1998: The Recap

By shane

Yay for end-o'-the-year lists. 1998's been a wonky year. Britpop dies and the UK music world spins all topsy-turvy. The 1997 triumphs of "serious" bands (see Radiohead, Verve, Spiritualized, etc.) sent shockwaves through the ranks of the music elite, and saw everybody from Pulp to Shed Seven to Blur guitar players trying to show off their "deeper" side. Sometimes worked, sometimes not. And in such a "serious" year of music as 1998, happier stuff like Fatboy Slim and Catatonia come across as a breath of fresh air. So it comes out like this, as 1998 being an obvious transitional year. A transition into what, I havnt the slightest idea. But knowing the UK music press as we most certainly do, I'm sure they'll create it before we know what's hit us. Let's look at the way it all ended up


#20 - SPACE - Tin Planet - Space have always had (at least, for me) the uncanny ability of being both a novelty act AND credible artists at the same time. "Tin Planet," their second album, is a perfect example. At first, it's tremendously easy to hear songs like "The Ballad of Tom Jones" and really make the lads out to be no more than comic relief in a UK music world that revels of late in "serious" (file under Radiohead, Arnold) artists. But the nice thing about Space is, as corny as they occasionally get, they still have the wondrous ability of creating smart music. Harmonies and melodies abound that sweep the competition under the dust. It's just that you have to wade through tracks like "A Little Biddy Help from Elvis" to get to them. Far from perfect, but perfection's never been part of this band's gameplan.

#19 - THE MULTIPLE CAT - Elements of the Multiple Cat - A midwest US band that's half Pavement, half Stereolab. If you can forget that frontman Pat Stolley (the only static member of the 'Cat) can't hit a note to save his life, you'll get to the music, which is joyfully retro lo-fi. Imagine if Unrest were given $100 and the contents of a second-hand music store with which to record an album. Grand ideas only half-realized, but until now, I never thought grand ideas were possible from this band. (And anyone who knows me well enough knows my prior intense HATRED of the 'Cat, so for this album to merit inclusion on my year end list should be telling enough.)

#18 - ARNOLD - Hillside - The first time I heard Arnold, I really DID think I was listening to a Radiohead b-side. Obviously, this didn't put me in a real open-minded mood when I first heard "Hillside." After just a couple plays, though, I was a convert. Far more subversive than Radiohead, the real sparkle on "Hillside" doesn't shine through until you give the record a few plays. What you eventually end up with is a band with more mature songwriting than any of us were initially willing to concede.

#17 - CATATONIA - International Velvet - Melody Maker's calling it "Album of the Year," but you won't see me dishing out an accolade of that calibre to this, one of the best pop albums to come out this year. But... it's just that -- fun, simple pop music. And how Catatonia seemed to be one of the ONLY pop-geared artists to survive through the Great Britpop Massacre of '98 still confounds me. International Velvet is a pleasing album, but it's completely non-threatening. Full of occasional over-production and needless filler tracks, it's the double whammy of singles "Mulder and Scully" and "Road Rage" that makes this record impossible to ignore. Weak in places, exceptionally strong in others, my bet is that we've only seen the dawn of this band's talent.

#16 - EMBRACE - The Good Will Out - Boy, did I want to hate this record. See, I'm one of the few folks still out there who'll defend Oasis to the death. And, let's face it, regardless of what the band will tell you in interviews, Embrace sound an awful lot like Oasis. I bought this record with a knowing grin on my face that could only say, "Gee, can't wait to destroy this album in print." Then, to my utter disappointment, I found out I liked it. A lot. Are they worth ANYTHING at all? Well, in a year with no new Oasis material, I'll take tracks like "Come Back to What You Know" and "All You Good Good People" as a quick fix.

#15 - PULP - This is Hardcore - The year that Pulp went all serious on us. "This is Hardcore" is a mind-blowing record -- the finest example of unintentional career suicide since Martin Carr etched out "C'mon Kids." Gone were the plink-plonk sounds of Britpop past; instead we get dark tales of despair and loss from one of the finest lyricists in the world today. If you can "get into it," which admittedly takes some effort, the end result is brilliant. Cheers, Jarvis.

#14 - BELLE & SEBASTIAN - The Boy With the Arab Strap - It really must be hard to be this pretentious. The Belle and Sebastian Experience (as opposed to the former Stuart Murdoch and Some Other People) emerged this year as a collective, with co-writing credits and the sharing of lead vocals, to form a cohesion that wasn't thought possible given their previous efforts. The word "precious" doesn't come along too often in my vocabulary, but it's strikingly perfect here. The "Mister record company man/I won't be coming to dinner" mentality gets a bit old after a while, yet there's some strange, mystical force that stills pulls this disc into my CD player time and again. Morrissey must really hate 'em.

#13 - CANDYSKINS - The Death of a Minor TV Celebrity - Otherwise known as "the little band that could," Oxford's Candyskins triumph once again with another gem of a pop record destined for obscurity. The band can't win -- they've been putting out songs of 3-minute pop perfection for years, but get booted by their record label right before Britpop takes off. By the time the band got their feet firmly planted back on the ground, the movement had already passed them by, leaving them to blink awkwardly at the aftermath, shrug, and go back to what they do best - craft even more three-minute pop classics. If you don't think that "Feed It" is one of the catchiest songs of the year, there's something really deeply wrong with you.

#12 - FATBOY SLIM - You've Come a Long Way, Baby - A long way, indeed, from butch-haired little Norman Cook of the Housemartins. God's gift to Big Beat emerged this year with the motherlode of cheezy dance tracks, packaged to perfection as "You've Come a Long Way, Baby." Easily dismissed as silly, boppy, meaningless music, yes; but if it werent for the silly, boppy, meaningless music, we wouldn't have rock n roll, now, would we?

#11 - ELVIS COSTELLO/BURT BACHARACH - Painted From Memory - Wow. The first of the year's albums on this list to truly take my breath away. When I first heard "God Give Me Strength" during the movie "Grace of My Heart," I was floored (especially given how that track, as well as many others on the record, were written over the course of several intercontinental phone calls.) If there can be a complaint with this record, it would be the seeming absence of Costello's input in the actual songwriting -- it's as if all the collaboration really amounts to is Elvis crooning over undiscovered Bacharach gems. But the end result is fabulous -- Bacharach hasn't sounded this vital in decades, and Costello's vocals are unmatched. A phenomenal piece, with perhaps more to come (the duo just shot a cameo in the new Austin Powers movie.)

#10 - U.N.K.L.E. - Psyence Fiction - The album that quite possibly got the biggest hype of any release this year ended up at year's end with some so-so reviews and a bit of a backlash -- "predictable," said many. And my response? "So?" James Lavelle and the rest of the Mo'Wax label have always been predictable -- predictable at making BRILLIANT trip-hop records. Psyence Fiction is the end result of a 3+ year labor of love/hate between Mo'Wax founder James Lavelle and his ace in the hole, DJ Shadow. Lavelle seems to have actual little musical talent, and his contribution on the record is somewhat vague (interviews at the time made it sound as if he simply stood over Shadow's shoulder and nodded "yea" or "nay,") but this is still a pleasing record, all told. With outstanding contributions from Richard Ashcroft, Thom Yorke, Mike D of the Beasties, and more, the only reason this WON'T become the Bible of trip-hop is because it was released so late in the game. Don't belive the hype OR the backlash -- buy the album and find yourself pleasantly blissed out.

#9 - BERNARD BUTLER - People Move On - You either love it or you hate it -- I've yet to meet an "in-betweener" on this record -- and I for one proudly fall into the former. With this record, the former Suede guitarist and McAlmont collaborator steps into the solo spotlight for the very first time, and we all learn that deep down, all poor Bernie wanted to do all this time was RAWK. And rawk he does, from start to finish, on an album that's full of guitar god posturing and campy lyrics. Yet ALL the solos, all the meandering, are contained within some great tunes -- Butler is a first class tunesmith, and the fact that he's an arrogant twat with a voice like an angry Greer Garside from Scritti Politti shouldnt let you turn your back on this gem of a record.

#8 - BARENAKED LADIES - Stunt - Man, I'm so happy for this band. It sure did take an awful long time for America to embrace our happy-go-lucky Canadian compadres. Just as the world needs a band like Radiohead, so too does it need the Barenaked Ladies, a group unabashedly intent on making people smile, dance, drink, and throw macaroni. The Barenaked Ladies put on the greatest live show I've ever seen, plain and simple, and when I saw them this past spring at a radio festival in Chicago, they played a track simply identified as the "gonna-be-on-our-new-album" song, and it BLEW the fans away (the first time I've seen an entire crowd jump up and dance to a song they'd never heard.) The track? "One Week," which took to the airwaves mid-summer and pushed the band into the U.S. Top Ten. The album that followed, Stunt, was packed full of genuine (albeit somewhat overproduced,) heartfelt songwriting from perhaps the most genuine band out there.

