The Year in Music 1995

Rhea Valentine, Shrug and Barbara Cohen & Little Lizard, Black Lake: For their defiant spirit and vision, these two self-released discs unwittingly made great companion pieces in '95. Rhea Valentine's Wendy Lewis had her own Polarian artistic reawakening--albeit with a completely different sound palette--and Shrugis recorded music without a safety net: Vocalist Lewis and her avant-rock trio recorded the disc on sheer one-take improvisation. The result was a chaotic, orchestral backdrop for Lewis's starkly confessional songs. Little Lizard's rootsier Black Lake came six months later, breaking folk-rock's confines with a provocative cello-bass-percussion blend to ground Cohen's equally intense, confrontational lyrics.

The Twang Insurgence: At the same time as all this, Minneapolis is the northern capital of the interstate deep-roots revival--that "alternative country" thang, if you will. Not that it ever left: You could hear continued local allegiance to '70s AM radio in the Jayhawks' Tomorrow the Green Grass, Martin Zellar's Born Under, the Honeydogs' self-titled debut and elements of the Soul Asylum record. Other twangy releases like Marlee McLeod's Favorite Ball and Chain and the Glenrustles' Brood exposed the genre's darker soul and sadness with more overall endearment. Son Volt wrote the book on that topic with their tremendous Trace, which I'll call an honorary local record since half of SV's members (and fans) live here, it's a concept album about the Mississippi, and it was recorded in Northfield. But back on the street level, the city's rockabilly uprising made for the most nightclub fun in '95. The local rockabilly bible has yet to be released, but for now, the Vibro Champs' The Stimulating Sounds of... spins just fine.

The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, Oh Brother Where Art Thou? and Low, Long-Division: Its lighthearted music aside, Oh Brotherwas a songwriter's record that evoked the charms and motions of young-adult, post-bohemian, Uptown Minneapolis life more than any other album in memory. And the music: shimmering pop of the highest order, once again showing local listeners that it's okay to relax. Which is something Low's expansive sophomore set did as well (to say the least).

Compilation CDs: Most of the best local releases came out in the early part of the year, leaving the last quarter ripe for an unprecedented local-compilation hysteria. Let's see, we had the Edge's competent Minnesota Modern Rock: The Pachyderm Sessions, Best Buy's multi-genre Made in Minnesota sampler and its worthier sequel, the meat & potatoes Work Man's Comp, the all-techno Beat Oven, and the West Bank's Artists for Camp Heartland benefit. Is corporate interest in representing the hometown a boon or a credibility stunt? The jury's out, but if the scene around here is plump enough for this much top-notch compiling, the upcoming developments of '96 are an exciting prospect. CP

Gray Matters by Terri Sutton

I rang out the old year with the Mekons at the Metro in Chicago, and it felt like everything I loved and hated about popular music in 1995 had shown up to dance the night away. The band was dressed completely in white and smeared voluptuously with fairy sparkles. Jon Langford made jokes about the president. Sally Timms sang coolly, showed her underwear, and said "cunt" very carefully into the mike. Some songs were so sad they made me giggle, others so brave that the audience had to touch shoulders and stumble together back and forth across the floor. There grew a sense of community; it was ridiculous and ephemeral. There was spoken a complex politics of wit and passion; it called to mind its opposite, the cheap-ass alienation of Blur, Oasis, Bush, etc. There shone an inspiring humanity--engaged, wounded, lustful, smart--but what exactly were we inspired to do? If I knew, I drank too much and forgot by the next morning.

What exactly is the purpose of popular music? It's a question that has pestered me, as a rock critic, in this year of rightward-marching government "reform." The likes of Bob Dole would have it that rock and rap have a social agenda to warp impressionable minds; why then haven't 30-plus years of blanket exposure to Paul McCartney turned us all--ebony and ivory--into peace-preachin', vegetarian career opportunists? Maybe music is merely consumer entertainment; if that's true, why do so many people expect so much of it? Why did girls sob over the Beatles, and boys and girls over Kurt Cobain? In my Clash-lovin' youth, I thought rock & roll could be a political force for the Left. Sixties kids used to believe that too, and look how progressive they turned out ("Meet the new boss/ same as the old boss"). Heck, rock can't even organize an arena tour without Ticketmaster.

These days, the mutinies of the Clash's offspring, the Pearl Jams and Rancids and Bushes, strike me as simplistic and naive--too easily understood, co-opted, and bled of significance. The 1995 music that rattled my cynical bones was subversive with a small 's', embracing those states and qualities--contradiction, flexibility, and movement--that Americans in general and our leaders in particular seem unable even to imagine. Rising out of the gray areas between musical genres, between racial and sexual allegiances, these singles and albums proclaimed no clear slogans beyond their quite deliberate complexity and depth. Of course, even such ambiguous rebellions can be approximated and disarmed, as with the pseudo contradictions of Alanis Morissette's "Hand in My Pocket" ("I'm hard but I'm [radio] friendly, baby!"). Yet these records made me think that the most--and the least--listeners can expect of popular music is that it remind them of what they may have forgotten they are capable of.

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