Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Psychobabble's Ten Greatest Albums of 1998

If there’s any doubt that OK Computer was the most influential album of 1997, just look to the albums of 1998. With a single change of the calendar, artists responsible for some of the most organic music of the nineties suddenly embraced Radiohead’s synthesized, sci-fi textures. As was the case with the post-Pepper’s psychedelia craze thirty years before, all this bandwagon-hopping resulted in some mediocre music but also some really great stuff as well. Yet artists who stayed true to their more organic mission statements—and one defiant artist who turned his back on his own zanier progressive tendencies—made the very best music of 1998.

10. Whitechocolatespaceegg by Liz Phair

With her Girly Sound tapes and Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair exploited the atmospheric possibilities of super lo-fi recording. She and producer Brad Wood polished up her sound significantly for Whip Smart, and the next step in what seemed like a creative evolution (but tuned out to be the beginning of an artistic degeneration), Whitechocolatespaceegg. For the first but hardly the last time on this list, we’ll reference the influence of Radiohead’s electronic spaciness, which is evident in Phair’s title song (an awed tribute to her newborn son), “Headache”, and the album’s best track, the ecstatic mother/daughter dialogue “What Makes You Happy”. Yet Whitechocolatespaceegg basically holds on to organic arrangements for the majority of its 51 minutes. That length, put to such great use on the nearly flawless Exile, is a bit much this time since there are a few songs that could have been pruned. To my ears, the weakest of the bunch may actually be Phair’s first hit single. The sing-songy melody of “Polyester Bride” is trite and her hesitant vocal makes the track sound less polished than most of its disc-mates. The final track, “Girl’s Room”, has similar issues. These subpar tracks are masterpieces compared to the stuff Phair was poised to make in the wake of the success of “Polyester Bride”… and the success of her buddy Sheryl Crow, whose insipid popularity Phair coveted. Phair nearly got what she wanted, and her career arc became the most baffling and disappointing one of the nineties. Considering what was to come, Whitechocolatespaceegg is a farewell album of sorts. Bye, bye, nineties. Bye, bye, Liz. You were great.

9. Gran Turismo by The Cardigans

Perhaps no post-OK Computer album seemed as wrong as Gran Turismo did back in ’98. The Cardigans had always been a cheeky, cheerful group that dressed up their songs of hurt as sunny, mid-century lollipop pop. Now with Radiohead’s looming influence, they’d been swept up in a tidal wave of futuristic electronics and totally unironic misery. Nina Persson stopped singing her songs of rejection through dimples. The seriousness of Gran Turismo made the album feel like the first sad casualty of pop’s latest “progression.” Revisiting it several years after its release, the jading of my beloved Cardigans no longer mattered as much, and the strength of the album became instantly apparent. Its darkness, its spacey arrangements, and its utter lack of humor are all sympathetic to its specific tracks, which are actually quite excellent. Loungey vibes or Muzak French horns would be totally out of place on brooders like “Erase/Rewind”, “Explode”, “Higher”, and “Junk of the Hearts”. More up-tempo tracks like “Hanging Around”, “Do You Believe”, and the hit “My Favorite Game” mix up the disc with fuzzy aggression rather than the old sugar-high. I’m not saying that Gran Turismo is superior to those wonderful early Cardigans albums; I’m just saying that there’s room enough in this crazy world for an Emmerdale and a Grand Turismo …just like how there’s room for Adam West and Christian Bale.

8. Waved Out by Robert Pollard

Released just as Guided by Voices’ were transitioning into their hi-fi phase, Not in My Airforce gave Robert Pollard a solo outlet for his lo-fi impulses. This was necessary, but Airforce also hinted that Pollard might have even more trouble reigning himself in as a solo artist than he had as leader of GBV. Fortunately, his second album (at least temporarily) refuted that assumption. In fact, Waved Out is one of Pollard’s most concise records as a solo artist or a bandleader. Not everything will take up residence in your brain, but Waved Out still contains several of his best songs as it breathlessly rushes through “Make Use” and “Subspace Biographies”, stutters with the title track and “Whiskey Ships”, soars with “Wrinkled Ghost” and slows down to reflect with “People Are Leaving”, an emotionally stunning rumination on death initially concocted by composer/multi-instrumentalist Stephanie Sayers. These songs are the most convincing testaments to Bob the pop craftsman, though he still manages to get weird with “Showbiz Opera Walrus”, which out-freaks the freaky Beatles song that clearly inspired it, and “Pick Seeds from My Skull”, which is actually a bit tedious but is mercifully saved for the end, so it’s a breeze to skip. Pollard’s solo records would eventually catch up with Guided by Voices’ new studio polish, but none of them would surpass the quality of Waved Out.

