Who gives a Hootie?

Farewell to 1995, a year in music we'd rather forget

The rock and roll made in 1995 leaves in its wake a noxious odor (which might be coming from sweaty Blues Traveler John Popper) that will surely hang over 1996 like a black cloud. The bands that will ultimately represent 1995--the superstars and chart-toppers, the major-label success stories and indie-label crossovers--are those that cut across format and fan base, appealing to all audiences because they were bland enough to blend in to the background.

They were offensive because they were so inoffensive, shocking because they were so banal, venal because they were so generic. Dissecting a band like Hootie and the Blowfish or Blues Traveler or Dave Matthews Band or Live (which released its album in 1994 but went No. 1 this year) is like trying to slice air in half. Rock and roll may not be dead, but there are those writers and musicians who'd tell you trip-hip-hop-jungle-disco-boogie is starting to dance on its grave. (And maybe so: Tricky and Moby and Portishead and even Goldie, the latter of whom is more new-age-ambient than disco, hint at the unheard revolution.)

Music made within the mainstream--that is, funded by major labels and endorsed by MTV and prepackaged to kids in the mall record stores under the guise of "alternative"--now belongs to the shallow and cynical, those for whom the surface of the thing is about all they can handle. What you hear with Blues Traveler or Alanis Morissette or Live or Red Hot Chili Peppers or TLC or Tha Dogg Pound or fill-in-the-blank-here is what you get--production over inspiration, assembly-line craftsmanship instead of accidental genius. Bush and Silverchair--cynical Nirvana and Pearl Jam knock-offs, and damned proud of it--make once-hackneyed Stone Temple Pilots sound authentic.

Alanis Morissette's popularity can be attributed, in large part, to her willingness to address the subject of female sexuality and vindictiveness (she is, after all, on Madonna's Maverick label). But strip away the part about the blow job in the movie theater in "You Oughta Know" and concentrate only on the melody, and it becomes clear Morissette is nothing but Tiffany crossed with Liz Phair--a former mall queen who probably gets her salami at the Hickory Farms, not in the back row of the cineplex.

This was the year alternative-rock radio also embraced the likes of Natalie Merchant, Triple-A's version of a soul singer, and Lisa Loeb, the Hockaday graduate who could find angst in a toy store. Meanwhile, every female singer you could trust--Polly Jean Harvey, Boss Hog's Cristina Martinez, even Joan Jett (reborn once again, this time in the role of slain Gits singer Mia Zapata)--went ignored by radio programmers who were too busy worrying whether Jill Sobule was really a lesbian.

MTV also claimed it was the year of the "dueling divas"--Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Janet Jackson--fighting it out for the top of the pops, but it was no contest when it came to talent and how they used it: All three women came in third.

There were only a handful of genuinely great albums released in 1995. They're the albums that will withstand the year, those records whose passion and conviction can't be tied to trend of fad. They pack a wallop even when they whisper, tell heartfelt stories even when they do not speak, paint their pictures with lustrous colors that will not fade with the passage of time.

Foo Fighters, however, doesn't surpass Nirvana's In Utero, not by a long shot; nor does PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love plunge to the depths of her 1993 masterpiece Rid of Me; The Jayhawks' Tomorrow the Green Grass has the occasional brown patch; Son Volt's Trace might just sound good, or just better than Wilco's A.M., because it's so dark and self-serious; and John Coltrane's Stellar Regions was made by a guy who's been dead for a long time.

So many of this year's "best" records, for that matter, only hint at something better; they're either great records containing some disappointing moments (Dwight Yoakam's Gone, Wilco's A.M., Bruce Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad), or mediocre albums possessing more than their fair share of notable moments (like Radiohead's The Bends or Brian Wilson's I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, which wrings the former Beach Boy's sadness and madness from even the most sickly sweet song). Where once we were forced to listen to albums in their entirety (or at least an entire side), now we judge an artist's work by how often we hit the "skip" button on our CD players.

If this was yet another year in which the pedestrian got to ride the bus, then at least it provided us with a bounty of wonderful songs: Edwyn Collins' "A Girl Like You," the Jayhawks' "Blue," Bedhead's "The Dark Ages" (from the Trance Syndicate compilation ACinco Aos!), Presidents of the United States' "Lump," Supergrass' "Mansize Rooster," Joan Osborne's "One of Us," Wilco's "Passenger Side," Eric Matthews' "Fanfare," Rancid's "Ruby Soho," Radiohead's "Lucky" (from Help, the Bosnian-relief collection), Oasis' "Some Might Say," Folk Implosion's "Natural One," Boss Hog's cover of the Ike Turner classic "I Idolize You," and the Amps' "Full on Idle." These are just a smattering of the hits and would-be hits that played themselves on the jukebox of pop radio or, for the most part, remained hidden treasures buried beneath so much dross.

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