#7 - BLUETONES - Return to the Last Chance Saloon - And it was only for a quick pint indeed, as the Bluetones were left without a major label when A&M Records folded their UK branch earlier this year. Thankfully, this album was already on the shelves by then. A surprisingly bold release from a band no longer content with going jingle-jangle all the way home. From straight-forward rock ("Four Day Weekend," "Solomon Bites the Worm,") to Spector-alike retro ("Down at the Reservoir") to white-boy blues ("Sleazy Bed Track") and beyond, the end result is a wonderful and dynamic (and admittedly occasionally patchy) sophomore record. Proof enough that they're a step beyond Britpop.

#6 - MASSIVE ATTACK - Mezzanine - NOT a friendly record, this. Instead of another float-along dark stoner groove album, Massive Attack apparantly decided to get pissed off and downright spooky in 1998. Mezzanine is an epic headfuck of a release from start to finish, more the sound of a late night with your head in the toilet AFTER a night on the tiles. Paranoid, extremist, pessimistic, volatile -- quite possibly the final, desperate gasp of a band at the breaking point. And who better to add to the mix than the "voice of God" herself, ex-Cocteau Twin Lis Fraser on occasional lead vocals. Goosebump-zilla.

#5 - MONEY MARK - Push the Button - I love it when an expected mediocre record ends up blowing me out of my seat, and that's "Push the Button" in a nutshell. The retro novelty trip-hop of "Money Mark's Keyboard Repair" is still there, but more controlled and refined on this follow-up. And instead of filler noodling, he SINGS. He ROCKS. He sounds like ELVIS COSTELLO. GOOD Elvis Costello. Unbelivable in depth, this record jumps around like a fish out of water, only to land in DEEPER waters.

#4 - GOMEZ - Bring It On - Boy, this might very well be THE most controversial release of the year. No other album in 1998 has seen the members of the Excellent list as divided. It seems one either worships this album or detests even the thought of its existence. I'm in the "worship" pack. How this ONE band, using essentially only home-grown 4-track recording equipment, could produce as FLAWLESS a record as this just astounds me. Single-handedly my favorite production job of the year (and possibly the decade,) and it was produced by THEM with THEIR mixer without any real idea of how a "proper" handling should be, the sheer brilliance of the sound quality alone far usurps their occasional tendencies to noodle off into Phish-y territories. Yep, they're hippy stoner kids, alrighty. But the thing that makes Gomez differ from your average roots rock extravaganza is that they actually write DECENT tracks. Hummable, lovable tracks that I distinctly guess are only the beginning from these boys. I remember the first time I ever heard about Gomez was when one of the weeklies called them "the British Beck." With Bring It Down, they've established themselves as their OWN entity, revitalizing British rock like little else this year.

#3 - RIALTO - Rialto - This band spooked me. I saw the pictures early on, read the reviews, had it all set up in my mind that they were merely Pulp-alike fashion magnets before I'd even heard a lick of music. Then a friend hands me a promo videotape with the complete Rialto videography and I literally gasped (and in fact played the tape some 3-4 times in a row in front of my TV.) Whether the rest of the world are willing to admit it or not, Rialto have done the unthinkable. For the first time I can think of, here's a band that seems to have a PERFECT combination of style vs. sound. Not only are Rialto dementedly concentrated on style (just look at the videos,) but they've got the tunes to back it up - it's an absolute No Compromise situation. This record is like listening to ten years worth of British pop, all wrapped up into one package. If Phil Spector was making music nowadays, my guess is that it'd be along these lines. EVERY SONG a potential single, EVERY SONG seemingly familiar and quickly trapped inside your brain. And they have two synchronous drummers (how FUCKING cool is that? Seriously!)

#2 - ELLIOTT SMITH - XO - 1,000 public thank-you's to Chris McCreight for turning me on to Elliott Smith a few years ago. And now, thanks to the huge success of his contributions to the "Good Will Hunting" soundtrack and his subsequent anti-establishment (Classic! Hilarious!) appearance on last year's Academy Awards, Smith is suddenly the hero of the American lo-fi scene. Starting his career with noiseniks Heatmiser, it wasnt until Smith stepped forward with an acoustic guitar and a cheaply-made solo album that it became evident that behind the pock-marked, greasy-haired seeming burnout lay a songwriting GENIUS. Finally given a respectable budget to record with, XO is Smith's first solo release with a full backing band, and it's as flawless a record as you'd want from a contemporary singer-songwriter. The addition of the backing musicians creates a solid base for Smith to hang his fragile, don't-breathe-or-you-might-hurt-them melodies, and the end product is true legend. Gorgeous stuff, this.

