Favorite 90s Albums: #10 – Neutral Milk Hotel – “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”

I should hate “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea.”  Really, I should.  I mean, a nasal voiced, hipster white guy singing about how sad he is after reading Anne Frank’s diary?  It would be difficult to imagine a lamer concept for an album or one that is deserving of more ridicule.  And as a devoted fan of girl rock and hard-hitting rock music in general, sensitive male-fronted folk-rock lies pretty far outside of my comfort zone.

And yet, here we are.  I do love “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea” — maybe not as much as a lot of other people, given that is it one of the most beloved indie albums ever, but enough to consider it one of the finest albums of what I consider the greatest decade in music.

In trying to articulate why I love “Aeroplane” so much when I typically can’t stand wimpy guy music, I decided that I love it because it is coming from such an honest place.  There is something undeniable about frontman Jeff Mangum’s sincere, relentless dedication to this seemingly silly concept, and the fact that doubt never seemed to enter his mind:  At no point did he say, “hey guys, don’t you think this horn part is a bit much?” or “isn’t the phrase ‘semen stains the mountaintops’ a bit too jarring and weird for a mass audience?”  It is an album that is completely unconcerned with what other people think about it.  It’s almost as if Mangum was inviting snarky jackasses like me to make fun of him because he knew, either due to an incredible amount of confidence or pure insanity (or both), that it would work.

Musically, “Aeroplane” is extremely original, with few real precedents when it comes to its combination of orchestral arrangements and fuzzed out, lo-fi production.  The instrumentation is also bizarre, and Mangum’s use of accordions, horns, and other instruments gives the album a distinct timeless quality.  While other albums on this list will have a distinct “90’s” sound, I find that “Aeroplane” sounds like it could have existed in pretty much any era of music.  It isn’t tied down by any trends that were happening at the time —  it just kind of exists.

Mangum’s lyrics are also a signature, replacing typical simple rock lyrics with long, wordy passages that read more like prose.  He also is able to craft a lot of uncomfortable imagery, like on the eight minute epic “Oh Comely” which has lines like “your father made fetuses with flesh-licking ladies”, or on “Two-Headed Boy” when Mangum sings “and they’ll be placing fingers through the notches of your spine”.  There’s also a direct reference to Anne Frank on “Oh Comely”, as Mangum wails “I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine.”  It’s one of those moments that could be really corny, but Mangum is blessed with the gift of making lyrics like those sound like they’re coming straight from the bottom of his soul.  That ability is able to make you feel that he sincerely cares about Anne Frank’s plight and isn’t just doing a glorified middle school writing assignment.

The highlight of the album for me is “Holland, 1945”, which is also the most straight-forward rock/pop song.  The fast tempo and his typically wordy lyrics give Mangum’s vocals a rushed feel, as if he’s trying to cram every thought he has into the roughly three minutes of song he has to work with.  It’s a feeling of wild, overstuffed imagination that permeates the album.  It also is probably the song that is most directly about Anne Frank — about how  “they buried her alive/one evening, 1945/with just her sister at her side.”  “Holland, 1945” is sophisticated, legitimately catchy, and extremely moving.  I think it stands up as one of the greatest indie rock songs of all time.  If you don’t like it, there’s a very realistic chance that I hate you.

While the Anne Frank connection is well known, “Aeroplane” remains a very mysterious album, thanks to Mangum’s interpretive lyrics.  It’s difficult to tell which parts of the album are about Frank, which are intensely personal, or whether the entire thing is a combination of both.  The album gains further mystique due to Mangum’s life since the album:  As “Aeroplane” has continued to garner acclaim and influence bands over the years, the man responsible for it has mostly been silent, instead content to play the occasional unannounced acoustic live set or contribute on albums made by friends.  Only recently has Mangum re-emerged, announcing a solo tour and curating an All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival this year.

