Critical Mass

Twenty Salon critics pick the year's best albums.


Salon's music critics
December 24, 1998 8:41PM (UTC)

Mark Athitakis

Billy Bragg and Wilco, "Mermaid Avenue" (Elektra)

Manu Chao, "Clandestino" (Ark 21)

Vic Chesnutt, "The Salesman and Bernadette" (Capricorn)

Cornelius,
"Fantasma"
(Matador)

Bill Laswell, "Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969-1974" (Columbia)

Neutral Milk Hotel, "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" (Merge)

Ozomatli, "Ozomatli" (Almo Sounds)

Pine Valley Cosmonauts, "The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty
of Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing: Traditionalist, Avant-Gardist,
Pioneer, Magician" (Bloodshot)

Sonic Youth,
"A Thousand Leaves" (DGC)

Gillian Welch, "Hell Among the Yearlings" (Almo Sounds)

Advertisement:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Ben Auburn

Seven albums that were most disappointing (but shouldn't have been):

1. Liz Phair, "whitechocolatespaceegg" (Matador)

Sounding mostly like a gussied up version of "Whipsmart," there's
nothing exactly wrong with
"whitechocolatespaceegg," it just never seems like the rock statement we'd
hoped for.

2. Bob Mould, "Last Dog and Pony Show" (Rykodisc)

Ditto.

3. Juliana Hatfield, "Bed" (Zoe)

Better than Phair and Mould, but still lacking ... something.

4. UNKLE, "Psyence Fiction" (Full Frequency Rage)

Which 8-year-old wrote Mike D's rap?

5. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, "Acme" (Matador)

Steadfastly refuses to coalesce, a mish-mash of half-songs waiting for
some gumption.

Advertisement:

6. Tortoise, "TNT" (Thrill Jockey)

Rock gets so experimental that it becomes ... lite jazz?

7. Medeski, Martin and Wood, "Combustication" (Blue Note)

More "composed" than their last, but somehow in all that careful
scrutiny they forgot to look for a groove.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Dawn Eden

1. Frank Bango, "Fugitive Girls" (Not Lame)


Bango and his lyricist, Richy Vesecky, strive to emulate great Brill
Building songwriting teams, but their individual creativity insures that
originality reigns. There's a sense of emotional and musical depth here
that has not been heard since the days when albums were albums, not
just songs thrown together.

Advertisement:

2. Dan Kibler, "Capsule" (Big Deal)

Another superb sophomore release from another artist whom many critics
and fans unfairly lump into the power pop camp. Sure, he's got catchy hooks
up the bum, but his love for roots rock makes his sensibility closer to
bolo-tie than skinny-tie.

3. The Zombies, "Odessey and Oracle: 30th Anniversary Edition" (Big
Beat/Ace UK)


This definitive reissue of one of the greatest albums of all time,
lovingly assembled by fans, for fans, is pure pop of the highest order --
neither disposable nor superficial. Includes both the stereo and mono
versions of the album, plus a few worthy unreleased cuts, such as the
backing track to the gorgeous "Care of Cell 44."

Advertisement:

4. Julian Lennon, "Photograph Smile" (Music From Another Room)


Yup, he's back. Yup, sounds just like his father. Except that, were
John Lennon alive today, he'd be making sappy love songs with Yoko, not
dense pocket symphonies like the Badfingeresque original "Day After
Day." Released in England last June, it is set to finally emerge in the
United States in February. Even if you never liked Julian in the first
place, give (this) piece a chance.

5. Various Artists, "Nuggets" (Rhino)

Advertisement:


Rhino's expansion of Lenny Kaye's historic two-LP compilation of the
same name is the first boxed set devoted to '60s American garage rock. One
hopes it won't be the last; even with 118 songs, it's far from complete.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Hans Eisenbeis

Air, "Moon Safari" (Source)

Fatboy Slim, "You've Come a Long Way Baby" (Virgin)

The Grassy Knoll, "III" (Verve)

Medeski, Martin and Wood, "Combustication" (Blue Note)

Monster Magnet "Powertrip" (A&M)

Portishead, "PNYC, Portishead Live" (London)

Elliot Smith,
"XO"
(Dreamworks)

Soul Coughing, "El Oso" (Warner Bros.)

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, "Acme" (Matador)

Spiritualized, "Royal Albert Hall Live" (Arista)

Advertisement:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Ezra Gale

Graham Connah's Sour Note Seven, "Gurney to the Lincoln Center of Your
Mind" (Ratascan Records)

San Francisco pianist/composer produces ambitious compositions and the
hands-down best album title of the year.

The Grassy Knoll, "III" (Antilles)

Paranoid, futuristic trip-hip-hop-funk-dub sound collages.

