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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
England-based William Orbit has expanded his scope. Instead of sticking with the tools of the electronic trade, he's cruised into collaborative realms, sprinkling the tunes credited to Strange Cargo with the voices of numerous associates. But what makes Hinterland so indelible is Orbit's sumptuous melodic sense, which serves him well whether his pieces percolate vigorously or drift like a sailboat on a windless day.
Second Toughest in the Infants
Underworld is an electronic-music rarity--a band that's actually a band. Vocalist Karl Hyde and accomplices Rick Smith and Darren Emerson at times recall New Order in their melding of the synthetic and the more overtly rock-and-roll (e.g., they use guitars). But these guys are hardly impressionists. No, Underworld is a crossover in the making--a combo capable of bringing new converts to an emerging revolution.
A Ass Pocket of Whiskey
Recorded on a single afternoon last February, this train crash of a record blends the gruff charisma of Burnside with the smart-alecky techniques favored by the very pale Jon Spencer and his equally translucent Blues Explosion. The combination shouldn't work, but it usually does. The off-the-cuff exuberance of the participants lights an inferno under Burnside, who responds with some of his hottest performances.
Clark lives in the land where the blues and rhythm and blues bleed into one. His guitar leads scorch and sting like those of the bluesiest riffers, but his light tenor, which alternately recalls Al Green's and Sam Moore's, moves with a sturdy delicacy that would have fit in well at Stax circa the Sixties. Thanks to Clark, the songs on Texas, be they originals or chestnuts, sport a singularly zesty flavor.
Wake Up and Live!
In the main, Wake Up is dominated by good-time jump blues of the sort that gained popularity during the post-war Forties. Likewise, the material (much of it from pianist/vocalist Dixon's own prolific pen) has some wrinkles in it: You've heard "Hey, Bartender" before, and so have I. But the infectious enthusiasm exhibited by Dixon and a sterling crew of helpers is too dynamic to overlook.
Hoosegow: Queen Esther and Elliott Sharp
An experimental blues album? In 1996? You bet. The psychic link between Sharp and the Queen is almost mystical: He seems to know just what guitar lick will perfectly accent her words and voice. The spare arrangements perfectly suit compositions that touch upon classic blues subject matter in a completely timeless manner. One of 1996's most moving platters. Period.
Against the Wall
(House of Blues)
Yeah, white guys should be able to sing the blues--as long as they do so in a bona fide fashion. That's no problem for Mooney, whose scratchy, wavery, mercurial singing keeps you off guard from "Sacred Ground" (the first song) to "Somebody Been Missing Somebody (2 Long)" (the last). His nasty guitar commentaries and propensity for raw production values only add to the album's impact.
Some folks might consider this selection a guilty pleasure, but not yours truly. During a truly awful period in the history of American music (the late Seventies), Cheap Trick was a shining beacon of hope--and it provided lots of laughs, too. Sex/America supplements melodic hookfests from the quartet's top offerings (In Color and Heaven Tonight) with unreleased items and judiciously chosen latter-day work.
Miles Davis and Gil Evans
The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings
Davis, a spontaneous, volatile jazz genius, and Evans, a somewhat professorial tinkerer, made for a strange but effective team. Their dissimilarities were offset by a shared love of conceptualism that makes grandiose opuses such as Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain (both heard here in expanded versions) unique in the annals of popular music. Rich, beautiful, soaring.
For a trio that toiled in obscurity during most of its existence, Galaxie 500 has certainly proven to be influential: Everything that's happened in the lo-fi movement over the past five years is prefigured in these four discs, which pair previously released but out-of-print gems with worthy obscurities. For aficionados, a blessing; for novices, much more.
The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions
Everything that Joshua Redman is "creating" today, Gordon was playing more than thirty years ago. This bountiful six-CD treasure trove assembles sessions staged between 1961 and 1965 by a floating squad that at times included Bud Powell and Billy Higgins. Gordon, though, is the undisputed star of Complete. Although he wasn't a Coltrane-like instigator, he made consistently brawny, satisfyingly jazzy art. Dig in.
Down Every Road: 1962-1994
If Haggard hasn't been the orneriest entertainer in country music during the previous forty years, it hasn't been for a lack of trying. But beneath his craggy populism is a poet whose tunes are much more complex than they seem at first blush. He's a man who never learned to keep his mouth shut when he had something to say--and it's this very quality that will keep you returning to Road.
