By Bob McMahon
By Allison Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By Carolina de Busto
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
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.
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.