Spirit of '96

Last year showed pop still has more than a ghost of a chance

Geffen Records

There's not much to say about this deft manipulation of pop idioms that hasn't already been said; besides, when people talk about, imitate, and reference an album as much as this one, it's important even if it sucks. The fact that Beck Hansen doesn't suck is icing on the cake.

Black Mumba
The Hellcat Trio
Pinko Audiomedia

The competition in the realm of rockabilly-derived trio music is fierce and for the most part undifferentiated; kudos to the Hellcats for having the balls to dig deeper than most into the black heart of American music. It takes guts to grind this relentlessly--loss, release and blood on the barroom floor--but grind they do. Think: the Stray Cats convened by Boris Karloff, or the Calways in prison heard through a veil of red wine and Seconal.

The Score
Ruff House/Columbia Records
See Odelay, above.

What Means Solid, Traveler?
David Torn
CMP Records

OK, OK...it's a grudge match axe-fight between Jimi Hendrix and Adrian Belew...no, no, it's a raga-flavored rave, uh-uh, now it's more like a trip-hopper's instrumental delight, no, wait...now it's a techno-friendly muezzin sending amplified prayers skyward from a minaret halfway between Chicago and New York City...aw, hell, whatever it is, it's the freshest middle ground between jazz, machine music, and world beat that Allan Holdsworth and Bill Bruford ever played virtual Frisbee on.

Arista Records

These guys haven't quite engendered the kind of furrowed-brow analysis and harbingers-of-a-new-age pronouncements that Beck and the Fugees have enjoyed, but in the realm of country music, their loving presentation of a vintage sound is every bit as important. Maybe the fact that they dress in WW2-era vintage clothes or have an obvious sense of humor keeps some from taking them too seriously, but BR5-49, along with its first release, the six-song Live at Roberts', has managed not only to get the band major ink but also the attention of the Nashville establishment--a feat as difficult as being a traveling salesman in a time of rubber rationing.

Charlie Hunter Quartet
Blue Note

If you didn't know anything about Charlie Hunter, you might not be that impressed with his work--because you'd be thinking that the bass and guitar lines on his albums were the product of two different players...it might not be until you saw Hunter's instrument--a bizarre eight-stringed affair boasting three bass strings and five lighter-gauge guitar strings stretched across frets that radiate out from an implied central point, no fret parallel to its neighbor--that you'd realize that those two parts are played on one instrument. You also might not realize that that's even a guitar you're hearing; no one has brought the guitar closer in affect to the warm pulsing fills of the Hammond organ than Hunter, and certainly not while playing basslines against the melody. Lots of people have their own customized instruments, but few seem as radical--or as necessary--as Hunter's.

Year of Mondays
Mike Johnson
TAG Recordings

The last two years have certainly inaugurated the season of the bass, as in singing voice. Bands like Emmett Swimming and Crash Test Dummies come immediately to mind, but the best of the bunch is Mike Johnson, whose rough-hewn, sepulchral voice can be as full of loneliness--or hope--as a pair of packed suitcases sitting by the door. He knows how to rock, but prefers gentler, more atmospheric songs full of instruments like fiddle, vibes, Mellotron--and J Mascis--all deployed in not-quite-typical ways.

Polka! All Night Long, Jimmy Sturr; Rounder Records. The efforts of sincere aficionados like Brave Combo notwithstanding, Sturr is the polka pro, and it shows all the way through this party-perfect album. Peppy and upbeat--ideal beer drinking music--the album's use of Willie Nelson for some of the vocals is inspired.

Colossal Head, Los Lobos; Warner Brothers Records. Kiko may have marked their mastery of texture, but Colossal Head is the album that proved Los Lobos--consistently one of the best bands in the country--was willing to take that dominion and run with it. Exaggerated and elastic, but never artificial, Head is like the soundtrack to one of those perfervid old MGM cartoons, where the hyper-bouncy ragtime plays and all the houses, trees, and cars pulse and sway in time to the music. Whether celebrating the liberation of getting down or the gentle resignation of existence, the little ol' band from East L.A.--with a healthy shot of Latin Playboy elixir for backup--takes you around the block, through the looking glass, and to the moon, Alice.

Honorable mention:

A Tribe Called Quest, Beats, Rhymes, and Life; Jive Records.

Fashion Nugget, Cake; Capricorn Records.

Euphonium, The Picketts; Rounder Records.

Man of Sin, Varnaline; Zero Hour Records.

Omnipop, Sam Philips; Virgin Records.

Peace at Last, The Blue Nile; Warner Brothers Records.

Martin Zellar and the Hardways, Martin Zellar and the Hardways; Rykodisc.

Dead Inside, The Golden Palominos; Restless Records.

Anderson, Ohio, Rees Shad; Sweetfish Records.

The Return of Rico Bell, Rico Bell; Bloodhsot Records.

Find a Door, Pete Droge and the Sinners; American Recordings.

This Can't be Life, The Wild Colonials; DGC.

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