Looking back over the years, 1996 was a fairly nondescript year. Sure, there were a smattering of pretty cool things that happened within my family, yet, everything seemed to remain status quo. Actually, if there was ever a year during which I finally felt I were too old for popular music, it seems to have all started in 1996.
Now, don’t get me wrong! 1996 had some excellent albums released during its 12-month reign. The problem was that I was no longer getting a visceral movement from the best of these albums as I had during 1995. For someone who had managed to maintain his youthful love of popular music he entered is mid-thirties, imagine his shock as he felt the music of someone’s youth not playing a true meaning in his life. This was a proposition I was not ready to tackle. So, I left the current music to my students and my boys, especially my older song who was inching closer to his primo teens.
So, let’s take a closer look at 1996.
Beck – Odelay (1996). Beck’s canny amalgamation of hip hop, dance, alt.rock, pop, folk and rock came to fruition on this album. Odelay just seems to play like a Greatest Hits album in the best way, since so many songs were radio hits. This album is the Beck album that should have won the Grammy.
Fugees – The Score (1996). In the hip hop world, there always seems to be an artist who is willing to upset the fruit cart in order to advance the genre. In the early-Nineties, we had the Afro-Centric Native Tongues collective pushing black culture into the limelight. That was followed by the jazz-based sounds from Eric B & Rakim, countrifried rap of Arrested Development, the gangsta rap of the N.W.A family and the Beatlesque sounds of PM Dawn. Next up was the sweet Seventies soul sound of the unparalleled Fugees. I never thought Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly with His Song” would ever get touched by a cover, except the Fugees did just that. This album is loaded with greatness.
Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt (1996). In the hip hop world, there is a lineage of great M.C.’s that runs from Kurtis Blow to LL Cool J to Eric B to Chuck D to Ice Cube to 2pac to The Notorious B.I.G. The next one in line is Jay-Z, who dropped this debut album and let the ripples felt throughout history as few would experience. Jay-Z is most like The Beatles in his cultural impact continues to be felt long after he stopped changing the world with every release. There might be a kernel of truth that he might be the greatest rapper ever.
Marilyn Manson – Antichrist Superstar (1996). It had been a while since a “scary” or “Satanic” rock artist had kicked up a lot of dust in his wake. Back in the Eighties, it seemed like Ozzy Osbourne was the Right’s whipping boy for every bad about rock music. So, when it came to an antihero to rise in the Nineties, that person better take his persona to a whole new level. So, the latest entrant into the Alice Cooper sweepstakes come a man who plays up a dark androgyny, penchant for all things Satan and a David Bowie unmatching eye colors. Plus, he and the member of his band had the audacity to get their stage name from the combination of a first name from a famous female model/movie star and a last name taken from a serial killer. It’s as if this man who called himself Marilyn Manson was courting controversy while playing a mix of metal, shock rock and industrial music. What a marketing genius!
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Murder Ballads (1996). If there was an artist who was perfectly developed to record an album of murder ballads, it was Nick Cave at this very moment. Cave takes to the genre as if he were born to play the folk songs, even writing some of his own songs that fit perfectly with the originals he covered. Once again, I get to use the phrase hauntingly beautiful to describe a Nick Cave album.
Sublime – Sublime (1996). I once asked a former student and huge Sublime fan why Sublime resonates with his age group, and his answer floored with with its simplicity. Ronnie said that Sublime married the middle class dreams of gangbanging rappers with the actual nihilism of middle class reality in the key of ska. Of course, I made his quote sound much more poetic than it actually was, but the point was the same. Unfortunately, Sublime leader Brad Nowell succumbed to a heroin overdose just as the album was taking off, much like what happened to the Gin Blossoms.
Tool – Ænima (1996). When I first heard Tool, I thought, “My God! What is this?” It was metal, but it was artier than just straight metal. Maybe, Tool were a modern day Rush. Then, I listened to this album again, thought, “Nope! This is too dark for Rush.” Finally, it hit me – Tool is a modern day King Crimson, complete with the dark progressive intentions and all. Once I made the connection, Tool quickly became a band I admired.
Weezer – Pinkerton (1996). So, what’s a band to do when their debut album immediately became an underground masterpiece not unlike Cheap Trick’s debut from 1977? With Weezer, when you have so many options, such as admission into Harvard, more detailed studies into what makes a hit record and what does not, and decided to turn your lyrics more inward. In the process, the band unwittingly laid the groundwork for a branch of pop-punk called emo. And, that singer-songwriter lyrics in a pop-punk setting was a whole new thing as exemplified by Dashboard Confessional, though that band never neared the excellence of Weezer on Pinkerton. Many will argue that Weezer left their greatness on this album. And, I will argue they are wrong.
Wilco – Being There (1996). In the early Nineties, there was an excellent country punk band called Uncle Tupelo. Despite their innovations, the band split into two new bands. The first group immediately found acceptance from critics as Son Volt. The other band ended up being the bigger and more influential band called Wilco. Initially, as on this album, Wilco maintained its course as the new saviors of country rock. Though, that would change soon enough. However, on this album, Wilco was in full country rock mode, and Being There stands right with the two Jayhawks albums as the finest example of modern country rock.
With that, we come to the end of my 1996 list. As you can tell, the lists will get smaller, but those albums will only become that much more powerful. Peace.