Having vaguely dismissed the musical pedigree of 1996 in part one of this – something to do with not having been sonically ambushed in the dead of night by anything in that year’s armoury, and feeling somewhat regretful about such an oversight – there’s still a weighty number of significant records to ruminate upon. So many in fact that there’s no space left to laugh and point at The Cure’s Wild Mood Swings, my default option when any article requires a few hundred words of vengeful spite to pad things out. Maybe another time.
That there is such a number of LPs still to be discussed is partly the fault of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, who released not one, not two but three of the damn things in ’96. I think it’s important to detach the discography from the myth with this band and their cartoon focal point Anton Newcombe. It’s more than healthy to separate personality from back catalogue in any musical context, as far as that’s possible, but it’s particularly pertinent with BJM, such is the baggage and the reputation and the overt retro references and that film (Dig! for the uninitiated – well worth two hours of your time). Should you listen to this triptych back to back – Take It From The Man!, then Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request, and finally Thank God For Mental Illness – the overall effect is somewhat overpowering. Reams of hazy, manic psychedelia; often unfocused, frequently messy (Mental Illness especially) and yet there’s a particular brand of engagement going on. Songs underpinned by warmth, in which all of this fuzziness comes across as an essentially endearing quality.
Glasgow indie royalty Belle And Sebastian – they were slouches in comparison, only bothering to release two LPs in this year – début Tigermilk was recorded in just three days, whilst follow-up If You’re Feeling Sinister garnered far wider attention. These are albums that define the word fey – a back-handed compliment if ever there was one. Essential in one’s collection, I’m guessing.
Elsewhere, I have First Band On The Moon by The Cardigans down as their most convincing album – a fine balance between the overtly twee and the more commercial sound of their later years. Interpreter by Julian Cope is an oft-overlooked LP – probably his last before fully embracing the experimental (or disappearing up his own ass – whatever your view). Eliza Carthy’s Heat, Light & Sound is a fascinating folk record, vox plus fiddle creating a sound that’s simultaneously traditional yet progressive, Carthy’s vocal textures – that vague hint of an alluring huskiness – perfectly suited to the material (see also: the occasionally haunting Trailer Park by Beth Orton). And then there’s Pioneer Soundtracks, an obscure and overlooked record by Welsh band Jack that I really can’t recommend enough. It’s hewn from the same aesthetic as Pulp, or elements of Scott Walker’s Jacques Brel phase, but it’s executed with a degree of upbeat swagger that’s most pleasing. A disc that deserves far wider exposure.
Electriclarryland by The Butthole Surfers makes the significant albums list, as does Now I Got Worry by the John Spencer Blues Explosion, and (of course) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads. The latter is a wonderfully dark, exquisitely humourous affair. The deployment of big name special guest stars doesn’t feel gratuitous, whilst the mixture of traditional songs and Cave-penned material gives the album a literary feel – this perfectly compliments And The Ass Saw The Angel, Cave’s dense and biblical début novel.
Tool’s Ænima also features, although this isn’t a experience that can be glibly summarised in a few sentences; the progressive metal is so deep I’d best leave this as subject matter for a post of its own – coming soon, etc.
I’m not certain that identifying a favourite album from 1996 is a particularly easy task. There’s not really a stand-out LP – something to grab the listener by the throat – which leaves any best in show epithet exposed to fleeting notions of mood; if I was writing this any other day my favourite could well be After Murder Park by The Auteurs or Second Toughest In The Infants by Underworld. The final record was very nearly Archaeology by The Rutles, which – once you travel past any concept of album as parody – further demonstrates Neil Innes’ sharp ear for melody and context; if you listen to this followed by an Oasis disc (not that I’d ever recommend suffering the latter), not only is there a gulf in songcraft between the two, but you’d be forgiven for thinking the Manchester band were the caricature.
Instead, I’ve slotted Dance Hall At Louse Point by John Parish & Polly Jean Harvey into the top spot. I’ve mentioned previously that I struggle with the PJ Harvey back-cat post Dry – whether the layers of coldness I detect upon listening are genuinely there (or only in my head) is debatable. Dance Hall is a very different beast by virtue of Parish composing the music (Harvey was on lyric-writing duties only). Thus: complementary notions, and a decidedly avant-garde feel to proceedings, reminiscent of experimental theatre. As a record this is dark and sly, the arrangements delightfully abrasive, the vocals flipping between banshee savagery and coy flirtation. If only every PJ Harvey disc contains this level of engrossing, edge-of-seat dexterity.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre / Anenome
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds / Henry Lee
John Parish & Polly Jean Harvey / Taut