The year 1991 was one of astonishing riches in hip-hop, landing (depending somewhat on your definition) somewhere in the middle of the genre’s “golden age”. Building on the innovations of Marley Marl, Ced Gee, and others, the producers of the early ‘90s—among them Pete Rock, Diamond D, Large Professor, and DJ Premier—built complex sample-based productions and drew from a palette that included increasingly obscure soul jazz, jazz-funk, and R&B cuts—and did so in an atmosphere of ferocious innovation and competition. At the same time the gangsta genre narrowed hip-hop’s militant political street ethic—epitomized previously by politically conscious stances of Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy, among others—but the resulting controversy took the genre to a wider market.
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R.E.M.’s recent announcement that it is officially calling it quits has resulted in a predictable and appropriate outpouring of respect and appreciation. While some older school fans may have stopped acknowledging the band following drummer Bill Berry’s 1997 departure, some folks from the younger generation might not have realized how long R.E.M. had been around. Impossible as it may be to believe, “Losing My Religion” was a smash hit two full decades ago. With the benefit of hindsight, we can break R.E.M.’s career into three rough periods: the underground I,R.S. Records years, the Warner Bros. “wonder years”, and the post-Berry output. Out of respect for the post-Berry content, we won’t need to damn the band’s last five efforts with faint praise. While difficult (if enjoyable) to rank the band’s ten best recordings, it should surprise few folks that the albums after 1997 don’t make the cut. Some albums that were monster hits have not aged especially well; another album entitled Monster has. The usual suspects remain indelible after all these years. Here is my brief overview of R.E.M.’s enduring legacy.
In the first part of our series spotlighting music videos in the 1980s, we took a look at some of the more unsung clips from the era. The dawning of this artistic platform was an exciting time for all involved: musicians, video directors, artists—diving head first into a new medium with little in the way of definitive standards. Working against a tabula rasa, and with low barriers to entry, the possibilities were endless. As we peer over into a mineshaft of archived content, we find a lot of quality work that held up well, and others that… um, well, you be the judge. There are a number of items that factor into a video’s obsolescence.
Amidst the deluge of news coverage about the disbandment of R.E.M. last week, one fact has made itself widely-known: not everyone gives a damn. Though the mainstream and music press have largely treated the event with measured reflection and affectionate eulogizing, trawling through comment sections of dozens of R.E.M. breakup articles I have come across a surprisingly large collection of voices that either relish this development, go out of their way to indicate that they could care less, or enquire what the big deal ever was. In my own tribute marking the demise of the group, I examined the logical reasons why these attitudes exist. Still, it’s kind of strange seeing how polarizing R.E.M. and its output has become, especially given that 15 years ago these guys appeared to be universally beloved.
Ok, so maybe you’ve never fathomed why R.E.M. has been at times held in such reverence because rock critics for eons have insisted you start by listening to Murmur or Automatic for the People all the way through to (in their view) properly savor these totemic works, and the experience instead left you bored out of your mind. Or maybe your knowledge of the group is casual, and your exposure by osmosis to “Losing My Religion” or “Man on the Moon” has left you uninterested in exploring further. In the hopes of correcting the (in my view) largely mishandled advocacy of the alt-rock band’s catalog, I have assembled this handy 10-track introduction to R.E.M. No, this is not a list of the absolute best or most “important” R.E.M. songs ever; it’s not even meant to give you a full, nuanced picture of the group. What this is is a collection of 10 rather strong tracks—both the atypical and the defining—that are likely grab your ear instantly or act as accessible gateways to the ensemble’s more idiosyncratic qualities. If you’re still not sold on the group by the end, that’s absolutely fine—no one should tell you what you can and can’t like. But at the very least, hopefully afterward you might have a better idea of what the fuss has been about all these years.
The late, great Tony Wilson of Factory Records fame reckoned contemporary music revolutions occurred every 13 years: the Beatles’ first album was released in 1963; after which in 1976, punk kicked off; then 13 years later, in 1989, dance music came up smiling. Aside from the fact Wilson’s theory ran aground shortly after—otherwise, 2002 should have been something amazing; well, better than Britney Spears’ Crossroads—I would argue any attention paid to dance music would best be spent on 1991.
For those 12 glorious apex months, dance music’s potential to amaze seemed boundless. In part because, after Acid’s Big Bang and the outward formation of what was fast becoming a dance universe all to itself, so many bright new worlds of possibility began to sparkle, ripe for exploration. In 1991, the dance music scene was so much to do with that the brilliance of The New: the thrill of fresh and exciting styles, new and instant possibilities realised. No doubt because it was an underground scene—totally self-sufficient, and unhindered by the big-wheels-turn-slowly scheduling processes of the mainstream music industry. What was a thought on a Monday, was a tune on a Tuesday, pressed, circulated, played out and well on the way to being a must-hear by Friday. The majority of all this only made possible by the creative application of sampling and sequencers and the lax (but soon to contract) state of general copyright law.