1996 was the year I turned seven. I had a birthday party with my new class. A party which ended with me puking all over the table because of all the custard my lactose intolerant body had taken in. I also got an angry note from a girl who wasn’t invited. The note taught me most of the cursewords I know to this day. I wasn’t the coolest kid in class after that party, but I found out about my own lactose intolerance. Earlier this year (1996) I went to the Canary Islands for the first time. I went to Bahia Feliz in Gran Canaria, a little place there was made a Scandinavian comedy movie called Viva Villaveien. A movie that amused me a lot after getting home. I have no idea if I would find it funny today. I also remember going to the bank before the trip and it was before Easter and they gave me a free t-shirt. This was the year the Spice Girls released their debut Spice, even if I didn’t hear them until 1997 when I bought it and the Space Jam soundtrack only to return both a week later because I only liked one song on each of the albums. The albums I have picked for this year were Weezer’s Pinkerton, Less than Jake’s Losing Streak and NOFX’s Heavy Petting Zoo.
I remember getting this CD a few day after Christmas 2006, ten years after it was released, and now it’s like 13 years ago, jeez time flies, and I also got Maladroit the same day, or at least the same week. I think I returned some CDs that I got two of for Christmas and I ended up with two Weezer Cds instead. I remember listening to it in the car from the mall and being disappointed. I didn’t like the two first songs “Tired of Sex” and “Getchoo” at all, and I still don’t like “Getchoo” that much. After that, I went from awe to confusion over the album. “Across the Sea” starts with an awkward verse about a young girl from Japan, and it was beautiful and creepy at the same time. For some reason it’s a song that gets better and better, not only for each time you hear it, but verse by verse. The last verse is such a climatic experience right after Rivers’s weird and beautiful bridge about shaving his head and becoming a monk. Many of the songs on the album are about Japenese women, like “El Sorcho”. This is because it’s heavily inspired by the Puccini opera Madama Butterfly. The opera is about a US naval officer named Pinkerton that goes to Japan to marry his girl with the name Cioci-San (meaning Butterfly in Japanese). The album has grown on me a lot since I first heard it, songs like “Why Bother”, a pop punk classic and “Pink Triangle”, a song about finding out your love interest is a lesbian and “Falling for You” are the three best songs on the album. The latter gets stuck in my head for days after I’ve heard it.“The Good Life” is also quite catchy! The album ends with “Butterfly”, a fragile, extremely creepy and beautiful acoustic ballad about accidently killing a butterfly. In the context of Madama Butterfly, it becomes even stronger and creepier. Pinkerton was released September 24 1996 on DGC. Peaked at #17 on the Billboard top 200.
Less Than Jake- Losing Streak
I also got Less Than Jake’s Losing Streak in 2006. This time in Berlin, it was a double CD with Hello Rockview that was released on Golf records. The original Losing Streak was released on Capitol Records on November 12 1996, and was their major label debut. I also think it’s their best album and possibly the best ska-punk album that exists along with Energy by Operation Ivy. It has a rawness to it that works perfectly, and the songs are incredibly catchy and I think Vinnie Florello wrote his best lyrics for this album and when he fully started writing ambivalent lyrics about his hometown and leaving, something that would be his main topic for years to come. The first LTJ song I ever heard was “Automatic” and it opens the album. I think it’s a very strong opener, and it is introduced by the band’s mascot; The old dude: Howie J. Reynolds. It’s followed by the double trouble of “Happyman” and “9th at Pine”, and what songs those are! They just don’t make them like that anymore. Other great songs are “Never Going Back to New Jersey” and “Just Like Frank”. The former with its intro which samples the New Jersey state song and catchy chorus and the latter which is just catchiness all the way through. There isn’t really a bad song on this album. They also made a music video for the song “Dopeman”, but MTV refused to play it. It reached #18 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart.
NOFX- Heavy Petting Zoo
Heavy Petting Zoo (or Eating Lamb as the vinyl version is called)
was released on Fat Mike’s 29th birthday; January 31 1996 on Epitaph
Records. It was the first NOFX studio album that reached the Billboard top 200,
it peaked at the #63. The live album I Heard They Suck Live was
the first NOFX album to enter the chart at #198 the year before. The album is
known for its shocking album cover(s) and the rumor has it that a record store
in Belgium was closed down because they had posters of the album. The vinyl
version was also banned in Germany because of the beastiality on the cover (a
man 69ing a lamb). Ironically, the only place I have ever seen Eating Lamb
in a store was in Germany. Even at 14, before hearing a song from it, the HPZ
cd-cover fascinated me. The album insert is also fantastic. Where you have lots
of naked people (one of them NOFX’s Manager Kent) and hippies and homeless
people and a cute valentine’s card with the lyrics of “Whatever Didi Wants”; a
pop punk number parodying the sterotypical love songs like “500 Miles (I’m
Gonna Be) by the Proclaimers, but someone listing all the things they wouldn’t
do for their crush Didi. Themes on the album are being homeless (“Hobophbic”
and “Freedom Like a Shopping Cart”), capitalism (“Freedom Like a Shopping
Cart”, “Philthy Phil Philantropist” and“Bleeding Heart Disease”), sexuality
(“Hot Dog in a Hallway”, “Release the Hostages”, “Liza” (part two of the Liza
and Loise trilogy), “Love Story” and “Black and White”) and kids today (“What
the Matter with the Kids Today?”). Fat Mike’s lyrics are as thought provoking
as they are brilliant and disturbing. At 15, these lyrics would touch me like
the man on the cover touches the sheep. Damn, nevermind I just wrote that.
“Love Story” tells the story of, what to me, seems like a suicide committed by
a woman who knows her husband is having an affair. She wants to remain ignorant
of her husband cheating on her, but she also wants her husband to pay attention
to her, but he doesn’t seem to. I don’t know if the following song “Black and
White”’s first and third verse is a continuation of “Love Story”, but it’s
about the closet homosexual Mr. McCarthy who doesn’t love his wife, but the
black and white smalltown views makes it impossible for him to be himself and
she has no consideration for his sexual orientation. If the two songs actually
are related, it makes it all even darker, as the woman in the song would rather
die than living with marrying a gay man. The second verse of “Black and White”
takes up the issue of pornography, but in a harsher way than “Lori Meyers” and
“Vanilla Sex”. Fat Mike sings that anti porn feminists like Andrea Dworkin and
Catherine McKinnan need “a good hard fuck” and pretty much just reinforces the
misogynist attitude that those women tried to fight, agree with them or not.
The overall message of the song seems to be that women with their black and
white views oppress men’s sexuality. A song that hasn’t really aged well.
The last two songs on the album; “August 8th” and “Drop the World” are possibly the best. “August 8th” is apparently a song about the death of Jerry Garcia. I don’t know why Fat Mike seemed so stoked that Mr Hippie was dead, but the song is one of the cheeriest and most optimistic songs I know, regardless of subject matter. “Drop the World” is about two people that want to excel in sports and academia and use drugs to help them. A song about the ruthlessness of competition and how strieving to be the best takes its toll on human beings. Compared to Punk in Drublic, that came out two years earlier, Heavy Petting Zoo is a much more experimental album and sometimes more alternative rock than punk rock and added to the usual guitar, drums, bass and trumpet, there was a xylophone on “Philthy Phil Pilantropist”. This was also the album where I think the harmonies between El Hefe and Fat Mikes are the best and also the album where I think Smelly’s drumming stands out the most. Melvin is doing a great job too! Everyone in NOFX did a great job here!
Descendents- Everything Sucks
The comeback albums to beat all other comeback albums. Yep, that’s right: Everything Sucks, a ‘90s pop-punk classic if there ever was one. Although I obviously didn’t hear the record when it came out, I still heard it quite a while after listening to the ‘80s material, so I kind of got some of the sense of what it might have been like hearing it as a ‘comeback record’. While Milo was invested in academia, punk rockers were left with All (the band formed by Bill Stevenson, Stephen Egerton and Karl Alvarez), which were fine, I guess, but when Everything Sucks was released, it must have felt like the pop-punk scene had had rocket fuel lit up its behind.
While Everything Sucks largely offered a healthy dose of the Descendents’ best party tricks, it marked a period of the band in which their sound was less gritty, more melodic and had cleaner production values. The band was as angsty as ever, continuing to sing about alienation, not getting the girl and everyday blues, but now it was more focused and tightly written. The silliness was retained (see: “Eunuch Boy”), but here Milo was singing about the multifaceted trappings and annoyances of a 30-something and coming face to face with ‘growing up’.
I guess what I like most about Everything Sucks are the changes in tempo, shifting from those hook-filled, mid-tempo ‘ballads’ to the faster, angrier material. My favourites are among those like “We”, “Thank You” or “I Won’t Let Me”, where Descendents found a new depth of both melodic licks and sincerity. For all the angst, Milo was hopeful, with a straight face. These work great alongside the pissed-off and gritty tracks like “Doghouse” or “This Place”. An album full of either styles may be overbearing, but a mix of the two feels just right. There are missteps on the record, of course: “Caught” is immediately gratifying as a teenager, but doesn’t hold up over time, while “I’m the One” was the first track I heard off the record, but is largely just a boring rehash of feelings that Milo had already expressed in 1982.
It is hard for me to say what my favourite Descendents record is. I Don’t Want to Grow Up has to be up there and while Milo Goes to College is less and less appealling over the years, it still has some of their best songs. But if I was pressed on the matter, I would have to say Everything Sucks, as it feels like their most complete and coherent record.
Screeching Weasel- Bark Like a Dog
I have always had a soft spot for Bark Like a Dog (aka, ‘and out come the chihuahuas’), even though I can understand why fans of classic, Lookout!-era ‘Weasel may be put off. It was one of the first ‘Weasel records I heard, after My Brain Hurts, Wiggle and Anthem’. I was instantly hooked in, digging the bratty vocals, woah-ohs and the use of keyboards (particularly on Cool Kids and First Day of Summer). Weasel’s first on Fat Wreck, it definitely felt like a notable shift in sound from 1994’s How to Make Enemies and Irritate People. It was certainly their most polished and slickest at this point, with the recording style of this record distinct from anything else Weasel have released really.
In terms of both production values and songwriting, Bark Like a Dog is more Ramones-y and closer in style to the Riverdales, unsurpising given that the Riverdales had released their debut record only the previous year. Bark Like a Dog came out after Weasel’s second break-up and revived their classic line-up of Ben, Dan Vapid and Panic and Jughead (and it was to be the last time that this line-up would record together), and this shows in the quality of the songwriting. I’m usually more interested in Ben’s less overtly Ramones-y material, but they largely put together a great collection of songs here, a bunch of well-written and memorable pop songs.
Highlights? Definitely “First Day of Summer”. “You Blister My Paint” and “You’ll Be in My Dreams” are genre classics, with the latter having back-up vocals to die for. Indeed, the back-up vocals are a joy throughout. Weasel sped things up on tracks like “ (She Got) Electroshocked) ”, but noticeably slowed things down on ‘ballads’ “It’s Not Enough” and “Your Name is Tattooed on My Heart”. All of the tracks are generally super melodic and earworm-y, but if there is a criticism, it is that, tonally, the record feels a little ‘one-note’ or same-y compared to Weasel’s previous material, in terms of recording style, songwriting and downstrokes. I mean, when the ‘note’ is this good, who cares, right? But it does mean that the band doesn’t reach the heights of their earlier output. Having said that, Bark Like a Dog is arguably the band’s last great record.
The Mr. T. Experience- Love is Dead
For the third spot, I could have chosen one of many records (basically any of the ‘also’ list below). 1996 was probably the toughest year so far in picking out three of the best. In terms of meaningfulness and nostalgia (which this column is indebted to), it should really be Losing Streak, but I will be talking at length about Less Than Jake in 1998’s column, so the next in line really was The Mr. T Experience’s sixth album Love is Dead.
As you can tell from this list, this was pop-punk’s golden age and one of its central components was Dr. Frank’s unique songwriting ability and way with words. Love is Dead is not my favourite of MTX, not even top 3, but due to its immediacy and hooks, it was one of the band’s first that I really, really enjoyed (a natural next step after Revenge is Sweet). The record feels spunkier, more in your face and more vibrant than MTX previously had; Love is Dead is an unrelenting hit-fest, a barrage of ear-worm melodies and quotable lyrics. It contains some of their best songs, such as “Semi-Ok”, “Sackcloth and Ashes”, “The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be” and “I Just Wanna Do It With You” (which would feature on the soundtrack to the movie Glory Daze that year). Dr. Frank’s lyric writing abilities were basically legendary by this point and on Love is Dead, he wrote incisively and relatably about relationship breakdown, self-doubt and existing on the outskirts of the pop-punk mainstream explosion in his ‘dumb little band’. One of my favourite lyrics on this record is one which perfectly exhibits Dr. Frank’s part-charming and part-self-deprecating approach to songwriting: “I’m just a simple man who you could do much better than/ Still I ask respectfully, will you waste your life with me?”
Albums I also enjoyed in 1996:
Weston- Got Beat Up
Propagandhi- Less Talk, More Rock
Less Than Jake- Losing Streak
NOFX- Heavy Petting Zoo