So with the recent news that both Target and Best Buy will be phasing out CD sales, we thought this was a good time to start a new series we’ve been thinking about for a while. Like many music lovers over a certain age, there once was a time when our music collection was proudly displayed – perhaps alphabetized on some bookshelves or neatly lined-up on designated shelves in a stereo system cabinet. With the advent of digital music, eventually, those CDs (or cassettes/LPs) were either sold-off or put into storage somewhere. Yet, the resurgence of LPs has reminded us that there is something special about having a physical album of music to listen to, with its accompanying artwork and often lyrics. So we’ve started to go back and dig into our boxes of CDs, and here are some re-discovered gems we wanted to share.
I was not an early adopter of digital music – completely skipping the Napster days and clinging to my CDs for as long as possible. But eventually, as your various CD-playing equipment dies, and stops being sold in stores, it was a matter of practicality to switch to digital. Thus, when I moved about 10 years ago, the boxes of CDs just never got unpacked. However, my 14-year-old vehicle still has a CD player, and about two years ago I started digging into my boxes of CDs and grabbing 1-2 per week for my longer car rides. I relearned to appreciate the joy of listening to a full album, not just the favorite tracks that populated most of my online playlists. Even the questionable cuts that became so easy to skip over on CD, vs. cassettes or vinyl, were fun to listen to – some I hadn’t heard in 20+ years. Here are a few albums from the early 90’s that I enjoyed rediscovering:
Ink – The Fixx (1991)
By the time the decade had turned to the 90’s, I had almost written off The Fixx. I still enjoyed Reach The Beach and their greatest hits tunes, but I was so disappointed with their 1988 release Calm Animals, that I assumed they were creatively done. I didn’t even know this album had come out until a friend/college roommate told me to give it a listen, and I was pleasantly surprised. Despite one top 10 hit, “How Much Is Enough”, this album was not successful, commercially or critically. One critic wrote that the album “offer[s] ample evidence that the group had run out of ideas”. I couldn’t disagree more, as this is a solid album that I can listen to front-to-back. The collection of songs are both distinctive and work together as a true album, and there are several songs that are radio-friendly, had they been given a chance. One of these is the lead-off song, “All Is Fair”, an upbeat and catchy tune, even if it features lead-singer Cy Curnin musing on mankind’s proclivities for war and violence. Writing about the modern world and our collective experiences is a frequent songwriting topic for Curnin, but there are several songs about relationships including the accessible “Falling In Love”. Musically, the band sound moves measurably away from the 80’s synth-heavy sound and utilizes more guitar-hooks to drive their songs. Unfortunately, I played this album so much in the early 90’s, that it was easy to put it aside as my music became dominated by grunge and alternative rock that was soon to arrive. If you aren’t a fan of The Fixx, you might find a couple of the tracks a bit on the brooding side, particularly towards the end, but to me, the album is one of those underrated gems that unfortunately can be hard to find now, even on streaming services. I’m glad I kept the CD.
DJ: Unlike you I wasn’t really a Fixx fan prior to Ink, I knew a couple of their hits but that was it. But word of mouth and hearing “How Much Is Enough” on the radio made me give Ink a shot, first even on cassette before getting the disc. It’s an underrated album that does not get enough love.
