Tom’s Top 5′s: Albums of 1996

As the 90s progress, I notice that World Music constitutes a larger and larger proportion of my library. For the purposes of this exercise, I have chosen to limit myself to rock/pop/R&B. Most of the time, it’s not an issue distinguishing between genres – for instance, the Chieftains might frequently collaborate with rock & rollers, but they are trad-Irish through and through. Thus, The Long Black Veil did not enter into contention for 1995, and you won’t see the Chieftains’ Santiago on the following list, despite the fact that the latter contains some of my favorite music ever recorded. But in 1996, there is at least one album/artist that frequently verges on rock/pop but that I would still classify as World Music: Kokko, by the phenomenal Finnish band Värttinä. What’s that? You haven’t heard of Värttinä? Then before you read any further, fill that gap in your musical consciousness. No really, I’ll give you time.

Done? Okay. Then having thus broadened our horizons and enriched our lives, let us get on with the show.

5. THE MASQUERADE OVERTURE (Pendragon)

The Masquerade Overture

Pendragon make pretty much the best neo-prog this side of Marillion circa 1985 – which means that while the complexity factor may not be as high as, say, Änglagård, the emotional factor is through the roof. Nick Barrett’s voice might be an acquired taste for some; but once you acquire the taste [/oblique Gentle Giant reference], “Paintbox” becomes a thing of rare and exquisite beauty.

4. HARBOUR OF TEARS (Camel)

Harbour of Tears

Harbour of Tears continues Camel’s late-career hot streak that began with Dust & Dreams. Like that record, Harbour of Tears is a concept album, this time about Irish immigration to the Americas, and consequently has a more straightforward, folky character than many of Camel’s previous efforts. Also like Dust & Dreams, it works best when listened to from start to finish, with each recurring theme and each powerfully emotive guitar solo cohering into a cogent whole.

3. CASANOVA (The Divine Comedy)

Casanova

You could hardly have chosen a better title than Casanova, what with the ultra-smooth, upper-class, English dandy posturing that opens “Something for the Weekend” and informs Neil Hannon’s self-presentation throughout the album. “Becoming More Like Alfie” and “Songs of Love” reveal that it may be more of a put-on than Hannon’s real personality. But there’s something decidedly irresistible about the Divine Comedy’s Scott-Walker-meets-Belle-&-Sebastian orchestral pop nevertheless.

2. IF YOU’RE FEELING SINISTER (Belle & Sebastian)

If You're Feeling Sinister

Tigermilk was technically Belle & Sebastian’s debut, but almost nobody heard it until after If You’re Feeling Sinister was released. And so was the world introduced to one of the great songwriters of the past two decades: Stuart Murdoch, the reigning king of chamber pop, combining the forlorn romanticism of the Smiths with the wit and whimsy of Ray Davies and the gentle melancholia of Nick Drake.

1. GOLDEN HEART (Mark Knopfler)

Golden Heart

There are songs here about dictator’s wives and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and sleazy paparazzi, dressed up in a myriad of styles from zydeco to rockabilly to smoky jazz to Celtic folk. But at the heart (get it?) of Golden Heart is Mark Knopfler the romantic, turning in three of his best love songs since “Romeo & Juliet”: the title track, “Darling Pretty,” and “Are We in Trouble Now.” Oh, and that guitar – but do I even have to mention it?

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