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
Listen to this track by social commentary-oriented hip hop and spoken word crew The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. It’s “Television, The Drug Of The Nation”, a notable track that was released as a single and taken from their 1992 debut record, Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury.
Musician, poet, and rapper Michael Franti envisioned a style of hip hop that more directly confronted the social issues of the day, while also combining original grooves with sampled material. As for the latter aspect of the music, drummer and percussionist Rono Tsu was on hand to serve as the crew’s DJ. In addition to incorporating spoken raps in a style previously laid down by hip hop forebear Gil Scott-Heron, Franti also referenced the lingual rhythms of Beat poetry, eventually cutting a record with Beat movement elder William S. Burroughs.
But what of this song, so popular as a soundtrack commonly heard winding its way up and down university dorms in 1992, a time when the Internet wasn’t even a gleam in the eye of mass media outlets? Well, to me, I think this song is less about media, and more about us as consumers of it. Read more
Listen to this track by returning pop-punk chartbusters turned pop rock elders Blondie. It’s “Maria”, their comeback single as issued on their 1999 album No Exit. That record was their first together since 1982’s The Hunter. That’s a pretty long time between releases. But this song ensured their success as their sixth number one single in the UK where they’d always been championed since their early days. This new song’s chart placement corresponded to the day with another number one song of theirs in the UK, “Heart Of Glass” in 1979.
“Maria” was penned by Blondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri, even borrowing the phrase “walking on imported air” from his own “Walk Like Me” from 1980’s Autoamerican. Also, the song shares a similar dynamic with their early song “Rip Her To Shreds” that has lead singer Debby Harry judgmentally (and with a heaping tablespoon of irony) commenting on an observed woman. “Maria” is kind of the twin sister to that song, more concerned with the woman as unobtainable object of love, or maybe lust, with a dash of the divine thrown in for good measure.
“Maria” demonstrates that classic power-pop perspective in this way, and is very connected to the band’s earlier oeuvre on these many fronts. It’s no wonder it did the business for them as a comeback single. Along with that I think it has something to say about women in general. Read more
Listen to this track by scene-solidifying Bristolian trip-hop trio Portishead. It’s “Glory Box”, the closing track to their Mercury Prize-winning 1994 album Dummy. That release set the music press alight with praise even before the band cinched the prize, of course. Part of what it achieved was to shed light on the scene in Bristol which had been brewing for some time by 1994, and before the term “trip-hop” was widely used.
That “Bristol sound” as it was known focused on an amalgam of musical ingredients that certainly included hip hop, but also sixties soundtrack music, dub, soul, jazz, and the blues, among others. The magic to be found in Portishead’s music, with “Glory Box” being a fine example, was that it was very difficult to tell which texture was laid down by the band live in the studio, and which textures they’d sampled from vintage vinyl. There are no seams here on that front, just pure atmosphere.
In this, Portishead were the spearhead for a trend that would become de rigueur for many acts for the rest of the decade and beyond, which was to tie disparate musical landscapes together with a flair for the cinematic. And it proved too that sampled music could do what many traditional genres of music could do, which was to evoke a unified sense of narrative that connects with the human experience in some way. Read more
Listen to this track by Vancouver folk-pop institution Spirit Of The West. It’s “Home For A Rest”, their signature song and musical highlight as taken from their 1990 album Save This House. This record was their breakthrough, having been together since 1984, and finally signed to a major label in Warner Music Canada by 1989. It was practically a government issue release across our country, gracing the record collections of many in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Unlike many new bands signed onto a major, the band didn’t make too many changes to their initial sound; the skin of traditional Celtic folk music as fused upon the bones and muscle of pop/rock musical structure. In the early nineties and in scenes all across Canada, a lot of bands were attempting to strike this very same balance. But few of them had the same impact as this band, full as they are of punk energy and musicianly chops that place them into Pogues territory. There wasn’t any need for them to do anything other than what they had been doing all along, which was to write songs full of thematic gravity and wit, touching on issues of social justice, sure, but not forgetting to infuse their work with humour as well.
