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Tuesday, Mar 1, 2011
1991 was the year My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless became the underground standard bearer for independent rock.

It’s hard to believe that 1991 was 20 years ago. In the wake of that anniversary, many have been harkening back to reflect on the top records of that year: U2’s Achtung Baby, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Metallica’s (self-titled) “Black Album” just to name a few. Yet as grunge and the new wave of punk slowly emerged, an entirely different sound was inching over the horizon. Just three years from the brilliant Isn’t Anything, My Bloody Valentine (named after a Canadian horror film), had produced its masterwork, Loveless, a record of such sheer grandiosity and nuanced ingenuity, that it would become the reigning influence of independent rock, as well the expected candidate for every rock critic’s record collection, for years to come. It would also be the last musical statement from the band to date.


Bandleader Kevin Shields invested innumerable hours of studio time trying to create new and unprecedented sounds with this record, at times emerging from all-day sessions with absolutely nothing on tape. The process also found Shields barring any employees with Creation Records from access to the sessions. It was this kind of secluded and extensive work ethic that ended up nearly bankrupting the record label. However, it also ended up providing one of the most profound musical statements to emerge out of that year.


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Friday, Feb 4, 2011
Whether it was by overthrowing the old guard, engaging in self-reinvention, or by modernizing a particular approach for the new decade, change was a concept that imbued many of 1991’s seminal rock albums.

Has it really been 20 years since 1991? That year that never seemed all that long ago until now is unequivocally one of the landmark rock album years, a 12-month span whose voluminous output of brilliant records places it in the same hallowed ranks as 1967, 1969, 1977, and 1984. This was the year that gave the world instant classics including Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Metallica’s self-titled “Black Album”, U2’s Achtung Baby, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, and Primal Scream’s Screamadelica as well as flawed-yet-still engaging works by R.E.M., Guns ‘N Roses, and the Smashing Pumpkins, not to mention revered cult favorites by My Bloody Valentine, Teenage Fanclub, and Fugazi, just to name a notable few. Even without getting into singles, it’s clear that any fan of rock music should investigate at least a good dozen releases from this year as part of his or her formative musical education.


What makes 1991 such a memorable year in rock is not just that it packed so many fantastic full-lengths into its span (which it undeniably did), but that those releases were (explicitly or not) emblematic of seismic generational and cultural shifts. The key event of 1991 was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of the Cold War, finally putting an end to the collective dread of nuclear annihilation that had cast such a shadow over and informed baby boomer culture the world over in so many profound ways. Meanwhile, a younger generation of restless rock fans only just discovering what daring music existed just outside the mainstream was both looking for icons of its own while chaffing at the previous year’s dominance by dance pop and hip hop. Whether it was by overthrowing the old guard, engaging in self-reinvention, or by modernizing a particular approach for the new decade, change was a concept that imbued many of 1991’s seminal rock albums.


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Thursday, Jan 20, 2011
Painfully earnest and soberly overwrought, for one album and one song in particular Live managed to convincingly sell the drama.

When discussing half-remembered post-grunge hits with my friend Dustin a few nights back (this happens more often than you would think), he argued that any greatest hits album released by the Pennsylvania quartet Live should simply contain a copy of the group’s 1994 album Throwing Copper inside. And, you know, I have to completely agree with that, and I think most everyone else would, too. Sorry, “Pain Lies on the Riverside”.


Oh, Live: stridently passionate, humorlessly sincere, and insufferably portentous, the band always had a habit of crossing the mark into becoming unbearably overwrought. Around before grunge had even penetrated popular consciousness, the members of Live were in fact ardent devotees of R.E.M., injecting their spiritually-tinged college rock with U2-sized bluster and self-importance as well as the occasional questionable white-funk bass lick. Forgive Pearl Jam, everyone: it was really Live who paved the way for Creed. Yet for one album the group managed to dial back its most grating tics, beef up the hook-per-song ratio, and turn out one of the most consistent rock albums of the ‘90s. Live coasted for a long time upon the goodwill generated by Throwing Copper—allowing the ensemble to vex rock radio with the likes of the leaden “Lakini’s Juice” and the atrocious Tricky team-up “Simple Creed”—yet the band’s second album holds up today better than you would expect, in large part due to the presence of industrial-strength hits “Selling the Drama”, “I Alone”, “Lightning Crashes”, and “All Over You”.


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Thursday, Jan 13, 2011
"Jungleland" employs the epic, almost operatic strategy Bruce Springsteen developed on the first two albums, but this is at a whole other level.

“When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band. . . .” The rest was history, wasn’t it?


I am, of course, quoting from “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, the second song from Bruce Springsteen’s masterpiece, Born to Run (1975). It seems appropriate to send a shout-out to E Street Band member Clarence Clemons (a.k.a. the Big Man) on the occasion of his 69th birthday, and celebrate what I consider his finest moment—and one of the finer moments in rock and roll history. We’re talking about “Jungleland”, needless to say. It is a perfect song, closing an album that also begins with a perfect song (“Thunder Road”).


First, a bit of backstory may be useful, since it would seem that little more needs to be said regarding Born To Run: it certainly does not need anyone to make the case it clearly and indelibly makes for itself as one of the ultimate rock albums, no further questions or comments necessary. That it came as the result of a fanatical and obsessive quest on the young Springsteen’s part (he was 25 when it was released) is well-documented. What is less understood and, for younger fans who came to the party during (or after!) the ubiquity of Born in the U.S.A., is that after two critically-praised but commercially-D.O.A. albums, there was a very real chance that millions of frenzied fans would never get an opportunity to scream “Bruuuuuuce!” at concerts for the next several decades. The desperation, ambition, and yearning wrapped within each song was very real, and more than slightly mirrored the state of mind of this scruffy underdog who (not unlike Rush before it made 2112) had the balls to stay true to his vision and figure he would either hit a grand slam or go down swinging.


And the rest is history, isn’t it?


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Wednesday, Jan 5, 2011
Marrying hip hop elements to high-energy compositions and carefully-crafted productions, new jack swing was the cutting edge of R&B music in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Roughly 20 years ago was the popular apex of new jack swing, a subgenre of R&B that was the conclusion of the path that the musical form had explored for much of the 1980s. Hands down my favorite style of R&B, new jack swing marked the point when the genre began to fully acknowledge hip-hop, working its rhythms and raps into tight, well-oiled pop-funk compositions that valued high-stepping energy and intricate production above all else; the now thoroughly-blurred overlap between R&B and hip-hop in mainstream music is the style’s enduring legacy. New jack swing was club music—while certainly Bobby Brown or Guy would be wooing the ladies with every lyrical opportunity, it wasn’t the bedroom but the promise of a vibrant dancefloor that was the destination of choice—that was a much as feast for the discerning ear as it was fuel for a weekend out party-hopping.


A large part of new jack swing’s appeal is its irresistible energy, achieved through busy arrangements that incorporated stuttering grooves, swooping synth stabs, and confident, self-assured rap interludes.  Mainstream R&B of the 1980s was by and large upbeat and uptempo, and new jack swing maxed out those qualities as much as possible, making extended 12” vinyl remixes mandatory to keep the dancefloors happy. Part of what drew me to the genre as a kid which I only recognize now was its modernist nature: here was pop music that sounded daring in its slick construction and incorporation of (new to me then) sounds, not at all as dinky as technologically inferior synth-based efforts from earlier in the decade. The artists look the part, too—decked out in flattops and colorful outfits, they looked urban and urbane, the hip embodiment of the age.


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