Friday, September 20, 2019

McQ's Best Of 1998 Vol 1 - Best Of The Best

I've never been more checked out on a music year when it first occurred than I was in 1998 (buying a first home, having a first child, and finishing a masters degree in a single year will do that to a person), so it was with great enthusiasm that I set out twenty-years later to rediscover the music of the year of my son's birth.

And 1998 did not disappoint.

Though I wouldn't consider 1998 an elite music year, it had a ton to offer, and it was so distinctly itself.

There are few music years I can think of where such a large percentage of that year's signature works feel like they could only have emerged from that exact moment in time.

On the producer-driven side, much of hip-hop and electronic music had merged into the trip-hop and big beat movements. movements that would only last for a brief moment before disappearing almost completely, while pure hip hop itself, in the aftermath of the Tupac/Notorious B.I.G. killings, was in the middle of one of its grittiest, most minimalistic periods (with one significant exception: a pair of Atlantans who brought an expansive musicality the genre had rarely witnessed up to that point).

On the rock side, it was a moment of huge transition, with the decade's hard-edged, still innovative, desconstructionist alt-and-industrial rock sensibilities mellowing and experiencing their final waning moments before the far more backward-looking, re-combinatory sensibilities of the stoner-rock and indie-rock movements would pushed them aside.

Truth be told, by 1998, rock's forty-year run as as an ever-evolving genre was nearing its end. Within just another five years, most rock bands would no longer be referenced by the era from which they came, but by the past era they most evoked.

In the soul world, Lauryn Hill released a nuclear bomb of a hit album that reshaped the R&B landscape for the next twenty years, while on the singer-songwriter/country side of the spectrum, Lucinda Williams released one of the decade's signature albums.

And through it all, endearing throwaway pop-rock and disco singles and fascinating experimental post-rock excursions were everywhere to be found.

So let's not waste any more time. Let's start listening. Here's 1998's best of the best!!!

About The Albums/Songs/Artists Represented On This Mix:

1. King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1 - Neutral Milk Hotel: We open this year's retrospective collection with my two favorite songs of 1998.  First up, the magical, hypnotic opener to Neutral Milk Hotel's magical, hypnotic Diary Of Anne Frank-inspired indie-cult classic In An Aeroplane Over The Sea, my choice (at this moment in time at least) for the best album of 1998.

2. Praise You - Fatboy Slim: Most of former Housemartin-turned-big-beat DJ Norman Cook's sophomore effort as Fatboy Slim You've Come A Long Way, Baby anchored around his take on the wildly creative hip-hop/electronica/classic rock/soul fusions that were also powering the trip-hop movement of the moment, but it was this light, warm turn to twee-pop towards the record's end that cemented You've Come A Long Way, Baby's status as one of the definitive works in the big beat genre.

3. Space Lord - Monster Magnet: By 1997, Dave Wyndorf was spent.  Despite amassing nearly a decade of critical acclaim as the leader and principal songwriter of one of the definitive bands of the stoner rock genre, neither the band or the genre (with it's trippy, jammy blend of late 60s/early 70s hard rock, biker rock, and psychedelic tropes), could break free either commercially or of the "old-fashioned" label hurled at them from the dominant alt-rockers of the era. About ready to throw in the towel, Wyndorf instead decided to give the band one more shot, and exiled himself to Las Vegas with the mandate to write at least one song a day or call it quits. But rather than that goal proving self-defeating, Wyndorf soon found himself inspired by Sin City's over-the-top decadence, recast that Vegas vibe into campy, so raunchy tall tales of intergalactic drug-fueled hedonism, and the songs just poured out. Simultaneously streamlining the band's previously long-winded, spacey approach to a terse, razor sharp attack, the resulting album Powertrip, released just as the alt-rock movement was finally losing steam, was not only the band's commercial breakthrough, but one of the best hard rock albums of the decade overall. And the epic Space Lord, included here, would become the biggest single of the band's still active career.

4. Ray Of Light - Madonna: A bit of a career resuscitation after a four year hiatus, Madonna's return to the studio fully embraced the trip-hop and electronic trends of the moment, and the end result, while not the best album of her career, and far from the most iconic, is almost indisputably her coolest. And while the stellar production and killer beats provided by her A-List collaborators are actually the biggest stars of Ray Of Light, that should in no way diminish Madonna's skill in successfully overseeing this stylistic shift, especially when one considers how badly U2 fell flat on their face with their fans attempting the exact same move with Pop the year before. As for the title track included here, imho, it's her best song ever.

