Let’s talk about the ’90s for a minute. I’m an old millennial, which means I’m a hair too young to be a Gen-Xer, which means on some level I will probably always have an unshakable fondness for entertainment from the ’90s. By which I mean Seinfeld, The Simpsons, The Big Lebowski and grunge. (If you’re expecting me to say Tarantino or whatever, sure Pulp Fiction was good, but I’ve never been all that invested in his oeuvre—*said* with a guttural, saliva-filled French accent*).
And then of course there’s the music. I’m sure at some point people are gonna “OK boomer” me about the ’90s, and in a few decades I’m sure it’ll be warranted, but let’s not be dumb about this: The ’90s was an absolutely phenomenal time for music. (It was a terrible time for music in other respects too—this is arguably when A&R cocaine budgets began to catch up with everyone and poor planning started an inevitable collapse. Plus Creed. They suck.) Far too many incredible records were released during this decade for me to mention, and there were a lot of movements that happened that yielded untold amounts of gold. (Listening gold, not like actual hordes of bullion.) Take, for instance, the parallel rises of Britpop and trip-hop.
I’ll admit I wasn’t really ready for the former when it was beginning, but I was sold within a year or so. But I was intrigued as hell by trip-hop. I heard Portishead’s “Sour Times” in my brother’s car and was pretty sure it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. I wasn’t convinced that I was cool enough to listen to it, but I was certainly into it. Then I heard Massive Attack’s “Protection” and wasn’t quite as wowed, but I was starting to pick up on something cool happening in the UK, and whether or not I totally had the sophistication beyond “Loud guitars are good!” to appreciate it, it challenged me.
But then I did hear a song that set of my “Loud guitars are good!” receptors. It was heavy, it was loud, fast and intense. But it was also catchy, with lots of scratchy wah-wah riffs and deep basslines, and a cool, restrained female vocal that provided an interesting juxtaposition to the intensity underneath it. The song was a Catch of the Day from Jed the Fish on KROQ in 1995, and once he announced what it was, I was taken aback: “Black Steel,” by Tricky.
First off, I couldn’t even tell it was a Public Enemy cover. Not by a longshot. And this is what Tricky sounded like? The trip-hop guy? Well, yes and no. This is the only song of its kind on Maxinquaye, his debut LP, but on some level you can say that about a lot of its songs. Even more so than Dummy or Protection, it’s pretty well all over the place. Some of it is psychedelic, some if it rhythm-heavy, some funky, some loud, some quiet, some ethereal. It’s easily one of the weirdest entries in the early trip-hop canon, as well as one of the best. He’s never topped this, and though his next few albums were all pretty strong, Maxinquaye stands alone.
Trip-hop kind of fell apart after a couple years because it became the soundtrack to hotel lobbies and hold music, and changed its name to “Downtempo.” Though it did have a few hits, mostly by groups like Hooverphonic and Sneaker Pimps, who never really made a great record but certainly took advantage of a trending sound for the sake of a good single.
Tricky didn’t really have any hits that big, but his singles were great: “Overcome,” “Aftermath,” and of course “Black Steel.” After a while even his records started to lose their luster, but Maxinquaye remains one of the greats.
Sound Quality: Great