Like everyone, much of my relationship with music is rooted in where I was and who I was when I’d first heard/been more or less irreversibly altered by whatever album from whichever musician/band. This is true of all of us who recall certain feelings or events once a certain note is plucked and the gears begin to turn and twist into an apparatus of reminiscence and sometimes longing that results in bliss, tears or vomiting. For me, twenty years ago isn’t a wellspring of fond remembrances, though that was the year I began to build my CD collection. I graduated from my tape deck to a boombox with dual decks and a CD tray, which would later enable me to spend countless hours in what I remember as a perpetual cycle of revelation and mix tape assembly.
This isn’t to say, though, that cassettes weren’t still investigated and sought after. After all, I could still play both and cassettes were cheaper than CDs at the time. My music library truly began to reflect who I was becoming in 1993 and the following albums were my musical identity began to thicken:
Tool – Undertow
It’s not completely unusual for a son to try and impress or please his father, especially when much of what he knew as far as music was concerned had been gleaned from the patriarchal record trove he’d come to adore and obsess over. As much of what I’d tried to expose to him from my what was becoming my generation’s music often allowed him to casually shrug or simply reassert that the music he’d grown up with was far superior, I still tried and tried and tried. At points I felt like I’d had something to play for him just about every weekend we were together. Tool’s Undertow had enough of the progressive elements of 60s and 70s rock and a riff-laden hard rush that I figured I’d maybe struck gold when I’d played it for him. Such wasn’t the case, but for me Undertow stayed its course through that year as somewhat of an obsession, digging on its emotional weight and audible clarity. This was an MTV discovery: “Sober” resonated heavily enough that I had to run out and pick up the album, albeit way after many of my fellow “headbanger” peers had. I remember having this conversation:
“I just picked up the new Tool! It’s so good!”
“New? Dude, that’s old. That was out, like, months ago.”
From this I understood the importance of jumping on the new stuff so as to be THAT guy that heard it and had it first. Otherwise, you were just a passenger on the bandwagon, drinking from the tastemaker’s glass and ingesting little more than backwash by the time it reached your lips.
Tool’s appeal to me sort of lost its luster after Lateralus, the band’s humor notably in absentia next to the progressively ornate and complex arrangements they’d investigated more and more. It’s not that I mind academia in music, (my love of Yes and Mahavishnu Orchestra confirm as much), but Tool’s more artful and subtle obscenity allowed them to perpetuate this mysteriously nihilistic persona that, in my mind, added more value to the package. It was no longer enough that they could play music — the cow licking its own asshole had to be part of the equation, as strange as that is to point out.
Primus – Pork Soda
After 1991’s Sailing the Seas of Cheese had more or less locked itself to my psyche, Primus’ follow-up, Pork Soda, had been a disappointment at first. While I appreciated that the band’s first single from the album, “My Name is Mud,” was an interesting little thumper about homicide via “aluminum baseball bat,” the album itself was a bigger, more ambitious effort, the band’s musical proclivities expanding to a grander scale. The overall goofiness of Primus seemed less prevalent, the album’s tone darker and more serious.
The more and more I listened to it, though, the more I could appreciate how Primus had grown creatively. The odd and heavy “Welcome to This World,” the psychedelically positioned “Ol' Diamondback Sturgeon (Fisherman's Chronicles, Pt. 3)” and then the see saw’d movement of the title track confirmed that Primus had not only maintained a fascinatingly prosperous level of weird, but Les Claypool’s thunderously dominant low end became more instrumentally sound, less a signature element than a versatile path into something more.
The immediate transition from “Bob” to “DMV” remains one of my favorite parts of any album.
Liz Phair – Exile In Guyville
I won’t deny it: I bought Exile In Guyville because it was dirty and I had a mild crush on Liz Phair.
As a sixteen year-old who’d yet traveled the thoroughfare to manhood via woman’s touch, it had not occurred to me that women could speak and think in terms as overtly sexual as those that Phair had employed. “Flower,” alone, required concentration for me to hear the words “blowjob queen” escape her lips, her vocal a stream of consciousness styled drone that had me both in shock and awe. (Yes, I know who Salt N’ Pepa are. Yes, I know that Liz Phair is not the first woman in rock n’ roll to address sex in a song. Yes, I’m aware that I sound like a complete and utter child. Yes, I know there’s more to Exile In Guyville than its penchant for provocation.)
But, that aside, Exile In Guyville appealed to me as a gentle rock album that offered me respite from some of the noisier, louder bands I’d subjected my ears to. It was noticeably long, but not monotonous. Lyrically, Phair was honest and had this resigned way of addressing the myriad situations presented in the album, which I found very engaging. “Canary” is quite moving and Phair does demonstrate more than her signature tone in songs like “Dance of the Seven Veils” and “Gunshy.”
