Nineties rock flushed away its eighties equivalent with a major attitude adjustment. Gone were cries of “I’m great! All the chicks want to such my cock!” In were cries of “I hate myself and want to die!” It was a radical and extreme enough shift to banish hair metal sentiments to the shit heap where they belonged, but that kind of moroseness and nihilism wore out its welcome pretty fast too. All but the cheesiest grunge poseurs were still whining in 1996, which swept in the sunnier sentiments that defined many of the year’s best albums. Sunniness would soon turn to the full-on air-headedness that would end the rock era for good, but in 1996, The Spice Girls had barely become a fad yet, Hanson was still a year away, and Britney Spears and her progeny were several years away. Rock wasn’t dead yet.
10. Fever In, Fever Out by Luscious Jackson
Luscious Jackson had a few things to shake off early in their career when they were marginalized as The Beastie Boys’ “little sister act” or a “white-chick-hip-hop” novelty group. That stuff was clearly bullshit from the start, but the marginalization exited the conversation for good when Luscious Jackson put out Fever In, Fever Out, a slumpless sophomore album showcasing the band’s coolness in every way imaginable. Jill Cunniff’s vocals are smooth and controlled throughout and Daniel Lanois’s production seems to use Brian Wilson’s “Wind Chimes” as a sort of atmospheric template. Hook-heavy singles like “Naked Eye” and “Under Your Skin” sound breezy and tropical even as Kate Schellenbach’s rhythms push hard in the undercurrent. “Don’t Look Back”, “Mood Swing”, “Water Your Garden”, and “Faith” ease back into a psychedelic repose. Self-examining lyrics lend all these tracks weight, but the sentiments are more mature and nuanced than the kind of boloney angst that had had been passing for insight in the first half of the nineties. Sentiments like “Live slow, die old” or “Soothe Yourself” were veritable ripostes to grungy self-pity. On the flip side, the lovely yet unsparing “Why Do I Lie?” was as refreshingly clear as Gavin Rosdale pseudo-self-loathing was messy and meaningless. This is what it sounds like when adults address their demons…
…and this is what it sounds like when college radio veterans make peace with their demons. Throwing Muses were always dark and off-kilter, whether screeching through their terrifying debut, blending their mania with sugary pop to perfection on The Real Ramona, or bellowing with a fat new sound on University. Limbo skates off of that album’s polish, but it leaves the darkness behind. For the first time ever, Kristin Hersh sounds happy, and even when Limbo turns somber with “Serene” or “White Bikini Sands”, it does so with odes to a contentment of sorts. When the tempo picks up and she unleashes her voice on things like “Ruthie’s Knocking”, “Freeloader”, “Tar Kissers”, and “Cowbirds”, she sounds giddy without the manic edge of her early work. Perhaps this was not what long-time fans wanted from the Muses, but jolliness suited the band well. Those who couldn’t handle that had to hang on to numbers like the title track and “Shark”, which imply the band’s past viciousness while still sounding pretty jovial underneath all the fang gnashing. Perhaps that contentment is what made Hersh hang her band in the closet after Limbo, and it gave the Throwing Muses story a feeling of serene closure… even though it wasn’t exactly over yet.
8. Secret Swingers by Versus
1994’s The Stars Are Insane was a marvelously murky and gloomy lo-fi debut, but even Versus seemed somewhat affected by 1996’s temper change if only in spare increments. Secret Swingers is slightly higher-fi, slightly more cheerful (opening track “Lose That Dress” even ends with a quick giggle from Fontaine Toups!), slightly less noisy, and slightly poppier than the band’s first disc. “Lose That Dress”, “Yeah You”, “A Heart Is a Diamond”, and the sublime “Double Suicide (Mercy Killing)” aren’t necessarily happy statements (I repeat, one of these songs is called “Double Suicide [Mercy Killing]”), but their tunes and performances sparkle. Duskier tracks such as “Jealous”, “Ghost Story”, and “Angels Rush In” draw shadows into the landscape without blacking it out entirely. The Stars Are Insane was mood music for a soul’s dark night. Secret Swingers works any time.
