Critical Mass

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

7. Elliott Smith, XO (Dreamworks) Smith and his sweet soothing voice never stoop to the cheap ain't-I-sensitive tactics of his acoustic ancestors, so when he sings "I'm never gonna know you now but I'm gonna love you anyhow," he's making the world safe for under- and overachievers alike.

8. Trunk Federation, The Curse of Miss Kitty (Alias) Because they made the kind of psychedelic album I like, heavy on the Syd Barrett malevolent childlike imagery and heavy on the keyboard coloring--and one that starts off strong and confident then gets real oozy and paranoid in the middle like Magical Mystery Tour.

9. Windigo, Windigo (Pavement) Because they made the kind of psychedelic album I didn't know I liked, muscular, militant and ready to bash in the face of anyone who tries to shortchange them on their next nickel-bag purchase.

10. Lush Budget Presents the Les Payne Product, Lush Budget Presents the Les Payne Product (Aviator) Though it's only a six-song EP, it still rates a full-length salute by me. These Ambassadors of Betrayal have a self-referential streak that would make most rappers blush, yet they keep their idiosyncratic song pieces from becoming indulgent with wit, invention and sheer balls. For this is a band that dares not only to go "oo oo oo" but to go "oo oo oo" often.

Honorable Mention: This goes to the posthumous Linda McCartney album Wide Prairie if, for no other reason, than the fact that I have not read one single review of this album--proof that rock critics either have a conscience or they're just chickenshit.

Bob Mehr:
1. (tie) Dead Hot Workshop, Karma Covered Apple (self-released) An album full of angst, passion, and wit. The band's trademark "twang and bang" sound is as potent as ever despite the loss of guitarist Steve Larson. As always, frontman Brent Babb's lyrics are the highlight.

Alternating between themes of loss, anger, and wry social and political commentary, Babb has been pumping out his singularly brilliant songcraft for so long that most people probably take it for granted. In a perfect world, this is the kind of record that would sell millions and pack arenas. As it is Dead Hot Workshop may have to settle for being one one of the best bands never to make it big.

1. (tie) Billy Sedylmayr, Unreleased Demo Tape
Although it's probably not fair to list a record that isn't out commercially, I'd be remiss if I didn't include it here because it's easily the best and most vital music I heard all year. Sedylmayr is the recently transplanted Tucsonan who's spent the last 13 years alternating between the grip of heroin addiction and jail. The only way to describe Sedylmayr's music is point to obvious influences, which include a healthy mix of latter-day Steve Earle, Tonight's the Night-era Neil Young and the potent imagery of the best beat poets--but with a much harder edge. Songs like "Decade," "Amelia," "Ed White," and "Tucson Kills" tell stories as real and interesting as Sedylmayer's own life--which is no small feat. With his life and music in apparently good shape, 1999 holds promise that Sedylmayr's music will get the exposure it so richly deserves.

3. Tommy Keene, Isolation Party (Matador) The most underappreciated purveyor of the well-loved, if commercially neglected subgenre known as power pop. Another nearly perfect Keene album full of melodic hooks, and genuine lyrics, this record stands as testament to that fact that good pop music still has a place in a post-grunge world. Repeated listening reveals hidden layers of depth--something due in large part to the fact that this is Keene's first record featuring truly "new" material since his 1989 album Based on Happy Times. As good as this record is, it was only the second best Keene album that came out this year. That distinction would have to go to Geffen's long overdue reissue of Keene's seminal 1986 release Songs From the Film. The new version includes his long out-of-print Run Now EP, plus several bonus tracks, and full remastering treatment, making Songs the must-have pop reissue of the year.

4. Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue (Elektra) The idea of taking an English protest singer and putting him together with America's alt-country darlings for the purpose of infusing life and music into the unheard lyrics of a misunderstood icon like Woody Guthrie didn't sound like a real good idea to me. But against all odds, this record works amazingly well. Both Bragg and Wilco construct a complimentary sonic backdrop that captures the essence and significance of Guthrie as a man who was more than the one-dimensional folk singer he has long been portrayed as.

5. Jack Logan and Bob Kimbell, Little Private Angel (Parasol) Logan, the most famous artist/mechanic/songwriter to ever emerge from Athens, Georgia, teams up with old friend and Weird Summer leader Kimbell to record a spare and affecting album of mostly acoustic pop songs. Logan's workmanlike eye for lyrical detail and grasp of the everyday are balanced musically by Kimbell's love for the unabashed pop sounds of the Beach Boys and Big Star.

6. Alejandro Escovedo, More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-1996 (Bloodshot) A collection of live cuts from the former True Believers founder, featuring Escovedo's orchestral backing group. Brilliant reworkings of his recent solo material sit alongside several well-chosen covers, including the Rolling Stones "Sway" and Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog." By the time you get to the album's final cut--a medley of songs ending with a deconstructed version of Lou Reed's "Street Hassle," Escovedo will have you believing as well.

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