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“List of Classic Albums That Came out Less Than a Year before Kurt Cobain Killed Himself (04/05/1994)”

It’s almost impossible to contextualize the year 1994, a year which began with Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan getting brutally beaten after coming out of a competition practice, a year which brought us Pulp Fiction, and which found itself within the volatile, drug-addled throes of the cultural and musical sea change that was “grunge.” Nonetheless, that’s what I’m trying to do here, within the comforts of 2019 when the world is no longer undergoing constant cataclysm after cataclysm of rock and roll mania, violence, heroin addiction and insanity. Anyway, if the panoramic scene I’m painting here seems to be something both borne out of and also fully immersed in full-fledged human atrocity (to say nothing of the “hype machine” descending on grunge which would be later handled in filmography), the fact that this discussion is still relevant and maybe even compelling today I think speaks volumes about people’s ability to handle being thrown into a situation like that.

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PJ Harvey – Rid of Me (05/04/1993)

Kurt Cobain sort of had a thing for female rock musicians, you could say — actually even before Courtney Love, his last girlfriend had been Tobi Vail of the band Bikini Kill. With PJ Harvey, I think the poetic sense is undeniable, the vocals are magnanimous with a certain Patti Smith quality and the guitar playing is pithy and pick-y. The debut album Dry, taken as a whole, approaches “legend” status, but for sophomore effort Rid of Me Harvey turned to grunge producer Steve Albini (who also worked on Nirvana’s In Utero of later this year, serendipitously enough), and so upped the ante in terms of sound itself in a way she couldn’t have before. Harvey muscles in with an unparalleled vocal vitriol, too: “Got to ease my aching head / Do you know / No other way cut off your legs”; “I’ll rub ’til it bleeds”; “Hey I’m the king of the world / You wanna hear my song / You come on measure me / I’m 50 inches long”. So just in terms of the messages she’s objectively sending, themselves, this Rid of Me project had no precedent in her own catalogue (not that Dry was CUTESY, it was probably median in terms of belligerent nature of disposition spectra go), or possibly even in female rock as a whole. Interestingly, (all I can find on search results is stories of that idiot Dave Grohl asking her to front the band’s stupid 2013 reincarnation), reports claim that Cobain or Nirvana at large invited Harvey to fulfill the opening slot on Nirvana’s ’93 tour, but she respectively declined, per reports. Anyway, I do think they would have made a good supergroup, though it’s a little condescending to her to ask her to sing Nirvana’s songs for an entire night, given the extensiveness and prowess of her own extant songwriting output.

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Dolby’s Tune-in Tracks: “Rub ’til it Bleeds”; “Hook”; “Ecstasy”

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Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville (06/22/1993)

I have no idea if Cobain actually asked Phair to stand in on one of their tours… maybe the idea was that the invitation was always open to any galvanizing indie rocker, especially female maybe (Shonen Knife also opened for the band on one leg, of a tour, that is) but perhaps came with a lot of emotional baggage… anyway, Phair is a personal favorite topic of mine because she hails from Chicago, right up the road from where I grew up. She was raised with a sense of the cold winters, boredom and also violent crime and desperation that earmarks the Midwest, and so to me there always tends to be a refreshing sense of urgency and also originality about her work, in addition to an especial knack for gleaning influences, the obvious one in this case obviously being The Rolling Stones (the title has been called a reference to Exile on Main St.). When you think about it, this makes sense, since if the weather’s always bad and an antisocial malady runs through your community, you’re bound to spend more time inside, alone, listening to music (or listening to “records,” if you wanna be all hipster and John Cusack about it). Indeed, these songs flourish out in sort of traditional but ebullient major-chord, traditional-rock-and-roll format, the ululating wrinkle here then coming in the form of Phair’s hilariously dry, even caustic, delivery and overall disposition, in which she refuses to shy away from tenaciously unpacking themes like sexuality, violence and good ol’ treehouse-boy misogyny, on each of which topic she just seems like the timely, discursive master. But she’s far from tyrannical: just check the juicy vulnerability of the heartbroken closeur “Strange Loop”: “You haven’t seen me for weeks now / It wouldn’t shock you if I drove right out the back of your eyes / I can’t be trusted / They’re saying I can’t be true / But I only wanted more than I knew”. It’s a gut-check song about the realization that you’re only human, in the emotional sense, too, on an emotionally well-rounded album on which as I think Pitchfork pointed out the team of Brad Wood and Casey Rice “nailed the production.”

