Favorite 90s Albums: #3 – Sleater-Kinney – “Dig Me Out”

At this point, I’m sure people are aware of my deep, abiding love of Sleater-Kinney.  They’re my musical religion, the band that, to me, represents everything that music should be about. All of the elements that make them a definitive rock band to me are present on their 1997 album Dig Me Out, which many fans would argue is their high point as a group.

Admittedly, I’m a big dork about rock music.  For me, it isn’t for blasting in the radio or playing at a party.  Rather, I like to take the term literally:  It should “rock” you, make you think, and wake you up from the constant doldrums of life and humanity.  Alleged “rock” bands that don’t do these things are frequently the target of my ire and it’s a constant disagreement I have with other people.

Dig Me Out is one of my all-time favorite rock albums because it has such a sense of purpose.  It isn’t just trying to sound cool or to be a fun soundtrack to a dance party (although some of the songs are quite danceable).  It wants to jolt the listener, to move them and inspire them.  And for a certain group of people, the types that are disenfranchised with the status quo in both the real world and music world, it does just that, which might explain why the band has such a rabid (but relatively small) following.

For Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney brought in a new drummer, Janet Weiss, to go along with Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s two-pronged guitar and vocals assault.  Weiss immediately gave the band a new-found sense of confidence and swagger, and as a result Dig Me Out sounds like their first album in which they’re aspiring to be a great all-around rock band rather than just a punk outfit.  Her presence was immediately felt in the opening title track, which I consider one of the band’s signature songs.

After the release of their 2000 album “All Hands on the Bad One”, music critic Robert Christgau said of the band: “locked into a visceral style and sound that always maximizes their considerable and highly specific gifts, they could no more make a bad album than the Rolling Stones in 1967.”  It’s a bold statement, but one I find completely true:  Not only can I not imagine Sleater-Kinney making a bad album, it’s hard for me to picture them making a bad song.  Corin Tucker’s attention-demanding vocals, Brownstein’s complex riffwork and vocal chemistry with Tucker along with Weiss’s drumming made Sleater-Kinney into a machine.  It’s apparent on Dig Me Out, which comes storming out of the gate with three of the band’s best songs and never lets up from there, providing an exhilarating 36 minutes of rock and roll.

The oddball song on the album is “One More Hour,” a more personal song that (apparently) details the break-up between Tucker and Brownstein that happened in the early days of the band.  Sleater-Kinney’s style makes the song work perfectly, as the ping-ponging guitars and vocals also play into the idea of the two having had a relationship.  I think it’s one of the all-time great indie break-up songs and it foreshadows the shift Sleater-Kinney would make on their next album (“The Hot Rock”) into more personal territory instead of rousing, occasionally feminist anthems.

I’ve always thought that all-female bands occupied a strange place in music, which might be why I’m so fascinated by them.  The female listeners they’re often trying to inspire often just listen to sensitive guys strumming on guitar, while a lot of male listeners look up to male rock idols in order to seem “manly.”  The band seemed to channel a lot of those concepts into meta songs about being in a band, like the infectious “Words and Guitar.”

The band’s greatness has eventually caused me to dub something called “The Sleater-Kinney Effect”, based on how lame the band is able to make other artists (especially their male counterparts) sound after listening to them.  The effect becomes even more pronounced through time, as 90’s guitar rock went by the wayside and Sleater-Kinney towered over unoriginal post-punk bands and wimpy indie pop in the first half of the 2000s.  In 1997 things probably felt the same way, as Dig Me Out provided a jolt of legitimate female empowerment at the height of the Spice Girls “girl power” movement, and surely inspired many women (including one of my favorite current artists, Marnie Stern) to pick up a guitar.

Despite how convinced I am that they’re one of the best bands ever, I’ve come to accept that Sleater-Kinney is a love-it or hate-it proposition.  Tucker’s vocals are difficult on the ears a lot of listeners and a lot of people are put off by the band’s apparent feminist sloganeering.  At the same time, the idea of listening to Dig Me Out and not being inspired by the passion put into each song is foreign to me, even as a guy who isn’t really the target audience.  More than any other band, I feel like people that love Sleater-Kinney “get it” on a level beyond typical music listeners.

