And now, here it is again, without a single person in the whole world asking for it except my editor; yes, it’s my Official End Of The Year Wrap-Up, in which I take a whole year and try to wrap it up, the better that it may be speedily consigned to oblivion. Actually, 1996 wasn’t such a bad year, as far as I can tell; it just wasn’t very conclusive. I don’t think it will ever be thought of as a year where anything started; neither did anything stop, lately. In general, an affable, let’s-not-step-on-anyone’s-toes kind of year.
A sissy year. A year that was never comfortable with its masculinity, at the same time as it completely lost touch with its softer, feminine side. A year that always got the attention it deserved, without ever really working for it. Basically, 1996 Jr.
Still, lots of good stuff came out, as always; my very faves fall into two major categories: almost perfect, and very swell, indeed. “Almost perfect” is the best; that means there isn’t a lame track on the whole thing ( -still a minor miracle even in modern times). “Very swell, indeed” is still a very high recommendation -at worst, it means there’s a little falter or three, maybe; but I can listen to all of these albums all the way through with nary a grimace. (I mention this now, of course, so that all you people will follow my instructions and buy people proper music this holiday season, etc., etc., for it is only through this unselfish act that I can be rendered useful.
For my money, the cream of the crop are: Freedy Johnston, “Never Home” (Elektra), by far the best rootsy thing I heard all year (also very pop-y and remarkably consistent); the Muffs’ “Happy Birthday to Me” (Reprise), a tuneful yet thrashy blast of rock’n’roll from the missing link between the Ramones and the Shirelles; Papas Fritas’s “Helioself” (Minty Fresh), including possibly the single of the year, the amazing “Hey Hey You Say”, plus about seven other amazingly perfect pop songs; Michael Penn’s “Resigned” (Epic/57), which is about as close as we’ll ever get to a great ‘90’s John Lennon album, and as such another brilliant pop confection; and “The Club Foot Orchestra Plays Nino Rota” (Rastascan), by far the best collection of music from Fellini’s films (including most of the original soundtracks themselves) and an absolute delight.
Continuing the “A” list, we have the Flaming Lips’ remarkable 4-CD “Zaireeka” (Warner Bros.), an outrageous gamble that succeeds brilliantly on levels that have barely been invented yet, despite the fact that I’m a total songs-fascist (for me, if you’re not working with a good song, you’re usually doomed in advance), and this concept (four CDs, played as simultaneously as humanly possible, on four different sound systems) pretty much by-passes the need for songs (the very fact that you almost can’t listen to this properly without three other guys being there inadvertently makes the whole process hilarious and new); and the Replacements repackage “All for Nothing, Nothing for All” (Reprise), which is that rare, lengthy retrospective-with-lots-of-outtakes that manages to avoid unintentionally diminishing its subject.
I’d love to add “The Master – Marvin Gaye” 4 CD collection (Motown) and Brave Combo & Lauren Agnelli’s “Kiss of Fire” (Watermelon) to the list, because they’re both wonderful; but I did find out (after the fact, natch) that neither came out this year (heck, the Marvin anthology wasn’t even from ‘96; it was from whatever that year was they had just before ‘96). Anyway, they were definitely two of the year’s major discoveries for me.
Also brilliant (at least very swell, indeed) were: NRBQ’s “You’re Nice People You Are” (Rounder), supposedly their “children’s” album; Margaret Leng Tan’s haunting “The Art of the Toy Piano” (Point Music); Don Byron’s fascinating re-creations of vintage Ellington, Raymond Scott, and John Kirby on “Bug Music” (Elektra Nonesuch); Patty Larkin’s “Perishable Fruit” (High Street), which sustains a lovely, drifting mood throughout; Letters to Cleo’s “Go!” (Revolution)(for all of us dis-placed Go-gos fans); Of Montreal’s “Cherry Peel” (Bar/None), a welcome new branch in the Jonathan Richmond/Kinks/tunefully whimsical tree; Derrick Morgan’s “Time Marches On” (Heartbeat), featuring many fabulous vintage Skatalites band tracks; the “Tree’s Lounge”soundtrack (MCA) (and also from ‘96, now that I mention it ), featuring my other single major discovery of the year, Bill Deal & the Rondells’ “I’ve Been Hurt”, plus the Mills Bros., the Ink Spots, Shane MacGowan, and Brenda Lee; and Caetano Veloso’s recent soundtrack to “Tieta De Agreste” (Blue Jackal), a very pretty Brazilian orchestral album that also features Gal Costa. (I’m tempted to add Jonatha Brook’s new “10c Wings” (MCA/Refuge), but I’ve only heard the first four songs. So far, so good, though.)
Also, “Count Your Blessings” (Alert Music Inc), a recording of a live concert of Christmas music featuring Jane Siberry, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Holly Cole, Rebecca Jenkins, and Victoria Williams, together and in turn, accompanied by pianist Tim Ray that is the most interesting new Xmas release I’ve been able to find in the current crop; the title song and Ms. Siberry’s two songs are particularly lovely, and Holly Cole’s tracks particularly disposable; still, a very strong collection (though it seems to be a Canadian release from 1994; worth a search, though). I even like Altan’s “Runaway Sunday” (Virgin), despite an extreme anti-Celtic music bias that I’m quite proud of, in general; but there’s a song on this one, (“A Moment in Time”) that is absolutely gorgeous. And don’t forget my good friend Ken Field’s “Subterranea” (OoMusic), a very unconventional yet approachable album of not-jazz featuring the saxophone, percussion, and (gasp!) flute meanderings of the talented title character.
The year’s most promising debuts were made by Jason Falkner, Skavoovie and the Epitones, locals the High Kings and Anna Whiteley, the afore-mentioned Of Montreal, and the brand new You Am I, whose new “Hourly, Daily” (Sire) is a brash pop album with echoes of earlier british bands like the Kinks, the Who, and XTC, and a couple of swell songs.
And that’s it. Go forth and purchase.