There seem to be more and more albums released every year. But it’s not an illusion, it’s a fact. The market is glutted with releases, and it has become more and more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. One must take my humble offering for 13 of the year’s best releases with a grain of salt and realize I have only heard a small portion of what is out there (I’ve heard only 90 that were ranked above an 8+ as opposed to 140 in 1996). There’s 160 listed that I haven’t heard yet, and who knows how many worthy albums there are that I haven’t even heard OF yet. Part of it has to do with the fact that I’m spending less money on music, because I need to pay off debts and to satisfy my twenty-something wanderlust and do some travelling. I’ll continue to rank albums as I hear them, but with less frequency. Labels (yoo hoo, are ya out thar?) may feel free to send me promos if they feel their bands merit consideration. If you think there is something I haven’t considered that should be ranked somewhere on my list, please feel free to tell me about it. Meanwhile, can anyone tell me if Tom Waits is ever going to come out with anything new?
- Bjork * Homogenic (Elektra)
Since the release of Post, Bjork has had some heavy affairs of the heart (from her tempestuous relationship with Tricky to the well-publicized engagement and subsequent break-up with drum ‘n’ bass star Goldie) and this album shows it. The mood and tone is consistently somber. While I may prefer the happier, quirkier, musically schizophrenic Bjork of old, this album is gorgeous. The use of strings have a vaguely alien feel. I suspect that there is a bit of Icelandic classical influence, maybe reflecting a bit of yearning Bjork feels for her homeland as she’s been living as an expatriate in London for several years. Bjork has decided, at least for a while, to act her age, and has proven that she is aging more gracefully than anyone could hope for themselves. I don’t normally connnect one’s musical progress with who they date, but I find it remarkable how she’s managed to bag the top talents in trip-hop, drum ‘n’ bass, and now electronica (she’s currently seeing Howie B). With the ideas absorbed from her ex-lovers alone, I imagine Bjork’s next album could be the orgasmic rainbow-gumbo of styles I’ve been craving.
- Laika * Sounds of the Satellites (Too Pure)
In 1994 Laika broke ground with the frantic Silver Apples of the Moon. They built layer upon layer of samples over organic, proto-drum ‘n’ bass riddims that left Margaret Fiedler’s former band Moonshake (now under Callahan’s direction) in the dust. Ironically, on 1995’s Dirty & Divine, Moonshake copied Laika’s style somewhat in order to stay relevant. With this album, Fiedler and former Moonshake engineer Guy Fixsen shows who’s really on top by simplifying their formula into a cooler, sexier simmer. It was the perfect soundtrack for late-night summer mashing. Unfortunately, few got to hear it last summer because it was only available as an expensive import on the U.K. label, Too Pure. But fear not, it is now available domestically. I suspect it will be just as effective for those sensual winter nights.
- Walt Mink * Colossus (Deep Elm)
It is fitting that the quintessential “rock” album of 1997 is also the swan song for Walt Mink. While it could be argued that regular ol’ rock is still going strong in the form of mainstream bands like Pearl Jam and the throngs of “alternative” bands, few, if any, of those records will stand the test of time in my book. Or at least on my web page! Those who bother to look at my lists all the way back to 1965 will see that I hold much classic rock in high regard. But somewhere along the line, classic rock became crap. Since the 80s, t is rare that I would rank an album that is not very genre-bending or groundbreaking so highly. While Walt Mink may stylistically have more in common with the Meat Puppets and the Flaming Lips, I hereby stamp Colossus with the official Uncle Fester classic album status. With the sublime balance of gorgeous acoustic numbers and rockers, this is Walt Mink’s Led Zeppelin III. Only better. Tons of influences have been attributed to this band, from Jimi Hendrix and Cream to early Z.Z. Top and Elvis Costello. Yet John Kimbrough writes songs that always sound fresh and memorable. And if that’s not enough, let’s talk about musicianship. Walt Mink never failed to be a live experience to behold. Candice was a bass prodigy, setting out fat, Bootsy-worthy notes just a year after first picking up the instrument. Joey, son of Lenny Waronker the famous 70s producer was raised in the studio by a parade of famous drum gurus to become an encyclopedia of rhythm. John is a guitar fan’s wet dream. At shows, people who play guitar themselves and can appreciate how he makes impossible things look easy, would stand in front with their mouths agape while the crowd behind shook its collective booty. I was fortunate enough to go the the same college as these people and have great memories of many a sweaty basement show. I was certain they would become rock stars. But after nearly a decade of poor business decisions (see Caroline, Columbia and Atlantic) and bad luck (on the eve of recording their third album, Joey abandoned them to become Beck’s drummer), Walt Mink have split up, seemingly only a minor footnote in rock history. Fortunately, they have the small but feisty label support of <A
to valiently push their back catalog (including a CD of their last show and their early demos) onto anyone who cares to listen. For your own musical well-being, check it out.
- Radio Tarifa * Rumba Argelina (World Circuit)
The first time I heard of Radio Tarifa was on a boxed set of flamenco music
called Duende: from Traditional Masters to Gypsy Rock. The set emphasized
“new flamenco,” which isn’t really flamenco at all. Quietly nestled within the flamenco-tinged pop, jazz and rumba styles that are so widely heard from Ketama and Pata Negra, was Radio Tarifa. Like an alien being disguised as a human, Radio Tarifa does not fit in with the others. While Tarifa is a town located at the southernmost point of Spain, just across the Gibraltar strait from Africa, Radio Tarifa is based in Madrid. The three core musicians, Faín Sánchez Dueñas (percussion), Benjamín Escoriza (vocals) and Vincent Molina (Arabic flutes imagined what a radio station in Tarifa would play, and came up with a mix that includes not only flamenco cantes, but also Moorish medieval percussion, Islamic flutes, ancient Turkish folk, and contemporary Arabic Moroccan and Algerian influences. The band has expanded into eight members to encompass an enormous range of instruments with names I couldn’t begin to define (cumbus, derbuka, djembe, casbas, buzuki, afuce, tar, bansuri, ney, guimbris, crumhorn, balaphon, sanza, oud, ghatham, fidula, tares, adufe, pandero, roncon, sentir, kaval). The result is gorgeous songs with as many atmospheric moods as there are instruments.
- Arto Lindsay * Mundo Civilizado (Bar/None)
Yet another sexy album (does Uncle Fester think of anything else? — NO!), this this one goes for a more tropical, breezy, acoustic sensuality. Yet there is also an underlying tension threatening to either break the music apart or boil over. Perhaps it’s becuase of Lindsay’s background in the late 70s/early 80s, chaotically noisy New York “no-wave” group DNA. His notoriously unhinged passion is now under tight control as he revisits the more traditional acoustic music of his birthplace, Brazil, and updates the innovations made by Tropicalia pioneers like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben. Measure the uniqueness of his vision with his two brilliant covers — one of Al Green’s gently smoking “Simply Beautiful,” the other a version of Prince’s “Erotic City.” The Brazillian sensibility puts them through a subtle filter, but enriches them just the same. On top of that, Lindsay makes strikingly original use of drum ‘n’ bass rhythms on other tracks. If that appeals to you the most, see also this year’s Hyper Civilizado, a forward looking remix album that features Illbient players DJ SPooky, Sub Dub and We. If you prefer the traditional Brazillian sounds, check out his first solo album, O Corpo Sutil (The Subtle Body) and pray he comes up with a brilliant third album soon!
- Missy Misdemeanor Elliott * Supa Dupa Fly (East/West)
The freshest new lyrical talent in hip-hop/modern R&B, backed with the BADDEST beats since RZA, the Bomb Squad and maybe even James Brown, courtesy of Timbaland. The album burns on a slow groove that puts the hump back into thump on the best songs for boinking since Parliament’s “The Goose.” Aw yea.
- Cornershop * When I Was Born For the 7th Time (Luaka Bop/WB)
Speaking of eclectic styles, this should have been my favorite album of the year. It made a good effort, but fell short on some slight songwriting. Cornershop hinted at its potential to make a timeless album with the spotty but occasionally brilliant Woman’s Gotta Have It. The idea of melding of traditional Indian music with rock isn’t new, but Cornershop have come closer to anyone in perfecting it. On their first punky indie singles and 1993’s Hold On It Hurts, one can barely recognize the multicultural juggernaut Cornershop would become. Now they mix raggas with pop, soul, trippy instrumentals and hip-hop. What holds the album together is a consistent groove. Cornershop finally got funky. Now if Clinton’s P-Funk Mothership would just pay them a visit, beam them up and molest their asses with some true genius, they’ll finally make that perfect album.
- Wyclef Jean * The Carnival (Columbia)
Like Arto Lindsay, Wyclef Jean is revisiting his roots. The Carnival is a multicultural history of the roots of hip-hop, using the annual Caribbean Carnival as the theme. Haitian-born Wyclef, with the help of Jamaica’s I Threes, New Orleans’ Neville Brothers, Funkmaster Flex and the Fugees, runs through a blur of hip-hop, roots reggae, gospel & soul-inflected slow jams, a folk ballad and Haitian rara pop song sung in
Creole, and a Spanish-sung cover of an old Cuban hit. Plus, a kick-ass cover of the Bee Gees in “We Tryin’ To Stay Alive.” The video is a must-see, featuring the all-time baddest pimp-strut dance ever (or at least in the 90s) by Refgee Allstar guest Pras Michel, and a “Beat It” inspired street dance/fight with some kung fu thrown in. This album should have dominated hip-hop in ’97 the way former Ultramagnetic MC Kool Keith should have in ’96 with his one-two knockouts Ecologyst (under his pseudonym Dr. Octagon) and on his indie Funky Ass Records label, Sex Style. It’s a safe bet we can depend on Kool Keith, Wyclef Jean and the Refugee Allstars (an album by Fugees’ Lauryn Hill is expected soon) to push the envelope in hip-hop when everyone else is
letting the genre down.
- Los Fabulosos Cadillacs * Fabulosos Calavera (BMG)
Spanish is a beautiful language, perfect for deeply emotional literature, beautiful poetry, and songs. The time is well overdue for the mainstream success of bands who sing in Spanish. I never understood people’s need to have all their music in English. Most people don’t even pay much attention to lyrics anyways. Lyrics are often written mainly to make the human voice an instrument that sounds compatible with the rest of the music. People are finally realizing that with the sudden mainstream popularity of non-English singing stars like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (RIP). A thrash-ska band from Argentina, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs seem an unlikely catalyst for spearheading the Latin Rock revolution. Yet here they are, with a supercharged, seamless flow of styles, from their standard mix of metal and ska, to swing jazz, Italian spagghetti western, classic rawk hot licks and surf punk. How they give the feeling of an impending apocolypse while seeming simply accessible and entertaining to the masses is anyone’s guess. But watch them pave the charts for Cafe Tacuba, King Chango and Aterciopelados. Viva la revolucion!
- Tortoise * Remixed (Tokuma/Thrill Jockey)
It looks as if every single track Tortoise records will be remixed eventually. For some bands, this could become tiresome. But for this band, the remixes breathe new life into already fascinating compositions, and create something utterly new. Like 1995’s Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters, this album makes use of a variety of talent, including U.N.K.L.E., Markus Popp (Oval), Springheel Jack, Jim O’Rourke, Luke Vibert, and Tortoise’s own John McEntire and Bundy Brown. This time the target is their second acclaimed album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Unlike the first remix album, this was originally issued under several limited edition EPs which are now all but impossible to find. Fortunately, all the EPs were compiled onto a single CD by Japan’s Tokuma label, which also helpfully combined highlights from Tortoise’s early singles, their debut album and the remixes on one CD, and filled out Millions with more singles. Unfortunately, it’s still hard to find and the $30+ price tag is outrageous. Help put a stop to this vinyl fetishist madness. Bug the shit out of Thrill Jockey until they release their stupid little limited edition collector-asshole vinyl EPs on CD form like any respectable label would do if they actually want their fuckin’ bands to be HEARD! And while yer at it, if you run into Steve Albini, tell him if he wants me to buy his goddamn record on that geek-audiophile extra thick vinyl, he can buy me the $900 turntable with the $1,000 cartridge, and the $2,000 pre-amp and graphic equlizer so that the sound quality truly can rival that of any piece-o’-shit $70 CD player, or he can kiss my skinny (but way sexier than his pimply, bony chickenbutt) white ass!
- Squarepusher * Hard Normal Daddy (Warp)
This is great. Drum ‘n’ bass was beginning to get boring. Then this breathtakingly weird album came out. Who needs to dance when you can listen to this jazzbo mindfuck?! If Captain Beefheart heard drum ‘n’ bass, and played with it rather than scampered off backin into hiding in his North California hermit’s den, the results may have sounded something like this. More words cannot describe this music. That is all.
- Spiritualized * Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space (Arista)
Since Spacemen 3 splintered into a million directions, it would take a family tree historian to keep track of the remnants. If your tolerance for droning psychedelia is that of a normal person, you need not worry about most of it. But you shouldn’t miss out on this one. The third proper album by Spiritualized is a decadent, luxurious bubble bath in zero gravity. Imagine Ren Hoek suffering from space madness — a little cabin fever, a little too much Spectrum and Experimental Audio Research on the headphones — thinking he has an ice cream bar with a delicious creamy center, he blissfully enjoys a lathery bar of soap. It doesn’t matter that it’s just a bar of soap, that it’s just another Brit band who can’t put on a good live show to save their lives. Sometimes you just have to lay back and take respite from the mundane absurdity that is life and take a bubble bath in zero gravity.
- Sleater-Kinney * Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars)
These three women are the bright shining hope of the legacy of, I don’t know, Riot Grrl, the future of women in punk rock? For all the hype they’ve received (and I’m sure have been properly uncomfortable about it), I’d expected to be blown away live. I expected them to be witty, biting, powerful, fast and frightening. I expected them to be ALL THAT. I was surprised when they came onstage. They’re just babies! Girls just barely out of their teens. They put on a good show, but nothing to write home about. But there is definitely something there, a spirit, that hints at what they could be. This is more readily heard on their third album. By taking a step back, looking at their heritage in new wave and punk bands like the Au Pairs, X-Ray Spex and the Avengers, they take two steps forward, away from their provincial home scene, towards immortality. These are heartbreakingly passionate songs, that, whether they were written from girl to boy or from girl to girl, anyone should appreciate its honesty.