The Year in Music 1995
FF/Rewind by Will Hermes
In some ways, 1995 was as exciting, even revolutionary a time in pop music as the year Nirvana accidentally turned alternative rock into a marketing handle. But you could be forgiven for not noticing. The commercial pop landscape was glutted with so much mediocrity--and so much of it waving the "alternative" banner--that it was tempting to write the year off completely.
If it seemed worse than ever, it's partly because we got spoiled: as happened back in 1967-69, the last few years saw genuinely innovative music making big commercial inroads. Now, as in the early '70s, we get the market-driven fallout: Instead of Sears hippies, we got armies of alternative-rock doppelgängers (Alanis, Silverchair, Bush, Sponge, Filter, Presidents of the United States of America) that sorta look and sorta sound like artists you should sorta like, but whose music was hollow at the core and, in heavy rotation on newly lucrative alternative-rock radio stations, supremely irritating.
Discounting the Presidents and their recycled cat-food commercial (can hip-hoppers sampling auto-industry jingles be far behind?), Alanis was probably the most annoying of the bunch, if only because she looked and sounded so close to the genuine item. Musically she had some interesting tracks, but they were buried in banal, heavy-handed production. Lyrically she aimed at big targets--the hypocrisy of the Catholic church, the state of the nation, the fucked-up ways men often relate to women. But she punked out every time: Christianity is bad, but she still believes; young people get screwed in the workplace, but hey, at least she's got a gig; her ex is an asshole supreme, but she hopes he'll remember her lovemaking skills (take that, swine). Complexity is one thing, but waffling is distinctly another, and Jagged Little Pill is a record that captures the facileness of the Clinton era better than anything else I've heard.
So where was the revolution? For the first time in ages, it was grounded in the U.K.--and no, I don't mean Oasis and Blur (though their retrophilia was tuneful enough) or even the fine, tough new school of womyn-fronted punk-pop groups like Elastica, Echobelly, and Skunk Anansie (not to mention PJ Harvey). It was instead in the full flowering of rave/DJ culture, and its move beyond dance clubs and into the living room. Artists like Tricky, Björk, Future Sound of London, Massive Attack, Mad Professor, Moby, Goldie, Skylab, Wagon Christ, Zion Train, Spirit Feel, The Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin, and the Orb, to name some of the best, were born of or mutated by the U.K. danceclub scene. Using mainly turntables and samplers, sequencers and synthesizers, these artists made records categorized as "trip hop," "ambient techno," "atmospheric jungle," though these tags were almost always reductive: the records reflected any number of genres while sounding like nothing that had come before. (Why not classical, big band, free jazz, ragas, vintage funk, and serial composition along with hip-hop, techno, rock, and reggae? We have the records...). Sure, they may have used live vocalists and "real instruments," too. But formally these folks proved once and for all that music, in a manner of speaking, is not the exclusive province of musicians--here, the artists were producers and DJs with machines and boundless imaginations. It was the arrival of cyber-post-punk, and the fact that the scene was multiracial and pleasure-positive made it even more revolutionary. Yet commercially, aside from Björk, it barely existed in the U.S.
Even conventional "rock" bands drew energy and vision from the scene. British groups like Laika, Pram, Stereolab, and Long Fin Killie (all recording for the Too Pure label, also home to PJ Harvey) incorporated loops, samples and various electronics into a new generation of art-rock that was much shorter on pretense than its predecessor. Among American bands, only The 6ths, a multi-artist collaboration composed and masterminded by Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields, really explored the possibilities of pop's future in an aesthetically similar way--here by melding Abba with early Philip Glass and lots of cheesy synth tracks. The fact the album was made with a Who's Who of indie rock vocalists (Sebadoh's Lou Barlow, Luna's Dean Wareham, Helium's Mary Timony, universal heartthrobs Barbara Manning and Chris Knox) may portend good things.
