By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Strange to say, but the best album released in 1998 was one that was recorded 32 years ago. Bob Dylan's Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert has existed in the netherworld of bootlegs all these years, but hearing it now as an official aboveground release is almost like hearing it for the first time. In the first place, most folks only have the second half of the two-CD set -- the electric half featuring a contentious audience clapping rudely and calling him "Judas" and a defiant Dylan and band slashing through their set as if with razor-sharp machetes instead of guitars. The tension is so palpable here that if that "Soy Bomb" guy had hopped onstage at this show, Dylan would have ripped off his head and peed down his neck.
Live 1966 fortunately adds Dylan's opening solo acoustic performance that perfectly sets up the madness that follows. This record is a sharp reminder that rock & roll was once dangerous, not sure yet whether it was art, and uncomfortable with the notion that it was commerce. It's befuddling, frustrating, amazing, provocative. How many albums these days inspire such conflicting emotions as opposed to merely telling us how to feel? Damn few, that's for sure.
One that comes close, though, is Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. There are many faults in pop music today, and perfectionism isn't usually one of them. Yet it was Williams' obsessive recording and re-recording of this album that kept her out of sight for five years -- several lifetimes, given today's average musician's career span. Car Wheels was worth the wait, though, thanks to songs of exquisite longing such as "Still I Long For Your Kiss" and "Right in Time." Beyond Williams' memorable melodies and lived-in voice, her songs contain such vivid sights, smells and sounds -- a needle piercing skin, breakfast cooking on the stove and, yes, car wheels on a gravel road -- that it's impossible not to imagine yourself into her world.
Another album that inexorably draws you into another time and space is Robbie Robertson's Contact from the Underworld of Redboy (Capitol). On the one hand, it's a roots move for Robertson, who chronicles his rediscovery of his Indian heritage by collaborating with residents of the Six Nations Reservation in southern Ontario. But it's an exciting musical journey as well, as Robertson combines native rhythms, chants and legends with up-to-date electronica courtesy of Howie B, Marius DeVries and DJ Premier.
It took me an unusually long time to warm up to Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Sony). The Fugees' popularity, after all, is mostly based on a couple of hit covers. Once I was able to hear the album on its own terms, though, it became a favorite -- warm, wise and full of genuine emotion. Hill's voice is gorgeous, too, and "That Thing" is the year's most irresistible single. Speaking of gorgeous voices, Rufus Wainwright scored 1998's most impressive debut with his self-titled release (on DreamWorks), which sounds like a recently uncovered artifact from earlier in this century. Inspired as much by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter as say, by his parents, singer/ songwriters Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle, Wainwright's songs of love and longing such as "Danny Boy," "Baby" and "Imaginary Love" are stunningly beautiful thanks to his sonorous voice and Van Dyke Parks' exacting arrangements.
Winner of this year's Ralph Ellison "I yam what I yam" award is the Mavericks' Raul Malo, who fully embraced his Cuban heritage on the group's gorgeous Trampoline (MCA). It died on country radio -- but then, Latin horns, lively percussion and songs with the word "mambo" in the title will do that to an album. It's country's loss. An even more drastic roots exploration is Los Super Seven's self-titled album (on RCA), which delves into the Mexican heritage of the supergroup's members. Featured on this marvelous acoustic disc are Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, accordion great Flaco Jimenez, country singers Freddy Fender and Rick Trevino, rocker Joe Ely and singer Ruben Ramos.
Rounding out my Top 10 this year are Olu Dara's In the World: From Natchez to New York (Atlantic), an intriguing synthesis of jazz, blues, funk, folk and African styles. Dara is a leading light of New York's downtown jazz scene (and rapper Nas' dad, no less), but this album is far more organic than that would suggest. There's also Billy Bragg and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue, an extraordinary collaborative effort that resurrects some of Woody Guthrie's long-lost lyrics and puts them in a contemporary context. Would Woody have done it this way? Quite possibly. Finally there's my favorite blast of hard rock this year, Local H's Pack Up the Cats (Island). This Illinois duo is as funny as Ween but far more accessible, and they can play things straight as well. "All the Kids Are Right," which chides ever-fickle alt-rock fans, is the most self-aware rock song since "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
1. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury). An album that continues to live up to its notices, continues to reveal joy, continues to confide secrets you missed the first or 500th time through.