Spirit of '96

How do you solve a problem like this introduction? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? 1996 was many things--a flibbertigibbet, a will o' the wisp, a clown--but more than anything for music, it was a time of transition. With "alternative" rock still spinning off hundreds of bands but essentially dead in the water, hip-hop and rap were the year's big catalysts. Flagship acts like Beck and the Fugees sold millions of albums and garnered big-time attention by warping and stretching boundaries, but urban beats in one form or another were always involved.

Even as rap--pushed and pulled by acts like the Fugees and A Tribe Called Quest--moved toward the formats and song structures that the mainstream responded to and rewarded, the genre's stars showed that their rate-limiting factor might still well be the hard environment from which the music sprung. Eazy-E went out quietly; Tupac Shakur, less so.

Christian music broke big in '96, with acts like DC Talk, Jars of Clay, and the Newsboys making commercial inroads into the industry that even Stryper never imagined; unfortunately--with a few notable exceptions--new Christian bands seemed infatuated with the moribund (and quickly becoming pejorative) "alternative" label. Being a religious act doesn't necessarily mean you're behind the curve, but statistics still say: probably.

Crossover was everywhere, even back from the land of the dead: punk came back, as did Kiss, and this time they didn't seem so different. Music from other parts of the world--impelled by but not limited to dance and techno--came streaming into our music, and other artists broke free from earthly limits (song structure, the standard tonal system) and sailed into outer space. The past wasn't so much a reference point as a vein to be mined; stimulated by Alanis' jagged little thrill, artists who were still in diapers when Marianne Faithfull recorded the corrosive "Why'd Ya Do It?" presented the pissed-off female as a brand-new thing. When time has no meaning, age soon loses its relevance; For better or worse, our very own LeAnn Rimes hustled her way into media ubiquity by virtue of an album that only had two good songs on it, and Greenville's Radish signed a gazillion-dollar deal with Mercury on the basis of what were basically competent demos.

Apologies to William Butler Yeats, but it's not the center that's giving way here--it's the edges. The promise for 1997 is that out of these blurred divisions, cross-hatched bloodlines, and mixed signals something new--and perhaps wonderful--will grow.

1996's best from all around the town
Looking back on 1996, one is chastened by the example of articles the Dallas Observer ran on the closing of local indie stores 14 Records and VVV and the heartfelt 'fuck you, we don't care' replies that followed, all from those on the outside of an elite who quite naturally did not appreciate being mocked for completely innocent queries regarding Hootie or Dave Matthews. Another striking quality of 1996 was how, at times, the local scene resembled a musical version of Re-Animator as various bands from the past reconvened, usually to good effect.

Without further brouhaha, the envelopes, please:

Local albums:
Return of the Funky Worm
Johnny Moeller and Paul Size
Dallas Blues Society Records.

I've said it before, but repetition is nothing new to the blues, so I'll say it again: the challenge these days is to grow new blues, germinated in the thick black soil of tradition yet yielding new fruit, and no one has built as fecund a greenhouse as these two youngbloods, raised in the cutthroat nursery of the Dallas blues scene. Moeller and Size remind us that style is not a destination, but a starting place.

Meredith Louise Miller
Steve Records

'Long about the '60s--ayuh--people began thinking of folk music as some sort of perfect thing, a better distillation of life than life itself, which is why many folks' reaction to folk music is similar to that of John Belushi in Animal House. Meredith Louise Miller isn't some Joni-esque princess, nor is she on the barricades holding your conscience hostage like Joan Baez. Rather like you and me, she's a bundle of flaws and contradictions, potential and pride, goofy as hell one moment and shockingly insightful the next: beauty with zits that needs to brush its teeth. ifihadahifi finds Miller growing up, experimenting, and still remaining true to herself; the line about her dad coming to pick her up in his exterminating truck--and the way her voice manages to convey both comfort and embarrassment at the same time--is destined to become a classic, if only for the way it sums up her gift.

Kiss of Fire
Brave Combo
Watermelon Records.

