Slippin’ & Slidin’

Sandy Carter

The following "best list" covers
my choices for the most pleasureful and important pop of 1996.
This issue is limited to rock, pop, and R&B releases aimed at
a wide popular audience. Next month will collect
"bests" in less popular genres such as jazz, blues,
country, world, and folk.

Rock/Pop/R & B

Gone Again, Patti Smith (Arista)

Against an almost conventional folk rock
backdrop, Smith’s poignant vocals and stark, poetic lyrics
deliver us through a compassionate and graceful meditation on
life, death, and redemption. Few records aimed at a popular
audience are so relentlessly serious. But in grieving the recent
losses of her husband, her brother, and close friends, Patti
Smith gives us a precious gift to help us confront a universal
and inevitable passage.

Peace Beyond Passion, Me’Shell
Ndegeocello (Maverick/Reprise)

The dark, slow pulsing grooves on Peace
Beyond Passion
have the allure of a late night soundtrack
designed for cooing and wooing. But when Ndegeocello’s haunted
vocals begin to unload her smoldering anger and deep anguish, the
swoon is irreparably ruptured. This is a painfully bitter album
about a black woman’s struggle to come to terms with racism,
homophobia and the great wall of patriarchy. Though the wounds
are deep and the battles on-going, Ndegeocello’s inventive
bittersweet layers of R&B, funk and jazz, gorgeous singing
and strong stance awaken pride and hope.

Odelay, Beck (DGC)

Although his 1994 album Mellow Gold
scored big with critics and the record buying masses, Beck has
had to face the confusion and derision of being a
"loser" superstar and a possible one hit wonder. His
follow-up release Odelay, however, is a junkyard
masterpiece built upon a knotty foundation of exotic samples,
skewed studio effects, and dirty guitar noise. Throw in a geeky
outsider perspective and a Dylan-esque spew of language, and
you’ve got an assured reassertion of credibility.

Evil Empire, Rage Against The
Machine (Epic)

Rage may be accused of a cliched, retro
kind of leftism colored by too much empty posturing, but the
band’s thunderous hip-hop rock fusion is the appropriate noise to
sound the alarm about the capitalist system’s hell bent world
agenda. Who could doubt the sincerity of Zack De La Rocha’s
blistering white heat raps or the passions inspiring Tom
Morello’s corrosive guitar wails. This is righteous and ominous
discontent foreboding heightened class struggle in the 21st

From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah,
Nirvana (DGC)

No Code, Pearl Jam (Epic)

Nirvana and Pearl Jam hit it big at about
the same time and both felt the backlash against
"alternative" success as a floodgate of grunge copycats
followed in their wake. Though Nirvana is no more, 1995’s MTV
"Unplugged In New York" revealed the artful songcraft
and fragile, aching sensibility at the core of Kurt Cobain’s
appeal. Muddy Banks completes the picture by documenting
glorious live electric performances charged by a chilling raw
power. Eddie Vedder, despite the angst ridden vocals, angry
energy and bleak lyrics, never seemed to live as close to
overwhelming despair as Cobain. As a result Pearl Jam’s music has
always carried seeds of idealism. On No Code, Vedder and
band take a few more steps into the light, taking stock of
weaknesses and fears, but opening further to personal and social
possibilities yet unborn.

I Feel Alright, Steve Earle
(E-Squared/Warner Bros)

Interstate City, Dave Alvin And The
Guilty Men (Hightone)

With bands such as Wilco, Son Volt, and the
Bottle Rockets offering a bridge between old fashioned country
sounds and rootsy forms of rock and roll, singer-writers like
Steve Earle and Dave Alvin are getting a chance to find a younger
and wider audience that has grown tired of the self-absorbed mope
of so-called alternative music. Both bring a strong sense of
compassion and solidarity to their characterizations of hard
bitten working class stiffs, misfits and outcasts. But its the
ability to itch the social/personal motivations of ordinary lives
that makes Earle and Alvin such extraordinary songwriters.
Earle’s I Feel Alright is a magnificent redemption
statement confessing sins of drug abuse, failed marriages,
troubles with the law and the music business. And on his
brilliant live album Interstate City, Dave Alvin comes on
like a roadhouse Woody Guthrie balancing electrifying rockers and
quiet, mournful ballads in a set that presents a cogent overview
of his post-Blasters, post-X solo career.

The Score, The Fugees (Ruff

Illadelph Halflife, The Roots

The Fugees and The Roots are out to bust up
the accepted codes of the rap world with innovative musicality
and live instruments. Lead by the confident and earthy voice of
Lauryn Hill, The Fugees hit a commercial home run by blending a
smooth slide from singing to rapping with mesmerizing grooves and
musical ideas from reggae and R&B to doo-wop. A worldly
street attitude remains, but Hill’s take on Roberta Flack’s
"Killing Me Softly" invokes a more tender spirit not
often associated with the hip-hop aesthetic. Philadelphia’s Roots
are also pushing the envelop by being a real band and by mixing
up tough, street realism rhymes with gentler, cooler tracks that
unravel cliches and bravado.

Dilate, Ani DiFranco (Righteous

Ani Difranco is one of the most powerful,
charismatic, and important performers of our time. With a voice
that can erupt with volcanic fury, a fearsome rhythmic guitar
attack, and a body of poetic, socially aware songs loaded with
searing observations about class, race, and gender turmoil,
Difranco has won over a rabid and fast growing audience that will
soon reach pop proportions. While none of her self-produced
albums released on her self created independent label have been
able to capture the full glory of her artistry, they do allow
listeners to savor music that connects with a deep well of female
experience. Dilate is another intense collection of
frighteningly honest songs, this time focused mostly on lost
love, lust, and yearning. As usual, a compelling mix of rhythm,
melody, noise, and rough-edged soul searching.

Colossal Head, Los Lobos (Warner

East LA’s Los Lobos may be a roots band,
but the way they twist, cut and recombine Latin, Anglo, and
African American musical forms is without precedent. In the end
they give us a brilliant multicultural musical tapestry that pays
homage to all the roots of American expression. With song
narratives that never stray from the struggles and triumphs of
ordinary lives, they are, as Gramsci might say, true organic
intellectuals of the people. Colossal Head is a