1998 was a strange year. It was a year of overrated artists and just plain bad taste. What foolishness that goes down in the mainstream usually goes right by without my notice. But I can’t help but notice when normally respectable critics with supposedly decent taste start talking about tripe like Jay-Z, Master P and their cronies as if they’re anything better than sub-Puff Daddy industry parasites. And what’s up with Hole and Elliott Smith? They’re not horrible albums, in fact they’re fairly good. But people act like they did something astounding, which is just not true. Even accounting for a certain variance in preference in taste, I am certain there at least fifty albums that are empirically better. I can at least somewhat understand what’s behind the biggest phenomenon of the year. The world has not enjoyed a true soul diva of undeniably divine talent and power like Nina Simone, Irma Thomas, Etta James, Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin since, well, Aretha. When I heard that The Fugees’ Lauryn Hill was coming out with a solo album, I too had high expectations. She was young, hip, talented, and displayed a good taste and knowledge of history that was unusual for her young age. Yet anyone who thinks she fulfilled that promise with her first album are deluding themselves. There are no great songs, a handful of good ones, and a bunch of mediocre ones that are at best boring, and at worst, suffering from that horrible style of warbling that got popular some time in the 80s that some people mistake for soulful. Sure, she towers over musical munchkins like Monica, Mia X, Brandy, Lil’ Kim, Lil’ Mo et al. But five years from now her first album is going to be forgotten.
On a positive note, some of the great albums that were ignored did not go away. It’s not too late to sell the dogs down at the used CD store and get some gems. Other than the Lauryn Hill mistake, there has been little consensus in the critic polls as to what those gems were, but I can bet you’ll find most of those somewhere on my list. My own top choices will not agree with everyone’s taste, but I think I can guarantee that any regular visitor of Fast ‘n’ Bulbous could find at least a dozen out of fifty to rock their world. While there was no barnstorming or groundbreaking, it was nevertheless another good year to have ears.
- Arto Lindsay * Noon Chill (Bar/None)In 1997 Arto Lindsay made a big critical splash with the one-two punch of Mundo Civilizado and the remix album Hyper Civilizado. Noon Chill confirms that he’s on a creative roll. With career-stalling two and three year periods of dead air becoming all too common, it’s refreshing to see someone crank out albums every year for a change. On this album, Lindsay turns up the acoustic, relaxed tropical warmth of the previous album to a scorching, funky jungle hoedown. He features pretty much the same all-star band, including bassist Melvin Gibbs, legendary jazz percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, Vinicius Cantuaria and guest singer Sussan Deyhim. Rather than just a group of sidemen, they have truly gelled into a bona fide band, completely in sync with each other. His production work with Carlinhos Brown’s alfaGAMAbetiZADO must have inspired him to add much sassier rhythm arrangements. This is Lindsay’s career masterpiece. Here’s hoping he takes his hot band on the road and tear the roof off the mother earth.
- PJ Harvey * Is This Desire? (Island)Around the time To Bring You My Love came out, Polly Jean Harvey expressed restlessness with the restrictions of “rock ‘n’ roll.” This is a common symptom of many ambitious artists – one that leads either to failure in excess (Prog Rock, for example), or groundbreaking success. Given what she said, I expected her new music to be a psychedelic kaleidoscope of musical experimentation. What she produced was something more akin to a stark black and white photo, featuring mainly two textures – quiet, acoustic-driven ballads, and songs laced with electronica, but maintaining a harsh edge. The songs do not unfold as immediately as some of her older, catchier work, causing the fickle and impatient to abandon ship. But repeated listens reveal an intense, enduring and cohesive statement that moves laterally rather than leaping forward. The biggest change is her move from first person narrative to third person fictional. Like all great fiction, these stories are told with passion and conviction, leaving no doubt the inherent truths embedded in them. Highlights include the sweeping emotions of “The River,” the quietly powerful “Catherine” and the subtle beauty of “The Wind.” “Angelene” might be an affectionate tribute to her musical soulmate and ex-lover Nick Cave. Even “difficult listening” songs like “Joy” and “The Sky Lit Up” are vividly memorable. Is This Desire? cements PJ Harvey’s status as one of the most vital musical artists of the 90s.
