by John Ellis
One of the things that should prompt a thankful pride in all Americans is how our country’s presidents so often and so willingly reach for the hot handle of responsibility. In fact, a famous president once said, “The buck stops here.” This series, “The Pop Presidents,” seeks to honor an aspect of the last eleven president’s responsibilities that is often overlooked – presiding over the growth of pop music, specifically the genre known as Rock and Roll. Over the course of the first eleven articles, the ten best albums released under each of the eleven administrations’ oversight will be briefly discussed. In the final article of the series, the eleven presidents will be ranked based on the music released during their time in the Oval Office.
From the onset, Bill Clinton, saxophone in hand, made it clear that music was going to play an integral role in his White House. Answering questions on MTV about his past weed use as well as his underwear preference, basically being the musical guest on an Arsenio Hall Show appearance, and partying with musicians like Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, and Michael Bolton, Clinton charged into the Oval Office like Robert Plant looking for groupies after a concert in Seattle.
A quick scan of Clinton’s top-ten will highlight a seeming contradiction – how does the seemingly least angst-ridden President, at least of the last eleven presidents, have a list dominated by some of the most angst-ridden bands of all time? Well, two words, or, rather, four words … five, if you count the “and,” … you know what, stop counting and read – Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. Don’t be fooled by the fact that out of the last eleven presidents, Bill Clinton is the one that you would most like to have over to listen to records and drink beer with; President Clinton had a darkness in his soul that was fed and watered by the shrill and never-ending voices of gleeful demagogues. You, too, would listen to a lot more Radiohead if Limbaugh had picked you as his arch-nemesis.
Honorable Mentions: Houdini, Melvins; Superunknown, Soundgarden; (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Oasis; Bee Thousand, Guided by Voices; Odelay, Beck; Urban Hymns, The Verve; XTRMNTR, Primal Scream; The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem; Emergency & I, The Dismemberment Plan; Things Fall Apart, The Roots; Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney; Life After Death, Notorious B.I.G.; Mellow Gold, Beck; Weezer (Blue), Weezer; Suede, Suede; Audible Sigh, Vigilantes of Love; MTV Unplugged in NY, Nirvana; Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Wu-Tang Clan; Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, PJ Harvey; To Bring You My Love, PJ Harvey; The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn Hill; Post, Bjork; Sublime, Sublime; The Bends, Radiohead; Vitalogy, Pearl Jam; Aquemini, OutKast; XO, Elliot Smith; Entroducing, DJ Shadow; If You’re Feeling Sinister, Belle & Sebastian.
- Alien Lanes – Guided by Voices, April, 1995.
One of the best examples of what lo-fi albums can accomplish artistically, Bee Thousand (an honorable mention above) propelled Guided by Voices to a major record label deal. Thankfully that record deal, the band signed with Matador Records, didn’t ruin their lo-fi aesthetic, and they produced their magnum opus, Alien Lanes using almost none of the money budgeted by Matador for the production of the record. A couple of years later, President Clinton, taking his cue from Guided by Voices, didn’t use all the money allotted him by Congress to run the country, and had a budget surplus for three straight years.
- Kid A – Radiohead, October, 2000.
Though not a DIY album in necessarily the same sense that the ethos had meant for the last two decades, with Kid A, nevertheless, Radiohead metaphorically, and often literally, laid down their guitars and dove headfirst into the technology pool that they had waded in with Ok Computer. Kid A demonstrated that the new millennium’s DIY was not going to be found in the basement of run-down bungalows, but in front of computer keyboards.
- Rid of Me – PJ Harvey, May, 1993.
Few musicians have been as blisteringly raw as PJ Harvey; Rid of Me was the apex of her brilliant, soul-unleashing, creatively melodic and time-signature wails. Coming on the heels of a mental breakdown, PJ Harvey poured personal angst into an album that out-grunged the boys of grunge.
- Grace – Jeff Buckley, August, 1994.
Most people only know one song off of this album. And most of those people don’t even know the name of the album that contains that one song. Those are both unfortunate lapses of knowledge. Grace, the only studio album released by the ill-fated Jeff Buckley, is almost an anomaly among the great grunge albums released during the first couple of years of President Clinton’s administration. Buckley’s voice is emotive in ways that the grunge singers ran from, and his hauntingly beautiful songs are transcendent during a music era that attempted to eschew transcendence.
- Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – Pavement, February, 1994.
Unlike other bands on this list, Pavement remained signed to an indie label during their entire ten year existence. As a result, the band never achieved the commercial success of some their contemporary “indie” acts, but, critically, Pavement is almost without peer. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain gave the band their closest brush with success in the form of the single, “Cut Your Hair.”
- Ok Computer – Radiohead, May, 1997.
Ok Computer, Radiohead’s third studio album, has been alternately praised as one of the greatest rock albums of all time and one of the most overrated and bloated rock albums of all time – sometimes by the same publication. But, like President Clinton, Radiohead and their critical benchmark resiliently withstand the wishy-washy nature of the cultural milieu they occupy.
- Either/Or – Elliot Smith, February, 1997.
Either/Or is often described as a bridge in the Elliot Smith canon. It may be, although the lo-fi aesthetic is still very much apparent; but, regardless, the album also reflects Smith at his best.
- In Utero – Nirvana, September, 1993.
Cobain insisted on making an album that he, as a fan, would want to buy, and that created tension with the band’s record label and management company. Cobain, of course, didn’t care. After some remixing by REM producer Scott Litt of the Steve Albini produced record, Nirvana released the final studio album of their career.
- The Soft Bulletin – The Flaming Lips, May, 1999.
Coming off an experimental album, The Flaming Lips opted to produce an album with a much more accessible sound than they had previously released – especially more so than the aforementioned Zaireeka. One of the most critically acclaimed albums of the 1990s, The Soft Bulletin is symphonically textured and layered, marking the turn to the more commercially viable version of The Flaming Lips that dominated the following decade.
- In the Aeroplane Over the Sea – Neutral Milk Hotel, February, 1998.
Like Bill Clinton, the lo-fi president, Neutral Milk Hotel believed that lo-fi didn’t have to mean not-fun and not-catchy. With jangly melodies that top-40 pop music writers can only poorly mimic, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea married bizarre, at times dirge worthy at other times party worthy lyrics with those catchy, great melodies. If Brian Wilson had operated within the lo-fi aesthetic, it’s entirely possible that the pop music master would have recorded In the Aeroplane Over the Sea before Neutral Milk Hotel did.