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Dolby’s Tune-in Tracks: “Help Me Mary”; “Soap Star Joe”; “Shatter”

 

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The Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (07/27/1993)

Here now we turn to somebody who’s probably fairly important, seeing as he was Courtney Love’s primary stand-in songwriter, the reported scribe behind “Celebrity Skin” and “Malibu” (which by my count is about every good Hole song in the history of the band). All this, and people still find a way to hate Billy Corgan, the world over: this is easily the most hated band on this list, of the ’90s and also probably of all time. Of obvious note here then would be that in talking about this album I’m handling something psychological, as much as I am something musical, especially since by now people are pretty familiar with this stuff. It’s pretty similar to their debut Gish except that more went INTO its creation, with as Wikipedia reports “(Corgan) and Vig would sometimes work on a 45-second section of music for two days, working 16-hour days for weeks at a time to achieve the sound Corgan wanted.” The desperation going on in Corgan’s personal life has of course received some publicity but you have to credit him with not making it an overwhelming THEME on this album — really Siamese Dream plays out as just another grunge masterpiece, which of course does feature some lamentations of loneliness and alienation but also declarations of freedom, a la the excellent mid-album “Rocket” and my personal favorite, at least in terms of storylines, “Spaceboy,” an ode of appreciation written to his autistic half-brother.

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Dolby’s Tune-in Tracks: “Disarm”; “Soma”; “Mayonaise”

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The Breeders – Last Splash (08/31/1993)

Not un-notably, The Breeders ventured AWAY from resident grunge sound doctor Steve Albini for production on this sophomore album, and I think it works to their benefit. I mean, just imagine Albini trying to ham-handedly beef-up a track like “Drivin’ on 9” or maybe “No Aloha,” making them herky-jerky rockers when really these light numbers are meant to skate like figure skaters, advancing agilely from beginning to end with melodic crispness and terseness without overbearing the listener. Deal had a hand in the engineering herself for this project, along with some buy named Mark Freegard whom I must confess I’ve never heard of, beginning to hone her knack for sound which would come to a perhaps unfortunate head when, according to a rumor, Kim Deal spent several months working on the drum sound alone of Title TK. Anyway, yes, The Breeders are also on the list of Kurt Cobain’s music-crushes, thanks to their drum-heavy, Albini-mixed debut Pod, though they’re way better known for their breakthrough MTV single “Cannonball,” off of this second album Last Splash, which, short of being quintessentially “grunge,” or “punk,” or “feminist,” stands rather as an indescribably catchy and great swatch of universally appealing songwriting, anthropomorphic with this sort of wolverine hysteria and looseness.

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Dolby’s Tune-in Tracks: “Cannonball”; “Roi”; “Saints”

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Counting Crows – August and Everything after (09/14/1993)