Advertisement:

Hasidic New Wave, "Psycho-Semitic" (Knitting Factory)

If HNW's second disc is any indication, the new Jews are eclectic,
talented, not content to stick with your mom's Klezmer any more, and very,
very weird.

Virginia Rodrigues, "Sol Negro" (Hannibal)

Brazil produces yet another stunning talent, this one with an
otherworldly voice and enchantingly minimalist production.

Robert Stewart, "The Force" (Qwest/Warner Bros.)

The young tenor saxophonist's second album is a revelation -- it
sustains a deep, spiritual mood from start to finish.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Advertisement:

Michelle Goldberg

1. Hooverphonic, "Blue Wonder Power Milk" (Epic)

2. Massive Attack, "Mezzanine" (Virgin)

3. Talvin Singh, "OK" (Island)

4. Plaid, "Not For Threes" (Nothing)

5. Trumystic Sound System, "Product Three" (Mutant Sound System)

6. Black Eyed Peas, "Behind the Front" (Interscope)

7. Grooverider, "Mysteries of Funk" (Sony)

8. Rialto, "Rialto" (China Records)

9. W, "Redheadedstepchild" (ZoeMagik)

10. Various artists, "Deeper Concentration" (OM)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Andrew Hamlin

Advertisement:

1. Mary Lou Lord, "Got No Shadow" (Sony WORK Group)

2. The Loud Family, "Days For Days" (Alias)

3. Royal Trux, "Accelerator" (Drag City)

4. Velvet Crush, "Heavy Changes" (Action Musik)

5. Johnny Dowd, "Wrong Side of Memphis" (Checkered Past)

6. Willard Grant Conspiracy, "Flying Low" (Slow River)

7. Tricky, "Angels With Dirty Faces" (Island)

8. Jeff Buckley, "SKETCHES for My Sweetheart the Drunk" (Columbia)

9. Emma Townshend, "Winterland" (EastWest)


10. Two-way tie:

Jonathan Richman, "I'm So Confused" (Vapor)

Andre Williams,
"Silky" (In the Red)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Joe Heim

1. Lucinda Williams, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" (Mercury)

2. Billy Bragg and Wilco, "Mermaid Avenue" (Elektra)

3. Quasi, "Featuring Birds" (Up)

4. Virginia Rodrigues, "Sol Negro" (Hannibal)

5. Hole, "Celebrity Skin" (DGC)

6. Willie Nelson, "Teatro" (Island)

7. Mark Lanegan, "Scraps at Midnight" (Subpop)

8. Liz Phair, "whitechocolatespaceegg" (Matador)

9. Belle and Sebastian, "The Boy With the Arab Strap" (Matador)

10. Local H, "Pack Up the Cats" (Polygram)

Advertisement:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Cynthia Joyce

1. Mary Lou Lord, "Got No Shadow" (Sony WORK Group)

2. Rufus Wainwright, "Rufus Wainwright" (Dreamworks)

3. Cornelius, "Fantasma" (Matador)

4. Virginia Rodrigues, "Sol Negro" (Hannibal)

5. Edith Frost, "Telescopic" (Drag City)

6. Various Artists, "Velvet Goldmine" (Polygram)

7. Billy Bragg and Wilco, "Mermaid Avenue" (Elektra)

8. Beck, "Mutations" (DGC)

9. Cat Power, "Moon Pix" (Matador)

10. Lucinda Williams, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" (Mercury)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Stacey Kors

1. Marianne Faithfull, Vienna RSO conducted by Dennis Russell Davies,
"Weill: The Seven Deadly Sins" (BMG)

Faithfull's raspy, cigarette- and scotch-soaked baritone makes Lotte
Lenya sound like Julie Andrews. Ute Lemper, eat your heart out.

2. Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Claudio Abbado, "Verdi per due" (EMI Classics)

With more superb recordings like this one, this dynamic duo just might
go down in the opera annals as the next Callas and Di Stefano.

3. Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach, "Painted From Memory" (Mercury Records)

Bacharach's perfect pop-craft and Costello's soulful singing make for a
truly genius combo. Whoever thought of this deserves a medal.

4. Renee Fleming, English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Tate,
"The Beautiful Voice" (London Classics)

A gutsy title for an album in a market glutted with soprano solo
efforts; but it couldn't be more on the mark.

