainstream music, and in the midst of this Nirvana’s drummer came out and laid down a searing slab of what would demarcate the beginning of “post-grunge”, where the genre was deconstructed and reformed as whatever the song demanded.

(Yes this is their goddamn Intimate & Interactive performance.  Old school Much 4 Lyfe)

That Grohl could write songs was only apparent during the Nirvana era to superfans; one song, a cobwebbed B-side called “Marigold”, was attributed to Grohl.  Foo Fighters, Grohl’s 1995 debut, came as something of a pleasant surprise, then, and it spawned several strong singles that rode a wave of goodwill in the wake of Cobain’s suicide.  Goodwill will only take you so far, though, and so The Color And The Shape was a do-or-die moment for Grohl and his new band.  “New” is not a miscategorization, either; Foo Fighters had been recorded and toured on with Pat Smear, who had been Nirvana’s de facto fourth member for the last part of the band’s career, and the rhythm section from second-wave emo heroes Sunny Day Real Estate.  Smear and drummer William Goldsmith left during the recording process of The Color And The Shape, the latter after Grohl re-recorded all the drum tracks himself in order to get the sound in his head down on wax.  Studio time (and therefore expenses) ballooned, and there was some concern on Captiol Record’s part about the band’s ability to deliver quality on time.

The extra time, in the end, was quite obviously worth it.  Led by the barnburner lead single “Monkey Wrench”, the album delivered crunchy, screamy tracks that were nonetheless drenched in melody and delivered with such winsome charisma that the fans couldn’t help but love it, even if the critics were so-so on it at first.  It was Nirvana, without the existential weight of Cobain’s genius, replacing that instead with hard work, emotional turmoil, and craft.  On it’s best moments – “Monkey Wrench”, “Up In Arms”, “Hey, Johnny Park!”, “Everlong”, and “My Poor Brain” – it hit much harder than anyone else in the second wave of grunge had managed.  “Everlong”, especially, has become a musical touchstone for a generation; even those who don’t particularly like the band or even the genre tend to like “Everlong”, because of it’s raw, emotional appeal to a twilight sensibility of love and yearning that feels positively adolescent in it’s urgent energy.  The lyrics on Foo Fighters had been obscure and nonsensical, which Grohl himself admits; the lyrics on The Color And The Shape, meanwhile, were much more in-your-face, dealing with his 1996 divorce from photographer Jennifer Youngblood as well as his feelings on stardom and fame in the wake of his experience with the life and death of Kurt Cobain.  The emotional honesty resonated with listeners and brought the band to much greater heights than any of their contemporaries.

Fans might disagree with me, but The Color And The Shape is the only truly great album in the Foo Fighter’s discography.  Grohl himself would guest on some stellar albums – normally filling in as the drummer – but in terms of his own voice, this record is the peak.  Later Foo albums would rely more on the balladry that Color tracks like “February Stars” and “Walking After You” would point the way to; Wasting Light, from 2011, was a good album, but not necessarily a great one.  Maybe it’s personal bias; the first time I fell in love was to a steady diet of “Up In Arms”, and the song always brings me back to those heady early days.

 

China: 20 Years of Dig Me Out

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Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out

Released April 8th, 1997 on Kill Rock Stars Records

Straight-up:  Carrie Brownstein’s vocals are an acquired taste, but they’re a taste that I acquired a long time ago.  They’re a barrier to entry, for sure.  You either get them or you don’t, but if you get them, then Sleater-Kinney’s work ranks among the very best that rock ‘n’ roll has produced since the Alternative Revolution.

Released at the height of the Riot Grrl movement in the mid-1990s, Dig Me Out characterizes a band that was a fair bit different than the other stuff that was coming out of Seattle and Olympia at the time.  A lot of riot grrl bands favoured style over substance; they were modern art collectives, compilations of patriarchy-smashing posters set to thudding power chords.  Sleater-Kinney took a complete opposite tactic.  Their guitars were knotted and spiked, weaving odd, complicated leads over a bedrock of shifting chords.  Their dynamics were unpredictable, mixing shrieking rage into calm bliss with a deftness that Billy Corgan could only have dreamed of.  They were out to smash the patriarchy – make no mistake – but they were out to do it on their own terms, terms that at once eschewed the contemporary ideal of punk rock and yet were 100% punk as fuck.

Part of the toss-up was the addition of Janet Weiss as drummer; her steady-handed pounding and athletic fills called up the sound of the Stones and the Kinks and thereby lent more soul to the proceedings than had been found previously.  Part of it was Brownstein’s heartfelt emoting; beneath all of that Poly Styrene-esque wailing was someone more intellectual than you typically find in rock ‘n’ roll.  Part of it was the use of Corin Tucker’s voice to leaven it sometimes, of course; check out her undertones on “Words And Guitar” to really get the full effect.

Sleater-Kinney are a rare band that is able to be both stridently political and unabashedly emotional.  That Dig Me Out is just one of the great albums they’ve made that showcases this is a testament to how utterly kick-ass they are as a rock ‘n’ roll group.

China: 20 Years of Dig Your Own Hole

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The Chemical Brothers – Dig Your Own Hole

Released April 7th, 1997 on Virgin Records

As an adolescent I hung out with the stoners, the smoking pit crowd, the “greasers”, the rockers – however you want to call it, my friends were not the type to wholeheartedly embrace the sort of music that was making inroads in our mainstream consciousness during the mid 1990s.  Some of them splintered off and decided that hip hop was where it was at (they were right, in retrospect), but most of us plodded on with the Korns and the Bizkits, as the well-heeled buying public who lived vicariously through tortured-artist college rock and floor-punching macho pablum (with respect to Propagandhi).  Give us our guitars or give us death, we all probably thought at one point or another.

Still, there was something radically compelling about the kind of electronica that was finding it’s way onto radio between 1995 and 1999.  The Prodigy were practically a de facto punk band, with their mohawked singer and their overall vicious sensibility.  Ditto Atari Teenage Riot, whom we were all acquainted with through the legendary Spawn soundtrack.  The Sneaker Pimps kind of felt like an alt rock band that had been through a wringer that got rid of – most of – the guitars, in the same sense as Portishead.  The Chemical Brothers, though, were something else.  Dig Your Own Hole embodied – embodies – the sounds of big beat.  These beats are big, in the purest sense of the word.  The duo knock out funked-up samples and acid-inspired synthesizers and watch them land with the force of an atomic bomb into breakbeats that were, from the moment I heard them, all I ever wanted out of drums.

“Block Rockin’ Beats” and “Setting Sun” are the bigger singles, but every track on here hits the same particular nerve endings that make me want to loop the album forever.  It’s an amalgamation of drum n bass, hip hop, psychedelia, and English rave culture and it follows an internal logic that punches holes in walls.  Twenty years later it still gets the party going like nothing else.

 

China: 20 Years of Life After Death

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The Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death

Released March 25th, 1997 on Bad Boy Records

Ready To Die was a massive album, the kind of once-in-a-generation record that changes the course of a genre.  Sure, you can point to Pac and the Wu, but Biggie made a gigantic impact on subsequent MCs in terms of flow, beat choice, and lyrical subject matter.  No one was as smooth or as coldly vicious as Biggie at his peak; no one’s beats landed quite like gunshots in a robbery gone wrong.  Life After Death was thematically designed to be the logical sequel to that fabled album, and also to be a sort of “commercial introduction” of the rapper.  While there were some undeniable hits that came off of Ready To Die, a lot of the album was too grim, too dark and real for mainstream radio to really mine it to death.  Life After Death was a response to this; the beats here were pure radio circa 1997, which is both a blessing and a curse.  It’s very much a Bad Boy record, Puff Daddy and all, which means it’s slick and easy to bump in the whip; at the same time, a lot of the beats haven’t aged particularly well, using samples that just don’t create the same excitement in 2017 that they did twenty years prior.  “I Love The Dough” is a good example of this; the electro-funk sample was two years out of date even then, and the hook is too bland to fit Biggie’s dark flow.  Along the same lines, the length of the album is problematic as well; hip hop has always loved to throw as much material as possible onto a record, and the double-CD length of Life After Death makes it drag a bit near the end.  None of the songs are weak, per se, but there is a sort of fatigue that sets in regardless of the quality.

 

Still, it’s Biggie, which means that whenever he appears on a song it immediately makes up for whatever dated samples or cheesy hooks are being used.  Even at his most commercial no one could touch him, then or now, and his flow remains as vital as ever.  The singles are all top-notch:  put “Hypnotize”, “Mo Money Mo Problems”, or “Going Back To Cali” on anywhere and people will get into it.  At it’s thuggiest, it’s equivalent to parts of Ready To Die:  “Kick In The Door” and “What’s Beef” are chilling and violent, in the way that only Biggie could be, and “Ten Crack Commandments” remains a street anthem two decades after it’s release.  He even gets downright filthy on “Fucking You Tonight” and “Nasty Boy”, an aspect of his personality that was largely absent on Ready To Die.

