Music reviews for 1996 music albums, that I’ve listened to.
1. Tortoise: Millions Now Living Will Never Die (10/10)
2. Wilco: Being There (9/10)
This is the first Wilco album I ever heard and it made me a fan of the band, so I’m biased. But I’ll try not to be.
AM feels, to me, like Wilco were still trying to be something they weren’t – like some kind of Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt imitation, albeit with a very different songwriting approach.
This album feels much more like something original and unique compared to their debut. They’ve left alt country behind (though there’s still plenty of country) for a more full sound – a weird hybrid of indie rock and rock and roll that is only weird because nobody had done it before. Listening to this record, it feels obvious, like someone else should have done it.
I want to call this the Exile of Indie Rock, but it’s not that good, and maybe not diverse enough. It’s still a really strong set of songs that finds the perfect marriage between indie rock idiosyncrasy and the long tradition of rock and roll.
The only drawback is the repeated song. Otherwise, this is very close to their best record and one of the best records of 1996.
3. Beck: Odelay (9/10)
In some ways we can see this as just a way, way more polished version of Mellow Gold, that is if we wanted to be reductionist. Not knowing the rest of his oeuvre at the time (he was constantly releasing other records), we might think he’s a one trick pony.
But this is a stronger set of songs than Mellow and the production is not only more “polished” but less frantic and insane. It’s still frantic, but it feels professional in a way that the first album did not.
That could be a bad thing, but Beck has honed his post-modern aesthetic here, so instead the polish is an asset. The record feels more mature, more of a coherent statement than just throwing stuff at the wall.
Sometimes I like this more than the first one, sometimes I don’t.
4. Converge: Petitioning the Empty Sky (9/10)
I am pretty sure this is not the first metalcore album – not just because it’s not Converge’s first record… – but it sure sounds iconic to me. Hardcore punk mixes freely with thrash metal in a way that, for 1996, sounds incredibly modern and contemporary to, well, now. This record could be released 20 years later and people would like it.
I can’t speak to its influence – maybe there have been a bunch of crazy metalcore records prior to this one – but I can speak to its excellence: everything great about metalcore is here – the passion of hardcore, the thunder (for lack of a better word) and musicianship of metal, and so on. Just great stuff.
5. The Make Up: Destination Love: Live! At Cold Rice (9/10)
When I first listened to this faux-live album I thought “Holy MC5 Batman.” At least initially, this band sounded like they were just MC5 worshipers, albeit in the best of ways.
But that’s a really superficial reading of this music and also a misunderstanding of both this band and the MC5, who may be inspired by some of the same things. On closer listening, this is much more than just the Garage Rock revival it appears to be.
It’s right for them to call their style gospel, as this is firmly influenced by the same gospel tradition that influenced the MC5 and ’60s garage rock bands; the music that gave these bands such crazy energy.
In fact, I think the Make Up do for gospel here what the Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown have done for country, or what the Gun Club, Railroad Jerk and the White Stripes have done for the Blues: they have modernized it and revitalized it with the spirit of punk and influences from other genres you wouldn’t immediately connect with gospel (such as garage rock).
Just a great, great record.
6. Sepultura: Roots (9/10)
I don’t know Sepultura. I’ve heard literally one song of theirs before on a compilation.
But listening to this, it’s hard for me to understand why people reject it, even if there are traces of Nu Metal. Without hearing Chaos AD – and so being pretty uninformed, I guess – this sounds like an absolutely crazy, almost entirely successful amalgam of styles that do not belong together. It’s really, really cool and it makes it all the more imperative for me to listen to the earlier album,
I think. I’ll get there, but in the meantime, this is pretty awesome.
7. Pearl Jam: No Code (9/10)
This Eddie Vedder dictatorship of a record is actually my third favourite Pearl Jam album. Though I am normally reluctant to see one band member take over (and usually dislike the results), somehow Vedder attempting to gain full creative control of a band he just sang in a few years earlier results in one of Pearl Jam’s best sets of songs of their career. What’s more, the artsy fartsy experimental excesses of Vitalogy (which I believe were also Vedder’s fault), are reigned in and, instead, incorporated into the songs for the most part. I think that’s a rather big improvement and, for a long time, this was one of my candidates for their best album.
I’ve since mellowed a little bit and there is a really annoying Vedder moment near the end that is hard to forgive. But, on balance, I still think this is a solid number 3 behind Vs. and Binaural.
8. Apocalyptica Plays Metallica by Four Cellos (9/10)
I love it. Really, I do. Awesome.
