Twenty Years On: July 1998

July 1998:  Stupidly hot and humid in central Massachusetts, and thankfully the back room at HMV is nice and cool.  I’ve been put in charge of ordering imports for the store, which is a dangerous thing indeed.  Also, I’m coming extremely close to finishing The Phoenix Effect, and at this point my nightly transcription/revision sessions are all caught up to the point that I’ll eventually finish it on the PC instead of longhand.  I spend my nights down in the Belfry listening to tunes and writing, or going out to see movies at the theater that they’d finally built in the rear of the mall I worked at.  Wednesday drives after work out to the Pioneer Valley for my comic book run.  Occasional Saturday drives into Boston to visit the comic book and used record stores.

Barenaked Ladies, Stunt, released 7 July. BNL’s jump into major stardom in the US actually started a few years earlier with 1996’s live Rock Spectacle (they’d been a cult favorite for years before), but this one broke them open wide with the hilarious pattering of the ubiquitous single “One Week”. The entire album is amazing, with some of their best songwriting to date.

The Hope Blister, …smile’s ok, released 14 July. One of Ivo Watts-Russell’s last projects before leaving his 4AD label in 1999, he revisits the ambient sounds of his This Mortal Coil project but with a fixed line up. A short but lovely album.

Beastie Boys, Hello Nasty, released 14 July. The Beasties continue their unique style of hip-hop that’s equal parts intelligent and ridiculous. “Intergalactic” got heavy airplay pretty much everywhere, from the pop stations to the alternative rock stations to MTV.  Years later a minor character in one of the new Star Wars films is named after it.

12 Rounds, My Big Hero, released 14 July. This one was more of a personal favorite of mine, and got a lot of play down in the Belfry during writing sessions. They’re kind of hard to pin down as their sound alternates between Sneaker Pimps-style triphop to the porn of Lords of Acid to Marilyn Manson alt-metal and moody goth rock of VAST. It’s all over the place but it’s a fascinating listen. Music Trivia Time: This was Atticus Ross’ band before he started working with Trent Reznor!

The Tragically Hip, Phantom Power, released 14 July. I really enjoyed listening to this one down in the Belfry as well — there are a lot of lovely tracks on this one, with some of Gord Downie’s best lyrics.

Small Soldiers soundtrack, released 14 July. This was such an odd little summer film, but that’s typical coming from Joe Dante. All his films are quirky. I loved the soundtrack, though: classic rock songs remixed by electronic and hip-hop artists, including an amazing remix of Rush by DJ Z-Trip.

Black Box Recorder, England Made Me, released 20 July. I mentioned this band last week during my recent purchases post. They were like the anti-Belle & Sebastian, with lo-fi twee qualities and really dark lyrics. Yet somehow I found them fascinating and picked up all their albums over the course of their brief career.

Republica, Speed Ballads, released 30 July. Their second and last album popped up only as an import here in the states, which is a pity considering this one’s just as fantastic as their debut, if not more adventurous and experimental.

*

Next Up: August 1998, in which we see four albums that become my favorites of the year and get a crapton of play in all of my writing nooks for years to come.

Twenty Years On: June 1998

Summer in New England can be annoying.  It’s not just hot, hovering up in the 80s and 90s (and occasionally higher), but it’s also humid and uncomfortable.  All you want to do is stay inside, especially if the place has AC, and kick around until it’s time to go back outside again.  And your car would be so stupidly hot and unbearable being out in the sun all day that you’d sit there for a good few minutes with all the windows open and the AC on full blast to cool it off.

Granted, in the summer of 1998, this was also the perfect time for me to head down to the basement at night after work for my writing sessions!  [This was well before random bear sightings in my parents’ neighborhood started happening, so I’d have the cellar door open wide until after dark to let the cool breeze in.  This, by the way, is why two bats were able to sneak their way in, thus blessing my writing nook with the name The Belfry thereafter.]

It seems that June 1998 was also a quiet one in terms of releases…a few big names here and there, but the best albums weren’t due for another couple of months.  This is quite normal for the release schedule — the kids are spending more on movies and other outside events rather than on music.  The really good stuff is still a few months away.