7. The Boy with the Arab Strap by Belle & Sebastian

Somehow Belle & Sebastian managed to craft two brilliant albums in 1996, so it’s natural that a slight fatigue creeps into their third album (not everyone can crank ‘em out like Bob). Some of Stuart Murdoch’s songs weren’t as inspired as the ones on Tigermilk or If You’re Feeling Sinister, and he apparently relied on bandmates Isobel Campbell and Stevie Jackson to contribute material. The CD booklet never fesses up about who wrote what, but the key could be in the singers, since Stuart also shares lead vocal duties with Campbell and the somewhat less tuneful Jackson. Yet all of these comparisons are probably unfair considering how perfecto the first two B&S albums are, and the fact that The Boy with the Arab Strap is the last of the group’s discs to fully hraness their indefinable, antiqued magic makes it essential. And as the focus falls off Murdoch a bit, a flattering spotlight floods on a band that can do a convincing take off on Motown (“Dirty Dream Number Two”) or get trancey (“A Space Boy Dream”) as well as their usual archaic folk pop.

6. Up by R.E.M.

R.E.M’s shift away from the organic sounds of Automatic for the People and Monster could have more to do with a major upset in the band than bandwagon hopping. Drummer Bill Berry split after New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and that certainly could have necessitated all the drum machines and loops that give Up its futuristic sound. However, the club-bound “Leave” on New Adventures suggests that R.E.M. were already headed in this direction before Berry headed off into the sunset. Yet while “Leave” uses electronics to pounding, dissonant effect, the fourteen tracks on Up are whispery, meditative little machines. This is R.E.M.’s quietest, most somber album, which is saying a lot after Automatic. But even that dusky album couldn’t resist throwing in booming stuff like “Ignoreland” and cheery stuff like “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”. Up only floats above its low energy bar once with the somewhat glammy “Lotus”, though even that one is pretty laid back. The most lingering vibe of Up is that of the musical weightlessness and emotional heaviness that tracks such as “Suspicion”, “The Apologist”, “Sad Professor”, “You’re in the Air”, “Diminished”, and “Parakeet” build. Even the numbers that refuse to brood, such as the Brian Wilson tribute “At My Most Beautiful”, “Why Not Smile”, and “Daysleeper”, are too tightly controlled and low key to achieve “Sidewinder” levels of joy. Consequently, Up may be R.E.M.’s most perfect mood piece, even if the mood it captures is too glum to be perfect. In any event. R.E.M. had solved the serious problem of Bill Berry’s departure in the most elegant and honest way they could, at least for the time being.

5. Is This Desire? By PJ Harvey

Like R.E.M., PJ Harvey tossed aside organic record making for studio sonics in 1998, though her brand of organic rock was rooted in the heavy blues rather than R.E.M.’s Byrdsy jangle. Is This Desire? takes the same kinds of synths, drum machines, and electronic effects R.E.M. exploit so delicately on Up and using them as an outlet for her bluesy rage and swagger. “The Sky Lit Up”, “Joy”, “A Perfect Day Elise”, “My Beautiful Leah”, and “No Girl So Sweet” are as aggressive, real, and/or scary as anything on Harvey’s guitar-centric albums. She also out-whispers R.E.M. with an extra dollop of spookiness in graveyard fog of “The Wind”, “Catherine”, “Electric Light”, and the title track. Perhaps the album’s most brilliant track, “The Garden”, matches the airy yet ominous arrangements of those tracks with one of the most propulsive and magnetic drumbeats on disc. “The River” mostly eschews synthesized trickery for a baleful foghorn that chills to the core, providing a breath-halting climax to the chilly, baleful Is This Desire?

4. Strange Angels by Kristin Hersh

And now our great albums of 1998 turn away from Radiohead-indebted sci-fi synthetics, and we begin the transition with the most radical departure in our line up. Spider web acoustic guitar strings. Veils of cellos and violins. Dancing skeleton pianos and tambourines. OK, there are some synthesizers on Kristin Hersh’s spellbinding second album, but their background drones never call attention to themselves; they are never used to conjure alien worlds. Strange Angels is a dusty attic, and the synthesizer is just another forgotten item in its recesses. Strange Angels itself is something of a forgotten item too, rarely receiving the glowing reviews it deserved. Granted, this is an album that does not seek to dazzle in a year full of overtly dazzling productions. To say that’s part of its charm would be a bit patronizing, since this album is dazzling in its own way, full of Hersh’s evocative, surreal imagery, delicate melodies, and spare, refined arrangements. She only taps into the Banshee she’d been among Throwing Muses with the tempestuous “Gazebo Tree”. But even at her most seemingly serene, Hersh’s inner tempest is always churning under the deceptively placid surface. And beauty is always most beautiful when grace encases fire.

