Welcome back to finding out bands that I’ve made a point of never listening to because I thought they were quote unquote ** 90’s music **. As usual in this particular regard, I’m wrong. The Stone Roses, apparently, had kicked around the Manchester music scene for almost the whole entire 80’s before making a record. They made their debut album in 1989, made another one in 1994, and disbanded amid legal wranglings. So these guys spent most of their lifespan as a group playing without a record label, or records. Which must have been some kind of a feat of bad luck and/or self sabotage, because we all know that Manchester was the absolute coolest miserable, poverty-stricken post-industrial backwater to be plucked from by the sweet chariot of fame aka there were a lot of record label scouts up there looking for the next Ian Curtis. Interesting to know how that whole story played out. Maybe I’ll read up on it. In the meantime, here’s one great 80’s Manchester sadboi album I didn’t previously know about.
You thought I was an expert on 80’s music, but I’m sorry, I’m not. Every time I think that I really know my stuff, I discover how much I don’t know. For example, I’ve never listened to the Jesus and Mary Chain before this year, and that was only because I put myself through the task of listening to more 80’s music, year by year. Apparently, I know a lot about New Wave and the New Romantics, but alternative rock remains a huge blind spot. I’ve also never listened to Sonic Youth, the Replacements, or R.E.M. just to name a few. I’m not exactly going to change my lifestyle to listen to more R.E.M. – they suck, fyi – but there’s a few records I’ve discovered that I’m going to start listening to more. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy is one of them.
Sometimes a new discovery isn’t new at all. Who remembers Jody Watley? I sure didn’t, but I guess I do now. She had a series of big hits in the late 80’s, and then, presumably because New Jack Swing went out of style, continued recording with a much lower profile. Obviously, I don’t know very much about 80’s funk music, so there’s a lot of artists who had major moments of fame who I’ve barely heard of. Also, in the 80’s, there was still a fair amount of market segregation, so that artists who enjoyed great success with black audiences didn’t necessarily become well known in the white-dominated mainstream. That means that Jody Watley may be one of the most successful dance music artists of all time, and one of the most successful black women singers, but in her day ‘dance music’ was code for the gay nightclub demographic, funk and R’n’B were for black audiences, and female singers were considered bubblegum. Does that mean that Watley was unfairly overlooked and deserves to be taken much more seriously? Probably not. Her music was pretty unambitious pop-funk, but it does offer a refreshing alternative to the same old handful of generic white-girl pop hits that we’ve come to associate with the decade.
Representing the glacial soundscapes of Scandinavia, is my new-ish discovery Jonna Lee. You may or may not know her as the mastermind of the electronic music performance art project iamamiwhoami, or for her collaborative work with Röyksopp. She founded her own record label, To whom it may concern, and has been associated with the avant-garde fashion company Comme des Garcons. She also records as ionnalee, which is the identity behind her fourth album, Remember the Future. She is, obviously, a real renaissance woman. Her music ranges from the catchy nearly-pop-oriented you hear here, to surreal, ambient and mildly disturbing. I don’t know if Lee is entirely representative of the Swedish music scene, but she is definitely the vanguard of what the Swedish music scene is most successfully exporting. It’s atmospheric, conceptual musical art that is also accessible to pop audiences. It’s music that’s emotionally versatile, good for dancing and good for relaxing, equally.
I wasn’t there when Neneh Cherry’s debut album Raw Like Sushi was a critics’ darling in 1989. I wasn’t around to question why, instead of becoming an R’n’B sensation, Cherry only made four more albums. As far as I’m concerned, Neneh Cherry is a brand new artist fresh off the boat from Sweden. I only found out about her new record Broken Politics because some critic thought it was one of the year’s best. And much to my surprise, it was. It takes a special kind of giftedness to write a sexy slow-jam about deep vein thrombosis, but Cherry does it. (Go ahead look up Deep Vein Thrombosis by Neneh Cherry, I’ll wait.) Imagine my surprise to learn that this gifted rising star is a woman of 55 who had her shot at pop stardom in 1989, decided it wasn’t for her, and has been quietly honing her chops on her own terms ever since. Obviously, I regret not paying attention sooner.
My blog doesn’t always reflect my listening habits in real time, so you probably didn’t know that I had been listening to K.Flay just about every day in 2018. Yeah, her and Yaeji. Blood in the Cut was a suitable soundtrack for a mental breakdown. Kristine Flaherty is by no stretch of the imagination a good singer, which is painfully apparent when she performs live, and her white lady rap skills are no match for Debbie Harry’s. Her strength lies in her confessional songwriting, and her trainwreck-next-door charisma. She will remind you, painfully, of yourself at your worst times; or of your most dysfunctional friend, the one who can never quite stop spinning her wheels. There are a lot of confessional female singer-songwriters these days – a lot! – becoming critical darlings by laying out their feelings, but most of them belong to a tradition of ladies being sad in a genteel and harmless manner, acceptably doe-eyed and acoustic and vaguely reminiscent of Joni Mitchell. K.Flay belongs to a much smaller contingent, the ones who fly their “fuck you I’m a drunk slut” flag loudly and proudly and trace their lineage to riot grrrl and punk rock and old school hip-hop. Being sad isn’t a genteel conversation with an acoustic guitar, it’s a lonely and drunken journey of dark nights and splitting headaches and barely remembered sex with ugly people. For some people life is a quest to wring themselves into some kind of shape, and a drive to redeem your shitty experiences by bleeding it all into art. That’s what being a rock star stems from: just being a fucking rock star, even if you’re homely and can’t sing.
I just realized that I haven’t been doing much to introduce new artists lately. That’s partly because of the hassle of updating my playlist format as I change over from iTunes to Spotify. Like, seriously, that shit is tedious. But trust that I have very much been making a big effort to keep up with and take note of new releases and exploring new artists. (This is something that using Spotify gives me a leg up on, so yay for that.) From here on out, I’m going to be more actively filtering more new content in with the old faves. Today, here is someone I discovered last year, and if y’all’s public playlists are any indication, a lot of you are in love with her too: Kacey Musgraves. Okay, she’s not exactly an unknown off of the street here; she’s won a basketful of Grammy awards, and her album was one of 2018’s most acclaimed. Still, she’s a relative newcomer who didn’t break mainstream until recently. I think she represents what I hope is the future of country music, and not just alt-country or roots-country or whatever you want to call it, I’m talking about what they actually play on the radio. That future is young, female, empowered, and progressive. We really, really need this next generation of young artists to wipe away the pandering beer’n’tractors cliches and the stink of unwashed MAGA hats. Mainstream country music has for far too long been a last bastion of glorified toxic masculinity and thinly coded bigotry. We need young artists like Musgraves who can write tuneful songs with mass appeal, minus the redneck posturing, and with something relevant and positive to say.