9. Ramones, Mondo Bizarro
Much as I find the long reach of alternative music of my generation remarkable (stuff I once played on the radio as brand new music, such as Nirvana, seems completely viable to current college kids in a way that doesn’t quiet match up with how my generation viewed material of a similarly aged vintage), we had our more old school bands that could still capture out attention and enthusiasm. Approaching twenty years past their stellar debut, no one was delusional enough to suggest the lather-clad compatriots who all adopted the last name Ramone were still making great records, but we were generally content to dutifully give each new release at least a modicum of attention. They’d earned that much. Mondo Bizarro had the requisite cover song, some mildly outdated topicality, and Ramones generally being Ramones. Even the boys in the band probably knew the end was near. There were only two more Ramones albums to follow. Sadly, half the line-up of this iteration of the band and three-quarters of the original quartet have passed on to the Great Mosh Pit in the Sky.
8. Soul Asylum, Grave Dancers Union
Shortly after the release of Grave Dancers Union, the sixth album from the Minneapolis band Soul Asylum, a good friend and recent alumni of the campus radio station where I worked told me that he felt the start of this album was about as good as a record could get. While almost all of the music of Soul Asylum has curdled at least somewhat over the years, at the time I was prone to agree with my pal’s assessment. Album opener “Somebody to Shove” is dopey but effective, “Black Gold” expertly straddles hard rock and emotive ballad, and “Runaway Train” is nicely evocative, even if many believe it cribs too liberally from a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers track of the same name. I’ve never really heard the similarity, to be honest. What’s certain is that “Runaway Train” gave the band a defining hit, thanks in part to the music video, directed by Tony Kaye, that took the first word in the song very literally, flashing information about real-life runaway teens across the screen. It’s a nice gesture, but it has almost no connection to the actual song, given that the lyrics describe fairly generic angsty romance with no real suggestion of kids fleeing their homes.
The massive success of the “Runaway Train” single probably contributed somewhat to the sense of disdain that seemed to creep into judgment of Soul Asylum’s music. In an odd variant of the cliched dismissal of a band once they achieve success, Soul Asylum suffered further because of perception, right or wrong, that they’d somewhat bumbled into their good fortune, largely through simply outlasting better Minneapolis bands the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, who theoretically might have gotten a similar boost during the grunge-dappled years if they’d managed to stick it out. That was unlikely — solo efforts from members of those two departed bands were roundly ignored at the time — but it dogged Soul Asylum. While they had an initial flash of success with their follow-up, the deeply mediocre Let Your Dim Light Shine, the band was on the bumpy road of diminishing returns.
7. Michael Penn, Free-For-All
When Michael Penn’s 1989 debut album, March, arrived, the angle was his place in a fairly famous family. Brother to actors Sean Penn and Chris Penn (and therefore the son of actors Leo Penn and Eileen Ryan), Penn was in the earnest singer-songwriter mold, with a touch of the hyper-verbose to his lyrics. By the time of his sophomore effort, Free-For-All, Penn was already being enveloped by the damning descriptor one-hit wonder, thanks to the truly splendid single “No Myth.” There was little sense he’s be able to meet, much less top, that effort. Sure enough, the hits from Free-For-All were minor, and seemed like something of a pop success last gasp, even at the time. Penn made plenty of other albums after this, but is arguably best known as Mr. Aimee Mann. He’s also had respectable success a composer for film and television, including no less formidable a filmmaker than Paul Thomas Anderson.
6. 10,000 Maniacs, Our Time in Eden
Our Time in Eden was the last 10,000 Maniacs studio album to feature lead vocals by Natalie Merchant. The album, the band’s fifth, was released in late September of 1992. Before a year had passed, Merchant had made her departure official. The break felt inevitable, especially as the band’s little tastes of commercial success seemed to hinge more on the appeal of their lead singer than anything else. “These Are Days,” the lead single from Our Time in Eden, is one of those songs that was such a constant presence on the radio and across pop culture that it’s a little startling to discover it didn’t even muster enough airplay to cross into the Billboard Top 40, stalling out at a meager #66. To put it in perspective, that’s almost the exact same peak as the follow-up single, the comparatively forgotten “Candy Everybody Wants.” A lot of the album sounds like a band going through the motions, and I don’t think that’s simply through the added acuity of hindsight. While this is the last studio album to feature Merchant, there was one more official release. The band’s MTV Unplugged session was issued as an album only a couple of months after Merchant’s announced break with her bandmates. It was by far the group’s most successful album together, going triple-platinum and yielding a Top 40 single in their cover of “Because the Night.”