For the Record

The music industry released 30,000 albums in 1998. You can live without 29,990 of them.

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
Mermaid Avenue
Elektra

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
Skint (import)

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
Hannibal

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.

 

4. Outkast
Aquemini
LaFace

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
Nickel Bag

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."

 

6. Rancid
Life Won't Wait
Epitaph

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.

 

7. Tori Amos
From the Choirgirl Hotel
Atlantic

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
Merge

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
Harmless (import)

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
Island

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.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Willie Nelson Teatro; Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill; David S. Ware, Go See the World; Ethiopiques vol. 3: Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music 1969-1975; Killah Priest, Heavy Mental; Robert Wyatt, Shleep; Sarge, The Glass Intact; Spinanes, Archers and Aisles; Monica, The Boy Is Mine; Victoria Williams, Musings of a Creekdipper; Squarepusher, Music Is Rotted One Note; Tortoise, TNT.


REISSUES

Defining a year by what other musical eras the record companies dug out of their vaults is a dubious exercise--and for the consumer, a costly one. In that spirit, we offer the best reissue of the year, and a list of nine others that provide more pleasure for the ears than pain for the wallet.

 

various artists
Fat Beats and Brastraps: Women of Hip Hop
Rhino

At last, the dis "I'm deffer than you, heifer" has been digitized for mass consumption. Culling from piles of out-of-print singles and canonizing names like Dimples D and Jazzy Joyce, this three-volume set was the most fascinating and cost-effective collection of the year. (Staggering the purchase of these three separately sold discs over three paychecks beats plopping down $60 for Rhino's 4-CD Nuggets box. And, really, what household doesn't need a disc's worth of Roxanne Shanté disses to share with friends and family?) Sure, the complete history would include Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown, but comprehensiveness be damned. Quality will out, again and again. From Sweet Tee's smooth thuggin' on "It's My Beat" to Rox's wars with Queen Latifah ("You say 'ladies first'/Well, I'm the first lady"), this compilation kicks butt. Even if it's merely a strange chapter in the dubious history of the diva in a man's man's world, it proves that the male DJ and MC (let alone promoter) wouldn't be nothin'--nothin'!--without the woman or the girl. (Jon Dolan)


The Top 10 Reissues of 1998

1. Fat Beats and Brastraps: Women of Hip Hop (Rhino)

2. Albert Ayler, Live at the Village Vanguard: The Complete Impulse Recordings (Impulse!)

3. Robert Wyatt, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard (Thirsty Ear)

4. Bikini Kill, The Singles (Kill Rock Stars)

5. Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me! Narrative Poetry from the Black Oral Tradition (Rounder)

6. Nuggets: Original Artifacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968 (Rhino)

7. The Perfect Beats: New York Electro Hip Hop and Underground Dance Classics 1980-1985, vol. 2 (Timber!/Tommy Boy)

8. The Real Bahamas (Nonesuch)

9. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series vol. 4, Live 1966 (The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert) (Columbia)

10. Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians (Nonesuch)

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