Sonic Reducers

I've been compiling year-end best-of lists for one publication or another for close to ten years now, and I still have a hard time with them. It's a daunting, intimidating task; attempting to accurately survey a year's worth of music in ten short entries can drive a completist insane. What about the records you haven't heard yet? What about the ones you're still trying to figure out? What about the ones that do nothing for you now but, after repeated spins, suddenly push the right buttons? What about all the stuff you're missing because you can't get your head out of that new Elvis boxed set? At the end of the day, though, it really doesn't matter. All you can do is sort through as much as you can, find the albums that do it for you, and pull a chair up to the stereo.

The albums listed below are the ones that did it for me in 1995, the ones that pulled me toward the stereo speakers or had me circling around the block a few times before I made it to the driveway, one hand on the wheel, the other on the rewind button. Of course they aren't the only albums that had that effect on me, and looking at the list now, I can't help but wonder what else should be there. I suspect that The Gold Experience, the latest album by the Artist I Still Call Prince, may be his best since 1987's Sign O' the Times, but right now it's too soon to tell -- I haven't heard it enough. Hell, the first few times I played Sign I was convinced there was more bad than good spread across its four sides. In time I learned otherwise, and now it is the benchmark against which I have compared all of his work that has followed.

I was also fascinated this year by two jazz artists: James Carter, a neotraditionalist saxman from the Dexter Gordon school of cool; and Matthew Shipp, an extraordinary avant-garde pianist who bangs the ivories like a young Cecil Taylor. Both men released terrific albums in 1995 (Carter's The Real Quiet Storm, Shipp's Critical Mass), neither of which made it on my list. Likewise, I found myself scratching my head, befuddled and amazed, every time I played Montezuma Baby Duck, the debut album on Siltbreeze by Sam Esh, an oddball songwriter from Columbus, Ohio, whose acoustic-based work offered a safe, if lysergic, haven from the glut of godawful unplugged discs out there. And like Carter and Shipp, Esh didn't make the list. Neither did Buddy Miller, Jim Shephard, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, Jim Lauderdale, the Makers, Rake, Cheater Slicks, Beau Jocque, Matthew Sweet, the Dead C., the Rip Offs, 2Pac, Neil Young, Superchunk, D'Angelo, Joe Ely, Marcus Miller, the Cox Family, and Junior Kimbrough. Why? I'm not sure. All I can say is, ten's a small number.

What did make the list is an admittedly eclectic assortment, from underground obscurities on tiny independent labels to angst-ridden country rock; from roaring, blues-soaked punk to arty experiments. I didn't plan it this way, and I don't know if the albums are connected by anything other than my own personal obsession with each of them. I'm not even sure if I've gotten to the bottom of them yet, or that I ever will. But I keep coming back to them, and every time I do I hear something new, just as I hear something new every time I put on the Band's Music From Big Pink, Otis Redding's The Dictionary of Soul, or Charles Mingus's Ah Um. Great albums are like that. They keep talking to you, calling you back long after you've committed their songs to memory and have moved on to other songs on other albums by other artists. Listed below, then, and ranked in order of preference, are the albums that talked to me throughout the year.

1. Brother J.T., Holy Ghost Stories (Bedlam). Truly scary music from a most unlikely source, as much a shocker as Pat Metheny's Zero Tolerance for Silence, the jazz guitarist's screeching white-noise album from 1994. J.T., a.k.a. John Terlesky, is the head guy in the Original Sins, a second-rate garage-pop quartet that somehow has developed a small but devout following despite the air of mediocrity that hangs over their three-chord rock.

Even if you like the Sins, nothing in their canon will prepare you for the low-fi dementia of Terlesky's solo records issued under the moniker Brother J.T. His most recent, Holy Ghost Stories, a vinyl-only release on his Bedlam label, is a creepy, hair-raising affair that captures a tormented, disturbed soul spewing his guts into a four-track recorder, in the process creating a dense racket propelled by fuzzball guitars, a rickety drum machine, eerie tape loops, and sound effects pulled from hell's jukebox. Psychosis runs deep throughout the set, from the whacked-out song titles ("Hi, Death," "Texas War Diet," "Tooth, Fiber, Gauze") to the startling in-your-face mix. This is the music of Roky Erickson's nightmares, where sublime riffs mutate into frightening snapshots of mental decay (the wickedly swinging "Texas War Diet," the drooling "Sucubus"), paranoia ("Are You the Are?"), and a strange obsession with going potty ("Crouchings," which, suffice it to say, is rather out-there). Not for everyone, to be sure, but a must for anyone who thinks Lou Barlow wrote the book on home taping.

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