Over the years, Harris has been characterized as a great singer but a sketchy solo performer--an unfair knock that's entirely discredited by these three CDs. She comes across as a bright craftswoman with a knack for finding sublime material, a willingness to change direction in order to foster artistic growth, and a respect for country traditions that adds tang to each note she croons.
People Get Ready!: The Curtis Mayfield Story
Mayfield was an inestimably important figure in the soul movements of the Sixties and Seventies--but when the hits stopped coming, he fell out of the public eye. A tragic 1990 accident left him paralyzed, but it also reminded observers about his unparalleled skills as a singer, writer and producer. At three CDs, People Get Ready is too short. But this flaw aside, it provides an intelligent overview of the man's finest work.
Datapanik in the Year Zero
The liner notes that accompany these five discs are among the weakest ever for a major-label box: They seem to have been assembled in ten minutes while the printer impatiently drummed his fingers on the author's desk. But the music made by this aesthetically triumphant cult act is unimpeachable. Ubu leader David Thomas still has plenty of good music left in him; this is the good music he's made so far.
Cowabunga!: The Surf Box
Surf music is all about minimalism--the swinging drama that can be produced using little more than drums, bass and an echoey guitar turned up loud. Cowabunga! lovingly programs hours of the stuff, including early masterworks, mid-period smashes, late-Sixties curios and Nineties forays that demonstrate just how much vitality remains in this musical back alley.
Mean Old World: The Blues From 1940 to 1994
Although these top-drawer compilations are sold separately, they actually feel like companions. The first draws upon the Smithsonian's collection of recordings: Everyone from Leadbelly to Corey Harris is represented. Classics, meanwhile, dips into the archives of nine separate labels in order to spotlight artists famous (Muddy Waters) and little-known (Cow Cow Davenport, Peetie Wheatstraw). Strong, built to last.
Costello & Nieve
Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York
Ticket buyers who suffered through Elvis Costello's self-indulgent appearance at the Paramount Theatre this year will likely be stunned by this five-EP set of songs cut live during performances in the cities enumerated above. Costello's still a bit too gabby, but when it comes time to sing, he does so with relish, thoroughly reworking much of his vast library with the able assistance of longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve.
The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny
Stop the presses: Someone has put out a devout, wide-ranging and not-all-that-campy tribute to Denny, the godfather of exotica. Predictably, "Quiet Village" (which reached Billboard's Top 5 in 1959) kicks off this two-CD package and serves as a blueprint for the lush, cheesy, tenaciously individual mini-scores that follow. A swell introduction to another, finer world.
Across the Omniverse
Quietly, often almost invisibly, Either/ Orchestra has made a mountain of fine sounds that originate in the kingdom of jazz but wind up all over the map. So prolific are its members that most of Omniverse is made up of unissued ditties cut during the past decade. But that doesn't mean these leftovers are less savory than the original courses. Far from it: The two CDs are as strong as any that the Orchestra has made.
Rudy Ray Moore
(The Right Stuff)
Although many of you Caucasians out there have never heard of Moore, he's been a seminal figure in African-American pop culture for over a generation. But don't listen to this underground-movie star and tale spinner par excellence because his routines anticipated the work of both Richard Pryor and Ice-T. No, listen to him because tracks like "Dolemite" are funny as hell.
The Lost Episodes
Rykodisc's obsessive reissuing of the Zappa oeuvre continues to turn up valuable curiosities. The Lost Episodes jams together Zappanalia from a more-than-twenty-year period, much of it revelatory. For instance, "Lost In a Whirlpool" (from the late Fifties) catches Frank and Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, making mayhem that amusingly predicts their respective futures. A nice supplement to your Zappa library.
The ABC's of Soul, Volume 1-3
The ABC imprint didn't exactly challenge Motown for R&B preeminence. Instead, it quietly produced a series of cultivated but often forgotten favorites. Volume 1 (covering the years 1961-1969) is highlighted by the Impressions and Ike & Tina Turner; Volume 2 (1969-1974) brings us Rufus, Bobby Bland and the Dixie Hummingbirds; Volume 3 (1975-1979) brings with it the Dramatics and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.
Grace of My Heart: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
These songs, culled from an erratic but unjustly ignored film by director Allison Anders, capture the Brill Building years and their aftermath so well that they work as well as many of their models. "God Give Me Strength," co-written by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, is the best thing here, but Shawn Colvin and two artists with Denver connections (Jill Sobule and Boyd Rice) make effective contributions.
Rig Rock Deluxe: A Musical Salute to the American Truck Driver
A great idea that brings out the best in a who's who of country veterans (like Buck Owens), relative newcomers (Marty Stuart) and rockers with country backgrounds (Bottle Rockets). There's quite a distance between, say, "Truckstop Girl," a Lowell George miniature rendered by Kelly Willis, and "Nitro Express," by Red Simpson and Junior Brown. But somehow the load never shifts. Deluxe, indeed.
The Roots of Rap
The notion of amassing early folk, blues and gospel ditties that sport many of the sonic elements utilized by today's hip-hoppers sounds deadly, like an unwatchable PBS special transferred to your home stereo. But Roots is more than a musicologist's delight. While studying songs such as Blind Willie Johnson's "If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down" can be intriguing, listening to them is better.
Ultra-Lounge, Volumes 1-12
Anyone whose appetite has been whetted by The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny, lauded above, will likely find the Ultra-Lounge series to be a veritable bounty of goodness. The tongue-in-cheek art design that dominates the covers and liner notes is a bit noxious, but the music makes up for it. For starters, try Space Capades (Volume 3) and Bachelor Pad Royale (Volume 4). They'll make you greedy for more.
(Slow River Records)
If you judge your country by the authenticity of the people making it, then you'll hate the Buckets, whose players assume typically wacky monikers (Earl Butter, Wanderlean Taters, Bea Donna Potts). But set aside your preconceptions and you're apt to feel more than kindly toward "I'm Drunk," "I Wrote This Song," "Postmarked, Virginia" and the rest of this warm and sloppy batch of C&W variations.
I Feel Alright
After fighting through heroin addiction, jail and a tabloid's worth of personal problems, Earle would have been forgiven had this record seemed subpar by comparison with Guitar Town and its successors. But Alright is much more than all right; it's a deeply personal but never maudlin return from a man who won't be going to his grave until he's good and ready.
The Road to Ensenada
It's not easy to transcend genre, but Lovett has done it: He may be holding a cowboy hat on the front of Ensenada, but he's as much pop, blues, folk and jazz as he is country. In other words, he draws equally from just about every division of music made in these United States and then makes it his own. He's also as stellar a songwriter as anyone currently among the living. Julia, you made a big mistake.
Just when you figured it was past time to consign Nelson to the nostalgia file, here comes Spirit, in which he demonstrates that he can still beget outstanding music when he puts his mind to it. He refuses to clutter up the mix with superfluous instrumentation or concessions to country radio--a brave strategy that allows him to cut to the bones of a ravishing array of tracks that are as deep as they are pure.
Texas Top Hand
In a day and age when most country singers sound like pop musicians who know a steel-guitar player, Walser is the real deal. He comes by his honky-tonk honestly: When he yodels, he does so not because it's commercial, but because he must. His version of "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" won't cause you to forget the Sons of the Pioneers forever, but it'll banish them for the length of the song.
Bukem, a remixer of unquestioned ability and international repute, deserves to have his name above the title of this self-described "futuristic drum and bass" assortment. Using as his canvas raveups by the likes of Funky Technicians, Peshay, Chameleon and himself, Bukem swirls together relentlessly magnetic rhythms that will keep your heart, and other parts of your anatomy, pumping.
A superb achievement. DJ Shadow is nothing if not respectful of those who came before him: The notes on Endtroducing... pay tribute to an army of honorees, including "James Brown and his countless disciples" for "inventing modern music." Shadow uses this bottomless store of knowledge in the construction of numbers that transcend their vinyl origins to become modern art of a very high caliber.
James Lumb, David DeLaski, Alex Spurkel and Roxanne Morganstern are Electric Skychurch, but exactly what each of them does is a mystery; beyond a vocal credit for Morganstern, Together contains no other information. So suffice it to say that whoever did the sampling, programming and arranging here has done it very well. Burps, blips and bleeps that will get your backfield in motion.
Amrita...all these and the japanese soup warriors
Here's a curveball. Salman Gita and Jamuud have been working together for a decade, and during that time they've perfected a mode in which they combine ambient washes, prominent drum beats and samples from a wide range of global sources. At times, Amrita recalls the work of Deep Forest, but it's much more varied and generally more provocative. It may not belong here, but it certainly belongs somewhere on this list.
Reece isn't allergic to pop; "Feel the Sunshine," So Far's opener, takes guest vocalist Deborah Anderson to some very Bjsrky zones. But the reason Reece's music works as well on headphones as it does on the dance floor is its flexibility. He'll venture into ambience, dabble with jazzy fragments, embrace melodies or visit the jungle if it sounds good to him. Which is why it will sound good to you.
E.C. Ball With Orna Ball
E.C. Ball With Orna Ball
The late E.C., who hailed from Rugby, Virginia, was a folk artist in terms of both inclination and methodology; his music was unembroidered because the basic elements from which it was forged were all that he needed. Along with his wife, Orna, he weaves through 25 songs of praise and enlightenment that are as divine as their untainted love for the Lord in heaven above.
Glamour & Grits
Man, can Bush play the mandolin; he's such a virtuoso that he's all but redefined the instrument. However, Glamour is more than a showcase for his flying fingers. Bush handles vocals on half of these dozen efforts with a relaxed, unshowy ease that's subtly convincing. But it's when words are placed in the backseat that he truly shines. A first-rate showcase for a first-rate talent.
DiFranco has always been an admirable person: Her rambunctious independence should serve as an inspiration to performers everywhere. But even as she's made a business empire of her own, she's grown as an artist--and for my money, Dilate represents a new peak. Rather than viewing folk as a straitjacket, DiFranco boldly goes where she hasn't gone before, and her musical eclecticism pays huge dividends.
Edelman's jaunty yet pristine enunciation finds its perfect mate in the supportive cast gathered by the vocalist and her producer, Bil VornDick. Jerry Douglas, Clive Gregson and Alison Brown make superlative contributions to Edelman compositions like "Why'd You Wait So Long" and "Not Far to Fall" that display an emphatic vigor even when the protagonists are at their lowest.
In some quarters, Welch has been portrayed as a folk-singer wannabe--the equivalent of a SoCal sorority girl trying to pretend she's from Appalachia. But forget Welch's origins: One listen to Revival should convince those who haven't already convinced themselves to the contrary that she's in touch with the verities that distinguish folk at its finest.
While Rage Against the Machine gets most of the press, Biohazard continues to develop a rap-metal juggernaut that's as smart as it is brutal. Billy Graziadei, Evan Seinfeld and Danny Schuler get studio assistance from producer-to-the-stars Dave Jerden, but if compromises resulted, they're not evident. Loud rhythms, passionate words and three players who know each other inside out. Better music through chemistry.
Songs of Love and Hate
In certain death-metal circles, the heathens of Godflesh are regarded as sellouts because their songs now have accessible structures and a somewhat less extreme coating of noise. But to this observer, the changes haven't rendered Godflesh flaccid; the musicians have sharpened the unit's focus even as they've widened its scope. In other words, Godflesh is getting more dangerous--and in this field, that's a positive development.
These veterans of the industrial wars are still fighting the good fight long after many of their onetime contemporaries have taken government jobs. Supplemented by a large cadre of helpers (including Nicole Blackman, around whom the Golden Palominos' Dead Inside revolves), the boys use dance beats, fuzzy guitars, ecstatic choruses and an apparently inexhaustible store of intensity to rock the house again.
These guys have never wanted for the personal characteristic ballyhooed in this full-length's title, but they've often fallen short when it comes to good material. This time, though, that's not a problem. An amalgamation of originals and covers from TSOL, Minor Threat and others, Attitude underlines a relationship between punk and metal that was always there, had anyone cared to look.
This three-piece, made up of Dave Creadeau, Boom Christopher Paige and Tracey, is one of which Trent Reznor would approve: Its merger of brackish synthesizers, feedback-drenched guitars and heavily treated vocals attains a proper balance between melody and cacophony. These cuts, remixed by a slew of luminaries from the industrial underground, travel at twice the speed of anger.
Dave Holland Quartet
Dream of the Elders
Holland, who came of age in several of Miles Davis's lineups, has been making gorgeous albums for years yet has received little acclaim for doing so. His latest has slipped past many observers as well, and that's too bad, because it finds the double-bassist at the height of his composing and performing powers. Kudos to Cassandra Wilson, whose intonations are heard on "Equality," a track that perfectly caps this very pleasant Dream.
Branford Marsalis Trio
The Dark Keys
When the Marsalis brothers first came on the scene, Branford was regarded as the one least likely to change the world, and understandably so: Anyone willing to play with Sting seemed a bit suspect. But now that he's escaped from the plush prison that was his gig on The Tonight Show, he's letting it all hang out. The Dark Keys is a potent explosion of jazz energy--and Branford's best long-player ever.
Compassion Seizes Bed-Stuy
During the freewheeling Sixties, many musicians saw jazz as a political weapon with which they could fire their rage at those who most needed to feel it. Bassist Parker, aided immeasurably by saxophonist Rob Brown, drummer Susie Ibarra and pianist Cooper Moore, revives this theory and, on "Compassion," "Malcolm's Smile" and "Holiday for Hypocrites," proves that it's got a lot of life in it yet.
You can be sure that it wasn't Scott who decided that "Heaven," a David Byrne number from his Talking Heads days, should serve as the signature for his newest installment; some suit at Warner Bros. probably suggested it. But its staggering beauty should be credited to Scott, who's among the most distinctive singers ever to use a microphone. Fragile, knowing, haunting.
World Saxophone Quartet
There have been times when this ensemble has made music without any attempt to reach beyond fans of the outside thing. But Four Now finds reed wizards David Murray, Hamiet Bluiett, Oliver Lake and John R. Purcell using their gifts to invite more people to the party. The addition of African drums gives these eight slices of jazz life a celebratory complexion that will keep you coming back again and again.
Adamson has learned from Nick Cave, a onetime employer who co-wrote Oedipus's "The Sweetest Embrace," an understanding of character--and the importance of staying in it. He does so throughout this extremely odd but very enjoyable score to an imaginary film about a subject that Greek tragedians took out of the closet a few millennia ago. An idiosyncratic episode that's well worth hearing.
When the Wind Blows
On the cover of Wind, Creedlers Dion Thurman, Tim Blankenship, Devon Goldberg and Cochemea Gastelum look like members of an early Ornette Coleman quartet--all white shirts, narrow ties and seriositude. But they don't just make jazz, or modern rock, or even punk rock: They make all of the above, often at exactly the same time. They set out on one difficult mission after another and--surprise--accomplish most of them.
Manfred HYbler and Siegfried Schwab
Vampyros Lesbos: Sexadelic Dance Party
A friend who fancies himself a connoisseur of Z-grade cinema cautions me that the films of director Jess Franco, for which these soundtrack extracts were penned, are turgid and dull despite the striking amount of feminine pulchritude on display during them. So perhaps we're better off simply listening to these groovy/chintzy time-capsule instrumentals and imagining a good movie to go along with them. Action!
The Emotional Plague
For a combo whose handle rivals the Butthole Surfers' for sheer goofiness, the Supreme Dicks are a fairly severe lot. On "Columnated Ruins/ Seeing Distant Chimneys" and other succinctly titled airs, the Dicks draw from various divisions of the avant-garde to come up with some of the most off-kilter pop deconstruction since Sonic Youth met David Geffen. That's a strong recommendation, in case you were wondering.
Tricky would probably call what he does rap, or a variation thereof. But his sonic collages are too furtive to be so easily defined. In other words, he's a genre unto himself. Pre-Millennium Tension is a difficult album--you've got to sweat to plumb its depths. But those of you willing to roll up your sleeves will find that your toils will be rewarded tenfold. A stunner.
Bass Is Base
Memories of the Soulshack Survivors
A soul outfit from Canada? Sounds nightmarish--like spending an evening with Loverboy. But this isn't Bob and Doug McKenzie with four-four drum patterns. East Indian vocalist Chin, Chinese/Trinidadian rapper and percussionist Mystic and French-Canadian multi-instrumentalist Ivana stir up a smooth and funky brew that follows its own path. Which ends at some interesting destinations.
Bomb the Bass
With Clear, producer Tim Simenon--the man behind Bomb the Bass--resists all efforts at classification. "One to One Religion" (voiced by Carlton) and "Tidal Wave" (with River singing) are hugely effective soul seducers, while "Somewhere" is an adventure in ambience and "Darkheart" is echoey pop reggae with Spikey Tee. That it all hangs together is a victory for Simenon--and a perk for you.
Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise
Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise
Bradley's bio sounds like Ted Hawkins's times two: The blind singer-songwriter spent decades entertaining for spare change on the streets of Detroit before being signed to RCA. But this isn't a one-man show. Three white hipsters--Michael Nehra, Andrew Nehra and Jeff Fowlkes--back Bradley with generally contemporary rock and soul. The combination is not an ideal one, but Bradley's scratchy-voiced genuineness makes it work.
Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite
Shades of Marvin Gaye. On Suite, Maxwell, a notably mature prodigy, takes listeners on a guided tour of a memorable love affair--one that ends not in disappointment and melancholy, but in a proposal of marriage that seems sure to be accepted. It could have seemed corny and forced, but it doesn't. The disc is elegant and tantalizing--smooch music for the two of you.
Peace Beyond Passion
Commercially speaking, Peace sank like a stone. But from the standpoint of merit, it was a breakthrough --one that found Ndegeocello fulfilling more promise than anyone had a right to expect. The music has a sweep and rhythmic majesty that's electrifying, while her lyrics unflinchingly explore issues personal and political. A woman whose music rightfully should be coming out of a lot more radios.
Busta's not the most profound rap philosopher you'll ever come across, nor is he doing something so musically mind-blowing that he'll become a hip-hop legend. What makes him striking is his personality, which is so wild, playful and flat-out fun that he transcends his limitations. Get on his wavelength and you'll soon discover that The Coming is the quickest way to a smile on CD this year.
Bottom line, The Score is the biggest-selling hip-hop album of the year--bigger than anything by Ice Cube, Snoop, Tupac, etc. But if you think this success means that it's watered-down, you're incorrect. It's not as "hard" or as "street" as gangstas might wish: It won't scare you white folks out there. But its fluent vocals, tempting backing tracks and solid rhymes mark this Score as a winner.
Hell on Earth
Hell isn't exactly your one-stop wisdom shop: In the midst of narrating tales of crime and punishment like "Man Down," Prodigy, Havoc and their guest stars (Nas, Method Man, Raekwon and Big Noyd) spew the usual tired cliches in the usual ways. So why is this album here? Because it sounds better than just about any hip-hop offering I've heard lately. I can't get it off my CD player, so I've decided to stop trying.
Can hip-hop become a "live" music--one in which instrumental ability is as important as it is in rock and roll or funk? The answer to this query is Illadelph Halflife. Through-out the album, the Brother ?uestion and his fellow Roots create sounds from scratch that are every bit as persuasive as any they could have borrowed. Add their obvious knowledge of the form and you've got more than 78 minutes of joy.
A Tribe Called Quest
Beats, Rhymes and Life
Q-Tip, Phife and Ali Shaheed Muhammed are still hip-hop champs because they've never worried about changing times. Ignoring the trends, they've refined their jazz-flavored hip-hop, freshening its beats and deepening its messages. And by staying true to their vision, they've survived to see many of their peers coming around to their way of thinking. Tribe takes the high road; hopefully, others will, too.
Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects
This is less an album than an exercise in global detente. Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects is a Moroccan band whose recordings on Shabeesation bear the fingerprints of Patrick Jabbar El Shaheed, Bill Laswell, Umar Bin Hassan and P-Funk's Bernie Worrell. Such fiddlings might have had a ruinous effect, but for reasons that go beyond understanding, they open up the music to Western ears without gutting it.
Rev An Nou
Direct from Haiti, whose native rara music is some of the Caribbean's most danceable, Boukan Ginen is radical without being strident. In other words, it's good for you, but you won't mind. Boukan Ginen's cries for freedom and justice are chanted Afro-beat style, and its effervescent rhythms are punctuated by frequent guitar interjections from the supremely adept Vladimy Jean-Felix.
Evolution of Dub
Subtitled Black Liberation Dub, Chapter 3, Evolution finds the Mad Professor--who's got to be on anyone's register of top production innovators right now--sprinkling his thrillingly multifarious dub sounds with political themes that ebb and flow like an insistent wind. The Professor is extremely prolific (see the item below), but Evolution shows that his output hasn't been diluted in the process.
Lee "Scratch" Perry
Who Put the Voodoo 'pon Reggae?
Another Mad Professor project, this album finds the Prof matching wits with Perry, a legendary producer from an earlier dub era. The pair have teamed previously, and to good effect--check out Super Ape Inna Jungle and Experryments at the Grass Roots of Dub if you doubt it. But these ten aural journeys are so loose and nutty that they make Voodoo the perfect place to begin.
Only Love Can Conquer: 1976-1979
(Blood & Fire)
Only the most unreconstructed reggae heads are familiar with Prince Alla, whose music never enjoyed international success. But Only Love, made up of recordings primarily financed by the smallish Freedom Sounds imprint, finds Alla creating roots reggae that's both inviting and profound. His sweet lilt on "Sun Is Shining" is alone worth the price of admission.
A Honky Tonky Reprise
The main body of this disc was released as Rosie Flores in 1987, when Nashville decided to try marketing honest-to-goodness country (as opposed to the more successful phony kind) under the "new traditionalists" banner. The platter never went anywhere, and Flores later took the indie route. But the songs--augmented by six bonus tracks--are so splendid that they make you wonder why k.d. lang wound up being so much bigger.
French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson
Live, Love, Larf & Loaf
Fans who know Richard Thompson only from his days in Fairport Convention, with Linda Thompson or on his own will be caught off-guard by his collaboration with Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser and John French, who hail from such combos as Henry Cow. "Wings a la Mode," "Drowned Dog Black Night" and "Bird in God's Garden" don't entirely dismiss themselves from rock and folk schools, but they refuse to conform to their rules.
Hampton Grease Band
Music to Eat
At one time the second-least-successful release ever on Columbia Records (behind, reportedly, a yoga album), Music to Eat has become a collector's item because it's equal parts hippie-jamming, Zappa/ Beefheart freakouts and plain old insanity. A monster. Those of you who want to further explore the strange psyche of bandleader Col. Bruce Hampton should also search out Strange Voices: A History, 1977-1987, on Landslide.
Back Stabbers is more than the record that pushed Philadelphia International Records and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff to prominence; it's also an R&B masterwork that hasn't dated one second in over twenty years. "Love Train" is still a bit soppy, but the title cut is brilliant, and "992 Arguments" and "Listen to the Clock on the Wall" aren't far behind.
Folks Songs of the Hills
"Sixteen Tons" will be forever associated with Tennessee Ernie Ford, but it was written by Travis, who began popularizing American mythology in music over a half-century ago. This album (which combines the original Folk Songs, released on 78 in 1947, and 1957's Back Home) captures the tunes in all their clarity and reveals Travis to be a storyteller for all time.
Have Love, Will Travel
Don't know a thing about Kirchen, but it's clear from Have Love that he's a man who's done a lot of living. Instead of channeling the pleasures and pains from his past into navel-gazing, however, he does as thousands of rockers have done before him: He rears back and bays at the moon. His singing and playing is Fifties basic, but it's so jocular that it just may restore your faith in music again.
Musicians who do things their own way are often punished for their independence. Such is the case with Los Lobos, which has been receiving less and less support from Warner Bros. with each passing long-player. But don't let corporate neglect dissuade you from experiencing Colossal Head, in which the performers (aided by studio pros Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake) ready their rock and blues for the 21st century.
Omnipop (It's Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop)
In 1988, Sam Phillips, a former contemporary-Christian artist who gave in to her mainstream ambitions, delivered The Indescribable Wow, a practically perfect pop album that she's been trying to match ever since. With Omnipop--produced (as usual) by her significant other, T Bone Burnett--she's finally done it. Great melodies, trippy sounds and Phillips's observational haiku. To borrow a phrase: Wow.
Red House Painters
Songs for a Blue Guitar
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Yes, Mark Kozelek and his Red House Painters come out of their shells to some degree on Blue Guitar. But this is no party disc. Kozelek uses the most rudimentary implements at his disposal to give voice to his fears and disappointments--and inexplicably, the result is simultaneously sulky and life-affirming. Anyone who can make something fascinating out of Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs" is a force to be reckoned with.
Super Furry Animals
Oasis has the market covered on one type of post-Beatles pop--the straightforward John Lennon-making-nice rock technique. Fortunately, that leaves a lot of room for Super Furry Animals. The players are into ornate production; the disc's liner lists cello, flute, recorder and balalaika. But this is no grim-faced patience-tester: Fuzzy Logic is loony and spirited, with no boring aftertaste. May I be able to say that more often in 1997.