1996…. in a way it felt like we’d sneaked unknowingly past a turning point. The initial surge that had powered ‘grunge’ into the mainstream had slowed and, post-Nirvana, that scene’s leading bands were singing a darker, less commercially-sheened tune. The midway point in the decade had slipped past and the second half of the 90s would have a distinctly different flavour… MTV was moving more into programming vs music, big budget videos and gloss were becoming the norm as each pop tart tried to out do the next boyband in video stakes. It was the year that Mariah Carey told us she’d always be her baby, Deep Blue Something asked if we remembered ‘Breakfast At Tiffanys’ and we said, well that’s the one thing we’ve got. It was also the year that The Spice Girls arrived and promoted Girl Power(!) by pointing out that if we want to be their lover then, first, we had to get with their friends… I mean, I’m all for polygamy if that’s your thing, man, but that seemed a little ‘say what?’… The Prodigy were starting fires, No Doubt didn’t want us to speak while The Fugees killed us, softly, with their song, boy bands like N Sync and Backstreet Boys were dumping raw sewage in our ears at the same time as Liam Gallagher bleated about a ‘Champagne Supernover’ but we were all too busy doing the Macarena.
The start of the year saw the end of what seemed like such a perfect and completely natural marriage between Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. Still, it was wedding bells for Meg White and John Anthony Gillis who were married in September – he’d take her last name and change his first name to Jack before the two formed The White Stripes a year later. Madonna got off to a bumpy start in ’96 – in the good news column for Madge her stalker was jailed on five charges of assault, stalking and threatening to kill her. However, she then received a lot of flack in Argentina including death threats after it was announced she was to play Eva Peron.
Bono had a weird shakeup too – the plane he was on (which belonged to Jimmy Buffet – who was, random aside, responsible for Harrison Ford deciding to go for an earring) was mistaken for a drug-dealers plane and the Jamaican authorities opened fire. Either that or they really really didn’t care for Passengers’ Original Soundtracks 1.
In what feels like a very ‘1996 MTV’ story – a judge ruled against Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson who were trying to prevent someone publishing photos from a home movie that had been stolen from their home… I guess they must have been doing something embarrassing…. Speaking of MTV – MTV2 was launched in 1996. Now there’s a channel I watched a lot of. Launching with Becks’ ‘Where It’s At’, it was the network’s answer to critics that complained they didn’t show enough music videos anymore and, at least that I remember, showed videos of a more alternative bent.
Having released the first double rap album earlier in the year, Tupac Shakur was shot on the way home from the Mike Tyson and Bruce Sheldon fight at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Shakur died from his injuries six days later. He was just 25 years old. Sticking with guns… one of my most hated things… Sheryl Crow’s self-titled album angered Wal-Mart who announced they wouldn’t be selling it thanks to the ‘Love Is A Good Thing’ lyric “”Watch out, sister, watch out, brother/watch our children while they kill each other/with a gun they bought at Wal-Mart Discount Stores.” Let’s face it if you’re getting shirty about people pointing out the dangers of the guns you stock and still insist on selling them… well, you can fuck yourself in my book.
1996 marked the end of a beautiful relationship as tensions between Sammy Hagar and the Van Halen brothers reached their logical conclusion and created a real soap opera instead. Having recorded the song ‘Humans Being’ (great tune) for the ‘Twister’ (naff movie) soundtrack, Hagar left for home on Fathers Day. Eddie didn’t care for Hagar’s vocal and renamed the song and wrote the melody – which ticked off Hagar of course. The band were meant to record two songs for the soundtrack but Hagar was in Hawaii for the birth of his daughter so the Van Halen brothers recorded an instrumental instead. There were also disagreements over a planned ‘Best Of’ – Hagar wanted to work on a new album instead and suggested it should be a ‘Roth era’ only volume or that there should be separate volumes per singer (which, of course, would follow years later)… with more arguments and tensions boiling over and probably not helped with Eddie Van Halen calling David Lee Roth to work on two new songs for the upcoming comp. Hagar left.
Enter Roth and Roth’s gob. After recording two new songs – which were both released as singles – the band, with Roth, made their first appearance together in over 11 years on the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards where they were presenting Beck with an award. Well, that was the plan but somewhere in Roth’s head it turned into a “HEY LOOK AT ME! I’M DAVID LEE ROTH!” Which pissed off EVH – along with some apparent spiteful comments from DLR about Ed’s upcoming surgery needs – and the band soon announced that Roth, too, was out. Again. And some guy called Gary Cherone from Extreme was in instead…. while Roth claimed he was an ‘unwitting pawn’ in Van Halen’s publicity stunt. Never a calm day in the Van Halen camp. Best Of – Volume 1 hit Number 1 in the US…
So it was goodnight from Van Hagar in ’96 and 4 Non Blondes, Belly, Crowded House, Extreme, Fleetwood Mac (briefly), Heatmiser, The Kinks, Jawbreaker and Ride. Meanwhile Calexico, Coldplay, Dropkick Murphys, Fly Pan Am, Linkin Park, Queens of the Stone Age, The Shipping News, The Shins and Wolf Eyes were among those bands formed in 1996.
So, who released what? Well…
Tori Amos released her third album Boys For Pele and was sued when some bloke crashed his car after being distracted by a billboard promoting the album. The picture was of Amos breastfeeding a piglet. As you do. It was third album time for Frank Black too who released his The Cult of Ray in 1996 and The Cranberries who released their third album To The Faithful Departed.
Tortoise released one of post-rock’s most revered albums Millions Living Will Never Die in January and Palace, or Palace Music, Palace Songs, Palace Brothers or plain old Will Oldham – before he started trading under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy – released the equally well regarded Arise Therefore. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ninth album Murder Ballads was a great drop for ’96 – made up of new and traditional murder ballads with guests including P J Harvey and Kylie Minogue who duetted with Cave on the single ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ which gave the group a hit and pushed the album into big numbers.
The Afghan Whigs released Black Love, The Cure released their tenth and mixed-bag album Wild Mood Swings and, following the demise of Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler’s first non-soundtrack solo album Golden Heart arrived in March. Dripping in Knopfler’s guitar, it was clear he was still trying to find his sound as a solo artist and there’s probably a bit too much filler on it, though the title track and ‘Darling Pretty’ are pretty good. Speaking of solo artists finding their sound, Paul Westerberg released his second solo album Eventually – three years after his first. Eventually gets a real bad rap that’s unfair – it’s got some great Westerberg songs on it like ‘Love Untold’, ‘Once Around The Weekend’, ‘Angels Walk’ and the tribute to the recently departed Bob Stinson ‘Good Day’. That it’s an album of two producers – Brendan O’Brien and Lou Giordano – it’s a really strong effort and there’s not a track on it I skip when I spin it.
Another bloody strong and oft-overlooked 1996 album came from Stone Temple Pilots with their third Tiny Music…. Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop. By this point in the band’s career Scott Weiland was pretty well into his drug addiction and trouble was circling with cancelled tours and drug busts but this is a great album. After the explosion of their first album, Rage Against The Machine released their second: Evil Empire. I think of the group’s three studio efforts this one gets my vote – ‘Bulls on Parade’, ‘People of the Sun’… fucking ‘Vietnow’! Amazing album.
Modest Mouse released their debut album This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About and Dave Matthews Band Crash was their second and went bonkers in sales terms thanks to the presence of ‘Crash Into Me’ in seemingly every soppy bollox scene on TV while the power of being ‘Popular’ helped Nada Surf’s High / Low share many of the same shelves (though not as many). Jimmy Eat World’s Static Prevails (a cracking album) was released in 1996 too as was Fiona Apple’s Tidal.
If we wanna talk about albums that define the year then, at least this side of the Atlantic, this was the year of Manic Street Preachers’ Everything Must Go. An absolute power house of an album it was the group’s first as a trio following the disappearance of Richie Edwards and was a massive success both commercially and critically. A determined approach and change in sound heralded a new era for the group and shifted in the millions. Songs like the title track, ‘Kevin Carter, ‘Australia’ and, of course, ‘A Design For Life’ were everywhere in 1996 and just hearing any of them send me straight back to ’96.
The same could also be said for Kula Shaker who – with major-label backing seeking to look for ‘the next Oasis’ phenomenon – released their psychedic-rock tinged album K in 1996 and radios here began blasting ‘Hey Dude’, ‘Tatva’ and ‘Govinda’ with enthusiasm. Not a bad summer to buzz between stations really.
Back Stateside and The Black Crowes, following the disappointing sales of Amorica decided to rehash the album minus the pubes on the cover and, sadly, minus the quality and tunes, Three Snakes and One Charm was their weakest to date even with ‘Good Friday’. Soundgarden prepared and released what would be their final studio album for sixteen years: Down On The Upside. Helmed by band and Adam Kasper, Down On The Upside is still a bloody fine album and one I’ll return to just as often as Superunkown.
One from 1996 I do play a lot more though is Screaming Trees’ Dust, the groups final and finest effort. Songs such as opener ‘Halo Of Ashes’ and the following ‘All I Know’ and ‘Look at You’ offer superb, textured sounds that still pack plenty of punch and anchored down by Lanegan’s distinctive vocals. ‘Dying Days,’ later offered up as a single, features some delicious blues guitar work courtesy of Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready as Lanegan sings on the falling state of Seattle. Absolutely five star album and one of the most over-looked of the ‘scene’.
Often accused of ripping off the Seattle sound, Bush released their second album Razorblade Suitcase in ’96. This one had a fair few spins from me over the years but not as many as their debut, ‘Swallowed’ is a pretty decent tune. Weezer also released their second album Pinkerton in 1996. Pinkerton is one of those albums that’s become so beloved and heralded as a band’s highpoint it’d be hard to write anything about it that hasn’t already been – songs like ‘Tired of Sex’, ‘Pink Triangle’, ‘Why Bother?’ are great but, at the time, it was a bit of a flop – it was more personal and harder in sound than the group’s first album and, after the tour to promote it and shell-shocked by the reaction, the group went on a five year hiatus. During that time, though, it began building a cult following and bands began citing it as an influence. Despite this, though, Rivers Cuomo wouldn’t embrace it again for years, seeing it and its following as an embarrassment until 2008 by which time retrospective reviews from the same publications that had panned it on release were awarding it 10/10. It’s a strange world.
Tom Petty And the Heartbreakers soundtrack to the pretty-cack-really movie She’s The One arrived in ’96 and features a stack of great tunes from Petty and co including ‘Walls’, ‘Angel Dream’, ‘California’, ‘Change The Locks’… it really should be considered as one of their best. It was the first Heartbreakers album to be produced by Rick Rubin who’s name also graced Johnny Cash’s Unchained this year – the second of JC’s ‘American’ albums it actually featured Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers essentially serving as Cash’s backing band as he covered songs like Soundgarden’s ‘Rusty Cage’, Geoff Mack’s ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ and Petty’s own ‘Southern Accents’ alongside a couple of originals across a stronger album than 94’s American Recordings.
TV sets were spewing ‘Baywatch’ in 1996 according to E – Eels Beautiful Freak was released this year and is still a regular play in my collection. Not my favourite of the group’s it’s still a fine album with ‘Novocaine for the Soul’, ‘Susans House’ and ‘My Beloved Monster’ (long before its application to a green ogre) doing the business on repeated listens. Also doing well on repeated listens is Wilco’s Being There, the group’s second. Following the death of Shannon Hoon, Blind Melon’s remaining members put togehter Nico from unreleased songs and tracks started by Hoon and finished by the band with proceeds going into a college trust for Hoon’s daughter Nico. It’s actually the first Blind Melon album I got hold of – back in the days when Fopp were still a real thing rather than a HMV in different clothing – for a fiver and enjoyed immensely, still do. For a ‘rag bag’ album it works pretty damn well.
Is that it? Fuck no: 1996 gave us a lot more great albums. How about the second album from Counting Crows? Recovering The Satellites came three years after the band’s debut (better get used to that gap) and is a much stronger collection really though without the immediacy of August And Everything After so it didn’t go down quite as well in terms of sales. But check it out; ‘Angels of the Silences’, ‘Daylight Fading’, ‘Children In Bloom’, ‘A Long December’, ‘Goodnight Elisabeth’…. This is a great album. Hell, those first three Counting Crows albums are all really blood good but there’s something about this one, that stands out for me. Speaking of sounds that do it for me; Sheryl Crow released her second, self-titled album in 1996 and the sound – courtesy of Tchad Blake and Mitchel Foom – with a sort of off-balance production coupled with her strongest set of songs and some real genuine hits, made Sheryl Crow a deserved hit this year.
