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Given that ’98 was a year in which semi-serious pop music fans (or at least this one) had to finally learn to quit worrying about the death of alt rock and enjoy listening to whatever sounds good, the following wrap-up is predictably hodgepodge. The list is thin on trendsetters and heavy on veteran types, who can at least be counted on for perspective. Aging one-hit wonders boast interesting scrapbooks, not careers; listed in descending order of preference, my favorite records of the year were made by artists in various stages of the latter.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill

Ruffhouse/Columbia

There’s no getting around this one. Literally. Prince was the last artist who managed to bomb the market with this much quality at one time, and Hill ups the ante further by threading her hooks with actual wisdom. Her riffs on “that thing” alone are enough to make her required listening, but this record ultimately coheres, with fate’s cooperation. Blessing her beats, rhymes, and life in Zion surely helped the cause.

Mermaid Avenue

Billy Bragg & Wilco

Elektra

It’s a credit to the living people involved that the star of this record has been dead for over three decades, and I don’t blame Bragg or Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy for failing to adequately conjure the fullness of Woody Guthrie’s spirit: Woody strained to do so himself. Still, this is a folk revival like no other; the music and voices these acolytes graft onto unpublished lyrics bring Guthrie the proto-punk to life in a way no biography ever could. The only record released this year that I’d bet money will mean shit the next time premillennial tension takes hold.

Life Won’t Wait

Rancid

Epitaph

Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen don’t let their aversion to proper diction keep them from dabbling with ditties, but mostly they just kick ass and move on. Life won’t wait for anyone, Cali-punks included, so these worrywarts strap on their leather and go after it, stopping off in Leicester Square to puke and Kingston to powwow with some rude boys. The end result sounds something like the Clash jamming with Booker T. & the MGs—and clicking.

Aquemini

OutKast

LaFace

Fuck Tom Wolfe. These Southerners speak the native tongue, and they prove as much here by skewing every word on the bar-b before it’s dropped. The George Clinton collaboration is poignant—ringleaders Big Boi and Andre are band leaders, plain and simple—but the OutKast sound reaches above and below P-Funk for flavor. Call it roots-hop: rumbly, rural, flamboyant, and steeped in historical sound references echoing together.

Whitechocolatespaceegg

Liz Phair

Matador

Exiled in post-Guyville, Liz Phair found credit in the grown-up world and emerged as a better artist in spite of it. Or, rather, because of it: Mommyhood hasn’t softened her a bit; it’s just provided her with richer material. For the first time in her relatively short career, Phair’s matched her well-honed thoughts to well-honed songs, distancing herself from her breakthrough while at the same time deepening its resonance. If she keeps it up through middle age, her retrospective box set could put marriage counselors out of business for good.

Featuring “Birds”

Quasi

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The two members of Quasi don’t communicate so much as set their internal dialogues on a collision course; the music Sam Coomes wrings from his electronic harpsichord is so tightly wound that his drummer and former wife Janet Weiss needs to ape Keith Moon just to penetrate the mix. Pop music bound up in this much disaffection isn’t supposed to be pleasing, yet it is. I credit the success of the duo’s failed marriage. “It’s over” doesn’t have to mean it’s over.

Dig My Mood

Nick Lowe

Upstart

Said mood is woozy, dark, and several vodkas mellower than the pure pop that marked Lowe as a cranky genius for 30 seconds in the ’70s. Lowe’s intent is to reminisce about the women who’ve turned him from a man to a fool and vice versa. Which is to say that he’s been here before; the difference is that this time he never loses his casual cool. Nat King Cole fans should delight in knowing that a British pub rocker is doing his best to carry the flame. I’m just happy that Lowe can still make records that are as timeless as his hair.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

Fatboy Slim

Skint/Astralwerks

The funk soul brother puts his big, obvious grooves through so much repetitive stress it’s hard to know whether they’re supposed to make you spew or pass out. Judging from how many times he brags that he’s “fucking in heaven,” I’m guessing it’s the former. Where lesser mixologists reduce themselves to cheese in their vain attempts to rock, Fatboy’s got pop smarts running through his veins; even his name kicks ass. Do these big beats mean something more coming from a guy who used to play in a (very) British pop band? No, but they’re funnier.

Celebrity Skin

Hole

Geffen

It’s a testament to Billy Corgan’s narcissism that he can’t tell when he’s being used. Sure, Mr. Pumpkin-head helped write some of these tunes, but Courtney Love claimed them as her personal property before the ink dried. In fact, this whole shamelessly strait-laced album would be filler if Love didn’t make the banalities too visceral and/or catchy to deny. It’s no surprise that the most natural rock star to come along in a generation has made a record that reeks of bland ambition; what’s unreal is how effortlessly the product becomes her.

Painted From Memory

Elvis Costello With Burt Bacharach

Mercury

These codependents deserve each other. Each has spent the bulk of his adult life lacking a collaborator to bring out his best while moaning that he can’t quit thinking about that other girl. Together, they flourish—especially Costello, who hasn’t sung this well since he was the next big thing. Just listening to Elvis climb up the leg of “The Sweetest Punch”‘s full-bodied arrangement is enough to make you hope Burt never walks out on him. As for Burt, he’s no Cole Porter, but he sure knows how voluptuousness should sound.

Close, But Give ‘Em

A Cigar Anyway:

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams (Mercury)

Capital Punishment, Big Punisher (Loud)

XO, Elliott Smith (Dreamworks)

Blueblood, Silkworm (Touch and Go)

Mezzanine, Massive Attack (Virgin)

In the World From Natchez to New York, Olu Dara (Atlantic)

Music From the Motion Picture First Love, Last Rites, Shudder to Think (Epic)

Shades of Bey, Andy Bey (Evidence)

Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Black Star (Rawkus)

Hello Nasty, Beastie Boys (Grand Royal/Capitol) CP