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).
2. The Took So Long it Must Be a Masterpiece slot: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams (Mercury).
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.
4. The Don't I Look Hip? slot: You've Come a Long Way, Baby by Fatboy Slim (Astralwerks)
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.
5. The I'm Not Afraid to Be Obvious slot: Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg & Wilco (Elektra)
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.
6. The Vic Chesnutt Memorial Don't Understand Him So He Must Be Deep slot: XO by Elliott Smith (DreamWorks)
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.
7. The Matador/Knitting Factory/Sleater-Kinney slot: Moon Pix by Cat Power (Matador)
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.
In no particular order:
1. Pleasant Grove: An exceptional band to emerge--quietly--from the mounting ashes of the Dallas music scene. Both recorded and live, the trio-turned-quartet delivers some of the most dense, satisfying tunes around--Low-era Bowie on tranquilizers, Ian Curtis resurrected as a rocker. Their first performance was early last summer at the Orbit Room's farewell, and while nobody could say who they were, everyone stood still to listen. The band doesn't play so often, but has lately recorded with Matt Pence in St. Louis, which should make for a damn fine self-release next year. Pleasant Grove's low-key approach to profile building is a harbinger for how the area's best musicians are going about their careers: subtly, thoughtfully, and focused on the music. Why fight the industry when you can ignore it?
2. Music From the Motion Picture Velvet Goldmine: As a visual feast, the film borders on porn for straight girls and gay boys. Todd Haynes' homage/send-up of British '70s glam rock has all the right parts: delicious boys, decadent music, goofy sentiment, and great rise-and-fall performances by the leads. (Ewan McGregor, as an amalgam of Iggy Pop-Lou Reed-Mick Ronson, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as a straight-up Bowie-like character, pack more rock-star aura than most rock stars.) The soundtrack is the best thing Michael Stipe has been involved with since, well, since R.E.M. stopped putting out good records, and as the soundtrack's producers, he and Haynes have cleverly combined old gems by Brian Eno, T-Rex, and Iggy Pop and new material penned and recorded by Shudder to Think, Venus in Furs (featuring Thom Yorke, who's everywhere these days), and the Wylde Rattz, an indie supergroup consisting of Mark Arm, Steve Shelley, and Mike Watt, all of which stick well to the thick, glossy melodies and high drama of glitter rock. It's a complex, melancholy, and sometimes very droll album that celebrates wretched excess--a perfect foil for today's less-is-more leanings. Which brings us to...
3. Beck, Mutations (DGC): Proves once and for all that the Great Skinny Hope can write amazing songs, without the novelty crutches of looping and sampling--the trip-hop jitters. Mutations is a quiet, haunting, utterly spare album with the most satisfying melodic turns of his career--think Lennon-McCartney (the ripe, minor-key years) and double it. This ain't folk, country, psychedelic, or rock, but it takes bites off all these, chews them up and spits them out into a brilliant pile of sounds, West Coast style. And go figure: Last year's Beck is King hype has left the world burned out on the boy and looking elsewhere for the goods. Probably doesn't bother Beck too much--irony is his favorite toy.
4. Legendary Crystal Chandelier, Love or the Decimal Equivalent (steve records): Thank God Peter Schmidt never gave up. After months of frustration and backpedaling in the recording studio, the local vet finished his album last spring in a flurry of...well, not much recognition. Still, his debut sans band is extraordinary: This is what happens when a guy grows up to find himself left with nothing but his imagination and a studio, and actually has the sheer talent to make something of it. Nothing about this record sounds like a pander to anyone--industry types or Dallas fans--and the effect, instead of self-indulgent or alienating, is clear and generous. The songs combine timeless sentiment (plenty of loneliness and resentment) with both timeless and timely sonic textures: buzzy guitar--well, sure--and wrenching melodies, but dark-hued samples and loops acting as bones and joints. Only, unlike other rockers trying to convince the world they can dig the trip-hop, Schmidt makes the combination sound natural. That the rest of the country might not ever hear this stuff is a shame. That we know about it and get to spin it in our CD players whenever we want to is what keeps our faith in rock and roll.
5. Neutral Milk Hotel at Maxwell's: Maxwell's in Hoboken, New Jersey, had been closed down while it recovered from bad ownership--someone had tried to turn the old indie-rock digs into a brew pub, for God's sake. So three owners (including Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley) bought it back and reopened the club in August, and the first band to play the joint was Neutral Milk Hotel. Touring to promote its latest release, In the Aeroplane Over The Sea, NMH played the show of a lifetime that night, chaotic and roiling and breathtaking, complete with plastic saxophones, a saw, accordion, flYgelhorns, and, of course, Jeff Mangum's wavering nasal tones over staccato guitar riffing. It was as rich as a tapestry and as soothing as morphine. Not a drop of alcohol in the house (the club hadn't secured its license yet), but no matter. The Manhattan commuters drank up every note, and after the encore, staggered out and lurched back to the train station, silent and exhausted.