So!  Without further ado…

The Smashing Pumpkins, Adore, released 2 June. After two stellar early 90s records and a decent-but-bloated double album — not to mention the firing of their drummer soon after — it seemed this band was heading down a dark and not altogether positive road. This one’s a hard listen for various reasons, but it also contains quite a few fantastic tracks, so it evens out.

The X-Files OST, released 2 June. The cult favorite TV show released its first movie as summer fare. It holds up as a self-contained story, but it also inserts itself into the show’s obsessively detailed mythology as well. This is more of a ‘songs inspired by the movie’ album than a true soundtrack (considering the [movie name]: The Album title was in vogue around this time), but it’s an amazing collection of great tracks from Filter, X, Ween, Foo Fighters, The Cure, Noel Gallagher, and more. Well worth picking up.

The Jesus & Mary Chain, Munki, released 9 June. The noise-pop band releases what would end up being their last album until last year’s Damage & Joy. It’s a bit overlong with single filler, but it’s still a great album.

Komeda, What Makes It Go?, released 9 June. The quirky Swedish band’s second album was anchored by a ridiculously catchy single (see above) and though they only remained in cult status, they’d eventually provide an equally catchy track for the Powerpuff Girls cartoon a few years later.

The Egg, Travelator, released 15 June. Predating similar-sounding Hot Chip by just a few years, this semi-electronic band from the UK is one of those bands that never quite achieved huge success, but nonetheless have a strong and loyal following. Their work was mostly released as imports here in the US, but they’re definitely worth checking out.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra, The Dirty Boogie, released 23 June. The ex-Stray Cats frontman helped kickstart (or at least energize) the swing revival movement in the late 90s, and his album was also the biggest seller in that scene. I remember moving a hell of a lot of copies of this album during my HMV days!

Mansun, “Legacy” single, released 29 June. The teaser first single from their upcoming Six album, this well-loved Britpop band took their sound into curious and unexpected directions, even more so than before. Little did we fans know just how weird (but in a good way!) that album would end up being…

*

Up Next: July 1998!

Twenty Years On: May 1998

May was a relatively quiet release month, and in retrospect I think it’s right about when the 1998 industry shake-up really started kicking in. A lot of really good bands were dropped, many of them before they were given a chance to prove themselves, or worse: many more of them due to far too high expectations on the industry’s behalf. It was starting to get really ugly about that time.

Still…many bands soldiered on and kept releasing stellar records.

Spoon, A Series of Sneaks, released 5 May. Spoon’s one album on a major label (Elektra) was unfortunately a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair, as they only stayed at that label for less than a year. They’ve since stayed with indie labels and are now considered one of the best indie bands out there.

Tori Amos, From the Choirgirl Hotel, released 5 May. I’d always been a Tori fan, even after her deliberate turn to weirdness with 1996’s Boys for Pele, and I found myself really enjoying the full-band rock sound of this one.

Global Communication, Pentamerous Metamorphosis, released 5 May. Previously released as a limited-edition extra cd for the great Britpop band Chapterhouse’s 1993 album Blood Music (it’s a reinterpretation of its tracks), it’s an amazing chill-out ambient record and a perfect partner with their previous, the also amazing 76:13. This one got a hell of a lot of play down in the Belfry during the writing of the trilogy, and the same amount in Spare Oom years later when I was revising it for self-publication. Easily one of my favorite albums of all time.

Garbage, Version 2.0, released 11 May. It took me a long time to get used to this album, as I’d originally felt it was a bit too like the first album, but with slightly weaker songs. Eventually I came around!

Godzilla: The Album, released 18 May. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I agree, it was a ridiculous movie, but it was a fun popcorn flick. And there were some pretty cool songs on it, like the above, and tracks by Ben Folds Five, Jamiroquai, and Days of the New.  I’ll even forgive them for that so-bad-it’s-good Diddy/Jimmy Page track.

