By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
In some ways, 1995 was as exciting, even revolutionary a time in pop music as the year Nirvana accidentally turned alternative rock into a marketing handle. But you could be forgiven for not noticing. The commercial pop landscape was glutted with so much mediocrity--and so much of it waving the "alternative" banner--that it was tempting to write the year off completely.
If it seemed worse than ever, it's partly because we got spoiled: as happened back in 1967-69, the last few years saw genuinely innovative music making big commercial inroads. Now, as in the early '70s, we get the market-driven fallout: Instead of Sears hippies, we got armies of alternative-rock doppelgängers (Alanis, Silverchair, Bush, Sponge, Filter, Presidents of the United States of America) that sorta look and sorta sound like artists you should sorta like, but whose music was hollow at the core and, in heavy rotation on newly lucrative alternative-rock radio stations, supremely irritating.
Discounting the Presidents and their recycled cat-food commercial (can hip-hoppers sampling auto-industry jingles be far behind?), Alanis was probably the most annoying of the bunch, if only because she looked and sounded so close to the genuine item. Musically she had some interesting tracks, but they were buried in banal, heavy-handed production. Lyrically she aimed at big targets--the hypocrisy of the Catholic church, the state of the nation, the fucked-up ways men often relate to women. But she punked out every time: Christianity is bad, but she still believes; young people get screwed in the workplace, but hey, at least she's got a gig; her ex is an asshole supreme, but she hopes he'll remember her lovemaking skills (take that, swine). Complexity is one thing, but waffling is distinctly another, and Jagged Little Pill is a record that captures the facileness of the Clinton era better than anything else I've heard.
So where was the revolution? For the first time in ages, it was grounded in the U.K.--and no, I don't mean Oasis and Blur (though their retrophilia was tuneful enough) or even the fine, tough new school of womyn-fronted punk-pop groups like Elastica, Echobelly, and Skunk Anansie (not to mention PJ Harvey). It was instead in the full flowering of rave/DJ culture, and its move beyond dance clubs and into the living room. Artists like Tricky, Björk, Future Sound of London, Massive Attack, Mad Professor, Moby, Goldie, Skylab, Wagon Christ, Zion Train, Spirit Feel, The Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin, and the Orb, to name some of the best, were born of or mutated by the U.K. danceclub scene. Using mainly turntables and samplers, sequencers and synthesizers, these artists made records categorized as "trip hop," "ambient techno," "atmospheric jungle," though these tags were almost always reductive: the records reflected any number of genres while sounding like nothing that had come before. (Why not classical, big band, free jazz, ragas, vintage funk, and serial composition along with hip-hop, techno, rock, and reggae? We have the records...). Sure, they may have used live vocalists and "real instruments," too. But formally these folks proved once and for all that music, in a manner of speaking, is not the exclusive province of musicians--here, the artists were producers and DJs with machines and boundless imaginations. It was the arrival of cyber-post-punk, and the fact that the scene was multiracial and pleasure-positive made it even more revolutionary. Yet commercially, aside from Björk, it barely existed in the U.S.
Even conventional "rock" bands drew energy and vision from the scene. British groups like Laika, Pram, Stereolab, and Long Fin Killie (all recording for the Too Pure label, also home to PJ Harvey) incorporated loops, samples and various electronics into a new generation of art-rock that was much shorter on pretense than its predecessor. Among American bands, only The 6ths, a multi-artist collaboration composed and masterminded by Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields, really explored the possibilities of pop's future in an aesthetically similar way--here by melding Abba with early Philip Glass and lots of cheesy synth tracks. The fact the album was made with a Who's Who of indie rock vocalists (Sebadoh's Lou Barlow, Luna's Dean Wareham, Helium's Mary Timony, universal heartthrobs Barbara Manning and Chris Knox) may portend good things.
Otherwise, the most notable trend in U.S. rock was a new kind of Americana, mostly retro, that for all its familiarity was commercially nearly as underground as the U.K. scene. Uncle Tupelo offshoots Son Volt and Wilco and our own beloved Jayhawks made up a major creative triumvirate: Short on irony and long on harmonies, their Midwestern country-rock was the sound of disillusioned white kids trying to imagine a mythic America that doesn't smell bad--which is an admirable enough mission. As it reflected its generation, this music was romantically vague, nostalgic for times that never were, predisposed toward depression, and, formally, quite lovely.
Of all three groups, Son Volt's Trace probably summed up the aesthetic best. It opens with a song that's partly about how great old country music sounds on the car radio (and I'll assume Jay Farrar knows that 1963 was not "heaven" at all, least of all in country music's heartland, where supporters of Martin Luther King were being attacked by police dogs and Medgar Evers got gunned down by a racist in his driveway); it ends with a cover of Stones bassist Ron Wood's "Mystifies Me," an obscurity that echoes his band's "Wild Horses" (itself a classic example of outsider country, made by artists who knew they were as far from the Opry and any good Baptist's vision of heaven as one can get). Maybe these guys are content as outsiders; maybe they want into heaven's gates and listeners' hearts on their own terms. Either way, there's a sentimentalism to the music of the aforementioned triad that, seductive as it is, occasionally left me queasy--like that feeling when you awake from a nap in the back of a car and don't know quite where or when you are.