Some might think that Richard Thompson would be ready for a break after three decades of nonstop creation: he formed Fairport Convention in the 1960s and then spent the 70s and 80s recording emotionally intense and musically dense albums with his then-wife Linda. Yet Thompson didn’t let up when the 90s came – maybe it was the chance to release an album for major label Capitol (remember, back in 1991 “major label” still meant something), or maybe it was just his recent stream of stellar material, but something led him to make a career record with Rumor & Sigh.
The album was perfect for the beginning of the singer-songwriter decade, with dark and at least slightly-twisted lyrics veiled by easy production – if you don’t really listen to the words, songs like “Read About Love” and “Break Somebody’s Heart” might breeze right by. Thompson coiled his often lengthy guitar breaks into tight knots to fit the songs, and hit an artistic peak with “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” his masterpiece of a modern folk ballad.
In 1992, Los Angeles roots band Los Lobos – already five albums into a respected career – pushed their creativity into overdrive with the album Kiko. Two factors were at play here: Firstly, the band worked with producer Mitchell Froom, whose facility with tape loops and other fringe sounds became a launchpad for future experimentation from the group’s core. Listeners can hear such sounds in songs like Cesar Rosas’ "That Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore", where the composition;s loping shuffle veers off onto the side streets; and they are certainly evident also on the irresistible title track, "Kiko and The Lavender Moon".
Secondly, the creative combination of drummer Louie Perez and guitarist David Hidalgo really came into their own as a team with standouts like “Reva’s House.” The two wrote together on the previous English language album The Neighborhood, but Kiko was the junction where they began an artistic exploration that would continue with their next album, Colossal Head, and the spinoff band The Latin Playboys.
Disclaimer: I picked Automatic For The People weeks before the band announced they’d called it quits. So, no sentimentality here. But it’s tough to choose one particular album from an artist that had multiple releases out during the “World Cafe Years.” Which Radiohead album? What Spoon release?
Some albums transcended and epitomized their era – Automatic For The People did just that in 1992. Here is the critical and popular pinnacle of the band’s career: front-loaded with four huge songs, from “Drive” to “ Everybody Hurts,” that showed the artistic breadth of the mature band. These songs were everywhere from Walkmen (!) to shopping malls… not what one would have predicted after hearing Murmur almost a decade before.
Exile in Guyville was just as much a cultural phenomenon as it was an album: Liz Phair created an indie-rock feminist manifesto that was fun to listen to! Guyville operates on so many levels: a shot across the bow of the male-dominated Chicago indie-rock scene, a purported song-for-song response to the Stones’ Exile On Main Street, an in-your-face display of sexual candor honoring girl-lust. But none of that would have worked without phenomenal songs.
Go back, listen – it’s not simply the lyrics that drive these numbers. Did she ever equal this? Maybe not, but it provides us with a moment to hear it all again… All Hail Liz Phair!
As debut albums go, Sheryl Crow made quite an entrance with 1993’s Tuesday Night Music Club. The Midwest product incorporated enough SoCal boho into her esthetic to capture the times. You see, there really was a Tuesday Night Music Club of guys, including David Baerwald, that Sheryl worked with after her over-produced first stab at a debut was rejected.
The informality of the arrangements served the songs well: “All I Wanna Do,” with its Stealers Wheel nod, was a hit – Sheryl’s enduring career was underway. In 1993, Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville spoke to one part of the dividing audience; another, older part heard Sheryl Crow loud and clear.
Few debut albums made their power as immediately apparent as the 1993 debut from Counting Crows, August and Everything After. Listen to Adam Duritz on the opening track “Round Here”:
“Step out the front door like a ghost/Into the fog where no one notices/The contrast of white on white.”
The poetic mystery of Duritz’s very first lyrics announces his talent, and the listener is off running with one of the 90s’ most rewarding albums. With all the classic-rock-songwriter poetics of Leonard Cohen or Bruce Springsteen in place, and an underlying pop sense, August introduces one of the last of the classic bands with their roots in the 70’s. The album has its pop side with songs like “Mr Jones,” which actually brought the band to hit radio, and “Anna Begins.” Alongside these are more impressionistic pieces, like “Raining In Baltimore” and “Perfect Blue Buildings.”
The album also helped solidify the commercial credentials of producer T-Bone Burnett, who would subsequently mold a hit out of The Wallflowers’ similar album Bringing Down The Horse, later in the decade.
Dave Matthews Band
Hard to believe that the Dave Matthews Band was once a fledgling regional phenomenon in the Southeast. It was the success of their live shows and their self-produced live record that paved the way to a signing with RCA records; this was followed by the release of Under the Table and Dreaming in September of 1994.
Matthews has always been a charismatic singer, but it is the interplay of this band of equals – captured exquisitely on this album – that has filled arenas. Under the Table is packed with the songs that continue to attract entire stadiums of Dave Matthews devotees.
In 1997, Beck’s Odelay topped the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop critic’s poll, then it won a Grammy. Why did we choose Odelay, out of the 8 major albums the California-based artist released during the “World Cafe” years? The answer is simple: the songs, the variety, the production, and the sheer creativity.
Odelay was the first of a string of remarkable releases that showcased the increasing diversity of Beck’s work. After the left field success of “Loser” and the album Mellow Gold, Beck took his time making Odelay – there is even a story that the title was really “Oh Delay.” The album introduced us to “two turntables and a microphone,” and then turned around to hint at quieter material that Beck would explore further on Mutations. It’s a classic.
Buena Vista Social Club
The Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon – the album and subsequent Wim Wenders documentary – was a major cultural development of the end of the last century. In 1997, Ry Cooder ventured down to Havana’s Egrem studios to record African musicians with their Cuban counterparts. This endeavor ran into trouble that led Cooder to find overlooked singers and musicians from Cuban music’s golden years – and he decided to record these instead.
The result was Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Reuben Gonzales singing and playing their way into America’s heart. These gentle offered heartbreaking stories to accompany their skilled musicianship: “Chan Chan,” for example, initiated the original Buena Vista disc and has since become a classic. Gonzalez’s incredible romantic jazz stylings on piano touched hearts; the album as a whole was nostalgic and exotic. It was perfect..
Lucinda Williams was the first poster-girl for the music played on The World Cafe, but her career was underway before the Cafe was born. To be honest, her unaffected self-titled Rough Trade debut would have been our pick if it had been in the time frame; yet that was not the album that broke Lu to a wider audience. That album was Car Wheels on A Gravel Road, and, boy, had we been waiting for it.
Meticulous and self-critical Lucinda took her time crafting the record, wearing out more than one producer – including Steve Earle. She proved the wait worthwhile, as Car Wheels emerged with its rough honesty glimmering through the shiny surface. It’s what she had been hearing all along.