Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Top 26 Albums of the 1990s (Part 3)

Automatic For The People

Who: R.E.M.
What: Automatic For The People
When: October 6, 1992
Why: Desolation, heartbreak, loss, anguish. If you’ve ever felt these types of emotions, then you’ll know that this is the album that most perfectly encapsulates those feelings. While obviously the most downbeat album of R.E.M.’s career, this was in fact their best since Murmur, and it’s arguable that it’s even better than that debut. No other album I can think of does such a great job of sustaining a tone – both sonically and emotionally – that succeeds through every song regardless of the tempo.

“Drive” sets that tone immediately as the album opener. Over the years R.E.M. had traditionally used their album openers to kick start the disc into high gear (think “Radio Free Europe,” “Harborcoat,” “Begin The Begin,” “Finest Worksong”). On Automatic, “Drive” does just the opposite, kicking the album into the lower gear necessary to bring it through the mountains of grief and solitude that ensue.

The album reaches its conclusion and climax with the twin closers: “Nightswimming” and “Find The River.” The first of these features the sparest of instrumentation, Micheal Stipe’s voice and a piano (along with brief interventions by strings – orchestrated by John Paul Jones -- and oboe), and contains the single line that most perfectly captures the emotional tone of the album, “September’s coming soon.”

The finale uses the band’s traditional instrumentation (supplemented this time by accordion), but continues both the aquatic themes and somber tones of “Nightswimming” to provide both a perfect couplet and a perfect closer. A great album by a band at the height of it’s immense creative powers, and unfortunately one that they have not come close to equaling since.

Exile In Guyville

Who: Liz Phair
What: Exile In Guyville
When: June 22, 1993
Why: The chick is titillation personified, but at least on this album she was a titillator with the surest sense of how to write a classic pop song. Loaded with pretension at the time (it was said, and rather inanely repeated ad nauseum, that the album was a song-by-song response to Exile On Main Street), what remains to this day are the dozen or so great songs (on a 19 song album) that continue to give great pleasure.

Chief among these are the most emotionally searing (“Divorce Song”) and musically interesting (“Stratford-On-Guy”). There’s real depth in those songs, which only serves to spotlight the pity that her efforts since this debut have veered towards the shallow bump and grind mentality of “Flower.” Hey, I love her boasting of being a blow-job queen as much as the next guy, but you can’t really make a career out of it. Right? Right?

Last Splash
Who: The Breeders
What: Last Splash
When: August 31, 1993
Why: When the Pixies flew apart in 1992 the smart money was on Frank Black (nee Black Francis) to have the stellar post-breakup career. While nobody connected with the band actually had a stellar post-breakup career, the only work of any real merit came with this album from bassist Kim Deal (nee Mrs. John Murphy) and The Breeders. The Breeders had actually formed a couple of years earlier as something of an alt-rock side project supergroup with Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses. By the time Deal picked up the group again after the Pixies broke up Donnelly had moved on to form Belly. Her place was taken by Kim’s sister Kelly Deal, and the sisterly duo fronted the band for Last Splash.

While the album suffers from some of the same fillerphilia that haunts Exile In Guyville, its heights are just as high as Le Liz’s. “Cannonball” was, of course, the star-maker for the band (assisted by the Spike Jonze video which wowed many), but gems such as “Do You Love Me Now?,” “I Just Wanna Get Along” and “Divine Hammer” continue to stand the test of time as well.

This turned out to be a swan song debut for the band. Soon afterwards Kelly began to run afoul of the nation’s drug laws, with the expected decrease in productivity. Eventually Kim saw the dollar signs in Frank’s eyes (and Joey’s and David’s as well) and the inevitable Pixies reunion tour followed in recent days. Can the Breeders reunion tour be far behind?


At 6:18 AM, Anonymous Dollev said...

Sorry that i deleted the picture of the Last Splash sleeve on my site!


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