This was a year of extraordinary transition in pop, when everyone from MTV to scores of anxious record executives proclaimed that the creative and commercial centers of music were shifting from the alternative rock and rap sounds that have dominated the '90s.
Let's hope they're right.
Even if no one seems certain about exactly what's next, the question should have a stimulating effect on the pop world, because the search itself reminds us of the importance of keeping pop relevant and fresh.
You already sense things getting interesting when country landmark Johnny Cash records a song by '90s auteur Beck, and classic-rock disciple Noel Gallagher of Oasis lends his voice to a dance music track by the Chemical Brothers.
In the middle of all this uncertainty, Beck gave us the album of the year in "Odelay," which brilliantly wove together all sorts of diverse styles in ways that sometimes sound as groundbreaking as Bob Dylan's going electric three decades ago.
Joining Beck on today's list of 1996's most distinguished works are albums by artists whose music also mixes and matches various pop strains in manners that border on revolutionary, from the liberating folk 'n' blues intensity of Ani DiFranco to the funk 'n' soul combat of Me'Shell Ndegeocello.
1. BECK, "Odelay" (DGC). Beck Hansen, 26, is a singer-songwriter whose foundation in the roots of rock 'n' roll is so strong you can picture him fitting in nicely on the country music circuit in the '30s with the equally trailblazing Jimmie Rodgers, a blues club stage in the '50s with John Lee Hooker or on a folk bill in the '60s with Dylan.
As much as he loves those musical traditions, however, Beck, like Dylan, prefers to work in the musical language of his generation, which means hip-hop and sampling. And he's found the perfect partners in the Dust Brothers, the Los Angeles writing-production duo.
Beck even draws a parallel between the old blues roadhouse and the urban dance club in the album's "Where It's At," a salute to the contemporary deejays who create dynamic soundscapes with two turntables and a microphone.
What makes Beck so important is that he is able to mix these sonic adventures with soulful and convincing songs. Among the album's standouts: the melancholy, country-accented "Lord Only Knows," which sounds like a summit meeting between Keith Richards and the late Gram Parsons, and "Jack-Ass," a look at romantic complications that is as puzzling and absorbing as vintage Dylan.
If you taught a course in contemporary pop music, "Odelay" would be the textbook, because over its 59 minutes, it both showcases the foundation of modern pop and peeks into its future.
2. ANI DiFRANCO, "Dilate" (Righteous Babe). Though this album doesn't have the sweeping sonic ambition of "Odelay," DiFranco is every bit as independent and original as Beck--and she may prove to be an even more gifted writer. In the highlights of this largely autobiographical account of a stormy relationship with a married man, the young New Yorker speaks to us with an urgency and intimacy reminiscent of Joni Mitchell's most compelling tunes.
Even in her moments of despair, DiFranco finds the strength to retain her dignity and hope. In the title track, she declares, "So I'll walk the plank/ and I'll jump with a smile . . . [But] you won't see me surrender/ You won't hear me confess/ 'Cause you've left me with nothing/ but I've worked with less." One of the essential artists of the '90s.
3. ME'SHELL NDEGEOCELLO, "Peace Beyond Passion" (Maverick). You won't hear a more provocative piece of music on a 1996 album than "Leviticus: Faggot," whose title alone indicates that this Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter goes further than most musicians dare to tread. That attack on anti-gay bigotry was backed on the album by equally aggressive commentaries against racial intolerance and sexism.
In the haunting "Makes Me Wanna Holler," Ndegeocello speaks about turmoil in her family with such soul-baring candor that you can understand why she felt too uncomfortable to put the words on the lyric sheet. Popular music doesn't get any more emotionally explosive.
4. DJ SHADOW, "Endtroducing" (Mowax/ffrr). If "Odelay" is the basic text for any class in contemporary pop, this debut by Josh Davis should be required listening on the days devoted to What's Next. Davis may be the Hendrix of the two turntables and a microphone. Every note in this hip-hop symphony is laced together from recordings in Davis' huge vinyl collection, so purists will complain that it's not real music at all because it wasn't played specifically for this work. Your ears will tell you differently.