The process is nothing if not scientific: At the end of every year, we contact each contributor to our music section and ask him/her to submit a roster of the 10 most overrated, mediocre, or generally offensive records released that annum. In order. These individual tallies are then painstakingly transcribed onto a master list, which gives each record a point value based on the amount of hatred it has inspired. Ties are broken using the editor's own prejudices. The mathematically correct super-list is chopped down to 10 finalists and re-submitted to the panel for final comment. The 1998 results follow.
Alanis Morissette, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Maverick/Warner Bros. (28 points)
The Canadian teen-queen's free ride continued on her second album, as a supplicant rock press dutifully repeated the hype that Jagged Little Pill sold more albums than any other female solo debut in history. Or something. Meanwhile, Morissette traded the tawdry movie-theater blowjobs for tales of finding God (or rather "The Goddess") while on vacation in India. How many critics pointed out that this was a lame move back when George Harrison did it? Not enough. They actually bought it when, on "Thank U," Alanis sang: "Thank you India/Thank you clarity." Enlightenment obviously makes one spell like Prince, but if it produced a dollop of clarity anywhere on this disc, it passed this listener by. Ultimately, though, the most unholy thing about this album is the music. Imagine bombastic pop-metal Poison clones playing Led Zep's "Kashmir" and interspersing it with schmaltzy, syrupy MOR ballads. Her defenders maintain that aging industry hack Glenn Ballard is Ruth Gordon to Alanis' Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, but I think they're both Carrie's mom, and I'd like to see them meet a similar end.
Barenaked Ladies, Stunt, Reprise
Rarely does one encounter such a refined ability to annoy the living fuck out of people. Having previously built an undistinguished career by writing slight paeans to the likes of Yoko Ono and Brian Wilson, this collection of Canadian swine somehow turned a song called "One Week" into an inexplicable smash. No point in detailing the song's charms here; if you have a pulse and a radio, you've doubtless heard them for yourself. Nor is an active imagination required to envision the tuneless smarm that comprises the rest of Stunt. It's often said that to be mediocre is a far greater crime than to be actively bad. Consider "One Week" and every radio station that insisted on butchering it to be compelling evidence to the contrary. Uncommonly terrible, and not even funny.
Liz Phair, Whitechocolatespaceegg, Matador (25 points)
If Whip-Smart, Liz Phair's mediocre follow-up to her excellent debut Exile in Guyville, didn't totally out the singer-guitarist as a one-album wonder, then the long-awaited Whitechocolatespaceegg is the clincher. No longer bitter, depressed, or angry, Phair simply has little left to say. And she's not a particularly good faker, either: She casually sings a desperate line like "Love is nothing, nothing, nothing" (in "Love is Nothing"--duh) as if she were calling out lottery numbers. Such one-dimensional "emotion" becomes a serious detriment through the course of an entire album. On "Fantasize," she sings in an atonal drone, which makes the particularly bland backing (courtesy of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry) even blander, and her irony-laced put downs ("Big Tall Man" and "Johnny Feelgood") don't possess nearly enough bile to make them effective. Even such kiss-offs as "Shitloads of Money" and "Go on Ahead" sound tepid, especially when compared to Exile's fist-raising "Fuck and Run." Given all that, it's no wonder that Phair fit right in on this year's Lilith Fair line-up; kinder and gentler, Phair's new attitude has garnered her little more than exile to Girlville.
Hole, Celebrity Skin, DGC (21 points)
Courtney Love's Hollywood peacock shtick would be fine--funny, even--if she could still produce some arresting rock. Apparently she no longer can--Pretty on the Inside and Live Through This were both great, but Hole has been overhyped ever since. Hole's much-lauded Lollapalooza performance in 1995 was a bloated, plastic snorefest, and Celebrity Skin is quite simply the worst big record of the year, a shameless waste of money that even knocks that awful Scott Weiland debacle out of the running. It is a glossy, stumbling, star-struck, numbingly overproduced ball of Fleetwood Glam confusion. Billy Corgan, whose limp Adore didn't win him any points either, would have been better off disowning this stinker entirely. Torn between the idea of singing on-key or in her guttural, off-key growl, Love sadly aims for something in-between--sort of an irritating bray. She sounds dimensionless, pretentious, and self-inflated, like she's lost touch with the real world entirely. The lyrics sometimes manage to stumble into meaning, but the music is just a hookless disaster: Neither punk nor pop nor rock, but wanting desperately to be all three. (You'd love to think that the record's arena-rock flourishes are tongue-in-cheek. They're probably not.) Flat, flabby, entirely joyless, this overinflated boat sinks long before it gets to "Malibu."
Creeper Lagoon, I Become Small and Go, NickelBag (20 points)
Dust Brother John King produced three songs on Creeper Lagoon's debut and, along with co-Duster Mike Simpson, released the album on their NickelBag Records imprint. The Brothers may have brought out the Beastie Boys' best on Paul's Boutique and helped Beck become a funk soul brutha with Odelay, but this much is certain: They have yet to learn how to polish a turd. The only way I Become Small and Go could bore more is if Creeper Lagoon used a drill during the recording sessions, and--judging by the liner notes--that's about the only thing it didn't: Magnetic tape loops, an AM radio, belt buckles, Bic lighters, and an oxygen oscillator all get shout-outs in the CD booklet. But even all the (literal) bells and whistles can't hide the fact that I Become Small and Go is a sub-par Toad the Wet Sprocket album, soggy pop-rock soaked in Beck's new pollution. The melodies disappear faster than found money, and so does the point. If there ever was one.
