Ignored, and Underappreciated
Ten Albums You Probably Missed
How that the time hascome when we're supposed to take stock of the musical year that was, I find I have nothing to say. Hootie & the Blowfish sold 12 million records. Bush exists. So do the Beatles, sort of. Jerry died. Texas Instruments and Paul K are still stuck, career-wise, in the "beautiful losers" category (though that doesn't exactly qualify as news). The Foo Fighters, Blur, Smashing Pumpkins, and anything that "rose from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo" were highly overrated. So was everything else (except for Soul Asylum - sadly; they got what they deserved). In the popular arena, in the context of repetitive alternative radio and the Buzz Bin, you can't even tell what's good from what's bad anymore; I'm just as sick of "Queer," by a band I love, as I am of that fatuous, incessant Joan Osborne song, which is enough to make anyone doubt the existence of God. Lollapalooza meant next-to-nothing, except as a weird apotheosis for the Sonic Youth generation. "Alternative" has cycled to a dead end, as symbolized by all the radio one-hit bands, and the fact that one of them involves Lou Barlow. What remains of the independent scene can once again be truly independent (which is to say, artistically radical and dirt-broke). I was lucky enough to witness the grace and wonder of Patti Smith, who remains a matchless melding of boho style, poetic vision, and rock star charisma. The only other time I felt transformed this year was in a crowd of moshing, sweaty, and hysterical British teenagers at a Pulp concert in Cambridge, where suddenly I was in a unified pop community for the first time in ages.
So, in the absence of meaning, I'll settle for pleasure. Here's where I found most of it in '95, with these records - all of which were either unknown, ignored, or somehow underappreciated.
1. Ben Folds Five (Caroline) Their novelty is being a Rundgren/Billy Joel-like piano band, but that's nothing next to leader Ben Folds' all-purpose virtuosity - as a furious keypounder, a dead-catchy composer. and an ultra-keen lyricist.
2. The Boo Radleys, Wake Up! (Creation/Columbia) Overshadowed by Blur and Oasis, the Boos were actually the best POP! wizards this year, offering both ennui and escape within songwriter Martin Carr's bright, blustering, Beatles/Beach Boys/Big Star world. Shamelessly twee and remarkably textured and experimental.
3. Julian Cope, 20 Mothers (American) Twenty songs, no two alike, all of them mothers, indeed. A minimal record, laden with archaic synthesizer effects, that's like a travelogue of Cope's long and scattered career: pop, acid-trips, Kraut-rock, Roky rock, P-Funk, folk, and Scott Walker dreaminess. All hail the Arch-Drude.
4. Delicatessen, Skin Touching Water (Starfish U.K.) One of those rare British bands that Amerindie types like better - a gothically nasty band of clowns a la the Tindersticks, complete with the acid-laced guitars and swooping violins. I'm surprised Sub Pop or Matador hasn't snapped them up.
5. Steve Earle, Train a'Coming (Winter Harvest) New Country's Springsteen emerges from his druggy haze, clinging to folk roots like his life depended on it, which it did. Bitter romances and big, dark, captivating story-songs, with flawless support from Rowan, Huskey, and Blake (sounds like a bluegrass law firm, no?).
6. The Flaming Lips, Clouds Taste Metallic (Warner Bros.) "She Don't Use Jelly" was just a distraction, so get over it, cooler-than-thou types. These guys are at the top of their game, both as a live band and with this ornately woozy collection of supersonic guitar candy. Dig the surreal animal songs!
7. Liquorice, Listening Cap (4AD) Tsunami/Simple Machines bigwig Jenny Toomey has always been better at indie ideology than indie aesthetics. But her folkish side-project Liquorice replaces the latter with good stuff like fully realized songwriting, witty, pretty singing, and real emotional insight, covering both the Roches and Franklin Bruno in the process.
8. Pavement, Wowee Zowee (Matador) The first time ever a band was widely dissed for not being commercial enough. What seems tossed off is actually quite deliberate - masterfully so. Sure, I'd trade some of the chaos for two more pop songs, but what's left is brooding, beautiful, and weird. Plus, they actually got tight this summer.
9. Pulp, Different Class (Island UK) Onetime intellectual disco losers, Pulp have evolved to a point where they deliver Jarvis Cocker's brilliant, satirical observations about drugs, sex, and class in a way that sounds like no other band. Ever. Grand, funky, sweeping, and art-damaged, yet still thoroughly commercial (though not in this country).
10. Zumpano, Look What the Rookie Did (Sub Pop) Art is easy, it's pop that's hard. Zumpano pull it off with frenzied punk energy, stuttering electric piano arpeggios and an abiding love of Jimmy Webb and the Zombies. n
Jason Cohen is a former Chronicle "Recommended" Editor and is now a regular contributor to Rolling Stone and Texas Monthly.