Operating under the assumption that year-end music essays are about as usable as "So You're Going to Burma" shopping guides, I'll dispense with the trend-spotting and watered-down cultural theory and give you the goods. Records. You need records. 30,000 came out in 1998, and of that ungodly mass, here are the 10 that could change your life. Have fun.
1. Billy Bragg and Wilco
Screw chaos. Each and every one of us was put on this earth for a reason. And Billy Bragg was put here to make this record, to turn the forgotten notebook scribblings of Woody Guthrie into this wonderful collection. To reach into a myth and make it a man again--a bawdy, rowdy, rambling wreck of a human being who jerked off to Ingrid Bergman, stumped for Christ, painted achingly gorgeous California skies, and wrote knowing love ballads. And Jeff Tweedy? He was put here to go along for the ride. Even if this is the culmination of the populist '90s country-punk he helped invent in Uncle Tupelo, his best performances on Mermaid Avenue are pure whimsy, his most inspired lyric a "hoodoo voodoo" assemblage of endlessly hummable nonsense syllables. There's magic in this record, the sound of folkies and folk-rockers reinventing themselves. It didn't kill any fascists, but it turned guest vocalist Natalie Merchant into a soul singer, and if that ain't magic, then there's no such thing in the world.
2. Fatboy Slim
Live on the Floor at the Boutique
Unlike almost every other twaddler on Planet Techno, Fatboy Slim wants you. His big-beat blowouts explode with a raucous, idiot abandon formerly reserved for AC/DC tribute bands and English soccer riots. Even if this year's You've Come a Long Way, Baby didn't live up to the promise of its astonishing lead single "The Rockafeller Skank," this hour-plus mix CD made up the difference. This is easily one of the best disco records of all time. Recorded at his Brighton club, The Big Beat Boutique, Live on the Floor effortlessly pulls classic funk, hip hop, house, and plenty of big beat (including the essential "Skank") into a giddy, rubbery fun-at-all-costs mix that could have Linda Tripp feelin' like a funk-soul brother. Transcendent.
3. Kate and Anna McGarrigle
The McGarrigle Hour
On which Montreal folk goddesses Kate and Anna McGarrigle bring family and friends northward for a potluck radio show whose "cast of characters" includes Kate's ex, Loudon Wainwright, their progeny Rufus and Martha, and pals Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. The radio show conceit is an ingenious thematic contrivance--the sisters appeared on just such a show as children--and it allows the divorced spouses, showbiz kids, and far-flung pros a chance to stop worrying about their various career states and, well, make beautiful music together. This is one of the sweetest records in recent memory, and a wonderful collection of songs. The performances aren't loose, and they're rarely frivolous; it's like we're listening in on the final night of rehearsal and everyone is set on nailing their numbers. And so they do. Emmylou steps out in French; the bitter old Loudon revisits a classic by the bitter young Loudon; and Kate and Anna open a chestful of trusty folk arcana, from Stephen Foster to Bahamian gospel to Kate and Anna McGarrigle. The old people feel young (if not innocent) again; the showbiz kids feel traditional; and the album's very '60s communal vibe feels positively infectious.
Hate to get all high 'n' whitey on your asses, but the word that best describes the best rap record of 1998 is...wholesome. Pro-family, anti-crack, nonmisogynist, religious, and rural, Aquemini didn't just validate all that industry hype about the shift from the concrete jungles of the Least Coast to the gravel alleys of the Dirty South. It suggested a new hip-hop hegemony. Harmonica breakdowns, Stax horns, and references to the chitlin circuit galvanized the hip-hop soundscape, and the brilliant suggestion that Rosa Parks's freedom ride represented the greatest bum-rush in history made Jermaine Dupri and Tim Mosley sound like studio solipsists by comparison. Which isn't to say that this is some boring C.L.R. Jamesian academic shit. With Organized Noize's bustling beats and Big Boi and Dre's robo-flow ingeniously updating P Funk's mothership conventions, nary an urbane urbanist stopped to notice the conservatism implicit in 'Kast's celebrations of God and country. How could they? Skip past the skits and it goes by so fast, all you can do is hit repeat.
5. Creeper Lagoon
I Become Small and Go
Creeper Lagoon is the airhead Pavement, equally obsessed with sound and sonic melodrama, but too in love with beauty to be given over to smart-ass satire or anything that smacks of, well, smarts in general. Where Steve Malkmus whiles away his time in the tour van reading John Ashbery, Creeper's Ian Sefchick is content to gaze dreamily out the window. The world that rolls by outside is a mirage--no more real than his own post-id poesy about candy-coated radios, sinking pirate ships, Tooth Fairy Queens, and beautiful girls with brandy and pearls. But Sefchick's quirky private world might have been just as lame as our real one if his band and Dust Brother John King hadn't divined a set of post-Beck, post-indie dreamscapes that coil around Sefchik's drowsy vocals like kudzu. It's lovely stuff that slowly overwhelms. Imagine Brian Eno lost in the suburbs of Orange County. It took me five listens to like it, three more to spare it from the shelves, and another 10 to agree with City Pages scribe Michaelangelo Matos that I Become Small and Go is "the best indie debut of the last five years."