Best albums of 1998: #3 Neutral Milk Hotel “In the aeroplane over the sea”

It was my friend Jez that tried to get me into Neutral Milk Hotel many moons ago, albeit five or six years after the release of this, their seminal album. I had met Jez at my call centre job in the early 2000s and I’m not quite sure how we got to talking about music but it was on this that we had clicked as friends. We were constantly introducing each other to bands. He gave me a copy of “In the aeroplane over the sea” to sample, telling me they sounded like The Decemberists, a band I was just getting into at the time, but for some reason, the album didn’t click with me.

My friend wasn’t wrong in his comparison though, I can totally see where this album influenced Colin Meloy now. In fact, a lot of indie folk bands of the 2000s were influenced by it. However, when Jeff Mangum started the project in the late 80s, the sound was decidedly different. It was a lot noisier and raw and even less put together, if you can believe it. “In the aeroplane over the sea” was the second album released by Neutral Milk Hotel and the first recorded as an actual group. Before that, the ‘band’ was whoever was around at the time to perform with Mangum. This second album is still very lo-fi but it is also an electric mishmash of genres and instruments. It is ugly but beautiful, the lyrics influenced by Mangum’s reflections on Anne Frank.

Adding to the lore of the “In the aeroplane over the sea” is the fact that Jeff Mangum put the band on indefinite hiatus the year following its release after becoming disenchanted with everything. The album did well critically but not commercially right away. However, it picked up steam over the years, people discovering it way too late, has since sold many copies, and has now appeared on multiple best albums of the 90s lists. Mangum reformed the band in 2013 and toured extensively into the spring of 2015 before disappearing back into the night.

I finally the picked up this album again around that time because they were announced to play the folk festival in my city and this time it clicked. Yep, I fell in love with it just in time to see them live. The three picks below are amongst my favourites on the album but they are by no means the only great tracks.

“Ghost”: It is aggressive acoustic strumming and a rumbling and distorted fuzz bass, almost obscuring Jeff Mangum’s stream of consciousness-like lyrics. Indeed, at times, it sounds like he needs to be yelling above the cacaphony. “Ghost, ghost I know you live within me. I feel you as you fly in thunder clouds above the city into one that I love.” The words started out from the thoughts that his apartment was haunted and like many of the songs on the album, reflections of Anne Frank creep through. From there, frantic drums kick in as well as a pocket of duelling horns, none of which sound super proficient or rather, their attention to detail is lacking. Yeah, it’s a shambles. But it’s a wonderful shambles.

“In the aeroplane over the sea”: “And one day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea but for now we are young, let us lay in the sun.” The title track of the album is still hinting at the supernatural but has a somewhat happier bent. The acoustic strumming that starts the tune and carries on throughout is of the head swaying type and never fails to bring a smile. You can almost picture Mangum singing this wth his eyes closed in ecstasy. He adds in those same horns we heard in the previous track to the party and for shits and giggles, some singing saw. Seriously. How often do you hear a singing saw in popular music? Right.

“The king of carrot flowers, pt. 1”: “And this is the room one afternoon I knew I could love you. And from above you how I sank into your soul into that secret place where no one dares to go.” The opening track with the seemingly nonsensical name is but part 1 of a two song trilogy (parts 2 and 3 follow on the album’s next track). It’s short at two minutes and not necessarily as frantic as some of the other tracks that follow it. It’s like a warm up for the joy and bliss that’s to come. It is simple and innocent, that aforementioned kitchen sink instrumentation and breathless and almost random lyrics are present here as well, evoking yellowed polaroids and long ago discarded toys and favourite blankets. It is the purity of first love set to an off-kilter accordion and what is better than that?

Check back next Thursday for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Sloan “Navy blues”
9. Cake “Prolonging the magic”
8. Embrace “The good will out”
7. Mojave 3 “Out of tune”
6. Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”
5. Manic Street Preachers “This is my truth now tell me yours”
4. Pulp “This is hardcore”

You can check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best tunes of 1991: #4 Big Audio Dynamite II “Rush”

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“If I had my time again
I would do it all the same
And not change a single thing
Even when I was to blame.”

These are words that I know by heart. In fact, I still know all the words to Big Audio Dynamite II’s “Rush”, as do a handful of my friends from high school. Brian, Jeff, Andrew… I don’t know what it was that made us connect with the song and its words. To this day, I’m still not exactly sure what Mick Jones was getting at but it’s a song that will always remind me of OAC, grade 13, my final year of high school, whatever you want to call it. The song soundtracked so many good times that I can’t even begin to list them lest this post grow to epic proportions.

