Critical Mass

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

Checking the vital signs for guitar-based rock has long been an ongoing preoccupation for critics. Still, you knew something was a bit different this year when new releases by Hole, Marilyn Manson and even the sample-heavy Garbage were judged not merely for their musical merits but for their potential to save rock 'n' roll from imminent death in the commercial marketplace.

Well, rock has staved off extinction before (anybody remember 1976?) but there's no getting around the fact that hip-hop and R&B rule the tastes of young America. Some have even been tempted to look at the success of new releases by Jay-Z, Method Man, Jermaine Dupri, RZA, OutKast and others, and proclaim 1998 "The Year of Hip-Hop."

Actually, hip-hop's big sales this year were nothing more than a continuation of a trend that's built throughout this decade. This year it probably just meant a little more because it came on the heels of the murders of Tupac and Biggie, at a time when some warned that the whole thing had gotten irreversibly out of hand.

Hip-hop is so ubiquitous that it's come to define a generation's sense of rhythm and style. So even 1998 highlights that don't fit precisely within the limitations of the genre--like Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Mix Master Mike's Anti-Theft Device, Propellerheads' Decksanddrumsandrockandroll, or even Garbage's Version 2.0--would be unthinkable without the influence. Of course, hip-hop has also fed the year's most obnoxious development, the rock-based stridency of Korn and its disciples (who have come to include a new-look Vanilla Ice). Rock would be better served with a mercy killing than to survive on those terms.

In any event, as 1998 fades into our rear view, a panel of New Times music writers pauses to take rock's pulse, and to pick their favorite releases of the year.

Ted Simons:
1. Elliott Smith, XO (Dreamworks) The ever-sensitive Smith continues to turn his self-infatuation into some of the most beautiful music of the moment. He's as twee as he wants to be, and his soft stuff can get pretty thick, but the boy's got poetry in him. Great lyric: "You know/I don't/I dream."

2. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury) With her subtle melodies and quietly lethal lyrics, Williams comes off like a restless short story writer, a Eudora Welty on the run. Live with this CD long enough and you'll hear it grow.

3. VAS, Offerings (Narada) Ever wonder about the music you're hearing when you're feeding your face at the local Indian food eatery? You will after hearing Vas, a masala-flavored L.A. duo led by Azam Ali's stunning vocals. The best album Sheila Chandra can't seem to make.

4. Gloritone, Cup Runneth Over (RCA) Tempe's latest pop sensation. Leader Tim Anthonise pens fast-acting melodies ("John Wayne," "Halfway," "Flying Kites") that ride atop references to "keeping the rope around" and other such muses. Best local pop album since the Gin Blossoms' first.

5. Golden Smog, Weird Tales (Rykodisc) Nothing weird here to anyone who deifies Neil Young. This all-star band of Americana icons runs after Young like a hurricane, leaving trails of melancholy melodies and heartfelt lyrics in the sand. Killer cut: "Until You Came Along."

6. Creeper Lagoon, I Become Small and Go (Nickel Bag) Guided by Pavement? You bet. These archly-alternative tunes are indeed derivative of lo-fi slacker-moments past, but the influences are eclectic, endearing and chosen wisely. A sneaky-good disc. Very cool song: "Dreaming Again."

7. The Prissteens, Scandal, Controversy & Romance (Almo) Party girls build walls of sound with mountains of guitars and hand claps, all done in pre-Beatles, post-punk glee. Dare ya to play "Run Back to You" only once. Another cool song: "Let Me Run Wild."

8. Son Volt, Wide Swing Tremolo (Warner Bros.) Jay Farrar still hasn't made an album as disarmingly honest as Uncle Tupelo's debut, but this one comes close. Great music to share with yourself between exits on a long, lonely interstate.

9. Massive Attack, Mezzanine (Virgin) Tricky's former bandmates drum up a considerable collection of loping, round-shouldered trip-hop laced with more than a hint of pre-millennial angst. Best song: "Teardrop," with the wonderful Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins on vocals.

10. Gillian Welch, Hell Among the Yearlings (Almo) Another winner from an L.A. city girl who convincingly embraces the spare sounds and gothic moods of backwoods America and never lets go.

Fave Single: "Fire Escape," Fastball. A wonderful slice of jingle-jangle pop, replete with a monster melody and an even better chorus playing touch-and-go with perfectly placed harmonies. Too bad this gem shares a CD with a song as relentlessly annoying as "The Way."

Fave Reissue: Bob Dylan, Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (Columbia/Legacy) The oft-bootlegged, much-discussed confrontation of an artist trying to evolve against the will of his adoring fans. This document of Dylan gone electric is so legendary it's almost a letdown. Almost.

Fave Local CD: See above, number four. Also boffo: The Man in the Moon, the debut effort from Tempe art-noisers Sleepwalker, who mesh curious sounds and hard-cornered melodies akin to a more lively Dead Can Dance. Still waiting: the debut of Pharoahs 2000.

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."

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."

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.

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.

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."

7. Rialto, Rialto (Sire) Burped up from the late, great Kinky Machine are English press darlings Rialto, who in their cocksure suits and tidy coifs manage bucketfuls of masterful pop tying in bits of Pulp, Zombies and the Jam.

Very English, then; but they did style the best three minutes all year in "Hard Candy."

8. The Candyskins, Death of a Minor TV Celebrity (Velvel) The 'Skins' best, and not just because of a glorified sense of irony (how else does one do power-pop anymore?) but because of a greater hook-to-shite ratio: 11 songs here; two out and out blow turds, two sink with Britpop pretenses, and the rest define the inspiration to want to pick up the guitar and learn songwriting. Good batting average, these days.

The autobiographical "Going Nowhere" has this season's most boss verse, best describing the feelings of being in a rock band when nobody cares about rock bands anymore: "Going nowhere/Someone try and stop me/Can't fake it any longer/Took so long to come this far." Hats off.

9. The Queers, Punk Rock Confidential (Hopeless) Yeah! This calendar year's best slab o' merriment to send ya through the roof and over rectangles of suburban rooftops with a grinning visage, contorted torso and flailing appendages--jus' like loud punk rawk is supposed ta. Plenty of Ramones nods ("Everything's O.K." reverses Ramones' "Go all the Way"), Rancid digs ("Rancid Motherfucker") and '60s icon bashing ("Mrs. Brown, You've Got an Ugly Daughter") to add to the tropospheric frolic. Have three chords, will travel.

10. Evelyn Forever, Lost in the Supermarket (The Airplay Label) Really (and queerly) what ya got is a quartet of semi-nerdy New Jerseyites born in and of '70s dreamin', thinkin' The Motors, Badfinger, Pilot and later, Material Issue ("Baby Blue" and "Spin" are pure Jim Ellison). When they sing "I've got a crush on you" over 1-5-4 pop chords, you can just see their porcelain white skin scrubbed to a sheen, their innocence immaculate and conceivable; like they don't know kids ain't writin' or buyin' songs like this anymore. All the more reason . . .

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