Hard to believe this was 20 years ago. Sheesh. But man, there was some good music coming out in 1996 — the search for ‘alternative’ acts was in full-speed-ahead mode, bringing lots of interesting and different sounds forward. MTV was still mostly a music channel, and even they had decent taste in music.
Of these 10 albums, I probably only listened to three of them on their release in 1996, but I knew and liked all but two of these sometime in the 90s.
Best Albums of 1996:
10. Fiona Apple/Tidal
Fantastic debut which set absurd expectations for Fiona Apple and likely exacerbated her peculiarity later in life.
9. Screaming Trees/Dust
More Mark Lanegan than the previous Screaming Trees albums, which isn’t a bad thing.
8. Bush/Razorblade Suitcase
Produced by Steve Albini, who is known for making raw, unpretentious albums. This is raw, unpretentious, dark Bush.
7. Tortoise/Millions Now Living Will Never Die
Wonderfully complex post-rock from another Squirrel Bait descendant.
6. Alice In Chains/MTV Unplugged
Their lead singer, Layne Staley, would die before Alice In Chains released another album. This serves as an epitaph showing their musical talent, clearer here than in their overdriven studio albums.
5. Rage Against The Machine/Evil Empire
Some bands turn me off with their politics, and Rage Against The Machine should be one of them. Yet they so perfectly encapsulated angst that it somehow didn’t matter what the origin: I can relate to the feeling.
An aside: Rage called the Republican National Committee to congratulate them after the 1996 election because Bill Clinton (I really hate to have to add this: Clinton was the incumbent Democrat who won in ’96) was ‘far right’ to the band. That’s actually a little funny.
Anyway, RATM had to follow up their highly-regarded debut, and I think they did. I see a progression from their first album, a maturation and not just reiteration. And it’s angst-y, which I like.
4. Red House Painters/Songs For A Blue Guitar
Red House Painters was Mark Kozelek’s band before he started Sun Kil Moon, and this was his last album under the 4AD record label. According to his biography, this was intended as a solo album, so it likely is truly Mark Kozelek.
His vocal style has changed over the past two decades, and here it is deeper and richer than in his later works.
It also contains three covers, which normally might ding an album for me. But two things stand out on this album. One, it’s really, really long. So even without the three covers there is a full album’s worth of material. Second, the three covers are all better — sometimes way better — than the originals. Kozelek managed to turn Paul McCartney’s awful, stupid, happy “Silly Love Songs” into something sad. He also managed to turn an epic Yes song into something you’d hear from a singer-songwriter at an open mic night.
This was one of the albums that I hadn’t discovered until I started researching this list. I knew Kozelek’s Sun Kil Moon work but never his Red House Painters work. This, to me, is his best from either band.
Sandwiched between 1994’s Weezer (the blue one) and 2001’s Weezer (the green one), Pinkerton is noticeably rawer and darker Weezer. It shares some of the brighter harmonics of those other albums but measures some of the pop sensibility. You can still hear obvious linkages in “Why Bother?” and “Across The Sea” but songs like “Tired Of Sex” and “El Scorcho” are something different entirely.
It’s a fairly non-stop album with heavy drumming and distorted guitars, there aren’t low points.
I was on a flight once where the awful person behind me decided to babble on endlessly. Pinkerton became my escape — I’m forever indebted.
2. Chokebore/A Taste For Bitters
I was introduced to Chokebore by the Silence Kit’s Pat McCay after we established a similar taste in music. Sometimes I would send albums to him and vice versa, and one thing Pat knew to expect from me was an honest assessment after listening.
When he loaned me his Chokebore CD, he said to me: “Don’t tell me if you don’t like it, because then we can’t be friends any more.”
Wow. Knowing that I was completely incapable of exercising restraint made my first listen somewhat tense. Luckily, Chokebore is absolutely brilliant.
The Allmusic review sums this album up nicely: “This music is moving and pleasant in an unpleasant way.” It’s on the heavy side, with hard drums and fractured guitars.
1. Neutral Milk Hotel/On Avery Island
The follow-up In The Aeroplane Over The Sea has become a highly-regarded cult classic, and for good reason. To me, On Avery Island is every bit as good and serves as the first half of a double album.
Jeff Mangum (who is Neutral Milk Hotel) shows why he’s the perfected Elephant 6 band. On Avery Island starts with the amazing “Song Against Sex”, with talking and the engineer in the background telling Jeff Mangum “it was exactly perfect,” followed by his super-fuzzy lo-fi guitar, some incomprehensible train-of-thought lyrics, and a trombone; ending with a dark implication of burning a house to the ground and some maracas to transition into the next song.
All the guitars sound like someone punched holes in the cones of the amps. Mangum’s voice is nasally and he sticks to a fairly restricted range for his melodies, except for those moments where you can see him straining. There are strange instruments, loops, and you can feel the cassette rolling as you listen: Nothing is clean.
This is the Elephant 6 formula, and even Olivia Tremor Control’s great debut (which for me ranked 11th in 1996 by the way) didn’t quite perfect the combination like Neutral Milk Hotel could.
These two albums would be it from Neutral Milk Hotel, minus live or outtakes. Aeroplane and On Avery Island constitute a catalog of quality rivaling that of any other artist, ever.