Lists were made to be argued with.
That includes the list of “50 Best Albums of 1998” that Pitchfork posted yesterday. Lots of great music there, from Outkast on down, and plenty of smart justifications for these choices from the writers of the accompanying blurbs. (There should be a federal law prohibiting anyone from complaining about a list on social media unless they’ve read all the text than runs with it.)
I am old. I was there. I remember 1998. And since I have access to a website where they let me type pretty much anything I want into a box and hit “publish,” I decided to champion ten notable omissions from the Pitchfork canon.
Some of this music is so 1998, so of its specific moment, that I can’t imagine how it’d sound for the first time today. But it’s all as worthy of being remembered and revisited as (quietly grumbling) Boards of Canada.
Feel free to disagree. After all, lists are made to be argued with.
Billy Bragg and Wilco—Mermaid Avenue
Woody Guthrie left behind countless lyrics that he never set to song, and his daughter Nora entrusted them to Bragg and Wilco, who crafted a collection that’s funny and poignant, rowdy and melodic, true to the folk great’s spirit while adding extra dimensions to his legend. I say neither Bragg nor Wilco ever sounded better.
Creeper Lagoon—I Shall Become Small and Go
An indie rock band that built gentle anthems out of electronic shards and guitar churn felt a lot like the future to some of us back then, don’t laugh. Archers of Loaf/ Creeper Lagoon at the Entry was the best show I saw that year. Maybe you had to be there, but I’m glad I was.
Aretha Franklin—A Rose Is Still a Rose
Lauryn Hill wrote and produced the title track, a world-weary yet resilient song of advice to a wild, heartbroken younger woman—essentially a kinder, wiser version of L-Boogie’s own “Doo Wop (That Thing).” For the rest of the album, producers and songwriters of the moment like Sean “Puffy” Combs and Babyface challenge the greatest soul singer of all time to sound like 1998, and she soars and grooves in response, her ability to gracefully and magisterially adapt to the times unparalleled in her contemporaries.
Powered by a crunchy alterna-wallop the band only hinted on their debut, with guitars and electronics often indistinguishable and melodies both sweeter and tarter, Shirley Manson comes into her own as a singer: seductive, aggressive, vulnerable, unstoppable.
Local H—Pack Up the Cats
Seven years after Nevermind and one year before “Nookie,” the world was hardly demanding a well-crafted, self-conscious pop-grunge concept album about the life of a professional musician. But thanks to his self-deprecating Kurt-Cobain-next-door rasp and Grohl-worthy ear for a streamlined hook, Scott Lucas pulled it off anyway—for a label that had ceased to exist before the CD hit the shelves. “Fine and Good” is a minor key ballad about not being miserable. “All the Kids Are Right” is the best song ever written about discovering that your favorite band sucks live.
Kate & Anna McGarrigle—The McGarrigle Hour
An old-timey, gather-’round-the-piano parlor singalong, with the queens of Canadian folk joined by Kate’s children—Rufus Wainwright, whose self-titled debut made a splash earlier than year, and Martha Wainwright, with a voice almost too big for the room—and her ex, Loudon Wainwright III, playing nice, as well as other friends of the family. A few originals, a few traditionals, and songs from Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter. It’s all very quaint, with tears jerked, hearts set aflutter, old memories revived. And there’s no album quite like it.
After making her name as a chronicler of scenester sex mores and indie double-standards, Phair turns 30 and realizes that the approval of the hip world she emerged from isn’t going to feed her kid or pay her rent. She fears becoming a "Polyester Bride," she yearns for "Shitloads of Money,” she stretches toward broader pop ambitions without sacrificing the intimacy of her early bedroom recordings.
P.M. Dawn—Dearest Christian, I'm So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad
When 46-year-old Attrell Cordes, better known as Prince Be, died in 2016, his passing was overshadowed by the death of so many musical legends that year. So let’s remember him now, for the last album he ever released. With his soft, layered tracks and breathy vulnerability, his lushness was every bit as defiant as N.W.A.’s brashness.
Public Enemy—He Got Game
The soundtrack that almost nobody remembers to a Spike Lee movie nearly everyone has forgotten deserves better from history. Not just because it’s the last time PE was firing on all four cylinders, but because the racial politics of the NBA is an ideal target for Chuck D’s ideological rage. And on the brilliant title track, the group’s gentlest moment (thanks to a Buffalo Springfield guitar lick), we get to hear Flavor Flav call Stephen Stills “my man.”
Keyboard-banging sad sack Sam Coomes chirps tuneful complaints—“Life is dull life is gray/ At its best it's just OK/ But I'm happy to report/ Life is also short”— while drummer and ex-wife Janet Weiss, moonlighting from her Sleater-Kinney day job, harmonizes cheerfully and attempts to bash him past his misery. It’s like Ben Folds for smart people.