From the preface of the Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock
In 1983, Trouser Press, a New York-based international music monthly then in its ninth year of publication, assembled and put its name to a slim volume of record reviews that covered most of the albums in a field that, at the time, was known as new wave. The genre, like the magazine, soon shuffled into the annals of past cultural history, but the book was off and running. Under a title that has undergone various permutations, updated and substantially expanded revisions of the Record Guide were published in 1985, 1989 and 1991. Over time, those four paperbacks have come to define the Trouser Press name (borrowed, with love, from a Bonzo Dog Band song) and aesthetic principles (music over money), even for those who never encountered the magazine.
The publication of the book’s fourth edition at the end of 1991 was precipitously — if not propitiously — timed. The exploding success of Nirvana’s Nevermind (which came out in September and was therefore a hair too late for coverage in the book) made “alternative music” a household term and attracted an enormous audience for music once thought to be permanently outside the putative mainstream. More important, it led to an enormous upsurge in the vitality of independent record companies and the openness of major labels to signing bands that would previously have been deemed too ratty, bratty or ridiculous for corporate support and national exposure.
It was ironic that a project whose values were elementary to this upheaval was, in a marketing sense, left behind when the barricades were finally stormed. By a thoughtless fluke of timing, the book covered everything up to the moment of impact, and little was done to make the commercial connection for readers not already familiar with the era or the effort. Nonetheless, there were those who recognized the continuum, and they soon began pressing me for the sequel, which — given the deluge of new bands and releases that have since emerged — seemed an absurdity. It took a while, but ultimately enough friends, serious music fans and professionals in possession of my E-mail address hounded me into thinking about the next edition. Once I started warming up to the idea that the rock world truly needed another record guide, I had to contend with the fact that adding five year’s worth of new bands and records to a book that already filled 750 pages and contained nearly as much coverage of the ’70s as the ’80s was patently unfeasible.
Furthermore, the connection of this decade’s developments to the music that first kicked down some of the corporate barricades and opened the DIY doors for business led to the inevitable conclusion that the ’90s were shaping up as a clear and distinct era, with Nevermind conveniently serving as its inaugural message. I concluded that the only way to do it again was to begin again. (It was also high time to jettison old reviews — some of them originally written in 1982 — rendered anachronistic by long-obsolete reference points and shifts in the musical landscape. Yesterday’s innovations are most assuredly tomorrow’s clichés.)
Other than a few thousand words carried over from the fourth edition to prevent whiplash by abrupt full-velocity entry into the middle of an artist’s recording career, this edition is completely new. Adding a simple guideline to the seat-of-the-pants concept that has always guided The Trouser Press Record Guide‘s editorial decision-making, this book covers only artists who have released full-length albums in the ’90s. Rather than maintaining the cumulative designs of the first four editions, this one starts from scratch, using 1990-’91 as ground zero.
The idea, simple and practical in principle, proved fairly intricate in editorial execution. Acts that were not around at the time of the last edition were easy to weigh, but veterans who have continued to release records also had to be considered for inclusion, with a present-tense judgment made of their significance and relevance here. We rectified some past omissions — Last Exit, Last Poets, Yoko Ono, Richard Thompson, Frank Zappa and John Zorn — that are not covered by either aspect of that evaluation process. At the same time, we generally excluded defunct outfits with recent reissues and some active artists covered in depth in the last edition who hadn’t added much of consequence to their canon.
Artists whose careers didn’t stop when the ’80s did led to a problem of overlap with previous books, a need to recapitulate pre-’90s years and occasional critical disparity with previous editions. We generally excised holdovers’ old reviews (not discographies, which were preserved and updated).
In their place, brief (sometimes not-so-brief) critical summaries of the artist’s pre-’90s oeuvre precede a detailed appraisal of recent work.
Whatever the initial modest impulses of the DIY movement, the ’90s has witnessed a harrowing replay of old-school superstar indulgence, with many indie bands and labels stuck in recording sprawl, producing side projects on top of remix albums in addition to solo ventures, cassette quickies, spoken word records, B-side collections and the occasional live LP. With record contracts now openly structured to allow all sorts of corporate creeping around, today’s active artists can’t seem to keep their mouths shut or their hands in their pockets when tape is rolling; the acceptance of lo-fi sound and the availability of respectable home-studio gear has considerably abetted the velocity and the volume. Nobody, it seems, is satisfied being in just one band at a time; the complications of interlocking memberships have made covering the field a fluid organizational nightmare. I have attempted to put it all in clear and logical order, following as many branches of family trees as brush up against the retail window. As always, no distinctions are made between tiny pressings, self-released cassettes and major-label rollouts. If a piece of music was ever available for sale, even only by mail order, it very well may be reviewed here. As a result, no implication is made that any title is currently in print or commercially available. This is a critique, not a catalogue.
One of indie-rock’s dubious virtues is its early admissions program. In the old world, bands used to spend years finding their stylistic selves, settling on formats and lineups, creating and culling material, working on presentation and purpose — in short, growing up to be what their musical genes ordained — before risking/getting the chance to make a record. Anxious labels’ club-level A&R (often supplanted by full-on DIY) no longer lets that developmental process take place without documentation; ready or not, young bands hit the studio as soon as they’ve got a set and a buzz, making albums as snapshots along the way to…whatever. Murky and embarrassing pictures of “whatever” can get formed as a result; adolescence is a gawky and thoughtless time, and the act of committing various stages of it to posterity makes the moments appear more profound than they might ultimately turn out to be. Wearing a wide-lapel purple-checked qiana shirt when you’re thirteen is no big deal; having people remember you in it and ask where it is a decade later may not feel as comfortable. (Then again…)
That said, some artists are truly worth picking apart; everything they’ve committed to posterity bears some critical scrutiny. Unlike other record guide editors, I don’t presume to boil artists down to their widely known works, or forgive them their early missteps. This is an egalitarian exercise: within the stylistic and philosophical framework in effect here, those who declare themselves musicians and produce work for public consumption are treated seriously regardless of success or obscurity. That’s why a prolific and intriguing artist who has never sold in the five figures might well be covered in an entry far longer than an obvious platinum act with two albums. It’s about the music, not the numbers.
May 1996 (revised May 2002)