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.

4. Mother May I, Splitsville (Columbia). In thrall to the hard side of power pop -- from the Who through KISS through Cheap Trick through the Neighborhoods A Mother May I singer/songwriter/guitarist Damon Hennessey and drummer/producer Rob LeBourdais set keening, buzzsaw melodies against lyrics that poke and prod at the foibles of both youth and popular cultures ("Teenage Jesus," "Painted On"), as well as the trials and tribs of domesticity faced by twentysomething punks ("Jane packs her bags, she says, 'Hey, Dick, I'm leaving you'/Dick's passed out on the couch listening to Husker Du"). And yet Hennessey takes aim most frequently at himself on the jarring self-doubt fests "Birthday Wish," "In Between," and "Meet You There." As for the music, wisely, Hennessey and LeBourdais leaven the windmill chording with bursts of country twang, wah-wah effects, metal riffing, and kamikaze drumming. Go!

5. PJ Harvey, To Bring You My Love (Island). Perhaps the most ambitious A certainly the most audacious A album released by a popular artist in 1995, To Bring You My Love opens and closes with desperate journeys that wrap sexual longing and religious cries around each other like a Velcro-grip double helix. In between, Polly Jean Harvey traverses all manner of sonic landscapes, from primordial garage whomp to elegiac string quartet to dense aural whorl, much of it colored by creepy, under-your-skin, barely audible effects. Two tracks, "C'mon Billy" and "Down by the Water," channel the spirit of Bobbie Gentry's 1967 number one "Ode to Billie Joe," and Harvey suffuses everything here in oceans of watery imagery. Teeming with ecstasy, passion, and pain throughout, and quite likely my favorite record of the year.

6. Kendra Smith, Five Ways of Disappearing (4AD). On record, former Dream Syndicate bassist and Opal singer/bassist Kendra Smith creates her own private psychedelic realm, and Five Ways of Disappearing, not unlike her untitled 1993 ten-inch EP, functions as a sort of journey to the center of her mind. Vaguely Middle Eastern, vaguely middle Earthian, vaguely vaudevillian, the album reveals its distinctive pleasures with repeated listenings: Smith's percussive piano and wheezing pump organ on "Bohemian Zebulon"; her breathy, multitracked vocals on "Temporarily Lucy"; the rolling fuzztone hook and ambient guitar twinklings on "In Your Head"; Smith's Nancy Sinatra-esque vocal and trippier-than-thou lyrics on "Valley of the Morning Sun"; her freaky-deaky soft-shoe through "Maggots"; an eerie, thumping cover of Richard and Mimi Farina's "Bold Marauder." Set the controls for the heart of the sun.

7. Tarnation, Gentle Creatures (4AD). Tarnation singer/songwriter/bassist Paula Frazer's sad, quavery voice and ghostly, skeletal country songs recall not so much another time period as they suggest messages beamed in from another dimension. Her languorous lamentations of love gone wrong and unrequited yearning unfold over rippling lap-steel guitar, slowly tapped snare drum and cymbals, and plodding bass lines, to which Frazer adds her dolorous, Patsy Cline-like warble. The song titles alone reveal the prevailing theme: "Game of Broken Hearts," "Tell Me It's Not So," "Two Wrongs Won't Make Things Right," and "Do You Fancy Me." Filmmaker David Lynch would flip for this triumph of downbeat atmospherics.

8. Teenage Fanclub, Grand Prix (DGC). If you've followed along through Teenage Fanclub's albums, including this one (their fourth), then you already know the drill: Simple, midtempo, hooky verse-chorus-verse (or chorus-chorus-verse) melodies fleshed out with almost detached spoken-sung vocals and a scrum of slashing guitar chords. Singers/songwriters Norman Blake, Gerry Love, and Raymond McGinley tend to obsess about the same two things over and over (pure pop love, pure pop music), the honest heart cheek by jowl with the jaundiced eye, but they do so with a fetching A if smart-ass A rock literateness that goes way beyond mere fan-boy geekdom, particularly on "Neil Jung" and "Hardcore/Ballad." The distilled essence of a jillion great radio singles.

9. Wanderlust, Prize (RCA). In truth, singer/songwriter/guitarist Scot Sax's shimmering pop-rock songs break neither new musical nor lyrical ground, cleaving closely to the Beatles/Badfinger/Raspberries/Big Star axis, but he fashions such remarkably irresistible melodies, affixes them to mildly provocative thoughts on commitment, ambition, and love lost/love gained/love imagined, and then sings them so convincingly that their seeming lack of originality becomes instantly moot. Wanderlust's ballads ("Deepest Blue"), chugging midpaced numbers ("Wanna Feel New"), and a clutch of unbridled rockers (led by "Coffee in the Kitchen") all testify to the undying power of the hook. And Deep Blue Something are VH1 stars? Donnez-moi un break.

10. Wilco, A.M. (Sire/Reprise). When Jay Farrar (the dour country guy) bailed out of Uncle Tupelo unexpectedly, chum and colleague Jeff Tweedy (the cute rock guy) picked up the pieces and soldiered on as Wilco. Good thing. That band's debut sounds a whole lot like Tweedy's U.T. songs: unpretentious, heartland rock tunes flecked with country and western instrumentation (mandolin, dobro, banjo, fiddle, pedal steel guitar); Jeff's agreeably raspy vocals; and smart insights regarding friendship, love relationships, and, on "Passenger Side," the dilemma of getting around when your driver's license has been revoked. Tweedy's easygoing "Pick Up the Change" breaks your heart even as it sets your head to nodding, and his rollicking "Casino Queen" is the best song the Stones didn't write for Sticky Fingers. But his memo to Farrar about the dissolution of their partnership, the jaggedly tuneful "Box Full of Letters," just might be the best song I heard all year.

Other albums that floated my boat: Air Miami's me. me. me., the Apples' Fun Trick Noisemaker, Bettie Serveert's Lamprey, Derek Cintron's Mantra, del Amitri's Twisted, Elvis Costello's Kojak Variety, the Grassy Knoll's self-titled record, Lida Husik's Joyride, Incognito's 100o and Rising, Liz Phair's Juvenilia, Poole's Alaska Days, S.F. Seals' Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows, Spain's The Blues Moods of Spain, Matthew Sweet's 100% Fun, Wannabes' Popsucker, and the soundtracks to Desperado and The Silences of the Palace.


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