Best albums of 1988: #4 Pixies “Surfer rosa”

It was my friend Tim that introduced me to the Pixies, though I didn’t get them right away. They were just so radically different from the AM radio I was still transitioning from at the start of the 1990s. But he definitely tried. Every mixed cassette tape I got from his direction included a Pixies track (along with a Mission and a Sisters track, but those are other stories) so I got used to seeing their name. One Friday night, during my weekly ritual of watching and recording music videos off MuchMusic’s City Limits, I pressed the Record button and added the video for “Alec Eiffel” to my collection. It was this knee jerk reaction to a band name I recognized that became my gateway to the now legendary quartet from Boston.

I shortly thereafter bought a used copy of their second long player, “Doolittle”, which I now love unconditionally. However, the debut album took me much longer to appreciate. Perhaps even a decade, I couldn’t tell you now how long I held out but it all seems silly now, given that I hold all four of their original albums with such reverence. “Surfer rosa”, though, was a game changer. David Lovering, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, and Black Francis let their don’t give a shit attitudes carry over from from their first ever recorded release, the mini-album “Come on pilgrim”, mixing punk, surf-rock, and whatever else they pleased into their incendiary noise. It is seen as a template for what 90s alt-rock would eventually become, not just for the sheer brashness of the music but also its iconoclastic production, netting future jobs for Steve Albini with artists like PJ Harvey and Nirvana.

So for an album that didn’t sell particularly well (taking decades to reach gold status), it is quite an influential one and one that sits high on many best rock album lists, even winning over many of the critics that didn’t quite get it at the time. And though the whole album has become ingrained in my musical fabric, I still have my favourites and I’ve included them here in my three picks for you.

”Bone machine”: “This is a song for Carol.” Except that it’s not, it’s really a song about sexual deviancy in a few forms. Namely, molestation by priests (“I was talking to preachy-preach about kissy-kiss”) and infidelity and possibly, nymphomania (“Your blistered lips have got a kiss, they taste a bit like everyone”). The opening track on the album, “Bone machine”, is discordance personified, pummelling drums, punished guitar strings, screaming and yelping and carrying on. And then, they just pause everything while Black and Deal harmonize sweetly together: “Your bone’s got a little machine.” Oh, the Pixies.

”Gigantic”: “Gigantic” was the only single to be released off the album and happens to be the second longest track on an album of short bursts of adrenaline. It was one of only two tracks not sung by Black Francis in all of the Pixies’ catalogue and bassist Kim Deal, who did sing it, also co-wrote it with Francis. It is also remarkable for its muscular and big bass line that sets the tone and feel. Deal’s vocals are a case in contrasts, see-sawing between soft and delicate and violent rage, especially when she is joined by Francis at the choruses. Everything I’ve read suggests the song is about a married women watching a teenaged black man making love to another woman and fantasizing that it is happening to her. “Gigantic, gigantic, gigantic / A big, big love.” No, their lyrics aren’t irreverent at all.

”Where is my mind?”: If it wasn’t iconic beforehand, it definitely was after it was used to soundtrack the final moments of 1999’s “Fight club”. Indeed, “Where is my mind?” was never released as a single and yet it is considered one of the band’s best known songs. Francis has said that the song was inspired by a scuba diving experience but true to form, there definitely seems to be a lot more going on here than just talking to fish under water. It’s all very surreal and confusing and the music doesn’t help to steady the ship. Discordant (there’s that adjective again) and topsy-turvy, Santiago’s electric guitar line rolls over and over like crashing waves while the acoustic guitar stands timidly in its shadow. Lovering’s drum is big and sparse while Francis’s vocals range from soft coos to yells and yelps and Deal adds her echoing howl throughout. Wonderful stuff.

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

10. The Sugarcubes “Life’s too good”
9. Erasure “The innocents”
8. Billy Bragg “Worker’s playtime”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Nothing’s shocking”
6. Leonard Cohen “I’m your man”
5. R.E.M. “Green”

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

Best albums of 1988: #5 R.E.M. “Green”

R.E.M.’s sixth album “Green” was the first album I owned by the band. In fact, this album’s second single, “Stand”, was my introduction to R.E.M.. I distinctly remember watching a music video show, though I can’t recall now whether it was a countdown or not, and the video for “Stand” being played in the same segment as Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry, be happy”. (If that song gets stuck in your head today, I’m truly sorry.) I bought the album shortly afterward on cassette tape, but not just your run of the mill cassette. No. It was a ‘metal’ cassette, whatever that means. I likely paid a few extra dollars for that adjective too. Did I notice a difference? I was fourteen or fifteen, so likely not. Indeed, the only reason I remember this piece of trivia at all is that I still have said ‘metal’ cassette tape amongst my ‘things’ in a box in the basement.

“Green” was R.E.M.’s first album released on major label Warner Bros., having fulfilled their contract with I.R.S. the previous year. It was the second album of five produced by Scott Litt, a run of albums that can easily be considered R.E.M.’s glory years. It was the first album to introduce Peter Buck’s use of the mandolin, which would later be used as a basis for some of their biggest hits. So yeah, they were still being experimental and provocative on a major label and yet they saw greater success with the money backing them. The album hit both the US and UK album charts, saw a couple of hit singles, and went double platinum in the states. Perhaps the commercial success was related to those singles, which are easy to pick out from the album, sounding as if the band made a concerted effort to write hits, a possible concession to their label for allowing them such creative freedom.

It was these singles that definitely drew me to R.E.M. but I grew to love all of “Green” with repeat plays. As I mentioned above, this was my gateway to their excellent back catalogue and kept me coming back for future albums throughout the 90s. Two of my three picks for you are from these hit singles and the other, well, it’s a personal fave.

”Stand”: “Stand in the place where you live. Now face north. Think about direction. Wonder why you haven’t before.” The chorus of “Stand”, words which I’ve sung along with countless times, never wondering what they were all about, are, according to Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, among they stupidest and inane the band has ever come out with. Perhaps subconsciously this is why I’ve never thought too hard on them. Yeah, the song which introduced me to the group was purposely crafted to sound on par with the pop songs they loved from the 60s. It’s no wonder, then, that it’s so infectious and catchy. (Maybe not to the degree of “Don’t worry, be happy”. Whoops. Sorry.) The beat and melodious guitars just beg a hop and wriggle dance, not unlike the one featured in the video.

”World leader pretend”: Even before I learned that track five on side one was Stipe’s tribute to Leonard Cohen, I loved the tune. The wordplay, like on many R.E.M. tunes, is great, but particularly so here. “This is my mistake. Let me make it good. I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down.” The inner turmoil and internal war-waging game is strong and we are left guessing whether he wants to correct his mistake or make it a real doozy. Likely, it’s a bit of column A and a bit of column B. The instrumentation has always appealed to me on this song too, the pedal steel and cello further dampening the melancholy with a fresh run of tears. And Stipe nails it, resting his vocals on the low ledge, tentative and introverted.

”Orange crush”: “Stand” was a huge hit for the band but it wasn’t their first. “Orange crush” was the advanced promotional single and it was massive. Widely misunderstood, which is definitely not hard with Stipe’s purposefully vague lyrics, it is an anti-war song. And the hints are there, from the sampled military cadence and shuffling of boots to the machine gun guitar riffs and drum rhythms. The title is a reference to Agent orange (not the soda drink), a chemical weapon that was used indiscriminately during the Vietnam war, which brings a whole other level of hurt to this line. “I’ve had my fun and now it’s time to serve your conscience overseas (over me, not over me). Coming in fast, over me.” Heart breaking and beautiful and still with that R.E.M. jangle and shine.

Check back next Thursday for album #4. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Sugarcubes “Life’s too good”
9. Erasure “The innocents”
8. Billy Bragg “Worker’s playtime”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Nothing’s shocking”
6. Leonard Cohen “I’m your man”

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

Best tunes of 1991: #13 R.E.M. “Losing my religion”

<< #14    |    #12 >>

R.E.M.’s “Out of time” was a massive hit for the band in 1991 and many, the band included, would chalk up the amount of units sold to this one song: “Losing my religion”. I’ve already posted words on thIs great tune in these pages when it appeared on my Top Five R.E.M. Tunes post a year or so ago. So I’ll try not to tread the same ground too much here.

I definitely spent a lot of time with “Out of time” that year, having just recently become a fan of their music. I can remember listening to it on constant repeat while stripping the wallpaper from our upstairs hallway. Hot water, a sponge, and a scraper. It was a crappy job that was made slightly easier by the lightness and jangle of the album and of course, I always got that burst of energy whenever it came round to “Losing my religion” again.

It’s not super upbeat or high energy but there is something bright about and at the same time, it’s dark. It’s quite different for a hit pop song in that it leans heavily on the mandolin to keep it afloat. In fact, the whole thing is built around a riff Peter Buck came up with while fiddling around, trying to learn how to play the instrument. If you listen to everything on offer here, you’ll realize that the bass line and drums are mostly simplistic, taking a back seat to mandolin while it jumps around and jangles, much like Buck’s guitar would on any other R.E.M. song. Orchestral strings and hand claps were added to fill the midground between the Buck’s noodling and Mills’ bass and to give it more oomph.

Stipe’s vocals are mostly understated and plaintive, singing words that sound more deep and existential than they are meant to be. Of course, the religious imagery in the award-winning video doesn’t help to clear things up any. Stipe has tried to help things along, though, explaining that the title is an expression that basically means losing one’s shit and that the song is really just one of obsession, much like “Every breath you take”.

“Every whisper
Of every waking hour
I’m choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I set it up”

The great thing about their songs is that you can choose to adapt their original meaning or choose your own adventure. This tune, however, is so ingrained in all of us. It’s timeless and beautiful. It’s R.E.M.

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