This blog has a habit of using expressions such as zeitgeist and consensus and hive-mind as if they’re tangible concepts. Concrete notions, both easily understood and readily bought into – rather than vague and disparate themes fanned (at least in a musical context) by marketing departments and coke-inhaling “industry insiders” who wouldn’t recognise a significant album if it bit them on the soul.
I mention this because the research phase of these words repeatedly tripped over the same two records. List after list, article after article in which the hive-mind waved its flag both eagerly and consistently (therefore making my own understanding of our 1996-shaped vista appear decidedly esoteric). Because ’96 wasn’t a great vintage – unless, like the consensus, you consider Beck’s Odelay to be ground-breaking, rather than a cold and consciously forced affair that tries too hard to flaunt its enlarged sense of invention. As for Everything Must Go by The Manic Street Preachers – there are very few records that I actively detest; I’m comfortable with the notion that most music isn’t designed with me in mind, and thus we can coexist peacefully. This LP however – horribly ubiquitous in the UK at the time – it kind of sucks the life out of the listener. Vampiric stadium rock that replaces any invention with an immense void at its centre – it’s morbidly depressing that it was so critically and commercially lauded.
Obviously a glib statement such as ’96 wasn’t a great vintage requires context. When you get locked into a serious music habit, it becomes second nature to frame periods of time by the type of record that blows your socks off. For example, the year after this one begat a couple of discs that are so ingrained in who I am that their covers are the default mental images I picture when looking back (and yes, I’ll no doubt spend thousands of words in veneration when the time comes to pen 1997’s significance). But regarding 1996, these records are conspicuous by their absence – Emperor Tomato Ketchup is unfortunately not the most enticing Stereolab album. And yet this dispersion doesn’t mean there’s a lack of significant albums; rather, records of note qualify on levels far more nuanced – for example, there’s a fluidity to Emperor Tomato Ketchup that’s most beguiling.
For instance, the eponymous Placebo début. This sounds like it was recorded in a disused bathroom supplies showroom, the silhouette at the mixing desk a deflated sex doll. And yet such is the acerbic crackle on display – a dark and gleeful androgyny stalking such brevity-rich energy – that the poor production works as a positive; it’s a much better record than anything they’ve released subsequently (in a similar vein, We Are Puppets by Tiger suffers from an amateurish sheen that’s more than compensated by its infectious nature, whilst Your Majesty… We Are Here, the first Earl Brutus long player, carries a wonderful charm beneath its agit-pop pretensions, as relevant now as it was back then).
1996 also saw a clutch of albums that could only have been released in 1996, such is their stylistic anchorage. This is something that lends these records a bitter-sweet quality, in which any listening experience pivots upon a passive form of nostalgia. Barry Adamson’s Oedipus Schmoedipus is a waspish, noir-ish LP, full of cinematic inclines and neon-lit corners well worth traversing, even if it hasn’t aged particularly well. The début self-titled Lamb album saw itself aligned to the trip-hop axis by virtue of its year of birth as much as any conscious attempt to channel the spirit of Massive Attack or some such. Fashions change, leaving this record a little stranded, but again there’s a sizeable weight of interest, a delicate equilibrium between vocal and instrumentation. And then there’s Beautiful Freak, the first Eels album, rooted to 1996 by the tonality of its production. You could argue that this shares much with the aforementioned Odelay, except there’s a dark kink to this that’s most engaging.
I could continue in this fashion, holding up certain records, evaluating any flaw against the attraction, then coming out in favour of the latter – and I indeed will, in part two of all this (there’ll be at least one album you’ll never have heard of). I might also admit that, once you strip away the disaffected teenager crap from Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar, you’re left with a joyous journey through shock-rock tropes straight from the Alice Cooper hymn book – ‘The Beautiful People’ being one of the 1970’s lost glam-rock classics. Although you might not be sure if I’m being at all serious, so I’ll just park that thought here for now; the final record on today’s list is Endtroducing by DJ Shadow. A terribly significant album in terms of its reach and possibly its cultural impact, it could be argued that each hazy loop of sampled esoterica shifts the musical terrain. It’s also a difficult record to listen to in one sitting. The breadth of material it’s constructed from – almost exclusively via an Akai MPC60 sampler and a love of old LPs – makes this a weighty listen, the assemblage pristine but also deep and rich, in which the shards of psychedelia and old jazz abut its core, hip-hop sensibilities. The overall effect is something intoxicating – as far from girls and boys with jangly guitars as you can hope to travel, and yet the attraction works in a similar vein – a shared voltage, perhaps; atmosphere amid the audiophilia.
Placebo / Nancy Boy
Barry Adamson / Achieved In The Valley Of The Dolls
Eels / Your Lucky Day In Hell
DJ Shadow / Midnight In A Perfect World (2009 Edit)