Listen to this track by Atlanta-based hip hop collective Arrested Development. It’s “Tennessee”, the first single taken from their smash-hit debut record, 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days In the Life Of … released in the spring of 1992. The group are widely known as being pioneers in southern hip hop and authors of the aural counterbalance to the rise of West Coast scenes during the early nineties, with their debut record as a fine example.
In contrast to the violence and nihilism of a lot of rap at the time, Arrested Development traded in more celebratory themes, while still acknowledging the same burdensome weight of history on black communities in America and the anger and sorrow it justifiably creates. Under the creative leadership of Speech and Headliner, the group concocted a potent blend of musical styles from soul, gospel, dub, funk (this song samples Prince’s “Alphabet Street” prominently), blues, and jazz.
Importantly, this song in particular eschews the braggadocio, posturing, and often very understandable cynicism of a lot of the rap coming out of the West Coast that dominated the field at the time and embraces a brand of vulnerable candour in its place.”Tennessee” is downright humble, being in the form of a prayer. Yet the themes built into this song are not to be dismissed as lightweight. In fact, it evokes much of the same darkness and struggle as is found in any example of socially aware hip hop of the time. Read more
Listen to this track by languid Santa Monica lo-fi outfit Mazzy Star. It’s “Fade Into You”, their hit single that features on their 1994 breakthrough album So Tonight That I Might See . This song remains to be their signature tune, noted for the sleepy, soporific vocal performance by singer Hope Sandoval.
After a decade in the eighties of big glossy production-driven records, a song like this that seems to evoke the spirit of desolate early seventies folk-rock seems like an unlikely formula for success. This approach fit pretty well to the new decade, with a lot of bands then freed up to reference older musical streams after the eighties’ emphasis on hyper-newness and burying the past was over. Even if that’s true, Mazzy Star came by those influences pretty honestly before it was fashionable anyway.
Joining Sandoval in the band was guitarist David Roback, late of Paisley Underground band The Rain Parade and follow-up band Opal, the latter of which Sandoval was also a part. That scene largely ignored (and was ignored by) the mainstream in the eighties, with references to the warm tones of sixties and early seventies psych and folk arenas more so than to the jittery new wave, sparkly dance pop, or bombastic arena rock of the time. So what helped to make this song a sleeper (and sleepy!) hit by the following decade? Just this, I think; everyone loves a mystery.
Listen to this track by Canadian institution and alt-country pioneers Blue Rodeo. It’s “Know Where You Go/Tell Me Your Dream”, the closing section made up of two connected songs as taken from their 1993 record Five Days In July.
Blue Rodeo are celebrated on a grand scale here in Canada, having initially built their reputation on Toronto’s Queen Street scene from their first gig in 1985 at the famous Rivoli. They became a stalwart live act from there, reaching stratospheric heights by the end of the decade and into the nineties. By the time they recorded Five Days In July, they were widely regarded as one of the biggest acts in the country, having long since distinguished themselves via the work premier-level songwriters and band principals Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor.
With that history in place, the band were still interested in progressing their sound beyond their influences as they’d always sought to do, those influences being that Cosmic American sound popularized by The Byrds, Gram Parsons, and Harvest-era Neil Young. To do so, they did what another Band once had done; they retreated to the countryside for a while. Read more
Listen to this track by Atlanta Georgia R&B pop proponents TLC. It’s “Waterfalls”, a smash hit single and signature track featured on their second record Crazy Sexy Cool which went an incredible eleven-times platinum. The song made monumental waves on the charts, and was also notable for becoming the number one video on MTV, holding that position for a full month. TLC was the first African-American group to hold that position by 1995.
“Waterfalls” is notable for many other reasons besides this, of course. For one thing, it was the best song that Prince never wrote, complete with a full-on Sly & The Family Stone-style vibe matched with hip-hop aesthetics a-plenty. Group member Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes can be thanked for writing it, with a co-write credit to Marqueze Etheridge of Organized Noize who also produced it. Another notable trait about this song is its subject matter, dealing in the dangers of drugs and unprotected sex, very vividly represented in the aforementioned video.
Maybe a third aspect of this song in the light of that is that it should really sound more preachy and judgmental than it does. It certainly seems to have a political edge to it, being among the first to deal head on with the AIDS epidemic. Maybe too, it reflects something of its writer’s inner voice as well.
Listen to this track by self-confessed creekdipper and superbly gifted singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. It’s “Century Plant”, the opening track to her 1994 album Loose, on which she is joined by a bevy of talented friends including Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, REM’s Mike Mills. and former Jayhawk and then-future husband Gary Louris. This record was something of a comeback album for her after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
Williams found support for her situation in the Sweet Relief campaign and related compilation album around this time that featured many of her peers and elders alike who admired her work and were quick to come to her aid. At the time, Williams was one of many musicians in the United States without health insurance. In the middle of that harrowing situation, her illness did nothing to reduce her capacity for powerful songwriting in a folk storytelling influenced version of country rock with her unique voice in the center of it. Most importantly, it did not diminish her life-affirming attitude to be found in her songs. To me, this is the active ingredient to her work; a sort of defiant optimism and positivity.