Cowboy Bebop OST, released 21 May. “Tank!” is one of the best, most recognized, most loved anime opening theme songs ever. And from a visual standpoint, the opening credits are so amazingly animated, paced and edited that you can’t help but feel a chill and a thrill whenever you see it. The rest of the soundtrack is just as great — a mix of bebop jazz, moody melodies and even a few silly filler bits. Yoko Kanno is considered one of the best Japanese music composers out there.

Tricky, Angels with Dirty Faces, released 25 May. Tricky follows up his excellent Pre-Millennium Tension with an about-face that took a lot of people by surprise. There’s more avant-jazz than trip-hop on this album, and it’s not the easiest of listens, but at the same time it’s fearless and fantastic.

Sloan, Navy Blues, released 26 May. One of my favorite Canadian bands, Sloan has always put out solid, hard-rocking songs with excellent power-pop melodies. This one’s a bit harder than usual for them, but it’s still a fun listen.

*

Next Up: June 1998!

Twenty Years On: January 1998 in Review

My recent ongoing blog series Thirty Years On, focusing on classic albums and singles that were released thirty years ago in 1988, has inspired me to do a sequel as well, Twenty Years On.  [I could say I have this fascination with music in years ending in 8; I’m even fascinated by the music history of 1968.  Still, I’m yet to take a good critical look at 1978 and 2008.  Maybe in the future…?]   This will be just like 30YO, in that it won’t be strictly scheduled, but will at least be consistent.

SO!  What happened in 1998, anyway?  Personally: entering year 2 of working at HMV, finally getting myself out of debt, and writing like a fiend.  But you already know all that. Musically, it was a critical year for many bands, because it was when the Big Six distributors (Universal, EMD, BMG, Sony, PolyGram, and Warners) shrank down to the Big Five (Universal and Polygram would merge and become UMG)…and a hell of a lot of good bands with potential being unceremoniously dropped like yesterday’s fashion.  Despite that, however, there were still a hell of a lot of great records released.

So without further ado…

Bowling for Soup, Rock On Honorable Ones!!, released January. BfS’ second studio album slipped under the radar for a hell of a lot of people, and they wouldn’t get much notice until a few years later. Irreverent, goofy, nerdy, and always fun. (This particular song is featured on at least three different albums of theirs, to my knowledge.)

Pearl Jam, “Given to Fly” single, released 6 January. The lead single from their upcoming album Yield, this felt like a much stronger and more cohesive band than their previous album, 1996’s abrasive No Code. Still no video from the band (yet), but this track was an excellent start in the right direction.

Great Expectations soundtrack, released 6 January. A hip and updated version of the Dickens novel as done by 90s pretty things Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, the movie itself had average success and was quickly forgotten, but the soundtrack features some excellent tracks by Mono, Chris Cornell, The Verve Pipe, Pulp, Duncan Sheik, Poe, and Tori Amos.  Well worth checking out.

Radiohead, “No Surprises” single, released 12 January. Third and last single from their stunning 1997 classic OK Computer, this was a curious selection for a single, and yet seemed to fit the entire theme of that record: discomfort and irritation beyond our control.

Air, Moon Safari, released 16 January. Every now and again, an album will come out that’s so unique, so different from everything else out there, that it’ll blow the minds of all the critics, and most likely yourself. The French duo’s debut is one such album, a magical downtempo record that sounds equally futuristic and retro at the same time. Highly recommended.

Propellerheads, Decksandrumsandrockandroll, released 26 January. This duo only released one album and a few singles and EPs, but it’s a hell of a great electronica album that’s worth checking out. They deftly mix jazz, hip-hop, techno and more into an album that’s perfect for both listening and grooving.  You may also remember their track “Spybreak!” from the ridiculously over-the-top (yet so awesome) shootout scene from The Matrix.

Catatonia, “Mulder and Scully” single, released 31 January. This quirky Welsh band hit it big on both sides of the Atlantic with this fun track about a relationship so strange it calls for The X-Files duo. It would be the second single from their upcoming second album, International Velvet.

Coming up soon: February 1998!