The Year in Music 1995

Other rock-oriented artists took different approaches toward similar ends. The Geraldine Fibbers got punky, Vic Chesnutt and Will Oldham (of the Palace dynasty) got abstract/absurd, and Tarnation got spacey with country music tradition. Bruce Springsteen reinvented himself as Woody Guthrie. Emmylou Harris, grand dame of alternative country, put out the most interesting record of her career, a dark and dreamy collaboration with U2 producer Daniel Lanois. Young bluegrass diva Alison Krauss (whose virtues we've been praising here for years now) blew up with a retrospective of her clear-eyed and clear-throated populism that not only went platinum, but even got her a feature in Spin. And Hootie and the Blowfish outsold all the above combined (11 million and counting) with a brand of southern-rock lite that, as Ann Powers pointed out in The New York Times, spoke to a nostalgic civil rights-era idealism. Clearly, young white America has an appetite for identity that "alternative rock," that new corporate behemoth, is no longer serving.

There were plenty of other stories worth telling last year. Hip-hop had a pretty good year, which was in fact defined by storytelling: Coolio and the various Wu-Tang Clan artists (Raekwon & Ghostface Killer, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Genius/RZA) overhauled gangsta cartoonism by adding a fresh complexity, nuance, and humor to the genre's male narrative tradition. And records from Algeria's rai queen Remitti, Haiti's Boukman Eksperyans, Brazil's Chico Science & Nacao Zumbi, Japan's Pizzicato Five, Morocco's Ahlam, and the English/Punjabi fusion of Cornershop showed how limited the marketing term "world music" really is. By variously fusing psychedelia, club music, heavy metal, and art rock with various international styles, these artists made music for a chaotic and polyglot world--one not necessarily tailored for the living room playlists of yuppie American homeowners.

But these are just subjective gleanings from another impossibly busy year. Every record below has its own story to tell; all are well worth hearing, and they're roughly ordered according to one person's pleasure factor.

1. PJ Harvey To Bring You My Love (Island) Informed equally by the blues, the Bible, gender politics, and punk rock, it sounded like the year's best on very first listen.

2. Yo La Tengo Electr-O-Pura (Matador) A beautiful testament to love and longevity by indie rock's most dependable couple-cum-trio.

3. Björk Post (Elektra) With Tricky and a bunch of other U.K. producers at the helm, it was the post-club underground's brightest pop moment.

4. The 6ths Wasp's Nest (London) True story: using the repeat button on our CD player, a friend and I listened to this for seven consecutive hours one day. We still love it.

5. Kate Jacobs What About Regret (Bar/None) Of all the country-rock sets this year, Jacobs's moved me the most. In a word, it was her stories--tales not of vague ennui, but of people I knew intimately (though many of them do in fact suffer bouts of vague ennui...)

6. Vic Chesnutt Is The Actor Happy? (Texas Hotel) Strange, funny, and heartbreaking country-rock.

7. Boukman Eksperyans Libete (Pran Pou'l!)/Freedom (Let's Take It!) (Mango) Revolutionary psychedelic groove music from Haiti. Great, but their shows took it even higher.

8. Dirty Three (Touch & Go) No lyrics, but a set of articulate instrumental music from this Australian rock trio. Warren Ellis's violin recalls Neil Young far more than Jean Luc Ponty, and that's good.

9. various artists Macro Dub Infec-tion (Caroline/ Virgin U.K.) Probably the best single collection of the new DJ music. Trip-hop is just the tip of the chill scene's iceberg.

10. Tricky Maxinquaye (Island) A headphone adventure if there ever was one, this has grown on me. Mr. T deserves props for translating trip-hop mixology into something resembling songs, and gets extra points for describing the mangled emotional states that make this kind of escapism so appealing.

11. Raekwon (Guest Starring Tony Starks [Ghost Face Killer]) Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (RCA) Dark tales of street life and drug hustling that are longer on empathy than ego, they come to life in the hands of hip-hop's most cinematic storyteller. Producer RZA's soundtracks multiply the drama tenfold; string sections and acoustic piano never sounded this hard.

12. Built To Spill Caustic Resin EP (Up) A collaboration between Boise's best, pop genius Doug Martsch (a.k.a. Built To Spill) and the psychedelicious Caustic Resin. "When Not Being Stupid is Not Enough" is alone worth the price of admission; a head-rush guitar epic for the '90s, it counters the recent Newsweek cover story on the state of the nation by suggesting we need to raise our standards, not settle for less.

13. Future Sound of London ISDN (Astralwerks) The most versatile of the new DJ artists, FSOL shift easily from jazz grooves to trip-hop to ambient drift, but rarely get boring. This set was assembled from their 1994 "tour"--actually a series of live international radio broadcasts from their London studios.

14. Skylab #1 (Astralwerks) Part of the beauty of the new DJ culture was its anonymity. Operating under pseudonyms, eschewing publicity photos, even avoiding lyrics, artists made a bid to push music beyond personality, race, gender. (Though, ibo Malto aside, it's an all-male lot so far.) This crew of four DJ/mixers made the most abstract post-club record of the year: Spacious, sensual, multi-faceted, it's anything you want it to be.

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