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The Boston Phoenix 1998 Rock In Review

It's all about genres

By Matt Ashare

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  In the introduction to his 1997 book The Accidental Evolution of Rock 'n' Roll: A Misguided Tour Through Popular History, Chuck Eddy redefines the job of the rock critic as being not to ponder the meaning of albums, songs, chord structures, or vocal intonations, but rather to analyze and create the conceptual compartments into which we all place music. "I don't know who invented the idea of 'genres' within music," he writes, "but he must have been a party dude, because genres are part of what makes music fun." If nothing else, that goes a long way toward explaining the renewed appeal of electronic dance music -- a genre that spins off subgenres at a dizzying rate -- to lots of critics and other fans/experts who probably haven't seen a dance floor since their high-school prom.

But genre theory has other practical applications. For one, it pisses off artists, who almost without exception will deny being part of any genre more specific than "rock," "pop," or, my favorite, "music" (as in, "I don't know anything about this ska-punk thing: we just play music"). And sometimes that can push a band (like R.E.M. in the late '80s) to move beyond a genre (say, jangle pop) and on to something more interesting. "I've always felt that we were a rock band," is how Marilyn Manson explained the new musical direction of Mechanical Animals (Interscope) to me back in October, "and I didn't want to travel down the path of being an industrial group."

Along with generating artistic tension, genres also offer a very practical means of making something old seem new again. Nobody paid much attention to Brian Setzer's big band five years ago because he was just an old guy doing old music. But in 1998 he became part of a neo-swing movement and suddenly people were paying attention. As Setzer admitted to me back in June, "I don't mind calling it swing. I think one of the mistakes these [swing] bands make is that they don't want to be called swing. And I'm like, 'Oh, no, you've gotta call it swing.' I mean, it has to have a name so people know what it is." Of, course, in 1998 everything depended upon what your definition of is was.

Setzer's been around long enough to know how important genres can be, and how much fun it is to be part of one. Bands who couldn't find a genre in a year that saw hip-hop asserting its dominance over rock on the charts had a hard time. Harvey Danger had a great alterna-rock single with "Flagpole Sitta" and a strong album to back it up (Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?). But with no other merrymakers around to make alterna-rock irony seem fresh again, Harvey Danger didn't manage to move many units.

So, in the spirit of The Accidental Evolution of Rock 'n' Roll, here are the Top 10 real and/or imagined genres and subgenres that were, might have been, or should have been in 1998.

1. Mommy pop. Lauryn Hill saluted her son Zion and, like all good parents, remembered what it was like to be a classroom kid herself on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia), the surprisingly soulful debut by the most likable of the Fugees. Liz Phair added new nuances to her use of the word "baby" on whitechocolatespaceegg (Matador/Capitol) and new depth to her songwriting by worrying, as all good parents do, about being a bad mom. And both Madonna and Courtney Love were single moms whose Ray of Light (Maverick) and Celebrity Skin (Geffen) almost made us forget that each has a kid to tend to back home.

2. The progeny. Perhaps the most amusing, overlooked, and potentially frightening subplot of 1998 was the new crop of musical offspring entering the family business. Rufus Wainwright's promising sensitive-guy piano pop made him the perfect successor to the departed Jeff Buckley, whose posthumous Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (Columbia) was one of the year's little disappointments. Sean Lennon proved he was no Julian with Into the Sun (Grand Royal), though by the end of the year that had been overshadowed by a four-CD collection of his dad's post-Beatles work, The John Lennon Anthology (Capitol). Chris Stills was the most irrelevant spawn to spawn a solo career, and Eagle Eye Cherry the most commercially successful. The overrated-progeny-of-the-year award would have to go to Adam Cohen, son of Leonard, whose smarmy take on the strong, sensitive type would make him the perfect date or mate for Fiona Apple, though I'd hate to think of their kids making music in the year 2525. And the most underrated was Emma Townshend, Pete's daughter, whose spare, smart, and promising Elektra debut, Winterland, proved it's possible to be inspired by Tori Amos without becoming Fiona Apple.

