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1998 Swan Song Trumpeting the high notes of a musically so-so year, the island in a sea of bland


It wasn't the best of times, it wasn't the worst of times.

No, 1998 was the blandest of times, a year of teen idols, rap moguls, alt-rock lite and endless replays of "My Heart Will Go On."

Not every album released over the last 12 months was boring and predictable -- far from it. But sifting through thousands of new titles to find those few nuggets is practically a full-time job.

Fortunately, that's what they pay me for. So here are my picks for the best of 1998, along with the top albums by genres.

1. Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach, "Painted From Memory" (Mercury)

Instead of the cool confidence Burt Bacharach's most famous advocates exude, Elvis Costello brings a rawness to the music, offering his voice in striking contrast to Bacharach's suave orchestration. Yet rather than work against the music, the chemistry between the two works brilliantly, underscoring the anguish and ambivalence at the heart of these very grown-up love songs. From the dramatic "God Give Me Strength" to the sly, soulful "Such Unlikely Lovers," this represents some of the best work either artist has done.

2. P.J. Harvey, "Is This Desire?" (Island)

Nobody plumbs the depths of lust and obsession, want and compulsion better than Polly Jean Harvey. But it's not her words that convey such emotions -- it's her music.

It hardly matters what style she chooses to draw from; Harvey invariably finds its essence, and pulls forth the most intense and vivid flavors.

This album finds Harvey drawing from her broadest palette yet, evincing everything from slow-boil blues ("Angelene") to trip-hop abandon ("The Wind").

3. Dave Matthews Band, "Before These Crowded Streets" (RCA)

There's no denying that the real pleasure in listening to the Dave Matthews Band play is listening to them play -- relishing how Steffan Lessard's fluid bass feeds off Carter Beauford's muscular drumming, or noting how Boyd Tinsley's violin flourishes differ from Leroi Moore's saxophone interjections.

Even so, this album's strength derives not from the band's instrumental prowess, but from its leader's songwriting acumen. That's why each track shines, regardless of whether the sound is as exotic as the Arabic flourishes of "Rapunzel" or as prosaic as the soul-style groove of "Stay (Wasting Time)."

4. Sylk 130, "When the Funk Hits the Fan" (Ovum/Ruffhouse/ Columbia)

As fashionable as '70s revivalism has become in recent years, it still tends (on TV and in the movies) to have more to do with nostalgia than with cultural significance.

Not so "When the Funk Hits the Fan." What DJ King Britt (here reverting to his '70s alter ego, Sylk 130) treasures about the decade was the incredible fecundity of the music -- the way jazz and soul, funk and disco, even the embryonic music that was just beginning to be called rap all came together as part of black urban culture. This album is part recollection, part fond remembrance, and all great music.

5. Maxwell, "Embrya" (Columbia)

Although the sound of "Embrya" is lush enough to inspire comparisons to the jazzy sophistication of "What's Going On"-vintage Marvin Gaye, the singularity of his sound suggests something closer to the inspired ego-centrism of "Purple Rain"-era Prince. But Maxwell's world is entirely his own, and the genius of "Embrya" is that Maxwell is able to make that world vivid and accessible even when his lyrics are not.

6. Talvin Singh, "OK" (Island)

"The world is sound," pronounces one of the samples in "Traveller," and that succinctly sums up Talvin Singh's attitude toward what some might term "world music."

Sure, "OK" draws on everything from classic Indian ghazal to the raw, earthy sound of Okinawan folk music. But what holds it together isn't some vague notion of internationalism so much as Singh's ability to find a common thread in the jittery thrum of breakbeats and the brisk clatter of tablas. In other words, Singh recognizes the true universality of music, and makes it manifest in 11 delectable tracks.

7. Madonna, "Ray of Light" (Maverick)

Forget the Hindu garb and trendy veneer of mysticism. What makes this Madonna's best album of the '90s is that it reflects JTC her roots in dance culture even as she reinvents her approach to dance music. Working with ambient guru William Orbit, Madonna emphasizes mood and groove in these songs, so that what comes across is the music's overall flow, instead of just a few obvious hooks. Yet at the same time, the album also boasts some of the strongest singing she's ever done, from the cool reserve of "Frozen" to the bacchanalian frenzy of the title tune.

8. Jay-Z, "Hard Knock Life" (Rockafella)

Unlike hip-hop's pop contingent, Jay-Z recognizes that having a strong verbal hook is only half the battle. In the best rap, the rhymes aren't just catchy -- they also mean something. "Hard Knock Life" finds Jay-Z looking long and hard at power, addressing both what it's like to have some, and to have none. But because he does so over such inspired grooves, tracks like "Reservoir Dogs" and "Can I Get A ..." burn with unusual brightness.

9. Geri Allen, "The Gathering" (Verve)

In both its coloristic range and instrumental cohesion, the small-combo jazz on "The Gathering" harks back to the mid-'60s heyday of Herbie Hancock. Except that there's nothing at all retro about Allen's sound or vision. As a soloist, the pianist remains one of the most distinctive voices of our time, soloing with the sort of insight and wit jazz has lacked for some time. As a composer, arranger and bandleader, however, she's even more impressive, using seemingly mundane elements (simple chord changes, electric guitar, rhythmic drones) to create something exceptionally beautiful.

10. Armand Van Helden's Sampleslaya, "Enter the Meatmarket" (Columbia)

In club circles, Armand Van Helden is best known for the galloping groove of house hits like "Witchdoctor." But "Enter the Meatmarket" is, as Van Helden states at the outset, meant to represent "the house side of hip-hop." What that means is an album that values beats over rhymes, and delivers the sort of deeply hypnotic grooves that make even the simplest loops seem as satisfying as a fully formed song.

Pub Date: 12/30/98

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