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Breathless and Inconsolable
The Best of 1998
Albums
1
Tori Amos: from the choirgirl hotel
I will never forget Little Earthquakes. It defined 1992, for me, and started to change how I think and listen and live in so many ways that I keep realizing new ones even six years later. It is woven into my soul, and it makes no more sense to talk about anything taking its place than it does to wonder what else you could have been doing while you were being formed. But a Desert Island Disk list is a little easier to modify than the composition of a soul, and so I'm changing the permanent membership of mine for the first time in five years. You can't change who you've been, and if you've done it right you never want to, but who you are can contain who you were, where who you were could only ever guess at who you'd be. from the choirgirl hotel monopolized my year like I wasn't sure a single album could, any more, and may be the sound of my decade; at the beginning of the decade I would have thought these were my highest honors, but now they seem like understatements. Putting this album on my DID list isn't transferring a gold star, it's changing what I ask music to mean for me. It terrifies me to realize that, at least for the moment, no other human voice, live or recorded, affects me like Tori's. Her songs insist that that doesn't necessarily mean I'm unwell, but they refuse, maddeningly, to explain why not. So this is what faith feels like.
2
Mark Hollis: Mark Hollis
Mark Hollis' first solo album may not quite turn out to be the year's second newcomer to my pantheon, at least partly because I'm still more than a little afraid of Spirit of Eden, the album he made with Talk Talk that remains my vote for the best work of recorded music ever. But if packing to be marooned were an actual task, instead of a rhetorical device, I couldn't bring Spirit of Eden, because half the time it sounds too fragile to me to risk playing it. This time Mark wraps the impossibly delicate filaments of his music, rock from a universe that dreams of cor anglaises and precessing statuary instead of electric guitars and drunken orgies, in the protective shells of actual songs, and produces something just durable enough that I can take it off the shelf and turn it around in my hands, holding my breath, perhaps, but without the sickening sensation that the oil from my skin is tearing it apart.
3
Alanis Morissette: Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie
Maybe you hate her. There are probably a thousand singers you've never heard of that you'd hate more, but fifteen million copies of Jagged Little Pill mean that half the world heard Alanis, and statistically, most of it didn't buy her record. Fame might bring wealth, but it will definitely bring enmity, so maybe you hate her. Her voice can be shrill, and her music is often slick and predictable, and she's still young, and maybe one of these irritates you. And if she wanted to change minds, she shouldn't have made an album so sprawling and unwieldy that you have to be able to unhinge your jaw to swallow it whole. But I didn't need to have my mind changed, I already believe. I believed in "You Oughta Know" after I'd heard two verses of it, and I believe in Jagged Little Pill after I've played it too many times to count, and I believed in Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie after I'd listened to it once and couldn't prove I'd ever stop being bewildered, and I believe in it now that I can sing along with the whole thing. Alanis is human, young, difficult and naive, but also alive, wise, gracious and observant, and she reminds me, as vividly as anybody alive, that all of those things are glorious.
4
Liz Phair: whitechocolatespaceegg
Juliana Hatfield: Bed
I give up on musicians incredibly reluctantly, and so am correspondingly difficult to reconvert, but Liz Phair and Juliana Hatfield both retrieved me from lapsed attention this year, Liz with pop songs too ebullient for me to worry much about whether I approved of their philosophies or not, and Juliana with a rock record so intimate and evocative that the review I tried to write of it turned into a public marriage proposal. Yes, I gave her a copy of the letter, and no she didn't respond. But I get to keep the records.
5
Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
An intricate, hallucinatory dream-biography of Anne Frank isn't the text I expected it to be accompanied with, but Jeff Mangum has made the perverse-pop successor, in my mind, to Bee Thousand, and a record that brandishes startlingly unguarded empathy in a genre that more often relies on arch parodies and nonsense. This is music from an impossible alternate history of zeppelins instead of packet switching, woodcuts instead of airbrushes, brick skyscrapers and soccer played in waistcoats and endless drizzle that nobody ever thinks to resent.
