Monday, May 3, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 1992


Not many years are uncontested, but 1992 is one of them. There's only one album standing out from the crowd, and that is Nonsuch (or Nonsvch for you Alvvays fans) by XTC.

Nonsuch has been described as dark and political, but I don't see much more darkness than their typical fare, other than possibly Oranges and Lemons, which preceded it. The band came to their label with no less than 32 songs for the album. The label tried to reject all of them, despite the band feeling that those songs were some of their best material (which I agree with). Eventually, the director of their label left and was replaced by someone with better taste.

The producer brought on board was Gus Dudgeon, a producer who often worked with Elton John, David Bowie, and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. It was the latter that sold the band on him, and I think he did a fantastic job. 

My favorite track on the album is "Then She Appeared," a song initially written for XTC's alter-ego band The Dukes of Stratosphear. I'm thankful that they decided to take it seriously enough to wind up with this beautiful piece. It's in an episode of Gilmore Girls, which is strange to me, but I do think it should get more exposure. 

Close second is "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead," one of the singles from the album. "Pumpkinhead" takes on the concept of a savior, whether it be Jesus or a political savior like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, or JFK (I have my personal issues with lumping JFK into that group, but he's clearly referenced in the video for the song, so I guess I have to). The song is about how hated "perfect" people can be, how the powers that be will work to discredit anyone trying to enact serious social change. After all, the U.S. government did fabricate a sex scandal for Martin Luther King Jr. (but not JFK, that dude was sleeping around all on his own). It's all tied together with a timeless instrumentation.

On a lighter note, here's a photo of me from 1992. Look
at me, I'm an absolute meme.
Another political track comes in the form of "The Smartest Monkeys," a song by bassist and singer/songwriter Colin Moulding. "Monkeys" is something like the Kinks track "Apeman," but the lyrics are often heartbreaking instead of playful. For example, the song opens on the lines "Well, man created the cardboard box to sleep in it//And man converted the newspaper to a blanket." The song doesn't hold back when confronting society with the harsh reality that we are overpopulating the world and showing no compassion for the homeless in our society.

My favorite Colin Moulding track is on this album as well, "My Bird Performs." Moulding is much better than lead singer/songwriter Andy Partridge at writing normal melodies, which is sometimes a blessing, but for me, one of the things I love about XTC is their often unpredictable melody lines. Nonetheless, this song is a masterpiece. I wrote a bit more about it here, in an article comparing it to "Talking Bird" by Death Cab For Cutie.

Andy Partridge was particularly fond of "Wrapped in Grey." It's a great song as well. I talked about it in an article about the happiest XTC songs ("Then She Appeared" is in there also), because it's very positive, reminding you to see the color in the world, no matter what those around you say. "Your heart is the big box of paints." Andy Partridge has stated that he "exorcized a lot of those kind of Lennon-and-McCartney, Bacharach-and-David, Brian Wilson type ghosts out of my system by doing all that." Truly, you can hear some Beach Boys in the falsetto.

The album is strung together by many more, meaningful, beautiful songs. One such song is "Holly Up On Poppy," a song written for Partridge's daughter Holly who (by my calculation) is only a little bit older than me. "Poppy" was his daughter's name for her rocking horse. Partridge originally wanted to call the song "Holly High On Poppy" but wanted to avoid the drug assumptions. Holly Partridge evidently liked the sound the rocking horse made, which she called its "song" (it's no wonder she followed her father into music). Partridge tried to recreate the rocking horse song on the original demos and I think you can still kind of hear it in the final product.

It's difficult to explain, but easy to hear the flow throughout the whole album. The fact that the record company kept screwing them over on single releases, including "Wrapped in Grey" on this album, led to the band basically going on strike until they were let out of their contract. After releasing an album every year or two for fourteen years, it was another seven years after Nonsuch before they released their next album, Apple Venus Volume 1. I'm very thankful that this album made it out before their hiatus.

A photo of me from 1992, showing an early love of
music with my "baby" grand piano.
I first started listening to XTC in high school, but didn't really get into them until 2009 or so. Even when I did, I went for Oranges and Lemons or early work, rather than Nonsuch.

This album completely flew under my mom's radar (because she was busy raising this guy). Much more recently, I have tried to sell her on it. I picked up a couple of used copies of Skylarking and Nonsuch at Half-Price Books a few years ago and fell in love with both albums so much that I was obsessed with XTC for months. And I was already a fan before then! But those albums are just so good that I wanted more and more of that feeling. I scoured the Treasure Island flea market for XTC records on vacation, as well as literally every thrift shop/record store I visited. 

Nonsuch is probably one of my favorite albums of all time, so it's a clear winner for 1992. 1993 is a little tougher, but that's for tomorrow.

Let's throw it up on the leaderboard!

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album of 1993.

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