All of this makes it easy to see why “Aeroplane” is held in such high esteem by indie music fans.  It’s a true “indie” album, in the sense that it has its own ideas and doesn’t seem to care about any trends.  And Mangum himself is one of the most intriguing figures in the history of indie rock, a reclusive maybe-genius whose motivations for making it remain largely unknown.  While “Aeroplane” has been one of the most influential indie albums ever, no artist has been able to replicate its conceptual nature, the sophisticated lyrics, the grand arrangements, and the emotional honesty (although The Decemberists have tried really, really hard).  Many bands have taken bits and pieces of it; none have come close to it as a whole.

“Aeroplane” is the kind of album that I think unites people — almost all indie fans, regardless of what they typically listen to, seem to have some love for it.  Listening to it, I am always in awe of its singularity, how it seems so detached from all other music, and how fearlessly emotional it is.  It has alternately moved and baffled listeners for over a decade now, and seems like it will only continue to grow in popularity and acclaim as time goes on.

The 25 Greatest Girl Rock Songs: Part Three

10.  Elastica – “Stutter” (1993)

Insulting an ex-boyfriend has long been a tradition in girl rock, but I’m not sure if any ex has been eviscerated quite as soundly as the poor bastard that got “Stutter” written about him. In a sense, that poor bastard is every male rock star who has sung about his sex appeal or getting laid: “Stutter” isn’t just a roaring, catchy britpop/punk song, but a perfectly executed take-down of masculine bro culture. Singer Justine Frischmann brings a somewhat detached sexuality to the song, even though it’s about erectile dysfunction (a topic that I can’t imagine many male singers have tackled). “Is there something you lack/when I’m flat on my back/is there something I can do for you?” she sneers in the chorus, followed by the final zinger: “Is it just that I’m much too much for you?” Ouch.

9.  The Slits – “Typical Girls” (1979)

The Slits were one of the weirdest bands in rock music history: One of the earliest female punk bands, their lead singer was a teenager with a wild, Medusa-like head of hair. They also had a growing love of African rhythms, which manifested itself on their 1979 album “Cut”, a bizarre combination of girl punk and reggae fronted by Ari Up’s quivering voice. Like most of their songs, “Typical Girls” is strange and unpredictable, veering wildly between a twinkling piano part and the reggae-influenced post-punk of the rest of the album. During all this sonic weirdness, the band recites a laundry list of things about “typical girls” — they’re confusing, they don’t think too clearly, they buy magazines, and in the end they get the typical boy. “Typical Girls” is all kinds of goofy fun, and one of the first big feminist statements in rock music.

8.  X-Ray Spex – “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” (1977)

In 1977, the UK punk scene was still dominated by males. Then along came Poly Styrene, one of the first frontwomen in punk history and certainly one of the most unique. She performed wearing a weird dayglo wardrobe and large dental braces, presenting herself as pretty much the opposite of whatever a female sex symbol should be. She also had a huge voice that she puts to good use on their first single, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” With its iconic opening lines (“some people think little girls should be seen and not heard”) and 16 year old Lora Logic’s saxophone playing, it’s a fiery and quirky punk song that is a clear precursor to pretty much any female punk band that came after. Styrene passed away in April, but her influence on this little segment of music will be felt forever.

7.  The Breeders – “Cannonball” (1993)

I’d like to just list the parts of “Cannonball” that get stuck in my head on a regular basis: the “OOOO-oooo” thing at the beginning. The bouncing bass line. The surf-poppy guitar part. The verses. The chorus. Free from the evil male tyranny of Black Francis, Kim Deal let it all loose on “Cannonball”, throwing as many hooks at the wall as she could and hoping that they’d stick. Of course, they all do, and as a result it’s one of the catchiest and most infectious songs ever. “Cannonball” may not be a feminist anthem — in fact, I have no idea what the song is even about — but you’d be hard pressed to find a song with so many ideas that are all executed so well. They don’t make them like this anymore.

6.  Jefferson Airplane – “White Rabbit” (1967)

“White Rabbit” is a revolutionary song on multiple levels: it’s a pioneering psychedelic song and one of the first examples of not-so-subtly disguised drug references making it onto the radio. I would also argue that “White Rabbit” is the first truly great female rock song, and, sure enough, it is the oldest one on this list. The “Alice in Wonderland” inspired lyrics are clever if nothing else, and point out a valid hypocrisy among parents who forbid drug use but then read a book like that to their children. But I mostly enjoy the trippy instrumentation, the way the song grows over its entire two and a half minutes, and the truly virtuosic vocal performance by Grace Slick.

5.  Sonic Youth – “Kool Thing” (1990)

“Kool Thing” apparently began as an excuse to trash LL Cool J in song form, but it ended up becoming something bigger: a bold feminist statement from one of the most respected rock bands in the world as their first major label single. Kim Gordon’s song is full of feminist punk attitude, and it’s a vicious takedown of the misogynistic rap culture (which would only get worse with time) thanks to a hilarious performance by guest vocalist Chuck D. of Public Enemy (“tell it like it is!” “word up!” “hit ’em where it hurts!”). It helps that the song also rocks like a beast, thanks to the signature noise created by guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. In a long and extremely prolific career, “Kool Thing” stands out as one of Sonic Youth’s best moments and a hugely important piece of girl rock.

4.  PJ Harvey – “Sheela-Na-Gig” (1992)

22 year old singer/songwriter/genius PJ Harvey arrived fully formed in 1992 with her debut album “Dry” and its best song “Sheela-Na-Gig.” An unassuming farm girl from England, PJ was nonetheless armed with many musical weapons: a massive voice despite her tiny frame, a complete absence of fear when it came to writing lyrics, and a deep love of blues music and rock. She deploys all of them on “Sheela-Na-Gig”, an astonishing song about a woman whose body is rejected by her man (Wikipedia Sheela-Na-Gig for more information on what she’s talking about). The punk/blues/grunge sound of PJ’s early work combined with those lyrics makes “Sheela-Na-Gig” raw, intense, and a little bit discomforting. In other words, exactly what rock music should be. “Sheela-Na-Gig” is the first moment of genius in PJ Harvey’s career and one of the songs that helps cement her status as the boldest, and, for lack of a better term, ballsiest female artist of all time.

3.  Bikini Kill – “Rebel Girl” (1993)

What does a revolution sound like? I don’t know, but “Rebel Girl”, with its military-style drum beat, Kathleen Hanna’s fiery vocals, and that sing-along chorus has to be pretty close. Widely acknowledged as pioneers of the Riot Grrrl movement, Bikini Kill gained media notoriety for their radical feminist music and, ironically, for their decision to shun the mainstream media. While I find the actual Riot Grrrl music to be hit-or-miss a lot of the time, “Rebel Girl” stands out as not only the best crafted song of the movement, but also the one that most perfectly captures what it’s all about. Riot Grrrl was frequently pigeonholed as music that was only about tearing down men (and certainly some of it was), but “Rebel Girl” is all about the positive things that women should be doing: holding their head up high and generally ignoring what other people said about them. Bikini Kill were known for their righteous fury, but “Rebel Girl” sounds like a celebration of everything that Riot Grrrl achieved.

2.  Sleater-Kinney – “Dig Me Out” (1997)

By 1997, the Riot Grrrl movement was over and the state of girl rock was in disarray. It took Sleater-Kinney roughly six seconds of their third album “Dig Me Out” to establish themselves as the new torchbearers of girl rock, and as simply one of the best bands in the world. That’s the time it takes for Carrie Brownstein’s memorable guitar riff to play through one time and for new drummer Janet Weiss’ crashing drums to come thundering in. Then comes Corin Tucker’s monstrous firecracker of a voice, an unhinged wail that is able to make even the most basic lyrics sound like a deeply meaningful statement. “Dig Me Out” has a seemingly unsustainable amount of visceral intensity and passion, but Sleater-Kinney keep it going for the rest of that classic album and then for four more after that. In the process, they made it look like their male indie rock counterparts weren’t even trying. “Dig Me Out” is a massive song by not just the best girl band ever, but one of the best bands ever, period.

