This was the year that was.
And what was the year 1994? From a musical standpoint, it was a transitional period. Some trends arose and some trends died during the past twelve months, but no movements were so overpowering that they brushed aside everything else in their paths. As a result, you'll be reading fewer What It All Means rock essays than ever before.
In presenting our roster of the year's outstanding recordings, we've made some changes since last year. The art-rock category has been dropped, the boxed-set classification has been doubled to accommodate an avalanche of new arrivals, and the dance section has been altered to allow the inclusion of ambient releases that didn't fit anywhere else. As usual, you could argue that a number of the discs lauded below shouldn't have been placed in certain pigeonholes--and you'd probably be right. But our goal is to highlight as much good stuff as possible. With a hefty ninety titles to peruse, there's plenty of that to go around.
Antietam, rope-a-dope (Homestead). A trio led by the fascinating Tara Key, Antietam makes husky, captivating music that pays little mind to fashion. Songs like "Hands Down" and "Graveyard" are built to last.
Halo Bit, Gravity (Is the Force That Always Drags You Down) (SpinArt). There's no middleman between you and the homemade pop, rock and who knows what else made by this Alex Kemp-led act. Heavenly, catchy and direct.
Meat Puppets, Too High to Die (London). Most bands shoot their creative wads early and deteriorate thereafter. So praise be to the Puppets, whose High is a return to form and a deserved commercial breakthrough.
Soul Coughing, Ruby Vroom (Slash/Warner Bros.). Soul Coughing comes from the same artistic place as Morphine and G. Love and Special Sauce, but its hybrid of jazz, rap and esoterica still provides a bracing jolt.
Ween, Chocolate and Cheese (Elektra). The Ween brothers' previous work was too clever for its own good. Their latest, complete with an Ohio Players-esque cover, is just clever enough. As entertaining as it is weird.
Buddy Guy, Slippin' In (Silvertone). For his latest, Guy dispensed with the special guest stars and crossover repertoire to concentrate on what he does best--play the blues with more feeling than any other man alive. This wails.
Michael Hill's Blues Mob, Bloodlines (Alligator). Hill has found a way to goose up the venerable genre without gutting it entirely. His occasional rock and metal leanings owe their effectiveness to blues power.
Keb' Mo', Keb' Mo' (OKeh/Epic). One of the year's subtlest blues CDs is also one of the best. A songwriter of uncommon skill, Mo' also delivers--we're not kidding--Robert Johnson covers that manage to sound fresh.
James Blood Ulmer, Blues Preacher (DIW/Columbia). Ulmer's playing draws from many traditions, including the blues. By staying within blues boundaries this time, he gains in listenability what he loses in freedom.
Lavelle White, Miss Lavelle (Antone's). Big and burly she's not, but Miss Lavelle is as capable of busting a song wide open as anyone this side of Son Seals. On these twelve songs, her soul comes shining through.
BOXED SETS Louis Armstrong, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1923-1934 (Columbia). Armstrong was a cuddly, personable fellow, but he was also a musical revolutionary. Much of the century's best music started here.
The Band, Across the Great Divide (Capitol). An astutely programmed package. Disc one encapsulates the Band's first three must-haves, disc two charts the act's decline and disc three unearths groovy rarities.
Bill Monroe, The Music of Bill Monroe, From 1936 to 1994 (MCA). Monroe's music has influenced four generations of performers, yet it's seldom heard today. These four discs offer a wonderful remedy for that travesty.
Bud Powell, The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings (Blue Note). It's too bad that Powell's tragic life gets more attention than his music, because his work remains glorious. Happy bop, sad bop, essential bop.
The Temptations, Emperors of Soul (Motown). Frequently overlooked by music historians, the Temps created indelible hits during two distinct periods of development. From "My Girl" to "Cloud Nine," it's all here.
Various Artists, BLACKBOX--Wax Trax! Records: The First 13 Years (Wax Trax!/ TVT). Wax Trax! has often seemed as concerned with art design as music. This look back effectively exhibits the label's successes and excesses.
Various Artists, The Doo Wop Box (Rhino). An exhaustively researched and meticulously assembled study of the music heard on one of rock and roll's quirkiest street corners. Forgotten acts make unforgettable sounds.
Various Artists, From the Vaults: Decca Country Classics, 1934-1973 (MCA). A terrific sampler put out by a leading label in the C&W field. The pure stuff, performed by everyone from the Carter Family to Loretta Lynn.
Various Artists, Sam Cooke's SAR Records Story, 1959-1965 (Abcko). A revelation. Those who think Cooke was only a pop star will be astounded at his writing and production acumen--and by the classic gospel rock he oversaw.
Various Artists, The Sun Records Collection (RCA/Rhino). Three CDs' worth of the rock and roll that made America great. Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl, Roy and the rest sound as good today as they did when these songs were cut.
