Star Crossed (Dum Dum Ali Ali)

The late Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a master of traditional Qawwali music who came from a 600-year lineage of master musicians. For his generation, he was the face, voice and embodiment of ancient musical and spiritual traditions going back thousands of years. All that history and tradition aside, he wasn’t above writing some Bollywood soundtracks, either, or collaborating with secular Western pop stars like Peter Gabriel, or allowing his music to be remixed. It was his openness towards the modern and interest in the contemporary, of course, that allowed him to become one of the best known world-music superstars, and to bring a musical style that was considered old-fashioned and obscure even in his native Pakistan to millions of people around the world. In other words, it was Khan and his pop-oriented remix albums that allowed a white person sitting in America to even know what Qawwali music is. (It’s Sufi Islamic devotional music originating in Pakistan and Northern India.) He released dozens of records during his relatively short career, and although not all of them were designed to be accessible to Western pop fans, there were many that served as an invitation to delve deeper into more traditional forms of music. Many of the songs on records like Visions and Ecstasy, released with English titles and in pop-song adjacent form, can be found on other records in a more traditional style. For English speakers, it’s a confusing array to navigate, but it’s hard to go wrong with the work of an acclaimed master.

She Wanted to Leave

This couldn’t be a bigger 90’s-bomb if it was wearing flannel and a black plastic choker, at least going from the production values of the video. Dean and Gene Ween were idols to the weirdos among 90’s kids. But there’s a reason why their career has unexpectedly outlived the decade, and why we don’t mentally file them away as 90’s music like we do with so many bands who were much more popular in those years. It’s because their imaginations roved way beyond anything as mundane as popular trends or commercial viability. They proved, once and for all, that weirdness is so much more timeless and eternal than being on-point. They made a nautical-themed concept album, because prog rock and sea shanties were two things that needed to be brought back for the summer of 1997.

Seven Years in Tibet

I still haven’t figured out if this song is in reference to the movie of the same name that came out in the same year. That movie was two and a half hours of Brad Pitt looking his most Aryan-ideal-ish against a backdrop of snowy mountaintops, so most likely what David Bowie was thinking of was the book that the movie was based off. Certainly it wasn’t his first time visiting the theme; Bowie’s interest in Tibetan culture and spirituality goes all the way back to some of his earliest songs. Musically this couldn’t be farther away from the days of Silly Boy Blue and Karma Man – this was deep in Bowie’s 90’s industrial phase. But he’s still toying with a lot of the same ideas, mainly the ‘nothing ever goes away’ part.

Saint of Me

You can’t sanctify Mick Jagger, but you can give him a knighthood. The Rolling Stones have made an uneasy truce between their anti-establishment beginnings and their current position in the high echelons of society. Keith Richards would really rather still be pissing on gas station walls, but he’s yoked into this demented aristocracy too. The Stones don’t stand for anything except themselves, and they never really have, even at their most controversial. They’ve found that it’s not even really necessary to change and stay relevant when what you represent is hedonism. Fans want the glamour of louche living, unabashed decadence, expensive squalor, endlessly unsatisfied appetites.

Pussy

Novelty acid house, anyone? I must be an eternal 12 year old, because I find it hilarious. You may easily guess that it’s not about the joys of pet ownership, and you will be correct. Subtle nuance is not what Lords of Acid are about. They’re about whatever shock value can be gleaned from a woman rapping about her vagina. It’s really not that much shock value, even. Maybe in 1997 it was far more titillating. It’s not trying to be particularly clever, either. That doesn’t make me enjoy any less. It’s naughty and fun, obviously and there’s just something irrepressible about a sustained sex joke, especially when delivered with such matter-of-fact conviction. It’s also gay af, which is always a plus. The world needs more songs celebrating ladies who love ladies, and not just the whiny Birkenstock types.

 

The Power is Mine

It’s hard to imagine today, but back in the 90’s most people didn’t know very much about BDSM culture. Back then, you see, there still existed barriers between the mainstream and the underground. There were these things called ‘subcultures’ that most folks had no access to or way of knowing about, except by word of mouth. If you weren’t lucky enough to live in a place with an underground or know people who knew people, you could go your entire life blissfully unaware being someone’s voluntary sex slave was a lifestyle option. Today, of course, being a ‘sub’, a ‘little’ or even a ‘pup’ is a lifestyle choice like any other and there’s a thriving community of like minded people ready to cater to you at your fingertips. So the antics of Belgian industrial music collective Lords of Acid may not strike your jaded eyes as shocking. They exist to make music for the kind of nightclubs that have no sign on the door, and to proselytize about the joys of the kinky life. Their lurid aesthetic and explicit lyrics made them notorious, if only in their own narrow corner of the club music scene. The whiff of transgression may have faded somewhat since the 90’s, but that just means that their music has cycled around to being perfectly timely again. We’re all about being sex-positive and we’re anti-kink-shaming here. We need music that articulates those beliefs in the most explicit way possible.

Pluto

Here is a surreal spectacle; it’s not all the time that you see a string quartet play by strobe lights. But this is Bjork, and in her world there’s no reason for strings and pulsing drums not to come together. In Bjork’s world the avant-garde plays with the punk rock. Why should those worlds be at odds? Nobody pulls together disparate cultural highs, lows, and obscurities like Bjork does. She’s created an insane number of iconic images and sounds, and even though she’s one of the definitive artists of the decade, she’s somehow managed to escape being a figure of 90’s nostalgia. Maybe because her work may have made waves in its time, but its not a product of its time. What Bjork does is a product of Bjork’s brain, and she can and will be just as singular in any given decade.