Tuesday, February 14, 2017

40 From 40: 1994

And so to the third of our journey through forty years of popular (let's face it, alternative) music in forty songs apiece. This time we focus on 1994, an awkward transitional year at least once Kurt Cobain was found dead. Grunge found itself with nowhere to turn, Britain was still preparing the ground for Britpop's flowering - Parklife and Definitely Maybe didn't just happen overnight - house was evaporating into commercial death and all kinds of things slipped through the cracks only to get stuck 95% of the way through. Goldie, for instance, whose Metalheadz collective attracted much attention and Inner City Life nearly made this list but it sounds slightly more dated than you'd think, and the man himself would before long not become the standard bearer but lapse into Met Bar fame and self-indulgence on a spectacular scale. And it was no good looking at the charts for guidance, this was the summer of Love Is All Around, the autumn of Pato Banton and Whigfield, the spring of Doop and Things Can Only Get Better. Meanwhile someone decided to re-run Woodstock. Yesterday in today, and tomorrow can look after itself. Never mind, Bristol picked up the slack anyway, a few albums emerged that would become enormously influential given time (Weezer another one to drop out of the list late on)

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Bellbottoms
THE BLUES IS NUMBER ONE! Whether due to the influence of Beck, who guests on the album, or just a sudden post-Cobain feeling the US underground went quite odd for a lot of 1994, and JSBX's mutation from garage blues scrappiness to post-ironic, genre-bounding, ping-ponging cut-up riffs and Spencer's hellfire rock'n'roll preacher act was near the front of the vanguard.

Beastie Boys - Sure Shot
The Blues Explosion toured with the Beasties after Orange's release, which fits even if both are examples of bands going "you thought we were x? Ha, no? Here's all the music we like cut and shut together!" The Beastie Boys had been progressing this way anyway but people were generally still too hung up on Fight For Your Right (To Party) to notice until Ill Communication grabbed hold and refused to let go.

Frank Black - (I Want to Live On An) Abstract Plain
Black Francis had been this way in terms of alt cachet before but was enjoying his own freedom too much to strive for that kind of thing. Teenager Of The Year remains his best post-(original) Pixies album, bringing a melodic strength to Trompe le Monde's sci-fi obsession.

Pavement - Gold Soundz
Meanwhile the slackers were enjoying themselves with their wryness and wordplay. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain drifted away from Slanted And Enchanted's lo-fi business, removing some of the mystery while retaining enough inscrutability and shapeshifting to make these songs sound more difficult to construct than it seems, as legions of impersonators found out in time.

Soul Coughing - Screenwriter's Blues
Or as some may know it, the music behind the aborted Diana eulogy cut-up from Blue Jam. Soul Coughing were a big cult concern for a short period, Mike Doughty's stream of consciousness poetry slipping into sample-driven tracks that weren't quite electronic, hip-hop or jazz despite containing enough elements of each. Doughty has described the band as an "abusive marriage" and hates talking about them these days, but Ruby Vroom is well worth your time.

Stereolab - Ping Pong
AKA Stereolab's reminder that Tim Gane had been in Marxist janglers McCarthy, but now with space age pop and retro keyboards.

Pram - Life In The Clouds
If you don't have Spotify access I'm afraid you'll just have to imagine how it goes from the description. There was a lot of retro-futurism around at the time, and weirdly a lot would come from Birmingham. Before Broadcast, Plone or Novak there was Pram, using pastoral psychedelia, exotica, motorik, unusual instrumentation, children's TV/library/test card music and Rosie Cuckston's vocal style to create bubbling unease.

Arthur Russell - This Is How We Walk On The Moon
Speaking of unconventional unease, Russell's minimalist idiosyncratic disco - this track first released on that year's posthumous Another Thought compilation - makes strange bedfellows work together in search of a common purpose, downcast beats, faithful cello and layered vocal effects sounding like weightless lunar pop itself.

Massive Attack - Protection
The intro is sampled from James Brown's The Payback, maybe the most atypical JBs sample ever made into a hit. Late night ennui from masters of the form, Tracey Thorn elevating the slowly unfolding melancholic weight of the moment.

The Sabres Of Paradise - Wilmot
Sabres Of Paradise seem to be a forgotten part of Andrew Weatherall and Jagz Kooner's careers but for a while back there they threatened to change things, the morning after the acid house explosion the night before. The ambient breakbeat calypso/dub symphony was an actual top 40 single, somehow.

