Reviews of music originally released in 1994.
1. Masada: Alef (10/10)
I don’t know if this is the first Klezmer Jazz record, but it has to be considered a landmark in the genre if it isn’t.
Klezmer is successfully integrated with post bop in a way that makes you think “Why did no one ever think of this before?” It’s one of those musical fusions that sound like they should have always existed, because these two forms of music together make too much sense. There had long been a drive to make some of the soloing in jazz sound more “eastern” – and to rely on “eastern” scales and the like as a means of expanding soloing. And just as much, at least to my ears, it feels like the spirit of Klezmer has a lot in common with the spirit of early jazz, even if they come from two totally disparate traditions.
And this is a top jazz band playing these pieces, skirting on the edge of the avant garde without completely going into it. (Well, until the last track, which is as free as early free jazz.)
Just an absolutely essential record.
2. Ween: Chocolate and Cheese (10/10)
This is the first “properly” produced Ween album, when the album is no longer drowning in their deliberately lo-fi sound, nor is stocked full of songs as practical jokes.
Instead, Ween’s full talent is on display and this time without a deliberately inaccessible sound to the recording. Ween tackles 16 different genres; every single song could convince you it belonged on a different record. Though all are great, a couple of them are particularly on, such as “Spinal Meningitis” (the creepiest Ween song ever), “Freedom of ’76” (where Gener makes his case for the best alternative rock singer of the ’90s), “A Tear for Eddie” and “Buenos Tardes Amigo.” These last three parodies are so on that you cannot tell any more whether it’s a parody or an homage.
This is Ween’s best album, their greatest achievement. It is also one of the great alternative rock albums of its era. I think it just doesn’t get the attention it deserves because these guys are considered a comedy act.
3. Soundgarden: Superunknown (9/10)
This is the first Soundgarden album I ever heard so maybe that’s why it remains my favourite. I know among really serious fans of the band this is often viewed as a bit of a sell-out or concession to the mainstream, but for me this is the band at the peak of their powers; their strongest set of songs – an onslaught of memorable riffs – combined with a (slight) stretching of their sound into things other than the punk-metal hybrid thing.
Maybe I need to listen to their earliest stuff, but of the Ben Sheppard-era, I take this over the other records any day.
4. Beck: Mellow Gold (9/10)
I don’t think this record was supposed to happen. If it was, it wasn’t supposed to be a hit. And that doesn’t make sense. Because the whole thing doesn’t really make sense. Deliberately lo-fi “slacker” roots music married to hip hop production (with a little rap thrown in) and bunch of other stuff thrown in. It doesn’t make any sense.
But there’s no denying it works. Even if Beck’s lyrics at this early point in his career were more than a little hipper-than-thou, everything else works wonderfully. Beck basically created his own version of alternative rock here as there really wasn’t anything else (this commercially successful) that sounded anything like it.
And it’s been incredibly influential too. Think about the number of “bedroom” records that have been released since that owe something to this record.
5. Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (9/10)
Slightly more accessible than the last one, the songs are stronger and the blueprint for oh so many indie rock bands feels set.
I struggle as to whether I prefer this one to Slanted and Enchanted or vice versa, but together I think they define American indie rock in the ’90s better than anything else; the idiosyncrasy, the combination of melody and quirkiness, the willingness to present kind of kooky ideas in accessible rock songs.
And I think this is their best set of songs.
6. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Let Love in (9/10)
While the wildest of the early Seeds is still very much present on this record, there are also occasional hints of the sound that would emerge in the late ’90s in the ballads. Though I have yet to hear all of the ’80s Seeds records, this is probably a good candidate for having Cave’s strongest set of songs to date, with the emphasis slowly moving towards craft over pure aural experience.
It’s not quite Tender Prey in my eyes, but it’s still among the very strongest of the Seeds records before they calmed down/grew up.
7. Koenji Hyakkei: Hundred Sights of Koenji (9/10)
I was completely unaware of Zeuhl when I first heard this record. I still remain ignorant of its history. And I guess that’s why I still have unabashed love for this record when lots of feel its just reviving old music.
This is probably my favourite prog rock album of the ’90s, even if that’s due to my ignorance of both Zeuhl and if there’s any good (actually progressive) ’90s prog (not neo-prog!…never neo-prog). It’s just so bonkers with the chanting and the frantic but repetitive riffs. This is my catnip, to steal a phrase from my girlfriend.
