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

Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)
Mermaid Avenue is as good as you'd expect an album to be that features Billy Bragg and Wilco writing music to lyrics penned by Woody Guthrie, which means it's better than Christmas coming twice in one year. Most critics probably put this on their best-of-1998 list without cracking the shrink-wrap, which is a shame, because the payoff is even better than the idea. Drifting from schoolboy sonnets to tossed-off children's songs, Bragg and Wilco show a different side of the Dust Bowl troubadour, the part of Guthrie that thought with his heart as much as his head. It's a collaboration every bit as inspired as the Elvis Costello-Burt Bacharach pairing should have been. And even Natalie Merchant can't screw it up.

Braid, Frame and Canvas (Polyvinyl Record Co.)
With Frame and Canvas, Braid finally finds the beating pulse beneath the cold precision of Slint and Don Caballero and their brethren--bands that approach songs more like calculus equations, losing the feeling somewhere between complicated chord progressions and because-we-can time signatures. Like those groups, Braid changes its songs' tempos and rhythms more often than a white man dancing. But at heart--and there definitely is one--it's an album full of love songs, as confusing and complicated as love sometimes is.

Compound Red, Always a Pleasure (DeSoto)
Perhaps no other record released this year is as dynamic as this one: Greg Steffke's whispered screams battle Mike Allen and Jim Minor's rumbling guitar bluster, then they switch sides and do it all over again. For the most part, Steffke's effort is futile. When Allen and Minor dive headlong into a riff, it feels as if Always a Pleasure was recorded as the studio tumbled down the side of a mountain, each downstroke sending the song careening further out of control. But when Steffke is up to the challenge, it's as beautiful as lying on your back in a field of green grass, watching the sky explode on the Fourth of July.

Jets to Brazil, Orange Rhyming Dictionary (Jade Tree)
Somehow, Jets to Brazil made a morbidly depressing album sound like shiny, happy new wave played on broken-down instruments, wrapping its misery in bits of staccato guitar and cheap-keyboard flourishes until you can almost see a grin through the tears. And that's where the band's genius lies: Almost every song is about suicide or breakups or both, but by the time you make the connection, you've bitten on every pop hook the band has cast out. Even more inexplicable is the final track, "Sweet Avenue," a glass-is-completely-full tale of newfound love, so overwhelmingly optimistic in its outlook; it is the most depressing song on the album.

Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge)
Playing eccentric pop songs on eccentric instruments--including a singing saw and something called a zanzithophone--Neutral Milk Hotel has turned the fuzz-pop potential of On Avery Island into front-porch folk reality, if the front porch happened to be located at Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is full of whimsical melancholy, showing the dark side of the Elephant 6 (Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, etc.) collective's sugar-sugar sensibilities. It's an album of white-boy spirituals and dark campfire songs, sewn together by Jeff Mangum's mournful croon, which can even make nonsense like "When you were young you were the king of carrot flowers" sound like the most important thing in the world. The saddest and happiest record of the year.

The RZA, Bobby Digital in Stereo (V2/Gee Street)
With more layers than a hundred feet of limestone, and beats just as solid, the debut album by The RZA's alter-ego Bobby Digital confirms the former Robert Diggs is so far ahead of the rest of the pack, they would need a time machine just to catch up. It's house-of-cards hip-hop, as scratchy samples, plinking piano loops, "Theme from Shaft" strings--all useless by themselves--are carefully and cleverly added on top of one another. Bobby Digital in Stereo would be the best hip-hop album of the year even if The RZA never said a word: His hands talk loud enough.

Sunny Day Real Estate, How it Feels to Be Something On (Sub Pop)
As tender and thrilling as a first kiss, How it Feels to Be Something On should have been a mere rehashing of the band's first two records, a for-the-money reunion disc that trotted out new versions of hits they never had. Surprisingly, only the name remained the same, as the band chucked its chugging rhythms and guitars in favor of a sound more in line with the opulent, orchestral pop of lead singer Jeremy Enigk's solo album. Far away from Sunny Day's earlier post-punk gems, How it Feels to Be Something On at times feels like a folk album, paring the sound down to acoustic guitars and Enigk's astonishing, anguished falsetto. It's the rare case of a band getting back together for the right reasons and making an album that proves it.

A Tribe Called Quest, The Love Movement (Jive)
The final installment in an unimpeachable body of work, The Love Movement is a rousing farewell, the sound of a band burning out even as it fades away. The music has been scaled back from the heights the band attained with The Low End Theory's jazzmatazz, but it doesn't matter much. Q-Tip's two-steps-forward-one-step-back delivery is the best it's ever been, as he runs the table on every track, his nasal flow making anyone else's contributions irrelevant. It's yet another reminder that we never deserved a hip-hop band as good as A Tribe Called Quest.

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