9. Neurosis: Through Silver in Blood (9/10)
Is this the first “post metal” album? I don’t know. I haven’t listened to the sub-genre enough to have any idea. But I can see why some people think so: though there are lots of very obvious sludge and doom moments, there are are also decidedly non-traditional sounds that wouldn’t belong in more conventional metal.
The epic tracks are what you would think of when you think of sludge from this era, albeit stretched to ridiculous lengths. It’s the briefer interludes that throw the listener for a loop, wondering what is happening.
This isn’t really my thing – I prefer a little more variety to my metal, and better pacing; but I have to admit that I have a really hard time conceiving that this thing was released in 1996. It sure sounds like something that belongs in the 21st century, hence the high marks.
10. Neutral Milk Hotel: On Avery Island (8/10)
This feels like the inevitable result of trying to make folk music in the age of indie rock and, specifically, in the age of Pavement (and their related bands). So much of what they do here has become canonical or cliche (depending on your point of view) for the numerous indie folk bands that have followed in their footsteps.
The songs are pretty conventional (with a few notable exceptions) but the arrangements are anything but – elaborate, dense arrangements featuring guitars, keyboards and percussion that would not normally have been applied to folk songs, or indie rock songs for that matter (at the time, I mean). And then there’s the horns. And all of this is drowning in lo-fi production – on the guitars, particularly, and notably not on the vocals – that makes the arrangements sound denser than they actually are. It’s an approach that, as I said, is so commonplace now but in the mid 90s was reserved to a few rock and post rock groups, not singer-songwriters.
A cool record.
11. Tool: Aenima (8/10)
Coming at a band backwards is never the greatest idea. That’s unfortunately what I have done with Tool and so it’s difficult for me to fully put Aenima into its proper context. I can’t help but like the later albums better at this moment in time, if only because I have given them way more time to sink in.
That being said, this is certainly more diverse (at least in some respects) than what came later and it isn’t any softer for its diversity.
Though I have given it my requisite three listens I feel like this is something I will have to revisit to fully assess, perhaps in a year or so.
Udpate: I’ve forgotten to do this and I missed it on the podcast. Shit.
12. Weezer: Pinkerton (8/10)
I wrote the following in 2012:
One of the myths of my generation is that this is some kind of lost treasure. Because it wasn’t played on the radio like the debut and it didn’t sell as many copies, it is somehow a forgotten classic. Of course that’s not true, because most Weezer fans (at least most Weezer fans I know) and plenty of other people will tell you how great this is. And given that at least two of these songs are regularly played on the radio, I have a really hard time buying that this is somehow a secret. It might have been a secret in, say, 1997, but now it has been established as some kind of classic.
I think I agree with that in 2016. If anything I like the songs a little less than I used to and it is still not really my thing. But I acknowledge that it’s as good as they got and I get why so many people love it.
13. Stereolab: Emperor Tomato Ketchup (8/10)
In 2005 or so, I wrote the following:
You can definitely hear the influence of this in a lot of more recent music. I would like it better if they didn’t sing in French (because I’m prejudiced) and if the vocals weren’t so damn cutesy.
Later, I wrote this:
Quite overrated. It’s fine. But it’s an acquired aesthetic and if you don’t love the aesthetic you are left wondering why people think this band is the greatest thing since sliced bread. It’s kind of hard to imagine what people were thinking when they gasm’d all over themselves praising it.
I think I have been a little harmed by the hype around this record. Yes, Stereolab pretty much invented a new form of indie rock, one that combined Krautrock with forms of pop music (such as tropicalia). And good on them. But this is the kind of thing I can respect more than like, because it’s so damn repetitive (yes, some Krautrock is too, but at least some of it rocks) and because of the twee female French vocals, which get on my nerves, rather than allure.
14. Fred Eaglesmith: Drive-In Movie (8/10)
This is country music that has been made in awareness of actual rock music, rather than “country music” that has been made in the shadow of arena rock, which seemed to be what was getting all the radio play back in the mid-90s.
Eaglesmith is a strong songwriter whose influences sometimes show through a little too clearly. His arrangements are also good though, so it’s easy to ignore the obvious reference points.
A good album.
15. Sleater-Kinney: Call the Doctor (8/10)
This is my first encounter with Sleater-Kinney and, unfortunately, Riot Grrrl in general.
16. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Murder Ballads (8/10)
Lyrically, this is the darkest, most morbid album the Bad Seeds ever recorded. And Cave walks a dangerous line, where he almost veers into self-parody (he might well on some of the most graphic songs). But it’s a unique record and, if you’re going to name your record Murder Ballads well, you should follow through on that.
Musically it’s mature compared to much of the early Bad Seeds – the bursts of noise that we’re used to are used more sparingly and to greater effect in terms of backing the lyrics. And it feels of the folk tradition, even if the music doesn’t really fit into that category.
We can probably think of this record as the very last of the early Bad Seeds records – the last record to be so obsessed with death, crime and punishment, and the last one to be as musically abrasive as the Seeds could be. And I guess it’s a pretty decent note for that version of the band to go out on.
17. Secret Chiefs 3: First Grand Constitution and By-Laws (8/10)
The sound of Mr. Bungle without Patton, which makes them even more schizophrenic and Zappa indebted. (If the Zappa fetishist label was ever true of a band, it’s probably this one, at least at this early stage.)
The album’s opening track sounds like the introduction to an old horror movie, and I guess that’s sort of an accurate idea of what you’re in for (sort of).
This is stream of consciousness, whim-indulgent music. It’s quite creative, and it’s the first time, to my knowledge, anyone had really done this within rock music in about 35 years, but the lack of songs is a bit of a problem for me, now that I’m older. (When I first heard this in my early 20s, I thought it was incredible.)
This feels like the younger, more immature brother of Disco Volante. Is it possible that the greater participation of Bungle forced Spruance to indulge fewer of his whims? Probably.
But if you’re young, and you have never heard the Mothers (or Bungle), this will warp your fragile little mind and there will be no going back.
18. R.E.M.: New Adventures in Hi-Fi (8/10)
This was the first album I ever bought that I knew about before it came out. So it has always had a special place in my heart. I have come to realize, though, that I have long exaggerated how good it is because it’s long and it’s a bit all over the place.
But the songs are strong – there isn’t much filler – and it inhabits this weird place in their discography where they seemed to be trying to reconcile to separate sounds that they were about to abandon, the sort of chamber folk rock of Automatic for the People and the artsy, noisy alternative rock of Monster. As such, I think it does a pretty good job of walking somewhere down the middle.
It’s better than Monster, though less interesting, and it has moments that are almost worthy of Automatic for the People.
19. At The Drive-In: Acrobatic Tenement (8/10)
I wonder if post hardcore would have continue to thrive as a kind of music that people perform if At The Drive In had never come along. I don’t doubt that many bands were influenced by Fuguzi (as ATDI were) and the other earlier post hardcore bands but, for some reason, when I hear 21st century post hardcore I often feel like I hear the unmistakable influence of ATDI, rather than any specific earlier band in the genre.
This debut album finds them at what you might call a more “primitive” state, but the things that appeal about them are hear, at least to my ears. It’s a little less ambitious, it’s a little less well-formed, but it’s still great stuff, exactly what you’d want from the genre in my mind – punk songs distorted into songs that are too complicated for punk songs, with healthy dose of hardcore just barely visible.
20. Turbonegro: Ass Cobra (8/10)
21. Sebadoh: Harmacy (7/10)
When I was younger, I certainly preferred my music on the “weirder” side and valued music I thought was unique or innovative or what have you over melody. Maybe I’m changing, because I find myself enjoying Barlow’s songs on this record a lot, (lot!) more than on the only other Sebadoh record I know, one recorded 5 years earlier. I think he’s gotten better at writing songs, and I think it doesn’t hurt that he’s decided that they should sound professional. What has happened to me?
But though I find myself quite liking him as a songwriter, and though I enjoy the rather crazy changes of pace and tone brought on by Loewenstein’s songs, I find the entire thing a little much. Like so much indie rock, these guys need someone to tell them when to stop. There’s just too damn much material here and not enough of it is strong. I wish it was 10 minutes shorter, maybe even shorter.
But it’s still a pretty good record with some great songs.
212 Manic Street Preachers: Everything Must Go (7/10)
23. Soundgarden: Down on the Upside (7/10)
Unfortunately the songwriting isn’t as strong as the last two. It’s still as clean as the last one, too, which isn’t so good. But it’s still solid stuff. It’s not like they suddenly turned into a post-grunge band or something. It would be really something if the songwriting were as consistent as their last two outings.
I guess that’s as much as I can say.
