State of Siege

Just the other day, from out of nowhere, quite unbidden, drifted thoughts of the U.S. Army's Christmastime siege of the Papal Nunciature in Panama City six years ago. You remember: Guys in combat fatigues bombarding the Vatican's outpost with cranked-to-the-max classic rock songs in an effort to drive out pock-faced Panamanian "strongman" (news reports invariably saddled him with this absurd moniker) Manuel Noriega, who had sought sanctuary in God's embassy. Psychological warfare at its pop-cultural best. Of course the gambit failed. After blasting Glenn Frey's "Smuggler's Blues" and the Jimi Hendrix Experience's "Voodoo Chile" at Noriega and his holed-up cronies for nearly 72 hours, the Army pulled the plug when no one bolted from the embassy clutching his ears and screaming "≠No mas!" Which led me to deduce that, throughout the rockin' ordeal, Manny was leading his newfound priest buddies in a party-down conga line that snaked through the place, barely restraining himself from sending out for requests: "Could you play 'Gimme Shelter' again?"

Fast-forward more than three years to Waco, Texas, where, once again, a U.S. government agency, in this case the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, inflicted a similar torture on David Koresh and his Branch Davidian confreres, snug as bugs in a rug in their heavily fortified compound. In addition to broadcasting ear-shattering rock music -- Alice Cooper! -- the ATF geniuses tried demoralizing the B.D. posse with a host of unsavory sounds: dentist drills, rabbits being killed, police sirens, helicopters, Christmas carols. Not surprisingly, this ploy failed, too. After all, with both Noriega and Koresh, the G-men were dealing with a higher authority.

All of which got me to contemplating what kind of music it would take to get me to surrender in a siege situation. Well, to be brutally frank -- just about 99 percent of the stuff I listened to during the past year. A complete list would rival Spenser's Faerie Queene for length. However, for the record, I can state with absolute certainty that a mere whiff of anything representative of 1995's twin festering musical sores of generic poppy punk (Bracket, Hagfish, CIV, Atomic Boy, I.C.U., Butt Trumpet, and just about any band from this summer's snot-nosed Warped Tour) and generic yabbo neoboogie (Big Head Todd & the Monsters, Phish, Mother Hips, Blues Traveler, Sonia Dada, just about any band on the Hempilation compilation, Dave Matthews Band, Freddy Jones Band, Your Name Here Band) would have pitched me into a paroxysm of white-flag waving. And I like to think I have a high psychic pain threshold.

Then again it occurs to me that the ultimate weapon in this regard A the best way to clear a foreign embassy of a despot, a barricaded compound of gun-toting religious fanatics, or your home of unwanted party guests A would be to put on the goo-goo pulings of singer/songwriter/guitarist/bassist/superbrat Juliana Hatfield. Instant results. As little Linda Blair bellowed in The Exorcist, "Make it stop!"

Below, listed alphabetically (not in order of preference), my ten favorite albums of 1995:

1. Big Heifer, That Lucid Feeling (hat factory). From the far fringes of the Amerindie universe, grinning endearingly as they fishtail through a gaggle of tunes about friendship, Hercules, love stuff, and sci-fi goings-on, comes the propulsive Big Heifer, two boys and one girl wired on whooshing, three-minute guitar pop that genuflects at the tabernacle of the Velvet Underground (the Velvets in upbeat mode, mind you, a la "Beginning to See the Light"). Infectious melodies + a twee sensibility + pie-eyed vocals = a sheer delight in every bite. A ringing reaffirmation of the fresh-faced possibilities of an indie scene that too often comes across as self-indulgent and self-serious.

2. Elastica, Elastica (DGC). Well, yes, you'd have to be living in an extreme state of denial to miss the Chrissie Hynde-isms that course through this English quartet's debut (I keep expecting front woman Justine Frischmann to bark Hynde's "but not me, baby, I'm too precious, fuck off!" A from the Pretenders' "Precious" A in the midst of Elastica's "Smile" or "All-Nighter"), but that doesn't diminish the album's raw power and jolting sensuality. Working within the framework of the new wave of U.K. new wave, Frischmann and her mates reel off massive-sounding nuggets of under-three-minute supercharged rock that drip with clenched-teeth sexual tension ("Is there something you lack when I'm flat on my back"). Part come-on, part kiss-off, Elastica bristles with attitude, lust, and monstrous guitars.

3. The Harvest Ministers, A Feeling Mission (Setanta). Melancholy without lapsing into moroseness, A Feeling Mission, the second album by Dublin's Harvest Ministers, posits a baker's dozen plaints and minor epiphanies pertaining to adult love. Its instrumentation, its thematic preoccupations, and its pervading tone all call to mind the work of the latter-day (late Eighties) Go-Betweens A bittersweet, carefully considered, and unrushed meditations on the nature of romance that work equally well in acoustic ("Dealing with a Kid") and electric ("The Only Seat of Power") settings A and even better in settings that adroitly weave together the two ("Modernising the New You"). Singer/songwriter/guitarist William Merriman's airy folk-rock songs -- burnished by violin, accordion, and piano -- consistently leave behind an acrid aftertaste, much like the one you get at the end of an intense relationship.

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