1996- two years out of college. I started the year with a bang, craziest New Year’s Eve of my life- details NOT to follow. That spring I met and fell in love with my future wife and I spent the summer waiting tables on the rooftop of a restaurant in Bryant Park, NYC. But enough about me. How was the music? Alternative nation was holding on for dear life. Many great indie bands had been signed to major labels in the wake of grunge’s big successes earlier in the decade. Some good albums were being made on the majors dime, to varying degrees of marketing push and sales. While radio and MTV embraced alternative more from 1991-95 than at any other time, by ’96 the music was depressingly in the process of being bastardized and homogenized. A few years later imposters like Creed, Seven Mary 3, Days of the New & Sponge would dominate both radio & MTV, making heavy alternative music more corporate and boring. Though Nirvana was kaputt, Alice in Chains breaking up, Pearl Jam’s influence waning and Soundgarden running on fumes there was also plenty to like in 1996- some mind-blowing electronic music, the best Beck album ever in “Odelay” and despite DJ Shadow’s protests (Why Hip Hop Sucks in ’96) a very healthy rap scene.
The way I hear it 1996 produced four classic albums- Beck’s “Odelay”, DJ Shadow’s “Entroducing”, Weezer’s left field emo masterpeice “Pinkerton” & Jay-Z’s fantastic debut “Reasonable Doubt”. I list an additional 16 records below that I consider pretty great as well but want to mention a few more that just missed the cut- not because they aren’t near great as well but because I limit the list to 20 albums. In indie-rock the math-rockers Chavez “Ride the Fader” & Elliott Smith’s band Heatmiser’s “Mic City Sons”. In rap 2Pac released his swan-song, the double album “All Eyes On Me” 6 months before his murder. Philadelphia’s Roots, released “Iladelph Halflife”, one of their stronger albums. Provocative & sultry chanteuse Fiona Apple released her debut “Tidal”, which garnered three hits and tons of publicity. Post-rock band Tortoise’s groundbreaking “Millions Among Us Will Never Die” was a sensation as well- at least among critics and musicians. The U.K.’s Manic Street Preachers’s “Everything Must Go” was either their strongest or second strongest album of their career. ’96 may not have been a very top heavy year but with albums like the above not even cracking the top 20, it certainly was a deep year.
Rap music was experiencing quite a sea change. The conscious rap of the early 90’s was taking a back seat to the west coast gangsta rap of Death Row Records and the East Coast jiggy-rap of Bad Boy Records. East Coast vs. West Coast dominated conversation, particularly in the wake of 2Pac’s murder that September. But with any dominant scene alternatives to that scene will emerge. DJ Shadow, a crate digger out in San Fran, created his nearly all instrumental, esoteric, tripped out masterpiece “Entroducing” out of a pile of unrecognizable samples. The album still sounds fresh to this day. Kool Keith, formerly of 80’s hip hop pioneers Ultramagnetic MC’s, under alias Dr. Octagon caused an underground sensation with the truly wacked-out anti-commercial “Dr. Octagynecologist”. Down south groups like Outkast, UGK & Geto Boyz were recording great music portending the dominance of the “Dirty South” a few years later. Outkast’s second album “ATLiens” is still considered by some of their fans (not by me) to be their best album. Up in Staten Island, the Wu-Tang Clan had released a handful of classic Wu solo albums the year before. They saved one of their best for ’96 with “Iron Man” by Ghostface Killah. Ghost would go on to become the Wu’s most consistent solo performer throughout the next decade and a half and up into the present day. Two other albums that took a nod from earlier Native Tongues rappers like Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were the aforementioned Roots and perhaps the biggest rap success story of ’96, Newark, NJ’s Fugees. Their second album “The Score” was a huge crossover success, selling millions and spawning three ubiquitous hits- “Fu-Gee-La, “Ready Or Not” & especially the Roberta Flack cover “Killing Me Softly With His Song”. Though Tribe’s ’96 album was pretty much a stuff, De La came out with the underrated Stakes Is High”, showing once again that hype & sales is not necessarily a match with quality. Though it would take several years to be recognized as such, Brooklyn’s Jay-Z’s debut “Reasonable Doubt” is now a certified rap classic and perhaps the best showcase for his pure rapping. It remains one of his best albums. Female’s like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown were each pushing boundaries of taste showing the world that females could be just as nasty and explicit as their male counterparts. And “Hardcore” by Lil’ Kim was actually a pretty bangin’ album. Busta Rhymes debut album “The Coming”, along with his signature song “Woo-Hah! Got You All in Check”, were huge hits in ’96. Queens rappers Nas & Mobb Deep both released strong sophomore albums, both with their share of classics but neither matching the quality of their debuts.
