Slippin & Slidin
By Sandy Carter
The following "best list" covers my choices for the most pleasureful and important pop of 1996. This issue is limited to rock, pop, and R&B releases aimed at a wide popular audience. Next month will collect "bests" in less popular genres such as jazz, blues, country, world, and folk.
Rock/Pop/R & B
Gone Again, Patti Smith (Arista)
Against an almost conventional folk rock backdrop, Smith's poignant vocals and stark, poetic lyrics deliver us through a compassionate and graceful meditation on life, death, and redemption. Few records aimed at a popular audience are so relentlessly serious. But in grieving the recent losses of her husband, her brother, and close friends, Patti Smith gives us a precious gift to help us confront a universal and inevitable passage.
Peace Beyond Passion, Me'Shell Ndegeocello (Maverick/Reprise)
The dark, slow pulsing grooves on Peace Beyond Passion have the allure of a late night soundtrack designed for cooing and wooing. But when Ndegeocello's haunted vocals begin to unload her smoldering anger and deep anguish, the swoon is irreparably ruptured. This is a painfully bitter album about a black woman's struggle to come to terms with racism, homophobia and the great wall of patriarchy. Though the wounds are deep and the battles on-going, Ndegeocello's inventive bittersweet layers of R&B, funk and jazz, gorgeous singing and strong stance awaken pride and hope.
Odelay, Beck (DGC)
Although his 1994 album Mellow Gold scored big with critics and the record buying masses, Beck has had to face the confusion and derision of being a "loser" superstar and a possible one hit wonder. His follow-up release Odelay, however, is a junkyard masterpiece built upon a knotty foundation of exotic samples, skewed studio effects, and dirty guitar noise. Throw in a geeky outsider perspective and a Dylan-esque spew of language, and you've got an assured reassertion of credibility.
Evil Empire, Rage Against The Machine (Epic)
Rage may be accused of a cliched, retro kind of leftism colored by too much empty posturing, but the band's thunderous hip-hop rock fusion is the appropriate noise to sound the alarm about the capitalist system's hell bent world agenda. Who could doubt the sincerity of Zack De La Rocha's blistering white heat raps or the passions inspiring Tom Morello's corrosive guitar wails. This is righteous and ominous discontent foreboding heightened class struggle in the 21st century.
From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah, Nirvana (DGC)
No Code, Pearl Jam (Epic)
Nirvana and Pearl Jam hit it big at about the same time and both felt the backlash against "alternative" success as a floodgate of grunge copycats followed in their wake. Though Nirvana is no more, 1995's MTV "Unplugged In New York" revealed the artful songcraft and fragile, aching sensibility at the core of Kurt Cobain's appeal. Muddy Banks completes the picture by documenting glorious live electric performances charged by a chilling raw power. Eddie Vedder, despite the angst ridden vocals, angry energy and bleak lyrics, never seemed to live as close to overwhelming despair as Cobain. As a result Pearl Jam's music has always carried seeds of idealism. On No Code, Vedder and band take a few more steps into the light, taking stock of weaknesses and fears, but opening further to personal and social possibilities yet unborn.
I Feel Alright, Steve Earle (E-Squared/Warner Bros)
Interstate City, Dave Alvin And The Guilty Men (Hightone)
With bands such as Wilco, Son Volt, and the Bottle Rockets offering a bridge between old fashioned country sounds and rootsy forms of rock and roll, singer-writers like Steve Earle and Dave Alvin are getting a chance to find a younger and wider audience that has grown tired of the self-absorbed mope of so-called alternative music. Both bring a strong sense of compassion and solidarity to their characterizations of hard bitten working class stiffs, misfits and outcasts. But its the ability to itch the social/personal motivations of ordinary lives that makes Earle and Alvin such extraordinary songwriters. Earle's I Feel Alright is a magnificent redemption statement confessing sins of drug abuse, failed marriages, troubles with the law and the music business. And on his brilliant live album Interstate City, Dave Alvin comes on like a roadhouse Woody Guthrie balancing electrifying rockers and quiet, mournful ballads in a set that presents a cogent overview of his post-Blasters, post-X solo career.
The Score, The Fugees (Ruff House/Columbia)
Illadelph Halflife, The Roots (Geffin)
The Fugees and The Roots are out to bust up the accepted codes of the rap world with innovative musicality and live instruments. Lead by the confident and earthy voice of Lauryn Hill, The Fugees hit a commercial home run by blending a smooth slide from singing to rapping with mesmerizing grooves and musical ideas from reggae and R&B to doo-wop. A worldly street attitude remains, but Hill's take on Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" invokes a more tender spirit not often associated with the hip-hop aesthetic. Philadelphia's Roots are also pushing the envelop by being a real band and by mixing up tough, street realism rhymes with gentler, cooler tracks that unravel cliches and bravado.
Dilate, Ani DiFranco (Righteous Babe)
Ani Difranco is one of the most powerful, charismatic, and important performers of our time. With a voice that can erupt with volcanic fury, a fearsome rhythmic guitar attack, and a body of poetic, socially aware songs loaded with searing observations about class, race, and gender turmoil, Difranco has won over a rabid and fast growing audience that will soon reach pop proportions. While none of her self-produced albums released on her self created independent label have been able to capture the full glory of her artistry, they do allow listeners to savor music that connects with a deep well of female experience. Dilate is another intense collection of frighteningly honest songs, this time focused mostly on lost love, lust, and yearning. As usual, a compelling mix of rhythm, melody, noise, and rough-edged soul searching.
Colossal Head, Los Lobos (Warner Brothers)
East LA's Los Lobos may be a roots band, but the way they twist, cut and recombine Latin, Anglo, and African American musical forms is without precedent. In the end they give us a brilliant multicultural musical tapestry that pays homage to all the roots of American expression. With song narratives that never stray from the struggles and triumphs of ordinary lives, they are, as Gramsci might say, true organic intellectuals of the people. Colossal Head is a masterwork.