The Beatles, Live at the BBC (Capitol/Apple). Yeah, the publicity for this sucker has been off-putting. But the relaxed, spontaneous, exuberant performances by these four young lads live up to much of the hyperbole.
Esquivel!, Esquivel! (Bar/None). In the land where Martin Denny is king, Esquivel! is a prince. His unusual swinging sounds, embraced by today's cocktail wannabes, are so dated that they're actually timeless.
John Fahey, The Return of the Repressed: The John Fahey Anthology (Rhino). An idiosyncratic talent, Fahey pioneered a droning, hypnotic guitar style that makes the most of every note, every strum. A downbeat triumph.
Jimi Hendrix, Blues (MCA). Practically every Hendrix album issued since the guitarist's death has been a ripoff. So imagine our surprise at the appearance of this disc, a thoughtful spotlight on Hendrix's blues playing.
Spike Jones, Musical Depreciation Revue: The Spike Jones Anthology (RCA/Rhino). Jones was an avant-gardist from the lapels of his checkered suits to the soles of his spats. Provocative comedy for the ages.
Various Artists, Brace Yourself: A Tribute to Otis Blackwell (Shanachie). Long-overdue recognition for a man whose songwriting provides much of rock's language. Guests range from Ronnie Spector to Frank Black.
Various Artists, If I Were a Carpenter (A&M). When Carpenter was conceived, it probably seemed like a pretty good joke. The surprise, then, is how intriguing many of these alternative versions of Seventies shlock are.
Various Artists, Out on the Rolling Sea: A Tribute to the Music of Joseph Spence (Green Linnet). Few sounds are as moving as those made by Spence, but this material (cut by Van Dyke Parks and others) comes close.
Various Artists, Spy Magazine Presents, Vol. 3: Soft, Safe and Sanitized (Rhino). What a bizarre stench this sends up. Great rock songs gutted by the likes of Jim Nabors, Joel Grey and the Lettermen.
Various Artists, What Is Bhangra? (IRS). A worthy introduction to Bhangra, a division of dance music born in India and transformed in Britain. Thirteen songs filled with mystery and brimming with big beats.
Johnny Cash, American Recordings (American). It's hard to think of Cash as country anymore: His music is a genre all its own. "Delia's Gone" is as perverse as anything you've ever heard come out of a senior citizen.
Michael Hall, Adequate Desire (DEJADISC). Hall's wit is tinted with doom and splashed on tunes that owe as much to Neil Young as they do to Hank Williams Sr. As good a performer as he is a writer--which is very good, indeed.
The Mavericks, What a Crying Shame (MCA). The band's third album hit big at country radio, in part because compromise is part of Shame's bargain. But Raul Malo continues to live up to his own high standards.
Barry and Holly Tashian, Straw Into Gold (Rounder). A throwback to the days when duets were country's hottest commodities, the Tashians gently render thirteen lovely, and loving, C&W compositions.
Townes Van Zandt, No Deeper Blue (Sugar Hill). Van Zandt's work strikes some as too primitive, too bare--and that's exactly why it's great. No Deeper Blue finds his pen and his wisdom at their sharpest.
The Fireman, Strawberries, Oceans, Ships, Forest (Capitol). A well-disguised Paul McCartney one-off that sounds nothing like Paul McCartney. The Fireman's excursion in ambient-dance music works startlingly well.
The Grassy Knoll, The Grassy Knoll (Nettwerk). The Knoll resides in the zone between dance and ambient musics--and it's an interesting place to be. A panoply of synthesized elements fired like shots from Oswald's rifle.
Vapourspace, Themes From Vapourspace (ffrr). Patience is required to get the most out of these deliberate sonic washes, but your time will be rewarded. Like new-age music without the anti-intellectual aftertaste.
Various Artists, Platinum on Black (ffrr). Boom! Thwack! Boom! State-of-the-art boogie fodder from acts such as Utah Saints and New Order, sequenced by David Morales for your nonstop dancing pleasure.
Peter Vriends: Quadripart Project, Emotional Travelogue (Sm:)e). Vriends is clearly influenced by minimalism; many of his soundscapes recall the work of Philip Glass. Travelogue will transport you.
Peter Case, Sings Like Hell (Vanguard). Like many retired new-wavers, Case was always a folkie at heart. His trek through a handful of familiar blues and folk numbers is rough-edged and heartfelt.
Iris DeMent, My Life (Warner Bros.). Indexing DeMent here rather than placing her under the C&W banner makes sense because her sensibility stretches beyond it. She has the voice--and the honesty--of a backwoods angel.
Ted Hawkins, The Next 100 Years (Geffen). You don't have to know about Hawkins's personal tales of woe: He wears them on every word he sings. Better yet, he alters them into thrilling nuggets of boardwalk art.
Ingrid Karklins, Anima Mundi (Green Linnet). Karklins is not content to simply yoke herself to the musical past. Her version of folk encompasses odd studio noises, prominent drums and a fierce inventiveness.
The Tannahill Weavers, Capernaum (Green Linnet). There's something inexplicably haunting about Celtic music when it's done right. On Capernaum, the Weavers find the style's essence and render it perfectly.
HARD ROCK/METAL Biohazard, State of the World Address (Warner Bros.). The move to a major label has done nothing to muzzle these pissed-off New Yorkers. Their synthesis of metal, rap, politics and madness is as impressive as ever.
Cynic, Focus (Roadrunner). Death-metallers usually don't have much tolerance for hooks, but the four Cynics aren't just any death-metallers. Their forays into melody make the crash-and-burn riffing even more effective.
Danzig, Danzig-4 (American). You may laugh at ol' Glenn, but you've got to admit it: He's as captivating and magnetic a frontman as any hard-rocker out there right now. Jim Morrison would approve.
Godflesh, Selfless (Earache/Columbia). It's become commonplace to warn folks that metal discs aren't for the faint of heart, but this time we really mean it. Selfless is loud and smart, and it will scare your folks.
Soundgarden, Superunknown (A&M). We've heard these songs over and over again during the past year, and we're not sick of them yet. There can be no greater recommendation for this album, by far Soundgarden's finest.
Front Line Assembly, Millennium (Roadrunner). Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber have been putting out exciting industrial material for a long stretch, and they show no signs of slowing down. Clearly, Assembly is required.
KMFDM, Angst (Wax Trax!/TVT). Those persistent guitars--those chugging beats--those stentorian vocals. Mmm-hmm, it's KMFDM again, and Angst finds these vets doing it once more with feeling.
Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral (Nothing/Interscope). Trent Reznor's got some muscle now: How else could he have gotten the line "I want to fuck you like an animal" on the air? A victory for the nihilists among us.
Sect, Telekinetic (Third Mind). Mike Victory, Jason McEvoy and Bruce Young know that sometimes words get in the way. On Telekinetic, they let their machines do the talking--and they've got a lot to say.
VATIC[A.N.], Infocalypse (Industry). The nice thing about this music is that you can pretty much do it yourself. Infocalypse, from a Chicago indie, is as compelling as anything put out by better-known peers.
Either/Orchestra, The Brunt (Accurate). A group of ten true believers who've been on the edge of the jazz scene for years now, the Orchestra combines tight structures and free playing like no other combo.
William Hooker, Radiation (Homestead). The alternative label branches out with a brash disc from Hooker, whose ensemble is as fiery and uninhibited as any in the land. A wild exercise in full-blown skronking.
Sonny Simmons, Ancient Ritual (Qwest/ Reprise). Into a jazz scene laden with young lions draining the life out of post-bop comes a man who juices his music with passion. Like a Coltrane album Coltrane never made.
Mike Stern, Is What It Is (Atlantic Jazz). When he joined Miles Davis's band, Stern was seen as a jazz sellout. Here he proves to be an intriguing improvisational player rather than a rocker in jazz clothing.
Steve Tibbetts, The Fall of Us All (ECM). Tibbetts takes his listeners to breathless heights on Fall, a recording that's exotic, experimental and completely rewarding. Jazz the way it was meant to be.
Maggie Estep, No More Mister Nice Girl (Imago/NuYo). This woman has quite a mouth on her. Estep merges spoken word with music to create pieces that are simultaneously funny and not funny. Tell it, girlfriend!
Material, Hallucination Engine (Axiom). Producer Bill Laswell has come up with one of his most potent discs, a pastiche graced by brilliant players, Wayne Shorter and Bernie Worrell among them. Intoxicating.
Pat Metheny, Zero Tolerance for Silence (DGC). Metheny gets his share of knocks, but only a truly driven artist would risk his following with a CD this abrasive and challenging. A feedback orgy of epic proportions.
Manny Oquendo and Libre, Mejor Quet Nunca (Milestone). It would be simple enough to call this Latin music, but it's more than that. Salsa, jazz and dance music from around the world get together and kick up their heels.
Velvet Cactus Society, 26 Songs (Shimmy-Disc). Nutso song fragments that suggest a collaboration between They Might Be Giants and the Residents. Unbridled imagination is on display here.
Bootsy's New Rubber Band, Blasters of the Universe (Rykodisc). Two CDs' worth of prime Bootsy. Space-bassist Collins's timely comeback finds him with his funky attitude and his funky music utterly intact.
The Brand New Heavies, Brother Sister (Delicious Vinyl). Previous Heavies releases have seemed forced. By contrast, Brother Sister is a soulful serenade, as well as singer N'Dea Davenport's coming-out party.
