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Favorite 90s Albums: #4 – Radiohead – “OK Computer”

October 28, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve been sort of dreading this one.  What is there left to be written about OK Computer?  By now, I imagine anyone who remotely cares about music has listened to it and formed their opinion on it.  Just about any list of top 90’s albums that is worth anything will have it at or near the top, with most praising it as a landmark album that has come to define the 90’s and everything that came after it.  It’s a prescient album that in some ways predicts how the internet would make music extremely fractured today in 2011.  It’s hard for me to imagine another album being made that unifies as many people as this one, that is celebrated by both the indie sect and more casual music fans.

Since enough has been said about it, I don’t really feel like giving my own inferior analysis of the music.  If you haven’t heard OK Computer, do it.  Now.  Close your door, stop reading this crappy blog, put on your headphones and spend the better part of the next hour listening intently.  Meanwhile, I can at least share what this album means to me personally.

I’m somewhat unique among the musically obsessed in that I didn’t really listen to music at all growing up.  My parents both played some classical stuff on guitar or piano, but there was very little in the ways of contemporary music.  When people asked me favorite bands or songs, I just kind of shrugged and said I didn’t listen to music.  Pretty much all of my musical memories from this time are things I was exposed to unwillingly:  Awful Smash Mouth songs, the collected works of pretty much every late 90’s boy band (thanks to my sister), and most of the other ubiquitous 90’s hits.  There was nothing that I ever sought out myself.

It wasn’t until high school that I began to take at least a casual interest in music.  It probably had something to do with the transition going on in my life, from a previously happy and well-adjusted elementary and middle schooler into an alienated high schooler.  After living a mostly sheltered existence, high school was the first time I saw what the real world was, and for the most part recognized how terrible it is.  I had always been considered funny, witty, and smart by people who knew me, but in high school none of those traits seemed to be valued. Eventually I basically gave up on trying to relate to my peers and became incredibly shy and withdrawn (problems I still struggle with today).  For the most part, I had no real friends that I was seeing regularly and just a handful of acquaintances who I would occasionally talk to.

After each day of high school, I would usually take a nap, but then I’d have nothing to do for the next 7-8 hours (since I rarely did my homework).  And that’s when I began to start seeking out music, partly out of boredom but also because there was this whole world that I had really not explored at all.  For the first year or so (I’m guessing), I latched on to just a handful of bands:  Oasis, Muse, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and The Verve.  And those bands, and pretty much just those bands, became music for me.  I listened to them constantly and didn’t bother finding anything else for a weirdly long amount of time.  (Sidenote:  I still listen to Oasis and The Verve occasionally, but now just hearing one note of Muse and RHCP is enough to almost make me gag.)

Eventually I began to look for more bands, and I decided to try to find bands similar to Muse. When searching, I found a lot of people saying that Muse was simply a worse version of Radiohead (“how could Muse be a worse version of anything?” I thought to myself).  So, I looked up Radiohead, saw that OK Computer was their most acclaimed and recognized album, and decided to give it a shot.

Now this will sound really corny, but it’s true:  OK Computer changed me.  It wasn’t just that it was so beyond anything I had ever heard musically, but it was also the first music that I really felt spoke to me and my situation.  It wasn’t poppy the way the Britpop bands were and wasn’t focused purely on histrionics like Muse.  It was all emotion, and it was all the emotions that I was feeling and felt weren’t being articulated anywhere else.  And it almost instantly sent me down the path from being someone who just listened to some music to being someone that really cared about music.  In a sense, Radiohead (and other bands I grew attached to) replaced the friends I didn’t really have, which might be why I’m so passionate about my favorite artists.

Now, 4-5 years later, I don’t find myself listening to OK Computer as much, possibly because it’s inextricably linked to a time in my life that I’d rather forget.  But I’ll always be indebted to it, and whenever I listen to it again I’m reminded of how powerful it is.  When I hear someone complain that Radiohead is too sad or mopey for them, I just kind of shake my head and chuckle, because I know that they don’t get it and probably never will.  And it reconfirms that, despite their massive popularity, Radiohead is a band that seems like they made music just for me.

Categories: Favorite 90s Albums Tags: , ,

Favorite 90s Albums: #5 – Björk – “Homogenic”

October 26, 2011 1 comment

At this point, it seems like Björk is one of those artists that is known for everything but the music she makes.  Instead, we primarily hear about how weird she is, the swan dress, the music videos, and the various multimedia work she does.  Talking to people my age, I sometimes feel like Björk is more of an abstract idea than an actual person:  She represents the dreaded “weird music,” the type that just “isn’t for me” or is “too out there” for them to enjoy.

Now certainly, a lot of this is because Björk is, in fact, weird.  But why is weirdness considered such a bad thing by so many people?  Personally, I’ve always thought weirdness was one of the most crucial attributes for a musician — I frankly have very little interest in hearing some normal guy or girl playing music.  I want to hear weirdos, the weirdest weirdos imaginable, the kind that make music because they’re so damn weird that music is the only thing they can do to keep what little shred of sanity they are still holding to.  I want weirdos that are so weird that even other weirdo musicians find them weird.

I love Björk because she is a special kind of weirdo, gifted with an incredible voice that is one of the wonders of the modern world, but also with a knack for the avant garde and a relentless creative ambition.  Obviously, her music won’t be everyone, but I think it’s far more accessible than most would think given all the second-hand things they often hear about her.

