The Top Ten Albums of 1996
1. Los Lobos, Colossal Head (Warner Brothers). Rejuvenated by their sublimely gritty Latin Playboys project, David Hidalgo and Louie Perez brought a bracing dose of sonic experimentation to Los Lobos' most recent effort--the most fascinating record of the band's career. Mitchell Froom's masterfully rough production balances the classicism of the songwriting, while Hidalgo's lacerating guitar counters his own sweet, soulful singing and that of Cesar Rojas. Powerful proof that not all rock veterans are content with profitable mediocrity.
2. Beck, Odelay (DGC). The Dust Brothers one-upped their landmark production job on the Beasties' Paul's Boutique by transforming Beck Hansen's savvy pomo pillage into actual songs. Plenty of critics have pointed to Odelay's arty appropriation as pop music's future, but it's more of a brilliant stopgap measure; eventually someone will stumble on a new music that builds more than it reconstructs.
3. Norma Waterson, Norma Waterson (Hannibal). On her solo debut, this three-decade veteran of the British folk scene (she was a charter member of the Watersons) largely bypassed traditional material in favor of more rock-identified tunes by the likes of Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello, and even Jerry Garcia. Backed by husband Martin Carthy, Richard Thompson, and upright bassist Danny Thompson, she treats each tune with remarkable empathy, balancing the bitterness in Richard Thompson's "God Loves a Drunk" with sad compassion and imbuing Oscar Brown Jr.'s "Rags and Old Iron" with subtle pathos. An effective reminder that interpretation is just as important as innovation.
4. Wilco, Being There (Reprise). With Wilco's triumphant second album Jeff Tweedy managed to wriggle loose from rock's usual stifling subject matter. The result, sprawled across two CDs, is a complex, realistically incoherent meditation on confronting adult life--which for Tweedy involves marriage, parenthood, and being an icon to thousands of obsessive, slightly creepy country-rock fans. Being There's palette of musical styles is as broad as Tweedy's range of emotion.
5. Stereolab, Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Elektra). All of Stereolab's much vaunted antecedents--from Krautrock to exotica--dissolve here in the face of expert songcraft. Between Laetitia Sadier's more and more inventive melodies and Tim Gane's ingenious structures, Stereolab did more than make something new from something old: this time around the "groop" made relentless experimentation downright hooky.
6. Ornette Coleman, Sound Museum (Harmolodic/Verve). This pair of albums--subtitled Hidden Man and Three Women--with virtually identical tables of contents but vastly different, if equally nuanced, performances, signaled a major accomplishment for the alto saxophone genius. While both accessible and playful, these acoustic recordings with pianist Geri Allen, bassist Charnett Moffett, and drummer Denardo Coleman at times push the leader's harmolodic concept further than anything he's done previously.
7. Dr. Octagon, Dr. Octagon (Bulk). Signaling the ascendance of Bay Area hip-hop (DJ Shadow, Invisible Scratch Pickles, the Solesides crew, and Automator, who produced), Dr. Octagon--aka Kool Keith, formerly of the Ultramagnetic MCs--built on the scatological cosmology of George Clinton to take hip-hop beyond the usual hard-times testifying and representing for the first time since De La Soul's debut. "Dr. Octagonecologyst" has been derided for his potty-mouthed sexism, but his otherworldly raps are so far beyond any kind of ism that virtually all standards fall away.
8. Cat Power, What Would the Community Think (Matador). Cat Power's Chan Marshall may have a fragile voice, but she wields it with the power of an expressionist painter: it doesn't matter if you don't know exactly what she's singing about, because her broad strokes convey a compelling mix of atmosphere and raw emotion. You can't say the same for any of the year's Grammy-sweeping overemoters--male or female.
9. Plug, Drum 'n' Bass for Papa (Blue Angel). Along with albums by Squarepusher and Spring Heel Jack, this opus from Plug (aka Luke Vibert of Wagon Christ fame) transported drum 'n' bass from the dance floor into the realm of serious head music. While the emphasis stays on complex rhythms, the diverse samples flesh out a rich album that ranges seamlessly from noir atmospheres to jazzy, tripped-out funk.
10. Gastr del Sol, Upgrade & Afterlife (Drag City). A quantum leap forward from several impressive previous recordings, Upgrade & Afterlife found David Grubbs and Jim O'Rourke mining highly refined, meticulously structured soundscapes that flirt with coloristic minimalism. From the Morricone-esque sweep of the opening "Our Exquisite Replica of 'Eternity'" to the beautiful closing treatment of John Fahey's "Dry Bones in the Valley," Gastr del Sol made truly cerebral music without getting mired in academic muck.
And apologies to:
11. Frank Lowe Trio, Bodies & Soul (CIMP)
12. Various artists, Headz2 (Mo' Wax)
13. John Zorn, Bar Kokhba (Tzadik)
14. Everything but the Girl, Walking Wounded (Atlantic)
15. Cassandra Wilson, New Moon Daughter (Blue Note)
16. DJ Shadow, Endtroducing...(Mo' Wax/London)
17. Lamb, Lamb (Mercury UK)
18. Cibo Matto, Viva! La Woman (Warner Brothers)
19. Spring Heel Jack, 68 Million Shades...(Trade 2/Island)
20. Del McCoury Band, The Cold Hard Facts (Rounder)
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.