Before this year escapes us, I have one final year to celebrate. 1996 was a mixed year, the last one before Hanson's "MMMBop," Jewel's "You Were Meant For Me" and Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life" would change music as we know it for all eternity.
The following is a brief sample of what you missed if you weren't paying attention at this particular moment in time. One truth you wouldn't know is Alanis Morissette, who with just one 'r' and two 's' and 't's, set the music world on fire with three hits not named "You Oughta Know": "Ironic," which ironically wasn't ironic, "You Learn," which may or may be as educational as it sounds, and "Head Over Feet," which is, I am told, a Yoga pose. No one's calling her a one-hit wonder!
25) Alice In Chains — Unplugged: On July 3, 1996, Layne Staley would perform his final concert with Alice In Chains. It would be nearly another six years before Staley would shuffle off this mortal coil. This Unplugged performance is considered quite the prize, despite the fact that Staley was already in a seriously compromised condition. I think this is what some people, sadly, liked about him. Art is pain, after all.
24) R.E.M. — New Adventures in Hi-Fi: And with this album began the official decline. It has its fans, but the truth is, all future albums are either considered "comebacks" or "disappointments" and that should tell you something.
23) Wilco — Being There: And with this album began the official rise of the Chicago-based heartland-Americana-rockers who have since gone on to be written about in reverential tones everywhere where words are written. Since their first album was not considered a massive breakthrough, they could not suffer the "sophomore slump." That they made it a double album showed the world they were serious.
22) Patti Smith — Gone Again: There's a lot of death here considering it's the rebirth for one of the 1970s most famous underground icons. Husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, dear old friend Robert Mapplethorpe, former pianist Richard Sohl and her brother Todd were among the spirits looming, while Jeff Buckley, who added his voice to the record, would be gone within a year of the album's release. You trying to tell me Lenny Kaye wasn't at least a little nervous?
21) Tori Amos — Boys For Pele: Myra Ellen Amos had the Kate Bush thing down. So, it was time to wander off into her own space where no one could complain she was encroaching. Like Hunter S. Thompson wrote, "When the going gets tough, the weird turn pro."
20) Sleater-Kinney — Call the Doctor: With a name that sounds like it was birthed in a Big Pharma think-tank and a sound that was honed in a Xanax-free zone, Sleater-Kinney built a critical mass that allowed them to have their cathartic screams and punk rock firepower taken as an art statement. I'm ok with this as long as the amount I'm billed is not the amount I pay. Can anyone read a medical insurance statement? I have an idea, YOU call the doctor.
19) Stone Temple Pilots — Tiny Music…Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop: Stone Temple Pilots would never be taken as seriously as other bands of their era, since in the past they always sounded like they were deliberately ripping them off. By their third album, they were moving onto new territory, but their singer, Scott Weiland, was having his own issues, which limited the band's ability to capitalize on their famous fame. Lead singers! Can't live with them, can't live without them.
18) Pearl Jam — No Code: Nirvana openly hated their mainstream acceptance (though, surely, the money comes in handy these days), but Pearl Jam had a more nuanced view. They wished to take their fans with them into worlds of weirdness and to hire a new drummer as often as possible. While their music often sputters where it's supposed to roar, it also sounds better with age than a lot of other stuff from the era.
16) Chris Isaak — Baja Sessions: "Only the Lonely" is a given and even a little too obvious, but can you blame a guy for doing what comes natural?
15) The Fugees — The Score: I guess we can call this the My Bloody Valentine Defense. Rather than try topping your biggest success, just walk away. But then again, Kevin Shields never made a solo album and he sure never made the cover of Time Magazine as the "Future" of anything. That said, expect a new MBV album before a new Fugees. Bank on it.
14) Dave Matthews Band — Crash: This album has sold over seven million copies. And you wonder why music critics drink?
13) The Blue Nile — Peace At Last: Is seven years a long time between albums? It would be if you're Mark E. Smith and not so much if you're the Rolling Stones. I'm not aware of how time moves in Scotland. But the new decade sent Paul Buchanan to find his folky guitar. Thankfully, he didn't find his long-forgotten love for Woody Guthrie. Enough is enough, kids.
12) Weezer — Pinkerton: At the time of its release, Weezer's second album got pretty negative reviews, which over time have helped people who like this sort of thing to see it as misunderstood. I seem to still be misunderstanding it. Isn't "emo" completely redundant completely?
11) Patty Griffin — Living With Ghosts: Sadly, Patty Griffin often earns kudos for her traditional and gospel-like works. A shame, since she's much better at deeply personal and deeply troubled folk songs. She even learned to turn up the guitars for a spell. No one's music has ever gotten better by singing about a mountain. Unless they can't decide whether there is a mountain or not
10) The Afghan Whigs — Black Love: The nighttime is still the right time and bands who capitalize on noirscapes will always have their adherents. Junkies may hate their heroin, but it doesn't change the dependence and Black Love delivers the rush and the mixed emotions and the regret until it's got you where it wants you, mutha.
9) Sheryl Crow — Sheryl Crow: In terms of hugely popular musicians, Crow has the catchiness required. I don't want to hear "Everyday Is A Winding Road" added as part of an alternative music soundtrack to Ingmar Bergman films or anything, but when she belts out "If It Makes You Happy," I understand why the chorus tramples the verses. She's got a sweet mouth on her, y'know?
8) Mark Eitzel — 60 Watt Silver Lining: What doomed American Music Club doomed its leader Mark Eitzel. A solid relationship with a producer who could provide the proper consistency might have helped, because the songs were all there.
7) Red House Painters — Songs For A Blue Guitar: Major labels came running in the mid-1990s, trying to figure out who could be the next Nirvana. Bands gladly took the money and recorded. Singer Mark Kozelek enjoyed messing around with songs no one would expect. So "Long Distance Runaround," The Cars' "All Mixed Up" and "Silly Love Songs" all got worked over until they bled. It's a gas.
6) Jay-Z — Reasonable Doubt: Once upon a time, Jay-Z did not own the world. He made albums that even non-hip-hop oriented publications called "essential" and "seminal." Which is a bit like having your mom tell you she really likes your music. Um, great?
4) Beck — Odelay: While the reviews were often a bit much — spokesperson for what? — there's nothing inherently wrong with a guy messing around like he's whacked out of his mind. It worked for musicians for centuries. Did you ever hear about Wordsworth and Coleridge?
3) Belle & Sebastian — Tigermilk, If You're Feeling Sinister: I'm not going to pretend I was quick enough to grab Tigermilk when it first came out as a limited edition of 1,000. I'll gladly let others suffer through thousands of terrible new releases to find the one enduring golden nugget. The group sure sounded great on that episode of How I Met Your Mother.
2) Fountains of Wayne — Fountains of Wayne: Every time one thinks power pop is dead, a group comes along and does it so convincingly that the notices are once again premature. While some look their avant-garde noses down on such conventions, power pop remains one of the hardest things to do well. Turning up the amps and making feedback is the easy thing to do. Which is why I do it.
1) Fiona Apple — Tidal: If Ms. Apple can find the time to release new music in a timely fashion, she will likely be more liked. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it also causes people to ask "Where are they now?" Her music has always been so slanted that it sounds like the Titanic in its final minutes. That must be what she meant by Tidal. Here's hoping she meets a better fate.