Forgotten Dollar-Rack Classics of the CD Era
In this column, we’ll dive into our music collections to see what they reveal about our personal histories and the cultures of which we were part. Part nostalgia, part critique, part therapy: it’s Arranged Autobiographically.
I was probably doomed to record collecting from an early age. Both of my parents had a big collection of stuff (my dad coins, my mom nurse figurines!) that to my mind at the time did a lot towards defining them as individuals: the stuff you wanted to bring close to you must be a big part of you. Though we were certainly not Reaganites, I came up in the ‘80s with this materialist streak in me, and I cycled through collecting Star Wars toys, frogs, keychains, comic books and baseball cards until finally in my ‘90s adolescence, at the great new dawn of musical time, with the alt-rock revolution and the Golden Age of hip-hop happening simultaneously, I began intentionally and omnivorously acquiring recorded music. A small stack of childhood vinyl gave way to a serious paper route-funded attack on local shops that disregarded Parental Advisory stickers and sold me rap tapes, then transitioning to digital and embracing the CD in high school through a vending machine diet that allowed me to squirrel away lunch money. Having just the right jams on hand for every foreseeable occasion, and being able to share them with friends through dubs and burns and custom-made mixes became a beloved part of my personality; often a codependent key to my happiness.
Over the next 10 or so years, my CD collection overtook entire walls, becoming my primary form of furniture even as I moved apartments every year and had to schlep back-breaking boxes up to 4th-floor walkups. But when the great digital shrinkage of the ‘00s coincided with me getting married and moving across the sea to the UK, I rapidly ripped and Recklessed let’s say 5000 compact discs, and was freed from what Hall and Oates called possession obsession.
For a little while.
Three years later we moved back to Chicago, and three years after that, one of my dearest friends, a former roommate during the height of those wall-to-wall CD days, had me DJ his wedding, and instead of a flask or a swiss army knife, gifted me a starter turntable, as the vinyl resurgence was in full swing and he thought I’d enjoy having a few records around. I thought great, I’ll just pick up a handful of classic albums as representative samples of my all-time favorites for when friends come round for game nights. Less than 4 years later, the wall is losing to the record collection already, as hundreds of pieces of “must-own” vinyl expand throughout my life. I’ve relapsed hard.
Perhaps I’ll get into the psychological underpinnings of why I must obsessively collect records in a future column. But the music I’ll feature in this one comes from the pleasure that keeps the compulsion churning along--finding a new favorite album. When you simply must keep acquiring music but funds are finite, you become a bargain-bin troll. It’s a bit of a deadbeat feel, but believe me, there is treasure therein. Nowadays, at the vinyl emporiums of Chicago, this means side-stepping a lot of Streisand and carrying hand sanitizer for the decades of dust caked on cardboard sleeves, but I can regale you with tales of finding Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters for a buck, or a double 12-inch of “Grindin’” by Clipse for 33 cents. In the ‘90s though, it was tons of new plastic in the budget section, as record labels manufactured mountains of future relics for about 50 cents per. Frequenting the dollar racks, there were some overlooked albums I could reliably find, and if I was with friends, pass along a copy of a familiar favorite, granting a quick fix of unheard goodness. But the art that was in those days a findable, passable object has become harder to keep relevant, as the format it was circulated on became effectively obsolete before the folks with their names printed on the side could find lasting fame.
So here are six super-solid front-to-back LPs released from 1992-2001 that then could have been found for $1, and now can be resurrected through streaming to share with friends once more. (See our Spotify playlist here) This likely is just Volume One of a Forgotten Classics series, as I expect I’ll be back in the bargain basement sometime soon, digging for treasure and cheap hits of pleasure.
Geoffrey Williams, Bare (1992)
Williams, a UK R&B singer-songwriter from a more muscular Babyface mold, got some US airplay with “It’s Not a Love Thing” from Bare, his buttery-smooth 3rd LP before his label Giant ran into problems with their parent company Warner Brothers. If the early ‘90s-by-numbers production of this clip turn you off, check out album highlight, the beautiful ballad “Let Me Be Your Baby.”
Count Bass-D, Pre-Life Crisis (1995)
In 1995, hip-hop with live instrumentation was a novelty, particularly if a single artist was playing them all and rhyming and producing. Pre-Life Crisis was warm and full of delectable grooves, and Dwight Farrell had charisma to spare as an MC, peppering his flow with humor and a smooth croon. SPIN magazine named it one of their albums of the year, but the Count’s label marketed it lazily and he was shortly dropped. He’s gone on to become an insanely prolific beatmaker and underground hip-hop collaborator, with an ocean of tracks to be heard on Spotify but not, unfortunately, the album that started it all. It’s worth tracking down for the possibly true hip-hop tale of “T-Boz Tried To talk To Me” alone.
Poe, Hello (1995)
Anne Danielewski is supposedly a descendant of Edgar Allan Poe, and definitely the daughter of a Polish film director and brother of cult favorite “House of Leaves” novelist Mark Danielewski. Her debut Hello went gold, getting rock radio airplay for multiple singles and acclaim for its integration of jazz, electronic and hip-hop elements into her fearless singer-songwriter style. But the follow-up Haunted arrived a full 5 years later, and the Atlantic/Time Warner label merger soon thereafter left her out in the cold. She’s intermittently released music since then and done copious charitable work.
Self, Subliminal Plastic Motives (1995)
Prefiguring Beck’s Odelay by a few months, Matt Mahaffey of Murfreesboro, TN and his band released the similarly genre-bending, smart-assed, high-spirited masterpiece Subliminal Plastic Motives in autumn 1995. I saw them live in a basement in Toledo and immediately drove to Cleveland to see them there a couple days later. “So Low” was on 120 Minutes, “Cannon” was on modern rock radio, and things were looking good when they signed to the big new Dreamworks record label. Except that that label was run disastrously and they ended up with multiple records lost in limbo. Mahaffey went on to make his way via producing, commercial composing (the Expedia.com jingle!) and ironically, playing in Beck’s touring band. Fat Possum reissued Motives on vinyl a few years back; it was one of the first I had to have.
Esthero, Breath from Another (1998)
Esthero is Jenny-Bea Englishman, Canadian singer-songwriter and working music industry veteran, but if there were justice in stardom, she’d be widely revered for her 1998 debut, a true gem of the electronica moment. Heck, for “Country Livin’” on its own--what a choon. Drum n’ bass, trip-hop, and silky jazzy vocals came together on Breath From Another, but it didn’t immediately sell a zillion copies, so here’s a surprise--her label dropped her and she had to fight her way back to relevance.
Res, How I Do (2001)
This list should be subtitled “Great Victims of Label Fuckery.” Shareese Ballard dropped How I Do, a beguiling pop-soul showcase for her smart songwriting and warm yet sharp voice, with deft touches of indie guitar rock to boot, in 2001, and as Jay Leno notes before her performance of “They Say Vision”, the reviews were great. But it didn’t sell quickly enough for MCA Records to invest in marketing and development for her, and within 2 years MCA Records didn’t exist anymore. Down the line, she released an album with Talib Kweli as the duo Idle Warship, which is some pretty cool redemption for a formidable talent.