Top 10 Albums of 1996

Number 10.  – Dreamland – Robert Miles

Robert Miles will always be remembered for writing perhaps the most iconic piece of trance music in history; Children – which isn’t exactly a bad thing is it?  The track has to be one of the most remixed and covered tracks in music history, but few know it was written by Robert in response to photographs of child war victims his father had brought home from a humanitarian mission in the former Yugoslavia. Aside from this rather substantial track, the layers of rippling synth combined with piercing keyboard notes and gorgeous female harmonies (most notable in the stunning Fable and the also iconic One and One) creates a relaxing chill out mood, and an album which has far wider appeal than the dance floors.

Number 9.  – ATLiens – Outcast

ATLiens is an album that has always kind of had a dark cloud hanging over it for me personally. I first heard it at a time when I was just beginning to get into the “Hip-Hop Classics”. One of those albums that really got me into the genre was Aquemini, which to this day remains one of my favorite and most played albums of all-time. So just weeks after soaking in the incredible experience that was Aquemini, I naturally headed straight for an album that others said was at least as good as Outkast’s third effort. Now looking back on it without that perspective, I can see ATLiens for the great album that it is. It never will reach Aquemini in my eyes, but it’s not a fair comparison for me to make. The materials for another masterpiece are all here. Some of the greatest beats, verses, and hooks can be heard on this album. The major problem that holds ATLiens back is that Kast never seems to be able to get all the elements together at the same time. Many of the songs have one key element missing. Usually on the end of a beat that isn’t an attention grabber, or a hook that really misses the mark (“Babylon”). Rarely is it that Big Boi or Andre 3000 are off the mark lyrically, but there are less memorable moments here than on some of the other Outkast offerings.

Number 8.  – Pinkerton – Weezer

In 1996, it was something of a shock to see Weezer jump from the sungazing confines of the Blue Album to a stalker-heavy concept album about blue balls. Soundscan numbers reflected this, chasing the band off the charts and back into the cult status preferred by their core fans. ButPinkerton soon became the Little Album that Could, building up enough steam during the band’s hiatus to bring Rivers Cuomo, et al out of retirement, for better or worse (okay, for worse). It’s still easy to see how people looking for some more “Buddy Holly” quirk were frightened away, what with Pinkerton‘s ferocious Frid-drums, overdrive switches stuck in the “on” position, and Rivers Cuomo’s disturbingly literal lyrics. (There had to have been a few restraining orders filed in Cambridge after its release.) But songs like “Why Bother?” and “Falling for You” are sing-along catharsis that should be prescribed to people with social anxiety disorder, and “The Good Life” is a beerglass-swinger for the indie set. Modern emo may have sprung from Pinkerton‘s Asian art loins, but I’ll be damned if it ain’t the catchiest LiveJournal blog I’ve ever heard.

Number 7.  – Second Toughest in the Infants – Underworld

Following the classic ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’ could never be an easy task. All things considered, though, it must be said that for the most part Underworld accomplish themselves with distinction – without doubt, ‘2nd Toughest in the Infants’ is an album that deserves a place in any dance music collection. Whether aiming at the dance floor or suggesting home listening, the album abundantly displays the same masterful skill in building long, hypnotic and trance inducing songs as its predecessor. Likewise, the use of vocals is subtle and classy, and the balanced combination of uptempo and downtempo pieces is achieved effortlessly. If a ‘sequel syndrome’ was at any time an issue, the band seems to have used two main strategies to avoid succumbing to it. But the real offender is ‘Rowla’, a very uncreative hard techno romper that achieves nothing on its own and feels totally displaced on the album. Why it was ever included is a mystery that perhaps not even the band can properly explain.

