Freshman Class '96: From Angst to Uplift

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

The fact that No Doubt--this year's big commercial breakthrough, with 2.9 million albums sold and counting--didn't make today's 1996 freshman class honor roll is a reminder that the idea here isn't to salute the year's most successful acts.

That shallow Orange County outfit has already been rewarded enough at the cash register.

Today's focus is on the artists who, regardless of sales, impressed us with their artistry. Though some of the acts aren't true freshmen, they all either made their major-label debut or broke through to a dramatic new level of pop attention during the past 12 months.

Reflecting the diversity of the pop scene these days, the 10 entries range in style from the stark pop confession of Fiona Apple and the folk-country grace of Gillian Welch to the spectacular hip-hop sampling of DJ Shadow and the uplifting spiritual underpinnings of Pakistan's Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

However different their styles, the artists shared a passion and vision that made themworth hearing in '96 and worth watching for the rest of the '90s. The list is alphabetical.

FIONA APPLE

"I tell you how I feel, but you don't care / I say tell me the truth, but you don't dare," this 19-year-old New Yorker declares in the opening lines of "Tidal," a debut album for Sony's Work label that is so aggressively soul-baring that it grabs you by the neck. The Alanis Morissette comparisons are inevitable because the singers are both so young and write so forcefully about romantic confrontation, but Apple's musical shading leans more to a smoky, supper-club sophistication than Morissette's guitar-driven arena pop-rock. The album's not totally convincing, but the live show, where Apple seems to lose herself in her demons, is haunting.

CHEMICAL BROTHERS

This duo of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons is on the list as the freshman class representative of the British techno-dance movement that continues, ever so slowly, to gain a foothold in the U.S. Along with the Prodigy, Orbital and others, the Brothers inject enough rock 'n' roll sensibility into their layers of hip-hop beats and guitar samples to bridge the traditional gap between the rock and dance worlds. Oasis' Noel Gallagher even lends his voice to "Setting Sun," the Brothers' current EP on Astralwerks. A new album is due in March.

DJ SHADOW

It figures. Just when the U.S. record industry and MTV seem finally convinced that there is going to be at least a small British techno-dance invasion, this (dare we say brilliant?) pop auteur slips in the back door with a dazzling hip-hop soundscape that may well serve as a blueprint for sonic pop for years to come. The surprise is that DJ Shadow (Josh Davis) didn't hone his skills in a hip-hop or techno-dance center such as London or New York, but in Davis, Calif. In "Endtroducing," his debut album on Mowax/ffrr Records, he creates mostly wordless works of art through sampling that have a dynamic yet wholly personal tone.

EELS

If Fiona Apple seems intent on sharing her demons with us, Eels leader E appears content to simply use his equally troubled music as a personal therapy to get through the day. "Life is hard and so am I / You'd better give me something, so I don't die," he sings in "Novocaine for the Soul," the alt-rock radio hit from the band's "Beautiful Freak" album that established the L.A. band as one of the year's most absorbing newcomers. "I don't make this stuff up," E says of his musical reflections on some psychic scars. "I've been through some dark times." No one who hears "Beautiful Freak" is likely to doubt him.

FUGEES

If DJ Shadow opened the door this year between hip-hop and art rock, this trio's "The Score" album demonstrated the rewards (including more than 4 million sales in the U.S. alone) of mixing positive hip-hop sentiments with real instruments and R&B;/soul tradition. The group's choice of cover songs--"Killing Me Softly With His Song" and "No Woman, No Cry"--may have been on the conservative side and the live show may have been inconsistent, but Wyclef, Pras and Lauryn Hill emerged as leaders in the turbulent hip-hop world and their influence is likely to be immense.

NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN

Yes, yes, Khan has been considered a master of qawwali--the Sufi music of India and Pakistan--since the '70s, but it wasn't until his involvement with the "Dead Man Walking" film and soundtrack album that the world-music star began to be toasted by mainstream ears in the U.S. There is an inspirational, mystical quality to Khan's singing that brought a comforting, spiritual edge to "Dead Man Walking" director Tim Robbins' deeply moving examination of the moral and social issues surrounding the death penalty. Khan's duet with Eddie Vedder on "The Long Road" was one of the year's supreme pop moments. Skip the new-age-ish album collaboration with guitarist Michael Brook, but don't miss any live show.

PULP

This British band has been around longer than either Oasis or Blur, but its "Different Class" was a key work in a year when Oasis' success refocused attention on English rock. Even though the group may be destined to remain a cult favorite here, in the manner of so many gifted British bands over the last decade, the album was a superbly crafted series of tales about class conflict on various levels, and it proved leader Jarvis Cocker to be a major talent. Bonus points as scene stealer: Cocker was the guy who got headlines around the world for disrupting Michael Jackson's song at the Brit Awards show in February--a "protest at the way Jackson sees himself as some Christ-like figure with the power of healing."

TONY RICH

Rich is the freshman class representative for the new generation of singers that is celebrating the romantic, sexual-healing elements of '70s R&B.; Think in the '70s: Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Think in the '90s: D'Angelo (a 1995 freshman class winner), Maxwell and Rich. We'll learn more in 1997 about which of these singers can emerge as the leader of the movement. Thanks to the melancholy "Nobody Knows," Rich is off to the fastest commercial start. The mainstream hit, however, shows only one side of this singer, songwriter and producer from Detroit. Elsewhere in the stylish "Words" album on LaFace Records, he examines social issues and conditions with equal style and craft.

THE WALLFLOWERS

Don't let the fact that Bob Dylan's son fronts this roots-minded L.A. band make you suspect that all the talk about the group's second album, "Bringing Down the Horse," is hype. Jakob Dylan, 26, blossomed this year with "Horse," singing heartfelt tales of a young man's struggle to find something to believe in during an age of confusion and contradiction. The group needs to project more personality live, but the songwriting conveys the soul-searching and passion that leaves the feel of blood on the tracks. "6th Avenue Heartache" got the MTV attention, but it's the melancholy "I Wish I Felt Nothing" that sticks with you.

GILLIAN WELCH

Can an upper middle-class girl from the Westside grow up and write convincing songs in a vintage Appalachian style? You can understand why someone might raise the question before hearing Welch's extraordinary Almo Sounds Records debut, "Revival," but her vocals and songs are so endearing that it's a mystery why some reviewers are still asking it after hearing the album. One sign that Welch is the real thing: Emmylou Harris has recorded one of her songs. A second is that Welch's version of that song, "Orphan Girl," is so stirring that it makes you forget Harris'. Someone special indeed.

*

* TimesLine 808-8463

To hear excerpts from the albums reviewed, call TimesLine and press * and the artist's corresponding four-digit code. Fiona Apple *5721, Chemical Brothers *5722D, J Shadow *5723, Eels *5724, Fugees *5725, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan *5726, Pulp *5727, Tony Rich *5728, The Wallflowers *5729, Gillian Welch *5730

In 805 area code, call (818) 808-8463.

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This Year's Class

Fiona Apple

Chemical Brothers

DJ Shadow

Eels

Fugees

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Pulp

Tony Rich

The Wallflowers

Gillian Welch

Classes of the Past

1995: Albita, D'Angelo, Ani DiFranco, Elastica, Garbage, the Geraldine Fibbers, Alanis Morissette, Portishead, Rancid, Wu-Tang Clan.

1994: David Ball, Beck, Jeff Buckley, Dionne Farris, Green Day, Hole, Freedy Johnston, Luscious Jackson, Oasis, Spearhead.

1993: American Music Club, Counting Crows, the Cranberries, Digable Planets, Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg, Moby, Me'Shell NdegeOcello, Liz Phair, Rage Against the Machine, Uncle Tupelo.

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