“So I thought you were counting these albums down in groups of 10?” absolutely nobody will ask when seeing this group of five ’90s albums. Well, I haven’t had a lot of time to write lately, and rather than have these sitting around like yesterday’s dirty diapers, I figured I’d bundle them up and take them down to the dump (a.k.a. post them). So there you go. Enjoy!
80. Propellerheads – Decksanddrumsandrockandroll (1998)
Whether they’re the result of the legitimate, organic rise of a new artistic sensibility, or something manufactured by critics who are magnanimous with their “next big thing” proclamations, all pop music trends are fads, destined to flame out. So instead of letting them dictate the way you walk, talk and dress, why not do something that will never go out of style – find a good groove and dance to it. This is the message of Propellerheads’ single “History Repeating,” a propulsive spy movie rave up, complete with a gutsy Shirley Bassey vocal, that realized the mainstream potential of electronica while mocking the hype machine that had been predicting just that for years. On the British duo’s first and only LP, they give several examples of the kind of tracks that could inspire critics to go all Nostradamus, doing monstrous things with drums and bass lines that could seemingly stretch on forever without losing their adrenaline-spiking energy. “Take California,” “Bang On!” or the Matrix-approved “Spybreak!” make driving to work feel like a million-dollar chase sequence. When sequenced with quieter, quirkier moments like the groovy kitsch of “Velvet Pants” and the loping, skater hip hop of “360 (Oh Yeah?)” (which features De La Soul at their effortless-sounding best), Decksanddrumsandrockandroll becomes an evergreen listen, an album that will always be as much fun as it was the day it came out. My flannel is long gone, and these beats are forever.
The understatement of the album comes on “Velvet Pants” – “It’s groovy, I guess.”
By the time RZA got around to releasing an album under his own name, he was seen as a pretty solid hip hop double threat – a genius producer who had garnered respect as a rapper as well. Bobby Digital In Stereo solidified this status. Not only was it the treasure trove of dramatic, confrontational beats we’d come to expect (and this a year after the double-LP Wu-Tang Forever. Damn, were we spoiled), it was the first real revelation of RZA’s abilities on the mic. He dishes out some wild, brilliant tongue-lashings here, making the record’s kinda lame “digital v. analog” concept sound like the toughest street battle this side of Mobb Deep, and shouldering the burden of keeping the adrenaline flowing over the course of 17 tracks. That said, Bobby Digital drags just a bit in the middle, but it’s thanks to a glut of guest rappers (RZA only contributes six verses from tracks 8-15). And it pretty much doesn’t matter, because the man closes things in unforgettably explosive fashion. “My Lovin’ Is Digi” is grand and ridiculous and sublime; pairing a huge string loop with a chorus that’s sung with hilarious gravity: “Sometimes, I find someone fuckin’ with my pussy.” Then there’s “Domestic Violence.” Jesus Christ, “Domestic Violence.” An ugly, misanthropic argument between RZA and guest Jamie Sommers, the track is both a raw nerve of rage and bitterness, and a massively successful piece of entertainment. Hearing Sommers laundry list all the things about RZA that “ain’t shit,” how could you not join in?
78. Leaders of the New School – A Future Without A Past … (1991)
The title of Leaders of the New School’s debut album is a reference to youth, and all the hope and possibilities it implies. And it completely delivers on that idea. Charlie Brown, Busta Rhymes, Dinco D and DJ Cut Monitor Milo inject every track with endearing, juvenile energy – these guys weren’t just skilled MCs, they were kids whose dreams were coming true, and their joy informed everything they laid to tape during these sessions. This is what makes A Future Without A Past one of the upper-echelon Native Tongues albums; where A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were exploring the power of positive thinking, Leaders of the New School was about innocence. A loose schoolyard concept informs classic tracks like “Case of the P.T.A.,” where the guys reflect on how parents and teachers just don’t get it over a completely infectious New Jack Swing groove, and “Show Me A Hero,” a “Gambler”-lifting warning shot to bullies in which Busta steals the show just by reciting his height and weight. If the rising star’s commanding baritone tends to shine just a little brighter than his bandmates, it was all part of LOTNS’ perfect pH balance, leveling out the bizarre shrieks of Brown and the steadying force of Dinko. Hearing them gleefully playing off each other really shines a light on how much the group dynamic has faded from modern hip hop. If you ever get tired of hearing solo records littered with guest spots, crank this up loud, and rejoice in the blissful synergy. Who cares if it gets you detention?
Just try to deny the youthful energy of “Case of the P.T.A.”
Lulu, Lou Reed’s much-maligned 2011 collaboration with Metallica, has joined the likes of Gigli and Glitter as shorthand for an artistic train wreck. And on paper, Reed’s 1992 effort Magic & Loss looks like something destined for a similar fate – a concept album about death from an aging auteur striving to prove he’s still relevant. But in reality, this is the polar opposite of Lulu’s fancifully misguided theater. Shaken by the actual death of a friend from cancer, Reed sat down and wrote lyrics that are as subtle as chemotherapy. He marvels at the fact that the same thing that killed people at Chernobyl was helping his friend buy time. He wrestles with ideas of spirituality, bowing to their sanctity one moment, deriding them as “mystic shit” the next. And through it all, no matter how crushingly depressing the songs become, Reed handles them with that classic sense of cool, his resigned sing/speak translating it all into something like hope. He’s always been great at tackling material rich in conflicting moods – “Perfect Day” kicks your ass every time, because it’s about happiness in the context of sadness. Magic & Loss is “Perfect Day” on steroids, then, an album that finds beauty and mystery in the brutal unfairness of life. “I’m sick of looking at me/I hate this painful body,” he sings over the lone, mournful guitar figure on “Magician,” a harrowing tale of a spirit longing for freedom that’s among his best work. Like the album it anchors, it’s riddled with loss, yet feels like magic.
Put on a leather jacket and your best contemplative expression, and give “Magician” a spin.
76. Depeche Mode – Violator (1990)
When you’re alone, you can rule your own universe. It’s a theme that’s been used for several classic pop songs about adolescence. But when I first saw the video for Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” I’d never heard “In My Room” or “I Am A Rock.” I was in 7th grade, an introverted kid who typically loved extroverted music – bands like Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Guns n’ Roses possessed such audacious confidence, it seemed like an interplanetary transmission to a boy like me. But the “Enjoy the Silence” video spoke to me on a deeper level, and could very possibly have been the first work of art to do so. It told me that I wasn’t the only one who shied away from social situations, that, in fact, it was a kingly pursuit to avoid the everyday noises of life. “Words are very unnecessary/They can only do harm,” sings David Gahan as he walks through one gorgeous landscape after another, dressed in a crown and cape and carrying a lawn chair, stopping from time to time to heed the direction of the song’s title. Violator is full of introspective struggles like this – my 12-year-old brain wasn’t savvy enough to understand these songs that wrestled with ideas of faith, and truth, and love. But those haunting goth-pop melodies were more than enough to make me obsessed; plus, as a Catholic school kid I could sense the delicious sacrilege that was being committed on “Personal Jesus.” I loved this album then, despite it standing out of my cassette collection like a sore thumb, and it has only become more poignant with age. The more I’ve discovered about why I love Violator, the more I’ve learned about the younger me, that awkward king of his own quiet world.
Here’s “Enjoy the Silence.” Please enjoy it, even though it’s interrupting your silence.