Brave Combo is one of those acts that will probably bring about a golf-like handicap system for judging bands. In school they were called "curvebusters." Longevity, creativity, and production all come together, and the band's ability to pair off with other talents like Tiny Tim has always been one of the most stirring (if implicit) testimonies to its good energy. In this case Lauren Agnelli (formerly of the nuevo-beat folkies the Washington Squares) lends her formidable talents to a collection of originals developed with BC's Carl Finch and classic covers. Finesse and--even better--real feeling, but subtly done and sophisticated.

Pawn Shop From Heaven
Junky Southern
Parallax Entertainment

Reed Easterwood is one of Dallas' most underappreciated musical artists, a point he underlines with his band Junky Southern on Pawn Shop. A skilled technician, an ambitious writer, and a superb texturalist, Easterwood maps out music that--while born on the bayou--stretches from Ichigoo Park to San Francisco. Even when he doesn't quite pull it off, he stumbles upward.

Cruising in the Neon Glories of the New American Night
Mazinga Phaser
Womb Tunes

There's a point, while traveling, when you're on the transport mechanism--be it airplane, railway car, or (so sorry) bus--when external light fades with the end of the day. At first, with cabin lights blazing, you can see nothing but interior reflection--your own face, those on the other side of the aisle, the back of the seat in front--but when the captain/engineer/driver cuts the power to those visual aids, all of a sudden the reflections of familiar interior reference points become transparent and you can see the outside world streaming by. Part dream and part dare, Cruising has a few faults (most of which are hinted at by the title) but is an astounding first album, remarkable for just that sense of overlaid reality.

Last Beat Records

Soundtrack for the apocalypse? That would depend on whether you subscribe to the bang or the whimper theory. Harsh and angular most of the time, smoother but still aggressive the rest, this album isn't for everybody, but it makes a compelling argument for the necessity of noise.

Trance Syndicate

Post-punk Crazy Horse? Actually, there's not much bar band to the expansive and thoughtful music of Bedhead, but the band does have Neil Young's sense for (assumedly) involuntary but powerful tonal poetry, the sense of a song making sense as it's heard. If Neil had graduated high school in the late '80s, not the early '60s, his songs might sound like Bedhead's. Like Neil when paired with Crazy Horse, Bedhead is undeniably electric and unabashedly in love with the guitar, yet thoroughly modern--to the point of being ahead of most of the competition. If Mazzy Star were braver, they could aspire to this.

Bag of Fear
Lost Records

Bag nips from just about every calendar page in rock's last 35 years, but the dominant flavor is mid-'60s psychedelia (there is a lot more to the local psych scene than most people realize). More linear than experimentalists like the Vas Deferens Organization and referring to great British lodestones like Barret/Fripp/Eno only tangentially, Bag's compelling music is bipolar, orbiting between stoned contemplation of the Monkees and exploiting the guitar heroics behind American King Crimson-isms like the Velvet Underground. Great corrosive, fuzzed-out guitar sound, garage-y yet ambitious, Bag of Fear howls at the edge of greatness.

Last Beat Records

Bands can learn from Ziggy, they can learn from Mott and the Melvins, but what they really need to do is learn to put together an album that can so convincingly ring with "howdy, I'm not from around here" energy that, for all it seems played for you (there on the floor), there's never any doubt that it could be played by you, the one essential lesson ignored by the whole DIY movement. On Pinned, Tablet takes stock of that lesson in all its myriad forms, from Black Oak Arkansas to Bowie: Singer Steven Holt is obviously a breed apart; the drumming of David Christopher is immediate to the point of being urgent, and the guitar lines of Paul Williams are sharp and smart. For the band the weirdness may well be problematic, but we are much the better for it.

Soul Food Cafe
So Bright, So Blind
Invisible Records

The argument that it's a mistake to consign a mix of blue-eyed soul and rock 'n' roll to the pop graveyard (the section containing the headstones of acts such as Hall and Oates, George Michael, and the Average White Band) isn't made much these days, especially by musicians. With So Bright, SFC both explains this--you have to have a pretty good bag of working chops--and makes a pretty good case for remedying the situation. Sean Wisdom's voice is a great emotive vehicle, and Brad McLemore is one of DFW's most underrated guitar players; time will tell what audiences will allow them to make of it.

Chandelier Musings

This album manages a neat trick--sounding both familiar and utterly alien, sometimes at once. On their first full-length album, Comet has managed an unusually cohesive sonic signature that flows like the roar of a gas jet. Artists twice their age have gone ten times farther on half as much, so watch these guys.

