1994 was a dream year for music, with captivating modern rock albums showing up just about every week. 1995, by contrast, was a waking nightmare. Of the few noteworthy records that emerged this year, few were exciting from the first track to the last. Rare was the album in which a well-chosen assemblage of parts amounted to a greater whole; in its place came the ill-considered experiment, peppered with blatant stabs at hit-making. Musically, 1995 was flat dreary, sodden by too many bands with attitude and no vision, too many bands who traded on a feeling of superiority that they hadn’t earned. Sampling a new modern rock band in 1995 was like trying out new recipes for the same old inedible dishes.
So who’s to blame?
I point my finger first at modern rock radio. Although it has enlivened the pop charts, this format has deadened the more adventurous end of the alternative rock spectrum. A modern rock deejay told me this year that he thought the Breeders (for example) would be a great band if only they dropped their excess distortion; although I wanted to ask him if the Breeders would still be the Breeders without the excess distortion, I knew the question would fall on tone-deaf ears. Modern rock radio programmers, unlike their counterparts at college radio stations, make no judgments on the quality of the music they playas long as there’s “no hard noise on the car radio,” to quote the band X. Our society has gotten louder and faster, and so has our popular music, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the popular music is any better, or any more challenging, for its volume. Contrary to the beliefs of our winner-take-all society, the cream does not always rise.
At any rate, modern rock radio has reduced much of alternative rock to a kind of Irish Sweepstakes, wherein any band of outcast musicians can become the next Weezer if they abandon their muse, smooth out their rough edges, and devote their energies to finding the right formula. (Unless, like Alanis Morissette, they approach it from the other end, taking conventional pop structures and toughening them up for alternative airplay.) If they strike at the right time, they can have a brief tour of the charts and thensince they sacrificed their nascent talent to faddishnessget cast on the pile of one-hit wonders that is now starting to rival the pile from the early ’80s. Who gets this year’s Kajagoogoo award? Veruca Salt? Letters to Cleo? The Presidents of the United States? Until modern rock radio goes out on a limb and starts playing bands that have more substance than a commercial jingle, this fast-rising format will flame out in about two more years.
Finger number two aims squarely at the shallowness of the modern rock audience, who seem to gravitate toward the message with the most immediate impact, regardless of its meaning. Most often, this means bands who howl about some vague injustice, like Smashing Pumpkins with their “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.” Unlike such classic mope-rockers as Pink Floyd, The Smiths or American Music Club, each of whom have specific images and sources for their pain, Smashing Pumpkins and their ilk scream into a voidwhich is less threatening for their audience. Even worse, the bands’ blank rage (coupled with the sneering cleverness of bands like Weezer and The Presidents of the United States) encourages a sort of us-vs.-them feeling in the modern rock listener. Frankly, all this aimless derisiveness leaves a bad aftertaste in my mouth.
Finally, I point my third accusatory finger in the direction of compact disc technology, which has turned just about every rock musician into a filler machine. With a few exceptions, albums have ceased to be carefully crafted pieces of musical art; instead, they’ve become a slapdash medium for songs that stand together with no purpose. Case in point: Two of the year’s most interesting albums were reissues of The Who’s Live at Leeds and Who’s Next, both of which featured extra tracks. The newly released songs were by and large terrific, but once the novelty of hearing them wore off, what remained were two once-great albums that now sounded flabbier and less vital than they did in their original form.
If we can’t even get 70 minutes of solid rock ’n’ roll from the Who, how can we expect anything more from 70 minutes of Spin Doctors? We can’t, especially when so many bands (like Spin Doctors) barely know how to vary their sound enough to fill a singlelet alone a full compact disc.
So the world of rock ’n’ roll was a little punchy this year, affected by distracting streams of money and a medium that allows for overindulgence. All of that said, there is still reason to take heart. Good rock exists and will survive all the flashes in all the pans. So, without further ado, here is some of the music that brightened 1995, even if it did so with a flickering bulb:
A Top 10 (of sorts)
1. Archers of Loaf, Vee Vee (Alias) The best rock album not just of this year but of the past couple of yearsa forceful, catchy, witty, complex, gut-level exciting piece of work. Good things lie ahead for the Archers. Bandleader Eric Bachmann, under the name Barry Black, released a solo instrumental album this year that bounced through Dixieland, bluegrass, Asian and minimalist classical sounds with ease, imagination, and the same brittle clarity that he brings to his rock ’n’ roll. At the moment, he and his Chapel Hill outfit are the band to watch.
2. The Sea and Cake, Nassau and The Biz (Thrill Jockey) In a year when most bands couldn’t cobble together even one worthy collection, this Chicago jazz-pop outfit released two 10-song albums that were winning from start to finish. Nassau is the one for the agesfull of awe-inspiring moments and songsbut The Biz is almost as pleasurable.
3. Guided By Voices, Alien Lanes (Matador) Twenty so-called songs that cut off before they really begina notebook full of riffs, hooks and ideas that make up the most listenable offering yet from this often infuriatingly impatient band.
4. Superchunk, Here’s Where the Strings Come In (Merge) Though not as ambitious as last year’s mournful Foolish, the fifth album of new material by these alternative vets was a welcome reminder that punk music doesn’t always have to be about pose and anger. Grownup songs about trying to build new relationships in the wake of a romantic fall are just as suitable to speed and volumeperhaps more so, because the emotion lingers after the adrenaline fades.
