1996 In Music: Ten Albums At 25

Do people talk about 1996? Do they say “Hey remember that one time in 1996?” All I know is that’s the year Pokémon was released to the world and I’m sure some other important stuff was happening. I was one, so you know my memory is a little hazy. What I do know is there was a real variety of albums out in 1996, with new beginnings and exciting continuations of releases from bands. I, along with good friend and musician in multiple music projects, Luca Vincent will guide you through five albums each on what we think are essential listens from that year.

Luca is a musician with creative playability and someone whose music opinion I trust and respect greatly. Check out his music here: www.lucavincent.bandcamp.com

Weezer – Pinkerton (24/09)

Oh Pinkerton, you get a lot of hate when compared to your predecessor, but I love you. From the confines of a depressed Rivers Cuomo’s Havard dorm room came a darker record in both lyrics and music. The distortion was turned up high and lyrics of self-depreciation, love, lesbians, sex and questionable relationships with Japanese girls made for an uncomfortable time. It was a problematic record at the time and split the fan base and critics who had loved the power-pop styling of Blue. When the group returned in 2001, it took them a long time to return to the Pinkerton tracks which have now gained a favourable cult status.

El Scorcho is a classic sing-a-long anguished piece, The Good Life is a jerky and bass heavy tune with anthemic choruses and Tired Of Sex is a brutal mash up of distortion and roaring guitars. It’s a Weezer record that shouldn’t be slept on. Fame can get the best of anyone and the closing track Butterfly fills me with such beautiful sorrow that I feel the use of Hiroshige’s Kanbara compares to that track and theme of the album with depictions of cold atmosphere and loneliness.

NOFX – Heavy Petting Zoo (31/01)

(LUCA) Following their most mainstream album, 1994’s Punk in Drublic (now with a festival named after it), LA punk band NOFX released their most divisive. With a cover sparking a court order prohibiting distribution in Germany, this album saw the band slowing down (relative to NOFX), and in the liner notes for their next album, their magnum opus So Long and Thanks for All the Shoes, acknowledging it, sarcastically quipping that it was so MTV executives would like the band more. Despite this, the album kicks off with a whirlwind 48 second satirical song about ‘hobophobia’, leading into the first NOFX song 12-year old me ever heard, Philthy Phil Philanthropist, with its ridiculous xylophone sections.

Bleeding Heart Disease is potentially the best song they’ve recorded, having everything you could want; their signature drum beat and lyrics so clever that if you read downwards the first word of each line of the verses you find hidden messages. The penultimate track August 8th is a slow number with an incorrect title about the death of rockstar Jerry Garcia who died the previous year on August 9th.

Jamiroquai – Traveling Without Moving (09/09)

The third album from the British group continued their style of acid jazz, funk and pop with explosive singles Virtual Insanity and Cosmic Girl. The album broke the Guinness World Record for ‘best-selling funk album’ and its iconic artwork reflected frontman Jay Kay’s love of sports cars. The smooth opener, Virtual Insanity features creamy vocals, grooving piano in the verses and engaging bass and drum patterns for make it one of the finest funk songs of the 90s. The creative music videos helped the group advertise to a wider audience and clearly shot them to new highs.

Cosmic Girl is a funk/disco number that calls back to late 70’s with those delightful harmonised vocals and bass-heavy sound. Use The Force reminisces of Afrobeat jazz with fast-drums and entrancing trumpet rhythms, Alright bops back and forth with cool and slick beats and juicy guitars on top of a bouncing bass guitar and High Times is a space rock/funk mashup that sounds like a more creative Red Hot Chili Peppers piece. Traveling Without Moving was an album with sheer variety that slows nicely into the reggae Drifting Along that sounds like its title. All of a sudden you are presented with two didgeridoo experimentations in Didjerama and Didjital Vibrations. Two very different tracks from each other.

Neutral Milk Hotel – On Avery Island (26/04)

(LUCA) Before the decade defining In the Aeroplane Over the Sea came the overlooked and equally brilliant On Avery Island, the debut album from Elephant 6 co-founder / genius Jeff Mangum. Elephant 6 were a collective originating from Louisiana in the late 80s, obsessed with the sounds of the 60s and low fidelity recordings, however this album is far from being a 60s throwback, sounding more like folk music that insane asylum inmates would hear in their dreams. Mangum wrote and performed the majority, with contributions from fellow Elephant 6 members including Robert Schneider (Apples in Stereo frontman) who played multiple instruments as well as produced the album.

The songs run into each other, often seamlessly, with disturbing yet incredible use of imagery throughout; pouring babies across the bathroom floor and swimming in them; a lady bending like a wave as her spirit leaves the hospital, etc. I find tracks 9-11 to form the strongest and most harrowing section of the album with Jeff wailing that he’s ‘so happy’ and singing of lonely widows, before the final track, a 14-minute Indonesian drone piece, gives you time to digest what you just experienced. 

Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album (04/11)

The fourth studio album by the eccentric electronic musician was a more drum and bass orientated record with unique time signatures and a splashing of Jungle and soothing electronica. From the album’s opening track ‘4’, you are met with soothing space-like synths that explode into erratic blast beat drums. From that moment you are filled with an instant idea of what to expect from Aphex Twin. For an album written on a Macintosh computer, it feels like it were produced on an Atari with moments of soothing video game scores on tracks such as Cornish Acid and Goon Gumpas. It’s an album that lets you ease off and enjoy chilled synths in tracks like Fingerbib and To Cure A Weakling Child and then reminds you in Carn Marth and Logan Rock Witch of the Jungle percussion and fast beats. It’s an experimental piece of electronic music and one of the most diverse outputs from a decade full of diversification and expressionism in electronic music.

