Life Won't Wait
Here, one of the best classic-punk bands of the '90s realizes that the secret to creating the Clash rip-off of their dreams lies not in sound, or even substance, but mass. It's not what you say, or even how you say it. It's how much you say. A crack murder, a Bosnian refugee looking to the West, a righteous call to wage-slave rebellion, and an even more righteous anti-CIA reggae-rocker fly by in the first 15 minutes of this passionately excessive 22-song record. And fly they do. This music is potent, melodic, ambitious, and, now and again, quite touching. Rancid's complex subject matter doesn't always fit the formalities of their shout-along skate-punk tunes ("Yugoslavia's blown to bits/Ee-yeah!"), and some ideas get lost in the fray. But that only heightens my amazement at one of '98's few arguments for expanded CD lengths. Singer-guitarist Tim Armstrong's anarcho-soul and subcultural pride shine as brightly as any punker's since the Minutemen's D. Boon. And his record is the most ambitious punk album since Double Nickels on the Dime.
If Amos's stilted piano and vocal arrangements often feel too sweeping and cerebral to encompass the real physicality of her characters' psychosexual traumas, Choirgirl's postindustrial production swallows their experiences whole. There's something evil in this record; it's like listening to Amos crawl the walls, dance on the ceiling, land on the bed, and do it all night with who knows whom. In other words, this is the perfect sonic setting for a collection of songs about pleasureless power, bent gender, withering decadence, suffering, and escape. "If you wanna get inside her, boy/You better make 'er raspberry swirl," Tori moans feverishly over the Reznorian techno of "Raspberry Swirl." "You don't need one of these to let me inside you," she bawls, her voice distorting, on the celebrity skin-flick "She's Your Cocaine." Sure, many of its most pleasing moments ("January Girl," "Jackie's Strength," "Northern Lad") are predictable Tori-fare, but her Stevie Smith-on-spin-cycle poetry has never been more evocative, her gender-plays never so well-turned. Courtney Love should be so screwy.
8. Neutral Milk Hotel
In the Aeroplane over the Sea
In Indieland, Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum is considered a genius, a romantic poet whose gnarled images, affected English accent, and disdain for caesuras make him the new Patti Smith or something. But his subculture has him all wrong. Mangum is Alanis Morissette sans thesaurus and production budget--a bit older, just as loony, and blessed with a bellow that could disinter the dead. But with Mangum nothing is ever ironic (even when it's ironic). He is completely unself-conscious, standing bare-naked before the tribunal of discerning good taste, testifying to his visions of two-headed humans, Anne Frank, and "a little boy in Spain playing pianos filled with flames." And when the other rank bachelors of NMH leap in behind his unhinged acoustic folk songs with trumpet, tuba, singing saw, recorder, feedback, and bells, their rapturous, somehow sexually charged noise-rock suggests Donovan fronting Hüsker Dü. No band in 1998 sounded so in love with the joys of collectively making a mess. It's as if the term "alternative rock" actually meant something.
9. various artists
Africafunk: The Original Sound of 1970s Funky Africa
If you can't get with this wildly eclectic postcolonial Afro-funk sampler on an ass-gut-blood level, you might as well try singing along in Afrikaans. That said, you'll have to excuse me if I find its ethno-musicological implications more fun than its booty-shaking soul power. Almost every cut here is either a wack appropriation or an ingenious misreading of James Brown's "Cold Sweat." And guessing at the cultural conditions that created faux-tribal flute-tooters Wali and the Afro Caravan (formed on a Texas military base) or free-jazz-influenced Ethiopian soul-man Mulatu Astatqe is just as fun as grooving on Fela's doper's delight, "Expensive Shit." Sure, there is a grim alienation to be found in African musicians ripping off the incidental music from blaxploitation chase scenes--on a continent where cars were almost as rare as movie houses. But mimesis is as mimesis does, and this is the culture study of the year.
10. Local H
Pack Up the Cats
The most popular ideological posture among new rock bands since the Sex Pistols is to make like you're here to sandblast the Bastille, to convince the philistine world that your three chords are the only three ever struck, that your critique bears thee Answer. Local H doesn't play the Great Punk Hope card. Why should they? Their heroes (from Neil Young to the 'Mats to Nirvana) have gotten old, broken up, or crashed and burned. They've seen it all before and--per their wonderful single "All the Kids Are Right"--they are it. "Hey, what you wanna pay for me/I'm in love with rock 'n' roll/But that'll change eventually," sings guitar slasher Scott Lucas on the wonderful Pack Up the Cats. Here, winning the major-label crapshoot is like waking up wearing the body of Andy Rooney. Your girlfriend hates you. Your cats hate you. You hate you. And The Kids? Forget about it.