No matter how dire things get, great music continues to surface
By Michael McCall
DECEMBER 21, 1998: The decline of the music industry won't come as any surprise to rock fans--at least not to those few still paying attention. Because there's so little new rock 'n' roll on the radio, and because nearly everything new is aimed at a teen audience, it has become next to impossible for adult fans to hear up-and-coming rock acts on the airwaves. For several years now, the only way to discover worthwhile music has been to take a leap of faith and put down a substantial amount of money on a CD you know next to nothing about.
That said, good music remains available. Record companies still offer contracts to interesting, even visionary, performers--they just don't know how to sell this kind of music anymore. Because they can't get songs by compelling artists on the radio, the best music goes unnoticed while acts like the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Celine Dion, and Shania Twain keep bottom lines from sinking too low. At this point, the music industry is propped up by the flimsiest of talents and by the marketability of film soundtracks. Few long-term careers are being built, and artists are spending most of their time arguing with record companies or contorting themselves into marketable commodities.
Don't expect anything to change soon. With massive consolidations taking place at the highest levels of corporatedom, the record industry will concentrate on downsizing and roster trimming for the next year or so. With everyone jockeying to save their jobs, there's not likely to be much risk-taking or much concentration on musical development. So expect to see plenty of smiling new teen groups, angry rappers, cute country singers, and rafter-shaking divas--and little else.
Maybe drastic industry downsizing--or even outright collapse--could be the best thing for rock 'n' roll. That way, people would be forced to look elsewhere for musical sustenance. Since my high-school days in the mid-1970s, when I discovered the New York Dolls and Roxy Music, I've looked outside of the pop charts and downtown arenas to find the music that most moved me. It's no different now.
Musically, the most significant trend of the year was a shift toward a renewed concentration on melodies and songwriting. R.E.M. and Beck not only printed their lyrics for the first time; they also put forward some of the most straightforward, most lucid tunes of their career. Indeed, the message that surfaced most clearly in 1998 was the enduring power of tunefulness. It may be a response to the generic tendencies of electronica and arena rock, or it may be a reaction to the growing lack of connection between individuals in the world at large. But it made for many hours of pleasurable listening.
On many of my favorite albums of 1998, a concentration on texture and melody took precedence over raging guitars or driving beats--a fitting trend in a year that saw the reemergence of Brian Wilson (once again) and a collaboration between Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello. Along those lines, acts like R.E.M., Girls Against Boys, Lauryn Hill, Mimi Goese, and Garbage merged electronic effects and natural instruments into compellingly individual statements. Others like Olu Dara, Vic Chesnutt, Jules Shear, Alejandro Escovedo, Elvis Costello, Drugstore, and Lambchop created strong albums that used muted horns, bowed strings, treated keyboards, and other instruments to create a kind of chamber pop--a style also being explored by the High Llamas, Neutral Milk Hotel, Josh Rouse, Rufus Wainwright, Mercury Rev, Belle & Sebastian, and Apples in Stereo.
In Nashville, despite all the barriers erected against Music City rock acts, 1998 came on like a watershed year: There were more good rock records released out of Nashville this year than at any time since the mid-1980s. As usual, nearly all of them were ignored. A few did receive critical plaudits--Bare Jr., Josh Rouse, Sixpence None the Richer, and Lambchop foremost among them. Others releasing impressive albums included Duane Jarvis, Iodine, Tiny Town, Farmer Not So John, Tommy Womack, Wes Cunningham, Kevin Gordon, Ned Massey, Ceili Rain, Evinrudes, Greg Trooper, and Jason & the Scorchers.
Next week, I'll list my favorite country, folk, and Americana albums, as well as a few jazz, world, and hard-to-classify collections. As for my favorite rock and pop albums, here are the works that moved or entertained me the most:
1. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury) Whether writing about love or death, Williams uses crisp, telling detail to expose naked emotions and personal truths. Telling deeply compassionate stories in a dispassionate style, the singer's latest finally earned her dry, twangy folk-rock a long-deserved national audience.
