1995 Music Round-Up

With every one of Billboard's top 10 albums of 1995 (along with the bulk of the next 10) a 1994 release, I understand why so many pop music fans and critics consider last year a disappointment. Yet I've been passionate about rock music for over twenty years -- reviewing it for nine -- and I've never gotten as much pleasure from rock music as I did last year. Now, I understand that's a mighty bold statement. Yet the pop music scene was so deep, so quality-filled, that I'm surprised fewer people feel the same way. The evidence is everywhere. Any of my top five albums would be worthwhile candidate for album of the year in some years -- all feature unique artistic visions making thrilling music -- and the top three would be number one most years. I could fill a respectable top 10 list from my honorable mentions -- which are more numerous than any of the nine years I've been doing this year-end piece. But the best evidence of this year's excellence can be heard on my local alternative rock station. Since much arts criticism is searching for a few nuggets of gold buried in piles of dross, it's rare that any radio station punches my buttons. I was lucky enough to be living in Los Angeles during the late 1970's/early 1980's, when KROQ was popularizing a local scene that would later gain world renown, yet even then only a quarter of what KROQ played was any good (the station had a weakness for British haircut bands). But half the time I turned on my local alternative rock station this year, I'd hear something new that would surprise and delight me. Part of this, I suspect, is due to the sheer amount of good songs coming out of the alternative format. Unlike so much of pop music of the 70's and 80's, this music has spunk. 1995 also found numerous veterans releasing their best work in years (especially Stevie Wonder, who also supplied the riff to Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise," the year's top single). And R&B, which produced few great albums, produced a number of great singles, such as "Gangsta's Paradise," TLC's "Creep" and "Waterfalls" and Dionne Farris' "I Know." My theory as to why 1995 was such a great year for pop music can be summed up in two short phrases: Nirvana lived; Nirvana died. It's impossible to overstate that band's importance on rock music's resurgence. Nirvana created the third rock music revolution (Elvis and the Beatles creating the first two) exposing giant rifts in established audiences and markets and allowing non-classic rock styles to gain popularity. Rock radio's sudden, enormous improvement matches those two earlier eras, as hundreds of bands seize the moment and release one or two great songs before disappearing. But if Nirvana's success created the environment for resurgent rock radio, Cobain's death was equally important, for it created a vacuum for established alternative musicians and an opening for new ones. No longer compelled (heck, able) to follow alternative's 800 pound gorilla, the most interesting artists seized this freedom and found their voices. Pearl Jam's late-1994 release Vitalogy (Epic) was the harbinger, as a once-derivative alternative band made strange, compelling music out of its search for direction in a now leaderless revolution. 1995 finds numerous such albums, often made by female artists. People claim that Elastica's debut was a rip-off combination of Wire and Blondie, but when was Wire that catchy or Blondie that aggressive? I hear Tricky's depressive trip-hop debut as more potential than realized vision, but I understand why many intelligent listeners consider him the future of rap. After much navel-gazing meandering, Kristin Hersh finally made her mental illness signify (and was treated in an NPR interview as a serious musician -- which would not have happened prior to Nirvana). P.J. Harvey's emotional turmoil gets more harrowing as her music gets more sensuous. Even Pavement, which is probably the era's second most important rock band, got focused. And Moby is the most ambitious new artist rock's coughed up in years. Yet without Nirvana, none of these artists get anywhere near the level of attention they received last year. Looking over my year-end list, I see numerous albums which are clearly rock music yet seem not the least bit beholden to a very stale classic rock style which dominated the music scene just five years ago. If post-modern fragmentation means that unified audiences are a thing of the past, it also means that a greater range of artistic vision can generate the necessary audience to sustain a career. Prior to Nirvana, there's no audience for Pizzicato Five's ironic Japanese dance pop. Without Nirvana (and Cobain's widow's band, Hole) there's no way a major label would release Yoko Ono's new album with its experimental and 10-minute plus cuts. A new generation has taken over and the music they're making is more vital and interesting than anything their boomer elders, with their incense and acid imagined. Straddling the boomers and Generation X in age, I have to say that I like the youngsters' music better.The Top-10 as I hear them:Steve Jenkins(who I mention in my year end article) is actually named 1. Pavement Wowee Zowee (Matador) The lyrics by Steve Malkmus (who goes by the pseudonym Steve Jenkins) may be a stream-of-consciousness mishmash, his voice a horse's whinny, the band's playing amateurish (though the critics who call this music lo-fi just ain't listening as the instrumental sounds are distinct). Yet I defy this album's many naysayers to find a recent rock album this grandly melodic, this catchy. The group's song craft works twice as well precisely because it's complemented by the simple ragged playing and singing -- which doesn't detract from the multiple intertwining guitar parts so much as add a fragile beauty. Even if you don't hear this as a concept album about missed chances and entropy, the sheer playful melodiousness of this folk, country, hardcore, jazzy rock amalgamation is almost perfect pop music. Playing American music for a fragmented era, Pavement may be alternative's alternative band -- almost willfully refusing to seize the commercial potential of this music but making one great album after another. This is their best album yet; that so few people recognized it as such represents a real failure of pop criticism.2. James Carter The Real Quietstorm (Atlantic) One keeps reading about the new wave of young jazz musicians but 25 year-old Carter was the first to deliver the goods on this, his American debut. Without sounding the least bit avant-garde, Carter sounds more modern than all the young Turks aping classic Miles Davis. Expertly playing all four saxophones, bass flute and bass clarinet, Carter lovingly recasts grand swatches of jazz history (including Ellington, Monk, Byas and Sun Ra) as seductive make-out music without even hinting at Kenny G-like pap. Coltrane and Rollins never made an album this melodically appealing (not that those saxophonists ever aimed for pure melodic appeal).3. P.J. Harvey To Bring You My Love (Island). Jettisoning her band and guitar for Flood's burnished pop sheen, Harvey makes the prices women pay for love frighteningly vivid without ever seeming falsely melodramatic. Harvey's take on female-male relationships isn't that of a bitch but of an oddly seductive gorgon. This is a version of the blues like we've never heard before -- yowling, anguished but with the demented truth-telling of a remarkably clear-eyed sage. Harvey's a controversial artist because her vision is so alarming yet lucid. A Janis Joplin for an era of greater female autonomy, Harvey's even better than Joplin. And this 25 year old woman keeps getting better.4. Moby Everything is Wrong (Electra) Waiting two years to follow up his debut e.p. with this debut album, Moby confirmed his status as Techno's first (only?) grand auteur. A Christian, vegan, leftist-intellectual crank, he threw soul, toasting, hardcore and ethereal instrumentals into a high beat-per-minute mix. His vision of God is so graceful and loving yet frightening that it makes most piety-spouting American politicians seem like shallow-thinking cowards. Following the stunning beauty of Philip Glass-gets-melodic instrumental of "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters" with the accepting fatalism of the album-closing "When It's Cold I'd Like to Die," Moby's created the best sermon on agape I've ever heard. Never in pop music history has such an awesomely ambitious debut (even classical music fanatics found this disc fascinating) been so completely realized. A remarkable achievement.5. Throwing Muses University (Sire/Reprise) Looking outward for the first time in her lengthy career, Kristin Hersh made art out of her mental illness. This alternative pop music was drama without melodrama; Hersh's lyrics were neither demented or insufferable. Instead, like a patient in an Oliver Sacks medical history, she made her illness seem an organic and not necessarily detrimental symptom of an all-too-human condition, an alienation for which she has a better excuse than most of her compatriots. In a year in which numerous alternative musicians made art about a subculture that gave them no solace, this band did it better than any.6. Elastica Elastica (DGC) How can people complain that this music is derivative when it surpasses its sources? This British female-dominated rock quartet's debut was more fun than any other record I heard this year. Playing female-autonomous rock games about groupies, sex, and fast cars in a second wave punk style, the thrill was hearing girls being girls by co-opting guy prerogatives. Slyly subversive classic car radio music.7. Archers of Loaf Vee Vee (Alias) With Pavement getting deep (even if few recognized it), this Chapel Hill quartet was the one slacker-defined band to make interesting music about a subculture that by definition can't give its adherents any peace. Sure, tossing one's fallen-heroes into the river and then celebrating their memory is a cop-out, but the Archers made the stance understandable -- without ever making it sympathetic.8. Green Day Insomniac (Reprise) Simply the catchiest, grungiest, craziest alternative music 1995 produced. Whether Billie Joe's so dumb he's smart or whether he's simply smart at playing dumb doesn't matter -- this band has altern-a-kiddies sussed. Though the old folks hate to admit it, the Ramones weren't this good. The last band to improve on a ground-breaking major label debut was Nirvana. I'm not claiming Green Day is that good, but it's pretty good company to be in.9. Peter Stampfel You Must Remember This (Gert Town) The best and most consistent album in his long, twisted career that includes being one-third collaborator on my favorite cult album, Have Moicy (Rounder), Stampfel's first solo album of the 90's raids his fakebook for classic pop tunes, played N'Orleans style and sung dementedly by this deranged fifty-something folkie. His genius is in lovingly but twistedly singing pre-rock pop songs like "Cry of the Wild Goose," "Haunted Heart" and "Indian Summer" -- that must have seemed vapid even in their day -- in a manner that renders them fresh and charming. A man who helped invent post-modernism shows the young `uns just what the style is capable of.10. M People Bizarre Fruit (Epic) Though this doesn't have the same every-song-a-hit quality as this British soul group's debut album, Elegant Slumming (which may be the best soul album of the decade) this is still the soul album of the year. Heather Small's luxuriously husky voice befits alternative's era of greater female autonomy as keenly as Aretha's gospel exclaiming fit the Civil Right's era. Plus the group loves melody and understands that good rhythm is more than a simple steady beat. As with P.M. Dawn, their soul music doesn't fit contemporary style (which, in this day of gang-bangers, isn't necessarily a vice) but along with P.M. Dawn, they're they only great soul group of the decade.Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order):Laurie Anderson The Ugly One with the Jewels (Warner Bros.) Ornette Coleman Tone Dialing (Harmolodic/Verve) Foo Fighters Foo Fighters (Capitol) Luna Penthouse (Electra) Mallrats (soundtrack) (MCA) Yoko Ono/Ima Rising (Capitol) Pet Shop Boys Alternative (EMI) Pizzicato Five The Sound of Music (Matador) File Under Prince The Gold Experience (Warner Bros./NPG) Rolling Stones Stripped (Virgin) Soul Asylum Let Your Dim Light Shine (Columbia) Sugar (Rykodisc) Tricky Maxinquaye (Island) Whale We Care (Virgin) Stevie Wonder Natural Wonder (Motown) Neil Young w/Pearl Jam Mirror Ball (Reprise)Ten reissues with a reason for being:Cars Just What I Needed: Anthology (Rhino) Gang of Four Entertainment and Solid Gold/Another Day Another Dollar (Infinite Zero) Al Green Greatest Hits (The Right Stuff/Hi) Tom T. Hall Storyteller (Mercury) Jimi Hendrix Voodoo Soup (MCA) Love Love Story: Anthology (Rhino) Howard Tate Get It While You Can: The Legendary Sessions (Mercury) Velvet Underground Peel Slowly and See (Polydor) The Who The Who Sell Out (MCA) Frank Zappa/Mothers of Inventions We're Only in it for the Money (Rykodisc)Ten discs whose critical or commercial appeal I cannot understand:Bush Sixteen Stone (Trauma/Interscope) Hootie & the Blowfish Cracked Rear View (Atlantic) Jodeci The Show, the After-Party, the Hotel (Uptown/MCA) k.d. lang All You Can Eat (Warner Bros.) Live Throwing Copper (Radioactive) Alanis Morisette Jagged Little Pill (Maverick/Reprise) Randy Newman Faust (Warner Bros.) Silverchair Frogstomp (Murmur/Epic) Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Virgin) Matthew Sweet 100% Fun (Zoo)

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