1991

Dangerous – Michael Jackson

Release Year: 1991

Rating: 8.5/10

There’s no question whether or not Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad are amazing albums. The former is still the best selling album of all time. Many people have come close to beating the record, but no one has done it yet. Even though his follow up, Dangerous, was another top seller, it doesn’t seem to get as much attention as the previous two. There could be several reasons for this: plastic surgery, drugs, and allegations the media chose to focus on. The album represents an era of change for the singer. He experimented with a new sound and took on themes that went beyond gushy love songs.

At the time, this album was unlike any Jackson had done before. One of the biggest changes is the prominence of New Jack Swing sound on just about all of the songs. This can be heard on tracks “Can’t Let Her Get Away,” “Jam,” and “She Drives Me Wild.” Elements of pop still exist, but there’s also a heavy influence of funk, rap, and R&B. Jackson further expanded his rap influences by having Heavy D and Wrex N Effect do a verse on a few songs. This sound, while can be dated at times, gives the music a more aggressive, harder hitting vibe than before. It even changed his vocals a bit which were in a lower register and sounded harsher than on past releases. With this album, Jackson also takes on more mature themes.

Jackson’s music has always had messages about changing the world through peace and love, but here he tackles heavier issues like societal ills and racism. “Why You Wanna Trip On Me?” is two-fold; it’s aimed at critics who are obsessed with the singer’s personal life, but also wonders why they aren’t focusing on bigger problems at hand like the homeless or disease. “Jam” also finds Jackson lamenting the world’s problems and how being good to one another seems to be disappearing. But the song where these themes ring out the most is the ballad “Heal the World.” The somber track has a simple message: make the world a better place for our children. He even drives the point home with samples of kids playing and singing the hook at the end. It’s a thoughtful song and one of Jackson’s greatest ballads that still rings true today.

Jackson addresses racial issues on the infectious and popular “Black or White.” The single finds the pop icon delving into rock again with Slash doing the opening riff even though he’s credited with playing on the entire song. Either way, the guitar on this track is killer. As soon as you hear it, it makes you want to bust out your best air guitar moves. Jackson sings sweetly about equality and how the color of your skin doesn’t matter. It’s not until the hard hitting bridge that his anger comes out. The song does a 180 and gets aggressive with Jackson yelling “I ain’t ‘fraid of no sheets.” Then there’s the rap by one of his producers, which is kind of cheesy and dated, but forgivable since the rest of the song is so good. It’s an amazing song that addresses racial issues without beating listeners over the head with its message.

Just like his other releases, this album is made up of successful and classic Jackson hits. “In the Closet” finds the singer being more sexual as he talks about lovers keeping their relationship secret. The music has a cool, slinky groove and he sings in a hushed manner amping up the sexual nature of the song. It’s still weird to think of him as a sexual person, but the song proves irresistible especially when he sings “She wants to get it/aw, she wants to get it.” “Remember the Time” is a slick, exotic sounding track where Jackson sounds playful as he reflects on a relationship. It’s more in line with his pop nature, but still has the New Jack Swing influence all over it. Just like most of his songs, it’s catchy, great to dance to, and fun. A standout single from the album.

Give In To Me” and “Who is It” are the most underrated singles to come from the record. The former finds the singer hooking up with Slash for a rock ballad. Jackson’s vocals come off as more aggressive and fiery, while the sad droning guitar riff sways listeners. It’s often been compared to “Dirty Diana” with its rock feel and subject matter. The two do have seductive vibes with the blazing guitar riffs, but the singer seems more somber on this track. He also takes the rock sound further offering up some diversity on the primarily New Jack Swing album. With the latter song, there’s something cool and sleek about it.

Who Is It” opens with eerie singing denoting something epic followed by a thudding, booming bass that hits you right in the gut. Jackson’s singing sounds more emotional as his start/stop style makes it seem like he was in the middle of crying. Though it’s been compared to “Billie Jean” for its woman-done-him-wrong subject, it’s a stellar song that explores the singer’s darker side.