Rage Against The Machine – Evil Empire (16/04)

(LUCA) LA rap-metal band Rage Against The Machine (RATM) took four years to follow up their debut album, but returned with their triple platinum sophomore, and my current favourite album of all time, Evil Empire.  This flawless 47 minutes, with every riff killer and every line powerful and politically charged, is the perfect blend of hip hop and metal. It constantly references events in history and even provides, with physical copies, a reading list of various political and philosophical books. The album kicks of with People of the Sun and from the first line you have an idea of what to expect from the album: ‘Since 1516, Mayans attacked and overseen’, likely in response to the Zapatista uprising of 1994 in Mexico, something lead-singer Zack de la Rocha strongly identifies with: his grandfather fighting in the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s.

Revolver starts with some excellent word-play: the alliteration ‘pass the purse to the pugilist, he’s a prize-fighter’ likely mimics the p-sound made when spitting, alluding to the previous line ‘his spit is worth more than her work’. The track Tire Me has a phenomenal vocal performance, winning a Grammy, and the following song Down Rodeo highlights class inequality and contains maybe the best line on the record: ‘these people ain’t seen a brown-skin man since their grandparents bought one’. Something I didn’t notice on first listen is the album’s cyclical nature, the final track being called Year of the Boomerang which returns to the first song with its double-meaning chorus ‘it’s coming back around again’.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Murder Ballads (05/02)

From being my favourite album artwork by Nick Cave, it also does what it says on the tin. It has all the makings of a classic Cave record and features a variety of instrumental styles with some faster and punkier moments in comparison to later records. Murder Ballads featured stories about dark intense topics and murder with Stagger Lee being a highlight for me with its groovy bass and drums and aggressive vocal contribution from Cave, bursting into a wall of noise and wails.

Popular single Where The Wild Roses Grow which features Kylie Minogue, is a beautiful romantic piece with warm harmonies and moving string arrangements. The sombre finish to the album in Death Is Not The End (Bob Dylan cover), is a sleepy piano number to the record and features artists such as P.J. Harvey and Shane MacGowan. Speaking of the latter, the album is full of Irish references in O’Malley’s Bar and The Curse Of Millhaven features elements of Irish-punk with speedy drums, dancing organ notes and traditional folk violin. The stories are really dark and take you on visuals journeys of Cave’s poetic and dark mind.

Heatmiser – Mic City Sons (29/10)

(LUCA) Mic City Sons was the final Heatmiser album, released when they were on the verge of disbanding and a year before guitarist/songwriter Elliott Smith would release his critically acclaimed third solo album Either/Or. The band was becoming more like Elliott’s backing band, where he would tell everyone what parts to play, something he wanted to avoid. Here the band leaves behind their punk / grunge roots and go for a more poppy indie-rock sound (see Pop in G) with Beatles-influenced chord progressions and vocal harmonies. The band had two songwriters: Smith and Neil Gust, each contributing six tracks to the album, with perhaps the best song, Smith’sHalf Right’, featured as a ‘hidden track’. Smith’s songs on this record rival any of his solo work, with The Fix Is In sounding like a precursor to Either/Or. Gust’s tracks can’t compete with Smith’s, but almost no-one’s could, however Low-Flying Jets and Rest My Head Against the Wall come closest, and on any other album would be highlights. 

Manic Street Preachers – Everything Must Go (20/05)

The first album the Manic Street Preachers released following the passing/disappearance of guitarist Richie Edwards was not one met with sorrow or grief, but an album that sent the band to new levels with their catchy guitar hooks and roaring choruses. Everything Must Go featured major singles such as A Design For Life and Australia which were filled with tasteful leads, anthemic choruses and heavily accessible verses. It was a tight record with rhythmic drumming, chunky chords and fast soloing from James Dean Bradfield. The bass guitar on this record climbed over all the other instrumentation and you can pick out Nicky Wire’s playing and talent anywhere. Despite its more commercial turn in sound, the album was still packed with smart lyrics and educated references such as photographer Kevin Carter and his passing, Sylvia Plath, American culture and painter Willem de Kooning. There are plenty of moments on this record where you want to scream out with the band.

Modest Mouse – This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About (16/04)

(LUCA) Released on the same day as Evil Empire, the debut Modest Mouse album sounds exactly like the title suggests, driving through an expansive desert landscape for hours, thinking about everything and nothing. Produced by Steve Wold (aka Seasick Steve, who gained popularity in the UK in the mid-00s, appearing on Jools Holland’s annual ‘Hootenanny’) in Olympia, WA, this 74 minute indie-rock masterpiece – with an additional 12 minutes on the vinyl version – never feels bloated, despite its length, and while not being an ‘emo’ album, it’s regarded as hugely influential on the emo-revival of the early 2010s. The most distinctive feature is frontman/songwriter Isaac Brock’s voice which was described perfectly by Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch: “he can yell and he can sing pretty”. 

The iconic 6/8 riff on the opening song Dramamine (motion-sickness medication) sets the scene with Isaactraveling…feeling spaced’. Head South features backing vocals from K Records founder and Olympia scene-leader Calvin Johnson and is followed by Dog Paddle, a weird song seeing the members of Modest Mouse switching instruments. Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset contains some of Isaac’s most inspired lines: ‘I change my mind so much I can’t even trust it, my mind changed me so much I can’t even trust myself’, and the penultimate song ends with an instrumental piece called Mechanical Birds on which the guitar is utilised to sound, again, exactly like its title.

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