- The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion * Acme (Matador/Capitol)For those of you who missed the funk on their last album, the punk-heavy Now I Got Worry, Acme follows up their groove on 1994’s brilliant Orange. For a band accused of being anachronistic, they have taken a fresh recording approach that will set a blueprint for countless bands to follow. In January they recorded the basic tracks with Steve Albini. Then they invited, among others, Dan Nakamura, a.k.a. the Automator, producer of Spencer’s favorite recent hip-hop album, Dr. Octagon’s Dr. Octagonecologyst to produce and mix. Then they took the tapes and holed up at Greene St. Studio (birthplace of classics from Kurtis Blow, L.L. Cool J and Public Enemy). Certainly you can hear influences — a bit of a Booker T. & the MGs riff on “Magical Colors,” some Sly & the Family Stone, Isley Brothers, old school hip hop. But in contrast to the fascinatingly fragmented Experimental Remixes EP, it all comes out in one coherent piece. The Blues Explosion has always been about moments, like “Baby, baby you sure like to F***!” My favorite moment on this record is when they suddenly switch from trademark Blues Explosion rock-out to the syrupy-smooth doo-wop oohs, ahs, soulful squeals, wails, a human beatbox, all asking the penultimate question, “Do You Wanna Get HEAVY?” Why yes, Mr. Spencer. Yes I do.
- Asian Dub Foundation * Rafi’s Revenge (London)The Asian Dub Foundation are loosely associated with a European scene called the “Asian Underground.” They released the import-only Facts And Fictions in 1995, and contributed a track to Star Rise, a remix project of songs by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. They are essentially unknown in America, despite having released the most most audacious monster of a political punk album since Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. The band formed in 1993 when bassist/tabla player Aniruddha [Dr.] Das and DJ John Pandit [G] met 15-year-old Bengali rapper Deedar [Master D] Zaman while working at a summer workshop designed to teach Asian children about music technology. They were subjects of the documentary Identical Beat, and began blowing minds at live shows when Steve Chandra Savale joined and added his distorted sitar-like guitar style, and dancer Sun-J contributed his “radical movements.” Out of a provocative mixture of early Gang Of Four, Public Image Ltd., dancehall ‘n’ dub reggae, rap, metal, techno, drum ‘n’ bass, classical Indian and Bengali folk, they form a distinct sound. Bands like Fun-Da-Mental shoot for a similar effect, but their crackpot conspiracy-theory lyrics are too often cartoonish and embarrassing. ADF meld their influences with more finesse, and their spiritualism adds dignity to their anger. There are certainly no shortage of beefs. “Free Satpal Ram” is about a person unjustly imprisoned by the British. “Assassin” is about the story of Mohammed Singh Azad who avenged the 1919 Amritsar Massacre. Not to mention the alarming amount of anti-Asian violence in Britain. The clash of global cultures will continue to create friction. But with the negative also comes benefits, like the Asian Dub Foundation, who have already provided the soundtrack for the next millenium.
- Tom Ze * Fabrication Defect (Luaka Bop)With cover art that recalls the classic Funkadelic covers drawn by Pedro Bell, Fabrication Defect picks up the ball where George Clinton dropped it in the ’80s in battling the “placebo syndrome,” a condition where people become robotic, and decidedly unfunky due to bad music and worse politics. “Esteticar” is a twisted samba that clearly illustrates his mission statement: “Hold on to your seats milord/The mulatto baiao/(he’s blacktie-ing himself)/tuxedo-izes himself in/the Esthetic of /the Arrastao.” While there are plenty of traditional choruses, rhythms and melodies, there are also instances of dissonant weirdness that may be jarring for the average listener, not unlike early Captain Beefheart. Like Beefheart, Tom Ze weaves his political concerns through a wreath of irreverent riddles, ironic humor and playful, nonsensical language. The overwhelming impression left by listening to Fabrication Defect is whimsical fun and buoyant beauty. Much of the album is accessible. You don’t need to know Portuguese to appreciate the sounds of the lovely language, and the lyrics are translated on the sleeve notes. You’ll find some moments so breathtaking that you’ll want to learn Portuguese, such as in “Juventude Jovali” – “The wine of open legs/soaks the offerings on the altar/screams, sperm and handcuffs/The fury of pure lavender.” The gorgeous, shimmering guitar of “Curiosidade” transcends language barriers, and “Emere” evokes expressionist violins that could have come out of sessions for Van Dyke Park’s 1968 album Song Cycle. The album closes with “Xiquexique,” a mesmerizing techno-accordion odyssey that stretches from Andalucia, Spain to rural Louisiana. For the uninitiated, the best introduction to Ze’s magical world would have been the 1990 collection of his 70s work, Best Of Tom Ze: Massive Hits. Unfortunately it is currently out of print. Either way, Fabrication Defect is a necessity, one of the best releases of the year. And hopefully just the beginning of Ze’s revitalized career.