Otherwise, the most notable trend in U.S. rock was a new kind of Americana, mostly retro, that for all its familiarity was commercially nearly as underground as the U.K. scene. Uncle Tupelo offshoots Son Volt and Wilco and our own beloved Jayhawks made up a major creative triumvirate: Short on irony and long on harmonies, their Midwestern country-rock was the sound of disillusioned white kids trying to imagine a mythic America that doesn't smell bad--which is an admirable enough mission. As it reflected its generation, this music was romantically vague, nostalgic for times that never were, predisposed toward depression, and, formally, quite lovely.
Of all three groups, Son Volt's Trace probably summed up the aesthetic best. It opens with a song that's partly about how great old country music sounds on the car radio (and I'll assume Jay Farrar knows that 1963 was not "heaven" at all, least of all in country music's heartland, where supporters of Martin Luther King were being attacked by police dogs and Medgar Evers got gunned down by a racist in his driveway); it ends with a cover of Stones bassist Ron Wood's "Mystifies Me," an obscurity that echoes his band's "Wild Horses" (itself a classic example of outsider country, made by artists who knew they were as far from the Opry and any good Baptist's vision of heaven as one can get). Maybe these guys are content as outsiders; maybe they want into heaven's gates and listeners' hearts on their own terms. Either way, there's a sentimentalism to the music of the aforementioned triad that, seductive as it is, occasionally left me queasy--like that feeling when you awake from a nap in the back of a car and don't know quite where or when you are.
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.
15. Aceyalone All Balls Don't Bounce (Capitol) In terms of lyrical madness, this solo gig by a member of the West Coast's Freestyle Fellowship had it all over the competition. An original.
16. Ornette Coleman Tone Dialing (Verve) Possibly his best recording with Prime Time, Ornette's music sounds less out with every passing year (but never less fresh). His treatment of Bach is a special treat.
17. Peadar Ó Riada Amidst These Hills (Bar/None) The son of Sean Ó Riada (one of the founders of the Chieftains and the acknowledged grandaddy of modern Celtic folk) delivers a lush, almost hallucinatory recording of creaky tradition woven together with ambient field recordings. Another soundtrack without a film.
18. The Chemical Brothers Exit Planet Dust (Astralwerks) It's startling how out-of-touch local club operators have been with regard to the new U.K. sounds. That's why the only jungle/trip-hop DJ jams you heard last year were at Walker Art Center, and why this crew skipped our town on their U.S. tour. Essentially a vintage soul/funk record, except it's assembled by these turntable maestros who magnify the grooves and leave the vocals on the cutting room floor.
19. Ketil Bjornstad/David Darling/Terje Rypdal/Jon Christensen The Sea (ECM) A surging, epic composition by Norwegian jazz pianist Bjornstad that tries to capture the deadly beautiful song of the sirens, and succeeds as only one from the North Sea could.
20. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion Experimental Remixes EP (Matador) Ironic that the only indie-rocker to really explore the art of the remix is this NYC roots-punk mutant god. Knob-diddle duties went to Beck & Mike D., Moby, Wu-Tang's Genius & Killah Priest, and Calvin Johnson's Dub Narcotic Sound System. You also get 15 hilarious minutes of cut-up tourspiel vérité at the end.
21. John Oswald/The Grateful Dead Grayfolded (Swell/Artifact) The ultimate DJ record this year took dozens of recordings of the Grateful Dead's magnum opus, "Dark Star," and mixed them together into a single marathon that clocks in at a tad under two hours. As Natalie Cole proved with "Unforgettable," new recording technology can equal eternal life. R.I.P. Jerry Garcia, and look forward to hearing more of you... CP
Ends & Odds by Britt Robson
Another year, another set of genuflections. You know the drill: What follows are my top 20 in order of preference. But first, a few bits of arrogant advice:
Ignore the "acid jazz" hype; it's a pathetic attempt to validate funk-fusion from the '70s. Meanwhile, '95 had a slew of underappreciated jazz/hip-hop/funk/pop gems, including The Roots, Alphabet Soup, Hami, The Brooklyn Funk Essentials, and Greg Osby.
