was a very dismal year for mass marketed popular music. Cruise down the list
of Billboard’s Top 50 Albums of 1998 and you’ll find mostly bland,
conformist sounds reflecting the dominant currents of a degraded social and
From chart topping divas such
as Celine Dion, Shania Twain, and Mariah Carey and near bubblegummers ‘N
Sync and Backstreet Boys came soothing romantic/sexual wallpaper covering over
the complexities of real life relationships. It was a year in which the
soundtrack mementos of blockbuster movies (Armageddon, City Of Angels, Hope
Floats) stuck to the charts and turned multi-platinum record sales.
Hip-hop bad men continued to peddle the glories of the thug life to a growing
mass audience composed mostly of youthful white suburbanites. Country music superstar Garth
Brooks proved he could still sell gargantuan amounts of records by dressing
over country music in the banal rags of soppy pop and 1970s rock.
With alternative rock now
securely nailed in its coffin, no next big thing on the horizon, and major
star bands such as REM, Pearl Jam, Hole, and Smashing Pumpkins showing
disappointing record sales, the world of rock music was commercially and
Although the “rock is
dead” hype seems premature for a genre that still commands one-third of
music sales, statistics from the Recording Industry of America show the rock
music market share has slipped more than 10 percent over the last decade.
While some of this drop can be attributed to the aging of boomer era music
buyers, it also seems clear that rock is losing younger music listeners.
In the past year, adolescent
turmoil still found its voice in the confrontational guitar-driven howl of
Korn and the tuneful, popish sounds of bands like Semisonic and Matchbox 20.
But the party and dance sounds of rocked-up swing and ska surged into the
popular music mainstream mixing up hip, fun, and nostalgia for a generation
weary of the angst and gloom of hard rock. The ebbing loyalty of the rock
audience was most evident in the pop culture dominance of hip-hop. With no less than 10 hip-hop
records ranked in the Top 30, and beat-driven sounds fueling movie
soundtracks, R&B, TV commercials, high school fashion, and emerging
strains of rock, the pre-eminent pop trend of the year was easily hip-hop.
With a dazzling array of fat, bumping beats, ingenious production, and gritty
street anthem rhymes, rap is becoming the all pervasive sound that rock once
The rising commercial clout
of hip-hop, however, doesn’t equate with artistic integrity and innovation.
Hip-hop, no less than any other mass media entertainment, is given to
recycling and copy-catting as a means of safely maximizing profits. Though the
music is still throwing up independent voices, the genre as a whole has become
predictable and cliched: over and over again the boasts of killing, sex,
money, and garish consumption. Hardly a three dimensional portrait of black
youth, let alone the black community, but for now a marketing plan busting up
a very drab hit parade.
So where does one go to hear
sounds that are adventurous and entertaining, as well as personally and
politically challenging. For the most part, in 1998, these sounds were not
chart makers. Here’s my list of some of the good stuff. For things
previously reviewed in these pages, there’s a little less description.
Lauryn Hill, The
Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill
An amazing record that raised
the standard of hip-hop several notches by wedding stunning production to a
heartfelt statement of personal and social politics.
Bob Dylan, Live 1966:
The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert
The legendary live document
capturing a pivotal moment in folk vs. rock politics and Dylan at the top of
his game. The acoustic set is gorgeous, but the sparks that fly when Dylan
plugs in produce some of the greatest rock and roll ever recorded.
Lucinda Williams, Car
Wheels On A Gravel Road (Mercury)
Heartbreak, loss, and
resiliency laid over southern roots music and geography.
Billy Bragg And Wilco,
Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)
A treasure of unheard Woody
Guthrie lyrics given fitting folk and alt country arrangements and sung with
sensitivity and conviction.
Rufus Wainwright, Rufus
Dreamy, wistful songs of
romantic longing that could have come from the golden era of George Gershwin
and Cole Porter.
Ani Difranco, Little
Castle (Righteous Babe)
PJ Harvey, Is This
Two singer-writers whose
sexual politics claw at the norms of our time. Difranco’s probings come with
a stance against the power relations of capitalist society as a whole. Harvey
is more cryptic and creepy as she obsesses about the twisted social
constructions of desire.
One of the most exciting
trends of the year was the rise (in the face of anti-immigrant hysteria) of
various Latin fusion sounds in California. Ozomatli is at the leading edge of
this youth movement pulling from funk, rock, salsa and hip-hop to create a
steaming cauldron of protest and dance. Also to be watched and heard: Quetzal,
Yeska, B-Side Players, and Quinto Sol.
Black Star, Mos Def And
Talib Kweli Are… (Rawkus)
Asia Dub Foundation,
Rafi’s Revenge (Phase 4/London)
Hard beat driven sounds with
music and rhyme that don’t cater to the redundancies of big time hip-hop.