It wouldn’t be a Michael Jackson album without ballads and there are a good handful here. The best out of the bunch is the beautiful and heartfelt “Will You Be There?” With the soft music and the choir humming at the beginning, it sounds like a religious hymn as Jackson sings about finding someone or something to lean on and make him stronger. The bridge seems tied to the singer’s personal life as he sings “Everyone’s Taking Control Of Me/Seems That The World’s/Got A Role For Me/I’m So Confused/Will You Show To Me.” At the end, the choir makes a return completing the religious feel as Jackson adlibs sounding like he’s going to church. It’s one of those songs with the ability to make you cry if played at the right moment.

While the other ballads are good, they don’t compare to this one. “Keep the Faith” is actually the most dated and weakest song the album. The music makes it sound like a dated gospel track. The music is so obviously 90s ensuring the song hasn’t aged well. And if you’re not a fan of gospel music the song won’t be all that appealing. The message is thoughtful, but it’s the most forgettable track on the record. “Gone too Soon” is a heartbreaking track dedicated to Jackson’s friend Ryan White, who was ostracized at a young age due to his AIDS diagnosis. He later died at the age of 18. It’s a simple, bare bones song with Jackson’s soft singing and light music. But the song is only harder to listen to now since it can be easily applied to the singer’s death. Usher actually sang the tune at Jackson’s memorial and broke out in tears. Even though it’s beautiful, it can be hard to hear.

The album closes with “Dangerous” another underrated track from Jackson’s catalog. Similar to other songs, it represents a new sound for the singer. It begins with mechanical noises before the punchy upbeat music comes on. The entire track is slick especially with Jackson singing in a lower register to complete the seductive mood going on. The vibe is perfect since it feels like the music actually has an air of danger to it. It’s one of his most proactive songs and a stand out from an already stellar album.

Dangerous represents a new era for Michael Jackson. He not only experimented with different sounds to fit with the trend of the time, he tackled heavier themes such as racism. The New Jack Swing sound is dated at times but otherwise shows Jackson was ahead of the curve. This album is another hit in Jackson’s catalog, yet doesn’t receive as much praise as his other work. The record isn’t flawless and some of the songs run together, but it’s still has songs that are now considered classics. It shows a different side of the singer, one that was more aggressive and harsh. No matter how you see it, the album is another stand out hit for Jackson.

Metallica (The Black Album) – Metallica

Release Year: 1991

Rating: 9.5/10

By the late 80s, Metallica was one of the most successful thrash metal bands on the scene. With Master of Puppets being one of their bestselling albums, no one thought they could top it. Then the Black Album happened. This is the record that launched the band from thrash cult heroes to heavy metal superstars. Not only was it met with critical acclaim, there was also backlash and anger. But whatever your feelings are on the album you can’t deny how it’s changed both the band and heavy metal.

But before we get into what makes the album so different, we have to talk about “Enter Sandman,” still one of Metallica’s best songs. Everything about it is a beast from James Hetfield’s singing to the iconic guitar riff. Thanks to its memorable chorus and more rock oriented sound, the song caught a commercial following, which sparked many to cry “sell outs.” But you can’t deny how fucking awesome the song is. It starts with the sparse riff while the rest of the music builds up around it, leaving listeners anticipating for the big explosion. And when it happens it’s so satisfying. The lyrics are also notable as they take sleep, which is supposed to be comforting, and turn it into a nightmare. Even the sandman, who is supposed to an innocent fairy tale, turns into a monster you don’t want to meet. It’s not only one of the band’s best songs, it’s one of the best heavy metal songs ever.

Prior to this record, the band was known for playing fast and having extended solos. For this release, they slow things down. “Sad But True” is still a ferocious, intense track, but compared to their past efforts it’s pretty slow. The guitars grind along while the rest of the music is sludgy. The same goes for the anthemic “Wherever I May Roam.” It starts what sounds like a sitar setting this ominous air before being taken over by guitars building on top of one another. Things finally speed up only to slow down again when James Hetfield growls”…and the road becomes my bride.” But perhaps the biggest change comes in all the ballads on the album.

