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As I Draw My Latest Breath
The Best of the Nineties
I started making year-end top-ten lists in 1988. In 1989 I graduated from college and got a job. When I bought my first CD player, in 1990, my music-collection database had just over five hundred entries; when the decade ended, it had more than five thousand. I wrote my first record reviews in 1991; I don't remember why. I spent 1993 and some of 1994 writing a massive, useless, unpublished and unpublishable book reviewing every album, EP and single I then owned. In 1995 I started writing this column every week. If you can earn the right to make a list of the ten best albums of the Nineties by exposure and attention, I have.
But of course, there is no such right, and thus no way it can be earned. Reducing a year to ten albums is preposterous enough; reducing a decade to ten is beyond absurd. Ranking records, at all, is inane at worst, and an oblique form of autobiography at best. My tastes are not a function of "quality", in any objective sense, and I don't believe anybody's are. There are masterful albums I detest, and inept albums I adore. You do not discover the difference between albums six and seven by examining them, you discover it by examining yourself. Top-ten lists are a way of encoding your state of mind, and only you can ever completely decipher them. What could it possibly mean to anybody but me that in 1994 I liked Love Spit Love better than Together Alone, much less that I've reversed my opinion since? I don't know what ghastly exhibitionist failure of discretion prompts us to confront each other with these intensely private documents, but it's one of the personality defects most precious to me. Somehow we find the combination of courage and effrontery necessary to tell each other profound personal truths, despite the sure knowledge of their incomprehensibility.
Here is my decade.
Tori Amos: from the choirgirl hotel (1998)
Whatever I think I know about the limits of the power of art, I owe to Tori Amos. My worldview has categories that weren't there before her. Her albums have changed what I expect from music, how I understand other people, how I understand how other people understand themselves, how I interpret my own environment and impulses, how I reason, how I breathe. My weeks of immersion in from the choirgirl hotel were as far outside of myself as I've ever been. Tori may be the only human being who has ever made me wonder, by speaking to me in an alien language, whether the one I use to converse with myself isn't actually gibberish. If the goal of aging is to unravel your naïve certainties, I'm not sure I would be ten years older today without her.
Alanis Morissette: Jagged Little Pill (1995)
The Nineties were the first decade I didn't resent sharing with the rest of the world. Tori was partly responsible for that, too, but the center of it, and the center of my understanding of these ten years of music, is Jagged Little Pill. Everything stretches out, in one direction or the other, from a twenty-one-year-old Alanis singing into Glen Ballard's microphones like she knew, somehow, that she could free an entire paralyzed universe with three honest words. Alanis got us from Nirvana to Britney Spears, and if you feel the urge to claim that this isn't progress, remember that you and I and Britney are still alive.
Runrig: Amazing Things (1993)
In the Eighties, I operated on the assumption that music history began in 1978, and human history not much before that. I inhabited small rooms. Runrig handed me a heritage whose resonance I can't explain any other way than by attributing life-force to blood, and taught me, by demonstrating an emotion I didn't previously know how to experience, why I had to live in a bigger world. Memento mori is trivial and pedantic; Amazing Things to me is art's single most magnificent memento vita, its most awestruck hymn to human potential and the inherent grace of life.
The Loud Family: Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things (1993)
While much of the decade suggested ways in which I should be different, Scott Miller kept writing songs about the parts of me worth keeping. The Tape of Only Linda and Interbabe Concern were both my albums of their years, but when I go back and listen to Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things I realize that it has displaced Lolita Nation from my Desert Island Disk list, and become my glossary of what's remarkable about every Game Theory or Loud Family record before and since, and what's missing from every other conception of musically and emotionally ambitious pop. Scott is one of the people who inspire me to keep writing songs of my own, but more importantly, he's why I don't mind if they're never any good. He has already made the best album I would ever aspire to.
Roxette: Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus! (1995)
Sparkling, buoyant, gleefully superficial pop is only a fractionally lower form of art than Scott's abstruse version, and there are no grander masters of it than Per Gessle and Marie Fredriksson, and no giddier, less existential summary than Roxette's greatest-hits collection. I am never more purely happy than when I am listening to this record, and while happiness isn't the highest emotion, the higher ones can't exist without it.
Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball (1995)
Patty Griffin: Living With Ghosts (1996)
This was also the decade I rediscovered folk music, and finally found a personal sense of American tradition to go with the Celtic one borrowed from Runrig. America is a frail, chaotic, epic idea, and it feels only appropriate, to me, to suspend it between these antipodean evocations, one Emmylou and Daniel Lanois' masterpiece of atmospheric production and ethereal reserve, the other Steve Barry's perfectly unadorned recording of Patty's fearless catharses. These records both have copyright dates, but I suspect they've existed forever.
The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (1999)
I have a weakness for heroic, encyclopedic art, and would be sad if any decade, or century, went by without somebody attempting the insane task of recapitulating the entire thing in one box, however lopsided and unwieldy. It's against my instincts to include a three-month-old album in a best-of-the-decade list, but I believe the things I believe, and among them is the unexpectedly stubborn conviction that Stephin Merritt's sprawling, disembodied musical may be the seminal farewell to everything that, according to the lines on the calendar, is now a vanished age.
Marillion: Holidays in Eden (1991)
Marillion officially became one of my favorite bands the day I bought my first CD player, took it home, set it down in my bedroom unopened, and went back out to buy Seasons End, my first CD. By the time Holidays in Eden came out, a year later, I'd learned to adore everything labyrinthine and inaccessible about the first five Marillion albums, and this largely straightforward set of small, self-contained pop songs seemed misconceived and tangential. But somehow, slowly, over the past ten years, as the band has album by album written a new history, this tangent has precessed into line, and now when I look back, I can hardly see past it. Five of the first six songs here have come to dominate my internal conception of majestic pop aplomb the way the first three songs on The Joshua Tree once did. I'd trade "The Party" for "Kayleigh", if I could, but it's Steve Hogarth's version of the band that has carried me through this decade, I just now fully understand, the "new" incarnation of Marillion that has spent ten years explaining how close this album was to perfect all along, and thus surreptitiously supplanted the older band, with the same name, that I thought I meant when I said I loved them so dearly.
Manic Street Preachers: Gold Against the Soul (1993)
Slingbacks: All Pop, No Star (1996)
Perhaps the most unambiguous testament to how thoroughly my tastes have metamorphosed from rock to pop, over the last decade, is that the two records I think of as the Nineties' crowning rock achievements are melancholy pop so thinly disguised. Gold Against the Soul is almost certainly the least revolutionary Manic Street Preachers album, but it's what I pull out when I want to listen to one, instead of just admiring its vehemence. Shireen Liane's similarly brash and triumphant elegy to dazed compassion is my vote for the decade's most undeservedly neglected album, a revelatory tracing of the secret vein of empathic fragility that runs through every poster idol from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols to the Spice Girls.
Cyndi Lauper: Hat Full of Stars (1993)
I tend to have agendas for liking things, to insist on imposing contexts on records in which they epitomize some noble ideal for which I happen to need a champion. I can think of one for Hat Full of Stars, too, if I squint, something about the thin line between willful kitsch and true art, but the truth is that I just like it. Maybe the combination of Cyndi's squeaky voice, Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman's glossy accompaniments, Junior Vasquez's crinkly production and a ghost entourage from a dozen odd corners of history and geography doesn't mean anything, but I don't care. I think they needed each other, and none of us guessed how badly. This is, to me, one of the inexplicable hidden fissures in the surface of what's possible, elusive to the point of myth, where little bits of discarded magic collect until there's enough of it to eat through the lining into a new world underneath.
Honorable Mentions
Low & Mecca Normal
Two of my three favorite live acts, and two of the bands that have figured most prominently in my evolving understanding of the boundaries of popular music, didn't earn their places in my life with single albums, and are thus overlooked by the top-ten list. In Low's case, their catalog unfolds as slowly as their songs, and my shortest explanation of how they can be both one of the world's most powerful bands and one of the most intangible still requires three albums, absorbed over the course of several years, and seeing them play at least once. In Mecca Normal's case, sometimes no more than a couple songs on any given album hint at the destruction one singer and one guitarist can wreak on stage, but the imaginary compilation of only these moments would probably be my vote for the best punk album in twenty years, never mind ten.
