Wednesday, February 29, 2012

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1992

1992 may not have been the year grunge broke out, but it was certainly the year it invaded the mainstream. The commercial dominance of hair metal was over; the new shapes and dimensions of alternative rock was now king. The otherwise unassuming northwest metropolis of Seattle was now the center of pop culture; not unlike Liverpool or Haight-Ashbury in the '60s, the Emerald City was a breeding ground for hot bands, haute couture (flannel!), and overpriced gourmet coffee (Starbucks!). Ironically, the most important album of '92 was released in 1991; Nirvana's Nevermind hit #1 early in the year and cast a long shadow over its imitators, contemporaries, and successors. On the flip side of grunge was a potent period for hip-hop, with the rise of New Jack swing (funky and danceable), alternative rap (literate yet playful), and most notable of all gangsta rap (hardcore, violent, censor-baiting).

1. Automatic for the People, R.E.M. Taking a staggering left-field turn from their poppy but wildly uneven 1991 effort Out of Time, R.E.M. changed gears and created something haunting, melancholy, and utterly beautiful. Evoking the southern gothic of Fables of the Reconstruction, their third major-label disc (and eighth overall) is a folk album at heart, carried by songs about aging, death, and loss and assisted by a restrained string section and acoustic instrumentation. Automatic is also a transitional album, the point in the band's career where they went from outsiders looking in to elder statesmen of rock, from scrappy, workmanlike touring act to confident stadium headliners.
2. Slanted and Enchanted, Pavement. The unofficial inventors and innovators of lo-fi indie rock, this Stockton, CA quartet's debut effort introduced frontman Stephen Malkmus as an important songwriter and subvertor of conventional pop structures. Primitive and amateurish from a distance, Malkmus and his cohorts reinterpret old melodies in a way that straddles the line between complete insanity and oddly poetic. Case in point: the leadoff track "Summer Babe (Winter Version)," where Malkmus spits out surrealist lyrics of ennui and yearning while drummer Scott Kannberg pretends to search for a beat.
3. The Chronic, Dr. Dre. The gold standard of '90s gangsta rap, the good doctor's solo debut introduced Snoop Dogg, begat the defining song of its era ("Ain't Nothin' But a 'G' Thang"), and set the blueprint for hip-hop for the next 20 years. Meticulously produced by Dre and the infamous Suge Knight, Chronic floats in a sea of rolling basslines, whirling synths, and a generous heap of Parliament-Funkadelic samples. The lyrical substance is anything but; visceral, violent, embittered, and un-PC, with Dre's catharsis playing yin to Snoop's relaxed yang.
4. Hollywood Town Hall, The Jayhawks
5. Dirt, Alice in Chains
6. Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine
7. Check Your Head, Beastie Boys
8. Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos
9. Your Arsenal, Morrissey
10. 3 Years, 5 Months, & 2 Days In The Life of..., Arrested Development. Perceived in its time as the game-changer in hip-hop (compared to the alienating Chronic), AD's first full-length is not quite the essential disc it was first hyped to be, but still influential in its own way. Noticeably literate and positive in message, this Atlanta-based unit stood for black unity and brotherly compassion without coming off as too naive or implying any type of double standard. Even though AD never equaled the excellence of 3 Years they're now considered the forefathers of southern hip-hop, and acts like OutKast and Goodie Mob owe a debt to the path Speech and company paved.

Honorable Mentions: The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, The Black Crowes; Core, Stone Temple Pilots; Bone Machine, Tom Waits.

"Friday I'm in Love," The Cure
"Life is a Highway," Tom Cochrane
"Jump Around," House of Pain
"Atomic Garden," Bad Religion
"Got Me Wrong," Alice In Chains
"Girlfriend," Matthew Sweet
"Mr. Cancelled," Cows
"Digging in the Dirt," Peter Gabriel
"Walking in Memphis," Marc Cohn
"Hey Jealousy," Gin Blossoms
"If I Had $1,000,000," Barenaked Ladies
"Tears in Heaven," Eric Clapton

1. "Jeremy," Pearl Jam. I can't blame you if it's hard to sit through multiple viewings --I will attest to that-- but that merely illustrates the power of this video, which is based to two real-life school shootings in 1991.
2. "Baby Got Back," Sir Mix-A-Lot. Pure hip-hip cheese.
3. "Right Now," Van Halen. Pop metal that informs as well as entertains.
4. "Everybody Hurts," R.E.M. The Christian rock subgenre first came to prominence in the early '90s, and this hymn-like ballad by an otherwise secular act became a crossover hit in reverse. Not that Michael Stipe and the boys would complain; next to the equally misleading "Losing My Religion," this is their best-known song.
5. "Remember the Time," Michael Jackson. Hyped as a short film and directed by John Singleton, the epic "Time" was not nearly as controversial as "Black and White" but certainly just as extravagant. Plus, who knew Magic Johnson had comic timing?

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