Us – Peter Gabriel (1992)
I think we all have at least one album that seemed to arrive in their life at exactly the right time. When this album was released in the fall of 1992, I had just ended my first long-term relationship and was emotionally stumbling through a new one. It was a time of trying to figure out what LOVE was all about and realizing I knew a lot less about it than I thought. So Gabriel comes out with this album Us, which is all about the conflicting emotions from close romantic relationships – the fear, confusion, yearning, sadness, anger, but also comfort, joy, and fulfillment. The 7-minute opening track, “Come Talk To Me” is the struggle of someone pleading with their former lover to come back to the negotiating table – to just open up that critical line of communication. On this and two other tracks Sinead O’Connor contributes haunting supporting vocals that provide emotional depth. The songs “Love To Be Loved”, “Blood of Eden”, and “Only Us” continue Gabriel’s intentionally obtuse analysis of why two people love each other, and the sometimes unfortunate consequences of getting so emotionally entwined. “Digging In The Dirt” was the album’s first single, and the lyrics have Gabriel vacillate between raw anger at a partner and the pleading for her to stay with him. The album makes no pretense about offering easy answers, but for several years it was therapeutic for me to listen to this and know that my frustrating tangle of emotions wasn’t aberrant. “The Washing of the Water” can be either comforting or tough to listen to if you are hurting from a relationship trouble, although it ultimately offers a message of hope that these emotions can pass and the light will, eventually, banish the darkness. In case the introspection gets too deep, there are two upbeat radio-friendly tracks: “Steam” ( a kind of son-of-Sledgehammer) and “Kiss That Frog” – both featuring thumping basslines and blaring synths/horns. Gabriel has a knack for working with some of the top studio musicians, such as Tony Levin on bass, David Rhodes on guitar, Manu Katche on drums and Shankar on vocals/electric violin. These performers, along with a veritable army of supporting musicians/programmers, create so many layers of sound on this album, including the influence of some of the world music Gabriel was starting to explore at this time. I saw Gabriel twice on the “Secret World” concert tour to support this album – and it was amazing each time.
As I emotionally matured and went on to experience a truly fulfilling and lasting relationship, I unconsciously put this album in a box, only listening to an occasional single from it. Almost 20 years later it was great to listen to this disc from a different emotional place and appreciate the brilliance of Gabriel’s thoughtful songwriting and amazing voice, and the work of his talented group of musicians.
DJ: I completely forgot how good this album is. It’s not out there digitally either although it can be found on Youtube. This is my favorite thing from Peter Gabriel. It’s probably the most brutally honest and raw album I have listened to, I can feel Gabriel’s pain. “The Washing of the Water” is emotionally draining.
Together Alone – Crowded House (1993)
The downside of an album that you truly love, other than the risk of overplaying it, is the anticipation vs. reality of the follow-up album. I ran into this problem with Crowded House’s 3rd and 4th albums. While he’s a national treasure in his native New Zealand, Neil Finn, House’s lead singer/songwriter, has never received the deserved recognition in the States for his writing and singing abilities. Crowded House’s 1991 album Woodface still holds a spot in my top 10, and maybe top 5, albums of all-time, thus it was almost a given that their next album wouldn’t measure up. Still, my hopes for “Woodface 2” soared when I heard the first 1993 single, “Locked Out”, a song that got additional exposure from being on the soundtrack to Reality Bites (see our post: https://thepopculturallists.com/2018/01/27/enhancing-film-soundtracks/). But when the full album was released, and I rushed home to listen to it, I couldn’t help but be partially disappointed. Together Alone featured two significant line-up changes for the band: the addition of Mickey Hart (guitar/keyboards/mandolin) and the departure of Neil Finn’s brother Tim Finn, who once fronted the band Split Enz with Neil and joined Crowded House only for the Woodface album. I didn’t give much credit to Tim for the success of Woodface, especially since Crowded House had made two great prior albums without him, but when Together Alone came out I really missed his contributions. A critic had described Woodface as very “Beatleseque”, and indeed Together Alone kind of felt like the Beatles might have been without Paul. In addition to “Locked Out” I did really love the song “Distant Sun”, but I soon lost interest in most of the rest of the album. So it was a good thing when I pulled this disc out of the box a few years ago and gave it a listen with fresh ears. The album still starts out with an unfortunate choice for lead-off track, “Kare, Kare”, which isn’t a terrible song but lacks a hook and thus does a poor job of pulling the listener into the album. Things pick-up with “In My Command”, and indeed the next 9 songs work well together – alternating between mid-tempo guitar-driven songs and quieter songs that showcase Neil’s vocals. Songs that did not stand out to me back in the 90’s, like “Black and White Boy”, “Private Universe”, “Walking on the Spot” and “Catherine Wheels” sounded very fresh and unique. The album ends with the title track, which infuses a native music/vocal element but mirrors the opening track in lacking a distinctive hook. I wish Neil had written/sang with some of his humor and wit, which had always been a part of his music and live performances, into at least a few songs on Together Alone. Nevertheless, the meat of the album is solid and I’m glad I had the chance to rediscover it.