Kylie Minogue - Confide In Me
Let's get this straight, this is the SexKylie phase, right? It didn't sound much like the Kylie we knew up to that point, this her first post-PWL release, and it didn't sound much like producers Brothers In Rhythm's own work either in its elegant chillout seduction.

Jeff Buckley - Last Goodbye
Grace has become such a touchstone for meaningfulness over the last near twenty years it's difficult to reconcile with how it was received as an adjunct to what else was going on, given nobody else was doing emotive, ambitious fallen angel alt-folk influenced by folkie Led Zep and the early 70s troubadours.

Portishead - Wandering Star
The roots may have been somewhere near near-neighbours Massive Attack, but amid the slowbeat was something entirely their own creation, ambient soundscapes and introspective genre-grabbing noir. Who put this on at dinner parties if they wanted their guests to remain?

Madder Rose - Panic On
Arguably the forgotten parties of the rush of US female-fronted introspective alt-rock bands that emerged in the early 90s, Mary Lorson's sweetly harsh approach matching the rough edges of the twisting, charming chime behind.

Kristin Hersh - Your Ghost
Hersh had of course been down that path before and had the emotional scars to prove it. Hips And Makers, released during Throwing Muses downtime, was pointedly not the warped charge of that band but a sparse, highly personal set that marked the boundaries between her inner strength and fallibility. Michael Stipe on backing vocals surely recognised similar from REM's more turned-in moments.

Blur - This Is A Low
1994, the year Parklife ate everything. Easy to forget given the album's and by extension Britpop's party livelihood (and Damon and Alex's, in fairness) but its second half/side is full of compassion and existential dread as a reminder of what modern life still actually is.

Bedhead - Liferaft
Slowcore ahoy! Bedhead had three guitarists and found a way to have them intertwine without resorting to noise or rock in its cliched form outside quiet-loud degrees, producing an undue brooding serenity somewhere between Low and Jason Pierce's various works.

dEUS - Hotellounge (Be The Death Of Me)
Tom Barman hates dEUS being called "art rock" but that's what Worst Case Scenario most easily fits into, swirling noise and confusion that cherrypicks from avant-jazz, college rock awkwardness and pure bursts of evil noise. Many more years of that kind of thing would follow but they may well have nailed it best first time out.

The High Llamas - Checking In, Checking Out
Sean O'Hagan left Stereolab as a permanent member, though he'd often subsequently guest, during the recording of Mars Audiac Quintet to explore the boundaries of avant-pop. With Byrds/Brian Wilson reference points and without the space-age lounge music the High Llamas would eventually explore in greater volume Checking In, Checking Out is as straightforward a melodic pop song as he'd ever make, and just casually greater than most who specialise in those influences ever managed.

The Cardigans - Sick & Tired
Doesn't everyone have a yen for when the Cardigans started out as a delicate, secretly melancholic pop band who used bassoons and called an album Emmerdale? No?

Dinosaur Jr - Feel The Pain
Well after Lou Barlow but also by now without Murph, J Mascis taking over the drums himself. Just casually he made an alt-rock anthem without giving up the guitar screes.

Drive Like Jehu - Here Come The Rome Plows
When John Reis wasn't being Speedo in Rocket From The Crypt he was fronting a dynamic, melodically complex post-hardcore band who ended up as a significant emo influence in that genre's original meaning. Yank Crime is the one to investigate further.

Manic Street Preachers - Faster
Over this side of the pond, our soul-baring rock and roll charges came in more emotionally complex forms - note 'faster' as in 'one who fasts'. A balaclava-clad James Dean Bradfield earns Top Of The Pops a reputed 25,000+ complaints.

R.E.M. - Circus Envy
Between the world-conquering Automatic For The People and the slow burn critical favourite New Adventures In Hi-Fi, Monster looks ever more an anomoly, a nasty post-grunge stew about celebrity, human commodifying and masculinity's obsession which the band nearly broke up during the making of. It may be the only major label album ever to carry the influence of Echobelly's guitar sound.

