Countless artists pour their hearts and souls into making the "next big record". A precious few sell millions, some have maintained a comfortably small fan base, and others never rise from obscurity. But all are susceptible to one possible dubious fate: The shelf of your local thrift store. These poor unwanted remnants of the past grace the shelves of your Goodwills, your Salvation Armys, your local mom & pop shop, waiting to be rediscovered... to be loved once again.

Over my years of thrift store scouring, I gradually began to notice certain discs and records that repeatedly reveal themselves on nearly every visit to any location. It left me wondering: Why are these select albums so often discarded, what led them to this point, and will the recognition and love for them ever be renewed once again? Now I can confidently answer YES. I bestow unto you, an appreciation for all discs left behind: "Thrift Store Albums."

Monday, September 8, 2014

No Doubt - Tragic Kingdom


There was a time when Ska was all the rage. Take fast-paced pop-punk, add horns and a reggae flair, and you start to get the idea of what the 90's evolution (sometimes known as the third-wave) of the American Ska movement was all about. Although popularized by the likes of Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger, the style didn't really hit mainstream airwaves all that much until No Doubt exploded onto the scene.

A six-piece outfit with a female singer, along with trumpet and trombone players, many must have wondered what exactly they were hearing when songs like "Don't Speak" started getting airplay. The bright, pop-oriented sound must have seemed especially out of place next to the grungy, guitar-heavy hit tracks of the time. Led by dynamic front-woman Gwen Stefani, the band had the creative prowess and infectious energy to break through any reservations audiences may have had about the genre.

"Sorry I'm not home right now, I'm walking in the Spiderwebs so leave a message and I'll call you back," Stephani sings in one of the several popular singles on their breakout record, Tragic Kingdom. Recorded over the course of several years an in 11 different studios, the album produced nearly as many singles as tracks. Another ear-catching hit, "Just a Girl", was a sarcastic take on female stereotypes, helping Stefani create her unique brand of pop-stardom. Her unmistakable vibrato is impressive from both a purely vocal standpoint, and as an accessory to her charismatic stage persona.

The album would go on to earn several Grammy nominations (remember when award shows actually seemed somewhat diverse?) and also found an audience with Canadian, European, and Australian fans, reaching the coveted "diamond" status in the U.S. (ten million album sales). No Doubt would tour for several years in support of the album's massive success, and then spent another several challenging years working on a follow-up album.

Unsurprisingly, Stefani would take her skills as a front-woman and launch into a more pop-oriented solo career. No Doubt would subsequently go on hiatus several times, with rumors that they will return again in the near future. Although the punk-ska genre became an increasingly fringe movement, Tragic Kingdom will always hold its place as one of the key albums that brought the style to the mainstream and further opened the doorway to what a hit band can be.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Wallflowers: Bringing Down the Horse

Poor Jakob Dylan. The guy can sell millions of albums and yet will always be cursed to stand in the shadow of the most legendary folk musician known to man. It makes me wonder if he ever thought of saying "screw it" and becoming an accountant. And yet, he persisted and made a pretty darn good career for himself. "Bring Down the Horse" was, no doubt, the pinnacle of his success.

"So long ago, I don't remember when, that's when they say I lost my only friend..." begins the sophomore album, and hit song, "One Headlight", by Dylan's alt-rock ensemble, The Wallflowers. You can hear hints of his old man in Dylan's vocal style, but there's a notably husk and graininess to his voice (one that ol' Bob has seemingly taken on as he has aged). The reverb-soaked guitars round out the dark, mid-tempo mood of the album, one that would help to define the alternative genre of the time.

The album hit big at a point when riff-driven commercial rock was all the rage, and a number of "one hit wonder" bands were capitalizing on it: "Closing Time" by Semisonic, or "The Freshman" by The Verve Pipe, for example (either of which may very well show up on this blog at a future date). Adding to the appeal was the melodic first single, "6th Avenue Heartache". With (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist) Mike Campbell on slide guitar, and Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz providing backing vocals, Dylan clearly had some friends in high places. "And the same black line that was drawn on you, was drawn on me," he sings, "and now it's drawn me in."

As was so often the case with breakout hit albums, subsequent releases failed to maintain the spotlight that it created. It's the kind of rocket-to-fame scenario that makes even a half-million record sales on the follow up album, "Breach", seem like a disappointment. Dylan would continue on with a consistent solo career, releasing two solo albums, and continuing to perform on-and-of with the band. Call it a blessing or a curse, some of us were just born to live in somebody's shadow, but I'd say that through his own means, Dylan has done the name proud.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Alanis Morissette: Jagged Little Pill

An interesting bit of trivia: Did you know that the angry hit, "You Oughta Know" was about Full House Comedian Dave Coulier (Joey Gladstone)? It's true!

Canadian musician Alanis Morissette, who became known as the "queen of alt-rock angst", lived largely in obscurity until she shifted her pop sensibility from dance to rock on her hit third release, and the lyrical floodgates were opened.

Jagged Little Pill was so hip and edgy in that 90's pop sort of way, it was just irresistible. Produced and partially written by Glen Ballard, the songs actually feature the one or two-take vocals from the original demos, with the rest of the elements re-tracked in the studio. The standout third record drew attention to a dichotomy between the slick production and Morissette's ragged and unhinged vocals. The rawness of the lyrics made for a refreshingly unencumbered record, releasing her inner animosity and repaving the landscape of the female singer/songwriter.

"Do I stress you out?" she begins, "All I really want is some patience, a way to calm the angry violence, and all I really want is deliverance." Things would only build in angst the next track in: "and every time I scratch my nails down someone else's back I hope you feel it... well can you feel it?"

And who can forget the sometimes-ironic, sometimes-coincidence lyrics of "Ironic": "It's like rain on your wedding day. It's a free ride when you've already paid. It's the good advice that you just didn't take..."

As with many top-selling albums of the era, Jagged Little Pill was a continual hit factory, with "You Oughta Know", "Hand in my Pocket", "Ironic", "Head Over Feet", and others all getting continuous airplay. Morissette also became the youngest person to receive an "Album of the Year" Grammy until she was more recently dethroned by Taylor Swift.

Following-up such an uncanny success can never be easy, and Morissette was unafraid to take risks with her next release three years later, "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie". Though commended by critics, fans were torn by her boundary-pushing style, revealing that her approach was perhaps more of an acquired taste than the hits would lead us to believe.

Despite a steady stream of follow-up albums, a more recent release of an entirely acoustic version of Jagged Little Pill confirmed that it's the album that her career is firmly founded upon. Yet, a recent album release and other antics such as a parody cover of The Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps", proves that Morissette is still not ready to hang up the love/hate pop crusade, and I think the commercial music world is a little better for it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

TLC: CrazySexyCool

Given that TLC's 1992 debut album was titled, "Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip", it was at least clear when their sophomore follow-up, "CrazySexyCool", was released two years later, that these ladies had a knack for album titles. Although their career began right around the same time as female trio, "Destiny's Child", TLC found earlier breakout success through hits such as "Creep" and "Waterfalls" (don't lie, I know you can still rap that one section).

The group countered the lighter, bubblegum pop fare with a uniquely laid-back R&B vibe, many songs sounding stretched out, as if the turntable were slowed down a few RPMs. The more typically overt sexuality or fluffy production from female singers of the time was contrasted with a more tomboy-ish and slightly intimidating, yet sultry persona. As is par for the course with 90's groups, the band members all had their aliases: "Chili", "T-boz", and "Left Eye", the latter of which, Lisa Lopes, tragically died in an auto accident at age 30.

TLC's career took a number of fascinating ups-and-downs. Despite selling over 11 million copies in the U.S., the group eventually went millions into debt, partially citing that they only received 8% percent of album revenue (which seems like a relatively high number considering the artist's share nowadays on streaming media platforms). The financial situation resulted in a long line of legal disputes leading into their next breakout success, "FanMail", featuring yet another chorus that I know will get stuck in your head all day... "I don't want no scrubs..."

The loss of a member put an obvious wrench in TLC's career. Their last original album, as of now, was released following Lopes' death, and was less successful than the previous two. The remaining members deserve a lot of credit, however, for continuing to make appearances over the years, and are set for another album release this year. In spite of all the time and change, I'll still always remember the group best for that eye-catching red album cover, and the body of water metaphor that everyone learned so well that year, "Don't go chasin' waterfalls, please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to."