Listen up

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

Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)
The son of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III--that alone should have landed our fancy boy in the sell-back pile real quick. But Rufus is to be commended, admired, even adored for making a lush, dense strings-and-pop record that sounds 1968 instead of 1998. Imagine old-school Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks with vague, obscured lyrics ("Oh, what a shame that your pockets did bleed on St. Valentine's"--pardon?), then rest assured the record's far better than that description sounds. Especially in 1998.

Bedhead, Transaction de Novo (Trance Syndicate)
Figures this would be Bedhead's farewell, just when things were starting to get interesting (i.e., rocking; i.e., rock). The best of Bedhead's brilliant catalog, Transaction is where Matt and Bubba Kadane let loose--which, for them, means two songs that manage to move instead of just lie there prostrate and despondent. Not that the old "formula" isn't a winner--these boys sound so good feeling so bad--but "Psychosomatica," well, kicks ass.

Tricky, Angels with Dirty Faces (Island)
Haven't listened to this since its release--it's just too much of a good thing sometimes, too overwhelming in its entirety--but now it's in constant rotation in the car's 10-disc player. Tricky's third has something for everyone--clench-fisted funk, sinuous grooves that penetrate like a cold and damp wind, fucked-up blues appropriations, a PJ Harvey cameo that beats anything on her own 1998 disc, and a frontman whose voice sounds like gravel in a blender. Sounds better now than it did six months ago, which counts for everything.

the eels, electro-shock blues (DreamWorks)
More songs about death and hospital food, but funnier than it has any right to be. You expect pretty and overwrought too: Still can't tell if "My Descent Into Madness" is intended with a straight face or a smirk ("I'm the shit," sings E, for better or worse). But somewhere within all these dead-of-winter lines about attending your own funeral and suicide e-mails is a desperate dude's little joke about how it's all gonna be all right. The music sort of gives it away--from the keyboard symphonies to the backward-looped cello--but not really.

Pernice Brothers, Overcome by Happiness (Sub Pop)
Never much cared for the Scud Mountain Boys--in fact, most of them so-called No Depression bands would do the world a favor by getting real jobs. But Joe Pernice's Brill Building-pop "side project" redeems him from the countrypolitan scrap heap. This is the record Brian Wilson should have made instead of the dreary lack-of-Imagination: lost-love songs with the stark, empty spaces filled in by trombones and flYgelhorns and strings. And "All I Know" is the best song that didn't make it onto Burt B. and Elvis C.'s Painted By Memory.

Prince, The Truth (NPG Records)
The fourth disc of The Artist Formerly Known's mail-order boots-and-beyond boxed set is the best thing he's done in years, which may not be saying much to the handful of fans he has left, but seriously, folks. Here's what happens when a studio fetishist sets up with an acoustic guitar, a microphone, a tape recorder, and just freakin' plays--man's got more chops than a butcher shop when he sets his mind to it. The title track's kind of blues, "Dionne" is '50s doo-pop laid bare, and the rest gets funky even without the occasional keybs that only get in the way. If Prince had released this by itself, The Truth mighta been a hit; as it is, seek and you shall find a brilliant, forgotten record.

Ear today, gone tomorrow?
This is not a list of the year's 10 best albums; after all, no such thing really exists. Rather, it's an inventory of 10 records that caught my ear and held it, albums that still find their way into my personal rotation months after I should have stopped caring about them. For the most part, the following is a collection of records that gave me a little more faith in the music industry in a year when, if the postman rang twice, it was usually just to deliver another Korn or Dave Matthews Band or Barenaked Ladies album. They might not all be groundbreaking or important, but they all make you stop what you're doing and listen to them. At least I think so.

--Zac Crain

Afghan Whigs, 1965 (Columbia)
The Afghan Whigs don't want to save your soul so much as they want to help you find it, freeing your ass so your mind will follow Greg Dulli and company into the back-alley dives from which their music crawls. The Whigs are still the best bar band west of the E-Street Band, and 1965 makes Max Weinberg and Clarence Clemons seem about as funky as James Taylor sidemen. But the band's blaxploitation grooves are just a backdrop for Dulli's tortured--or so he'd have you believe--come-ons. Alternating between a bedroom whisper and a juke-joint holler, he could make a nursery rhyme sound vaguely dirty; every word he utters is just another part of the longest pick-up line ever. It's the closest a fat white guy from Cincinnati will ever come to gettin' it on like Marvin Gaye.

ALL, Mass Nerder (Epitaph)
Teen angst rarely sounds as genuine as it does coming from the thirtysomething members of ALL. Only when the band name-checks former Oakland A's pitcher Vida Blue does it show its age, and even then, the reference flies by like a hummingbird tweaking on a sugar rush, lost in the album's speed-reader odes to all the girls they've loved before. After a decade together--almost two if you count its previous incarnation as the Descendents--ALL only gets better with age, trimming away a little more fat (prog-punk instrumentals, pointless metal excursions) each time out. As a result, the album is tighter and shorter (the longest song clocks in at around two and a half minutes) than a hooker's skirt. Mass Nerder is proof enough that growing older doesn't always include growing up.

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