By Sean Calhoun
Hello, and welcome to the first edition of The (Music) Yearbook, where I’ll be taking a look back at some of the biggest albums of each of the first twelve years of my life. I was born in 1996, so that’s where we’ll be starting. And what was the biggest-selling #1 album of the 1996 calendar year? Why, it was…
Jagged Little Pill – Alanis Morissette (Maverick)
This was a really fun record to start with. I’d listened to it a couple of times before, but had never taken the time to do any sort of in-depth analysis of the record – until now.
Jagged Little Pill gets off to a strong start with “All I Really Want,” which kicks off with a surprisingly aggressive and driving harmonica line. This is a theme throughout the album, and it’s the best use of harmonica I’ve ever heard in any context whatsoever. Who knew that harmonicas were so alternative?
The second track, “You Oughta Know”, begins to present Morissette as a snarky jilted lover, a character that she is more than happy to play on several tracks – chief among them “Right Through You,” “Not The Doctor,” and “Wake Up,” all strong tracks. It’s a character that she pulls off incredibly well, too, with lines like “I don’t wanna be the filler/If the void is solely yours” (from “Not The Doctor”) cutting Alanis’s hypothetical exes to conversational ribbons.
There’s a softer side to Morissette as well, made clear first on the single “Head Over Feet,” which is also the most lyrically sincere track on the album. It’s a refreshing change of pace to hear Morissette deliver lines like “don’t be surprised if I love you/For all that you are” in a way that makes it clear that she genuinely feels happy and at peace.
If there’s a “hidden gem” to be had on Jagged Little Pill, it’s “Forgiven,” a strikingly dark track in which Morissette takes aim at the intersections of organized religion, relationships, and sexuality, singing, “We all had our minds made up for us” and asking the speaker, “If I jump in this fountain/Will I be forgiven?” Morissette goes beyond her typical biting sarcasm here, plumbing dark emotional depths and contemplating concepts like innocence (and loss thereof), truth, and spirituality.
Of course, no exploration of Jagged Little Pill is complete without talking about “Ironic,” perhaps the most well-remembered of the album’s singles. Much has been made of Morissette’s lyricism on this track, most notably the (true) accusations that none of the scenarios brought up in the song serve as legitimate examples of irony. As a writing major, I won’t act like this truth doesn’t bother me a little bit, but it doesn’t stop “Ironic” from being a really good alt-rock song with one of my favorite choruses ever. (The quirky music video doesn’t hurt, either.)
Listening to Jagged Little Pill in 2016, I was struck by how well the music holds up; it doesn’t really feel dated, and Morissette’s emotional rawness and attitude remains relevant to this day. The album is a lot of fun to listen to.
Score, Adjusted for 2016 Ratings Inflation: 9.3/10
For my second album from 1996, I went with a less “mainstream” choice and looked toward the realm of socially conscious music to find a memorable album from one of the decade’s most explicitly political bands…
Evil Empire – Rage Against the Machine (Epic Records)
Zack de la Rocha and company certainly invited political controversy with their caustic brand of anarchist-tinged rap rock, but does Evil Empire still hold up twenty years later?
One of the first things that a listener is likely to notice on this album is the heavy Beastie Boys influence (for better or for worse). De la Rocha’s sound is very much of its time, which immediately dates the album, but it’s still a pretty solid example of pre-Linkin Park rap-rock.
The album kicks off with two singles, “People of the Sun” and “Bulls on Parade”. Both tracks showcase RATM’s aggressive, driving instrumentals and de la Rocha’s distinctive (and angry) flow. It’s a solid start, but not necessarily one that showcases too much of the band’s range – a bit of a common theme on an album where the songs tend to blend into one another a bit.
“Vietnow,” the third track on the album, is a clear example of one of this album’s major flaws – its heavy-handedness. The band has a thing for clunky and involved metaphors that all too often collapse under the weight of their own pretense, expecting the listener to come into the album with a rather substantial knowledge base in order to understand all of the “subversive” points that de la Rocha attempts to make.
Not every song on the album is as murky and clunky as “Vietnow,” though; “Down
Rodeo” is a definite highlight, as de la Rocha delivers the line “These people ain’t seen a brown skin man/Since their grandparents bought one,” aggressively and effectively highlighting issues of class distinction and gentrification and delivering arguably his best flow anywhere on the record.
Another highlight is album closer “Year of tha Boomerang,” which is one of the album’s most explicitly political tracks with lines like “Cause I’m cell locked in tha doctrines of tha right.” There are no overwrought metaphors here, just four minutes of righteous anger and anarchy.
As far as rap-rock albums (and political albums, for that matter) go, Evil Empire is pretty solid. It’s not without its flaws – a dated sound, repetitive and often unexciting instrumentation and production, and some overdone lyrical metaphors – and hasn’t aged particularly well, but it’s still an enjoyable listen.
Score, Adjusted for 2016 Ratings Inflation: 7.1/10