Critical Mass

A recap of the releases that made it worthwhile to own a CD player in 1998

Checking the vital signs for guitar-based rock has long been an ongoing preoccupation for critics. Still, you knew something was a bit different this year when new releases by Hole, Marilyn Manson and even the sample-heavy Garbage were judged not merely for their musical merits but for their potential to save rock 'n' roll from imminent death in the commercial marketplace.

Well, rock has staved off extinction before (anybody remember 1976?) but there's no getting around the fact that hip-hop and R&B rule the tastes of young America. Some have even been tempted to look at the success of new releases by Jay-Z, Method Man, Jermaine Dupri, RZA, OutKast and others, and proclaim 1998 "The Year of Hip-Hop."

Actually, hip-hop's big sales this year were nothing more than a continuation of a trend that's built throughout this decade. This year it probably just meant a little more because it came on the heels of the murders of Tupac and Biggie, at a time when some warned that the whole thing had gotten irreversibly out of hand.

Hip-hop is so ubiquitous that it's come to define a generation's sense of rhythm and style. So even 1998 highlights that don't fit precisely within the limitations of the genre--like Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Mix Master Mike's Anti-Theft Device, Propellerheads' Decksanddrumsandrockandroll, or even Garbage's Version 2.0--would be unthinkable without the influence. Of course, hip-hop has also fed the year's most obnoxious development, the rock-based stridency of Korn and its disciples (who have come to include a new-look Vanilla Ice). Rock would be better served with a mercy killing than to survive on those terms.

In any event, as 1998 fades into our rear view, a panel of New Times music writers pauses to take rock's pulse, and to pick their favorite releases of the year.

Ted Simons:
1. Elliott Smith, XO (Dreamworks) The ever-sensitive Smith continues to turn his self-infatuation into some of the most beautiful music of the moment. He's as twee as he wants to be, and his soft stuff can get pretty thick, but the boy's got poetry in him. Great lyric: "You know/I don't/I dream."

2. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury) With her subtle melodies and quietly lethal lyrics, Williams comes off like a restless short story writer, a Eudora Welty on the run. Live with this CD long enough and you'll hear it grow.

3. VAS, Offerings (Narada) Ever wonder about the music you're hearing when you're feeding your face at the local Indian food eatery? You will after hearing Vas, a masala-flavored L.A. duo led by Azam Ali's stunning vocals. The best album Sheila Chandra can't seem to make.

4. Gloritone, Cup Runneth Over (RCA) Tempe's latest pop sensation. Leader Tim Anthonise pens fast-acting melodies ("John Wayne," "Halfway," "Flying Kites") that ride atop references to "keeping the rope around" and other such muses. Best local pop album since the Gin Blossoms' first.

5. Golden Smog, Weird Tales (Rykodisc) Nothing weird here to anyone who deifies Neil Young. This all-star band of Americana icons runs after Young like a hurricane, leaving trails of melancholy melodies and heartfelt lyrics in the sand. Killer cut: "Until You Came Along."

6. Creeper Lagoon, I Become Small and Go (Nickel Bag) Guided by Pavement? You bet. These archly-alternative tunes are indeed derivative of lo-fi slacker-moments past, but the influences are eclectic, endearing and chosen wisely. A sneaky-good disc. Very cool song: "Dreaming Again."

7. The Prissteens, Scandal, Controversy & Romance (Almo) Party girls build walls of sound with mountains of guitars and hand claps, all done in pre-Beatles, post-punk glee. Dare ya to play "Run Back to You" only once. Another cool song: "Let Me Run Wild."

8. Son Volt, Wide Swing Tremolo (Warner Bros.) Jay Farrar still hasn't made an album as disarmingly honest as Uncle Tupelo's debut, but this one comes close. Great music to share with yourself between exits on a long, lonely interstate.

9. Massive Attack, Mezzanine (Virgin) Tricky's former bandmates drum up a considerable collection of loping, round-shouldered trip-hop laced with more than a hint of pre-millennial angst. Best song: "Teardrop," with the wonderful Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins on vocals.

10. Gillian Welch, Hell Among the Yearlings (Almo) Another winner from an L.A. city girl who convincingly embraces the spare sounds and gothic moods of backwoods America and never lets go.

Fave Single: "Fire Escape," Fastball. A wonderful slice of jingle-jangle pop, replete with a monster melody and an even better chorus playing touch-and-go with perfectly placed harmonies. Too bad this gem shares a CD with a song as relentlessly annoying as "The Way."

Fave Reissue: Bob Dylan, Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (Columbia/Legacy) The oft-bootlegged, much-discussed confrontation of an artist trying to evolve against the will of his adoring fans. This document of Dylan gone electric is so legendary it's almost a letdown. Almost.

Fave Local CD: See above, number four. Also boffo: The Man in the Moon, the debut effort from Tempe art-noisers Sleepwalker, who mesh curious sounds and hard-cornered melodies akin to a more lively Dead Can Dance. Still waiting: the debut of Pharoahs 2000.

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