This brings me to Homogenic, which I consider to be the highlight of Björk’s magical career, and one that also represents one of the many changes in style for her.  After her first two solo albums, “Debut” and “Post”, played up her quirky pixie image, Homogenic departed from that, instead focusing on cool strings and beats to create a much more ominous and grandiose sound.  While “Post” was noted for being a hodge-podge of influences and styles, Homogenic was, as the title would suggest, a study of one sound.

That doesn’t mean the album is samey, but rather that it is incredibly consistent and cohesive while still having a lot of variety.  When it was released in 1997, Homogenic was on the cutting edge of pop, electronic, dance, and avant-garde music, and nearly 15 years later it still feels that way to me.  There are no dud tracks, and the album flows perfectly from each to the next, covering many different moods, from the looming opener “Hunter” to the magestic final track “All is Full of Love” (which, with its amazing robots-in-love music video, seems to be a precursor to just about all Pixar films).

 

In between, there are many other highlights that perfectly toe the line between accessibility and avant-garde.  “Jóga” is one of the career highlights for Björk, a stately dedication to a friend and her homeland of Iceland.  It’s likely the album’s most breathtaking moment and one of the most beautiful songs of the 90’s.

The most epic moment on the album is “Bachelorette,” which was conceived as a sequel of sorts to Post’s “Isobel.”  It has a huge, foreboding sound with its thudding beats and Björk’s voice soars even more than usual.  The music video, directed by Michel Gondry, is also one of the all-time greats (in general, the music videos of this album are fantastic and a testament to Björk’s appeal as an artist).

There are also quieter moments on Homogenic, including the lovely “Unravel”, as well as some of her more up-beat dance numbers like “Alarm Call”, which, like the rest of the album, also has great lyrics.  Although hearing Björk say “I’m no fucking buddhist” is always jarring, as she doesn’t seem like she should be capable of swearing.

Overall, this is one of my favorite electronic and pop albums and I find it to be a perfect summation of Björk’s strengths as an artist.  When people say they’re not sure if they’d like something like Björk, I usually tell them to listen to this album.  I don’t think they ever do, but if they did, they may be surprised at how beautiful the music is, and how authentic Björk is compared to some of today’s musicians who just put on a weird costume and are considered artists because of it.  Björk is the real deal, and I’ll always be a fan of her for that, even if others find her (and me) strange.

(Note: #6 in this series was Helium’s The Magic City.  Read all about it here: https://thenoisemadebypeople.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/helium-the-magic-city/)

Categories: Favorite 90s Albums Tags: , ,

Favorite 90s Albums: #7 – Spiritualized – “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space”

October 12, 2011 Leave a comment

“Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” is a colossal, heartbreaking album that came out of one of the most classic rock music traditions.  Before the album, Spiritualized frontman Jason Pierce had his heart broken by band member Kate Radley, who secretly married The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft.  Two of the best albums of the decade, The Verve’s “Urban Hymns” and this one were very likely written about Radley, who became like a britpop version of Pattie Boyd.

After enduring that experience, a lot of musicians would make a mute, plaintive record, baring their emotions that way.  What makes “Ladies and Gentlemen…” so great is that Pierce does just the opposite:  He brings in strings, horns, a gospel choir, and clearly does a whole lot of drugs in an attempt to drift as far away from his problems as possible.  In other words, he floats in space,  and he brings the listener with him.

Despite all those indulgences, everything about “Ladies and Gentlemen…” feels earned, in part because Pierce’s emotional core is always there in the songs.  It’s not an exercise in masturbatory excess the way some of the similar 70+ minute albums of the time period were.   For Pierce, who since his days in Spacemen 3 had specialized in drony, spaced out music, “Ladies and Gentlemen…” is his most triumphant artistic statement because, despite it’s space-rock sound, it is firmly grounded in reality.

The album has one of the greatest openers ever with the title track.  Kate Radley, who is still in the band at this point, says the opening words “ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space” for full ironic effect before the orchestral strings and Pierce’s echoing vocals come in.  The song borrows lyrics from the Elvis Presley song “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” which created some legal problems when the album was first released, but now the song can be experienced in its full glory thanks to a recent reissue and some changes in songwriting credit.

That song segues into the second track, “Come Together”, which is one of the most straight-forward rock songs Spiritualized have recorded.  In general, the album offers an ideal mix of Spiritualized’s drone and space rock tendencies with more straight-forward numbers, which is what helps make it the band’s masterpiece.  “All of My Thoughts” is one of the saddest songs on an already sad album, with Pierce lamenting “I don’t know what to do on my own/because all of my thoughts are with you,” after which the song explodes into spaced-out noise with squealing horns and guitar.

The centerpiece of the album is “Broken Heart,” which represents the peak of the album’s sadness.  Along with The Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work”, it’s one of the most relentlessly bleak songs of this era, thanks a beautiful seven minute string arrangement and Pierce’s rock bottom lyrics:  “I have a broken heart/but I’m too busy to be heartbroken.”  If anyone ever asks me what the saddest song ever is, this is usually one of my answers.

The album closes out with the 17 minute “Cop Shoot Cop…” and I can only hope that Pierce was able to exercise some of his demons with this record.  “Ladies and Gentlemen…” falls into what I like to call “experience albums.”  Listening to it takes you to a different place, which is one of the best things that music can do.  Spiritualized has never really reached this level of greatness before or since, but on this album everything clicked, and the result was one of the best heartbreak albums ever, as well as one of the finest arguments for using mind-altering substances to make music.