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1994 top albums

May 14, 2012

(Dec. 1996 thoughts: Dada should have been No. 1. I’ve regretted that since about the day this ran in the Herald & Review. The Bis-Quits should be higher. Greenberry Woods’ debut is still good, but not better than those two. And there have been years when the Deadeye Dick album would have been my top pick. On the other hand, I over-rated Costello AND Liz Phair. Calling WHIP-SMART better than EXILE IN GUYVILLE? What was I thinking? Although WHIP-SMART wasn’t as bad as Musician’s review of it might have led you to believe. Said review prompted my first published effort in Musician, a letter asking what the hell THEIR reviewer was thinking.)
Top Ten albums, 1994

What was the biggest happening in music in 1994?

For me personally, it was the realization for the first time of the true difference in age between myself and most of the people buying music.

Like many in their mid-30s and over, I’ve found myself more and more in recent years looking at MTV with a confused eye. I don’t understand a lot of this stuff. And that’s OK, because in many ways, I’m not supposed to.

Even so, I’m not prepared to dismiss it out of hand. I may not understand all of what Liz Phair is singing about, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it. After all, the best music takes you to a place you wouldn’t get to otherwise.

Hey, I’m not in the mood to defend everything. While I love the reworking of the Led Zeppelin classics done by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page on “No Quarter,” I’d sooner be forced to memorize Lionel Richie’s entire songbook than ever hear anything by the miraculously reunited Eagles. “Hell Freezes Over?” Can we call the power company and get the heat back on?

What continues to bring this age difference home is the continual bashing of pop culture fostered in much mainstream media. In the pages of this paper, you’ve read angry baby boomers trashing rap and heavy metal as “depressing” and “angry” music. For crying out loud, did these people think Bob Dylan and John Lennon were always upbeat in their prime? How about Stevie Wonder, the ’70s most reactionary pop singer?

There’s room for all kinds of music in the world. I’m not surprised — actually, I’m thoroughly entertained — when today’s high schoolers take to these pages to trash the music I’ve grown up loving. That’s part of establishing your turf.

On the other hand, I’m extremely disappointed to see today’s adults — my peers — acting like their parents. There’s a real short line connecting the following statements:

”That Elvis is the devil incarnate.” ”Don’t those Beatles know how to get a haircut?” ”Does Robert Plant have to wear his pants so tight?” ”So why do they call him BOY George, anyway?”

Come on, gang. This stuff isn’t going to spell the end of civilization. If it’s not your thing, turn the channel. Goodness knows it’s a lot easier to find an oldies radio station in Central Illinois than it is to find a station playing rap 24 hours a day.

All this fuss comes about in a year that’s so lightweight musically that it almost doesn’t exist. There’s been nothing truly terrifying out there this year, no ”Cop Killer,” nothing from Prince as charged as ”Gett Off” or ”Sexy M.F.,” nothing on Nirvana’s acoustic set as breathtakingly stunning as ”Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

So what’s all the fuss about?

In addition to being a list of my favorite albums of the year (not necessarily the 10 best), this list is one of the best endorsements I can think of for home taping. Of the albums in my top 10, I wouldn’t have heard seven but for the taping efforts of friends, a couple of whom are of the ”slacker” age people of my generation keep trashing.

But you know what? After years of having classic rock shoved down their throat, they’ve had the courage (and the credit line) to keep trying to find new stuff they can’t hear on the radio. That takes some effort.

We just have to work on diversity. There are plenty of jangly-guitar alternative bands here — that’s what I’ve been listening to more than anything else.

One other thought: 1994’s defining moment in pop music — and yet another wedge showing me the difference in attitudes between one age set (loosely grouped) and another — was Kurt Cobain’s suicide. As sick as any of us might be of hearing his name continually invoked, and as much as my feelings about the senselessness of his act might be unchanged, given everyone’s apparently strong feelings about the man’s demise, perhaps the best thing all of us can do is try to extend a little understanding.

And I don’t have any problem with that, as long as I don’t have to pay $100 a ticket to show it.

Here’s this year’s top 10:

1. Greenberry Woods, RAPPLE DAPPLE

Sounding straight out of 1966 (or 1978), a bizarre pure pop cross between the Beatles, the Byrds, the Beau Brummels and some other bands that don’t begin with the letter `B.’ There certainly were more significant albums released this year. There weren’t many more entertaining.