Honorable mention:
birch county, birch county; Pilot Records.

Merkin Wig, Riddle Me This; Doilie Records.

Pretty Ugly, Mess; Last Beat.

Thank God I'm Livin' in the USA, Pump'N Ethyl; Dragon Street Records.

Mood Swing Music, Brave Combo; Rounder Records.

Rockin Bones, Ronnie Dawson; Crystal Clear Sound.

--Matt Weitz

The best live shows of 1996:
The Dangerous Kitchen: ACREQ plays the music of Frank Zappa, McFarlin Auditorium, January 20.When the Canadian experimental group ACREQ (in English, the Association for the Creation and Research of Electroacoustics) tackled the music of the late Frank Zappa, they were attempting a meeting of opposites that at first blush seemed irreconcilable: the exacting approach of a group of synthesizer-toting neo-classicists and a locker-room absurdist responsible for songs like "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?," and "Montana." Dig a bit below the surface, though, and you discover what the men and women of ACREQ already knew: that Zappa was a meticulous arranger who planned every note and rest. Their reproduction of songs from across Zappa's 25-year history was faithful but still brought new light to the material, particularly in their use of two classically-trained vocalists to deliver Zappa's oft-scatological lyrics. Their operatic deliveries underscored the voice's role as another instrument, giving the sound that words make an identity distinct from their meaning.

Dan Hicks and His Acoustic Warriors, Sons of Hermann Hall, March 1. Former Charlatan with an affinity for hot licks, no one defines musical cool like Hicks, and few acts this year delivered the astounding chops of Hicks' ensemble. Reunited with former Hot Lick Maryanne Price, who opened, Hicks and the Warriors' indefinable mix of swing, jazz, and jump was quicksilver fast, nimble, funny, and smart; the playing on classics such as "Where's the Money" perfectly supported Hicks' dryly cynical, slyly tongue-in-cheek lyric observations. Memorable.

Tripping Daisy, Fry Street Fair (Denton), April 20. By nightfall 39 bands had played for 14,000 sweaty, mostly college-age kids, but the best of the bunch was Tripping Daisy. If Brave Combo drummer emeritus Mitch Marine time-traveled and globe-trotted with his old pals--billed as surprise guest Cookies--it didn't distract him from later piloting Tripping Daisy to another planet. The surging midday crowd nearly toppled the stage-front and flung lingerie, shoes--even a wallet with $10 and a driver's license in it--at bewigged and robed singer Tim DeLaughter and company. "It was pure sex," said one stageside University of North Texas student of the fairer persuasion.

D'Drum with Ronnie Dawson, Dallas Museum of Art, May 25. Sublime percussion group D'Drum's thick, complex drumming knows as much about melody as it does about time, which is saying a hell of a lot. Whenever they play, cultural reference points twist and meld like smoke. Their skill, range and adaptability paid off brilliantly this Saturday afternoon when they--with astounding, seamless ease--shifted to accompany the flat-topped rocker on a short set of his rave-ups like "Monkey Beat City." The ensemble didn't drop a single thread or influence to accommodate Dawson, they just made a little more space for him and his straight rock beat to fit in.

BR5-49, Sons of Hermann Hall, May 30, 31. Although BR5-49 may be constitutionally incapable of playing a bad show, this early-in-the-year, pre-hype gig was not nearly as packed or raucous as the later fall show, and the more relaxed show was the greater pleasure to attend. A truly great dance band, these guys make being able to play whatever you want liberating, rather than sterile. Their ongoing "stump the band" routine--and high coefficient of unstumpability--was truly awesome.

The Funland Band, Trees, June 15. A frenetic last gasp of pithy, anguished, noisily melodic punk pop. The favored trio's last show...together, anyway: drummer Will Johnson continues as one-man curiosity Centro-Matic; guitarist Clark Vogeler--who, vowing to forsake music, sold his amp immediately after the gig --recently hopped onto the Toadies' major-label launchpad; and singer-songwriter Peter Schmidt strummed und sang at Deep Ellum Live New Year's Eve. United we rock; divided we still roll purdy OK. R.I.P., Funland.

