Critical Mass

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

7. The Connells, Still Life (TVT) The North Carolina jangle-pop quartet gets back to form after its somewhat disapointing 1996 release Weird Food & Devastation. The Connells' knack for appealing melodies and memorable riffs has never gone away, but special credit should be given to producer Jim Scott (who also mixed and engineered the record) for helping make the band's best record since the group's classic Mitch Easter-produced Boylan Heights.

8. Pernice Brothers, Overcome by Happiness (Sub Pop) Joe Pernice, the man behind now-defunct No Depression act the Scud Mountain Boys makes a left turn away from the y'allternative pack and into a more ornate and lush pop sound. The themes of loneliness and melancholy that marked the Scuds' best work are still present in the lyrics, but Pernice's love for sprawling pop makes for a more memorable and satisfying experience than anything in his catalogue.

9. Robert Pollard, Waved Out (Matador) The eccentric genius behind Guided by Voices puts forth another stellar solo effort. While not as consistent as the Japanese Spin Cycle EP or expansive as a GBV opus like 1994's Bee Thousand, Pollard's melodic instincts, lyrical originality and ability to tap into interesting musical eccentricities never disappoint.

10. Murder City Devils, Empty Bottles Broken Hearts (Sub Pop) Seattle's most crudely honest rock band. Whether they're drawing inspiration from obscure noir films or paying homage to punk legend Johnny Thunders, this band makes its impact felt by keeping the music simple and pure. It's an approach that relies on blaring guitars, howling vocals and the sort of inspiration that comes from the crotch as much as from the heart.

Honorable Mention: In a year full of historically significant reissues (e.g., Bob Dylan's Live 1966, Rhino's expanded Nuggets box set) maybe the most important was Sony/Legacy's reissue of the early Cheap Trick catalog. While the group has only recently experienced a critical resurgence after its late-'80s slide, for many Cheap Trick has always represented the missing link between the Beatles and the Replacements. The remastering and repackaging of the group's first three studio albums and the complete Budokan show should be a welcome addition to any CD collection.

Brian Smith:
1. Sloan, Navy Blues (Universal) Knowing that choruses are not for pussies and rock 'n' roll is supposed to have laughs, Sloan comes along embracing the wah-wah, the White Album, pop and their own place on the failure scale. Song fer song not a fuckin' stinker among 'em. God bless.

2. Spacehog, The Chinese Album (Sire) Not quite the glitter boots Mick Ronson wore but close enough to appease those few dreadful Velvet Goldmine hipsters who just last year were weilding martini glasses, feline handshakes, and their grandparents' Glenn Miller mood. What I mean is, this is a great record, though the band most likely will be flippin' burgers around this time next year. Too bad.

3. Todd Snider, Viva Satellite (MCA) Snider's singsongy Texas-via-Tennessee drawl hooks 'em like his elbow does a whiskey shot, and he looks like a younger version of his hero Buk (that be Bukowski, kiddies), with a coupla Tom Waits' genes tossed in. Besides, a couplet like, "My buddy Jimmy know his trailor's cool/he got him a deck with one of them blue plastic pools," would even have our own Trashman flashin' a beer-soaked grin; bad grammar, misspellings and all. Prop up a ruffled 'Mats with a bit o' Skynard riffraff and a woody for Berry, Jerry Jeff, Dylan and Hank and ya nearly get 'er.

4. Super J Lounge, Sorry (Panda/Creation) So I am a bit biased, big deal, show me a hack that ain't. Super J Lounge is my little bro's London-based band of which--I'll say proudly--he is the singer, songwriter and producer. As a kid I fed him the Clash; he later discovered Pet Sounds, and his wife took him to India--that gives ya an idea of the tunage here. And if ya think I'm jackin' ya, dig this: Brian Eno says they're fab and NME swears their shit don't stink. Watch for worldwide domination sometime next year.

5. Hole, Celebrity Skin (Geffen) Pre-Tattoo You Keef, the Alice before golf pants, and Johnny Thunders before expiration proved that trashy sluts make sound rock stars. On this much-hyped follow-up, Ms. Courtney Love serves up the crunch with enough live-fast-die-young-leave-a-pretty-corpse chutzpah to challenge any of her cock-and-ball hanging heros. And, Celebrity Skin is so chock-full of self-deprecating confessionals and train-on-the-verge-of-derailing sentiment (or sediment) that we could easily forgive Love for her recent screen-star envy crap, and worse, hangin' with that bald creep from the Pumpkins. What's more, there are choruses here sweet enough to rot a filling right out of Doug Fieger's didn't-die-before-he-got-old mouth. With Celebrity Skin, Love says that any idiot can be a celebrity, but if ya ain't got the shit to back it up, it's shite.

6. Texas Terri and The Stiff Ones, Eat Shit (Burning Tree) Saw the band live and the chick singer was a sweaty serpentine mess of Stiv, attitude and tatooed porn star, shouting lyrics like, "Meaner than a pimp with a runaway whore," with enough verve and believability to make Joan Jett look like a yup--absolutely the best female frontperson I've ever seen. And all the while, her virile, boys-only bandmates spermicized the venue with this huge wall of buzz-saw chords. I got the record home and reacquainted myself with the importance of Iggy. And they get a million points for their smashing cover of the Dictators' brilliant "Baby Let's Twist."

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