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SF Weekly contributors salute the best (and worst) music of 1995

Wednesday, Jan 3 1996
James Sullivan's Best Music, 1995
1. Insurgent Country/Twangcore/Cowpunk: Two of my favorite records of the year -- the Geraldine Fibbers' Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home and Tarnation's Gentle Creatures -- took white trashdom to new extremes. The Fibbers' Carla Bozulich conjured up Bastard Out of Carolina with her hoarse despair, while Tarnation's Paula Frazer sang like the spirit of Patsy Cline raised by a Ouija board in a metal shower stall. And the wide net cast by the "Americana" label provided some of the year's best listening, from Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois' solemn Wrecking Ball to the chicken-necked strut of Southern Culture on the Skids. In between fell worthy works by the likes of the Waco Brothers, Wayne Hancock, Uncle Tupelo spinoffs Wilco and Son Volt, and even Bruce Springsteen. Meanwhile, surrogate father figures like Willie Nelson were paid renewed respect with reissue campaigns and tribute albums. In an era of instant gratification and pervasive cultural themes such as irony, obstinacy, rage, and victimhood, old-fashioned stoicism has largely been cast aside. Aurally, at least, this Americana stuff rescues it, dusts it off, and sends it back on its way.

2. Cut-and-Paste: That is, the melange of trip hop/experimental groups who use tape loops to digest and then void the whole of pop music that came before them, for example DJ Krush's self-titled import, Tricky's Maxinquaye, and the locally produced Return of the DJ collection. Though none of these records were overwhelmingly memorable in their entirety (Portishead's Dummy was the exception), the ideas behind them made for some of the year's clearest glimpses of musical innovation.

3. Dapper British Invasion revivalists the Hi-Fives and their insanely catchy Welcome to My Mind (Lookout!).

4. "Natural One" and "Nothing Gonna Stop" by Lou Barlow's Folk Implosion from the Kids soundtrack. Seldom has a more appropriate cinematic score been recorded; this stuff is soulless as the main characters in the movie are portrayed to be. Making exhilarating music out of emptiness and dread is a feat for the truly talented.

5. Crumb, Terry Zwigoff's startling documentary. Also, by association, The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead (Shanachie), a fitting eulogy with nifty cover art by noted anti-Deadhead R. Crumb.

6. No-Fuss Trash: Introducing the Flat Duo Jets (Norton); Gearhead's 500 Miles to Glory (Red Devil); and It Came From Memphis (Rounder), the companion disc to Robert Gordon's weirdly wonderful book of the same name.

7. The Return of the Theremin: In response to technological overload, many musicians have been swearing by vintage gear (Moogs, B3s) for some time now. With newfound interest in the theremin, one of the first electronic instruments, the regression has come full circle. By the time Steven M. Martin's fascinating documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey was released, Jon Spencer, Man or Astro-man?, and Portishead had already given us an earful of the instrument's otherworldy pitch. When Pere Ubu's keyboardist played a homemade one at Bottom of the Hill, frontman David Thomas joked that he was growing tired of sharing the spotlight with the gizmo.

8. The Sea and Cake, The Biz (Thrill Jockey), and the band's show at the Kilowatt. These current and former members of out-there Chicago acts like Shrimpboat, Tortoise, and the Coctails have pretty much perfected a smooth hybrid of soul, jazz, and krautrock.

9. Foo Fighters' singles "I'll Stick Around" and "This Is a Call." Imagine that -- a grunge band that doesn't sound like ancient history.

10. Biggest Disappointment: P J Harvey's spring show at the Warfield. Like To Bring You My Love, her stage performance was overly mannered and showy. I'd been hoping to see more of the hellfire goddess I witnessed with her original trio a few years ago. Fortunately, Harvey seems destined to be a pop chameleon; we only have to wait a year for her next incarnation.

Billy Jam's Top 10 Bay Area Hip-Hop Releases
1. v/a, Return of the DJ (Bomb)
2. Askari X, Message to the Black Man (Slow Motion)
3. v/a, Bay Area Playaz (Anonymous)
4. The Click, Game Related (Jive)
5. Digital Underground w/ Luniz & Del (tape only)
6. RBL Posse, Ruthless by Law (In-a-Minute)
7. J. Dubb, Game Related (Relentless)
8. The Govenor & the House Reps, Floss Mode (Handle Bar)
9. Young "D" Boyz, Straight Game, (River T)
10. Bored Stiff, Explainin' (Hella)

Tim Kenneally's Top 10 Pissed! Columns of 1995
1. "Street Credulity" (2/15/95): In which our Bay Guardian columnist Johnny Angel debunks the common myth that "street cred" is a vital component of contemporary pop music while simultaneously singing the praises of Three Dog Night.

2. "For a Brother" (2/8/95): One of many puffy Angel pieces on MC5 and its personnel. In this case, he sings the praises of guitarist "Brother" Wayne Kramer. A tad hyperbolic, but also informative: Did you know that Kramer is also an expert finish carpenter? Did you care?

3. "Lo-Fi Lyin' Kings" (5/5/95): A scathing indictment of the lo-fi movement, ending with the coda, "All you need is something to say and the rest takes care of itself." Critic, know thyself.

4. "Nouveau Nashville" (3/22/95): A dig at the "New Country" phenomenon, rife with stunning similes ("corporate country is to Lefty Frizzell as Phil Gramm is to Thomas Dewey") and frank self-assessment ("Stupid me, I identify with the grainy, leering bumpkins in overalls covered in buffalo chips"). Critic, know thyself indeed.

5. "A Modest Suggestion" (4/26/95): Angel recovers his inner child via Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and suggests that the indie rock cabal do the same. Let the healing begin.

6. "Wolfman Jack, RIP" (8/2/95): A touching eulogy to one of the most distinctive voices ever to grace the airwaves, courtesy of (ahem) one of the most distinctive voices in music criticism: "He was a pirate, an outlaw, a renegade ... an American treasure." A three-hanky tear-jerker.

7. "Pecadillos" (8/23/95): Who nearly shat him/herself upon reading this aging punk's hearty endorsement of both Jerry Garcia ("you can't deny his good songs or his offbeat guitar style") and his constituency of sheeplike apostles ("I think his fans are right on")? Hey, hippie Johnny, what gives? The wonders never cease when this Angel's riding on your shoulder.


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