Top 10 Underrated Artists of the 90s

Remember the 90s? LA was the center of the world, Hurricane Andrew took out Florida, and as Mos Def put it, Hip hop went from selling crack to smoking it. Everyone seemed like they were in a big rush to go to Seattle; apparently there was this one band that hated hair metal and pissed gold, I dunno. The point is, the 90s were a great time for music with tons of great albums that still hold up to this day. But there are some bands that just don’t get enough credit, whether it’s because they were underexposed or just misinterpreted, these guys just never caught a break. To these unsung heroes Avery Island salutes, because these are the Top 10 Most Underrated Artists of that mystical decade.

10. Gastr del Sol

This one set a precedent that would long exceed its own short-lived manifestation; Gastr del Sol may have been the brainchild of the avant-guardian Jim O’Rourke and his lesser-known, yet ever-eccentric compadre David Grubbs, but this project generated perhaps the most overtly artistic material the two had ever produced. 90’s post-rock rarely dared to be more audibly challenging than it was vast and pretty. Gastr del Sol is no exception; O’Rourke was always the Sonic Youth member with the penchant for delicacy and this shows clearly on his work with Saint Etienne, Flying Saucer Attack, or Joanna Newsom (let’s forget his occasional fling with Merzbow for now, shall we?). Yet even to the hardened music aficionado, this ambitious duo had plenty of aces up their sleeves.

Granted, the group was much more intrepid in their younger days, just like any wide-eyed child would be when marveling at all the places he could go with just the right amount of toys. Their debut The Serpentine Similar flaunts more of the no-wave sensibility that we know and love O’Rourke for, with all its tone-twisting bipolar melodies and bone-chilling ambiance that leave you flustered and speculative. Gaze at their subsequent catalogue, however, and you might mistake them for two entirely disjointed bands. In fact, by the time their captivating final album Camofleur hit, the band had so comfortably settled into a new psych-avant-folk aesthetic so well that it fit like a second skin.

Camofleur¸ in all of its tantalizing King Crimson-esque debilitation and behind-the-curtains mystique, sounds almost prophetic of 21st century art rock like the Dirty Projectors and especially Grizzly Bear. Even its simplest melodies carry a foreboding presence that leaves a mystifying impact on the mind, as if you were peering through a foggy window outward upon a serene alien landscape. Closer “Bauchredner, the last song the manifestation Gastr del Sol would ever produce, sounds off with an echoing mystique of intimating melodic flourishes, much like Grizzly Bear’s “Plans,” then later careens headlong into its own fanfare, as if the group was playing itself off the stage in one last epic finale.

9. Orbital

Honestly, I’ve never been a fan of electronic music myself. To me, those synthetic piano-rolled notes ring from DJ [insert cheeky name]’s laptop with an acousmatic detachment that’s both straightforward and undefined, like listening to the music project of a kid who’s glowing all too vibrantly over a bunch of blips he made with his keyboard. But there’s something different about Orbital, even if I can’t quite place it. Perhaps it’s the post-rocky profundity, complete with its intelligent sampling of speeches. Maybe it’s the seraphic power of the group’s painstakingly delicate dance rhythms. Or maybe it’s the fact that they can sound uncannily like a video game soundtrack at times. All I can say with certainty is that this duo’s music is intelligent without being overbearingly so and yet just as entrancing as any IDM you might hear on the dance floor.

Aphex Twin and his brothers Squarepusher and Autechre undoubtedly took the cake in the more intelligent dance circles, forever changing the face of dance’s future with every dripping bite. Perhaps that is why Orbital fell short of earning the same Rephlex or Warp-level ubiquity. Their music’s dignity is matched in strength by its modesty, never depending on melodies that are too challenging or gimmicks too degrading. In this sense, Orbital is the middle ground of electronic music, bridging the gap between the stupidity of club whores I refuse to mention and deliberate abstruseness of venerated IDM pioneers of the 90’s, yet not quite being able to play host to any clear stratum of individuals, except perhaps as a source for soundtrack material. To some too accessible; to others too reserved. As brilliant as Snivilization was, it may end up being swept away by the tide in due time. However, what with their recent revival, I’m sure brothers Phil and Paul will do all they can to keep their project Orbital basking in the light of day.

8. Pele

Minus the Bear. Foals. Japandi. I can go on forever mentioning groups that should pay royalties to Pele for ripping them off. Did I mention Stage Kids? Even Maps & Atlases (more their EPs than their poppy debut Perch Patchwork)? Anybody would be dumbfounded momentarily to hear Pele’s breathtakingly beautiful, yet heartstoppingly technical sound for the first time. Five minutes of listening is enough for any pretentious emo kid to want to go out and make his own pretty (cheesy) math-rock band. And they did, too, by the vanload.

This is not to say Pele were mavericks by any standard. The Milwaukee ensemble’s erratic nature is due to their jazz roots and their pensive tone to the post-rock sentiments of the era. It’s not too far of a stone’s throw to call them a nimbler (though less reliable) Tortoise, either. However, it’s certain they had their impact within short years. Their late 90’s years bore host to their most developmental phase, leading to their technical opus and third album Elephant, one that even a seven nation army couldn’t put a dent on (derp).

Tracks like “Egg” showcase their technical prowess masterfully alongside an uncanny songwriting intuition. Others, such as “Linear Clocks and Daughters,” are uncompromisingly intricate and carry an evocative momentum that flows with zephyr-like ease. As a whole, the record plays as a profound experience, with sensitive melodies that insist on drawing out your emotions from within rather than evoking any specific one without. At the same time it’s technically challenging (and inspiring) enough to appease the most stingy math snob you can find. In short, Pele set a precedent that won’t soon be forgotten, even if they’ve yet to have been credited for it quite yet.

7. Tortoise

With the popularity of Post-rock these days, it’s hard to see why so many people forget about these champs. Now to say they’re unknown would be misleading, but rest assured, they’re underrated. With albums like TNT and Millions Now Living Will Never Die, Tortoise should have been crowned defacto kings of the genre in their given decade. Unfortunately, this was the same decade as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, Mono, and about a million other guitar-based post-rock acts. Tortoise just didn’t fit with a more organic, jazz-structure that cranked up the keyboard just as much as the the amp.

They owed much more to Talk Talk than most post-rock acts, and their style, often called boring or “elevator music” by the uninitiated vastly underestimated their innate ability to evolve a melody. Most post-rock acts owe royalties to everyone’s favorite Canadian terrorists, so Tortoise’s sound remains untouched by time, an original experience that only contemporary acts like the Dismemberment Plan and Slint cribbed, and to great effect. Their music was evocative, and not in the way you’d think; give a listen to the 20-minute “Djed” off of Millions and you’ll hear a band that can make experimentation achingly beautiful without the aid of weepy strings.

6. Cynic

The lone metal entry on the list, these guys don’t get nearly enough respect. Now, hardcore Prog metal fans will immediately recognize these guys, but to everyone else, the closest thing they’ll get to recognition is realizing that Veil of Maya, Deathcore giants, owe their namesake to these guys. But make no mistake, Cynic are one of the great metal acts of the 90s. If brevity is the root of mystery, then Cynic are the greatest of all: how can one album, 1993’s Focus, have so much far-reaching influence? And how in the hell can no one even know about it? Much like bands like Dinosaur Jr, Cynic are a musician’s favorite, never being appreciated as much by regular fans as they are as the musicians that were once fans. Just listen to Focus and you’ll hear quite a bit; Isis, Intronaut, Between the Buried and Me, Veil of Maya, and a ton of other bands owe a great debt to Cynic.

Although just to say that their influential would do them a disservice as a band, a band who released a killer, unappreciated album full of ground-breaking ideas, intricate melodies, technical prowess that actually meant something, and a sound that would be now known as “Thinking Man’s Metal”, a faux-genre to which the likes of Mastodon and Isis dominate now days. Post-break-up, Cynic were forgotten by everyone except the fanatics, but thankfully those fanatics are the ones breaking the new ground. However, 2008 proved an old dog can learn new tricks, with the release of Traced In Air, Cynic’s first album in 15 years. And you know what? It kicks ass. Its one thing to kick ass back in the day, but its another to do it again almost two decades later. To mention Portishead wouldn’t be a mistake, because these guys just joined the same club.

5. Cake

I always had this theory that if Paul’s Boutique had kids, Odelay would be the twin that dad, in this case the Dust Brothers, gave all the attention to. The one that became a star athlete and got all the chicks and Fashion Nugget would be the weird brother that no one really cared enough to hang out with except that one cute, shy girl that lived next door that saw how awesome he really was. They’d get married, have a few kids, settle down, and watch television as their brother announced he was sorry all of their brakes didn’t work in the car brand he sold or that the recent oil spill wasn’t technically their fault in the same way that technically it’s not a murderer’s fault if hes crazy.