When it comes to Bruce Springsteen's Tom Joad, the potential for hypocrisy and delusion are prominent; as if the size of our approval for his penetrating cry against injustice connotes an equal amount of effort to alleviate it. If you really want to honor the spirit of the CD, donate time and money to your local homeless shelter.
Lastly, if you've ever sung along with "I Want You Back" or cut a rug to "Beat It," pray that Michael Jackson stops denying the demons that are eating him alive.
1. Boy George Cheapness & Beauty (Virgin) He flames on with an Iggy Pop cover that begins a traipse through the hedonism and horror of glam-thrash decadence. He mourns mothers and lovers of AIDS victims and those afraid to leave the closet. Even the should-be pop hits are loaded with brave, beautiful sentiments.
2. The Roots Do You Want More?!!!??! (DGC) There are slapstick raps of uncanny grace, funky jazz jams with churning beats and windswept saxes, delicate soul songs to ease your mind, and a chilling closer about surviving a gang rape that will shred your thoughts to shrapnel.
3. Bruce Springsteen The Ghost Of Tom Joad (Columbia) First-rate journalism meets raw-boned poetry, driven by a haunted conscience that refuses to sleep.
4. Ornette Coleman & Prime Time Tone Dialing (Verve) Like Mother Nature, Ornette's harmolodic music involves seemingly infinite layers in a gorgeously cacophonous weave that is spellbinding when you pay attention. His most accessible work since Dancing In Your Head.
5. AZ Doe Or Die (EMI) The year's best rap record is a concept album that glorifies and lambasts the materialism of a player. AZ's rhymes and rhythms are both slick and riveting, framed for repeated listening by Pete Rock and other ace NYC producers.
6. Alphabet Soup Layin' Low In The Cut (Prawn Song) Spacey hip-hop laced with hard bop from this racially integrated Frisco crew. Sometimes the horns rule, sometimes the blunts, sometimes the radical politics.
7. Jezebelle (Discovery) Zap Mama and Sweet Honey In The Rock fans should take note of an equally talented feminist harmony vocal group in the house, sacrificing a little complexity on the arrangements in favor of old-fashioned passion.
8. Vic Chesnutt Is The Actor Happy? (Texas Hotel) The preeminent daft sage in music today, you take Chesnutt's country-folk ditties seriously at your own risk--they'll make perfect cockeyed sense.
9."The Artist Formerly Known as Prince"The Gold Experience (Warner Brothers) It's not the bold new direction he'd have you believe, just top-notch recreations of his two primary modes--nasty staccato dance-funk and falsetto ballads--laden with a half-baked concept and some lush orchestration that still can't loosen these tight-ass grooves.
10. Anthrax 442 Stomp (Elektra) Crunchy blues riffs, funky rhythms, cannonball drumbeats, paranoid lyrics snarled and screeched by an insecure nihilist--it's all here. Why do you think they call it heavy metal?
11. Mingus Big Band Gunslinging Bird (Dreyfus) At last, a post-Mingus record that unearths the composer's florid romanticism, hog-calling earthiness, abrupt mood swings, and inexhaustibly innovative energy.
12. The Jayhawks Tomorrow The Green Grass (American) Their immaculate understatements mix the SoCal nonchalance of Flying Buffalo Springfield Brothers, and the cursed stoicism of Minnesota Nice. That's why the Grand Funk cover and the joyous juvenalia of "Ten Little Kids" are so crucial.
13. Axiom Funk Funkcronomicon (Axiom) A rollcall of the funky cast on these two discs should suffice: George Clinton, Sly Stone, Bootsy, Maceo, Sly & Robbie, members of the Last Poets, and the last recorded performances of late P-Funk guitar master Eddie Hazel.
