NME's Top 50 Albums of 1998
1: MERCURY REV
Deserter's Songs (V2)
Three years after collapsing under the weight of sustained substance abuse and mental problems, Mercury Rev finally re-emerged in 1998 with this: their fourth and greatest interstellar voyage. Awestruck and beautiful, it offered 100 years of American music condensed into 45 symphonic and deeply melodic minutes. Truly, here was a rock band you could believe in.
2: BEASTIE BOYS
Hard to credit that men so old and serious can still produce a record this fresh and exciting, but the three rap musketeers did it again. Bossa nova balladry, spaced-out electronica, turbo-charged hip-hop, raps both deft and daft, salsa: with 'Hello Nasty' the Beasties delivered their most complete musical statement, and did so wearing white boiler suits. Tidy work, lads.
Performed so wholeheartedly by everyone's fave erstwhile cosmic bush baby that Geffen felt compelled to prise it from the paws of his original indie patrons. Understandable, because 'Mutations' proved Beck is more than just (just!) a super-smart ironist with access to The Dust Brothers' sample stash. He sings, he sighs, we fall in love. Again.
Moon Safari (Source/Virgin)
The LP that coalesced late-'90s fetishes for lush old soundtracks, sugary exotica, Moog keyboards, French techno and comedown ambience into one highly desirable 'retro-futurist' package. And even though 'Moon Safari' became the CD of choice for This Life-style middle-youthers, no social stigma could detract from its precision loveliness.
5: MASSIVE ATTACK
Ten years since Smiley face culture and Massive Attack, wasted and wounded, soundtrack the flipside of an era, evoking an aura of morning after a decade spent floored. It's the post-traumatic stress disorders of the chemical generation soaked in dub and menace. It's a record that asks, 'It's 5am, do you know who you are?'
6: ELLIOTT SMITH
Either / Or (Domino)
Smith saw his entire solo career thus far compressed into a summer in the UK this year, with the rapid release of all four of his LPs. This, the third, was the pick: pure tales of love and drugs from a beaten-up Beatles fan who never took his woolly hat off. The old acoustic-toting singer-songwriter schtick has rarely been evoked so gracefully.
This Is Hardcore (Island)
An act of career sabotage cunningly disguised as Pulp's mightiest album so far. A turbulent journey from despair, to hard-won hope and halfway back again, 'This Is Hardcore' cemented Jarvis' reputation as one of his generation's finest lyricists and contained some fantastic low-key music. A different class, even from 'Different Class'.
8: ROYAL TRUX
Surrounded by dysfunctional cats and gun freaks in their mountain hideaway in Virginia, the now-clean Royal Trux managed to fashion the rawest, most futuristic rock'n'roll album of the year. A lean and punkadelic experience, 'Accelerator' was one in the eye for all those who predicted that the Trux would be dead by the middle of the decade.
9: JURASSIC 5
Jurassic 5 (Pan)
While most hip-hop moved ever closer to the R&B mainstream, '98 saw the underground retreat to the old skool for inspiration. No-one captured the anti-gangsta vibe better than California's Jurassic 5: four dextrous rappers, two deft DJs and the least annoying display of extreme positivity in living memory. The Kings of Dadrap, amazingly.
Like Weather (Rephlex)
This was made in Leila's bedroom but you couldn't get less lo-fi. Imagine instead a record lost in the triangle of Prince, Tricky and Aphex Twin and you come close to this former sidekick of Björk's sparkling debut. Played all the instruments herself, got her sister and mates to sing. What on earth can we expect when she gets into a studio?
Good Morning Spider (Parlophone)
In which Mark Linkous, back on his feet after dying for a few minutes and spending months in a wheelchair, goes back home to Virginia and makes an LP as a celebration of a fragile life. Hence hello birds, hello trees, hello insects. And hence hello a warped and utterly affecting take on 'new country'.
The Good Will Out (Hut)
When the McNamara brothers last year set themselves the modest target of emulating their Gallagher counterparts, there were sneers aplenty. But they put their music where their mouths were on this debut, and you just can't argue with sublime anthemic tunes like 'Fireworks' and 'My Weakness'. Mourning glory anyone?
