1998 Retrospectionary
by Marc Hirsh

I'll start with a defensive gesture. Some of you may recall a resolution that I made last year in this very space. I've since discovered that it's hard to kick a town's ass (musically speaking) if the scene has been dead so long that that nobody knows where the body is. After several false starts (some falser than others), I've given up completely and instead decided to play the part of the pale and isolated home studio auteur (with the assistance of my April-purchased Roland VS-880, and boy, do I love officially-8-but-really-64-track digital recording). This has several upsides, including feelings of actual progress and the fact that this means that nobody need be subjected to my noise unawares. Be thankful.

On a more relevant topic, I'd like to say that this has generally been a fairly lackluster year that didn't give me much to be particularly enthusiastic about. Phil Hartman was killed. Tori Amos finally used up every ounce of goodwill that had built up around what I now see as just one album. Albums by Liz Phair and Elvis Costello got oodles of excellent press, which left me befuddled and holding CDs that I found uneven and mostly unlistenable, respectively. Semisonic released a stupendous single and used it to kick off an album that didn't even sound as good as the shadow of their last one . Guided By Voices was surprisingly quiet (a year without at least one album? Who do they think they are, Guns 'n' Roses?). And this was the first year since, oh, 1988 that R.E.M. came out with an album and I just didn't care (especially after hearing it). In fact, my Top Ten, having been truncated in previous years to a Top Five plus a Next Five honor roll, is really now just the Honor Roll. There is actually a difference, though there's no prize for spotting it. Anyway, the following are in no particular order:

Various Artists, Arc: Music of Dunedin (no label; ARC, 135 High Street, Dunedin, New Zealand). Probably the year's biggest surprise. Literally, since this showed up unannounced in my mailbox one day, the gift of a friend travelling in New Zealand. It was here that I first heard every single one of the "innovations" of R.E.M.'s Up , as performed by a fairly close-knit collective of South Island musicians. This is late-night music for when you want to see the dawn of the next morning (which is the difference between this and, say, Portishead): warm, mostly slow (despite the inclusion of the occasional ripper like Jetty's "White Boys On Punk"), half-electronic, hypnotic. Demarnia Lloyd is the one to watch for, with beautiful slow burns both solo and with Cloudboy (check out the molasses-textured opener, "Pretty"). Maximum bonus points for "Universe of Love," a tender and wide-eyed welcome to our world from Peter Gutteridge to his newborn baby. Perfect.

Amy Rigby, Middlescence (Koch; 2 Tri-Harbor Court, Port Washington, NY 11050). Much more stylistically diverse than 1996's jangle-pop/country hybrid Diary of a Mod Housewife but just as entertainingly titled (although I was pulling for Temp Of The Year, myself), Middlescence throws out richly portrayed snapshots of life as a divorced (but still looking) mother staring down the near end of middle age. The poor production by Elliot Easton is odd, since the two worked so well together on Housewife, but there it is: a dozen heartbreaking gems almost done in by unsympathetic backing. So as she careens from classic girl-group pop of "All I Want" ("... show me that you care whether I live or die") to the roots-punk of "Raising The Bar" to the crying-in-your-merlot country of "20th Anniversary" ("of my broken heart") to the bossa-nova (with theremin!) of "Laboratory of Love" with a bunch of unclassifiables ("The Summer of My Wasted Youth," "Ivory Tower") with the wit and panache missing from the arrangements behind her (which, come to think of it, could be an intentional metaphor for relationships...), she proves that behind the strong, confident and, yes, sexy woman on the front cover lies a scared and confused little girl (a la her pose on the inside cover). The most disappointing album that I truly love.

David Garza, This Euphoria (Atlantic/Lava). I lived in Houston for five years, hearing about dah-veed all the time, but it wasn't until I get to Indianapolis that I actually hear the dude (opening for Ani DiFranco). Go figure. This astoundingly aptly titled album is like a satin bed of guitars and (heavy) bass with rose petal melodies scattered all over it. Modern recording techniques and sounds aside, the music and lyrics (the optimism of which for some reason seems novel) hearken back to halcyon days of youth and innocence (the early '80s, perhaps, or 1965). When this man says that he glows in the dark, I certainly believe him, but I'm pretty sure he wants you to check for yourself.

You Am I, #4 Record (rooArt). Australia's best band (maybe ever) scores a hat trick (having made 1996's list with Hi-Fi Way , which just keeps getting better and better, and 1997's list with Hourly, Daily ), albeit a qualified one. Moving from the Who to a Big Star fixation feels like a downshift as they let go of some of their crunch, so that even the throwdown rockers ("Rumble," "Junk," "Billy") are more trebly than usual, and the jangle of songs like "What I Don't Know About You" and "The Top of Morn and the Slip of Day" comes as a surprise (although, considering Hourly 's "Dead Letter Chorus," not really). Most of it works, but this transitional album may signal the beginning of the end. I'm letting them off with a warning. Inspirational line (apologies to Christgau): "I miss you like sleep."

