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Throughout 1996 I was constantly looking for good records, but the best, it seemed, came looking for me. They were the ones that hung around, that begged to be put back in the CD player even when I was obliged to listen to something else. If obligation shackles the critic, these were the records that made me feel unattached. They make a list that’s guided more by desire than duty, one naturally unprincipled and little concerned with “the state of music in ’96.”

Former hardcore punk Tim Eriksen’s Cordelia’s Dad (ignore the late-’80s feminine-possession name) had developed a cult following for its stylistically varied but spiritually faithful acoustic and electric adaptations of American folk songs (and not those you’d expect). But it was Northampton Harmony, Eriksen’s group of shape-note singers that got my attention.

In the throats of rural Southerners, shape-note hymns may sound like folk music, and many of them do have traditional roots. But the songs on The Hookes’ Regular Sing (Hazmat) were the instruments of a 19th-century evangelism with aims contrary to the inward-directed traditionalism of true folk cultures. What NH demonstrated is that punk kids (and not-so-punk kids) can take the idiom for their own and tap into a fellowship fierce and archaic.

Having been raised a white mainstream Protestant, until this year I never really understood the holiness theater that shapes so much black popular music. I needed something to strip it of contrivance, and Negro Religious Field Recordings: 1934-1942 (Document import dated 1994, but I never saw it until Christmas last year) did that; the recordings of Austin Coleman and Joe Washington Brown were as fervent as the clamoring incantations of the Kenyan and Tanzanian “witchcraft and ritual music” Elektra Nonesuch released a few years ago. Yazoo’s powerful two-disc How Can I Keep From Singing: Early American Religious Music and Song: Classic Recordings From the 1920s and ’30s unified both black and white streams in a single great confluence.

I then needed all the contrivance (and thus the modernity) added back in, and James Brown did that—plus he imbued the rhythms and exhortations with orchestral rigor. The previously unreleased live “Out of Sight/Bring It Up” on Foundations of Funk: A Brand New Bag: 1964-1969 (Polydor/Chronicles) made a convert of me.

Two years ago, Dick Spottswood averred that contemporary blues, with the chief exception of Koko Taylor, was a “moribund” genre. Judging from the discs I got in from Black Top and Bullseye, I’d have to agree, but Matador dealt out perhaps the most relevant and promising blues release in years. On A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, a relatively nonvocal Jon Spencer Blues Explosion delivered punk sonics and hard-rock groove, while veteran bluesman R.L. Burnside brought on the real folk blues.

The genre clashes were headier on Beck’s Odelay (DGC), which I am required by the rock critics’ union to mention here, but they were hardly heartier. Where the golden boy was clever and loose (and his live show was a goof), DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… (Mo Wax) was brilliant and conceptually tight. Shadow gathered up his records and threw their gatefolds open to the psychic expanses that lay between their grooves.

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Vaster, though, were the vistas surveyed by New Kingdom’s Paradise Don’t Come Cheap (Gee Street). To simile-slingers who generally treat word and music as disjoint sets, often dividing labor accordingly, Jason Furlow and Sebastian Laws’ slurred, apocalyptic epic must’ve seemed outside hiphop—and in substantial ways it was. If you didn’t care about hiphop’s increasingly internecine East vs. West, gangsta vs. nongangsta battles, Paradise provided a rambunctious alternative. “Alternative” actually means something in hiphop, and NK proved it with something boldly new: a record as heavy as There’s a Riot Goin’ On, as expansive as Cloudland, and as sonically chilling as Atomizer was before we got used to it. Furlow and Laws set out across America and then pushed out past its edge. That shiver? The horror vacui of the spacewalk you hadn’t planned on taking. Paradise may be the first record in rap—the pop genre with the highest lyric-to-running-time ratio—whose showing outstripped its telling. It was the record of the year.

Couldn’t get Kurt out of your mind that summer? Me either—then or now. It had been so long since I set up mental housekeeping with Nirvana that I wasn’t sure I needed the live versions on From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (DGC). Then “Polly” reminded me what wedding photos are for.

Though Sparkle and Fade (Capitol) was released in ’95, this was the year punk broke yet again—this time as something for adults. That Everclear’s Art Alexakis was milking 10-year-old trauma didn’t matter; as a friend pointed out, you couldn’t tell it from the songs. Riot-grrrl punk grew up, too. Sleater-Kinney’s Call the Doctor (Chainsaw) substituted self-doubt for self-righteousness. On “Good Things,” Corin Tucker’s shrill, melodic quaver flushed out the nameless regret in your life and nailed it flat. Properly loaded with the secrets you usually manage to keep from yourself, “Some things you lose, some things you give away” was the year’s most naked line.

Frequently, though, I turned to punk merely for mental propulsion. Because Bad Brains slowed down less often on it, I preferred the unearthed Black Dots (Caroline) to the reissued self-titled debut (ROIR). And because it showed no signs of slowing at all, Buzzcocks’ French (I.R.S.) was regularly pressed into service as sonic caffeine.

Another late-’95 release that got its due in ’96, Pulp’s Different Class (Island) was cannier about social status and what’s required to transcend it than most punk could ever hope to be (dandyism—as reflected in Jarvis Cocker’s overdeveloped arrangements—is just one way out). “Common People” may be the best song written about a very specific (and very horny) form of upper-class intellectual dishonesty.

Some of the year’s best Britpop was crafted in our own backyard by Chisel (which I must confess is still propelled by the drumming of Washington City Paper production artist John Dugan). 8 a.m. All Day (Gern Blandsten) best fit the sort of day suggested by its title, when the air snaps like cold toffee. It was a joy to find that there are more days like that in D.C. than you think—you just have to have a reason to look for them all.

Paveheads were kept on hold with the Pacific Trim EP (Matador) and the “No More Kings” cover on Schoolhouse Rock Rocks (Atlantic), but even more welcome was Interstate 8 (Up), on which Modest Mouse emerged as the first band of Pavementarians to have an identity of its own.

Both Pere Ubu and the Go-Betweens received substantial multidisc retrospectives. Datapanik in the Year Zero (DGC) presented stunning remasterings of the Clevelanders’ output through The Bailing Man (thus marking the first CD appearance of The Modern Dance), but the accompanying booklet was surprisingly uninformative. Five of the Australians’ six albums were released by Beggars Banquet, but Capitol is holding out on 16 Lovers Lane, which is a shame because the ‘tweens last album was their most accomplished, they being one of those rare bands that required a long development. What they might have done had they not broken up at the moment of full maturity is one of ’80s pop’s great unanswered questions.

Ida’s I Know About You (Simple Machines) was the prettiest (boy-girl harmonies) and most delicate (boy-girl guitars) album of my ’96, making it a good year for directness. It was a better year for artifice, however, as Jonathan Fire*Eater threw out its false starts to re-emerge charmingly on the Tremble Under Boom Lights EP (Medicine), and charismatic singer Stewart Lupton sucked in the fabulous decadence (for a prep-school kid, at least) of dropping out of college and into rehab.

Trashier, more mannered, and harder-driving was the self-titled debut of glamorous punk androgyne Brian Molko’s Placebo (Caroline/Elevator Music). Modern-rock radio, which rendered itself unessential by playing all the dreck the regular rock stations were playing (Alanis, Bush, No Doubt, Bush, Bush, Dave Matthews, Pearl Jam, No Bush), could have made itself useful by turning this into a hit. Trashier, more mannered, and harder-driving still was The Upper Crust’s Let Them Eat Rock (Upstart), that rare novelty record that rocked, was funny, and was actually serious underneath it all (about glam, it turned out, not class, but serious nonetheless).

American’s Hi My Name Is Jonny introduced Frank Black protege Jonny Polonsky, who effortlessly proceeded to show up ol’ Professor Thompson (whose disc I never could finish) with 10 songs in 24 minutes. Young, joyously insubstantive, and cruising on his gift, Polonsky made ear candy that turned me into an all-day sucker. He gets bonus points for not changing his name to Cougar. Lou Reed is his polar opposite: old, weighty, and laboring over every word and sound. The payoff was Set the Twilight Reeling (Warner Bros.), with lyrics so self-consciously ponderous and overreachingly “poetic” that they could only be addressed with a deadpan as flat as a manhole cover. Lots of folks wrote off this album as pretentious rot; it’s actually mock-pretentious, a vehicle for what irony used to be before it got a bad name (on account of being entrusted to 16-year-olds). Getting older and falling apart, Reed addressed himself to the limitations of art and fell back on the only thing he’s really sure of—a series of precisely positioned guitar tones that strain but always remain on the earthly side of transcendence.

The Raincoats are getting on up there now, too, and Looking in the Shadows’ (DGC) re-recording of ’94s “Don’t Be Mean” was more resigned than hectoring when Gina Birch ventured, “Even when we’re old and gray/I think you’ll see me and look the other way…”

Where I was looking was to old-time, which about four years ago arrived late to the CD revolution. 1996 saw some impressive digital additions, including Smithsonian/Folkways’ expanded Mountain Music of Kentucky and Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Ballads, Banjo Tunes, and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina. County Records continued to produce the most exciting old-time releases, including Ernest V. Stoneman’s stiff-backed Edison Recordings—1928, which highlighted the droning fiddling of Stoneman’s wife Hattie, and at last a collection from the South’s greatest backbeatless dance band, Old Time Fiddle Tunes and Songs From North Georgia by The Skillet Lickers.

Dearest to me, though, was Volume 2 of County’s series of Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers. Poole was the gentlest-playing, sweetest-singing hellcat in early country music. A lively man who believed a little ‘shine was a dangerous thing, Poole drank deeply, and died in 1931 at age 39.

Gillian Welch’s Revival (Almo) was a superb pop-country record with an old-time soul. It seemed to rankle listeners who felt the Berklee grad didn’t come by it honest, and she was often compared unfavorably to genu-wine California Okie Iris DeMent, who Merle Haggard called “the best singer I ever heard.”

C’mon, Merle. That would be Charlie Louvin, who having lost Ira and his once-clear voice, took The Longest Train (Watermelon) into his past. With all he’s got left, he looked ahead to “When I Stop Dreaming” and found that he still likes “The Christian Life.” Also this year, Capitol reissued the Louvin Brothers’ classic Satan Is Real, whose title theme echoed through the murders and betrayals in the bad-life bluegrass on the Del McCoury Band’s The Cold Hard Facts (Rounder).

The most bizarre critical reversal I made in ’96 involved Lynyrd Skynyrd. When MCA began to reissue the band’s Ronnie Van Zant-era catalog, I figured I’d get a few laughs out of it. If you want to go on believing all the stuff about pigs and crackers and encores of “Free Bird,” pick up the newly expanded One More From the Road. But if you want to hear the one song I played more than any other this year, you may have to confront the fact that their first album—(pronounced leh-nerd skin-nerd)—has legitimate claims to greatness.

At first blush, “Tuesday’s Gone” is a typical rambling song, a commonplace of its genre and time. But while the lyrics, about “leavin’ my woman at home” and “ridin’ my blues away,” are what you’d expect, the song’s emotional tenor and its train motif recalls a different timeworn form, the almost funereal homesick reminiscence. If he’s so bad off, we start to wonder, why’s he leaving? The me-decade coding of the title should tip us off, but it remains ambiguous throughout the song whether “Tuesday” is the name of Van Zant’s lover or the day he left her. It becomes clear, but not until more than five minutes into the song, that the singer was the one who was jilted. “Tuesday, you see,” Van Zant sings, “she had to be free.” If the song is backward, it’s because she was the rambler. Welcome to the sexual revolution, to the New South, to 1973.

I also discovered that I like Skynyrd better than Zeppelin, which means either that a plane-crashed lead singer beats a drunk-dead drummer any day, even if it’s Bonzo, or that I prefer earnest boogie-blues to art folk-damaged baroque blues, something I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed.

And as for next year? Well, my ’97 will be a happy one indeed if only Kristi Yamaguchi works up a routine for “Immigrant Song.”CP