Year by Year
I try not to write about records until my often-fluctuating feelings for them have stabilized, to minimize the number of things I'll just want to immediately retract, but an album that seems immortal to me after a week and a month and six months may still seem exactly as important to me after six years, or it may not. A record that seemed emblematic of a year while the year was going on may turn out to have less to do with how I decide I want to remember it. Whole genres creep in and out of favor, and of course I also come across albums that I didn't know about when they were new. In 1991 I started awarding Belated Mentions for albums that I felt would have made the top-ten list in their years. This is easier said than arranged, though, so here, in the spirit of disclosure, are ten pairs of top-ten lists, on the left the ones I made at the end of each year of the Nineties, completely unretouched, and on the right my current revised lists, made with the dubious benefit of hindsight.
1The Connells: One Simple WordFugazi: Repeater
2The Beautiful South: ChokeThe Connells: One Simple Word
3The Beautiful South: Welcome to the Beautiful SouthBeth Nielsen Chapman: Beth Nielsen Chapman
4Iron Maiden: No Prayer For the DyingThe Beautiful South: Choke / Welcome to the Beautiful South
5Megadeth: Rust in PeaceSisters of Mercy: Vision Thing
6Living Colour: Time's UpGrace Pool: Where We Live
7The Waterboys: Room to RoamQueensrÿche: Empire
8Grace Pool: Where We LiveHex: Vast Halos
9Queensrÿche: EmpireSalem 66: Down the Primrose Path
10Pixies: BossanovaJellyfish: Bellybutton
By the end of 1990 I was 23, and had a degree with honors from Harvard, so I can really think of no excuse for believing that there were only two bands in the entire world who'd made better records, in the preceding twelve months, than Iron Maiden and Megadeth. The Living Colour and Pixies votes, for two albums I haven't played in at least eight years, must have been left-over enthusiasm from Vivid and Surfer Rosa. Then again, to be fair, the only album I've added since that I already knew about in 1990 was Hex's, and I doubt Donnette Thayer and Steve Kilbey's druidic meditation converted any other Iron Maiden fans, either.
1T'Pau: The PromiseMarillion: Holidays in Eden
2Big Country: No Place Like HomeBilly Bragg: Don't Try This at Home
3Marillion: Holidays in EdenToo Much Joy: Cereal Killers
4School of Fish: School of FishSchool of Fish: School of Fish
5Talk Talk: Laughing StockT'Pau: The Promise
6Nirvana: NevermindThin White Rope: The Ruby Sea
7The Bags: Night of the Corn People & Waiting for MaloneySarah McLachlan: Solace
8The Screaming Jets: All For OneRunrig: The Big Wheel
9Too Much Joy: Cereal KillersNirvana: Nevermind
10Metal Church: The Human FactorThe Wonder Stuff: Never Loved Elvis
EMF: Schubert Dip
I knew, at the time, that there was something perverse about giving T'Pau the #1 spot, but the night I sat down to make the list I got all these records out, and The Promise was the one I least willingly ejected to put in the others. The Big Country album meant a great deal to me at the time, but now that I know they survived it, it's less important. Spirit of Eden has eclipsed Laughing Stock. More metal albums have slipped off. I really tried to be honest with myself about the Bags, whose guitarist's sister I was living with at the time, but apparently I failed. Fittingly, the one album from her collection that I had to go buy after we broke up, years later, was Billy Bragg's Don't Try This at Home. Sarah and Runrig were later discoveries, EMF a reluctant conversion. I think Never Loved Elvis was eleventh when I made the original list, and according to my database The Ruby Sea was the first Thin White Rope album I'd ever heard, and I bought it on December 27th, so I think I can be forgiven for requiring more than four days to absorb their alarming clamor.
1Tori Amos: Little EarthquakesTori Amos: Little Earthquakes
2Soul Asylum: Grave Dancers UnionManic Street Preachers: Generation Terrorists
3The Comsat Angels: My Mind's EyeBuffalo Tom: Let Me Come Over
4Buffalo Tom: Let Me Come OverRoxette: Tourism
5Black Sabbath: DehumanizerDream Theater: Images and Words
6Del Amitri: Change EverythingRichard Shindell: Sparrows Point
7Megadeth: Countdown to ExtinctionThe Comsat Angels: My Mind's Eye
8Melissa Etheridge: Never EnoughToo Much Joy: Mutiny
9Think Tree: Like the IdeaThink Tree: Like the Idea
10Manic Street Preachers: Generation Terrorists
Too Much Joy: Mutiny
Loreena McKennitt: The Visit
I have abandoned two more metal albums, but added one new one. I didn't discover Shindell and McKennitt until later, and I doubt I would have considered Roxette's live/outtake/demo miscellany eligible at the time, even if I hadn't loathed them. Del Amitri is only hiding at eleventh or so, but I don't think I've ever seen a band obliterate their own credibility as thoroughly as Soul Asylum.