Favorite 90s Albums: #4 – Radiohead – “OK Computer”

I’ve been sort of dreading this one.  What is there left to be written about OK Computer?  By now, I imagine anyone who remotely cares about music has listened to it and formed their opinion on it.  Just about any list of top 90’s albums that is worth anything will have it at or near the top, with most praising it as a landmark album that has come to define the 90’s and everything that came after it.  It’s a prescient album that in some ways predicts how the internet would make music extremely fractured today in 2011.  It’s hard for me to imagine another album being made that unifies as many people as this one, that is celebrated by both the indie sect and more casual music fans.

Since enough has been said about it, I don’t really feel like giving my own inferior analysis of the music.  If you haven’t heard OK Computer, do it.  Now.  Close your door, stop reading this crappy blog, put on your headphones and spend the better part of the next hour listening intently.  Meanwhile, I can at least share what this album means to me personally.

I’m somewhat unique among the musically obsessed in that I didn’t really listen to music at all growing up.  My parents both played some classical stuff on guitar or piano, but there was very little in the ways of contemporary music.  When people asked me favorite bands or songs, I just kind of shrugged and said I didn’t listen to music.  Pretty much all of my musical memories from this time are things I was exposed to unwillingly:  Awful Smash Mouth songs, the collected works of pretty much every late 90’s boy band (thanks to my sister), and most of the other ubiquitous 90’s hits.  There was nothing that I ever sought out myself.

It wasn’t until high school that I began to take at least a casual interest in music.  It probably had something to do with the transition going on in my life, from a previously happy and well-adjusted elementary and middle schooler into an alienated high schooler.  After living a mostly sheltered existence, high school was the first time I saw what the real world was, and for the most part recognized how terrible it is.  I had always been considered funny, witty, and smart by people who knew me, but in high school none of those traits seemed to be valued. Eventually I basically gave up on trying to relate to my peers and became incredibly shy and withdrawn (problems I still struggle with today).  For the most part, I had no real friends that I was seeing regularly and just a handful of acquaintances who I would occasionally talk to.

After each day of high school, I would usually take a nap, but then I’d have nothing to do for the next 7-8 hours (since I rarely did my homework).  And that’s when I began to start seeking out music, partly out of boredom but also because there was this whole world that I had really not explored at all.  For the first year or so (I’m guessing), I latched on to just a handful of bands:  Oasis, Muse, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and The Verve.  And those bands, and pretty much just those bands, became music for me.  I listened to them constantly and didn’t bother finding anything else for a weirdly long amount of time.  (Sidenote:  I still listen to Oasis and The Verve occasionally, but now just hearing one note of Muse and RHCP is enough to almost make me gag.)

Eventually I began to look for more bands, and I decided to try to find bands similar to Muse. When searching, I found a lot of people saying that Muse was simply a worse version of Radiohead (“how could Muse be a worse version of anything?” I thought to myself).  So, I looked up Radiohead, saw that OK Computer was their most acclaimed and recognized album, and decided to give it a shot.

Now this will sound really corny, but it’s true:  OK Computer changed me.  It wasn’t just that it was so beyond anything I had ever heard musically, but it was also the first music that I really felt spoke to me and my situation.  It wasn’t poppy the way the Britpop bands were and wasn’t focused purely on histrionics like Muse.  It was all emotion, and it was all the emotions that I was feeling and felt weren’t being articulated anywhere else.  And it almost instantly sent me down the path from being someone who just listened to some music to being someone that really cared about music.  In a sense, Radiohead (and other bands I grew attached to) replaced the friends I didn’t really have, which might be why I’m so passionate about my favorite artists.