2. Dada, AMERICAN HIGHWAY FLOWER

There probably isn’t an album out this year with a more solid three songs than ”Feel Me Don’t You,” ”All I Am” and ”Scum.” If these guys can keep improving this much from record to record, they’ll be as big as U2 some day. Only Dada will be fun to listen to.

3. POSSUM DIXON

A particularly bent view of the world is one way of getting its attention. And you’ve got to love these guys — a key part of the song ”We’re All Happy” is the phrase ”You’re bringing me down” repeated eight times. In another song, someone repeats the word ”seven” enough times to make you want to smack your CD player. Swell pop, albeit a little short (34 minutes) for a full-price album.

4. THE BIS-QUITS

Smart alecks. ”Anal All Day” is as funny (or annoying) as the title implies. ”Tennessee Valley Girl” makes reference to John Hughes films, and ”Yo Yo Ma,” a rewrite of ”Johnny B. Goode,” quotes Bach. It may be too clever or precocious, but I enjoyed it all summer.

5. Deadeye Dick, A DIFFERENT STORY

This is the kind of ambitious album that ”new wave” acts attempted in the early ’80s. In fact, this reminds me a lot of Squeeze’s ”East Side Story,” particularly ”Sentimental Crap.” At other moments, they remind me of Queen without the bombast (and I mean that as a compliment).

6. Liz Phair, WHIP-SMART

A year ago, a record store clerk asked me if ”Lesfare” was a new band from Seattle. Now she’s a Rolling Stone cover girl. But unpredictably enough, Phair actually put out an album better than last year’s EXILE IN GUYVILLE. More than any new (’90s) artist, Phair is unique — listen to those odd guitar sounds, and try to imagine hearing them anyplace else. The lyrics are still pretty good, too.

7. Cindy Lee Berryhill, GARAGE ORCHESTRA

This is the most un-rock-and-roll-like album I’ve had on my list for years. The title is perfect — these are garage-like productions that still include a cello and assorted percussion, particularly timpani, on each song. Berryhill writes like a ’60s folkie with a ’90s mentality, and sings like a hillbilly country queen who grew up on Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick. Hey, those descriptions may not help you figure out what it sounds like, but I’ll bet it makes you want to hear it, eh?

8. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, NO QUARTER

It’s not just a rehash. When peeking in on the MTV broadcast, a co-worker and I were baffled about what song was being attempted when ”Nobody’s Fault But Mine” started. I never thought anybody could top Sandy Dennis, but this ”The Battle of Evermore” is definitive. And as if to prove they’re not dinosaurs, new song ”Yallah” is probably the album’s best. What else do you want? Well, a tour, for starters.

9. Chris Rea, ESPRESSO LOGIC

He owes a little more than he’d probably like to admit to Paul Simon’s cross-culturalism, but when he wraps that tenor voice around some songs, you tend to forget about a lot of things. He could be his generation’s Sinatra or Bennett, if only people would listen. Plays a pretty mean guitar, too.

10. Elvis Costello, BRUTAL YOUTH

It was so much fun to listen to this when it came out, the way it hearkened back to Costello’s early fury. But when the reissues of his 1970s albums came out on CD, I found myself pulling those out more. Why? He’s taking 30 words now to say what he used to say in 10. That’s not an MTV-culture creation — pop music’s best work has always been brilliant in its brevity. This was OK, but it would be higher up on the list if it wasn’t so dense.

Not quite good enough: Pretenders, LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS; R.E.M., MONSTER; Meat Puppets, TOO HIGH TO DIE; E, BROKEN TOY SHOP; Nanci Griffith, FLYER.

Albums I probably should have liked more than I did: Neil Young, SLEEPS WITH ANGELS; Barenaked Ladies, MAYBE YOU SHOULD DRIVE; Velvet Crush, TEENAGE SYMPHONIES TO GOD.

Albums I don’t understand why anybody liked: Guided by Voices, BEE THOUSAND; Pavement, CROOKED RAIN CROOKED RAIN.

SINGLES OF THE YEAR

”Lucas With the Lid Off,” Lucas

”About A Girl,” Nirvana

”Undone — The Sweater Song,” Weezer

”New Age Girl,” Deadeye Dick

”All I Wanna Do,” Sheryl Crow

”Before You Kill Us All,” Randy Travis

”I’m the Only One,” Melissa Etheridge

”Shine,” Collective Soul

”Lost in America,” Alice Cooper

”Cornflake Girl,” Tori Amos

”Zombie,” Cranberries

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