Brent Bozman

Hayden Childs

McChesney Duntz

William Ham

Dana Knowles

Gary Mairs

Leonard Pierce

Scott Von Doviak

George Wu

The Algonquin Kids’ Table: 2003 Top Ten Lists

 

Top 11 Rock Albums of the ’90s You Probably Never Heard

… plus one honorable mention from the ’80s

Yeah, another damn music list. Intrinsically stupid, as all music lists are, but then again no more so than any other such-like-certainly no worse than Rolling Stoneís 100 Greatest Guitar Players of All Time (Jack White, anyone? Anyone?).

Of course these preposterous things are designed to ruffle feathers, in fact serve no other purpose at all, so if youíve got other idea, then (in the words of our resident jackal) ìbring ’em on.î

1. Bo Bud Greene — Whatever (Backyard/Scotti Brothers, 1995). These four (nowadays three, from what I hear) Austinites make a gloriously brash noise, a sort of sweet psychedelic metallic pop. Alternating effectively between ethereal arpeggios, chugging power chords, cleverly syncopated stop-time riffs and intriguingly unresolved chords that drift through the sonic landscape, they put together appealing, quirky songs that never fail to rawk. This album was scuttled by bad timing and bad luck, as it was released right before Scotti Brothers underwent a massive reorganization and ended up dropping many of its artists. Moreís the pity, as this album really deserves to be heard by more than the handful of idle curious who scooped promo copies out of bargain and cut-out bins. It is a deeply infectious and propulsive record that finds innovative ways to combine introspective, mystically themed lyrics with a solid if unconventional rhythm section. Layer soaring vocals and searing lead guitars over the top and youíve got a formula that veers winningly between the conventional and the unique. P.S.: Donít be fooled by the cover art — this is not a surf-rock album.

2. Circle C — Circle C (DGC, 1991). A classic case of a really, really good record being buried by major-label ineptitude/apathy/conservatism. Circle C can sound like many different bands — on some tunes one might understandably imagine them to be aping the Pixies at a backyard hootenanny on all-acoustic instruments, while at other times they sound like a more restrained take on late-Zeppelin-era blues-rock and then again at other times theyíre tough to pigeonhole at all, despite seeming very familiar. Maybe this eclecticism made DGC afraid to market them — our loss, because this is a first-rate collection of songs with brainy and often mordantly funny lyrics, perfectly arranged and played with impeccable taste. Not a dud song in the bunch. If youíre not put off by such baroque flourishes, then dig ìDustî as it kicks off with a solo mandolin part that is furious and lovely and evokes images of eastern European folk dances. And really — how often do you hear a couplet like this one (from ìVacation Song,î which is something like a Marxist cautionary tale populated by the Gashlycrumb Tinies): ìAt the hot springs they ignored the sign/Now little Timmyís got meningitis of the spine?î Not often enough.

3. Dianogah — As Seen From Above (Ohio Gold, 1997). At an utter loss once for the words to describe this magnificent trio, I blurted out to a friend, ìImagine Television if Lloyd and Verlaine played bass instead of guitar.î Lyrical, fluid, intricate-but-not-showy, this almost entirely instrumental band quite simply does everything right. The dialogue between the higher parts that Jay Ryan coaxes from his Rickenbacker and the more traditional low-end counterpoint that Jason Harvey holds down on his Fender is just stunning — there is a playful complexity here that is rarely heard in rock music. Add to this Kip McCabeís skilled, syncopated accompaniment on the drums and the interplay of these three at times approaches the level of sophistication of jazz. Dianogah make some of the most inspiring, fun music I have heard in a very long time, and this is accomplished without electronic effects or any sort of schtick or bombast — a tribute to the virtues of pure musicality and resourcefulness within fairly narrow formal parameters. If all of this sounds daunting — the kind of stuff only sophisto music professors might enjoy — allow me to assure you that it is not. There is an energy and a swing to this music that makes it a pure joy to listen to — if it is cerebral as well, it is in a way that keeps the proceedings fresh and only adds to the pleasure. Possibly my favorite band of recent years.

4. Dwindle — Recently OK (Twin/Tone, 1997). One of Minneapolis/St. Paulís best bands in recent memory, this gang sounds a little different on every release, and this one is my favorite by a nose. One could argue that it suffers from the same sluggish mid-tempo rut that led many critics to blast Bob Mouldís Black Sheets of Rain, but both albums are also occasion for some truly remarkable guitar playing. There is nothing flashy on this album, but a remarkably consistent and effective mood is maintained throughout. These songs are bleak and yet somehow irresistibly beautiful, the vocals so anemic and low in the mix that it seems they will collapse under their own lack of will to survive. Despite this, they are very catchy and even stirring in a minimal and very economical way, the somber tone of Brooceís voice perfectly conveying the listless sorrow of the lyrics. The overall sound is emo played with resignation rather than fervor — a dense wall of bristling sound too overcome by depression to make any pretense of histrionics. Amid the accentuating crashes of the drums, though, pay close attention to the guitar melodies and you will be rewarded — they are some of the most thoughtful, uncluttered, well-constructed and affecting tunes you will hear in rock today.

