Michael Gira was not making a mere semantic distinction when, following the announcements in 2010 that Swans would be coming out with a new album, he insisted that the group convened to make My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky would be a reconstitution, not a reunion. To those diehard fans of the innovative rock outfit that waited 14 years following 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind, Gira’s words were—and still are—appropriately sage. While there are characteristics of what might be called “Swans 1.0” that remain in “Swans 2.0”—namely punishing walls of sound, expansive track lengths, and grim subject matter—the music Gira and his band of volume torturers have been making since Rope to the Sky is of a class all its own.
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Nowadays, two of 1994’s main music-related events are symbolically inextricably linked: the death of Kurt Cobain and the rise of Britpop. Never mind that Pearl Jam and the other grunge bands continued to make records and sell millions for years following Cobain’s suicide—the myth that has arisen around the Britpop era is that its laddish optimism and nostalgic tunefulness were a much-needed respite from the gloom and sludge emanating from Seattle in the early ‘90s. Surely, 1994 was the year that Britpop really started to pick up steam: Suede was trying to consolidate the success that accompanied its debut album, Oasis and Elastica received a rapturous reception when they issued their insta-classic freshman LPs, and Blur positioned itself as the standard-bearer of British rock when it put out its career-resurrecting Parklife, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week.
Way before gangsta rap became the dominant and domineering style in the region, California’s hip-hop flavor of choice was electro. In stark contrast to ‘90s gangsta rap’s recycled P-Funk grooves and obsession with street authenticity, the more style-conscious West Coast electro of the 1980s looked to European synth innovators like Kraftwerk and, with keyboards and drum machines in tow, melded post-disco innovations with rap bravado to create a slick and sleek brand of futurist dance music. Unfortunately, this pivotal era of West Coast hip-hop is often ignored, both by broader musical histories and even some of the artists themselves who have a certain image they’d like to maintain (if you really want to listen to some of Dr. Dre’s best work, I’d recommend seeking out the tracks he cut in the ‘80s with the decidedly un-gangsta World Class Wreckin’ Cru).
In May 1985 Frank Black (AKA Black Francis AKA Charles Thompson) had a decision to make—he was living in Puerto Rico, avoiding his classes, and decided that he needed to do something different. His options were either go to New Zealand to see Haley’s Comet or to Boston to start a band with his college buddy, Joey Santiago. He chose the latter and quickly added an electrical engineering student named David Lovering on drums and a bassist named Kim Deal when she was the sole respondent to a classified ad seeking someone with a fondness for Peter, Paul & Mary and Hüsker Dü. They were four fairly ordinary-looking people without much musical experience, but it’s not overstating things to say that as the Pixies they would go on to change the face of modern rock music.
The UK’s Official Charts Company recently announced that Queen’s 1981 Greatest Hits collection is the first album in Britain to sell over six million copies. That figure, if you notice, also makes Greatest Hits the best-selling record in British history. To put that feat in perspective, note that the album outpaces popular works by fellow British royalty the Beatles (at number three on the country’s all-time sales list with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), Oasis (number five with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?), and Pink Floyd (number seven for The Dark Side of the Moon). Even global superstars ABBA (number two), Michael Jackson (numbers six and nine), and Madonna (number 11) can’t best that.
Queen has long been considered a national treasure in its home country, but in other places (namely, the United States) the group has had to gradually allow its legacy to grow large enough to help it escape the dismissals of critics and earn it its proper place in the rock pantheon. Sniffed at for its penchant for campy bombast, its flights of fancy, and its brazen showmanship, history has proven those qualities to be among the band’s virtues. Look no further than 1985’s Live Aid extravaganza to see how Queen measures up in the wider scheme of music—it took the stage the same day as scores of other rock and pop icons, and in 20 minutes mopped the floor with the lot of them.
// Short Ends and Leader
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