Critical Mass

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

Honorable Mention: Thirty-two years after the fact, Bob Dylan's Live 1966 instantly moved from the the pantheon of legendary bootlegs to that of great live albums. Also, Rhino's three-CD The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection brought much-needed coherence to one of pop's greatest catalogues.

Serene Dominic:
1.Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory (Mercury) Ever since psychedelic music, lazy pop songwriters have been shortchanging us with "it's whatever you want it to mean" lyrics. At this point, when we're stuck with more imitation REM/Pearl Jam word jumblers than we know what to do with, it's a blessing to hear an album that not only reinstates bygone standards of pop songwriting but raises them to an exciting new peak. You feel exactly what both these master craftsmen want you to feel and familiarity only makes the emotions intensify.

Elvis finally terminates his love affair with the thesaurus and allows himself to sing and write with a directness he's rarely afforded himself in his 21-year career. And Bacharach is reconnected with the muse he seemed to have lost for good when Costello's career was just getting started.

2. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse) Judging by the roll call that opens the album, Lauryn musta missed a lot of school. But miseducated? Can you think of anyone else who's worked a word like "reciprocity" into a slow groove ballad? Like her carved-up desk, Hill is old-school all the way, offering up irresistible singles like "Doo Wop (That Thing)" and personal statements like "To Zion," which castigates Hill's former friends who advised her to abort her child for the sake of her career. This solid collection harkens back to the sound and stature of '70s superstars like Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone, back when people used to wait all year for their records and then devoured every word. Hill's spirituality sometimes gets tangled up in bitter, petty squabbles, but did you ever know an intimate portrait of an artist from Here My Dear to Plastic Ono Band to There's a Riot Goin' On to Blue that didn't hint at imperfection?

3. PJ Harvey, Is This Desire? (Island) Some writer recently coined the phrase "hag rock" and appointed Polly Jean its sovereign ruler. Dear God, life ain't kind if it allows only photogenic babes like Jewel to enjoy Soundscan's good graces. Phone sex proved you don't need a pretty picture to get a substantial hard-on and Harvey's voice throbs with sensuality to the nth power.

PJ's every woman and on this latest one she's chronicling every kind of lonely woman imaginable, from prostitute to murderess to an extrovert that likes to make whale noises in high places. That she can convey any sexuality cushioned in some of the ugliest mechanical buzzes this side of a busted apartment intercom proves her genius.

4. The V-Roys, All About Town (E Squared) The kind of record Nashville doesn't know what to do with is the only kind I wanna hear. And that's the only kind the V-Roys have made so far. The opening cut puts its drums through every echo plate in the cupboard and others manage to slip in mechanical hand claps, compressed horns, backward guitars, Motown double-beats and mini-moogs and still sound more country than anything country-radio separatists would have you hear. Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy clock in with producing and playing duties (Earle co-wrote three songs here as well) but the band more than holds its own among such distinguished company. The way Mic Morrison and Scott Miller's voices tumble joyously on top of one another like Mike and Keith on "Miss Operator" is the happiest sound I've heard all year. The second, third and fourth happiest sounds are somewhere on here, too.

5.Garbage, Version 2.0 (Almo Sounds) People keep accusing Garbage of being calculated because they construct perfectly realized pop songs that sound great on the radio. Duh! If people can't appreciate Butch Vig and cohorts for merging electronica and guitar rock together in a palatable package, let 'em just think of Garbage as the Blondie of the '90s and maybe they'll only realize how great they are when the greatest-hits album comes out. And when the only Manson you'll ever need coos "I'll fall down just to give you a thrill," know that someone's risking bodily harm for your listening pleasure.

6. Pulp, This Is Hardcore (Island) Okay, so Jarvis Cocker spends most of this album in the lower range of his voice, sounding like a cross between Lloyd Cole and Inspector Clouseau with a head cold. When he mumbles "I'm not Jesus but I have the same initials/I'm the man who stays at home and does the dishes," it's no wonder he's England's shiniest hero. On the title track, he orchestrates a cinematographer's wettest dream and on "A Little Soul" he manages to mangle "The Tracks of My Tears" while admitting to his kid that he's a bad role model. You couldn't ask for a more perfect album side than the first six or seven tracks and This Is Hardcore would've probably rated higher if it didn't overshoot its welcome by three or four songs. In the vinyl era, this album would've been perfect.

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