Hidden Gem Albums of 1996

Rediscover some of the best and most underrated albums of 1996…

1996 was a heck of a year. It saw the introduction of the Nintendo 64, the publication of Game of Thrones, and most importantly, The Nutty Professor graced the silver screen and changed the way we look at fart humour forever. 

But while the music headlines were dominated by the release of The Spice Girls’ debut single Wannabe and the breakup of Take That (which resulted in government funded counselling lines being set up), a veritable smorgasbord of excellent albums slipped under the mainstream radar.

And so 17 years later, UDS HQ dusts off some of our favourite cassettes, records and even the odd compact disc or two to reminisce about some of the best hidden gem albums of 1996…

Goosefair – China Drum (Tom)

Goosefair - China Drum album cover
This is the highest res image of the album art I can find. If that doesn’t scream underrated I don’t know what does.

China Drum are one of those bands that, had they come about a decade before or after, would’ve been a household name. For the uninitiated, think Hüsker Dü mixed with Green Day and a dash of North East England. 

While they still continue to release excellent music to this day, undoubtedly their crowning achievement was 1996’s Goosefair. Straddling the line between punk grit and radio-friendly grooves throughout, it kicks off with Can’t Stop These Things, which may very well be my favourite track on the whole album. It’s an earworm in the best possible way, with a pulsating drumbeat providing the throughline for instantly hummable guitar leads and vocalist/drummer Adam Lee’s uniquely angsty lyrics.

From there, there’s very little let up in quality. From the circle pit inciting Fall into Place to the more reserved, acoustic appeal of Meaning, there’s an infectious, youthful energy that pervades from beginning to end. I didn’t even realise until I relistened to the record for this write up that there’s a secret, hidden cover of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights after the last track, and let me tell you – it slaps! 

The biggest compliment I can pay China Drum and this record is that you’ll be able to hear their influence in many contemporary acts. Reuben, Hundred Reasons and Lower Than Atlantis spring to mind immediately, but I’m sure you’ll find more on your own listens. Regardless, China Drum deserve our collective attention and listens in 2023 and beyond. 

Tin Cans with Strings to You – Far

Tin Cans with Strings to You - Far album cover

Far are the band Deftones could’ve been. Because what’s a good internet think piece without some hot takes? Let me explain.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Deftones’ sound and Diamond Eyes might be one of the best alternative rock albums of all time. But the one thing I’ve never been truly enamoured with is Chino Morino’s vocals. His wispy groans and high screams just never resonated with me, and it’s a testament to their songwriting that I like them in spite of this. 

Far, on the other hand, shared a similar sound to early Deftones (coming up around the same time), just with far superior vocals, and 1996’s Tin Cans with Strings to You is one of the best examples of this. 

Opening with What I’ve Wanted To Say, the groove-laden riffs will draw those instant comparisons to Deftones, just with decidedly more major chords. Jonah Matranga’s vocals bring more of grunge fusion to proceedings, bordering on first-wave emo at times. If we get a taste of this in the opener, Love, American Style could be a Glassjaw track with the frenetic chaos it exudes.

Lyrics of angst, loss and melancholy might not be anything new in rock and metal, but there’s a catharsis on this record that stands above its contemporaries. It’s a rawness that only comes from youthful lament, a sonic lightning in a bottle that doesn’t appear often. While Far might be more well known for their admittedly banging cover of Pony by Ginuwine, Tin Cans with Strings to You demonstrates why it’s criminal how this band has been slept on for so long.

New Adventures in Hi-Fi – R.E.M. (Dobbie)

New Adventures in Hi-Fi - R.E.M. album cover

After a successful build-up in the Indie Rock scene of the 1980s, the first half of the 90s saw R.E.M. become one of the biggest bands on the planet. 1991’s Out of Time had made them a household name, with 1992’s follow-up Automatic For The People sending the band to stratospheric heights – all without touring for either album! That’s just how superb the music was (and is!). 1994 saw the release of Monster – a much more loud, abrasive and perhaps intentionally less welcoming affair – which nonetheless proved to be another hit for the band, albeit one that never reached the pantheons of its 2 predecessors. 

Following a 6 year break from touring, the band had toured extensively in support of Monster, and knew going into the tour that they wanted to record their next album whilst on the road. This album would of course go on to become 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Fusing the louder guitars of Monster with the softer and poppier sensibilities of their earlier 90s albums, New Adventures in Hi-Fi could easily be described as the most quintessentially R.E.M. sound the band ever produced, taking in ideas and deliberations that fit alongside and become, in turn, some of the band’s biggest hallmarks. 

At 14 tracks and with a runtime of 66 minutes, it’s the longest studio album in the band’s catalogue and could be described at times as meandering perhaps – but not in a bad way! Recording the tracks on the road often gave inspiration to the instrumentation and lyrics, with long drives between tour stops informing the need for that extra 4 bars before the bridge comes in here or desolate and lonely country roads informing the way this song is going to sound. You couldn’t necessarily call it a ‘road trip’ album, but you could definitely call it an album that would comfortably soundtrack a long drive if that makes sense. 

While this album is a firm fan-favourite, it’s hard to argue that it’s entered into the mainstream vocabulary in the same way earlier albums in the band’s discography did. Which is a shame when songs like The Wake-Up Bomb, New Test Leper and So Fast, So Numb are quite comfortably some of the best radio ready material the band ever released. Frontman Michael Stipe has gone on record saying that this is his favourite R.E.M. album and that he believes it represents the band at their peak. While that may not seem the case from the outside looking in, it can definitely be suggested that while it may not be the band at their peak, it’s definitely the band at their most confident and sure of themselves.

Tiny Music… Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop – Stone Temple Pilots (Dobbie)

Tiny Music… Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop - Stone Temple Pilots album cover

Stone Temple Pilots are an underrated band. They just are. In their heyday, perhaps not. But sitting here in 2023, no question about it. While a few of their singles surely remain radio staples to this day, it’s hard to imagine many people are going out of their way to check out any STP album other than the Hits collection of their own volition. Even then, the likelihood is that the first call is, understandably, going to be their 1992 debut Core or its 1994 successor Purple (which are both very good albums in their own right). 

Tiny Music… Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop was released in 1996 after a turbulent time for the band. Following a forced hiatus which saw frontman Scott Weiland arrested and given a 1 year probation period for heroin and cocaine possession, the band had split into a couple of side projects before returning to create what would be the third full length Stone Temple Pilots release. Interestingly in spite of the problems faced during their hiatus, the music on Tiny Music… actually comes out sounding altogether more positive and upbeat. Shedding a little of the previous Grunge based sound, inspiration was taken from 60s Rock music and is apparent throughout the 12 tracks on show here. 

Hard hitters like Big Bang Baby and Trippin’ On a Hole In a Paper Heart are the obvious standouts here, both proving to be up there as two of the band’s best songs, but the album tracks that bridge between and around them are incredibly effective too. Tumble In The Rough and Ride The Cliche both prove that the band were very capable of writing more than just a catchy hook, and the track And So I Know proves to be a lovely daydream of a song that some may have thought beyond the band’s capabilities. 

It’s not the best Stone Temple Pilots album, it might not even be your favourite Stone Temple Pilots album. But there’s no doubt that Tiny Music… is more than worth your time, and definitely worth exploring in 202 if you’ve never devoted much time to the band outside of their singles before.

ATLiens – Outkast (Drew)

Outkast Atliens album cover

Outkast need no introduction, but here’s one anyway. Before splitting in 2006 to pursue solo careers, André 3000 and Big Boi established themselves as one of the most legendary hip hop acts in history. Their gargantuan double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below must have surpassed platinum or diamond and gone on to be certified unobtanium by now, and to this day, Hey Ya! remains one of the definitive songs of the 21st century. Given all of that, you’d be forgiven for passing over ATLiens, their second album released in 1996, but it would be a huge mistake to do so.

There’s a reason Outkast are credited as one of the major voices that put Atlanta’s rap scene on the same level as the East and West coasts. The album seamlessly fuses together bassy beats, gospel choruses, and funkadelic instrumentation to create a sound you could only find in the South. If you want to jump to the bangers, Elevators (Me & You), and Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac) are endlessly repeatable tracks, and the title track ATLiens might be one of the best they ever wrote.

As the title might suggest, ATLiens evokes an outer space feeling in its production, featuring clanky percussion and, for lack of better words, ‘bloopy’, ‘spacey’ sounds, that give it a really distinct atmosphere. I always get unreasonably hyped for sci-fi rap like Drexciya and clipping’s Splendor & Misery, so your mileage may vary with this.

One thing you can’t argue with are the lyrics. It’s hard to imagine that they were only 20 when this album dropped given how mature they sound – Big Boi had recently become a father, and André had cut out drugs for context. Throughout, there’s a consistent rejection of typical rapper personas, and they grapple with their feelings of disconnection as they deal with newfound fame using abstract metaphors that would grow to become classic Outkast.

Looking at their discography as a whole, you can see the gradual separation of the two rappers, as Big Boi refined the fusion between hip hop and psychedelic funk they’d already pioneered, while André pushed further into experimental pop, electro music, and generally being weird. There was a point where the two were in perfect alignment, and I’m not gonna lie, that album is probably Aquemini, but ATLiens is where they started speaking in a voice that was uniquely Outkast.

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