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Don't Forget to Win First Place
The Best of 1995
Alanis Morissette: Jagged Little Pill
I know, her producer helped her do it. I know, every fourth person in America has a copy. I know, lots of them bought it for the illicit thrill of not having "Would she go down on you in a theater?" bleeped out by MTV. I know, and I don't care. Whatever else surrounds it, this is the most assured, most electrifying and wisest debut album since Little Earthquakes. The opening notes of every song on it make me inhale sharply with anticipation. That a twenty-year-old made it is as enduring a demonstration of the power of youth as I can imagine requiring. That so many people bought it is a testament to blind, unreasoning luck, and makes me think that that monkeys-typing-Shakespeare project might come to something yet.
Scott Walker: Tilt
I believe that rock music can be fine art. I believe that fine art can be rock music. I believe that the best thing to do with life is to communicate with each other, and that art is the most deliberate and thus highest form of communication. I believe that the best communication makes you question and doubt, makes you think. A powerful work of art describes an unfamiliar landscape, pulls you into it, and immerses you in its logic until you can understand it in its own terms, and find your way out. A truly great work's logic may be so unique that you can't escape, even as its structure convinces you that there is a way, somewhere. Tilt is like that. As oblique and alien as Jagged Little Pill is impassioned and human, this is a record we should keep extra copies of around to give to arriving extraterrestrials, if only because maybe they'll be able to make more sense of it than we can. The only thing that keeps it off the top of my list is the fact that it frightens me a little too much to listen to as often as I might.
Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball
If Jagged Little Pill was the year's most exciting album for me, and Tilt was the most arresting, then Emmylou and Daniel Lanois' Wrecking Ball was the most beautiful. The combination of his ethereal production and her riveting voice produces the first thing in nearly a decade to make me consider taking The Joshua Tree off my list of albums whose greatness seems the most objectively unquestionable. The fact that I can list this album no higher than third proves to me that music is humanity's greatest talent, and that we are living in its most vital era.
Big Country: Why the Long Face?
Before this year, Big Country was my favorite band. This year, they made their most cheerful and melodic album yet. After this year, Big Country is still my favorite band. Is your favorite band good enough to keep your vote in the face of feeling as strongly as I do about the other music here? Want an album of rapturously wonderful songs to listen to while you decide?
Everclear: Sparkle and Fade
When Kurt Cobain killed himself, punk music the way he made it became, to me, unviable. Everclear have found a way that some of what made Kurt and Nirvana great, and important, can live again. Their way doesn't hurt any less, but perhaps this time there is also enough courage to face it. We are all possessed with a power bigger than the pain.
Runrig: Mara
Marillion: Afraid of Sunlight
It seems almost nonsensical to place Runrig and Marillion on this list at all. Runrig speaks to something genetic in me, I think, something that seeped out of the Skye hills into the chromosomes of my ancestors; they aren't a rock band, they are channels for an inherited sense of awe, spirituality given musical form. And though I know this doesn't sound like it makes sense, Marillion is Runrig in secular form. Mara is how peace and maturity are different from stasis and death. Afraid of Sunlight is how wisdom is different from maturity, and self-awareness from self-consciousness.
Jewel: Pieces of You
This is the most important folk album since Blue. If you don't believe me, do this: for the next twenty years, every time somebody covers one of these songs, send me a dollar. At the end of 2015 I'll have you all up to my mansion, and we'll try to figure out what the next one is.
Shampoo: We Are Shampoo
Punk is not a guitar style, a touring philosophy, a corporate image or a musical genre, it is an unholy marriage of profound, malicious indifference and a talent for instinctive heresy. Not only is this easily the year's best punk album, it may well be the year's only punk album.
Scarlet: Naked
The Boo Radleys: Wake Up!
Big, shiny British pop music has never been better. If you combined these you'd get something called Wake Up Naked!, but the music would still be more fun.
Polara: Polara
Long Fin Killie: Houdini
It's heartening to see that even in a year without a Loud Family album there's still somebody championing the idea that complicating things can make them more interesting. Polara make strange whirring pop with shards of fractured noise swirling around in it. Long Fin Killie make strange whirring noise with shards of fractured pop swirling around in it.
Roxette: "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (from Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus!)
