Braver Newer World

The Year in Albums

Nineteen ninety-six was the year we remembered the millennium. It came on gradually at first, faint rumblings from the underground, but suddenly one day, somebody -- everybody -- looked down at their checkbook calendar and realized the year 2000 wasn't just some Orwellian plot device, it was a bill coming due. The future, that future -- Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey -- finally had to be reckoned with or else the entire global superhighway was going to fall into the ocean when every computer on the planet choked on a date code that had too many zeros. Stock markets, banks, governments -- down the toilet. Planet of the Apes just up ahead. (Okay, so it is Orwellian.)

Musically speaking, no one was more Orwellian in 1996 than a Bristol, England deejay by the name of Tricky. Starting with his brilliant solo debut, 1995's Maxinquaye, the ex-Massive Attack hanger-on fused a dark, neo-gothic Blade Runner vision of life onto a dance beat, and with Pre-Millennium Tension (as well as the Nearly God project in-between), unfurled a disturbing yet seductive soundscape for the 21st century. The film Strange Days, Kathryn Bigelow & James Cameron's futuristic countdown to that fateful New Year's Eve, included Tricky on its soundtrack, which no doubt triggered at least some of that Pre-Millennium Tension. Still, it was hardly a one-man uprising.

Two of 1996's best albums, Underworld's Second Toughest in the Infants and The Chemical Brothers' Exit Planet Dust both helped spread some infectious dance beats back into the mainstream, with efforts by Orbital, Goldie, Meat Beat Manifesto, Leftfield, and Loop Guru gathering good press and fans outside of the clubs as well. Trip-hop, techno, ambient, drums & bass, and jungle were all different strains of one virus -- dance -- contaminating not only each other, but everything else around them, too.

Take, for example the album that sits atop nearly every Top Ten list in the mass media, Beck's Odelay. Along with a couple other well-received, year-end poll toppers, Cibo Matto's VIVA! La Woman and Everything But the Girl's Walking Wounded, Beck's charmingly dopey yet surprisingly sophisticated sophomore release felt at home in both the clubs and the hedfones. Sure, all three of these albums evinced songwriting dues current and paid -- more so perhaps than most of the aforementioned musical entities -- but the results were similar; electronic music, born of the studio, not the stage.

Which doesn't mean disrespect. On the contrary, it was welcome. The Nirvana flame finally burned down to a single lit candle (From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah), and with it both punk and grunge flickered out. The Humpers' fierce Live Forever or Die Trying might have been the best furnace blast since mid-Seventies British bollocks, while releases from New Bomb Turks (Scared Straight), The Queers (Don't Back Down), Gaunt (Yeah Me Too), Vitamade (Everything You Need), and D Generation (No Lunch!) -- not to mention the man, Iggy Pop, and his Naughty Little Doggie -- proved the Sex Pistols, Filthy Lucre, was just that, but you couldn't give punk away at radio (much less sell it) and we all know what happens without radio play: Fastball.

Not that Fastball or their tight pop punch, Make Your Mama Proud, died with punk; the genre was already dead, especially here in Austin where punk was more a state of mind than a musical style in '96. Still, it got a few good shots in. Sincola's Crash Landing in Teen Heaven was razor-sharp, while Pork's Slop, The Motards' ...Rock Kids and the Sons of Hercules' Hits for the Misses were all black-eyed, gap-toothed, and raw, though nobody made a rawer "punk rawk" album (collection of singles, actually) than the Lord High Fixers' of loud, distorted, gravel-road blues splay, When the Revolution Comes. Big Foot Chester, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Flat Duo Jets, Skeleton Key, Tenderloin -- these are the bands Antone's needs to book in order to revive the blues.

Nothing, however, could revive "alternative rock" in '96, with Pearl Jam's wannabe punk disaster No Code being indicative of the genre's collapse; face it, "grunge" was merely a by-product of Nirvana's punk revival, and because that type of anger and angst burn bright but brief, popular music has settled back into middle-of-the-road hokum like Sheryl Crow, the Linda Ronstadt of the Nineties. Not that this was necessarily a bad place to be since ol' stalwarts like John Mellencamp, R.E.M., Neil Young, Patti Smith, and Richard Thompson all made strong forays into the marketplace. The ladies especially -- Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, Syd Straw, Sam Phillips, Ani DiFranco, Amy Rigby, and Iris Dement -- had a good year, if only at Triple-A radio, which then had little room on its play-list for promising debuts from Hayden (Everything I Long For) and ex-American Music Club president, Mark Eitzel (60 Watt Lining).

Nevertheless, there was a plethora of good "alternative" releases in '96: Screaming Trees' Dust, The Afghan Whigs' Black Love, Magnapop's Rubbing Doesn't Help, Scrawl's Travel On, Rider, Throwing Muses' Limbo, The Grifters' Ain't My Lookout, Tuscadero's The Pink Album, The Delta 72's The R&B of Membership, and Sublime to name a scant few. Top honors go to the Nineties version of the Talking Heads, S.F.'s Imperial Teen, whose Seasick is hands down the best "alternative" album since Nirvana's Nevermind and Hole's Live Through This, and Austin's own Spoon, whose taunting, jabbing debut Telephono was one of the few truly urgent cries of the year (its eager little brother, the Adults' Action Street deserves kudos, as well). And let's not forget the Butthole Surfers' Electric Larryland, which sounded more like a Weird Al album, but was tough not to like.

Unfortunately, except for the Buttholes, no one really seemed to care about any of these releases, preferring instead the heavy metal of the day: Alice in Chains, Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, and Tool. All forged titanium terminator music -- none more so than Sepultura's voodooistic Roots -- but the whole thing still harkened back to the rise of hair bands in the early Eighties after that initial punk uprising was quelled. Girls Against Boys' throbbing House of GVSB and Barkmarket's psycho-schizo L. Ron metal were a couple notable exceptions.

The real alternative, of course, came from the source Austinites knew it would -- country. Whereas Nashville's BR5-49 took the media by storm with its dead-on Hee Haw retroisms, only Steve Earle with his expert yet slightly stiff I Feel Alright and newcomer Gillian Welch (this year's Iris Dement) with her graceful folk & bluegrassy Revival were obvious reminders that great songwriters can occasionally be great performers as well. Nashville throwaways Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard all released albums, ranging from the former's breathtaking Spirit to the latter's weezing 1996, but who could be bothered with these geezers when there's jailbait like Austin's Ricky Trevino or Dallas' LeAnn Rimes to be fawned over. Forget the reissue of Ray Price's beloved San Antonio Rose or Hag's lifetime achievement award, the brilliant 4-CD box set Down Every Road; Nashville is still searching for the fountain of youth.

In direct response to this, all those youngsters who grew up hearing Willie on the radio got twisted and started injecting some twang into their rock & roll and visa versa. Despite solid efforts from Chicago indie Bloodshot (Robbie Fulks, Moonshine Willy), Sub Pop (Scud Mountain Boys), and the recently signed Whiskeytown, however, the national movement coalesced around one album; Wilco's Being There. A 2-CD set that's as much Replacements as Gram Parsons, Being There was nevertheless the album to define "alternative country." Taken with Go To Blazes' rompin' stompin' blueprint for dissolution, Waiting Around for the Crash, these two albums -- one sporting the fey Jeff Tweedy and the other featuring the shit-kicking Ted Warren -- were a Jagger/Richards Exile on Mainstreet combo for '96. Sixteen Horsepower, a Denver trio sounding like Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds stuck in a Deliverance nightmare in the Appalachians, probably belong here too, thanks to their haunting debut, Sackcloth `N' Ashes.

One might conceivably file Austin's Kelly Willis or even the Derailers among the "alternative country/No Depression" strata, but the only thing "alternative" about 'em -- and the local country scene as a whole -- is that they don't live in Nashville. Willis' Fading Fast EP, the Derailers' Jackpot, Kimmie Rhodes' West Texas Heaven, Libbi Bosworth's Outskirts of You, Dale Watson's Blessed or Damned, Roy Heinrich's Listen to Your Heart, Cornell Hurd's Cool and Unusual Punishment, and Don McCalister's Love Gone Right all proved Austin's country scene an embarrassment of riches; fitting when one considers that the original outlaw himself, Willie Nelson, released Spirit, not only one of the finest albums of his career, but one of the best albums of the year, period. And let's not forget Rig Rock Deluxe: A Musical Salute to the American Truck Driver. In terms of stellar contributions by locals, only Do Me Baby! Austin Does Prince or possibly the From Dusk Till Dawn soundtrack faired better.

Actually, it's not surprising that Austin's country stable was overflowing with talent in '96. Like the sterling soundtrack to John Sayles' Lone Star, which corralled Texans as diverse as Lucinda Williams, Little Willie John, Ivory Joe Hunter, and Lydia Mendoza, Texas soil has given birth and supported so many disparate musical styles that it boggles the mind. From the traditional conjunto of Flaco Jimenez (Buena Suerte,
Señorita
) to the heavy, post-punk freak-out of Sangre de Toro (Booglejasm), Texas -- and Austin in particular -- is a wellspring of musical muses. Hell, great country music is a given here -- as are singer-songwriters. Thus, Terry Allen's Human Remains, Lyle Lovett's The Road to Ensenada, Alejandro Escovedo's With These Hands, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore's Braver Newer World were all the work of seasoned masters. Gilmore's album in particular, produced by T Bone Burnett, who also did Gillian Welch's Revival, is a minor masterpiece eschewing formal musical boundaries for a West Texas aura.

Other "roots-rock" albums worthy of the Lone Star stamp of approval were The Gourds' Dem's Good Beeble, Kevin Carroll & the Sleestacks' Redemption Day, Katy Moffat's Midnight Radio, and Sue Foley's Walk in the Sun. Christ, even the few local blues releases that dribbled forth were none too shabby: Long John Hunter's Border Town Legend, Sarah Brown's Sayin' What I'm Thinking, Steve James' Art and Grit, W.C. Clark's Texas Soul, and 21st Century Blues' Baggage and Blues. In fact, if 1996 is easily summed up, it's as the year that Austin's recorded output (sales or no) finally caught up to the national curve, with honorable mentions going to Darden Smith's Deep Fantasic Blue, Laurie Freelove's Songs From the Nineline, Kris McKay's Things That Show, Shoulders' The Fun Never Stops, Quatropaw's All Night Living, and Breedlove's Reach Out.

So where does Austin fit in with the approaching millennium and the rise of electronic music? In space, of course. As "Space Rock" took orbit around Austin and Denton, a trio of Trance Syndicate releases -- plus Comet's Chandelier Musings -- galvanized a musical movement intent on expanding the boundaries of everything from ambient krautrock to Pink Floyd. Considerably more organic than a Beck or Tricky (meaning they played their instruments), Windsor for the Derby's self-titled debut, The American Analog Set's The Fun of Watching Fireworks, and the Furry Things' The Big Saturday Illusion, all sported shiny studio tans, though the latter release splattered much more My Bloody Valentine than anything else.

While none of these three gems were cut-and-paste sample-fests, with Windsor and Analog Set owing more to instrumental four-track explorers like Tortoise (Millions Now Living Will Never Die) or even the Esquivel-inspired mayhem of Stereolab or Combustible Edison (Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Schizophonic being two of the '96's better releases), there was no escaping the fact that these bands seem to thrive behind a studio consul. (The Furry Things' forthcoming Hedfones EP goes free-form ambient-dance, for instance.) Producing hypnotic results as they already have, one must only wait six months before a full-out invasion of similar sounding bands take advantage of cost-effective home studios and start churning out gravity-defying sounds to fill the World Wide Web. Craig Ross, whose clever, quirky Dead Spy Report revealed both the heart of a Britpop fan and studio wiz, should chair a sub-committee on this trend.

Leaving us with what? Only perhaps the last important album of 1996: Endtroducing... DJ Shadow. Essentially a deejay's mix tape of multi-layered samples that fall together like the delicious speedball that is the Trainspotting soundtrack, Endtroducing... foreshadowed the coming tidal wave of studio-stitched sample collages, which have already started merging jazz and hip-hop with ground-breaking collections such as Blue Notes' The New Groove, The Blue Note Remix Project Volume 1, and The Rebirth of Cool series. And while both jazz and hip-hop had a respectable '96, the boundary-pushing work of both saxophonist James Carter (Conversin' With the Elders), and the dopest rappers around, The Roots (illadelph halflife), hint at future musical hybrids that not even Strange Days could foresee. Here's to a braver, newer 1997.

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