“Century Plant” embodies this attitude, a song that is concerned with shifts in perspective. This is particularly when it comes to the nature of human potential and the mysteries that often surround it. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time Townes Van Zandt padawan turned gritty country-rock veteran Steve Earle. It’s “Hard-Core Troubadour”, a cut as taken from his 1996 album, I Feel Alright.
This song and the album off of which it comes emerged out of an era that was less than stellar for their creator personally speaking. By the early 1990s, Earle’s relationship with drugs landed him a prison sentence, of which he served 60 days plus a stint in rehab. He knew quite a lot about being under the thrall of substances, and of making some pretty bad decisions as a result. After four years passed, he realized how important it was to stick to his art as a means to keep him grounded. I think the title of the record is very meaningful in the light of that. This album, and yet another album that same year Train A-Comin’, was a sign that he was ready to be creative again, edging away from his more self-destructive impulses.
Maybe it’s this that gives this song such a gravitas, a story that concerns itself with an unreliable and intoxicated character and about the woman in his life who must make a choice about what she wants her life to be like. In a way, this song is also about Steve Earle himself. Read more
Listen to this track by canny pop song strategists and performance art doyens The KLF, featuring the First Lady of Country herself, Tammy Wynette. It’s “Justified & Ancient”, a tune that features on their 1991 album The White Room and on its own as a single version. After this song was released with notable chart showings all over the world, there were no more singles from the group at all. In fact, they deleted their own catalogue in the UK!
The KLF was a meta pop group more so than the real thing. The whole project seemed to be an active parody of the pop industry process, inventing a whole vocabulary and mythology around itself. The “band” was made up of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, both of whom were on the British music and theatre scenes at various levels since the mid-1970s. They started this project under the name JAMs (that’s Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu) by the late eighties.
By 1991, this single referenced their history and was something of a closed circle for them as their last ever single connected to the JAMs/KLF project. It certainly had a positive impact on Tammy Wynette in a very measurable way, while also being indicative of an approach to pop music as art where Drummond and Cauty were concerned all around. Read more
Listen to this track by British folk-rock storyteller and guitar hero Richard Thompson. It’s “Beeswing”, a cut off of his 1994 album Mirror Blue. That record had him working with producer Mitchell Froom, who helmed the boards for his celebrated record Rumor & Sigh. This time, though, the quirks that characterized their approach came to the surface a bit more, and it was not to everyone’s taste, critically speaking.
But even under these conditions where the album’s production is concerned, “Beeswing” is a giant of a tune by anyone’s standard. It comes straight from Thompson’s deep knowledge and superior command of British folk songwriting traditions dealing in well-traveled themes of tarnished love, character flaws, lost potential, and (to be frank) unhappy endings. This song adds a contemporary dimension to all of that, really sounding like a personal story as well as presenting characters that embody those well-understood and relatable themes.
Most importantly, it’s a song that hits on another resonant theme with which humanity struggles in any era or generation; the balance between personal freedom, and the obligation to others whom we choose to love, and who in turn choose to love us. Read more
Listen to this track by St. Catharines Ontario-born singer-songwriter and teller of tales Ron Sexsmith. It’s “The Idiot Boy”, a deep cut as taken from his 1999 album Whereabouts, his third record. The song traces the history of humankind itself through a distinctly Biblical lens, tongue firmly in cheek. In it, the titular central character is not so much a hero in his own story, but more like his own stumbling block. This is very much in keeping with the whole record.
Whereabouts is a pretty overcast album, full of self-doubt and struggle. On it, Sexsmith seems to live up to his (not ultimately accurate) reputation as a perpetually glum songwriter, with his rainy-day voice not entirely helping to dissuade the casual listener any differently. It was therefore hard for that same casual listener to see the humour in the lyrics, an angle that has also been a part of Sexsmith’s approach. There’s more to this song than what first might be perceived.
Even while “The Idiot Boy” reflects his views on human history, it’s also perhaps a reflection of the songwriter’s own state of being. Read more
Listen to this track by Bermuda-born, London-based singer-songwriter Heather Nova. It’s “London Rain (Nothing Heals Me Like You Do)”, a single as taken from her third album, 1998’s Siren. Even though the song is a paean to being home in London, it did much better in the US, possibly due to its inclusion in the soundtrack to an episode of nineties drama Dawson’s Creek.
Emerging in the early nineties, Heather Nova’s music fit into a certain paradigm of women singer-songwriters that proliferated at the time, underscoring the wealth of talent that existed under the still very male-centric music industry. Nova had a unique background from which she pulled her music and her approach to a career in a tough industry. As a child, she lived on a forty-foot boat with her family including a brother and sister plus her two parents, sailing the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea for most of the 1970s and into the 1980s, all the while making music for herself.
It was in this setting that she grew her love for music and for storytelling. But I think too that background may cast light on what makes this specific song such a vital example of what makes Heather Nova unique, along with how much it mirrors a pretty common thread in most people’s lives; a sense of home. Read more