5. La femme d'argent - Air: With their 1998 full-length debut Moon Safari, the electronic/ambient pop duo of Versailles natives Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel announced themselves as so much more than just another electronic chill-out act (though if I'm being honest, album opener la femme d'argent included here, with its super slinky bass groove, is as good an instrumental chill-out track as I have heard).  An unquestioned classic, Moon Safari was bursting with innovative ideas, many anchored more in old-time pop traditions and natural instrumentation than the production trends of the moment, and the album was as warm and inviting and stylistically broad-minded as anything the genre delivered in the late 90s. To this day, it is still justifiably considered one of the ten greatest electronic albums of all time.

6. Summerholidays Vs. Punkroutine - Refused: Initially perceived as a flat-out game changer in the punk arena, my personal opinion on Swedish hardcore punker's Refused 1998 breakout The Shape Of Punk To Come has dipped slightly over the years, as I don't think the album has been nearly as influential or significant in the years since its release as it presumed to be. But I still love it nonetheless, and there is no denying the band's force or their unwavering commitment to their anarchist philosophies, best personified in Summerholidays Vs. Punkroutine here, which draws the line on the tradeoff between maintaining one's artistic integrity and embracing commercialism as clearly as any song I know.

7. Doo Wop (That Thing) - Ms. Lauryn Hill: Presently the critical consensus  top album of 1998 by a wafer thin margin over Air's Moon Safari and then a slightly larger margin over the next three runners-up (Neutral Milk Hotel's In An Aeroplane Over The Sea, Lucinda Williams Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, and Mercury Revs' Deserter's Songs), The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill is quite possibly the most influential Alt-R&B release of the last twentyyears, almost singlehandedly establishing the template for every artist that's trafficked in the intersection of hip hop and R&B ever since (just take a back-to-back listen to this album and Solange's celebrated A Seat A The Table a few years back and marvel at the similarities).  So many great songs to choose from this album, but in the end,  I played it safe and went the record's most popular song.

8. The Boy With The Arab Strap - Belle & Sebastian: The third full-length from twee's all-time greatest band, The Boy With The Arab Strap wasn't quite the masterpiece that preceded it (that being the band's definitive statement If You're Feeling Sinister), but stands as one of BAS's most beloved records and one the better indie-pop albums of the era. Buoyed by breezy, lilting numbers like It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career, Ease Your Feet Into The Sea, Dirty Dream #2 and the magnificent title track included here, it's an essential record for any fan.

9. Can't Let Go - Lucinda Williams: My personal #2 album of 1998, Lucinda William's Car Wheels On A Gravel Road may be best known today as one of the most obsessively worked-over albums of all time.  It took Williams almost three years of ceaseless studio revisions and ruined relationships with multiple producers (one, Steve Earle, who recalls the experience as "the least amount of fun I've had working on a record.") before she finally got the album to a point, where (pun intended) she was able to let go. But from today's vantage point, that hardship all seems to have been worth it.  Loaded with one knock-out track after another, Car Wheels is one of the greatest alt-country/adult contemporary albums ever recorded, and stands right with Aeroplane Over The Sea for me as the best 1998 had to offer. We'll hear many more tracks from this album when we get to the 1998 edition of Nancy's Favorites.

10. She Belongs To Me - Bob Dylan: Let's be perfectly honest here, Dylan lovers. As great and legendary as the man is as a songwriter and on record, he's never been on the elite tier as a live performer. Yes, he can be fantastic on stage from time to time (something I've experience in person), but on a bad day, especially those days when he decides not to enunciate (a couple of which I've also unfortunately experienced in person) there isn't a worse live performer on the planet. So imagine my surprise when I heard Legendary's 1998 release The Bootleg Series Vol 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966 - The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert.  A repackaging of bootleg recordings from of the UK leg of Dylan's 1966 European tour with the Hawks (soon to be known as The Band), most of the excitement for this album revolves around its infamous back half, when Dylan and the Hawks break out his electric material for an indignant, vocal crowd of acoustic folk purists during a set at Manchester's Free Trade Hall, with one fan even famously shouting out "Judas" followed by Dylan calling the fan a liar and instructing The Hawks to "play it loud" just before they dive into Like A Rolling Stone. It's as good a representation of live Dylan at his best as you will find on record, and an amazing document of an artist sticking to his creative guns and preserving against heated opposition in the heat of the moment, but I have to admit that I like the acoustic front half of the album even better. The acoustic performances are just spellbinding, and so I have chosen this wonderful version of She Belongs To Me as a stand in for the album here.

11. You Can't Quit Me Baby - Queens Of The Stone Age: If these Best Of The Best mixes were exclusively focused on profiling my favorite albums of the year and not also singles Queens Of The Stone Age's self-titled debut wouldn't be represented here.  It's a solid album in its own right, but not on the level of the other albums represented here, and is really most notable, Pablo Honey-like, for the inspired excellence it suggests is about to come in later QOTSA releases than for the songs it itself contains. But that said, I've never been able to shake You Can't Quit Me Baby, which delivers one of the nastiest opening bass riffs of the 90s.

