Friday, April 27, 2007

Ten Albums Ten Years (or more) Later

More albums are pumped out now than ever before, but how many have staying power? Not too many, sadly, but I've been noticing lately how often I keep returning to the "classics," as it were. So, without further ado, here are 10 albums that are at least 10 years old that could still take on anything similar released today (though, for most of them, there is no comparison to be made to any current release).

Sunny Day Real Estate, Diary (1994)
SDRE craft a defining debut album which is cathartic but not chaotic, beautiful but not sappy, and throws just enough curveballs (“Pheurton Skeurto”, “Grendel”) to sound as fresh on the last track as it does on the first. Even the artwork is cute and creepy at the same time, illustrating (literally) the fine balance between contrasts which even Sunny Day could not maintain forever. Best track: “The Blankets Were the Stairs.”

Poor Old Lu, Sin (1994)
It was not until years after my brother listened to this repeatedly that I began to understand its brilliance. The raw-but-professional sound of a suddenly-mature rock band cannot be contributed to any one factor, but rather the combination of talent and humility that allowed them to recogne their strengths and play to them. The vocals are odd and husky but flow freely with musings on life, love and faith; the guitars are so expansive and original that you forget there was only one guitarist; and the rhythm section works like a well-oiled machine, channeling everything from shoe-gazer (“Sickly”) to country (“Hope For Always”) to funk (“Bliss Is”) to all-out rock (“My World Falls Down”), somehow making such disparate genres sound related and relatable. Best track: “I Am No Good.”

Sometime Sunday, Drain (1995)
Hailing from the same region (Pacific Northwest) as the majority of the bands on this list (Sunny Day, Poor Old Lu, MxPx, Foo [sorta], and Slick Shoes), Sometime Sunday can be applauded for releasing two albums with one-word titles – and every song had only a one-word title, too! Though that may be the quickest way to distinguish the band, it’s not the best. Mikee Bridges delivers a vocal performance foreshadowing what was to come for the next decade – vacillating between a whisper and a howl, while remaining surprisingly understandable throughout. Backed by a trio that took the grunge sound and turned it on its ear, Drain was the band’s masterpiece. Songs were bursts of energy that seared and grooved simultaneously. Notable in the band’s sound is the heavy reliance on bass and drums (the last track is an instrumental, guitar-less jam), with no double-tracked guitars to be found – yet the group maintained an intensity and fury that remains rarely approached (just listen to Bridges ask, “Did you ever find the nails in your hands?” on the album’s centerpiece, “Stone”). Best track: “Eye.”

Black Eyed Sceva, 5 Years, 50,000 Miles Davis (1995)
The follow-up to their debut album, 5 Years took the trio’s formula of indie/folk rock with a touch of southern charm and turned it up a notch. The first four tracks display vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Post’s increasing confidence both musically and lyrically, while the last four (three live cuts and a cover of The Police’s “Invisible Sun”) showcase the band’s prowess and imagination, respectively. Post’s riff-writing ability was never better than in opener “Ryan’s Driveway,” making angular, monochromatic guitar lines sound smooth and melodic. “Ecumenical,” meanwhile, could arguably be considered the defining statement of the band, on all fronts. 5 Years foreshadowed an album they deserved to make, but sadly an album that was never written, as the band disbanded shortly after (eventually morphing into the inferior Model Engine). Best track: “Ryan’s Driveway.”

Sixpence None the Richer, This Beautiful Mess (1995)
Before “Kiss Me,” there was a rock band. A rock band whose poster was banned in our house, despite attempts by my brother and myself. Because, apparently, everyone in the band looked “like ghosts,” which was not too pleasing to the parents. Oh well. In any case, the album itself is a mesmerizing blend of surreal poetry, echoey guitars and ethereal vocals… but don’t think it’s a pop album, the dark undertones and driving rhythms are all rock, usually deceptively so. Best track: “Within a Room Somewhere.”

MxPx, Life in General (1996)
There have certainly been more successful “new school” punk albums (umm, by any of their peers), but has there been a better one? It’s up for debate. Ironically, MxPx made their attempt to break from the “Christian band” tag by making their shiniest record to date, a hook-laden tribute to all things young, dumb and punk. By their third album (and high school graduation) they’d passed their juvenile (Pokinatcha) and idealistic (Teenage Politics) stages, and entered a level-headed realist phase, which served as inspiration for their best songs, from the tongue-in-cheek “Middlename” to classic chick songs like “Do Your Feet Hurt?” to introspective rockers like “The Wonder Years” and “Southbound”. Even the campy “Chick Magnet” (which is arguably the band’s most well-known song) is equal parts sappy and inspired. The album art may have been a terrible idea, but everything else is solid gold. Best track: “Sometimes You Have to Ask Yourself.”