3. Navy Blues by Sloan

Strange Angels rips away 1998’s busy production fashions down to the very skeleton. Navy Blues doesn’t go quite that far. It strips away the baubles but leaves plenty of fat, fuzzy flesh. Sloan’s completely assured fourth LP is an old-fashioned, capital-R-O-C-K Record, totally and unabashedly devoted to the days when Kiss, Cheap Trick, and their axe-wielding ilk shrieked from the airwaves. One of the tracks is called “Iggy and Angus”, for chrissakes, which hints at how—also like Cheap Trick—the four geeks in Sloan approach their Rock & Roll with both sincerity and a certain ironic cleverness (unlike Kiss, who genuinely wanted the world to believe they were cock monsters that only wanted to Rock and Roll all night and party ev-er-y day). Unlike a band like Urge Overkill, who slammed home the irony like a self-aware Spinal Tap, Sloan work in subtler shades, so you never sense they’re taking the piss with slamming tracks like “She Says What She Means”, “Iggy & Angus”, “On the Horizon”, and the magnificently monstrous “Money City Maniacs”. Sloan’s inventiveness really shines when they step off the fuzz boxes for poppier tunes such as Jay Ferguson’s slippery “C’mon C’mon” and Chris Murphy’s hilarious “Chester the Molester” and there’s nothing remotely ironic about Patrick Pentland’s sincerely aching ballad “I’m Not Through with You Yet”. But it is drummer Andrew Scott who wins the inventiveness sweepstakes with “Sinking Ships” and “Seems So Heavy”, two sweeping mini-epics that sound unlike anything in Rock’s trope sack. They sure don’t sound like anything Gene Simmons would pound out while barfing up cow’s blood

2. Mutations by Beck

Despite his folky origins, Beck made his name beyond a mini-cult by cutting together hip-hop, electronic, and straight-up avant garde tomfoolery. So with no small amount of trademark irony, in the year of electric tomfoolery, Beck made his most organic disc since his pre-fame days. Not that Mutations lacks weird decorations, but the overall effect of the music is more psychedelic ’67 than computerized ’98. The real revelation of Mutations is not Beck’s ability to reject trends he helped create but how great a songwriter and singer he is once he drops his hipster ironist act. As excellent an album of its type as it is, Odelay didn’t have a single song as perfect as the majestic “Lazy Flies”, the loopy “Tropicalia”, the mournful “We Live Again”, or the elegant “Dead Melodies”. With “Canceled Check”, “Bottle of Blues”, and “Sing It Again” he brings the acoustic blues into the present as spectacularly as PJ Harvey had revised the electric blues a few years earlier. With “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” he resuscitates that most exquisitely dated of all pop forms—raga rock—without any of the winking of a self-consciously retro group like the Brian Jonestown Massacre (though, to be fair, Cornershop had already been doing that for years). Mutations wasn’t particularly influential, but it was the first meaningful piece of evidence that Beck is not only a master musical prank-puller but also one of the most classically skilled and versatile artists of his generation.

1. XO by Elliott Smith

Screaming Rock and weepy gloom are pop’s two go-to styles for expressing extreme misery. Elliott Smith mostly used the latter to get his emotional state across on Elliott Smith and Either/Or, but with XO, he totally flipped conventions, using the lush production and glistening pop of The Beatles as a ramp for dumping his guts on the ground. XO never recalls those very few instances when The Beatles actually did dump their guts on the ground (I’m thinking of things like “Yer Blues” and “I Want You”). Instead it recalls Rubber Soul and Revolver, an album with which Smith was so taken that he references it on “Baby Britain” (right before referring to “Crimson and Clover”, incidentally). That combination of very personal pain and shimmering, accessible pop is jarring at first because it is such a rare combination. On further listening, the combination makes both the sweet production and the sour emotions more rewarding. Perhaps the most gruelingly personal track is “Waltz #2 (XO)”, a sad and angry letter to Smith’s troubled mother, who completely upset his life when she took up with an abusive scumbag. That kind of message is not usually material for perfect pop. “Waltz #2” is a stand out, but every ingredient on XO is superb. What’s your favorite? The whispers that explode into mighty crescendos on “Sweet Adeline”? The sugar bounce of “Baby Britain”? The wagging ride of “Independence Day”? The heady slam of “Bled White”? The out-of-left-field funk of “A Question Mark”? Or the dreamy minimalism of “Tomorrow, Tomorrow”, “Pitseleh”, “Waltz “1”, or the a capella “I Didn’t Understand”? They’re all glorious pieces of pop blood letting, and they all add up to the best album of 1998.

Five More Great Albums from 1998

1965 by Afghan Whigs
Bed by Juliana Hatfield

Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight by Kristin Hersh

This Is Hardcore by Pulp 
First Love, Last Rites by Shudder to Think
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