Twenty Years On: October 1998

October 1998: The fourth quarter kicks in at the record store, which keeps me ridiculously busy in the back room, processing all the stock coming in.  I do manage to sneak out onto the sales floor every now and again to check out what’s going on and upsell some of my favorite releases.

U2, “Sweetest Thing” single, released 4 October. A teaser single for their first official greatest hits album that would be released in November, this is a reworking of an old Joshua Tree-era b-side that got airplay even back in 1987. It’s a simple pop song even by their standards, but it’s lovely and fun. Plus, the video is wonderfully silly.

The Wiseguys, The Antidote, released 5 October. There were many electronica one hit wonders in the late 90s, and these guys were one of them. Their single “Ooh La La” did get some minor notice in a commercial, but it was this track that got the most attention. One of my favorite 90s videos as well, as this is pretty much exactly the visual equivalent of how I hear this kind of creative sampling!

Duncan Sheik, Humming, released 6 October. While not as gorgeous and introspective as his debut, his follow-up album did in fact show his fabulous songwriting chops with some great upbeat tunes. He’s definitely on my I will buy anything he releases shopping list.

Placebo, Without You I’m Nothing, released 12 October. While their first album flew well below the radar in the US, their second one got some major airplay thanks to one of their best songs, “Pure Morning”, which of course should always be played at top volume.

Fatboy Slim, You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, released 12 October. Norman Cook’s breakthrough album is indeed a fine collection of some of his best DJing work and featuring “The Rockafeller Skank”, “Praise You” and “Right Here Right Now”.

Love and Rockets, Lift, released 13 October. The final album is so markedly different from their first from 1985 that it’s almost impossible to see they’re the same band — but it also shows how much they’d evolved since their Bauhaus/Tones on Tail days.

Eels, Electro-Shock Blues, released 20 October. Mark Everett’s quirky songwriting has always been naked and personal, but it’s also a fascinating listen. “Last Stop: This Town” got some heavy airplay on the alt-rock stations upon its release.

Robbie Williams, I’ve Been Expecting You, released 26 October [UK]. You either loved or hated Robbie Williams in the 90s and 00s; you either found him cheeky and unbearable, or you found him fun and enjoyable. I’m firmly in the latter, because his songs were always so full of relentless energy. In 1999 some tunes from this and his previous UK album (Life Thru a Lens) would be compiled into a hit album in the US, fittingly called The Ego Has Landed.

Phish, The Story of the Ghost, released 27 October. THE jam band of the 90s, this album was a lot quirkier and improvised than 1996’s Billy Breathes, so while passive fans who liked their single “Free” weren’t as excited, the hardcore ones loved it.

REM, Up, released 27 October. I’ll admit that I was never that big of a fan of REM’s later years, partly because they’d moved too far away from their original sound. I didn’t mind the sheen of Out of Time or the rock of Automatic for the People, but I couldn’t quite get into anything after that. However, Up was in fact an excellent example of just how tight they were as a band despite their change in style.

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Next Up: November 1998!

Twenty Years On: September 1998

September 1998: It’s starting to get cooler out, the days are getting shorter. The commute home gets me there in the dark. On the occasional Wednesday I’ll do my comic book road trip across the state; while I’m enjoying buying the comics and taking the long drives, I think it’s more about me finding a new outlet to escape the frustration of living back at home with family. It’s about doing something for myself, just like my occasional drives into Boston on the weekend, or my hiding down in the basement to write. I’m pretty much finding my own unique self at this point. It’s a perfect time to do so, considering that I’ve disconnected from most everything and everyone else that had held me back a few years earlier.

Just me, my music, and my writing. I could live with that.

The House of Love, The Best of the House of Love, released ?? September 1998. I’d been a fan of this band since “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” but for some reason I never got around to buying any of their albums…! This was a perfect jumping-on point, as it’s an excellent mix of their late 80s-early 90s output.

Depeche Mode, “Only When I Lose Myself” single, released 7 September. A new teaser single to add to their upcoming greatest hits album (The Singles 86>98, which would drop on 28 September), it’s got the grim darkness of 1997’s Ultra, but it also has the tenderness of some of Martin Gore’s best balladry. It’s a lovely, relaxing song.

Mansun, Six, released 7 September. While this certainly didn’t come close to the Britpoppy goodness of their minor hit “Wide Open Space” and was resequenced and pretty much ignored in the US, it remains my favorite Mansun record for its grandiose scope. It’s a long album, but it goes in so many interesting and unexpected directions that it’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. Another record that got heavy rotation during my writing sessions.

Belle & Sebastian, The Boy with the Arab Strap, released 7 September. Critics loved this band since their start, but it was this album that expanded their fanbase exponentially, thanks to being signed to Matador in the US. [This is also the album that infamously received a ridiculously pompous negative review on Pitchfork, thus branding the site by some as being written by and for hipsters who only listen to obscure bands.] It’s light and poppy — and the perfect example of ‘twee’ which became the code word for them around this time — but it’s also full of great tracks including the title song. Another writing session album.

