Blackjack: 21 reasons music didn't suck in 1996
by Jon Worley
I like music. Period. While one of my occupations is music critic, I prefer to sing the rapturous praises of great album than slag shitty albums. And I've found that most musical greatness operates in the shadowy world of the music "underground": independent labels. So there I ply my trade.
This year, I (also known as Aiding & Abetting) gave out seven coveted AAAAA (five A) awards to albums. This means that these albums represent perfection in a certain genre (at least as much as is humanly possible). Of course, I prefer some more than others (as you might have guessed, perfection is relative), and so I give you my favorite 21 albums of the year.
First, the two best albums of the years are The Wrens' Secaucus (Grass Records) and Firewater's Get off the Cross...We Need the Wood for the Fire (Jetset-Big Cat). Classic explorations of the pop form (not Whitney Houston-type pop, but Who-type pop) that still knock me out every time I hear them (and I listen a lot). Must-own records for anyone who gives a shit about music. And I'm not fucking around, either. Buy these or face eternal peril.
The rest of the Five As (in no particular order):
My Dying Bride The Angel and the Dark River (Futurist)
Everyone should own My Dying Dride. Gothic death metal that will cause even the perkiest Zappa fan to brood.
Ether Bunny Papa Woody (Fifth Colvmn)
Old big band recordings cut up and assimilated the Vampire Rodents way. Positively electric.
Loop Guru Amrita (World Domination)
The best of the ambient jungle stuff I've heard. I'm not the most tapped in person as far as that sort of thing goes, but everyone who's heard this liked it, except for Mattman.
Dirty Three Horse Stories (Touch and Go)
Haunting instrumental stuff that is mostly percussion, guitar and violin. The soundtrack to a spaghetti western directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Dr. Bob's Nightmare Stinkin' Thinkin' (King Alcohol)
The sure-fire punk raunch record of the year. Way too silly to cop a 'tude, but far too fun to ignore. A real blast of humor and energy.
Some AAAA 1/2 albums that I really dig:
Millencolin Life on a Plate (Epitaph)
The best punk-pop album by a band not from the states (these boys are from Sweden). Utterly infectious.
Ff We're #1 (Double Deuce)
Hardcore NYC pop. Imagine Overwhelming Colorfast with big, hairy balls. These guys covered Stryper's "Makes Me Wanna Sing" on the Spandex Experiment glam metal tribute CD, so you know they're cool.
Pitch Shifter Infotainment? (Earache)
Industrial death metal that dabbles in all the cool electronic beats popular across the pond these days. To jungle and beyond, Pitch Shifter has an impeccable style. Recently dropped by Earache, reportedly over video-related differences (I'm not sure what that means, either).
Thought Industry Outer Space Is Just a Martini Away (Metal Blade)
My favorite metal album of the year. These Kalamazoo boys take standard Judas Priest ideas and run them through a Frank Zappa filter. Awe-inspiring.
Cardinal Woolsey Paralyzed With Happiness (Puddle)
The best dBs album of the year (without any dBs participating). A loving recreation of the classic Holsapple-Stamey pop sound. Achingly beautiful.
Judge Nothing Riveter (Thick)
Chicago pop-punk band produced by two of the ALL boys. Tight sound, even tighter songwriting. This is the band's second great album in two years.
Voodoo Love Mint Something in French (Angry Seed)
More great pop-punk from the Chicago area (alright, Wisconsin, but there's not much difference, really). This puppy is self-produced, but sounds great. The lyrics are wryly subversive, and the music is as good as it gets. A real find (if you can find it at all).
KMFDM Xtort (Wax Trax!-TVT)
Sascha and En Ench's best album, period. Not content to surf the now-overdone German engineering sound, Xtort ventures into many new areas. The most diverse set of tunes on one KMFDM album. Really fine.
Namanax Cascading Waves of Electronic Turbulence (Release-Relapse)
Easily the best noise album of the year. Namanax produces exactly what the title infers. You'd be surprised at how complex waves of distortion can become. The album that will move plenty of people into the noise camp.
Jeff Haas Trio with Marvin Kahn L'Dor VaDor (Schoolkids Records)
Yes, the son of Karl Haas. This is an album that pays tribute to both jazz and Hebrew music roots. The two traditions blend together in a beautiful way, and the players give the arrangements the respect and veerve they deserve. My favorite jazz album of the year.
The Queers Don't Back Down (Lookout)
Okay, so this might as well be a Beach Boys album. It's still a stunning pop record (perhaps the best pure pop album of the year), and I don't know anyone who hasn't fallen in love at first listen. True ear candy.
Duotang Smash the Ships and Raise the Beams (Mint)
Just drums and bass (with the odd organ accompaniment) churning out dark pop gems. That simple; that cool. The first track, "The Message", is a tune you'll be humming immediately. Once you learn the lyrics, though, you might be a bit more circumspect.
Final Cut Atonement (Fifth Colvmn)
The second album for this "group", and easily the best industrial album of the year. Guest shots from most of the Vancouver industrial community and a few Fifth Colvmn cohorts. Wonderfully textured and crafted. I just wish this was a full-time gig.
Chevy Heston Come to Sterilized (Cherry Disc)
The third release from this band (there is no person called Chevy Heston, no matter what anyone tells you) is exactly like the first two: A mishmash of pop song fragments spliced together into some sort of narrative. Maddening and stunning all at once.
Two other important mentions that don't count against my total:
Ruth Ruth The Little Death EP (Deep Elm-Epitaph)
The best EP of the year. Yeah, the band is still on American, but this side shot goes through a couple quality labels. Awesome power-pop, the kind of stuff that sounds so simple but is terribly hard to perfect. Air guitar heaven.
Scout "Plague Dogs" 7" (Deep Elm)
The best 7" of the year (though that Kepone/Pegboy split was damned fine). The band shifts from the anarchic to the ethereal with aplomb. In two songs, Scout manages to plumb much of the pop universe. Well done.
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