Like many of the songs on this Best tunes of 1991 list, I discovered “Rush” for myself when I recorded the video off MuchMusic’s CityLimits. I watched and rewatched the video so many times that I quickly made the connection between the band’s lead singer and the guitarist of the band in another video recorded around the same time and that I was watching quite a bit of: “London calling” by The Clash. I didn’t know any of this at the time because the alt-rock universe was still very new to me but Mick Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite when he was shown the door by the only band that mattered in the early 1980s. Throughout that decade he recorded and released a handful of albums and singles that were heavily based upon samples, pioneering their use in modern music in the process. He added a ‘II’ at the end of the band name for the 1991 album “The globe” (as well as the lesser known, UK only release “Kool-aid” in 1990) because it was for all intents and purposes, a whole new band, only he remained from the original lineup.

“Yes, yes, delightful, delightful.”

One of the many samples in “Rush” and perhaps the most obvious one is Peter Sellers’ line above and the ensuing monologue on how “not everything’s singing” and on the importance of “rhythm and melody”. This bit leads into an extended bridge with a wicked sampled break beat and the keyboards from “Baba O’Riley”. Incidentally, for quite a while, I thought the song actually ended here with a fade out because the video had cut off here on the MuchMusic broadcast I recorded it from. I only learned of the final verse when I finally purchased a copy of the CD.

As an album, “The globe” sounds a bit dated now but I still love it for all the nostalgia it brings out whenever I listen to it. “Rush”, on the other hand, rises above the nostalgia because it’s also a rocking dance tune. I defy anyone to try to convince me otherwise.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.

Best albums of 1998: #4 Pulp “This is hardcore”

What do you get when you have a band, especially a talented and misunderstood frontman, that toils for years in obscurity, always hoping and striving for fame, finally reaches its goal with a couple of hit records and massive headline spots at top festivals, only to find out that the fame is not what he/they wanted in the end? You get an album like “This is hardcore”.

Indeed, Pulp’s previous record, their fifth, “Different class” had them out on top, almost two decades after a 15-year old Jarvis Cocker formed the band with his friend Peter Dalton. Pulp had seen multiple personnel changes over 1980s and they struggled mightily, releasing two albums to almost no impact on the music buying public. They started to gain traction with their third album, 1992’s “Separations”, and then, “His ‘n’ hers” truly broke the band in 1994. It’s sort of a chicken and the egg thing with Pulp and BritPop. Nevertheless, the scene’s wave carried the band with it to the pinnacles of fame and still, it seemed, Jarvis and company weren’t happy. The sixth album took a year to record and was a struggle from the beginning, perhaps this was partly due to the departure of long time member Russell Senior but the band persevered and the results were completely worth it.

When I first heard it, I was a bit thrown off as I’m sure a lot of people were. Of course, I was still young and looking for more of that glam rock to dance to and sing along with Cocker’s wry observations on love and sex and life in general. I wasn’t ready for all this jaded maturity and found the music too heavy on inaccessible side of the scale. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and with my own jaded maturity, I can now see “This is hardcore” for the masterpiece that it is. An album that is timeless and stands up to Pulp’s best work.

Sample, if you will, my three picks for you below and let me know your thoughts.

“A little soul”: Songs with titles like this are usually a bit more uplifting, soul or R&B pop tracks that shake it, suggesting that ‘little’ is an understatement. However, Cocker turns this idea on its head with a literal take on its theme. The narrative is of a man speaking to his son, likely not a direct conversation though, just one in his head, as he’s watching him from afar or looking at a photo of him. “You look like me but you’re not like me, I hope. I have run away from the one thing that I ever made.” It’s a tired sounding number, an end of the night ballad, a mellow blues band in an empty, echoing club, Cocker sounding sorrowful and full of regret and though he feels he doesn’t have any soul to share, there’s plenty here.

“Help the aged”: Another song here that’s a bit depressing. If you’re sensing a theme, you’re spot on. Amongst the screaming and searing guitars is Cocker eulogizing youthfulness and imploring the young to truly see seniors and not hide from their own mortality. “You can dye your hair but it’s the one thing you can’t change, can’t run away from yourself.” No, it’s not a charitable song, as its title suggests, but an introspective one. A midlife crisis in song form, rage and sadness in a four minute song rather than a red convertible.

“This is hardcore”: The title track is the epic, six and a half minute centrepiece of the album. The sound is very different from the synth glam of their previous record and Jarvis Cocker uses his usual lurid thematics here as an extended metaphor for how he sees the music industry. It’s a slow burning number, dark and seedy, likely something you might hear in a lower end strip joint while a disinterested performer moves to its crawling beat on the grimy stage. Cocker runs the gamut of hopes and dreams and foreplay to being spent and used in every way possible. ”Oh, this is hardcore. There is no way back for you.” This is a great band at peak form.

Check back next Thursday for album #3. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Sloan “Navy blues”
9. Cake “Prolonging the magic”
8. Embrace “The good will out”
7. Mojave 3 “Out of tune”
6. Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”
5. Manic Street Preachers “This is my truth now tell me yours”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.