Top ten lists tend to fall along a continuum with the poles being on
the one extreme the "true critic" who strives to be all-inclusive of a
wide variety of music, usually far beyond the confines of any real
expertise. The other extreme is the (usually self-indulgent)
writer/fan who knows only one or two genres and picks his/her
favorites. I'm not a critic, so clearly I'm in the more self-indulgent
category -- but this will not prevent me from making a pointed and
sarcastic remark about critics in a vain attempt to garner my own list
some ethos. Critics, having supposedly to listen to everything --
which certainly means a considerable amount beyond what I would
consider comfortable listening -- ultimately have recourse to only the
few foundational aesthetics that probably led them to be critics in the
first place. The aesthetic sense for appreciating, say, ambient, is
further away from an appreciation for rap or grunge than the sense
for appreciating rap and grunge (can you say "311"?) My
point here is that critics should limit themselves to writing about
music the aesthetic of which they have internalized (take that, Robert
Christgau!). Hence, my list -- which does just that! So, here it is, in
no particular order other than that defined by whim.
1. Rage Against the Machine -- Evil Empire
In their review Spin stated that this album had a post-Sabbath groove that "you know, rocks. " And it does indeed rock. Cool riffage, heavy bottom, and that stumbling lurch-beat so few bands can master. Add to that some over-the-top radical leftist politics and Zack de la Rocha's general pissed-off-ness -- we know 'he ain't no square with his corkscrew hair.' The inside photo of a book collection is quirky, indulgent genius: Marx and Engels, Joan Didion, James Joyce, Carlos Castaneda, Malcolm X, Henry Miller, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others all make a DIY recipe for revolution. Who knows how many fans will actually read these books, but they are certain to understand the best line of the year: "So now I'm rollin' down Rodeo with a shotgun / These people ain't seen a brown-skinned man since their grandparents bought one."
2. Dead Can Dance -- Spiritchaser
Just when I thought they had pretty much exhausted their muse, they re-invent themselves on this album. Not near as cerebral as they want to be, still they came up with a winner on this album of vaguely tribal chill tunes. With song titles like "The Song of the Stars" and "The Snake and the Moon" you know there is no taking them seriously, but the fact that they do take themselves so seriously is merely another textural feature in their sound-and- image-scape. Lush, soothing, but not sleep-inducing, Dead Can Dance avoid the numbing, saccharine sweetness of other ambient wanna-bes. And with this release they continue to grow by completing their move away from their Gothic roots -- a wise decision both commercially and artistically.
3. Stone Temple Pilots -- Tiny Music... Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop
After the one-two grunge punch of their two prior releases, this CD came as a surprise. And although both this recording and the new Soundgarden were greeted with the slogan of "Grunge grows up," I find this one superior. Tiny Music references the 70s so many times you may think you are in a time warp, but the genius at work here is that they extend their highly allusive music beyond the usual Zeppelin crash-and-burn-fests to include other motifs like funk, soul, MOR -- even lounge music ("Press Play," "And So I Know") -- with the added benefit of never sounding like any of them. Appropriately enough, they even include alternative rock in their nostalgo-futurisms on "Ride the Clichˇ" (get it? -- nudge nudge wink wink . . .) and the daisy-trippisms of "Art School Girl" ("She wears the leather, I wear the make-up / Never gonna break up, been together for a month"). Plus, I want some of the "Evil Be Gone" air freshener spray they picture on the back cover. I heard the Pope ordered a case . . .
4. Skinny Puppy -- The Process
In a year characterized by the disheartening success of Stabbing Suckward and Gravity Bores, it was gratifying to hear these old masters of the industrial process craft a brilliant swan song. Leavening their harsh aural atmosphere with swashes of ambient sound and eerie guitar arpeggios, this CD suggests that the Puppies were re-inventing themselves. However, after listening to their other release this year, Brap, a collection of unreleased, early Puppy material (also highly recommended), it seems that all the elements that cohere so effectively on The Process already existed from way back in germinal form. Their most well-known work never stuck with me, though many swear by it. Given the intriguing direction they pursue on this release, I'm truly disappointed it's their last -- though certain parties are less than subtle in their criticism of my failure to enjoy their earlier records. Overall, this is the pre-eminent soundtrack to your most baroque nightmares brought on by a dismal year in music. Or, this is side one of that soundtrack, side two being . . .