 

The man’s death sixteen days before the release of Life After Death tends to overshadow the actual music, of course.  After presenting an award at the 1997 Soul Train Awards in Los Angeles, Biggie’s car got caught in post-show traffic at Wilshire and South Fairfax.  An Impala pulled up beside his SUV, rolled down the window, and shot him four times.  He died a half an hour later.  The album is thus shrouded in symbolism, from it’s title to it’s album cover to it’s bookending tracks.  It is, in essence, a posthumous bit of self-mythologizing, a meta-narrative that delves into everything that made up Christopher Wallace’s public persona.  There’s brash posturing, there’s loving tenderness, there’s future-ready ambition, there’s chilling fragments of premonition.  “What’s Beef?”, “Somebody’s Gotta Die”, and the goosebump-inducing closer “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)” are bleak in retrospect, given the likelihood that Wallace was murdered as revenge for his alleged role in the death of Tupac Shakur six months earlier.  In that sense, the album’s length can be forgiven, and even cherished; these are the last releases that Wallace meant to go public, and despite Bad Boy’s willingness to raid his vault forever thereafter, it is his last real album.  Ready To Die may be the better album, but Life After Death is a fitting memorial to an enormous personality that still stands at an imposing height over an entire genre of music.

 

 

China: 20 Years of Whatever And Ever Amen

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Ben Folds Five – Whatever And Ever Amen

Released March 18th, 1997 on 550/Epic Records

In 1997, guys like Todd Rundgren, Billy Joel, and Elton John were the stuff of your parent’s dust-collecting record collection, stuff they’d mostly relegated to buying the “Greatest Hits” compilation of and torturing you with constant replays of “Piano Man” and “Candle In The Wind” (well, not my parents, I grew up under a blues purist).  No one gave Ben Folds the memo, though; his second album, Whatever And Ever Amen, drew a direct line from those hoary old ivory-strokers to the contemporary world of ironic folk dudes, ska bands, and second-generation grunge retreads.  It’s decidedly uncool, although Folds wisely cuts the painful sentimentality of those old Seventies dudes with some Xer-approved Alternative Era Snark, which can get tiresome in its own right but for nearly all of the album manages to get by just fine.  While there are some off moments – the plod of “Selfless, Cold and Composed” and the kitchen-sink clutter of “Steven’s Last Night In Town”, mostly – there are a lot of surprisingly poignant moments, such as the “taking my girlfriend to get an abortion” confessional of “Brick”, the song that launched the rest of Ben Folds’ career.

 

China: 20 Years of The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified

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The Dismemberment Plan – The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified

Released March 17th, 1997 on DeSoto Records

The Dismemberment Plan are the perfect band to dance like no one’s watching to.  Hell, that’s pretty much how they played music.  With a couple of exceptions, the songs on The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified are either played with abandon – nearly random guitar squiggles, songs that explode out in every direction at once, and then suddenly veer off in another direction – or played as moody proto-indie songs that come out as confessions.  Occasionally, as on “The Ice Of Boston” (still the best New Year’s song out there), they’re both.  In an interview with Stylus singer Travis Morrison described it as “the most dedicated to hip-hop record we have.”  I feel like this is sort of what Christgau was saying when he said that The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified sounded “sort of the way Primus might if Primus enjoyed a normal sex life.”  It’s an album that writhes spastically in odd directions but is still completely relatable, as though you just discovered that your accountant was in a noise rock band.  While it was eclipsed by it’s followup, the sublime Emergency & I, it’s a recommended listen for anyone into noise rock, or post-hardcore, or inventive post-punk in general.

 

China: 20 Years of The Boatman’s Call

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Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call

Released March 3rd, 1997 on Mute Records

BestEverAlbums: #387

Nick Cave is easily one of the most enduring artists in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.  In the 1980s he staked his name on crawling, disturbing post-punk that encapsulated the violence and Biblical darkness of a mythologized American South (this despite growing up in Australia and basing himself out of England).  From 1994’s Let Love In onward, he tempered the abrasive potentials of his songs with a renewed focus on texture, including piano and gentler tempos.  Despite this, both it and 1996’s classic Murder Ballads reveled in the darkness, spiking moody atmospheres with moments of bone-chilling terror and loud musical moments. The Boatman’s Call, then, is an anomaly in his catalog.  Everything before and after is shot through with darkness, full of revenge, murder, and sinners in the hands of an angry God.  While 2001’s …And No More Shall We Part continued on with the exploration of gentler tones, The Boatman’s Call is also a musing exploration of spirituality and love.