Number 6.  –  Loosing Streak – Less Than Jake

I really miss the days when Less Than Jake were all 100% ska punk because they are the prime reason why I got into ska in the first place. Though I replayed Hellow Rockview the most since I was a child, I strongly believe that Loosing Streak is their best album. Why? Because it a rarity to find a full CD where all the songs are both memorable and not at all bad! You can really go on a road trip with your buddies and listen to this album again and again, till your road pals memorize these simple punk songs and when you reach your destination. Less Than Jake have more than enough energy in these 16 tracks (most of which clock in at under 2:30 minutes) to hold your attention, but a problem arises in that there’s not a lot of variety, tempo-wise. Almost all the songs follow the same hyperactive route through their melodies, andLosing Streak ends up a blur of crunchy guitars with a horn section. “Dopeman” is a notable exception, if only because it’s marginally slower than the rest of the album. Maybe Less Than Jake could stand to recall that two of the Specials’ best songs (“Message to Rudy” and “Ghost Town”) are comparatively slow, and convey a lot more soul.

Number 5.  –  Paegan Terrorism Tactics – Acid Bath

It sucks that a band like Acid Bath comes in with something new and refreshing then disband so soon, leaving us listeners to desire more. In comparison to When the Kite Sting Pops, this album is more groovy, consistent, and “mature” than the last album, which could be full blown chaos at times. This album doesn’t inspire the same level of terror the last one did, this album approaching darkness from the same angle that Alice In Chains usually did, through morbid and introspective lyrics, though this band is much darker than Alice. Dax Riggs’ favorite lyrical topics of drug addiction, abortion, bone dust, and grave flowers make a come back, and while his lyrical depictions are interesting. Acid Bath wasn’t just a run of the mill Louisiana sludge metal band. They were a fantastically crafted band that mixed the best of romance and macabre into a wonderful music mix which sounds a little like The Cure meets Cathedral. Tis’ a damn shame they didn’t stay around for too long. As for the album itself, it’s a lot less raw than WTKSP, which throws some people off. I for one believe the better production on PTT makes it a better album. The song writing is just as excellent as the previous album as well. Acid Bath is bleak and dark as hell, but they are also melodic and sometimes gorgeous . Paegan Love Song is an anthem and Bleed Me an Ocean keeps up the intensity. This album is a grower. Upon a few listens each of these tracks will stand out and all prove strong on their own. New Death Sensation is haunting and offers an eerie listen. Venus Blue is amazing and is followed by the equally amazing and brutal 13 fingers which riffs like crazy. My only complaint is that 16 minute wait of silence which is attached to the Dead Girl track. That alone brings this down half a star, but it’s a minor complaint while taking in the album as a whole. Listen to this if you like grunge or metal or appreciate the darker side of life. You won’t be disappointed.

 Image result for Richard D. James Album - Aphex TwinNumber 4.  –  Richard D. James Album – Aphex Twin

Aphex Twin claims to have no interest in rock and pop music, but whether he likes it or not, he’s the non-electronica fan’s electronic artist of the choice, and a gateway artists for all of us that were blown away by Radiohead’s “electronic” stylings and wanted more. Unlike so much electronic music, Richard D. James’s music has a great deal of personality, even if it does manifest itself in a bizarre sense of humor, and this, along with having quite a bit more pop sensibilities than his peers, makes Aphex Twin accessible to a wide variety of listeners. Yes, there’s a beauty in all the madness here, and it’s impossible to miss right from the start. It’s almost as glaring and loud as the drums on “Girl/Boy Song,” but in other places it’s soft, warm, inviting – see “Fingerbib” and its glowing synth lines, for example. And it’s that beauty that sticks with me, keeps me coming back, makes this my favorite Aphex Twin record (as it always has been, and probably always will be).