#1 - BOO RADLEYS - Kingsize - (A personal record... no other band has ever garnished a three-time Album of the Year accolade from me until now.) First, the sheer head-turning wonder that was "Giant Steps." Then, the experimental hang-your-entire-career-on-the-line "C'mon Kids." And now this... namely, the best doggone record the Boo Radleys have ever released. I've now sat here in front of my computer for some 20 minutes looking for words to put down about "Kingsize," and lemme tell ya, it's hard stuff, kids. I don't want to tell you about this album. I instead want to grab the back of your collar, toss you into a record store, force you to buy it, and then make you listen to it at gunpoint until you are Shown The Light. Then I realize that the album hasnt even been released in America and I instead go burn down the offices of every major record label in North America... What to say, what to say... well, I suppose I can start with this: Martin Carr is the only contemporary songwriter that I have ever wholly identified with. Sure, I bloody well loved Ride (in their heyday, the music was unfathomably good.) I adored the Cocteau Twins (the "voice of God" comparisons were spot on.) But do I even remotely CARE what they say? Andy Bell of Ride had a pretty good knack at rhyming words like "fly," "sky," and "die," and while Liz Fraser may be the Voice of God, the Voice only chose to sing gibberish phrases akin to "Tina only comes to my knees" and such. And, hell, I was FINE with that. "I'm in it for the music," I said, "let the others have their Lennons and their Morrisseys." And then I heard the Boo Radleys and the lyrics of Martin Carr and I was changed. Finally someone was speaking to ME in their music, telling the same tales of consuming relationships, fond reflections, and future anxieties that I was going through day-by-day through the post-college haze - but always, sometimes unintentionally, containing an underlying brazenly optimistic stance that I admired beyond words. And the MUSIC. Oh, man, the music. Snatching bits and pieces of Beatles, Beach Boys, and Simon & Garfunkel right along with My Bloody Valentine, the 'Mary Chain, and occasional trip-hop and drone influences, the "Boo sound" is officially one complicated, majestic, ever-evolving puppy. The deafening whirlwind of "Everything's Alright Forever" to the cocoon-like emergence of "Giant Steps" opened the doors to the pop of "Wake Up!" which consequently spurned the decided anti-pop of "C'mon Kids." From one extreme to the other, and now back to the middle with "Kingsize," the current pinnacle of the Boo Radleys career. Effects-laden pop music that's perpetually 20 times deeper than it originally presents itself, "Kingsize" is the best example of why I like the music that I do. You can almost sense that Martin tries his damnedest to write simple pop music, but in the long run, realizes that it's hopelessly against his nature. Take, for instance, one of the centerpieces of Kingsize, "High as Monkeys." What starts off as a simple melody surrounding brilliant lines like, "Don't have to see my picture/or my name in the music papers/when I'm close to God" ends up adding drum machines, a chorus of chamber music, and ends in a blissed-out 3-minute epilogue of keyboard noises that havnt been heard since the theme tune of "The Rockford Files." Simplicity just isnt possible with this band. Whether doing traditional Spector-alike rock on "Comb Your Hair," the piano balladry (with appropriate tear-jerk lyrics) of "Song from the Blueroom," or the experimental noodling on "Jimmy Webb is God," the Boo Radleys simply do NOT miss the mark once on this record... and I guess that's all I can say. Hey, folks, I'm not a professional journalist, none of us on this site are, and we're PROUD of it. I'm a music FAN, and that means I can have FAVORITES. Be BIASED. And that makes me more than eligible to give you my bottom line: I don't care what anybody else says, fuck it, the Boo Radleys prove to me with every release that they're all but MY Beatles, and you can't even BEGIN to tell me otherwise.

And onwards to my other picks...


1 Bluetones - 4 Day Weekend
2 Rialto - Monday Morning 5:19
3 Catatonia - Road Rage
4 Bluetones - If
5 Boo Radleys - High as Monkeys
6 Catatonia - Mulder and Scully
7 Candyskins - Feed It
8 Harvey Danger - Flagpole Sitta
9 Elliott Smith - Waltz #2
10 Rialto - Summer's Over


1 Various - Nuggets: Original Artyfacts of the Psychedelic Era
2 Various - The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection
3 James - Best of James


Kenickie - Get In


1 Elliott Smith
2 Barenaked Ladies
3 The Aluminum Group
4 Neutral Milk Hotel
5 Dandy Warhols
(with an exceptional tip of the hat to the Olivia Tremor Control, who simply didn't make the category this year due to inactivity... they still, however, remain my favorite North American band)


Neil & Tim Finn, Double Door, Chicago

Party over, oops, out of time.