The band previously tackled ballads with songs like “One” and “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” but they’re completely redone here. The somber “The Unforgiven” features soft vocals from Hetfield as if he’s singing from a broken place. And while there are moments where the music gets heavy during the verses, much of it sounds like light classical guitar playing. It’s almost…pretty, which you don’t expect from a Metallica song. But the most genre defying song on the record is the heartbreaking “Nothing Else Matters.” By incorporating stringed instruments and an orchestral sound, Metallica were taking a giant risk with this track. Even the guitars are light sounding like something from a lullaby. With these two unlikely genres successfully coming together, there’s a dramatic vibe that grows as the song continues. It’s a sentimental track about Hetfield missing his girlfriend that he never intended to release publicly. Right from the line “never opened myself this way” you know Hetfield is speaking from somewhere private and personal. Thankfully Lars Ulrich got Hetfield to change his mind about the song; it’s a stand out track on an already stellar album.

Not only is the album notable for its shift in music, it’s also their most personal. For many of the songs, Hetfield and Ulrich turned inward for inspiration. There’s the aforementioned “Nothing Else Matters” about missing a loved one, but there’s also the brutal track “The God That Failed.” The song is already intense and heavy with Hetfield’s vocal delivery and the music, but the song gets even darker when its story is revealed. The song is about Hetfield’s mother dying of cancer and not seeking medical relief due to her Christian Science beliefs. Suddenly, his anger and spitfire venom makes sense. He’s criticizing a religious system and how it wasn’t there for her in the end though she devoted her life to it. This gives the aggressive track a deeper meaning, yet is still depressing giving listeners insight to what the frontman was going through at the time. It’s a powerful track both musically and lyrically.

Even though this album shows Metallica heading in a different musical direction, there are still some elements of thrash metal here. “Through the Never” starts with guitars that race out of the gate and dares listeners to keep up with them. Everything about the song is heart pumping and in your face, which is often when Metallica are at their best. “The Struggle Within” follows a similar route with speeding guitars and lots of energy. It ends the album on a fiery note as if to say the band hasn’t forgotten where they came from.

There’s no question Metallica changed with this album and some would say for the worse looking at their output after this release. Yet, it’s still an amazing record that showed Metallica could do more than just play fast and loud. They may have moved away from their thrash roots, but they expanded both as songwriters and musicians. And they did a damn good job of it. Every song on the record feels like it has a purpose. Even if its a ballad, it still has the intensity and fire that made them so viscous. They were still angry, but they were also vulnerable and wounded something we rarely saw before. They grew as musicians, took risks, and made an album they were happy with. Looking back at it, the changes they made no longer seem drastic. Many metal bands vary their sound and it seems Metallica paved the way for that. No matter your feelings about the album, it’s still one of the best in metal history.

Live Baby Live – INXS

Release Year: 1991

Rating: 5/10

INXS were one of the most successful bands of the 80s and early 90s. Thanks to albums like Kick, they gained a mass following, which lead to their major world tour in 1991. They played at sold out venues around the globe, including Wembley Stadium in London. The tour was such a hit a live album was released gathering performances from shows in Chicago, London, Dublin, and Las Vegas to name a few. Considering how INXS were passionate performers, you would expect the LP to be exciting. Rather, it’s a huge disappointment.

When live albums are bad it’s not always something to do with sound quality or the merit of the band. Sometimes an artist is so polished and good at what they do on stage, it doesn’t transfer well without visuals. This is the case for this INXS live album. With a decent setlist culled from the band’s major releases, it sounds more like a greatest hits collection than a live record. These versions of “Guns In the Sky,” “Need You Tonight,” “The One Thing,” and “ What You Need” sound like their studio counterparts. It’s not that Michael Hutchence and crew sound bad. They just don’t deviate very much to make these versions stand out from the album recordings. By the time you reach the lackluster song “The Stairs” you’re ready to move on to something else.

