As a critic gets older, certain tasks become more difficult– like trying to show any interest whatsoever in the latest R.E.M. release. But other activities become a breeze, such as making a year-end list of the 10 best records. In the old days I used to spend weeks compiling the list that best defined my affinity for the year’s releases. I’d spend hours at the record store sampling records on other critics’ lists and re-listen to all the records I’d received that year, using a rating system I devised to measure merit. What a waste of time.
The truth of the matter is that no one person can listen to most of the albums released in a year. You’re lucky to get to 10 percent of the major label releases alone. Besides, everyone has different tastes. Who am I to name the 10 best records of the year when I grew up preferring the Monkees to the Beatles? I’ve camped out for Loggins & Messina tickets, for crissakes. I’m no music scholar.
In recent years, however, I’ve devised an ingenious system that guides me toward the compilation of the perfect Top Ten list. The formula, based in part on the exceedingly predictable Village Voice Pazz & Jopp poll (still the one that matters most, even after the critics voted Hole’s “Live Through This” as the best album of 1994), was created to ensure that my list will be topical, diverse, tasteful and thought-provoking. Plus, it would make me come off as a hip scribe, not someone who has to turn away and wince when he notices that someone on MTV has a pierced tongue.
The way my “Hip Crit” system works is that I simply have to find the albums that fit best into 10 slots. So follow me along as I get this out of the way for another year:
1. The sassy-but-artsy-empowered-black-female slot: Since neither Erykah Badu nor Missy Elliott released new albums in ’98, it’s Lauryn Hill in a landslide, with “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” (Ruffhouse). The one from the Fugees with talent has made the “What’s Goin’ On” of the ski-goggles-in-Bed-Stuy set by mixing songs that work on a la-la level with relentless rap breaks and interludes that take us where most of us have never gone before: an inner city high school. (This CD is a two-fer, as it also fills the “rap-ain’t-all-bad” slot).
2. The took-so-long-it-must-be-a-masterpiece slot: “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” by Lucinda Williams (Mercury). Like Frank Sinatra and Al Michaels, Williams is finding that middle age is a great thing for a voice that used to sound like Stevie Nicks with a severe head cold. Though the LP boasts more city songs than the Randy Newman boxed set and has a major clunker in “Joy,” it’s a wonderful musical map to the soul of a woman. And I rate “Metal Firecracker” with “You Get What You Give” by New Radicals, “Rockafeller Skank” by Fatboy Slim and “California Stars” by Wilco as the best songs of the year.
3. The making-up-for-ignoring-him-when-he-was-alive slot: “The Final Tour” by Ted Hawkins (Evidence). This broke-down Sam Cooke with the black glove created a stunningly human mood with just a guitar and a mike. What the music world lost when this longtime street performer died from a diabetes-related stroke on New Year’s Day 1995 is all here on this live CD.
4. The am-I-hip? slot: “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” by Fatboy Slim (Astralwerks). Is there a techno subgenre called Deep Groove? If so, Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook, musically repenting from his days in the Housemartins, is the king. When he’s not being too cute with the sonic games, Cook makes gutbucket dance music to remind us that Tricky’s a bore and Bjork dated him.
5. The I’m-not-afraid-to-be-obvious slot: “Mermaid Avenue” by Billy Bragg & Wilco (Elektra). My concession to old school criticism (since neither Steve Earle nor Marshall Crenshaw made a record in ’98), this record came out when I desperately needed to hear something new. I played it so much that I’m now sick of it, which means it’s right for the list.
6. The Vic Chesnutt Memorial don’t-understand-him-so-he-must-be-deep slot: “XO” by Elliott Smith (DreamWorks). Woozy melodies and razor-sharp lyrics usually mix about as well as Elliott did with Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood at last year’s Academy Awards. But there’s something about this album that compels you to play it from start to finish. These songs come from a special place.
7. The Matador/ Knitting Factory/ Sleater-Kinney slot: “Moon Pix” by Cat Power (Matador). This album begins with the harmonica from Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” but then delves into a whole different Midwest of the brain. It This record would smack of pretentious art-rock if it weren’t so consistently mesmerizing.
8. The unashamed-homer slot: “A Series of Sneaks” by Spoon (Elektra). If I still made my year-end list based on the 10 records I listened to most, this gorgeously concise combo record would be about No. 4. This Austin trio slides into that rare middle ground between glam and new wave, with an aggressive streak right outta ’98. And what do they get for their effort in crafting such raw and irresistible numbers as “Metal Detektor,” “50 Gallon Tank” and “Car Radio”? Ejektra made like a clumsy chef and dropped Spoon less than five months after the LP was released.
9. The bet-I’m-the-only-critic-with-this-one slot: “You Am I’s No. 4 Record” by You Am I (BMG). The Brian Wilson genuflection gang (Richard Davies, High Llamas, R.E.M.) misses the point by playing up Wilson’s grand air and avoiding the pulse beat, but this raucously tuneful album by the Australian collage-rockers throws just enough classic fluff on the sound to keep it interesting. The melodies cut through.
10. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion slot: “Welcome Back, Zoobombs” by Zoobombs (Reel Time). The imitators (Tokyo’s Zoobombs are often tagged the “Jon Spencer Brues Exprosion”) best the originals in very much the same way that Japan’s ’50s rock ‘n’ roll revivalists make ours look like truck drivers with ducktails. Like Jon Spencer, Zoobombs dabble in funk and rap, but they leave out the drippy East Village cynicism. Then, when they go the full-on guitar band route, they hit it gleefully, like altar boys drunk on church wine.