Notes on '96

It's hard to believe that there's any musical history left that hasn't been mined to death by boxed-set compilers, but 1996 was a phenomenal year for reissues. I spent a lot of time with Merle Haggard and Curtis Mayfield boxes (not to mention the Louvin Brothers, Congos, and Mary Margaret O'Hara reissues of LPs I already owned), but it also was a great year for discoveries. Emmett Miller's confounding blackface The Minstrel Man From Georgia shed light on both Beck and Jon Spencer, and the U.K. import Masculine Women & Feminine Men unearthed cross-gendered performances from the British music hall and cabaret scenes (1913-1933) that were way more interesting than this year's RuPaul record. And on Smithsonian Folkways' That's Why We're Marching: World War II and the American Folk Song Movement, you get to hear famed peacenik Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers go from singing anti-war songs (in 1941) to pro-war songs (in 1942), and making both sound equally righteous. History, like life, is a complicated affair.

One last observation: Shania, Mariah, and Celine all make injection molded, airbrushed music. But where the first two have these scary-perfect faces, Celine's got this nose, right? Just a bit oversized, it throws the balance of her conventionally pretty face right off, and makes it far more interesting and sexy than it would be otherwise be. If she could just apply that theory of imperfection to her music....

And some of my favorites, in roughly decending order of preference:

FugeesThe Score (Columbia) Smart, smooth, musical, political, undeniable.

Everything But the Girl Walking Wounded (Atlantic) Along with Odelay, this year's clearest look at pop's future. Sumptuous drum'n'bass, beguiling songs, plus That Voice.

StereolabEmperor Tomato Ketchup (Elektra) Delicious textures, endlessly hypnotic grooves.

Tortoise Millions Now Living Will Never Die (Thrill Jockey) Instrumental music from Chicago that draws on free jazz, exotica, dub, electronica, and the music of Harry Partch, but sounds like nothing else.

Tricky, etc.Nearly God (Island) I dig this more than Pre-Millennium Tension 'cause the latter sounds like he really believes the title of the former, where this collaboration (with Björk and Neneh Cherry, etc.) is more tenative and exploratory.

DJ SpookySongs of a Dead Dreamer (Asphodel) Space is the place, but a few well-placed grooves make all the difference. Voted one of Rolling Stone's Worst Records of 1996!

Patti SmithGone Again (Arista) Back again, older, maybe wiser, still holding back nothing.

BeckOdelay (DGC) Great samples, and funny as shit.

Imperial TeenSeasick (Slash/London) Genderfuck bubblegum for kids of all ages.

Spring Heel Jack68 Million Shades...(Trade 2/Island import) The most musical drum'n'bass record of the year out, domestically this month.

DJ ShadowEndtroducing...(Mo' Wax/ffrr) A meticulous hip-hop/spoken-word suite cobbled together by an obsessive California kid who obviously doesn't get out much (our gain).

Dar WilliamsMortal City (Razor & Tie) The title track got me teary one Sunday night last winter, just as "The Pointless, Yet Poignant Crisis of a Co-Ed" cracked me up. A fine young folk talent.

James CarterConversin' With the Elders (Atlantic) Tell me the last major label, new-jack jazz suit that let trumpet magician Lester Bowie ring the opening phrase on his CD. Or that covered Anthony Braxton. Or that played with this much inventive soul.

various artists Ocean of Sound (Virgin import) A 2-CD DJ mix covering musical drift, from Debussy to Miles Davis to Aphex Twin. Produced by David Toop in conjunction with the illuminating book of the same name from Serpent's Tail Press.

Lois Infinity Plus (K) I wanna hear "Capital A" on the radio as often as that stupid Bush song, okay?

Land of the LoopsBundle of Joy (Up!) "Multi-Family Garage Sale," that indelible, wordless delight you heard a hundred times on REV-105, is just one goodie in this batch of fruit loops, sugar pop, and sampladelic bubblegum.

various artists Kansas City: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Verve) The way jazz retro-ism should be approached: in the spirit of discovery, respect, and reinvention.

The RaincoatsLooking in the Shadows (Geffen) Post-punk before there even was such a thing, this is a touching, quirky, comeback.

Oval 94diskont (Thrill Jockey) German guys who scratch, gouge, and otherise fuck up CDs, and turn the sampled results into a surprisingly lush, lovely symphony of technological decay.

Plug Drum'n'bass for Papa (Blue Planet import) Luke Vibert, a.k.a. Wagon Christ (jazzy genius of trip hop), tackles drum'n'bass in typically inspired fashion. Aphex Twin's current fave (along with Squarepusher; see DJ/Electronica sidebar below).

Built to SpillThe Normal Years (K) A singles comp from Doug Martsch showcasing his indie popsmith side; for his guitar hero side, check the new Perfect From Now On.

OutKastATLiens (LaFace) Tough, elegant hip hop grooves (courtesy of Atlanta's Organized Noize crew) with sharp rhymes and that bumpin' Cadillac flow.

Kate & Anna McGarrigle Matapedia (Hannibal) Who else could turn a song titled "Why Must We Die?" into a front-porch hoedown?

Don Byron Bug Music: Music of the Raymond Scott Quintette, John Kirby & His Orchestra, and The Duke Ellington Orchestra (Nonesuch) Proving there's always been more than one way to swing, even back in the day.

Vic Chesnutt About to Choke (Capitol) Irony and empathy screwing like rabbits while dictionary pages go flying.

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