What makes this release so strange are all the weird interludes tacked on the end of certain songs. Tracks like “Suicide Blonde” and “Mediate” have odd endings. The former has some blues jam while Hutchence repeats “Flowers, not finance” at the end, while the latter finishes with a jangly piano tune while the guys sing about someone not having pants on. These endings are unfitting for both tracks and leave listeners scratching their heads. What the fuck just happened? It sounds like some weird interlude that played between tracks during their live show, but it doesn’t make sense without the visuals. It just sounds random and ruins the mood of the album.

This LP spawned one new single titled “Shining Star,” which is on the tracklisting. But this song is strange because it doesn’t sound like a live track at all. Rather, it sounds like a studio recording slapped in the middle of this live LP. Here is where all the crowd sounds disappear and only reappear when the song ends. Also, the track fades out, which convinces me it’s just an ordinary studio recording they decided to place in the middle of the record instead of the end. It ruins the whole flow of the album making it stick out. On top of that, it’s not even a very good song.

Live Baby Live doesn’t do INXS justice. Live albums are supposed to be exciting and immersive. This one is just dull. It’s not engaging, it’s all over the place, and the band sounds too polished that half the time you’re convinced it’s not a live recording. If anything, this release convinces you INXS were boring and lame,which is far from the truth. Honestly, you’re better off listening to one of their albums if you want to experience the band. My recommendation? Kick.

Sexplosion! – My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult

Release Year: 1991

Rating: 8.5/10

Thrill Kill Kult is one of those bands that’s constantly evolving. They’ve gone beyond their industrial roots to include elements of funk, disco, hip hop, electronica, and new wave to name a few. For their third album, the band sheds their industrial and metal roots completely to take listeners on a funky, sensational ride. The songs are drenched in groovy bass, pulsing beats, and Groovie Mann’s suggestive lyrics that make you want to take a ride on the wild side.

If you couldn’t tell from the title, the theme of the LP is sex. Hot, dirty, sweaty, sex at that. All of the songs are full of kinky situations and sexual lyrics, such as “A Continental Touch.” Here, the band mixes elements of funk, R&B, electronic, and even hip-hop to get their unique dance beat. Groovie Mann is anything but subtle as to what he wants as he describes the most delicious type of pain “punish me gently/til I lose my obsession/torture me slowly/til I break down and cry.” He even makes references to lashing whips, hot mistresses, ravishing bodies in the lyrics. This is only the first of many kinky songs on the album.

The dirty, sleazy vibe of “Sex on Wheelz” is fitting considering the name of the song. This is another song with an overt sexual vibe to it as Groovie Mann and the Bomb Gang Girls sing “Do my kisses burn/do they take your breath/you’ve got a lesson to learn now/I’m the kiss of death.” This time around the music has more of a grimy rock and roll sound to it with occasional horns blaring that sound like an alarm. It’s a hot song that gets you moving and grooving. “Leathersex” sounds like house music from the early ’90s with the intense beat and rapid piano riff. Again, Groovie Mann recites one of his best and most sensual lyrics: “Bathe me in leather/drown me in sex.” It’s another perfect example of the kinky sex he wants the listeners to be a part of.

Things get a little weird on “Mood No. 6.” This song is nothing but a sample about a bad date repeated over psychotic sounding circus music. It’s an interesting musical experiment, but one you only want to hear once. The same can be said for “Mystery Babylon.” This track follows the same format as the former one, but sample addresses S&M with a hooker. The music is more of a slow tango, but it gets repetitive after a while. The eerie high pitched vocals that come in from time to time don’t make things any better. Things improve on the B-52-esque “Martini Built for Two.” It comes off as a weird lounge song with jaunty pianos and playful horns. Here, Groovie Mann sounds like he’s doing an impression of David Bowie in an attempt to switch up his vocals. It’s an odd, yet good entry from the band.

The best track on the album is “Sexplosion!” What makes this one so damn good is the music, particularly the funky guitar riff. It’s so simple, but something about it is so infectious it gets stuck in your head. It’s another disco, dance inspired song with occasional trumpet outbursts that remind you of a James Bond theme. It’s a fun, catchy song that fulfills the band’s mission to get people dancing. “The International Sin Set” is another notable track that uses their familiar edgy samples. This is another song where they mix several genres together, such as R&B, funk, and a bit of industrial to get the irresistible sound. Groovie Mann even tries his hand at rapping midway through and sounds pretty good.