1Cyndi Lauper: Hat Full of StarsRunrig: Amazing Things
2Big Country: The Buffalo SkinnersThe Loud Family: Plants & Birds & Rocks & Things
3Kate Bush: The Red ShoesManic Street Preachers: Gold Against the Soul
4The Loud Family: Plants & Birds & Rocks & ThingsCyndi Lauper: Hat Full of Stars
5Jane Siberry: When I Was a BoyThe Magnetic Fields: The Charm of the Highway Strip
6Manic Street Preachers: Gold Against the SoulLiz Phair: Exile in Guyville
7Living Colour: StainJane Siberry: When I Was a Boy
8Aimee Mann: WhateverThe Bobs: Shut Up and Sing!
9The Bobs: Shut Up and SingBlack 47: Fire of Freedom
10Fugazi: In on the Kill Taker
IQ: Ever
Thought Industry: Assassins, Toads and God's Flesh
Sarah McLachlan: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
I bought Exile in Guyville the day after I made this list, and instantly knew I'd missed one. As with the previous Big Country album, these Big Country and Kate Bush records were hugely important to me when they were new, but now that I only think about them in the context of all their earlier records, these seem minor. The Magnetic Fields and Thought Industry albums were later discoveries, and Fumbling Towards Ecstasy was a casualty of a trick I tried to play with Canadian and American release dates, but Black 47 have endeared themselves to me over the years. Aimee Mann drifts in and out of my graces according to some electromagnetic flux I can't isolate. The most astonishing thing is that I got Amazing Things in May, 1993, and didn't realize that I wanted it on my DID list (never mind in this top ten) until more than a year later.
1The Loud Family: The Tape of Only LindaThe Loud Family: The Tape of Only Linda
2Tori Amos: Under the PinkTori Amos: Under the Pink
3Smart Brown Handbag: SilverlakeSmart Brown Handbag: Silverlake
4Love Spit Love: Love Spit LoveGuided by Voices: Bee Thousand
5Ian McNabb: Head Like a RockRichard Shindell: Blue Divide
6American Music Club: San FranciscoLuka Bloom: Turf
7Laurie Anderson: Bright Red / TightropeCrowded House: Together Alone
8Crowded House: Together AloneLisa Germano: Geek the Girl
9Marillion: BraveLove Spit Love: Love Spit Love
10Nine Inch Nails: The Downward SpiralMilla: The Divine Comedy
Bee Thousand was another belated epiphany, and if it weren't for 69 Love Songs, it probably would have been on the decade list. This year Geek the Girl was the one I bought within a week of making the list. The other additions are all later discoveries. American Music Club are my favorite band who no longer appear on any of these lists. The Laurie Anderson album blew me away at the time, but I had a suspicion I wouldn't often feel like going back to it, and I was right.
1Alanis Morissette: Jagged Little PillAlanis Morissette: Jagged Little Pill
2Scott Walker: TiltEmmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball
3Emmylou Harris: Wrecking BallEverclear: Sparkle and Fade
4Big Country: Why the Long Face?Belly: King
5Everclear: Sparkle and FadeScarlet: Naked
Shampoo: We Are Shampoo
6Runrig: Mara
Marillion: Afraid of Sunlight
Sleeper: Smart
7Jewel: Pieces of YouSuddenly, Tammy!: We Get There When We Do
8Shampoo: We Are ShampooBig Country: Why the Long Face?
9Scarlet: Naked
The Boo Radleys: Wake Up!
Jewel: Pieces of You
10Polara: Polara
Long Fin Killie: Houdini
Rheostatics: Introducing Happiness
Björk: Post
Scott Walker's Tilt is the casualty of the decade. I actually put it on my first draft of the Nineties list, but when I got it out and played it again, to figure out how high it should go, it didn't seem half as scary as I remembered. Most of these additions came later, but how I left off Suddenly, Tammy!, I can't imagine. Everclear would likely be twelfth on an expanded decade list. My confident declaration that Pieces of You was the most important folk album since Joni Mitchell's Blue no longer seems quite as prescient, but I said at the time that we should check back in twenty years, so I might still turn out to be right.
