5. “I Predict” – Sparks: An Artist A Week/A Song A Day – A History of Alternative Music

5. “I Predict” – Sparks 

(From the album Angst In My Pants)

1982

1982’s Angst In My Pants continues the general style of Whomp That Sucker while also rearranging that album’s formula a little. On Angst In My Pants Sparks pulls back a little on the synths and keyboards and moves the guitars forward in the mix again. This change means that Angst In My Pants feels more like a new wave or power pop album and less like the synthpop and disco experiments of their previous few albums. It isn’t a radical shift and it doesn’t abandon synthesizers but the synths are used more for atmosphere and coloring here than to drive the songs. The title track foreshadows the mood and lyrical obsessions that the Violent Femmes would soon popularize and serves as a bridge between the sound of Whomp That Sucker and Angst In My Pants. However, the gem of the album is the percussive new wave stomp of “I Predict”. “I Predict” is yet another Sparks song that should have been a hit and wasn’t, not even finding success in the usually faithful UK. In spite of the fact that Angst In My Pants was one of Sparks more consistent albums in some time and that bands that were obviously inspired by them were having hits and helping to reshape music in the early 80’s, Sparks seemed on the verge of seeing their career sputter and die, yet again.

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90’s Albums Revisited – September 1992 – Part 2

This Month In History – September 1992 – Part 2: Hurricane Iniki slams into Hawaii killing 3 and injuring 8,000. In the comic Peanuts Lucy raises the cost of her Psychiatric Help from 5 cents to 47 cents. 900 die in flooding in Pakistan. Later in the month a Pakistani airline crashed into the mountains killing 167. Philadelphia Phillies’ player Mickey Morandini completes a rare, unassisted triple play. 

Author’s Note: So many great and important albums came out in September 1991 that this month will be the first of only a few months in the decade that will get two postings for a total of eight albums. This is the second half group of albums from this month.

Listen To The Albums: September 1992 – Part 2: Copper Blue/Us/99.9F/Broken – https://open.spotify.com/playlist/43AlAmRoEQt2jhLzbpQc0q

“Copper Blue” – Sugar

One of the key bands to create the scene and set the stage for the alternative rock revolution that burst into the mainstream in the 1990’s were 80’s college rock punks Husker Du. Husker Du ended just as the scene they helped to build exploded into success. Luckily key member Bob Mould was able to capitalize on that and get some long deserved attention and success with his new band Sugar. Sugar sounds a lot like Mould’s late period Husker Du songs only with their underlying pop incinations pushed more to the forefront and their debut album Copper Blue is absolutely stunning. While not quite a forgotten gem, Copper Blue is deserving of being remembered and listened to much more than it is. In truth, it is loaded with great songs. “The Act We Act”, “The Slim”, and “Man On The Moon” being perfect mixes of altr rock noise and sweet melody. While “A Good Idea” is a Pixies tribute that sounds almost exactly like The Pixies. Finally, the two semi-hit singles, the jangly “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” and the punky power pop of “Helpless”, are both highlights of the early 90’s alternative rock era.

“Us” – Peter Gabriel 

Peter Gabriel had been the original frontman of prog rock titans Genesis before moving on to a solo career that helped to pioneer first wave alternative rock. Gabriel had then moved into the mainstream with the massive success of his 1986 album So, which had featured the massive hits “Sledgehammer”, “Big Time”, “Red Rain” and “In Your Eyes”. Gabriel then largely retreated from the public eye and didn’t release another non-soundtrack album until 1992’s Us. A lot had changed in the music industry between 1986 and 1992 and Gabriel both ignores and acknowledges this on Us. Sonically, Us doesn’t feel overly different from So as the album has a dense, layered and slick production that is reminiscent of the 80’s production sound that Gabriel and his associates helped to create. There are even a few moments that are blatant looks backward at the sound and style of So, namely the “Sledgehammer” rewrite “Steam” and the funky “Kiss That Frog”. However, while Us may sound like So, that similarity is largely only on the surface as the songs that make up Us are darker, more intimate, and more introspective. Lead single “Digging In The Dirt” – one of Gabriel’s more underrated songs – shifts from its pulsing verses to its angry chorus as Gabriel examines the dark corners of a relationship. Us opens with “Come Talk To Me” and closes with “Secret World”, both of which have an anthemic quality to them that is familiar to longtime Gabriel fans. Most of the remaining tracks though are quiet and meditative songs that about relationships that can take time to sink in; the best among them being “Blood Of Eden” and “Washing Of The Water”. Us is often overlooked, and it is a little out of step with its time, but it is yet another masterpiece created by Peter Gabriel and deserves more attention than it generally gets.

