The 30 Best Albums of 1998

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alejandro-e-miles.jpg 20. Alejandro Escovedo: More Miles Than Love: Live
Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Lou Reed’s Street Hassle were brilliant examples of how chamber-music strings could be incorporated into a nerve-jangling rock ‘n’ roll band, and Alejandro Escovedo used their examples to create the best chamber-rock album of all, this compilation of live performances, a miracle of personal catharsis and harmonic grandeur. Escovedo’s spectral tenor and the great Joe Eddy Hines’s barbed guitar establish the agitated dissatisfaction behind each song, but Brian Standefer’s cello and David Perales’s violin supply the legato notes that offer some hope—just out of reach but there nonetheless. The 12-minute, album-closing medley of Escovedo’s vertigo-inducing “Gravity” and Reed’s “Street Hassle” may well be the decade’s high point. —Geoffrey Himes

mercury-rev-deserter.jpg 19. Mercury Rev: Deserter’s Songs
Mercury Rev’s fourth album was the great turning point for an already great band. After three albums of gloriously unhinged psychedelia, founding members Jonathan Donahue and Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak upended their sound, aiming for songs that were deceptively simple but contained depths of feeling inside lush sonic backdrops. The psych elements remained, they were just tempered by an interested in rustic folk-rock (Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band both make notable appearances) and a glassy-eyed pop sensibility. Add to the mix the sharp production of Dave Fridmann, who also contributed instrumentally to the project, and Mercury Rev came away with a sweeping yet intimate work that inspired a new generation of songwriters with an eye toward slow-burning beauty. —Robert Ham

silver-jews-american.jpg 18. Silver Jews: American Water
When you’re debating which Silver Jews album is the best, there’s a great argument for pretty much all of them. It’s really hard to vote against American Water, though. David Berman’s songwriting is as strong as it ever got on songs like “Random Rules,” “People” and “Blue Arrangements,” which are full of his inspired wordplay and swaddled in his melancholy mien without ever getting too precious or cloying about either. Original member Stephen Malkmus returned to sing on a few songs with Berman, and their voices complement each other as well as they did on 1994’s Starlite Walker. American Water is where Berman truly came into his own as a bandleader. —Garrett Martin

sparklehorse-spider.jpg 17. Sparklehorse: Good Morning Spider
It’s hard to imagine that Sparklehorse would have ended up on a major label at any other time than in the ’90s, when the majors were engaged in what was essentially an indie-rock scavenger hunt inspired by the success of grunge. Sparklehorse’s second album was a reflection of mastermind Mark Linkous’s recovery from a near-fatal overdose in 1996 that left his legs temporarily paralyzed. Good Morning Spider is at once harrowing and beautiful on songs that are alternately quiet and sad, and gleefully abrasive. Linkous subverted the upbeat, poppy feel of “Chaos of the Galaxy/Happy Man” with long bursts of radio static, and veered throughout the album from noisy, chaotic guitars to whispery vocals and spare, mournful accompaniment. Cathartic though it must have been to make, Good Morning Spider was the work of a man unable to escape his pain. Linkous, who suffered from depression, managed two more albums as Sparklehorse before committing suicide in 2010. —Eric R. Danton

air-moon-safari.jpg 16. Air: Moon Safari
The first album from Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin, the two French record collectors and synth nerds at the core of Air, felt like the soundtrack to hushed moments acted out in a wood-paneled basement—the billowing analog melodies and cooing vocals serving as supple flesh to be stroked and marveled at, the unhurried pace of the rhythms like lingering glances. In other words: it’s a damn sexy album. While firmly planted in the modern electronic era, Moon Safari was born from the pioneering work of experimentalists like Mort Garson, Suzanne Ciani and Jean-Jacques Perrey (with whom Air co-wrote the song “Remember”). In that way, the album had the warm, welcoming embrace of vintage European pop but of a stripe that tried to imagine the future that Air was now in. Retro-retro pop for the discerning musical aesthete. —Robert Ham

