New Sounds Young And Harvey Top The First Half Of ‘95
It’s a two-album race so far in 1995. PJ Harvey’s “To Bring You My Love” and Neil Young’s “Mirror Ball” are so far ahead in the best album competition that it’s tempting to limit the midyear Top 10 to the pair. That would suit many fans just fine at a time when there is an unusual amount of grumbling about an apparent lack of quality releases.
But the so-called 1995 pop drought is deceptive.
There has been a rich, diverse layer of secondary albums this year, but most went largely unnoticed by radio programmers, whose exposure is crucial to the music’s connecting with mainstream audiences.
In some ways, this represents a return to the days before Nirvana and N.W.A. led invasions of the mainstream by alternative rock and rap - the days of the late ‘70s and ‘80s when many of the most compelling records remained critical or cult favorites.
Most of this year’s challenging and original music was so idiosyncratic that the albums not only didn’t reach the mainstream, but they were also considered outsiders even in their own genres: Polara in alternative-college rock, Steve Earle in country, the Roots in rap.
The lesson for pop fans is that they have to get active again in searching out stirring new music, not wait on the music to find them. Of the albums in my midyear Top 10, only one (2Pac) has made the national Top 10, although a second (the just-released Young) is expected to do so. Some never even made it into the Top 200 sales chart.
Except for the Harvey-Young tie, the albums are listed in order of preference. The musical styles vary greatly, but all share a fresh, individual vision.
1. PJ Harvey, “To Bring You My Love” (Island). In her third collection of new songs, this exquisite British singer-songwriter delivers an album so rich in imagery and ambition that it has the feel of an epic novel. Shedding the volcanic blues-rock assault of the first two albums for more sophisticated and graceful musical textures, Harvey becomes at once more vulnerable and urgent in a series of fire-and-brimstone explorations of life and death, innocence and guilt, sex and salvation. Music that is at once seductive and unsettling.
1. Neil Young, “Mirror Ball” (Reprise). Though suspicious of the old hippie ideals of peace and love, Young, who teams up here with Pearl Jam, recognizes that the failure of his generation to live up to its goals is no reason to discard them. “Can’t forget what happened yesterday,” he sings in a moment of almost spiritual cleansing. “Though my friends say don’t look back/I can feel it coming through me/Like an echo, like a photograph.”
3. Elastica, “Elastica” (DGC). This exhilarating British arrival revives ‘80s power-punk vitality but with an authority that is closer to the sassy defiance of the Pretenders than the mere pop bounce of Blondie.
4. Moby, “Everything Is Wrong”
(Elektra). When this New York studio mastermind rivals Ministry’s relentless energy in one track and then out-steps C+C Music Factory in another, you know he’s on to something. More than simply serving up dazzling pop textures, Moby is that rare dance-techno artist whose themes are identifiable and purposeful.
5. Polara, “Polara” (Clean). Ed
Ackerson is a singer, producer and writer with a magical blend of the melodic sweetness of Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan and the soulful introspection of Paul Westerberg.
6. 2Pac, “Me Against the World” (Interscope). There have been complaints that this rapper isn’t repentant enough in this self-examination. But there’s a layer of discontent and doubt beneath that swagger that recalls the troubled isolation of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”
7. Steve Earle, “Train a Comin”’ (Winter Harvest). “Home is where the heart is/Ain’t that what they say/ My heart lies in broken pieces/ Scattered along the way,” Earle sings in this acoustic collection. It’s his most engaging album since 1986’s splendid “Guitar Town.”
8. Tricky, “Maxinquaye” (Island). Hailed in England along with Portishead and Massive Attack as a leader in the progressive Bristol Sound, producer-rapper Tricky and vocal partner Martina blend influences ranging from ambient and hip-hop to neo-punk for biting reflections on underdog struggle.
9. Railroad Jerk, “One Track Mind” (Matador). This New York outfit toasts blues and rock tradition as cheekily and invitingly as Beck.
10. The Roots, “Do You Want More?!!!??!” (DGC). If the hip-hop and jazz fusion seemed an idea from 1994 whose time has already passed, this Philadelphia group keeps it alive.