Listen up

The best record to arrive in the mail this year will not even hit stores until February 23, 1999: Sleater-Kinney's The Hot Rock. It possesses what 99.93 percent of every single record released in 1998 does not--that intangible insinuation of hanging-on-by-a-thread desperation, the sound of everything falling apart, the sensation that this is a band that needs to make music lest its members wither and die. Carrie Brownstein's guitar-playing slices away so carefully yet so recklessly, you can almost see her in the studio, hands bleeding all over the instrument until she's standing in a pool of red, smiling. And Corin Tucker's vocals hint at controlled insanity; she's angry, in love, fed up, exhausted, ready to go again, looking for a kiss, picking a fight. "I'm a mess, I'm the worst," she sings, her voice so beautifully unattractive. "But the best that you've heard." (She knows it.)

Oh, yes, there is a reason rock critics look to Sleater-Kinney as rock and roll's latest savior: Not since Nirvana has a band been so honest, so willing to give its all to an audience that doesn't even deserve it. This will be the critics' consensus record of 1999. Mark it down--The Hot Rock, the Ricky Williams of rock and roll.

But what to do about this year's list? How to make sense of a year when mediocrity tops the pops every single week, a year best defined by Jewel and Alanis and Celine and double-live Garth and Master P's piss-poor posse of clones and Lauryn Hill's bland, overrated venture into hip-hop divadom? Trying to put together a 10-best list this year was like trying to make a sandwich with whatever remained in the fridge six months after the last grocery-shopping excursion: This bologna don't smell too bad. There are no heroes in 1998, only those less guilty than others.

No, that's not exactly fair: Rufus Wainwright, Bedhead, Tricky, the eels, Neutral Milk Hotel, Jennyanykind, Richard Buckner, PJ Harvey, Outkast, and a handful of others did indeed make records their way--no label execs over their shoulders, tweaking knobs and picking hits behind their backs. Sometimes they succeeded beyond anyone's expectations, sometimes they disappointed--but so gallantly did they crash to earth, so brilliantly, so bravely. (Polly Jean, we salute you.) At least they dared to reach higher than the lowest common denominator. In a perfect world--one where Jewel lives in her car at the bottom of a river, where Alanis Morissette sells tickets at the afternoon matinee, where Garth Brooks pumps gas in Stillwater--the ambitious and principled would be rewarded for their efforts, while the rest would disappear like farts in a hurricane. But rock and roll is too often a self-defeating, self-devouring beast that turns even the most well-intentioned martyrs into suckers by the third record. Just ask Courtney Love.

You will read in the following few pages a handful of Top 10 lists put together by people who spend every day of the year listening to new music, evaluating it, absorbing it, describing it, living it. Some will complain of the difficulty in putting together these best-of litanies, as well they should; you can even think of these as the records that sucked less than all the others in 1998. It would be more than fair in some cases (how in the hell did Michael Corcoran come up with Lauryn Hill, for God's sake?). But in the end, most of these albums--which range from the chart-toppers to the indie-obscure, from the virgins' debuts to the veterans' throwaways--will outlive the year in which they were made. Nobody will think of Billy Bragg and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue and remark, "Good record, but I can't listen to it. It was made in 1998!" You won't be able to say the same of Madonna's Ray of Light or...well, most anything released during this calendar year, records that come bearing expiration dates. Last week, a publicist from a major label called pitching two of the hundreds of records her company put out in 1998 as Top 10 candidates. Even the faithful don't believe anymore.

There are no trends this year in rock; this wasn't The Year of the Woman, The Year Punk Broke Again, The Year Country Was King, The Year of Indie Rock. If anything, it was The Year of the Reissue: Bob Dylan's Live 1966, Bruce Springsteen's Tracks, Miles Davis' Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, Rhino Records' Nuggets boxed set, and so many other cardboard tombstones received most of the wasted ink spilled by rock mags in 1998, offering one more bit of evidence that people are starting to believe the best music is behind us. We've become grave robbers dancing with corpses: Dylan's oft-bootlegged show, recorded in England with the Hawks when it was still possible to plug in and piss off, is indeed a great record, but hardly the Lost Grail it has been portrayed as by myth and media. And Springsteen's Tracks is a muddled disappointment at best; the hardcore fan would do better to seek out the revelatory Fist Full of Dollars, 28 at-home demos recorded for and deleted from Nebraska, or the three-disc boot Deep Down in the Vaults, a "companion" to Tracks that far bests the original. At least it doesn't leave off "The Fever."