Now, 4-5 years later, I don’t find myself listening to OK Computer as much, possibly because it’s inextricably linked to a time in my life that I’d rather forget.  But I’ll always be indebted to it, and whenever I listen to it again I’m reminded of how powerful it is.  When I hear someone complain that Radiohead is too sad or mopey for them, I just kind of shake my head and chuckle, because I know that they don’t get it and probably never will.  And it reconfirms that, despite their massive popularity, Radiohead is a band that seems like they made music just for me.

Favorite 90s Albums: #5 – Björk – “Homogenic”

At this point, it seems like Björk is one of those artists that is known for everything but the music she makes.  Instead, we primarily hear about how weird she is, the swan dress, the music videos, and the various multimedia work she does.  Talking to people my age, I sometimes feel like Björk is more of an abstract idea than an actual person:  She represents the dreaded “weird music,” the type that just “isn’t for me” or is “too out there” for them to enjoy.

Now certainly, a lot of this is because Björk is, in fact, weird.  But why is weirdness considered such a bad thing by so many people?  Personally, I’ve always thought weirdness was one of the most crucial attributes for a musician — I frankly have very little interest in hearing some normal guy or girl playing music.  I want to hear weirdos, the weirdest weirdos imaginable, the kind that make music because they’re so damn weird that music is the only thing they can do to keep what little shred of sanity they are still holding to.  I want weirdos that are so weird that even other weirdo musicians find them weird.

I love Björk because she is a special kind of weirdo, gifted with an incredible voice that is one of the wonders of the modern world, but also with a knack for the avant garde and a relentless creative ambition.  Obviously, her music won’t be everyone, but I think it’s far more accessible than most would think given all the second-hand things they often hear about her.

This brings me to Homogenic, which I consider to be the highlight of Björk’s magical career, and one that also represents one of the many changes in style for her.  After her first two solo albums, “Debut” and “Post”, played up her quirky pixie image, Homogenic departed from that, instead focusing on cool strings and beats to create a much more ominous and grandiose sound.  While “Post” was noted for being a hodge-podge of influences and styles, Homogenic was, as the title would suggest, a study of one sound.

That doesn’t mean the album is samey, but rather that it is incredibly consistent and cohesive while still having a lot of variety.  When it was released in 1997, Homogenic was on the cutting edge of pop, electronic, dance, and avant-garde music, and nearly 15 years later it still feels that way to me.  There are no dud tracks, and the album flows perfectly from each to the next, covering many different moods, from the looming opener “Hunter” to the magestic final track “All is Full of Love” (which, with its amazing robots-in-love music video, seems to be a precursor to just about all Pixar films).

 

In between, there are many other highlights that perfectly toe the line between accessibility and avant-garde.  “Jóga” is one of the career highlights for Björk, a stately dedication to a friend and her homeland of Iceland.  It’s likely the album’s most breathtaking moment and one of the most beautiful songs of the 90’s.

The most epic moment on the album is “Bachelorette,” which was conceived as a sequel of sorts to Post’s “Isobel.”  It has a huge, foreboding sound with its thudding beats and Björk’s voice soars even more than usual.  The music video, directed by Michel Gondry, is also one of the all-time greats (in general, the music videos of this album are fantastic and a testament to Björk’s appeal as an artist).

There are also quieter moments on Homogenic, including the lovely “Unravel”, as well as some of her more up-beat dance numbers like “Alarm Call”, which, like the rest of the album, also has great lyrics.  Although hearing Björk say “I’m no fucking buddhist” is always jarring, as she doesn’t seem like she should be capable of swearing.

Overall, this is one of my favorite electronic and pop albums and I find it to be a perfect summation of Björk’s strengths as an artist.  When people say they’re not sure if they’d like something like Björk, I usually tell them to listen to this album.  I don’t think they ever do, but if they did, they may be surprised at how beautiful the music is, and how authentic Björk is compared to some of today’s musicians who just put on a weird costume and are considered artists because of it.  Björk is the real deal, and I’ll always be a fan of her for that, even if others find her (and me) strange.

(Note: #6 in this series was Helium’s The Magic City.  Read all about it here: https://thenoisemadebypeople.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/helium-the-magic-city/)