One sort of formative thing for me in the mid-’90s was riding around in the car with my dad and hearing these live versions of Counting Crows songs, on which Adam Duritz would maybe be slowing things down to an acoustic crawl and basically just bit**ing about the fact that he was famous. It all seemed so sad to me (which is saying something given that I wasn’t even old enough to get that “Mr. Jones” was about wanting to achieve notoriety and success in the music industry and the world), this spotlighted position that so many people seek to reach just offering nothing but disillusionment and grimness, I guess. All along, then, “Mr. Jones” seems to play as Duritz’ furious safeguard against what would I guess be like an emaciation of his faith in humanity, or a sacrifice of his innocence and dreams, thereabouts, but you have to give him this: it’s 25+ years into his fame and I still know almost nothing about the guy. I mean, did they even do that tour with LIVE last year? Counting Crows are boring, Counting Crows suck… it’s things you hear over and over and nobody is happier about that than Duritz himself, whose August and Everything after’s #3 “Dolby’s Top 100 Albums of the 1990s” rank I stand by to this day 100%, maybe even more. It’s also notable, or undeniable, the “wild wild west” sensibility imbued by album opener “Round Here”: all of the images seem blurry or obfuscated, there’s a “contrast of white on white” you’re supposed to notice. See, all you have to do is the impossible. The girl is from Nashville. Duritz is in love with her but she’s suicidal. Nothing is as it seems. All of this emotion, Duritz’ lifetime achievement, is woven into these undeniable, deliberate and punctilious songs which probably in some way fuse the singer/songwriter methods of Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen with the T-Bone Burnett aesthetic which would go on to inform later ’90s alt-rock like The Wallflowers and Fastball. More importantly, thought, they gave us some “café cool” that was actually cool, didn’t need a caterwaul of Fender stacks or diatribes of juvenile hatred to create a transmissible mood.

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Dolby’s Tune-in Tracks: “Omaha”; “Perfect Blue Buildings”; “Time and Time again”

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Nirvana – In Utero (09/21/1993)

Can somebody please tell Kurt Cobain his band is abrasive enough? To be honest, I probably would have just slapped MTV Unplugged in New York on here instead, but it was only recorded in late ’93, not released. And not to say that In Utero doesn’t have classic tracks. Sh**, I even came around to “Milk it” and “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” over the years, and that’s saying something. “Serve the Servants” has my favorite guitar solo ever with the possible exception of XTC’s “Are You Receiving Me?” There’s a certain mood I get in that only “Scentless Apprentice” can dislodge. But God, the baggage. It’s almost too much to take. It’s almost not even worth it — the proximity to his death, the sonic war between the noise-minded Steve Albini and the mainstream label Geffen, Courtney Love trying to fix his hair during the “Heart-Shaped Box” video shoot, Albini beefing up “Pennyroyal Tea” with Fenders and Jesus Lizard drums when by nature that’s an acoustic track, an unplugged track, like the beautiful “Polly” and “Something in the Way.” In Utero, perhaps more than any other successful album in history, is the brainchild of an extreme identity crisis — Kurt Cobain’s obsession with staying true to his “punk” roots when all the while both he and the questionable producer they chose for this album were selling him short as the best songwriter since Paul McCartney.

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Dolby’s Tune-in Tracks: “Serve the Servants”; “Scentless Apprentice”; “Heart-Shaped Box”

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Pearl Jam – Vs. (10/19/1993)

Yeah, I’ll admit, part of the point of this list is blueprinting possibilities on “what killed Kurt Cobain,” none to remind me of this central objective more than Pearl Jam’s ferocious sophomore monsoon of melody and grunge tungsten, Vs. Forget the album sales. Forget the label complications. Eddie Vedder and the gang would never say it, but they knew their enemy when they recruited scrappy, garage-sound knob twirler Brendan O’Brien to produce their breakthrough followup. And nobody can really explain “Go,” let alone the rest of this beast. “Go” was like that weird, just psychotic track that would come in when I was spinning my Live on Two Legs CD one of the 200 or so times and I’d be like, “Ok, THIS time it’s gonna suck. THIS time I’m gonna switch tracks to one of the reflective numbers and poignantly raise my lighter in the sky, as if the lyrics apply to me or anything. But there’s something just too infectious about the band’s tightness and groove — it really is the quintessential grunge song, right down to the sound itself which all of a sudden wasn’t overproduced anymore, didn’t have those overly velvety guitar textures or that Bon Jovi drum sound, but rather was like an assembly-line package of rip-roaring, speaker-ready rock which was like The Stooges on crack and with a lot more technical skill on the instruments. What’s the SACRIFICE at work here? Well, it’s still not a perfect album. It’s not even close. But that’s part of the charm — it’s like you get to “W.M.A.,” this funky, obscenely hypnotic guy-next-door type trod, it’s almost comedically different from anything else on the album and anything else the band has ever done, and it seems to be coming out of the sky, like the product of something that has nothing to do with the other parts, a phenomenological impossibility which speaks volumes as to why they became, and arguably still are, the most popular rock band on the planet.