5. Gam — Phase 8 (Blast-O-Disc, 1995). What can you say about this gang of deliriously art-damaged loonies from Savannah, Ga.? As excellent as this album is, you still need to see them live to get the full effect: the mania in his eyes as singer Keith dances about in furry pajamas and hands out full-head latex masks to audience members or else smashes the stage with a flaming thigh bone borrowed from some very large mammal, and all while large geometric sculptures lit from within cast an eerie glow upon the proceedings. Their stage act is not by any stretch, however, a flimsy attempt to veil musical amateurishness — rather, the disarming visual flair of this band only adds to their demented barrage of sounds and words, helping to create a powerful and unforgettable experience. As you might have guessed, these guys operate on approximately the same bizarre theatrical level of reality as the Butthole Surfers and at times owe a similar debt to the dinosaur riffs of Black Sabbath. They have any number of sounds up their twisted sleeves, however, and can ply riotous ’60s blues-punk or eerie psychedelia (with a distinctly nightmarish southern twist) with equal aplomb. Consequently, the album is a rock-solid and very entertaining blast from somewhere deep in the belly of this countryís seamy underside.

6. Lotion — Nobodyís Cool (spinART, 1995). In a way, there is nothing particularly exceptional about Lotion, except that they do what they do so well. ìJuggernautî alone is such a swell song that — even if the rest of this album were tripe — I would have to seriously consider Nobodyís Cool for this list. As it happens, it is a wonderful and lively album of poignant, song-writerly indie rock. The aforementioned ìJuggernaut,î for example, segues from powerhouse verses befitting the title to a darkly catchy chorus that Matthew Sweet would give his eyeteeth for. Tony Zajkowskiís throaty voice is an instrument well-suited to these vignettes, distinct and supple enough to pull the heartstrings one moment and smirk slyly the next. The rest of the band are certainly no slouches, but they know well enough to not draw attention to themselves. With this band the first and last word is crafting great tunes — and the songs are an impressively varied bunch, displaying noteworthy intelligence and an esoteric palette of approaches, from burly rock to lilting folk-kissed airs to angular lounge chords and all points in between. Add liner notes by Thomas Pynchon (yeah, that Thomas Pynchon), and you canít go wrong.

7. Orangutang — Dead Sailor Acid Blues (Imago, 1994). Another band that likely suffered from poor label handling — the trials and travails of Imago are legendary by now — Orangutang are a true curiosity, a difficult bunch to classify. Their overall sound is thick and yet energetic hard rock — too heavy and slab-like to be punk, too arty and high-minded and flat-out weird to be metal, and too fun to be art-rock, this is music made by snide, cheeky, very bright guys who have a deeply ironic sense of humor and a completely un-ironic love of rock. The result is not as strange as, say, Trout Mask Replica, but it is distinctive enough that comparisons to other bands become difficult — which alone at this stage in rockís evolution makes it worth hearing. One could say it sounds like the best of later Smashing Pumpkins, less the drama and angst, and bolstered with the slashing harmonic approach and obsessive strangeness of the Pixies, but already we are into so many qualifiers that the attempt to place them on the rock map is muddled at best. Besides which, a song like ìDaddy Rawî swings in a way neither of those bands ever did or could. Best just to say that Orangutang were a barreling freight train of exuberant, surreal post-punk momentum — heavier and more ferocious than plutonium — and leave it at that.

8. Replicants — Replicants (Zoo, 1996). This side project cobbled together by members of the now-defunct Failure and one ex-member of Tool is a really interesting piece of work. The entire album consists of proggy/metallic reworkings of older songs, chiefly from the psychedelic, glam and new wave camps but leaving few stones unturned, really. Itís such a diverse collection of covers that I canít resist listing at least a few: T. Rexís ìLifeís A Gas,î Missing Personsí ìDestination Unknown,î David Bowieís ìThe Bewlay Brothers,î Syd Barrettís ìNo Good Tryingî and Gary Numanís ìAre ‘Friends’ Electric?î are joined by Neil Youngís ìCinnamon Girlî as well as the thematically pointed renditions of Paul McCartneyís paean to ìSilly Love Songsî and John Lennonís McCartney hate letter ìHow Do You Sleep?î Add Pink Floyd, the Cars and Steely Dan, and Iím not entirely sure what youíve got. Such an album risks flirting with silliness and/or starry-eyed hero-worship, but the Replicants manage to avoid these pitfalls by making each of these songs distinctly their own. It is often irreverent in just the right way and clearly a labor of love, a tribute to the march of glory and folly that is rock music.