5. Yo La Tengo, Electr-O-Pura (Matador) Hypnotic noise alternates with plaintive folk; tasty guitars wrap around bone-chilling melodies. Yo La Tengo has musical muscle-memory: Put the instruments in their hands, and they instinctively reveal greatness. They’re the Greg Madduxes of modern rock.
6. 3/4 Wilco, A.M. (Sire-Reprise) and 1/4 Son Volt, Trace (Warner Bros.) Put together, this would make one great Uncle Tupelo album.
7. 1/2 Pavement, Wowee Zowee (Matador-WEA) and 1/2 Spent, Songs of Drinking and Rebellion (Merge) Pavement have such a distinct voice that they can afford to turn out one self-indulgent, underrealized album...but just one. Spent are still finding their voiceat the moment, it sounds like they’re borrowing Yo La Tengo’s, Butterglory’s, Small Factory’s and Pavement’sbut they have heart and a knack for crafting memorable songs.
8. 1/2 Railroad Jerk, One Track Mind (Matador) and 1/2 Everclear, Sparkle and Fade (Capitol) Railroad Jerk set aside the meaningless clank of their earlier work and started afresh this year with a sound halfway between vintage Rolling Stones and a carnival barker. Their first worthwhile album was repetitive and overlong, but often pulse-pounding. Everclear’s second album didn’t build much on the promise of their first, but their sounda sort of Bakersfield Nirvanais a good one.
9. 1/2 Rancid, ...And Out Come the Wolves (Epitaph), 1/4 Supergrass, I Go Coco (Capitol) and 1/4 Elastica (DGC) Part of the overhyped, quickly deteriorating “punk revival,” these three bands faithfully recreate the feel of The Clash, The Buzzcocks and Wire, respectively, and they all sound great blasting out of a tape deck. Of the trio, only Rancid sound like they actually have the ambition and talent to go somewhere originalif this third album is their version of London Calling, I can’t wait for their Sandinista!
10. P.M. Dawn, Jesus Wept (Gee Street-Island) Even when P.M. Dawn were a more straightforward rap outfit, a smooth soul sound formed the core of their music. On this third album, all but a trace of the rap is gone, and the removal of rap’s strictures seems to have freed the group to explore. If it had featured more rocking songs (like the brilliant single “Downtown Venus”), Jesus Wept could’ve stood with the best of Prince.
Honorable Mentions: Great tracks were scattered across hit-and-miss albums by Air Miami, Peter Case, Ben Folds Five, Fossil, Jason and the Scorchers, Overpass, Red House Painters, Todd Rundgren, Suddenly, Tammy!, and Mike Watt.
Three Great EPs
1. Polvo, This Eclipse (Merge) For the second year in a row, Polvo deliver a handful of good rock songsexotic-sounding, herky-jerky, thoughtfully crafted rock songsand forgo the dull filler that clutters up most full-length rock albums. They make a compelling argument for conciseness, saying what they need to say and then sitting down before they blow it.
2. Skiploader, anxious, restless (Geffen) Guitars fall in sheets like a raging monsoon, but they can’t wash away the dark confessions of songwriter Tom Ackerman.
3. American Music Club, Hello Amsterdam (Sire-Reprise) A fine final wave at the end of a distinguished run. Bandleader Mark Eitzel will return as a solo artist in 1996; although his songwriting shouldn’t suffer, he’ll never again have such an accomplished supporting group, capable of embellishing a song without overwhelming it.
Honorable Mention: A largely forgettable record, The Grifters’ The Eureka EP (Shangri-La) nonetheless contained the indispensable title track, a heartbreaking ballad shaded with steel guitar and organ. If this Memphis band is ever going to blend soul, country, blues and punk the way they want to, this is the song and the sound they’re going to have to try to recreate.
Three Great Compilations (single artist)
1. Unrest, b.p.m. (TeenBeat) A collection of singles and compilation tracks from their final, most fertile period, this is the most consistent record Unrest have ever released (and far warmer than the debut album by Air Miami, their new incarnation).
2. Versus, Dead Leaves (TeenBeat) Early singles and unreleased tracks, almost all culled from one recording session, make up the great lost Versus debut album.
3. Thomas Dolby, Retrospectacle (Capitol) Heavy on his early work, this greatest-hits collection dispels the myth that synthesizers must be cold and impersonal (“like a crateful of moribund wasps,” Dolby once said). Married to rich pop songcraft, lush romanticism and daffy wit, even the robotic can sound touchingly human.
Three Great Compilations (various artists)
1. Kneelin’ Down Inside the Gate: The Rhyming Singers of the Bahamas (Rounder) Rounder releases so many collections of traditional music every year that many of them get overlooked, including this satisfying reissue of a 1965 gospel recording full of call-and-response spirituals spiced with rhythmic vocalizing.
2. Movin’ On Up, Vol. 2 (The Right Stuff-Capitol) A collection of politicized ’70s soul and funk, volume two reaches deeper than the first set, bringing together artists such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Temptations. Best of all is the masterful one-two-three shot of War’s “The World Is a Ghetto,” Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America” and Patti LaBelle’s gripping reading of Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which is bookended by her improvisatory reworking of Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air.” A gem.
3. Desperado soundtrack (Epic Soundtrax) Like last year’s Pulp Fiction soundtrack, this collection recalls the excitement of the movie and the clash of pop culture references that sparked it. All of that, plus Los Lobos instrumentals.
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