12. Sick Of Goodbyes - Sparklehorse: One of the more unique indie-albums of the late 90s, Sparklehorse's Good Morning Spider exists in a constant, effortlessly executed state of half-wakefulness, its songs fading and surging in a near perfect simulation of our headspace in those morning moments just after the alarm has popped but before we've fully come to consciousness.  Further adding to the album's appeal, it's one of those magical "small-song" records, winning us over Rubber Soul-like with a number of unforced but highly distinct small tracks rather than aiming for epic lyrical or musical statements. I considered at least a half dozen songs to represent the album here (Painbirds, Happy Man, Cruel Sun, Maria's Little Elbows, Ghost Of His Smile, Pigs), but ultimately settled on Sick Of Goodbyes purely because it worked best with the other songs on this mix.

13. Tear Drop - Massive Attack: Perturbed by all the adulation being showered upon other, mostly lesser, trip hop acts that had sprung up in their wake, Massive Attack returned with a vengeance in 1998 with their bleak, spellbinding, noirish Mezzanineto this date one of the most evocatively produced electronic albums of all time. As dark and menacing as the stag beetle that adorns the album's cover, there was a fragile beauty to much of Mezzanine as well, best exemplified by the Elizabeth Fraser-led Tear Drop included here.

14. Goddess On A Hiway - Mercury Rev: A radical departure from their far noisier and angular early efforts, Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs replaced the aggression that marked much of the band's prior material for twee psychedelia and symphonic grandeur, and the result was a landmark album in late 90s indie - a pitch perfect, one-of-a-kind, orchestral-rock oddity that neither the band or anyone else (other than possibly the Flaming Lips to a degree on The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots) - has proven able to replicate the essence of ever since.

15. Return Of The "G" - Outkast: Though follow-up release Stankonia would eventually be hailed by most as the Atlanta rap duo's magnum opus, and earlier releases Southernplayalisticadillacmusik and ATLiens were excellent records in their own right, 1998's Aquemini was Outkast's first stone-cold classic, the album where they embraced the chilled-out funk hinted at by ATLiens completely and defined the sound of hip hop's "dirty south." As weird and richly musical as anything the genre had experienced up to 1998, I opted for Return Of The "G" as Aquemini's representative track here as much for its shorter run time as opposed to any qualitative differences between it and other, longer favorites like Spottieottiedopalicious, Da Art Of Storytellin' Pts 1& 2, and Chonkyfire.

16. All The Kids Are Right - Local H: With every note rooted half-way between the quiet-loud grunge dynamics of Nirvana's Nevermind and the quirky power-pop of Cheap Trick (which should come as no surprise given Local H hailed from Rockford, Illinois), Pack Up The Cats was one of the funniest hard rock albums of the 90s, an at times laugh-out-loud, semi-autobiographical tale of a small-time, dopey midwestern band's rapid rise and fall from grace. This track, just a classic slice of rock n' roll, is Local H's most popular song, and highlights the brutal fan fallout from their, um,  "fictional" band's worst performance ever.

17. Glory Days - Pulp: Often cited as the album "that killed Britpop," This Is Hardcore, Pulp's arty, depressing follow-up to their massive 1995 hit album Different Class, flipped the tables on Class's presentation of youthful blue-collar resilience by envisioning those same archetypal blue-collar types 5-10 years later in their lives when all pretense of pride and self-worth has been beaten out of them and the coping mechanisms they used to blow off steam in their twenties - the sex, the booze, the drugs, the mindless television, porn - have all turned into empty, joyless addictions. It's a dark, dark affair, but one that seems to tilt towards an edge of hopefulness at its end with the wistful remembrances of Sylvia and the rousing Glory Days, until one realizes the enlightened, contented "glory days" Jarvis Cocker is singing about here aren't arrived at through ambition or accomplishment, but rather the freeing, clear-eyed rejection of all pointless, hopeful thinking.

18. P.S. You Rock My World - Eels: On to another artist who also views life as a tough, at times wretched slog, but arrives at an entirely different conclusion about its worth. Between the release of Eel's debut album Beautiful Freak in 1996 and 1998, the band's guiding force Mark Everett lost his sister to suicide and his mother to lung cancer, leaving him the only surviving member of his family. To deal with the many losses, he poured all his grief and the stark reality of his sister's and mother's anguished final days into the band's second effort Electro-Shock Blues. It's as honest and plain-spoken an album as one will encounter about mortality, and yet, given Everett's unwavering stoicism and the alternating playfulness and soothing sensitivity of the music, also emerges as maybe the most life-affirming record on the subject of death ever committed to vinyl. The album's life-affirming nature is never clearer than on its soft but powerful closer P.S. You Rock My World, where Everett finally emerges from the these horrible experiences ready to return to the world at large, shrug off the small stuff, and embrace life once again, both the good and bad, in all its pain and glory. 

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