The Barnshakers, Bar of Soap, July 17. The flame of Finnish rockabilly acolytes the Barnshakers burned with the pure devotion of the non-native aficionado. With their punctilious approach, brave-hearted enthusiasm, and clean picking, they recalled other great devotees like Scotland's ill-fated Shaking Pyramids. Although annoying to some, the stylistic devotion of rockabilly fans--retro clothes, precisely executed and near-transcendental dancing, and authentic DA haircuts--make for a stimulating trip through the old time machine, and this night was sharp even by rockabilly standards.

Alejandro Escovedo, Club Dada, August 1. With skill comes distance, you see, but Alejandro Escovedo's great talent has always been his ability to adroitly illuminate--not necessarily to explain or justify--human emotion without seeming your teacher or judge. Listening to him, you see your own bad self--reflected in the fun house mirror, the shiny fender of a car, or the blade of a knife--and no artist has ever inhabited so completely the old Sam Walter Foss poem: "Let me live in my house by the side of the road/Where the race of men go by/They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,/Wise, foolish--so am I." Traveling with his usual aggregation--strings augmenting the basic four-piece rock rig--Escovedo examined guilt, joy, pain and passion; sometimes wheeling gracefully, sometimes kneeling with his head in his hands, and sometimes strutting. Quite a feat--and treat--in these one-note times.

Ten Hands reunion, Club Dada, September 26. After only a cursory couple-hour review just a few hours earlier, the long-disjoined Ten Hands, original model--front-keyman Paul Slavens, guitarist Steve Brand, Chapman stick player Gary Meuller, and drummers Earl Harvin and Mike Dillon--performed an exceptionally energetic 2-hour set of trademark-precise sophisti-rock, including such past ubiquities as "You Are My Fix," "Pancho Villa," and "Donde Es Mi Zapatos." The personal conflicts and eventual stagnation that must have contributed to the Hands' unclasping several years ago was apparently long dissolved. Ten Hands also released the limited-edition CD The Bigay--fuller-produced material from the same period as 1989's The Big One Is Coming--at the reunion, and reconvened (with another Hands vet, Alan Emert, substituting for unavailable Harvin on kit) for an equally well-received encore performance the following week at Rick's Place in Denton.

Beck, Bronco Bowl, October 2. Even the most jaded person--saturated to the point of annoyance with "Loser," Beck's glazed affect, and his constant media profile--had to stand amazed at the seamless way Beck Hansen went from white-boy funkmeister to flannel-shirted folkie and back again, making it seem the most natural thing in the world. A palpable audience buzz and a performer who was obviously manifesting on stage his love of music made this one of the year's most exciting evenings. Big bonus points for Beck's (apparently) spontaneous goof on James Brown, having to be carried on and off for his encores--so righteously did he funk.

Steve Wynn at the Galaxy, October 11. This is what rock 'n' roll's all about: the crash, the fire, the buzz of amplified noise, the heroic vocals that presume to cut through even that din, the kind of roar that compels you to leave your earplugs in your pocket and revel in the sheer impact of the song. Wynn--who as of late had been scratching a more acoustic solo itch--rewarded the 30 or so fans who showed up with a rip-roaring tour through both old Dream Syndicate favorites and his own solo work and didn't let a light turnout keep him from sending the lucky few home grinning and high. Incandescent.

The Slip, Rick's Place (Denton), October 18. When Edie Brickell joined a couple of her former New Bo bandmates at Club Dada in March for what was conceived as a one-time memento, the two weekend performances of the "Slip" essentially were onstage rehearsals of nevertheless promising new power-rock songs and a welcomed resurrection of signature Bohemian here-now improv. After several appearances in Dallas and Seattle, the group returned for a rough-edged benefit concert at The Majestic Theatre October 17. At the next evening's barely-announced gig at Rick's, the Slip masterfully executed a full set of the riffy new material, and distilled (albeit slow) versions of Bo classics such as "Forgiven" and "Strings of Love," as well as the requisite invention.

