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1996’s Best Alternative Albums

From lo-fi to trip hop, folktronica to post-rock, last gasps to first stabs, and samples, samples, samples, 1996 marked a new zenith of diversity for alternative music. With the benefit of hindsight, we’re ranking 1996’s Best Alternative Albums.

This was a transitional period for indie, underground and alternative rock, as the defining rock ’n’ roll musical forces – grunge in the U.S., Britpop in the U.K. – were decaying. Survivors such as Pearl Jam and Manic Street Preachers attempted to adapt, while insurgent newcomers Fountains of Wayne and Super Furry Animals blasted through any notions of self-consciousness, imbuing their albums with new energy – even if it was pilfered from the past. Other bands found new inspiration in heaps of sonic layers (Stereolab), patient experimentation (Tortoise) and unpleasant honesty (Weezer).

Other artists cut out the middle man and relied on sampling for old, new and obscure sounds. When it comes to alt. rock, 1996 might be considered the year of the sample, given Beck and the Dust Brothers’ sound cornucopia on Odelay, DJ Shadow’s groundbreaking Endtroducing….. and the many trip hop gems that combined solid songwriting with mind-altering soundscapes. Ironically, as the rock crowd was welcoming sample-addled records, they also were embracing hip-hop acts like OutKast and the Roots, who were eschewing the use of old tunes in favor of creating their own sonic bombast.

And, as with any year, 1996 saw major artists ascending and descending. While R.E.M. made its last LP with Bill Berry, Wilco made its first with Jay Bennett. Soundgarden and Swans made their final albums (or so they thought) at the same time that soon-to-be indie darlings such as Modest Mouse and Belle and Sebastian crafted their debuts. Out with the old, in with the new – especially if the new found a clever way to repackage the old. Here’s what the best of 1996 sounded like.

Next: 1986's Top Albums

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