1.  Patti Smith – “Gloria” (1975)

Patti Smith wanted to turn rock music upside down on her debut album “Horses.” On the opening song she pretty much does that literally, borrowing the chorus of a classic horndog male rock song and subverting it into an intellectual feminist statement that absolutely shatters any gender barrier that had previously existed in rock. The reason “Gloria” is number one is simple: outside of Jefferson Airplane, it would not be a stretch to say that every single song on this list is indebted to Patti Smith, and this song in particular. It has possibly the most iconic opening lines in rock music history (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”), a groundbreaking structure, and Patti Smith’s voice, which sounds like no other female singer before it. “Gloria” marks a turning point in music, where women could not only rock, but do it on an intellectual level instead of one completely based on sex appeal or appealing to the lowest common denominator.

The 25 Greatest Girl Rock Songs: Part Two

19.  The Raincoats – “Fairytale in the Supermarket” (1979)

The Raincoats were one of the very first female post-punk bands and crafted a sound that has still not really been replicated, a quirky and dissonant combination of folk and punk with jagged guitars and a screeching violin.  “Fairytale in the Supermarket” was their first single and remains their signature song (along with their similarly off-kilter rendition of The Kinks’ “Lola”).  It combined their unique sound with lyrics that are completely free of cliche and the manic, fun energy that personified most of these female groups.  The Raincoats were also a favorite of Nirvana singer and fellow girl rock enthusiast Kurt Cobain, who helped get their albums re-released and wrote liner notes for them.  Riding that wave of new fans, The Raincoats made a new album in 1996 and still occasionally perform together today.  Thanks Kurt.

18.  Joan Jett – “Bad Reputation” (1980)

Having surfaced in seemingly every teen movie and TV show (including as the theme to the beloved “Freaks and Geeks”), amongst other places, “Bad Reputation” might be one of the most overplayed songs ever.  Which is too bad, because as a result I don’t think anyone ever stops to think about just how good of a song it is.  Released in 1980 after her stint with the Runaways, Jett’s song is an unsophisticated and gloriously bratty piece of girl punk, with the highest level of fun and energy possible.  And sometimes there’s something to be said for a song that everyone can relate to, and “Bad Reputation” is certainly one of those — why else would it appear in so many movies and TV shows?

17.  Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone” (2004)

I’m probably going to get crap for this one, but I don’t care:  “Since U Been Gone” is an amazing song that isn’t just perfect pop but rocks surprisingly hard.  Remove all preconceptions about who is singing it and what radio station you heard it on and instead savor the anthemic chorus, the deliciously biting, kiss off lyrics, and the killer bridge.  But what really separates this song and Clarkson from other bland female pop-rock is the fact that Clarkson can sing her face off and that she brought the perfect combination of pissed-off rage and new-found joy to the song.  She may have been a product of a pop music machine, but for at least one song Clarkson rocked as hard as anyone.

16.  Pixies – “Gigantic” (1988)

I have a hard time truly loving the Pixies, because whenever I listen to them and hear Black Francis’ yelpy voice, I find myself wishing that Kim Deal was singing.  On “Gigantic”, Deal makes the most of one of her rare chances in the spotlight for the influential alternative rock band.  Anchored by her simple bass line and featuring their trademark quiet-loud dynamics, “Gigantic” offers a humorous contrast between Deal’s syrupy vocals and the raunchy content of the lyrics, which detail a white woman lusting after a large black… man (although it’s also effective as a take on white suburban boredom).  “Gigantic” remains one of the Pixies’ best known songs and offers a taste of the excellent Kim Deal girl rock that would follow.