Emmylou Harris: "Blackhawk" (from Wrecking Ball)
Per Gessle may be the greatest pop songwriter ever to live, but it's hard to tell while "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore" is playing. What I mean is, while this song is playing it's very hard for me to do anything but bounce and grin like an idiot. "Blackhawk", on the other hand, makes me sway erratically and close my eyes. Inside, though, the feelings are not very different.
Sleeper: "Inbetweener" (from Smart) & "What Do I Do Now?" (single)
My personal emotion for the year was paralyzing confusion, and these are the songs that best captured it.
China Forbes: "Star Tramps" (from Love Handle)
Alanis Morissette: "Hand in My Pocket" (from Jagged Little Pill)
Calming songs, in a year when I needed more of them. "Star Tramps" makes the leap from a glove lying in a gutter to the ultimate nobility of people, and carries me with it. "Hand in My Pocket"'s "I'm sane but I'm overwhelmed" has become a mantra I cling to. I think mantras are supposed to help you overcome things, not just understand them, but I'm willing to start small.
Sarah McLachlan: "Full of Grace" (from Decadence, Nettwerk's tenth-anniversary box set)
With Jane Siberry playing jazz and Kate Bush enjoying her usual decade between albums, Sarah McLachlan seems to be left as the reigning patron saint of attention to detail. In anybody else's song the swelling strings that augment her usual meticulous palette here would be agents of quickly overwrought disaster, but Sarah turns them into extensions of her will, battalions of angels that rise at a flick of her hand. Her next album could be humanity's ticket to the next stage of evolution. I'm still not totally sure her last one isn't.
Big Country: "Bianca" (from "You Dreamer" single)
The year's best b-side. Also, the year's best cymbal crashes.
Suddenly, Tammy!: "River, Run" (from We Get There When We Do)
A quiet, beautiful plea for shared experience, from a band that would probably be the world's best guitarless pop trio even if there were more of them.
Pete and Maura Kennedy: "River of Fallen Stars" (from River of Fallen Stars)
The best tuned song in recorded history. I could listen to any one of these notes for hours. Stringing them together is almost too much.
Matthew Sweet: "Sick of Myself" (from 100% Fun)
Three chords and some extraneous pick noises. What more do you need?
Simple Minds: "E55" (from "She's a River" single)
The Smashing Pumpkins: "1979" (from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness)
Two demonstrations of how "mechanical" can be a compliment. "E55" is a sweeping instrumental that makes the Chariots of Fire theme sound like that thing Schroeder plays at Charlie Brown's Christmas play rehearsals. "1979" got me to buy a Smashing Pumpkins album. I'm not sure which accomplishment is more impressive.
Radiohead: "Fake Plastic Trees" (from The Bends)
Some years, my musical world and the public one fail to intersect at all. In general this is fine with me, as the public musical world tends to be clogged with music that is supposed to make you want to eat fast food, but instead makes me want to firebomb shopping malls. Every once in a while, though, there's a popular song that seems to me to also capture the state of the world. Radiohead's elegant weariness is my reluctant summary of world morale, circa the end of 1995. The last time I felt this about a song it was Jesus Jones' "Right Here, Right Now". That was a whole lot more encouraging; perhaps next year they should do a remake.
New Artists
Alanis Morissette & Jewel
Yes, I know Alanis made two albums before this one. I've heard them; they don't count. We will be hearing from these two women for a long, long time.
Live Albums
Big Country: BBC Live in Concert
A brilliant 1989 concert, providing welcome documentation of the odd era in their history when they attempted to discover how many of their existing fans they could lose by hiring an American producer and taking a keyboard player with them on tour. The answer, unfortunately, was "most of them". But not me. Listening to "Wonderland" played with a synthesizer part is my personal version of hallucinogen abuse.
Gary Numan: Dark Light
Gary Numan has made a resounding artistic comeback in the last couple of years, at least according to me, but his commercial status has yet to react correspondingly. This 1994 concert recording sounds like nobody has gotten around to telling him the sales figures. It's hard listening to it to believe that he's not still a massive star. It's harder still to imagine why.
Sugar: The Joke Is Always On Us, Sometimes
Sugar live was a primal force. If Rykodisc sticks with their plan to release no more copies of this Besides bonus live disc, then I'm pretty sure it was this year's most important collector's item.
Compilations & Reissues
Roxette: Don't Bore Us -- Get to the Chorus!