Massive Attack plows slow reggae grooves with bursts of screaming rock guitar
and hellish nightmares of the street. The dynamic duo known as Black Star give
you black life and politics not saturated with dope dealing and gangstas.
England’s “foremost political pop group,” the Indi-Pakistani band known
as Asian Dub Foundation knife class/race tensions with blunt righteous
Jeff Buckley, Sketches
For My Sweetheart The Drunk
Richard Buckner, Since
The great passionate voice
and searching soul of Jeff Buckley were stilled way too soon. This rough draft
for an album turned out to be his sad, aching and beautiful farewell. Buckner
walks the dark backroads of folk and country, a kindred spirit of Buckley,
shining a light for love and meaning in a world gone wrong.
Rancid, Life Won’t
The mark of Sandanista-era
Clash is etched deep in this record, but it’s a legacy extended not
Contact From The World Of Redboy (Capitol)
Although Robertson’s name
is on it, the many Indian voices and talents contributing to Redboy make this
a collective protest from late 20th century Native America.
Lyle Lovett, Step
Inside This House (Curb/MCA)
Songs of some of the Lone
Star State’s finest songwriters (Guy Clark, Walter Hyatt, Townes Van Zandt,
Robert Earl Keen) delivered through exquisite arrangements and the soulful
voice of another pretty fair Texas singer-writer. Various Artists,
Treasures Left Behind: Remembering Kate Wolf (Red House)
Magnificent translations of
the healing songs of the late California singer-songwriter by a who’s who (Nanci
Griffith, Lucinda Williams, Greg Brown, Emmylou Harris, Dave Alvin, U. Utah
Phillip, Rosalie Sorrels, and more) of the folk/roots world.
Various Artists, Los
Super Seven (RCA)
Traditions of Mexican music
by an all-star cast including David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Flaco Jiminez,
Freddy Fender, and Rueben Ramos.
Dave Alvin, Blackjack
Another remarkable collection
of songs about working class America from a great and grossly underappreciated
Various Artists, The
Songs Of Pete Seeger (Appleseed
A 2-CD tribute to a folk
music giant from a sterling array of singers and writers who share in his
humanistic and radical social vision.
Dock Boggs, Dock Boggs:
His Folkway Years 1963-1968 (Smithsonian Folkways)
Not as stark and unhinged as
his recordings of the late 1920s (available on Revenant’s Dock Boggs:
Country Blues), these Folkways tracks are nonetheless essential to anyone
interested in hearing the haunting and troubled vernacular roots of so many
strains of American music.
James King, Bed By The
Ralph Stanley &
Friends, Clinch Mountain Country
King is a hardcore mountain
soul singer who lays out the unvarnished emotions of sad tunes with
breathtaking lonesomeness. One of the great voices of traditional bluegrass.
The legendary Ralph Stanley’s 2-CD collection offers 36 stirring duets with
some of the best and brightest of country, folk, and bluegrass (Gillian Welch,
Dwight Yoakam, Dylan, George Jones, BR5-49, Alison Krauss, and Ricky Skaggs,
to mention a few).
Heather Myles, Highways
& Honky Tonks (Rounder)
Emmylou Harris, Spyboy
Heather Myles is a great
breath of fresh air in country music. Scramble up Tammy Wynette with bits of
Gram Parsons-flavored country rock, tex-mex, and Bakersfield and you come out
with a rollicking, bold voice that burns near everything coming out of
Nashville. According support and admiration, Merle Haggard shows up for a
duet, but Myles carries this set with solid songwriting and tough, self-
assured twang. One of the pioneers of alternative space for country women,
Emmylou Harris is now so deviant, major labels don’t know what to make of
her. So she starts her own label and makes one of the most daring albums of
Alvin Youngblood Hart,
A younger generation of black
acoustic blues players is beginning to revitalize rural traditions, but Hart
is the one stretching toward the most original voice in his blend of blues
roots with other assorted strains of Americana.
Susan Tedeschi, Just
Won’t Burn (Rounder)
Her influences are still too
obvious (Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, and Stevie Ray Vaughan), but Susan
Tedeschi has the vocal and guitar fire to leave her own singular mark on the
world of blues rock.
B.B. King, Blues On The
B.B. cuts away routine and
production gloss and rediscovers the soul and sting of his inimitable blues.
Junior Kimbrough, God
Knows I Tried (Fat Possum/Epitaph)
North Mississippi’s great
master of dark groove slash and trance passed on this year, but left behind
this last raw testament to his greatness.
Jimmy Witherspoon, Jazz
Me Blues: The Best Of Jimmy Witherspoon (Prestige)
No promotional fanfare for
this compilation, but a marvelous selection of jazz-styled blues by an
extraordinary singer backed by extraordinary musicians.
