It’s been a bit, but my little re-listening project returns. I was done with 1998 a while ago and am currently working my way through both 1969 and 1979. All of the years done so far are now compiled to the right.
The goal was, and is, 1965-2014, 50 years beginning with the dawn of the modern album era. Lately, though, I’ve yearned to listen to older stuff and spent a couple hours recently reading about while listening to Louis Armstrong and zipping through some Roy Acuff (alphabetical linkage not accidental). At some point during this project, I might start peppering in some singles lists from pre-1965, going back as far as recorded pop music takes us.
Since I ended up with plenty of album-specific notes, I’ll limit the preamble. I did cut the singles list down from the usual Top 40 because I really struggled to get to 40 singles (not album cuts technically released as singles) I actually cared about. 1998: Not the greatest year for pop music.
- Car Wheels on a Gravel Road — Lucinda Williams: It leads with its two best songs-as-songs, both concrete yet still mysterious depictions of the mundane. The first is about masturbation (listen closely), the second about divorce (ditto), both, right, about longing. From there she dedicates her poet’s eye and marble-mouthed drawl to a celebration of her home region, the one that you see and the one you imagine, which are sometimes one and the same. Inspirations include Birney Imes photographs, Robert Johnson legends. Howlin’ Wolf records, the pleasures of singing “Opelousas,” “Pontchartrain,” and “Nacogdoches,” and the novel idea of finding one’s joy in West Memphis. The one with her name as a title, from a decade prior, still has my heart, but this is her masterpiece.
- Aquemini — Outkast: In retrospect, the most culturally momentous album of the year and not quite the best by my count only because it’s overstuffed in the manner too-common to CD-era rap albums, where Car Wheels is pretty much perfect. (I wonder how frequently people make it through the closing 15 minutes of “Liberation” and “Chonkyfire.”)
- Mermaid Avenue — Billy Bragg and Wilco: Jeff Tweedy has fronted two (mostly) good and (increasingly) popular bands over a nearly 30 year career, and this one-off (that became a two-off) assignment to bring some unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics to life is the best record he’ll ever be a part of. That’s no shame really. Ostensible frontman Bragg has nearly a decade on Tweedy and it’s true of him too. If we’re being honest, it might be true of Guthrie.
- Whitechocolatespaceegg — Liz Phair: Five years can be a long time when it takes you from your mid-twenties to your early thirties, and so she goes from an epic/classic that really digs into a specific post-collegiate life/scene to an epic/closer-to-classic-than-the-world’s-allowed that takes in marriage and parenthood and marriage after parenthood and plenty of fictional or fictionalized scenarios (at least a couple with male narrators) on which her cool detachment is virtue.
- Life Won’t Wait – Rancid: Mohawked Clash fanatics exceed artistic expectations just in time for it to not really matter much commercially. A kind of alternate version of the rock-and-roll story, one where punk and reggae/ska replace country and blues, one that’s urban and international rather than rural and Southern, one where class politics are spelled out rather than implied, one where the Clash is Elvis and Buju Banton is Muddy Waters (though this is where the chronology gets muddled). Right, it’s not London Calling. It’s not that smart or that fierce. But as a Cali-centric but globe-trotting simulacrum, it gets damn close to that touchstone’s expansive musicality and look-what-we’re-doing-we’re-really-pulling-this-off self-delight.
- A Thousand Leaves — Sonic Youth: Maybe it’s a product of my own advancing age, but I’ve increasingly found the urban-pastoral/domestic portion of the Sonic Youth continuum (Skronky Middle Age?) more compelling than their culturally assaultive sonic youths. At its best (“Sunday,” “Wildflower Soul,” “Hits of Sunshine”), A Thousand Leaves is the summation/pinnacle of that part of the story, perhaps as much as Daydream Nation is a summation/pinnacle of those first chapters.
- The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill — Lauryn Hill: Hill wasn’t a great singer by the exalted standards of R&B, but she tops good albums, then and now, from Aretha and Mary J. via her fluid shifts from rapping to singing and back again, great background vocal arrangements, beautifully organic production, and a sense of purpose that could come on a little strong (maybe her baby boy wasn’t the messiah) but still deepens the already plenty deep musicality.
- Hello Nasty – Beastie Boys: Gratefully back to where they once belonged.
- Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star – Black Star: Two great MCs with great chemistry at peak of powers. Still stirring but on reacquaintance a little less so than I’d remembered.
- A Rose is Still a Rose – Aretha Franklin: A voice for all ages settles into a new one with ease. Her first major album in more than a decade and maybe her last.
- The Music in My Head – Various Artists: This (mostly) West African comp spans more than three decades and draws from at least four countries (primarily Senegal, but with Mali, Gambia, and the Congo represented). The handpicked listening companion to an eponymous novel I’ve never read, it’s essentially a not-quite-mass-released mixtape. Not in my personal top tier of Afropop collections, but probably in the next tier down.
- Some Things I Know – Lee Ann Womack: The Dixie Chicks’ debut (or, I guess, reboot) was the most momentous straight-country record of the year, but Womack’s less crossed-over sophomore album holds up better.
- Steal This Album – The Coup: A hip-hop original, Boots Riley, takes a leap. There would be a couple more to come.
- On the Floor at the Boutique – Fatboy Slim: Spinning the hits in his head, juicing the volume and speed. My favorite artifact of the late 1990s sue-me-I-still-call-it-techno boom.
- Pack Up the Cats – Local H: Sounds like Nirvana, Everyman version. Includes the best song ever written about being a rock musician (see singles list below). Said single doesn’t even include this matter-of-fact album-track quotable: “I’m in love with rock and roll, but that will change eventually.”
- The Tour – Mary J Blige: Ok, so it’s not exactly Bill Withers’ Live at Carnegie Hall or James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, but it is a rare case (like Withers, not quite Brown) of an R&B singles artist’s most satisfying album being a live one.
- Introducing Cadallaca – Cadallaca: Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker going soft, with a organist/singer partner (Sarah Dougher) rather than a guitarist/singer partner (Carrie Brownstein).
- The Glass Intact – Sarge
- Middlescene — Amy Rigby
- Nature Film – Scrawl
- Moment of Truth – Gang Starr
- The Singles – Bikini Kill: Three songs from 1993 as exciting as any rock and roll from any time or anywhere. Six more from 1995 that are mostly pretty hot too. Run-time: 18 minutes.
- Still Standing – Goodie Mob
- He Got Game – Public Enemy
- What is Not to Love – Imperial Teen
- “Rosa Parks” — Outkast
- “All the Kids Are Right” — Local H
- “Are You That Somebody?” — Aaliyah
- “Celebrity Skin” — Hole
- “The Rockafeller Skank” — Fatboy Slim
- “Too Close” — Next
- “Hard Knock Life” — Jay-Z
- “A Rose is Still a Rose” — Aretha Franklin
- “Doo Wop (That Thing)” — Lauryn Hill
- “Definition” — Black Star
- “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a 79 Granada Last Night’ — The Coup
- “Together Again” – Janet Jackson
- “I Will Buy You a New Life” — Everclear
- “Wide Open Spaces” – Dixie Chicks
- “Intergalactic” — Beastie Boys
- “He Got Game” — Public Enemy
- “Music Sounds Better With You” — Stardust
- “Body Movin” – Beastie Boys
- “Ha” — Juvenile
- “A Little Past Little Rock” — Lee Ann Womack
- “Buckaroo” — Lee Ann Womack
- “Waltz No. 2 (XO)” — Elliott Smith
- “Malibu” — Hole
- “Gangster Trippin’” – Fatboy Slim
- “Father of Mine” — Everclear
- “Stall” — Sarge
- “Second Round KO” — Canibus
- “Ruff Ryders Anthem” — DMX
- “Closing Time” – Semisonic
- “The Boy is Mine” — Brandy and Monica
Usual caveats apply. I’ve relistended to every piece on music on both album and singles lists. I haven’t rewatched any movies. This isn’t my Top 10 as it would have been in 1998, but rather my Top 10 as I guess it would be today. Chances are, rewatching would actually yield a slightly different result.
- Rushmore (Wes Anderson)
- There’s Something About Mary (Farrelly Brothers)
- The Big Lebowski (Coen Brothers)
- Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh)
- Dr. Akagi (Shohei Imamura)
- Small Soldiers (Joe Dante)
- He Got Game (Spike Lee)
- The Newton Boys (Richard Linklater)
- Babe: Pig in the City (George Miller)
- Primary Colors (Mike Nichols)