Jellyfish Belly Button and Spilt Milk
Jellyfish were so undeniably fantastic that their music should speak for itself and everyone should know how great they were. But on the other hand, they've been so greatly misunderstood (like King's X), due to whatever combination of bad marketing, schleppy management or unfortunate timing happened to conspire against them during their short career in the early '90s, that I feel the need to do some explaining for them.
Jellyfish were a virtuoso powerpop group, whose core and two main songwriters, Roger Manning and Andy Sturmer, were so wildly talented and such obsessive music fans that they actually outcrafted many of their heroes (The Beatles, Wings, The Raspberries, The Beach Boys, Cheap Trick, Queen, 10cc, Badfinger, Supertramp, Fleetwood Mac and Squeeze, just to get started) on the two priceless albums they made. Add multi-instrumental prowess (toughened by early jazz training), an unerring gift for production and pacing, and an incredible collaborative synergy, and you've got some explosive potential there -- potential that was as fully realized as it could have been, given the circumstances.
If their debut, 1990's Bellybutton, was flawless power pop, then the follow-up Spilt Milk can only be described as the group's magnum opus -- an intricate, painstakingly crafted masterwork that is so massive, so brilliant, so overwhelming, it simply cannot be described on a blog like this by someone like me. You just have to listen to it.
The problem was that Jellyfish's second album could not have been released at a worse time -- in 1993, the market was all bound up with monochromatic grunge pretenders and lo-fi angst. The prevailing wisdom was that good musicianship was no longer hip or useful. And beautifully recorded, masterfully performed power pop had no place in this constipated climate, either. Jellyfish's label didn't know how to promote them in the post-Nirvana age, and Spilt Milk floundered, commercially.
And naturally, the critics heaped scorn and derision on Split Milk. As the great author Raymond Chandler once said, "The average critic never recognizes an achievement when it happens. He explains it after it has become respectable." This is, of course, what happened with Jellyfish. No one realized how brilliant they were until it was too late. The band broke up in early '94, and Sturmer and Manning have not spoken to eachother since.
Nowadays, the long-defunct Jellyfish are considered godhead in the world of powerpop. A massive posthumous groundswell of interest eventually developed around the band in the late '90s, culminating in the eventual release of a four-cd Jellyfish box set in 2002, which has sold extraordinarily well, and which proves that not only were Jellyfish unbelievable songwriters, but they were also perhaps the most awesome live band in all of the '90s.
My good friend Sal turned me onto Jellyfish in fall of 1996 by giving me a cassette with both albums on it. I have to thank him for that. They're now one of my favorite bands, and a continuing inspiration.
Massive Attack Blue Lines and Protection
At exactly the same time that I was getting turned onto Jellyfish (November '96), I also discovered the intoxicating Massive Attack, thanks to Helene, one of the three adorable French girls who lived across the hall from me on E. 11th street. She lent me Blue Lines and Protection, Massive Attack's first and second albums, and I fell in love with the spooky, clubby, dubby sound immediately.
This Bristol, England collective essentially invented what would later be called "trip-hop." And, like the work of most innovators, Massive Attack's scope and sound are far more broad and indefinably nuanced than any one genre description could hope to suggest. Urban, sinister, langourous, soulful, psychedelic, threatening and seductive all at once, Massive Attack defy categorization. The liner notes credit Billy Cobham, piL, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, John Lennon and Rakim, Neville Bros, Martin Scorcese, and Mahavishnu Orchestra, among other strange bedfellows, as primary influences. The impact of film makes total sense, given the gorgeous cinematic quality of this music. Damn. If I could ever make something as beautiful and affecting as "Unfinished Sympathy," I'd die happy.
A host of collaborators and guest vocalists, including Tricky, Shara Nelson, Tracey Thorn and the great reggae singer Horace Andy contribute unforgettable performances across the span of these two discs; the vocals are by turns plaintive, menacing, optomistic. To this day this music blows my mind. It is deeply connected to my early memories of NYC, which of course has alot to do with the music's power over me; but it's more than nostalgia. To my ears, these songs just get stronger each year.
Red Hot Chili Peppers Uplift Mofo Party Plan
The Peppers sound so fresh, innocent, bright and inspired on this album. I remember seeing the "Behind the Sun" video on 120 Minutes around this time in 1992 and I ran out and bought the record. I still love it. There was alot of really cool music happening around the time of this album's release (1987): Fishbone, Jane's Addiction, King's X, What Is This, Faith No More, Living Colour. Walls were coming down and once-warring camps were starting to hang out together; funk, punk, metal, ska, goth, soul and whatever else anyone wanted to bring to the party got thrown together into the same pot. A very healthy attitude.
The Ocean Blue The Ocean Blue and Cerulean
I realize they're Smiths imitators, but I don't care. This Pennsylvania college rock foursome from the '80s made some gorgeously melancholy records. Pete Angel gave me both of these records for my birthday five years ago. I don't even go near 'em in the spring or summer, but for about five or six weeks out of the year, they're perfect.
Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti
You can't really describe a double album without using the word "sprawling," can you? Well, if anything's sprawling, it's Led Zeppelin's sixth album, the ambitious Physical Graffiti. Pulling together seven stellar outtakes from the sessions of the band's previous three albums (the pastoral "Bron Yr-Aur" and "Down by the Seaside" were recorded during the Led Zep III sessions; "Night Flight" and Boogie with Stu" were left off the untitled fourth album; "Black Country Woman," "The Rover" and the titular "Houses of the Holy" were originally intended for the Houses of the Holy record), Graffiti also adds the essential "Custard Pie," "Trampled Underfoot," "Sick Again" and no fewer than four epic rock masterpieces: the witchy, swampy blues workout "In My Time of Dying," the morbid psychedelia of "In the Light," the aching, plangent "Ten Years Gone" and, of course, the towering "Kashmir." Jeez. How can mere mortals even talk about this music?
Ben Folds Five Ben Folds Five
I only got this two years ago, when JB burned me a copy. I was already a huge fan of BF5's second album, Whatever and Ever Amen, and was thrilled to find that their debut was just as good. I still love this band more than Ben Folds the solo artist. BF5 did an amazing thing, really -- they took sophisticated, piano-based powerpop (pioneered by the likes of Elton John and Joe Jackson) and somehow made it fresh and edgy for the baggy-pants-and-wallet-chain generation. I heard somewhere that Bette Midler covered "Boxing." Oh well, I love the song anyway.
Ladytron Light and Magic
I love how this album sounds like it was recorded in 1981, but still feels modern somehow. Ladytron are one of the few electroclash groups who actually back up their style with substance; unlike many of their early-'00s contemporaries, who banked on gimmicks, these guys and gals write good songs first, then worry about fashion. How many people are going to buy the next W.I.T. album?
Roger Taylor Fun In Space
I'm the kind of Queen fan that buys the band members' solo albums. Fun In Space is a surprisingly enjoyable -- and flat-out weird -- record by the Queen drummer. And probably not at all what you'd expect from the guy who wrote "I'm In Love with My Car."
Atari Teenage Riot Delete Yourself
I first heard this in Kim's on St. Marks Place in November '96 and I was instantly hooked. It was a harsh, utterly confrontational mix of lo-fi gabber techno and hardcore punk (with a healthy dose of Slayer thrown into the mix). Wow. It hit me right where I lived. I asked the music store snob behind the counter who it was and he sniffed, "Atari Teenage Riot. We're all out."
Was I supposed to know this band? I went to every other record store on the block looking for the CD and no one had heard of it. About a week later Kim's got a new shipment of the album, Delete Yourself (an import-only version of ATR's debut, which would be released in America as Burn, Berlin, Burn), and I bought a copy for about $20.
I used to put this on when my annoying, obnoxious across-the-hall neighbor Larry would come over to my apartment uninvited. I'd play it loud and he'd leave in a hurry. Thank god there are people who make music like this.
Aerosmith Rocks and Draw the Line
Hard to believe it now, but once upon a time, Aerosmith were, perhaps, the greatest American rock and roll band. Nowhere is this more amply evidenced than on their fourth album, the infallible Rocks. Packed to the rafters with deadly guitar riffs, the prolific genius of Steven Tyler, and simply oozing with all the rock and roll intangibles you'd care to name (bulletproof band chemistry, audible decadence, sexual charisma, druggy atmosphere), this is the kind of album that simply doesn't get made anymore. Perennial FM staples like "Back in the Saddle," "Sick as a Dog" and "Last Child" stand neck-and-neck with equally valuable gems like "Rats In the Cellar," "Lick and a Promise" and "Home Tonight" (which shows how well this band could once write an affecting ballad without succumbing to Diane Warren-induced cliche and bombast).
The follow-up to Rocks, the slightly paler Draw the Line, shows the first signs that cocaine burnout and immense road fatigue were taking their toll on this once unstoppable band. Somewhat less inspired, this album has some throwaways, to be sure -- but it also contains the superb, stately "Kings and Queens," the swaggering "Critical Mass" and of course the indispensible trash rock of the title track. When I turned 13, my good friend Ben Covey (where are you, Ben?) gave me a five dollar bill as a birthday present. Within an hour, I spent that fiver on Draw the Line, which was only $4.99 in the vinyl discount bin at Jamesway.
Depeche Mode A Broken Frame
I'm a sucker for the lesser-known (or at least lesser-celebrated) albums in rock. People don't talk about Depeche Mode's second disc enough -- I think it's brilliant. It also captures the band at a really interesting juncture in their career; here is where Martin Gore takes over the songwriting duties following the departure of Vince Clarke, who wrote all the songs on the band's much-loved debut. And the band doesn't miss a beat -- if anything, Gore's songs bring depth to their sound. I love the hushed, skeletal electronica of "Leave In Silence," "Monument" and "Shouldn't Have Done That." I bought this right when I moved to Williamsburg in November '98. It goes perfectly with shorter days and sad, slanting late-autumn sunlight.
