Rising Above 

Ten records that didn't suck this year

Ten records that didn't suck this year

By Ben Taylor

This year, the music industry continued the long sales slide that began with the death of grunge a few years ago. Earlier in the decade, the Seattle sound generated an enormous economic high for the industry. Now that it’s gone, labels try to keep business afloat by looking desperately to any trend that the kids will eat up. The result was another dismal year with a lot of hollow, market-studied product that inspired no one. Here’s what managed to stand out in the dung pile.

1. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia) At the beginning of this year, before her stellar debut came out, Lauryn Hill produced Aretha Franklin singing a song that Hill had written for her. Most critics declared it the best thing Franklin had done in over two decades. The connection with Franklin is apt, because Lauryn Hill has a voice and presence like no other since Aretha in her prime. But this sister is doin’ it for herself in more ways than one. The self-produced The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill proves why she was the most interesting part of The Fugees. She expresses herself so honestly and unself-consciously that it’s wonderfully disarming. And she knows how to make music without borrowing melodies from other songs! Wyclef is just a Puffy wannabe and Pras is the John Oates of rap.

2. OutKast, Aquemini (LaFace) Only one review I’ve read accurately described this record: “schmoove.” It’s like a rap Innervisions, with Big Boi and Dre creating a Southern urban landscape supported by a flawless sense of funk. Songs like “Rosa Parks” and “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” will make you believe in the power of a well-executed groove again. Sure, it’s a little long like all rap CDs these days, and OutKast engage in a lot of the same gats and G’s talk as every other rapper, but thanks to their mesmerizing lyrical flow and truly original style, you’ll find yourself hanging on for the whole ride.

3. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury) Six years to make this sucker? Reportedly, this cantankerous genius couldn’t settle on the sound she wanted, and she cut the record at least three different times to get it. Whatever. I’m not really sure why it would take six years to achieve this Steve Earle-ish rockin’-country hybrid. I think the reason why Williams has managed to crank out only five albums in 20 years is due to a lack of confidence in her material. Which is a shame, because it’s her detailed lyrics and achingly painful vocal delivery—and not the production values—that make Car Wheels on a Gravel Road such a priceless gem.

4. Hole, Celebrity Skin (DGC) The girl with the most cake who you love to hate came back with a whimper this year. Celebrity Skin comes on like some sort of Fleetwood Mac-meets-The Runaways combination that only served to ostracize punks and popsters alike. By not staying true to either form, Courtney Love gleefully pissed in the eyes of listeners who thought they knew her. In other words, this woman is frickin’ nuts, which is what makes the record so damned entertaining. She contradicts herself fervently and often. In a heartbeat, she’ll switch from being as shallow as a petri dish to laying all her exposed nerves on the table. And she does it with such an unblinking drive and such passion that you can’t tear yourself away.

5. UNKLE, Psyence Fiction (Mo’ Wax/London) One of the more popular tactics in the late-’90s is for musicians to graft the electronica revolution that never happened onto their own already established sound. The results are largely disastrous—hell, it almost ruined U2’s career last year. UNKLE is the same idea in reverse. Turntable mastermind DJ Shadow teams up with various rock stars such as The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and Metallica’s Jason Newsted to graft pop-song form onto electronica. The result is a spacy song suite with unnerving vocal performances from Yorke and Ashcroft to match the mood.

6. Pulp, This Is Hardcore (Island) All this hoopla about glam on the comeback, and nobody bought Pulp’s This Is Hardcore last March. Jarvis Cocker and Co. bow at the altar of David Bowie proudly. What makes this album a step above all the glam albums of the early ’70s and late ’90s is that Cocker details real human stories with a hysterically dry British wit. This Is Hardcore essentially works as a song cycle about being single in your early 30s and realizing you don’t have the strength to hang with the party kids anymore. It’s a depressing realization, but the singer sharply pokes fun at his own self-absorption in songs like “The Fear” and “Dishes.”

7. R.E.M., Up (Warner Bros.) What do you do when, after 15 years, everything you had come to rely on suddenly changes? If you’re R.E.M., you jump back into your craft. Up is the group’s sharpest and most engaging record since Automatic for the People. Bill Berry’s amiable presence will be missed, but Stipe, Mills, and Buck prove a family can carry on quite well after it has lost a member.

8. Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick, In Color, and Heaven Tonight (Epic/Legacy) Reissues are rarely revelatory to me, which is why the rerelease of Cheap Trick’s first three albums has completely taken me by surprise. Recorded before Live at Budokan turned them into superheroes, these records reveal a consummate hardworking rock band that was ignored in its early prime. Rick Nielsen’s endless bag of hooky guitar riffs and licks is astonishing. What’s more remarkable is how well these unabashed rock fans worked sly jokes and nods into their tunes.

9. Garbage, Version 2.0 (Almo Sounds) A heady, dense mix of infectious sounds from a trio of studio geeks. What can I say? I’m a sucker for redheads.

10. Honorable mentions: These records may not end up being anyone’s favorites, but they exhibit a passion for or understanding of rock ’n’ roll in an increasingly stale rock world.

Pearl Jam, Yield (Epic) Kudos to these guys for finally figuring out that they’re a rock band. Yield concentrates on solid tunes delivered by a singer with a voice powerful enough to back up his melodramatics. And “Do the Evolution” is a welcome shot of sarcasm.

The Afghan Whigs, 1965 (Columbia) The Whigs deserve credit if for no other reason than they understand that the history of rock n’ roll predates Nirvana.

Metallica, Garage Inc. (Elektra) A band with a rabid fan base shows you what dorky fans they are themselves. The song choices range from obscure British metal (Diamond Head, Budgie) to American standards (Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult). And if the Bob Seger cover sucks, there is some sort of perverse chuckle in following it with The Misfits “Die, Die, My Darling.” And what kind of band includes an 11-minute Mercyful Fate medley?

Metallica, Garage Inc. (Elektra) A band with a rabid fan base shows you what dorky fans they are themselves. The song choices range from obscure British metal (Diamond Head, Budgie) to American standards (Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult). And if the Bob Seger cover sucks, there is some sort of perverse chuckle in following it with The Misfits “Die, Die, My Darling.” And what kind of band includes an 11-minute Mercyful Fate medley?

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