Sunday, March 30, 2008


In 1995, I was at home with a three year old and a one year old. Our lives were still full of sleepless nights, bottles, diapers, and Raffi videos. Potty training came slowly, and so did sleeping through the night, and it seemed that we would spend the rest of our lives yawning and changing diapers. We were still living in our small bungalow down the street from our current house; Clint, who lives there now, tells us that he still occasionally finds a piece of Lego in the house. I was learning to make bread in 1995, but I still didn't have much time for writing. I didn't start to get published for another two years.

In April, 168 people—including 19 children in day care—died in the Oklahoma City bombings. There was an ongoing war in Bosnia. The Atlanta Braves beat Cleveland in the World Series. But the impact of these horrific events was muted and blurred by sleep deprivation and a sense of the challenging but reassuring rhythm of ordinary life. There was comfort in dailiness, in the steady accumulation of ordinary life that Carol Shields wrote about so beautifully in The Stone Diaries, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. It was also the year that Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread Prize for her extraordinary first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Behind the scenes of history, ordinary life went on with all of its quirks and challenges and rewards.

Toy Story
was the top-grossing film of the year, but 1995 was also the year in which Jane Austen became a hot property at the box office with the release of Clueless and Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility. On the small screen, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice aired on BBC One and, in America, the WB network was launched, although it would be another two years before the network aired anything worth watching (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But 1995 was an especially remarkable year for music. As I surveyed the CD cabinet for my favorite albums of the 1990s, four of them came out in 1995:

1. Son Volt, Trace. This is my favorite album of the 1990s. Every time I listen to it, it sounds fresh, with the perfect alt-country balance of hard-rocking guitars and the down-home sounds of fiddle, banjo, lap steel and dobro. Jay Farrar's great voice lies in the perfect range for me to sing along, and I love the fact that the album was recorded right here in Northfield. Favorite song: "Tear-Stained Eye."

2. Dar Williams, The Honesty Room. Dar's debut may be my second favorite album of the 1990s. I love her songwriting and I love her voice and I love the fact that my sixteen-year old songwriting son includes her among his influences. Just the other day, I heard him playing "The Babysitter's Here" on the guitar. My favorite song is the first song on the album, "When I Was A Boy." She regrets the loss of her childhood freedom to run around shirtless and act like a boy, climbing trees and rolling around in the dirt. She envies men, who never had to give up that freedom. In the final verse, a man on a date tells her: "When I was a girl, my mom and I, we always talked/I picked flowers everywhere that I walked./And I could cry all the time, now even when I'm alone I seldom do/And I have lost some kindness,/But I was a girl too. And you were just like me, and I was just like you." How could she describe so perfectly how I felt? Those, in my opinion, are the best song lyrics of the 1990s.

3. Alison Krauss, Now That I've Found You: A Collection. Although it's not my favorite of her albums (that honor goes to 1992's Every Time You Say Goodbye), it is the album that introduced me to Alison Krauss and her extraordinarily lovely voice. Her first album came out when she was sixteen (1987), and she brought out this first "greatest hits" album when she was just twenty-four. Every song is a gem.

4. Jonatha Brooke & The Story, Plumb. What's not to like about Jonatha Brooke? She's a red-head, she was an English major at Amherst, she has a great voice, and she's a great and articulate songwriter. I can't understand why she's not better known. She's had some bad breaks in her career. She was dumped by her previous label (Elektra) before sitting down to make Plumb, but she seemed to find therapy in putting together what I think is her best album. Favorite song: "Full-Fledged Strangers."

Jonatha Brooke

Another album from 1995 that doesn't quite make my favorites list is Poi Dog Pondering's Pomegranate. An uneven album full of energy and eccentricity. Other than Alison Krauss and Union Station, Poi Dog is the only band on this list (or at all) I've heard live since college. They were the featured act at Carleton's Spring Concert in about 1996. But that long concert drought will end on April 19, when Clara and I will be taking the boys over to Gustavus Adolphus College to hear Ben Folds. When did Ben Folds Five release their debut album (including great songs like "Underground," "Philosophy," and "Alice Childress")? 1995.


