Now is the time when retrospective “Best of” lists are popping up trying to summarize the standout albums of the 1990s, which helped in defining the decade. Unfortunately, there are so many deserving LPs that are often underrated by critics and overlooked by many in compiling these lists. For every album by Beck inducted into the “Best of the 90s” canon, deserving records by the Lemonheads and Belly are tossed aside. Moreover, for every obvious choice by a well-established artist, more subtlety brilliant follow-ups are considered superfluous and therefore overlooked. Listed below, ordered by release date, is a collection of albums that are too often underrated and overlooked as the best albums of the ‘90s.
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Career suicide albums fall into two camps: Those that were released ahead of their time, and those that set new standards in awful. The best thing that could be said about the later category is that these albums are oftentimes just as fascinating as an artist’s best work.
In most cases in this list, the artist not only endured the backlash received after the album’s release, but went on to release some of their best work. In other cases, the public finally came around to not only accepting these records but ranking them amongst the best LPs of the decade.
Throat cancer claimed a true musical icon last week. Levon Helm was one of the last of a kind, a multi-faceted musical talent who was also was generally present for the founding of rock and roll. Before achieving fame as part of the Band, Helm grew up in rural Arkansas, where he absorbed many of the southern, cultural idiosyncrasies that would influence both his songwriting and musical maturation. He was there to witness the genre’s forefathers: Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. He took up the drums, then guitar and mandolin, and soon was off traveling the globe as part of rockabilly rebel Ronnie Hawkins’s band. It was there he met Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel, solidifying a musical partnership that would lead them to back Bob Dylan during his most controversial period as a performer (though the constant booing sent Helm home early), but that would also allow them to further explore the rustic histories of past musical traditions, constantly fiddling with the formula until a unique sound of their own was honed and perfected.
The Band made seven albums in its heyday, ranging from spectacular knockouts to tolerable mixed bags. When the classic lineup went its separate ways after The Last Waltz concert in 1976, Helm dabbled in acting and played with reunion lineups, but continued to make magic from a musical perspective, starting a series of Midnight Rambles at his Woodstock home that played host to some of the better known names of the rock community while also cementing Helm’s legacy as a musical patriarch and also one heck of a nice guy.
As the heartfelt tributes to Helm continue to pour in—with everyone from old collaborators Dylan, Robertson, Hudson, and Larry Campbell to the keepers of the flame he inspired like Patterson Hood, Jeff Tweedy, and Taylor Goldsmith offering their memories, condolences, and tributes—here is a tribute of our own: the impossibly hard-to-pin down ten most essential tracks by Helm’s own, the Band.
I hate to be the voice of dissent—especially when it comes to one of my personal heroes—but this year’s Wrecking Ball is far from Bruce Springsteen’s best album. The excitement built around his stark, Occupy-driven album was lost upon listening through Bruce’s repetitive lyrics and reissued compilations (Hello! We’ve already heard “Wrecking Ball”, “Land of Hope and Dreams”, and the bonus track “American Land”). Yes, it’s musically diverse and should produce some arena-rocking power when heard live, but these lyrics can’t be written by the same man whose first few albums were as poetically beautiful as anything ever put to music.
When Earl Scruggs died a couple weeks ago, the music world lost one of its most innovative and indispensable figures. Rarely has any one individual influenced the way musicians play a particular instrument as Scruggs has with the banjo. His three-finger picking style has become so ubiquitous that it’s what most people automatically hear in their heads when the instrument’s name is uttered. In the shadow of Scruggs’ death, it’s worth taking a look at the role the banjo has played in American popular culture. While some only associate the instrument with backwoods hillbillies and bluegrass music, its history and usage is far more diverse.
Following are ten culturally significant banjo moments. This list is not intended to include the best banjo songs or encompass all the important masters of every genre, but rather to present ten instances in which the banjo, an often misunderstood and unjustly maligned instrument, came to the fore of popular culture, for better or worse. Enjoy!