In the blah that overcame 1996, some pearls shone

December 29, 1996|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

What an utterly uninspired year for pop music 1996 was.

It wasn't that things were bad; it's that they were boring, which is worse. Bad at least offers the option of righteous indignation, the chance to rail against all that is wrong with the world. But the best this past year offered was ennui. It was as if we had been condemned to relive 1959, without even the excuse of Elvis being in the Army.

Look at the major pop events of the past 12 months. Michael Jackson divorced Lisa Marie, got another woman pregnant and married again. Alanis Morissette sold another 6 or 7 million albums. The members of Metallica cut their hair. Millions of people who shouldn't dance in public did the Macarena. Excuse me while I hit the snooze alarm.

It was great for leftovers. The Beatles released two more albums of outtakes (the first had been released just before Christmas '95) and sold tons, and a whole bunch of old bands got together again and toured. But it was hard to get too worked up about it all.

Even the year's scandals failed to excite. Sure, the murder of Tupac Shakur was a shock, but ultimately the case was too muddied by rumor and witness indifference to amount to anything more than meaningless tragedy. By year's end, neither the incarceration of Death Row head Suge Knight nor the most recent round of smut-rock accusations from professional bluenoses William Bennett and C. Delores Tucker attracted more than cursory interest. Not only was nothing exciting, but nothing was shocking, either.

None of which made it easy to compile my annual Top 10 lists. Although there was no shortage of new albums -- the 1,500 or so I slogged through were but a fraction of what made it to my mailbox -- few possessed anything even remotely resembling greatness. Those not hobbled by a lack of originality or imagination reeked of attitude and calculation. My stereo was awash in mediocrity.

What follows are the nuggets I gleaned from that stream of sludge.

Albums

1. Cibo Matto "Viva! La Woman" (Warner Bros. 45989). Arch and playful, Cibo Matto conjures a world of gustatory delights and aural gratification that kept me coming back for seconds all year. Satisfying and delicious.

2. Everything But the Girl "Walking Wounded" (Atlantic 82912). Between Ben Thorn's throbbing, drum 'n' bass-driven soundscapes and Tracey Thorn's bruised plum of a voice, heartbreak has never seemed as addictive as it does here.

3. Dave Matthews Band "Crash" (RCA 66904). Matthews' band may include some of the best players in pop music today (particularly drummer Carter Beauford), but what makes this album work is that Matthews' songs always give them something to play.

4. BT "Ima" (Perfecto/Kinetic/Reprise 46356). By paying as much attention to melody and texture as he does to rhythm, BT creates dance music that's both intellectually engaging and physically rewarding. Not to mention catchy.

5. Aimee Mann "I'm with Stupid" (DGC 24951). A prodigiously gifted songwriter, Mann's songs are as tuneful as Difford & Tilbrook's, as witty as Elvis Costello's and as heartfelt as Chrissie Hynde's. Who says they don't write 'em like that anymore?

6. Rage Against the Machine "Evil Empire" (Epic 57523). Never mind the band's left-leaning politics; what matters isn't its belief in collectivist economics, but its collective musical approach. Not since Led Zeppelin have four musicians built a sound so distinctive and mighty.

7. Cardigans "First Band on the Moon" (Mercury 314 533 117). Like the booby-trapped chocolates in that Monty Python routine, the Cardigans are sweet and gooey on the outside, but sharp and dangerous beneath the surface. Quite a pop confection.

8. Tomomi Kahala "Love Brace" (Pioneer Japan PICX 1004). Kahala may be a Japanese "idoru kashu" (idol singer), but there's nothing lightweight about her material. Imagine a cross between Seal's studio-savvy soul and classic Phil Spector girl-group pop, and you'll have a hint of the musical magic at work here.

9. Norma Waterson "Norma Waterson" (Hannibal 1393). Waterson's resonant voice and flawless delivery make this the best English folk album since Fairport Convention's "Liege and Lief."

10. The Blue Nile "Peace at Last" (Warner Bros. 45848). Despite his classic Scots tenor, Paul Buchanan is a soul singer in the most genuine sense, and these lean, tuneful songs speak eloquently to the trials and joys of hearth and home.

Singles

1. Donna Lewis "I Love You Always Forever" (Atlantic). A cute lyric, sure, but the kind of chorus you hear once and hum all day.

2. Tomomi Kahala "I'm Proud" (Pioneer Japan). One of the best-written songs I've heard in years, all decked out in danceable orchestral opulence.

3. Quad City DJs "Come On and Ride It (The Train)" (Big Beat). Forget the Macarena -- this was the year's killer dance track.

4. Coolio "1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin' New)" (Tommy Boy). Actually, the sound really isn't all that new, but the execution is flawlessly funky.

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