The best albums I heard this year held true to the eternal verities of melody and song form. I list them in alphabetical order because, on any given day, any of these could be my favorite.
Neko Case and Her Boyfriends, The Virginian (Bloodshot). This is a compilation of material Case has recorded over the last few years, but none of it has crossed my path before. She's an amazingly gifted country singer who sometimes writes, and more often finds, songs that look at love from angles few have described in music. She handles torch ballads and exuberant dance numbers with ease.
Christine Collister, Dark Gift of Time (Koch). Collister sings songs by Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, David Olney, Billie Holiday, Nick Drake and Robert Wyatt, and each sounds as if she invented it. That's because of her rich, stunning alto, her faith in the words, and the invention of her arrangements.
Continental Drifters, Vermillion (Blue Rose). Three great singer/songwriters team up in this amazing band. Peter Holsapple, once of the dB's, and Vicki Peterson, once of the Bangles, are known quantities. Susan Cowsill, once of the Cowsills, turns out to be their match. If the Band had been in the Paisley Underground, they might have sounded like this. (Available from Miles of Music, (818-992-8302.)
Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, Painted from Memory (Mercury). Though All This Useless Beauty had more variety and greater depth, this unrelenting collection of cleverly revealed heartbreak makes three masterful outings in a row from Costello. It's also a brilliant return to melodic form from Bacharach. Costello may strain to reach the high notes, but the songs just keep revealing new depths with every listen.
Michael Fracasso, World in a Drop of Water (Bohemia Beat). What if some New York singer/songwriter like Willie Nile were to move to Austin, Texas, and soak up the singer/songwriter tradition of, say, Butch Hancock? You'd probably get something like this album, full of delightfully catchy songs populated with maddeningly quirky characters. Charlie Sexton prods things along with a band that recalls nothing so much as Graham Parker's Rumour.
Nick Lowe, Dig My Mood (Upstart). No longer the king of infectious power-pop, or even up-tempo country, Lowe sounds as if he's been listening to '60s countrypolitan artists like Ray Price. At first, it put me off, but these songs get under the skin. Lowe's voice hugs the tunes close to the microphone, and the words offer harrowing visions of loneliness.
Madonna, Ray of Light (Maverick). Yeah, she's into spirituality, and she loves her baby. Yeah, she's hired William Orbit to provide some contemporary dance spin to her sound. But her real brilliance lies in the tunes. Madonna is a great songsmith, coming up with melodies that fit her voice like a glove yet which are eminently singable by others. I await a decent tribute album, with several cuts from this one.
Sweet Honey in the Rock, Twenty-Five (Ryko). Is there anything in great music that Sweet Honey in the Rock can't do? These five women sing a cappella with unparalleled technical virtuosity, offering beautiful melodies, rhythmic vitality, unconventional harmonies, invigorating counterpoint, spine-tingling passion, all handled with unparalleled technical virtuosity. Your jaw will drop half-a-dozen times -- wait till you hear Aisha Kahlil start scatting on Bob Marley's "Redemption Song."
Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks). His mother, Kate McGarrigle, taught him to love intricately woven melodies. His father, Loudon Wainwright III, taught him to deliver them with panache and wit. Somehow, he picked up a passion for opera and show tunes. Rufus Wainwright was probably the most original artist to debut this year and, because he's only just hitting drinking age, he's also the most promising. Stunning string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks only made Wainwright's great songs even better.
Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury). Williams possesses the most insinuating vocal delivery in contemporary music. She can sneak five layers of emotional complexity into something as simple as a brief pause between two words. She writes songs that reveal whole worlds of meaning, slides them into country melodic traditions and has them perked up with perfectly designed guitar and keyboard parts, provided here by a host of companions, including former partner Gurf Morlix.
Ah, the year-end list.
Nada Surf's The Proximity Effect (Elektra) continues to affirm that there's a lot to this group, long beyond the one-hit-wonder status inflicted on them by the briefly popular "Popular." This New York three-piece produces crafty power-pop with just enough of an edge ("Mother's Day") to keep them an arm's length from the skinny-tie underground. They rock, with cleverness, skill and humor.
Hooverphonic's Blue Wonder Power Milk (Epic) is the kind of heavenly music once produced in a far-more-downbeat fashion by 4AD. Now, "ethereal" hovers and soars, with drum & bass rhythms backing beautiful melodies and gorgeous moodscapes. Absolutely thrilling.
DJ Shadow's Preemptive Strike (Mo'Wax) culled the best singles from this major turntablist, including the shoulda-hit "High Noon" with its funky, Wild West guitar and the retro-futurism of "Organ Donor." More effective than UNKLE's highly anticipated debut, though that one's got some moments, too.
Jana McCall's Jana McCall (Up) highlights a songwriter who evokes the parental wish to cook some soup for a songwriter capable of writing creepy, crawly songs evoking this kind of reserve and sadness. "Today" almost takes off, but the rest of the songs stay resolutely on the ground, spare and weirdly sorrowful.
The Selby Tigers' Year of the Tigers (The Bread Machine) bristles with youthful energy and pop-punk riffs, all the while keeping a steady eye on crackling choruses and sing-along verses. Punchy tunes that stick-and-move.
Swell's For All the Beautiful People (Beggar's Banquet) continues the band's established pattern of high-concept, low-fidelity recordings. The formula ain't broke, so why fix it? Moody, slightly menacing, more tuneful than Mercury Rev's widely-hailed Deserter's Songs.
Ani DiFranco's Little Plastic Castle (Righteous Babe) plays to the choir with the usual tales of how fame ain't what it's cracked up to be. At the album's best ("Gravel"; the seething, stripped-down "Pulse"), you forget about that.
Creeper Lagoon's I Become Small and Go (NickelBag) is one weird, trippy spin, with every manner of instrument introduced for a quick cameo. The songs resonate with gussied-up simplicity. Not the most hummable disc, but a welcome relief from indie's de rigueur bombast.
Grasshopper and the Golden Crickets' The Orbit of Eternal Grace (Beggars Banquet) highlights two members of Mercury Rev in another quirky, off-center attack on skewed pop.
Butterfly Child's Soft Explosives (HitIt!) is lush, New Wave-styled pop along the lines of the Chills, Aztec Camera and mid-period Talk Talk. Strings and soaring vocals abound, compliments of mastermind Joe Cassidy.
Jeff Buckley's Sketches (For My Sweetheart the Drunk) (Sony) may not be the record he envisioned, but Disc 1, with its Tom Verlaine-produced tracks, more than lives up to the standard that Buckley established on Grace. Deeper in originals and less reliant on Buckley's voice, these songs stress themselves rather than studio trickery or his ridiculously wide vocal range. Lovely stuff, really.
Also: Massive Attack, Mezzanine (Virgin); John Easdale, Bright Side (Eggbert); P.J. Harvey, Is This Desire? (Island); St. Etienne, Good Humour; Drugstore, White Magic for Lovers (Roadrunner).
1998 was a very good year. Sadly, it took something as momentous as Frank Sinatra's death to make me rediscover his vast, luxuriant catalog. I'd grown up with Sinatra on the back burner of my music-listening range -- my father was a huge fan -- but my appreciation was one of irony and distance. Here was a guy who, with the snap of his fingers and the swing of a microphone, captured the ritzy bustle of postwar nightlife, the fizz and romance of a generation. Here in '98, I was fascinated with the phase that linked the "good old days" to the '60s era, where the power of trend-setting shifted to the young. Dean Martin found a vehicle for this, however laughably, in the Matt Helm films; Sinatra did it musically (and a great deal more subtly) on Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim (Reprise). To me, this was the Sinatra reissue of the year and an album that sounds great outside the lounge.
In the same vein, investigate a new three-song CD of tunes Sinatra recorded with daughter Nancy in the late '60s, For My Dad (DCC Compact Classics). "Feelin' Kinda Sunday" is the kind of Turtles-ish pure pop I thought I'd never hear Frank attempt. But Nancy takes his hand and leads him into a groovy performance that lights up the song. By the way, I still don't get Tony Bennett.
Other chill-up-the-spine releases of '98 include Painted from Memory, the vivid masterpiece by collaborators Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. It's sure to be on many best-of lists, and it sounds like an album that will age with winelike grace. Other stuff I sipped: The New Radicals came out of nowhere and staked out territory on the charts. For that reason, I can already sense contempt for them in the air -- humid with elitism -- but I really like their Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too (MCA). Any album that reminds me simultaneously of World Party, Lloyd Cole and Todd Rundgren can't be instantly forgettable -- so the term "disposable pop" (personified, still, by the Knack) can be thrown away in this case.
Also giving power-pop a new spin -- a turn of events -- were gems by Randell Kirsch, Mark Johnson and David Grahame, all of whom should appeal to Marshall Crenshaw fans -- if they can find their albums (check out RFT back issues for contact info). By contrast, a great pop find was Tommy Keene's Isolation Party (Matador), which is accessible in both senses. Hey -- the nonexistent audience that keeps missing the excellent local Love Nut appearances might start showing up after they hear Life on Planet Eartsnop (Not Lame), a solo release by top Nut Andy Bopp. For alleged "toss-offs" (Bopp insists they are), and despite one of those shoot-itself-in-the-foot titles, the home-recorded album occasionally evokes the tragic magic of Badfinger. It's also a better collection than Love Nut's Baltimucho.
Chucho Valdes, Bele Bele en la Habana (Blue Note). Cuba's foremost jazz pianist shows exactly why he richly deserves that title. Tim Hagans and Marcus Printup, Hub Songs (Blue Note). Two of the best young trumpeters around tackle the music of Freddie Hubbard with the help of Vincent Herring, Javon Jackson, Benny Green, Peter Washington and Kenny Washington -- with Hubbard producing. Harp-bop heaven! Brad Mehldau, Songs: The Art of the Trio, Vol. 3 (Warner Bros.). This year's hottest pianist, who's definitely found his own voice.
Nicholas Payton, Payton's Place (Verve). Payton is taking New Orleans music to some very interesting places with his amazing trumpet style. Dave Holland Quintet, Points of View (ECM). The veteran bassist has put together a great band (Steve Wilson, Robin Eubanks, Steve Nelson, Billy Kilson), and they create some startling, unique music. Gregory Tardy, Serendipity (Impulse!) Former St. Louis sax player makes a powerful debut statement that proves he can write and arrange as well as he can play. Los Hombres Caliente, Los Hombres Caliente (Basin Street). New Orleans group includes teenagers Jason Marsalis on drums and Irvin Mayfield on trumpet in the company of veteran R&B percussionist Bill Summers -- all working in a Latin/second-line groove. Greg Osby, Banned in New York (Blue Note). Another St. Louisan with a great live date -- recorded on a minidisc recorder placed on a front table of the club. Who needs a 16-track board when the music's this good? Jacky Terrasson Trio, Alive (Blue Note). Terrasson and his excellent backing musicians (especially Leon Parker), in top form. Danilo Perez, Central Avenue (Impulse!) Pianist Perez continues to explore common ground between bop and Latin musical styles -- with positive results.
Miles Davis Quintet, Miles Davis Quintet 1965-68 (Columbia Legacy) and The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (Columbia); John Coltrane, The Classic Quartet: Complete Impulse Studio Recordings (Impulse!)
Bruce Springsteen, Tracks (Columbia); Lyle Lovett, Step Inside This House (MCA); Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road; Nick Lowe, Dig My Mood; Van Morrison, The Philosopher's Stone (Polydor); Bob Dylan, Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (Columbia); Geoff Muldaur, The Secret Handshake (Hightone); Sons of Champlin, Live (Grateful Dead); Emmylou Harris, Spyboy (EMI); Chris Hillman, Like a Hurricane (Sugar Hill)
Johnny Adams, Man of My Word (Rounder); Alvin Hart, Territory (Hannibal); Magic Slim and the Teardrops, Black Tornado (Blind Pig); Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Funk Is in the House (Bullseye Blues); Maceo Parker, Funk Overload (WAR); Kinsey Report, Smoke & Steel (Alligator); Geno Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie, La Chanson Perdue; Olu Dara, In the World: from Natchez to New York; Charles Brown, So Goes Love (Verve); Otis Rush, Any Place I'm Going (House of Blues