If 1995 was the year of the umpteenth British Invasion (Oasis, Blur, etc.) and the domination of the true underground by the amazing cross-pollinations of dance music, 1996 wasn't far behind in brilliance. In '96, the feeling that pop music still has the power to stimulate, instigate, and propagate remained intact. Some old stalwarts like Nick Cave and Social Distortion put fury and passion where they belong, while young innovators--again--had a field day dipping their sampling machines in waters both charted and unmapped, creating new amalgams of euphoria. The dance underground spewed out brain manglers from the likes of DJ Shadow, Alex Reece, Juno Reactor, Aphex Twin, the Future Sound of London, Orbital, m-ziq, Skylab, DJ Spooky, Moby, Wordsound, Funki Porcini, DJ Food, Josh Wink, DJ Krush, the Dust Brothers, and numerous others, working out as many brain cells as leg muscles.
Bands like Tortoise, Pram, Cul de Sac, and our very own Mazinga Phaser rediscovered the gold mine of Krautrock and dug out some real nuggets. Three bands from nowhere--OK, Wales--Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Super Furry Animals, and Catatonia, gave pop a fascinating Syd Barrett-like twist; the wistful post-country sounds of bands like Palace, Lambchop, Smog, and Mojave 3 soothed jangled pop culture nerves. Finally, scattered essential releases by Girls vs. Boys, Delicatessen, Wilco, the Olivia Tremor Control, Cibo Matto, and the collaboration between James' Tim Booth and Angelo Badalamenti indicated that the trend for 1996 was that there is no trend. Everything was up for grabs, and we were the winners.
Top international albums of '96:
Different Class, Pulp; Island Records: Jarvis Cocker's vitriolic tongue and the band's angular Abba-meets-David-Bowie post-disco sound make this a contemporary masterpiece.
White Light White Heat White Trash, Social Distortion; Sony Records: There is enough passion in Mike Ness and Social D to compensate for the whole slew of hollow, apathetic punk wannabes.
Millions Now Living Will Never Die, Tortoise; Thrill Jockey Records: This magnificent fusion of rhythm and ambience needs no lyrics to describe its cosmic scope.
Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Stereolab; Elektra Records: These hip socialist perfectionists continue to redefine the meaning of the groove with every new effort.
Pre-Millennium Tension, Tricky; Island Records: Fear, doubt, and claustrophobia are chillingly encapsulated in this aptly titled opus.
Murder Ballads, Nick Cave; Reprise Records: Simultaneously discomforting and hilarious, fallen Saint Nick narrates the human tragicomedy like few others can.
Oedipus Schmoedipus, Barry Adamson; Mute Records: Twisted soundtracks for imaginary film noir movies that make you wish they existed.
Black Love, Afghan Whigs; Elektra Records: Greg Dulli reaches in the dark corners of his soul and pulls out these rough-hewn diamonds.
Expecting to Fly, Bluetones; A&M Records: Sublime pop craftsmanship and melodies that may even ease the pain of the Stone Roses' sad demise.
Offbeat, Various Artists; Red Hot Records: As fearsome as AIDS itself, this benefit album molds and shapes your emotions like Play-doh.
Top roadshows of '96:
Social Distortion, Deep Ellum Live, November 21. Mike Ness put his heart on a plate and handed it to a sea of sweaty bodies, giving them a rare earful of what real punks past 30 are capable of.
Afghan Whigs, Trees, May 21. A two-hour-long exhibition of real soul music.
Flaming Lips, Trees, May May 24. No one can figure out what planet they're from, but they always manage to leave you with a smile of wonder on your face.
Stereolab, Trees, November 21. A mesmerized crowd lost itself in an endless loop of pop bliss.
Oasis, Bronco Bowl, April 20. That night they were rock 'n' roll stars.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Trees, November 29. These hip priests crammed every primordial rock riff into one short hour.
Lou Reed, Bronco Bowl, March 14. He's no longer the rock 'n' roll animal, but deep down inside he's still got a rock 'n' roll heart.
Barry White, Starplex, July 3. He had to sing sitting down for most of the set, but when he left you knew why they don't call it soul anymore.
Chemical Brothers, Deep Ellum Live, November 19. Their innovative approach and wicked samples proved that so-called dance music is not just for kids with oversized jeans.
Elvis Costello, Bronco Bowl, August 20. He mixed old and new, sarcasm and heartache, thrills and insights--bless his bespectacled Elvisness.
Top local releases/demos of '96:
Cruising in the Neon Glories of the New American Night, Mazinga Phaser; Womb Tunes: Wildly ambitious and ultimately captivating, this astonishing debut should put them on the map. Now!
The Strafers (demo tape): They play with the ferocity and conviction of the early Clash. True punk with something to say.
Transcontinental Conspiracy, The Vas Deferens Organization and Brad Laner; Quaquaversal Vinyl Records: Wigged-out brain candy laced with strychnine, with enough spooky vibes to make even Clive Barker uncomfortable.
Chandelier Musings, Comet; Dedicated Records: Still orbiting around the planet, refusing to touch down. It must be wondrous up there.
The Fun of Watching Fireworks, The American Analog Set; Emperor Jones Records: Part dreamy pop, part winsome repetition, it moves through the speakers like a cool summer breeze.
Late Nite Songs, J Bone Cro; Womb Tunes Records: Demented space-country. Like Hank Williams on Mars dropping acid with the natives.
Thank God I'm Livin' in the USA, Pump'N Ethyl; Dragon Street Records: Turner Scott Van Blarcum's sardonic wit and the band's mean hardcore make this album as much fun as a drunken romp through Tokyo with Godzilla.
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Nocturne (demo tape): With a sound dark and hypnotizing, this black-clad quintet has enough talent to shed its gothic label and move to another level.
REO Speedealer, REO Speedealer; Spanish Fly Records: Texas Chainsaw Massacre should have had a soundtrack like this.
Transona Five, (demo tape): Kudos to this young band for their relentless pursuit of the perfect melody.
Beheaded, Bedhead; Trance Sydnicate: Warm, sensitive, and elusive, these after-hours vignettes counterbalance the ugliness that passes for alternative.