Bob Dylan, Bronco Bowl, October 25. A rapid acoustic-electric oscillation of original masterworks such as "All Along the Watchtower" and "Rainy Day Woman," as well as a ramblin' Deadlike cover of "Alabama Getaway," with a faithful band, in the acoustically friendly--even to notoriously muddled Rob Z.--environs of the cozy Bowl. And Bob smiled.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Sons of Hermann Hall, October 25. This Texas treasure didn't shine quite as bright as he did August 31 at Deep Ellum Live--Mary Cutrufello's added spark was missed more than you expected--but the Sons show was still better overall, an object lesson in the importance of vibe and the appeal of this white clapboard dance hall: cozy confines and a crowd of enthusiastic, knowing fans who nonetheless were as devoted to dancing as they were to listening. Somehow the lesson in human short-sightedness implied by the hundreds of people streaming out of the August show after the Old 97's played intruded into appreciation of the music; Gilmore deserves better, and in October he got it.

Fever in the Funkhouse reunion, Club Dada, December 14. Nostalgic? Yes. Redundant? Sure. A crafty publicity stunt to market their new collection of (mostly) rough old demos, Then Again? Probably. But "crusty relics", as one of our, ahem, respected colleagues prejudged [The Met, December 11]? Not hardly. We forgot how elevating Fever's white-trash biographies set to country-fried dance rock could be, particularly the cyclic finger-picking of guitarist Chris Claridy. The songwriting and performances on the Then Again CD are far more mature than on the shorter tenderfoot effort Life Stories and Jam (cassette, 1989), which heretofore has been the only official record of the Fever that funked.

Honorable mention
Los Lobos, Caravan of Dreams (Fort Worth), April 21.
Porno for Pyros, Deep Ellum Live, June 27.
Southern Culture on the Skids, Orbit Room, November 13.
Wilco and Son Volt, Trees, November 6 and 12 respectively.
Cottonmouth, Texas, Dark Room, November 30.

--Matt Weitz and Alex Magocsi

The best Texas albums of 1996
Blessed or Damned
Dale Watson
Hightone Records

If you could somehow run water through a speaker while it was playing Dale Watson, there's no doubt that plants nourished thataway would grow faster, stronger, and greener than their less-favored neighbors; Watson's twangy take on country music is that potent. Shades of Merle, Buck, and Bakersfield, folded together and baked in the kind of heat that shimmers at the edge of a desert, mixing sand, asphalt, and legend. Real country.

Walk in the Sun
Sue Foley
Discovery Records

Next Blues, Chapter 15. Yeah, she plays like a man, but you can start out that way and still end up like Bonnie Raitt, so take heed: Sue Foley has the ego, the talent, and the perspective to not only be a star, but to be a real interpreter, and she has that Canadian take on things (North) American that's extra-bright, like a TV with the contrast and tint turned all the way up. Although her previous work was good, this album holds a piece of the true cross in its blue mix of the original, the archetypal, and the archival.

Offspeed and In There
Trance Syndicate

Somewhere in the southern half of Africa, a 20-year-old college student sits in a town that was once a principal city in the ancient state of Yoruba; he's wearing a Donald Duck T-shirt and listening to a (formerly) East German artist's machine-generated version of that area's traditional rhythms on a $400 French tape deck. Drain--brain-child of Butthole Surfer King Coffey--celebrates rather than bemoans this fact.

Happy Feet
8 1/2 Souvenirs
Continental Records

You wouldn't expect Django Reinhardt's ghost to be a puny one, and I don't think that Cafe Noir would restrict access to it even if it was, but Happy Feet is proof positive that our own beloved jazzbo/classicist synthesists haven't kidnapped the inspiration that shade affords: there appears to be plenty of gypsy jazz to go around. For the cigar smokers out there, think two words before sliding that foully smoking penile approximation 'twixt your lips: European lounge. (By the way: a real donkey's wouldn't smell that bad.) Agile.

Dem's Good Beeble
The Gourds
Munich Records

Crowning Injustice #77(c): A band like Counting Crows steals a mantle as precious as "the new Band" on the basis of a vague soundalike while the Gourds toil away in the impressively vast Local Band Hell of Austin, Texas. Without really sounding like that august and essential group, the Gourds incorporate the basics of their approach: a love of past form and tradition that can't be denied paired with a modern sensibility that cannot help but color everything that passes through it. Match that with some of the strangest, most oblique lyrics around--expanses of everyday experience punctuated by blasts of pure weirdness and gusts of eerie poetry--and you've got a brilliant, uniquely American album.

