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Year-End Close-Out

We've got 1998's best albums in stock, but they're going fast.

The following list of favorite albums from 1998 is, to use a technical term, pretty damn big. Here's how it came to be.

Each year, I receive an average of between 2,000 and 3,000 CDs or cassettes, and I listen to each of them--for a while, anyway. (I use what I call the Three-Song Rule: If a disc hasn't made a strong impression on me one way or the other by the third tune, it usually goes into the giveaway bin.) Of the original total, I keep approximately 800 recordings per annum, jotting down their titles on a tattered legal pad before shlepping them home. Then, in early December, I pore over my notes in order to determine which long-players should get extra recognition. Many of these choices are easy--I asterisk outstanding efforts on a weekly basis--but others are more difficult. (Truth to tell, I can hardly remember some of them--and there are times after relistening to such pieces that I find myself wondering why the hell I liked them so much in the first place.) Finally, I place the albums that made the final cut into categories designed to accommodate as many works as possible. Logic plays a part in this task, but to quote Leonard Nimoy, I am not Spock. If there's a choice between wedging a good CD into a moderately inappropriate grouping or leaving it out entirely, I tend to wedge.

The results below include approximately 100 recordings divided into seventeen brackets, including an expanded boxed-set compendium and three new sections: "DJs" (which replaces "Dance"); "Singer-Songwriters" (in lieu of "Folk/ Singer-Songwriters"); and "World Music" (taking over for "Reggae/Worldbeat"). I'm sure I've missed some fine records along the way--no one can listen to everything--but my goal is to introduce you and yours to an eclectic array of sounds that are definitely worth hearing. So listen up.

ALTERNATIVE
Beastie Boys
Hello Nasty
(Capitol)

Growing up is hard under any circumstances, but the Boys have managed to do so without growing old in the process. To call Hello Nasty mature would be to overstate the matter: They haven't lost their fondness for screwy references, loony juxtapositions and shouting through their noses. However, they've found a way to balance such obsessions with good-humored eclecticism that's riskier than it seems at first blush.

The Halo Benders
The Rebels Not In
(K Records)

Doug Martsch, of Built to Spill fame, and Calvin Johnson, who's led Beat Happening and Dub Narcotic Sound System, have diverse styles: Martsch sings in a high-pitched, eternally adolescent voice and plays a mean guitar, while Johnson is distinguished by a deadpan bark whose one tone fits all. But because neither is above checking his ego at the door, The Rebels Not In brings out the best in both.

PJ Harvey
Is This Desire?
(Island)

Bittersweet, heartbreaking but oddly beautiful, Is This Desire? confirms that Harvey is among the preeminent performers in music today. The disc is neither an uncompromising scorcher like Dry nor a canny revamp such as To Bring You My Love but an intermingling of these styles that allows her to move in any direction she chooses. Her every step has been mesmerizing thus far, and she shows no sign of stumbling.

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Acme
(Matador)

In describing this album, most reviewers will be tempted to spell "stupid" with two "o"s: Spencer's over-the-top channeling of Elvis, Mick, Lou and God knows who else is almost cosmically goofy. Still, anyone who isn't offended by the notion of an alterna-disc that's actually entertaining should be able to get behind this trio's bold embrace of the riotous and the ridiculous. Orange, from 1994, is still the Explosion's highest achievement, but Acme is everything Wile E. Coyote could have wanted--and more.

Unwound
Challenge for a Civilized Society
(Kill Rock Stars)

Musically speaking, the songs of Justin Trosper, Vern Rumsey and Sara Lund aren't all that different from the ones being performed by any of a thousand indie-rock outfits at this very minute. But the numbers on Challenge for a Civilized Society are generally better than the rest because the musicians steer clear of stereotypes, refuse to settle for the most obvious solutions and play more from their hearts than their heads.

BLUES
R.L. Burnside
Come On In
(Fat Possum/Epitaph)

At times, producer Tom Rothrock and remixer Alec Empire seem to see Burnside less as a blues giant than as a sample of a blues giant: Their crazy programming tends to intrude on the craziness of Burnside himself. But in the end, ol' R.L. is able to shrug off the contributions of these youngsters and make himself heard. And he sounds fine.

W.C. Clark
Lover's Plea
(Black Top)

Clark's tenor can climb a song's ladder in a microsecond, hitting exalted highs that are beyond the reach of most blues vocalists. He plays the Texas blues, but he's no roadhouse rouser. Instead, he livens up a sometimes dusty rhythm section with sultry saxophones and guitar licks that keep on ticking.

Shemekia Copeland
Turn the Heat Up
(Alligator)

Yes, that last name is familiar: Shemekia is the daughter of the late Johnny Clyde Copeland. But this nineteen-year-old didn't land a record deal solely on the basis of her parentage. She's got a killer of a voice, and when she lets it out of its cage, no one is safe. She's at the mercy of her tunes on Turn the Heat Up, and given their spottiness, that's a pity. But when she lets it rip, even a mediocre tune can sound superb.

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