Perfect Circles

The RFT music editor advises you on his favorite music of 1998

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.

Ransom: $385.

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).

Reservations: None.
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)
Reservations: None
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.

Ransom: $430.

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.

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