“99.9F” – Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega had been one of the leaders of the 1980’s folk revival and had even managed to score a left-field mainstream hit with “Luka” in 1987. With 99.9F Suzanne Vega manages to implode her folky reputation and stay current with the trends of the time, all without abandoning the roots of her art. Stripped to their core, the songs on 99.9F are folk songs, but Vega and her producer Mitchell Froom add weird instrumentation, dance music and industrial textures, odd time signatures and song structures, and a cluttered, percussion-filled production to create something both rooted in traditional folk and thoroughly post-modern. And while one can argue Vega wrote better songs on some of her other albums, she never sounded more sonically interesting than she does here. The two hits were the machine-like rush of “Blood Makes Noise” and the percussive, pulsing, and downright sexy “99.9F”. However, there are many other great moments here for those willing to listen beyond the hits. “When Heroes Go Down” and “(If You Were) In My Movie” are Beatlesque pop, while “Fat Man & Dancing Girl” and “Rock In This Pocket” are further experiments weaving Froom’s cluttered, percussion-driven production into Vega’s simple sound. Finally, Vega offers up a few more traditional folk numbers that can rival her best work anywhere (although these too are played with some in the production); most notably on the heartbroken but beautiful “In Liverpool” (perhaps her best song ever) and “Bad Wisdom”, a companion of sorts to “Luka” that deals with the sexual abuse of a child. 

“Broken” – Nine Inch Nails 

Those who know the Nine Inch Nails story know that there really is no Nine Inch Nails, at least not beyond Trent Reznor, who writes, plays, and helps produce everything that goes on a Nine Inch Nails album. 1989’s debut Pretty Hate Machine only very slowly built up stream and really didn’t hit its peak until 1991 when “Head Like A Hole” finally became a hit and introduced the mainstream to industrial music, or at least the textures of industrial music in a more traditional setting. “Head Like A Hole” was a rage-filled industrial thrasher driven in its chorus by roaring guitars, but much of the rest of Pretty Hate Machine was more insular and more electronic. Once Pretty Hate Machine became a success Reznor needed to tour and to do that he had to compile a full band to play. This tour, and the larger more guitar-driven versions of some of the Pretty Hate Machine songs played on the tour, helped to inspire the next Nine Inch Nails project – an EP titled Broken. Broken was more guitar-driven and much angrier than the more synth-oriented Pretty Hate Machine. This was partially due to Reznor’s inspiration of playing live with his touring band, partly due to the success of the guitar and rage driven “Head Like A Hole”, and partly due to intense rage Reznor felt at his original record label for interfering in his creative process and trying to control his work. All of these factors led to Broken, an EP that is completely built off of rage and frustration and has none of the reflective moments or dry humor of Pretty Hate Machine. Songs like “Wish” and “Happiness In Slavery” were pure sonic assaults, while “Gave Up” twists the synth-driven music of Pretty Hate Machine into something equally as destructive. Only on the two bonus tracks (that originally came on a separate disc) did any cracks in the rage come through, especially on the monster-sized cover of Adam Ant’s “Physical”. (Author’s note: One of my great sadnesses in regards to my music collection is that I did own an early printing of Broken that had the two bonus songs on the secondary mini disc and at some point I stupidly got rid of it).