Though much of the R&B music in ’96 was being made by boy groups like Boys II Men, Jodeci & the re-formed New Edition and the omnipresent, saccharine “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly was busy polluting up the airwaves a few truly interesting tracks made their way up the charts that would point toward where the genre was headed toward the end of the decade. “No Diggity” by Blackstreet (Feat. Dr. Dre), “Pony” by Ginuwine and the entire “One in a Million” album (but particularly the title cut) by Aaliyah were all hot, groundbreaking cuts that combined hip-hop & R&B. The latter two were produced by Timbaland, who along with the Neptunes, would become the most important producers of urban music into the next century. Maxwell merged on the scene with his debut “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite”. Along with Erykah Badu & D’Angelo he would help pave the way for an entire new-soul movement, a throwback 70’s era smooth soul- more organic and less computerized beats.
Alternative music was being split into many factions. As I previously mentioned the major labels were still churning out some high quality alt-rock despite some diminishing returns. Though Soundgarden’s “Down On the Upside” was a dip in quality from their last two albums, it still sold and tracks like “Pretty Noose” and “Burden In My Hand” were career highlights. Weezer’s sophomore album “Pinkerton” was a box office bomb after their smash debut, but developed a cult following and is now thought of as one of their best records and as a progenitor for Emo music (for better and mostly for worse). Rage Against the Machine’s 2nd album “Evil Empire” mined similar territory as their debut and produced the classic “Bulls On Parade”. Tool, who had straddled the fence between metal and alternative released their best album “Aenima”. R.E.M., still one of the biggest bands in the world, released their last great album, the still underrated “New Adventures in Hi-Fi”. One-hit wonder type power pop by some pretty good bands like Fountains of Wayne, Imperial Teen, Ash, the Cardigans, Jason Falkner (formerly of Jellyfish) & Cake also came from the majors. So. California’s Sublime released their very good major label debut- an album that sounded much better year’s before it was beaten into your brain by Clear Channel radio. Even the great indie band Archers of Loaf somehow recorded their ’96 album “All the Nations’s Airports” under the Elektra banner.
Despite the major label grab the indie labels were still flourishing. Portland’s Sleater-Kinney came out with their sophomore album “Call the Doctor” on Kill Rock Stars and it made a name for the band appearing on numerous year-end lists. Fellow Portlanders Modest Mouse released their debut album and even better “Interstate 8” EP. Ohio’s Guided By Voices released “Under the Bushes, Under the Stars”, their third straight great album, cementing their status as one of their scene’s leading lights. Groups like Brainiac, Girls Against Boys, Jersey’s great unknowns the Wrens, Silkworm, Sebadoh & Canada’s Sloan also all had noteworthy releases. Frustrating psych-rock band Brian Jonestown Massacre, one of the subjects of future documentary “Dig!” released three albums in ’96. It was to this date both their best and most prolific year. Down in Atlanta the Elephant Six collective, inspired equally by 60’s pop and acid, was releasing some great and important music. Both the Olivia Tremor Control & Neutral Milk Hotel’s debuts came out that year. By the end of the decade that style of music would play a bigger part in the public’s consciousness. Across the pond two extremely important acts emerged- Belle & Sebastian & Super Furry Animals. Both would go on to record a plethora of great music. B&S wouldn’t really hit in the U.S. until the following year’s “If You’re Feeling Sinister” which came out in -96 in the U.K. only.
Alternative country was also a big deal in ’96. Chicago’s Wilco released the double album “Being There” which really stretched the groups boundaries, including experimental noise and extended to jamming to their sound, which was much more straight-forward country-rock on their debut “A.M.” as year earlier. Steve Earle, a country star who had crossed over to alt-country continued to solidify his rock rep with “I Feel Alright”. Ryan Adams’s band Whisketown released their debut “Faithless Street”, which had its share of great tracks. Longtime recording artists Los Lobos continued to push boundaries, incorporating Tom Waits style instrumentation to their roots rock sound with the album “Colossal Head”. Even mainstream star Sheryl Crow got both more experimental and more country with her self-titled sophomore album and it became another huge hit for her.
Much of the most groundbreaking music of the year was electronic. I already mentioned the great albums by Tortoise and DJ Shadow. Tricky’s “Pre-Millennium Tension”, only pales in comparison to his near perfect debut “Maxinquaye”. Though the trip-hop sound would quickly become played out by the end of the decade, “Tension” should still be looked at as a highlight and had its own unique sound, even apart from “Maxinquaye”. Everything But the Girl’s “Walking Wounded” was another solid album on the back of the group’s worldwide smash club hit “Missing” a year earlier. London’s Stereolab, another great post-rock band, released perhaps their greatest album “Emperor Tomato Ketchup”, which raised their profile considerably. The hermetic wunderkind “Aphex Twin” released the “Richard D. James” album, which only added to his genius among the laptop set. Three of the biggest electronica groups in the U.K.- Underworld, the Chemical Brothers & Orbital all had important released in ’96. Underworld was riding the success of “Born Slippy”, featured prominently on the Trainspotting soundtrack, a huge movie and soundtrack that year among hipsters everywhere. “Slippy” remains one of the most monumentally great tracks of the entire genre. Underworld’s “Second Toughest in Infants” (which does not contains the track) is also an excellent companion album.
Buy Second Toughest In the Infants – Underworld
*Album not available via Amazon
SLEATER-KINNEY- CALL THE DOCTOR
*Album not available via iTunes