Best of 1998

The Quest for Perfect Pop…..Part 1.

In 1997, people looked for songs where less was more in a lot of cases – uncomplicated, straight-forward pop music.

In 1998, people were looking for the perfect pop tune. The continuing success of the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls, as well as the arrival of several talented “shadows” (‘N Sync, All Saints, 5ive, Billie, and others) served to confirm that this is a mini-industry unto itself. And this is music that will endure, unlike the New Kids On The Block era of ten years ago.

Although I can’t say that more than a handful of these songs charted in the Tuned-On! Top 30, my own personal quest for great music in ’98 seemed somewhat similar. As usual, I took the offbeat path and found many non-commercial records which just didn’t get their due. Then again, there were other big hits, even potential one hit wonders, which stuck like cement throughout the year.

So here is the second annual year in song on the Web, according to Tuned-On! Communications, based on songs which have appeared in my bi-weekly Tuned-On! Top 10 and Top 30 charts..

The Billboard singles chart position is indicated in square brackets after the text,where applicable [tracks not released as commercial singles in North America are identified]. I’ve also indulged in quoting some of the lyrics of the songs (with apologies for any gaffes).

Jeff Buckley
CD: Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk
“I’m only here for this moment…..
Because everybody here wants you
Everybody here thinks they need you
I’m just waiting right here to show you….”
Jeff Buckley may have passed away on May 29, 1997, but his posthumous recordings made him omnipresent to me in 1998. I never got to see Jeff in concert, so the appearance of this tender soul ballad, which gives more props to Al Green and Stax Records superstars than the usual culprits (Robert Plant in particular), was an utter surprise and joy, since I adore early 1970’s R&B music. There’s no denying the simplicity of this song and the range of Buckley’s beautiful voice. One of the 90’s perfect pop records, even if it was never meant to be, it held onto the top of the Tuned-On! chart for its entire six chart run.
[CD track]

Rufus Wainwright
CD: Rufus Wainwright
“I don’t want to hold you and feel sohelpless
I don’t want to smell you and lose my senses
And smile in slow motion….”
While Jeff Buckley may have represented the future that might have been, it is Montreal-based Rufus Wainwright who to me represents the future as it could be. You might have only recently got to know Rufus through his Gap commercial appearance. He’s the son of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, and maintains the eccentric outlook of that family unit. Like the McGarrigle sisters and Wainwright III, Rufus has an ear for pretty tunes and a reverence for the long past (Tin Pan Alley, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, classical opera). But it is his songwriting, and particularly how he suits the lyrics to his voice, that makes his self-titled CD the best record I heard in 1998. Take for example “Foolish Love”, which starts like a contemporary ballad, takes a sidestep back to a tune which could have been written 70 years ago in a song-within-a-song, and then ends with the same lyric as it began. Rufus is also quite a character in concert, a performer very much in command of his performance with a quirky sense of humour. We may have to wait awhile, but his second CD should be the commercial success that this one wasn’t. A Tuned-On! number one hit for four charts, it stayed around for 10 charts in the Top 10, the longest of any song of the year. [CD track].

CD: Heaven
Rufus Wainwright tries to match 90’s with opera and classic period pop. England’s Jason Rowe, a.k.a. Jai, has got a thing for the late 50’s, early 60’s stylings. Like Wainwright and Jeff Buckley, Jai also has a distinctive voice which also tries to show off the beauty of pop music, albeit through an enigma. He looks like a skinhead in a suit, but his music belongs in a smoky jazz club. And “I Believe” is a mysterious puzzle, with confident lyrics that are pieces of a complete thought, and a gorgeous video shot in London recalling 60’s TV shows like The Avengers or Mission:Impossible. Like Buckley and Wainwright, Jai received a lot of critical acclaim but little radio exposure. He’s a dynamic force in concert with a strong band to support him, recreating the layered effect of his CD in performance. While I like his songs just as they are, “I Believe” may not have paved the road to a hit in the way that other songs could have (example: his stunning cover of Julie London’s torch standard “Cry Me A River”). “I Believe” was number one on two Tuned-On! charts. [did not chart]

Chris Isaak
CD: Speak Of The Devil
Chris Isaak never ceases to amaze me more than 10 years after I first heard his music. The man has a library of beautiful pop music in his head, and occasionally he gets to rock out a bit. While he continues to incorporate the mystery that made “Wicked Game” a Top 10 hit in 1991, “Speak Of The Devil” lets loose with the vocal tour de force which renders comparisons to Roy Orbison so apt. That Isaak’s back up band complements his songs so effortlessly allows focus on Isaak’s supurb guitar work when he’s not singing. After the weaker Forever Blue and Baja Sessions CD’s, Speak Of The Devil is the true worthy successor to the early 90’s successes of Heart Shaped World and San Francisco Days. “Speak Of The Devil” reigned atop the Tuned-On! chart for two charts. [CD track]