Overlong allegories aside, Cake were a band that owed just as much to the Dust Brothers as they did Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra; they refused to fit into a genre. John McCrea didn’t so much sing as he begrudgingly lingered on every syllable, and unlike most people will portray, he doesn’t rap. It’s more like the words are sliding off of his tongue, which is probably why most of his lyrics make no sense until you analyze them through the telescope of a paranoid, anti-consumerist, neo-ecological Christian turned guy who likes to talk about Christianity. Think Issac Brock except in a rocking chair.

The point is Cake never got due because they were written-off as a one-hit wonder, producing the infamous “The Distance”, which still plagues airwaves to today. Good song, just overplayed. They have a strong discography, with Motorcade of Generosity a fan favorite and Prolonging the Magic being the underrated gem of their 90s catalog with some of their best material like “Cool Blue Reason” and “Where Would I Be?” Cake have all but disappeared now, their website updating only with left-wing news articles and an album that was due in 2006 still being “TBA”. But at least we have their previous albums (minus the scattershot Pressure Chief) to show just because a band never produced another hit doesn’t mean they aren’t worth checking out.

4. The Dismemberment Plan

If OK Computer was a masterpiece because of it’s spot-on interpretation of the technological paranoia of the 90s in Britain, The Dismemberment Plan would be the American equivalent but without the space rock influences. Virtually unheeded by most mainstream critics despite Emergency & I receiving numerous Album of the Year nominations from alternative publications, these guys knew how to make an alternative album. I don’t mean that in the cute, post-grunge non-sense way, but in the true sense; alternate tunings, abnormal song-structure, additional instrumentation, and the classic indie voice key, the falsetto.

Travis Morrison had the perfect voice for the act, who were permanently indebted to art-rock and post-punk acts such as Fugazi and Television. His voice was one of quiet confidence; it wavered at all the right times, it soared at infallible moments, and his obsession with soul music gave him a great perspective on how to use his voice to additional effect, eg. the mumble, the whisper, the scream. Some truly inventive drumming (any song off of Emergency & I) and the addition of glitch-pop electronics and keyboards stolen straight from another entry on this list made these guys a force to be reckoned with, even if no one really heard of them. For Christ’s sake, they open for Pearl Jam. You might as well just give up with the mouth-gapers that the likes of Eddie Vedder post-Ten will attract.

Remembered now simply for Emergency & I, they had five great albums, with ! being a shining example of post-punk revival done right from the Television perspective instead of the Joy Division perspective for once, and Change being perfect in it’s ability to sum up the band in a perfect 45 minutes and change. That’s not to say E&I is overrated, God no: the album destroys even to this day. I know for a fact, somewhere there is a professional critic stumbling onto this album right now and wishing they can retro-actively reprint their “Best 90s Albums” list. Well, we won’t be those people: The Dismemberment Plan were one of the great unrecognized American rock acts of the 90s and they deserve better.

3. Amon Tobin

No respect. No respect at all. Not once have I heard even a peep about this brilliant, ground-breaking artist. However, he’s everywhere you look now. Since his latest (and terrific) release, 2007’s Foley Room, he’s been busy behind the scenes doing soundtracks that  either compliment the product perfectly (The Playstation 3 exclusive Infamous) or end up distracting because of how much better it is than the film (21, the Kevin Spacey bomb from 2008). Hes done previous film work (The Italian Job) and previous videogame work (Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory), hell, he did Toonami bumps even! Yet he will be remembered by hardcore fans for his albums, of which there isn’t a bad or even disappointing entry. From his debut, Adventures in Foam, to his latest work, the previously mentioned Foley Room, he has been inovating and expanding his core sound, cultivated from Acid, Jazz, Trip-hop, and Drum & Bass.

His mix of drilling drum patterns, wobbling, wandering bass tones, and whatever else he decides to throw in, whether it be violins or a damn motorcycle, is absolutely intoxicating. Bricolage is a masterpiece of form, basically being credited along with Portishead’s Dummy as creating the Trip-hop genre. Follow-up Permutation is a bracing expansion of the sound of Bricolage with more of an emphasis on the harsh drum and bass attack, making almost every tracks climax feel intuitive and exciting. Honestly, I can go on for days about this guy, but the fact is is that he is too talented, too consistent, and too innovative to not be held in the same ranks as other 90s electronic music gods like Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada. Hell, Massive Attack should give him some recognition for basically showing them how bass-heavy trip-hop is done. Shame on you for not giving this guy the attention he deserves and shame on us for taking so damn long to appreciate him.

2. KMD

The lone hip hop entry, these guys were cut down in their prime. Made of of two brothers, DJ Subroc and Zev Love X, and their buddy Rodan, the act was, and still is, the prime example of the mixture of black agenda-awareness and Kool Kieth-like comedic bravado. Unfortunately, after one light-hearted album, Mr. Hood (Think a Sesame Street with a Sambo character), DJ Subroc was hit by a car and killed and Rodan left shortly after, leaving Zev Love X to finish Black Bastards, an infuriatingly underrated album of pitch-black racial pastiche and lyrical density that few 90s hip hop acts can attempt to shine through.

Everyone has seemed to have forgotten about KMD, the little hip hop act of three fresh-out-of-high school kids that had more to say than the entire genre and 6 years before Mos Def made it cool to do so. One listen to Mr. Hood or Black Bastards will reveal such lyrical bombshells that would make Jay-Z blush and production and drum tracks that would make the RZA jealous, and they did it all under the guise of an 80s Ultramagnetic MCs/Run DMC byzantine hip hop group. There’s no understating how lyrically and technically advanced these three kids were back in 1993. They spit out shit most people didn’t know was possible until the Wu-Tang Clan came around, and they did it with twice the intelligence.

It’s a tragedy that these guys aren’t spoken-of almost ever. Even more ridiculous when you realize the identity of Zev Love X, aka Viktor Vaughn, aka Metal Fingers, aka King Geedorah, aka DOOM, aka MF Doom, aka Daniel motherfucking Dumile, the absolute king of underground hip hop for over a decade and counting. Never producing a bad album, this guy started early with two masterpieces, but his genius was sent sea-level when his brother’s death sent him unto the streets depressed for months. It would be the ultimate comeback story if he didn’t come back swearing vengeance on the music industry, not that it takes away from his victory. Doom’s first act was a great one, easily the most underrated hip hop of the 90s.

1. Red House Painters

Remember these guys? You’re lucky if you do; not many other seem to. Despite the fact that they produced five albums that are so prophetic that they basically called-out an entire genre’s acoustic, sadcore future a decade ahead of time. Not so much influential as they were simply universal, Mark Kozelek’s tales of melancholy and nostalgia still rank as some of the most powerful moments in indie music. Just listen to “Michael”, the last song off of their debut album Down Colorful Hill: almost every line paints a vivid picture. “Michael/where are you/now?” he moans, drifting on his name like he was calling out to him that very second. “Got a lead from your old/triple-ex girlfriend she said/”I heard he lost his mind again, again”/I said I didn’t know that you ever did.” That line alone illustrates so much with so little that it’s almost painful.

His musing on love, childhood, loss, and pain, in all of it’s vast forms, are so thick and richly detailed that it’s achingly sentimental without sounding sappy. He can sum up the teenage experience so easily on songs like “Lord Kill the Pain”: “Drown the country/drown everyone but me/so I can live peacefully.” The over-blown angst of the line is nearly comical just because you can imagine that exact kid that would say it, that kid most likely being you. His constant references to Japan are to hear a child long to see a world he just figured out about, wanting to see a new, exotic land simply because it isn’t home. The lyrical verisimilitude of Kozelek is accompanied by his ever-present acoustic guitar, a tool that he uses to great effect, and coupled with the sparse electric guitar, bass, and drum accompaniments, there is a lot of space between then notes for the words to sink into you.

The name of the band, Red House Painters, is an odd name by any stretch of the imagination; what does it imply? What does it mean? Maybe it is based off of a turn-of-phrase that is strictly anchored in one time and one place. Maybe it’s meaningless: words to create an ambiguous picture for Kozelek to fill in with anything he likes. Maybe they’re just words for words sake, formations of lines that just look good to him in the same way someone likes a certain color over another. It’s the kind of name that brings out an image of emotion, an impression rather than an indentation. It’s kind of a perfect name for them, a band that used light strokes to make a grand picture of some hidden life we’ve all lived and barely remember.

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1 Comment

  1. 07/12/10: A New List?! « Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks said,

    […] Top 5 Underrated Artists of the 90s by Avery Island […]

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