No, there was only the rather disturbing trend of music getting worse, which surely can be tied to our fascination with history's dregs. Look at the letters section of this very newspaper, the bands you've chosen to defend in angry, hateful missives sent to the editor: Pearl Jam, Hanson, Marilyn Manson, Chris Isaak, Jimmy Buffett, Gary Numan, and so forth. These are the new heroes, the old zeros, the end of the world as we know it. Though I would never disparage anyone's choice in favorites--there are, after all, no rights or wrongs when it comes to personal tastes--I am always a little saddened to find that the artists who offer the least are often rewarded (and defended) the most. No wonder Lucinda Williams got excited when her records started selling by the hundreds instead of the dozens--better to get paid than to toil in obscurity as A Respected Legend. As Afghan Whigs singer Greg Dulli told the Dallas Observer just a few weeks ago, "Try bringing your good press clippings into the Porsche shop and telling them who you are. They're like, 'There's a used place down the road, man.'" Sucks, dude.

Most of the records included on the various lists included in this section didn't make it onto Billboard magazine's charts; In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel and the Pernice Brothers' Overcome By Happiness and Bedhead's Transaction de Novo didn't go copper, much less double platinum. But this ain't a popularity contest, despite what you think; we're talking art, man! It'd be nice if all the folks on these lists were rich, famous, successful--everything Jewel is and they're not. So these lists will have to do, and maybe, just maybe, you'll go out there and buy a few of these records, feel them as we do, play them well into 1999. Maybe not, but it's worth a try.

But keep this in mind: In a few weeks, just after the holidays, there will be a major reconfiguring of the music-industry landscape. Universal Music Group--which is owned by Seagram's, makers of some piss-poor whiskey--will be the largest label in the world, after purchasing PolyGram. The heads of UMG are going to start destroying record labels, such as Geffen and Interscope and Island. They are going to fire thousands of employees and cut dozens of bands, including such respected and venerable acts as Sonic Youth, Girls Against Boys, and maybe even PJ Harvey and some of your local heroes. Your options will become smaller, dwindling down to what they want you to hear.

And we thought things were bad this year.

R.E.M., Up (Warner Bros.)
Down one member--the drummer, big whoop--R.E.M. outgrows the arena and lands back in the bedroom, or so it sounds. This is the most expensive "lo-fi" rock-and-roll record ever made by a band signed to an $80-million contract. Lots of keyboards, drum machines, strings, and Brian Wilson mad-scientist touches with enough empty spaces to let it all sink in and stick. The most beginning-to-end listenable R.E.M. album in years should have been titled Down, though: This record, lovely and elegiac, flows like lava. "I hate where I wound up," sings Michael Stipe, sounding very much like a guy "face down in the floor." In the floor, not on it. Deep, man.

Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)
The most obvious choice of the year, unless you count the male counterpart: Billy Bragg & Wilco's Mermaid Avenue. The difference is that Williams wrote all the words here and still managed to make a Woody Guthrie record for the 1990s--nobody colors her back-porch rock with more deep blues than this transient critics' darling. Lots of traveling up and down that road, which is littered with dead bodies of old friends and flames, but it's not as grim as it sounds. Most of the time.

Tie: Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue (Elektra); and Golden Smog, Weird Tales (Rykodisc)

In other words: Jeff Tweedy. Mermaid Avenue should have failed on concept alone--reformed leftie Brit pairs with Midwestern rural-contemporary practitioners to resuscitate Woody Guthrie leftovers--but succeeds precisely because Bragg and Wilco manage to make this stuff their own; they ain't afraid of no ghost. Bragg goes for politics, Tweedy goes for broke, and the record has more soul than any Guthrie record I own. "California Stars" is the best never-played-on-radio single of the 1990s. Tweedy's the co-star in the Smog, as well, but not afraid to let Gary Louris of the Jayhawks steal the show, which is inevitable anytime a man who sings like a woman opens his mouth.

Propellerheads, Decksandrumsandrockandroll (DreamWorks)
The techno boom skipped radio altogether and ended up in Volkswagen commercials and Fox football promos. Maybe the revolution will be televised after beer commercials. But that's Alex Gifford and Will White's master plan anyway, having scored James Bond films before completing this debut full-lengther--these Brits are big on big, and ain't nothing bigger than TV. The best dance record of 1999 (bests anything Fatboy Slim has done or will ever do) because it's the fastest and the funkiest: "Take California" opens the record bam-bam with a Nixon sample, "You Want it Back" closes it with a Jungle Brothers cameo, and the middle makes Michael Johnson look like he's standing still. Inspirational title: "Bang On!"

Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)
The son of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III--that alone should have landed our fancy boy in the sell-back pile real quick. But Rufus is to be commended, admired, even adored for making a lush, dense strings-and-pop record that sounds 1968 instead of 1998. Imagine old-school Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks with vague, obscured lyrics ("Oh, what a shame that your pockets did bleed on St. Valentine's"--pardon?), then rest assured the record's far better than that description sounds. Especially in 1998.