The Fireman, Rushes, released 21 September. Paul McCartney’s side project into chilled-out electronica gets a second album here, this time of completely new source samples and sounds. It’s relaxing and lovely and totally not what you would expect from Macca at all.

American Football, American Football EP, released 29 September. A band that partly inspired the late 90s-early 00s resurgence of quiet, meandering post-rock, this band had only released this EP and a single album (of the same name) the following year before breaking up (and not acrimoniously: their college years had come to an end and were now in different cities). They’re a cult favorite and well worth checking out; they’ve also reunited as of 2014 and put out a second album (yes, of the same name again) in 2016.

UNKLE, Psyence Fiction, released 29 September. I rarely embed a full-album video stream, but this is definitely an album you need to hear from start to finish, as it’s JUST THAT AMAZING. Producer/DJ James Lavelle created this group, initially with DJ Shadow, and created a ‘band’ that defies description. It’s hip-hop, electronic, soul, hard rock, industrial, and who knows what else, and melded into a semi-thematic album of aliens, space travel, mind travel, and spiritual healing. It can be dark and dense, hard and heavy, but also amusing and just plain weird. And its guests run the gamut as well: Thom Yorke (Radiohead), Mark Hollis (Talk Talk), Jason Newstead (Metallica), Kool G Rap, Badly Drawn Boy, Richard Ashcroft (The Verve), and Mike D (Beastie Boys). It’s a phenomenal album that you should definitely have in your collection. [And yes, another writing session album. I still listen to this one quite a bit to this day.]

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Coming soon: October 1998!

Twenty Years On: August 1998

7 August 1998:  I’ve just stopped writing The Phoenix Effect longhand, as I’m already caught up with the evening transcription, to the point where I write the final chapters of the novel straight to PC.  Finishing this draft will most likely take place around the end of the month or into early September.  I will then spend the next months working on revision and looking up various publishing houses I’d like to send it to, eventually sending it out sometime early in 1999.

These revision months are spent down in the Belfry, focusing on banging the story into shape, cleaning up the prose and making it even better.  This means that I’ll be listening to a TON of music over the next few months.  I’ll also be listening to the same albums while at the record store job to keep myself in the proper mindset.  In the process, these records become part of the Bridgetown mythos, providing me with not just a soundtrack for the book but inspiring numerous scenes and ideas.

So get comfortable, this is a long one!

LHOOQ, LHOOQ, released 3 August 1998. An import brought to my attention via a UK music mag, partly due to their Duchamp-inspired band name. [It comes from the infamous Mona-Lisa-with-a-mustache painting from 1919; it’s a French pun where you read out the letters as ‘Elle a chaud au cul’…translated to “she’s horny”.] Smooth, laid back electropop, it didn’t do much of anything anywhere, but I quite enjoy it.

Various Artists, For the Masses: A Tribute to Depeche Mode, released 4 August 1998. An amazing collection of DM cover songs, featuring Failure, Dishwalla, The Cure, The Smashing Pumpkins, Hooverphonic, and more. While most tribute albums are touch and go, most with a few stellar tracks and a lot of filler by unknown names, this one is absolutely solid and is highly recommended.

Rasputina, How We Quit the Forest, released 4 August 1998. The trio, known for their Victorian visuals and goth-with-strings sound, released a heavier, beefier-sounding second album with the help of NIN’s Chris Vrenna. It’s weird, spooky, and gorgeous at the same time. It’s probably their most accessible album, and it’s a lot of fun.

Embrace, The Good Will Out, released 6 August 1998. A favorite of the late 90 British Rock era, this album was an immediate UK hit right out of the gate with its strong songwriting and powerful sounds. I especially loved the epic punch of its main single, “All You Good Good People”.

Dishwalla, And You Think You Know What Life’s About, released 11 August 1998. I absolutely adore this album. It didn’t gain nearly as much popularity as it’s 1995 predecessor (Pet Your Friends, which had their hit “Counting Blue Cars”), but as an alt-rock record, it’s a hell of a lot stronger and heavier in sound, and contains quite a few of their best songs, including the stunning ballad “Until I Wake Up”. This one stayed in my writing session rotation for years, and I still pull it out now and again.  If you like their big hit, definitely try this one out too.

Hooverphonic, Blue Wonder Power Milk, released 11 August 1998. I love this album as well, and it’s the one that made me a huge fan of the band. It’s a major shift in sound for them — a new singer, more orchestral accompaniment, less electro beats and more pop mentality. It’s a lovely album to listen to in headphones. This too stayed in my writing session rotation for years. The single “Eden” also influenced the character that ended up being Akaina in the trilogy.

Orgy, Candyass, released 18 August 1998. One of many darkwave bands that surfaced in the late 90s, their one claim to fame might be a crunchy cover of New Order’s “Blue Monday”, but the rest of the album was equally as fun. I’d throw this one on during my Belfry sessions when I needed something loud and aggressive.

Korn, Follow the Leader, released 18 August 1998. I really wasn’t much of a Korn fan at all at the time, but there’s something about this album that clicked for me. It could be that this one captures their signature sound the best — the drop-tuning, the intricate weaving of dissonant sounds, and some of Jonathan Davis’ best songwriting. Plus I loved “Freak on a Leash”, both the song and the video.

