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Favorite Albums, 1998

I've been kind of noodling about putting together a list of my favorite new music from 1998 for a while - actually, this has been a work in progress since Thanksgiving...I guess if I'm going to do it, it should really go out before 1999 is over, right? Seeing the lineup of folks up for Grammies made me realize that there's a lot of wonderful music out there that most folks don't ever get exposed to because it just doesn't get radio airplay. So here are 10 new things from 1998 that I listened to a lot that you might not have heard.

(No real order implied, but the first 3 are tied for first place.)

1) Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane over the Sea

Label = Merge
Recommended if you like: Mercury Rev, Beatles psychedelia.

    Imagine the Beatles on drugs. Oh, duh...just imagine the Beatles a little more fuzzed-out and with more instrumentation. Neutral Milk Hotel has a kind of off-kilter Lucy in the Sky spirit running through their songs with psychedelic characters like the girl who was born with roses in her eyes and the two-headed boy floating in glass past the sun. Musically, the songs trip quietly between simple acoustic guitar numbers and full-blown orchestrated brass epics lilting about like a drunken sea captain. The most amazing, crazy thing is that despite tenuously connecting so many moving parts, the whole thing sticks together in some kind of unexpected glorious majesty. Wow.

2) Mercury Rev - Deserter's Songs

Label = V2
Recommended if you like: Moody Blues circa 'Days of Future Past'.

    Mercury Rev have really shifted gears since those days long gone when they got chased off the Lollapalooza B-stage for making *too much* noise. "Deserter's Songs" is a polar opposite - subtle and delicate. It's very cinematic at times - almost like a 1970s concept album, but without the overblown pretentious aspects. I can't really say what the movie would look like, but they certainly are successful at creating a seamlessly gorgeous atmosphere.

3) Cat Power - Moon Pix

Label = Matador
Recommended if you like the Cowboy Junkies, but don't mind music that's a little less structured.

    Cat Power is more or less masterminded by Chan Marshall, and on this album she's joined by two of the guys from Australia's own Dirty Three (not Warren the fiddler). Anyhow, her music is quiet, meandering, and kind of slinky as it curls around you and rubs up against your eardrums. I have heard that she has had a few nervous breakdowns lately - I sincerely hope that she pulls through, as losing her voice would be tragic for the music world.

4) Kristin Hersh - Strange Angels

Label = Ryko / 4AD
Recommended if you think Jewel should just eat a burger and grow up.

    "So I was going to let my son name my album, but when he came up with 'The stupid man is good to eat', I had change my mind because then the smart man would feel all bad because he doesn't taste good." I'm kind of glad she decided to go with 'Strange Angels'. Kristin Hersh, ex-lead singer of the now defunct Throwing Muses, is yet another woman with yet another acoustic guitar. But there's something about her passions and melancholy phrasing that absolutely click with me - even though my heart is small, soft, and squishy, she finds some way to break it.

5) Squirrel Nut Zippers - Perennial Favorites

Label = Mammoth
Recommended if you tire of nicely-packaged commercial neo-swing.

    Swing has had its day and is fast drifting away like so many crumbly ashes curling at the end of gray streamers of smoke. I would argue that neo-swing groups like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy will probably be easily forgotten because they left some sort of timeless element trodden in the dust in their mad stampede to the cash register. A visceral soul that ties it all together and bestows an ageless spirit. The Zippers have got that. One could say that they are a 'revival' band - of swing, of hot jazz - call it what you will. But I think it's something a little deeper - perhaps a kind of mystical possession by a spirit from the early part of the century. It's all there - the lilting vigor, the dangerous curves, the reckless tempo, the seductive energy that drove Gatsby to his Greatness. It's really hard not to let yourself get swept away - but why in the world would you want to hold back?

6) Morcheeba - Big Calm

Label = China / Sire
Recommended if you want something with a svelte, mellow groove to play in the background at a party.

    'Big Calm' really exceeded my expectations - mostly because I thought Morcheeba's previous album was just so gosh darn *boring*. As with their first album, Skye Edwards’s voice is still warm and rich like butter dripping off a hot biscuit, but now the music is interesting, too. People like to throw Morcheeba into the trip hop genre (music with dark, trippy hip-hop rhythms), but unlike the rest of the genre, their sound isn't really spooky and broody - it's more quiet, lazy, and calm. Well, it's all calm except for the reggae-like song which pops up in the middle of the album for no reason whatsoever. Honest. I find myself puzzled. But aside from that one small deviation (which isn't really so bad), they keep up a warm, consistent groove for the entire album. This is an album I think anyone could enjoy.

7) Tortoise - TNT

Label = Thrill Jockey
Recommended if you like your jazz a little experimental.

    While we're all walking around like normal folks eating brunch, writing checks, and waiting for the traffic light to turn green, the members of Tortoise are quietly influencing the direction music is headed. Chicago is a hotbed of musical talent these days, with folks playing in each other bands, forming little side projects and splinter groups, but strangely, it seems that all roads lead to Tortoise. They have a sound that is all their own, somewhere between jazz and rock, between improvisation and structure, between electronic and organic. And it works. I find myself putting TNT on in the background frequently because it makes me feel smarter when I work.

8) June of 44 - Four Great Points

Label = Touch and Go
Recommended if you have patience and an open mind, and don't mind loud guitars.

    When a band names itself after a series of letters by author Henry Miller to his wife June and his subsequent affair with the writer Anais Nin, you can guess you're in for a bit of a dense time. Mix that with a smattering of often impenetrable lyrics stumbling from "marginal despiration" to nautical themes like a "mutiny of pirates" to phrases repeated like a sacred mantra: "take down your heart", "sharks and sailors", or "stern and starboard / port and bow". Toss in a musical montage that sounds like what would happen if composers Gorecki and Bartok got together and decided to start rock band built upon layered repetitive guitar structures with complex rhythms. If you could find your way down that sinuous path and not get lost, you'd be in June of 44's lair.

9) Esthero - Breath from Another

Label = Work
Recommended if you think blending Sade's lounge and Bjork's rhythms would be a good idea.

    Esthero (the singer) manages to capture the easygoing swelter that's present in Sade's loungey tunes and blend it with some more modern edgy electronic rhythms a la Bjork - the result is Esthero (the band). Dare I mention that they are from Canada? Perhaps only with the caveat that they fall into that "good Canadian music" category that the Cowboy Junkies and Rush inhabit, and are thankfully not in the "horrendous blight upon the works of mankind" category defined by Celine Dion.

10) Massive Attack - Mezzanine

Label = Circa / Virgin
Recommended if you think Portishead is pretty neat, but don't like to live in a world of noir all the time.

    Massive Attack sort of originated the 'trip hop' genre back in the early 90s in Bristol (UK), with Tricky (who used to be in the group) and Portishead. And now, they're followed by the Morcheeba, the Sneaker Pimps, Mono, Hooverphonic, Attica Blues, etc... Although other folks have remained more true to the original sound (mellow, often brooding, melancholy hip hop beats), Massive Attack have progressed to create something really large, enveloping, and overbearing which sort of wanders between sultry and mechanical while still retaining a breath of something lifelike. Does that make sense?

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