4. “Tips For Teens” – Sparks: An Artist A Week/A Song A Day – A History of Alternative Music

4. “Tips For Teens” – Sparks 

(From the album Whomp That Sucker)

1981

On 1981’s Whomp That Sucker Sparks moves on from their flirtation with disco by incorporating those dance and synth elements more fully  into their own quirky sound. Doing so creates a Sparks album that fits in nicely with the rising synthpop and new wave genres that they helped to inspire. Unlike earlier Sparks records that felt either ahead of their time or completely unique, Whomp That Sucker fits in nicely with what was happening at the time. That said, the album never feels like a commercial grab or like it is playing catch-up to the sound of newer bands. After all, Sparks had helped to create these styles and most of Whomp That Sucker is a logical extension of the sound of “Beat The Clock” and the other disco-kissed song from their previous album. Whomp That Sucker can be a little inconsistent at times but it opens with “Tips For Teens”, one of Sparks best (and most ridiculous) songs. “Tips For Teens” deftly walks the line between the sugary rush of synthpop and the nervous energy of post-punk perfectly while never sounding like anyone but Sparks. Lyrically the song is absurdist genius as the Mael’s offer ridiculous advice to the younger generation. The fact that Sparks still couldn’t score a real American hit with “Tips For Teens”, a song that fit in with the rising musical zeitgeist of the time and had a fun video perfect for early MTV, only proved that America was likely never going to get on board. Sadly, that was America’s loss as Sparks show once again that they are musical (and comedic) geniuses. 

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3. “Beat The Clock” – Sparks: An Artist A Week/A Song A Day – A History of Alternative Music

3. “Beat The Clock” – Sparks 

(From the album No. 1 In Heaven)

1979

Sparks followed up their hit 1974 albums Kimono My House and Propaganda with 1975’s excellent Indiscreet, which is a glam-tinged power pop record that largely continues in the same vein as their two previous albums and finishes out a triptych of excellent albums that have continued to define Sparks even today. The two albums that followed these saw diminishing returns, both creatively and commercially. 1976’s Big Beat saw the Mael brothers jettison their backing band and continue as the core duo while continuing the power pop of Indiscreet to mostly good results. However, following Big Beat the Mael’s abandoned the UK and returned to the US to make 1977’s Introducing Sparks, an album that stripped back their eccentricities and aimed for elusive American success. Introducing Sparks was a failure. The album received poor critical reviews and weak sales in the previously supportive UK while also failing to break the band in the US. To make matters worse, much of the album was boring, and boring was something that Sparks had never been before. Seeming to be on the verge of the end of their careers Sparks decided to completely shake up their formula for 1979’s No. 1 In Heaven and created, in essence, a disco album, and in combining their own unique and quirky formula with the sound and beat of disco, helped to create the genres of synthpop and new wave. The title track was a collaboration between the Mael’s and disco mega-producer Giorgio Morodor (who had scored hits under his own name and done production on Donna Summer’s massive disco smash “I Feel Love”) and set the tone for the entire album, which served as a comeback of sorts for Sparks around the world (except in the USA). The biggest single was the fourth single “Beat The Clock” which takes the disco elements and reshapes them in a way that is slightly less disco feeling but into a sound that soon will begin to be labeled as synthpop or an extension of new wave.

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2. “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” – Sparks: An Artist A Week/A Song A Day – A History of Alternative Music

2. “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” – Sparks 

(From the album Propaganda)

1974

Released only six months after Sparks’ breakthrough album Kimono My House, Sparks fourth album Propaganda sits alongside that record as their commercial, and possibly musical, peak. As might be expected for a record released in the same year as the preceding one, Propaganda is a sonic cousin to Kimono My House, but in the best way. Propaganda follows the pattern set by Kimono My House but still finds plenty of room to be its own record and follow its own muse as the Mael brothers perfect their witty, zany, and eclectic sound while scoring more hits in their adopted UK. In fact, Propaganda would hit #9 and be their 2nd highest charting album in the UK until 2017, and remains their highest charting American release, reaching #63 on the US albums chart. While much of the album follows the blueprint of Kimono My House (hit single “Something For The Girl With Everything” is definitely patterned after “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us”) Sparks also finds room to stretch out some and grow their sound. One example of this was the lead single from Propaganda, the environmental near-ballad “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth”. The song, like previous ones, relies heavily on the amazing vocal range of Russell Mael and the catchy, yet quirky music provided by his brother Ron Mael. However, “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” has a more serious tone both musically and lyrically than previous efforts and showcased that Sparks could be faithful to their vision while also creating something less silly and theatrical. Indeed, “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” hit #13 in the UK continuing Sparks run of hits during the UK glam rock era.