Rolling Stones, No Security, Virgin (18 points)
Keith Richards is a charming man. And since the '80s, he's continuously repeated his commitment to taking rock and roll into old age. It's almost enough to convince the world that the Rolling Stones still matter. They don't, and it has nothing to do with age or changing tastes or any other cheap shot tossed their way. The Glimmer Twins are simply not trying anymore. Listen to this live album, and you'll hear a band playing the old hits as well as anyone could hope; it's as satisfying as any Beach Boys nostalgia concert or some Glenn Miller tribute orchestra. Listen to Mick Jagger sing and hear a man whose vocal chops have only grown richer with time. The problem is not the performance; it's that the band has ceased to be a creative force. And they can blame only themselves--not their producers, their sidemen, their fans, their critics. Jagger and Richards were once inspired by the blues, literature, and sexual tension. They once wrote some of the most important music in rock. Now their primary interest is economics. Every three or four years, they gather in some island paradise for a few days of songwriting before entering a studio to rush out an album in time for a lucrative world tour, all the while hoping their fans won't be able to tell the difference. As if that were difficult--even the title of No Security lies; it's all about security. The band's, not the listener's.
Marilyn Manson, Mechanical Animals, Interscope (18 points)
On which Marilyn Manson managed to woo people by simply not being awful. Tossing aside the horror-show makeup and the goth-metal badness, he mutated into yet another '70s-humping nightmare: Forget Alice Cooper--meet David Bowie with breasts! Manson was better off as the grotesque ghoulie whose only real musical ambition was to filter "Sweet Dreams" through The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. He always seemed to know his strengths: He's a great ad-man, an awesome PR flak, and he's mastered the power of shock and the importance of good packaging. He once managed to be interesting simply as a status-quo foil, an anti-indie weirdo, and a hard goose to the Christian Right. But somewhere along the line, he got the idea that he is a musician. Can you imagine? Say this about him: He's still got the PR routine down cold, convincing many a listener that his purported musical transformation (read: glam-rock/Bauhaus rehash) was actually good. Marilyn Manson may be a lot of things, but "interesting songwriter" is not chief among them. Thankfully, by year's end, he was back to trashing hotel rooms and being sued by journalists for assault. So maybe there's still hope.
Korn, Follow The Leader, Immortal/Epic
The success of Korn is a compelling argument against child abuse, but it's not like we need another one. The worst cliches of four-chord metal and lame-white-guy rap rolled up into one bludgeoning, bellowing package, Follow The Leader is essentially the same wretched song 14 times in a row (counting the painfully straight-faced "hidden" cover of Cheech & Chong's "Earache My Eye"), though we can count our blessings that only two of them involve human-beat-boxing. Ice Cube and one of the Pharcyde make guest appearances, because getting a rapper who'd made a good record in the last four years would have been a lot tougher. Korn's selling point is supposedly that Jonathan Davis articulates the rage of tormented youth, but there is more to rage than screaming "fuck" every five seconds. Articulating it usually involves directing it at something or other, and resorting to the language of reflexive misogyny (cf. basically all of "Cameltosis") suggests that what's actually up in your head isn't being articulated at all. And, uh, sense of humor? Oh, yeah--that's when you scream "faggot" every five seconds instead, right? Loathsome.
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Madonna, Ray of Light, Maverick (16 points)
She "traded fame for love" when she should have swapped producers and found someone who understood "electronica" instead of merely aped its OK-computer conventions. Just when she thinks she's caught up to the future, Madonna becomes irrelevant, passe...no, mundane; laughable, too, around the time she's proclaiming herself your "Candy Perfume Girl" (how, like, True Blue). The disco queen of the 1980s stepped out on the dance floor in 1998 and looked more like Seinfeld's Elaine doing the spastic herky-jerk; nothing like trend-hopping to render the "revolutionary" inconsequential. Methinks the platinum lady doth spend too much time painting Hindu tats on her fingers than writing songs (half-completed notions do not count), which no doubt explains the Enya moves (sans grooves) that render Ray of Light moot--it's all so new-age and self-pitying before you ever get to the meat. And in case you missed her performance at the MTV Music Video Awards, the lady can't even sing these days. Elvis Costello was too kind during an interview with the Dallas Observer in which he compared her left-the-keys-in-the-car rendition of "Ray of Light" to Cameron Diaz' karaoke outing in My Best Friend's Wedding. When did Madonna become such a caricature, such a joke? Seriously? That long ago?
Eagle-Eye Cherry, Desireless, Work
Given that Eagle-Eye's dad is indisputably great free-jazzer Don Cherry, the kid must have had to work extra hard to make an album this soulless. (At least you could dance to Neneh.) When he sings, Eagle-Eye shoots for bluesy grit but ends up with a watered down approximation that sounds mostly like Dave Matthews; his songs are equally mediocre, content to substitute melodic cliches for actual spark. And ditto his lyrics, which prefer tired poetics ("Far away the angel cries/How far away the angel sings/Don't sell your soul for a pack of lies") over wit, insight, or palpable emotion. The insipidly generic "Save Tonight" ("...And fight the break of dawn/Come tomorrow/Tomorrow I'll be gone") scored him a hit, which made Eagle-Eye harder to ignore and easier to dislike; as with the rest of the album, it suggests that by trying to be both urbane artiste and raw blues provider, Cherry ends up being nothing at all.