1The Loud Family: Interbabe ConcernThe Loud Family: Interbabe Concern
2Patty Griffin: Living With GhostsPatty Griffin: Living With Ghosts
3Grant Lee Buffalo: Copperopolis
Maria McKee: Life Is Sweet
Slingbacks: All Pop, No Star
4Tori Amos: Boys for PeleMaria McKee: Life Is Sweet
Grant Lee Buffalo: Copperopolis
5Dar Williams: Mortal CityTori Amos: Boys for Pele
6Manic Street Preachers: Everything Must GoPaula Cole: This Fire
7The Blue Nile: Peace at Last
Low: The Curtain Hits the Cast
Rachel's: The Sea and the Bells
Heavenly: Operation Heavenly
8Paula Cole: This FireLow: The Curtain Hits the Cast
9Too Much Joy: ...FinallyToo Much Joy: ...Finally
10Whipping Boy: HeartwormMarry Me Jane: Marry Me Jane
Predictably, the closer we get to the present, the less I feel compelled to change. I didn't know about the Slingbacks and Heavenly at the time, but leaving off Marry Me Jane, which I did consciously, is the biggest regret I have about any list I've ever made.
1Veruca Salt: Eight Arms to Hold You
Everclear: So Much for the Afterglow
Everclear: So Much for the Afterglow
Veruca Salt: Eight Arms to Hold You
2The Leslie Spit Treeo: Chocolate Chip CookiesBeth Nielsen Chapman: Sand and Water
3Papas Fritas: HelioselfLeslie Spit Treeo: Chocolate Chip Cookies
4Kenickie: At the ClubKenickie: At the Club
5Beth Nielsen Chapman: Sand and WaterPapas Fritas: Helioself
6Longpigs: The Sun Is Often Out
Stereophonics: Word Gets Around
The Dambuilders: Against the Stars
7Jesus Jones: AlreadyJesus Jones: Already
8Steve Earle: El Corazón
Son Volt: Straightaways
Richard Buckner: Devotion + Doubt
9The Dambuilders: Against the StarsThe Caulfields: L
10Helium: The Magic City
Linoleum: Dissent
Helium: The Magic City
I think I got both Buckner and the Caulfields the first week of January. The rest of these adjustments are crashingly inconsequential.
1Tori Amos: from the choirgirl hotelTori Amos: from the choirgirl hotel
2Mark Hollis: Mark HollisMark Hollis: Mark Hollis
3Alanis Morissette: Supposed Former Infatuation JunkieAlanis Morissette: Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie
4Liz Phair: whitechocolatespaceegg
Juliana Hatfield: Bed
Liz Phair: whitechocolatespaceegg
Juliana Hatfield: Bed
5Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the SeaNeutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
6Emma Townshend: Winterland
Susan Court: High Relief
Sarge: The Glass Intact
7theaudience: theaudienceEmma Townshend: Winterland
Susan Court: High Relief
8Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Cheri Knight: The Northeast Kingdom
Brian: Bring Trouble
9Buffalo Tom: SmittenBuffalo Tom: Smitten
10Rasputina: How We Quit the ForestLucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Cheri Knight: The Northeast Kingdom
Two in, two out.
1The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love SongsThe Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs
2Low: Secret NameLow: Secret Name
3Tori Amos: to venus and backTori Amos: to venus and back
4Big Country: Driving to DamascusBig Country: Driving to Damascus
5Emm Gryner: Science FairEmm Gryner: Science Fair
6Rick Springfield: Karma
Roxette: Have a Nice Day
Rick Springfield: Karma
Roxette: Have a Nice Day
7bis: Social Dancingbis: Social Dancing
8Ultrasound: Everything PictureUltrasound: Everything Picture
9Lincolnville: Black Box
Cody: Rounder
Lincolnville: Black Box
Cody: Rounder
10The Bonaduces: The Democracy of SleepThe Bonaduces: The Democracy of Sleep
This year I had the good sense not to buy any new records in the first week of January. There's a pile of unopened CDs next to my keyboard, though, and at least two are from 1999, so it's only a matter of time. I can barely keep from ripping them open, plunging ahead to find out what the first way will be in which I stop being whomever I was.
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