Listen up

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

No, there was only the rather disturbing trend of music getting worse, which surely can be tied to our fascination with history's dregs. Look at the letters section of this very newspaper, the bands you've chosen to defend in angry, hateful missives sent to the editor: Pearl Jam, Hanson, Marilyn Manson, Chris Isaak, Jimmy Buffett, Gary Numan, and so forth. These are the new heroes, the old zeros, the end of the world as we know it. Though I would never disparage anyone's choice in favorites--there are, after all, no rights or wrongs when it comes to personal tastes--I am always a little saddened to find that the artists who offer the least are often rewarded (and defended) the most. No wonder Lucinda Williams got excited when her records started selling by the hundreds instead of the dozens--better to get paid than to toil in obscurity as A Respected Legend. As Afghan Whigs singer Greg Dulli told the Dallas Observer just a few weeks ago, "Try bringing your good press clippings into the Porsche shop and telling them who you are. They're like, 'There's a used place down the road, man.'" Sucks, dude.

Most of the records included on the various lists included in this section didn't make it onto Billboard magazine's charts; In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel and the Pernice Brothers' Overcome By Happiness and Bedhead's Transaction de Novo didn't go copper, much less double platinum. But this ain't a popularity contest, despite what you think; we're talking art, man! It'd be nice if all the folks on these lists were rich, famous, successful--everything Jewel is and they're not. So these lists will have to do, and maybe, just maybe, you'll go out there and buy a few of these records, feel them as we do, play them well into 1999. Maybe not, but it's worth a try.

But keep this in mind: In a few weeks, just after the holidays, there will be a major reconfiguring of the music-industry landscape. Universal Music Group--which is owned by Seagram's, makers of some piss-poor whiskey--will be the largest label in the world, after purchasing PolyGram. The heads of UMG are going to start destroying record labels, such as Geffen and Interscope and Island. They are going to fire thousands of employees and cut dozens of bands, including such respected and venerable acts as Sonic Youth, Girls Against Boys, and maybe even PJ Harvey and some of your local heroes. Your options will become smaller, dwindling down to what they want you to hear.

And we thought things were bad this year.

R.E.M., Up (Warner Bros.)
Down one member--the drummer, big whoop--R.E.M. outgrows the arena and lands back in the bedroom, or so it sounds. This is the most expensive "lo-fi" rock-and-roll record ever made by a band signed to an $80-million contract. Lots of keyboards, drum machines, strings, and Brian Wilson mad-scientist touches with enough empty spaces to let it all sink in and stick. The most beginning-to-end listenable R.E.M. album in years should have been titled Down, though: This record, lovely and elegiac, flows like lava. "I hate where I wound up," sings Michael Stipe, sounding very much like a guy "face down in the floor." In the floor, not on it. Deep, man.

Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)
The most obvious choice of the year, unless you count the male counterpart: Billy Bragg & Wilco's Mermaid Avenue. The difference is that Williams wrote all the words here and still managed to make a Woody Guthrie record for the 1990s--nobody colors her back-porch rock with more deep blues than this transient critics' darling. Lots of traveling up and down that road, which is littered with dead bodies of old friends and flames, but it's not as grim as it sounds. Most of the time.

Tie: Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue (Elektra); and Golden Smog, Weird Tales (Rykodisc)

In other words: Jeff Tweedy. Mermaid Avenue should have failed on concept alone--reformed leftie Brit pairs with Midwestern rural-contemporary practitioners to resuscitate Woody Guthrie leftovers--but succeeds precisely because Bragg and Wilco manage to make this stuff their own; they ain't afraid of no ghost. Bragg goes for politics, Tweedy goes for broke, and the record has more soul than any Guthrie record I own. "California Stars" is the best never-played-on-radio single of the 1990s. Tweedy's the co-star in the Smog, as well, but not afraid to let Gary Louris of the Jayhawks steal the show, which is inevitable anytime a man who sings like a woman opens his mouth.

Propellerheads, Decksandrumsandrockandroll (DreamWorks)
The techno boom skipped radio altogether and ended up in Volkswagen commercials and Fox football promos. Maybe the revolution will be televised after all...in beer commercials. But that's Alex Gifford and Will White's master plan anyway, having scored James Bond films before completing this debut full-lengther--these Brits are big on big, and ain't nothing bigger than TV. The best dance record of 1999 (bests anything Fatboy Slim has done or will ever do) because it's the fastest and the funkiest: "Take California" opens the record bam-bam with a Nixon sample, "You Want it Back" closes it with a Jungle Brothers cameo, and the middle makes Michael Johnson look like he's standing still. Inspirational title: "Bang On!"

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