3. Neo-old-school hip-hop. True, it was Master P's No Limit crew whose Beats by the Pound churned out a Top 10 debut every second or third week and made hip-hop the dominant voice of '98. And it was Korn whose Family Values tour found common ground for Ice Cube and Rammstein, thereby turning alterna-rock into a G-thing. But once again, the Beastie Boys navigated the cutting edge of hip-hop and scored big commercially, this time by returning to the old-school values of "Three MCs and One DJ" on Hello Nasty (Grand Royal/Capitol) and tapping into an emerging hip-hop underground via hotshot turntablist Mix Master Mike. Mike's own Anti-Theft Device (Asphodel) was a purer example of the neo-old-school turntable aesthetic, and in trusty old NYC a credible MC underground coalesced around the Rawkus label and its Lyricist Lounge Volume One and the hard-hitting, deep-thinking disc Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, featuring rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli.

4. Glam scams. It all started with Stone Temple Pirate Scott Weiland raiding Bowie's Thin White Dukedom early in the year on an album that might have mattered if Weiland had stayed out of drug trouble. And it peaked when Marilyn Manson got Ziggy with Mechanical Animals just as the hype for the glam-era film Velvet Goldmine was gaining some steam. Too bad that boys dressing like girls never really worked well in the US.

5. Post-indie depressives. Alterna-rock may have bit the dust, but as long as there are shy, sensitive, smart young outcasts in the halls and malls of America, indie rock will survive. The post-indie depression was defined this year by two quietly great albums from shy, sensitive, smart young outcasts: Elliott Smith's XO (DreamWorks) and Belle and Sebastian's The Boy with the Arab Strap (Matador).

6. International pop underground. A decade ago Calvin Johnson dreamed up the International Pop Underground, a network of like-minded bands and musicians from around the globe working to make the world safe for fun, adventurous pop. And in 1998 it became a reality. From France we got Air, a duo who dished out cool retro recipes from their Moog cookbook on their Caroline debut, and a kitsch-obsessed DJ by the name of Dimitri from Paris and his cheesy Atlantic debut. From Japan we finally got rock star Cornelius, who played an intriguing game of mix-and-match with indie pop and electronica on his debut on Matador, the same label that introduced us to the female-fronted Dutch sample-pop outfit Solex.

7. The big beat. Credit the Chemical Brothers with the great discovery that the best way to sell electronic dance music to a generation raised on rock and roll is to make it feel and sound like rock and roll. But it took a guy who'd cut his teeth playing in an actual rock band, former Housemartin Norman Cook, to perfect the technique as Fatboy Slim. His "Rockafeller Skank" and the album You've Come a Long Way Baby (Skint/Astralwerks) defined the big-beat genre so perfectly that it's going to be tough for him or anyone else to improve upon.

8. Stray punks. It took only half as long for punk to back itself into an aesthetic corner in the '90s as it did in the '80s, but there was still enough room for a few stray punk renegades to maneuver effectively in and around Northern California. The teen badgirls in the Donnas did it by fitting a few Kiss/Runaways lessons in riff rock into their Ramonesy Rock-and-Roll High School education and blasting out the bubblepunk masterpiece American Teenage Rock 'n' Roll Machine (Lookout). And Rancid drew further inspiration from the Clash on Life Won't Wait (Epitaph), an album that brought back strong, welcome memories of London Calling.

9. The children of Harry Smith. The re-release of the Anthology of American Folk Music (a/k/a "The Harry Smith Box") in '97 reminded a lot of people why the '60s folk revival happened in the first place. Three artists who did something about it in '98 were Lucinda Williams, whose Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury) was a perfectly imperfect Americana gem, and Billy Bragg and Jeff Tweedy, whose improbable collaborative effort putting Woody Guthrie words to music on Mermaid Avenue (Elektra) was better than they had any right to expect.

10. The Atlanta groove. While the East Coast/West Coast gangsta rivalry was finally winding down, it was the South that was poised to rise again, first in the guise of Master P's New Orleans-based empire, and then in the city of Atlanta, where the Organized Noize production squad and Arista-affiliated LaFace label helped turn Outkast and Goodie Mob into two more reasons to remain a hip-hop believer in '98. Outkast's Aquemini is the better disc, with its bluesy-groovy history lesson "Rosa Parks." But without Goodie Mob's funked-up Still Standing, it would just be another album without a genre.

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