Girls Against Boys - Kill The Sexplayer
Masculinity of a subtly different kind was at the heat of the dual-bassed GvsB, their highly strung wiry take on Fugazi's post-hardcore attack mode co-habiting Scott McCloud's Mark E Smith as Baltimore dive bar patron croaky vocals and sinuous, sinister bottom end-heavy groove.

Shellac - A Minute
And thence came Albini. At Action Park's title was oddly not related to the actual Action Park in New Jersey, infamous for the number of accidents and injuries that happened there, strange because the high-wire ride liable to crash nastily to earth any moment exactly describes Shellac's wiry brand of dynamic math-noise misanthropy.

Sugar - Gee Angle
Bob Mould was another who'd been this way before, and if File Under: Easy Listening wasn't him or his trio at their peak it once again proved there was a certain kind of pop songwriting nous under the full-on guitar swamp.

Sebadoh - Rebound
And back to Lou Barlow, who was veering away from the early four-track acoustic guts-spilling into mid-fi direct appeals to what love does. This noise and confusion was as approachable as he'd get, infamous much later Top Of The Pops appearance notwithstanding.

Bratmobile - The Real Janelle
Conversely, 1994 was pretty much the end of riot grrrl in its initial form as an attention attracting force for good and loud as many of the original wave split or faded away and the term was co-opted for any old female-fronted guitar band. Bratmobile were one of those who called it a day, the EP that this was the title track from a fine summation of their scrappy, directly messaging style.

Smoking Popes - Need You Around
Chicago punk-pop with languidly crooned vocals, sounding remarkably like a Midwest Wedding Present.

Inspiral Carpets - I Want You
An atypically thunderous track in its original form, the addition of Mark E Smith somehow elevates it in its cryptic philosophy sung indiscrimately over the song. Got Mark E onto Top Of The Pops, with inevitable consequences vis a vis accuracy and alcohol level.

Supergrass - Caught By The Fuzz
Oh yeah, Britpop, that kind of took hold in 1994 too. And sometimes when in that frame of a cultural moment passing quickly by all you need is a rocket-fuelled paen to youthful hi-jinks of dubious legality.

Oasis - Up In The Sky
Or something that affects to bring people together in its stew of big walls of guitars, cocksure vocals about being the centre of the universe and vaguely baggy backdrop.

Elastica - Connection
Or just steal someone else's riff. Elastica had a way of turning larceny into something that seemed fresh, though, so while that pretty much is Wire's Three Girl Rhumba over the top it still feels fresh and dynamically of-the-moment.

Edwyn Collins - A Girl Like You
You couldn't really say A Girl Like You was of the moment, with its Northern Soul beat, psychedelic guitar sound and slyly subversive take on the straightforward love song, but that's what eventually made it capture attention and give a good man a second commercial wind.

Underworld - Cowgirl
The personnel had been around for longer than anyone would let on - Karl Hyde and Rick Smith formed their first band in 1980, were tipped for big things in Freur circa 1983 and became a funk-electropop band called Underworld in 1987 - but the appeal of techno and progressive house, plus the influence of DJ and new member Darren Emerson, gave them an original grounding to bring old songwriting and genre-blurring ideas into an electronic wheelhouse alongside Hyde's stream of consciousness.

Nas - N.Y. State Of Mind
Nasir Jones arrived under his own steam in 1994 too, kicking off his landmark first album Illmatic with his confessional about gang violence and the ghetto lifestyle, given an appropriately creeped out DJ Premier production and helping bring appreciation of lyricism back to hip-hop.

Sonic Youth - Bull In The Heather
Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star was a pause on Sonic Youth's approachable hi-fi ambitions, bringing noise back into the centre of play. Its one single turned out to be the highlight amid the fuzz sludge, restrained for all the weird guitar noises as Kim Gordon withdraws from your culture.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Red Right Hand
Granted, The Mercy Seat and The Ship Song were on previous releases, but is there a case for saying that Let Love In is where memories and expectations of the Birthday Party were fully overtaken by the grandeur and possibilities of the Bad Seeds as an entity? Cave riffs on Paradise Lost, the Seeds delve into the darkest of backstreet nights.

Pulp - Do You Remember The First Time?
And we end with another emergence into the final form after years of trying, as His 'N' Hers coalesced the ideas Jarvis Cocker had been working towards for years and he became a cause celebre in the process. His, and everyone's, year ahead... well, that would be another entirely new level.

No comments: