Year End Musical Round-up

In most year-end columns, it's become popular to look back on each year in music and dwell on what went wrong. And while 1996 was not flawless, when you compare it to other years -- 1995 was truly depressing -- there was plenty to like about 1996.It's true that, like 1995, the year failed to produce any landmark CDs that stand head and shoulders above the pack. In fact, I had a hard time ranking my top five CDs for 1996 because I liked them all about equally well. But where I struggled to find even 10 exceptional CDs in 1995, the current year had plenty of quality depth, with some 20 CDs that immediately came to mind for top 10 consideration.There were other things to like about 1996, too. Sure, the music scene is still cluttered with too many bands trying to sound like the next Nirvana or Green Day. But the diversity of the CDs on my top 10 list are proof that some artists were pursuing their own distinctive sounds in 1996.This was also a year worth celebrating for live music. In 1995, the only tours worth mentioning were R.E.M. and the Nine Inch Nails/David Bowie double bill. Naming memorable shows from 1996 was no problem. Let's face it, any year that includes tours by Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Los Lobos and John Hiatt isn't half bad.On a large venue scale, 1996 also saw an encouraging trend with festival shows. In addition to standbys like Lollapalooza and H.O.R.D.E., the summer season saw two fine blues packages -- one with B.B. King, Delbert McClinton and the Neville Brothers, the other with Joe Cocker, Buddy Guy and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. In addition, the Smokin' Grooves tour featured a creative reggae/hip hop lineup that included Ziggy Marley, the Fugees and Cypress Hill. And perhaps the most entertaining package was the Furthur Festival, which saw inspired sets from Hot Tuna, Los Lobos and Mickey Hart's Mystery Box.In each case, these festival packages gave music lovers plenty of bands for their bucks.So let's remember 1996 as a year when quite a few things went right. Considering recent history, we could have done a lot worse.But enough analysis and pontification. It's time to get to listing my top 10 CDs for 1996.1) R.E.M.: New Adventures In Hi-Fi -- Mixing the acoustic sound of Automatic For The People and the rocking tone of Monster, this is one of R.E.M.'s most challenging CDs yet.2) Fugees: The Score -- A tuneful yet tough collection was one of the freshest hip hop records of the year.3) Los Lobos: Colossal Head -- Not everything on this record worked, but Colossal Head stands out as one of the most innovative CDs of 1996, with its quirky reshaping of the blues-rock form.4) Johnny Cash: Unchained -- Backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Cash delivers a strong set of rocking, edgy country rock tunes.5) Richard Thompson: You? Me? Us? With one disc electric and a second acoustic, Thompson's songwriting was sharp as usual on this CD.6) Pulp: Different Class -- This group didn't get nearly the attention of their British counterparts, but for my money this was the year's best, most distinctive English import.7) Graham Parker: Acid Bubblegum -- Parker returns to the rocking, cynical sound of his early records on Acid Bubblegum and comes close to matching classics like "Squeezing Out Sparks" and "Howlin' Wind."8) Elvis Costello: All This Useless Beauty -- Costello was in a more subdued mood than usual on this CD, but this is one of his strongest CDs since Imperial Bedroom.9) Steve Earle: I Feel Alright -- After a bout with drugs and a stint in prison, Earle returns in fine form and re-establishes himself at the forefront of alternative country.10) Soundgarden: Down On The Upside -- Though no match for the band's Superunknown CD, this is another compelling set of Zepplin-esque rock from the stirring Seattle band.Honorable mention: Dave Alvin: Interstate City; Lyle Lovett: The Road To Ensenada; John Mellencamp: Mr. Happy Go Lucky; D Generation: No Lunch; Beck Odelay; Jason & the Scorchers: Clear Impetuous Morning; Sheryl Crow: Sheryl Crow; Trisha Yearwood: Everybody Knows; Wilco: Being There; Cracker: The Golden AgeAs usual, 1996 saw its share of fine CDs that deserved to reach a larger audience. In what is now one of my annual traditions, here's a list of 1996 releases -- in no particular order -- you should have heard, but probably didn't.Pulp: Different Class -- (see above)The Cardigans: First Band On The Moon -- Led by the sweet vocals of Nina Persson, these Swedes delivered some of the most delectable pop of the year.Hunk: Hunk -- With songs that touched on Zeppelin-ish metal, pure pop and ragged funk, Hunk's fat and chunky sound lived up to the band's name.Jim Lauderdale: Persimmons -- A couple of years ago, Lauderdale delivered an exceptional country-pop record in Pretty Close To The Truth. Persimmons is nearly as good.Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise: Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise -- With Bradley, a former streetcorner singer from Detroit, at the helm, this debut is as authentic a collection of gritty soul/blues as you'll hear.Amy Rigby: Diary Of A Mod Housewife -- With a sharp sense of humor and a keen eye for detail, Rigby's tales of life in the '90s had plenty of personality -- and they came attached to some pretty catchy tunes, too.The Paladins: Million Mile Club -- A live CD, Million Mile Club features most of the band's best tracks -- and especially on extended versions of "Big Mary's" and "One Step" reveals this rockabilly/blues trio to be one hot, hard rocking and hard jamming live band.Alejandro Escovedo: With These Hands -- Few CDs created the kind of strong mood of this frequently ghostly song cycle.D Generation: No Lunch -- In a year with plenty of punk rock records, D Gen showed an attitude and energy that set them apart from the pack.Ronnie Dawson: Just Rockin' & Rollin' -- Classic rockabilly lives again on this forceful and authentic-sounding CD.

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