No one likes to talk about the last few albums the Ramones made. Actually, most people don’t even know about them. Everyone loves their first four classic albums, and there’s enough good songs on the early-‘80s records to keep most fans happy. There are even some moments from the middle of the decade – like 1984’s ‘Too Tough to Die’ and the ‘My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)’ single – that aren’t bad. But after that, everything pretty much goes downhill.
‘NYC Ghosts & Flowers,’ Sonic Youth’s 12th album, was shaped by several things. Since releasing their major-label debut 10 years before in 1990, the band had streamlined its sound, knocked it back around to its artsy/noisy origins and finally settled someplace in between. But they were getting antsy. But most of all, ‘NYC Ghosts & Flowers’’ brutal, abrasive sound was a result of the group’s gear being stolen during a 1999 tour. They had to make the best with what they had laying around, what they purchased as replacements and what they could borrow.
When Pearl Jam began working on their sixth album, ‘Binaural,’ in 1999, they went in with a different set of priorities. For starters, they weren’t using producer Brendan O’Brien, who helped shape every Pearl Jam album since their second, 1993’s ‘Vs.’ Instead, they recruited Tchad Blake, best known for the textured soundscapes he applied to records by Los Lobos and Tom Waits, to co-produce with them. And because of Blake’s experimental approach to record making, the band itself adapted a more probing tone on ‘Binaural.’
It was pretty much an unwritten rule that if you were a modern-rock band that came of age in the ‘90s, you’d have great success with your first album. You’d be all over the radio and MTV, and the U.K. music press would compare you to Nirvana and label you the Next Big Thing. Then you’d release your second album, which would be a massive bomb, and continue to make records that nobody heard until you either retired from the music business altogether or played the summer rib circuit with other bands suffering your fate.
Drummer Bill Berry’s departure from R.E.M. following the release of 1996’s ‘New Adventures in Hi-Fi’ shook the rest of the band. You can hear their fear and uncertainty on 1998’s ‘Up,’ their first album without Berry. The drums, when they’re any presence at all, are mixed low and barely register within the songs on that downbeat release. So when the three remaining members of R.E.M. reconvened to make their 12th album, ‘Reveal,’ they swung in the opposite direction of ‘Up.’
When the Black Keys released their debut album, ‘The Big Come Up,’ on May 14, 2002, it didn’t sound like one of rock’s next big things. It really didn’t sound much like the future of anything, with its bluesy garage stomp so heavily rooted in the past. It’s raw, it’s primitive, it’s low-fi and it’s part of the early-‘00s indie-rock landscape that was grasping for some relevance in a post-millennium age run by machines.
Most people figured that the five-year break between ‘Pinkerton’ and Weezer’s self-titled third LP, better known as ‘The Green Album,’ signaled the end of the band. After all, in the ‘90s, modern rock was just as disposable and as unforgiving as the most uneventful pop music. But ‘The Green Album’ became a massive hit, reaching No. 4 (their highest showing at the time) and going platinum. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Especially to a group that just took off five years so its frontman could find himself.
If fans thought Depeche Mode steered a little off course on their 1997 album, ‘Ultra,’ their 10th album, 2001’s ‘Exciter,’ proved that there was a lot more damage that could be done to the band’s dwindling reputation. Not to mention their sales figures. ‘Ultra’ was the follow-up to 1993’s ‘Songs of Faith and Devotion,’ the synth-pop pioneers’ only No. 1 album. But the four-year break between the records turned out to be hellish. The band not only lost a member, it also almost lost its singer to a crippling drug habit.
By the time Sonic Youth released their 10th album on May 12, 1998, the honeymoon was over between the veteran NYC noise band, its deep-pocket record company, modern-rock radio and fans. After a brief fling with alt-rock radio at the start of the ‘90s – right after they signed with the same record company that would make Nirvana super-huge – the group began growing restless with their relative mainstream success. So they pulled back on 1994’s ‘Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star,’ a half-compromise that sounded like one.
Like many British albums through the ages, going all the way back to the Beatles, the Cure’s debut album looked a lot different when it finally arrived in the U.S. a year after its original U.K. release. But unlike so many of those albums, the Cure’s ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ actually plays a little better as its stateside companion, retitled ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ They’re mostly the same record, but with a few adjustments that give the edge to the LP that arrived in the U.S. in February 1980.