1996 was the year I graduated from college and the first year I was paid to write. The #2 record from this album list was the subject of my first long-form paid piece, for the now-defunct Twin Cities Reader, and some of the language in the blurb here has survived from that piece. The #1 record here was the subject of one of the last long-form pieces I did for my college paper, a piece that’s been lost and which would no doubt embarrass me, even if my ardor for the album has aged well.
Next years planned: 2004, 1976, and 1987.
- The Score – Fugees: Every few years I pull this back out thinking it can’t be as good as I remember it, and it’s always as good as I remember it. A profound journey through hip-hop’s then-raging identity crisis that also returned the genre to its roots in both the West Indian sound system and male-female vocal interplay (Funky 2 +1, with the “1” looming large). And, still, it didn’t quite sound like anything that came before it, or anything that’s come since. Technically their second album, but ultimately hip-hop’s greatest ever one shot.
- Diary of a Mod Housewife – Amy Rigby: A post-punk grad, a former temp worker, and a single mom, Rigby asserts herself on this debut as American music’s poet laureate of structural underemployment and bohemian domesticity. It traces what happens when urban daydreams of art and freedom dissolve into workweek monotony, and how relationships take a hit along the way. If you’ve ever had a day job that subsidized a dream and felt the dream slipping away, put your liberal-arts degree to work in the service industry, felt adulthood and domesticity creep up on you, tried to patch together a marriage that’s falling apart, or just felt like stopping in the middle of your daily routine to shout something like “I’m not just some soulless jerk/Hey, I got a band/I know what life is for,” then Amy Rigby writes songs for you. It was Exile In Guyville for grown-ups — but not too grown-up — and on my short list of cult items that I’m sure would earn a much bigger fan base if people only heard it.
- Call the Doctor – Sleater-Kinney: Their second album and still a year before drummer Janet Weiss would join to complete them. The next record on this list is more perfect and most (probably all) on this list are more polished, but none below this feel as intensely necessary. The side 1/side 2 transition from “Good Things” to “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” is still about as thrilling a stretch as on any record.
- Endtroducing – DJ Shadow: A culmination of a twenty-year history of recombinant creation on the wheels of steel, this post-modern beat symphony is also a kind of visionary hymn to vinyl culture. Shadow rewires the DJ-driven hip-hop of his Eighties adolescence with a fan’s ardor and an aesthete’s sophistication. If the most familiar sample-driven music had heretofore tended tended toward wholesale appropriation or spot-that-reference intertextuality, it’s the startling anonymity of Shadow’s sources that lend Endtroducing gravity, mystery and musicality. Constructing elaborate sonic cathedrals from the barest snatches off a generation’s worth of garage sale and record-shop refuse, Shadow completed a hero’s quest that proved unrepeatable.
- ATLiens – Outkast: I underrated this a little at the time, though I had been a fan of their debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. It’s overlong and a little too dense, like most of their albums, but there’s a righteous sense of place and evolution here. The deployment of “Elevators” in the final scene of Atlanta was maybe my favorite cultural moment of 2016, and a testament to what a richly earned generational/regional talisman it is.
- Colossal Head – Los Lobos: Their best full-length since their first and better than anything since. Experimental roots-rock masquerading as bar-band R&B, and as Americana-before-it-was-named transfigured into arty soundscape, it beats Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, by six years and so much more.
- The Way I Should – Iris Dement: Her first album, 1992’s Infamous Angel, was for her mother, who dreamed of singing at the Opry and never got the chance. Her second, perfect, album, 1994’s My Life, was for her father, who put his fiddle away as a young man because, for him, it represented sin and was incompatible with the responsibilities of shepherding a family. This one is for her, and it’s searching and awkward in equal measure. The latter, topical songs – about the Vietnam memorial, child abuse, parental neglect yuppie-style, and, with “Wasteland of the Free,” whatever you’ve got – are the ones you notice first. But the ones that sneak up on you – the invocation “When My Morning Comes Around,” the clear-eyed “I’ll Take My Sorrow Straight,” and, most of all, the hymns to independence and mystery “The Way I Should” and “Keep Me God” – are the ones that stick.
- I Feel Alright – Steve Earle: His first post-jail record packs plenty of concept, but it turns out to be his best because it’s also his most pleasurably musical.
- House of Music — Tony Toni Tone: Opens with the best Al Green record not sung by Al and then shifts into just a terrific, traditional R&B band album, less a throwback than a kind of farewell.
- Reject All American — Bikini Kill: They mourn Kurt Cobain, reject Sylvia Plath and make a righteous racket, turning cursive letters into knives throughout.
- From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah — Nirvana
- Spirit – Willie Nelson: Draws on the spare Western sound of his mid-Seventies notables Red-Headed Stranger and Phases and Stages.
- Ironman — Ghostface Killah
- Emancipation — Prince: Longer than double-album Sign O the Times from nearly a decade earlier, and with less inspiration and vision, but it’s a similarly sprawling assertion of mastery. From a distance, you might only remember a handful of the songs (Seventies soul covers, “One of Us” transformed into a kind of deep blues, elegant “The Holy River,” sprightly “Courtin’ Time”), but put it on, let it go, and it’s nearly all good and often surprising. This is the rare time when there really is too much of a good thing, but it’s probably his most underrated album.
- Odelay – Beck: “The jigsaw jazz and a get-fresh flow” is both apt description and an over-promise. Still, more fetching than what followed from this always-a-little-overrated artist and it still contains one of my favorite collegiate lyrics from my own college era: “Karaoke weekend at the suicide shack/Community service and I’m still the mack.” An impressively witty cycle of free-associative verse and free-form soundscape.
- Conversin’ With the Elders – James Carter
- Seasick – Imperial Teen
- Stakes is High — De La Soul
- Pre-Millennium Tension – Tricky
- Reasonable Doubt – Jay-Z
- Popular Favorites – The Oblivians
- Fountains of Wayne – Fountains of Wayne
- Grown Man – Loudon Wainwright III
- Beats, Rhymes and Life – A Tribe Called Quest: Inspirational Verse: “Hip-hop is not a way of life/It doesn’t teach you how to raise a kid/Or treat a wife.”
- New Adventures in Hi-Fi – REM
- “C’Mon and Ride It” — Quad City DJs
- “No Diggity” — Blackstreet
- “Beer and Kisses” – Amy Rigby (a de facto single in my book)
- “Not Gon’ Cry” – Mary J. Blige
- “All That I Got is You” — Ghostface Killah with Mary J. Blige
- “Fu-Gee-La/How Many Mics” — The Fugees
- “ATLiens” — Outkast
- “1979” — Smashing Pumpkins
- “Elevators (Me & You)” – Outkast
- “What I Got” — Sublime
- “Ready or Not” — The Fugees
- “Where It’s At” — Beck
- “You’re One” – Imperial Teen
- “Only Happy When It Rains” — Garbage
- “Stakes is High” – De La Soul
- “If It Makes You Happy” — Sheryl Crow
- “Let Me Clear My Throat” — DJ Kool
- “I Feel Alright’ — Steve Earle
- “California Love” — Tupac
- “Santa Monica” — Everclear
- “Head Over Feet” – Alanis Morissette
- “On & On” – Erykah Badu
- “1nce Again” — A Tribe Called Quest
- “Blue” – Leann Rimes
- “Killing Me Softly” — Fugees
- “Ain’t No” — Jay-Z featuring Foxy Brown
- “Da Funk” – Daft Punk
- “Ya Playin’ Yaself” – Jeru Tha Damaja
- “Give it a Day”/“Gangsters and Pranksters” – Pavement
- “Nobody Knows” – Tony Rich Project
- “One in a Million” – Aaliyah
- “Give Me One Reason” – Tracy Chapman
- “Butch” – Imperial Teen
- “Ironic” — Alanis Morissette
- “Radiation Vibe” — Fountains of Wayne
- “What They Do” – The Roots
- “Devil’s Haircut” — Beck
- “Setting Sun” — Chemical Brothers
- “Pony” – Ginuwine
- “Strawberry Wine” – Deana Carter
The movie lists on these posts — and especially those from the 1990s — are less solid than the music ones, since they’re rooted much more in memory than in a recent re-experience of the work. But here’s one stab at a Top 10 for 1996:
- When We Were Kings
- Get on the Bus
- Lone Star
- Secrets and Lies
- Bottle Rocket
- Chronicle of a Disappearance
- Big Night
3 thoughts on “1996 Revisited”
Pretty good list. I would add UGKs Riding Dirty. I consider it the last great album of the early South era (Geto Boys, 8ball and MJG) It was as close to perfect as they would get as a group.
Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite as well. I feeel like D’angelo, Badu, and Maxwell kicked neo soul into gear with those 3 debut albums.
Nice to see the return of the movie lists! Only three overlap with my list (When We Were Kings, Bottle Rocket, Fargo), but I also have a spotty record of seeing top films in those days before my cinephilia really took off. My favorite of that year is actually the Japanese version of Shall We Dance, later to be remade with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez, but missing none of the unique Japanese cultural implications of a traditional salary man taking ballroom dancing lessons. I look forward to the lists to come….