This song is a travelogue and drinking song all rolled into one, certainly a reflection of where the band were at during that time, touring with British pop band The Wonder Stuff. This took them to London, to the pubs, and presumably to the bottom of a lot of glasses. In an important and very Canadian way though, this song is less about over indulgence and more about a sense of identity, which if you know anything about our country, makes a whole lot of sense. Read more
Listen to this track by New York chamber pop ensemble led by arch-songwriter Stephin Merritt, The Magnetic Fields. It’s “I Don’t Want To Get Over You”, a love song (sorta) as taken from the 1999 triple album 69 Love Songs, on which there are in fact 69 love songs.
That record might be looked upon as being the result of a dare were it not looked upon as one of the best albums released that year. This is despite its vast scope or perhaps even because of it. What it established, if there was any doubt, was Stephin Merritt’s seemingly bottomless creative well for creating compact, thoughtful, well-constructed pop songs that draw from many genres and eras. And this was just one of his musical projects during that period! The lowest common denominator here is that they are all ostensibly love songs.
Although that’s another thing with this album. When all 69 songs have been listened to, we’re no further along in understanding love than when we began, and that’s kind of the point. Love is an elusive animal, even in song. But, what is the status of love on this particular song, which is a break up tale that perhaps more of us can relate to than we’d like to admit? Read more
Listen to this track by instrumentally unique trio from Seattle The President Of The United States Of America. It’s “Lump”, their 1995 hit song as taken from their second LP that bears their name.
The song was a number one song on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, and later a number seven on the Album Rock chart. It would later be a feature on several musically oriented video games like Rock Band 2, Just Dance, and others. It would also gain the distinguished accolade of being spoofed by Weird Al Yankovic (his version was “Gump”, which summarized the popular Tom Hanks-led film). The song was a radio single on mainstream radio as well, standing out uniquely even in that time when unadorned guitar-pop was a completely viable direction. It was kind of weird. But, totally catchy.
That’s the thing about this song. It seems pretty lightweight all around, and maybe willfully weird and wacky. But for me, it held within it something else to offer that wasn’t so lightweight, and was actually kind of heavy for a pop song. Read more
Listen to this track by London-based orchestral retro-pop quintet Cousteau. It’s “The Last Good Day Of The Year”, probably their best-known track, and taken from their 1999 self-titled debut.
Some pop music is meant to be heard in the finest halls in the land, with the audience dressed to the nines, rather than in the standard t-shirt and jeans. If any band met this criteria, then in 1999 this band was surely one. Burt Bacharach, Scott Walker, and Jimmy Webb are the clear bright points in the musical sky by which Cousteau guided their creative ship. This was an important course for bands to explore by the end of the 1990s, with lushly realized production and arrangements that are cinematic in their scope. Maybe this was a case of twentieth century fin de siè·cle, with musicians and songwriters looking backward into the ages of pop’s past to revisit the sound of the century that was about to end.
Maybe that’s the main source of melancholy in this song, a tune that seemed to allude to an end of an era, for good or ill. Read more
Listen to this track by Bristolian trip-hop representatives along with one-time Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil chanteuse Elizabeth Fraser. It’s “Teardrop”, the second single off of their, well, massive 1998 album Mezzanine. It remains to be their most commercially succesful set. Not bad for the supposed difficult third album, although it would prove to be difficult in other ways.
By the time of this album’s release, a couple of things had changed. First, trip hop as a genre was morphing, including more ambient electronica textures and traditional rock/pop structures. Second, things had become tense between the three members of the band, with conflicting priorities and contradictory directions in the studio delaying this album’s release. Founding member Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles would depart during this period, due to the dreaded “creative differences”. One of those differences was being voted down for his assertion that the band should work with another singer on this track instead of Fraser; Madonna, who was excited to work with Massive Attack on this song. What would that have sounded like?
Yet, this song belied all the strife that surrounded the making of this record, in part thanks to the distinct and serene quality of Elizabeth Fraser’s vocal, with lyrics written by her. Those lyrics have been (mis)heard and (mis)interpreted by listeners many years after its release. Maybe what makes this song so special is that it somehow goes past literal meaning completely anyway, and moves into an area of meaning where words aren’t even the point. Read more