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.
In the post-Nirvana world, the most popular of pop music exists contrary to Kurt Cobain: Where Cobain gave us revelations without confessions (especially on In Utero), the current crop of post-grunge rockers foist upon us imitations without hesitation. Rancid offers nothing but a pale Clash-Specials copy right down to their leather clown outfits; Green Day, whose Insomniac was a better record than Dookie and sold less to prove it, is the Who on a Buzzcocks kick; and Bush and Silverchair emasculate music until it's no less a formula than 2+2.
There's so little honesty in rock anymore, so few musicians from whom you get the sense that they need to make music. Sure, PJ Harvey does (her demons could kill Sinad O'Connor's); Dave Grohl does (like a shotgun blast); Geraldine Fibbers frontwoman Carla Bozulich does (the ex-junkie's lament); Brian Wilson does (he might go...crazy). But what does Live have to say? Or Darius Rucker? Or Natalie Merchant? They just offer up the same trite aphorisms set to lullaby melodies: "I alone love you;" "I only wanna be with you;" songs about River Phoenix ("This star fell down on Hollywood Boulevard"). Shut the fuck up.
Top 10 of 1995, give or take
1. Foo Fighters, Foo Fighters (Capitol/Roswell). "I don't owe you anything," Dave Grohl growls during "I'll Stick Around," declaring his independence from the myth and legacy of Nirvana. There's no dismissing this album (for which the former Nirvana drummer wrote every song and played every instrument) as a glorified solo project by a drummer-turned-frontman; it's a mission statement, palpable in its emotion--from Grohl's frenzied guitar playing to the constant threat in his voice to the songs that somehow balance '70s pop-rock melody with punk-rock fury. When "Weenie Beenie" erupts, the guitar building to a climax over which Grohl's distorted voice can be heard saying "One shot, nothing," it's rock's finest moment of 1995.
2. To Bring You My Love, PJ Harvey (Island). She's a blueswoman to the core, Howling Wolf born in the fragile, pale body of a 26-year-old British woman who sings about her "Long Snake Moan." There's nothing easy about Polly Jean Harvey--not her harshly gorgeous voice, not the distorted guitars atop the string sections atop the haunting background organ, not the subject matter that finds the Devil wanting to have the Lord's baby. Unlike Rid of Me, on which every song began as a whisper then exploded into a roar, To Bring sustains one note throughout; it seethes, it growls, it drones, it mutters, but it never yells--it never exorcises its demons, suckling them instead.
3. Lost Somewhere Between The Earth and My Home, The Geraldine Fibbers (Virgin). The Fibbers' full-length debut opens with the sound of a fiddle whining in the dark as a bass guitar drones in the distance. Then, from nowhere, electric guitars and drums kick in, transforming the caress into a punch. This is an epic record, a collection of literate short stories narrated by Carla Bozulich--a former junkie whose tales of sin and salvation are undercut by a constant hopelessness--and set to a dissonantly beautiful punk-rock beat with a country hitch. Singing in a voice that's almost androgynous, Bozulich crafts tales of losers who are almost beyond redemption; they're lost, self-hating, haunted by their pasts even when they do kick their habits. "I never knew nothing 'cept hunger and fear," she sings from the "Outside of Town," waiting for the bus that will take her to heaven--or hell. "I'll never be nothing--I'm ready to go."
(Tie) 4. A.M., Wilco (Reprise); Tomorrow the Green Grass, The Jayhawks (American Recordings); Trace, Son Volt (Warner Bros.). Standing in the Sons of Hermann Hall bar hours before Wilco's May show, frontman Jeff Tweedy came up with a catchy catch-all nickname for his--and the Jayhawks', and Son Volt's--brand of music: "rural contemporary," he called it, hinting at the country and rock and roll contained within. If nothing else, 1995 was the year "roots-rock" meant something: These three bands, Dwight Yoakam (whose Gone approached country as though it were Top 40 from 1964), and Geraldine Fibbers ("grievous angels who looked down from the heavens and spit"), prove country no longer belongs to the clones Nashville keeps dropping off the assembly line.
Wilco and Son Volt are the two sides of Uncle Tupelo revealed independently of each other for the first time--Tweedy's giddy pop songs set to a hillbilly backbeat; Jay Farrar's moody scene-setting country played like he was fronting Crazy Horse. If Tweedy's music seems lightweight in spots, it is only because it is hopeful and open: "If you'll come back again, I'll still be your friend" is his idea of a breakup; and "Passenger Side" is the best ode to drunk-driving written by a guy who's been clean and sober for years. Farrar, though, leaves little room in his claustrophobic travelogue through America's black heartland; his is a desolate, wind-swept, abstract ghost town for which he provides the equally stark sound track, no matter how elaborate the instrumentation. The Jayhawks, who have since broken up, split the difference between the lush and heartbreaking ("Blue," "Two Hearts," "Nothing Left to Borrow") and dense and moody rockers ("Real Light," "Pray for Me"). Like Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne, Tomorrow plays out like a bittersweet farewell, at the very least.
