The Prize Patrol

The biggest musical winners from 1996.

What follows is a list of the best albums of 1996. Sort of.
Each December this decade, I've sat down to compile a roster of the finest recordings that came my way during the preceding eleven months. But because of the sheer volume of material I've heard--and because I try to highlight releases from a wide variety of styles, not simply pick ten pop albums and call it a day as do many music reviewers--pinpointing the CDs most deserving of applause isn't easy. In the end, I wind up writing about those platters that have lingered longest in my mind. If I decide to compile another compendium of 1996's top discs ten years down the line, it's likely that it won't precisely match this one. Some of these efforts will last; some won't. But right here, right now, all of them sound pretty damn good.

The 91 pieces celebrated below have been divided into seventeen categories, including an expanded section for boxed sets. They match the brackets from last year with one exception: Because 1996 has been such a weak period for metal, I've added industrial music to the grouping. Also note that the reggae/worldbeat pigeonhole is heavy on dub, which has lately been hitting new creative heights. As always, some nominees fit snugly under their respective headings, while others have been shoehorned in. Many of you will argue over their placement--but such arguments are half the fun, aren't they? (My picks for the best local releases of 1996 will appear in our January 2 issue.)

Overall, 1996 was another transition year--a time when many artists seemed to be waiting for the Next Big Thing rather than struggling to conjure it up themselves. But before moving on to 1997, give a listen to some of these. Maybe you'll discover that it wasn't such a bad year after all.



After "Loser" became one of the most overused cultural markers of the decade, many observers figured Beck was doomed to pop-history-footnote status. Wrong. Odelay, in which young Mr. Hansen and co-producers the Dust Brothers use cut-and-paste techniques to revitalize alterna-sounds as we know them, is that rare disc that's both commercially successful and artistically influential. Is this the future of modern rock? We could do much worse.

Cat Power
What Would the Community Think

Chan Marshall (who for all intents and purposes is Cat Power) is not what you'd call an upbeat individual: She's so moody and sullen that she makes Vic Chestnutt seem like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. But her gently insinuating voice, persistent intelligence and songs like "Good Clean Fun" and "Fate of the Human Carbine" give Community a power that's impossible to ignore.

Tijuana Hit Squad

So what if Deadbolt is sort of a joke? It's also an entertainingly single-minded bunch whose current disc is guaranteed to thrill anyone even slightly familiar with Jim Thompson, Black Mask or Pulp Fiction. The body count in "A Hit Gone Wrong" and "Prison Shank" rivals the pile of cadavers at the end of the average Arnold Schwarzenegger action film, but the results are infinitely more satisfying.

Railroad Jerk
The Third Rail

In a sense, Railroad Jerk isn't doing anything new: Rock and blues are the main ingredients of its music. But guitarist/vocalist Marcellus Hall and his right-hand men don't simply deconstruct rock verities. Instead, they use technology to give them a postmodern twist. Add a slew of songs that would stand up no matter how they were presented and you've got a disc that makes everything old seem new again.

Emperor Tomato Ketchup

Multi-instrumentalist Tim Gane has an approach utterly unlike that exhibited by any of his contemporaries: He takes droning art rock, jazz, lounge, rock and Lord knows what else, adds the distinctively distant tones of Laetitia Sadier and mixes well. Stereolab has made good albums in the past, but Emperor Tomato Ketchup sets a new standard for the collective. It's danceable music that's also good for your head.


The Future Sound of London
Dead Cities

Don't visit Dead Cities expecting your usual techno workout: The Londoners have something else in mind. While the album is based upon beats that may well move your feet, it's also a de facto sci-fi soundscape--the score that Blade Runner should have had but didn't. Taken as a whole, these artsy montages of noise constitute a spooky, very tangible universe big enough to get lost in.

The Golden Palominos
Dead Inside

Surprised to see a project by this combo here? Me, too--but this genus is as good a place as any to catalogue the most recent boundary-stretcher from the workshop of Anton Fier. With the assistance of Bill Laswell, Knox Chandler and Nicky Skopelitis, Fier "generates" (his word) environments that support and enhance the purred verse of Nicole Blackman. You'll either love this or hate it. Guess how I feel about it.

In Sides

This outfit has been as consistent a purveyor of ambient inventions as any over the past several years, and with this package, its inductees have outdone themselves. In Sides is a two-CD extravaganza that uses a handful of live vocals (by "Auntie"), some actual drumming (credited to "Clune") and a potpourri of noises coaxed from an array of cooperative machines. Yet most of the music sounds warm, alluring and very, very real.

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