6. Last night of the Orbit Room: Sure, it's easy to goof on the pierced and tattooed legions that used Orbit as a regular watering hole. It's easy to dismiss the club's crappy sound system and scabies-infested couches and ear-scraping jukebox noise between live sets. And it's easy to complain that the regular roster of acts was nothing more than uninspired garage rock. But really, in a city that can't afford to lose any more of its decomposing rock scene, the closing of the Orbit was an unpleasant shock. On occasion, the best and brightest graced those indoor and outdoor stages and played sets that would blow even the most cynical audience away. The cover charge was always reasonable, the Kozik wall art was great to gaze at five beers into the night, and the sound guys were chatty and helpful. The club even held regular matinee punk-rock shows for the oft-overlooked under-21 crowd. Its final night of existence, June 23, was a BYOB affair--the club's liquor license had been yanked the week before--and featured a lineup that included Pleasant Grove, Centro-matic, and the Dirty Three, who wouldn't stop playing; and the locals showed up in drunken droves to bid the place farewell. Shots and catharsis all around, great music, all outlined by a sharp sense of loss. It may as well have been New Year's Eve, 1999.
7. Budapest One: Dunno how to describe this one, though most of you haven't heard the band yet, which warrants a description. OK, let's do this the trite way: part Jacques Brel, part Elvis Costello, part Antonio Carlos Jobim, part Buzzcocks. Bandleader Keith Killoren descended on Denton (rather, followed a girl there) a few years ago from Wisconsin, where his band 3-Liter Hit was doing well on the indie circuit. It took him a while to start up a new outfit, but Budapest One has been worth the wait, a perfect vehicle for Killoren's charmingly anachronistic sensibilities (he talks and writes lyrics like a pre-World War I theology scholar obsessed with sin). Killoren says he's hoping to pen an atomic song (meaning: perfect, watertight, reduced to its most crucial elements), but I say he already has, and that song is called "Comfortable." The crooner-cum-roarer has recruited bassist William Pollard (Cornhole) and drummer Steve Barnett (Baboon) to help out, and recorded one self-released tape chock-full of hooks that reach out and grab you--terrorist-style--by the throat. When they're not stroking you like a kitty.
8. Centro-matic at Dan's Bar, October 6: Guitarist-singer Will Johnson and keysman-fiddler Scott ("Scooter") Danbom took the stage that night as a sad, wiry duo, as unassuming as ever. They played all their slow, haunting stuff, and everyone in that bar knew this was Denton, if not rock itself, at its most distilled. This is what happens when a scene perpetuates and supports itself--something Dallas hasn't done since 1995.
9. Nick Lowe, Dig My Mood (Rounder): The Godfather of New Wave and Elvis Costello producer released his best work since 1979's Labour of Lust. Moody, mature, informed by genres as far-ranging as Gershwin to Delta blues, it not only showcases Lowe's mastery of style (not to mention production, and that shouldn't surprise anyone), but it also illuminates a man who's managed to age more gracefully and graciously than just about any other veteran out there. Yes, he did come through town to promote it. Almost all of you missed it, though, and in doing so missed one of the best shows of the year.
10. Tie: When Wiring Prank wouldn't talk and when Bobgoblin became the Commercials: Denton-based Wiring Prank has no recordings, plays live (in Denton) maybe twice a year, and won't talk to the press. This wouldn't matter if they sucked, but they don't, and they know it, so it's the anti-star, anti-band notion taken to extremes. "Um, we don't do interviews," one member sniffed after a plea. "We don't have anything to talk about right now." Bedhead would be proud.
Bobgoblin got screwed by their major label MCA, and instead of folding or breaking up, they simply shucked the pretty uniforms and goofy name, wrote a new set of songs, and re-emerged immediately as the Commercials. Now Hop Manski and his crew are stronger than ever. At a performance at the Curtain Club a few weekends back, the overflowing audience was so enthusiastic and encouraging, it almost had me believing there's a cohesive scene in this town. Almost.
Stark-Raving Mad About 1998
1. Beck, Mutations (DGC)
I'm 26 years old and losing touch fast. In the worst year for rock since, oh, 1997, I can no longer tell the difference between Master P and Puff Daddy. I know Outkast and Lauryn Hill are supposed to be important, but when I listen I can't tell why. Modern radio, whatever the hell that's supposed to be, plays far too much Sugar Ray and Limp Bizkit. I'm out of it, and it's starting to worry me.
