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written by Joshua Friedberg
At Pitchfork this week, Lauryn Hill is expected to give an electric performance of her one solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. With the album celebrating its twentieth anniversary, it’s a good time to revisit its success and its meaning to listeners, including me.
Lauryn Hill’s 1998 disc proved to be an instant classic. I remember at ten years old, I heard about this album garnering the kind of critical and industry acclaim that Nirvana’s Nevermind received several years earlier. And though today it appears to have lost some of its critical luster compared to Nevermind and Radiohead’s OK Computer—which today are both in the statistical aggregate acclaimedmusic.net’s list of the top 10 most acclaimed albums of all time, while Miseducation sits at a “measly” #131—it continues to hold a special place in the hearts of fans of many different generations, genders, races, and classes.
by Kurt Conley
May 30th, 1996, Benedum Center, Pittsburgh, PA
September 12th, 1996, Warner Theater, Erie, PA
When I think about certain musicians, I tend to think of them in relationship terms. Things can start hot and heavy when I discover a new artist, and all I can do is think about them, wanting to consume everything they have to offer. Eventually, things cool off and maybe I stop seeing them. Or we fall into a comfortable routine. Or maybe I just ghost on them altogether.
This is my roundabout way of saying my long term relationship with Tori Amos is a complicated one. It started out carefree and fun in the early '90s. I first discovered her on Canadian television. Erie county is relatively close to Canada, and that allowed for us to pick up Toronto’s City TV station. It was my go-to channel for the many years we didn’t have cable. There were a few programs in particular that would show music videos, and that’s where I saw the video for “Cornflake Girl,” one of Amos’ biggest hits.
When I was getting into country music as a teenager, the first country album that bothered me with its clichés was Randy Travis’s highly acclaimed 1986 debut, Storms of Life.
It’s not that I hadn’t heard country albums that used familiar themes of drinking, cheating, mama, trains, heartbreak, and so on. Maybe they just seemed more concentrated in one place on this album.
I’d heard some of Randy Travis’s biggest hits through CMT countdowns and compilations at libraries, but I wasn’t prepared for the album tracks here. Songs like “Reasons I Cheat,” while sad, struck me as typical country fare, beyond salvaging from Travis’s appealing baritone.
Going back and hearing the album now on vinyl, with a greater knowledge of country music’s history, I can hear how the album sounded unique in the era of glitz that was ‘80s country. Storms of Life was one of the most acclaimed country releases of the decade, and many found Travis’s Lefty Frizzell-influenced style to be a refreshing example of the “New Traditionalist” style embodied at the time by artists like George Strait and Keith Whitley.
by Josh Friedberg
I don’t know I’ve ever been so wrong about an album in my life.
When I was younger, there were a lot of albums I called “overrated” after one casual listen because I didn’t understand the hype around them. It’s true, as I thought in the early 2000s, that Marvin Gaye’s 1971 soul masterpiece, What’s Going On, is a sacred cow, often treated with such reverence as if it is immune to criticism. It shouldn’t be, but perhaps it needs to be put in a fuller social context (the Vietnam War, African American freedom struggles, environmental degradation, youth movements, etc.) to be most appreciated.
That said, Smokey Robinson was right when he said around 2000 that the album makes more sense today than it did when it was released—deindustrialization and the growth of the prison-industrial complex, among other factors, have disastrously impacted communities of color in this country, and today Gaye’s opus continues to resonate amid the turmoil that spawned Black Lives Matter.
What’s Going On is also the most acclaimed album ever by an African American artist, according to statistical aggregate acclaimedmusic.net. White rock critics have loved this album since it came out, with Dave Marsh calling it the greatest black pop album ever, though African American critics have also lauded this album. For example, Cornel West called it something like the greatest musical achievement created by an African American.
So one could be forgiven for having unusually high expectations for such an album. When I first heard the album on CD, I was very familiar with the title track, widely hailed as one of the greatest songs ever recorded, but I was unprepared to deal with an album that was conceived as an album, rather than a collection of songs. There are some relative fragments on What’s Going On that don’t stand out like the singles do, and I was merciless in my response. At one point in the first half of the 2000s, I guested on a music talk show talking about overrated albums, calling out What’s Going On for inconsistency—as if consistency of quality across tracks should be the goal of every album.
by Bradley Morgan
Last Saturday, I ventured out to Soldier Field to see U2 play their masterpiece record The Joshua Tree in its entirety. I had been looking forward to this show for months. I even invited my dad and he drove over six hours to experience his first U2 concert.
Of course, I had seen Ireland’s favorite sons play a few times already including a greatest hits show and a concert promoting their latest studio album. However, this tour was different. The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 was designed with duality in mind; to commemorate the past but to also understand its relevance in the present. While this show signified a nostalgic trip for some, the tour set out to make a statement about the complexities of humanity and society. In preparation for the performance, I had to go back and find out not only what The Joshua Tree meant to me as art but also what U2 represented that made them so relatable to me over the years.
My path toward U2 fandom began at age twelve back in the fall of 2000 while I was living in Alaska. Anchorage didn’t really have any record stores or cool hot spots where hipsters could browse indie music stacks and discover the next big underground thing. Not only that, but streaming media online was not as sophisticated and easy to use as it is today, plus my dad wouldn’t let me download music. So, the only musical outlets available to me were whatever played on commercial radio and the limited selections of a local Wal-Mart or FYE.
That fall, U2 released their single “Beautiful Day” and it was life-changing. The sound was big and anthemic; qualities that inspired a budding teenager who had a lot to say and demanded that he be heard. The optimism and humanity within that song truly spoke to me.
Prior to that, U2 was a band that I had only heard of before. I had seen copies of War and The Unforgettable Fire in my mother’s CD collection, but I never listened to them before because what teenager wants to listen to their parents’ music collection? I wanted something new and relevant to me right then and there, despite the irony that this exciting new addition to my life was being delivered by an already established and accomplished band.
The music itself wasn’t the only thing that made me connect with the band. This band had something else going for them, too. They were Irish. That instantly made them more relatable and meaningful to me. As the son of an English immigrant with Irish grandparents, that made U2 so much more special. A bond was established through a shared ancestry that I wouldn’t quite understand until much later.