Image result for Endtroducing - DJ ShadowNumber 3.  –  Endtroducing – DJ Shadow

So a lot of people don’t like sampling. The common argument is that when you sample, you aren’t really creating anything new. You’re just reiterating something that somebody did before. Frankly, this is bullshit. It’s stupid, and anyone who holds to it is probably a massive idiot, or at least has some nasty anti-modern music biases that they’ve got to get straightened out. I therefore posit to anyone who holds that belief that every band who has ever written a song has stolen something from someone else.  Sampling was by no means 1996’s innovation, and certainly wasn’t anything new to hip-hop by the middle of the decade; one could state accurately, in fact, that sampling lies at the core of the genre’s very musical foundation. But that’s just the thing about …Endtroducing: Though Shadow still insists otherwise– to the point that he is said to have made a habit of moving this very record from the “electronic” section of his local record store to the “hip-hop” section– the album is effectively genreless. It may rely on hip-hop technique, but Shadow mined the dankest of this nation’s record bins to unearth for himself an entire sonic spectrum that melded jazz and funk loops with forgotten horror movie samples with layers of ambient noise, to create one of the most dark, foreboding, and original musical statements ever. To date, the album still sounds like no other. I truly believe that anyone who thinks that they actually enjoy music, should take a listen to Endtroducing….. It’s a magical and surreal adventure through music. DJ Shadow truly knew what he was doing when he put together this instrumental hip-hop masterpiece. I probably shouldn’t even really call it “instrumental hip-hop” I might just call it “Endtroducing….” because it’s pretty much a genre by itself.

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Number 2.  –  Ænima – Tool

When this came out it was either lauded as an ingenious masterpiece that was so far out there and unique that it towered over everything that Metal or Rock music had to offer at the time or it was dismissed as a pretentious affair, a presumptuous put-on that tried to pass itself off as an artful and refined musical statement. Latter sentiment was obviously fueled by later comments by Keenan, who as geeky introvert mused on the unfairness of the medias preference to favor generic and meaningless music in favor of what he termed “art” and that being reflected by the charts as well as the hordes of of people who seemed to radiate the message “hey, I listen to Tool, the shining beacon of the music industry which makes me one sophisticated son of a bitch”. The songs have all a dark atmosphere sorrounding them, this is a quite dark album. The drumming is interesting, but it is really the guitars that hold the song together. Most of the songs have multiple layers of structure, the most superficial being composed by the catchy riffs, while the deepest is composed by the deep lyrics and general atmosphere (you probably only reach this layer after some listens). Excellent album, which is a bit long no doubt but you can skip the somewhat weaker last 2 tracks. Highly reccomended for people looking for high quality and different sounding albums, whether it is progressive rock or alternative or metal.

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Number 1.  – Soundtracks for the Blind – Swans

If this really is the way Swans wants to disband after making multiple masterpieces since the start of the band, then it’s perhaps the best way to finish in a high note. I don’t know any album that’s worthy to be the grand finale of any discography since its been all too common to see bands end their time together in shams. Instead of going out in a whimper, Swans used everything they used everything they learned from their previous albums and made a triumph in every sense of the word.  Making a double album that’s more of ambient than a traditional album is all too ambitious and could make the listener not make it all the way through two disks, but in some magical way Michael Gira, Jarboe, and the rest of Swans managed to create one of the most immersive experience in music history.  Like many Swans albums, Soundtrack for the Blind is filled with cerebral atmospheres, deep intensity, contrary emotions, and touching beauty. The whole experience is almost like everything Swans built up upon since the start thus made such an embracing album. Combining ambient loops and samples, filtered noise and organic drone, field-recordings and samples, musique concrete, live recordings, lullabies, near-techno bursts of electronica, and left-handed passages of guitar-driven post-rock that get as big as anything Godspeed You! Black Emperor would do, Gira had assembled one of the most complex, audacious records ever made (more or less by himself) right before he killed the band.  With the band’s last hurrah before it’s end (and a decade later when they reform) they’ve made something completely different than anything they’ve ever made. You can approach this album’s concept as the movie that was never made because throughout the whole experience you can just imagine a visual context and an album that enhances your imagination truly is something to behold! Swans took their time with long songs, yet nothing goes to waste. Rather than just saying this album is full of left-turns & departures than what you normally expect from Swans, it’s an avant-garde of emotions; every single human emotion is somewhere in the double album, you just need to witness it for yourself in order to rediscover yourself as a music fan! All the more the reason why Swans deserves to be debated as one of the best musicians ever.