5. I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, Brian Wilson (MCA). The former Beach Boy hasn't kept his head in the sand all these years: He's mad, but he's not crazy. This collection of old and new songs redone in the studio with Don Was and a host of studio pros is a far superior work to the other Brian Wilson album of this year--the Van Dyke Parks collaboration Orange Crate Art, a flight of light pop fantasy that belongs to an era that no longer exists. These Times strips away the mystique and veneer of old songs like "The Warmth of the Sun" and "Caroline, No" and reduces them to fragile moments that Wilson is careful not to crush in his shaky hands; the songs contain echoes of the Beach Boys (especially "Wonderful" and "Do it Again"), but once lifted out from the wave-of-sound production and the weight of history, they reveal a thin and tiny voice struggling just to be heard--by himself, as much as by anyone else.
6. Stellar Regions, John Coltrane (Impulse). Recorded five months before Coltrane's death from liver cancer, these recordings were holed up with the sax great's wife and partner, pianist Alice Coltrane, until a few months ago when Impulse released the disc as part of its Coltrane reissue series. Unlike this year's Atlantic boxed set--a remarkable and lovingly assembled collection of his entire "middle period" output with the previously released Giant Steps outtakes included--Stellar Regions documents one of his final days (Feb. 15, 1967, to be exact), when Coltrane was reigning in his avant-free-jazz and looking for the melody inside the cacophony, which is what makes this album so astonishing: It's noisy but never dissonant, loud even when nothing's going on, hard to get inside but lovely once you're past the front door. It's the Impulse-era Coltrane duking it out with the Atlantic Coltrane, the introspective and spiritual man seeking solace inside a bebop reverie. He honks and squeals his way through the dark ("Iris") and comes through the other side ("Offering") at peace, at ease, and, finally, at rest.
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7. Boss Hog, Boss Hog (DGC). Jon Spencer's blaxploitation post-blues explosion was, until this record, a one-note joke that played itself out as best it could in the hands of a guy who played it strictly for smirks. Boss Hog, a collaboration with wife Cristina Martinez, is the great rock band Blues Explosion acts like they don't want to be--as much punk ("Skibunny," "What the Fuck") and funk ("Green Shirt," "Beehive," "I Dig You") as it is mock blues (the brilliant cover of Ike Turner's "I Idolize You"). If Martinez recalls PJ Harvey on a couple of tracks, it's probably intended as parody: "I'm in Texas, I'm in pain," she groans over a moaning cello and piano, never giving away the joke.
8. It's Heavy in Here, Eric Matthews (Sub Pop). The trumpets that signal this album's arrival recall nothing so much as the Who's Quadrophenia, but the songwriting is purely subtle, smooth pop--melodies that seemingly have no beginning or end because they're always the middle. Matthews, formerly one half of the sadly unknown Cardinal, is the kind of musician who understands that the power of pop music comes not just from overpowering sounds--the roar of a guitar, an inanely catchy chorus, snappy drums that pound out a 4/4 beat--but from the quiet moments that sneak up and wind their way into the ear, find their way to the heart, and stay there. There's nothing ironic about the strings and sax and harpsichord of "Three-Cornered Moon," nothing disingenuous about the whisper in his voice when he wonders if the "Poisons Will Pass Me." Joe Jackson used to make records like this, Matthew Sweet wishes he could, Stephin Merritt comes close, but only Eric Matthews does. How, I have no idea.
9. The Ghost of Tom Joad, Bruce Springsteen (Columbia). It's no Nebraska, not even the same time zone, but Tom Joad is the Springsteen he does best--mumbled, moody folk-rock songs about the walking wounded, the outsiders and losers just looking for their place in a society that would rather forget they exist. They're folks who sleep on pillows made of rock, who find that the "helpin' hand" is there only to slap them in the face. They're Mexican illegals going to work in the speed labs and dying by the side of the road; bored shoe-store clerks who meet the wrong women and end up robbing and killing and running until they reach the end of the world; discharged soldiers who find their hands are forever molded to the barrel of a gun; racist fisherman who find the face of their enemy in the reflection of a mirror. Springsteen is no Steinbeck, but you damned well better believe he's Woody Guthrie and then some.
10. Gone, Dwight Yoakam (Reprise). Dwight's idea of country starts and stops in the 1960s, when radio embraced styles as diverse as the mariachi-pop of Marty Robbins, the British Invasion blues of the Yardbirds, the slick twang of Buck Owens, the Vegas-via-Memphis soul of Elvis, and the dust-bowl growl of Johnny Cash. Gone plays itself out like a nostalgic spin through those memories, the only thing missing being the static and the voice of a disc jockey between the songs counting off the influence: Buck Owens ("Don't Be Sad"), Them ("Never Hold You"), Marty Robbins ("Sorry You Asked"), Patsy Cline ("Heart of Stone"), Johnny Cash ("Baby Why Not"), Buddy Holly ("Near You"), Elvis Presley ("Nothing