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1998 top albums

May 14, 2012

Top albums, 1998

Well, it’s taken a little time to get this one together. The latest housing change had something to do with this, but I also remained a little confused as I was pulling this together.

Many years ago, I turned defensive when Mrs. Cain and my friend Jim Thielman both suggested, independently and within days of one another, that I didn’t like female singers. Now this came at a time when the ideal held up for female singers was Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, so to say I preferred Elvis Costello and Graham Parker at the time wasn’t a stretch, and shouldn’t even have been considered an insult.

But just as when someone who doesn’t feel they have a discriminating bone in their body blanches when they’re called ”racist,” this accusation of sexism in my musical tastes got my defenses up. I felt continually compelled to point out the female artists I did like (Emmylou Harris, pre-opera Linda Ronstadt), and would turn really defensive when someone would accuse me of liking a female artist solely based on her looks.

It turns into a self-fulfilling death wish. I was trying so hard to prove I liked female artists that I couldn’t find any that did anything other than pop music I loved, but wasn’t the stuff on which you base a career. Every time somebody was doing something I liked, stuff I thought could actually make an impact (Holly and the Italians, the Bangles, Berlin, Missing Persons, Debbie Harry/Blondie), the band would change directions or break up.

That’s all changed now.

After I got over my shock of realizing 1998 was such a good year musically that I had to go to a top 15 rather than my usual top 10, I was stunned to realize that five of my top seven albums were either by solo female artists or by bands led by a female singer (or singers). And I’ve already pronounced Liz Phair the best songwriter of the decade.

And unrepresented on this list are Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos, two of the most amazing recording artists working today. Just wait — people are going to accuse me of not liking men’s music now.

Now, when does the Andrea True Connection reunion album come out?

1. WHITECHOCOLATESPACEEGG, Liz Phair

I’ve already told you why Liz is the best songwriter of the decade. That, combined with her lack of Grammy awards, should be enough to make you want to buy this. But let me add a point: In a year where I’ve listened to a lot of music, I’ve listened to this twice as much as anything else. And I’ve yet to turn sick of it.

2. THE TUESDAYS

The best album the Bangles never released. Tough pop with some heart. If you listen to talk radio, you’ve heard instrumental sections stripped from here, bits that always leave me screaming ”Play the rest of it, ya weasels!” If the Beatles had been born 35 years later and as Scandanavian females, they’d have started with an album like this. Of course, had that happened, life would be very, very different. (Read some more of my nonesense about this album.)

3. THE GLOBE SESSIONS, Sheryl Crow

Released to what appears to be great indifference, I find this to be Crow’s best album yet. Maybe it’s the lack of pandering to radio. Maybe it’s that the songs are solid, lyrically as well as musically (as opposed to SHERYL CROW, which contained some lyrics so annoyingly simplistic I thought she was making a bid to become Sheryl Spice). Or maybe it’s the Bob Dylan song (”Mississippi”), which fills me with joy because she sings it wonderfully, and it proves that Dylan’s TIME OUT OF MIND wasn’t a fluke. The first two singles are the worst songs on the disc, I swear.

4. ALL THE PAIN MONEY CAN BUY, Fastball

Every year, I’m drawn to at least one album that reminds me of something that came out in the mid-70s. It doesn’t have to have a particular sound, just an attitude, a willingness to avoid being locked into one style. This disc is the best example of that style this year. And it would be here even if the only thing on the disc was ”The Way,” easily my single of the year. (Read what else I thought of this.)

5. TRAMPOLINE, Mavericks

This reminds me of Los Lobos’ tour de force from a few years back, KIKO. It’s a wonderful collage of styles, something few artists have the courage to tackle, and it features actual, genuine, wonderful SONGS. And the cat can sing.

6. VERSION 2.0, Garbage

“This is the noise that keeps me awake/My head explodes and my body aches.” I didn’t laugh as much at this one as I did at the last one, but this is a better one to listen to late at night, right after Art Bell has convinced me the world is ending. I have no idea what Shirley Manson’s real singing voice sounds like. And the production, predictably enough, is astonishing. Not in a Supertramp way, though.

7. RAY OF LIGHT, Madonna

A friend observed, ”Americans just don’t get electronica.” OK, but Madonna’s skill has always been in bringing the obscure and artistic to the masses. Maybe I like this album so much because I managed to avoid most of her interviews and know precious little about her baby and the India connection. It made me tap my foot and smile a lot.

8. Jimi Hendrix, BBC SESSIONS

How did this fall this far down on this list? Sheesh. Fellow afficianado Tom Weber proclaims the BBC as the 1960s’ most important recording studio, and this makes the case. The music herein is amazing enough, made more so when you realize he was inventing heavy metal and guitar hero worship and bridging some racial barriers, and he was just getting started! Whenever I play the ”What person would you like to be for a day” game, I always pick Hendrix. He said he could never play what was in his head. I’d love to know what that music sounded like, even if just for a day.

9. GUILTY: 30 YEARS OF RANDY NEWMAN

A 105-cut, four-CD package, all box sets should be this cool. Two discs of best-of, a disc of rarities, and a disc of his film music. And I can only think of three songs that I wish were here. Quite an accomplishment, and a wonderful testament to a man whose music will certainly continued to be played well into the 2100s.

10. SHANE STOCKTON

Although the fast song-slow song pacing that accounts for sequencing in modern country music really wears thin, this is a solid debut for a performer some country fans are mentioning in the same breath with a San Diego Padre outfielder. Me, I was amused to see him tackle Stevie Wonder and the Steve Miller band in concert.

11. THE 9-VOLT YEARS, Marshall Crenshaw

How many artists could put out a disc of demos and have me salivating? Well, OK, a lot. But Crenshaw’s definitely high on that list. This actually holds together as an album better than some of his late-80s stuff. I’m glad he was willing to share. Toe-tappin fun.

12. STEP INSIDE THIS HOUSE, Lyle Lovett

Am I the only one amused that his best album of the 90s consists of songs other people wrote? I can listen to ”Bears” and ”Texas Trilogy” more than just about anything that’s ever come out of Nashville. Does anyone in country sing more effortlessly than this guy?

13. TRANSISTOR BLAST, XTC

Just a four-CD reminder of why pop lovers embrace this band. Two discs of BBC studio cuts (there we are again in that important studio), and two discs of concerts from a band that used to be one of the loudest and fastest on the scene. A dizzying patische of what they were capable of doing before they went on their recording strike.

14. IMAGINATION, Brian Wilson; ENDLESS HARMONY SOUNDTRACK, Beach Boys

Meet the new boss, as insane as the old boss. Brian’s solo album covers a couple of old Beach Boys tunes, and is otherwise as tuneful and listenable as anything since 15 BIG ONES (1976). And ENDLESS HARMONY has so many wonderful pieces on it, you can’t call yourself a true Beach Boys fan without embracing it in your collection.

15. LIVE NOISE, Moxy Fruvous

A nice introduction if you’re a Fru-virgin, I suppose. The problem with releasing a live record complete with their infamous banter and improvisations is that their release legitimizes them and makes them a little more ”official.” It’s more fun to listen to it on tapes passed from fan to fan. But their new studio album will be a killer, I promise.

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