2. Olu Dara, In the World--From Natchez to New York (Atlantic) The veteran jazzman's first solo album employs a delightful blend of African and Southern folk styles to relate his lifelong journey from the rural South to the densest urban community in America. Along the way, he uses everything from soul food to a single mother to talk about what matters to him and what impresses him about others.
3. R.E.M., Up (Warner Bros.) The most consistently impressive band of the last two decades has also been one of the most fertile and restless. Though they've rarely repeated themselves, they've never departed from form as much as on this beautiful, highly textured album of winsome melodies and spiritual musings. Apparently, the amicable exit of drummer Bill Berry left the group free to explore, and the result is another career high point.
4. Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue (Elektra) A radical English folk-rocker and a Midwestern roots-rock band team up to pump rowdy spirit into 15 unrecorded songs from Woody Guthrie's notebooks. Rather than sounding pedantic or overly reverent, the music is loose, playful, and often celebratory--as fits the cheekiness of Guthrie's tunes.
5. Pere Ubu, Pennsylvania (Tim/Kerr) One of the most underrated bands of the last 20 years, Pere Ubu have sometimes courted obscurity so willfully that their clever, potent aggro-rock has had trouble reaching a wider audience. Now with some new blood on board, they sound as powerful and inventive as ever--and more incisive than they have in years. "Culture is a weapon that's used against us," David Thomas sings; no album better describes or shatters the cultural, social, and political stasis that's smothering America today.
6. Girls Against Boys, Freak*on*ica (Geffen) By avoiding the sonic clutter and overarching ambition of Garbage's second album, this D.C.-based band picks up where that group dropped off. With a sly combination of rock riffs and dance floor beats, GVSB presents a firsthand reflection of clubland's decadent, nihilistic allure while pointing out its self-absorbed pitfalls and dangers.
7. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Epic) Touting responsibility and education, but without sounding preachy or bookish, the distaff member of the Fugees steps out with a pop album that is as fun as it is formidable. Even if she's a better rapper than singer, Hill blends old and new schools with cool audacity.
8. Amy Rigby, Middlessence (Koch) Still determined to make a life as a willful rocker and a domesticated mother, Rigby moves past the brilliant revelations of her first record, Diary of a Mod Housewife. Here, she discusses the travails of dating and eking out a creative career at an age when the odds are no longer in her favor. She's bold, honest, and heartbreakingly funny, and she's writing about familiar lives that no other writer captures as well.
9. Beastie Boys, Hello Nasty (Grand Royal) "Song for the Man," which dresses down sexist males, shows how far this trio has matured in its lyrical outlook. But the main story here is one of glorifying the grandness of all things funky--crosscutting the old with the new to create a groovalicious stew that bypasses the brain and aims straight for the lower chakras.
10. High Llamas, Cold and Bouncy (V2) Of all the young bands yearning to capture the beautiful, tender whimsy of Pet Sounds, the High Llamas float the dreamiest, most accessibly out-there combination of craft and sonic surprise. Perhaps it's because the melodies draw on Mancini, Bacharach, and Brazilian pop to create a blissed-out, genuinely uplifting tropicalia, or perhaps it's how freshly the High Llamas combine everything from strings to synths to horns to xylophones--whatever the case, this record always adjusts my mood to a better place.
The next 10: Alejandro Escovedo, More Miles Than Money: Live 1994-96 (Bloodshot); Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, Painted from Memory (Warner Bros.); Vic Chesnutt, The Salesman & Bernadette (Capricorn); Liz Phair, WhiteChocolateSpaceEgg (Matador); Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks); Victoria Williams, Musings of a Creek Dripper (Atlantic); Dirty Three, Ocean Songs (Touch and Go); Bare Jr., Boo-Tay (Immortal/Epic); Tricky, Angels With Dirty Faces (Island); Jules Shear, Between Us (High Street).
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