Then Beck releases a new album, and not even a proper album--something he just tossed off in two weeks with his touring band and the guy who produced Radiohead's OK Computer. And suddenly I'm a fan of something popular, something other people like, a guy who gets nice write-ups in glossy magazines. Swirling about Mutations are bits and pieces from every record on my top 10 list this year, as well as my favorite reissues--Dylan's Live 1966, the Nuggets boxed set, Dock Boggs, and even the Donnas' rereleased first album of candy-coated teenage punk. Put the vinyl down on the turntable and call me a populist, like Beck.
2. Elliott Smith, XO (DreamWorks)
The lush, orchestrated XO--Smith's fourth solo record--isn't as bleak, emotionally or musically, as his earlier albums. While the arrangements sound more familiar, like long-lost pages from a George Martin comp book, paradoxically they're more complex than anything Smith's accomplished before, dense chamber pop with counter-melodies and complicated harmonies. Likewise, the spare character studies are convoluted and messy--and consequently more compelling. The finest character? Smith himself, brokenhearted, drunk, and "dragging the sunset down."
3. Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge)
Rod Serling wrote a perfect review of Neutral Milk Hotel's second record in 1959. All I can do is dust it off for reprint. "And also, like all men perhaps there'll be an occasion--maybe a summer night sometime--when he'll look upon what he's doing and hear the distant music of a calliope, and hear the voices and the laughter of his past. And perhaps across his mind there'll flit a little errant wish, that a man might not have to become old, never outgrow the parks and merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he'll smile then too because he'll know it's just an errant wish, some wisp of memory not too important, really, some laughing ghosts that cross a man's mind."
4. Sue Garner, To Run More Smoothly (Thrill Jockey)
In her band--and what now sounds like her other life--Garner is a city sophisticate, the bassist and singer for the convoluted New York avant-pop group Run On. But on her debut solo effort, Garner is a country girl making time as a townie, a woman from Georgia pining for the country while looking at flowers on a windowsill. Delicate, personal, and full of wonder.
5. PJ Harvey, Is This Desire? (Island)
"There was trouble, taking place." Something about that line, from "The Garden," captures Harvey's icy distance and the cold detachment of her fourth proper record. (That John Parish thing was a John Parish thing.) If To Bring You My Love completed a trilogy about women, sex, and PJ Harvey--incidentally inverting gender roles in the process--then Is This Desire? gets to the inherent messiness before and after sex, the loneliness, the abuse, and--what else?--the desire. This time, however, the record stars other women, with names like Angelene, Catherine, Leah, Elise, and Joy. The interesting question is whether Harvey is channeling them or they are channeling Harvey.
6. Cornelius, Fantasma (Matador)
Actually released last year in Japan, where Cornelius is some sort of teen idol, Matador made Fantasma available this year for those of us who can barely afford $14.99 at Blockbuster Music, much less $30 for an import. I thought I'd never say this again, especially in a year that saw the release of Liz Phair's godawfuldisappointment whitechocolatespaceegg, but praise be to Matador. Recorded with futuristic 3-D mikes in high-tech Japanese studios, and surfing from My Bloody Valentine to Pet Sounds, from Cheap Trick to Aphex Twin, Fantasma is an audiophile's choicest headphones, a bubble-gum popster's Hubba Bubba. And the best track features Robert Schneider and Hilarie Sidney from the Apples in Stereo. Wheee!
7. Tom Ze, Fabrication Defect (Luaka Bop)
A manifesto, in miniature, from "Esthetics of Plagiarism," in the liner notes of Brazilian Tom Ze's bizarre and unwieldy Fabrication Defect: "The esthetic of the fabrication defect will re-utilize the sonorous civilized trash (everyday symphony), be they conventional or unconventional instruments...It will recycle an alphabet of emotions contained in songs and musical symbols of the first world that sealed each marked step of our affective and emotional life." (Sounds like Beck has a Brazilian grandfather.)
8. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)
Better, and even more poetic, than the title.
9. The Push Kings, Far Places (Sealed Fate); and The Aislers Set, Terrible Things Happen (Slumberland Records)
The Push Kings--all major chords and bright vocal bursts--sound like what the Beatles might have if all four lads were named Paul. The Aislers Set conversely drone on in odd minors with Amy Linton's sweet "After Hours" voice chirping along. The Push Kings probably like sunny beaches, while the Aislers would prefer rainy days indoors. The differences are glaring, but like all twee bands, the two fraternal twins of San Francisco indie rock share the same obsession: love--sweet, bitter love.
10. the eels, electro-shock blues (DreamWorks)
As a faux-bedroom pop artist, the man called E--who used to record bad dance music with an outfit he called Man Called E--has all the hardened street credibility of, say, the Wallflowers. But electro-shock blues, the eels' sophomore record, only proves that pop music means any loser can shed his past and make a masterpiece. electro-shock blues is consumed by all the serious stuff: insanity, alienation, suicide, and ultimately death. But more than that, the album is about what becomes of those of us who have to live through the fallout when those things happen to other people, people we happen to love. And E makes it all sound so pretty.
