Chocolate and cheese

1994 wasn't The Year of Anything--except great music

To be a devoted fan and follower of music is to keep pace with trends (who will be this year's Guided by Voices? tomorrow's Pavement?) while keeping in touch with the music's past (should I buy the Sun boxed set or the Stax boxed set? or maybe the Monkees reissues?); it's to shove aside the latest indie-rock success story and discover the sweet and hypnotic sounds of Maleem Mahmoud Ghania's Moroccan religious chants merged with Pharaoh Sanders' free-jazz; it's to ignore the hype intrinsic to rock and roll (hell, the hype that is rock and roll) and define your own niche, unearthing your own favorites without relying on the qualifications assigned by others. And, ultimately, it's to take part in a dialogue filled with contradictions and no-win debates, always with the understanding there's no wrong or right, good or bad, just a few records each year that will mean something beyond yesterday.

It is hard, of course, to harken back to 1994 without the echo of the shotgun heard 'round the world; the specter of Kurt Cobain's suicide last spring hangs over the year like a shadow in winter, making frigid what was already cold. And yet I don't think the repercussions from his death have begun to be felt; that will happen sometime in the near future--when other young artists are asked to fill the void he created, when someone else is asked to reveal too much of himself to satiate our own prurient, hollow needs.

But in the end, 1994 was not a year defined by one event or one trend; so many deaths (those of Sonny Sharrock, Cab Calloway, Edwin "Sonny" Chillingworth, Raymond Scott, and Fred "Sonic" Smith among them) and artistic resurrections (Johnny Cash, Buddy Guy, Nick Lowe, Pops Staples, Pharaoh Sanders) serve as reminders that the world of music is a tenuous place, constantly in flux, filled with pleasant surprises and sad revelations. The rediscovery of Ted Hawkins in 1994 and his death on the first day of 1995 provide proof enough.

To define a year by its media-generated trends--The Year of Lo-Fi Rock, The Year of Women in Rock, The Year of the Comeback, The Year of Green Day (God, no), etc.--is to ignore the entirety of music. Surely, someone released a CD or record or cassette somewhere that, given a chance, every critic in the world would rush to proclaim as The Year's Best, only no one has heard it. But just you wait till next year.

Best CDs of 1994
American Recordings, Johnny Cash (American Recordings): "When performing, it doesn't matter the brand, the color, or the cost," Johnny Cash scribbles in the liner notes. "All that matters is that the guitar and I are one." And, indeed, on his finest recording in decades--perhaps his most complete statement ever set to tape--Cash and his guitar are the only two sounds heard, and the result is music exposed like marrow bleached white by the desert sun. Cash sings the words of Nick Lowe, Glenn Danzig, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and others, and he wrings the life (and death) from them; contained within this record is a stark, desolate portrait of a man (or men, depending upon whether you consider this a protracted monologue or an album of vignettes) who struggles with the demons inside his soul until he just gives in.

And so he murders his woman ("Delia's Gone") and whups her family ("Tennessee Stud"), never once apologizing for "The Beast in Me." He's the Vietnam vet haunted by visions of past deeds, and he's "The Man Who Wouldn't Cry." And eventually, he sings in a voice that seems to travel back and forth between heaven and hell, "You'll be washed of all your sins and all of your crimes," because the only sure thing is redemption.

The Next Hundred Years, Ted Hawkins (DGC Records): After a lifetime spent in and out of shelters and jails and receiving belated but much-deserved praise, the 58-year-old Hawkins died of a stroke New Year's Day. The irony surrounding his death is thick, from the album's title to his insistence that his songs came from long-dead singers like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. Hawkins, who created music that reverberates with the pain born of memory and the hope of new-found expectation, was a profoundly spiritual man who redefined soul music. As he told the Observer in November, "See, when you die, the body is what dies. You're not going to die. You're going to live forever somewhere." Hawkins, at least, will exist on one of the most beautiful, haunting records of this or any other year.

Sleeps with Angels, Neil Young and Crazy Horse (Reprise Records): As far back as December 1979, when he penned his now-immortal "Rock Deaths in the '70s: A Sweepstakes" essay for The Village Voice, Greil Marcus pointed out that Neil Young, a man "so obsessed with rock death," is no mere survivor; he performs, Marcus wrote, "to say that survival is never enough." But Sleeps with Angels, its title song written expressly about Cobain's suicide, presents the explanation that maybe it is enough to survive, to trudge on when all conspires against you. Young is still obsessed with death, still inspired by his own assertion that rock and roll will never die, but he seems more aware now of what drives us to the end and not just what carries us through the middle.

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