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The best sounds of 1998

By Dave Chamberlain

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  With an approaching Millennial change, the endless lists that detail the best 100 "X" of the century have become so commonplace and artificially controversial that the keyboard burns my fingertips as I endeavor to create my own list. Thusly burned, I present the best Chicago records of 1998. (Note: order is alphabetical, without regard to "the best.")

The Adjusters, "Before the Revolution" (Moon Ska Records)
"Before the Revolution" has some direct ska songs, but the strength of the record lies in its integration of soul, R & B, reggae and vocal talent. Lead singer Daraka Kenric has one of the most powerful, from-the-heart voices this side of James Brown, and it's augmented by horns and music that don't drown his voice. This is an adrenaline-pumping, out-of-control good time record, and I bet I've listened to track five, "The Fight Back Part One," 300 times.

All Natural, "No Additives, No Preservatives" (self-produced)
The two-man team of Capital D and Tone B. Nimble released a premiere underground hip-hop record, and it comes with a cool-ass comic book/social commentary penned by Capital D. "No Additives, No Preservatives" runs the hip-hop gamut, starting with the bass-kicking, crisply-rapped "Fresh Air," then slowing it down for several tracks and integrating extremely articulate knowledge and rhyming patterns.

Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire, "Thrills" (Rykodisc)
Actually recorded in 1997, smooth crooner Bird did it right and took his time releasing "Thrills." The resulting combination of hot jazz, calypso and ragtime is addictive, made stronger by Bird's Sinatra-like voice and virtuoso violin playing. Far from just a rehash of early-twentieth-century music, Bird's musical training and love of various folk musics makes every nineties swing band seem juvenile and pathetically devoid of creativity. Bird was received well nationally, so don't expect a flash in the pan.

Blacks, "Dolly Horrorshow" (Bloodshot)
Long awaited in this column, the Blacks' debut record "Dolly Horrorshow" didn't disappoint. The addition of guitarist Nora O'Conner really brought these aggressive country rockers (or passive punk rockers, depending on your mood) together, freeing Danny Black from an overload of guitar duties and bringing his perfectly-pitched and balanced voice to the forefront. The Blacks live show is like a bottle of 100-year-old port; it tastes so good you want to slam it, but to not enjoy every drought is a waste. And fortunately, this translated to "Dolly Horrorshow."

Cash Money, "Halos of Smoke and Fire" (Touch and Go)
Absolutely ass-kicking, hide-chapping, deep-fried western and from-the-heart rock 'n' roll from the two-man team of guitarist John Humphrey and drummer/frying pan player Scott Giampino. Humphrey's bluesy, loud-as-fuck guitar style defines what rock should be, and Giampino's tempered but aggressive drumming gives Cash Money the impact of an early punk band. This is their second great record, and when I can't decide what to listen to, I inevitably look for the Money.

Bobby Conn, "Rise Up" (Truckstop/Atavistic)
The ultra-eccentric Bobby Conn took an about face on his second record, moving from out-of-control wacko on his first record to perfect pop composer on "Rise Up," a concept album that just screams David Bowie. Conn's voice should be a bigtime selling point, his range virtually unsurpassed. When you really sit down and listen closely, you're hard pressed to find fault in Conn's style and his ability to excel in a rotation of pop forms, from rock to lounge to disco to metal. A serious breakthrough.

Pinetop Seven "Rigging the Toplights" (Truckstop/Atavistic)
Full-length record number two by the boys in Pinetop was anything but a letdown from the band's great, self-titled debut. Grouped in the country music category, Pinetop defies categorization, drawing from Charles Kim's and Darrin Richards' extensive pool of musical knowledge. Slow, but extremely thought-out - don't expect Pinetop to blow you away at first, but with the richness and depth behind the music, don't expect them to remain a Chicago secret.

Tortoise, "TNT" (Thrill Jockey)
Thrill Jockey's best-selling record to date, "TNT" by the masters of anti-rock is a no brainer. A trinket of musical texture, soundscaping, genre crossover and overwhelmingly complex engineering, the only people disappointed by "TNT" were jaded music critics and people who thought Tortoise was another Britpop band.

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