- Beck * Mutations (DGC)Record company and management claims that this Mutations is not a “real” followup to Odelay are misleading. This is lightyears beyond the half-assed roll in the roots of One Foot In The Grave. Any doubts of Beck’s genius have been settled now that he has emerged from behind his layered pastiche of samples with songwriting like a bantam boxer in peak form. While the album was recorded in relatively quick fashion for Beck, two weeks was plenty of time to create a fully realized, fully produced album rich with spacey keyboard effects, sitars and orchestration arranged by his father. Produced by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead’s OK Computer) this is anything but lo-fi. The post-ragtime piano blues of “O-Maria” evokes early Randy Newman. In fact, much of the album sounds like it could have been produced by Lenny Waronker (Newman, Ry Cooder, Van Dyke Parks), who happens to be the father of drummer Joey Waronker. The droney raga of “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” is one of Beck’s most original accomplishments. “Tropicalia” is a flawless tribute to the Brazillian movement of the 60s [see Tom Ze review]. “Cold Brains” wouldn’t have sounded out of place sung by Kurt Cobain, and rivals his best writing. The songs blend into a timeless, drowsy, pretty, low-key country blues flow that seems to end before you’re ready. But wait, there’s more! The album closes with a hidden, heavily psychedelic “Diamond Bollocks,” which shows off his tight and muscular touring band. With very little fanfare, almost anti-fanfare, Beck has accidentally produced a classic.
- Cornelius * Fantasma (Matador)Had Beck grown up in Japan, he might have sounded something like Cornelius (a.k.a. Keigo Oyamada). At home he is a well-known producer and runs the record label Trattoria, where he released 1994’s The First Question Award and 69/96 a year later. Fantasma is his first American release. He follows Tom Ze’s philosophy of appropriating anything and everything, seamlessly melding high beauty to low trash. Kraftwerk cyborg voices tapdance with cartoon bunnies. 80’s-style Dinosaur Jr. guitar noise merges with My Bloody Valentine via Beach Boys harmonies in “New Music Machine.” Dinky toy organ sounds and cocktail rhythms segue into melodies Billy Corgan would sell his soul for in “Clash.” The songs skitter all over the place, creating an aural carnival joyride where you don’t know what will happen next. Which, if you have the glass-half-full perspective, is a lot like life.
- Outkast * Aquamini (LaFace)While everybody was paying attention to rappers poofing out their chests like little birds and boasting about their benjamins, Atlanta, Georgia’s Outkast snuck up from behind with their third album under their arms to become the best hip-hop band in the world. God knows why it has taken nearly twenty years for hip-hop to develop a gritty groove that can stand next to the best of 70s southern-fried soul and funk, but be grateful that it has happened at all. Outkast are on the scene, ready to pimp-slap all the wanna-be’s and throw down the real deal. The album warms up with Dre and Big Boi’s signature staccato rap flows on “Hold On, Be Strong.” On “Rosa Parks” the rhymes reflect a sense of humor, but also a sort of melancholy wisdom. But it’s the music that truly sets them apart, as demonstrated when the album kicks into overdrive with a trio of the title track, “Synthesizer” (featuring the falsetto contributions of Pappy Dr. Funkenstein, George Clinton) and “Slump.” The true peak of the album is the stunning slow-jam of “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” a tribute of sorts to Isaac “Chef” Hayes that transcends his “Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic” with mournful yet sexy horn charts. “When I first met my SpottieOttieDopaliscious Angel/I can remember that damn thang like yesterda/The way she moved reminded me of a Brown Stallion horse with skates on/Smooth like a hot comb on nappy ass hair/I walked up on her and was almost paralyzed/Her neck was smellin sweeter than a plate of yams with extra syrup/Eyes beaming like four carats apiece just blindin a nigga/Felt like I chiefed a whole “O” of that Presidential/My heart was beating so damn fast/Never knowing this moment would bring another life into this world/Funny how shit come together sometimes [ya dig].” What more can I say? “Go and marinate on that for a minute.”
- Pram * North Pole Radio Station (Merge)Pram could have made the perfect soundtrack to the dark, surrealistic movie “The City of Lost Children.” Full of vivid colors and nightmarish Suessian apparitions, the movie is the visual equivalent to Pram’s music. Formed in Birmingham, England in 1990, they gradually distinguished themselves from former Too Pure labelmates Stereolab and Laika by using children’s toys to create homemade instruments to supplement their electronic-laced cinematic pop. Add Rosie Cuckston’s eerie voice and a homemade theramin, glockenspiels, glass hammers and triangles, you have a sound that is simultaneously old-fashioned and futuristic, like a plutonium-powered cyborg made of discarded limbs and heads of toy dolls. The stuff bad, bad childhood dreams are made of. Except they change things around with the jazzy “The Cockwork Lighthouse” and “Sleepy Sweet,” which could be an honest-to-goodness lullaby, batteries not included.
