"Aeroplane" better with age

February 18th, 2008

I spent way too much time during my freshman year at the University of Maryland arguing with my friends about the supposed “greatest rock albums of the 1990s.” That was the decade we came of age, so clearly, we were experts. But, these were the “best” (meaning important and influential), and not necessarily our favorites. (“Rock” was also an important distinction, or we’d have to pretend we knew something about hip-hop).

No one ever thought to actually write down that list, but if I recall correctly, it went something like this: 1) Nirvana- “Nevermind” 2) Pearl Jam- “Ten” 3) Sublime- “40 oz. to Freedom” 4) Radiohead- “OK Computer” 5) Red Hot Chili Peppers- “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” 6) The Beastie Boys- “Ill Communication” 7) Smashing Pumpkins- “Siamese Dream” 8) Oasis- “What’s the Story, Morning Glory?” 9) Jane’s Addiction- “Ritual de lo Habitual” 10) Nine Inch Nails- “The Downward Spiral.”

In hindsight?

We listened to a lot of crap radio. Any serious list would need to include Liz Phair, My Bloody Valentine and Neutral Milk Hotel. Of course, I didn’t know any of that then.

Actually, if I were to rewrite that list today, I’d put Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” right behind “Nevermind.”

And no, I’m not crazy.

“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” turns 10 this month and sounds better than ever. Pitchforkmedia.com has a nice retrospective up, where today’s artists discuss what this album means to them. In fact, since I started seriously reading music writing and criticism, not a month or so goes by where I don’t read an article or interview where someone praises this album.

So why have you probably never heard of them? Hell, most of my friends think it’s funny that such an “important” album is still virtually unknown outside a small circle of music nerds and critics. But why did it take me until 2004 to finally give them a chance (and 2006 to become a fan)?

First, because it sounds nothing like any of those forgettable MTV “buzz bands.” Second, and I can’t speak for my friends, but I wasn’t ready to listen to something as literate as Neutral Milk Hotel. I wanted loud guitars, big choruses… something like every other third-rate Nirvana knock-off on the radio.

In the summer of 2004, while living in New York, I was having pizza with my friend Arielle. She had just taken me to see Spider-Man 2 for my birthday, and recommended two bands that I “had to check out,” Neutral Milk Hotel and The Format. I jotted them down and promptly forgot about them. Later that fall, I was bored and trolling the Internet for new music. The Format grabbed me and never let go. Neutral Milk hotel sounded too weird, too folky, too nasal. I forgot about them for a couple years, until a girl I was dating mentioned she really liked them. I knew I was supposed to like them, so asked for a copy.

On first listen, I thought the first track was okay. I didn’t care for the rest.

But, I couldn’t stop listening to it. It was so simple, so different. It probably took a year to grow on me. I’m a convert.

Taken on its own, it’s a great album. But, there’s also this mythology that’s grown up around it. How “The Diary of Anne Frank” inspired it. How Rolling Stone initially gave it zero stars, then later reconsidered and gave it four. How Neutral Milk Hotel (really one guy, Jeff Magnum) broke up shortly after the album came out. How Arcade Fire signed to Merge Records because Merge released this album.

It’s also clear to me that how much of today’s music, what I’m told is called “indie rock,” is influenced by “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” Maybe—and I’m stretching here with this analogy—Neutral Milk Hotel is to the aughts as The Pixies were to the 1990s.

Either way, it’s almost too bad that it took me so long to even hear about this band. I’m jealous of those growing up today, who don’t have to rely on the same 15 songs on the radio, for whom new music is just a few mouse clicks away, and aren’t pigeonholed by MTV into “rap” or “alternative.”

So, here it is, my top 10 rock albums of the 1990s, adjusted for everything I know today (again, these are for importance and influence, not necessarily my favorites): 1) Nirvana- Nevermind 2) Neutral Milk Hotel- In the Aeroplane Over the Sea 3) Radiohead- OK Computer 4) My Bloody Valentine- Loveless 5) Beck- Odelay 6) Liz Phair- Exile in Guyville 7) R.E.M.- Automatic for the People 8) Nine Inch Nails- The Downward Spiral 9) Weezer- Pinkerton 10) Sublime- 40 oz. to Freedom

I’m sure 10 years from now I’ll be rewriting this list again.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072


One comment to “"Aeroplane" better with age”

  1. A great list, but nothing can surplant Nirvana’s Nevermind at the top of this one! Pearl Jam’s 10 is also still worth listening too now as it was the day it was pressed.