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Underappreciated albums...90's

There’s been a few times in very recent conversation where I was telling someone about an album that was unfairly dismissed at the time of it’s release. I guess it's “Pinkerton” syndrome. Weezer’s “Pinkerton” is probably their finest hour. Back when it was released in 1996, it was called a lot of other things, most of them opposite of finest hour. Rolling Stone even called it one of the worst albums of the year. Its failure all but killed Weezer’s career until a few years later when people started to re-visit it and realized what they had been missing. I don’t need to tout the greatness of "Pinkerton". That’s been done for me to the point where it may be a surprise to some that it even was a failure upon release. Here’s a few more that you’d maybe like to revisit and these are totally off the top of my head-- things I’ve listened to recently or talked about recently. Please, feel free to suggest more. I love this sort of thing.

The Pharcyde - Labcabincalifornia

The reputation of this record is still so bad that I refused to rip a free copy from my friend several years ago. Yeah, I turned down a free album. Then I heard some of it. Then I heard all of it (and then paid money for it, so don’t come after me). The reason for the bad rep? It’s not “Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde”, their much beloved previous album. That record is a one of a kind. It had a lax, joyfully innocent vibe of talented people screwing around in the studio, freely doing what they pleased. The vibe reminded me of that old Tom and Jerry where Tom had a bunch cat buddies over to play jazz and keep Jerry awake all night. The result was a Hip-Hop classic. “Labcabincalifornia” looses a lot of that vibe, but gains in focus and songcraft. There are very few “skits” this time and more straight-ahead songs. But when the songs are this good, why is anyone complaining? This is one of the first albums that J Dilla (Jay Dee) got his mitts on and it (and the world) is all the better for it. He’s all over it, including both singles “Runnin’” and “Drop”. Yeah, it’s a darker, more mature album. That’s not a bad thing. Success had left these guys with some bumps and bruises. The theme of the joys of creating being swallowed by the realities of the business is prevalent throughout. By many accounts, the band itself almost imploded while making this record. Fat Lip even left the group shortly after. The innocent, uncorrupted joys of Bizarre Ride were gone. Trying to duplicate that would be false. But it’s still very much The Pharcyde, which means it’s very much it’s own thing, tough to categorize and made with love. I’m not saying this is a better album than Bizarre Ride, but I tend to prefer it.

Failure - Fantastic Planet

This is one of those sad cases where a band goes all out, knowing this could be their last chance to reach a larger audience and then it fails anyway. You can make jokes about their name but those jokes are older than jokes about Sonic Youth's age. And besides, I just have too much respect for them. By all means, this album SHOULD have put them over. It’s kind of awesome. I’ve never found their lyrics to be a strong suit, something that doesn’t change here. But everything else? This is a band that shares my affinity for dissonant chords, weird, unexpected changes and minor keys (Stevie Wonder does too, just in case this sounds depressing). You can hear the effort put into every aspect of this endeavor. From the songs themselves to the moody, slick-without-being-shiny production (also by the band) nothing was spared to make this album a definitive statement. Even the single, "Stuck On You" (and it’s "James Bond opening credits" video that was a such a good idea I slapped myself for not having it first) with it’s sludgy, pretty guitar racket was pitched perfectly at the kind of stuff alternative radio was eating up at the time. It just wasn’t enough, for whatever reason, and the album sank. The band saw the writing on the wall and broke up shortly after, leaving their small but loyal following cursing the success of lesser bands. Every band seems to have a small but loyal following. But not every band catches on with later generations. I put "Stuck On You" on a CD for my nephew and he loves it. Paramore remembered that song so fondly from their youth (which makes me feel nice and old) that they made a pretty decent and fairly popular cover of it. 

Hum - Downward Is Heavenward

It’s likely that if you’ve heard of this band, it’s because of “Stars”; their popular single off of "You’d Prefer an Astronaut" from 1995. And it was a catchy thing. It’s also about as mid-nineties as you can get with its loud chugging guitars and cutesy lyrics. When they put out the follow up album, it was largely dismissed. And this is a shame, as it’s one of the best rock albums of that decade. Where Astronaut now sounds very much of it’s time, this one still sounds fresh today. If you can picture in your mind what it sounds like when a bunch of dorky looking squares turn on their amps and melt your face off, you’ll know what you’re in for. It grabs you with the first track when the twinkly guitar gives way to a full on wall of guitar roar that immediately recalled Siamese Dream on my first listen. Like that record, it’s a wall of roar that’s not at all harsh but sublime and warm. Matt Talbot, while certainly not a great singer, is a better singer than Billy Corgan and unlike Corgan, he’s often buried in the mix to some degree, so the weakness isn’t distracting. There are flights of fancy here where things dip in the prog direction, and some balladry that might be an acquired taste (Talbot has a flat voice that’s a little ill suited). For the most part we get a huge sounding collection of complex (in that musically impressive, odd time signatures kind of way), but catchy and accessible pop metal songs. It should have been far bigger than it was.

De La Soul - Stakes Is High

When the casual fan thinks of De La, it’s always "3 Feet High and Rising" or "De La Soul is Dead". "Stakes Is High" won’t necessarily be banging anyone’s drum. But it’s their best outside of 3 Feet High (IMHO). It marked the beginning of a new sound for them. Gone were the whimsical, upbeat, often psychedelic sounds of the first three records. A more urgent, moodier, edgier sound takes over (and a producing assist from J Dilla on the great title track. If I had had a chance to meet Dilla, I think I would have found a kindred spirit for musical tastes). They’re not screwing around here; to them, Hip-Hop’s very life is at stake. The album could serve as a “state of Hip-Hop 1996”, asserting that more then ever, the genre had become an anonymous commodity to be sold. Even “gangsta rap” which by its nature was music of rebellion had been reduced to a formula to be co-opted by any MC looking to make a name. It’s a thing to behold when one of the greats of any field steps up their game in an attempt to reclaim their beloved from all the leeches and wannabes. But at the time of release, no one was really interested. Maybe it was because of this new direction. Maybe it was because this album dropped the week after Jay-Z’s "Reasonable Doubt" and the same day as Nas’ "It Was Written" (the follow-up to Illmatic). Outkast’s "ATLiens" dropped a few weeks later. Two of those albums turned out to be definitive statements from artists who represented the great possibilities for Hip-Hop’s future (The Fugees’ "The Score" dropped earlier in the year, so things certainly weren’t all dire). "Stakes Is High" got a little lost in the excitement. Thankfully, as the years move on the reputation of De La’s fourth seems to gain in stature. More than any other album on this list, this one seems to find new fans everyday. It may not be too long until "Stakes Is High" is rightfully deemed a classic.

Album covers copyright Delicious Vinyl, Slash/Warner, RCA, Tommy Boy respectively

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