\\During the game changing music scene of the 90’s, Britain's Portishead created a sound as imaginative as it is genre defining. They blur lines left and right,often combining genres that you wouldn’t automatically think would work. As a band in their “third decade”, Portishead has been less than prolific. Three studio albums, one live album, and a few one-off singles are all we’ve seen over the band’s twenty plus year career. Having said that you can’t really fault them for taking their time to correctly present their vision, when the ultimate vision ends up being so thoughtful, solid, and beautiful. Today, we’re talking about their first album, the modern masterpiece known as “Dummy”
Let me first say that in a world full of unoriginal bands with no impressive ideas, Portishead manages to sit atop a mountain with a few other vastly important bands still making music that is years ahead of anything the mainstream audience might experience. I mention that because their first album “Dummy” is the album that started the upward mobility.
Released in the late summer of 1994, “Dummy” isn’t a typical album. It’s not a warm loving record. Instead, vocalist Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow & guitarist Adrian Utley took elements from the 30’s, mixed them with a new type of sound called “triphop.” From the opening of “Mysterons” you get the cold, harsh, but often calculated ambiance that the band created for us. An interesting tidbit about the band, before the recording of this album the band only consisted of Gibbons & Barlow, but after working well with Utley, he was brought on to be the third member, and that’s still the core lineup that the band uses today.
If you think about the music of the times, a few things come to mind. One, does this album sound even remotely close to any of the modern more well-known music being released at that time? Of course not, but that’s why unknown bands are sometimes the best. They can survive and create without the restrictions of big level record companies, and in this case, it helps to cement a great band’s legacy. In the climate of today;s music industry, bands like Portishead wouldn’t even get the big label treatment. It’s too much of a risk to the record company, at least in their eyes,
The second thought that occurred to me was what other now regarded classic alternative albums had come out that year. Nine Inch Nails “The Downward Spiral,” Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” and Tori Amos’ “Under the Pink” all were released in the same year. With all of those great albums, I’d be surprised if that didn’t help “Dummy” to get a little bit more attention than it would have gotten had it been released during a time where the thirst for “alternative” music wasn’t at an all time high.
One of the best things about this band is the skill they have to combine sounds and textures. Gibbons' voice is reminiscent of a cabaret singer, quietly vocalizing in a dark, smoky red-lit bar at two in the morning. The sultry, painful voice, combined with the precise use of a drum machine and synthesizer make the overall sound of the band impressive. It’s especially obvious on tracks like “It Could be Sweet,” and the track that follows, “Wandering Star.” Having purchased this album on vinyl, it’s really the way it was meant to be heard. The album on its own has a very warm quality to it, but on record it’s even more undeniable.
The wobbly but consistent beats on “Wandering Star” are probably one of the most electric beats on the whole album. The album has so many layers to it that it’s hard to focus on one at a time, but that’s what great bands do in a way that makes the music seamless and effortless when played for avid listeners. They add layers that might not work on their own, but together, it’s radiant and glorious. Most great bands are good at this gentle art, and Portishead is among those great activators of sound.
One of the cinematic, epic songs on the whole album is “It’s a Fire.” The symphonic beginning quickly dissolves and gives way to the quiet of a piano behind Beth’s voice, until the other beats slowly bleed through, forcing you to acknowledge them. Her voice here is one of the more lovely parts of the whole album, and it’s also one of the few parts where you get a hint of positivity. Even with a hint of optimism, that’s not implying this is a happy record.
One of the saddest, albeit most beautiful songs on the albums, “Roads” is the perfect foundation for the rest of the band’s work. It’s not only the best song on the album, but it’s my favorite song by the band. The song speaks to the listener from a solitary, desperate place. I can relate to this position of the speaker so much because sometimes in life you feel like you’re alone, and without a net to save you.
The imagery set forth here is unbelievably powerful, and the music does just as much for the overall feel of the song than the vocals do, if not more. If it were up to me, this song would be put in a time capsule for the future children of earth to find two thousand years from now, if we even last that long. The song both begins and ends with a warm fuzz of a beat coming in and out. I’m not sure what instrument is being used to bring it to fruition, but it works wonderfully to propel the song to its ultimate apex.
From the first time I was ever exposed to this album when I first heard the single “Sour Times,” to the years working my way through this collection of songs, so many of them have spoken to me in a personal, life-affirming way. Even songs that have a sinister undertone like “Biscuit” still work even twenty years after the album was released. That’s how you can tell a band knows what they’re doing. The music has only intensified in the time since it was unleashed. Album closer, and overall great song “Glory Box” is one of the better reminders of this.
Like much of the rest of the album, “Glory Box” presents imagery that is both epic and mythological, while juxtaposing a quiet burlesque feel that is both haunting and a throwback to the times of the roaring twenties. Tell me you can’t see that in this world? Gibbons voice is perhaps at it’s best on this track, and the emotion pouring out of her is at the same time defiant and dependent on whoever she is talking to. It’s the perfect song to conclude this monster of an album, and it helps to permanently claim the trio’s spot among great bands.
When the third album, “Third” came out, it was evocative of everything they had done previously, and it still worked. They had taken the basic idea experimented with on “Dummy” and had refined it and made it new and fresh. That’s what this band does. They evolve and change but they remain uniquely brilliant. Eventually they’ll make a fourth proper studio record, and when they do, I have no doubt it will be as important and interesting as the other three albums currently making up their discography. Thanks for reading
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Hey everyone, welcome to part two! Let's go!!
10.Foo Fighters, The Colour and the Shape, 1997
The sophomore album from these legends starts the second half of our countdown at number ten. It's one of their most accessible albums, and among most fans I know it's considered the best. They've made plenty of amazing songs since then, but this one just has something to do it. Everything from massive hits “Monkey Wrench” to “Everlong” still ring with clarity, and the other gems on the album dig deep to hit you. “Hey Johnny Park!” soars, while “My Hero” is a perfect example of what fathers aspire to be. This was the record they reached the first step of domination in rock music, and they've been steadily climbing ever since.
9.Tool, Aenima, 1996
People had been noticing California prog rock sensations Tool for little while before this, but “Aenima” was the record that took on an entirely different type of feeling. It's heavier, more sophistaced and a more non linear type of record. Certain tracks are extremely heavier and rooted in the collapse of the world around us(“Hooker with a Penis,” “Aenima), while other songs are as in your face and unforgiving as anything they've ever done. The song that stands out the most though is the perfect album closer in the shape of the epic winding road that is “Third Eye.” It's an amazing track, and set the stage for what the band would become.
8.Nine Inch Nails, the Downward Spiral, 1994
If there's an album on this list that made the world nearly instantly notice a band that were on the underground, it is without the doubt the pivotal move of Reznor's career, The Downward Spiral.” This music had never been experienced by a large audience, but the brilliance of TR and the tact he used to create a world in which everything is burned and erased stands as a stroke of genius. You'd NEVER hear this record get big radio play if it came out today, but it doesn't matter, because from here on out he could bring his specialized brand of industrial rock to the masses. The record cuts and bites where it needs to, and also can bring heartfelt pain and emotion in places you wouldn't expect it. We've discussed the brilliance of “The Fragile” before, but I leave it off today because of the enormous impact this album had on the shape of the band.
7. My Bloody Valentine, Loveless, 1994
The album which changed shoegaze forever, also stands as one of the most important albums ever. What Kevin shields brought to the table with the help of Colm,Debbie and Milinda, not only showed people that a thickly layered wall of noise could work, but the craft of songwriting and effortlessly textured beats stands atop every other album of the genre's heyday. It's still one of the best albums for pure music fans in the way that you can absorb it's heart and soul quite easily while being shown things you may have had no idea existed in the world of music before. The production on the album also has a way on mingling the thick with thr glossy in a way few others can, and that's why the album remains a highlight of the decade.
6.Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine, 1992
Maybe the beginning of a movement? More than likely this triumphant, rebellious album gave us the scope and hope for something better. Behind of the strength of Zack, Tom, Brad and Tim, Rage Against the Machine brought politicized rock music to an era that very much was in need of it. Beyond that though, the execution is pitch perfect, and brings the frustrations of the masses to a single rallying cry that many can live by. Song after song attack the bullshit foundations this country has become, while pointing out the hypocrisy of the privileged few and how it managed to keep down the salt of the earth. It's still a perfect album for a man or woman with a purpose, and brings power to those who need it most. “Know Your Enemy.”
5.Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, 1995
While “Siamese Dreams” stands as the breakout album for the Chicago natives, “Mellon Collie” sees the band rocketing to the brilliance plateau they were destined for. Over the course of nearly two hours, they crush us with heavy riffs, abrasive lyrics, but also can hold with love and patience on other essential tracks. This was voted Time magazine's album of the year in 1995, and even after twenty years it's still the prime example of how good this band actually was. It's sprawling, deep, and executed in a way that only the Pumpkins are capable of. Corgan may have been the driving force and inspiration for the band, but they wouldn't be the Smashing Pumpkins without the other three core members.
An album so distancing and haunting, full of heart and soul only comes around so often, and to this day I've never heard a record so perfectly in tune with mortal sadness and blissful beats. Beth;s voice fills you with a cold sorrow that beautifully painful to witness, but at it's core “Dummy” stands as an album full of openness and balance in a world that is often anything but. Barrows and Gibbons are able to elicit full performances from each other and bring the world of Trip Hop to the masses. It's still one of the most awesome albums I've ever experienced, and it's a gift to music fans everywhere. “Roads” is poignantly full, while other songs emit various feelings perfectly through pain and tolerance.
3.Weezer, the Blue Album, 1994
With this first record, Weezer was able to bring pop sensibilities to rock audiences, and thus deliver one of the best records of the decade. The Blue Album as it's called is nearly everything a nerdy teenage boy could want from a band, even to this day. It has nods to amazing X-Men characters, frustrating moments with female counterparts, and it's also bitterly full of anger and resentment on songs like the forever classic “Say It Ain't So,” while the fun and buoyant “Buddy Holly” brings us back to the good old days of being Happy. Even album opener “My Name is Jonas” is a rocking song even after two decades. The album is immaculate, and always will be. Never forget how important a piece of art is, even if the band hasn't delivered something this amazing in years.
2.Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
This might be a stretch for some, but this record is one of the best of the decade, and because of that, it lands the number two spot on the best records of the 1990’s. Loosely based on the tortuous story of Anne Frank, we see Jeff Mangum and his fellow Louisiana natives dive into a world of horns, folk legends, and indie rock all at once. It all works in a wonderful conglomeration of verse, and his unique voice gives a sense of honesty and depth you don’t get all the time. At this point the whole album is a classic, and most hardcore fans know all of the words and nuances, but songs like the fast paced “Holland,1945” give strength while a song like “Oh Comely” and the “Two-Headed Boy”saga are so enraptured with tentative feelings of need and hopefulness that it’s difficult to properly understand how important these concepts must of been to the band, but that’s why this album is a landmark achievement and worthy of everyone’s time, even if it’s only for one listen.
1. Radiohead, OK Computer, 1997
While it might not seem like it at the time, this album took the world by shock and awe, and catapulted the band to the upper echelon of rock music. To this day, there’s no band more adventurous, and painfully perfect as the brothers Greenwood, Phil Selway, Thom Yorke and Ed O’Brien, more commonly known as Radiohead. During the early 90’s though, it was nothing like that at all. Initially thought of as one hit wonders, it’s this magnum opus that secured the future of the band for the rest of their careers. Since then it’s been a string of brilliantly popular albums, and they’ve shaped modern alternative indie music in a way no other single band is even capable of. From the creepy warnings of health in intermission track “Fitter Happier,” to the potency of “Paranoid Android,” and harbinger of doom that is “Electioneering,” this record has it all. As it approaches its twentieth birthday, the band is still going strong making thought provoking music for the masses, and it doesn’t seem like it’s even close to stopping. This doesn't happen often in this world, but these five souls should be doing exactly what they’re doing, and nothing else. They were meant to gift us with transcendent music, and I for one will be listening as long as they appear willing to grace us with it.
Thanks for reading, see you Friday
Landon Murray is a New Orleans native, who thrives on painting the world he interprets through the useful forms of all types of art he feels connected to. He's seen over 1000 bands, and had loved mostly every minute of it. He has an amazing 10 year old dog, and is loving life.
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