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1998 was not a very good year, but it's still worth the bother

The best record to arrive in the mail this year will not even hit stores until February 23, 1999: Sleater-Kinney's The Hot Rock. It possesses what 99.93 percent of every single record released in 1998 does not--that intangible insinuation of hanging-on-by-a-thread desperation, the sound of everything falling apart, the sensation that this is a band that needs to make music lest its members wither and die. Carrie Brownstein's guitar-playing slices away so carefully yet so recklessly, you can almost see her in the studio, hands bleeding all over the instrument until she's standing in a pool of red, smiling. And Corin Tucker's vocals hint at controlled insanity; she's angry, in love, fed up, exhausted, ready to go again, looking for a kiss, picking a fight. "I'm a mess, I'm the worst," she sings, her voice so beautifully unattractive. "But the best that you've heard." (She knows it.)

Oh, yes, there is a reason rock critics look to Sleater-Kinney as rock and roll's latest savior: Not since Nirvana has a band been so honest, so willing to give its all to an audience that doesn't even deserve it. This will be the critics' consensus record of 1999. Mark it down--The Hot Rock, the Ricky Williams of rock and roll.

But what to do about this year's list? How to make sense of a year when mediocrity tops the pops every single week, a year best defined by Jewel and Alanis and Celine and double-live Garth and Master P's piss-poor posse of clones and Lauryn Hill's bland, overrated venture into hip-hop divadom? Trying to put together a 10-best list this year was like trying to make a sandwich with whatever remained in the fridge six months after the last grocery-shopping excursion: This bologna don't smell too bad. There are no heroes in 1998, only those less guilty than others.

No, that's not exactly fair: Rufus Wainwright, Bedhead, Tricky, the eels, Neutral Milk Hotel, Jennyanykind, Richard Buckner, PJ Harvey, Outkast, and a handful of others did indeed make records their way--no label execs over their shoulders, tweaking knobs and picking hits behind their backs. Sometimes they succeeded beyond anyone's expectations, sometimes they disappointed--but so gallantly did they crash to earth, so brilliantly, so bravely. (Polly Jean, we salute you.) At least they dared to reach higher than the lowest common denominator. In a perfect world--one where Jewel lives in her car at the bottom of a river, where Alanis Morissette sells tickets at the afternoon matinee, where Garth Brooks pumps gas in Stillwater--the ambitious and principled would be rewarded for their efforts, while the rest would disappear like farts in a hurricane. But rock and roll is too often a self-defeating, self-devouring beast that turns even the most well-intentioned martyrs into suckers by the third record. Just ask Courtney Love.

You will read in the following few pages a handful of Top 10 lists put together by people who spend every day of the year listening to new music, evaluating it, absorbing it, describing it, living it. Some will complain of the difficulty in putting together these best-of litanies, as well they should; you can even think of these as the records that sucked less than all the others in 1998. It would be more than fair in some cases (how in the hell did Michael Corcoran come up with Lauryn Hill, for God's sake?). But in the end, most of these albums--which range from the chart-toppers to the indie-obscure, from the virgins' debuts to the veterans' throwaways--will outlive the year in which they were made. Nobody will think of Billy Bragg and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue and remark, "Good record, but I can't listen to it. It was made in 1998!" You won't be able to say the same of Madonna's Ray of Light or...well, most anything released during this calendar year, records that come bearing expiration dates. Last week, a publicist from a major label called pitching two of the hundreds of records her company put out in 1998 as Top 10 candidates. Even the faithful don't believe anymore.

There are no trends this year in rock; this wasn't The Year of the Woman, The Year Punk Broke Again, The Year Country Was King, The Year of Indie Rock. If anything, it was The Year of the Reissue: Bob Dylan's Live 1966, Bruce Springsteen's Tracks, Miles Davis' Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, Rhino Records' Nuggets boxed set, and so many other cardboard tombstones received most of the wasted ink spilled by rock mags in 1998, offering one more bit of evidence that people are starting to believe the best music is behind us. We've become grave robbers dancing with corpses: Dylan's oft-bootlegged show, recorded in England with the Hawks when it was still possible to plug in and piss off, is indeed a great record, but hardly the Lost Grail it has been portrayed as by myth and media. And Springsteen's Tracks is a muddled disappointment at best; the hardcore fan would do better to seek out the revelatory Fist Full of Dollars, 28 at-home demos recorded for and deleted from Nebraska, or the three-disc boot Deep Down in the Vaults, a "companion" to Tracks that far bests the original. At least it doesn't leave off "The Fever."

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