14. Evil Stig (Warner Brothers) Fuck the Foo Fighters. The Gits lost their lead singer-songwriter too (to murder instead of suicide), only to have Joan Jett fill the void with a career-topping performance that transformed this into the Seattle post-punk CD of the year.
15. Cesaria Evora (Nonesuch) There is a pool of sadness reflected in the tropical lilt and dignified phrasing of this vocalist from Cape Verde. Like a West African Nina Simone, she emits the bittersweet warmth and textural nuance of an ocean sunset.
16. Afro Blue Band Impressions (Milestone) You wanna get your house cleaned? Slap on this 15-piece Afro-Cuban bop band, who begin by covering Coltrane with two tenor saxes, a violin, vocals, and a phalanx of percussionists, and never really let up.
17. Joan Armatrading What's Inside (RCA) As if the emotional clarity of her songs needed more focus and intimacy, her low, distinctive vocals come through unfiltered, incapable of artifice. Her best record in over a decade.
18. Luther Allison Blue Streak (Alligator) Leave it to Alligator's Bruce Iglauer to goad the perennially underachieving Allison into the sort of sustained Chicago-style electric blues guitar workout we've all been waiting for. Move over Son Seals and Buddy Guy.
19. Abdullah Ibrahim Trio, Yarona (Enya-Tiptoe) and McCoy Tyner Prelude and Sonata (Milestone) Two masters who dispense notes on the piano with the same frugality that Miles blew his horn. Chill. Serve over fine wine.
20. Naughty By Nature Poverty's Paradise (Tommy Boy) More than any other rapper (even Chuck D.), Treach can rap with a furious flow and not make you think it's about gats and penis size. And like their Tommy Boy labelmate Coolio, NBN are pop cribbage experts, filching just the right melodies for fun and profit. CP
Local Pleasures by Simon Peter Groebner
When I plugged into the popular alt-rock of 1995, I heard a proliferation of tuneless pseudo-grunge, popless pop songs, and mindlessly macho vocals. The alt revolution has failed us, and I like to think the best Minneapolis rock doesn't identify with that. We're still a town of musical traditionalists: Bands may screw with their imposed restrictions, but everybody's got a concept of their roots -- in pop, punk, country, world music, rap, jazz, what have you. All I know is, this year I've got the biggest pile of local CDs yet strewn around my room, and most of them I won't be filing away anytime soon.
Hüsker Dü once proved that you could make great music by fusing punk rock with perfect pop and blanketing it all with noise; a decade later, most bands are intent on keeping the extremes of punk and pop separate (though groups like Balloon Guy and 12 Rods still blur the lines). Shatterproof's Slip it Under the Door and 7-inch releases from February and Overblue took the exploration of dreamy guitar texture in gratifying directions. But on the other side of the mood spectrum, Babes in Toyland's Nemesisters affirmed their brilliance without breaking new ground, while Guzzard's Quick, Fast, in a Hurry and Venison's Hate! kept the respective urban and rural sides of Midwestern aggression in full effect. As these traditions moved along, specimens of electronic music (L.E.D., Haloblack), hip-hop (that well-circulated Phull Surkle demo) and experimental music (Savage Aural Hotbed's popular Cold is the Absence of Heat) proved there's room in town for music that doesn't fit into the rock canon.
That said, last year my CD player was most often occupied by local music that went to extremes. Some of the highlights:
Polara, Polara; Smattering, Sissy Bar; and The Blue Up?, Spool Forka Dish: Polara christened '95 with a blast of excellence that set the tone for the rest of the year. After a two-year break from playing out, guitar vet Ed Ackerson came back with Polara, an album exquisitely crafted into high studio art from homemade four-track demos which saw Ackerson making a radical break from his Anglo-influenced work with the 27 Various. Smattering debuted with Sissy Bar, the outlet for the weirder musings of Balloon Guy's Matt Olson (with Ackerson on guitar and atmosphere). Although Olson's writing ventures more into the bizarre and the savant, Sissy Bar was constructed much the same way as Polara. Meanwhile, the major-label debut of the Blue Up? represented a near-realization of the big-budget, big-ambition, trippy pop fantasy envisioned by leader Rachael Olson. What I'm wondering about now is what lies next within the imaginations of these unrelated Olsons.
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 Shrug is 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 Brother was 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.
In that light, what I heard in the Wu-Tang Clan's visceral street soundtracks was not only black men claiming the camera--and thus the right to represent themselves in public discourse--but also the beginnings of the sort of group affinity and forgiveness that made the Million Man March so intense for its participants. Both enormously important themes illustrated, thanks to the rappers and producer RZA, in startlingly inventive textures and colors. Still, I'd recommend neither Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... nor Genius/GZA's Liquid Swords without reservation: one, because the stories they've chosen to tell mythologize literal dead ends; and two, because the other sex is not included, as they weren't with the March, in the general rapprochement. Women instead continue to show up only as "French Vanilla" fuck bunnies, victims, or symbols of a nagging, virtuous conscience--"don't go chasing waterfalls," as the lovely but suffocating TLC hit put it.
Coolio's justly huge "Gangsta's Paradise" was a way more open-ended ride, mostly because it dared to sit on the faultline between despair and grace, alienation and connection, rap and pop--slighting neither party in its tumultuous couplings. Just hearing the insistent opening strings made my breath catch; the single brought four minutes of suspense and no resolve. Similar un/balancing acts roused Palace, the Sea and Cake, and Pavement to their best albums ever, in a year not notable for white rock-boy achievement. With one leg in the po-mo indie aesthetic and the other in, respectively, outlaw country, dubbed-out soul, and classic rock, these guys found appropriately uneasy grounds for their vacillating deliberations on male identity, hetero relationships, and the experience of sex. It was a wry pleasure to hear the male voice so intentionally troubled and inconclusive.
I may as well admit, though, that I was most stirred this year by the sleight-of-hand of female artists--especially the happy harpy triumvirate of Polly Harvey, Björk, and the Mekons' Sally Timms. These women pulled practical jokes on genres: Harvey dismantling the blues' devil in a red dress; Björk singing a vast humanity into techno; Timms making easy listening anything but. Each in her own way pondered the puzzle of estrangement, framed on Harvey's To Bring You My Love in the language of myth, Christianity, and romance; and on Timms's To the Land of Milk and Honey through the idea of exile. The conclusion in all cases--I'm thinking particularly of Björk's delicious remake of the standard "It's Oh So Quiet"--was that connection was both impossible and essential, that refusal to acknowledge relation with an Other only results in the death of an aspect of the Self.
I don't want to imply that these albums espouse some happily-ever-after psychic marriage across the lines of gender, politics, whatever ("everything," pipes up Morissette, "is just fine, fine, fine"). Rather the songs speak of a commitment to passionate and playful process, however maddening, humorous, silly, cruel, and ultimately transformative people interacting with each other must be. This commitment signals the quiet expiration of rock & roll's coherent, individualistic "I"--there is no voice that is not mutable, related, multiple. That does not mean Polly, Björk, and Sally are not opinionated and angry performers, only that they know their opinions, anger, and performances will move and change in relation to, and with, the world. I keep wanting to make a case for the political and social relevance of these communiqués. But all I can really say is that they inspired me, and I'm thankful for it.
1. PJ Harvey To Bring You My Love (Island)
2. Björk Post (Elektra)
3. Sally Timms To The Land Of Milk and Honey (Feel Good All Over)
4. Palace Viva Last Blues (Drag City)
5. Massive Attack vs. Mad Professor No Protection (Circa U.K.)
6. Aceyalone All Balls Don't Bounce (Capitol)
7. Helium The Dirt Of Luck (Matador)
8. Cesaria Evora (Nonesuch)
9. The Sea And Cake Nassau (Thrill Jockey)
10. Raekwon (Guest Starring Tony Starks [Ghost Face Killer]) Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (RCA)
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