Dead Spy Report
Craig Ross
MCA Records

Not only does Craig Ross have a knack for bouncing a hook off of your brain--witness the addictive "Mudslide" that kicks off Dead Spy Report--but he reports with equal acuity on a wide range of emotion--desire, disgust, and despair. Of course, that's a singer/songwriter's job, but Ross' modern-rock take on the task is uncommonly bright.

Braver Newer World
Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Elektra Records

Gilmore's third in an increasingly brilliant series of recent albums, Braver Newer World is country in the sense that Emmylou Harris referred to when she--describing her own groundbreaking Wrecking Ball--said "we live in a country," so it's country music. Actually, it's hard to imagine the music on this album being limited by something as prosaic as national borders. As sweeping as the Baghavad-Gita, as sly as a Zen koan, and as piercingly clear as mountain air, this is drive-time country for the space shuttle.

The Fun of Watching Fireworks
American Analog Set
Emperor Jones Records

"Boxes and machines are instruments too!" is a battle cry being heard with increasing frequency these days. While the AAS definitely subscribe to a philosophy in which an instrument's electrical impedance might be as important as its tuning, they also have a belief in song structure which they hew to or abandon at will. Still, they are a bit more earthbound than many experimentalists, anchored perhaps by a subtle appreciation of cheesy '60s electronic keyboard sounds. Dreamy, a little detached, and worth the trip.

Fading Fast
Kelly Willis
A&M Records

While the work of other heroes of Americana (Wilco, Son Volt) sometimes seems overwrought and even belabored, the most remarkable thing about this EP from Kelly Willis is the utterly natural and offhanded way she offers us a glimpse of future promise: the joining of Americana and real country to the betterment of both, a mix blended with the same obvious respect and affection that made the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle be Unbroken such a keystone--and in less time.

(Tie) Romance Involidable
Eva Ybarra y su Conjunto
Eddie "Lalo" Torres is Everywhere!
Eddie "Lalo" Torres y su Conjunto
Rounder Records

With these two releases, Rounder helps keep Norteno-style conjunto music alive against the encroaching modernization--and leveling--of Tejano, going back into San Antonio's musical history for a couple of pearls: one whose history is well known (relatively speaking) and one that has perhaps been obscured.

Neither album is as country-crossover friendly as that of master SA accordeonista Mingo Saldivar: although Ybarra has a fondness for similarly rapid 1/16 and 1/32 note runs. It's actually Torres who's a bit more Tejano--in the assimilated (country) sense. Starting watershed conjunto Los Pavos Reales in 1957 with his brother, this album is Torres' announcement of a return after a serious illness. For Ybarra it's an announcement of female empowerment and arrival--even after being on the SA scene for almost 40 years. A more than satisfactory realization of the promise of her first Rounder record A Mi San Antonio, Romance Involidable, like Torres' Everywhere, keeps alive something evermore obscured by electric guitars and banks of synthesizers. It's the grit implied in the slightly off-kilter chords of the bajo sexto and a texture we're so much the richer for keeping.

Nydia Rojas
Nydia Rojas
Arista Latin

Rojas' Madonna-does-mariachi take on a style long on folklore and relatively short of flash might trouble rock-ribbed traditionalists, but she's put mariachi before a whole new audience with even more effect than loving modernists like Campanas de America. This could well be one of those albums that are looked back on as watersheds, harbingers of greater change.

Honorable mention:
Slop, Pork; Emperor Jones.

El Paso Rock: Early Recordings Volume 1, Bobby Fuller; Norton Records.

Daydreaming from the Labyrinth, Tish Hinojosa; Warner Brothers Records.

Spanks for the Memories, Asylum Street Spankers; Watermelon Records.

You Can Say That Again, Johnny Rodriguez; Hightone Records.

With These Hands, Alejandro Escovedo; Rykodisc.

The best national albums of 1996

Elektra Records

Southern boys whacked out on Christianity, morality, and electricity, jennyanykind have made their Revelator the most appealing--and challenging--freakout of the year. Splintered guitar lines and raw-throated yelling not that far removed from a corner streetpreacher's bids you look down and see the Blood of the Lamb slathering your arms up to the elbow--then you'll feel the walls (and what's beyond them) closing in on a perspective that a post-modern Flannery O'Connor would appreciate. After all, a good band is hard to find.