So I really need to learn more about Zeuhl so I can put this record in its proper place.
Until that time, however…this is awesome.
8. Nirvana: Unplugged in New York (9/10)
I wrote the following in 2011:
This is far and away my favourite despite the lying title (they’re liars, the liars!). Why call it unplugged if you are going to plug in your “acoustic” guitars? Grrr. I blame the marketers. It’s far and away the finest thing they recorded. I am repeating myself. It would have helped if I listened to this recently.
Do I feel differently now? Yes, a little.
I used to struggle with Nirvana because I didn’t feel the angst (read: depression) Cobain (and numerous others) felt. As I’ve gotten older, I have been more able to empathize with his experience than I could when I was in my 20s (yes, that’s counterintuitive.) And so I like their other records more than I did.
But this still feels like a significant departure from In Utero, which is a remarkable thing to say about a live album. And, like numerous others have observed, it feels like it suggested a major change in the band’s sound which may have resulted from Cobain living.
I love live albums that don’t sound like the records. And this is one of them.
9. Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble: Officium (9/10)
I often have a hard time with “ECM” jazz. On the whole I prefer my free jazz loud and intense, not quiet and not so “cool”. In fact, ECM often just sounds to me like second wave cool; a little freer but that’s about it. Frankly, I don’t enjoy it much of the time.
10. Oliver Knussen: Horn Concerto (9/10)
Every traditional form of music Knussen takes on, he seems to take on briefly. Such as the case with his horn concerto, which is in four movements but last just over 12 minutes total. I have no idea why he does this and I also don’t know why it bothers me. After all, if you can say something in prose in shorter sentences you should. So why not in music?
The intro is pretty bonkers for how it feels like an entrance to a mysterious place or something, rather than the intro to a concerto. But the horn comes in about 45 seconds in and it begins to sort of resemble a concerto (though not a traditional one).
And the rest of the movements follow that theme, with Knussen’s typically impressionistic and basically filmic writing dueling out with, what sounds to my ears, not a particularly virtuoso horn part but one that conjures images. It’s a neat piece.
11. Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral (8/10)
It’s hard to approach something that is seminal having never heard it the first time around: there is the distinct possibility that you may overrate it because of its influence or underrate it because it was over-hyped.
12. Portishead: Dummy (8/10)
I can’t claim to be a huge trip hop fan but I have long been aware of it and I generally have had respect for it (I can handle it a lot more than hip hop). I guess this is sort of trip hop balladry (balladry in the modern not the traditional sense). As such it is very effective and well done, though I think to really get it under your skin, you have to be in a given mood or state of mind. I can’t say much beyond that in terms of criticism: it is well made and likable, though I guess if I can say one other thing it is a little one-note in the mood, if not in the arrangements.
13. Bedhead: WhatFunLifeWas (8/10)
I wanted to write about how this band is the missing link between Slint and Luna, as much as such a thing seems kind of odd. But lo and behold, Luna beat these guys to the punch, so I was wrong about that.
But I feel like that musical description is as good as I can get: this record sounds like what Luna would sound like if they liked Slint a lot more than, say, Loaded-era Velvet Underground. That’s not to say Bedhead sounds at all like Slint; it’s just there’s a tinge of that weird post-hardcore/math rock vibe overhanging what is otherwise the same kind of indie “rock” (really indie power pop) that might associate with Luna. The difference with Bedhead is they do sound like a rock band, a lot more of the time than Luna. Which is why I like Bedhead more.
14. Pearl Jam: Vitalogy (8/10)
This is another strong set of songs from Peal Jam, the best of which (mostly on the a-side) rank up their with their very best.
The problem is that this album is kind of derailed by the band’s conscious decision to be difficult, to be arty just for the sake of it. The nadir of the artiness is the last track, which is hardly original enough to be interesting as experimental music, and goes on forever.
Fortunately, the other arty experiments work much better, but are still not as good as regular Pearl Jam songs (those here, or on other records).
All that being said, I’d rather listen to this record than lots of other records, so there’s that…
15. R.E.M.: Monster (8/10)
This was the first “contemporary” album I ever bought. What I mean by that was it was the first album I ever bought that had been released recently. I probably bought it in 1994. Every other CD or tape I owned had originally been released on vinyl back in the 60s. So I have had a long relationship with this record. It’s one that has seen me change my mind on it multiple times: from liking it enough to eventually buy Automatic for the People to thinking it was their second worst record before Berry left to thinking it was not great but underrated. But I’ve once again changed my mind.
Fans were demanding a rock album and REM went all weird and delivered their loudest and densest record yet. They don’t sound like REM sounded before this record. They mess around with stuff they’ve never tried; not just the down-tuned guitars and weird contemporary production but other genres like with those soul songs. And Stipe often steps out of his comfort range.
It’s a weird rather difficult record despite its commercial success. And I like it. I particularly like “Let Me In,” which is one of my favourite REM songs.
16. Eric Clapton: From the Cradle (8/10)
The most traditional blues record Clapton released in years – I guess it’s a pretty strong candidate for the most traditional blues record he ever released, right? – this is a refreshing departure from Clapton’s R and B and pop leanings for the decade and a half prior.
Yes, this is revivalism, but its’ revivalism at its very best: Clapton is on fire on every track (at least on the guitar…) and the band is excellent. If you’re going to attempt to make a record that celebrates a certain style and era, this is a pretty good blueprint.
It would be better if sang like Eric Clapton on every track, though. That’s my one complaint.
17. Weezer (7/10)
It’s pretty much impossible to judge this in any kind of “objective” light nearly 20 years later. If you’re of my generation (i.e. born between ’75 and ’85) chances are you have heard 60%-70% of the songs on Weezer‘s debut a million times, courtesy of your friends and the radio. This album is basically ubiquitous. So these songs are in my brain regardless of what I may think of them. And so it’s a lot harder for me to get mad about the things I don’t like about it than if I had never heard it – see their second self-titled album, review coming soon).
If I had approached it out of nowhere (somehow) – I would have expected a new wave album. Why? Because of the Feelies cover and Ocasek’s name on the back. But there’s no new wave here. That must have been an interesting curve ball in ’94.
18. The Tragically Hip: Day for Night (8/10)
The Hip get a bit of a grunge makeover here; not to say they abandon the blues rock at all, they don’t. Rather, there’s a murkiness to the production that wasn’t there previously, which feels in line with what was going on in the rock world at the time. And so this is their first record to feel contemporary rather than revivalist, even if their sound hasn’t really changed.
It may be my favourite, I can never really decide.
19. Tan Dun: The Ghost Opera (7/10)
Whether or not these five pieces were originally intended to be played together, I don’t know. But it seems as though this is how they will be remembered.
With just about zero knowledge of Chinese music, what I have long been thrown off by is the use of the term “opera.” This work strikes me as “anti-opera” if it is indeed supposed to be a comment on, or part of the tradition of, opera.
But it doesn’t really fit in the string quartet genre either, given the performances required of all five members (which asks them to make noises, among other things), though I think my brain can process it better in this genre, than as an “opera.”
The music is out there – this is not something you should listen to if you are not into avant garde chamber music or, I assume, Chinese music – and I can imagine that it is a lot more fun live, than it is via headphones.
Years after hearing it, I’m still not 100% sure of what I think of it, but it is absolutely unique (to my knowledge). You will likely never hear anything else like it.
20. Johnny Cash: American Recordings (7/10)
21. Antietam: Rope-a-Dope (7/10)
This murky, kind of lo-fi record at times reminds me of a lo-fi Eleven. But I feel like such a comparison is a real disservice to Antietam who are, to my ears, a far more varied and capable band than Eleven, even if the husband-wife things it an easy comparison.
This is a band that’s a little too lo-fi to be considered mainstream “alternative.” And the range they show here makes me really regret my initial comparison to Eleven and how that’s sort of dominated my thinking about them.
This is one of those solid indie rock records that features semi-decent songs with a better aesthetic.
Their versatility for one of these acts is pretty broad – it’s not like they have one sound that they just pound into your brain – and that makes it stand out a little more.
22. Tsunami: The Heart’s Tremolo (7/10)
Pretty strong melodies and lyrics typical of the era paired with relaxed indie rock that occasionally boils over into something more intense.
I like this record. I recognize that it’s not particularly unique (there were a fair number of bands making music like this back then) but the it’s on the rougher-edge side of this type of early ’90s indie rock, which I like.
23. Marilyn Manson: Portrait of an American Family (7/10)
24. Luna: Bewitched (7/10)
This is a really solid indie pop record. I keep telling myself that this isn’t my thing but I find that, over the years, a lot of songs have stuck with me and resonate more with me than when I initially listened to the record.
It’s still just well done, straight ahead, guitar-based indie pop, but for what it is it’s very solid.
25. Oliver Knussen: 2 Organa (6/10)
This is a really brief set of two chamber pieces. It’s so brief it’s really hard for me to take super seriously even though I like the music I hear.
26. Emmylou Harris: Cowgirl’s Prayer (6/10)
You’d think an album called Cowgirl’s Prayer would be straight-up country, but this isn’t. There’s an impressive stylistic variety here I wasn’t expecting, and his compliments the song selection. On the other hand, the production on the more up-tempo country numbers is way too contemporary for me, way too eighties Nashville.
It’s already growing on me, so maybe I’ll change my mind and like it a little more in the future, we’ll see.
27. The Offspring: Smash (6/10)
28. Dream Theater: Awake (6/10)
Dream Theater are fantastic musicians. They are extremely talented and I don’t want to be too hard on them.
But the singer doesn’t know how to restrain himself. And they can’t resist the urge to cheese out at the end of the record. (The final track is at the very top of my list for cheesiest songs I’ve ever seen, even if they include samples that try to make it seem like a joke…)
I wish this was an instrumental album, really. I think I’d like it a lot more. Why do so many super-talented bands lack taste? Why does happen?
29. 54-40: Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret (7/10)
Not knowing 54-40’s earlier music, beyond their hit single, I assume without basis that this is their grunge makeover album. There’s some definite murk and some arty production, and Osborne’s lyrics fit in with some grunge themes.
Unfortunately, Osborne is not a great songwriter. Sure, he’s written two famous songs but, beyond that, this first exposure to a whole 54-40 record reveals not a ton of strong melodies and some really mediocre lyrics. (Listen hard to a number of these songs and you will start wondering what they are about.)
Oh, I like the lead guitarist, I feel like he is trying to break out of convention just a little.
But there’s not a enough here beyond the singles to really recommend it.
30. Live: Throwing Copper (5/10)
As Creed are the post-grunge band that will berate you with Christianity, Live is the post-grunge band that will berate you with Buddhism (or an early-20s white male concept thereof).
Not Ranked: Leo Smith: The Young Pioneers: The Complete Music for Solo Piano of Aaron Copland (9/10)
I am normally not a big Copland fan but this gives me a whole new appreciation of him as a composer. The only thing I find annoying is the sequencing, which doesn’t give us a good idea of his development.
Not Ranked: Angela Hewitt: Danzas espanolas by Enrique Granados (9/10)
Not Ranked: Various Artists: Miserere et al. by Henryk Gorecki (9/10)
This is a collection of Gorecki’s choral music, mostly performed by choruses from Chicago. (Yet another release where the performers differ from track to track! I really need to get over this.) Fortunately, I wouldn’t have known that, if they didn’t tell me. So that’s something.
Not Ranked: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Adriano: Jane Eyre by Bernard Herrmann (9/10)
I have never seen the Orson Welles version of Jane Eyre – come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen any version of Jane Eyre – but after listening to this, I really kind of want to.
This score is awesome – at times it sounds like a horror movie and, frankly, everything about it makes me want to watch the film. But it works outside of the film, as well, as it shows a composer using virtually every known trick in the book (though not really from other books, but that’s okay) to set all sorts of different moods.
This has to be considered one of Herrmann’s great early film scores. It’s just fantastic. Can’t say enough about it.
Not ranked: The Complete Atomic Basie aka Basie (8/10)
I get why lots of people love this, I do. Read the review.
Not ranked: Hadley, Gasdia, Ramey, Mentzer, Agache, Fassbaender, Welsh National Opera conducted by Carlo Rizzi: Faust by Charles Gounod (8/10)
I keep telling myself I don’t like French opera and I keep stumbling on to operas that I kind of like. I understand (I think) why this has fallen on hard times: it’s super long, it’s over the top, and nobody knows which version to perform. (The notes claim this is close to definitive, but who the hell knows?) But honestly, I like my operas over the top, and this one feels so much less obvious than the Bizet-type thing. I know I’m a huge snob about this kind of thing, but I can’t help myself. This is idiosyncratic enough (to my ears) and gauche (?) enough to appeal to me, even though I feel like it really shouldn’t.
Not ranked: Symphony Nova Scotia, Georg Tintner: Violin Concerto, Opera Intermezzi, Pieces for Small Orchestra by Frederick Delius (7/10)
This concerto is the only reason to listen to this disc, as you can get the other highlights in many other places. Read the brief review.