7. First Band on the Moon by The Cardigans
As sincerely great as their pop had been from the beginning, The Cardigans always had more than a whiff of irony with their lounge Black Sabbath remakes, album covers depicting happy puppies or Nine Persson in wholesome pin-up pose, and songs about garden parties and circuses. The moroseness at the heart of many of these songs always felt a bit ironic too, but ironically, that started to change with First Band on the Moon, the album with that song that became a massive hit despite everyone assuming it had nothing but wind between its ears. Of course, “Love Fool” is one of The Cardigan’s darkest songs yet, and that same darkness permeates the rest of the album, which only really leans on the cheeky irony of Emmerdale and Life when the band turns “Iron Man” into cocktail treacle complete with Sinatra-style dooby-dooing. First Band on the Moon never exactly sounds like a dark album (even when things get misty on the Sabbath-quoting “Heartbreaker” or “Happy Meal II”) though these songs are all about romantic subservience, degradation, rejection, self-deception, and the death of communication. So while the rest of the indie world was grinning in 1996, The Cardigans of all people were beginning to turn their smiles upside down, and they’d complete that descent with their next album.
6. Copperopolis by Grant Lee Buffalo
Two years after releasing Mighty Joe Moon, Grant Lee Buffalo sound reinvigorated on Copperopolis, which may seem odd since Mighty Joe was and is their undisputed masterpiece. But like most every other group in 1996, they sound sunnier than ever on their third and final album because Paul Kimble’s production—so dense on Fuzzy and Mighty Joe Moon—had opened up considerably to allow sunrays to beam through the cracks of expansive pieces like “Homespun”, “Arousing Thunder”, and “Bethlehem Steel”. Songwriter Grant Lee Phillips still takes some hard looks at American on “Homespun”, “Crackdown”, “Even the Oxen”, and “Comes to Blows”, and he does so with greater clarity than ever before, but he also makes time to revel in pure romanticism on the heavenly “Arousing Thunder”. “The Bridge”, “All That I Have”, “Better for Us”, and “Hyperion and Sunset” are astoundingly delicate productions that help their troubled messages slip down as easily as caramel syrup, and Phillips once again proves that he possessed the most expressive and beautiful voice of nineties rock. All of this makes Copperopolis Grant Lee Buffalo’s sweetest album in sound if not sentiment.
5. Nine Objects of Desire by Suzanne Vega
Suzanne Vega had gone out on a limb by toughening her sound with industrial rhythms on 1992’s 99.9F ° with the assistance of producer Mitchell Froom. The experiment was a success in more ways than one, and she had married Froom and had his child before making Nine Objects of Desire. Froom returned to produce and play a starring role in Vega’s most personal and romantic lyrics yet. She sings a song of love’s sweet distractions on “Caramel” and ups the eroticism on “My Favorite Plum”. “Honeymoon Suite” is a piece of straight reportage about their first night as a married couple. Their daughter, Ruby, is the subject of the tumbling “Birth-Day (Love Made Real)” and the gorgeous “World Before Columbus”. In keeping with Vega’s bliss, the music is less feverish than that of 99.9F °, but what Nine Objects lacks in intensity, it makes up for in variety, as Vega and Froom dabble with bossa nova (“Caramel”), a Zeppelin-esque string arrangement (“Stockings”), burbling pop (“No Cheap Thrill”, which may sport the catchiest chorus Vega ever wrote), woozy waltz time (“Honeymoon Suite”), and rubber-legged (“Thin Man”), bouncy (“Tombstone”) and seductive (“My Favorite Plum”) jazz. Sadly, the domestic ecstasy would not last, and Vega’s next album would be full of references to her and Froom’s divorce. It’s appropriate, though, that she seemed to be at the height of her joy in 1996.
4. Black Love by Afghan Whigs
If any band on this list was going to resist lightening up in the ’96 style, it was Afghan Whigs, and Black Love sounds like an alternate title for the harrowing, relationship-in-ruins song cycle that was their previous album. However, the fact that Black Love is costumed as a crime concept album set in the seventies makes it hard to take as personally as Gentlemen even if the songs are as moody, menacing, and mad as ever. Legend has it that Black Love project actually began life as a film, but by the time it was reduced to a soundtrack without pictures, whatever storyline Greg Dulli intended was impossible to detect. In the debris are Dulli’s usual themes of deception, self-destruction, and romantic angst. His words are weakest when some sort of plot seems to be hovering in the shadows without really revealing itself on the singles “Going to Town” and “Honky’s Ladder”. They’re not bad songs, though, and the rest of Black Love is the Whigs at their best. “Blame, Etc.” does the best job of tapping into the blaxploitation vibe that “Honky’s Ladder” and “Going to Town” don’t quite hit. There may not be much actual storytelling in “Step into the Light” and “Night by Candlelight”, but these atmospheric pieces are incredibly dramatic, starkly cinematic. “Summer’s Kiss” makes astounding use of tension and release and the rhythmic chaos learned from listening to Quadrophenia on repeat. “Faded” is an epic, entrancing finale, and “My Enemy” and “Double Day” are ferocious in the classic Whigs vein. Black Love may be a failure as a concept album, but it is a smashing success as the latest collection of tremendous Afghan Whigs tracks.
