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Reflections '96... Of all the trends and tragedies that spun modern music into its cockeyed spiral in 1996, Houston can't really claim direct involvement in any of them. Last year, we were the last stop on the party train for the late Shannon Hoon (bad drugs, now there's something to be proud of); this year, nothing.

Give us a little credit, though; on occasion, we can spot an artist of the year way in advance. Take, for instance, our early championing of the current man-of-the-moment, Beck. The one-named-wonder's September performance at Numbers was -- like his last few visits to town -- steamy and stuffed. Deploying his best break-dance maneuvers and his Presleyest panache, the post-mod Dylan threw the audience into a groovy Caucasian mind-funk. It was the show of the year, and Spin was on hand to document the shenanigans for its January '97 cover story, even mentioning the line of fans around the block before the gig.

Locally, though, perhaps the most notable product of 1996 was the number of CDs released by Houston bands. There were fresh national CDs from the likes of ZZ Top (Billy Gibbons rediscovers the blues -- and his guitar -- on Rhythmeen), La Mafia (Oscar de la Rosa let us know he's the good-looking guy in front with the sexy voice on Un Millon de Rosas) and King's X (the harmony-loving power trio frays its sharp sophisticated edge with Ear Candy). But there were also a number of notable discs from non-national (at the moment, anyway) acts. A few favorites from a bulky lot:

*Mary Cutrufello, Who to Love ... and When to Leave -- Austin critics have been hard on Cutrufello for this disc's raw, live-to-DAT format. Not the filled-out effort she was capable of, they grouse. Nonsense. Overwhelming the stripped-down mix, the occasional missed beat and Cutrufello's affected drawl are the songs -- epic, powerful, complete -- and an enticing ripple of urgency.

*Horseshoe, King of the World -- A rudderless, somewhat intimidating roots-centric sprawl with enough bold eccentricities to rival Wilco's Being There. Twenty-two songs, some great, some not so great. But even the failures are interesting.

*The Orphans, Homecoming -- Peddling simple songs about simple lives, this surprisingly consistent debut charms with its hummable hooks and disarming lack of pretension. Magnolia's favorite sons did good -- real good.

*The Jinkies, Everest -- Carlos DeLeon is a clatter-pop Willy Wonka, churning out sweet treats with scrumptious hooks that blanket nasty, sometimes tragic centers.

*Big Holiday, State of Mind -- A silly cover and too much jangly midtempo numbness make this debut a bit of a patience-tester. Even so, "Shimmer" and "They Say" are thoroughly buffed folk pop. Houston's answer to Fleetwood Mac, which is cooler than it sounds. (There's a CD release party Friday at the Urban Art Bar).

*DJ Screw, 3 'N the Mornin' -- With its groggy adjustments to speed and pitch, Screw's slowed-down mixing technique gives the eerie effect of a boom box running on weak batteries. Ominous, slang-laced hip-hop from Gulf Coast rappers such as Point Plank and 20-2-Life settles into another groove altogether in Screw's hands. A scratchy, intoxicating chill brew.

*Also worth a mention are '96 efforts from Bee Stung Lips (Chatterboxing), All Mod Cons (All Mod Cons), Bickley (Pogo Au Go-Go), Timmy (Melodic Mirrors), Lima Sugar (Lima Sugar) and ubiquitous jazz guitarist Tod Vullo (uh*huh).

Some other highlights of the last 12 months include:
*The Geto Boys calling a truce and releasing their first new CD, The Resurrection, in three years.

*The Cradle Concert kicking off the spring festival season in grand style with a well-executed (though modestly attended) lesson in Gulf Coast music history that featured a fine cross section of Texas genres and artists, including Robert Earl Keen, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Flaco Jimenez and Jesse Dayton.

*Houston's meanest chick-rockers, Manhole, making their reunion official, getting out of the rehearsal room and onto local stages.

*Any Hollisters show.

Of course, where there's joy, there's pain, such as:
*The Geto Boys calling a truce and releasing their first CD, The Resurrection, in three years. Sounds like they rushed into things.

*Gone but not forgotten: Walter Hyatt, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Mike Dudley, Dave Nichols, Jay Distefano, Orville Strickland, Josh Lloyd.

*R.I.P.: Libertine, Zwee and the Graveberries, HOSS, Monster Soup, Non Stop Bombers, Blueprint, Man or God, Bleachbath (again), Udusha, Vice Grip. *Closed for business ... for good: the Edge, Deep Phat, Munchies, Laveau's (again).

For sure, there was plenty of music floating around this year to keep my furnaces fired, even without anything new from Atticus Finch to bash. Oops, just broke my '96 New Year's resolution.

-- Hobart Rowland

 
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