A couple of factors – the current slew of end-of-year lists that keep dropping into our lap, and our current Album of the Week from UNKLE – have led Clash down the avenue marked nostalgia…
UNKLE emerged in 1998 with their ‘Psyence Fiction’ debut album, featuring a wealth of guests. Thinking back, it seems a vintage year for albums, so a spot of Googling and some office chatter (read: e-mails sent between London and Dundee) later and bingo: the ClashMusic.com top ten of 1998… after ten years to REALLY think about it.
Turns out it really was a vintage year…
…But ‘Psycence Fiction’ isn’t making the cut, good as it is. Sorry, James…
- - -
10. Neutral Milk Hotel – ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’
Some readers’ll bitch: “Why isn’t this at number one?” Why? Because a whole lot more will read this, puzzled-of-expressions, thinking: “Who?” Regarded though it is as, basically, one of the greatest albums ever by ear-to-the-ground critics – Pitchfork awarded it 10/10, and AllMusic gives it a perfect score – the Jeff Mangum-led Louisiana group’s second album didn’t exactly set the charts ablaze, and ‘In The Aeroplane…’ became a cult hit. Domino re-issued the album in 2005, presenting it to a new audience (and to those old enough first time around, but a little slow on the uptake), and reawakening the hibernating interest in what holds up today as a beguiling listen. ‘In The Aeroplane…’ took lo-fi recordings into outer space, muddling ingenious pop with psychedelic tendencies in a manner that could only be the product of either a genius or someone with a few wires crossed. Mangum might well have been both.
- - -
9. Pulp – ‘This Is Hardcore’
Sorry, but if you’re of the opinion that ‘Different Class’ is the best-ever album from the Jarvis Cocker-led Sheffield outfit, then you’ve never heard ‘This Is Hardcore’. Not properly, anyway. You’ve never listened beyond the singles – ‘Help The Aged’, ‘Party Hard’, A Little Soul’. You’ve never had ‘The Fear’ creep into your ears, Jarvis snake-hipping his way in deep, all sinister whisper turning explosive in the choruses. You’ve never let the title track fill you up with Bond lustiness, its opening line the none-more-brazen “This is hardcore, you make me hard”. You’re yet to let the gloriousness of closer ‘The Day After The Revolution’ wash over you, cleansing you of the dirt you picked up through tracks one to eleven. Not that you didn’t enjoy every second of the experience, mind. “They say the future’s beginning tonight,” remarks Jarvis as the end nears… but ‘This Is Hardcore’ was Pulp’s truest artistic zenith, never bettered, and the band split after 2001’s ‘We Love Life’.
- - -
8. Air – ‘Moon Safari’
Another band that never released an album as accomplished as their effort in ’98 is Air, the French duo’s first full-length release ubiquitous across television and radio for much of the year. While chill-out records had long been available, few mounted a chart assault quite like ‘Moon Safari’ – ‘Sexy Boy’, ‘Kelly Watch The Stars’ and the sublime, Beth Hirsch-voiced ‘All I Need’ all broke into the UK top 40, and with director Mike Mills on board, Nicholas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel produced some of the most striking videos of the era. The band’s name was actually arrived at as an acronym, standing for Amour, Imagination and Rêve, translatable as Love, Imagination and Dream. Seems appropriate, given the music.
- - -
7. Elliott Smith – ‘XO’
Elliott Smith’s first major-label album, his fourth in all, took the Portland-based singer’s talents to a brand-new audience, one that’s continued to grow even since his death in 2003. One of modern music’s most lamented figures, Smith’s natural talent shines on ‘XO’, as his hugely personal lyricism is combined with arrangements that saunter in a most joyous manner – see opener ‘Sweet Adeline’ for an example of this exquisite balance between vocal melancholy and compositional vociferousness. There’s almost a baroque feel to some of ‘XO’, as Smith’s new relationship with producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf began to bear fruits. The trio would again work together on 2000’s ‘Figure 8’, the last record Smith finished prior to his death.
- - -
6. Refused – ‘The Shape Of Punk To Come’
The clue might well be in the album’s name: this was hardcore, but not as anyone knew it. With its titular nod to jazz legend Ornette Coleman’s 1959 record ‘The Shape of Jazz To Come’, and its members’ huge focus on philosophy (specifically with regard to how hardcore was no longer a musical force for change and progress, but one that had become absorbed by the mainstream and made into a commodity), the Swedish four-piece’s final album remains to this day one of the most powerful punk-rock albums ever made. Scratch punk-rock actually – what this was… was something that’d never been as brilliantly realised before, mixing jazz with techno, rock with drum and bass, politics with fuck-off huge riffs. Sure, Refused borrowed from Nation of Ulysses (and maybe Ink & Dagger), and concentrated hard on looking the part as well as playing it, but their swansong release has proved to be massively influential to a great many acts of today. Put it on in 2008 and the hairs still stand to attention, the skin electrified. (Read their ‘Refused Are Fucking Dead’ letter, released when they split, HERE.)
