The Year That Slipped Away
The 6,000 Albums of 1995
I dreamt that MickJagger died. I was, pardon the pun, shattered. I couldn't believe it, and I spent my entire R.E.M. cycle trying to figure out whether this had really happened or if it was only a dream. In that netherworld of my subconscious, I searched frantically for a newspaper to confirm or deny my worst fears, but somehow all the headlines eluded my grasp. By the time I awoke, I wasn't sure what was real and what I was leaving behind on my pillow, so I stumbled into the living room and rifled through a backlog of unread newspapers to see whether another icon of several generations had passed into legend while I wasn't paying attention. To my undying relief, Jagger had not gone the way of Jerry Garcia, and I sank back into my couch, tired but comforted.
What I did find during that frantic search, however - there on the inside cover of a Chronicle - was a full page ad for new albums by the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Side-by-side were pictures of the Liverpool four and the quartet of remaining Stones, plugging their respective new releases; the Beatles' Anthology 1 and the Stones' Stripped. I laughed. Over 30 years after their initial rise to fame, the two heads of rock & roll state were still competing for the souls (and shekels) of American children. This year, at least, the Beatles won.
Despite the fact that John Lennon is 15 years dead, and Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr are not considered an active recording group, the Beatles nevertheless made the biggest musical splash of 1995. Sure, Hootie & the Blowfish sold more albums (13 million at last count - Cracked Rear View will most likely become Atlantic Records best-selling album), and Alanis Morissette turned more heads with references to the same, but the still fab four - with the help of a six-hour, ratings-robbing rockumentary and a 2-CD set of mostly unreleased rock & roll music - clearly demonstrated that the Beatles continue to embody the great American rock & roll dream on these shores. Perhaps it was only because there wasn't a Nirvana or Public Enemy to fire the first shots of a new musical revolution, or because like 1975 or 1985, this year bogged down in mid-decade musical disinterest. Whatever the case, the Beatles' second coming was not surprising, really - not in retro nation anyway. Unfortunately, though, the rapture left plenty of other releases dead before their time. And plenty of releases there were.
According to Soundscan, the music industry has released approximately 18,000 albums over the last three years - or 6,000 a year. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) breaks this figure down even further, estimating that 60,000 single tracks (songs - see sidebar) were released in 1995. From that I'm supposed to choose the 10 best albums of 1995? Okay, fine. Here they are: Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball; Alison Krauss, Now That I've Found You; Jo Carol Pierce, Bad Girls Upset by the Truth; Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill; The Geraldine Fibbers, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home; Sincola, What the Nothinghead Said; Gabrielle Goodman, Until We Love; Rickie Lee Jones, Naked Songs Live and Acoustic; Joan Osborne, Relish; Abra Moore, Sing. There, that was easy enough. Wait. Oh, I'm sorry, that's my "chick rock" list. Too much estrogen. Sorry.
Here's the real list:
John Hiatt, Cry Love; Guy Clark, Dublin Blues; Bruce Springsteen, The Ghost of Tom Joad; Peter Case, Torn Again; Paul Kelly, Deeper Water; Jimmy LaFave, Buffalo Return to the Plains; James McMurtry, Where'd You Hide the Body; Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lost Train of Thought; Joe Ely, Letter to Laredo; John Prine, Mixed Blessings & Lost Dogs. Shit. That's the wrong list also. That's the singer-songwriter list (notice how many of 'em have Austin ties). Too much testosterone. And by the way, aren't PJ Harvey, and Rickie Lee Jones "singer-songwriters"? What about Son Volt? Nevermind. This wasn't "the list" anyway.
Let's try this one:
Fat Joe, Jealous One's Envy; Genius/GZA, Liquid Swords; Aceyalone, All Balls Don't Bounce; Prince, The Gold Experience; Coolio, Gangsta's Paradise; Pharcyde, Labcabincalifornia; Cypress Hill, Temples of Boom; Masta Ace Incorporated, Sittin' on Chrome; Issac Hayes, Branded/Raw and Refined; Alkaholiks, Coast II Coast. Hmmm. Do I detect a preponderance of bass? Muthafucka! That's the dope hip-hop list. Too black is whack? Christ.
One last time:
Ornette Coleman & Prime Time, Tone Dialing; Terence Blanchard, Romantic Defiance; Sonny Fortune, A Better Understanding; Jacky Terrasson; Nicholas Payton, From This Moment; Don Pullen & The African Brazilian Connection, Live Again; Tim Hagans, Audible Architecture; James Carter, The Real Quietstorm; Charlie Haden & Hank Jones, Steal Away; Kip Hanrahan, All Roads Are Made of Flesh. Homey, that's the jazz list!
You see the problem? There's a Top 10 for every genre of music you can think of - I could even give you 10 great soundtracks: Crumb, Kids, Get Shorty, Desperado, Strange Days, Blue in the Face, Half-Cocked, Basketball Diaries, Dead Presidents, and Devil in a Blue Dress. Name the genre, there's probably 10 good/great records from it, which is why we've once again asked our staff of regular music writers to give us a top 10 from a category of music they're well versed in; to get some perspective. Sure, this results in, well, categorization that even they're not entirely comfortable with, but then isn't that what music criticism always ends up as? That's what the critics of the critics say, anyway.
So we're right back where we started: trying to select the 10 best albums of 1995 outta the 6,000 released. Should we just pick one album from 10 different genres? Perhaps. Certainly all the aforementioned records are worthy of inclusion on such a list. That's too formulaic, though. Too P.C. Too analytical. No. When you get right down to it, there's really only one way to determine the 10 best records of any year: Personal taste. My Top 10 are nobody else's but mine (gee, like every other critic from here to the Village Voice isn't gonna name PJ Harvey, or Foo Fighters), and I wouldn't dream of saying these are the 10 best records of 1995. What I will say, though, is we get a lot of CDs coming through the Chronicle mailroom, and as such, I've heard most of the aforementioned records, many of the albums on our individual writers' lists, and many more on top of that. These then (in no particular order) are the albums that stood out for me.
1. Foo Fighters (Capitol) Like Hole's Live Through This last year,
Foo Fighters screamed "Album of the Year" from listen one, thanks to the
fact that Dave Grohl's first solo album (he played nearly every instrument on
the album), is the closest anyone may ever get to Nirvana's Bleach.
2. Seaweed, Spanaway (Hollywood) This was my favorite record of the year, and like the Foo Fighters, it came from Seattle. Having signed with Hollywood Records in the wake of a bidding war that followed their 1994 SXSW appearance, Seaweed proved they were worth the effort with a raw, in your-face, post-punk record.
3. Joan Osborne, Relish (Mercury/Blue Gorilla) PJ Harvey got the critical kudos, while Alanis Morissette got the press, but it was Joan Osborne who wrote the songs that stick, whether you like 'em or not.
4. PJ Harvey, To Bring You My Love (Island) Ok, ok, it's as great as everyone says it is.
5. Chris Isaak, Forever Blue (Reprise) Album after album, Chris Isaak proves he's more than just a pretty face and a nose job. He's a songwriter of the first order, who makes it look easy.
6. (tie) Friends of Dean Martinez, The Shadow of Your Smile (Sub Pop)/ Pell Mell, Interstate (DGC) Along with Dirty Three's disturbing suicide soundtrack, the acid-washed surf-sounds of The Mermen, and the Denison Kimball Trio's jazz clang, Giant Sand off-shoot Friends of Dean Martinez and their tumble-weed ghost rock along with Portland's Pell Mell and their guitar-driven highway swerving helped bring instrumental modes of rock alienation into the mainstream.
7. Rail Road Jerk, One Track Mind (Matador) While folks make a big stink over four-track music and the faux blues of slackers like G. Love, this NYC quartet gave herky-jerky new meaning.
8. Ramones, Adios Amigos (Radioactive) Forget Green Day. Forget Rancid. Forget punk. The Ramones still do it best.
9. Garbage (Almo) With the expertise of its three member producers - most notably Butch Vig (Nirvana, L7) - and the beguiling voice of Shirley Manson, Garbage sports a high studio gloss that can only be described as industrial disco rawk.
10. Deep Forest, Boheme (550/Epic) World dance music made by a couple of Parisiane's sampling the hypnotic Hungarian singing sounds of Marta.
Honorable Mentions: Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness; Chris Whitley, Din of Ecstasy; Low, Long Division; Radiohead, The Bends; Everclear, Sparkle & Fade.