 

“I’ve felt you coming girl, as you drew near,” he sings on “Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?”, “I knew you’d find me, cause I longed you here.”  This is a somewhat atypical Nick Cave lyric.  Also atypical is “Just like a bird that sings up the sun / In a dawn so very dark / such is my faith for you,” the opening line from “There Is A Kingdom”, a song that feels as New Testament as Cave’s other work is Old Testament.  “West Country Girl”, “Black Hair”, and “Into My Arms” are all about PJ Harvey, whom Cave dated briefly in the middle of the Nineties.  “Into My Arms” was also performed at Michael Hutchence’s funeral (after Cave requested the cameras be shut off, so don’t go looking for footage).  It’s also the wedding song of my wife and I; it was originally going to be “Have I Told You Lately” before we remembered that latter-day Rod Stewart sucks.

 

That said, there are a couple of songs on The Boatman’s Call which can be considered more standard fare for Nick Cave.  “People Ain’t No Good” walks that careful line between love and death that is familiar for Cave fans (and also found it’s way into Shrek 2 somehow); “Lime Tree Arbour” straddles that same line, although in that case it’s love protecting Cave from death rather than the other way around.  “Idiot Prayer” is also about dying, although there’s a firm sense of fatality that accompanies the line “If you’re in Hell, then what can I say / You probably deserved it anyway / I guess I’m gonna find out any day / For we’ll meet again / And there’ll be Hell to pay.”  The real summation of the album – and perhaps Cave’s career as a whole – comes on the final song, “I Got You Bad”.  “Babe I got you bad / Dreaming blood-wet dreams / Only madmen have / Baby I got you bad.”

 

China: 20 Years of Either/Or

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Elliott Smith – Either/Or

Released February 25th, 1997 on Kill Rock Stars Records

BestEverAlbums:  #149

RYM:  #106

Kurt Cobain may have been louder and flashier, but Elliott Smith really was the quintessential Nineties rock star.  Haunted, brooding, and darkly melodic, he epitomized the “tortured artist” aesthetic that was popular during the first half of the decade.  Raised in an abusive environment in Texas, he moved to Portland, Oregon and channeled his demons into drugs, alcohol, and music.  His original band, Heatmiser, wasn’t anything particularly special but his solo releases – 1994’s Roman Candle and 1995’s self-titled LP – captured the imagination of listeners much more.  Those solo releases had little to do with what Heatmiser was doing, and in the fall of 1996, shortly before their last album was released, they broke up (fun fact: bassist Sam Coomes would go on to be the frontman for Quasi).  Smith’s next release would eclipse both his former band and everything he had recorded up until that point.

 

Either/Or was first an attempt by Smith to vary the moods on an album.  Elliott Smith had been an album that was largely the same from beginning to end:  acoustic confessionals about drugs and depression.  Either/Or has some of those, of course:  “Speed Trials”, “Between The Bars”, and “No Name No. 5” are evidence of that.  Songs like “Alameda”, “Ballad Of Big Nothing”, and “Rose Parade”, though, are evidence of something bigger:  songs by a guy who proved on this album that he could craft big hooks, emotionally impactful melodies, and arrangements that were built to last.  That last item is especially important:  Either/Or doesn’t sound like 1997 – there’s no pandering to teen pop, or ska, or post-grunge trends.  It could have been released last year, or ten years ago, or today.  It’s songs and it’s themes are artistically timeless, even more so now that the waves of the Great American Heroin Addiction have crashed over the shores of seemingly every state in the Union.

 

Everything that came after – Gus Van Sant’s love of the album, Good Will Hunting, “Miss Misery”, Smith’s two major label albums, and his mysterious death – would cement his legend.  Either/Or is the moment that Emily St. John Mandel describes in Station Eleven:  a moment that, ever after, would divide Smith’s life into “Before” and “After”.  Before Either/Or, he was an up-and-coming songwriter with an acoustic guitar and a monkey on his back.  After, he was a bona fide rock star with a following and highly-placed friends.  Neither would prevent him from slipping a little further into addiction and depression – or from dying in Los Angeles with twin stab wounds to the chest, a death still shrouded to this day in suspicion and mystery.