Foo Fighters, The Colour and the Shape (May 20, 1997)
Anyone that knows me knows I could probably write an entire book about this album, so I’ll just say… the only negative thing about this album is how no other rock album since (including subsequent Foo albums) has approached its level of greatness. Best track: “February Stars.”

Zao, The Splinter Shards the Birth of Separation (May 20, 1997)
Who knew this was released the same day as the album above? I never connected the two in my mind, probably because the release date was the only thing these two albums had in common. From the opening track – with the most menacing feedback ever recorded leading into Shawn Jonas’ yelp of “Once! Again! To! Strive!” – Zao scorched their way through 10 tracks of uplifting metalcore, setting the standard for years to come. The majority of Zao fans would probably choose subsequent releases like Liberate Te Ex Inferis or the self-titled album as the pinnacle of the band’s career, but in my opinion it was all downhill after this point. Best track: “The Children Cry For Help.”

Slick Shoes, Rusty (June 24, 1997)
I remember the first time I heard “Last” on a sampler CD, and the utter shock I experienced – not only because it was a great song with a screaming solo that paid homage to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (and was the first real guitar solo I ever learned), but also because the song broke the 3-minute barrier, something which the band had failed to do on their debut EP (and which only happened twice on Rusty). Unlike many of their contemporaries, though, Slick Shoes didn't just play power chords and one-two beats, instead packing their short songs to the brim with breakneck drumming, snotty vocals and enough guitar riffs to choke a camel (these are all compliments). If you didn’t drive around in a Ford Pinto packed with friends and sang, air-guitared, and air-drummed along to this album in 1997… what was wrong with you? Best track: “Last.” (Or maybe “Walk Out.” Or “Cliché.” Or “Rusty.”)

The Promise Ring, Nothing Feels Good (Oct 14, 1997)
As an insightful friend once pointed out, “He has a lisp!” Sure, Davey von Bohlen’s distinctive, husky voice seems more suited to an unfrequented bar, but that doesn’t change the fact that The Promise Ring were among the first “indie” groups to be unashamed in their sugar-coated pop fun. Evidence of this is abundant on Nothing Feels Good, where songs have silly names and phrases are carried from one song to the next. Many songs had – at best – three lines of lyrics that were then repeated, rephrased, and rearranged to mine every ounce of impact from them. The effect is not annoying, though, but rather reassuring, as if with every repetition Davey believes it more and thus makes it truer. Despite this penchant, though, Nothing Feels Good is filled with a variety of riffs and rhythms, never copping out in the musical creativity department. The Promise Ring reminded us that it’s o.k to be silly, just not dumb. Best track: “Red and Blue Jeans.”


Lewis said...

It looks like I have some iTunes "homework" for the next week. Nice entry.

travis said...

i love that you threw in the promise ring. i was secretly hoping for it. but the mxpx pick was one that i would not have included in my list. i think perhaps it would have been a far better choice to go with slowly going the way of the buffalo, in my opinion, a far better album than any other of their releases. sunny day, foo, zao, all fantastic picks.

Ek said...

Nice work. It looks like I missed out at least a little by not really getting into "underground" music until college, as I've only actually heard of about half of those albums and own a whopping one of them. I blame this on the fact that I didn't have an older brother.

Mac said...

Yeah... i had never heard of ANY of those articles... and only two of the bands (MxPx and Foo Fighters; although i probably heard some songs from their album u mentioned, without knowing it...)...

I just thought you might want to know that i have as little understanding of your passion (music obviously) as you do of mine (sports, obviously)!!!

Ek said...

Just to make Mark feel better (since all of them are pretty mainstream), my five favorite albums from that time period are:

1) Foo Fighters - TC&TS
2) Stone Temple Pilots - Purple
3) silverchair - Frogstomp
4) Nirvana - Unplugged in New York
5) Pearl Jam - Vitalogy

Of course, if you haven't even heard of any of those bands, you might feel even worse now...

Btw, while all five of those are good albums, I could probably come up with a five from any one year in the last three or four that would give those a run, so things actually might be getting better.

Craig said...

I do like the list, but I would definately put in Braid's "Frame and Canvas", Refused's "Shape of Punk to Come", and Hum's "Downward is Heavenwards". I would take out MXPX, Sixpence, and maybe Zao, but I am still debating that. I love BES/Model Engine, probly my favorite band of all time.