What the Intern Heard
1. Komeda, What Makes It Go? (Minty Fresh)
Pop makes it go, of course. Juxtaposing Kraftwerkian electronics and saccharine strings with the Siouxsie-like vocals of Lena Karlsson, this Swedish quartet reinvents ebullient pop for the academic crowd. More hooks than a boatful of pirates.
2. Radiohead, Airbag/How Am I Driving?(Capitol)
A haunting, enigmatic collection of mini dramas that, with the exception of "Airbag," didn't make it onto OK Computer. Why not?
3. Air, Moon Safari (Source/Caroline)
A breakthrough voyage into French lounge, ambient electronic arrangements, and sedated disco rhythms. Air diffuses the boundary between yesterday and tomorrow without the irritating faux-irony of lesser composers.
4. Stereolab, Aluminum Tunes (Elektra/Duophonic)
The prolific collective sums up the last four years of its career with this sprawling rarities compilation. It includes everything from percolating pop to bossa nova to droning krautrock, all accompanied by the unmatched intertwining vocals of Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen.
5. Belle and Sebastian, The Boy with the Arab Strap (Matador)
Stuart Murdoch, the primary singer-songwriter for the revered Scottish band, manages to be soft and sharp all at once. Looking back on adolescence with nostalgia and trembling, Murdoch narrates townie tales of lascivious, lovesick, wistful youth. With his effeminate, lilting voice and droll narratives, The Boy With the Arab Strap would be one of the year's best even if it were just spoken-word.
6. R.E.M., Up (Warner Bros.)
Eschewing the overvamped rock of Monster and revisiting the more subtle melodics of Automatic for the People, R.E.M. sounds like R.E.M. again, but with enough variation and innovation to make Up a surprise and delight. Tepid vibes and humming organs render this record as warm and soft as an electric blanket, but the atmospheric guitars and punchy percussion are reason enough to get out of bed.
7. Tripping Daisy,
Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb (Island)
TD's most mature album to date, Atom Bomb displays the homeboys' ability to write terse polyrhythmic epics, pair Beatle-esque backing harmonics with quirky pop-punk, and update new wave and surf rock for the Pixies fan.
8. Tortoise, TNT (Thrill Jockey)
Tortoise grows by leaps and bounds on TNT and produces a fresh, thematically cohesive album (read: recurring melody here). Jazzy, but not jazz; electronic, but not techno. Brushed percussion, dueling marimbas, and lush strings make TNT the perfect soundtrack to a European tour.
9. The High Llamas, Cold and Bouncy (V2)
Listening to Sean O'Hagan without the elastic, off-kilter electronic arrangements of Cold and Bouncy is like eating cereal without milk. This time Sean O'Hagan and company back up the Brian Wilson idolatry with the perfect marriage of sweet pop ballads and otherworldly electronic flourishes.
10. Bedhead, Transaction de Novo
Melancholy amplified for full effect. Bedhead turns up the volume on trademarked barely audible vocals and hushed guitar-drums-bass. A deliberate approach to sparse, emotive indie-rock, Transaction is loud in all the right places, soft in all the others.
Jessica Parker is the intern for the music department.
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Reasons for Living in 1998
1. Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge)
2. Morcheeba, Big Calm (Sire)
3. Pinetop Seven, Rigging the Topsails (Truckstop/Atavistic)
4. P.M. Dawn, Dearest Christian: I'm So Very Sorry for Bringing You Here. Love, Dad (Gee Street/V2)
5. Richard Davies, Telegraph (Flydaddy)
6. Jon Langford, Skull Orchard (Sugar Free)
7. The Handsome Family, Through the Trees (Carrot Top)
8. Public Enemy, He Got Game (Def Jam)
9. Monster Magnet, Powertrip (A&M)
10. N'dea Davenport, N'dea Davenport (Delicious Vinyl/V2)
11. Local H, Pack Up the Cats (Island)
12. Mercury Rev, Deserters Songs (V2)
13. The Apples In Stereo, Tone Soul Evolution (Spin Art/Sire)
14. Smashing Pumpkins, Adore (Virgin)
15. Cradle of Filth, Cruelty and the Beast (Fierce/Mayhem)
16. Beastie Boys, Hello Nasty (Grand Royal/Capitol)
17. Pulp, This Is Hardcore (Island)
18. Belle and Sebastian, The Boy With the Arab Strap (Matador)
19. Liz Phair, Whitechocolatespaceegg (Matador/Capitol)
20. Garbage, Version 2.0 (Almo)
Coming next week: the year in local music and results of the readers' poll.