5. Tool -- Aenima
Like Rage Against the Machine, this is heavy music but far more dark. Crafting rolling, throbbing basslines to noisy, often nearly atonal guitar, Tool sound about as equally pissed off as Skinny Puppy with the way the musical year turned out. When I first listened to this CD, I thought the songs flowed into each other so that it was difficult to tell them apart. I've listened to the CD enough so that all the songs now sound distinct, but in retrospect I miss that earlier experience as more attuned to what is being attempted here. Each song is connected to the other the way differing regions combine to create a land's particular personality. In Tool-land, all your emotions become tribes inhabiting one bleakscape after another, huddling close in the cold, thin winds. Together the tribes look up: there's a storm coming in. It's getting colder. And colder. And then the babies start screaming for no good reason.
6. Pearl Jam -- No Code
A lot of people expressed to me that they did not like this record much. Rolling Stone liked the record, but turned around and blamed its slow sales on Eddie Vedder and the band's antics. As for me, I see it as a perfect example of why I find scrunge nearly unlistenable: there is no substitute for a little artistic vision. This is a band that clearly knows what it is doing even when they are obviously completely lost. Only time and their next CD will tell whether playing with Neil Young helped or hindered them. But in the meantime, we have some great songs and others not so great, but it all sounds relatively fresh . . . well, as fresh as Pearl Jam can sound, which probably isn't very. But "Off He Goes" is worth the price of admission alone. And as for radio giving this release less attention, I consider that a blessing these days. Hey, maybe they're on to something!
7. Cocteau Twins -- Milk and Kisses
The Cocteau Twins' last few releases have been less than stellar. I could even figure out what some of their songs were about, which is a bad sign with this band. I read in an interview with the band this year that they blamed it all on demon alcohol. Many bands, recovering from substance abuse, find that their muse has dried up, too, but the Twins seem to have found re-inspiration. Nothing means anything when Fraser sings, which is to say that everything is suggested, and this time the music backs it up. Memorable melodies, new beats, different pacings -- and if it doesn't quite achieve transcendence like Victorialand or Treasure, well, what does? And, despite the fact that such titles are this band's stock in trade, I defy anyone to name another group this year that has both the audacity to name a song "Rilkean Heart" or "Seekers Who are Lovers" and the capacity not to embarrass themselves.
8. godheadSilo -- Skyward in Triumph
It's all bass and drums, with some vocals that I wouldn't describe as singing but nevertheless are not screaming, and the sound is thick, thick, thick. The trick, apparently, is to play your bass like a guitar (on their first release, on the Kill Rock Stars label, they warn you to decrease the bass response before playing . . . they mean it). Makes me wonder why it took so long if this is what it can sound like. The last tune is a pseudo-rap number with snap-crackle-pop bass, and although they really say "You can't stop us cause we got no BRAKES," for the longest time I thought they were saying that " . . . we got no BRAINS," and I think that basically sums it up. They don't so much write songs as muck about, but muck about in different ways (on most tracks at least). This CD is incredibly addictive, as only the best klutz genius can be, so consider yourself forewarned. The only mistake they make is the eight minute, one note excrutiate-a-thon that serves as a coda for track five, "Guardians of the Threshold." Thresholds, indeed: fish bones piercing your tongue would be more pleasant. But they're proud of it, I'm sure: got no brakes, after all. Anyway, all your friends will hate you for playing this and think you are weird and maybe try to hide it so you can't play it anymore.
9. Tori Amos -- Boys for Pele
Pele is some volcano-god or something, which tells you right off where Tori's head is these days. But her voice and her incredible piano are in fine form, casting mysticisms and sensuality about like there's no tomorrow unless its going to be one of those days of exquisite pleasure and pain. Sure, its a clichˇ to say it straightforwardly, but when Tori is wailing and crooning, the words cease to merely signify and become instead yet another vehicle taking you on her trip into the mystic. Where that takes you is into the heart of a beautiful yet intensely personal vision, mystical in the sense that its akin to the religious without ever forgetting the body. It's a pagan seduction -- pulsings, throbbings, sweepings, ecstasies. Eat them up, yum.
10. Prong -- Rude Awakening
These guys' last album was a thick metallatio-fest, really loud and crunchy. This one is light on its feet in comparison, eschewing the Panzer-division approach in favor of heavy, approaching-funky drums and a mixture of the familiar wall of crunch and trebly noise- riffs that function as hooks. It seems as if Prong had been listening to some industrial as well -- too bad this is a direction that hasn't been popular with the alterna-teen set, they having opted instead for cheesy, slavishly Nails-like popsters. "Controller" and the title track really crank up the funky beat factor -- I leap about like an idiot every time for those tracks, and the rest is great fun, too. I'm still not sure what they are bellowing about, being too lazy to read their lyric sheet, but I thought the faux Russian captions for the pictures (it's a concept album, after all) was, like, cool. And, sadly, this is also their last effort as the guitarist went and joined Ozzy's band in an effort to resuscitate the dead.
There were a few recordings that I did not include above that I think deserve some mention. Had I in fact been able to find and purchase Bikini Kill's new one, it might have made the above the list, but apparently all my neighborhood music stores have entered into a conspiracy pact against me. The shenanigans are at the time of this writing still ongoing. Other noteworthy CDs include:
1. Kyuss -- ". . . And the Circus Leaves Town"
Technically this is a '95 release, but no one listened to it then, so here is your chance to rectify that mistake. The music is difficult to describe -- heavy, yet intricate, with unusual melodies and a distinctive approach to wah-wah. They are from the Palm Desert, and to surmount the problem of not having clubs to play in, they would drag a generator, a few kegs, and several hundred fans out into the desert and play under the nightsky. If that isn't a recommendation, I don't know what is. Highly creative and idiosyncratic. Oh, and like both Prong and Skinny Puppy, they have disbanded. (What gives? This does not auger well for 1997!) Anyway, I play it over and over and over again, and despite rumors of an armed stereo coup from certain less-enthused parties, I'll probably play it again tomorrow. Twice. Really loud.
2. KMFDM -- XTORT
Not as good as last years Nihil or the even older Angst, this nevertheless remains primo industrial. Not that heavy, and not that moody, nor even that dancy or melodious, it is fast and clean like a well-tooled machine. Guaranteed to make you speed on the Interstate, but the cop kept writing anyway, so I don't recommend that as an excuse. KMFDM is an acronym for some German phrase I no longer recall, probably political knowing these guys, but legend has it that it stands for "Kill Motherfucking Depeche Mode" and I like that better anyway. Oh -- and you won't hear them on commercial radio, which is a recommendation considering what passes for industrial that is on there.
3. Fu Manchu -- In Search Of . . .
Everybody looks at me as if I'm insane when I put this on. They either demand I play something else or complain about the volume, no matter how quiet (well, I guess they have a point since this band is about possibly everything except being quiet). But I really, really, really like it. And I like it really loud. Their songs mean absolutely nothing. These guys are after the ultimate heavy, fuzzed-out guitar -- "Like, what if we could put the sound of Apollo 11 lifting off through, like, our amps, man . . ." -- like those stoners you avoided in high school were after killer pot. I mean, jeezus, they have pictures of 70s muscle cars on the cover. And they obviously think that Black Sabbath Vol. 4 was the greatest album ever recorded because that is clearly their starting-out point, except they nix the doom 'n gloom in favor of speed 'n weed. Since I agree with their assessment insofar as I think Vol. 4 is the heaviest album ever recorded, it should be obvious why I play it constantly (one so-called friend said "incessantly," the cad) and why my lover and friends are threatening to destroy the CD, and possibly it's the people upstairs -- but I'm unsure because it could be the ones downstairs -- are sending me anonymous death threats. I've considered buying a second copy. Just in case.