5. Herbie Hancock, "Gershwin's World" (Verve)

"Summertime" sung by Joni Mitchell, with Hancock on piano, Wayne
Shorter on sax and Stevie Wonder on harmonica. What more needs to be said?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Josh Kun

1. Rufus Wainwright, "Rufus Wainwright" (Dreamworks)

2. Lauryn Hill, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" (Columbia/Ruffhouse)

3. Cornelius, "Fantasma" (Matador)

4. Various artists, "Ethiopiques 1-4"

5. The restored soundtrack to "Touch of Evil" (Uni/Varese Sarabande)

6. Rahsaan Roland Kirk, "Aces Back to Back" (32 Jazz)

7. Manu Chao, "Clandestino" (Ark 21)

8. Various artists, "Sabroso: The Afro-Latin Groove" (WEA/Atlantic/Rhino)

9. The Coup, "Steal This Album" (Dogday)

10. Ozomatli, "Ozomatli" (Almo Sounds)

Honorable mentions: Stereo Total, "Juke-Box Alarm"; Outkast, "Aquemini"

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Lori Leibovich

1. Lucinda Williams, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" (Mercury)

2. Cat Power, "Moon Pix" (Matador)

3. Elliot Smith, "XO" (Dreamworks)

4. Quasi, "Featuring Birds'" (Up)

5. Beck, "Mutations" (DGC)

6. PJ Harvey, "Is this Desire?" (Island)

7. Hole, "Celebrity Skin" (DGC)

8. Mary Lou Lord, "Got No Shadow" (Sony WORK Group)

9. Kristin Hersh, "Strange Angels" (Rykodisc)

10. Amy Rigby, "Middlescence" (Koch)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Gavin McNett

1. Pernice Brothers, "Overcome by Happiness" (SubPop)

'70s pop AOR in the Rundgren mold -- which is generally an OK sort of
thing, but nothing worth making a fuss over ... Ah, but this one's a
monster. Craft and style like you've never heard.

2. Aluminum Group, "Plano" (Minty Fresh)

Could this mark the rise of prog-lounge pop as a serious form?

3. Three-way tie:

Refused, "The Shape of Punk to Come" (Epitaph)

The Hellacopters, "all" (White Jazz)

Rudimentary Peni, "Echoes of Anguish" (Outer Himalayan)

Build a better punk rock, and they will come.

4. Seal, "Human Being" (Warner Brothers)

Consider what a singular phenomenon Seal is, and then try to say that
the man gets his due.

5. Various Artist, "Nuggets" (Rhino)

The mind reels ...

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

John Milward

1. Lucinda Williams, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" (Mercury)

2. Lauryn Hill, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" (Columbia/Ruffhouse)

3. Olu Dara, "In the World: From Natchez to New York" (Atlantic)

4. Vince Gill, "The Key" (MCA/Nashville)

5. Lyle Lovett, "Step Inside This House" (UNI/MCA)

6. Bonnie Raitt, "Fundamental" (Capitol)

7. Jules Shear, "Between Us" (High Street)

8. Elliott Smith, "XO" (Dreamworks)

9. R.E.M., "Up" (Warner Bros.)

10. Geoff Muldaur, "The Secret Handshake" (Hightone)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Seth Mnookin

1. Billy Bragg & Wilco, "Mermaid Avenue" (Elektra)

Americana roots stalwarts Wilco and Brit socialist Bragg come up with
an album that's at once irreverent and reverential, hard-edged and
soft-cored. A sleeper and a gem that didn't get nearly as much attention as
it should have.

2. R.E.M., "Up" (Warner Bros.)

R.E.M. shows once again why they are the most important
American band of the last 20 years with an album that references
everyone from the Beach Boys ("At My Most Beautiful") to Leonard Cohen (the
aching, masterful "Hope") to the band's own "Everybody Hurts"
("Daysleeper").

3. Lucinda Williams, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" (Mercury)

A Nashville chanteuse in her 40s who averages about two albums
a decade shows you don't have to be young and beautiful and live in
Hollywood to make great music. Gritty, raw and powerful, "Car Wheels" will
be a classic for years to come.

4. Robyn Hitchcock, "Storefront Hitchcock" (Warner Bros.)

The eccentric Englishman teamed up with director Jonathan Demme to
make a concert movie that featured as much storytelling as it did singing.
The result, whether on film or on disc, is wonderful.

5. Elliott Smith, "XO" (Dreamworks)

The most memorable moment of the year was the typically grungy Smith
singing "Miss Misery," his melancholy masterpiece, at the Oscars in a white
suit. With "XO," Smith successfully builds on the understated beauty of
both his "Good Will Hunting" soundtrack and his classic "Either/Or."

