The decade of the ’90s as a whole seemed like a bit of a golden age for music. The old adage, ‘the cream rises to the top’, was still a possibility during this period of time. There was a feeling among aspiring musicians that commercial success was still possible and artistic integrity was that key-ingredient to such success. Grunge music came to the forefront; Britpop saw bands such as Blur and Oasis duke it out on an international stage, competing with one another for more artistic accomplishments – something that doesn’t really seem to happen as much anymore.
Grunge and Britpop were not the only major genres that were capturing people’s ears at the time. It was also a great time for hip-hop and rap; groups like Fugees and The Roots redefined what hip-hop culture should be about. Public Enemy continued their brilliant diatribes against capitalism, systemised violence and racism with their 1990 album, Fear of a Black Planet, Apocolypse 91… The Empire Strikes Back in 1991 and then Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age in 1994.
1996 was also a good year for female empowerment, as undeniable artists such as Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple rebelled against corporate label control by resisting their marketing ploys of objectifying them as female eye-candy and sex objects.
We took a look at that and more and delved into some of the brilliant albums that were released during 1996. From this research, we developed a definitive list of the top six albums from ’96.
The best albums released in 1996
Fugees – The Score
Released in February of 1996, the album was a commercial success, scoring top hits with the singles, ‘Killing Me Softly’, ‘Ready Or Not’, and ‘Fu-gee-la’. Fusing elements of rock, hip-hop, soul, and reggae; Fugees dominated the overall charts and were the most prominent hip-hop group in 1996.
What Fugees did for hip-hop was revolutionary, creating an honest, feel-good, and soulful record with The Score. Fugees member Lauryn Hill commented on this, stating: “It’s an audio film. It’s like how radio was back in the 1940s. It tells a story, and there are cuts and breaks in the music. It’s almost like a hip-hop version of Tommy, like what The Who did for rock music.”
Pulp – Different Class
While Fugees dominated the American charts in ‘96, Pulp also got their long-awaited breakthrough with their masterpiece Different Class in Britain. A perfect pastiche of kitchen-sink drama, political and class commentary, along with British sarcasm; Pulp were one of the most original groups of the brit-pop movement.
Jarvis Cocker and his band, Pulp, had been struggling for 10 years prior to their 1996 breakthrough in Sheffield and then in London. When Cocker left his Yorkshire hometown and moved to the capital, he was very close to throwing the towel in, but as he found himself in a new city his perspective began refocusing back on Sheffield and realised that his material lied in the everyday lives of ‘common people’.
Beck – Odelay!
Beck’s fifth album featured a string of very successful singles: ‘Where’s It At’, ‘Devil’s Haircut’, ‘The New Pollution’; they all helped push Odelay! to the 16th position of the Billboard 200. It also established Beck as an ever-evolving chameleon in the public’s imagination. After an unsuccessful attempt with producers, Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock, Beck settled with The Dust Brothers who had a foundation in multi-layered hip-hop influenced production qualities.
Especially with this album, Beck has an ability to seamlessly meld one genre after another into one glorious melting pot; there are very few styles of music that are off-limits to Beck. His lyrics paint memorable images, containing unrealities and a whimsical sense of humour. Odelay! remains to this day a shared favourite among countless fans.
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Murder Ballads
Murder Ballads is the quintessential album from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. It features old and new dark tales of murder and the consequences of crimes of passion. The album contains the gem of a collaboration between Cave and fellow Aussie superstar, Kylie Minogue performing on ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’.
The album turned out to be an unexpected chart success for Nick Cave and his band, no doubt due to Kylie Minogue’s guest appearance who helped propel frequent airplay of ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ on MTV. Nick Cave commented on the record, explaining: “I was kind of aware that people would go and buy the Murder Ballads album and listen to it and wonder ‘What the fuck have I bought this for?’ because the Kylie song wasn’t any true indication of what the record was actually like.”
Elvis Costello – All This Useless Beauty
Elvis Costello came onto the British scene as a powerful proponent of Merseyside beat and new-wave music. His scathing and cutting-edge lyrics, coupled with his Buddy Holly aesthetic, and his masterful songwriting truly had an indelible impact on popular music. There are not many artists who change the style of their entire artistic output, let alone many artists who do it well. Elvis Costello constantly challenged and reinvented himself.
All This Useless Beauty was Costello’s last album he did with his loyal band, The Attractions. It was produced by long-time Beatles engineer, Geoff Emerick. As exemplified in this record, Costello has an incredible ability to write with a poignancy while waxing the poetic and staying whimsically surreal and abstract. The literal meanings of his lyrics are at times lost on the listener, however, every now and then we catch a glimpse of an image sparked by a direct lyric which somehow and miraculously ties it all together within one cohesive meaning.
Fiona Apple – Tidal
In 2000, Fiona Apple said about her ‘96 album, Tidal: “When I did Tidal, it was more for the sake of proving myself; telling people from my past something. And to also try to get friends for the future.” Her most successful single for the record, ‘Criminal’, won her a ‘Grammy For Best Female Rock Performance’ in 1998. Her official debut, Tidal solidified Fiona Apple as a diverse, formidable and incomparable powerhouse of a songwriter and singer.
Like some of her contemporaries such as Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple had to struggle against becoming commodified by major label executives; she was placed on a pedestal as a caricature of a ‘heroin-chic’ model. One of her life struggles which presented her as a very real and human performer came in the form of crippling depression which she used as ammunition for her material on Tidal. The album stands as a monument to unfettered passion, musical mastery, and perseverance.