13: SIX BY SEVEN
The Things We Make (Mantra)
Six By Seven's 'Things...' were experiments in tension and release; slithering drones and euphoric lift-offs, the sound of a rocket being launched in slo-mo and exploding in cataclysmic white heat. The closest '98 got to The New Music, in fact, all wrapped up in Satan's own saxophones. Monumental.
There's Something Going On (Echo)
A sombre samba on the grave of Stephen Jones' career as a pop songwriter with nothing even faintly resembling 'You're Gorgeous'. 'There's Something Going On' is the harrowing sound of a man driven berserk by night-time TV and soap powder adverts. In short, a great big, bad tempered beauty.
15: BELLE & SEBASTIAN
The Boy With The Arab Strap (Jeepster)
Belle & Seb's scorn for the music business is put to imaginative use on this, their third LP, but there's some heart-gladdening ditties about stroke victims and Asian cab drivers here too. Scotland's premier folk-pop octet keep composing albums of unimpeachable beauty, and it's maddeningly great.
16: BOARDS OF CANADA
Music Has The Right To Children (Warp)
A thing of great, if slightly distorted, beauty. Edinburgh's BOC surfaced with an alluring tribute to those hazy half-memories of children's TV; Bagpuss viewed through frosted panes. Sometimes drowsy, but always gently thrilling, this was a fascinating debut. As they used to say, spellbinding.
17: ARAB STRAP
Philophobia (Chemikal Underground)
It meant 'afraid of falling in love'. But on every other aspect of relationships, the Strap's second LP was unflinching: their real-life tales of sexual and emotional dysfunction backed with a musical beauty. In an irony they might richly appreciate, this album does go on slightly too long.
Featuring 'Birds' (Domino)
Otherwise known as the gilded Elliott Smith's backing band, Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss almost equalled their erstwhile singer in wise and battered emotionalism. Quasi, though, are less conventional, scoring their Big Starrish pop for big drums and a wheezing fuzz organ. Used to be married to each other, if that matters.
19: THE AFGHAN WHIGS
Having failed to drink (or drug) himself to death in the early part of 1997, Greg Dulli cleaned himself up and summoned the rest of The Afghan Whigs to New Orleans. The result was the impeccable '1965' album, songs of wired sexual abandon and razor-slashed soul that aimed for the groin, but ended up stealing your heart. And then breaking it.
20: FATBOY SLIM
You've Come A Long Way, Baby (Skint)
The Artist Formerly Known As Quentin was the toast of the skanking classes this year, simply by virtue of understanding that people in dance clubs often want to actually dance, rather than pick their noses or stroke their chins. Shamelessly Smiley-faced vibes made this the communal club sound of 1998.
21: LO-FIDELITY ALLSTARS
How To Operate With A Blown Mind (Skint)
In a masterful stroke of self-mythologising, Dave became 'The Wrekked Train', Phil 'The Albino Priest', so the Lo-Fi's could give us a fractured glimpse of urban life, told in a puzzling argot. Tortured by demons, they added depth to a stoned life, and hinted that their paranoid battle was only just beginning.
22: LAURYN HILL
The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (Columbia)
Quite simply, there has been no hip-hop album this year with greater intelligence or soul. Where fellow Fugees Pras and Wyclef have produced slack, benjamins-grabbing disappointments, Lauryn Hill has given life to a witty, beat-strewn treatise on modern sexual mores, karmic retribution and loving her kid. Respect.
Hope Is Important (Food)
After the 'Captain' mini-album in January, Idlewild bobbed deep into the Proper Tunes And All barrel for their debut LP proper. 'I'm A Message' and '...You're So Fragile' were hairy-toothed punkoid classics at birth and 'Hope Is Important' rocked half of Glasgow underwater. Now bandage your ears.
24: MANIC STREET PREACHERS
This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours (Epic)
The scent, scalpels and Situationism now just a faded Polaroid, the Manics came in solemn and indignant; the still yearning Nicky Wire polemics still resonating. Get over the soft metalisms, and realise that a working-class hero really is something to be.
