Critical Mass

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

Brendan Kelley:
1. Quasi, Featuring "Birds" (Up) Sam Coomes (formerly of Heatmiser) and Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney's drummer) take bitter pop songs where no other band has, with pumping organs and thundering drumbeats. The songs sound sweet until you listen to the words; song titles like "I Never Want To See You Again," "You Fucked Yourself" and "Only Success Can Fail Me Now" say it all.

2. Jets to Brazil, Orange Rhyming Dictionary (Jade Tree) Brilliant new-wave inflected, tense pop anthems fill this record by former Jawbreaker frontman Blake Schwarzenbach and his cronies. Schwarzenbach is one of indie-rock's biggest talents, and these songs blow minds. Also one of the best live shows of the year.

3. Elliott Smith, XO (Dreamworks) Elliott plugged in and made a lush record that topped everyone's expectations. Breaking form from his patented moping acoustic sound allowed the bright parts to shine through and turned him into a genuine phenomenon.

4. Modest Mouse/764-HERO, "Whenever You See Fit" (Up) Two bands, one song, two electronicized remixes. The 15-minute A-side is both bands at their sprawling, muddy best; the DJ mixes thrust them into bleeping and looping dimensions neither has approached before.

5. Karate, The Bed Is in the Ocean (Southern) This threesome constructs sparse, minimalistic pop architecture that still manages to rock, with intentionally vague, introspective lyrics. This is the new angst; get on board now.

6. The Promise Ring, Boys+Girls (Jade Tree) The Promise Ring are headed for the cover of Tiger Beat eventually, and that's meant in the best way possible. Boys+Girls delivers three more gems from the new kings of pop--sugary and sultry songs that stick to your head like velcro. Best track is "Tell Everyone We're Dead," a pointed and humorous slice of insight into the minds of reluctant pop stars.

7. Cap'n Jazz, Analphabetapolothology (Jade Tree) This Chicago outfit changed the face of indie math-rock before its members hit the age of 20, then promptly exploded into fragments that can now be found in Joan of Arc, The Promise Ring, Ghosts & Vodka, and American Football. Tender, abrasive and intellectual, this retrospective of Cap'n Jazz songs (every one ever recorded) illustrates the band's entire spectrum, from the groundbreaking Burritos, inspiration point, fork balloon sports, cards in the spokes, automatic biographies, kites, kung fu, trophies, banana peels we've slipped on and egg shells we've tippy-toed over LP to covers of the Beverly Hills 90210 theme and "Winter Wonderland."

8. Braid, Frame & Canvas (Polyvinyl) Frame & Canvas is Braid's slickest effort yet, filled with tenderized emo-ballads and frantic soft/loud rock explosions, all with a starry-eyed innocence uncharacteristic of most post-hardcore bands. Play "A Dozen Roses" for your significant whatever. It's like having a "Get Laid Free" card.

9. Jimmy Eat World, s/t EP (Fueled By Ramen) A late entry, but exceptional nonetheless. Our local wuss-rockers show their full span of abilities on this five-song record, from slick and lush to stripped down delicacy. If Jimmy Eat World's Clarity--finished months ago, but not scheduled for release until March of '99--had come out this year it would have been number two on this list. This stopgap indie EP will show you why.

10. Mix Master Mike, Anti-Theft Device (Asphodel) Mike took turntablism to the masses via his presence on the Beastie Boys' Hello Nasty album and subsequent tour, but this is the real Mix Master Mike, in full effect on his own terms. There are very few turntablists who can approach the skills MMM has, scratching and scribbling like he's done it since birth. This album pushed him to self-professed superhero proportions, battling the money octopus for the sake of DJs everywhere.

Gilbert Garcia:
1. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse) A solo album that blows away the mother ship, at least partly because it frees Hill to open her heart and her diary in a way that the Fugees never could. With little strain--and without the production help of Wyclef Jean--Hill achieves the One World musical fusion that artists have been striving for ever since Stevie tipped his hat to Bob Marley on "Master Blaster." In fact, the album seems deeply imbued with the spirits of both Wonder and Marley, most beautifully on "Forgive Them Father," which weds a subtle reggae skank to Hill's most enlightened lyric and soulful harmonizing. Equal parts hip-hop, traditional soul, and Wailers reggae, Miseducation offers pop's most streetwise and funky lesson plan since the glory days of Innervisions and What's Going On.

2. Come, Gently Down the Stream (Matador) In a year that saw rock given its last rites more often than Joe DiMaggio, the latest release by this Boston quartet stood head-and-shoulders above all guitar-rock pretenders. Thalia Zedek is the Patti Smith we invented in our fantasies: A raspy, go-for-broke vocalist with estimable guitar chops, a taste for odd meters and Middle Eastern scales, and little patience for unwieldy poetic ramblings. Zedek's wild junkie blues so dominates this band's vision that when guitarist Chris Brokaw steps to the mike on "Recidivist," you can hardly tell the difference. Most rock bands these days have enough trouble achieving a modicum of fun. Come attains transcendence.

3. Jeff Buckley, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (Columbia) As heretical as this may be for grunge diehards, Buckley's 1997 drowning in the Mississippi River probably constituted a bigger musical loss than Kurt Cobain's shotgun blast to the head. By 1994, Cobain was running on empty as a songwriter, ready to quit Nirvana but not quite sure which direction he wanted to pursue. In contrast, Buckley had so many musical ideas dancing in his head at any given time, the results could be maddening--for us as well as him. As an unfinished work, Sketches is spotty by definition (most of disc two's home demos should have been excluded) but the best material here is so enigmatically radiant that this collection should not be missed. Buckley had the greatest voice of any male rock singer to emerge this decade, and all doubters are advised to check out the Prince-like falsetto sensuality of his ballad "Everybody Here Wants You."

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