beck-mutations.jpg 15. Beck: Mutations
After the breakout success of Odelay in 1996, Beck’s label Geffen decided to release the follow-up, Mutations, rather quietly since he had completely changed his sound between records, the first of many attempts to subvert expectations. Mutations sounds dusty and lo-fi in places, wild and reckless in others, In particular, the bossa nova of “Tropicalia” and the hypnotizing sitar of “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” mix up the sounds and emotions of this mostly acoustic affair, peeling back early-career layers of bravado and insouciance with a startling range of songcraft. If it all seemed a little off-the-cuff, the presence of producer Nigel Godrich, who had just helmed Radiohead’s OK Computer, ensured a clean, lush finished product. Godrich’s mellow production style set up listeners for Sea Change three years later. —Ross Bonaime

pg-flaming-red.jpg 14. Patty Griffin: Flaming Red
Patty Griffin’s 1996 debut, Living With Ghosts, announced the arrival of a new talent on the folk scene, but Flaming Red, with it’s frenetic opening title track, let us all know that she could rock too. With a little help from friends Emmylou Harris and Buddy and Julie Miller, the album was a departure from her quiet debut, but the songwriting chops were still there on songs like “Tony,” about a gay high-schooler who took his life, and “One Big Love,” a soaring ode to taking chances and living life to the fullest. The ballads were there too, lifted by Griffin’s peerless voice. No singer is better at conveying the urgency of her emotions, especially as she remembers a departed friend on “Goodbye”: “And I wonder where you are/ And if the pain ends when you die/ And I wonder if there was/ Some better way to say goodbye.” —Josh Jackson

goodie-mob-still-standing.jpg 13. Goodie Mob: Still Standing
As they exploded from the gates full of angst and urgency, the four-man group of CeeLo, Khujo, T-Mo and Big Gipp coined the phrase “The Dirty South,” rapping about brutal and beautiful truths of ’hood life in southwest Atlanta. Along with friends and collaborators OutKast (who guest on the track “Black Ice”), the Dungeon Family and producers Organized Noize, Goodie Mob started a bona-fide ATL-based musical revolution. The music was live and organic, and the lyrics were angsty, anti-authoritarian diatribes speaking truth to power in the most poetic way. Still Standing captured the frustration, alienation and desperation of black youth at that particular time and place in America. —Steve LaBate

cat-power-moon-pix.jpg 12. Cat Power: Moon Pix
Not many albums are best known for their origin story, but when Chan Marshall had a hallucinatory nightmare while sleeping in a farmhouse and then wrote most of Moon Pix to distract herself that night and the next day, well, that kind of creative whirlwind has staying power. Recorded in Melbourne with two-thirds of Australian band Dirty Three (whose own 1998 album Ocean Songs almost made this list), Moon Pix was a breakthrough for Cat Power. These tracks are eerie, gorgeous and raw. On album opener “American Flag,” she sings, “My new friend / plays drums all the time / Her magic heart / feels everything.” That phrase—”her magic heart feels everything”—is a better descriptor of Chan Marshall on this album than anything I can think of. It’s an emotional tidal wave disguised in quiet strums of electric guitar. —Josh Jackson

bb-wilco-mermaid-ave.jpg 11. Billy Bragg and Wilco: Mermaid Avenue
The combination of Woody Guthrie’s calls for social justice, Billy Bragg’s snarling vocals and Wilco’s folk-indebted roots rock complement each other beautifully on this tribute to the folk legend. The British singer/songwriter and the American band had access to thousands of sets of complete lyrics that the troubadour had written between 1939 and 1967, thanks to Guthrie’s daughter, Nora. And on songs like the stand-out “California Stars,” they seamlessly infuse Woody’s words with modern music, a seemingly insurmountable feat that ended up earning them a Grammy nod and led to a follow-up album. —Hilary Saunders

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