Overall, the album gets 8.5/10. With this entry, Thrill Kill Kult threw fans a curve ball. They stepped away from the metal and industrial sound they established on their debut and dabbled in funk, R&B, and a bit of hip-hop. It could’ve been a bad move, but somehow the band manages to excel in this genre. The music is often fun, upbeat, and sensual, which matches the sexy theme of the album. This definitely stands out as one of their strongest albums to date.

Gish – Smashing Pumpkins

SmashingPumpkins-GishRelease Year: 1991

Rating: 7.5/10

I was never a die hard Pumpkins fan, but I liked them well enough. Over the years I found some of their music, especially their later material, a bit pretentious. What’s great about this album is that attitude doesn’t come through here. The album still sounds as fresh and intriguing as it did 23 years ago. While there are some tracks that slow down the pace, it’s still an impressive LP and easy to see why people went nuts for it when it was first released.

The album begins with hit after hit after hit. “I Am One” begins with a steady drum build up followed by a foreboding bass line and impressive guitar work by James Iha. It’s a rushing blend of psychedelic and hard rock that gets you pumped for the rest of the LP. The wicked guitar solo unleashed before the end really makes the song and reminds you how talented the band was. “Siva” is one of the best tracks with it’s sleek, sexy, hypnotic riff matched with Corgan’s hypnotizing vocals. It gives off a ’60s rock vibe; you can imagine flower children dancing to it. There’s a sonic shift during the bridge where everything slows down presenting the listener with a light, mellow tone before everything comes roaring back to life. It’s still one of their best songs.

“Bury Me” and “Tristessa” are both hard driving songs steeped in psychedelic influences. The first song has this scratchy, unpolished sound to it that finds Corgan matching his vocals with the high pitched guitar riff, while the latter track is like an acid trip in musical form. There are a lot of slow, softer songs on the album. While they’re all good, sometimes it really drags out the pace of the album, especially when they come one right after the other. One of the best slow tracks is “Rhinoceros.” The music is dreamy and pretty making you think of beautiful landscapes to get lost in. The chorus of “She knows, she knows” is not only catchy, but makes it sound like Corgan is putting the listener in a trance. At the end, the music turns up slightly giving it a final punch.

“Suffer” is another song that sounds trippy and even has an exotic flavor to it thanks to James Iha’s guitar playing. Also, the way Corgan sings “Will you wait? Yes I will/I will wait for you/To cleanse your life takes more than time/Take what you want/Take all of it” suggests spiritual connotations of the song. It’s a lovely track to get lost in, but only if you’re in the right mood. Though they sound good “Crush” and “Snail” are almost painfully slow. Even the singing is drawn out on both tracks. At least the former is kind of sweet since it’s a confessional love song, but again these are mood songs, not something you listen to when you want to unwind or rock out.

The closing track “Daydream” is aptly titled as the entire thing sounds fit for day dreaming. Here, bassist D’arcy takes over vocal duties making it a memorable tune. Her voice does sound a little weird and warbly, but it works really well for the song. It’s begins simply with her vocals and an acoustic guitar until the cello is introduced after the second verse. This turns the song into something beautiful and fantastical, a hint on what they would do on their later releases. The hidden track “I”m Going Crazy” follows right after and makes for a sonically intriguing experience as Corgan sings about going crazy while thumping on a tambourine. It’s a whimsical way to end the album.

Overall, the album gets 7.5/10. There is no doubt this is a classic release and remains one of the band’s best. There are tons of great, energetic, and timeless songs here that are still fan favorites. The amount of slow tracks here drags the pace of the record. Even though they are mostly good, some drag on too long, especially if you’re not in the mood to hear songs like that. Still, it’s a great album and shows why the Smashing Pumpkins are still considered one of the best bands of the ’90s.