1996 was a great year in music. So was 1995. 1994 was cool, and so on. My tastes are more catholic than the Pope, so I always find a surfeit of sounds to connect to. The concatenation of music and mood is what drives me to soundtrack my life: If I’m feeling low, Chemical Brothers get me high, and if I’m feeling high, Smog chokes me down. If I’m feeling spectral, I conjure DJ Spooky, and if I’m feeling grounded, Graham Haynes opens up the sky. If I want to identify with someone—and who doesn’t?—I connect to Ida. If I want to reconnect with myself—and who doesn’t?—I link up with Lull.
What music does for me, and to me, is ineffable. “Most happenings are beyond expression; they exist where a word has never intruded,” Rilke said. Here are 2,000 words recalling this year’s favorite inexplicables:
Jazz (“The jazz ‘tradition’ is innovation.”—Lester Bowie)
Graham Haynes Transition (Verve); Courtney Pine Modern Day Jazz Stories (Verve/Antilles) The year’s two most innovative records herald the day improvisation sits at a computer terminal and types out new-skool plainsong to which only angels know the chords.
Leon Parker Belief (Columbia) Jackie Terrasson’s percussionist proves that the heart of a song beats inside the drum.
Rodney Kendrick Last Chance for Common Sense (Verve) Monk, Weston, and Kendrick.
James Carter Conversin’ With the Elders (Atlantic) Carter is the son and the heir of a talent that is criminally vibrant.
Billy Drummond Quartet Dubai (Criss Cross) Pianoless power energized by drummer Drummond and the twin reeds of Walt Weiskopf and Chris Potter.
Javon Jackson A Look Within (Blue Note) Second album in a row where Jackson steps into the spotlight and refracts its rays into a spectrum of sound.
Medeski Martin and Wood Shack-man (Gramavision/Rykodisc) The funkiest angles construct the Shack, man.
Franklin Kiermyer Kairos (Evidence) The drummer pulses and pushes his group into middle Impulse!-era Coltraneland. What a journey, what a view.
Stephane Furic Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (Soul Note) Walt Whitman, pastoral electric Miles, and Aaron Copland happily wedded in musical polygamy by the Italian bassist.
Ron Miles My Cruel Heart (Gramavision/Rykodisc) James Brown, Miles Davis, and time signatures to make Dave Brubeck proud.
Jimmy Smith Angel Eyes: Ballads & Slow Jams (Verve) Ahhhhh, the sensuous B-3. Come here, baby.
Singers and Songwriters (“What passion cannot Music raise and quell?”—John Dryden, “The Spanish Friar”)
Cat Power What Would the Community Think (Matador) Well, they think Chan Marshall is nuts. But her songs are the closest thing to Billie’s blues the rock scene has ever produced. You’ll be frightened by how stark her world is—because it doesn’t seem that far from your own.
Smog The Doctor Came at Dawn (Drag City) Finest album yet by a man whose acute interest in his own inertia is actually as compelling and haunting as it is tragic.
Ida I Know About You (Simple Machines) My most listened-to album in ’96. Ida’s lyrics count as poetry, and while its guitar chords settle inside your ears and push the tears from your tired eyes, the harmonies of Dan Littleton and Liz Mitchell wipe away the pain.
Willie Nelson Spirit (Island); Gillian Welch Revival (Almo Sounds) Spare, sad songs from a man with a broken guitar and a broken heart, and from a woman who reinvents as much as she revives traditional country.
Trembling Blue Stars Her Handwriting (Shinkansen, import) Former Field Mice/Northern Picture Library leader goes it alone for 14 songs all about breaking up with his love. It’s wimpy, poppy, and all together appropriate for the faint (as well as the broken) of heart.
Red House Painters Songs for a Blue Guitar (Supreme/Island) Wallace Stevens’ “The Man With the Blue Guitar” is one of my favorite poems. Mark Kozelek’s Red House Painters is one of my favorite bands.
Electronica (“All this machinery making modern music can still be open-hearted”—Rush, “Spirit of Radio”)
Chemical Brothers Loops of Fury EP (Astralwerks) Loops of fury.
Nearly God Nearly God (Durban Poison/Island) The Tricky Kid, doing things we wish we did.
Tricky Pre-Millennium Tension (Island) He’s worth more than any portmanteau word coined for his sound.
New Kingdom Paradise Don’t Come Cheap (Gee Street/Island) Heavy rock, raucous rap, and no empty raging against the machine. And if you passed on New Kingdom’s live shows—and I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about concerts—you missed the best performers of ’96.
Squarepusher Feed Me Weird Things (Rephlex, import) Fusion bass drum ‘n’ bass. Out of the jungle and into the ’70s.
Spring Heel Jack 68 Million Shades… and Versions (Island) Taking drum ‘n’ bass out of the jungle and into the city. If Blade Runner were made today, Spring Heel Jack would do the soundtrack (and then release a remix version of it a few weeks later).
DJ Shadow Endtroducing….. (Mo’ Wax/London) Recombinant techniques with bulbous beats. Says he’s gonna save hiphop. With the Bomb Squad defused, I almost believe him.
Various Artists Macro Dub Infection: Volume 2 (Virgin) The selecter, Kevin Martin, chooses the outest tracks that still rock the house.
Various Artists Electric Ladyland: Volumes 1 and 2 (Mille Plateaux/Force Inc.) Why is the toughest hiphop coming not from America but from a lit theory-weary label of German hardsteppers?
Meat Beat Manifesto Subliminal Sandwich (Nothing/Interscope) Breakbeat’s grandpappy, Jack Dangers, makes mincemeat of his fellow sound butchers.
Omni Trio The Haunted Science (Sm:)e) Herbie’s Headhunters drum da bass in a rub-a-dub style.
Beck Odelay (DGC) Not a hint of slack. I’m a winner, baby, so why don’t you buy me?
Soul Oddity Tone Capsule (Astralwerks) Electric Boogaloo, where’s my cardboard?
Sound Sculptures (“Whenever I pause/the noise/of the village”—Chippewa song translated by Frances Densmore)
Sheila Chandra A Bone Crone Drone (Real World); Lull Continue (Release) Two gorgeous works of nothingness. Subambient and metaphysical.
Main Hz (Beggars Banquet) The guitar deconstructed, reconstructed, reduced, and amplified into ether.
Paul Schutze Site Anubis and reissues of New Maps of Hell Vols. 1 and 2 (Big Cat) Fuck cultural protectionists who cry wolf; a drum is a rocket in Sc&utze’s ethnically mixed sound galaxy.
Rome Rome (Thrill Jockey) Amorphous dub; no sides, all spaces.
DJ Spooky Songs of a Dead Dreamer (Asphodel) and The Dialogic Project (Knitting Factory) Recombinant techniques for biorhythmic bleats.
Various Artists A Storm of Drones: The Sombient Trilogy (Asphodel) The sounds of the underground.
Rock (“But what really should embarrass me is all the misplaced idealism, all these gushing superlatives—’Rock is, after all, the first great in-context/out-of-context revealed religion other than the two-person love unit’;…’Rock is the only possible future for philosophy and art’—for a form, a medium, which in the interim has given us little more than shitpissdooweewee w/ and w/out flies.”—Richard Meltzer, The Aesthetics of Rock, forward to the De Capo edition)
Tortoise Millions Now Living Will Never Die (Thrill Jockey) Millions now living may never get to hear this post-rock masterpiece/post-punk easy target. Either way you shoot, it’s a bull’s eye.
Bardo Pond Amanita (Drunken Fish/Matador) Makes me wanna holla holy hosannas and smoke the peels of bananas. Amanita oozes psychedelic fuzz.
Red Snapper Prince Blimey (Warp) The smoothest blend of live jungle and freak jazz. Perhaps the only one.
The American Analog Set The Fun of Watching Fireworks (Emperor Jones/Trance) Between the Rain Parade and Stereolab falls a great debut.
Labradford Labradford (Kranky) “Labradford, one of the initial ’90s bands to turn its tunes into gentle mental caresses, has returned with the finest album of its short career, surpassing labels (i.e., post-rock), usurping self-consciously ‘out’ bands, and making an album that will still ‘matter’ once the fervor over space rock comes crashing down to earth,” or so I said in Alternative Press.
Polvo Exploded Drawing (Touch and Go) “Fast Canoe” and “Feather of Forgiveness” are two of the best songs of the year. And Polvo has finally made an album—a double one no less—that’s as melodically consistent as it is sonically innovative.
Dirty Three Horse Stories (Touch and Go) Warren Ellis’ violin provides moments so breathtaking in their beauty and sorrow you know it will all end up in tears.
Lungfish Sound in Time (Dischord) Elliptical music, elusive lyrics, eminent album.
The Make-Up Destination Love (Dischord) Pomp(adours) and circumstance: The honky James Brown leads his congregation into garage-rock heaven.
New Bomb Turks Scared Straight (Epitaph) I RAWK, therefore you don’t.
Long Fin Killie Valentino (Too Pure/American) The smartest lyrics and the smartest music of ’96. Can you say Can? Well can it, because while the Killies build from the drums up, Luke Sutherland’s words groove just as hard as the choppy funk his band creates.
Stereolab Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Elektra) Still Moogy wonderland but now Alice is funky, too.
Satisfact The Unwanted Sounds of… (Up) The new New Wave rides like the old wave but doesn’t wipe you out with irony. Satisfact is what happened in between Joy Division and New Order.
His Name Is Alive Stars on E.S.P. (4AD) Studiofied pop genius. Brian Wilson with a sampler and an absurdist sense of humor rather than just absurdity.
Olivia Tremor Control Music From the Unrealized Film Script Dusk at Cubist Castle (Flydaddy) Revolver tribute band. Revolver is the Beatles’ best album.
Reissues (“Einmal ist keinmal”—German saying: “Once doesn’t count.”)
Oval Systemisch and 94diskont (Thrill Jockey) German guys monkeying around with the sounds of skipping CDs and rarefied theories on sound collage. Loveless deconstructed bit by digital bit.
Galaxie 500 The Collected Recordings (Rykodisc) One of the greatest indie bands gets its box-set due and proves that Luna is made of green cheese.
This Heat Made Available: John Peel Sessions (These, import) Pre-post-rock trio whose three albums are unheralded gems. These 1977 recordings urged a reappraisal—those jewels are worth more now than before.
The Pop Group Y (Radarscope) Early ’80s macropolitical dub invasion led by the Mark Stewart and his Mafia.
Cluster (Sky catalog on Gyroscope) In the ’70s and early ’80s, two German guys interpret the sky with squiggling synths, Brian Eno, and Krautrock’s Kommissar, Connie Plank.
Trouble Funk Live (Infinite Zero); James Brown Foundations of Funk: A Brand New Bag: 1964-1969 and Funk Power: 1970: A Brand New Thang (Polydor/Chronicles) Sweaty.
Mary Margaret O’Hara Miss America (Koch) She writes songs that the whole sad world should sing, and I can hardly believe she’s Canadian.
Miles Davis & Gil Evans The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (Columbia) “Later [Evans] would call me up at 3 a.m. and tell me, ‘If you’re ever depressed, Miles, just listen to ‘Springville.””
Dave Brubeck Time Further Out (Columbia) Kind of Blue is the first album you should give to a new jazz listener. Then buy him this.
Peter Tosh The Toughest (Heartbeat) Realize it—Tosh was far better in his youth.
Donald Byrd Electric Byrd (Blue Note) Miles wasn’t the only trumpeter painting with plugged-in pastels.
The Feminine Complex Livin’ Love (TeenBeat) Rediscovered ’60s girl group straight from Shangri-la.
I’m sure I forgot many releases that dented my head in ’96, but I’ve already strapped on my helmet for ’97, and there’s no time to look back. But I do have two last quotes to share that reveal what’s fundamental to being a critic: “He who considers more deeply knows that, whatever his acts and judgments may be, he is always wrong.”—Friedrich Nietzsche; “It could be argued, furthermore, that my ‘scholarship’ is basically up my butt.”—Richard Meltzer