The Causey Way, WWCD (Put It On A Cracker; P.O. Box 2944, Gainesville, FL 32602). The Causey Way is not a cult. The Causey Way has been touring with Man... Or Astro-Man?, with whom they share a drummer. The Causey Way plays futuro-pop with a furious energy abetted by a Farfisa and a Moog (make that two Moogs onstage). The Causey Way has a ridiculous singer who wraps his cartoon voice around songs like "Science Made Me A Homo(sapien)" and dippy lines like "It's so hard to be a sissy" and "You're so sweet, you're just like chocolate/And you know that I'm a you-a-holic." The Causey Way makes a few perceptive points, especially in "Natural Disasters (God's Black Box)," which eventually devolves into aforementioned cartoon shouting, "Blow, blow, blow, you tornado!" The Causey Way boasts a stellar minor-key pop gem in "Maltreated" (sung, incidentally, by the bass player in slightly overdramatic but no less effective manner). The Causey Way is not a cult. Yet.

Bonus extra kudos for the Next Next Five: Junior Varsity's Pep Rally Rock (which sounds pretty much exactly what you'd expect from the title), not as good as their first, but how could it be?; the Freshmakers' unreleased Analgesic E.P., which is far and away the best that they have ever done, period, even if "Quiet, Wilted" really does need harmony vocals during the chorus (private joke, people); Cheap Trick's At Budokan: The Complete Concert , which rectifies the heinous sonic grievances that everybody has with the Budokan II release from a few years ago (but still won't cause you to throw out your copy of the damn concise original Budokan album); Jeff Buckley's posthumous Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk , which is more fascinating than entertaining most of the time but even the fascinating bits are jaw-dropping; and Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, which isn't perfect but boasts a few terrific cuts, not the least of which is the closer "Jackson," a song of such clarity and sadness (sung in a voice to match) that it sounds like nothing less than a field recording from 1937. A few of the other stand-alone songs that kept me mildly optimistic this year include:

- the shockingly fantastic "Ray of Light" from Madonna, a blast of urgent techno-pop that boasts as its finest computer-generated achievement a stunning vocal from Ms. C;

- Rancid's overpowering "Bloodclot," a massive burst of tightly focused punk that both justifies and steps miles beyond the inevitable Clash comparisons;

- Bic Runga's sultry "Sway," which has been out for, like, yonks in her native New Zealand but only alighted on our foreign shores this year;

- "History Repeating," in which the Propellerheads prove that computers can rock, as long as Shirley Bassey is front and center;

- Fatboy Slim's awe-inspiring "Rockafeller Skank," which digs a groove deep enough to run regular trains through;

- Radiohead's incredibly lovely "No Surprises," which of course was released on 1997's OK Computer but surfaced as a single this year and naturally got dropped almost immediately by radio stations too jumpy to play anything edgier than Stabbing Westward (please...), especially anything as devoid of distortion as this;

- "Adia" by Sarah MacLachlan, far and away the single most beautiful song that made it to radio this year (maybe decade); and

- "Mungo City," a massive burst of T. Rex/Mott the Hoople chug that finally gelled every ounce of glam conviction that Spacehog could muster and summed up everything that was wrong with alternative radio with the opening lines, "Welcome to this empty Ministry of Plenty, as I'm sure you know." Nobody got the message, of course, and within weeks "In The Meantime" was back in rotation. Apparently, these days, you're only as good as your first idea.

This year's Better Late Than Never Award goes to Laurie Anderson's Big Science (Warner Bros., 1982), a totally confusing and mesmerizing concoction that goes so far beyond art-rock that it inverts itself into rock-art. More straightforward than Beefheart and yet aeons more abstruse, it avoids the traditional trappings of jazz and early electronica to create music that may be laughing with or at you but is definitely laughing. If Guided By Voices wrote music like they wrote lyrics, it would sound like this.

The video of the year, meanwhile, is Harmony Korine's langourous clip for Sonic Youth's "Sunday," a meditation on what it means to be young, in love and Macauley Culkin. You go, boy.

I'll also take the majority position (second year running!) and tag Saving Private Ryan as my best-of-movies pick. If you don't know why, you probably haven't seen it. If you have and still don't, then (unlike the hours I've wasted defending Titanic) I don't know what to tell you and I can't possibly change your mind. Like 2001 (but for most likely the exact opposite reasons), this one gets inside me and I can't fully explain why. I'm loath to pick it apart too much, but suffice it to say, I'm pretty sure that in 10 years, once SPR has won all of its Academy Awards, this is going to be viewed as one of the greatest movies ever made. Stick that in your crown and rule it.

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