I wasn’t really thinking much about music in 1998. I was trying to navigate the uncertainty of living completely on my own for the first time, and the entire last half of the ’90s felt pretty rootless. A lot of crappy stuff happened that year, the worst of which was a burglary.
I thought 1997 was tough, but 1998 mopped the floor with 1997.
I wouldn’t really discover a lot of the titles on this list till the year after, when life started to suck a bit less. There’s a significant Austin slant since I was trying to figure out how much I liked what passed for cool among the city’s cognoscenti. I would later learn the popularity of Bob Schneider and Los Lonely Boys demonstrates Austinites can have terrible taste in music as well.
Musicwhore.org Favorite Edition 1998
Madonna, Ray of Light
Madonna seemed really adrift in the first half of the ’90s. She zig-zagged between the trashiness of Erotica and her coffee table book Sex to singing the title role of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. She needed a course correction, which came in the form of Ray of Light, her most mature and focused album. Attempting to drag a reluctant underground dance genre into the mainstream, she hitched her radio pop to the electronica bandwagon to great effect. Too bad the Spice Girls and Britney Spears zeitgeist hogged too much of the spotlight for anyone else to follow her lead.
Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
The deafening silence following the commercial and critical acclaim of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill perhaps showed Lauryn Hill took her miseducation too much to heart. She railed against the forces trying to muddy her muse on the uneven follow-up Unplugged 2.0, and in a way, that miseducation never really ended. Nonetheless, the stars aligned for this album. Hill managed to pull together a literate work with an amazing command of rap and R&B. She displayed vulnerability, tenderness, strength and brazenness in one collection of songs.
Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
I know a lot of people who don’t really listen to country music become Lucinda Williams fans on the strength of this album.
Craig Armstrong, The Space Between Us
Craig Armstrong’s film scores aren’t shrouded in the 19th Century as much as, say, the scores of Howard Shore. (A guy I dated complained about Shore’s score for Ever After.) Like Anne Dudley or Joby Talbot, Armstrong is adept at making orchestra and electronics sound seamless. This orchestral debut album features excerpts from some of his scores, as well as reworked tracks from Massive Attack’s Protection album. Elisabeth Glaser of Cocteau Twins makes a guest appearance.
Patty Griffin, Flaming Red
Sarah McLachlan and her Lilith Tour were all the rage in the late ’90s, and A&M wanted to position Patty Griffin as the next Paula Cole or Meredith Brooks. It didn’t take. Although Griffin can be as sad a folkie as the saddest of them, Flaming Red demonstrated she could kick ass and take names as well. She tried to revive the sound of this album on Children Running Through, but it didn’t go far enough.
8 1/2 Souvenirs, Happy Feet
It was impossible to escape 8 1/2 Souvenirs in late ’90s Austin. Pianist Glover Gill was more of a draw than sultry singer Chrysta Bell. The quintet’s classic sound was the perfect soundtrack for the irrational exuberance of the dot-com days. My first introduction to them was at recruiting party to which a friend of mine from Philadelphia invited me.
Wayne Horvitz, 4+1 Ensemble
The material Horvitz wrote for 4+1 Ensemble came from his more introspective side, and the odd combination of violin, trombone, keyboard and electronics made for some brilliant textures. Tucker Martine pretty much propels this album with his strange effects.
Bruce Robison, Wrapped
Bruce Robison recorded this album as a showcase for his songwriting. He didn’t really intend to be a recording artist. "Angry All the Time" would eventually score him a number one hit when Faith Hill and Tim McGraw covered it. I much prefer Robison’s duet with his wife, Kelly Willis. Wrapped is the slickest album Robison has recorded, sporting production by Lloyd Maines, father of Dixie Chic Natalie. The title track is the real winner.
Shakira, ¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones?
Shakira wasn’t always a pop tart. ¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones? could have found an audience with the aforementioned Lilith Fair crowd at the time. It was a rock album not afraid to encourage some dancing.
Bougainvillia didn’t really do very well on the Oricon charts, but the success of the single "Tsuyoku Hakanai Monotachi" changed that. Her follow-up album Kumuiuta didn’t have the same caliber of material as her debut, but it established Cocco as a chart-topping artist.
At the time, I nearly wrote 1998 off as a dull year in music, but in reality, it was quite fertile.
- UA, Ametora An overly long album which wonderfully displays UA’s ease in inhabiting whatever is thrown at her.
- Ozomatli, Ozomatli The kitchen sink approach still felt pretty new back then.
- Wendy & Lisa, Girl Bros. I did a podcast about this album.
- the brilliant green, the brilliant green the brilliant green would go on to record albums better than this already-strong debut.
- Midnight Oil, Redneck Wonderland Midnight Oil channeled a bit of Nine Inch Nails on this album, a cluttered, noisy reaction to its mostly acoustic predecessor Breathe.
- Various Artists, For the Masses I have no idea if any of these would-be buzz bands from the ’90s are even still around any more, but their covers of Depeche Mode songs were sometimes really inspired. Favorites: "Everything Counts" by Meat Beat Manifesto, "Shake the Disease" by Hooverphonic and "Stripped" by Rammstein.
- Bang on a Can All-Stars, Music for Airports Probably the rare case of an electronic recording transcribed for live musicians.
- Fastball, All the Pain Money Can Buy If there’s an album that epitomized late-’90s Austin, this one would be it.
- Julieta Venegas, Aquí Some of the piano work reminded me of Robin Holcomb.
- Aterciopelados, Caribe Atómico I prefer this album over anything by Portishead.
- Macha, Macha Very, very exotic.
- Bloque, Bloque Can you tell I went through a heavy Latin phase?
- Pansy Division, Absurd Pop Song Romance Pansy Division can indulge in a lot of novelty, but this album sounded tight and mature.
- Orgy, Candyass This album actually had more for it than the cover of New Order’s "Blue Monday"