By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Michael Corcoran Makes Stuff Up
As a critic gets older -- and this one is 43 -- certain tasks become more difficult, like trying to show any interest whatsoever in the latest R.E.M. release. But other activities become a breeze, such as making a year-end list of the 10 best records. During my freelance scuffling days (a.k.a. the 1980s), I had a pretty easy time because I would just list the 10 promotional (a.k.a. free) albums I didn't sell back to record stores. But as I entered the arena of serious criticism (not including the three-year breather spent when I wrote for The Dallas Morning News), I started spending weeks compiling the list that best defined my affinity for the year's releases. What a waste of time. And besides, how can one guy name the 10 best records when he's probably heard only 10 percent of those albums released during any given year?
In recent years, though, I've perfected a system, based on the exceedingly predictable Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll (still the one that matters most, even after voting Hole's Live Through This as the best album of 1994), that guarantees my list will be topical, diverse, tasteful, and thought-provoking. The way it works is that I just have to find the albums that fit best in 10 pre-existing slots. So follow me along, as I get this out of the way:
1. The Sassy But Artsy Empowered Black Female slot: Since neither Erykah Badu nor Missy Elliott released new albums in 1998, it's Lauryn Hill in a landslide, with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse). The one from the Fugees with talent instead of a penis (coincidence?), Hill has made the What's Goin' On of the ski-goggles-in-Bed-Stuy set by mixing songs that work on a la-la level with relentless rap breaks and interludes that take us where most of us have never gone before: an inner-city high school. (This CD is a two-fer, as it also fills the Rap Ain't All Bad slot).
Like Frank Sinatra and Al Michaels, Williams is finding that middle age is the best thing for her voice. Though the LP could be subtitled "To All the Bassists I've Loved Before," this is a wonderful musical map to the soul of a woman. The way to become fluent in cunnilingus, a lesbian once told me, is to eat with your ears. Any guy who wants to understand women better should listen to Lucinda Williams.
3. The Making Up for Ignoring Him When He Was Alive slot: The Final Tour by Ted Hawkins (Evidence)
This broken-down Sam Cooke with the black glove created a stunningly human mood with just a guitar and a mike (as anyone lucky enough to see him at Poor David's in 1994, just months before he died from a diabetes-related stroke, can attest), and this CD gets it all down.
Is there a techno sub-genre called Deep Groove? If so, Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook, musically repenting for his days in the Housemartins, is the king. This is gutbucket dance music to remind us that Tricky's a bore and Bjsrk dated him.
My concession to old-school criticism (since neither Steve Earle nor Marshall Crenshaw made a record in '98), this record came out when I desperately needed to hear something new. I played it so much I'm now sick of it, which means it's right for the list.
Woozy melodies and razor-sharp lyrics usually mix about as well as Elliott did with Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood at last year's Academy Awards ceremony. But there's something about this album that compels you to play it from start to finish.
This album begins with the harmonica from Springsteen's Nebraska, but then delves into a whole different Midwest of the brain. This record would smack of pretentious art-rock if it weren't so consistently mesmerizing.
8. The No Depression Concession slot: The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills (Bloodshot)
This sounds like the best hoot night ever, with Chicago (Jon Langford, Robbie Fulks, Sally Timms) battling Austin (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Alejandro Escovedo) for the rights to hoist the Texas Playboys flag.
9. The Bet I'm the Only Critic With This One slot: You Am I's #4 Record by You Am I (BMG)
The Brian Wilson genuflection gang (Richard Davies, High Llamas, R.E.M.) misses the point by playing up Wilson's grand air and avoiding the pulsebeat, but this raucously tuneful album by the Australian collage-rockers throws just enough classic fluff on the
sound to keep it interesting. The melodies cut through.
10. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion slot: Welcome Back, Zoobombs by Zoobombs (Reel Time)
Tokyo's Zoobombs are often tagged--OK, by me--as the "Jon Spencer Brues Exprosion," and the imitators best the originals in very much the same way that Japan's '50s rock-and-roll revivalists make ours look like truck drivers with ducktails. Like Spencer, Zoobombs dabble in funk and rap, but they leave out the drippy East Village cynicism. Then, when they go the full-on guitar-band route, they hit it gleefully, like altar boys drunk on church wine.