Thin Lizzy Bad Reputation and Black Rose
Here's another widely misunderstood band -- alot of people think of Thin Lizzy as some metal band from the era of Judas Priest (what with the twin guitar heroics and all), or some one-hit-wonder pub rock band ("The Boys Are Back in Town"). Although it's true that Thin Lizzy did only score one big hit, and it's true that they did flaunt some wicked, bad-ass heavy rock guitar playing (Gary Moore, Brian Robertson and John Sykes all passed through Lizzy's ranks over the years, not to mention long-running six-stringer Scott Gorham), there is alot more to this band than hot licks and a fluke single.
Thin Lizzy's leader was a black Irishman named Phil Lynott, who was inspired equally by Jimi Hendrix and Van Morrison; consequently his lyrics were far more poetic than the usual heavy metal fare -- and his singing was imbued with a pathos and vulnerability that put Lizzy well outside of the breast-beating hard rock pack. This is what made them different.
Jailbreak is certainly Lizzy's most popular album (as it fathered "The Boys Are Back in Town"), and it's certainly one of their best, too. But Bad Reputation and Black Rose are equally stellar, and my favorites. I only got them a couple years ago and now I don't know how I'd lived without them.
Self Breakfast With Girls
The phenomenal sophomore album from genius one-man-band Matt Mahaffey is a tour de force of songwriting, production and vision, loaded with hooks, unpredictable twists and turns and incredible samples. This guy's got talent to burn. He's like a more virtuosic Beck. So how come you've never heard of him? Because there's something seriously, seriously wrong with the music biz.
Alice Cooper Muscle of Love and Lace and Whiskey
I know these are by no means the best albums the former Vincent Furnier has put out -- Muscle of Love is perhaps the least stellar of the five records he made with the original Alice Cooper Band for Warner Bros and Lace and Whiskey is bottom-of-the-barrel solo Alice -- but I still have a soft spot for both of them. A long time ago, a friend gave me a strange cassette compilation called A Man Called Alice which paired these two unlikely albums, one per side. At the time, I was still discovering the nooks and crannies of Cooper's back catalog, and this cassette (a birthday present) was like a gold mine of delicious obscurities. To this day, I still love most of Muscle (certainly an underrated record, despite the fact that it is outshined by its immediate predecessors) and a few tunes from Lace -- like "It's Hot Tonight" (which the Beasties sampled on Paul's Boutique), "Road Rats" and the strangely touching "My God" -- still make me melt into a nostalgic puddle of sappiness.
PJ Harvey Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea
My good friend Brian R., with whom I share a birthday, gave me this disc as a b-day present five years ago, along with The Rolling Stones' Goat's Head Soup and a rad Jimi Hendrix teeshirt (Hendrix also shares a birthday with us). This is a haunting, subdued set of songs from the wild woman who once belted "50 Foot Queenie" and other harrowing spurned lover tales. It's "mature" without being "boring," thank god. Why can't more artists do that?
Gus Gus Polydistortion
Creepy, sensual electronica from this bizarre, Icelandic nine-piece, released in 1997, the year electronica threatened to take over the world. This hypnotic music seethes with tension, thanks to restrained, repetitious grooves and the icy detachment of several quirky, co-ed lead vocalists.
New Order Substance
I remember standing in a CD store in Pennsylvania in late October of '92 and asking the store owner about New Order. I knew almost nothing about them, except for vague MTV memories of the "True Faith" video (or was that Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes"?) and that they were somehow connected to Joy Division (whose Still I had just bought a few weeks earlier). Anyway, the owner, a really nice guy named Keith, put on a copy of New Order's Substance while he told me the story of Ian Curtis's suicide and how the surviving members of Joy Division went on to form this new band. It was a fascinating story, and it gave the music an extra gravity. I'll never forget hearing "In a Lonely Place" and "Procession" for the first time that day. The music was so heavy, so incredibly mournful. I was mesmerized by the funeral drum tattoos, the queasy, shimmering keyboard washes and Bernard Sumner's self-consciously Curtis-esque baritone, intoning the lyrics "I wish you were here with me now." I bought the two-disc Substance set, used, for $14 and took it home.
Listening to the discs (which compile N.O.'s 12-inch singles in chronological order from 1981 to 1987) I was amazed at the band's evolution from funeral dirge mongers to champions of utterly uplifting dance music. You hear the band coming out of its shell and finding its own new, unique voice, leaving the shadow of Joy Division behind, replacing tragedy with joy. I had never heard "Bizarre Love Triangle," "Thieves Like Us" or "Blue Monday" before. It was enthralling; I'd never thought dance music could be so transcendent. I loved all of it.
Substance ruled the next few months of my life. Today I still like it more than any of their proper albums. Today I still like it more than most albums by most people.