6. Cranes, Population 4 (1997)
Cranes should have been huge for the same reason they could never be huge: they were too original, eccentric and off-putting to reach a mass audience. They never fit in comfortably to an easily definable “style” back in a time (early-to-mid ‘90s) when it was crucial, if facile, to be easily defined. They were kind of sort of shoegaze-y; they had elements of goth, dream pop, and straight-up rock. But the sounds were secondary; the thing that sealed—or broke—the deal was lead singer Alison Shaw’s voice. Angelic or irritatingly childlike, depending on one’s taste, this band is an acquired taste. But so are Neil Young and Black Sabbath.
On their early (and to most fans, best) works, like Wings of Joy and Forever, the emphasis is on languid, ethereal mood music, and Shaw’s inimitable (!) voice seems perfectly suited to the material—again, if you can get past the initial, unsettling delivery. On 1994’s Loved the music took on a harder edge (there were the tiniest traces of grunge here and there) and the juxtaposition of Shaw’s vocals and the rougher rhythms and edgy guitars provides an exhilarating contrast. Full of confidence and/or ambition, they pushed forward with 1997’s Population 4. I remember loving it, immediately, when it arrived and I still love it today. I may not be alone in my assessment, but I’ve read/heard/listened to entirely too many people ridicule and revile this effort to let it go undefended. Not only does it not suck, it is very good bordering on excellent. Inexplicably dismissed as being a sell-out, as if anything on this album could qualify as “commercial”, it is nevertheless accessible—relatively speaking.
There is a pop sensibility that perhaps alienated fans of the more subtle, cerebral material and one can almost imagine some of these songs (like the push-pull “Fourteen” or the ecstatic “Breeze”) on the radio—as if there is anything wrong with that. Radio would—and could—have been better for it if several of these tunes received regular airplay. For those who like their Cranes dark and brooding there is the delectably glacial “Angel Bell” (the tension between the acoustic strumming and cello-like electric guitar riffs is glorious) and the slo-mo implosion of album-closer “To Be”. In between there is the almost ebullient “Can’t Get Free”, the piano-driven toe-tapper “Brazil” and the near-disorienting perfection of “On Top of the World”. If you can get past that voice (and if you try, you will—and you’ll be glad you did) Population 4 will remind you, once again, that amazing music is always being made, especially when too many people are busy not trying to discover it.
5. Belly, King (1995)
This one is personal. If the world had been hip enough to get this, it would have had the success it deserved and Belly could have continued to make interesting music. As it was, the commercial failure splintered the band and that was that. Yes, Tanya Donelly made some noise on her own, but it was never the same. Perhaps this band was tapping into a distinctive early-to-mid ‘90s vibe and they would not have comfortably evolved. But Beck and Portishead, just to name two acts that made era-defining albums at this time, certainly proved that the better artists adapt while not necessarily changing. All of which is to say it’s simply a shame that an album that is better than anyone realizes ended up being the beginning of the end.
Perhaps anything they did would have been somewhat disappointing after the out-of-nowhere success of their debut, Star. There was, undeniably, something so fresh and innocently edgy (edgily innocent?) that it may have been a bit like catching pop rocks in a bottle. To their credit, the band did not try to make a carbon copy of their breakthrough—and it’s unlikely they would have had success even if they had made that cynical choice. King is definitely harder and darker, and if it’s more ambitious it’s also more mature—in a good way. It would be impossible to recreate the quirky ebullience of tracks like “Feed The Tree” or “Untogether”, just as it is difficult to imagine that band doing anything like “Silverfish” or “Untitled and Unsung”.
It is because of the sheer lyrical quality of songs like “Seal My Fate”, “Puberty” and the near-epic album closer “Judas My Heart” that Belly’s premature retirement still stings. Donelly also had an astonishing vocal range that does not get nearly the attention it deserves. She could croon (“The Bees”), coo (“King”) and soar ( “Super-Connected”), sometimes all in the same song (“Red”). Taking just the material from their two albums, a case could be made that this band could/should have been one of the major acts of the decade. As it is, attention must be paid to King and it needs to be reclaimed from the trash heap. Belly didn’t fail their audience here; their audience failed them—and they still do if they can’t figure out how worthwhile this effort is.