Chocolate and cheese

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.

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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.  

Dead Dog's Eyeball, Kathy McCarty (Bar None Records): Kathy McCarty, the former guitarist-singer for Austin's Glass Eye, makes no attempt to prettify the sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes wise words of Daniel Johnston; at times, even, her voice sounds almost distant and emotionless, as though she is letting Johnston's lyrics (new-found wisdom to him, cliches to us) and the lush pop arrangements carry the weight of the material. The result: an album of pure pop confections, constructed as solidly as Fort Knox with a tremendous sound that recalls the mad best of Phil Ramone and Brian Wilson. Without changing a single note of Johnston's original source material, McCarty has created a record that's the difference between a child's scribblings and an Impressionist masterpiece.

This Perfect World, Freedy Johnston (Elektra Records): On album, anyway, Johnston's a loser in love and life, locked out and trapped in the Big City, haunted by monuments and moments that remind him of The One Who Got Away. Contained within these exquisite, sometimes even catchy pop songs that recall everyone from Still Crazy After all These Years-era Paul Simon to Matthew Sweet to Marshall Crenshaw (who guests here) are bleak, despairing lyrics: tales of "barefoot whores" and women sexually assaulted by ministers, matter-of-fact recollections of nights spent staring down "Miss Liberty," and a father's misunderstood farewell to his daughter.

The Black Album, Prince (Warner Bros. Records): The Artist Formerly Known as Talented allegedly pulled this from release in 1987 because its unflinching funk--part violent gangsta parody, mostly low-down fuck-me come-ons--conflicted with his then-new-found spirituality; its release seven years (and, for me, four bootlegged copies) later is a coy contract move on his part and a shrewd marketing move on Warner Bros.' part, but either way, it's a lost masterpiece no more. If it ain't the best Prince album--and in spots, such as on the psychotic "Bob George" and the jazz-funk fusion of "2 Nigs United 4 West Compton," it might be--it's the best since then.

that dog, that dog (DGC Records): When it isn't soft and haunting, it's loud and sloppy, but it's hardly punk-folk; rather, this album is the gorgeous sound of angels (Anna Waronker and Petra and Rachel Haden, daughters of avant-jazzer Charlie Haden, joined in unnerving harmony) filtered through a ragged garage band in which the violin, not the electric guitar, is the focal point. By turns naive and wise, they sing of punk rock girls, family functions, and angels; appropriate Beatles song titles as lyrics; and get pissy when they discover their area code's been changed from 213 to 310.

Ill Communication, Beastie Boys (Capitol Records) and Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, Public Enemy (Def Jam Recordings): Hands down, The Beasties' "Sabotage" is the single of the year--a wack piece of metal-rap done up as cop-rock, it should be heard blasted though the speakers of a red-with-white-swish-stripe Ford Torino with Antonio Vargas coolin' in the back seat. "Sure Shot" ranks a close second, and the rest of the record's cool, too: if their first three albums followed a natural progression from wise-ass upper-class rappers to soul revivalists to punk-rap revisionists, then their fourth perfects the whole package; Ill Communication is less a hip-hop album and more an avant-garde experiment in sound, with the Boys dropping names (from John Woo and Rod Carew to Lee Dorsey and dub-master Lee Perry) and a sound that bounds from sloppy hard-core to mellowed-out jazz-soul. And it takes a strong man--stronger, even, than Eric Dolphy--to make the flute funky.

Public Enemy got written off as one of the year's biggest disappointments, primarily because their critics claim they've gotten sloppy. But if Muse Sick is a failure, it's a brilliant and fascinating and deliberate one: Chuck D's paranoia rises to new levels (he now thinks black folks are out to get him, too), and the Bomb Squad's siren-scream production has given way to a murkier, denser funk-rock that underscores Chuck's foray into Last Poets terror-tory. Filled with wacky conspiracy theories (such as the old saw that AIDS was created by the government to kill the black community) and emasculated enemies (David Duke), Muse Sick still rivets like few other rap albums of the year, whether Chuck's reciting beat poetry like "Aintnuttin Buttersong" or speeding through a "Race Against Time." He's a punk, and forever shall be.  