Boards of Canada, Music Has the Right to Children, released 20 August 1998. I didn’t get into this band until their next release (2002’s Geogaddi), but I was quite aware of them via this album, which sold regularly at my store. Their name and unique sound is wrapped in childhood nostalgia — they definitely sound like those old public service/educational films you might have watched if you were a Gen-X kid in the 70s and 80s.

Bob Mould, The Last Dog and Pony Show, released 25 August 1998. I’d lost track of Mould’s output after his Sugar albums, so this was a great album for me to return to. It’s more laid back and approachable and features some lovely melodies — like most of 1989’s Workbook, his lighter, more acoustic sound has always resonated deeply with me.

Snowpony, The Slow Motion World of Snowpony, released 25 August 1998. Deb Googe from My Bloody Valentine popped up unexpectedly as a co-conspirator for this noisy alt-rock band. Not as ear-splitting as MBV, but definitely not pop, either.

Manic Street Preachers, This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, released 25 August 1998. I was quite familiar with the Manics by this point, thanks to their numerous loyal UK fanbase, but this was the album that won me over. It can be a little preachy at times, but it’s also a fantastic record filled with excellent melodies.

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Coming Up: September 1998, in which even more alt-rock goodness gets released and becomes a part of my permanent writing session playlist!

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.

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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: 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.

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Next Up: June 1998!

Twenty Years On: February 1998 in Review

Welcome to another edition of Twenty Years On!  It’s February 1998, and I’ve started to take it upon myself to order imported albums for my store that I think will sell.  I’m reading all the British music magazines and reading the reviews, and for the most part I do a pretty good job.  Though I may also order a few imports for my own purchase…

Ultrasound, “Best Wishes” single, released 1 February. The major label (Nude UK) debut for this psychedelic Britpop band was an unexpectedly calm track and a one-eighty from their previous small label (Fierce Panda) single, the raucous “Same Band”. A piano-only version of this would later show up as a hidden track on their first album.

Primal Scream, “If They Move, Kill ‘Em” single, released 1 February. After the blissed-out Screamadelica and Stones-y Give Out But Don’t Give Up, PS would return with something equally unexpected: jazzy dub electronica, with 1997’s Vanishing Point. Critics loved it, and fans, once they got used to it, called it a brilliant success.

Catatonia, International Velvet, released 2 February. The Welsh band’s second album might not have made as big a splash as they’d hoped in the UK, but they certainly knew how to write catchy and fun alt-pop singles filled with brightness and humor.

Ian Brown, Unfinished Monkey Business, released 2 February. The former lead singer for the Stone Roses released his first solo album nearly four years after the Roses’ last one, and it’s full of oddities as well as catchy riffs. It’s missing the sunshine-psych sound of his former band (and definitely sounds like demos in places), but it also shows that he’s a strong songwriter lyrically and musically.

Pearl Jam, Yield, released 3 February. The wildly popular Seattle band returned to the airwaves with a classic album that channels both their Ten/Vs sound as well as the angular and punkish No Code. They also returned with their first official video since 1991’s “Jeremy”, co-directed by Todd McFarlane, then known as the creator of the Spawn comic book.

Roni Size/Reprazent, “Brown Paper Bag” single, released 10 February. Taken from 1997’s New Forms album, this fantastic track is a perfect example of the drum & bass sub-genre that popped up around that time. Size and his group were one of the best of their style, seamlessly mixing electronic dance and smooth jazz.

Curve, Come Clean, released 16 February. The group’s third album came nearly five years after their previous one (during which time they’d dissolved, done some solo work, and regrouped two years later and released a few rare singles).  It contains the signature guitar-driven heaviness but with a harder, more acidic edge.

Loreena McKennitt, “The Mummers’ Dance” single, released 17 February. McKennitt was part of the new-age/folk/Celtic wave of the mid-90s (thank you, Riverdance) and had a very strong following, enough to release a remixed version of a track from 1997’s The Book of Secrets album. This version would get significant airplay on many alternative stations around this time.

theaudience, theaudience, released 23 February. An amazing British power-pop band that really should have been a hell of a lot more popular than they ended up being. The entire album is filled with catchy riffs, smart and clever lyrics, and sung by the wonderful Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Alas, they were not only a band that suffered from the Universal/PolyGram merger (a sampler EP for the US was put together but disappeared soon after), their guitarist and co-songwriter quit the band soon after, breaking them up. Ellis-Bextor, thankfully, went on to become a popular solo singer in her own right just a year or so later. Highly suggested to add to your collection if you happen to find it.

Craig Armstrong, The Space Between Us, released 24 February. Armstrong is more known for film score composing (including numerous Baz Luhrmann movies such as Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby), but he’s also released a handful of gorgeous albums full of rich ambiance.  His work is perfect for chilling out — and also perfect for background music during writing sessions!

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Next Up: March 1998!

[Note: I know, I know…I skipped Neutral Milk Hotel’s In an Aeroplane Over the Sea from 10 February. While I understand and appreciate its ridiculously huge cult status, I’ll admit I’m not that much of a fan and decided not to list it here.]

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!