Music meant a great deal to me as a teenager in the 90s. It got me through difficult times and accompanied me through joyous moments. It was so deeply embedded that I associate various moments in my life with particular records, very much akin to having a soundtrack for reliving those memories.
The great tragedy of this story is that I can barely recognize any of the top albums of the year these days, which is ironic in the sense that I am getting less acquainted with indie music just as it is getting more fashionable to do so.
Anyway, here are the 10 most important records that I love in the 90s.
Ten) A Storm In Heaven – The Verve (1993)
I was torn between placing My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless at number 10 or this. While Loveless is undoubtedly a more groundbreaking record (as its high ranking in various critics’ lists would attest to), A Storm in Heaven is probably the more personal of the two. To me, anyway.
A Storm in Heaven is probably best known as The Verve’s best album before their slow and inevitable decline into mediocre shite. To be frank, I was introduced to the Verve’s space rock only after 1995’s A Northern Soul. At the time, I thought History and On Your Own were such great heartfelt ballads. Little did I know that Richard Ashcroft was such a one-trick pony that he was going to serve up the same re-steamed pile of shit for Urban Hymns and his solo albums, with much less emotional resonance.
A Storm in Heaven is really a cacophonous tapestry of moods and atmospheres. The only songs that do stand out in the traditional way are “Blue”, which still stands as an amazing testament to psychedelic rock, and “See You in the Next One”, which is a tender comedown after that full-blown trip. However, that is not to say the rest of the album is forgettable. On the contrary, like the title suggests, the album is otherworldly, with stormy undercurrents threatening to erupt at the least expected moments.
I remember playing this on the boom box while I was serving out my national service. One of my bunk mates was so annoyed by the music that he shut down the boom box and threw out the disc (yes, it was the halcyon days of CDs). On the other hand, my other bunk mate, who played the drums in a band called Fuzzbox, seems impressed that I knew early Verve stuff. Which kind of sum up this record actually. Polarising, but demanding your attention either way.
Nine) Moon Pix – Cat Power (1998)
My national service days (1998 – 2000) were just one wave of depression followed by another. In retrospect, this was probably one of the reasons why I relate strongly to Chan Marshall. When I first checked out Cat Power, it was very much due to her association with Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth. Twenty years down the road, I have pretty much lose track of Sonic Youth releases, but I have bought every single Cat Power album.
Early Cat Power albums (Dear Sir, Myra Lee) were bleak, desolate affairs and involve Chan Marshall desperately shouting (down her demons?). I remember thinking back then that this girl is probably not long for this world, but I am glad that I was wrong on that count. Anyway, while her early works were impressive in their own way, Moon Pix was a marked departure in that it has a very hymn-like quality while eschewing the usual dissonant guitars.
While Moon Pix may appear to be a deceptively serene meditation on life, the madness surrounding its conception and Chan Marshall’s emotional meltdown during that phase of life was very well documented. In an interview with the Big Takeover, Chan Marshall had a near breakdown while she talked about how demons were attempting to break into her home, which led to her recording the bulk of the material in Moon Pix. Of course, back in 98, she was also an alcoholic mess who would throw a temper tantrum and left the stage in mid-song.
“Losing the reasons why/You are losing the calling you have been faking”
In spite of (or perhaps, because of) the madness, there is a truism in the melancholy haunting the album. Much of the album deal with coming to grips with losing an identity that you would like to embrace, but probably were never meant to be. At its core, the theme of loss and acceptance is repeated throughout. In Say, Chan Marshall sings about people who would confess one thing, and change their stance completely the next time, as if they are unsure of what they truly want.
“When we were teenagers, we wanted to be the sky / Now all we want is to go to red places”.
Even my army friends who were into alternative rock (or modern rock, whatever it was called back then) thought that Cat Power was dreadful and unlistenable and couldn’t understand my fascination with Moon Pix. I couldn’t really blame them, since the album didn’t exactly bring on the good times.
But I understood.
In 1998, my dad just had a heart bypass and was later diagnosed with cancer. My sister pretty much guilt-tripped me into taking a scholarship in engineering, a subject that I had very little love for. I seriously did feel that a phase of my life was over.
Chan Marshall would subsequently reinvent herself as a soul singer of sorts and release a couple of very good covers record, but her very raw and unfiltered sentiments in Moon Pix are really what I love best about her.
Eight) Dummy – Portishead (1994)
Here’s a fun fact about me. The last music movement that I was somewhat familiar with was trip hop.
Yes, the trip hop that reached a creative peak in the mid-nineties. Before trip hop, I was intimately familiar with grunge and britpop. I was even inspired to listen to the shoegaze and punk records that came earlier after reading up about the movements in the music mags. To my very young ears, trip hop was something groundbreaking and exotic.
Unfortunately, after trip hop came the very faceless jungle, drum and bass and electronica movements. Meanwhile, state-side, post-rock, emo and screamo were eliciting a collective yawn. Thereafter, I will still listen to particular records that friends talked about, but I could not give a shit about new genres or the exploding New York garage rock scene or the entire Jade Tree repertoire.
Anyway, back to Bristol in 1994, where a young band named Portishead just released their debut album. To the uninitiated, Portishead’s records tend to have a lush, cinematic quality to it, except that the movie genre would be horror and the DJs scratch these records like their lives depend on it. The subsequent self-titled record and Third would see the band going off in a tangent, introducing new strange and disturbing sounds, but Dummy is possibly what I considered the perfect amalgamation of orchestral melodies and innovative beats and scratches.
Portishead consists of the trio of Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons and Adrian Utley. While each member has a significant contribution to the band, it would be amiss not to acknowledge Beth Gibbons as the key to the Portishead sound. Singing every verse as if she were on the verge of heartbreak, Beth Gibbons’ vocals have a very theatrical quality to it, which serve the soundtrack well. Of course, in retrospect, I don’t think Beth Gibbons is depressed (unlike Chan Marshall). Beth Gibbons is just very expressive, and her distinctive vocals are another layer in the mix, much like the orchestra melodies and the beats.
To this day, songs like Roads, Sour Times and Glory Box still send a chill down my spine every time I hear them, which is probably as good a testament as any to the timelessness of the songs.