Tom’s Top 5’s: Albums of 1998

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the most gratifying things about this Top 5 Albums project is that, through friends, acquaintances, and fellow online list-makers, I’m discovering a boatload of new and great music. And the two major recommendations for 1998 were Neutral Milk Hotel and Elliott Smith.

I have to say, after three listens and some intensive lyric-reading, I am singularly unimpressed by In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Jeff Mangum’s fractured poetry, deep-seated sexual repression, and amateurish musicianship are kind of fascinating – for whatever reason (probably the repression) I’m reminded strongly of Henry Darger. But Rolling Stone‘s original review (one of the few less-than-effusive reviews I was able to find) captures my feelings pretty well: “Mangum [goes] straight for the advanced course in aura and texture, skipping basic training in form and selfediting… the clattering drums, trombones and impasto of underwater guitar fuzz mask the absence of a decent melody.” Spot-on for once, Rolling Stone. I suppose I can just add it to that list (which also, as per yesterday’s Top 5, includes OK Computer) of Albums Everybody Loves But That Tom Will Never Quite Understand and let it go.

Elliott Smith is another matter, however. I’d heard of him, of course, great things about him, but (as so often happens with good music) I had never found time to listen to him. Now, granted, I started with 1997’s Either/Or instead of 1998’s XO; and granted, I’ve actually only heard two-thirds of Either/Or as of writing (indeed, I’m listening as I type). But I can already tell you this: in 3:43, “Alameda” speaks to me about four times as deeply as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea does in 39:55. He reminds me of Nick Drake in a number of ways – and if you know how much I adore Nick Drake (hint: I ADORE NICK DRAKE), that is a very, very good thing. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

5. FEELING STRANGELY FINE (Semisonic)

Feeling Strangely Fine

Monster hit “Closing Time” may open Semisonic’s second album, but this is hardly a case of a one-hit wonder front-loading their one decent (in this case more than decent) song. Dan Wilson’s hooky 90s guitar rock and clever lyrics (occasionally too clever – see: the cringe-inducing chorus of “Completely Pleased”) make this a rich listen from start to finish. Let’s just say it’ll leave you feeling strangely fine? Okay, I’ll stop.

4. FIN DE SIÉCLE (The Divine Comedy)

Fin de Siècle

You’d have thought the Divine Comedy couldn’t sound any bigger than they did on A Short Album About Love. You’d have been wrong, as the majestic “The Certainty of Chance” and the bombastic “Sweden” attest. Indeed, while albums to follow would reveal Neil Hannon’s command of subtlety, Fin de Siècle operates primarily on either the “majestic” or the “bombastic” setting, as the subject matter requires. Good thing Neil’s so talented, otherwise it all might come off as a bit ridiculous. (I mean, it does, but…)

3. MAYBE YOU’VE BEEN BRAINWASHED TOO (The New Radicals)

Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too

“New Radicals” is a bit of a misnomer; Gregg Alexander is a classicist through and through. In the wake of grunge and the rise of the post-grunge (or whatever genre Nickelback is), though, perhaps nothing could’ve been more radical than to return to rock’s roots and make an album of joyous, hook-laden soul/pop/rock that takes its cues from the Rolling Stones and classic Motown but still manages to sound modern.

2. THE BOY WITH THE ARAB STRAP (Belle & Sebastian)

The Boy with the Arab Strap

Belle & Sebastian’s third album is simultaneously more wistful and more exuberant than If You’re Feeling Sinister – “Is It Wicked Not to Care” is so fragile and gorgeous it almost floats away, while “Dirty Dream #2” sports a Motown string arrangement and the title track rolls forward on a swinging electric piano and hand claps. That means it’s not quite as focused as Sinister, but Stuart Murdoch’s ineffable, summer’s afternoon melancholia is still inescapable and beautiful.

1. MOON SAFARI (Air)

Moon Safari

French duos make the best electronica. Moon Safari isn’t electronica as you’d ever heard it though. It’s a record with one foot planted firmly in the past of 60s French film music and another stepping boldly into a synthesized future, owing more to ELO and Burt Bacharach than Kraftwerk with its lush melodies, string arrangements, and live instrumentation (lots of Fender Rhodes and congas). Seldom have I heard an album that more completely evokes its own little world: soft and warm, yet totally engrossing.

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2 Responses to Tom’s Top 5’s: Albums of 1998

  1. jprobichaud says:

    I’m not necessarily sold on Semisonic or New Radicals (though I do find “You Get What You Give” quite the ear worm) but your other three picks are spot on. I love this top five idea. Thanks for the link.

  2. The first time I heard Belle and Seb was when they did a session on BBC radio DJ John Peel’s show in about 2000. I heard their song ‘A Century of Fakers’ and I found the lyrics so exiting,cool and original I just could not wait to hear more of the band. In these days (inc.’Arab Strap’) they had a kind of shambolic frailty mixed with a grand musical ambition that was cool yet naive, sexy yet innocent.

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