Otis Rush, Any Place
I’m Going (House Of Blues/
Since the days of his classic
Cobra recordings of the 1950s, Otis Rush has been an erratic performer live
and on record. But here, with a little Memphis horn support directed by
producer Willie Mitchell, Rush recovers the flaming guitarwork and anguished
vocal cry that boiled over in West Side Chicago.
Patricia Barber, Modern
How to describe such an
original musician? Vocally she brings to mind Joni Mitchell and Ani Difranco.
As a pianist think of keyboardist Bill Evans and the warped guitar of Bill
Frissell. The jazz breakthrough of the year. Cecil Taylor, The Tree
Of Life (FMP)
A solo concert capturing the
piano genius in a quieter, pensive mood. Still the notes cascade from a stormy
sea of complex harmonic, rhythm, and melody improvisations that demand as much
as they give.
Linton Kwesi Johnson,
Independent Intavenshan: The Island Anthology (Island)
The incendiary reggae dub
poetry and radical politics of Linton Kwesi Johnson get their due on this best
of collection spanning work from the 1980s to the 1990s. Class, race,
capitalism, and imperialism subject to a fierce critique and the angry,
steady, thumping pulse of the street.
Jesus Alemany and band keep
pushing Afro-Cuban dance music to new heights and a broad world audience.
Ernest Ranglin, In
Search Of The Lost Riddim
Legendary Jamaican guitarist
joins with Senegalese singer Baaba Maal to produce a liquid mix of rhythm and
David Sanchez, Obsession
The 29-year-old Puerto Rican
saxophonist brings his native influences into this powerful melding of jazz
and Latin traditions. A huge talent on the rise. John Zorn’s Masada,
Concepts of early Ornette
Coleman meet Jewish folk melodies through Zorn’s fiery free styled alto sax
and a brilliant supporting cast of trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen,
and drummer Joey Baron.
Payton’s Place (Verve)
James Carter, In A
Cartesian Fashion (Atlantic)
Medeski, Martin &
Wood, Combustication (Blue Note)
The strongest links betwen
the jazz tradition and new, younger listeners are always forged by younger
players.Nicholas Payton plays a wide-ranging program of bop and post-bop
sounds in a superb blowing session featuring young lions Roy Hargrove, Joshua
Redman, and Tim Warfield, along with guest mentor Wynton Marsalis. Muliti-instrumentalist
James Carter, who enjoys applying his talents to virtually all periods and
schools of jazz, this time takes off on organ-based groove tunes. Which is a
starting point for the organ, drums, bass trio known as Medeski, Martin &
Wood. But in their case tradition gets an outrageous impure make-over built
upon electronica, funk, rock, gospel, free jazz, and assorted other musical
elements. Shapes of jazz to come.
Hank Williams, The
Complete Hank Williams (Mercury)
10 CDs, 225 tracks, 53 of
them previously unreleased, this is the most holy legacy in country music. All
the official releases are here, along with demos, radio, television, concert
performances, essays, 150 photos, hand-written lyrics, session information,
Various Artists, From
Where I Stand: The Black Experience In Country Music (Warner Bros.)
A long needed 3-CD history
lesson tracing African American country music from string bands, Leadbelly,
and Opry star Deford Bailey up through the soul-inflected interpretations of
Ray Charles, the Staple Singers, and Al Green to the straight-ahead twang of
John Lennon, The John
Lennon Anthology (Capitol)
These two 4-CD compilations
are meant for serious fans rather than casual listeners looking for hits. The
Lennon box is previously unreleased studio, demo, live, and home recordings
covering his ten year solo career from 1970 to 1980. The brilliant raw cuts of
material later included on Lennon’s two greatest studio albums, Plastic
Ono Band and Imagine, provide the most wrenching moments. But
everything that follows rounds out the human being—contradictions,
vulnerabilities, idealism, and genius—millions embrace and miss. Perhaps a
third of the previously unreleased Springsteen set shows an artist struggling
with ideas and tunes that would later find more powerful expression. But at
least 40 tracks contain the great yearning heart and noble vision of
Springsteen at his near best. Disc 4, in fact, stands on its own as one of
Bruce’s strongest albums since Born In The USA.
Various Artists, Jazz
Compiled by Robert G.
O’Meally, a Zora Neale Hurston Professor of Literature at Columbia, this
5-CD box set collects the expected essential voices of jazz singing (Bessie
Smith, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll
Morton), along with lesser knowns (Al Hibbler, Billy Eckstein, Johnny
Hartman), and the jazz influenced (Al Green, Marvin Gaye). But look who’s
left out: Chet Baker, Mose Allison, Haddah Brooks, Carol Sloane, Andy Bey, and
so many more. Nonetheless, for a tradition so neglected and undervalued, this
package is the introductory standard.