With the exception of Seaweed's Spanaway, my entire National Top 10 could easily be replaced by my Austin Top 10. Unlike the list of National records, a list of local albums that shone in 1995 is much easier to compile simply because the playing field was smaller - or so it seems. Between tapes sold at shows, 7-inchers, and indie CDs, there were more Austin releases available this year than ever before. And while established local labels flourished (Watermelon, Dejadisc, Trance, Unclean, etc.), new and fledgling indies (Continental, Only Boy, No Lie) evidenced growth spurts that promise healthy offspring in the future even as local fledglings made the jump to Triple-A indies and majors (Hamell and Prescott Curlywolf to Mercury, Magneto USA to Hollywood, Alejandro Escovedo and Buick MacKane to Rykodisc), signaling an overall growth in our local scene that is hopeful even in the face of most performers not being able to make even $50 per gig in local clubs. Given these 10 albums (in order), it's hard not to believe that Austin, Texas, is indeed the musical Mecca of the southwest.
Austin1. Don Walser, The Archive Series, Vols 1 & 2 (Watermelon) Breathtaking in their beauty, these two CDs which expand Walser's now-out-of-print Texas Souvenir album are Austin music in microcosm; Original, wholly unique, and full of passion and musical precision. Don Walser is a treasure to be cherished and these albums may be the crown jewels of Austin now and forever.
2. Abra Moore, Sing (Bohemia Beat) Former Poi Dogger Abra Moore emerged from Frank Orrall's kennel in full bloom with songs of delicate grace, and a voice to melt hearts.
3. Sue Foley, Big City Blues (Antone's) Sultry and sexy parlor blues.
4. Wayne Hancock, Thunderstorms & Neon Signs (Dejadisc) Hank Williams revisted and loving it.
5. Wannabes, Popsucker (Dejadisc) So easy to take for granted as just another sloppy, beer-bust band for the bar set, The Wannabes continue to get better and better and this collection of songs, expertly produced by John Croslin, is the ultimate boilermaker of pop and guitar-rock.
6. Meg Hentges, Afterlaugh (Tim/Kerr) On her second solo effort, Meg Hentges fashioned a studded leather approximation of Lou Reed and Patti Smith: grit and grimace with a steely-eyed hard/soft heart.
7. 8 1/2 Souvenirs, Happy Feet (Continental) Django gypsy jazz for all-day feasts and wine making, single-handedly nullifying any need for a national "lounge movement."
8. Tomas Ramirez, Tejazz (Vireo) As nascent as Austin's jazz scene is, it continues to deliver at least a couple great albums a year. In 1995, Tomas Ramirez' bitches brew of mol10 sax, Tejazz, was a welcome addition to the family.
9. Santiago Jimenez, Jr., Musica de Tiempos Pasados, del Presente, y Futuro (Watermelon) The Chief continues to bring together Texas, German, and Mexican cultures with his accordion in a way keeps his father the great Don Santiago alive and smiling down on his gifted, and ever-beaming son.
10. (tie) Ed Hall, La La Land (Trance)/Sixteen Deluxe, Backfeed Magnatebabe (Trance)/Starfish, Stellar Sonic Solutions (Trance) All three of these Trance Syndicate releases are solid three-star albums - each has a handful of terrific songs. Taken collectively, however, they signal a scene and sound you're bound to see more of in the pages of Spin.
Honorable Mentions: Dumptruck, Days of Fear; Gary Primich, Mr. Freeze; Dangerous Toys, The R*Tist 4*rmerly Known As...; Gals Panic, I Think We Need Helicopters; Various Artists, Only Bowie.
At least in Austin, 1995 was not a hum-drum year for musical releases, nor did the Beatles eclipse everything else. Oh, that's right, Austin is a Stones town. Well, Stripped didn't exactly lay everything else bare, either. In fact, a few days before New Year, at 2am one morning, I caught an hour-long VH-1 special on the making of Stripped. It was infinitely more depressing than Philadelphia, which was playing on cable at the same time. Tom Hanks' AIDS-riddled lawyer had nothing on any of the Stones ('cept maybe, Charlie), and their music - retreaded oldies - was way past terminal. For the first time in my life - a life that has never experienced a world without the Rolling Stones - I found myself thinking that this seminal band no longer mattered. No one else in 1995 filled their shoes, but then they couldn't even get theirs on. That night, my dreams were laced with a verse from "Slipping Away," a Keith Richards' tune that was re-worked on Stripped.
"Well it's just another song/But it's slipping away/Well we didn't sing it long/ 'Cos it's fading away."
So's 1995. Bring on 1996... n