Nu Soul Habits, Meant to Be (Motown). It's appropriate Meant is on Motown, because the work of Tonye Hilmon and Eddie Towns Jr. seems like an update of the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell duets. And that's good company.
Jimmy Scott, Dream (Sire/Warner Bros./ Blue Horizon). Scott is presented as he should be--with little else other than his voice to keep him, and us, company. Beautiful and disturbing in equal measures.
Barry White, The Icon Is Love (A&M). No doubt White's higher profile of late has something to do with camp. Nonetheless, Icon is an over-the-top seduction festival that's marvelously smooth, deep and profane.
Afro-Plane, Afro-Plane (Kaper/RCA). The Arrested Development approach to hip hop is already showing signs of wear. Even so, Afro-Plane's journey into funk and psychedelia emerges with all its verve intact.
Beastie Boys, Ill Communication (Grand Royal/Capitol). Damn it if the Boys don't keep getting better. Rap's only one element in a mix that's both accessible (e.g., "Sabotage") and forward-looking.
B.Y.O.B., B.Y.O.B. (Rykodisc). Basehead's Michael Ivey gives his highly individual version of rap some new twists. Tracks meander in unexpected directions, giving the album as a whole a feel that's lazy but right.
Fugees (Tranzlator Crew), Blunted on Reality (Ruffhouse/Columbia). The frequent "interludes" here are lame, but the songs are worth waiting for. The Crew has three able rappers able to balance blunts and brains.
Kokane, Funk Upon a Rhyme (Ruthless). With a name like his, Kokane would seem likely to spew nothing but nonsense. Fortunately, his real focus is funk as pungent and relentless as any made by Dr. Dre's Long Beach cronies.
Manu DiBango, Wakafrika (Giant). The rare musical summit conference that works. Famous people such as Peter Gabriel and Sinead O'Connor drop by, but DiBango is the man in charge.
Maleem Mahmoud Ghania with Pharoah Sanders, The Trance of the Seven Colors (Axiom). Fusion in the truest sense, Trance unites Moroccan Ghania and American Sanders for a disc that enriches the work of both.
Salif Keita, The Mansa of Mali...A Retrospective (Mango). In spite of intrusions by Joe Zawinul and Steve Hillage, Mansa is still a vigorous showcase for Keita, a masterful arranger and performer.
Rara Machine, Voudou Nou (Shanachie). The Machine blends rara (a Haitian musical hybrid) with Afro-Cuban influences. The combination is joyous, compulsively danceable and as easy on Western ears as anything by Fela Kuti.
The Skatalites, Hi-Bop Ska (Shanachie). Subtitled The 30th Anniversary Recording, the disc is a golden opportunity for this group (aided by David Murray, Lester Bowie and Toots Hibbert) to strut its stuff.
Al Green, Explores Your Mind (Hi/Right Stuff). Consider Explores a stand-in for the entire Green catalogue now on CD. Green's early- and mid-Seventies work contained the best soul music of the Seventies.
Herbie Hancock, The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (Warner Archives). These three Hancock albums (on two CDs) sounded watered down when they appeared twenty years ago. Today they seem danceable and very, very cool.
The Monkees, Head (Rhino). Of all the newly reissued Monkees CDs, Head is the most demented. The soundtrack to a film intended to remake them as Sixties trendsetters, it's a crazed time capsule from days gone by.
Prince, The Black Album (Warner Bros.). This rare recording sounded astounding when it was bootlegged seven years ago. With its reappearance, it's become a symbol of a direction Prince should have taken.
Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, The Complete 2000 Year Old Man (Rhino). A boxed set of the four Reiner/Brooks comedy CDs, Complete is off-the-cuff borscht-belt humor that's even funnier than you remember it.
C.C. Adcock, C.C. Adcock (Island). Rockabilly that's less extreme than the Reverend Horton Heat's but just as propulsive. Adcock's reverence (and his irreverence) keeps this rocking from beginning to end.
Lisa Germano, Geek the Girl (4AD). While Geek is neither rock nor pop, Germano's harrowing truth-telling follows in the footsteps left by artists such as Lou Reed. Like him, she slays her demons with fearlessness.
Latin Playboys, Latin Playboys (Slash/Warner Bros.). A Los Lobos side project that's as good as any Los Lobos album. David Hidalgo, Louie Perez and compadres have made a Basement Tapes for the Nineties.
Moe Tucker, Dogs Under Stress (Sky). After the first demise of the Velvet Underground, Tucker began releasing intermittent dispatches from her rural home. This is easily the most charming of the bunch.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Sleeps With Angels (Reprise). Far more than an elegy to Kurt Cobain, Sleeps is Young on fire as he hasn't been for years. May he keep on burning--and never fade away.