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.

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 Spooky Songs 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 Loops Bundle 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 Raincoats Looking 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.

Wilco Being There (Reprise) Jeff Tweedy looks at the past through parti-colored glasses and winds up seeing the future.

INDEPENDENT LABEL CONTACTS: Razor & Tie, PO Box 585, Cooper Station, NY, NY 10276; 1-800-443-3555; Asphodel, P.O. Box 51, Chelsea Station,
NY, NY 10113; [email protected]; Up!, P.O. Box 21328, Seattle, WA 989111-3328... Thrill Jockey, 476794, Chicago, IL 60647... K, Box 7154, Olympia, WA 98507... Verve, 825 Eighth Ave., NYC, NY 10019; Blue Planet (fax) +44 0(171) 627-8077.

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