The Best CDs of 1998

1998 was probably the oddest in the several years I have been doing a Top 10 list. For starters, a lot of the best stuff I heard came from new or relatively new artists. A lot of the more established artists I admire didn’t release anything in 1998, so that’s probably part of the reason, but I also suspect I’m reacting to a music landscape that’s shifting beneath us. We’ve been waiting for the Next Big Thing for a while now, and as we wait mainline sounds grow increasing stale.

The Next Big Thing hasn’t arrived yet, but I’m starting to hear a number of Next Medium-Sized Things that are really excellent, and while the genres vary widely – from Trance to Trip-Hop to Dreampop – what it all seems to have in common is a broad rethinking of the structure and convention of popular sound. (Yes, I know – a lot of this has been around for a while. But I’ve never worried a lot about being on the avant garde cutting edge – I prefer to let things grow a bit and then catch them right about the time they set their sights on a larger audience.)

Not everything on this year’s list is new and innovative, but if you could drag yourself away from the wasteland that AlternHit Radio has become – and it was only a matter of time, wasn’t it? – 1998 was a pretty good year.

So here’s my Top 10, and a few worthy honorable mentions. Same rules this year as last year – the list may contain discs released in 1997 that for one reason or another didn’t hit my radar screen until this year.

1: Space Team Electra – The Vortex Flower
I’ll apologize in advance for gushing. This marks the first time a local, self-release has ever MADE my list, much less topped it, but this Denver-based dreampop band cranked out the best debut CD I’ve heard since the late ’70s. It’s also the first time that my pick for CD of the Year was also my FAVORITE album of the year. Space Team’s influences are easy enough to peg – Cocteau Twins, Catherine Wheel, My Bloody Valentine, and maybe a smattering of early Zeppelin even – but the result is distinct and fresh, avoiding the derivativeness of many first efforts. Myshel Prasad, who fronts the band, is a lyricist of rare talent, one whose words are equally powerful within the context of the songs or standing alone on the lyric sheet. Her gift as a writer is matched by a gripping stage presence as haunting as it is sweetly innocent. And Bill Kunkel is the most innovative new guitarist I have heard in the last few years. While the band’s live shows are known for a dynamic wall of noise approach, Kunkel exhibits an amazing mastery over that noise, weaving surprisingly intricate melodic threads into a complex sonic tapestry. In the studio, though, the band stripped the songs down a bit, opting for more subtle arrangements. While this production philosophy sacrifices the sheer energy of the live show, the listener is more than compensated by the resultant focus on Prasad’s vocal performances and Kunkel’s attention to nuance. Through it all, bassist Greg Fowkes and drummer Kit Peltzel construct a thoughtful frame for the individual songs – people sometimes think noise rock looks easy to do, but in reality it’s easy to do badly, and a weakness in the rhythm section can be quickly fatal. I have been raving about this band for some time, and have suspected this disc might be my number one since its release several months ago. STE is already working on a follow-up and is apparently in discussions with several labels. If they get decent promotion and the label they sign with leaves them alone with the creative process, Space Team Electra has the potential to be a truly spectacular band. Even at this early stage of their careers, they radiate a hard-to-pin-down intangible something I associate with great artists in all genres – when you listen to Space Team Electra, you can’t help feeling you’re in the presence of something special.

2: Liz Phair – whitechocolatespaceegg
As Rocklist went through the process of generating the Rocklist 101 Greatest Albums list this year Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville was one of the most consistent vote-getters, finally landing at #27. What was frustrating for me, though, was casting my votes for Exile when I know darned well that once we’ve had time to process and digest more recent releases 1998’s whitechocolatespaceegg will be regarded as Phair’s finest work to date. Motherhood hasn’t dulled Phair’s edge, as some may have feared. Instead, it seems to have provided a new and more focused context for her work – “Fuck and Run” may be the most popular request at her live shows these days, but it leaves a lot to be desired as a life philosophy. Fuller arrangements and more polished production on the CD complement the new maturity of Phair’s lyrics, too – there’s far less of the self-indulgent minimalist noodling that made her last release so tedious in places. It’s a sad comment that “alternative” radio couldn’t find more airtime for this wonderful record.

3: Superdrag – Head Trip in Any Key
1998 was a great year for Power Pop, and the sophomore effort from Knoxville’s Superdrag was the best of the lot. The hook-infested Head Trip was superior to the band’s impressive debut in just about every possible way – better songwriting, a greater sense of confidence in the performances, more even production…. The best thing that can be said for the band, though, is that they have finally transcended their influences. Power Pop has experienced a major revival in the past few years, but the genre often leaves itself open to the criticism that it remains captive to the influences of the Holy Trinity: The Beatles, The Raspberries and Big Star. Superdrag has clearly been shaped by listening to a LOT of British Invasion pop, and on their first disc (and tour) unashamed imitation occasionally got in the way (do we really need to hear Tennesseans affecting Brit accents?) But what a difference a year or two can make, I guess – while you still hear their heroes whispering through these wonderful songs, the band has assimilated the legends and made something that is wholly their own.