3. Under the Bushes, Under the Stars by Guided by Voices
Under the Bushes, Under the Stars is another album that didn’t quite turn out as it was originally intended. The sessions began with Kim Deal at the producer’s helm and the ambition to make the slickest Guided by Voices album since Sandbox. Artistic differences and some complex feelings shared by Deal and Bob Pollard ended the collaboration. The resulting album is a hodgepodge of tracks recorded by Deal, Steve Albini, John Shough, Doug Easley, and Davis McCain, but it all sounds like a singular sprawling piece, more refined than Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes but far from the polish of Do the Collapse or even Mag Earwhig! As such, Under the Bushes is either the final lo-fi or mid-fi Guided by Voices album. It’s also the final one with the “classic” GBV line up of Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, and Kevin Fennell, and there is a bit of an elegiac feel to some of the material, such as Sprout’s glam-warp “To Remake the Young Flyer” and the moving anthem “Don’t Stop Now”. There’s also some of the jolliest (“Office of Hearts”, “Your Name Is Wild”, “Underwater Explosions”), nastiest (“Cut-Out Witch”), noisiest (“The Official Ironmen Rally Song”), and broodiest (“No Sky”, “Lord of Overstock”) rock & roll of Guided by Voices’ classic era, as well as an EP’s worth of additional brilliant material. For some fans who were not able to accept the more buffed band Guided by Voices soon became, the GBV story basically ended here. Those people missed out on some utterly amazing music, but they at least received a fittingly fine farewell from “their” Guided by Voices.
2. If You’re Feeling Sinister by Belle & Sebastian
Belle & Sebastian is a band like no other, beginning as a project in a music business coarse at a Glasgow college and recording an almost absurdly sensitive debut album steeped in the most delicate sixties pop (think Village Green Kinks and Odyssey and Oracle Zombies) and eighties Brit pop (think The Smiths…especially when considering how serious statements like “skating a pirouette on ice is cool” are). Tigermilk was a very good album, and sonically, If You’re Feeling Sinister is a continuation of that album’s echoing, multi-layered sound (think All Things Must Pass), yet the consistently stronger material makes it feel like a massive leap forward. There’s something unsettling about the sexual frankness of Stuart Murdoch’s lyrics matched with the sweet elegance of his band’s music, but that is what makes Belle & Sebastian’s second album so beguiling and rare. “The Stars of Track and Field”, with its deliberate build from near silence, “Seeing Other People”, with its magical Vince Guaraldi-indebted arpeggios, and the title track are instant classics. “The Fox in the Snow” and “The Boy Done Wrong Again” are almost unbearably tender. “Me and the Major”, “Like Dylan and the Movies”, “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying”, and “Mayfly” race along with the heady giddiness of a heart bursting with new love. If You’re Feeling Sinister is an album to fall in love to and an album to fall in love with. There were arguably better ones in the nineties, but there were none more beautiful.
1. One Chord to Another by Sloan
Sloan had made a great album of noisy, My Bloody Valentine-type indie menace and a very good straight indie record, but they really came into their own on One Chord to Another. The band who’d gotten anthemic without losing their cool on stuff like “I am the Cancer” and “500 Up” was primed to lose it and go full power-pop eventually. That is exactly what Sloan does on One Chord to Another. The production is as retro-organic as that of If You’re Feeling Sinister (though its vibes are circa 1976 rather than B&S’s 1968 sensibilities). The songs are amazing from start to finish, channeling Cheap Trick, Wings, and Chicago but consistently doing what those bands did better. The hard and glammy “The Good in Everyone”, the brassy romp “Everything You’ve Done Wrong”, the blazing “G Turns to G”, the snaky and shaky “The Lines You Amend”, the word-twisting “Autobiography”, and the psychedelicized march “Anyone Who’s Anyone” are stand outs among an album of stand outs, and more than ever before, each member of the band asserts his personality through the distinctive singing, playing, and songwriting that makes Sloan the year’s only band that requires you to know exactly who each guy in the group is: power-popping Chris Murphy, hard-rocking Patrick Pentland, sweet and sensitive Jay Ferguson, and off-kilter and martini-dry Andrew Scott. A friend and I once got into a deep rap about who our favorite Sloan member was, prompting another friend to quip that it sounded like we were drooling over a boy band. If only there was a boy band as deserving of that much drool as Sloan is.