Alternative and Indie

R.E.M. “Murmur” (1983)

Prior to listening to Murmur and the rest of the R.E.M.’s 80’s discography I was only familiar with the band for their radio hits that would start appearing on Document and carry them through a wave of commercial success through the 90’s. I had no idea how much I would enjoy the straightforward, melodic, jangle pop of their formative days. I never had the highest opinion of Jangle Pop either but after spending the last few months with Murmur, I apparently was listening to the wrong bands. The combination of each band member’s unique talents makes Murmur one of the finest alternative rock albums of all time and an essential for the genre.

“Radio Free Europe” is a phenomenal opening track and is indicative of the general sound of the band’s first five albums. Buck’s free flowing guitar playing, Stipe’s unique, mumbled vocal delivery, Mill’s backing vocals and thumping bass line, and last but not least Bill Berry’s propulsive drumming technique. Every track here is packed with energy, even the slower “Talk about the Passion” and “Perfect Circle”. The uptempo tracks are controlled chaos and sound like the band is racing to finish the song whilst putting as much content into their efforts as possible. Lots of bands can attempt this style but few can do it with the organization and simplicity of Murmur. —Dan

Shelleyan Orphan “Helleborine” (1987)

Shelleyan Orphan are one of those peculiar little groups that show up once in a while, make some stunning music, and then disappear. They have no peers, so trying to describe who they sound like is impossible. They are etherial, and never more so than on their first album “Helleborine,” a stunning mix of orchestral sweetness and lyrical mastery. Long before their demise into songs with titles like “Dead Cat,” the Orphans were writing songs like “Epitaph Ivy and Woe,” juxtaposing the generally sweet and upbeat timbre of the music with the often graphic lyrics describing a cemetery and a charnel house. On “Anatomy of Love,” vocalist Caroline Crawley asks the same questions that anyone that is in love asks: “Does it still move you? Does it still make you feel that?” “Cavalry of Cloud,” with it’s gorgeous introduction, will give you chills. “Helleborine,” the album’s only instrumental track, is another example of the artistic beauty the Orphans had a complete mastery of. This was their supreme moment, and when they began their fall, they would fall far. —Eric

Marine Girls “Lazy Ways” (1983)

The Marine Girls feature a young Tracey Thorne (soon of Everything but The Girl) and they make skeletal indie pop gems. This is their second LP and it’s made up of fourteen brief ditties with three Velvet Underground chords, elasticated bass riffs, the odd bit of percussive woodblock tapping, lyrics of lost love and sunshine and the mournful vocals of Thorne and co vocalist Jane Fox, who sings in a cheery breezy manner. They’re a wonderful contrast in vocal timbre and the twin vocals for ‘Falling Again’ are a delight. I’m a sucker for this femme twee pop fluff when it’s done right (which is rare). The Marine Girls are somewhere between The Young Marble Giants and Camera Obscura (*drool*). Every moment of this album is perfect for lounging about in the garden under the June sunshine with its melodic basslines crawling up your spine, or as Fox sings, “playing the perfect summer melody”. —Badlittlekitten

Kate Bush “The Dreaming” (1982)

Here Kate Bush graduates from quirky teenage musical prodigy to full-fledged artiste. I think it speaks volumes about this strange and wonderful album that the lead-off single was the wonderfully un-commercial “Sat in Your Lap,” a heady stew of thundering Burundi drums, horn punctuations, and Kate wailing away like a madwoman on the nature of knowledge. EMI Records execs probably wet their pants when they heard it! In fact, I’m surprised this album got a major-label release at all, at least in this form!

Even the more “normal” songs on this release (“There Goes a Tenner,” the jaunty “Suspended in Gaffa,” the Celtic folk-lilting of “Night of the Swallow”) have a certain something that renders them deeply “odd.” Or perhaps its just the proximity of the other songs that’s colouring my perception: witness “Leave It Open” with its Chipmunk backing vocals or “Get Out of My House” with its angry ranting and donkey braying. This is almost Kate’s version of John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band, her own personal primal-scream therapy swathed in digital electronics as a sort of purging of her early precocious piano-maiden persona. This is the next step beyond Nina Hagen’s West German albums, and is one of the most eye-popping musical statements [of all-time]. A vital release. —Progbear

Tortoise “Standards” (2001)

