In a year of swing and schmaltz, pop smarts and innovation define best in music

It don’t mean a thing…well, I think you know where I’m going with that. 1998 was the year that the 1930s broke. Swing was in full force. Of course, can you name any swing bands other than the “big four”? Maybe it was a reaction against grunge of the early 1990’s, but nothing could stop the swing revival.

And seemingly nothing could stop the fall of rock and roll. New albums by Pearl Jam, Black Sabbath, and countless others floundered while Jay-Z, the Beastie Boys and Celine Dion ruled the roost. Most rock radio stations are turning to harder format (e.g., skronk music — Korn, Limp Bizkit…er…Vanilla Ice) or AAA oriented music (light alternative rock — Matchbox 20, Jewel, Alanis), so your average alt-rock band no longer has a home.

So now we’re left looking for the next big thing. It wasn’t electronica. It wasn’t ska. It probably isn’t swing. More and more record companies are signing bands that sound the same (can you tell the difference between Eve 6, The Flys, Placebo or any of the new one-hit wonders?) and with the gigantic Universal/Polygram merger, we could be seeing the blandest-of-the-bland infiltrate and dictate what you hear on commercial radio.

But then again, maybe I’m a cynic. Maybe nothing in the world of popular music could ever please me. Or maybe I’m right. Judge for yourself:

My Top 10 Records of 1998 are:

1. Pulp: This is Hardcore (Island Records)

One thing that drives me mad about the current state of music is that 99% of the songs written have absolutely no variation. Pulp writes that 1% of songs that actually build and crash and generally keep the listener on their toes. Hardcore is one of the swankiest, smoothest and most moving albums in the last few years.

2. Third Eye Foundation: You Guys Kill Me (Merge)

Truly innovative electronic. TEF are able to create soundscapes that evoke dark and eerie lands. Unlike many electronic acts of today, TEF is less worried about making people move than moving people.

3. Soul Coughing: El Oso (Slash/Warner Bros.)

I’m sick and tired of hearing about people’s disappointment with El Oso. M. Doughty and Co. took the vibrant NYC jungle scene and combined that sound with the band’s already distinctive neo-beat style to create their most innovative album to date. It has its weak points, but the disk offers much more than most that were released this year.

4. Push Kings: Far Places (Sealed Fate)

The first Push Kings (1997) album was good, but really only represented the tip of the iceberg. Far Places shows influences of the Beatles, Jackson 5 and even some old-skool record scratching for good measure. The Push Kings are one of the best true pop bands out today.

5. Eels: Electro-Shock Blues (Dreamworks)

Electro-Shock Blues was written during E’s mother’s battle with cancer and the suicides of his sister and friend. And somehow, E was able to write songs that deal with these issues without being overdramatic or preachy. Electro-Shock is full of songs that you might find yourself humming along to, and I think that was E’s point in the first place.

6. Billy Bragg and Wilco: Mermaid Avenue (EEG)

When Woodie Guthrie’s daughter found her father’s lost lyrics, she had one person in mind to write music to fit the songs: Billy Bragg. With the help of critically acclaimed Americana band Wilco, Bragg put together an album that proves that Guthrie’s songs can still be relevant nearly 40 years after they were written. There are 50+ more songs in the vaults that Bragg and Wilco recorded, and we can only hope that they’ll see the light of day soon.

7. Jack Drag: Dope Box (A&M)

So, if the Pixies and Beck had a bastard child and invited Brian Wilson to be the godfather, it would be Jack Drag.

8. Jets to Brazil: Orange Rhyming Dictionary (Jade Tree)

Maybe rock and roll isn’t dead. It’s just in hiding. No arena rock here, just guitars being loud.

9. Junior Varsity KM: Taking Care of You (Darla)

So smooth and calming with hypnotic beats. It’s the musical equivalent of a nice hot cup of cocoa on a cold winter’s day.

10. Sixteen Horsepower: Low Estate (A&M)

This is definitely what we need. More bible-thumpin’ fools playing old-fashioned country-rock. Johnny Cash must be proud.

Honorable Mention: Portishead – PNYC (London); UNKLE – Psyence Fiction (Mowax); Sunny Day Real Estate – How It Feels to be Something On… (Sub Pop); PJ Harvey – Is This Desire? (Island); Photek – Form and Function (Astralwerks)

Most Overlooked Album of 1998

Baxter: Baxter (Maverick)

Like Portishead, Baxter is another female-fronted trip-hop act, but the unlike Hooverphonic or Esthero, Baxter does not try to mimic that same sound. Employing strange beats reminscient of Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James, Baxter is decidedly the most promising act in electronic and in the alternative music realm.

Guilty Pleasure of 1998

Fear of Pop: “In Love” (550)

Okay, maybe I’m a sucker for William Shatner. Or maybe I have the same sense of humor as Ben Folds. But no matter how many times in here Shatner tell his tale of the evils of love, I can’t help to be horribly amused. I shouldn’t be, but I am.

There are some things to look forward to in the penultimate year of the 20th century. January and February are for indie rock, with Keep It Like a Secret by Built to Spill, Sebadoh’s The Sebadoh and Ben Lee’s Breathing Tornados. The big release of the spring is likely to be the long-awaited new Nine Inch Nails’ double album Fragile. Trent Reznor has spent three years recording and re-recording tracks in his New Orleans studio. Competing with Fragile could be Peter Gabriel’s Up, seven years in the making and Ani Difranco’s new disc, Up Up Up Up Up Up, due in January. Some more potential 1998 releases include Orbital (Feb/Mar), Aphex Twin (Apr), No Doubt (May), Moby (May), U2 reunited with The Joshua Tree producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno (Fall), Cure (Apr), Wilco (Feb) and Ash (Jan).

So, again, we can return to our homes safe in the knowledge that the music industry still has two constants: there will always be bad Christmas albums and disgruntled critics (like me).

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