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2. Suzanne Vega, 99.9F°

At the end of 1992, I engaged in a list-making activity that I don’t recall doing previously. I crafted my personal tally of the ten best albums of the year. I’m not sure of everything I had on there, but there is one certainty I hold: Suzanne Vega’s 99.9F° was my pick for the very top. I will admit — as I probably would have at the time — that a major criterion that inspired me to elevate Vega’s recording above all the others I’d heard that year was its distinct transformation from what the artist had released previously. The jolt of its newness gave it greater impact. The reinvention was striking and radiant. It also likely had its origins in the widely different commercial responses to music adorned with Vega’s voice two years earlier.

A native of California who largely grew up in New York City, Vega was seen as something of a throwback when she emerged on the music scene in the mid-nineteen-eighties. A folk singer with a tender voice, a way with melody, and penchant for lyrics that were clever without being off-putting in their self-satisfied opaqueness, Vega first made her name playing in Greenwich Village. There could be no more wistful evocation of the bygone days of folk music majesty in the exact same tract of the city. Then her second album, 1987’s Solitude Standing, yielded a surprise pop hit when the second single, “Luka,” made it all the way into the Billboard Top 5, a feat all the more remarkable because it was about a boy who’s the victim of child abuse. Just like that, Vega progressed from a modest folk scene darling into a crossover success, a change that also brought with it modified expectations. Her follow-up album, 1990’s Days of Open Hand, was something of a dud, both critically and commercially. But that same year, an a capella song from Solitude Standing was remixed into a lean dance track by a British duo called DNA. While Days of Open Hand sank and its singles went nowhere, the more electronically dressed-up version of a Vega song became nearly ubiquitous.

It’s not that anything on 99.9F° sounds all that much like the DNA remix, but the clattering electronic tones and fiercely rigid, insistently programmed backbeats are a river that flows from the same source. From the opening track, “Rock in this Pocket (Song of David),” Vega is clearly pushing into new territory, as if the out-of-left-field hit which rejiggered one of her older songs freed her up to different nuances in her creative pursuits. Vega even boldly disguised her previous signature elements, as on grinding lead single “Blood Makes Noise,” which distorts her velvety vocals. Not every song is tugged through the industrial lite filter, as album standouts like “When Heroes Go Down” and “Son of Sand” could have landed on any of her earlier releases without startling anyone.  She often settles in between the two extremes, as with the tidy churn of “As Girls Go” or the elegant seduction of “(If You Were) in My Movie.”

Preventing the shift in sonic textures from coming across as nothing more than a pure stab at commercial success, the whole album is infused with a sense of wounded uncertainty, giving the jaggedness of the music added purpose. There is the unsettled anxiety of the title cut, the harsh echoes of sexual abuse in “Bad Wisdom,” and the distant loss of “Blood Sings.” Vega seems to be scraping out the blackened seams of her soul, so the resulting material naturally has a quality that is somewhat askew, soaked in the purifying toxicity of dismay. I thought it was absolutely great, more pointed and fierce than the releases of any number of upstart gloom-slingers that got more enraptured attention from the music press of the day. It still strikes me as Vega’s very best album. And I still stand by that placement on my list from over twenty years ago. Although….

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1. Sugar, Copper Blue

Copper Blue is a mighty contender for the title of Best Album of 1992. Following a pair of exemplary solo albums, former Hüsker Dü member Bob Mould was craving the presence of official bandmates again, occasionally noting that he missed the give-and-take that came with it. Despite that assertion, there was no question that Mould was the boss, surely a direct reaction against the contentiousness of shared creative authority that helped sink his prior outfit. At least for a while, it worked splendidly for him. Around the time of the band’s bow with Copper Blue, Mould told Spin, “Not since Hüsker’s Zen Arcade have I captured so well exactly what I’d been hearing in my head.”

Copper Blue is packed with Mould’s trademark powerhouse guitar sound and resolutely pessimistic lyrics. There’s also a little happy chewiness around the edges, as if he were channeling the bounding genius of the very best power pop through the punk rock sensibility that defined him. There’s a charge to tracks like “Changes” and “Helpless” that really sound like Mould freeing himself from the most confining expectations of where his music has to settle. It unmistakably belongs to him, though it invites the listener in where he’d sometimes previously pushed against comfort. At times, it sounds like Mould is engaged in nothing less that trying to figure out his place in the nation of music one chord at a time. That is often less fresh assertion than reclamation. “A Good Idea” sounds like Mould stealing back everything the Pixies had swiped from him in the first place.

Fortuitously, the questing statement of identity coincided with Mould operating at one of the many peaks of his songwriting prowess. “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” as the most clear, chiming example, is probably the finest entry in Mould’s absolutely stacked songbook. I think even the man himself agrees with that notion. Sugar was a vitally important step in Mould’s journey, even if it maybe took him a few years to fully appreciate its value and significance. The band only lasted one more full-length before Mould decided to strike out on his own again, but the echo of the music delivered on Copper Blue informs the creative revival he’s experienced with recent solo albums Silver Age and Beauty & Ruin. It’s as if after years of meandering explorations and especially unexpected side roads, Mould figured out that he got it about as right as he could with Copper Blue. It’s a sound conclusion.

Previously…
An Introduction
–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
–5-3: Automatic for the People, Us, and Sweet Oblivion

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