On their fourth album, Chicago post-rock godheads Tortoise continue to drift away from the stark musical academia of their mid-90s work and into brighter, (dare I say?) groovier territory. You can’t quite dance to Standards, but you can certainly get a lot closer than with any of Tortoise’s previous works, thanks to the newfound focus on upbeat rhythms, cool basslines and immediate percussion. If TNT was Tortoise’s jazz album, then this would have to be their funk album, if such a thing is even possible. Between those two albums they’ve evolved down a very smart path, though, as attempting to recapture the minimalist beauty of their first two albums would’ve been awfully difficult. By developing in this manner, Tortoise retain all the fascinating intricacies that have made their previous albums a joy to deconstruct, while revitalizing their sound and pushing them into accessible, effortlessly listenable territory more so than ever before. —Tommo

Fugazi “Fugazi” (1988)

Including members of DC-hardcore originators Minor Threat and Rites of Spring, Fugazi achieve an inspired blend of punk fury, hard rock riffs, and deft instrumental interplay coupled to righteous lyrical content on this, their seven song debut EP. The songs’ big, chant-along choruses (see fan favorite “Waiting Room”) are infectious, the bobbing rhythms of bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty pointed and propulsive, while providing a fluid center around which guitarist Ian MacKaye unleashes razor sharp scrapes and howls from his SG. On this release, MacKaye swaps vocals with Guy Picciotto (not yet playing guitar), giving the band two distinctly different yet equally passionate frontmen. Favorites here include the aforementioned “Waiting Room,” reggae inspired “Suggestion,” and driving “Bulldog Front.” —Ben

Aztec Camera “High Land, Hard Rain” (1983)

Along with the Finn Brothers from Australia and his Southerly neighbors Morissey and Marr, scottsman Roddy Frame was one of the lodestars of the 80s generation of British Empire popsmiths. sadly, in my mind, his Aztec Camera has never achieved the recognition and praise that propelled Crowded House and the Smiths to the pop stratosphere. In temperament, Frame is much closer to the Brothers Finn than Morissey/Marr–in fact, his boyish wonder, only occasionally leavened by nostalgia or regret, makes for a sort of anti-Morissey. If the Smiths provide sweet melodies only to make the medicine go down, Aztec Camera, like Crowded House, is almost pure saccharine. while it may not be as nourishing or effective as the real meds, it never fails to leave you with a smile on your face and an acute longing for more.

Although “High Land, Hard Rain” doesn’t feature my favourite Frame tune (“Birth of the True”, off of “Knife”, the generally-inferior sophomore effort), it is easily the most consistent and exuberant Aztec Camera release. “Oblivious”, “Pillar to Post” and “Down the Dip” are all terribly addictive pop anthems, while “Release”, “The Boy Wonders” and several other tracks admirably incorporate jazz guitar parts to support the power chords. All in all, this could almost serve as an optimist’s riposte to ‘The Queen is Dead’ (though several years in advance). Sadly, Frame and the Aztecs would never sound this fresh again. —Jeremy

Game Theory “Lolita Nation” (1987)

Power Pop Eden indeed. Being so extremely tough to come by and, since indeed it is sprawling as can get, Lolita Nation has been gaining a reputation of being a lost masterpiece of sorts, kinda in the same way that Big Star’s third record took forever to see the light of day. Well, it might not be as “where have you been all of my life” impactant as Alex Chilton’s notoriously damaged “Third/Sister Lovers” but across its 27 tracks there’s plenty for power pop fans to rejoice with. Relatively to their previous albums this one posesses a harder edge, with tunes like “Dripping with Looks” beginning to show a toughening process that clearly anticipates Scott’s future work with Loud Family. The two records Game Theory released leading up to “Lolita Nation” are surely much easier to approach but there’s an undeniable charm and an endearing quality to Miller’s craft, having a wispy voice at best he comes up trumps with immensely imaginative arrangements and oddly hummable tunes (The World’s Easiest Job, the fabulous Chardonnay) to form a colossal, irregular yet ultimately wholly appealing piece of music. —Johnny

Hüsker Dü “New Day Rising” (1985)

Some say Zen Arcade, I say New Day Rising. Although fourteen songs long, it feels shorter due to these guys’ songwriting chops. There’s no fat on this disc. “Folk Lore” could’ve been a seven-minute spiel, but the Hüskers get in a couple impressionistic verses and they’re out. The second-longest track, the four-minute “Celebrated Summer,” is absolutely crucial. If God made a mix CD about nostalgia, etc. Other highlights include the epic opening track, which consists of the boys invoking the titular phrase over and over until you BELIEVE it, and “I Apologize,” perhaps the most moving song ever. One of my top ten all-time. Add to that the perfect love song “Books About UFOs” (its “watch out- wha- whooo!” break segueing into the brief solo still has the power to choke me up). Even the curtsies to hardcore (“Whatcha Drinkin'”, “Powerline”) end up catchier and more grand than most Midwest bands could ever dream about. To this day, slews of bands only get as far as the idea of Hüsker Dü – why would you shortchange the masters? This record is aching for you. — Silent Mike

Luna “Penthouse” (1995)

Of all the bands to emerge from the early ‘90s rock renaissance, New York City’s Luna deserved much more recognition, praise, and success than they ended up getting. Evolving from a solo project of ex-Galaxy 500 frontman Dean Wareham, Luna’s genesis allowed him to further develop his quirky and self-deprecating songwriting persona: indie-rock’s answer to Woody Allen. The band’s signature sound, reverb-heavy interlocking guitars soaring above a potent rhythm section, achieved an almost narcotic majesty, and it still dazzles to this day; who needs drugs when a band like Luna is doing their thing? Why they weren’t as huge as the undeservedly popular Smashing Pumpkins or as critically acclaimed as the inconsistent Pavement will always be beyond me. Despite numerous setbacks encountered while traversing the unstable landscape of the record industry’s last lucrative era, Luna soldiered on—quietly and gracefully—well into the 21st century, continuing to make great records and playing small but sold-out clubs the world over before finally calling it quits in 2005.

Penthouse is not my favorite Luna album (that honor goes to their previous outing, 1994’s Bewitched), but it’s the one I steer all of my friends toward when they ask me where to start. It was certainly their most commercially successful, and it seems to be the one that makes all the “Best Albums of the ‘90s” lists that music rags like to compile. I can see why; it has some of their best songs. Among them are “Chinatown”, Wareham’s meditation on the pitfalls of the playboy lifestyle; “Moon Palace”, an hallucinatory ballad featuring a 12-string guitar solo by Television’s own Tom Verlaine; and the epic “23 Minutes in Brussels”, often a barn-burner when played live, but packing almost as much of a wallop here as it did onstage. Penthouse’s cover, a grainy black and white photograph of an illuminated Art Deco skyscraper, also reminds me that this LP (along with the Strokes’ Is This It?, which followed a few years later) might be one of the last great “New York City Records”. Like the music within, Penthouse’s seductive cover captures a vanishing Manhattan mystique, one which Rudy Giuliani, gentrification, and 9/11 would eventually all but vaporize. —Richard P

The Comsat Angels “Sleep No More” (1981)

If Comsat Angel’s debut, Waiting For A Miracle, was a fractured summary of the British dark-punk, then Sleep No More featured a more unified, condensed and powerful sound, one based on tight performances, claustrophobic ambient atmosphere and acerbic grooves. The most successful numbers, the ones that focus in the atmospheric vortex of the keyboards (the short bursts of warping tension amidst a canvas of floating debris in “Sleep No More”, “Light Years”), the martial nightmare (“Dark Parade”, “Restless”), the rock punch of the post-punk band (“Eye Dance”, “Goat Of The West”), are enough to give you goosebumps. Theirs is a music that bridges post-punk, the Gregorian chant, a martial pace, psychedelia and sonic-layering. —ILY

Roky Erickson and the Aliens “The Evil One” (1981)

After serving some time in a mental institution, Roky Erickson, gifted vocalist of the prolific psych outfit 13th Floor Elevators, pheonixed into a paranoid messiah of rock, shedding any traces of campiness from his 60’s catalog in the proccess. “The Evil One” is a raging slab of psychedelic punk driven by Roky’s wonderful Texas fried and acid fed voice. He shrieks in terror as if to warn world of the demons in his mind. Although the lyrical subject matter is almost comical; vampires, a two headed dog, the devil, etc…, it’s delivered with a sincerity comparable to Syd Barrett’s solo albums or even a homeless person in the street raving on about something out to get them. But aside from any side stories of mental breakdown or heavy drug intake, the record is a cold cut ripper. Full speed 70’s hard rock with out any filler or forced attitude and killer guitar runs throughout. A must have for rock, punk, or psychellic heads. Just make sure your mind is together before dropping the needle, it might not come back. -Alex