The strife we’ve witnessed in 1995both at home (terrorism in Oklahoma, the unchecked racism of the L.A. Police Department) and abroad (Bosnian genocide, the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin)makes taking stock of the year in pop music seem like an indulgent exercise. While this realization may put things in proper perspective, it’s nonetheless worth noting that music has often helped contribute to the alleviation of suffering and injustice. At the very least, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” had symbolic influences on the civil rights and anti-war movements, respectively. Though the music of 1995 often echoed the anxiety and shock that many of us were (and still are) feeling, it was rarely an impetus for such change. The recent Country CARES benefit is, however, one of several notable exceptions: The event not only united performers in the fight against AIDS, it proved that music can still be a healing force in our world.
As for the business of music in 1995, this was the year that the surfeit of musical product grew too much for me to process. As much as I’d rather not admit it, I still haven’t heard the latest from Joe Ely, Emmylou Harris or Cypress Hill, all records that will no doubt show up on the year-end lists of fans and critics alike. And yet, given the blandness of so much music, “keeping up” wasn’t always worth the effortespecially given the all but institutionalized commodification of culture. Warner/Elektra/Atlantic’s attempts to infiltrate the “underground” music market by uploading product samples with “indie credibility” onto the Internet is one thing; Microsoft paying the Rolling Stones a reported $12 million to use “Start Me Up” in its ad campaign for Windows 95 is quite another. It’s enough to make anyone believe that merchandising and market research are all that bind audiences and performers together anymore.
Cultural fragmentation continued to loom largely as well. With the possible exception of Neil Young, Joan Jett and George Clinton, artists who’ve genuinely built bridges between ’70s and ’90s audiences, gone are voices like John Lennon, James Brown and Sly Stone, who united generations even as they made some of their eras’ best and most popular music. Cultured voices now reflect the prevailing dis-ease of the times. In sharp contrast to the idealism of previous decadesand despite crusades by Bob Dole, William Bennett and C. Delores Tucker to silence more graphic performersmany artists are expressing feelings of pain, aggression and rage born of living in a world torn by intolerance, violence and HIV, among other things.
The performers who spoke most to me during 1995The Geraldine Fibbers, P.J. Harvey, Tricky, Freakwater and Aceyaloneclearly and, at times, defiantly expressed this malaise in their music. But whether it was Tricky and Aceyalone recontextualizing hip-hop or the Fibbers and Freakwater drawing inspiration from old-time string band music, each of these artists was determined not to be defined by their disenfranchisement and discontent. In most cases, they threw their discomfort back on their audiences, forcing us to deal not only with their brokenness, but with our own as well. It didn’t always feel good, but the music that grew out of the process was never less than inspired.
Top 10 Albums of 1995
1. The Geraldine Fibbers, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home (Virgin) This post-punk hoedown, complete with banjo, fiddle and upright bass, combines the fury of X’s Wild Gift with the fatalistic abandon of the Mekons’ Fear and Whiskey. At the heart of it all is Carla Bozulich, a force of nature if ever there was one. If her rage and vocal intensity at first sound like melodrama, listen again: Bozulich, a recovering addict who used to turn tricks to support her habit, doesn’t feel at home in the world and is plenty pissed off about it. She’s out to tell anyone who’ll listen just how miserable it feels to go through life without the comfort of emotional or spiritual moorings.
2. P.J. Harvey, To Bring You My Love (Island) Consumed by the flames of her own desire, Polly Harvey rises from the ashes as some combination of Howlin’ Wolf and her own “50-foot Queenie.” Harvey commands a staggering array of personas (mother, lover, sister, whore) and emotions (guilt, lust, submission, betrayal) like no rocker since perhaps David Bowie. But, unlike Bowie, whose transformations tend to be episodic, Harvey’s own evolving image is part of a dynamic and often pained spirituality. Some argue that she takes herself too seriously, even to the point of self-parody, but I hear a fierce self-awareness and sense of humor in her evocative, surreal imagery. This is her bluesiest, most powerful record yet.
3. Tricky, Maxinquaye (Island) Tricky’s disarming blend of creaky melodies, languid beats, dub bass lines and sensual yet strangely disembodied vocals has been pigeonholed as “trip-hop,” a label that the British MC/deejay despises. Whatever you call it, this puckish, sexually ambiguous street tough’s solo debut is the most eerily compelling record I’ve heard in quite a while. Mostly through rancor, bad vibes and scary sex (the latter compliments of teenage singer/protégé Martine), Maxinquaye exudes the barrenness and desperation of an unsafe world. That it does so with such a flat, woozy effect makes the record that much more disturbing.