San Francisco, American Music Club (Reprise Records): Mark Eitzel's stubborn heart stays broken forever, and once again he creates melancholy, fragile music as palpable as emotion itself. He embraces heartbreak and loneliness as though they were old drinking buddies ("Love doesn't belong to anyone," he asserts), and contends, "I don't need anyone's love" when he's sure none will come his way. And, finally, when he does find someone with whom to share his life, he retreats in self-deprecation ("All I have to offer you is archeology and Christmas") and self-loathing ("I thought your love was just a great big lie").

Monster, R.E.M. (Warner Bros. Records): Either the three months since its release have allowed for familiarity or it was there all along, but Monster recalls the best of mid-'80s R.E.M--back, you know, when R.E.M. toyed briefly with the idea of being a real art-rock and roll band. Peter Buck's upfront guitar and new-found soul singer Michael Stipe's half-obscured, half-nonsensical lyrics are only part of the untold story; rather, they are accents to music that plays itself out in a blur, beautiful ("Strange Currencies," "Tongue") and bizarre ("Circus Envy") moments whizzing by and coalescing until they leave you spent, distressed, strung out, complete.

Chocolate and Cheese, Ween (Elektra Records) and Made in USA, Pizzicato Five (Matador Records): Somewhere in between smug post-modern appropriation and sincerity lie these two bands--one of which consists of two wise-ass Yankees, the other of which is a Japanese export that succeeds where Deee-Lite failed miserably. Aside from The Black Album, Ween's fourth is the best Prince record of the year--a melange of Philly soul and P-Funk and Middle Eastern rhythms and lounge-rock and lo-fi Latin revenge songs, a creation born of studio craftsmanship and a childhood spent in the suburbs during the '70s. The P5 go more for '60s pop-culture points of reference--John Barry's James Bond theme, Twiggy, Lalo Schiffrin, Sly Stone--but, like Ween, never reduce the sum of the parts to a joke. In fact, it's all done with a rather straight face, which is what finally makes it so much fun.

The Decline and Fall of Heavenly, Heavenly (K Records): Amelia Fletcher's a little tougher than Claire Grogan, but only a little; otherwise, Heavenly is the '90s reincarnation of Altered Images--the frothy, perky, endearing band of a decade ago that recast the classic pop sound of the '60s for a thoroughly modern new-wave age. From the opening "Me and My Madness" (on which Fletcher sings, "I hear strings in songs when they're not there," and is then accompanied by a brief swell of violins) to the closers "Sperm Meets Egg, So What?" and "She and Me," Heavenly is just that--bubblegum-pop born again, sweet songs created by people unashamed to be so wonderfully white.

Pirate Prude, Helium (Matador Records): The middle two songs on this six-song EP (perhaps the longest EP in history) are the Whore Songs: on "XXX," Mary Timony sings that she's not for free, but "I'll take your love if your love will pay me"; on "OOO," she offers herself as candy, droning in a flat and pretty voice that "you can suck me or leave me in the wrapper sticky." The rest of the songs equate love with death, Timony's creepy come-ons doubling as violent threats ("You got a skull, baby, you got a spine, after I'm done with you I'll spit them out like rinds"), and all six songs are set to the most dissonant, harrowing pop songs of the year--like, if Bedhead was fronted by Thalia Zedek and Polly Jean Harvey.

Superunknown, Soundgarden (A&M Records): Twenty years from now, for better or worse, kids will call their classic-rock station and request "Black Hole Sun" the way they tie up phone lines begging to hear "Stairway to Heaven" just one more time; it's as beautiful as it is brutal, as soft as it is loud, classic-(arena-)rock redone brand-new--not the best song on Superunknown ("Let Me Drown" or "Kickstand" possess better riffs, "Like Suicide" is creepier), but a great Rock Single. After regurgitating Blue Cheer-Zep-Sabbath rip-riffs for a handful of records, Soundgarden finally struck upon the right mixture of hard-rock and punk, standing tall upon the same middle ground into which Pearl Jam quickly sinks.

Martinis and Bikinis, Sam Phillips (Virgin Records): As Leslie Phillips, she sang disco for Jesus, extolling His praises over a cheesy technobeat that garnered her a rep as the Madonna of the born-again crowd. As Sam Phillips, she speaks ill of the church, referring to herself and husband-producer T Bone Burnett as "Christian atheists," meaning they believe in not believing. And so here's a record filled with faintly veiled anti-church songs ("Baby I Can't Please You," "Circle of Fire" with its references to "magic ladders in the sky") layered underneath lush, Beatley production--so Beatley, in fact, the record closes with a fiery, threatening version of Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth.  

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