4: Bob Mould – The Last Dog and Pony Show
Mould says this will be the last time he’ll crank up the volume on the noisepop he’s become so famous for. TLD&PS hints in places at where Mould might be heading – some of its tracks, including “New #1,” the acoustically-driven lead-off cut, are far less aggressive sonically than we’re used to hearing from either Mould’s solo projects or from his now-defunct band Sugar. TLD&PS doesn’t match the intensity of Workbook, which probably rates as his all-time best CD, but it’s nonetheless a superior effort, and aside from an ill-advised technodub experiment on “Megamaniac,” is more even than any of his Sugar projects.

5: Fuel – Sunburn
When you get right down to it there’s nothing especially new or unconventional about Fuel – they basically play rock and roll that is big and loud and driving and, in the case of the single “Shimmer,” which got a good bit of radio play in these parts, quite pretty. In its best moments Fuel evokes some of Bob Mould’s more accessible work – vocalist Brett Scallions sounds just like Mould in spots – but when I asked them about the presumed Mould influence after their Denver show they said they didn’t know who he was. Regardless, there’s the same kind of dissonance Mould perfected on Workbook. Sunburn is the band’s first major release.

6: Saint Etienne – Good Humor
Imagine that some Euro Trip-Hoppers had been watching a lot of mid-60s movies where the stars cruised up and down LA’s freeways with the top down while listening to Herb Alpert and everybody was blond and beautiful and rich with straight teeth. Then they did their next CD. That’s kind of what Good Humor is like, sort of. Seriously, though, this disc is packed with fresh ambience, clean production, and a variety of oddly recovered instrumental choices, all of it evoking a particular moment in American movie soundtrack history. If the mini-review here is confusing I apologize – I barely know what to make of this CD myself, and perhaps part of its magic is how cleverly it eludes easy description.

7: Tori Amos – from the Choirgirl Hotel
More guitars, more strings, more programming – with the release of FTCH, Amos has consciously sought to stretch her sound, incorporating a broader approach to instrumentation than on previous albums. Her live performances also broke new ground, as she toured for the first time with a full band. What hasn’t changed, however, is the spareness of Amos’ arrangements, which remain quiet and thoughtful, refusing to do anything that distracts the listener from the powerful personal politics which inhabit the lyrics.

8: Dada – Dada
The struggle to establish and maintain meaningful relationships is occasionally complicated by the artifacts of contemporary culture in the latest from Dada. But whether the songs address information overload, the uncertainty of Internet dating, Deepak Chopra, or the nostalgic tension between Earl Grey and chamomile, the band insists on the primacy of the interpersonal. Dada’s trademark vocal harmonies dominate the album, and if the group doesn’t seek to innovate much on this, its fourth release, it more than compensates with accomplished songwriting and nuanced performances.

9: Garbage – Version 2.0
The follow-up to the band’s smash debut garnered more airplay than anything else on my list this year, and the attention was largely deserved. Shirley Manson didn’t join the band until most of the creative groundwork had been laid for the first CD, but she exerts considerable influence here – a most happy circumstance given contributions like “Special,” her homage to Chrissie Hynde. The disc is heavily – and I mean HEAVILY – produced, but Butch Vig has enough sense to make sure he’s using the technology, not the other way around.

10: Eels – Electro-Shock Blues
“If Beautiful Freak was our greeting card to the world, then Electro-Shock Blues is the phone call in the middle of the night that the world doesn’t want to answer,” says band leader E. During the last year or so, apparently, a number of his friends and family members were sick and dying, and the result is maybe the world’s first Death Pop album. Dark, haunting, painful – none of these words begin to describe the anguish of Electro-Shock Blues. It’s not a fun record, but it’s probably the most honest of the year.


HONORABLE MENTION

Mono – Formica Blues
Competition was fierce for this last slot, but I finally decided on this little Trip-Hop gem after several re-listenings in recent days. Siobhan de Mare’s ethereal vocals are pure seduction, but there’s a depth that belies the music’s apparent innocence. The sampling here is absolutely seamless – Martin Virgo’s ability to weave found snippets into his own compositions so organically is truly amazing.

Massive Attack – Mezzanine
I nearly called it a tie with the Mono – engaging ambient Trip-Hop that gets richer with each listening.

Rob Zombie – Hellbilly Deluxe
Zombie clearly had a lot of fun with this project. As hard as he pushes the horror comic theme, however, the disc falls short of the substantive achievement of White Zombie’s Astro-Creep 2000, which is probably the greatest cyberpunk music ever recorded.

Myracle Brah – Life on Planet Eartsnop
This disc made a lot of people’s Power Pop lists for 1998, and Bruce Brodeen of Not Lame Records, one of the genre’s most respected names, called it the album of the year.

REM – Up
A wonderful effort, given the demands of moving on without founding member Bill Berry. I was hoping for one of the band’s periodic epiphanic moments, which we haven’t really seen since Automatic For The People, but this wasn’t quite it.

