Dr. Dre's decision to bounce from Suge Knight's enclave and renounce gangsta rap gets my nod for story of the year. Whether he was motivated by moral revelation, simple business acumen, artistic instinct or merely a desire to keep breathing doesn't really matter. Bottom line: Kids in Ahwatukee may still be sagging their jeans and bumping the new Bone Thugz tape while they blow endo smoke out the window of their Snoop-postered bedroom, but when Dre--the commercial progenitor of everything gangsta--is all over MTV declaring "I been there, done that," the end of an era is clearly coming.
Not convinced? Then riddle me this--how many gangsta rap artists who didn't get shot to death really made an impact in '96, commercially or artistically? Answer: none. Who did? The deep thinkers. The poets. The true artists, old school and new. Names like Chuck D (welcome back, rhyme animal), the Fugees (hip-hop album of the year, no question; the form's mind was expanded), the Roots (the live band is cool, and Rahzel is the greatest beat-boxer ever; a miracle on the mike), De La Soul (jazzy, on-point shit from the East Coast, where it's all about word play), and Nas (who raps about street violence, yes, but as an observant, intellectual street dweller--not a fretless thug poseur).
Bad year for alt.rock fans, though. Bad, bad. Some biiiiiiig disappointments there. R.E.M. turned out to be the Shaquille O'Neal of superstar bands, signing a five-record, $80 million contract with Warner Bros., then releasing New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which bricked off the label's sales projections like one of Shaq's infamous free throws. Other wonderful failures: Bush (splat), Pearl Jam (thud), Sheryl Crow (blip) and Hootie (fuck off, golf boys). What? Sheryl Crow and Hootie aren't alt.rock? Tell them that. And tell Jewel, Tracy Bonham, Fiona Apple and Poe to cease and desist. It's got to stop somewhere, and one Alanis is probably enough. So is one Billy Corgan. But no one's trying to be another Smashing Pumpkins. At least, not with any appreciable success. Why? Because the Pumpkins are the top, the culmination of alternative rock, primed to go supernova at any time. They were the biggest rock band in the world last year, start to finish, and they didn't even release an album--just a drummer.
Heroin was huge news last year. SP's Jimmy Chamberlain and that keyboard player (Jonathan Melvoin) who died in his hotel room. Pantera's Phil Anselmo. STP's Scott Weiland. Sublime singer Brad Nowell drifted into the Big Nod in late May, two months before his band's self-titled recording came out and went instahit. Spin writer RJ Smith pegged 1996 as ". . . the year heroin became the Pete Best of rock 'n' roll; a fifth wheel grinding in the background." It's hard to really give a shit, though, you know? Oooo, let me weep over my millions while I tie off and bang another bindle of Red Rum.
Overall record sales stalled dramatically in '96 and look headed for a free fall. The industry as a whole is in the worst slump since the great disco crash of 1979, and the cause is the same: the majors flooded the market with too many recordings of too little quality. There were all these crappy little rock bands this last year that fouled the air like a fart and faded just as quickly. Where are they now? Who cares--they shouldn't have been there in the first place.
The common-wisdom, big-label business strategy has been to aim for the commercial bull's-eye with a shotgun (blasting the market with a ton of new bands and hoping one or two hit) rather than a sniper rifle (using careful shot selection, then gradually zeroing in with a committed artist's development). Last year, that approach went all to hell. Faced with a glut of choices--many of them poor--a lot of consumers got burned a couple of times, then just stopped participating. Good for them. Too many shitty records on the shelves make the world feel gray. I think the majors are tripping because rock 'n' roll, their old faithful, is running dry. There were a few exceptions in '96, most of them way indie (what the hell are they putting in Olympia, Washington's water, anyway?), but as a whole, rock sounded nothing if not maxed out. Suffering through one flaccid attempt after another, you got the feeling that, unlike hip-hop and new forms breaking all around us like waves, rock 'n' roll is never going to get better than it's already been. Let's move on. But to what, lounge? I don't think so. Swingers about capped off that little trend in '96, which was always more about the retro accouterments anyway--citizens of lounge nation are more likely to drop 15 bucks on a martini shaker at Urban Outfitters than the latest Rhino cocktail compilation, you dig?
So how 'bout ska? It's got the buzz--the bright, up-tempo counterpoint to mod rock's gloom 'n' doom, and all that--but does it have the legs? Last year, No Doubt and Goldfinger dumbed ska down for mass consumption and hit big, partially eclipsing the form's tremendous growth at the local, more authentic, club-show level. Kids love this shit, and that's fine with me. I give props to third-wave ska because the ska groups on the up-and-come aren't playing patty cake with yesteryear. They sound like their era--fast, weird, and all over the place. This time next January (if I may play Nostradamus) will be "the year ska really broke."
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Trip-hop. Ambient. Trance. Jungle. That's what got me pumped last year, and '96 was a good one for music that sounds like Blade Runner. A cross-over year. The year John Mellencamp started using drum loops. Beck (re: Dust Brothers) has been almost universally anointed artist of the year, but there were several better albums in the same vein, and not all of them stayed underground. Tricky's still charting in the Top 10 as of this writing. The good stuff is bubbling up. A bad year? Not with 10 recordings this cool (I left off the Fugees just 'cause, but if you don't know The Score, you're behind in the game). Check it:
1. Cibo Matto, Viva! La Woman (Warner Bros.)
2. DJ Shadow, Entroducing (MoWax/FFRR)
3. Girls Against Boys, House of GVSB (Touch and Go)
4. Tricky, Pre-Millennium Tension (Island)
5. Red Aunts, Saltbox (Epitaph)
6. DJ John Kelley, Fat Desert Breaks (Moonshine)
7. Charlie Hunter Quartet, Ready, Set . . . Shango! (Blue Note)
8. Various artists, Shots in the Dark (Del-FI)
9. Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Kids on the Street (Space Age Bachelor Pad)
10. Tori Amos, Boys For Pele (Atlantic)
Yeah, Tori Amos. Got a problem with that? So what if she believes in fairies--when Tori busts out the harpsichord and gets medieval, I want to throw myself on the fire when they burn her at the stake.