Rufus Wainwright
CD: Rufus Wainwright
“Well if you will believe in love
And all it’s supposed to be…..”
DreamWorks tried to promote “April Fools” to adult contemporary radio, but it’s much too progressive of a song to cater to an audience that is comfortable with hearing songs repeatedly long after they have peaked. This is Rufus at his jauntiest and most playful, a song that throws caution to the wind much like the way practical jokes are played on April 1. Some of Rufus’ songs were co-produced by the esteemed Van Dyke Parks, who lends interesting sonic effects. While “April Fools” doesn’t have Parks producing, Jon Brien uses Parks’ inspiration to give Rufus’ piano an 18th century harpsichord sound. “April Fools” rose to the top of the Tuned-On! charts for one chart. Like “Foolish Love” it stuck around in the Top 30 for 10 charts, though not all in the Top 10.  [CD track]

Matthew Good Band
(Canada)/Mercury (U.S.)
CD: Underdogs
“Died in a police car accident
Came back to you so you wouldn’t be alone
And if I ever go away again
You can have my stereo”
Underdogs was the toughest-sounding CD which I enjoyed in ’98. Its music is abrasive and edgy, Good’s voice has a sneer that turns heads, and his lyrics are biting and, refreshingly, quite witty. “Indestructible” was a huge Canadian hit for this British Columbian band who toured frequently throughout 1998 to support their music. It was accompanied by a video which captured the lyrics literally but also bought into the humour. If Good can keep writing this well, the band’s next CD should materialize into international success which didn’t happen this time around. And do I smell at least one Juno Award?? “Indestructible” seemed just that on the Tuned-On! charts – it climbed to #1. [CD track – Canada only]

CD: Rated NextEven when they’re not ballads, love songs were everywhere in 1998. One of the biggest and best hits was “Too Close” – kinda hard to believe coming from a group whose previous claim to fame was “Butta Love”. Lovey-dovey-ness aside, the true treasures here are the natural-sounding vocals. The three guys trading off verses with the object of their affection is something that Next found which is a standard technique in some rap records, and they translated it into pure pop quite well. “Too Close” is destined to remain on the radio in recurrent rotation for years to come. It too was a #1 Tuned-On! hit. [BB: #1]

CD: All The Pain Money Can Buy”Anyone can see the road that they
walk on is paved in gold
It’s always summer they’ll never get cold
Never get hungry, never get old and grey…..”
I never received more emails or questions about a single song this year than Fastball’s “The Way”. It took people months to figure out what this song was and who it was by, which may have caused it to lose some momentum. Nevertheless this Texas trio had one of the biggest hits of the year – without releasing a commercial single of it, making it all the more frustrating for those who had heard it for months and then wanted to buy it. “The Way” is another great example of a song with thoughtful structure, starting out ominously, moving into “hey, it’s not so bad, this death thing, let’s rock” territory before ending…..with a non-ending! I must admit as the song became more popular it began to grate on me, but as is the case with year end comments in hindsight, “The Way” is still one of the classiest records of ’98. A Tuned-On! smash – three charts at #1. [CD track]

Propellerheads featuring Shirley Bassey
CD: Decksandrumsandrockandroll
Like 808 State before them, this U.K. duo makes technologically dreamy soundtracks for unmade movies. And on occasion, even for movies that have already been made (they do “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” on their CD). But their coup in 1998 (preceded by Swiss duo Yello in 1987 for “The Rhythm Divine”) was to request the presence of Miss Shirley Bassey for vocals on “History Repeating”, which turned out to be a vocal tour de force on the right side of campy (Yello’s was just pure camp). To hear Bassey on the radio next to alt.women like Alanis Morissette and Courtney Love is special, because you could hear her again in dance clubs next to divas like Cher and Gloria Estefan. If you gotta do a modern rock dance record, then do it like this! Even then, you’ll get taken out of context and featured in one of the most successful films of the year (in this case, There’s Something About Mary). Prior to changing to a Top 30 in October, “History Repeating” had the longest run in the Top 10 – 9 charts. [CD track]

CD: Feeling Strangely Fine
“Closing time, you don’t have to go home but you can’t…stay…here”
What sounded initially like an earnest folky rock record ended up being one of the most heart-warming singalongs of the year. It’s story telling at its best, with a compelling vocal by leader Dan Wilson, who looks like a young bookworm who became a rock ‘n roller. Semisonic’s Feeling Strangely Fine CD is also one of the best records of the year because it transcends its would-be-folk-rock status by looking back to the 70’s and capturing the stylistic enthusiasm of Electric Light Orchestra leader Jeff Lynne. In Lynne’s music, The Beatles were everything. It’s unlikely that you’ll hear the Beatles-via-Lynne influence on any other record, and Semisonic blends this into its original songs seamlessly. “Closing Time” was another track which never saw commercial release as a single, thereby leading Billboard to revise its Hot 100 singles chart to include popular CD tracks on December 5. [CD track]

CD: Heaven
The second single from Jai’s debut album is more straight-forward than “I Believe”, replacing mystery with the plush sound inherent throughout the rest of the album. This song’s beauty is typified by the high notes Jai reaches and the stylish quiver in the way that the long notes are held. A great record for romantics, “Heaven” followed “I Believe” at the top of the Tuned-On! charts for two charts. [did not chart]

New Radicals
CD: Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too
A good anthem will win over fans rapidly at any given time, and so is the case with “You Get What You Give”. While there isn’t much new about this kind of song, it’s the songwriting and performance courtesy of leader Gregg Alexander which rings true of hope, encouragement, and enthusiasm. We’ll need a lot more of that as we head into the new millennium. Within the next few months, “You Get What You Give” should be a Top 20 hit. At time of writing, it led the Tuned-On! Top 30. [CD track – BB: #47 at time of writing]

Love, Inc.
ViK. (Canada)
CD: Love, Inc.
“People used to tell me tell me tell me
Just what kind of high they were looking for
Take a ride on a purple airplane
Honey I don’t know if I’ll be back again”
Canada’s foremost dance club meister Chris Sheppard said farewell to his BKS project after winning a Juno for 1996’s “Astroplane”, and formed his new trio Love, Inc., which was initiated into the world through the appearance of “Broken Bones” in the Much Dance ’97 compilation. Well, that CD sold multi-platinum in Canada, and “Broken Bones” was officially unleashed to dance clubs and radio in early ’98. It’s a stunning piece of work, carried by Simone Denny’s amazing voice, and lyrics which are both truthful and surreal at the same time. Look for Love, Inc. to break into the U.S. in ’99. “Broken Bones” was a Top 10 radio hit in Canada in ’98. [CD single – Canada only]

Lauryn Hill
CD:The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
“Girls you know you better watch out
Cause guys are only about
That thing, that thing, that thing”
Now that all three members of The Fugees have released solo records, you can tell how all of the talent meshes into the force which successfully made “Killing Me Softly” a Top 10 hit all over again in 1996. And Lauryn Hill not only is a great vocalist, but a strong songwriter who doesn’t beat around the bush. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” was one of ’98’s most deserving hits, and arguably the best female vocal performance of the year. Watch for multiple Grammy nominations. [BB: #1]

Swirl 360
CD: Ask Anybody
“Hey now now don’t you know
It’s not really that complicated”
Almost every year there’s one hit that is just sheer fun, and “Hey Now Now” was the summer song of ’98. I hope twins Denny and Kenny Scott are able to get past the “one hit wonder” effect of this song because they have a knack for writing a strong hook that sucks you quite helplessly into the rest of the song. “Hey Now Now” was a much bigger hit in Canada than in the U.S. [BB: #47]

CD: Feeling Strangely Fine
“All alone on the overpass
Wired and phoned to a heart of glass”
Time” ended up being such a huge hit that second single “Singing In My Sleep” got lost in the shuffle and was given a belated CD single release. This melodic song shows signs of the Beatles-via-Jeff Lynne influence which I discussed above, and is instantly recognizable because the tempo periodically veers out of sync with the instrumentation. Lyrically though, could this song be about Deborah Harry (of Blondie) singing through Wilson’s headphones at a younger age, since it references a “heart of glass”? If anything, “Singing In Your Sleep” shows that you can tell easily why Dan Wilson now has a successful band. [did not chart]

Rufus, Martha & Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle
CD: The McGarrigle Hour
This glorious and heart-warming cover of Irving Berlin’s classic is what happens when you get a dysfunctional family of many talents together to make a record. They should do it more often. Every vocalist gets a showcase either solo or in harmony, and this ranks among the best covers of a well-known standard in recent years. One downside: You will never hear it on pop radio, so give The McGarrigle Hour CD close scrutiny at a CD listening station near you. [CD track]

Matthew Good Band
Darktown-A&M (Canada)/Mercury (U.S.)
CD: Underdogs
The Matthew Good Band’s first Canadian hit is as strong an introduction to a new performer as any I can think of in 1998. It’s more hard edged than their other hits “Indestructible”, “Apparitions” or “Rico”, but still has an unflinching humorous side stemming from the sarcastic title phrase and the way it is sung. Represented by a wonderful Juno-nominated video too. [CD track – Canada only]

19.  STAY
Sash! featuring La Trec
CD: In My Life
Along with “History Repeating” and “Broken Bones”, the third crucial dance record of ’98. Sash! is actually German producer
and DJ Sascha Lappessen, and he’s evolving into the Giorgio Moroder of the 90’s. His music is heavily classical influenced, and the soaring vocal of La Trec complements it beautifully with its fairy tale aura (a similar song might be Robert Miles’ “Fable”). Watch for Sash! to break into the pop mainstream within the next year or two. “Stay”, like Sash!’s other dance records, reached the summit on Billboard’s dance chart. [did not chart]

Eagle-Eye Cherry
CD: Desireless
The younger brother of Neneh Cherry (remember 1989’s “Buffalo Stance”?) released possibly the most infectious and gentle record of ’98 with “Save Tonight”. This is an inauspicious debut from someone who knows that simplicity can be the real key to getting an international hit. In fact, the Sweden native scored throughout Europe (in the U.K. it was a Top 10 hit) before his North American breakthrough. Look for an even stronger second record when it appears. [CD track – BB: #12 at time of writing]

December 18, 1998