summing up the year in music always requires a tricky sort of double
vision. Critics have to employ the wide-angle lens and the extreme close
up, have to rely on hindsight, yet keep an eye on the future (will their
choices stand the test of time?). But taking a snapshot of 1996 seemed to
require even more of the long view/short view technique than usual.
We asked three of our critics to write a few words about what mattered
most in pop, jazz and classical music this year and they all chose to focus
on a single artist who, for them, defined not just the moment but went a
long way toward explaining the past and suggesting the future of their
For Keith Moerer, it was Beck, the eccentric genius whose album "Odelay"
slices and dices the past four decades of pop music, from c&w to rock to
rap and everything in between, and reassembles it into a "one-man melting
pot" the only possible, logical soundtrack to life in our polyglot society
at the end of the century. For Milo Miles, the year in jazz was
overshadowed by one sad and pivotal event: the passing of Ella Fitzgerald,
"the last jazz giant" to be "influenced by all phases of the music first
hand." Paul Festa celebrates the golden anniversary of the Juilliard String
Quartet, an event which comes, ironically, in a year of uncertainty and
pessimism about the future of classical music in America.
We also asked our Salon music review contributors for their annotated
Top Tens of 1996, resulting in a mixture of albums, songs, performances and
whateverelses that was absolutely fitting in a year when musical genres and
attitudes intermingled like never before. Classical performers went pop,
alt-rock performers went classical, hip-hop groups covered '70s adult
contemporary, Los Lobos headlined a Deadhead festival, Johnny Cash
covered Soundgarden you name it, somebody tried it in 1996.
After years of fragmentation and pigeonholing, pop music moved toward
common ground this year. And towering above it all was Beck, wearing a
cowboy hat and a disco suit, juggling two turntables and a microphone,
shouting, "Odelay, odelay" some Esperanto cross between an
Appalachian yodel and the Spanish colloquial for "Hurry up." The end of a
century of popular music is drawing near and we're caught between the
impulse to burrow into familiar sounds of the past and the insatiable
curiosity to pursue the unheard wonders that lie just ahead.