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Dolby’s Tune-in Tracks: “Dissident”; “W.M.A.”; “Rearviewmirror”

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A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders (11/09/1993)

There are some who call this A Tribe Called Quest’s best album: I would argue fervently to the contrary of that, favoring the crisp and cutting-edge The Low End Theory by a wide margin, but Marauders has a sass and swagger characteristic of a group that’s made it, and to notice their ability to combine that with a wealth of ideas, slang and street knowledge is definitely to behold hip-hop greatness. “Sucka Ni**a” is a song that from a verbal, mortar and pestle standpoint has had a profound impact on playgrounds and parties the nation over, and whose structure was lifted for The Roots’ “Lazy Afternoon” (Black Thought and the boys also reference “Electric Relaxation” off this album on that same track). You’ve got Phife Dawg’s Alexander-no-good-very-bad-day venting session “8 Million Stories” for some comic relief, and perhaps best of all “Award Tour,” which of course Kanye would draw from in classic form on Graduation: “I’m on award tour with Common my man / After each and every show a couple dykes in the van”.

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Dolby’s Tune-in Tracks: “Award Tour”; “Sucka Ni**a”; “We Can Get down”

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Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (11/09/1993)

Sorry… I’m an opinionated person… that’s just what I do… this hot chocolate with marshmallows my mom just made me is too hot… and… this is NOT Wu-Tang’s best album by a WIDE margin, as is typically purported as the case, although it might still stand premiere amongst the group’s collective efforts (to say nothing of course of a veritable myriad of dope sh** emanating in solo-emcee form between ’95 and ’06 or so). Sure, there’s “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit,” which is so hype it feels like you should have to wear cleats when you listen to it. There’s “C.R.E.A.M.,” that melancholy hip-hop anthem with that perfect beat that arguably put the Clan on the map. There’s the acrobatic, multi-emcee sequential rhyming which is definitely their bread and butter, the ruggedness, a ruggedness NOT NECESSARILY bested on Forever and The W but they did their best. I sort of think 36 Chambers was almost like a practice session for a bunch of emcees with nothing to lose, and expedited, manufactured cuts like “Method Man” and “Clan in Da Front,” on which there’s only one rapper respectively, sort of suggest a slight idea lack, at least compared to their later sh** — but if nothing else 36 Chambers is proof that this blueprint would work, as it would spawn countless projects both in the group and of individuals and it laid the pedigree for RZA to keep making the beats for these rappers to beat up, which indeed he’d keep doing.

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Dolby’s Tune-in Tracks: “Bring da Ruckus”; “Wu-Tang Clan Aint Nuthing to F’ Wit”; “C.R.E.A.M.”

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Green Day – Dookie (02/01/1994)

Sorry to beat on this harp all day but this album almost kind of pi**es me off because everybody’s like, oh, that’s their LAST GOOD ALBUM, or ONLY GOOD ALBUM (mind you you never hear an actual MUSICIAN saying this, it’s always these couch-potato meat tearers who if it weren’t for punk rock would be like making fun of Martha Stewart’s unprofessionally done nails or something)… I mean I don’t have to tell you about Dookie… it’s got “When I Come around”; “Basket Case”; “She”; “Longview”; “Welcome to Paradise” (and in my sort of unpopular opinion a better version of “Welcome to Paradise” than we get on the indie predecessor Kerplunk). Well anyway just to steer things back to Kurt Cobain and everything, since he does like look like Jesus and stuff, I read this one interview with Courtney Love in which she was professing her fandom of Green Day and assuring us that Cobain “would have dug it… it’s about poo…” well anyway as you notice the release date there you see that the world wasn’t even able to process all this rock and roll fomentation in a very timely manner, which makes me feel like a little less of an a**hole for dragging it to the surface once again in 2019. I mean, these days Band of Horses releases a new album and it’s like a fu**in’ national holiday.

