It’s now clear–what with records by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and U2 in or about the top ten best-sellers for the year–that the idea, if not also the actuality, of alternative rock is now moot; it certainly doesn’t make any sense to call what is now mainstream “alternative.” But it is probably worth saying exactly what it was; those a bit detached from contemporary music might well be suspicious of a term that could include both a grungy rock band and an effortless pop group, a country- rock combo and a rap act. The genre has its roots in what Robert Christgau many years ago dubbed semipopular music. He was referring to the great schism of rock at the end of the 1960s, when for essentially the first time there began to be a difference between the groups that sold the most records and the groups that made the best music. At least some of the best groups were commercial nonentities who simply tried to create great rock music. Many succeeded, and for people of my generation–who came of age in the mid-1970s–the paradigm of the great artist who didn’t sell was a given; indeed, by the time punk broke, the idea of certain artists who didn’t fit the mold had grown into the enormous construct of a major musical movement–one that patently indicated cultural upheaval–that did zip business. This context is why the sales of R.E.M.’s Out of Time, with nearly ten million copies worldwide, or restless Nirvana, about four million U.S., give us a special frisson. It’s true that we use sales figures when it suits us: x number of albums sold can mean nothing when it’s Garth Brooks and is obviously irrelevant when it’s Pavement. And when it bolsters our case–like with an Arrested Development or a Nirvana–we crow about it. It’s just that we haven’t had anything to crow about for so long.
1. Arrested Development: 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of…A swirling, magnanimous, hard-edged classic that convincingly fuses the enveloping wonder of 60s soul with the clear-eyed grit of 90s rap.
2. PJ Harvey: Dry. Leader Polly Harvey says she grew up listening to the blues. Dry, however, lacks the blues’ romanticism and jive: it’s a dense and angular, emotionally scorching portrait of obsessive psyche scratching on the matter of the trouble with boys. Rocks scarifyingly, too.
3. R.E.M.: Automatic for the People. A funereal song cycle on death, capped by the exquisite “Nightswimming,” an erotic hymn to the past and curse on the present.
4. Uncle Tupelo: March 16-20, 1992. Early Dylan, Springsteen’s Nebraska, Leonard Cohen, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie echo in this by turns wrenching and humorous collection of socialist anthems, passionate political ballads, and soaring bits of striking, modern folk.
5. Basehead: Play With Toys. Basehead is rapper-rocker-stoner Michael Ivey, whose impossibly laid-back debut bloomed in the tension between restless studio experimentation and his personal obsessions: drinking, girls, injustice, how damn hard it is to convey what you really mean in a pop song.
6. Iris DeMent: Infamous Angel. In contrast to the psychedelic cowboys of Austin and its environs, DeMent is young and unshaped, driven only by a clear, slightly antique voice and an unadorned C and W exposition that seem just months, rather than decades, away from that of Hank Williams.
7. Cure: Wish. This explosive, reflective, and even optimistic consolidation of power by the onetime synth-rock mopes recalls the Cure’s initial burst of pop deliciousness even as the band moves forward as the world’s most unlikely arena– even stadium–rockers. Wish shows off the punch that got them there and reassures that leader Robert Smith’s punkish sensibility is less flukish than resolutely dependable.
8. Me Phi Me: One. This acoustic-guitar-accented rap album takes hip hop almost to the threshold of easy listening. But while the somewhat similar P.M. Dawn laid down immaculate sheets of pop sheen, Me Phi Me has rougher roots in rock and soul. Tuneful, hearteningly positive, and, strangely enough, workable live as well–as he and his band proved at Metro this summer.
9. Jayhawks: Hollywood Town Hall. The long-awaited third album from a Minneapolis country-rock quartet who seem to be the true inheritors of the country-rock sound of the 1960s. Check out the dissonant howl of their harmonies on “Settled Down Like Rain,” the chunky, mordant groove on “Waiting for the Sun,” the incandescent rise of the melody on “Take Me With You (When You Go).”
Hitsville offers two predictions for 1993, both of them sunny: First, albums by Urge Overkill, Jesus Lizard, Liz Phair, and Smashing Pumpkins create a national buzz on a suddenly potent Chicago music “scene.” Second, a revivified Sun-Times music staff begins to put pressure on the Tribune, which finally gets serious about blues and roots music (to compete with the Sun-Times’s eclectic and sympathetic Dave Hoekstra) and radio (to compete with the omniscient Robert Feder). The result is, at last, a model of vibrant, heavily competitive coverage in a two-newspaper town.
A list of the worst albums of the year would have to include the Black Crowes’ The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss, Bruce Springsteen’s Lucky Town and Human Touch, and Eric Clapton’s Unplugged.