9. Skeleton Key — Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon (Capitol, 1997). Skeleton Key are what might have happened if Primus and Tom Waits played together more regularly — they match the prodigious technical proficiency and unstoppable groove of the former with the bent songwriting sensibility and ear for unusual textures of the latter. The result is quite unlike anything youíve ever heard, in all the right ways. This album careens and lurches gleefully through rubbery funk, dented carnival music, queasy hardcore punk and haunting dirges without ever once stopping to ask for directions. Formed by Manhattan avant-garde types (at least one former Lounge Lizard has taken up residence here) who recruited an extra percussionist with a kit comprised entirely of found junk, they have forged a music that is simultaneously powerful and fragile. It is unbelievably flexible and buoyant at the same time that it clatters and clanks along like a í53 Studebaker about to collapse and say die. It is a strange and magical sound, one of those truly rare bands who inhabit a world all their own. Wondrous and perverse, Skeleton Key are another casualty of major label neglect, their only mainstream recognition being a Grammy nomination for innovative CD packaging. Oh, the cruel barbs of fate …

10. Tanner — Ill-Gotten Gains (Caroline, 1995). Never mind that they rock like a great punk band with its collective ass on fire (though they do), and forget the fact that singer Gar Wood yelps like Pee Wee Herman having a conniption (though he does). What is amazing about Tanner is this: using the most common and simple tools, they perform the alchemical feat of sounding fresh and exciting, even alien. Somehow they invent with those ubiquitous sounds a language all their own. There is some prodigal, subterranean melodic sense at work in this band — that most elusive and irreplaceable of gifts. Sometimes one hears echoes of the similarly inverted imagination Greg Ginn brought to bear on the later Black Flag. Other times the music is simpler and its power harder to explain. The verse structure of ìWigî is built almost entirely on one chord played over a fiercely galloping drumbeat, but it moves. Like their more famous San Diego brethren Rocket From the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu, Tanner are minimalist in the extreme and know how to get a lot of mileage out of simple, clean structures. Iím reminded by them of the “Peanuts” strip in which Lucy asks Schroeder how he is able to make Beethoven sound so beautiful on a toy piano, and Schroeder says, ìYou have to know where the stops are.î Folks, Tanner knows all the stops.

11. Treepeople — Something Vicious For Tomorrow/Time Whore (C/Z, 1992). This was the band in which Scott Schmaljohn first crystallized his vision, a vein he has continued to mine in Stuntman now that former guitar-slinging partner Doug Martsch has gone on to form the more acclaimed (but arguably less fun) Built To Spill. From the first song on this CD, the listener is assaulted by dueling lead guitars that snake and weave around each other — in some ways the logical conclusion of the skittering two-guitar wallop that Captain Beefheart cultivated in his Magic Band, but here employed in a very different setting. It is a fine line to walk — too much information will overload a listener, so careful choreography and restraint are required. When it works, as it does on balance here, it is a dazzling effect, breathing new life into clichéd structures and creating intriguingly novel textures. It doesnít hurt that the band writes solid songs and plays them with gorgeous inexactness and red-hot passion, somewhat resembling a more challenging version of old Soul Asylum. They even have a little fun along the way with the old Smiths chestnut ìBigmouth Strikes Againî and give it a vigor it always deserved but never had before.

12. Volcano Suns — All Night Lotus Party (Homestead, 1986). The Volcano Suns used to jokingly call themselves ìthe only band that doesnít matter,î and itís true that on their early albums (like this one) they displayed a zealous simplicity that bordered on enthusiastic amateurism. In those terms, they might well be dismissed as utterly disposable in the same way that the Stooges and the Ramones in their day were written off by many as disposable — i.e., worthless. However, as Lester Bangs once wrote in defense of one of those bands, ìIf itís so easy, then why arenít there more like them?î I donít know why, but I think it has something to do with why this album is so great — support for the truism that what you donít say (or play) is just as important as what you do. In short, it is unstoppably propulsive and lusty and unrepentantly loud. Imagine a whole album of the kind of exhilarating, skull-crushing rave-ups that drummer Peter Prescott sometimes used to pound out with his old (and current) band Mission of Burma and youíve got some sense of the volatile stuff weíre dealing with here. This album is a non-stop pummeling, a bludgeoning storm of a record that doesnít let up until the vinyl runs out, but most importantly it nails the quality that so much rock ìnowadaysî misses so sorely — joy. It gloats and revels in its sloppiness, and it is endlessly fun, and you know that can only be good for you. Rather than being enervating (or a self-conscious exercise in nostalgia, like copping old dance moves), this music is a mainline to the pleasure and energy centers of the brain, a relentless blast of everything rock once promised. To paraphrase the Old Anarchist from Richard Linklaterís Slacker: ìIf there were 10 bands like this around today, they would change the world.î