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.

2. Oblivians, Rock 'n Roll Holiday! Live in Atlanta, 8/19/94 (Negro). This Memphis trio has a great album available on Crypt (Soul Food), but if you've been buying their singles and EPs, you already own more than half of it. Better then to seek out this live set, which brings the scuzz-rock action of an Oblivians show right into your living room. From the chaotic opener "Motorcycle Leather Boy" to the grinding version of "Never Change" that closes the record, this is to punk rock what James Brown's Live at the Apollo was to R&B A a classic night captured for the ages.

3. Son Volt, Trace (Warner Bros.).
4. Wilco, A.M. (Reprise). Mourn the loss of Uncle Tupelo if you must, but when you finally wipe away the tears, you'll realize that Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar's new groups -- Wilco for the former, Son Volt for the latter -- are better, and not just because they've each found a way to personalize the rural country and western that's always been so close to their hearts. On the surface, it seems that neither strays far from his previous work: Tweedy likes to rock, Farrar likes to brood. Dig deeper, though, and you'll hear a moody edge in Tweedy's swinging romps such as "I Must Be High" and "Box Full of Letters," while Farrar's typically bleak sentiments in "Route 5" and "Drown" are accompanied by the hardest rock of his career. And like Tupelo's best work, both sets are full of desolate lives, broken hearts, and soured dreams.

5. Everclear, Sparkle and Fade (Capitol). On paper, Everclear's major-label debut should be awful: a punk-based trio from Nirvana's neck of the woods with an ex-junkie singer (Art Alexakis) who can't help sounding like the late Mr. Cobain offering up a quasi-concept album about one tortured punk's miserable life. Sparkle and Fade works, though, thanks to the real-life details in Alexakis's songs and the real-life pain in his coarse, yelping voice. "Santa Monica" re-creates perfectly the confusion and anger that arises when a couple splits up. Both "Strawberry" and "Heroin Girl" are smack sagas in which every line rings true. And "The Twistinside" spells out the problems facing the Mohawked crowd when adulthood comes calling: "Breathing fire doesn't look good on a resume/Neither does anything else we do." Indeed.

6. Guided by Voices, Alien Lanes (Matador). By now you either love 'em or you hate 'em -- either you think of 'em as a low-fi version of the Beatles or just another puff of indie-rock smoke. Myself, I love 'em, and if their latest isn't quite as breathtaking as last year's Bee Thousand (or as much fun as the double-live Crying Your Knife Away, also released this year), it's still a good time: 28 compact classics flying in and out of a murky mix that somehow never obscures Robert Pollard's endearing vocals or his screwball lyrics. And if you're looking for a new guitar hero, try Mitch Mitchell on for size. He could very well blow your head off.

7. Pavement, Wowee Zowee (Matador). The critical backlash against the band was inevitable, and this long, at times meandering album did little to stave it off. Granted, some of these songs are little more than sonic puddles, with Steve Malkmus creating ripples with his willfully obtuse wordplay, and I still miss the high-strung madness of 1991's Perfect Sound Forever. Nonetheless, I'm fascinated by nearly everything here: the honky-tonk splendor of "Father to a Sister of a Thought"; the clubfooted groove that propels "Rattled by the Rush"; and especially the gliding pop majesty of "AT&T" and "Grave Architecture." And as the arrangements get looser, Malkmus has more room to prove to anyone who's interested that he's one of the most inventive vocalists in postpunk history. Who else could sing, in all sincerity, a line such as "my heart is made of gravy" and make you hear it as gospel?

8. Bardo Pond, Bufo alvarius (Drunken Fish). Stoner sludge and slop-rock goop from a genuinely bent Philadelphia fivesome. If "Back Porch" A nearly five minutes of stumblebum riffage, outer-space slide guitar, and Isobel Sollenburger's vocal droolings A isn't the red-eye anthem of 1995, you can sign me up for the twelve-step program of your choice.

9. The Brentwoods, Fun in South City (Radio X). No, not every girl group today sounds like Expose, Babes in Toyland, or Luscious Jackson. This West Coast trio, led by former Supercharger drummer Karen Singletary, rocks the Sixties punk sound harder than anyone this side of the Mummies, with trash-can drums and thick slices of cheesy Farfisa organ. With no less than three testimonials to the power of some dance known as the Buri Buri, and snotty little nuggets such as "Doofus Stomp," "Go Get Bent," and "Little Barfy Bobby," Fun in South City is a party record for the ages.

10. Quintron, The Amazing Spellcaster (Bulb). Where this one-man wonder's debut album, Internal Feedback 001-011, offered dense drum tracks and not much else, Spellcaster comes off like a lost Sun Ra session, with generous doses of haunting organ, water-bottle percussion, and some very nice trumpet and theremin doodles. Atmospheric, yes, but also quite loopy.

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