6
Emma Townshend: Winterland
Susan Court: High Relief
In a year when much of my favorite music was quiet, but Tori got louder, Emma Townshend and Susan Court revived Kate Bush's narrative of literary diffidence, Emma leading it clicking across the marble floor of chill, geometrical, stopped-time galleries, Susan delving into forests where it's getting warmer, but the monsters are starting to wake up.
7
theaudience: theaudience
After what seemed to me like a very promising 1997 for Britpop, the genre all but disappeared from my awareness in 1998. The notable exception was the ambitious sextet theaudience, arriving much too late for the original Elastica/Sleeper/Echobelly era of gender-shifted Buzzcocks/Housemartins/Smiths descendants, but maybe at just the right time to lead another wave.
8
Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Cheri Knight: The Northeast Kingdom
Steve Earle didn't make a record of his own this year, but his meticulous reconstruction of the haunted architecture of country music continued on these two albums he produced, Lucinda's a canvas portfolio of gracefully unadorned sketches of dusty state-line towns and long drives to places clamor hasn't discovered yet, Cheri's a tenser snarl from a harsher climate, more aware of the tenuousnesses, both environmental and internal, with which plainer lives must always contend.
9
Buffalo Tom: Smitten
Another band recapturing my imagination with an album I had few expectations for, Buffalo Tom carried the torch for grand romantic melancholy in a year that often, it seemed to me, wanted to pretend it never heard of romance, and a year, for exactly this reason, that desperately needed more of it. A lot of people sounded to me like they won their battles, this year, but Buffalo Tom were one of the only ones who seemed confident they would prevail.
10
Rasputina: How We Quit the Forest
And the most inexplicable album I couldn't stop listening to was this peculiar specimen exhibit assembled by three classical cellists and, apparently, a spastic golem. I'm not sure I would have believed that the mercilessly connected, paralyzingly self-aware world could still produce records this fantastically insular and delightfully impractical, and there's enough mysterious suspended-in-amber serenity to it to make me wonder if it actually did.
Songs
1
Manic Street Preachers: "Montana/Autumn/78" (from If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next #1 CD5)
Even if it's only for three minutes, hidden on a single, the Manic Street Preachers are still as great a rock band as anybody in the world. The only thing that keeps me from sharing this song's intent fury is that listening to it makes me stomp around my house waving my arms, and stomping around my house waving my arms makes me too happy to focus properly on fuming.
2
The Spinanes: "72-74" (from Arches and Aisles)
Jangly low-fi pop gets no more endearing, in my world, than this hushed, scratchy, elegant reverie, Rebecca Gates' sonic palette sounding no more cluttered with bass and organ added than it ever did with just guitar and drums. I don't know whether she meant this to sound like Let's Active, or even would agree with me that it does, but I like the idea of a familial link between the two too much to care.
3
Astrid: "Hozanna" (from Boy for You)
At the other end of the production spectrum, my favorite glossy pop spectacle, musically, turns out to be a disarmingly compassionate elegy for a televangelist's lost soul. I want to say I don't understand why this song didn't get radio-worn halfway to laser burnout, but I guess I do.
4
Puressence: "This Feeling" (from Only Forever)
Puressence's grasp of epic rock grandeur, on a scale arenas wouldn't do justice to, makes me think that if My Bloody Valentine and the Chameleons had ever thought to join forces, we might never have needed Oasis or the Verve.
5
Cyndi Lauper: "New Year's Baby (First Lullaby)" (from Merry Christmas...Have a Nice Life!)
A Christmas album, a goofy lullaby for a newborn child, plonky synth loops at least ten years out of date and lurching 3/4 time are not the most promising ingredients for a stirringly beautiful pop song, but Cyndi makes them work, for me, once again threatening to give away the tenacious secret that flamboyant absurdity isn't actually what she's best at.
6
Neil Finn: "She Will Have Her Way" (from Try Whistling This)
Neil Finn would probably be more famous if he made glitteringly perfect pop seem a little less effortless. My favorite of his songs sound so inevitable that it's an effort to remember that they didn't always exist.
