Notes on '96

What follows are some varied, disconnected thoughts on a varied, disconnected music scene, with a list of personal favorites at the end. Inconclusiveness is guaranteed.

True, everything old was new again in '96, but the best retro excursions spoke to the present directly. I'm thinking of saxophonist James Carter making a case for for the relevance of avant vets like Lester Bowie and Anthony Braxton in the context of a staid modern jazz scene; Beck tapping the joy in '70s funk and early hip hop (without totally drowning it in irony) for a rock audience in dire need of some fun; Fugees playing "Killing Me Softly" like both a gangsta elegy and an old-school celebration; and The Chemical Brothers looping the real Beatles behind the slightly lost vocals of Oasis's Noel Gallagher, jacking up the beats insanely, and dragging Brit-pop kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

She may have sold more records than the artists in my personal Top 20 combined, but I'm not convinced Alanis has any more cultural value than Xena the Warrior Princess--I mean, she's tough, and an obvious crowd pleaser, but she makes weak-witted art. On the other hand, attending concerts by Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco last year (both at the cavernous Northrop Auditorium, both packed to the walls), I saw strong women making smart, adventurous, complicated music in front of a couple thousand screaming teenage girls. If I had a daughter, I know who I'd want her to be listening to (though obviously, it wouldn't be up to me...).

It's been threatening to do so for a while now, but this was the year the sample officially exploded into the pop world, as artists chopped old records into fragments, cut'n'pasted melody lines, looped breakbeats, and grafted snips of found vocals like never before. In fact, just as hip hop's best artists moved away from pure sampling--The Roots, Fugees, Atlanta's OutKast, and the Organized Noize production team--pop artists from great (Beck, Cibo Matto) to good (the eels, Soul Coughing) to lame (Primitive Radio Gods) put sampled sounds front and center. My only quibble: Since half the fun of this comes from connecting to history, how about better accredition of samples in the liner notes, folks? That way we could all learn something, and the music's originators might even get to cash a check or two.

In an election year where the stench of hypocrisy was enough to overwhelm whatever optimism still lingered after four sorry-ass years in bed with Clinton, it's no wonder that pained "realism," with the major exception of Alanis, became less of a draw in rock & roll. The return of Kiss and the chart success of Marilyn Manson spoke to this, I think, as plenty of fans paid to see and hear rock stars that, as cartoons, existed apart from our ugly, human little world. Like techno, like Beck's surreal funkiness, this was music to lose yourself and your troubles in. Marilyn Manson may have trafficked in horror, but as a misfit kid who always found great solace in Chiller Theater and Famous Monsters of Filmland, I understand the appeal.

Nashville country may have been as faceless as ever, but I confess that during long Midwestern road trips with the radio, LeAnn Rimes's "Blue" won me over again and again, as did Deana Carter's "Strawberry Wine." At the fringes of this sort of Americana were worthy records by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, his Austin, Texas, compatriot Terry Allen (the hard-to-find Human Remains, on Sugar Hill Records), Los Lobos, Iris DeMent, BR5-49, and Steve Earle that all deserved more airplay than they got. Records by wise eccentrics like Will "Palace" Oldham, Nashville's Lambchop, and Vic Chesnutt poked around at country traditions with a stick, trying to discover if they were dead yet, and proving in the process that they're not.

To me, the Bayside Boys's remix of Los Del Río's "Macarena" was the most interesting thing to happen on the American "world music" scene, though that same scene shunned it (even Billboard magazine kept Los Del Río off their world music charts, despite the fact that the song topped their year-end Hot 100 Singles list). Sure it's cheesy, but as international dance-pop, the success of this song was remarkable. And is it just me, or do you find it odd that America's world music tastemakers tend to only market product that displays foreign artists as, well, foreign?--exotic Others proferring a nostalgic, folksy, kinda in-their-place sort of vibe? It's a shame the French hip-hop on the soundtrack to La Haine, the Brazilian funk-rock-hip-hop-samba on Chico Science & Nação Zumbi's Afrociberdelia (Sony Discos), and the offbeat prog rock of Argentina's Soda Stereo never saw mainstream U.S. release this year, though the Anglo-Indian filmi/bhangra mutations of Bally Sagoo finally did (see world music sidebar). Whether "Macarena" predicts more cross-cultural club hits, or proves just a late-breaking fluke (after all, it was a hit in Latin America way back in '94), remains to be seen.

The growth of electronic/DJ music last year was remarkable, and for once the action wasn't all in the U.K. The Chicago instrumental scene produced some lovely weirdness (notably records from Tortoise, Rome, and Gastr Del Sol), as did the alternately hyped and derided New York City-based illbient scene that bubbled up around spokesperson DJ Spooky. The best record ever put out by the pioneering U.K. trip-hop label Mo'Wax was by a kid from Davis, Calif., (DJ Shadow), and loopy sample-driven records by Cibo Matto, Land of the Loops, and Beck looked towards an electro-pop future way more fun than U.K. hitmakers Prodigy or the overrated Kiss and the chart success of Underworld. But at the end of the day, U.K. could claim drum'n'bass as purely its own, and its skittering electro-snares and abstract beat constructions got under this writer's skin in a big way. There were memorable records by Spring Heel Jack, Plug, Photek, and Omni Trio; a decent compilation by LTJ Bukem; and Everything But the Girl's brilliant pop hybrid. But this style is still an infant, and if it's already producing dozens of indistinguishable singles, it's also malleable enough to insure all sorts of strange hybrids in 1997.

Next Page »