Critical Mass

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

4. Elliott Smith, XO (Dreamworks) Not quite the offhand masterpiece that was last year's Either/Or, Smith's major-label move simply emphasizes the pop melodist who was often lost behind the folky rep. No longer can it be doubted that he's got more in common with Ray Davies than Ani DiFranco (not to mention Ramblin' Jack Elliott). Highlights like "Bled White" and "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands" prove that this unlikely Oscar nominee can explore big production without losing his eccentricities.

5. PJ Harvey, Is This Desire? (Island) Aging with grace is the ultimate rock conundrum, and this is the album where Harvey meets it head-on. No longer the furious victim of Dry or the macho gender-twister of Rid of Me, on Is This Desire?, Harvey worked a detached, third-person narrative style that unsettled old fans but points the way toward a maturity that need not be equated with boredom. More and more, her obsession with gothic losers makes her seem like a female Nick Cave; but unlike Cave, she has the pipes to make you care. "A Perfect Day Elise" is one of the best tracks of the year, a dynamic rock song that sweeps you away where the younger Harvey would have pummeled you.

6. Quasi, Featuring "Birds" (Up) Because Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss choose to play music together even after their marriage ended, some critics have taken to calling them the Fleetwood Mac of indie rock. It's a good tag, but it doesn't really capture the off-kilter pop wimpiness that they wear like a badge of pride. Coomes is more like a Ben Folds drunk on existentialism and saddled with a funky overdriven Casio. The more his melodies soar, the lower his spirits sag, and it's not just romantic strife that's got him down. He takes jabs at science ("Fed by I.V., we rarely need to sleep/There's no pointless dreaming and our happiness is guaranteed") and American capitalism ("Everyday we earn our meager pay/But it takes its toll to play the happy prole") with tunes so infectious even Strom Thurmond could whistle along.

7. Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory (Mercury) Costello has rehabilitated moribund artists before: his late '80s songwriting partnership with Paul McCartney wedded adult concerns with a Merseybeat bounce that Macca forgot he helped to invent. But Costello's own work in the '90s has been so confused and pompous that it was easy to write off this collaboration before it hit the stores. But the magic of this melancholy gem is that by restoring Bacharach's faith in acoustic pianos and live string sections, Costello has likewise recaptured his own pop innocence. The Bacharach fingerprints are so blatant (the trumpet on "Toledo" screams "Walk On By") that you want to distrust it as a frozen genius con job, but this music is too beautiful and heartache-ridden to deny. Now all we need is for Dusty Springfield to cover "This House Is Empty Now."

8. Propellerheads, Decksanddrumsandrockandroll (Dreamworks) Some electronica snobs have dismissed Britain's emergent Big Beat movement, of which Propellerheads are the best-known exponent, for being too obvious. If powerhouse beats, soulful keyboard riffs, and a surreal sense of humor (what's with former Bond belter Shirley Bassey in a cameo appearance?) constitute obviousness, then this band is guilty as charged. In any event, Propellerheads' scope is too wide for Big Beat. They astutely take the best of every imaginable form of modern dance music, from hip-hop to house to drum 'n' bass to dancehall. They mix live instrumentation with loops and samples, and slip back and forth from instrumentals to vocal showcases, creating textures so rich that they unwittingly expose the flimsiness of so much electronic music. Best of all, they're smart enough to know that they're not doing anything new. As Bassey booms out: "They say the next big thing is here/and the revolution's near/but to me it seems quite clear/that it's all just a little bit of history repeating."

9. Garbage, Version 2.0 (Almo Sounds) This collective of American studio nerds fronted by a sassy Scottish woman would be superficial and trendy if they didn't actually like all the state-of-the-art sounds they borrow from. As it is, they're the perfect post-modern group for the millennial cusp: Cynical but sincere, rocking in a breakbeat-friendly way, radically eclectic but always distinctive. Version 2.0 offers no big change from the band's massively successful debut, yet somehow manages to come off as more confident and muscular. Manson's so sexy and assured that she can sell a hoary chorus like "I think I'm paranoid" and she makes the irresistable Pretenders cop "Special" her own private multitrack showcase. Ear candy of the highest order.

10. Jack Logan and Bob Kimbell, Little Private Angel (Parasol) It would be too facile to say that they don't write 'em like blue-collar Georgia boy Jack Logan anymore. Fact is, they never wrote songs like the humble miniatures that Logan specializes in. He doesn't tell stories, he takes aural snapshots, and he's the king at breaking your heart in under two minutes.

His solo records are generally so plain sounding that their rustic insights are easy to overlook, and this collaborative venture with old pal Bob Kimbell is spare even by Logan's standards: acoustic guitar, lap steel, a touch of piano here and there. But Kimbell's high, sweet tenor is the perfect Chilton to Logan's Bell and it makes these sad tunes come off as wistful instead of crusty. Extra points for doing the impossible: penning the only cool baseball metaphor song ever with the uncommonly optimistic "Frozen Rope."

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