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.

Making Light of It, Pierce Pettis; Compass Records.

Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Stereolab; Elektra Records.

Gone Again, Patti Smith; Arista Records.

--Matt Weitz

Rick Koster's Year-end Best Ofs:

Nitakuye Oyasin Oyasin-All My Relations, The Neville Brothers; A&M Records.

Recurring Dream: The Very Best Of Crowded House/plus Limited Special Edition Live CD,

Crowded House; Capitol Records (import).

Finn Brothers, Finn Brothers; Discovery Records.

Aras, Curandero; Silver Wave Records.

Are You With Me?, Cowboy Mouth; MCA Records.

Primitive Streak, subdudes; High Street Records.

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

Pieces of a Puzzle, Steve Kolander; River North Nashville Records.

All This Useless Beauty, Elvis Costello and the Attractions; Warner Brothers Records.

Rick Koster is a Dallas-based freelance writer who has just finished Lone Star Song, a subjective history of Texas musicians, and is a frequent contributor to the Observer.

Mike Snider's top 10 shows of 1996:

Bob Dylan, Austin Music Hall, Austin. October 26 and 27.

Doug Sahm and the Last Real Texas Blues Band, Antone's, Austin. October 26.

Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic, Luckenbach. July 4.

25th Annual Kerrville Folk Festival, Kerrville. May 23--June 16.

Golden Smog, South by Southwest: Austin Music Hall and Waterloo Records, Austin. March 14, 15.

Robert Earl Keen, Sons of Hermann Hall, Dallas. June 13,14.

Wilco and Son Volt, Trees, Dallas. November 6 and 12, respectively.

Ten Hands and Fever in the Funkhouse reunions, Club Dada, Dallas. September 26 and December 14, respectively.

Mike Snider is an ardent supporter of Texas music and best known for the shows he books into the Sons of Hermann Hall. Full disclosure compels us to note that he booked the Wilco, Son Volt, and Robert Earl Keen shows listed above.

Abby Goldstein's Top 10 albums of 1996

Primitive Streak, subdudes; High Street Records.

A Few Small Repairs, Shawn Colvin; Columbia Records.

A Piece of Your Soul, Storyville; Code Blue/Warner Records.

Rocking Horse Head, Steve Forbert; Revolution Records.

Semi Crazy, Junior Brown; Curb Records.

Fashion Nugget, Cake; Capricorn Records.

Nil Lara, Nil Lara; Capitol Records.

Kind Hearted Woman, Michelle Shocked; Private Music.

Upstroke for the Downfolk, Paul Cebar and the Milwakeeans; Don't Records.

Blackwater Surprise, Robert Bradley; RCA Records.

Abby Goldstein is a local radio and music personality familiar to most via her stint with KERA (90.1 FM) and is still regarded with affection despite her association with countless pledge drives.

Zac Crain's Best of 1996:

1977, Ash; Reprise Records.

Everything Sucks, Descendents; Epitaph Records.

Gilded Stars and Zealous Hearts, Velocity Girl; Sub Pop.

Expecting to Fly, The Bluetones; A&M Records.

BR5-49, BR5-49; Arista Nashville.

First Band on the Moon, The Cardigans; Mercury Records.

Different Class, Pulp; Island Records.

Pinkerton, Weezer; DGC.

Betty Pickup, Muzzle; Reprise Records.

Zac Crain is an Austin-based freelance writer.

Richard Baimbridge's Best albums of '96:

Pre-Millenium Tension, Tricky; Island Records.

K, Kula Shaker; Columbia Records.

Different Class, Pulp; Island Records.

The Singles, Sun Ra; Evidence Records.

Peace Beyond Passion, Me'Shell Ndegeocello;

Maverick/Reprise Records.

Odelay, Beck; DGC.

Chants Soufis du Pakistan, Abida Parveen; Inedit Export.

The Liquid CD, Liquid Harmony; Sony Music.

The Ambient Cookbook, various artists; Atlantic Records.

Heaven & Earth, Jah Wobble; Island Records.

Richard Baimbridge is a freelance writer based in Dallas.


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