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The Weight of the Sounds in the Room
The Best of 1996
Some years are for revolution, but some are for beating the swords back into plowshares and seeing what you can till out of the ground you won. I'm not sure this was a very impressive year for music in general, but except for the relatives of thrifty Time-Life employees most of us don't listen to music in general, and music in specific had as good a year as any.
Albums
1
The Loud Family: Interbabe Concern
The hardest thing to do, after once making a truly epochal record, is to make another one so astonishing that the clenched fingers of your fans, clutching your old record to their hearts, go involuntarily slack. Please, everybody, look around you. I seem to have dropped my copy of Lolita Nation, and though it's now only my second favorite Scott Miller album, I still don't want it trodden on.
2
Patty Griffin: Living With Ghosts
If there is epiphany in the complex, then so too is there rapture in simplicity. I think I could listen to Interbabe Concern and Living With Ghosts in alternation for the rest of time, and not miss a nutrient. This is an album to restore your faith in perpetual motion, cold fusion, telepathy, spell-casting and every other wishful construction of human minds that rattles the chains of evident mortality like they're a tavern puzzle that will fall open with a whisper if you can only make out the topology in the iron.
3
Grant Lee Buffalo: Copperopolis
Maria McKee: Life Is Sweet
The haunted soul of a country music that never knew artifice or affect, cast out by its host, roams the Earth, and occasionally it settles for a moment, like a chill shadow, across a receptive mind. It has no speeches to deliver, and no puppet-master designs on the living, but you can feel its eyes watching you from in between the guitar strings, and in the music made in its presence you can hear the echoes that bounce off the arid walls of its purgatory canyon, and the supplicant humility in a voice that roars of its unfathomable loves, spread out under an endless, vigilant sky.
4
Tori Amos: Boys for Pele
Mythology for a private culture we can never be sure isn't also ours.
5
Dar Williams: Mortal City
If the most dangerous stories are the ones we tell ourselves, then the hardest stories to tell are the ones about what that storytelling does to us, the stories of how we live in the frightening, unexplored worlds we can't keep our own words from creating.
6
Manic Street Preachers: Everything Must Go
The national anthem of a new beginning.
7
The Blue Nile: Peace at Last
Low: The Curtain Hits the Cast
Rachel's: The Sea and the Bells
Beach music for the Sea of Tranquillity. Low provides quiet for the airlessness and slow motion for the gravity, Rachel's offers the soundtrack for the long crossing that turns a crater into an ocean, and the Blue Nile explain the virtue of unearthly calm.
8
Paula Cole: This Fire
Every bleak, disturbing album I own has just turned into the potential for its successor to capture the moment when a bright new wing pokes out of the assumptions, resignations and envy.
9
Too Much Joy: ...Finally
Where most anthems try to turn you away from your own frailties and disappointments toward some sun, Too Much Joy's bring momentousness to the moments in which you actually live.
10
Whipping Boy: Heartworm
Songs from the no-man's-land between love letters, apologies, confessions and emotional-prison journals. Like a calendar landscape in which the impassive Irish fog shrouds rolling hills and burial mounds alike.
Songs
1
Dar Williams: "As Cool As I Am" (from Mortal City)
What "You Oughta Know" turns into after introspection replaces vindictiveness, and you add a digeridu.
2
Aimee Mann: "Driving With One Hand on the Wheel" (from "Long Shot" single and Safe and Sound)
The year's best b-side, and its most flawless explication of elemental pop charm.
3
Vent 414: "Life Before You" (from Vent 414)
Despair and imminent loss silhouetted and frozen in charisma's halogen dazzle.
4
Emily Bezar: "White Cedar" (from Moon in Grenadine)
Kate & Anna McGarrigle: "Jacques et Gilles" (from Matapedia)
Sometimes the music's quiet duty is to let a story tell itself.
5
Mecca Normal: "The Revival of Cruelty" (from The Eagle and the Poodle)
And sometimes it's to hold you down and slash you to ribbons.
6
Smart Brown Handbag: "I Know You" (from Monkey in the Middle)
When a song is a thought before it's music, the chorus' arrival doesn't always mean there's a lot left to say.
7
The Nields: "Fountain of Youth" (from Gotta Get Over Greta)
In love and dreaming, part of you still watches from wakefulness.
8
Sebadoh: "Ocean" (from Harmacy)
Remember when "Alternative" used to mean something?
9
BT: "Blue Skies" (from Ima)
Primitive Radio Gods: "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" (from Rocket)
This is what 1996 sounded like.
10
Frosted: "Dis-integrated" (from Cold)
Marry Me Jane: "You Didn't Kiss Me" (from Marry Me Jane)
Sufficient conviction can exhume the truths that even the deepest cliches bury.
New Artists
Patty Griffin
A guitar and a voice, and I'm as mesmerized as if a muse had fallen to earth.
Jason Falkner & Vent 414
Neither Jason nor Vent 414's Miles Hunt are new to music, but they approach their new lives as if they were their first, and listening to them I can believe that their pasts belong to someone else. Sometimes "new" is relative.
Live Albums
Magnum: Last Dance
A bittersweet wake for the champions of swelling hearts.
Compilations & Reissues
Comsat Angels: Waiting for a Miracle, Sleep No More and Fiction
One decade struggles to finish honoring the previous one. RPM deserves a medal for prying these records out of Polydor's crypt-keeper's grasp.
Crowded House: Recurring Dream & XTC: Fossil Fuel: The XTC Singles 1977-92
A songwriters' treasury could begin with just these.
Remixes & Remakes
Tori Amos: "Hey Jupiter (Dakota Version)" & "Professional Widow (Merry Widow Version)"
Reinterpretation can be simply a matter of holding your camera steady until the subject turns around.
Cover Songs
Everclear: "Don't Change" (INXS)
Another year, and more pasts catch up to mine.
Sleeper: "Other End of the Telescope" ('til tuesday)
Sounds change; songs both do and don't.
Various-Artist Compilations
Safe and Sound
A whole city can make an album together. Out of Boston's pain comes an album that reiterates its character and resolve.
Belated Mentions
Belly: King (1995)
An unexpectedly open-hearted rock album, and a sad swansong.
Ben Folds Five: Ben Folds Five (1995)
The best development the piano-making industry has seen in a decade.
Björk: Post (1995)
The bad news about the transcripts from the prototype Alien-to-English translator is that we still have no idea at all what they're trying to tell us.
Henryk Gorecki: Symphony No. 3 (Upshaw, Zinman, London Sinfonietta; 1992)
A night walk through the statuary of neglected beliefs.
The Wygals: Honyocks in the Withersoever (1989)
And for nights when nostalgia beckons, a bottle of the shimmer and glow with which they used to make pop.
 
For the original reviews of releases cited in these lists, see:
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