Are we there yet? Well it would be pretty remiss of me not to mention a couple more like Tool’s astounding Ænima. Dedicated to Bill Hicks and tacking a similar stance (goodbye you lizard scum) on the title track, Ænima is a stonking album of heavy, complex rock with unusual time signatures and dripping in aggression and cynicism that actually managed to reach number 2 on the charts. Oh and then Pearl Jam released their fourth album – the astonishingly great No Code. Recorded amidst tension and, as Stone Gossard later described it, ” just kind of winging it and trying stuff that maybe didn’t quite work… But you listen to it ten years later and go, ‘Fuck! That’s jamming!’” A further move away from the spotlight, another deliberate left turn from the glare of Ten etc, No Code is a massively rewarding listen and one of my favourite Pearl Jam albums.
But I’ve already highlighted No Code in detail before so it can’t be my pick for 1996, which can only leave:
REM – New Adventures in Hi-Fi
“Look up and what do you see? All of you and all of me
Fluorescent and starry, some of them, they surprise.” Man I remember sitting in the back of a car somewhere in August of 1996, the radio on and hearing the ‘new REM single E-Bow The Letter’ and just ‘wow’ – something in my head going ‘click’. Those opening words… I had no idea what an E-Bow was then (and as many times as I keep thinking to get one I still haven’t) or what it was about but that sound, that song… that went in and made me sit up and pay attention to REM all over again. It’s also got to be one of the least likely lead single choices out there, dropping a song like that in the summer as your first single… especially given the attention the band had gotten after resigning with Warner Bros for what was rumoured to be the largest record deal made at that point and here, with the comparative ‘meh’ response to Monster behind them they drop a song like ‘E-Bow The Letter’ to radio.. fuckin-a.
New Adventures In Hi-Fi has it’s origins in watching Radiohead. Radiohead supported REM on tour in ’94/’95 and recorded the basic tracks for The Bends during soundchecks and while on the road. REM had been talking about making a ‘road album’ for a while and so borrowed their technique with most of the songs recorded either live or at soundchecks with four additional songs being recorded in the studio at the start of ’96. Those four additional songs were the opener ‘How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us’, ‘E-Bow the Letter’ (to which Patti Smith added vocals), ‘Be Mine’, and ‘New Test Leper’. As the rest were recorded on the road they feature the band’s touring members and have a real sense of immediacy and looseness that I guess came from not being stuck in the studio for long periods of time. According to Mike Mills they wanted to catch the “spontaneity of a soundcheck, live show or dressing room.” I think they succeeded.
I think what I enjoy so much about New Adventures In Hi-Fi is that it covers the full spectrum of the ‘REM sound’ – the country-rock / folkier vibes of Out of Time and Automatic.. with the harder edge they’d pushed for with Monster – across the album yet the consistency is so high. After this – with the exception of the immediate follow-up Up – I don’t think they’d be this varied in sound across one album until their last, Collapse Into Now, and neither of those have such a consistently high benchmark in terms of quality. It’s all so fucking good.
As it’s a ‘road album’ there’s a sense of movement to it and quite a few of the songs touch on this – the above, awesome ‘Departure’, ‘Leave’ (which also made it to the soundtrack of ‘A Life Less Ordinary), ‘Low Desert’ – and there’s a sort of in-transit vibe to the album overall that I really dig. It would be the band’s last with Bill Berry who would leave in 1997 and become a farmer (really) and captures the band at their peak – all glad to be healthy and alive after a shocker of a tour which, as touched on in the ’95 post, saw Berry suffer an aneurysm which required immediate surgery, Michael Stipe suffer a hiatal hernia and Mills needing an appendectomy, tight after touring for the first time in years and at the top of their game in songwriting.
New Adventures In Hi-Fi was my first REM and remains my favourite. I’m really hoping next year heralds a 25th Anniversary treatment that’s already been rolled out for their other albums. Oh, and you gotta love the album’s closing lines: “I’m not scared, I’m outta here.”