Don't believe the hype:

Beastie Boys, "Hello Nasty" (Grand Royal/Columbia)

Marilyn Manson, "Mechanical Animals" (Nothing)

Jewel, "Spirit" (Atlantic)

Alanis Morissette, "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie" (WEA/Warner Bros.)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Meredith Ochs

1. Son Volt, "Wide Swing Tremolo" (Warner Bros.)

2. Steve Earle, "El Corazon" (E Squared/Warner Bros.)

3. Lucinda Williams, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" (Mercury)

4. Tom House, "This White Man's Burden" (Checkered Past)

5. Richard Buckner, "Since" (MCA)

6. Neko Case, "The Virginian" (Bloodshot)

7. Cheri Knight, "The Northeast Kingdom" (E Squared/Warner Bros.)

8. Alvin Youngblood Hart, "Territory" (Hannibal/Ryko)

9. Gillian Welch, "Hell Among the Yearlings" (Almo)

10. You Am I, "#4 Record" (RCA)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Roni Sarig

1. Lauryn Hill, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

2. OutKast, "Aquemini" (LaFace)

3. Cat Power, "Moon Pix" (Matador)

4. Billy Bragg & Wilco, "Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)

5. Neutral Milk Hotel, "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" (Merge)

6. Dana & Karen Kletter, "Dear Enemy" (Hannibal)

7. Aceyalone, "A Book of Human Language" (Project Blowed)

8. Push Kings, "Far Places" (Sealed Fate)

9. Vic Chesnutt, "The Salesman and Bernadette" (Capricorn)

10. John Zorn, "The Circle Maker" (Tzadik)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Jeff Stark

1. Beck, "Mutations" (DGC)

2. Elliott Smith, "XO" (Dreamworks)

3. Neutral Milk Hotel, "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" (Merge)

4. Sue Garner, "To Run More Smoothly" (Thrill Jockey)

5. PJ Harvey, "Is This Desire?" (Island)

6. Cornelius, "Fantasma," (Matador)

7. Tom Zi, "Fabrication Defect Com Defeito De Fabricagco"
(Luaka Bop)

8. Lucinda Williams, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" (Mercury)

9. Two-way tie:

The Push Kings, "Far Places" (Sealed Fate)

The Aislers Set,
"Terrible Things Happen" (Slumberland Records)

10. The Eels, "Electro-Shock Blues" (Dreamworks)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Charles Taylor

1. Sarge, "The Glass Intact" (Mud)

2. Bob Dylan, "The Bootleg Series Volume 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966 (The
'Royal Albert Hall' Concert)"
(Columbia Legacy)

3. Hole, "Celebrity Skin" (DGC)

4. Billy Bragg and Wilco, "Mermaid Avenue" (Elektra)

5. Pulp, "This Is Hardcore" (Island)

6. Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, "Painted From Memory" (Mercury)

7. Mary Lou Lord, "Got No Shadow" (Columbia)

8. Lauryn Hill, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" (Columbia/Ruffhouse)

9. Don Walser, "Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In" (Sire/Watermelon)

10. Saint Etienne, "Good Humor" (Sub Pop)

Honorable Mentions: Belle & Sebastian, "The Boy With the Arab Strap";
PJ Harvey, "Is This Desire?"; Eliza Carthy, "Red/Rice"; The Spinanes,
"Arches and Aisles."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Douglas Wolk

1. Boredoms, "Super ae" (Birdman)

2. Various Artists, "James Brown's Original Funky Divas" (Polydor
Chronicles)

3. Birdyak, live in London, Jan. 20

4. Primal Scream/My Bloody Valentine Arkestra, "If They Move Kill 'Em"
(5-inch) (Creation UK)

5. The Fall, live and violent at Brownies, New York City, April 7

6. Chris Watson, "Outside the Circle of Fire" (Touch UK)

7. The entire Terrastock II festival, San Francisco, April 17-19

8. Sharon Jones, "You Better Think Twice" (7-inch) (Desco)

9. Pelt, "For Michael Hannas" (VHF)

10. Various Artists, "Ethiopiques 3" (Buda Musique France)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Stephanie Zacharek

Belle & Sebastian, "The Boy With the Arab Strap" (Matador)

Billy Bragg & Wilco, "Mermaid Avenue" (Elektra)

Cadallaca, "Introducing Cadallaca" (K)

Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, "Painted From Memory" (Mercury)

Bob Dylan, "Bob Dylan Live 1966 (The 'Royal Albert Hall' Concert)"
(Columbia)

Lauryn Hill, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" (Ruffhouse)

Hole, "Celebrity Skin" (DGC)

Sarge, "The Glass Intact" (Mud)

St. Etienne, "Good Humor" (Sub Pop)

Don Walser, "Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In" (Sire/Watermelon)


Salon's music critics

MORE FROM Salon's music critics

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Academia Music

BROWSE SALON.COM
COMPLETELY AD FREE,
FOR THE NEXT HOUR

Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address

•••






Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •