Who would have imagined that rock 'n' roll would be so vital and inspiring at 40?
Despite evidence as recently as 1990 that the music had once again lost its relevance, a new generation of musicians has stepped forward with purpose and direction--just as the Beatles and Bob Dylan did in the '60s, Bruce Springsteen and the Sex Pistols in the '70s, R.E.M. and U2 in the '80s.
This latest rescue unit is drawn chiefly from artists whose music expresses the anger and alienation of growing up amid broken homes, hostile surroundings and meaningless job expectations.
It's a rock revolution so deeply rooted that it has given us an abundance of riches in 1994. Some years it is difficult to find one album that lives up to the ambition and craft suggested by the term \o7 album of the year\f7 . This year, there are five:
(1) Hole, "Live Through This" (DGC Records). The cover photo of a beauty queen at the moment of victory is the ideal introduction to Hole's major-label debut. In a more innocent age, being elected queen was seen by young girls as one of life's ultimate joys--right up there with meeting Mr. Perfect and raising those beautiful kids.
In the best of these songs, singer-songwriter Courtney Love slashes with the force of a machete at the idea of guaranteed happiness. She expresses disappointment and disillusionment in songs so naked and raw that you expect the photo on the album's back cover to show the queen's dead flowers. "Someday," she warns, "you will ache like I ache." Instead, the photo shows a young, barefooted Love, back when all her childhood dreams were intact. What gives Hole's music its power is that Love--despite her loudmouth, confrontational persona--still clings to fairy tales and the hope that life can be transformed magically by romance or, heaven forbid, rock 'n' roll.
The strength of "Live Through This," with its tales of obsession and betrayal, lies in the tension between what Love wants to believe and the stark reality of her own experience.
(2) Nine Inch Nails, "The Downward Spiral" (Nothing/TVT/Interscope). Trent Reznor may be the most gifted blend of singer, writer and producer since Prince. His tenacious guitar- and synthesizer-driven music is not as overtly confessional as Love's but it explores today's youthful \o7 Angst \f7 with breathtaking dynamics and craft.
Prone to dark, desperate themes and frequently shocking language, Reznor misses no opportunity to startle or jolt--in the tradition of the horror movies he loved as a kid. Yet "The Downward Spiral" isn't a celebration of nihilism. Rather, the songs chronicle the moments of self-destruction and rage in an age in which nothing, from family to religion, seems to offer hope of comfort or salvation for millions of young people. In a career year, Reznor also was the star of Woodstock '94.
(3) Pearl Jam, "Vitalogy" (Epic). The most difficult thing in rock is stepping up to greatness after you've already been declared a superstar, which is why Pearl Jam's rise to creative excellence after two commercial blockbusters stands as one of the most remarkable feats of '90s rock. Where it was once predictable and stiff, Pearl Jam's music now seduces and assaults you in unexpected and frequently spectacular ways.
Eddie Vedder too has improved dramatically as a writer, able now to reflect upon the world around him--from relationships to rock 'n' roll pressures--with the mastery and heart of his own hero, Pete Townshend.
(4) Neil Young & Crazy Horse, "Sleeps With Angels" (Reprise). Young, who began making records long before most of this new crop of rockers entered grade school, also focuses on today's troubled youth. The result is an album as tender and soul-baring as anything Young has done since 1975's "Tonight's the Night," which was written after the drug-related deaths of two friends. This album also refers to a pair of deaths: the drive-by shooting of a young victim and the suicide of Kurt Cobain. The message is one of renewed optimism and hope.
(5) R.E.M., "Monster" (Warner Bros.). Following the mostly muted, melancholy textures of "Out of Time" and "Automatic for the People," R.E.M. takes a sharp turn into the world of feisty rock 'n' roll, and it's a pleasure ride indeed: a virtual jigsaw puzzle that invites the listener to unscramble the themes and identify the teasing musical influences. Most of the themes deal with romantic obsession, and the influences range from the Beatles and grunge to R.E.M. itself.
(6) Liz Phair, "Whip-Smart" (Matador/Atlantic). Even those who admired Phair's debut collection last year had to wonder just how much her appeal depended on the titillation factor. While not above resorting again briefly to sexual imagery that might make her mom blush, Phair proves that her strongest weapons in these tales of sexual politics and desire are her wry intelligence and writing skills. A major arrival.