In the fall of 1993 Seattle three-piece Nirvana was arguably the biggest rock band in the world. Their debut album Bleach had planted seeds of vehement potential, while everybody and his dog picked up a copy of its all-conquering follow-up Nevermind. Then came the eclectic rarities compilation Incesticide, before recently released third LP In Utero, an abrasive departure that further enhanced the band’s reputation as trailblazers.
I was deep into my Nirvana phase when a friend of mine suggested another American band I might enjoy, “They totally influenced Kurt Cobain!” he exclaimed with wide eyes. A few days later he personally hand delivered two CDs, a mini LP called Come on Pilgrim (1987) and a thirteen-track debut album by the name of Surfer Rosa (1988). “Alt-rock pioneers dude!” he told me with a face as serious as a car accident, “I’m telling you… alt-rock pioneers!’’
It took me a long time to get Bob Dylan. For years I was totally immune to his harmonica-laced charms, happy to tell anyone who would listen that I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. After all, the guy couldn’t even sing and having only been exposed to his protest song era, he didn’t seem like a barrel of laughs either. Later, as my music tastes became more discerning, I begrudgingly accepted that he’d written some classic tunes, though still felt he would never really be my cup of tea. In fact, it wasn’t until I heard Blood on the Tracks one day at a friend’s place, initially unaware of who I was listening to, that my attitude began to shift.
It’s easy to forget what an unparalleled tour de force Oasis were when they burst onto the scene in the summer of 1994. Dangerously cool, razor-edge witty and a whole new level of arrogant, they were impossible to ignore, the musical equivalent of Jack Nicholson smashing the door down with his axe in The Shining.
I was sixteen years old when their debut album Definitely Maybe hit the shelves and its impact on me was immeasurable. On the one hand it’s a record brazenly in debt to its influences, which ranged from T-Rex, The Stones, The Sex Pistols, The Jam and The Stone Roses. There’s even a tip of the hat to Gary Glitter, at a time when the man was yet to be declared persona non grata. But while their self-fuelled comparisons with The Beatles remained inescapable, the truth was Oasis sounded nothing like The Fab Four, while as an LP Definitely Maybe was much more than some heady nostalgia trip.
Anyone familiar with my reviews will be far from surprised to hear I’m a big Elliott Smith fan. Like Nick Drake before him, Elliott was a deeply troubled soul who wore his heart on his sleeve, writing immensely cathartic alt-rock throughout a tragically brief solo career. Time and time again I find myself falling for artists like Smith, tortured beings who craft breathtaking records using their own blood and guts as the cement that sticks everything together. Over the course of seven albums (two of which were unfinished and released posthumously), Elliott put it all out there, for better or for worse, no-holds-barred, his songs like open wounds.
In the summer of 2000 I turned twenty-two and as per tradition back in those days I was treated to a bunch of CDs from my core group of music-loving friends. It was always exciting to receive a pile of albums all at once, even if I knew I’d be getting exactly what I’d asked for. There was Coldplay’s excellent debut Parachutes, Badly Drawn Boy’s Mercury Prize winner The Hour of Bewilderbeast and Super Furry Animals’ Welsh language delight Mwng. But then I unwrapped a title that took me by surprise. Lost Souls by Doves? Who the heck are Doves?
I have a somewhat sheepish confession to make. Now bear with me, but the first time I heard The Smiths I was not impressed. The track I’d stumbled across was Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others, a quirky little tune that appeared as simplistically self-explanatory as its title suggested. ‘‘Some girls are bigger than others’’ sings front man Morrissey, ‘‘some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers’’. Scratching my head, I couldn’t decide whether or not the whole thing was a joke, the singer’s deadpan vocals giving nothing away.