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1. “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us” – Sparks: An Artist A Week/A Song A Day – A History of Alternative Music

1. “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us” – Sparks 

(From the album Kimono My House)

1974

Sparks is the musical brainchild of brothers Ron and Russell Mael. The Mael brothers formed Sparks in Los Angeles in the late 1960’s with another pair of brothers, Earle and Jim Mankey, and drummer Harley Feinstein under the original name of Halfnelson. It is this line up that would eventually be discovered by Todd Rundgren, change their name to Sparks, and record two album – Sparks and A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing – that had some near hits and began to build their cult following, especially in the UK where their music was more in-step with the rising glam rock scene there. After these two albums brought Sparks to the verge of success in the UK the Mael brothers, open anglophiles, moved there. The rest of the band opted to part ways (Jim Mankey later became the bassist for Concrete Blonde) and the Mael brothers never looked back. With Sparks now being just the Mael brothers they formed a new backing band and went on to create the theatrical, glam masterpiece Kimono My House. While definitely connected to the glam rock scene sweeping Britain, Sparks already had their own unique sound and vision and, like Bowie, it would be a sound and vision that changed every album or two over the course of their career, causing them to win new fans and then lose them almost as quickly. While their profile would always be bigger in the UK and Europe than in their native USA Sparks would spend most of their career as a cult band with a rabid following and a massive influence on countless other bands and genres. “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us” is a great example of their style at the time, a mix of glam and over the top theatricality, that became their biggest hit peaking at #2 in the UK and continuing to slowly grow their cult following in the US, on their way to becoming a forerunner of the alternative scene.

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7. “Small Craft On A Milk Sea” – Brian Eno: An Artist A Week/A Song A Day – A History of Alternative Music

7. “Small Craft On A Milk Sea” – Brian Eno

(From the album Small Craft On A Milk Sea)

2010

We have jumped 20 years in time between yesterday’s song “Lay Your Love” and today’s song “Small Craft On A Milk Sea”, the title track to Eno’s 2010 album. Eno spent much of those intervening years producing for other artists and putting out albums that experimented in the dance, techno, and other genres that were inspired by him. Many of those albums were good, but they also often sounded of the time, and Eno’s best music tends to sound and feel timeless. For Small Craft On A Milk Sea Brian Eno signed with the WARP Records label, known for making minimalist electronica and techno (almost all of which owes a debt to Eno) and made an album that is a quiet, instrumental, ambient affair reminiscent of much of his best work without ever sounding beholden to it. Small Craft On A Milk Sea, including the title track, is Eno returning to making ambient music while also weaving in subtle elements of world music and his own art rock and avant garde roots. It is simple and beautiful and ranks among his best. In the years since this album Eno has continued to work alone, with collaborators, and as a producer for other bands, and is still a key force in the alternative music world.

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6. “Lay My Love” – Brian Eno: An Artist A Week/A Song A Day – A History of Alternative Music

6. “Lay My Love” – Brian Eno (w/ John Cale)

(From the album Wrong Way Up)

1990

Brian Eno was insanely prolific in the 1970’s and early 1980’s but in the mid to late 1980’s Eno finally slowed down to some degree, at least by his own standards. By 1990 his influence on alternative music was undeniable, both as a musician and as a producer, and Eno was seen as a visionary pioneer and lauded elder statesmen by the new generation of alternative music artists that were just beginning to bring the alternative into the mainstream. Eno chose this moment to jump back into the fray, this time choosing to collaborate with a man whose own reputation for creating experimental and avant garde music that had impacted alternative music was equal to his own, former Velvet Underground member John Cale. These two men were both masters of experimental sound and styles and yet, working together, they chose to make an album that is decidedly pop at heart. This made not be as strange as it first seems as both men had made music that was decidedly pop before, and the music on Wrong Way Up is pop of the most interesting kind, laced with experimentation and unexpected detours. Thus, Wrong Way Up may not be the album many expected a duo like Eno and Cale to make, but that doesn’t mean it is not an excellent listen. One of the standout tracks is the album opener “Lay My Love”, a song that is nothing short of a lost electro-pop masterpiece. Featuring sampled percussion and atmospheric synths provided by Eno, Cale’s bass and viola, and the voices of both men, “Lay My Love” is an alternative universe pop hit that proves that these two old masters could have been alterna-pop stars if they hadn’t chosen the path less taken. 

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5. “Lantern Marsh” – Brian Eno: An Artist A Week/A Song A Day – A History of Alternative Music

5. “Lantern Marsh” – Brian Eno

(From the album Ambient 4: On Land)

1982

Much of Brian Eno’s solo career has been spent working in the genre of ambient music. Indeed, Eno has been one of the key pioneers of the genre and has used many different methods and techniques to develop ambient music. On Ambient 4: On Land the concept is to allow inspiration from specific geographic locations or the memories of them and then to create a soundtrack of sorts for that place. While ambient music does not appeal to everyone the influence of this album on artists ranging from Radiohead to Nine Inch Nails to Depeche Mode to various modern composers (Graeme Ravell comes to mind) is apparent and makes the album noteworthy for reasons that go beyond the high quality of the music. “Lantern Marsh: is a good example of what Eno is attempting to do. “Lantern Marsh” creates an aura of place that is almost palpable. The song feels humid, dark, fetid, eerie, and mysterious, evoking a sense of being alone in a dark and creepy place without feeling overt. The whole album works and creates a variety of interconnected, yet distinct soundscapes that evoke images of deserts, windswept plains, peaceful meadows, cold beaches, etc.

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4. “Regiment” – Brian Eno: An Artist A Week/A Song A Day – A History of Alternative Music

4. “Regiment” – Brian Eno (w/ David Byrne)

(From the album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts)

1981

In a career full of experimental and influential music one of Brian Eno’s most experimental and influential albums is his collaboration with David Byrne on 1981’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Since 1977’s Before And After Science Eno had put out a string of ambient and electronic albums both on his own and working with various collaborators (not to mention also working extensively as a producer for other artists). In one sense My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is a continuation of this trend as the album is rooted in electronic, experimental, and ambient music. However, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is also so much more. Yes, the album is filled with Eno’s electronic and ambient soundscapes but he and Byrne weave funk, art rock, and world music influences from all over the globe into the mix, with Eno himself once saying that the album was meant to feel like “a vision of psychedelic Africa”. The album also was years ahead of its time both in its use of samples and in juxtaposing field recordings with modern music. Indeed, there are almost no live vocals used on the album with nearly every track using some kind of sample as the vocal element in the songs. Almost anything that Eno and Byrne thought was interesting sounding could be used for sampling and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts samples, among other things, an exorcism ceremony, radio talk show hosts, religious evangelists, Egyptian pop music, Lebanese mountain singing, Islamic passages from the Qur’an, and old field recordings of traditional music. Sampling had been done before but never to this extent and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts use of sampling would blaze a path that would change music in genres ranging from hip hop and rap to heavy metal and techno and is still being felt today. Eno and Byrne also used old field recordings and set them to a backdrop of modern rhythms and electronic beats, foreshadowing a trend that would really take off a decade or so later when techno and experimental electronic groups like Moby and Recoil began to popularize the concept. While nothing on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts was a conventional hit, “The Jezebel Spirit” is probably the best known track, combining a funky electronic rhythm section that sounds like a blending of Eno and Talking Heads with a vocal sample of a preacher performing an exorcism. “Regiment”, the song that I have chosen to highlight, places the chanting of Lebanese mountain singers over top a bed of funky and percussive electro-rock that actually predicts much of the sound that U2 would develop a decade later when they reinvented themselves on their Achtung Baby album (not coincidentally produced by Brian Eno). Years ahead of its time and a massive influence on almost every genre of cool or cutting edge music for at least the next twenty years My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is a masterpiece that the vast majority of music fans know nothing about but whose influence is literally everywhere.

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