- Lucinda Williams * Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (Mercury)Much fuss has been made of how long Lucinda Williams takes to record albums. This is only her fourth album since her 1979 debut. But if none of her albums have any bad songs, then she ends up with more good songs than lesser artists who have released over a dozen albums. This is the type of country-folk that can so easily become overproduced schlock, dripping with trite lyrics and self-pity. Williams is a rare artist who seems invulnerable to such dangers. Her songs cover the familiar territory of heartache heartbreak and more heartache. Yet the storytelling is so compelling and vivid, you forget about cliches and become part of her world. You sympathize with her regret, laugh at memories and feel her pain. Amazingly, the years of reworking and re-recording these songs result in an effortless feel, as though the slide guitars and accordians are being played right on your back porch. Even if this rootsy music isn’t your bag, it’s hard not to fall for the lovely lilt of her Louisiana-accented voice. The appeal of perfect songs like “Concrete And Barbed Wire” is so universal that your grandparents might waltz to it while your tattooed punk-rock little sister cries to it. If she can top this songwriting, I don’t care if it’s ten years until her next album – it’ll be worth the wait.
- Cat Power * Moon Pix (Matador)Like Rebecca Gates’ The Spinanes, Cat Power is the alias for the Southern bred solo artist Chan Marshall. As a high school dropout opening up for Liz Phair in New York, she met Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and Two Dollar Guitar’s Tim Foljahn, who backed her on her first two indie albums. She drew attention on 1996’s What Would The Community Think? for her raw, almost uncomfortably emotional songs. This time around her music is still barely produced, yet much more sleek, thanks partly to the instrumental mastery of The Dirty Three’s Mick Turner and Jim White. Their expressionist soundscapes are a brilliant backdrop for Marshall’s dry, breathy voice. The songs slide along at a slow crawl. If you don’t slow down your personal timescale and stop what you’re doing, the album might just creep away without your noticing it, like the moon disappearing from sight on a cloudy evening. Give it the attention it deserves, and it will reward you with the stunning atmospherics of “Say,” complemented with sounds of thunder that were integrated so subtly you might have thought it was actually storming outside, even if it’s five below zero in January. It was actually recorded in January in Australia, and you can hear the influence of the giant outback skies. A truly haunting album.
- Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postizos * The Prosthetic Cubans (Atlantic)As a founding fixture of New York’s Knitting-Factory-based scene, Marc Ribot has participated in a dizzying variety of musical projects, including the jazz of The Lounge Lizards with Arto Lindsay, and gigs with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. Just a year after similarly eclectic and skilled guitarist Ry Cooder recorded the Buena Vista Social Club album in Cuba, Ribot took a swing at it. With his band The Prosthetic Cubans, he mainly explores the compositions of one of the Son originators, Arsenio Rodriguez, fusing them with his own post-no-wave brand of abrasive jazz skronk and guitar noise, and experiments with Afro-Cuban percussion. Despite the seemingly disparate mix of styles, the results come across quite smooth and mellow. A few songs are danceable, but the rest are meant for hanging out on the beach, watching a Havana sunset with a cigar in one hand and a mixed drink as big as a house in the other.
- Neutral Milk Hotel * In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (Merge)Neutral Milk Hotel is essentially a one man band consisting of Jeff Mangum. But don’t expect any lo-fi Sebadoh bullshit. It’s a rare indie rock album that actually sweeps your emotions into a place where The Who, The Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, The Flaming Lips and psychedelic marching bands coexist in a stomping mystical church revival breakdown. The lyrics are too obtuse to decipher when examined closely, but when heard the way it’s supposed to be, they evoke a rush of early Bob Dylan intensity, and you know exactly what feelings are being expressed. It’s amazing when you realize such a grand-sounding statement was created with mainly an acoustic guitar, with a little help from his friends on organ, flugelhorn, euphonium, singing saw, accordian, zanzithophone, trombone and milleann pipes. This is ambitious, majestic music.
Top 13 Movies
- Zero Effect
- Henry Fool
- Dark City
- Smoke Signals
- Babe: Pig In The City
- The Opposite Of Sex
- Shooting Fish
- Live Flesh
- The Real Blonde
- Lawn Dogs
- Slums Of Beverly Hills
- A Bug’s Life
Love And Death on Long Island
Next Stop, Wonderland
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
The Big Lebowski
Your Friends And Neighbors
Enemy Of The State
Men With Guns
The Last Days of Disco
A Perfect Murder
The Big One (NOT the Big Hit)