Modern Classic Albums Part 8: 30-21
We’re finally back with the next part of the Modern Classic Albums countdown! This segment sees us travel through the 20s; checking out some iconic hardcore, hip hop, alt rock, folk and more along the way.
Tom Waits – Bone Machine
Genre: Experimental Rock, Singer/Songwriter
Description: Tom Waits is one of those incredible artists that seems to be able to transcend all cultural changes and still remain completely relevant with everything he releases. His stunning discography is remarkably consistent, perhaps even the most consistent of any long-performing solo artist. His standout albums of the last few decades include basically everything he has produced! Possibly the pick of the bunch is his first album of the 90s though. Bone Machine sits comfortably beside Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs as a seminal Tom Waits album. Like most Waits records, the variation between songs is one of the great strong points. Take the gorgeous “Dirt in the Ground” if you like his ballads. “Goin’ Out West” if you like his funkier side. Or perhaps “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me” if you like his über experimental cuts. Waits really does give something for every listener to grab onto. And that voice. It’s like pleasant sandpaper to your eardrums. If that could be possible.
Key Track: “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” and “Goin’ Out West” are both terrific songs but the sombre trudge of “Dirt in the Ground” is too good to overlook.
Bon Iver – For Emma (Forever Ago)
Genre: Indie Folk, Singer/Songwriter
Description: Bon Iver’s For Emma (Forever Ago) holds a special place in the hearts of many people. After the breakup of his band and his relationship, Justin Vernon escaped to his Father’s log cabin in Wisconsin for three months and subsequently wrote and recorded the crux of the songs that would form For Emma. It is easy to hear the frustration, the longing and the heartache in his voice as he navigates through a set of songs that have so much emotional weight that they feel as though they could collapse at any moment under their own heaviness. Despite its humble construction, For Emma has allowed Bon Iver to become an internationally recognised and praised artist, whilst the album itself has been identified as one of the all-time great break-up records. It is simply an album to cherish.
Key Track: “Re: Stacks” and “Skinny Love” are the two most highly acclaimed songs off “For Emma”. Though both immeasurably beautiful, “Skinny Love” takes out the top spot on the podium by a nose. His performance of the song on Jools Holland is surely one of the greatest live performances by a singer/songwriter ever.
Radiohead – The Bends
Genre: Alternative Rock
Description: Here they are. Finally.
If you have even the slightest knowledge of alternative music of the last 25 years then you would know that it would be impossible to leave the alternative dudes from Oxford out of this list. Seminal single “Creep” may have put the band on the map following the release of their debut album Pablo Honey, however many pundits had written off the band as one hit Britpop wonders by the time they released The Bends in 1995. They could not have been more wrong. The album was full of angular and inspired songs, from the obscure guitar stylings of “My Iron Lung” and “Just” to the gloriously bleak “Street Spirit” (Fade Out)” and “Fake Plastic Trees”. History tells us that this would be the first in a long line of stellar albums for the band, but they never rocked as hard or exceeded expectations as much as with this album; hence its position on the list. The real question now is: Which other Radiohead album/s will make it?
Key Track: In another tough decision for the top track, “Fake Plastic Trees” narrowly takes it out from “Just”, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, “My Iron Lung” and the title track. “Fake Plastic Trees” is (to me at least) Thom Yorke’s finest vocal performance. His falsetto has never been as magisterial since. Legend has it that Yorke broke down in tears after laying down the vocal. It’s not surprising.
Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Genre: Indie Rock, Americana, Alternative Rock
Description: Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot saw glitchy, psychedelic noise meet Americana twang in an almost seamless amalgamation. The album was originally scheduled to be released on September 11th 2001 and is therefore constantly connected with the tragic events of that day, even though it was recorded well beforehand. Still, the sombre content, the cover art, song titles (“Ashes of American Flags”, “War on War”) and lyrics are all spookily linked to the events of that day. “Skyscrapers are scraping together” and “Tall buildings Shake. Voices escape, singing sad sad songs” is eerily prophetic. So, though not an intentional lament to the victims of 9/11 the album is certainly an emotionally sapping listen. “Radio Cure”, “Reservations” and “Poor Places” are all hauntingly tortured tunes, while “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” achieves it goal with relative ease.