4. Freakwater, Old Paint (Thrill Jockey) Freakwater may make old-time country music for an indie rock label, but this Chicago-based foursome is hardly the latest incarnation of trailer-park kitsch. Catherine Irwin (the drawling, world-weary alto) and Janet Bean (the plaintive soprano) have been singing close harmony together for 13 years, and it shows: Their neo-Appalachian folk songs sound as if they were recorded on the Tennessee-Virginia border around 1927. What sets Freakwater apart from other spirited traditionalists, however, is Irwin’s singular voice as a songwriter: Her eye for the politics of gender and class and her ear for the rhythms of everyday life evoke the visionary, post-feminist populism of novelist Dorothy Allison.
5. Aceyalone, All Balls Don’t Bounce (Capitol) The conscious rhymes and live, jazzy feel of Aceyalone’s solo debut share much with the whimsical, life-affirming records that De La Soul and Jungle Brothers were making back in the late ’80s. Acey emerged from the prodigiously talented rap underground that has flowered amid the harshness of life in South Central L.A. His unique blend of attitude, wit and social analysishe calls it “Arhythmaticulas”is far more in touch with commonplace struggles than the false hardness and gangsta mugging that pass for street credibility these days.
6. D’Angelo, Brown Sugar (EMI) A ’90s soul man with a sense of history, this 21-year-old has made easily the sexiest record I’ve heard all yeara delicious combination of Prince’s Dirty Mind and Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love. D’Angelo’s luscious falsetto and conversational singing are well served by the funky keyboards, melodic bass lines and new jack beats that anchor his debut album’s arrangements. And his smoldering remake of Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’ ” shows that he knows what to do with a slow one.
7. S.F. Seals, Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows (Matador) S.F. Seals frontwoman Barbara Manning has only recently begun to enjoy her share of credit for midwifing the “girl rock” revolution of the ’90s. Though her band’s latest lacks some of the rawness of her stunning but virtually unheard solo albums, it loses none of their immediacy. If anything, the calmer soundscapes put Manning’s turbulent, emotionally conflicted lyrics into sharper relief.
8. Darrell McCall, A Way to Survive (Artap) McCall worked with Faron Young and Ray Price during the early ’60s, and you can hear their influence on his deeply soulful phrasing. Connie Smith calls McCall “a truly pure country singer.” If that’s not endorsement enough, listen to his remake of the self-penned “Wall of Pictures”; it’ll take your breath away.
9. Buddy Miller, Your Love and Other Lies (HighTone) A latter-day honky-tonk record, Miller’s debut possesses much of the gritty urgency of Gary Stewart’s Out of Hand or Joe Ely’s Honky-Tonk Masquerade. “You Wrecked Up My Heart,” featuring Lucinda Williams’ barely contained harmony vocals, is a lean, gutbucket tour-de-force.
10. The Roots, Do You Want More?!!!??! (DGC) A live-hip-hop band from Philadelphia, the Roots are to rap what the Meters are to New Orleans rhythm and blues: Hooked by rhythms more than melodies, their hard-driving jams are marvels of groove. MCs Black Thought and Malik B. have obviously listened to a lot of bebop records. Their literate, inventive flow, coupled with drummer B.R.O.T.H.E.R. ?’s spare, funky off-beats, will have you bobbing your head in a matter of seconds.
Ten More Keepers
11. Sparklehorse, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (Capitol); 12. Moby, Everything Is Wrong (Elektra); 13. Yo La Tengo, Electr-O-Pura (Matador); 14. Prince, The Gold Experience (Warner Bros./NPG); 15. Archers of Loaf, Vee Vee (Alias); 16. Guy Clark, Dublin Blues (Asylum); 17. Jayhawks, Tomorrow the Green Grass (American); 18. Count Bass-D, Pre-Life Crisis (Hoppoh/Work); 19. Vic Chesnutt, Is the Actor Happy? (Texas Hotel); 20. Pavement, Wowee Zowee (Matador).
Five who will be missed
Ted Hawkins, Charlie Rich, Jerry Garcia, jazz saxophonist Julius Hemphillperhaps best known for his work with the World Saxophone Quartetand former Velvet Underground bassist/rhythm guitarist Sterling Morrison.
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