Bedhead, Transaction de Novo (Trance Syndicate)
Figures this would be Bedhead's farewell, just when things were starting to get interesting (i.e., rocking; i.e., rock). The best of Bedhead's brilliant catalog, Transaction is where Matt and Bubba Kadane let loose--which, for them, means two songs that manage to move instead of just lie there prostrate and despondent. Not that the old "formula" isn't a winner--these boys sound so good feeling so bad--but "Psychosomatica," well, kicks ass.

Tricky, Angels with Dirty Faces (Island)
Haven't listened to this since its release--it's just too much of a good thing sometimes, too overwhelming in its entirety--but now it's in constant rotation in the car's 10-disc player. Tricky's third has something for everyone--clench-fisted funk, sinuous grooves that penetrate like a cold and damp wind, fucked-up blues appropriations, a PJ Harvey cameo that beats anything on her own 1998 disc, and a frontman whose voice sounds like gravel in a blender. Sounds better now than it did six months ago, which counts for everything.

the eels, electro-shock blues (DreamWorks)
More songs about death and hospital food, but funnier than it has any right to be. You expect pretty and overwrought too: Still can't tell if "My Descent Into Madness" is intended with a straight face or a smirk ("I'm the shit," sings E, for better or worse). But somewhere within all these dead-of-winter lines about attending your own funeral and suicide e-mails is a desperate dude's little joke about how it's all gonna be all right. The music sort of gives it away--from the keyboard symphonies to the backward-looped cello--but not really.

Pernice Brothers, Overcome by Happiness (Sub Pop)
Never much cared for the Scud Mountain Boys--in fact, most of them so-called No Depression bands would do the world a favor by getting real jobs. But Joe Pernice's Brill Building-pop "side project" redeems him from the countrypolitan scrap heap. This is the record Brian Wilson should have made instead of the dreary lack-of-Imagination: lost-love songs with the stark, empty spaces filled in by trombones and flYgelhorns and strings. And "All I Know" is the best song that didn't make it onto Burt B. and Elvis C.'s Painted By Memory.

Prince, The Truth (NPG Records)
The fourth disc of The Artist Formerly Known's mail-order boots-and-beyond boxed set is the best thing he's done in years, which may not be saying much to the handful of fans he has left, but seriously, folks. Here's what happens when a studio fetishist sets up with an acoustic guitar, a microphone, a tape recorder, and just freakin' plays--man's got more chops than a butcher shop when he sets his mind to it. The title track's kind of blues, "Dionne" is '50s doo-pop laid bare, and the rest gets funky even without the occasional keybs that only get in the way. If Prince had released this by itself, The Truth mighta been a hit; as it is, seek and you shall find a brilliant, forgotten record.

Ear today, gone tomorrow?
This is not a list of the year's 10 best albums; after all, no such thing really exists. Rather, it's an inventory of 10 records that caught my ear and held it, albums that still find their way into my personal rotation months after I should have stopped caring about them. For the most part, the following is a collection of records that gave me a little more faith in the music industry in a year when, if the postman rang twice, it was usually just to deliver another Korn or Dave Matthews Band or Barenaked Ladies album. They might not all be groundbreaking or important, but they all make you stop what you're doing and listen to them. At least I think so.

--Zac Crain

Afghan Whigs, 1965 (Columbia)
The Afghan Whigs don't want to save your soul so much as they want to help you find it, freeing your ass so your mind will follow Greg Dulli and company into the back-alley dives from which their music crawls. The Whigs are still the best bar band west of the E-Street Band, and 1965 makes Max Weinberg and Clarence Clemons seem about as funky as James Taylor sidemen. But the band's blaxploitation grooves are just a backdrop for Dulli's tortured--or so he'd have you believe--come-ons. Alternating between a bedroom whisper and a juke-joint holler, he could make a nursery rhyme sound vaguely dirty; every word he utters is just another part of the longest pick-up line ever. It's the closest a fat white guy from Cincinnati will ever come to gettin' it on like Marvin Gaye.

ALL, Mass Nerder (Epitaph)
Teen angst rarely sounds as genuine as it does coming from the thirtysomething members of ALL. Only when the band name-checks former Oakland A's pitcher Vida Blue does it show its age, and even then, the reference flies by like a hummingbird tweaking on a sugar rush, lost in the album's speed-reader odes to all the girls they've loved before. After a decade together--almost two if you count its previous incarnation as the Descendents--ALL only gets better with age, trimming away a little more fat (prog-punk instrumentals, pointless metal excursions) each time out. As a result, the album is tighter and shorter (the longest song clocks in at around two and a half minutes) than a hooker's skirt. Mass Nerder is proof enough that growing older doesn't always include growing up.

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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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky