Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten albums that turned 20 in 2011 (Idolator list)

1991 was undoubtedly a transformative year in music, as the "alternative went mainstream" and swept away the music (and the bands) of the 1980's seemingly overnight. A hugely disproportionate amount of my favourite music of the 90's was made in that year, thanks to a number of bands making their wildly creative, genre-defining masterpiece albums -- Nirvana for sure, but the three that stand out the most for me are MBV's "Loveless", the Orb's "Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld", and 808 State's "Ex:El".

But what do the pop music gossip crew at Idolator think about when they think about 1991?

Nirvana, "Nevermind". Not sure where they're getting the "30 million sold" number from, but Nirvana were a phenomenon, no doubt.

Michael Jackson, "Dangerous". A lot has been said about how Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson off the top spot of the US Albums Chart, signifying a symbolic passing of the torch from the generation of 80's pop (dominated by Michael) to the flannel wearing generation of Gen-X grunge rockers. First of all, "Dangerous" was f***ing huge. The first airing of the videos for each of major singles from the album were events in and of themselves, subject to week-long hype campaigns and Michael Jackson career retrospectives. It remained in the Top 200 for two years. It sold more than "Bad". Secondly, if we go back and look at the #1 albums of 1991 and 1992, you'll see that the chart history was bit more complicated than you probably remember.

"Nevermind" was released on Sept. 24, 1991. During that week, Metallica's "Black Album" had just finished a four-week run as the number one album in the US. Everyone remembers that Metallica broke through that year, but not everyone remembers that they broke through before Nirvana (I didn't). They didn't ride Nirvana's coattails into the mainstream, and neither did REM, whose "Out of Time" went to #1 in the spring of that year.

Metallica were knocked out of the #1 spot by Garth Brooks, therefore setting the stage for Nirvana to slay the dragons and save music forever, or something. Here's what happened:

ArtistTitleWeeks at #1
Garth BrooksRopin' the Wind1
Guns N' RosesUse Your Illusion II2
Garth BrooksRopin' the Wind7
U2Achtung Baby1
Michael JacksonDangerous4
Garth BrooksRopin' the Wind2
Garth BrooksRopin' the Wind8

Nirvana knocked both Michael Jackson AND Garth Brooks out of #1 in separate weeks, which is remarkable. On the other hand, Garth Brooks was #1 for a million weeks before Nirvana and a million weeks after Nirvana, on his way to having more multiplatinum albums in the US than anyone in music history other than Elvis and the Beatles. Nirvana only briefly interrupted business as usual at the top of the album charts. The summer of Billy Ray Cyrus (seventeen consecutive weeks at #1 for "Some Gave All") was just around the corner. By the fall, Garth Brooks was #1 again with yet another new album before clearing the way for "The Bodyguard Soundtrack" to hang around #1 for a while and sell a gazillion copies.

What do we learn from this? In 1991-2, the new boss was usually the same as the old boss, and for the most part that wouldn't change in the succeeding years, as you could always mark your calendars for Garth or Mariah's inevitable return to #1. And "Dangerous" marked Michael Jackson's last run as the undisputed biggest pop star in the world. Who knows how much longer he could have continued that way if he hadn't gone completely off the deep end?

U2, "Achtung Baby". Great album. One of the many "Kid A"'s before there was "Kid A" (i.e. top rock band takes risks and "goes electronic"). N.B. All of the "Kid A"'s before "Kid A" are better albums than the actual "Kid A".

Mariah Carey, "Emotions". Even Mariah had a sophomore slump, although any artist would kill to sell eight million albums in their "slump" phase.

Boyz II Men, "Cooleyhighharmony". From my vantage point twenty years ago, this album might as well have been released on Mars. Nothing could have been further from what I was listening to. Eventually, anyone who turned on a radio for more than five minutes in the 90's had to know at least a few Boyz II Men songs.

Erasure, "Chorus". Here's one I wasn't expecting to see. This was an odd phase in Erasure's career because they'd been brilliant in the 80's but it took a couple of albums for that to be reflected in the charts. In the early 90's they achieved their biggest successes as album artists, even though the quality of the material had declined. They could have settled into a slow, Pet Shop Boys-like decline phase, but instead they baffled everyone with the 70-minute self titled album in 1995, produced by Thomas Fehlmann of the Orb and boasting no obvious singles. It was their "Spirit Of Eden", and it effectively killed their star power.

Pearl Jam, "Ten". In the end this had more staying power than "Nevermind", which in retrospect is no surprise because it's just reheated 70's stoner rock with drearier, more depressing lyrics (this was also fairly obvious at the time, although not right away for a lot of people, including me). You could say the same about Nirvana, but there was plenty of the 80's underground in their music (Melvins, Pixies) and they sounded dangerous from time to time, whereas Pearl Jam were your Dad's favourite grunge band from the get go. Once "Ten" had sold enough copies to make the world safe for Billy Corgan to admit that he was a huge fan of bands like Queen, grunge's reputation as the supposed tough guy killer of hair metal wimp rock was irrevocably damaged.

The KLF, "The White Room". Props to Idolator for paying a small bit of tribute to one of the most fascinating and unusual rags to riches to rags stories in the history of pop.

REM, "Out of Time". I've never understood the retroactive attempt to label this album the better and more depressing album compared with its successor, "Automatic for the People". Anything with "Shiny Happy People" on it should be automatically disqualified from winning any "better than ___" argument with any other album. "Automatic" also stands up much better to repeat listens, I never need to hear "Losing My Religion" again like I never have to hear "Stairway To Heaven" ever again. I think I prefer "Monster" (a very underrated album) to "Out of Time", yeah, I said it.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Blood Sugar Sex Magik". This was legitimately huge, although I couldn't stand it at the time and was tempted to pour boiling cooking oil into my ears to prevent myself from hearing "Under the Bridge" ever again. To this day, I've never really liked a RHCP in my life.

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