Best Compilation Albums of the 1990s

Though I’m a prog man at heart, I like to think of myself as open to all forms of music.  Granted, I have yet to hear a single country or rap song that I like, but I certainly love much of classical and symphonic, jazz, and various forms of rock.  One thing I miss in the rock world are compilation albums.  I definitely don’t mean “greatest hits” packages.  I mean albums that contain songs by various artists coming together for a particular purpose.  Usually, this purpose was for movie soundtracks, but not always.

Looking at my own collection–however limited–it looks to me that the best of these came out in the 1990s.  I will admit, though, that my love of these specific compilation albums might have much to do with some happy nostalgia for a pre-9/11, far more innocent world.

Here are my favorite four from that time period.

until the end of the world
Before it’s too late. . .

4. “Until the End of the World”–a soundtrack for the Wim Wenders film of the same name.  The album features songs–every one of them good–by a number of artists I would never listen to, otherwise, such as Depeche Mode, Lou Reed, and T-Bone Burnett.  Even the major bands that appear–such as Talking Heads, Nick Cave, and U2 give it their best.  My favorite song, by far, is “Calling All Angels,” performed by Jane Siberry and K.D. Lang.

Continue reading “Best Compilation Albums of the 1990s”

The best musical tribute to Chris Cornell so far…

Back in March 1994, shortly after Soundgarden’s masterful Superunknown was released, Melody Maker‘s Everett True wrote a detailed and often insightful piece about the band on the road (in Tokyo, specifically). Chris Cornell spoke openly with True about his struggles with depression and fear:

“I write songs best when I’m depressed,” Chris tells me. “No one seems to get this, but Black Hole Sun is sad. But because the melody is really pretty, everyone thinks it’s almost chipper, which is ridiculous. Fell On Black Days is another one. Like Suicide is a perfect example.”

We’re they inspired by specific events?

“Fell On Black Days was like this ongoing fear I’ve had for years. It took me a long time to write that song. We’ve tried to do three different versions with that title, and none of them have ever worked. Someday we might do an EP…

“It’s a feeling that everyone gets. You’re happy with your life, everything’s going well, things are exciting – when all of a sudden you realise you’re unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared. There’s no particular event you can pin the feeling down to, it’s just that you realise one day that everything in your life is F—–!”

Exhibit A for a “chipper” version of the huge hit is this snappy, big band-ish, “are you kidding me?” version by Paul Anka (yes, the same Paul Anka who wrote the lyrics to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”—one of the very few Sinatra songs I find annoying, even revolting). And in the past few days, understandably, there have been a number of singers and bands playing the song as a tribute to Cornell, who took his life on May 18th, after a reportedly ragged show at Detroit’s famous Fox Theater.

Continue reading “The best musical tribute to Chris Cornell so far…”

Big Wreck’s “Grace Street” is bold, beautiful, and bedazzling

In my mini-review of Ian Thornley’s outstanding Secrets I described the Big Wreck bw_gracestreetsinger/guitarist/writer’s solo effort as “acoustic, reflective, mellow, mournful, defiant, sad, and yet shot through with a sense of cautious hope.” The new Big Wreck album Grace Street has its reflective and mellow moments—”Useless” is a mesmerizing, melodic gem and “Motionless” is a soaring mid-tempo number—but the key, overlapping descriptives surely are “defiant” and “hope”. If I were to channel my 17-year-old self (30 years ago!), I would simply say, “This albums kicks ***!” Since reuniting in late 2011, the Canadian rockers have produced three must have albums: Albatross (2012), which includes one of my favorite rock songs, period;  Ghosts (2014), nominated for “Rock Album of the Year” at the 2015 Juno Awards; and now Grace Street. As many others have said, this band deserves far more attention for consistently producing albums filled with aural delights.

The opening song, “It Comes As No Surprise”, is apparently inspired in part by Thornley’s divorce and is equal parts bombast and vulnerability, with wall-of-sound guitars bringing to mind the Von Hertzen Brothers (fans of that group’s 2015 “New Day Rising” should embrace Grace Street readily), while the vocal harmonies remind me of something from Moon Safari or even the Beach Boys. While Big Wreck is not straight prog, it certainly embraces some prog elements—similar, I think, to how Queen used complex vocal harmonies, unusual chords, and elaborate guitar passages:

The second cut, “One Good Piece of Me”, is about as AOR-sounding as the band gets (the opening riff is pure Asia, circa 1983), the sort of song that would have chewed up the radio back in the Eighties, with its power chords, anthemic vocals, and driving bass. “Tomorrow Down” has more of a grunge sound, with Thornley sounding very much like Chris Cornell, especially in how he moves from seductive to snarling at a moment’s notice. “You Don’t Even Know” is loping ear candy, a blues-inflected, hand-clapping (yes, actual hand claps!) number that would—wait for it—make Los Lonely Boys proud, with the sort of tasty guitar solo that Thornley excels at.