Roxette is wonderful beyond words. Any random dozen Roxette songs are sufficient to rescue my mood from the blackest depression, frankly, but these eighteen ought to get Western civilization off Prozac. Four brilliant new songs, two songs from film soundtracks, and seven alternate single versions ensure that even those of us who haven't quailed at whole Roxette albums before can justify the euphoria of buying another one.
Guided by Voices: Box
All the albums you would never in a million years have been able to find if they hadn't reissued them like this. It's an erratic set, but if you don't want erratic then what are you buying Guided by Voices records for?
Sugar: Besides
It's a rare band whose b-sides compilation sounds as strong as any of their regular albums.
Remixes & Remakes
Roxette: "The Look '95 (Chaps Donna Bass Mix)"
Some remixes are done so that people who didn't care for a song to begin with will warm to it. This is the rarer sort, a remix done so that people who adored the song the first time can recapture the exhilaration it provoked when it was new.
Sleeper: "Vegas" single & live versions
Sleeper's generous and sad anthem of misdirected hope was twice as big as life on the album, ten times bigger than life on the single, and exactly as small as life on the b-side live version.
Sarah McLachlan: The Freedom Sessions
A part of me feels that you can't fully appreciate a Sarah McLachlan song until you've heard it at least two ways. In concert is probably the best second way, but this album, essentially a second whole version of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, is a pretty good substitute.
Cover Songs
The Cardigans: "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" (Black Sabbath) & "Mr. Crowley" (Ozzy Osbourne)
Sabbath as jazz-pop, Ozzy as a cappella. The idea is cheap, obvious and calculated, really, but the Cardigans' execution is so deft that my reservations melt like Bakelite in a pastel blast-furnace.
Big Country: "Vicious" (Lou Reed)
Admittedly I'm not a Lou Reed fan, and we know my predisposition toward Big Country, but the transformation of this song from depressing and abrasive to cheerful and infectious still strikes me as inspired.
Sing HOLLIES in Reverse (The Hollies)
The first tribute album I've ever loved without already being a devoted fan of the honorees. Actually, the first tribute album I've been able to listen to more than twice that wasn't composed of Richard Thompson songs. Also the best single-disc roll call of American power-pop elite I know of.
Various-Artist Compilations
Castle von Buhler's second AIDS Action Committee benefit compilation is the most sumptuous small-label release I've ever seen, the only music-and-visual-art combination piece I have that takes the art as seriously as the music, and to me the most consistently interesting musical assemblage of the year, despite (or perhaps because of) a participant list without a single big name, and almost without even any small ones.
Red Hot + Bothered
Same cause, similar quality, and another list of unfamiliar names, but this time pseudonyms conceal a concise gazetteer of indie credibility. Buy two and memorize the liner notes, and you'll have improved both your karma and your between-set name-dropping facility.
Belated Mentions
Manic Street Preachers: The Holy Bible (1994)
Sony did no honor to Richey James' memory by canceling the American release of this awesomely bitter and unrelenting third album. It's hard to get up and go on with your life after listening to this record, let alone making it, but it's worth both the risk and the effort to try.
Guided by Voices: Bee Thousand (1994)
The most revolutionary and perverse pop album since Lolita Nation.
Luka Bloom: Turf (1994)
One man, one voice, twelve guitar strings, and lots of microphones. Simplicity can be sublime.
The Magnetic Fields: The Charm of the Highway Strip (1993)
Like country music performed by hyperactive toy robot Mozarts, with vocals done on a trickle current long after their batteries are too dead to move their fingers. Complexity can also be sublime.
Nick Drake: Fruit Tree (1969-1972)
The complete, and all-too-brief, works of another of music's most tragic premature casualties, delicate English folk music by turns haunting and angelic. An egregious anomaly in my collection, given that musical history for me basically begins in 1978.
Payola$: In a Place Like This (1981)
New Wave was exciting once. Listening to this unselfconscious blend of punk rush, synth-pop precision, reggae jump and rock flourish takes me back to when the crackle of the needle in the lead-in groove was the most exciting sound in my life. Sometimes it seems to me like modern society is a machine for plowing treasures into the ground at the fastest possible rate. In a world with no cultural memory, archaeology begins with five minutes ago. If you can work a shovel, you can start digging anywhere you'd like.
For the original reviews of releases cited in these lists, see:
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