The 10 Best Albums of 1996

The 10 Best Albums of 1996

 

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In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1990s, I described nostalgia for the decade as “an idealized vision of a time when Bill Clinton was the fresh, young Democrat on the block, beepers were the hottest new tech items, and every major record label and Top 40 radio station was scrambling to discover the next big alternative to run-of-the-mill pop.” I went on to lament: “It’s human nature to look back on things with irrational fondness and nostalgia, overlooking the bad and romanticizing the good. But while the ’90s had its fair share of ’crap,’ it’s hard to deny that the ’good’ was exceptionally good.” So good, in fact, that we decided to dust off our lovingly curated list of over 400 albums to compile individual Top 10s for each year of the ’90s. Many of these titles are already widely—and rightfully—celebrated, but these lists also give us the opportunity to honor some typically overlooked gems. Sal Cinquemani
 

Honorable Mention: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi; Tori Amos, Boys for Pele; Rage Against the Machine, Evil Empire; Maxwell, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite; Tool, Aenima; Dr. Octagon, Dr. Octagonecologyst; Ghostface Killah, Ironman; Jamiroquai, Travelling Without Moving; Red House Painters, Songs for a Blue Guitar; Sublime, Sublime
 

The 10 Best Albums of 1996

10

Sheryl Crow, Sheryl Crow

The mid-1990s was a sort of wasteland for alternative pop, the standard of which was to mix ordinary pop songwriting with samples, hip-hop beats, and electronic flourishes. This post-grunge, postmodern, and seemingly post-everything approach wasn’t unlike the similar synth-driven boom of the ’80s, as both resulted in a stream of one-hit wonders but also the occasional masterpiece, like Beck’s Odelay. Sheryl Crow, like Beck, found a rare balance between retro, organic rock and slick glam-pop on her eponymous sophomore effort, for which she took full rein of production duties, partially in response to suggestions that she was a mere puppet to the all-male team who helped shape her critically hailed debut. As such, there’s a palpable, fear-driven ambition to Sheryl Crow that served the artist well: She not only avoided the dreaded sophomore slump, but produced the best album of her career. Cinquemani

The 10 Best Albums of 1996

9

Aphex Twin, The Richard D. James Album

Simultaneously too hot to handle and too cold to hold, Richard D. James’s eponymous album is more fascinated by textures than almost any other electronic album ever crafted. Aphex Twin’s beats aren’t really beats at all, but rather more like cultivated mini organisms colliding clumsily atop a luminescent Petri-dish dance floor. If Kraftwerk once claimed “We are the robots,” Aphex Twin pulls back his android skin to show you the pulsating, quicksilver-pumping meat underneath. The album’s occasional penchant for schoolyard gross-out effects on the order of Ween (i.e. the punchline of “Milkman”: “I would like some milk from the milkman’s wife’s tits”) only proves he’s human after all. Eric Henderson

The 10 Best Albums of 1996

8

OutKast, ATLiens

Never has an album title been more indicative of its content than ATLiens, which reconciles dirty, laconic Southern rap with spacey, outlandish funk. The album smoothly introduced many of the sounds and themes that OutKast would further explore on Aquemini and Stankonia, and while most would point to single “Elevators (Me & You)” as the groovy apex of ATLiens’s mashed-up style, it’s actually the title track that best combines the album’s usage of Southern-fried lingo, swirling synth basslines, R&B vocal sampling, crisp percussion, and spaced-out atmospherics. “If you like fish and grits and all that pimp shit,” André 3000 alerts listeners, “then everybody say oh-yeah-yer.” Kevin Liedel

The 10 Best Albums of 1996

7

Fiona Apple, Tidal

It’s not that Janeane Garofalo didn’t have a point about Fiona Apple when she skewered the singer’s infamous “This world is bullshit!” VMA acceptance speech in A Reading from the Book of Apple, but it’s not like Apple’s debut album, Tidal, didn’t lay bare her brattiness from the get-go. Raw and unpolished, it’s an immature album that’s equal parts angst and hubris, with Apple’s forceful piano playing and husky alto portending every last note and syllable with a lifetime’s worth of gravity. But that actually works in the album’s favor, in the way that it suggests that Apple knew that the full extent of her talent had yet to be tapped, but that she was already awfully damn good. Go with yourself. Jonathan Keefe

The 10 Best Albums of 1996

6

Ani DiFranco, Dilate

The title of her previous album may have been Not a Pretty Girl, but it was on Dilate that Ani DiFranco got real, real ugly. DiFranco turned the outrage and indignation she’d previously directed toward political injustice on herself, and what keeps the album from sinking into navel-gazing or from becoming an insufferable downer are DiFranco’s conviction and the sincerity of her performances. “Superhero” is a damning read on her own status as a cult hero, pushing beyond mere self-deprecation into biting self-parody, but it’s “Untouchable Face,” which turned a simple “Fuck you” into a hook nearly 15 years before Cee-Lo, that best captures the balance of loneliness, rage, and wit that made DiFranco one of the decade’s most singular voices. Keefe

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