Sonic Youth – Sister
Released June, 1987 on SST Records
Sister is the Great Leap Forward for Sonic Youth, the moment that their ambitions went from being grimey NYC no wave scenesters to being skewed soundscape-pop troubadours, the kind of band that would within four years be touring with Nirvana and introducing another world to audiences across North America. There’s nothing on Sister (or much afterward) that really even passes for “pop” in a loose sense. The song structures are chaotic, the shifts are hazy, the guitar work is seemingly influenced more by frenetic free jazz than it is by traditional rock ‘n’ roll mores. Sonic Youth was to rock music what William Burroughs was to literature, which is to say that they cast their chosen medium in a light that was at once gravid with meaning, slick with excitement, and fractured into a rather sinister psychedelic spray. Thurston Moore’s squalling guitar was a post-modern version of Hendrix, breaking down the sound of the guitar into it’s most basic essence and rebuilding it into forms that were only barely recognizable, especially in the anti-septic, wretchedly clean sounds of mainstream rock in the Eighties. Kim Gordon’s drone work outdoes the Velvet Underground, and in 1987 they were really the first group that could lay claim to such an immense effort; “Beauty Lies In The Eye” is on par with something like “Sister Ray”.
Sister is an album obsessed with the ghost of Phillip K Dick, going so far as to title the album as a reference to Dick’s twin sister, who died shortly after being born and whose memory haunted the writer for the entirety of his life. It’s a fitting subject for the music found within; Dick’s writing was often filtered through a psychedelic lens. Flow My Tears The Policeman Said reads like it’s written in the rainbow corners of an LSD trip, and the war between reality and perception is a staple of almost all of his short fiction, much of which was post-humously filmed and turned into recognizable mainstream cinema: Minority Report, Screamers, Bladerunner, The Man In The High Castle, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Next, and others. In terms of writers with Hollywood adaptations, Dick has always been more Burroughs than Grisham, of course; much of his work can be a bit impenetrable, in the same sense that Sonic Youth was impenetrable to a world where “Girls Girls Girls” was a hit single. As a guiding light for a Sonic Youth album, there’s few brighter than Dick.
In retrospect Sister can be seen as a bridge of sorts, between the old scattershot noise-grubbing Sonic Youth and the lusher, dreamier soundscapes they forged on their breakthrough album, Daydream Nation. A track like closer “White Kross” is as noisy and chaotic as anything they played on EVOL or Confusion = Sex, but “Schizophrenia” is deceptively gentle and uplifting. The driving force that made Sister more coherent and “pop” than previous Sonic Youth releases was Steve Shelley’s drum work, which keeps everything grounded with deft, solid drumming. Thus a track like “Tuff Gnarl”, which could have been soft in the middle and dripping from both ends, becomes a rock-solid (if impressively postmodern) song. “Pacific Coast Highway”, an essential Kim Gordon song, looms menacingly while somehow remaining languid and self-aware. The only off-putting moment is the cover of Crime’s “Hotwire My Heart”, which makes for a great standalone cut but jars somewhat as the sole straight-forward pop tune on an album that seems at times to be cut directly from the magnetic field of the Earth.
The album was also the first Sonic Youth record to win the approval of Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau, which was a big deal considering that relations between critic and band were so strained at one point that Thurston Moore would introduce the song “Kill Yr Idols” as “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick”. It marks the point where the band ceased being another of Christgau’s “pigfucker” bands (a meant-to-be-derogatory label that also included luminaries such as Big Black and the Butthole Surfers) and became an up-and-coming (soon to be legendary) member of the white-hot alternative rock scene.
Radiohead – OK Computer
Released May 21st, 1997 on Parlophone Records
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.
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!.
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.
Elliott Smith – Either/Or
Released February 25th, 1997 on Kill Rock Stars Records
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.