5. R.E.M., Automatic for the People
Like a lot of music fans, I suppose, I have a little collection of regrets, mostly based around missed opportunities. There are artists that I arrived at later than I should have, and acts I wish I’d seen live where they were blazing up-and-comers rather that fairly established (I get a little dizzy when I think that Sleater-Kinney played with the White Stripes as an opening act at a dumpy little club in the college town where I resided in 2000). While I don’t have some official list that would allow me to double-check the following assertion, I feel confident that only one of my music-based regrets involves a restaurant. Just over ten years ago, I decided that I wanted to embark on a solo vacation to coincide with preparations for my first time teaching a college class, so I took advantage of my southern residency and pointed my car towards Athens, Georgia. Much as I enjoyed my time there, it was the part of the pilgrimage I didn’t take that sticks with me. I never went to Weaver D’s Delicious Foods.
My disappointment in myself doesn’t stem from missing out on some beloved soul food (although, that rankles, too), but from letting down the younger version of me that returned to R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People time and again when it sat in my college radio station’s new music rotation, grateful that the band had delivered one of their most masterful records during a time when I spent a lot of time helping to stock the airwaves with music. The title to the eighth studio release from R.E.M. was lifted from the slogan of Weaver D’s, but it perfectly encompassed the perceived ethos of R.E.M.: humble, devoted to the fan base, prolifically committed to delivering their tuneful wares. Maybe more than anything else, the title conveyed the sense that R.E.M. was getting back to business, following a couple of releases — 1988’s Green and 1991’s Out of Time — that were strong but a little scattershot, feeling like explorations rather than statements. Those were the first two albums following their jump from independent label I.R.S. Records to Warner Bros., which felt about as major as a major label could get. Green and Out of Time were tinged with a little bit of an identity crisis, the band wandering the purgatory between their upstart years and their eventual place as one of the iconic acts of their day, albeit one that never had quite the level of crossover success implied by their elevated status. Automatic for the People is more settled and assured. This is a statement of musical identity, maybe the clearest one the band ever made, with only their debut, Murmur, seriously threatening to claim that honorific.
The album plays like a corrective to, or even a refutation of, its immediate predecessors. There are no shiny, happy people here. Instead, the brutally honest report is that “Everbody Hurts.” If that’s an oversimplification (“Shiny Happy People” is laden with bouncy irony, and “Everybody Hurts” is ultimately a song imploring perseverance), the surface difference exposes the downbeat core of the album. Automatic for the People delivers the reckoning promised by the title of R.E.M.’s sophomore release. Even celebrated figures like Montgomery Clift (on the rueful “Monty Got a Raw Deal”) and Andy Kaufman (on “Man on the Moon,” perhaps the album’s most enduring song) are defined by their tragedy rather than their triumph. The band shifts from meandering explorations to concentrated probing. A track like “Nightswimming” is a tender press for truth, for meaning. Michael Stipe’s famously oblique lyrics had been growing clearer and more heartfelt for years. Automatic for the People offered the culmination of that extended adaptation. The band operates with a sense of duty borne of deep faith in the value of artistic expression rather than grinding obligation. It is an album that exudes purpose. It needed to be made.
4. Peter Gabriel, Us
Shortly after the calendar crossed over so the first digit in the year was a two rather than a one, I was working as the advisor for a college radio station in Florida. At one point, a student showed me a poorly-conceived mock-up she’d found of a college radio station website. In listing artists the theoretical station might play, the web designer made some highly regrettable choices. For some reason, though, Peter Gabriel was the name on the digital page that the student singled out for ridicule. I tried, valiantly and foolishly, to explain that Gabriel was in fact was a very legitimate addition to a college station’s music library, even holding a somewhat venerated position as one of the acts that smoothed the transition from what we’d now recognize as the safest, sturdiest music of classic rock to the far more jagged, challenging fare that defined the left of the dial. She wasn’t buying it. That’s how far Gabriel had fallen by then, at least in the eyes (and ears) of discerning college programmers. Us was Gabriel’s long-awaited follow-up to So, the 1986 album that transformed him from a cult figure to a guy who could have big hits on the radio. The album was a mélange of boisterous pop, swirling rhythms, and tangled appropriations of world music elements. At times, it grabbed too eagerly to replicate Gabriel’s earlier successes. It’s adequate, but Us is also hollowed-out enough that it’s basically the pivot point to the future irrelevance I encountered a few years later. That student wasn’t totally right, but she wasn’t totally wrong, either.
3. Screaming Trees, Sweet Oblivion
Screaming Trees were one of the more unlikely beneficiaries of the mad rush to exploit any band or performer with loud guitars and a home address within striking distance of Seattle, Washington. While their volume levels suggested the grunge music that Nirvana had bashed into true sensation territory a year earlier, Screaming Trees ultimately cranked out a far more direct, less murky version of rock ‘n’ roll than the other groups that got swept up in the frenzy. They’d also been doing it for quite some time. Sweet Oblivion was the band’s sixth full-length release, which equaled the combined output to that point of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, all fellow contributors to the soundtrack of Singles, writer-director Cameron Crowe’s flawed paean to the youth culture of the Pacific Northwest. Given that, Sweet Oblivion was hardly groundbreaking for those who’d been paying attention for a while. It did contain “Nearly Lost You,” which was about as good of a single as the band ever released. It was good timing for a creative peak. The track was handily the biggest hit the band ever had.
–20-18: Mutiny, Dirty, and Overwhelming Colorfast
–17-14: Erotica, Your Arsenal, Blind, and Television
–13-10: Babe Rainbow, Bone Machine, Moodfood, and Broken
–9-6: Mondo Bizarro, Grave Dancers Union, Free-For-All, and Our Time in Eden