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Looking Back on 1996


In the seventeenth year of my salad days (Thousand Island, for the most part), I spent a very boring summer driving around in a 1983 silver Volvo station wagon, listening to the records pictured above: The ShinsChutes Too Narrow and Rilo Kiley‘s The Execution of All Things. Something about 8th-note ride cymbal hits matches perfectly with cruising around the Southern United States. In 1996, my humble hometown finally got itself an “Alternative” radio station, which was a godsend for learning about new music: I strongly remember first hearing “Friends of P” on a battery-powered radio-flashlight during the long blackout from Hurricane Opal.

Radio, however, cannot hold a brief candle to that warm glow of hi-bias cassette tapes blasting out of ’80s car speakers, a kind of amorphous audio blob unrestrained by crisp hi-end — a triumphant victory of mid-range and hiss.

By the summer of 1996, we were already seeing the Decline of the Alternative Nation: instead of epic grunge, we had one-hit wonders of grunge lite, the precursors to Third Eye Blind. I doubt the four words Green Apple Quick Step mean anything to anyone anymore, but bands like this made up a long list of second-tier non-mainstream acts with a single good song: The Refreshments, Letters to Cleo, Primitive Radio Gods, The Caufields, Sleeper, maybe even the Phunk Junkies. Definitely Hum.

The Shins and Rilo Kiley fit well into this mold: catchy songs, rough but simple production, earnestness. The Shins brought a bit of a ’60s and home recording into the mix. RK, on the other hand, were so of the time — the alternachick voice, guitars instantly growing in size through a stompbox smash, dueling high-guitar parts over ride cymbals, distorted voices, songs too long for their own good, the fetishization of depression, sing-along choruses. I find it odd today how much the melodic structure of “Bad Day”-type innocuous mainstream pop borrows directly from that post-Alternative framework. Is it just all Linda Perry‘s fault or a sign of real stagnation in Top 40 musical progression outside of hip-hop?

No matter, why listen to today’s indie pop when you can go back and hear better and more original versions from the mid-’90s? The Shins and Rilo Kiley don’t sound like 1996 — they are 1996. And 1996 was much better the first time, when I was out mowing the lawn, enduring the eventual abrupt cut-off of last songs on 45-min side Maxell tapes with hand-written labels, drinking blue Powerade, and spending the $1 of the $10 I earned that sweaty morning on a 9pm viewing of a recent blockbuster at the discount second-run theater. Driving home afterward, you better believe I rewound the tape to the beginning of side A, and there goes “Kissing the Lipless” — sitting in the car until the end of “Saint Simon” even though I had arrived back home minutes earlier.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
October 31, 2006

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

47 Responses

  1. trevor Says:

    i honestly can’t understnad the idea of listening to something that just didn’t come out, other then for the historical value.
    i’m gonn have to toss all my 2006 albums soon, just cause they say 2006 on them!

  2. Rory P. Wakekrest Says:

    Trip Master Monkey
    Better than Ezra
    Tripping Daisy
    Geggy Tah

    hm, who else..

  3. Carl Says:

    I have reason to believe that this entry is based on a falsehood of some sort.

  4. Rory P. Wakekrest Says:

    Maybe the contention that The Refreshments had one good song.

    Veruca Salt only really had one hit, right?

  5. marxy Says:

    Better Than Ezra were a regional player that had a big national hit (“Good”), a bit like Deadeye Dick (“New Age Girl”).

    Veruca Salt seemed more hyped than my other examples, but maybe ended up in the same place. Superdrag got some heavy backing from MTV but were too late on the wave.

    Tripping Daisy gave itself another 10 years of cred with Polyphonic Spree.

  6. Rory P. Wakekrest Says:

    Ugh, Deadeye Dick!
    She don’t eat meat, but she sure like the bone.
    Thanks for reminding me of The Cauffields though. Wasn’t their hit “Hand Me Downs,” or about acid washed jeans or something?
    …This post is bringing back the REV105 memories. Did anyone ever hear Sammy? Woulda been 1997 on DGC. They sounded like a less-zaney Pavement. I actually quite liked that record, and their “debut album.”

  7. marxy Says:

    Todd Snider – “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” – kinda awesome the first time I heard it.

    The Caufields – “Devil’s Diary” – kinda awesome in a 1995 way.

  8. Rory P. Wakekrest Says:

    I really liked Archers of Loaf, “Web in Front,” and all that. Built To Spill were really big for me from 1994 and their next album or two.
    Mahxy, I thought you spent most of the early and mid nineties trying to learn the harmonica solo in “Life is a Highway.”

  9. marxy Says:

    No joke: I was pretty sure that “Life is a Highway” was the backtrack to a fast food commercial the first couple of times I heard it. Like Hardee’s or something.

  10. marxy Says:

    90s Trivia: for a while, one of the colors for light khaki in the J. Crew catalog was called “Stone Gossard.”

  11. Rory P. Wakekrest Says:

    I saw a Brady Bunch parody bondage porno called Alice in Chains.