I’ve been treating myself to multiple repeats of “Stratford-On-Guy,” remembering now that it's one the album's best songs.
Morbid Angel – Covenant
In pursuit of something loud and maybe more musically extreme, I came across Morbid Angel’s Covenant, the first Death Metal album to be released through a major label. I had this on cassette, and carried it around in my pocket as some symbol of an objection to my religious upbringing as well as a newfound transition into complete and total “fuck you.”
Only some of this was true: Black Metal’s then germinating and later subsequent fruit became a rather definitive oeuvre of Christian condemnation, y’know with church burnings and all. This evaded me at the time.
Anyway, Morbid Angel’s anti-Christian antagonism was further complimented and enforced by the severity of the music, which was both brutal and at times prone to moments of musical progression, of which I’ve only recently been able to fully comprehend. At the time, it was just loud and offensive. Now, it’s loud, offensive and really well done and one of the few Death Metal albums I’d ever really explored other than Napalm Death’s Scum, which I hated, and Death’s Individual Thought Patterns, which I may still own on some anonymous dubbed cassette somewhere. The Covenant cassette, though, has disappeared.
Standouts: “World of Shit (The Promised Land)” and “Sworn to the Black.” Somehow Covenant also boasted a single, “God Of Emptiness.”
Fugazi – In on the Kill Taker
In on the Kill Taker was my first properly owned Fugazi album and it led to my continued devotion.
I picked up a cassette of In On the Kill Taker at the Surf Mall on the Ocean City, New Jersey boardwalk and within seconds of hitting PLAY on a friend’s boombox, was immediately invested into its often abrasive tone and the immediacy with which it delivered on some understood promise of aggression, “Facet Squared,” “Public Witness Program” and “Smallpox Champion” composed with enough speed and fire to appease my want of volume. But, I was also particularly engaged by its softer or, at least, more pensive and emotionally invested sounding moments, songs like “Rend It” and “Last Chance for a Slow Dance.” “Sweet and Low” and “Instrument” remain two of my favorite Fugazi tracks.
Pennywise – Unknown Road
In 1992, as a formative youth with either pen or skateboard in hand, a musical identity in flux and no girl to speak of, a skateboarding video called Questionable, a demo from the amazing collective, Plan B, had an impact on me as far as how I wanted to be perceived, the talent I would seek to exude and then the albums I wanted to own. The first Bad Brains and Bad Religion songs I’d heard were both from this video, along with snippets of the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head. The inclusion of “Tommy The Cat” by Primus also gave me reason to pick up Sailing The Seas of Cheese.
This video, though, was also where I’d found Pennywise, and I was particularly fond of the song “Fun and Games” which was used to soundtrack the “slam” section of the video: ankles twisting out of character due to physics and gravity and more than a few testicles squished atop guardrails much to my visual anxiety. I picked up their then-new LP, Unknown Road, which put me on track to subsist mainly on Epitaph Records for a number of years.
Though I’m completely over the album now, Unknown Road at the time was a full-throttle exercise in melodic (accessible) punk speed and provided for me an avenue from which to discover other bands. It wasn’t the best avenue admittedly, as I was unfortunately slow to discover the “good stuff” (i.e. the non-melodic hardcore bands I really should’ve been listening to at the time). But, Pennywise was a partial starting point for me. I’m sure I could’ve done worse.
Nirvana – In Utero
This is a pretty obvious inclusion.
Frank Zappa and Ensemble Modern – The Yellow Shark
It was maybe a month after I picked up The Yellow Shark that Frank Zappa passed away. Being the only non-posthumous Zappa release I own, The Yellow Shark is very special to me. It’s an orchestral interpretation of Zappa’s music, so “Uncle Meat,” “Be-Bop Tango” and “Pound For a Brown” all make appearances, composed for a live audience and conducted by Zappa and Peter Rundel.
Though celebratory in tone, I’ve never been able to listen to The Yellow Shark without hearing some sense of the composer’s mortality. The album’s cover is a rather somber portrait of Zappa that almost communicates from him an awareness that time was almost up.
Still, the album ends with the best rendition of Jazz From Hell’s “G-Spot Tornado,” a huge outro garnering crowded praise during what may have been Zappa’s last living recorded hurrah.
Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Björk – Debut
Sepultura – Chaos A.D.
Bad Religion – Recipe for Hate
Cypress Hill – Black Sunday
Letters From A Tapehead