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.
When George Herbert Walker Bush took the oath of office on January 20, 1989, Soviet style communism was on its last legs and the Berlin Wall was about to come down; America was on the verge of winning the Cold War. Domestically, however, President Bush faced uphill battles with a rising deficit, climbing unemployment rate, and a contentious Congress. With his own party members in Congress turning on him, President Bush realized that solving domestic problems would require the efforts of the citizenry, and, so, his famed “thousand points of light” was birthed. Average men and women gladly pitched in as volunteers, but the segment of the population that could be counted on the most to tackle head on the problems of society were the musicians.
Honorable Mentions: Loveless, My Bloody Valentine; Temple of the Dog, Temple of the Dog; The Chronic, Dr. Dre; Goo, Sonic Youth; Ten, Pearl Jam; Metallic (Black), Metallica; Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos; Automatic for the People, R.E.M.; Dry, P.J. Harvey; Blind Melon, Blind Melon; Goat, The Jesus Lizard; Repeater, Fugazi; Ragged Glory, Neil Young and Crazy Horse; Unplugged, Eric Clapton.
- Pretty Hate Machine – Nine Inch Nails, October, 1989.
Trent Reznor, taking to heart President Bush’s “a thousand points of light” clarion call, put his ingenuity, creativity, and good ‘ol fashioned work ethic to good use and released, what was at the time, the most successful indie album ever.
- The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest, September, 1991.
Has it really been long enough to claim that the hip-hop genre has classic albums? Well, we’re far enough away from 1991 that a second son of Bush is running for the Republican presidential nomination. So, to answer my own question, of course! And, The Low End Theory, by the influential group A Tribe Called Quest, is simply a classic, regardless of the genre.
- Spiderland – Slint, March, 1991.
Although his ratings had dipped a little from earlier in the year, President Bush was living large and connected in the White House during March of 1991 with a high approval rating. At the time, an album about alienation seemed like an odd idea for such a popular president, but in hindsight, knowing what was about to happen to H.W. Bush’s lofty approval rating, Spiderland is an excellent example of foreshadowing.
- Laughing Stock – Talk Talk, September, 1991.
Free form and improvisation may not seem to go hand in hand with meticulous crafting and focused overdupping, but Talk Talk’s art rock masterpiece, Laughing Stock, defies categories that insist on putting all the square pegs into square shaped holes. Thematically, the album is dark and religious; sonically, the album captures the navel-gazing adjustments required as the Cold War coughed to an end.
- Achtung Baby – U2, November, 1991.
No album better corresponds with the end of the Cold War than Achtung Baby. And if that statement sounds grandiose, don’t forget, we’re talking about U2 here. I can think of very few bands that generate so much love and hate – often from the same person in the same conversation. Regardless of most people’s personal feelings about U2 and their over-earnest but well-meaning frontman, most people love this album, and for good reason.
- Fear of a Black Planet – Public Enemy, March, 1990.
It Takes a Nation of Millions demonstrated that Public Enemy had grabbed the sociopolitical torch of the folk music movement for the hip-hop community. With Fear of a Black Planet, the group solidified not only their artistic prowess, but their willingness to deconstruct broader society’s systematic racism and confront that society with poignant songs that pull no punches. President Bush couldn’t have asked for a better group to be spokesmen for the state of race relations in Bush’s America.
- The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses, May, 1989.
Along with Talk Talk, The Stone Roses weren’t about to let “the best of” lists be dominated by Yanks during President Bush’s administration. With more than a nod to 60’s Britpop, The Stone Roses demonstrates that England had an underground and indie culture that was as capable of producing interesting, historically relevant, and artistically engaging music as their American counterparts.
- Nevermind – Nirvana, September, 1991.
One of the most iconic albums in history, Nevermind introduced the MTV watching masses to the indie scene. … oh, who am I kidding. There is nothing that I can say about this album that you haven’t already read or heard.
- Slanted and Enchanted – Pavement, April, 1992.
While Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden were loudly and popularly doing their thing, a band called Pavement was quietly (and not so quietly) releasing one of the seminal indie rock albums of all time. Slanted and Enchanted also happened to be Pavement’s debut album, and it launched the band into the consciousness of those who couldn’t stand the fact that their little brothers were listening to Nirvana.
- Doolittle – Pixies, April, 1989.
That a surrealistic and abstract album is President Bush’s number one contribution to society is not as surprising as it first sounds. For one thing, it’s a sonically gorgeous album, and the lyrics, though surrealistic, are compelling. But, that the most powerful man in the world was also at one time the “top spy” is either Orwellian or very Dada. Maybe both. Either way, for those who are old enough to remember the late 80s and early 90s, President Bush’s administration has a surrealistic tinge to it in our memories.