  12. marxy Says:

    I saw a generic animal store called “Pets.” I am pretty sure they were hardcore Porno to Pyros fans.

  13. marxy Says:

    Porno for Pyros

  14. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    No, that’s Alice in Flames.
    [that one sucked.]

  15. clh Says:

    If 1996 is the year of rilo kiley, i want to live there forever. also, being 16 isnt all that bad…if you get to listen to rilo kiley.
    yet, i didnt know of rilo kiley then, and was forced to listen to a lot of other stuff (i remeber the drum’nbass aera to just start that year in Cologne..uuugghhh)
    Number one hit 1996 (and for about 3-4 years after): Mirrorball by Everything but the girl.

    One album from 1996 was then and is still in my all time top 10 and put me on the right path:
    Texas is the reason: Do you know who you are

  16. clh Says:

    OH and – 1996 was a big “Blümchen” year.
    anybody know her? Boomerang. What a hit! Be glad you didnt have grow up in Techno Germany.

  17. marxy Says:

    I did my German homestay the summer of 1997 and I discovered all that Techno German Pop.

  18. clh Says:

    oh, hey. that’s not right. 1996…i turned 18 then. time flies, even in hindsight.
    Turning 18 in Germany means finally being able to drive.
    I remember my first car-mix-tape, presented to me by Chris Weinreich. It had Goldene Zitronen, Blumfeld, Pavement, They Might be Giants, my first Weakerthans song and Tocotronics “So jung kommen wir nicht mehr zusammen” which finished exactly as the tape came to an end as Chris had mastered the art of making mix-tapes for girls, perfectly timed, perfect artwort, perfect subtle messages in the songs (just talking to girls he wasnt so good at, but the tapes are still cherished!)

  19. clh Says:

    Oh GOD, Marxy. I feel truly sorry. Did they make you listen to Westbam and Marusha and….they are still around i believe…SCOOTER?????

    “Let the sun shine in your heart”…motto of the love parade 1997. Ugh, those techno hippies.

  20. marxy Says:

    I think those bands were too Ulm. I was in a place nowhere near as urban as Ulm.

  21. clh Says:

    no, no, no, not bands…we are talking “DJs” here and “DJanes” of course (Marusha), lets not forget the strong gender aspect of the German Techno movement. An E-version of 1968.

  22. Rory P. Wakekrest Says:

    Wow. “DJanes.”
    …VJanes は?

  23. marxy Says:

    “You use tables?”
    “No, I am a CDJane.”

  24. clh Says:

    ja, das ist richtig.
    Mtv-janes and VIVA-V-Janes.


  25. - Says:

    Is it just too crass to mention that both these albums were released in the early 00s?

  26. clh Says:

    like i said…time flies in hindsight.
    so lets just pretend that we really only were 16 or 18 when these albums came out and we do recall that one summer listening to them on our old tape decks.
    dont spoil it all. you. lets make some memories here!!!

  27. lacadutadegiganti Says:

    Marx’s fixation on the Golden Age of the late nineties and (lapses into sophomoric marxy-speak) concomitant hypostatization of Shibuya-kei as a telelogical culmination seems limitless.

    -favourite German techno album: Nagelbett
    -does miss Makiharu a bit

  28. marxy Says:

    Now you are catching on.

  29. lauren Says:

    Ok, CD release years aside Opal was totally a *1995* storm. You (being the FL panhandle) did have tropical storm Josephine the next year though.

    I’m a square I know, but hurricanes are my jam and 1996 was an extremely memorable year for them for me. Bertha hit where I go to the beach pretty hard early in the season and then Fran partied like it was 1999 and we were out of school for two weeks. (In 1999 Floyd similarly parties like it actually was 1999, just a bit more to the east. We were still out for 2 weeks though, I think.)

  30. Adamu Says:

    Searchin around the house but there’s nobody home… (big skip) IT WAS GOOOD, LIVING WITH YOU UH-OH!!!!!!

  31. Adamu Says:

    (not too sure, and I’m not too proud…)

  32. Adamu Says: you were so good

  33. D Says:

    I think I prefer fabricated krautrock nostalgia better.

  34. D Says:

    I mean “…more.”

  35. jnal Says:

    I was back in Toronto a couple of weeks ago, and reminscing with my friends there about the time we saw Tripping Daisy open for some other band sometime in 1996. Someone recalled how the singer brilliantly substituted the name of our city (which we tend to pronounce “Tawrawna”) in the chorus of their song “Piranha.” The audience loved it, of course. Then a guy told us that he had been to the same show a few days later in Ottawa and *they did the same thing*, which is ridiculous because “Ot-tahwa” is really a stretch. But I guess they figured they were onto a good thing.

    And that was the moment I lost my respect for Tripping Daisy.

  36. marxy Says:

    I heard a rumor that they change their big hit to “J’ai une copine” in Quebec.

  37. marxy Says:


  38. Laotree Says:

    That was a strange and wonderful time. At my school, all the football and track team folks were listening to Pearl Jam and Sponge (and starting bands, WTF?!!)
    I picked up a Casio SK-5 at a garage sale that year, and things have never been the same.
    Three favorite albums from 1996: Emperor Tomato Ketchup by Stereolab, They Spent Their Wild Youthful Days in the Glittering World of the Salons by Swirlies, and Odelay by Beck. These symbolize more than anything else that last year of high school, (looks like I’m about the same age as our dear host) rediscovering the possibilities of sound through tea-shades and car speakers . Other things I listened to a hell of a lot that year were Helium’s The Dirt of Luck (1995) and everything by My Bloody Valentine. My friends and I also used to rock homemade tapes of Nintendo soundtracks in the school parking lot, which garnered strange looks from the Brandon Walsh types. By that time though I had pretty much given up on “Modern Rock Radio” but 120 Minutes still occasionally played some decent videos, although it was painful to wade through the sewage and Matt Pinfield’s sycophantic commentary. Funny though, now there are actually a couple of Stone Temple Pilots songs I can enjoy , (“Creep” and “Big Empty”, but I swear that’s my limit) along with some other stuff I thought was corporate garbage back then. (That time-mellowing effect being a phenomenon my dad warned me about in 1996)

  39. marxy Says:


    I knew I was forgetting somebody!

    and starting bands, WTF?!!

    This is the great social upheaval of the mid-90s that everyone outside of middle/high school will ridicule and misunderstand, but we will look back upon fondly.

    120 Minutes still occasionally played some decent videos, although it was painful to wade through the sewage and Matt Pinfield’s sycophantic commentary

    Pinfield exactly ushered in the Decline. The Commodius of the Alternative Nation.

    there are actually a couple of Stone Temple Pilots songs I can enjoy

    “Big Bang Baby” would be a classic if it had come from anybody else.

  40. saru Says:

    You youngsters… you only complain about Matt Pinfield because you are too young to remember Kevin Seal or Dave Kendall. Or (ugh) Kennedy.

  41. marxy Says:

    Dave Kendall seemed fine to me, but the British have that auto-cachet over Americans.

  42. dzima Says:

    “Big Bang Baby” would be a classic if it had come from anybody else.

    Marxy, I must agree with you on something for once. Give us a STP high five!

  43. Laotree Says:

    Saru sez: “You youngsters… you only complain about Matt Pinfield because you are too young to remember Kevin Seal or Dave Kendall. Or (ugh) Kennedy.”

    No I remember them as well, but Pinfield was the guy who seemed like he knew a lot about music, and reluctantly lied through his teeth everytime he introduced “the great new single from Poe” or something like that. The guy who knew better but still tried to sell us the brown acid. Whereas his predecessors seemed more like Downtown Julie Brown, talking Pez dispensors. (wubba wubba wubba) Back before him you could still see real indie bands like Superchunk on MTV, but around 95 it had changed into Grunge-lite, paving the way for Dishwalla, Collective Soul, and Candlebox. I’m sorry for besmirching this blog with such names. I had almost completely forgotten about Kennedy and Alternative Nation, which I started watching as a jr high student in hopes of catching the King Missile video “Detatchable Penis”, cuz I couldn’t believe such things existed in this world. Never did get a chance to see it but got early exposure to a lot of other stuff, good or bad.

    I forgot to mention Dig, (“Believe”) but they might have been a couple of years earlier than 1996. I’ve only heard a couple of Shins songs but they seemed like a throwback to a time way earlier than 96, call me crazy. And as for Rilo Kiley, I’m gettin too old to care…

  44. saru Says:

    Excellent point. In truth, I lost interest by the time Pinfield started. I had the impression he knew something, yet as you say maybe that is not a redeeming quality in and of itself. I remember seeing Johnny Rotten on 120 Minutes with Kevin Seal. Seal asked him to sing something and he sneered, “I’m not a performing seal.” At the time, I thought those Empty-V hosts were richly deserving of whatever venom someone “subversive” like Johnny could dish out. (Hey, it was high school.)

    1996 was the year that Amp started up on MTV. That’s what gets me nostalgic–the Future Sound of London. And–no VJs!

  45. Laotree Says:

    Amp! It was great to see something that was so blatantly psychedelic. And something that didn’t follow the standard MTV title format, at least in the first season. The occasionally beatmatched segues were a nice thing to see too, in lieu of a VJ. That was ’96, wasn’t it? Somewhere I have some old vhs tapes of amp lying around…

  46. marxy Says:

    The best is when the celebrity alternative hosts would be on 120 Minutes, because they would passively-aggressively introduce videos and make fun of MTV and “alternative” music.

  47. David Says:

    Saru et Laotree: I only got to see a couple episodes of the original AMP on MTV, but it was certainly awesome. I don’t think North America has seen anything quite like it, since. I’ve been trying to round up good VHS copies of it and capture it digitally so I can clean it up. Try to fix the picture, lay over good quality versions of the music…

    Original blogger: Hey. I liked the rest of the Refreshments’ music. :| But I agree with the rest of your assessment. And I will drink to the mentioned amorphous audio blob.