Key Track: Though the lengthy, minimalistic closer “Reservations” deserves special mention, Jeff Tweedy’s croakily sung lyrics on “Radio Cure” is YHF’s truly defining moment. The delicate glockenspiel in the chorus is also the most perfect instrumental flourish on the entire album.
Converge – Jane Doe
Genre: Metalcore, Mathcore, Hardcore Punk
Description: In 2001, metalcore outfit Converge released possibly the most abrasive and cathartic album of the last 25 years. Jane Doe has since become the measuring stick for all other metalcore and hardcore releases. Even some 13 years after its release, it still sits right at the pointy tip of all extreme music. The drumming is manic, the guitar riffs sound like some sort of regurgitation from hell and front man Jacob Bannon’s vocals sound like the screams of the purged themselves. The substance behind the album was the collapse of Bannon’s relationship. The pure outpouring of emotion that comes with a breakup is evident in Bannon’s delivery, even if the lyrics (though brilliant) are seldom decipherable. Only the hardiest of listeners will be able to stand more than a few minutes of “Jane Doe” on first listen but if you persevere with it, it is truly one of the most rewarding and powerful listens on this entire list. The band are also an absolutely remarkable live act. If you ever get the chance to see them, don’t pass it up. Special mention should also go to Bannon’s awesomely menacing cover art.
Key Track: The first 11 tracks of “Jane Doe” don’t let up for a second. It moves from track to track, from pummelling riff to pummelling riff without ever letting you come up for air, so when it finally does halfway through the mammoth closer, “Jane Doe”, it is all the more impactful. Its completely thunderous closing section is music at its most powerful.
Kyuss – Welcome to Sky Valley
Genre: Stoner Rock, Stoner Metal, Hard Rock
Description: Josh Homme may have taken Queens of the Stone Age to the top of the hard rock pile, but before he took over as the pilot of that outfit he was the guitarist in Kyuss, a heavier, stonier and even more riff-tastic version of their eventual successors. Boasting an outstanding rhythm section, Homme’s signature guitar rumble and the bluesy/gravelly snarl of singer Johnny Garcia, the band produced four albums throughout the 90s, with the middle two being particularly sensational. Their penultimate effort, Welcome to Sky Valley, is the decade’s answer to the riff dictionary that Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” was in the 70s. Brooding but surprisingly catchy, Welcome to Sky Valley is just so cool it’s frosty. It is deservedly considered as one of the finest guitar albums of the decade.
Key Track: “Supa Scoopa and Mighty Scoop” grabs you from the very beginning. It is laden with hooks; from the exhilarating rhythm change halfway through the song, to Garcia’s wailing vocal through the chorus and the drawn-out closing section. I defy you to listen to the song and not tap your foot to it.
Slint - Spiderland
Genre: Post-Rock, Math Rock, Post-Hardcore
Description: In case you haven’t noticed, there seems to be a tendency for great albums to be released right before a band break-up. Slint’s landmark release Spiderland is unfortunately another prime example. The LP is credited with being one of the first true post-rock albums, along with the work of Talk Talk in the early 90s (see number 48 on the list). Spiderland received its name due to the music’s spidery sound. It’s an apt description. The music is sparse and moody with short sections of bombast scattered throughout the six lengthy tracks. The vocals also add to the enchantment of the album, with Britt Walford’s delivery often barely more than a whisper. If you are looking for an introduction to Post or Math Rock then look no future than Spiderland. It will alternate between making your skin crawl and your hairs stand on end, such is the perfection of its marriage of eeriness and serenity.
Key Track: There isn’t really a weak track out of the six on Spiderland, however “Don, Aman” may be a little too strange for some tastes. “Good Morning, Captain” is often cited as one of Slint’s greatest compositions, however “Washer” is about as perfect a piece of post-rock as there ever has been recorded.
Refused – The Shape of Punk to Come
Genre: Post-Hardcore, Hardcore Punk, Art Punk
Description: If Converge’s Jane Doe gave hardcore the shot in the arm it needed in 2001, then Sweden’s Refused loaded the syringe in 1998 with The Shape of Punk to Come. The album title could not have been more apt (it is in fact a play on words of Ornette Coleman’s 1959 classic The Shape of Jazz to Come), as it has become hugely influential to the post-hardcore genre and punk genre as a whole. Very few punk bands today will not cite this album as an inspiration. And it’s easy to see why. Its incendiary message is delivered with bucket-loads of passion by frontman Denis Lyxzen but the band also ensured the messages would hardcode themselves to your brain by constructing hooks that grab you from the very first time you listen to the album. The “Rather be forgotten, than remembered for giving In” chorus from “Summerholidays vs Punk Routine” is the perfect example of its ability to grab the listener by the throat and force them to head-bang in time. Sadly, the album’s title wasn’t the only prophetic statement associated with it release, as the song “Refused are Fucking Dead” also ended up becoming a reality late in 1998; the same year Punk to Come was released.
Key Track: “New Noise” had very much the same impact “One Armed Scissor” had for At the Drive-In a couple of years later. It enabled them to enter the fringes of the mainstream and undoubtedly heightened the impact the band would have on artists and listeners alike. Check it out to understand why it was such a trailblazing song.
A Tribe Called Quest – Low End Theory
Genre: Jazz Rap, Conscious Hip Hop, East Coast Hip Hop
Description: Before Gangsta Rap and Hardcore Hip Hop almost completely took over a few years into the 90s; with the likes of The Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang and 2pac ruling the airwaves, a smoother, jazz aligned hip hop style shared a large chuck of the focus. Unquestionably the most celebrated artist of the Jazz Rap genre is A Tribe Called Quest. The collective consisted of MC’s Q-Tip and Phife Dawg and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Whereas Hardcore and Gangsta styles are likely to incite violence or one-upmanship, Jazz Rap is more likely to cause listeners to chill out by a fire with a good whiskey and a cigar. A Tribe Called Quest were the masters of constructing such a mood. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg are both brilliant lyricists but it’s their silky flow that really makes the group instantly recognisable. Shaheed Muhammad also plays a large role. His beats may not be hugely inventive by today’s standards but the jazz samples and particularly the warm bass sounds are effortlessly cool. And if The Low End Theory’s sounds aren’t dope enough for you, then the cover art should at least get your respect. It’s one of the most iconic hip hop album covers ever.
Key Track: Single “Check the Rhime” is a classic ATCQ song but to me End Theory’s two best tracks are its first two. Opener “Excursions” is particularly sublime. The badass bass-line is surely one of Hip Hop’s finest.
Jeff Buckley - Grace
Genre: Singer/Songwriter, Alternative Rock
Description: What could have been? That’s the question that is always associated with Jeff Buckley. The serenely voiced singer/songwriter drowned tragically in 1997 but thankfully he managed to share his talents with the world by releasing Grace in 1994; his only fully completed album. Besides being a highly accomplished guitarist, he was blessed with an absolutely stunning voice and a great sense of song structure. The songs on Grace range from beautiful ballads (most notably his definitive cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”) to almost grungy rockers, such as the opener “Mojo Pin” and especially the penultimate track “Eternal Life”. However, it’s the songs that sit in a poppier pocket that have really had a lasting effect on people. “Grace”, “Last Goodbye” and “Lover, You Should Have Come Over” are case in point. You just have to wonder how many more classic songs he could have come up with had he not been taken too soon. Still, we should be thankful for this masterpiece.
Key Track: The higher we move up the list, the harder it gets to pick the best track. “Last Goodbye”, “Lover, You Should Have Come Over”, “Grace” and “Mojo Pin” are all wonderful tracks but his rendition of “Hallelujah” is simply one of the greatest recordings of all time. Listen to it with a good pair of headphones in the dark. That voice cuts to the core.