15.  Kleenex/LiLiPUT – “Die Matrosen” (1980)

Like most of their female post-punk counterparts, the Swiss band LiLiPUT (formerly Kleenex – a brand of tampons in Switzerland – before a forced name change) made up for a lack of instrumental skill with heavy doses of creativity and enthusiasm.  That’s particularly evident on “Die Matrosen”, a ridiculously fun and catchy song with a strong funky bass line, jangly guitars, a saxophone part that sounds like it stumbled in off the set of “Hawaii Five-O”, and best of all, a whistling chorus.  As if that’s not enough, there’s also some good vocals and lyrics about going two people going on a date that somewhat resemble a nursery rhyme.  Like The Raincoats, LiLiPUT’s music fell out of print for several years, growing into something of a legend, before being re-released by female rock friendly label Kill Rock Stars in 1993.

14.  Liz Phair – “Fuck and Run” (1993)

It’s easy to see why Liz Phair captivated rock critics with her first album “Exile in Guyville” – she was good looking, potty-mouthed, and no songwriting topic was off limits.  Phair would (often shamelessly) live up to that foul-mouthed bad-girl reputation on later releases, but there was much more to “Guyville” and its best song “Fuck and Run” than simply dropping some f-bombs.  The lyrics to the song are painfully honest and almost uncomfortable in their unflinching self-reflection, as Phair thinks “I’m gonna spend my whole life alone” after another one night stand.  While Phair’s career notoriously went downhill after “Guyville” (including a disastrous attempt at pop stardom on her self-titled 2003 album), her debut was a scrappy, lo-fi masterpiece that took confessional songwriting to a whole new level.

13.  Helium – “Pat’s Trick” (1995)

I’ve already mentioned on this blog that I consider Helium to be one of the most under-appreciated bands ever — in a world in which justice prevailed, frontwoman Mary Timony would have been universally seen as an indie  rock goddess.  Alas, we don’t live in such a world, and Helium’s music has mostly been forgotten except by die-hard girl rock dorks and mid-90s nostalgists.  “Pat’s Trick” is likely their defining song, and showcases Timony’s considerable guitar skills along with her smart, feminist lyrics (and her career-long affinity for pirates).  The band’s low-end sludge and Timony’s husky voice give a darker edge to their sound that helps make “Pat’s Trick” simultaneously mysterious, catchy, and just plain brilliant.

12.  Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps” (2003)

For a band previously known mostly for frontwoman Karen O’s wild stage performances and a trashy, garage punk sound, “Maps” was a very uncharacteristic song.  Karen O isn’t the strongest singer, but on most early Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs she made up for it with crazy, sexed-up energy.  However, on “Maps”, she sings straight from the heart, and the aching sincerity behind the simple lyrics is what makes it one of the hardest things to pull off in music:  A love ballad that doesn’t sound cliched or corny in any way.  The overlooked other members of the trio also carry their weight on “Maps”, particularly guitarist Nick Zinner, whose guitar solos help give the song a more epic feel.  The success of “Maps” propelled Yeah Yeah Yeahs into the spotlight, and made them one of the few female-led alternative rock mainstays of the 2000s.

11.  X – “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” (1980)

On their classic debut album “Los Angeles”, west coast punk band X trafficked in songs about the dark, seedy side of the title city.  Album opener “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” establishes the tone for the rest of the album, and showcases Exene Cervenka as one of the best female vocalists in punk history.  While other punk bands were amateurish, X were pros with plenty of technical skill and the songwriting duo of poets Cervenka and John Doe.  As a result, “Your Phone’s Off the Hook..” isn’t just a rocking punk number, but also one with plenty of intellectual depth.  The dark lyrics tell the story of a robbery, and the guitar riff and Cervenka’s powerful vocals give the sense of paranoia and dread that would typify the rest of the album.  And, as much as I hate to praise a male vocalist, John Doe’s backing vocals are also top notch.  “Your Phone’s Off the Hook…” is simply one of the best punk songs by one of the best punk bands.