As many rock historians will argue, 1996 was grunge's final stand; the genre was fully immersed in the alternative movement and the punk revival, but that revitalizing Seattle aesthetic had run its course. In retrospect, the rock sound was haunted by the ghosts of alt-nation past (Kurt Cobain), present (Bradley Nowell), and future (Layne Staley), and we the fans were Ebenezer Scrooge. 1996 was also a commercially successful year for female singer-songwriters with alternative inclinations; the popularity of Tori Amos, Alanis Morrissette, Sarah McLachlan, Fiona Apple and others --while not necessarily enduring-- was enough to launch the Lilith Fair music and arts festival, i.e. "the women's Woodstock," a year later.
From a personal perspective, 1996 was the year I turned 12 years old, and it was probably the first year I demonstrated any interest in politics. I spent a big chunk of the year parroting my dad's political beliefs (social moderate, fiscal conservative, pro-Flat Tax), demonizing President Clinton with the luddite bluster of a radio pundit, and alienating some of my sixth-grade cla.ssmates in the process. The Democratic National Convention was in Chicago that year, and I avoided news coverage of the proceedings like the plague. A decade and a half later, my underinformed and transparent dabbles with conservatism feel like juvenilia, a phase of my life that I don't look back upon fondly. On a more positive and less polarizing note, 1996 was the year I attended my first Kansas City Royals game (at New Comiskey), my first Blackhawks game (versus Anaheim), and moved into the attic bedroom that I spent the majority of my teenage years.
1. Pinkerton, Weezer. Rivers Cuomo set the blueprint for the band's 1994 debut: sunny, heavy guitar-pop with proto-emo and punk flourishes. Their sophomore effort was also heavily manuevered by Cuomo, eschewing playful power chords for raging, squealing guitars. Initially lambasted for taking such a starting left turn --Pinkerton made many critics' worst albums lists that year-- this album now stands as a singular artistic achievement bolstered by Cuomo's growth as an anxious, witty songwriter. Time heals all wounds, it seems.
2. Odelay!, Beck. In 1993, wispy anti-folk singer Beck Hansen released "Loser," a surrealistic blues-meets-rap lark that spoke to millions of jaded Gen-Xers. Three years later Beck, with crucial assistance from uber-producers The Dust Brothers, cut Odelay!, an album that fleshed out his unique voice, eclectic sound, and constant stylistic shifts. The album scored three Top 40 hits, but Odelay! is best enjoyed as one singular recording, a sonic mosaic whose overall image is greater than the sum of its parts.
3. The Score, The Fugees. An oasis from the increasingly monotonous and repetitive Gangsta Rap sub-genre, Lauryn Hill, Pras, and Wyclef Jean gave hip-hop a badly needed transfusion of intelligensia and social consciousness with their masterpiece The Score. It's hard to find a track that tops the clever "Fu-Gee-La," but the two standouts here are both covers: a funky rendition of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With Her Song" that turned Hill into an MC to be reckoned with, and an interpretation of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry" that makes you wonder why it wasn't a rap song to begin with.
4. Being There, Wilco
5. If You're Feeling Sinister, Belle and Sebastian
6. Evil Empire, Rage Against The Machine
7. Tidal, Fiona Apple
8. Sublime, Sublime
9. Everything Must Go, Manic Street Preachers
10. No Code, Pearl Jam. An underappreciated entry in the PJ canon, their fourth album might pale to their first three efforts yet rocks hard all the same. What might alienate you upon first listen is Eddie Vedder's sudden interest in Eastern religion and philosophy; each track delineates or alludes to some type of moral dilemma. Acoustic tracks like "In My Tree" and "Off He Goes" provide free range for Vedder's soul-searching, diamonds in the rough of a flawed yet utterly fascinating recording.
Honorable Mentions: Tigermilk, Belle and Sebastian; Maniacal Laughter, Bouncing Souls; Fashion Nugget, Cake; Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z; Murder Ballads, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; Millions Now Living Will Never Die, Tortoise.
"Santa Monica," Everclear
"Here in Your Bedroom," Goldfinger
"Popular," Nada Surf
"Sucked Out," Superdrag
"Pretty Noose," Soundgarden
"Trippin' on a Hole in a Paper Heart," Stone Temple Pilots
"Too Much," The Dave Matthews Band
"Pepper," Butthole Surfers
"Setting Sun," The Chemical Brothers
1. "1979," The Smashing Pumpkins. One day in the life of a group of disaffected teenagers wandering nomadically in a late-70s model Dodge Charger. Billy Corgan once said this was his favorite Pumpkins video, though quite a few fans would argue for...
2. "Tonight Tonight," The Smashing Pumpkins. ...this, a faithful homage to the early 20th century silent film A Trip to the Moon starring Tom Kenny and Jill Talley of "Mr. Show" fame.
3. "Drop," The Pharcyde. After big years in 1994 and 1995, video director par excellence Spike Jonze had a relatively quiet '96. During his breather, however he still managed to create one great forwards-going-backwards clip featuring one of the '90s most memorable one-hit wonders and a litany of special guests.
4. "The Distance," Cake. A corporate drone runs away from his life and responsibilities --literally-- and encounters Fellini-esque oddballs in a colorful visualization of one of the year's best left-field hits.
5. "Big Me," Foo Fighters. Hey, remember those old Mentos "Freshmakers" commercials?