CRYSTAL BALLIN': It's a New Year, or so they would have us think. Looking around not much seems all that new, nor even just gently worn. Hell, everything's been rode hard and put up wet--is there no end to retro? Is it possible the whole alternative retro craze is born out of a collective insecurity and fear of the future, coupled with a twenty-something generational devotion to the media of our childhoods and the suspicion that it's all been done before?

Folks in the music industry, along with everyone else, are staring hard into the black well of the next millennium, trying to conjure images of what lies ahead. In the scrambling rush to be, see or sign the Next Big Thing, many great bands got half a chance, and many more piss poor bands got famous. The upside? The turnover rate for one-hit wonders seems to increase exponentially with each passing year, in inverse proportion to the average attention span, so at least there's hope that soon we'll have heard the last of Poe. What does all of this bode for the New Year? What will be the alternative to alternative?

Some trends that seem to be identifying themselves are: lo-fi, experimentation, matte-finish versus high-gloss studio production--perhaps because more bands are doing for themselves--multimedia, maturity, personal vision as opposed to political savvy, haircuts, determination as opposed to cynicism, stage presence--be it the more conventional high-energy rock and roll in the manner of Jon Spencer, or the seated, svelte showmanship of the Eels--and bands with two or more words in their names, neither of which is "super."

1996 proved itself a year with no new Seattle, no new grunge, and no new grudge, either. Fashion, film, rock music and even professional sports cosied up ever closer, fortifying the edifice of cool with shiny suits and a renewed sense of glamour. With any luck the backlash against alternative music as big business is imminent in 1997, and the eclectic variety and enormous quality of music produced will dizzy the media long enough to avoid codification, if not the Top Ten lists.

Top Ten lists are something of a year-end requirement, even though Letterman does them every night, and every magazine has surfaced with its picks for '96. Beck is receiving the lion's share of acclaim, topping many lists as artist of the year, with Odelay repeatedly voted album of the year.

It's all a nod in the right direction, as far as I'm concerned. Far and away one of the most interesting and competitive category that I've seen, although I may not concur with all that's listed, is Spin magazine's "The Ten Best Albums You Didn't Hear in '96." Such a list is implicitly ironic--let's just hope we have the opportunity to hear more from such artists in 1997.

Speaking of ironies, here's a tough one to swallow: In 1996 Alanis Morissette sold 50 copies of Jagged Little Pill for each copy purchased of Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville. Just a suggestion, but perhaps one resolution for the New Year that might help light the way for the year 2000: Seek the unique--there's plenty of it out there.

HOT PICK: "Honey Drop the Knife," because all the way from Lincoln, Nebraska, Lullaby for the Working Class makes a Tucson debut Friday, January 3, at the Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Often compared to the Tindersticks and likened to The Scud Mountain Boys, Lullaby for the Working Class are fairly fresh on the nouveau-country, lo-fi alt-folk scene, touring to support their debut CD, Blanket Warm, recently released on BarNone Records. Blanket Warm, 13 songs that couldn't be a more suitable soundtrack for driving long, lonely country roads at twilight--perhaps it's the eight minutes of chirping crickets at the end of the disc--is finely orchestrated, if casually recorded, melancholic and maudlin, and is receiving high praise for its wistful and winsome ambiance. Mike Mogis and Ted Stevens form the stringy core of Lullaby, and between them account for most of the vocals, guitars, banjo, mandolin, organ and glockenspiel, with A.J. Mogis on upright bass and Shane Aspegren's finesse on drums. Formed in 1994, the band spent more than a year and a half together working out all the kinks and putting together the tape that got them promptly signed, without playing a single live performance. These veterans of other Nebraska groups, such as the punkish outfit We'd Rather Be Flying, played their first gigs on a short tour that included a night at CBGB's, and arrive in Tucson as part of a brief Southwest stint. Call 622-8848 for more information.

RIALTO RESURRECTION: The Rialto Theater benefit series continues at the Rialto Cabaret, 201 E. Broadway, this Saturday, January 4, with 25-year-old guitar sensation Rusty Zinn. Sure to be a big star in his own right, Zinn has already shared the stage with the likes of Luther Tucker, Snooky Pryor, Jimmy Rogers and James Cotton. The show starts at 9 p.m., tickets are $5, free for Friends of the Rialto. Call 740-0126 for more information. TW

--Lisa Weeks
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