The middle section of the generously timed album (just shy of 70 minutes) is simply brilliant. “Useless”, as hinted at above, is a sonic and musical marvel, described by Thornley as one of his favorites. “A Speedy Recovery”, the longest track (7:38), is the very definition of an earworm, with incredibly catchy drum/bass parts, swelling guitars, hypnotizing chorus, soaring vocals, and another glorious guitar solo:

“Motionless” displays Thornley’s astounding range atop a bed of layered sonic sweetness, while “Digging In” has a more raw, classic rock sound with several overt Led Zep shout outs. “The Receiving End” could have easily fit on Chris Cornell’s most recent solo album, replete with mandolin, some slide guitar, and some falsetto. “Floodgates” is equal parts grunge and funk—Extreme, anyone?—with bassist Dave Mcmillan laying down some fabulous bass lines.

The final three cuts have plenty to offer fans of prog: “The Arborist” is built on some deceptively snaky guitar parts, with plenty of minor-keyed darkness around the edges; “Skybunk Marché” is a 7-minute long instrumental with all sorts of guitar gifts; and “All My Fears On You” is a surging, Pink Floyd-ish closer with a classic Thornley solo bringing the album to conclusion.

The Prog Report, in its glowing review, states: “At times channeling Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and other 70’s acts combined with their own unique style, ‘Grace Street’ is an exhilarating and refreshing rock album, one that is already one of the year’s best.” That’s as good of summary as you’ll find of what is an early entry into CEO’s Top 10 Rock Albums of 2017.

soundstreamsunday: “Winter Song” by Screaming Trees and “Whirling Dervish” by Thin White Rope

deserttruckstop-rightmid-1Years before the hybrid of classic rock and distorted garage psychedelia and punk became the legendary  Grunge that vanquished the Hair Metal Dragon in the early 1990s, Screaming Trees and Thin White Rope plied their trade in relative obscurity and penury.  Even as “punk broke” in America and they were afforded greater opportunity for exposure, as groups they had already cycled through lineup changes and masterwork albums, and the timing for broad success never really synced.  Yet you can sight through the lens of their recorded legacy an understanding of what Grunge in America was, where it came from, what it meant, how it drew upon American roots music, acknowledging what Greil Marcus called the “old, weird America,” of everything from 13th Floor Elevators and Neil Young to the folk revival of the 1960s to the hillbilly/race records of the 1920s and 1930s.  The references aren’t always apparent, but they’re embedded in the dust devils Thin White Rope appeared through and the rain-soaked northwestern pines the Screaming Trees turned dayglo.

By the time Screaming Trees came to record Sweet Oblivion (1992), they were already five albums deep into a psych rock career stamped by Gary Lee Conner’s guitar raveups and Mark Lanegan’s authoritative, rumbling wail.  On their sixth album, though, there was a changeup:  the band, with new drummer Barrett Martin, followed the Americana-nuanced maturity evidenced on Lanegan’s first solo album, 1990’s The Winding Sheet (a record that had a profound influence on Seattle’s rock scene and on Nirvana particularly — Kurt Cobain was a contributor on that record and Dave Grohl has commented that it had a big impact on their approach to Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance).  On Sweet Oblivion, the band set their controls to the heart of the West, making the followup to 1991’s excellent Uncle Anesthesia a harder yet subtler, less ornate affair.  Gone were the psychedelic trappings, in their place a clutch of straight-up riff rockers and ballads, going deep by going personal rather than into the purple, foggy haze.  Beginning to end a great record that to this day sounds distinct and powerful listened to alongside Nevermind or Ten or Temple of the Dog or Superunknown or Dirt, Sweet Oblivion just never took off, and to my mind the greatest of Seattle’s bands never recovered.  “Winter Song” begins and ends with the line “Jesus knocking on my door,” and it’s as fitting an epitaph for a band that shouldabeen that I can think of.

Like Sweet Oblivion, Thin White Rope’s fourth album, Sack Full of Silver (1990), is an American music classic.  Ported through a Television-worthy twin-guitar attack, its power is in the finesse of its six-string thunder and Guy Kyser’s gruff, horror show bark.  It is a record that manages to contain both a cover of Can’s “Yoo Doo Right” AND a 7-11 parking lot rewrite of “Amazing Grace” and makes them work as if they absolutely belong on the same album.  Along with guitarist Roger Kunkel, Kyser’s vision of 1980s western America on Sack Full of Silver — highways and truck stops and stoned mirage images — is fully realized, but feels like it could have as easily been recorded, had the technology been possible, in the 1850s, with a mix of frontier terror and mundane everyday life.  Profound, pounding, and heavy, Sack Full of Silver is the distillation of all that Thin White Rope brought to rock.  As opaque as any of their songs, but endlessly interesting for it, “Whirling Dervish” is ostensibly about detritus caught in a duststorm, and may as a consequence be ultimately descriptive of all of us.

Sweet Oblivion on Amazon

Sack Full of Silver on Amazon

soundstreamsunday playlist and archive