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Dolby’s Tune-in Tracks: “Having a Blast”; “Chump”; “Pulling Teeth”

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Beck – Mellow Gold (03/01/1994)

This might surprise you, but here I think is the granddaddy of them all — Mellow Gold, as scrappy, schizophrenic and impertinent as it is, was the inspiration behind this entire blog post (actually yesterday morning is when they first imaged that “black hole,” which is the name of the excellent, mischievously psychedelic album closeur on this project, and then I think I later found myself “trying hard not to think,” for some reason or for every reason, which is Hansen’s lyrical admission in the sparse, bare but sticktuitive “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997”). I honestly have no idea what that “1997” is a reference to and ultimately I think that’s part of the point — Beck’s catalogue is not something around which it’s POSSIBLE to wrap your mind. I mean, he’s a loser, baby. It’s like trying to stare into the sun or enter a black hole. You get sucked in and that pi**-colored CD becomes an extension of your arm and why not when the guy’s genus of influences barfs up Hank Williams and Sugarhill Gang, all in one fell spew.

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Dolby’s Tune-in Tracks: “Loser”; “Steal My Body Home”; “Blackhole”

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Soundgarden – Superunknown (03/08/1994)

Ok, THIS is actually their best album and… er… it probably killed Kurt Cobain but he was getting a lot of help from his cheating wife and his own blue-blooded self, what with his heroin addiction which had already caused him to punch his bandmate Krist Novoselic in the face for refusing to take him to his dealer and oversee a (very poorly publicized) band breakup. I come from the Midwest, typically thought of as the region of the country which produces the goods for the rest of the country to enjoy, with no opportunity to actually enjoy them ourselves (lately our college football game has been on point, you gotta admit). Well, I’m here to tell you to throw all that sh** out the window. I mean, I typically have what I’d like to call “Soundgarden type of nights” and then in the case of this curious beastie here, it’s only 70 minutes long, full of this explosive, combusting riff-rock, of which two songs are by the bassist (“Head down” and “Half,” also the two songs to feature mandolin… by the way I think Wikipedia got lazy and didn’t list that), but the rest the work of Chris Cornell who sadly enough, given the band’s extant eight-year existence with all of two catchy songs, “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage,” had probably started “using” for the sole purpose of weasling himself into our hearts the nation over… yeah see we Midwesterners didn’t even know about that heroin in the ’90s and that was fine with us.

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Dolby’s Tune-in Tracks: “Mailman”; “The Day I Tried to Live”; “Like Suicide”

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Phish – Hoist (03/29/1994)

Yeah this is kind of a gag selection to cap things off here (real “punk,” I know)… it’s not even close to being Phish’s best album, or the best hippie album of ’94 what with Ween’s Chocolate and Cheese and Meat Puppets’ Too High to Die coming later in the year. I dunno… I really like Phish, have seen ’em twice, was tripping both times, but anyway maybe I put this album on here to show that “punk” really isn’t the answer to everything and if “being punk” means shooting heroin and hating bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden then maybe “punk” is just annoying and useless, a flavor of the week sort of like new wave. Punk, in terms of America, started in Cali (not late-’70s New York, as is often said is the case). With the sporadic exceptions of Portland’s The Wipers and The Thermals, it’s been exceedingly rare to find a punk band emanate out of the Northwest and really make an impact on anybody’s life. The Melvins, a band Cobain idolized and really emulated a lot, particularly on “Sifting” and “Milk it,” as they say, were more like noise rock, something really distinct and the gleaning an influence of which would be anything but conspicuous. Every grunge band other than Nirvana was probably influenced by metal to a great degree — Cobain was a noted fan of Aerosmith but maybe lacked the attention span (he was a well known TV junkie and not “easily amused”) to, if not take in the full gamut of music out there, maybe CONCEIVE of the type of song that would really occupy people as a musical journey and not just sort of a churlish burp of juvenility. Anyway, I’m just pontificating here, just sick, sometimes, of sickness, I guess.

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Dolby’s Tune-in Tracks: “Down with Disease”; “Sample in a Jar”; “Wolfman’s Brother”

 

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