DJ: Being probably my favorite band I too was slightly disappointed with Together Alone when it came out, I still believe it’s uneven but “Locked Out” and “Distant Sun” are two of their best. It’s my least favorite of the four original albums but it’s certainly not without it’s merits.
Not only did I go digital later than Mike but I also went CD later – amassing a ridiculous amount of cassettes. One thing I did was buy a lot of albums based on one song, sometimes it worked out (Pearl Jam’s Ten) and sometimes it did not. When it didn’t work I sold the disc ASAP. The Counting Crows debut August and Everything After I literally bought twice, I didn’t give it a chance the first time but it’s now a classic in my collection. Others like The Wonder Stuff and Baby Animals I dumped pretty quickly and that has worked out for the best. In the digital age, I only need to buy the song. But how many great albums have I missed out on by doing this? Lately, I have been trying to go back and listen to albums through various internet options. Like Mike, I packed up my CDs preparing for a move that never happened and I do miss them. I have done some digging through boxes as well pulling some out I had completely forgotten about. The good news is after my initial craze of buying and selling I did settle down and kept a ton. There is nothing like listening to a fully realized album especially when they are as good as my three choices.
X – INXS (1990)
INXS is a band like REM that had its college radio days before breaking through to the mainstream airwaves. I had no exposure to them until “What You Need” climbed to number three and Listen Like Thieves became popular. It wasn’t until I was at a party much later, the first time I ever was drunk (thank you, Sun Country Peach) that I heard Kick, which was on a continuous loop all night. I made sure to go out and buy it and also Listen Like Thieves, thinking Thieves was their debut. I soon realized it was not and I picked up The Swing and Shabooh, Shoobah. I was hooked on INXS, so you can imagine how excited I was to hear that X was being released. At the time I loved this album but over time it was not an album I often played. I have the hits digitally but never cared to listen to the whole thing. Not sure why this was the case but I always went back to the earlier albums. Some critics called it derivative of Kick, which is not necessarily a bad thing because most of what came next was not great. It may have some of Kick’s sound but it stands on its own. The opening horns on “Suicide Blonde” kicking off the album with Hutchence singing “Don’t you know what you are are doing, you got a death wish” is an electrifying start. Hutchence is as charismatic as they come and has one of my favorite voices of all time. He hits his peak on X. The second single “Disappear” is just as strong with its doo doo doo’s. “By My Side” is this album’s version of Kick’s “Never Tear Us Apart” and it’s almost as good. “Bitter Tears” is a song that reminds me of a friend who backstabbed me to a point where we never reconciled, and I think about it every time I hear this song, literally being bitter about things. I was trying to look for a dud on this album and there is not one, from “The Stairs” to “Hear that Sound” it’s all good and plays like a very cohesive album that should still get some play.
Bonus: Their great concert album and video Live Baby Live is from the tour for X and must be heard or seen for INXS fans.
MG: Kick was one of my favorite 80’s albums, and I loved the hits off of X when it came out. “The Stairs” has a great build to it, and it reminds the listener of how great the band was behind Hutchence. The two albums after X were a sharp dropoff, but if Hutchence had lived I think the band could have successfully toured for years. Glad I got to see them in concert on the X tour.
Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine (1992)
When I first saw the video for “Freedom” from Rage Against the Machine on MTV I was mesmerized. It was like heavy metal mixed with rap – it was all very confusing for me, but it was like nothing I had heard before. This is one of those albums I bought based on one song: “Freedom”. Listening to the album I was surprised at the amount of swearing and just pure rage, and as a young twenty-something, it was awesome. There is no ballad anywhere to be found and according to the liner notes absolutely no synthesizers or samples. This is honest music, meaning Rage was not out to be something just for the sake of it, they were not a faux band, this was real and it was them and how they felt. They believed in the causes they were singing about. Back then I listened to this album all the time, it was perfect when I was angry, great for a drive home from work. Working overnights at a grocery store we paired this with Smashing Pumpkin’s Siamese Dream for some very motivating wake-up music. As I got older, got an office job, and settled down, this album was put away. Other than the occasional “Freedom” on my iPod, I didn’t really listen to the album. Relistening to it, it holds up 100%. Musically it’s better than I remembered; for instance, the guitar solo on “Settle for Nothing” is beautiful in the middle of pure anger. The album never lets up. “Killing in the Name Of”, about racism and police brutality has seventeen uses of the “F” word with Zack de la Rosa repeatedly uttering “F&%k you I won’t do what you tell me.” It does surprise me with all the social issues today, including increased racism, school shootings and the current state of the nation, that this album has not had a reawakening. Songs like “Take the Power Back”, “Know Your Enemy”, “Wake Up” and “Fistful of Steel” are call-to-action songs that not only talk message but do it with blistering guitar work. Tom Morello is one of the best guitarists in the last 20 years and his work here and with Audioslave is iconic. The album cover with a monk in the middle of self-immolation is as raw as the music.
Bonus: The video for “Freedom” showcases the plight of Leonard Peltier and sparked us to go on our only ever march in Washington D.C., with hopes of having him freed. Alas, 25 years later, he is still in prison.
MG: This is a disc I also “unboxed” and have played several times in the past year. There are times I like it just for expressing some anger, but just as often I appreciate the superb vocals/musicianship and message the band was conveying. Some might say the songs all blend together, but multiple listens make the tracks distinctive. I wish there were more protest music/bands that were popular now.
Bellybutton – Jellyfish (1990)
Jellyfish was a San Francisco band that put out two amazing albums then vanished as quickly as they landed. Unfortunately, they did not make the splash they should have and they seemed like from another era. Their leader Andy Sturmer was the singer and main writer and was clearly influenced by the power pop of the seventies, Queen, Badfinger, Wings, Sweet, The Raspberries, and Cheap Trick to name a bunch. I remember seeing the video on MTV for “Baby’s Coming Back”, their first single and was blown away by how different it was from anything else being made. These guys seemed completely different. Of course, I bought the cassette along with their second album in 1993 Spilt Milk. At the time Spilt Milk was probably the better overall album. It was more ambitious in its writing and production. Like the previous two albums on my list, I put them away with just a few songs still kept digitally. Going back and listening to Bellybutton I would put this ahead of Milk: yes, it’s simpler but that’s its charm. There are no clunkers on this album and I enjoyed hearing the whole album again. Most of the songs have an infectious hook. The lyrics are sometimes abstract and beautifully constructed. The song “I Wanna Stay Home” always complimented my mood when I just didn’t want to go to work. It was also featured in the Jennifer Connolly film “Career Opportunities” which I actually saw. One of my favorite lyrics of all time comes from this song, “When I realize the weight that’s firmly on my shoulders. I just try and find the place I can take a walk on my blind side”. For me, it referred to the burden we carry and trying to deal with it, even if it didn’t really mean that. “Bedspring Kiss” deals with drug abuse, while “She Still Loves Him” is about an abusive relationship. My favorite song, “Baby’s Coming Back”, has a great melody and it was a perfect song for their first single. It’s about a man who was not great to his girl and he is begging her to come back. I never understood if she really was coming back or if he was delusional about the situation. This is my favorite of my three picks and it’s too bad they never hit it big – I have to believe there was more to come. Sturmer went on to do a ton of collaborating and did a lot of work for children’s cartoons including writing and performing theme songs.
Bonus: Here is the video that got me hooked “Baby’s Coming Back”, it looks like it could have come from a Scooby Doo cartoon and has a giant cartoon baby.
MG: I have no recollection of this band, but the song/video above is pretty good. I definitely can hear the influence of Queen. Perhaps I will give the album a listen to sometime.