- - -
5. Beastie Boys – ‘Hello Nasty’
A number one album almost across the board, most importantly in both the UK and the groups’ native US, ‘Hello Nasty’ found the Beasties returning to more straight-up hip-hop beats and pieces, the rock sounds of ‘Sabotage’ et al a thing of the past. This shift had as much to do with the welcoming to the fold of DJ Mix Master Mike as it did the mood of the trio of Ad-Rock, Mike D and MCA – the turntablist’s award-winning cuts brought additional bite to the band’s trademark rap interplay. That said, the 22-track album featured a fair few departures from any ‘traditional’ sound, with guests including Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Miho Hatori working on efforts toying with dub and bossa nova. Closer ‘Instant Death’ finds Ad-Rock, aka Adam Horowitz, singing softly of the death of a good friend, so party times throughout ‘Hello Nasty’ most certainly was not. But when it dropped its beats, those beats were the fattest, leading to one of the band’s most-loved hits…
- - -
4. Mercury Rev – ‘Deserter’s Songs’
New York outfit Mercury Rev’s fourth studio album came after many a year of ups and downs – 1995’s ‘See You On The Other Side’ was a patchy affair, vocalist Jonathan Donahue only just settling into the role vacated by David Baker, and various drugs-related issues had plagued the group since their inception. ‘Deserter’s Songs’ took the band overground like never before, making its members recognisable to the public, warts and all. NME went all out for the album, naming it their best of the year – with tracks like ‘Goddess On A Hiway’ and Opus 40’, it’s hard to disagree with them (we say, and then glance below). Commercially it was an unexpected hit, its makers assuming it’d flop on that front in the manner of its predecessor. Rumours prior to the record’s release were that Mercury Rev would finish their fourth album and then split, but ten years and four other albums later, they’re still going strong, and that’s thanks to ‘Deserter’s Songs’. It made Mercury Rev into the band they are today – one at home on big stages, yet up close and personal when played in the comfort of one’s own home.
- - -
3. Beck – ‘Mutations’
So, how to follow a multi-million selling second album of genre eschewing progressive-pop that’s turned you into a megastar? Easy, of course: you write another album that takes a dozen templates and shatters them, only it does it in a more understated, mature manner, and subsequently sells a fraction of what its predecessor did. Like, d’uh, the general public. Beck played around with tropicalia sounds – on the appropriately titled ‘Tropicalia’ – and explored bossa nova and country rock like never before. ‘Mutations’ emerged as scattershot as 1996’s ‘Odelay’, but found the artist plumbing emotional depths never before expressed on record, at least not to the mainstream. ‘Nobody’s Fault But My Own’, a Japan-only single, is one example of this, and a sign perhaps of what was to come on the gloriously down-tempo 2002 album ‘Sea Change’. Of course, it did wacky pop too – no track called ‘Cold Brains’ is going to be all that serious.
- - -
2. Eels – ‘Electro-Shock Blues’
This album’s Wikipedia entry perhaps says all you need to know: ‘Electro-Shock Blues’ is considered by fans of the band to be their magnum opus. Written after lynchpin Mark ‘E’ Everett’s sister committed suicide and his mother died of lung cancer, it’s one of the most arrestingly aching records ever recorded. But it could be no other way, Everett coming to terms with being the only surviving member of his immediate family – he’d been the one who’d discovered the body of his father in 1982, after he’d suffered a fatal heart attack. Depressing, though, it’s not – at least not come its climax. Though we crawl through ‘Dead Of Winter’ and ‘My Descent Into Madness’, the record’s parting shot of ‘P.S. You Rock My World’ couldn’t be any more sweet after such a sour sequence of events. Its final line: “Maybe it’s time to live.” The album’s singles were among the album’s most-upbeat efforts, too, including this track…
- - -
1. Massive Attack – ‘Mezzanine’
Didn’t see it coming? Neither did critics in 1998 when Bristol trip-hop troupe Massive Attack (pictured, top) pulled this out of whatever hat they were keeping their most evil-eyed rabbits in. Um… or something. Basically this album, the group’s third studio offering, tore up the trip-hop rule book that they wrote with their ’91 debut, ‘Blue Lines’. Where before the band employed jazz motifs and brought dub-influenced beats to the fore, here their recording desk saw all levels pushed upwards, beyond ‘dread’ and ‘asphyxiation’ to something quite… else. Simply, they captured on record the unbearable tension of a thousand suspense flicks, building layer upon layer of mechanical sounds and chattering percussion into a whole that seeped into the blood and painted the back of your eyes jet black. Regular cohort Horace Andy crops up on a few tracks, but the likes of ‘Angel’ and ‘Man Next Door’ are a far cry from the ‘Protection’-era offering of ‘Spying Glass’, and ‘One Love’ before that. Here, the roots reggae singer is near drowned-out by an atmosphere of utmost heaviness. 'Mezzanine' is the sound of evil in your room: you can't see nor feel it, yet, but you can sure as shit hear it's coming your way...
- - -
‘Mezzanine’ the best album of 1998? Maybe? Maybe not? Tell us your favourite albums from a decade ago – register with ClashMusic.com by clicking HERE.