Tuesday, October 28, 2008

5-4-T: Underrecognized Albums of the 1990s

It's easy to look back fondly on the music of the 1990s. Firstly, for me, it was my high school and college years, which made gave every musical note more weight. But more significantly, it was a time when the fans began to exert their power over the radio station programmers and record companies. They had no idea what hit 'em. And yeah, we had to endure Collective Soul and Creed piggybacking on the alternative boom, but after the thin decade that was the 1980s, we were bestowed a wealth of innovative and powerful music. Still, some have slipped through the cracks of history. I've never liked the term underrated, because it all depends on who's doing the rating. So, in this week's Five For Tuesday, we look at the five most underrecognized albums of the 1990s - the albums that may not have influenced an army of indie rawkers, but nonetheless were brilliantly of their time

Honorable Mentions:
Antenna - Sway
12 Rods - Split Personalities
Mr. Bungle - California
Blinker the Star - August Everywhere

5) Pond - Rock Collection
Pond is a band whose career lasted the entire decade and then abruptly stopped. After a somewhat flat second release, their third album, Rock Collection, was their quirkiest with various unnamed, bizarre tracks and an opening song that starts before you're even ready, surprising the listener immediately. Whether you’re into quirks or not, the album remains brilliant. It lopes along in a casual way, but has hooks buried beneath the surface of nearly every tune. Surpassed in the mainstream by bands doing similar things in far less compelling ways like PUSA and Weezer, when Rock Collection failed to sell (I still see this record at used CD stores all the time), the band called it quits. Chris Brady went on to form Audio Learning Center and released another solid record, but I’ll always look back at what might have been had people been paying more attention.

4) Quicksand - Slip
Walter Schreifels has reunited his bands The Gorilla Biscuits and Rival Schools, but unfortunately the reunion that would be truly exciting has yet to be announced or even hinted at. Many bands are labeled post-punk, a term that means many things to many people. But nobody in the genre ever put together a record as loaded with songs both punchy and brainy. To this day, and despite many solid efforts, this album has never been surpassed. Between Alan Cage’s thick but precise drumming and the powerful wall of fuzz on every track, it’s a record that still cooks. In the summer of 1993, they opened for Anthrax and White Zombie. That lineup made no sense, but in its day somehow existed. But really, who else was Quicksand going to open for?

3) Digable Planets - Blowout Comb
This jazz-hop group scored a surprise mega-hit with 1993’s Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat). On their second album, they ratcheted up the atmosphere and pumped in more intricate rhythms, leading to rave reviews. When shopping at Dr. Wax records in Evanston one day, I asked an employee what he thought of the new album, “It’s the best hip-hop record I’ve ever heard.” “Really?” “It’s the best hip-hop record I’ve ever heard.” He was emphatic, and he was pretty close to right. The lyrics may not be profound or as clever as on their first album, but the musical innovation easily makes up for it. But with the hip-hop world being drawn to the gangsta style of Tupac and Biggie and no catchy single akin to Rebirth of Slick, few paid the record any attention. Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul weren’t exactly burning up the charts anymore either and their mainstream relevance was also lost to the cultural trends. I was lucky enough to snag 2nd row seats to a Digable Planets show around that time, and while the Dr. Wax guy may have been overrating the album just a bit, I can safely say it was one of the best sets I’ve seen by any band in my life.

2) Swervedriver - Mezcal Head
I’ve already written somewhat extensively about Swervedriver here this year. I covered their entire output and then reviewed their Metro show. But if any band was more underrecognized in the 1990s, I haven’t heard of them. Mezcal Head races out of the gates and doesn’t relent until Track 9, the slow groover Duress. With Adam Franklin displaying mastery of his guitar, the 90s fuzz pours out of the speakers on every track, but pops with an energy that no other “shoegazers” could match. It’s an album I’ve listened to probably a thousand times and still feels fresh as the day it hatched. Swervedriver never made the big time, nor did anyone from their specific style of indie fuzz rock, but the style of clamor was borrowed for multi-platinum records for bands such as Smashing Pumpkins, The Verve, and Foo Fighters. Of all the bands doing it, nobody did it better than Swervedriver done did it on this album.

1) Blind Melon – Soup
Blind Melon will always be known for two things. First, for their smash hit single, “No Rain.” Second, for the heroin overdose of lead singer Shannon Hoon. The single that spawned their success could easily be labeled cute, and the video, complete with dancing bumblebee girl, would be, uhhh… double cute. Instead of resting on their laurels and putting out a record with more cute singles, the band put forth a far more creative effort, lyrically, vocally, and musically. Genre-bending roots-rock with real soul and fat production, the album grows on you with each listen. This was music that nobody else was making at the time, with only occasional hints of grunge guitars and flashes of the spookiness that showed up on so many other albums. The record was delayed due to Hoon’s stint at a rehab facility. He died just months after it hit stores. Adding to an already tragic story, Soup remains generally undiscovered by fans and critics alike. Incidentally, Greg Prato of AMG agrees with me. Give this one a spin if it's been a while.

So which great underrecognized 1990s albums did I forget?

No comments: