Monday, May 10, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 1998


Things are going to start getting a little weird today. I'm about to lose all of my cool points but #noregrets. In 1998, I was 6 and 7 years old. I was starting to get old enough to have my own musical tastes. Those tastes ran to Julie Andrews and Broadway musicals. But the kids around me were getting into current music. It was probably 2000 by the time I heard new music that I liked because a) I wasn't allowed to listen to The Spice Girls or Britney Spears because my mom deemed them inappropriate b) The girls my age were listening to the boy bands N*Sync and Backstreet Boys and I couldn't for the life of me understand what they saw in those guys, physically or musically. I had a strong aversion to conventional attractiveness that I have not lost to this day. More on "modern music" in a minute though.

In 1998, a fascinating project was released as a collaboration between British folk singer Billy Bragg and American rock band Wilco and...the late Woody Guthrie. Guthrie's daughter Nora organized the project as a means of getting the thousands of sets of unused lyrics her father had written out there for the world and for a younger generation. I rented the CD on a whim from the San Francisco public library and was far from disappointed. "Walt Whitman's Niece" is still a standout track that I recommend if you haven't heard it.

Another 1998 project was what turns out to be the last foray into a full-length album by Mark Hollis, former lead singer/songwriter/etc. for Talk Talk. Hollis sadly passed away in 2019, not having recorded an album in twenty-one years. Mark Hollis is an 8 song album full of sparse piano tracks, ambient music and vague, poetic lyrics. It was part of his two-record contract with Polydor, the first album of which was Talk Talk's 1991 album Laughing Stock. The original intention was to call the project Mountains of the Moon and release it as another Talk Talk album, but in the end it was decided to release it as a solo album. 

I took great inspiration from Hollis' songwriting in general, but this album inspired me far more to write music than the complex later Talk Talk albums. I mean, this is the lyrics to the first track:

Forget our fate
The peddler sings
Set up to sell my soul
I've lived a life for wealth to bring

And yet I'll gaze
The color of spring
Immerse in that one moment
Left in love with everything

Soar the bridges
That I burnt before
One song among us all No one else I listened to in 2007 was writing like that. Hollis gave me a new outlook on how to put poetry to music, a deeper understanding of the economy of words.

"The Watershed" was my favorite track on the album. Not sure if I ever incorporated it into a Doctor Who/Rose fanmix, but I know I tried. "Should have said so much//Makes it harder//The more you love" was my favorite line in any song for a few months. I made a very short black and white film with "The Watershed" as the only sound. 

AllMusic called Mark Hollis "quite possibly the most quiet and intimate record ever made."

I am ashamed of what I'm about to say, but I'm still going to say it.

My favorite album of 1998 is B*Witched's self titled album.

I'm not ashamed of enjoying the album, just of ranking it higher than the masterpiece that is Mark Hollis. But in terms of how many times I've listened to both albums, and how memorable I find the songs to be, unfortunately B*Witched takes the lead. 

is the debut album of Irish girl group B*Witched. It reached #12 in the U.S. and had three #1 singles in the U.K. Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone said of the album "B*Witched is a cheerfully catchy summary of the state of the slumber party - the sound of nice girls acting tough, all in the name of pop." 

The album's lead single, "C'est la Vie" reached #1 in the girls' native Ireland, as well as Scotland, New Zealand and the U.K. That made B*Witched the youngest girl group to top the charts in the U.K. It even ended up at #5 for the year in New Zealand and the U.K. In the U.S., it reached #9 in a chart week that included TLC "No Scrubs," Cher's "Believe," and Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me." Impressive, really. 

The album is absolutely littered with fun pop tracks, seemingly appropriate for kids, but often with double entendres that wouldn't be caught by younger listeners. Their Irish heritage is at the fore (almost cheesily so), setting them apart from other pop music of the day. Violins and pennywhistles are present and the opening track is even called "Let's Go (the B*Witched Jig)." 

I have real trouble as a music critic that grew up on this album finding the flaws in it. I'm sure they're there, but I am having real issues separating the art from my childhood. *(Just kidding, I just remembered the line in "To You I Belong" "I cried for you when I hurt my hand")

Just a normal after-school photo session in 1998 after
the photographer for school picture day didn't properly
capture my artistic vision while I was twinning it with
"Emma The Doll."
My first introduction to B*Witched was a school lip-synching contest in 2000. Three of my classmates in matching red t-shirts danced around perfectly lip-synching to this song I'd never heard before. That song was a ton of fun! Was this it? Had I finally found a modern band to like so I could stop being so weird? Well, not really, because I had to pick the more obscure '90s girl group and I was a few years late to the party...and I still preferred The Monkees, but still! There was hope for me not being weird. My friend had a copy of this album and I was able to borrow it and record it to cassette (don't worry, I own the CD legally now, but I didn't have a CD player until post-2005). That cassette was like my gateway to being  normal through something I actually enjoyed. It wasn't like I could compromise something important like my musical tastes or the integrity of my critical prowess by lying about my tastes. Also, I'm painfully honest. Anyway, I listened to that album over and over. I included songs from it on my "talk to myself while I clean my room" "radio show" (just ramblings on cassette with songs taped on there too occasionally from my dual cassette player from my mom's dual cassette deck). 

I bought the CD (told you) in an F.Y.E. bargain bin in high school and of course some of the songs made it onto my Doctor/Rose fanmixes. I mean, there's a song called "Like the Rose!" "To You I Belong" was the real heavy-hitter for that though.

My relationship with this band and this album is weird. I can't really defend my stance apart from saying that I think they made an album of great '90s pop and that it has deep roots in my childhood. I think I said all of that before. This is the album out of all 30 that I listened to at the youngest age. 

Eh...anyway...Let's throw it up on the leaderboard!

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album of 1999.

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