Christopher Tassava said...

Oh, man. Good stuff. For me, the 1990s are the decade of Uncle Tupelo (with No Depression [1990] being my favorite), the Pixies (Trompe le Monde [1991] and Nirvana (Nevermind [1991]). Huh. Any coincidence all of those albums were discovered my first year at Macalester? No. I just listened to Pavement, Slanted and Enchanted (1992) the other day and found it just as great as I did back when I discovered them, a few years into their rise. Living in Chicago and listening to Liz Phair was great. And of course, Radiohead, OK Computer (1997). Talk about sounding fresh!

You've posted a few times on Son Volt - better than Wilco?

Rob Hardy said...

No Depression is my favorite thing to listen to whenever I do the elliptical machine in the rec center. It gives me the energy to keep going at a fairly boring form of exercise. I like Son Volt much better than Wilco. I just like Jay's voice and songwriting better than Jeff's.

John Mutford said...

I just had to organize my iTunes by year. While some of those that I liked at the time, I now find grating (Jagged Little Pill), some still shine for me, but mostly Bjork's "Post."

Bleeet said...

"Whiskey bottle over Jesus / not forever, just for now..."

Ahh... saw 'the Uncle Tupelo' at the Caboose in May, 1991. My fiancee, now my wife, had her ears plugged the whole time. I had an orgasm... great show.

Highly recommend Jay Farrar's Sebastapol. Very good album.

I like both Son Volt and Wilco.

Christopher, I do hope you've picked up the rest of the Pixies catalog. Surfer Rosa remains one of my all-time favorite
albums. One of my floormates played it for me my freshman year at Carleton. I bought it - on cassette - as soon as possible. The cassette, in addition to the, umm, rather comely cover photograph, had the full Surfer Rosa plus their debut 4AD e.p. Come On Pilgrim.

While we're waxing musical, I bought the Smashing Pumpkins' Gish and Nirvana's Nevermind at the same time. I think they came out just a couple weeks from each other in the fall of 1991. Those were good purchases; because, say what you will about the Pumpkins' later releases, Gish was, and is, phenomenal and phabulous.

Nirvana, I already knew, because I was way into Mudhoney and the nascent Seattle grunge scene in the late-1980s. The Pumpkins, however, were more of a whim based on comments from a couple friends; comments I was happy to have heeded.

Mudhoney remains my favorite "grunge" band, based solely on the strength of their first e.p. and first full-length. Nirvana has a deeper catalog, and their quality remained more consistent than Mudhoney, but I have to hand it to Mudhoney's early stuff as setting the bar very high for the legions of imitators that followed.

Pavement, particularly, Slanted and Enchanted, yeah, I'm with you there... tremendous new sounds... but, while I liked Radiohead up to and including Kid A, they have lately been winning plaudits for newer work that is nowhere near that quality. Seems to be a fair amount of critical "inertia" with Radiohead. I don't find any of their last three albums very compelling, actually, rather dull. They are staring at their own navels a bit too much.

Doug B. said...

Rob, thanks for this great post, and the reminder of how amazing that first Son Volt record is. I've had it in heavy rotation all week. And I'm right there with you on No Depression.

Christopher and Brendon...I had no idea what wonderful taste in music you fine gentlemen have!

Speaking of orgasmic shows, Brendon, I gotta put in a bid for the Jayhawks warming up for Uncle Tupelo at the Uptown Bar in 1990.

If any of you show up at the Bratlanders show at the Tavern on Saturday night, I promise we'll play "Tear Stained Eye."

Rob Hardy said...

Brendon: Jay Farrar's 2004 live album, Stone, Steel and Bright Lights is also brilliant.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .