Short and simple, with a basic format and concrete posts to attach these judgments to, the following list is a survey of the year's records that are worthy of your money. I've tried to be as honest as possible here by including, out in the open, any shortcomings I may have for each, followed by a standard, by-the-book justification for its inclusion on the list. The final determination of quality is based on the amount of money I would pay as ransom if kidnappers broke into my house and snatched the record. It's tough to quantify such a thing, but I've tried to be realistic (given that I budget a lot of money for new music in any given year). These are in no particular order.
Artist, album and label: Cat Power, Moon Pix (Matador Records)
Reservations: Extended flute solo during "He Turns Down" taints an otherwise perfect record.
Justification: Guitar, piano and voice combine to create the most revelatory record of the year. Moon Pix contains soft, mysterious songs with lyrics that, though often roaming and transient, are delicately phrased and across-the-board inspired: "It must be the colors and the kids that keep me alive/Cuz the music is boring me to death," Chan Marshall sings on "The Colors and the Kids," then somehow manages to move to wading in the ocean with her pants rolled to her knees and whispering, "Yellow hair you are a funny bear." A beautiful, warm love song, the vibe she conjures is transcendent, one of dozens on the record.
If someone kidnapped this from me, how much ransom I'd pay for its return, realistically: $500, after I was done weeping and pleading for them to please not injure it.
Artist, album and label: Massive Attack, Mezzanine (Virgin).
Reservations: An early-year skepticism toward anything affiliated with trip-hop led me to doubt the potential of Massive Attack.
Justification: This ain't trip-hop, this is a massive melding of rock, dub, hip-hop, post-punk and ganja texture. More than any record released this year, this for me sums up the peering-into-the-abyss fear that's sweeping the culture at the end of the century -- shaky, tense, a tad desperate and bursting at its seams. Bonus points for sampling the Velvet Underground, Isaac Hayes and the Cure; it's about time someone samples music other than the standard jazz breakbeats and funk grooves.
Artist, album and label: The Handsome Family, Through the Trees (Carrot Top)
Justification: I wrote about Chicago's Handsome Family so often this year that I'm sick of doing it. The reason I composed all those words, though, are their perfect songs and the creepy Southern Gothic lyrics created with banjo, Autoharp, guitar, bass and beatbox. Through the Trees gives me chills.
Ransom: $500, and then I'd make it my life's mission to hunt down the kidnappers, put them in the stocks and force them to listen to "Down in the Ground" over and over again.
Artist, album and label: Beck, Mutations (DGC)
Reservations: I'm not sure I could spot a dud Beck record at this point; for some reason, I'm blind to any faults he may have. Since the release of Mellow Gold, there's hasn't been one new Beck song I haven't fallen in love with.
Justification: Beck claims that this isn't the follow-up to last year's Odelay, whatever that means. It most certainly is, even if it finds him performing with nary a sampler or fabricated groove and stretching out with organic instruments, silence and restraint. Melodies as smooth and seamless as any written in any age, with lyrical and musical hooks that are some of the best of the decade, Mutations is a glorious understatement from the brow of a brainiac on Robitussin.
Ransom: None; I'm pretty sure I can download an MP3 of it off the Internet, upload it onto my Diamond Rio player and dupe 100,000 copies of it for the entire readership of the paper.
Artist, album and label: Various Artists, We Are Reasonable People (Warp Records, UK)
Reservations: Compilations usually drop dead after the first few listens.
Justification: The year after electronica came and went in the national press as the "next big thing," the artists who ignored or were oblivious to the hype were down in their basements with a few thousand dollars' worth of equipment, lots of drugs and creative juices flowing, creating some of the most revolutionary music of the decade. Most of these artists failed to create exciting full-lengths (mainly because they insisted on making them 75 minutes long) but created mind-blowing cuts galore. The best label out there is Warp, and their roster of artists, including Autechre, Broadcast, Boards of Canada, Plone, Plaid and Red Snapper, among others, is a fantastic snapshot of the diversity and creativity of these digital mad scientists.
Artist, album and label: Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury).
Reservations: I anticipated this record for four years; realistically, there was no way I was not gonna love it, which gives my critical capacities pause.
Justification: Don't need any: See the words below from Daniel Durchholz and Roy Kasten.
Ransom: $475 and a duped CD-R of the album so that the thief would be able to hear this great record; maybe it'd provide him solace and hope to straighten up and fly right.
Artist, album and label: Various Artists, Lyricist Lounge (Rawkus)
Reservations: Honestly, I just picked this up two weeks ago and have yet to fully digest it.
Justification: Because of the aforementioned reservations, I'm hesitant to include this as one of my favorite records of the year; there are many more that I've listened to more frequently. But in terms of importance, inspiration and a general revolutionary vibe, this document of New York City hip-hop in the '90s is proof that the genre, after nearly 20 years, is, if anything, still gaining momentum; all you need is two turntables and a microphone to create masterful rhymes and a groove. 1998 has been a landmark year for hip-hop, and Lyricist Lounge is an underground document of the movement that continues to steer and influence all aspects of American culture. You gotta check this out.
Artist, album and label: Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks).
Reservations: Post-performance meeting in his bus with a bunch of friends proved surreal and disconcerting. Never try to befriend an artist whose work you admire, especially when it's quite obvious that all he really wants is some pot.
Justification: The wonder of an artist debuting with a voice fully formed is always cause for celebration, and Rufus' voice is a wonder, if occasionally over-dramatic. "Barcelona" is one of my favorite ballads ever, and the joyful arrangements and cascading instrumentation -- marimbas, horns, pianos, strings -- all over the album sound like the collision of Los Angeles circa 1966 and heaven circa 1998. If nothing else, his debut provides me with a reason to look forward to 1999.
Ransom: These songs are so imbedded in my head that I never really need to hear them again (which is not to say I don't want to); I'd pay no more than $225.
Artist, album and label: Bob Dylan, Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (Columbia).
Justification: This is one of the most thrilling documents, live or otherwise, I've ever heard; anyone who's even remotely interested in hearing the music that almost single-handedly transformed the direction of rock & roll in the '60s must own this. Electric rock was born during this tour with the Hawks, who soon after renamed themselves the Band. Worth it also to hear "Fourth Time Around," the song from which John Lennon swiped both theme and melody to write "Norwegian Wood."
Ransom: I'd pay nothing for its return; I've still got my bootleg copy, which sounds just as good.
Artist, album and label: Silver Jews, American Water (Drag City)
Justification: Three snippets of lyrics: "The drums march along at the clip of an IV drip/like sparks from a muffler dragged down the strip"; "Repair is the dream of the broken thing"; "The birds of Virginia are flying within you/and like background singers they all come in threes." Songwriter/lyricist head Jew David Berman is the most interesting individual in my musical world, and I highly recommend this overlooked album.
Perfect songs from nearly perfect albums: Billy Bragg and Wilco, "California Stars"; Beastie Boys, "Intergalactic" and "Body Movin'"; Arab Strap, "Not Quite a Yes"; the Glands, "Pretty Merrina"; the Notwist, "Day 7"; Plastikman, "Passage (In)"; Creeper Lagoon, "Sylvia"; Black Star, "Brown Skin Lady"; Jurassic 5, "Lesson 6: The Lecture"; Gillian Welch, "My Morphine"; Shudder to Think, "Just Really Want to See You" and "Hot One"; Lauryn Hill, "Doo Wop (That Thing)"; Neotropic, "Vacetious Blooms.