As a year in music, 1996 was ambiguous. Alternative rock was starting to run its course with grunge evolving into nü metal. Labels were scrambling to find the next cash cow to replace alt-rock’s diminishing returns, and many started to look to underground dance music.
I can’t say I paid much attention. 1996 was my senior year in college, and I was up past my eyeballs with college newspaper stuff. Most of the titles in my collection from that year were follow-up albums by artists to whom I had already been listening. I didn’t really have time to discover anything new.
Musicwhore.org Favorite Edition 1996
Soundtrack, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet
I don’t think Baz Luhrmann’s post-modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet would have remotely worked without the music. Craig Armstrong’s sweeping score avoided Romantic-era cliché, while the pop music selections were just this side of cool not to look like product placement. (Unlike, say, a special musical guest appearance on Charmed.) The soundtrack to William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet felt like a really great mixed tape put together by a friend with impeccable taste.
Kokko brought Värttinä further into the rock sound explored by Aitara. A major label budget provided by Nonesuch allowed the ensemble to experiment a bit more with effects, but nothing distracted from the powerhouse singing of Värttinä’s vocal quartet.
Soundtrack, Robotech Perfect Collection
When film and TV composers attempt to mix orchestra and rock band, it’s usually in an uneven relationship. The score for the animated series Robotech managed to integrate the two. One cue, "Alien Attack", manages to double a trombone and electric guitar, while electric toms substitute what would usually be a timpani part. Even more impressive is the fact the score is modular — any number of musical cues can be spliced and edited and never sound out of place. The pop songs sung by the characters couldn’t really be taken out of context of the show, but the ones not sung by Reba West were pretty good.
Asylum Street Spankers, Spanks for the Memories
I wouldn’t discover this album till 1998, when I had moved to Austin. This classic debut was recorded in an old house with a single mic, and it sounds as rustic as the music itself. The Spankers probably couldn’t get away with using this approach twice, and thankfully, they haven’t tried.
Various Composers, Gay American Composers
Major classical labels thought throwing together a bunch of catalog compilations with racy covers would get people to buy them. The move was crass, but when those same majors marketed the titles to gay audiences — with racy covers of same-sex couples — it was a pretty forward move by corporate entities. Composers Recordings Inc. put its own spin on the idea by compiling works of living composers who identified as gay. The collection itself spans a broad spectrum of styles, from neo-Romantic to electronic, and it all holds together incredibly well.
Original Cast Recording, Rent
This album was sent to the student newspaper in the mail, and I called dibs to review it.
Marilyn Manson, Antichrist Superstar
Marilyn Manson’s 1997 Honolulu appearance is the one and only time I contributed a review to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. I wasn’t familiar with Manson enough to form an opinion before I went to the concert, but afterward, I had to give him credit for putting on a great show, abbreviated though it was. I got familiar with Antichrist Superstar, and as far as concept albums go, this one is executed just fine.
Everything But the Girl, Walking Wounded
For a brief time in college, I had a gym membership. "Wrong" played over the gym’s stereo system in the few months I actually used that membership. So yes, I was essentially introduced to Everything But the Girl at the gym. How gay is that? Walking Wounded was the first of two albums to feature the duo’s remodeled electronic sound. Not all the tracks are winners, but the keen melodic sense of Amplified Heart doesn’t get lost on this album.
Midnight Oil, Breathe
Midnight Oil’s 1993 album, Earth and Sun and Moon, saw the band inching back toward a more bombastic sound, but the album’s length made it feel long-winded. So for Breathe, the band opted to strip down as much as possible. The album is pretty much a high-quality demo. Emmylou Harris even makes a guest appearance.
Robin Holcomb, Little Three
Instead of recording another pop album, Robin Holcomb instead focused on her piano works, many of them used for ballet productions. I’ve always considered Holcomb a more adventurous pianist than her husband, Wayne Horvitz. While these pieces have their share of melodies, they can also get bittersweet.
A few more titles didn’t quite make it to the favorite ten, and I’d discover some others years later.
- Dead Can Dance, Spiritchaser This album was played a few times in the college newspaper office, and I liked it enough to track down my own copy. It’s the only Dead Can Dance album I own, and I get the impression it’s not very representative of the band’s previous work.
- Emmylou Harris, Portraits Still enamored of Wrecking Ball, I bought this boxed set to explore Emmylou Harris’ past work. I would end up owning Pieces of the Sky, Bluebird and Trio as a result.
- Kronos Quartet, Howl USA Sampled voices tend to find their way into Kronos commissions, and this album compiled a number of works featuring spoken text.
- Shawn Colvin, A Few Small Repairs I wouldn’t discover this album till I moved to Austin, where its nationwide success was a point of local pride. I really like the chorus of "Sunny Came Home".
- UA, 11 My friend OmarG gave me Steve McClure’s Nippon Pop for Christmas one year, and it’s that book which introduced me to UA.
- Yen Town Band, Montage CHARA really hits a homerun on this quick side-project.