24. Fugees: The Score (7/10)
Now that I am listening to Hip Hop occasionally as part of our podcast, I sort of figured I would be able to slowly figure out what I think about individual Hip Hop records. But five or more albums in, I still have no idea.
At bottom it is still not something I can really get into.
And so I struggle with a record like this, despite the fact that I have heard their cover of “Killing Me Softly” so many times it strikes me as the definitive version, because of its seemingly outsized reliance on the music of others. Yeah, I know. That’s Hip Hop for you. But it seems like there’s an awful lot of that going on here.
Anyway, I get that this is well done. I understand why it’s good. It just doesn’t do anything for me.
25. Fiona Apple: Tidal (7/10)
In 2012, I wrote the following:
I paid no attention to this when it came out. In fact, I paid little attention to the singles as I barely recognize any of them. Apple was just another in the slew of mid-90s female singer-songwriters who were on the radio. I didn’t care.
Though Apple has certainly matured and improved her aesthetic sense and her reputation as an idiosyncratic singer-songwriter since, there is actually enough of her origins here to really surprise. I feel like she lives up to the standard set by Tori Amos years earlier that so few of these ’90s female singer-songwriters managed to live up to. The album is a little overproduced, and the songs are very much the work of a young person, but putting those things aside this is clearly the birth of a new interesting voice (and an important one, if she were willing to write a few more songs). I’m really surprised at how well this holds up.
I don’t quite agree with that. I think it’s a little more impressive. (She was 17 when she wrote most of these, 17!!!) I don’t think it’s overproduced exactly. Maybe a bit, but not in an offensive way. I still think she’s improved as a songwriter, though.
26. Low: The Curtain Hits the Cast (7/10)
27. Cat Power: What Would the Community Think? (7/10)
28. Bikini Kill: Reject All American (7/10)
This record starts off as serious Riot Girrrrl (angrier than any I’ve heard before) but then takes a weird detour into Tsunami-style slowcore (albeit played a lot faster…). It’s an odd combination that somehow works in spite of the rather radical changes in tone and energy.
The songs aren’t as good as Sleater-Kinney’s, but there’s still a lot to like here.
29. Girls Against Boys: House of GVSB (7/10)
This is the second GVSB record I’ve heard. It strikes me as a little more melodic than their earlier work, though that’s not saying much, given this band. They’ve gone a long way to creating an aesthetic that prides noise and rhythm over melody.
30. Rage Against the Machine: Evil Empire (7/10)
Unlike earlier “rap metal” fusion bands (who were extremely funk influenced), and unlike future Nu Metal bands (who incorporated a great deal more hip hop-style production), what Rage does is pretty straightforward: hard rock riff plus political rap plus a guitar riff and/or solo that sounds like it might have been created by a turntable. That’s pretty much it. What you think of them likely depends upon whether or not you like those things.
31. Blind Melon: Nico (7/10)
Pretty decent rarities collection.
32. The Tea Party: “Alhambra” (7/10)
This really appeals to me.
Not the music, necessarily, though I have a soft spot for the acoustic numbers (and all acoustic versions, in general, probably). The thing that I love is the educational aspect for the computer. It really impressed me that they wanted to teach their audience about their instruments.
Now, maybe this is a little “oh look, we’re so awesome, because we play hurdy gurdys and sitars” but I think it’s good of them. If I were ever in a band, we would play wacky instruments, and we would do this too, only we would use the web, because it exists.
32. Modest Mouse: This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About (7/10)
I find this record, Modest Mouse’s proper debut (albeit not their first album, really) to be not quite as blatantly demonstrative of their massive Pixies influence as some of their later work in the ’90s (I know, that’s weird). But it’s still a pretty dominant influence.
But as someone else pointed out, there’s also a rather massive Built to Spill influence here. It’s not entirely unfair to say this version of Moddest Mouse sounds like what you would imagine the love child of Black Francis and Doug Martsch to sound like.
Only Brock isn’t the guitarist Martsch is. But he’s a far more emotional singer and a more compelling one and so that helps make up for the lack of guitar wizardry. And it’s hard to get too critical of a band for attempting to sound like the love child of a couple of good bands, instead of trying to sound like their favourite band.
I think Brock’s songs got better later, but there’s a certain freedom and craziness here that’s perhaps absent from later records.
34. Bob Mould aka Hubcap (7/10)
This is a reasonably strong set of songs by Mould, occasionally supported by the kind of attitude towards noise that Husker Du used so well at their peak. But the the diversity that made Husker Du great isn’t really present, nor is the contrast between their two songwriters. It’s like listening to half the band, really.
35. Marilyn Manson: Antichrist Superstar (7/10)
Read the brief review that I wrote in 2011. I mostly agree with it. The one thing I would say now is that this record is just way too long.
36. Big Sugar: Recorded in Hemi-Vision (7/10)
I loved this album when I first heard it sometime in the late ’90s. I was still very much enamoured of blues rock at the time and the dub flirtation was enough to make me think it was really special.
I have vacillated since then: sometimes I think its pretty weak on songs, other times I think that, though its weak on songs, its still quite competent blues rock and the dub fusion thing is relatively unique and well done.
I guess I lean to the latter view today; I don’t know too many other traditional blues rock records that suddenly send you into dub land. And even if there’s a certain unappealing greasiness to Big Sugar (and, absolutely, a lack of really strong songs), I think the attempt at expanding their sound works.
37. The Olivia Tremor Control: Music from the Unrealized Film Script Dusk at Cubist Castle (6/10)
38. Ocean Colour Scene: Moseley Shoals (6/10)
This is among the most “rock” of all ’90s Brit Pop albums I’ve heard. The band not only appears to really like guitars a lot, but likes lots of rock music, not just the rock music made by British bands between 1962 and 1966. It’s certainly the most rootsy, or the most “classic rock” of the Brit Pop albums I’ve heard.
Maybe that makes it more derivative (particularly of the Stones) than some of the more inventive Brit Bop bands (like Blur) or some of the ones more influenced by Post Punk (like Pulp), but I’d still much rather listen to this than an Oasis record.
39. Sublime (6/10)
40. Counting Crows: Recovering the Satellites (6/10)
41. The Tragically Hip: Trouble at the Henhouse (6/10)
42. Nirvana: From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (6/10)
Most – or at least a majority of – live albums are compilations. It used to be fairly rare when an album was just a show (though the most famous – and best – live rock album in history is from one show, but that is the exception not the rule); far more often they are tour albums. Read the rest of the review.
43. Micheal Hedges: Oracle (6/10)
Michael Hedges is undoubtedly a great guitarist: his technique is incredible and his use of various alternative tunings and approaches to playing is also incredible. Apparently he was also extremely innovative: in the early ’80s he pioneered this style of heavily percussive playing. (There is some controversy over whether he was the first person to play like this, or whether he was he first one to play like this on a steel string acoustic guitar. The latter is likely the more accurate version.) And of course it is a tragedy when anyone, especially a talented musician like this, dies young.
44. The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request (5/10)
Years and years ago, I added this to my list. I don’t remember why. I must have read all the positive reviews. I don’t know.
45. The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Take it From the Man! (5/10)
46. Ween: 12 Golden Country Greats (5/10)
This is the first time Ween decided to dedicate themselves to one genre and I guess that was a brave and admirable thing to do, especially given how fully they commit to the traditional country sound.
But the great thing about Ween – and, in particular, the professional version of Ween that emerged in the mid ’90s – is their unparalleled ability to convincingly genre-hop. Ween can sell so many genres on one record but when they try to sell just one, well…
I guess they only thing that would have made this record a classic is really, really great songs. But unfortunately the jokes aren’t consistently funny and whether this is homage or parody disappears to be the point where it actually feels like a sincere attempt to be some kind of trad country comedy band. I prefer the regular Ween that only dabbles in country on occasion.
Not Ranked: Philip Glass: Music in Changing Parts (9/10)
This is as impenetrable as Glass gets, I think. Though Einstein on the Beach is hard to get into if you don’t have the patience, this makes that “opera” downright accessible. Read the rest of the review.
Not Ranked: Juilliard Quartet: Intimate Letters (9/10)
Not Ranked: Mauricio Kagel et. al: Sankt Bach Passion (7/10)
Not Ranked: Various Artists including Oliver Knussen: Horn Concerto, Whitman Settings, Way Castle Yonder, Flourish Fireworks etc by Oliver Knussen (7/10)
An okay survey of some of his orchestral music. Read the Review.
Not Ranked: Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen: Bernard Herrmann – The Film Scores (7/10)
This is a hilariously named compilation – it implies some level of completeness – but it’s actually an interesting survey, focused almost exclusively on Hitchcock scores. Read the full review.
Not Ranked: London Symphony Orchestra, Richard Hickox: Orchestral Works Including Hammersmith and Egdon Heath by Gustav Holst (7/10)
This is a compilation of some of Holst’s shorter orchestral works.