For some reason, I've had the music of my high school years (that would be 90'-'93, went to a three year high school) on my mind lately. Specifically, the music from "Nevermind" to about the time Kurt Cobain snuffed himself, because that was the time I shifted away from listening to hip-hop and back to rock, alt-rock, grunge, whatever you wanna call it.
It was never as absolute as that. I discovered the Cows and Black Flag while I was a huge Public Enemy fan and likewise was heavy into the Roots while I was buying the first Shellac 7"s. But, for the most part, once I heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit," I got interested in rock again and that was where my money went.
Of course, it didn't help that hip-hop was moving towards the pop-gansta kind of stuff that dominates today. Yeah, I dug "The Chronic" and "Doggystyle" but I didn't need endless clones and I missed hip-hop what wasn't just about partying or fighting.
Needless to say, I missed some classics. Probably the biggest one, and an album I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't even heard until last year, was Nas' "Illmatic." And it's a shame that it took me so long because at the time this came out, I would have been burning out on my punk phase and trying to find some indie rock that didn't bore the hell out of me. This album probably would have convinced me there was still life left in rap.
What's so good about "Illmatic"? For starters, we have intelligent lyrics delivered expertly over classic beats. That right there is pretty much everything I look for in a hip-hop album. While Nas addresses street life, he never blows himself up to a Blaxsploitation stereotype. Nas is a good storyteller, and the stories he tells are worth listening to.
"Illmatic" is also lean and mean. There's not a wasted track on here and while the trend in the 90s was towards longer and longer albums, padded with stupid skits* and pointless posse cuts, "Illmatic" was just shy of 40 minutes. I'd rather have 40 minutes of quality than have to dig through 70 minutes to find them.
On the flip side of things, in the alt-rock world, was Stone Temple Pilots, who Steve Hyden at the Onion AV Club thinks are ripe for a reevaluation.
If you were about my age then and semi-connected to any cool music, I'm sure you remember how STP was pretty much the poster band for corporate grunge/alt-rock. Everyone slagged these guys. They sold a gazillion albums, yet I don't remember ever meeting anyone who would cop to buying one. (Kind of like Nickleback now. Who is buying their crap anyway?)
Well, I'll confess. I had "Core." Got it as a freebie through the BMG CD Club. Basically, I got it just to see if they were really as bad as we all thought. I mean, it was hard to ignore the singles being shoved down your throat a million times a day. But, maybe, just maybe, there was some redemption on the album proper.
No. There wasn't.
Luckily for me, this was the brief period of time when a used CD store would actually take a copy of "Core," so I'm sure I marched that down to Discount Den and came back with Mercury Rev or something like that. Never looked back and, as much as I normally like the writing at the Onion AV Club, I don't plan on it now.
Sure, I still ended up hearing all the singles after "Core," so people can spare me the "well, you just need to hear ______." You couldn't help but hear them and you can still hear them on local radio without trying too hard. And they just don't impress me.
I know there's a tendency to get nostalgic as one ages. Critics especially tend to get nostalgic and what was once trash becomes undiscovered treasure. Strangely, I'm finding myself judging the music of my high school years even harsher as time goes on.
For instance, in a used CD store yesterday, they were blasting "Nevermind," which I haven't heard in years. Some tracks (like "Territorial Pissing") actually made me wince. To be fair, there were still highlights. But as a whole, I found a lot more wrong with that album than I did the first time around.
Getting back to STP, it doesn't surprise me that some critics are changing their opinion on the band. However, that doesn't make it right. And hearing Nirvana yesterday only brought home to me that even many of the critic approved from the beginning bands of that period weren't always as good as people thing.
But, even as I have to chuckle over seeing my youth becoming enshrined in the amber of nostalgia, it's always pretty cool to find a true, new to me, gem from that period like "Illmatic." I'm just hoping that twenty years from now we can still agree that the Spin Doctors did indeed suck.
* if you are not Prince Paul, Dr. Dre or Wu Tang, you have no need to be doing skits on you record. Thank you.