7
Kylie Minogue: "Some Kind of Bliss" (from Impossible Princess)
The Manic Street Preachers, who used to hate everybody, continue their odd ex-starlet outreach program by giving my second favorite song of theirs, this year, to Australian dance-pop pixie Kylie Minogue, and then sticking around to help her turn it into an expansive, gorgeous, swaying paean to romantic rapture that they probably couldn't have made any other way.
8
The Posies: "You're the Beautiful One" (from Success)
The Posies exit theme, for me, will be the somber verse cadences of the breathy, Simon-and-Garfunkel-ish "You're the Beautiful One", but the afterimage I will trace, now that they are gone, is the shy half-gallop of the swirling, mesmerized choruses, and the trademark litany of tiny, everyday details in which they always searched for universal resonance.
9
Emm Gryner: "Summerlong" (from Public)
Expansive, driving pop songs don't get appreciably more mainstream than "Summerlong", the sparkling centerpiece of Emm Gryner's impressively confident major-label debut, but petulant elitism, useful for all sorts of other household chores, hasn't managed to pry it out of my head. And it's easy to forget that polishing isn't an intrinsically cynical activity.
10
Sally Fingerett: "Lorinda Lea" (from My Good Company)
Alexis Shepard: "Purple Ray Gun" (from the Respond compilation)
Pop music often either glosses over the challenges of childhood, or else simply fails to appreciate its freedoms, but Sally Fingerett's deceptively bouncy elegy for impatiently abandoned youth traces both the roots and the consequences of precipitous nominal maturity, and Alexis Shepard's heartbreaking rescue fantasy recasts what sounds like a custody battle in the idiom of the trapped child, and recognizes that apparent equanimity is often a thin veneer over emotional numbness. When Alexis Shepard was killed, in April, in an accident, she was 28, which is not exactly childhood, but close enough for the purposes of grief. Her bicycle collided with a truck at an overtaxed intersection blocks from my home, and from the superfluous, ten-story, traffic-increasing office building that started going up at dawn, six hours after the end-of-session city-council defeat, in July, of the rezoning petition filed by her mother-in-law, for which (and with whom) I spent much of the summer campaigning. The premise of the petition was that ten-story office buildings do not belong across the street, in two directions, from a neighborhood of three-story houses, which seemed like a pretty straightforward idea to me, and one that you didn't need a bicycle fatality to comprehend, but development capital is resourcefully obtuse, and city councilors are affordable. In lieu of the inscribed gate to a park, through which children would have run, where there will now be a metal grate over the entrance to a parking garage, emitting suburb-bound commuters the children will try to dodge, our memorial to Alexis will have to be to let her death render "Purple Ray Gun"'s struggle to keep resignation balanced with hope not additionally tragic, but more defiantly optimistic.
New Artists
Emma Townshend, Susan Court
The reason for the relative dearth of true heirs to Kate Bush's obsessive legacy, I'm pretty sure, is simply that making music anywhere near as complexly detailed as Kate's is very hard. Finding two more new musicians both able and willing to try is breathtaking.
theaudience
Literate Britpop bands with female vocalists and singles worthy of infinite-repeat are not in as short supply, but they burn out fast enough that it's good to have a few in reserve.
Live Albums
Rush: Different Stages
A three-and-a-half-hour argument that no rock band ever needs to be larger than a trio.
various: Lilith Fair
There's plenty of great music made by women that isn't represented on this double-live-album condensation of Sarah McLachlan's package-tour pageant, but if you can round up performances this remarkable from two-dozen artists in some other style, you should.
Emmylou Harris: Spyboy
I would probably listen, contentedly, to a tape of Emmylou Harris breathing. Singing is even better.
Compilations & Reissues
Big Country: Restless Natives & Rarities
This is literally the reissue I've been waiting for since the formats changed. I have mapped years of my existence against the backs of Big Country singles, and this compilation of them is like having my life flash before me without having to court death to start the film.
Tommy Keene: Songs From the Film
The final album on my Eighties needs-to-be-reissued list makes it to CD at last. Much of the last decade of American guitar pop, in my mind, spirals out from here.
