By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
Where last year's best music--like Stereolab's Mars Audiac Quintet, Johnny Cash's solemn American Recordings, and Neil Young's Sleeps With Angels--provided a balm from the emotional scorch of the day's events, this year's most popular music reeked of snake oil. The CD you just paid $16 for cost 53 cents to manufacture, with most of the difference going to things that have nothing to do with music at all. You can't see music, you can only watch it being played; but in its fervor to try to pinpoint the appeal, the industry has been so overrun by consultants and others trying to justify their salaries that the hottest music groups in the biz right now are focus groups with those all-important young demographics.
Safety and familiarity folded into the themes of recovery and survival in 1995, as rock and roll became less a gorgeous outsider fairy tale and more a reflection of a society that would rather hear the same story over and over again than be confused by varying accounts. Hootie and the Blowfish, the act that easily sold the most records in '95, became the champ because of their unification of such radio formats as "modern rock," "adult album alternative" (Triple-A), "rock," "contemporary hits," "adult contemporary," and even "classic rock." Just as musical regions have all merged together, losing their unique environmental personality, radio stations have perfected an interchangeable form of blandness, epitomized by the Bill-Withers-in-a-backwards-ball-cap sound of the band whose name is almost an anagram of "the Doobie Brothers."
The anti-Hootie backlash was the most fierce since Vanilla Ice flamboyantly reinforced his first name. It caused Hootie singer Darius Rucker to sarcastically "apologize for forcing y'all to buy our album" while accepting an MTV video award. Meanwhile, the public had made its own statement to a sputtering music biz: Give us something better or we'll keep buying Hootie.
The masses were fed a steady stream of "mall-ternative" music, made by the kids who bought Nirvana's Nevermind at the Record Town just four years earlier. Modern rock became the hot new radio format and, in tandem with MTV's narrowing playlist, made sudden radio stars out of such spankin' new one-word wonders as Sponge, Hum, and Bush. If Deep Blue Something's "Breakfast At Tiffany's" wasn't "The Pi–a Colada Song" of the '90s, then Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" wasn't "You're So Vain" with fellatio.
1995 was the year when the slightest idea--the "yabba dabba dabba" chorus in Letters To Cleo's "Here and Now," the demonic repetition of "Do you wanna die?" in "Possum Kingdom" by The Toadies, the cuckoo background vocals on the Rentals' "Friends of P"--was enough to parlay into excessive airplay and brisk sales. Meanwhile, no-brainer Mariah Carey's use of the Tom Tom Club's oft-sampled "Genius of Love" on her latest smash, Fantasy, still sold in the millions.
Just as Charles Manson killed the hippie movement by showing that not every long-haired guy wearing love beads was truly into peace and love (some were horny psychos with a great line of bullshit), the grunge phenomenon was sucked away by youthful poseurs who would probably be playing ska if it was popular all over the world instead of just in Denton.
Of course, the biggest blow to the Seattle style was the 1994 death of Nirvana, who were the best rock and roll band in the world because they were the most honest. At least whiny and depressed junkie Kurt Cobain put his gun where his mouth was, bringing a thud to the truth. That he left his drug-possessed, self-addled wife to fill in the blanks was Cobain's final "gift" to a pop culture that had lied and told him money, fame, marriage, family, and toys would make him happy, while stigmatizing the only thing that could really do the trick.
Over in Belleville, Illinois, two longtime musical partners--who had once daydreamed together about having the careers that were now in their hands--were saying all the things they hadn't said before. Or maybe they weren't and needed to. At any rate, when Jay Farrar walked out that door, leaving Jeff Tweedy and his fellow band members in the lurch, he slammed shut Uncle Tupelo, the band that was both influential and promising when you usually can be only one or the other. For Farrar to quit a group that had worked so hard for so long to get where they'd gotten was sort of like going all the way through training camp and pre-season and then quitting the team right before the big game.
The breakup of a band doesn't compare to the Cobain tragedy, but news of both incidents were shocking, as is the idea that the two best records of 1995 would come, so soon, from the ashes of Nirvana and Uncle Tupelo. The year's only two truly great albums, with a beginning and an end and a middle part that takes you from one to the other, are Trace by Farrar's Son Volt and the eponymous debut from Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters.