It’s an album full of rage caused by racial injustice. It’s an album borne out of the voices of the oppressed. It’s a musical masterpiece of dope beats, thumping bass and intellectual rhymes that spotlight police brutality, racial undercurrents and the promise of a pyrrhic breaking point. The album is also 32 years old.The fact that Public Enemy’s seminal “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” is as timely and current today as when it was released is a sad testament to America’s progress in race and socioeconomic progress. However, one reason “It Takes a Nation” still resonates is because musically it still freaking slaps. Spurred by Hall of Fame-caliber hits like “Bring the Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype,” this album signaled a brave new world in music. It took courage then to produce it. Unfortunately, even in 2020, it still does.
No album brought heavy metal into the mainstream quite like Metallica’s “… And Justice For All.” It didn’t hurt that in the golden age of MTV, the anti-war video for “One” was on HEAVY rotation and turned James Hetfield and the rest of the band into household names. But this was still a heavy metal album with all the boxes checked: dark, brooding lyrics; growling vocals; speed-metal guitar riffs; and even double kick drums courtesy of Lars Ulrich. But unlike a lot of previous metal albums, which tended to dive into the dark and sinister for the sake of being dark and sinister, “Justice” was the thinking man’s metal album with songs about loss of freedom, inequality, and, of course justice. But there was still just enough of the songs about death and anger and genocide for any headbanger to enjoy.
It’s all right there in the first verse of the first song of the first major label album by the Avett Brothers. This band of foot-stomping, string-breaking renegades from Concord, NC, were moving on up — creatively, artistically and, yes, commercially. But “I and Love and You” is not a sell-out album. It’s a growth album. All the emotionalism is still there; but the boys — Seth & Scott Avett, Bob Crawford and Joe Kwon — are maturing, and asking their fans to mature with them with “I&L&Y.” This beautifully-crafted and produced album — Rick Rubin is to thank for that — is a statement album. As they sing on “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise”: “Decide what to be and go be it.” With “I and Love and You,” the Avett Brothers did just that.
You couldn’t get away from Radiohead’s radio hit “Creep” when it was released on the world in 1992-93. Not even the band could escape the clutches of such a megahit. So they did what any self-respecting band – a band inspired by the DIY ethos the likes of R.E.M. – would do with their next album, which was released in 1995. “The Bends,” the follow-up to “Pablo Honey,” is a tour de force album that 25 years later holds up as perhaps one of the most complete and wonderful albums of all time. The guitar virtuosity of Jonny Greenwood is complemented by the paranoid vocals of Thom Yorke. Oh, and the rest of the band is pretty freaking incredible, too. If people came listening for the next “Creep,” they were sorely mistaken. And thank God for that.
If we told you a member of the Jackson family produced an album in the 1980s that produced eight singles and multiple top 5 hits, you would likely assume it was Michael. However, younger sister Janet’s “Rhythm Nation 1814” was a behemoth of a hit-maker, with dance-able hits like “Escapade,” “Black Cat,” “Miss You Much” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You).” The album itself was a concept album meant to address loftier themes. But the videos were peak MTV-era goodness. You couldn’t escape Janet. But why would you want to?
When The Beatles returned to Abbey Road to record their sixth album, they were exhausted from constant touring and releasing at a pace of two albums a year. They also had virtually no songs prepared. But when it was completed, their sixth album was Rubber Soul, arguably the first actual album, not just a collection of songs. This was the turning point; it’s the album that bridges the British Invasion Beatles to Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. It’s the album that turned the music world on its rear, forcing the band’s rivals and contemporaries like the Beach Boys and Rolling Stones to step up their games. In essence, with Rubber Soul, the Beatles were just getting started.
Thirty years after it was released, “Disintegration” by The Cure remains a Goth masterpiece. It was Robert Smith’s answer to critics that his band (and, let’s be clear: it was HIS band) could still do moody, dark epics as well or better than anyone. No one was a bigger critic of Robert Smith than himself. So he brought it. It’s all there in its “Cure-iness.” Simon Gallup’s bass is the omnipresent driving low-end of the album. But it’s Smith’s lyrics about creepy lullabies, red-light districts, spidermen and, yes, even love that make “Disintegration” the masterpiece it remains today.
How does a band reach the pinnacle of both commercial and critical success, dominate the airwaves for a handful of years, only to disintegrate into the ether? That’s probably the question that has haunted the members of Līve for two decades now. The band’s second major album, “Throwing Copper,” was omnipresent on both pop and alternative radio. The video for “Lightning Crashes” was an MTV staple. And then? Poof! After some 8 million albums sold (and a couple of moderately successful follow-ups), they were seemingly gone from the radar. (It could have to do with the fact that in this Google/SEO world, the name “Līve” does not render easily on search engines. Shoulda thought that through, boys!) It’s a shame, really. “Throwing Copper” is everything good about quintessential 90s rock, highlighted by singer Ed Kowalczyk’s mystical/nebulous lyrics.
It would be the album that would break up The Smiths, but not before encapsulating all that was SO … Smiths about them. “Strangeways, Here We Come” combines the brilliance of Johnny Marr and the poetic, charming violence of Morrissey into a final testament of one of the most influential — if short-lived — bands of all time.
Young people all around the world were drawn to the angsty lyrics and lilting voice of Dolores O’Riordan when her band The Cranberries were EVERYWHERE in 1993 and 1994. But whereas their debut album featured beautiful pop hits like “Linger” and “Dreams,” their sophomore effort, “No Need to Argue” built upon the passion of relational anguish while shining a light on the horrors and plight of The Troubles in Ireland. Nowhere was that more evident and dramatic than in “Zombie,” which would be The Cranberries’ best-charting song of all time.