Marillion: Fugazi, Misplaced Childhood, Holidays in Eden and Brave (remastered, with bonus discs)
The most generous reissue campaign in rock continues.
Remixes & Remakes
Manic Street Preachers: "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next (Massive Attack Remix)" (from If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next #2 CD5)
Robert Del Naja and Neil Davidge go at This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours' lead single with chisels, as if sculpture is a branch of emergency medicine, or vice versa, and they know there's a living David entombed in the block of stone, and then a suffocating soul inside the body, and then some wild elemental fury hiding, frightened, inside the soul.
Astrid: "Hozanna (Acoustic Mix)" (from Hozanna CD5)
Reversing the production polarity of this song, and turning pensive synth-pop into ethereal gospel, is tantamount to alchemy.
Dana & Karen Kletter: "Meteor Mom" (from Dear Enemy,)
Dana and Karen's transformation of "Meteor Mom", from its buzzing rock incarnation on the Dish EP Mabel Sagittarius to the exquisitely baroque rendition on their duo album, is perhaps less surprising, but no less artful.
Cover Songs
Tori Amos: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (Martin/Blane; from Spark #1 CD5)
If Tori ever does an entire traditional Christmas record, it could alter the fundamental character of my winters.
Emma Townshend: "Take a Chance on Me" (ABBA; from Five-a-Side Football #1 CD5)
Tori's former responsibility for slowing prominently propulsive pop songs down to the verge of collapse appears to have been taken on by Emma Townshend. She hasn't quite got the knack for it yet, which is what I like best about this attempt.
Mary Lou Lord: "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" (Richard Thompson; from The Pace of Change EP)
Gender-switching covers are a tricky art form, and slip readily into novelty, but when they're done just right, it's possible to turn a song inside out without changing a single word of it. As far as I know, this has now been done right exactly twice.
Everclear: "Bad Connection" (Yaz; from So Much for the Afterglow CD5)
Blasting through a synth-pop classic in a garage-band roar is a pretty simple trick, in comparison, but not all fun is complicated.
Nanci Griffith: Other Voices, Too (various)
In folk, on the other hand, playing other people's songs is not an amusing diversion, it's the history and lifeblood of the form. The only significant details separating Nanci Griffith's second anthology of her musical lineage from social anthropology is that social anthropology doesn't usually have harmony parts, and I hope you'll be less likely to sell this album back to the campus bookstore after you listen to it.
Various-Artist Compilations
Respond (Signature Sounds; benefit for Respond, Inc.)
My usual Boston compilation-makers took the year off, but twenty-seven local songwriters, from Juliana Hatfield and Jen Trynin to a lot of folk-singers still selling cassettes in coffeehouses, filled the gap by donating time and songs to a benefit double-album for Respond, the twenty-four-year-old non-profit Boston battered-women's shelter. It's hard to feel particularly gleeful while listening to a record compiled to combat domestic violence, especially one that ends with a song whose author didn't live to see the project completed, and in a way hearing all these voices arrayed against abuse, and knowing it survives nonetheless, is almost as depressing as trying to ignore the problem. But these women have songs, and I have money and time to listen, and we each do what we can.
Belated Mentions
The Caulfields: L (1997)
The Slingbacks memorial award, and I desperately wish I didn't have a category for this, for the band who made the most dumbfoundingly brilliant album and then lost their record contract and broke up before I even heard it, goes this year to the Caulfields, whose second album, L, sounds to me like the pooled geniuses of the Knack, Barenaked Ladies, Velvet Crush, McRackins, Sloan and Too Much Joy. The fatal flaw of free-market capitalism, it seems to me, has few more succinct demonstrations than the two stickers the used CD store where I bought this disc placed on the front of it. The first one reads "1.99". The second, pasted directly over the first when nobody could be convinced to spend two dollars to liberate an album I would nominate for pop immortality, lowers the asking price to ninety-nine cents. Empty jewel cases cost more than that, which means that according to the music industry's accounting, this record is less than worthless. The feeling is mutual.
 
For the original reviews of releases cited in these lists, see:
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