Without You I'm Nothing (Hut)
Liked girls after all, then. Harmed by drugs, hounded by stalkers, obsessed with breasts. And that was just the lyrics. Musically, Placebo's second opus was a more brutal beast: part Midget Manson mewling for attention, part Mighty Molko dispelling his ghosts, but all a beautifully fucked-up noiz.
'Experimental', apparently. In reality, though, the three-piece REM's much-hyped new direction amounted to a tendency towards introspection and the belated discovery that musical instrument innovation didn't quite end with the guitar. Still, an object lesson in how to stimulate and retain your dignity as your appeal becomes a little more selective.
Ray Of Light (Sire)
In need of a cred makeover after a decade spent floundering from nude photos to musicals and motherhood, Mads handed the surgeon's knife to William Orbit. His elegant dance-pop sound the backdrop for her most soulful vocals and personal lyrics to date - the material girl becomes the maternal woman, and still no stretchmarks.
Live At The Royal Albert Hall (Dedicated)
Recorded on October 10, 1997, this wasn't so much a live album as devout testament to a soul-on-fire religious experience in the Spiritualized revivalist tent. For the faithful, another chance to hear Jason Pierce and friends play the heavens down; for infidels, further opportunity for zealous conversion.
29: BOB DYLAN
Live 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert (Columbia)
Not recorded at the RAH, either, but the eventual release of the most famous ever bootleg puts most of '98's 'proper' LPs into unforgiving perspective. When The Hawks step up and Bob starts stamping and the crowd's invective builds to quaking point, it's the sound of pure cultural revolution.
International Velvet (Blanco Y Negro)
If 1998 was Welsh rock's annus mirabilis, then Catatonia were the first to carry the torch back in January. Cerys Matthews had the necessary star quality to light up Top Of The Pops, hits like 'Road Rage' saw them start residing in the Top Ten. And basically, tonsils like hers couldn't be denied.
31: BLACK BOX RECORDER
England Made Me (Hut)
Biting the hand that fed him an English childhood of Sunday nausea and repressed relations, bile guru Luke Haines returned with this dank dissection of a grey way of life. Narrated with psychotic froideur by Sarah Nixey, hanging with the Home Counties boys has rarely been so chilling.
32: ELLIOTT SMITH
The sad-looking man in the woolly hat at his lushest and most vicious. For his fourth album, and major label debut, 1998's most ubiquitous balladeer largely abandoned the solo acoustic routine for a fuller, warmer band sound to embrace his most pointedly bitter and vengeful songs yet.
Precious Falling (Domino)
'Bustin' And Dronin'' was Blur's way of describing their experimental departures. But for Tom Cullinan, the phrase describes an entire way of life: a turbulent mixture of the placid hum and the beautiful explosion. And that's the great thing about Krautrock method. If it works, no-one minds if you do it again.
34: JEFF BUCKLEY
Sketches (For My Sweetheart The Drunk) (Columbia)
It was small consolation for his death, but at least 'Sketches...' was a chance to hear the unfinished songs that raced through Buckley's mercurial mind. An album steeped in mixed feelings: undoubted sorrow at what might have been, yet joy this music existed at all.
Celebrity Skin (Universal)
Or, how a self-styled walking study in demonology actually became a worldwide star. The music's stepped up a tier, too: the piledriving thrust of the year's most vengeful single joining some oddly affecting soft rock and nursery ballads on an album that smugly coos, 'Told you so'. Class.
36: KID LOCO
A Grand Love Story (East West/Yellow)
An ex-punk rocker with a passion for the herb and a hatred of Air, Kid Loco's part in 1998's French Dance Revolution was understated but still rather sublime. Strings swept, beats were funky and, on 'Love Me Sweet', even vocalist Katrina Pastel succumbed to his Gallic savoir-faire. Once again, let's hear it for The Kid.
37: THE THIRD EYE FOUNDATION
You Guys Kill Me (Domino)
As 'electronica' swiftly became the year's least meaningful generic appendage, here was its saving grace: an instrumental LP more eloquent than a thousand words could ever be - Matt Elliott traversed the musical globe without leaving his house, revealing Bristol as the epicentre of England's troubled soul.
Psyence Fiction (Mo'Wax)
Three years and umpteen untold traumas in the making, James Lavelle and DJ Shadow's grand scheme could so easily have turned into grand folly. But Lavelle's vision and Shadow's dizzying production skills, plus a little help from Messrs Yorke, Ashcroft and D, won the day with a breathlessly eclectic record.
39: THE BOO RADLEYS
Back from the Kooky Canyon that was 'C'Mon Kids', Martin Carr settled down to simply Do The Boos. The result was a luscious, languid, hour-long 'Lazarus' adorned with the strings of a swooping Apollo, the horns of a thunderous Zeus and the scatterbeats of, er, Aphex Twin apparently. Godsize. No less.
40: SONIC YOUTH
A Thousand Leaves (Geffen)
The bare bones of the beast remain the same - the contorted guitar, the labyrinthine structures and, yes, the missus wailing - but once again the wonderfully sonic Youth revealed itself. Something in the huge scope. Something in the sly tuneage. And, yeah, something in the guitar, the structures, and the wailing...
In the shadowy world of post rock and experimental electronica, a raft of German bands made the running this past year. Best of all were Tarwater, two stern men in suits from Berlin with a song about geological expeditions on the Baltic coast. "We had to find a watersample": that was their catchphrase.
Nu-Clear Sounds (Infectious)
Reaction stations! Ash - increased to the tune of one guitarist in the shape of Charlotte Hatherley, and equipped for the shapes of things to come in the person of a remixer - arrived to 1998 with teenage angst a mere memory and a customised sound at their fingertips. Noise. Thunder. And, critically, massive.
Open Transport (Spymania)
He asked: 'Do You Want To Be Murdered?' And really, MDK asked with good reason, for this is a scary glimpse into the mad staring eyes of drill'n'bass. 'Open Transport' arrives serenely enough, then detonates with a terrible efficiency. A bloke called Martin's behind it. Somehow you don't want to meet him.
44: GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR!
Glockenspiel, cello, slow creeping apocalypse realistically, Toronto's Godspeed were never going to owe a great debt to Weller. 'f#a#(infinity)' dragged Kranky's space-rock remit in a whole new direction: out to the desert to be eaten by buzzards. The name was obscure, the genius clear.
Version 2.0 (Mushroom)
The Butch Vig masterplan reaches stage two. Twisted, brimming with sexual portend and excoriating technological barrage, this was a manual for love in the age of the replicant. Alienating, but filled with a uniquely human spirit: this was, truly, how the future was meant to feel.
End Hits (Dischord)
Still ideologically pure, but now with added feeling: Fugazi's fifth album in ten crusading years has all the righteousness and storm-tossed guitars you'd expect from hardcore's heroes. But with maturity has come a lightness of touch, some dub dustings and even, possibly, a song about lost love. Remarkable.
Breaking God's Heart (Too Pure)
They were the New Loser's champions. You gave Darren Hayman 'wedgies' at school and in return he gave us a sublime album: strum-a-bye tunes of heartbreak and shame with a lump in its throat and its sports kit on top of the bus shelter. Lots of girls involved, no blemishes. How times change.
Bring It On (Hut)
Bring on the awards and the massive sales. The Stockport Señors may have blazed no new trails, but their inspired gumbo of blues, beats and growling revisited traditional music and gave it a vibrantly new lease of life. As performed by the most-successful of the Stoolrock honchos, animal-wise, this was donkey and sombrero. Not pony and trap.
Script for a jester's what? Quite possibly the rock world's most whoppingly bad idea, equally possibly a work of some sly conceptual thinking, Mansun returned with big, big schemes. Opera themes. Tom Baker. Singing dachshunds. And we're only joking about one of these. Remember: the rock opera ain't over, 'til Paul Draper sings.
50: ROBBIE WILLIAMS
I've Been Expecting You (Chrysalis)
Press you to a zeitgeist, sir? The canny knack Robbie and songwriting partner Guy Chambers have of prowling the border between indie roots and mass entertainment here reached new levels of sophistication. Just as well, because next year, expect not to move for 'Millennium'. That's entertainment, apparently.