Top Ten Albums from 1996 (As Chosen by an Obnoxious Seventeen-Year-Old)
icking 1996 as a year from which to draw a top ten isn’t as entirely arbitrary as it might seem; I’ve long held the belief, largely a posteriori, that seventeen-year-old boys are the most obnoxious, self-serving, unpleasant, malicious know-it-alls of all humanity. I was born in 1979.
Looking back, I was a pretty horrendous human being as a seventeen-year-old. Sexually and educationally frustrated, I left college at lunchtime as often as possible, generally regardless of post meridian lectures, and spent my afternoons listening to music, reading George Orwell novels and NME, and being as intense as I could possibly manage. The charms of the internet weren’t yet fully available to me, thank heaven, or there’d be a trail of MySpace-style blogging evidence of my complete and utter prickishness just waiting for future employers to stumble upon via Google.
Most importantly though, 1996 was the year my burgeoning musical fascism began to manifest with a vengeance; nowhere near as sophisticated as I thought I was, a Curtis Mayfield compilation became a deadly weapon in my clumsy, adolescent aesthetic, and anything which didn’t fit my ruthless manifesto was given short shrift.
10. Super Furry Animals – Fuzzy Logic
09. Beck – Odelay
To show just how obnoxious I was as a seventeen-year-old, my first two picks are records that I made a big show of liking to my friends which I actually didn’t like much; SFA’s debut, while struck with a couple or three excellent tunes, really wasn’t the explosively eclectic indie/techno/pop/psychedelic fusion I was hoping for (I’d have to wait until Guerilla for that), and all that tiresome pro-dope, Howard Marks posturing actually really irritated me. As for 1996’s golden child, Mr. Hansen has almost always left me emotionally stone cold sober, and Odelay, while conceptually appealing, seemed awkward and unfunky next to Paul’s Boutique, a discovery from the previous year. I go back and try it every couple of years, and never enjoy anything beyond “Devil’s Haircut.”
08. Screaming Trees – Dust
Even more idiotically belligerent was my refusal to go and see Screaming Trees live with a load of mates because “who wants to see fat men play bad grunge?,” when I actually did like the album. How could a seventeen-year-old not like it? Those guitars, that voice, that mad mellotron solo halfway through “Sworn & Broken,” the entry and exit of “Gospel Plow”… I bought Dust on the sly and listened to it secretly to save face after kicking up such a fuss about not liking it straight from the off.
07. Underworld – Second Toughest in the Infants
Three “techno” or “dance” or “electronic” or whateveryouwantocallit records hit me in 1996 with varying degrees of impact. This one I bought because of a conversation over the Vox crossword with a minor indie band bassist that my brother knew. In truth I found it boring (especially compared to the other two, which I’ll come to), but I was damned if I was telling anyone else that. Five years later it made for good ambient music when I was revising for my finals, but I never really got to dance to it at the time—the dodgy indie clubs my friends dragged me to thought Rage Against the Machine was the be-all-and-end-all.
06. Maxwell – Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite
Buying an R&B; album was a defiant gesture in many ways, and won intriguingly positive comments from the record shop dude. It didn’t get me laid, though, which was half the reason behind the purchase. I’ve not listened to Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite in years (largely because I have a long-term girlfriend, and also because a pasty geek having sex to this is just too comedy for words), but I did genuinely like it a lot at the time. (Maxwell’s follow-up, Embrya, is probably more interesting in hindsight, partly because of the super-lush production sheen but mostly cos of the bizarre parenthetical-titles and the rampant talking-about-himself-in-the-third-person on the sleeve.)
05. REM – New Adventures in Hi-Fi
I’d heard Automatic for the People because everyone in the world had heard Automatic, but beyond that REM were just an abstract concept to me until my English teacher had a little rave to me about New Adventures. Eleven years ago I thought the jazzy piano runs in “How the West Was Won & Where It Got Us” were clumsy and distracting; now I think they’re great. My opinion that this is REM’s best album has remained pretty consistent though; “Electrolite”’s mellifluous piano surpassing “Find the River”’s, the sunken groove of “Undertow” unlike anything I understand the band to be capable of. I dug it out the other day and thoroughly enjoyed every minute.
04. DJ Shadow - …Endtroducing
I stole this out of the boot of my brother’s company car—he worked for a distribution company, and advance hearsay about this amazing, sample-based record that was hip-hop and not hip-hop at the same time caused me to talk him into giving out a rare fraternal freebie. Initially I liked it well enough but it’s grown from there, less a sequence of stolen drum fills than an oddly spiritual behemoth that treats emotions like almost nothing else I’ve heard. Maybe it’s the subconsciously-perceptible “age” of the sounds on it, the second-hand histories they imply, but it inspires a weird, unlearned futurist nostalgia and wistfulness. I don’t play it half as much as I did in 1996, but I feel like I understand it more now. My seventeen-year-old self consumed it bloody-mindedly because it was meant to be cool.
03. The Boo Radleys – C’mon Kids
The tail-end periphery of Britpop unsurprisingly produced better records than the peak chart-busting years, and C’mon Kids, the Boos’ kick against their own success, still sounds fresh and exciting today. I’ve written enough about them lately, but I loved the belligerent artsiness of this when it came out and still do today; I can’t have been all that bad at seventeen.
02. Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album
To my friends at the time, dance music was something that thumped repetitively in nasty provincial nightclubs where townies fought each other over cans of cheap lager (as opposed to the kind we frequented, where indie kids scowled at each other over cheap bottles of cider); to me, though, it was a psychedelic, avant-garde tool, and nothing epitomized that more than Richard James’ jackhammer advancement, which, to a provincial indie boy, seemed like it was beamed in from another dimension. A couple of years later a lecturer played the “Come to Daddy” promo in a lecture on Theodor Adorno; I stood and applauded, which means I was probably worse at nineteen than seventeen, unfathomably.
01. Orbital – In Sides
This photo was taken a couple of weeks ago.