Gravity Kills – Perversion
Nine Inch Nails meets Stabbing Westward – this rocked about as hard as anything I heard this year.

Semisonic – Feeling Strangely Fine
This was the Power Pop release that actually found an audience this year, thanks to the instant classic “Closing Time,” and it’s turning up on a number of year-end lists I’m seeing. If I hadn’t heard this year’s Superdrag CD and the band’s own 1996 disc, Great Divide, I’d probably agree with them. A nice effort, but a bit uneven once you get past the two big singles.

Brian Setzer Orchestra – The Dirty Boogie
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy – Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
In addition to the Next Medium-Sized Things I mention above, we’ve seen a resurgence in the past three years or so of swing, big band and lounge music. Of the stuff I heard this year in this vein, these discs were easily the two best, blending covers from legends like Louis Prima and Cab Calloway with their own original material.

Jai – Heaven (Bryan Ferry Award for Makeout Album of the Year)
This kid is simply an unbelievable vocalist – Heaven sounds like Smokey Robinson filtered through Spandau Ballet, ethereal, sensual, and dreamy. The make-out record of the year – and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay an artist.

Hooverphonic – Blue Wonder Powder Milk
The band demonstrated a real willingness to grow from 1996’s a New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular – they retain the same languorous atmospheres, but add some male vocals on a few tracks. The result is a more varied ambience than the last disc, which exclusively featured the distinctly female vocal stylings of Geike Arnaert.

Everlast – Whitey Ford Sings the Blues
Formerly of House of Pain, Everlast here produces a CD that alternates between hip-hop and bluesy rock. What unifies these disparate musical styles is an uncompromising cultural critique. Everlast’s lyrical assault is not for the PC at heart.

Teenage Fanclub – Songs from Northern Britain
Fanclub entered the musical consciousness a few years back with Bandwagonesque, which most agreed was the best Big Star album they had heard in ages. Now the lads have cranked out the best Byrds album in 30 years. As amazingly catchy and well-performed as these songs are, TF does find itself indicted on the “captive to their influences” charges I talk about above. I hate to complain, really – no matter how derivative it may be, SFNB is pure pop magic.

The Andersons! – Separated at Birth (Cyndi Lauper Award for Most Fun Album of the Year)
Featuring several members of the LA Power Pop underground – in which 15-20 actual musicians combine in various permutations to form about 300 bands – The Andersons! are the most fun group I encountered 1998. You know you’re in for a party when the disc features songs like “Retro Girl,” “My Life Still Sucks (In a Bad Way),” and – I’m not making this up – “Hey Coelacanth.”

Jolene – In the Gloaming
Ever hear a CD where the first track knocked you so far out of your boots you needed the rest of the album just to recover? Track one is called “Pensacola,” and I’d probably have bought the album just for it alone. Fortunately, the rest of the disc delivers, too. Darkly melodic, with pronounced gothic undertones, in the Gloaming isn’t a lot different in concept from what a lot of Southern bands are producing these days. Like some other albums on the list for 1998, it’s not especially groundbreaking, it’s just really good.

This Perfect Day – C-60
Some of the best guitar pop being made these days comes from Sweden, believe it or not, and This Perfect Day is among the best of that nation’s musical exports. C-60 leads off with “Could’ve Been Friends,” which features one of the five or ten catchiest hooks I’ve ever heard. Not their first disc, but the first major label release.

Walter Clevenger & the Dairy Kings – The Man with the X-ray Eyes
This disc was a lot of fun, too – Clevenger’s affection for Nick Lowe is both evident and admirable. Clevenger, another LA pop scenester, is an adroit songwriter, with a real knack for hooks and pop song structures.

Richard X. Heyman – Cornerstone
Maybe the best record yet from one of the most thoughtful Power Popsters you’ve probably never heard of.

The Vandalias – Buzzbomb!
Lots of affected innocence and a comic-book pop sensibility that’s as hip as the comic-book art on the sleeve. Minneapolis-based Power Pop band leans on the punkish end of the genre – a real must for people who like the “power” part of Power Pop.

Leisure McCorkle – Nappy Superstar
Joe Jackson meets Graham Parker meets Elvis Costello – this indie EP (engineered by the esteemed Jamie Hoover) lifts it sound from the best of late-70s Brit New Wave. Useless trivia: the band also shares a rhythm section with Jolene.

Box the Walls – Payday
Would have been top ten if it were full-length. As it is, this seven-track EP finds singer/songwriter Wendie Colter exploring in depth the often-invisible scars of failed relationships. These songs are more down tempo, more consistently soft and reflective than those on the band’s debut, 1995’s marvelous Stuff. Colter (whose vocal style reminds me alternately of Sarah McLachlan and Aimee Mann) is all that remains from that lineup, though. A number of labels are expressing interest in the band, so hopefully we’ll get to hear a long-play in 1999.

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