Song of the Day: Tricky, "Christiansands"
When Tricky released Pre-Millennium Tension in 1996, the alternative music community was at a crossroads: Kurt Cobain had been dead two years, and the national spotlight had darted away from Seattle and its Sasquatch thud. In the wake of grunge's wheezing exit, no singular sound had moved in to replace it. Modern rock radio was littered with esoteric number one's, including blasts of Britpop (Oasis' "Wonderwall"), something I like to call the hard jangle (Dishwalla's "Counting Blue Cars"), vestiges of rap-rock (311's "Down"), and the occasional Lilith-era angry lady (Tracy Bonham's "Mother Mother").
But the top of that chart was primarily littered with bits of strange electronic ephemera like Butthole Surfers' "Pepper," Primitive Radio Gods' "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand," and eels' "Novocaine For the Soul." It's possible that the confluence of alt-rock stylings with computer bleeps was a coincidence, or the next logical step in the evolution of the form, but it probably had more to do with Spin's insistence that guitars were out and samplers were the wave of the future.
By '96, America's Alternative Bible was beginning to go all-in on "electronica," the mainstreaming of underground dance music that had already gone somewhat stale in the United Kingdom but was still churning out well-regarded music. Bits of digital experimentation had already seeped into certain well-connected heads in American audiences, particularly in the form of Beck (his 1996 release Odelay is a cut-up king's dream), Cibo Matto (the sample-soaked Viva! La Woman), DJ Shadow (the scratch-tacular magnum opus Endtroducing...), and even the crate-digging stew of the Fugees.
All of those albums ended up on Spin's '96 year-end best albums list, and by '97, Prodigy was on the cover. Also included in that '96 list was Tricky's Pre-Millennium Tension, a gurgling bog of slurred beats, skittering drums, and haunting vocals. For computer-curious rock fans like myself, it was the first foray into trip-hop, a mix of spacey samples and druggy breakbeats that could be cinematic (Portishead) or hardcore (Massive Attack). Tricky existed somewhere in between, and the Tension single "Christiansands" acted as a groovy entry point. I never really appreciated trip-hop in the present tense—Pre-Millennium Tension was an album I often sampled at the Tower Records listening station but never actually purchased—but I've really grown to love it now (it's great music to write to, and also makes for a shockingly swell driving soundtrack). There's something special about the way "Christiansands" slinks, like it's stealthily cruising the bottom of the ocean, only occasionally looking up at the light cast by singer Martina Topley-Bird.
One last thing: It took me years to realize that the album cover to Pre-Millennium Tension is super sexy and sort of dirty. My eye for detail remains terrible.