Picking the best locally made records of 1998 was easy. Who knew?

I'm hard pressed to find a local (or otherwise, what the hell?) record made in 1998 that provides more pure pop pleasures than Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb, which proved to be Tripping Daisy's final album for Island Records--and by far the band's best, after years of making albums I found too unbearable, too inane. Like the Rev, the Daisy too finds itself without a major label at year's end for similar reasons; this Jesus got more returns than the real thing. But the Daisy parted ways with Island on its own terms: The band knew it was asking for trouble by demanding the release of a six-minute single, even though Jesus is crammed with short, sharp radio-ready gems easily digested by programming directors begging for one more disposable hit. "Mechanical Breakdown" should have been heard on radio all summer long; "Sonic Bloom" or "Field Day Jitters" would have made logical successors. But instead, the band chose "Waited a Light Year"; it didn't take that long for Island to dig up the Daisy and dump it in the compost heap. Perhaps it's for the best: When left to its own devices, without label bosses or A&R buffoons looking over the band's shoulders, Tripping Daisy makes the album of its (or the Flaming Lips') career. At least Tim DeLaughter and Julie Doyle ended the year on the most optimistic of notes, having given birth to their first child. As my people say, mazel tov--on the kid, and on being off Island.

See, major labels can screw you up, make you lose sight of everything you ever struggled for, use you like a whore, then sell you for parts when they're done with you. How else to explain the comments made by Dixie Chick Emily Erwin in the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly? When talking about the band's three self-produced and locally released albums prior to this year's Sony Music bow Wide Open Spaces--which garnered the band two awards at this year's Country Music Association awards show, including one for best newcomers (harharhar)--Erwin said she hopes the collection "never surfaces [because] they don't have that pure Dixie Chicks sound." Never have I seen a band so willing to forget its past, so willing to cut loose those that brung 'em, in its rush toward the vault before the doors slam shut. Suddenly, a band once steeped in tradition, owing its everything to Bill Monroe and the Andrews Sisters and Dolly-Emmylou (not to mention founding members Robin Macy and Laura Lynch, excised from mind and bio), has become nothing--simply one more disposable part of Nashville's Music Row machinery that grinds the humanity out of even the best-intentioned. Erwin and sister Martie Seidel can no longer disavow themselves from those old records than they can their new Music Ho fashions (again, see the new Entertainment Weekly). Sometimes I think the Spice Girls have more dignity.

Ah, but why belabor the point when there's so much better out there? Or out here, as the case may be. It says something that when Zac Crain and I were trying to put together a local worst-of list we came up with a mere five, and it was a struggle at that, while this best-of collection came to us in a matter of three or four minutes. By the way, we decided not to run our worst-of list. We're funny that way.

It will be interesting to see how the Universal Music Group purchase of PolyGram and the subsequent reshuffling at Interscope, Geffen, Mercury, and other affiliated labels will affect the Dallas-Denton-etc. bands signed to them. Will the tomorrowpeople's record get released in the spring, as Geffen hopes, or will it disappear in the discarded heap that is quickly becoming the music business? Will the Toadies still have a home at Interscope? And what will become of little Ben Kweller and Radish? Time, as they say... Maybe that means John Freeman and the Legendary Fritz and Spyche and Jeff "cottonmouth, tx" Liles and Easterwood are just luckier, better off after all. They don't need anyone to validate their music, their "scene." They're just trying to make the rent and the rock. Bless them if they can do both.

The Calways, Starting at the End
(Red Label Records)
Who knew Todd Deatherage's scruffy rockabilly trio of two years ago could make a big rock-and-roll record like this? Probably no one, because even the band didn't. Starting at the End shows off the band's new five-piece lineup, and it makes all the difference in the world, filling in the blanks the band's previous work seemed to be so full of. There's more there there now, as Marc Daigle's guitar and Mike "Cruiser" Smith's keyboards create a sound thicker than a pint a Guinness, and every bit as intoxicating. Cutting their twang with new wave keyboards and jagged guitars, Deatherage and The Calways produce songs as sloppy and urgent as a goodbye kiss, and just as thrilling. Here's where people stop measuring the band against the Old 97's and start comparing it to Slobberbone. It's still not accurate, but at least it's getting closer.

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