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.
2. Gillian Welch, Hell Among the Yearlings (Almo). Call it Welch's anti-Lilith Fair album, or call it Deis Irae. A feminist edge without fashion or sanctimony, songs that strip away self-obsessions to find a collective nightmare outside of time. A knife through history, a quiet damnation of the violence and isolation of our present day.
3. Mike Ireland and Holler, Learning How to Live (Sub Pop). A document of almost unbearable heartbreak, replete with some of the year's most soaring melodies and sung with a ripe, old-school country tenor that's lived the lies, loves, and fears the songs recount.
4. Chris Whitley, Dirt Floor (Messenger). The singer/songwriter's finest work, sheer and unfiltered. Dirt Floor affirms the power of song and voice, in a day when musical force has become confused with complexity of arrangements and amusing accoutrements.
5. David Murray, Creole (Justin Time). This hard-to-find import by a restless genius has shocking elegance and passion. Murray took his band -- flutist James Newton, pianist D.D. Jackson, bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Billy Hart -- to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and returned with an album unlike anything he's recorded. Bubbling with Latin, Afro-Caribbean and New Orleans strains, Creole weds Murray's mad, gorgeous solos with sexy, swinging arrangements, "world music" completely rewritten.
6. Sandy Denny, Gold Dust: Live at the Royalty (Island). Recorded five months before her death, this concert indicates all the power Denny's voice and vision promised. Although her final studio albums for Island possessed exceptional songs, the production was fuzzy. On this night in London, those songs come into focus. Denny's vocals are fantastically expressive, veering into jazz intricacy; the band, including Dave Mattacks on drums, Pete Wilsher on pedal steel and Trevor Lucas and Jerry Donahue on guitars, is sympathetic and rocks on demand. Nearly as thrilling a live set as Dylan's Albert Hall gig.
7. Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue (Elektra). Ponder, for a moment, what a failure this collaboration might have been. Take a prole-folk-rocker, a pop roots band and a shoebox of unfinished Woody Guthrie songs, step back, wait ... and the disaster never comes. Instead, the resulting rock & roll is ecstatic, spontaneous and in tune with Guthrie's radical political vision.
8. Matthew Ryan, May Day (A&M). My favorite rock & roll record of the year and, along with Ireland's, the most promising debut. Riding a guitar-smashing band, Ryan sings like a strung-out Springsteen and writes as if he's been listening to too much Bob Dylan. Good thing.
9. Ralph Stanley, Clinch Mountain Country (Rebel). Artist of the century? Consider Ralph Sr., one of bluegrass' founders and still the music's deepest, wisest voice. Two discs of duets with the likes of George Jones, Gillian Welch, Porter Wagoner and Bob Dylan, the whole is cemented by dead-eye bluegrass picking and Stanley's gentle, guiding hand. Another high point in his storied five-decade-long career.
10. Hazel Dickens, Carol Elizabeth Jones, Ginny Hawker, Heart of a Singer (Rounder). A woefully overlooked album, as beautiful as the Trio project by Parton, Harris and Ronstadt but with subtler material and even sweeter vocal ache. Fans of Iris Dement and Gillian Welch need to hear this.
Top five reissues:
1. Miles Davis, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (Columbia)
2. Bob Dylan and the Hawks, Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (Columbia).
3. John Coltrane, The Classic Quartet: Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings (Impulse!)
4. Thelonious Monk, Monk Alone: The Complete Solo Studio Recordings 1962-1968 (Sony)
5. Ray Charles The Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986 (Atlantic)
St. Etienne, Good Humour (Sub Pop). I have been a St. Etienne fan for years, and Good Humour is by far their most accomplished album, both musically and lyrically. Smooth beats, jazzy rhythms and Sarah Cracknell's sweet-and-sexy voice come together without a hitch on each and every song. This is a perfect pop album, and I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.
Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early, It Takes One to Know One (Fat Possum). The very first album from 60-year-old buddies Early and Williams is a rocker and should keep all the "punk" kids on their toes. It Takes One summons the devil with a guitar, harmonica, drums and a big bucket of moonshine.
Godspeed You Black Emperor (Kranky Records). Like shadows stealing the day, Godspeed's atmospheric music can swipe away hope with songs that elicit devastatingly dark, edgy feelings. Awash in droning guitars, Morricone-influenced soundscapes and evocative strains of violin, the Godspeed orchestra surrounds the mind and forces the senses to reel.
Nine Pound Hammer, Live at the Vera (Scooch Pooch Records). Before there was Nashville Pussy there was Nine Pound Hammer. The neo-metal, all-shtick, no-substance rock of Nashville Pussy stinks, but Nine Pound Hammer spun fun, goofy, Southern-styled rock & roll. And they put on a hell of a live show in which music, not stage antics, mattered. Trailer-park-inspired tunes like "Headbangin' Stockboy," "Hayseed Timebomb" and "Redneck Romance" are silly but not insipid. Despite the unnecessarily long version of "Train Kept a Rollin'," the Hammer pound their way through 25 hook-laden tunes on this live CD.
Redd Volkaert, Telewacker (HMG/ Hightone Records). Canadian native Volkaert is Merle Haggard's lead guitarist, and his fancy pickin' and fast fretwork will appeal to the guitar nerd in everybody. Telewacker, his first effort, is filled with fiery blues and hot country licks.
And the awards for the best reissues go to:
Various Artists, Teenage Shutdown Series (Crypt Records). Lost garage-rock gems from unknown '60s bands.
Charlie Feathers, Get with It: Essential Recordings (Revenant). Beautifully packaged and expertly mastered compendium of Feathers' rockabilly and country recordings, including commercial cuts, alternate takes and demos. Essential indeed.