From Quarantine: Music Reviews Revisited

Like most people, we’ve been doing our best to abide by the recent quarantine orders. We’ve been staying home; we’ve been social distancing. We’ve cleaned up some things, worked in the yard, taken care of some things on the To-Do list. But I’ve also had a little time to listen to some of my favorite music. In particular, I’ve been going back and revisiting some of my “Best Of” music lists from the past few years.

I started compiling these lists about 15 years ago when I started this blog. Back then, blogs were all the rage and that’s just the sort of thing you did. At any rate, I wrote about my favorite album one year and then I started writing about my top five albums one year….and before I knew it, I was just doing this every year, along with my list of the best books I read in that particular year.

That prompted me to go back and retroactively “award” a “Best Of” album for every year going back to 1990 — when I first developed my own musical tastes. You can access that list through the sidebar tab, if you’re interested.

Anyway, as I’ve been listening to some of these old records, I’ve made some modifications to my “Best Of” list, beginning with a couple of albums from the 90s that I overlooked somehow. Here they are:

1998 – Mercury Rev, Deserter’s Songs

Some years, I struggle to find a definitive album. 1998 was one of those years. For a long time, I defaulted to Pearl Jam’s Yield record, which is good — but not great. Other contenders simply don’t hold up after twenty years. But I recently came across Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs…and I was completely blown away. I don’t know how I missed this one, but it’s greatness comes from the strength of the best four or five songs on the album. “Holes” is an absolute earworm of a song. I don’t know why this balloon video works, but it just does.

There’s something really bittersweet about the line, “How does that old song go?” I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s heartbreaking.

And that’s just the opening song.

“Opus 40” is equally amazing. “Catskill mansions / buried screams / I’m alive she cried / but I don’t know what it means.” That’s one of the better descriptions of 90s paranoia you’ll hear this side of Radiohead. According to the story, the band struggled greatly in the years leading up to these sessions. In fact, they were so despondent that they went into the studio assuming that they would break up after this recording. So they put aside any premonition of commercial success and just recorded whatever they wanted. The result was a genre-defying album that not only won them commercial and critical acclaim (being named NME’s “Album of the Year”) but also influenced releases from The Flaming Lips, Arcade Fire, and My Morning Jacket for years to come.

By the time you reach the end of the album, “Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp” is cathartic in its jubilant release. I’ve retroactively named this quirky, brilliant, symphonic album my favorite album of 1998.

1999 – Sigur Ros, Agaetis byrjun (A Good Beginning)

1999 was another one of those years without a standout album for me. I went digging through Google to find some of the more critically acclaimed albums from that year and I was really loving Wilco’s Summerteeth. But on a whim, I decided to give Sigur Ros a listen. Hailed as “Icelandic post-rock”, I had no idea what to expect when I pulled them up on Spotify.

I have to say: not only is this the best piece of music recorded in 1999, it’s quickly become one of my favorite records ever. I have probably listened to it, start to finish, somewhere around 100 times in the last six or seven weeks. I’ve been listening to it while I’m working, when I’m on my afternoon walk, when I’m driving…basically all the time. It’s kind of hard to describe my affinity for this music, other than to say that it’s just beautiful.

I guess “post-rock” is sort of helpful — there are some guitars here, but this is really a strings record. The orchestration is lush and grand; the lyrics are sung completely in Icelandic and Vonlenska, a “gibberish language” according to Wikipedia.

Look, I get it — Icelandic post-rock gibberish music isn’t exactly Top 40 stuff. But I’m telling you: if you’ve never listened to this record, you’re missing out. Just listen to “Svefn-g-englar” and “Staralfur” and “Olsen olsen” (those are songs on this record) and you’ll see what I mean. It’s just beautiful music. I absolutely love this record. I just wish I’d found it sooner.

Next week, I plan to take a look at the music from the early 2000s.

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