Best albums of 1998: #3 Neutral Milk Hotel “In the aeroplane over the sea”

It was my friend Jez that tried to get me into Neutral Milk Hotel many moons ago, albeit five or six years after the release of this, their seminal album. I had met Jez at my call centre job in the early 2000s and I’m not quite sure how we got to talking about music but it was on this that we had clicked as friends. We were constantly introducing each other to bands. He gave me a copy of “In the aeroplane over the sea” to sample, telling me they sounded like The Decemberists, a band I was just getting into at the time, but for some reason, the album didn’t click with me.

My friend wasn’t wrong in his comparison though, I can totally see where this album influenced Colin Meloy now. In fact, a lot of indie folk bands of the 2000s were influenced by it. However, when Jeff Mangum started the project in the late 80s, the sound was decidedly different. It was a lot noisier and raw and even less put together, if you can believe it. “In the aeroplane over the sea” was the second album released by Neutral Milk Hotel and the first recorded as an actual group. Before that, the ‘band’ was whoever was around at the time to perform with Mangum. This second album is still very lo-fi but it is also an electric mishmash of genres and instruments. It is ugly but beautiful, the lyrics influenced by Mangum’s reflections on Anne Frank.

Adding to the lore of the “In the aeroplane over the sea” is the fact that Jeff Mangum put the band on indefinite hiatus the year following its release after becoming disenchanted with everything. The album did well critically but not commercially right away. However, it picked up steam over the years, people discovering it way too late, has since sold many copies, and has now appeared on multiple best albums of the 90s lists. Mangum reformed the band in 2013 and toured extensively into the spring of 2015 before disappearing back into the night.

I finally the picked up this album again around that time because they were announced to play the folk festival in my city and this time it clicked. Yep, I fell in love with it just in time to see them live. The three picks below are amongst my favourites on the album but they are by no means the only great tracks.


“Ghost”: It is aggressive acoustic strumming and a rumbling and distorted fuzz bass, almost obscuring Jeff Mangum’s stream of consciousness-like lyrics. Indeed, at times, it sounds like he needs to be yelling above the cacaphony. “Ghost, ghost I know you live within me. I feel you as you fly in thunder clouds above the city into one that I love.” The words started out from the thoughts that his apartment was haunted and like many of the songs on the album, reflections of Anne Frank creep through. From there, frantic drums kick in as well as a pocket of duelling horns, none of which sound super proficient or rather, their attention to detail is lacking. Yeah, it’s a shambles. But it’s a wonderful shambles.

“In the aeroplane over the sea”: “And one day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea but for now we are young, let us lay in the sun.” The title track of the album is still hinting at the supernatural but has a somewhat happier bent. The acoustic strumming that starts the tune and carries on throughout is of the head swaying type and never fails to bring a smile. You can almost picture Mangum singing this wth his eyes closed in ecstasy. He adds in those same horns we heard in the previous track to the party and for shits and giggles, some singing saw. Seriously. How often do you hear a singing saw in popular music? Right.

“The king of carrot flowers, pt. 1”: “And this is the room one afternoon I knew I could love you. And from above you how I sank into your soul into that secret place where no one dares to go.” The opening track with the seemingly nonsensical name is but part 1 of a two song trilogy (parts 2 and 3 follow on the album’s next track). It’s short at two minutes and not necessarily as frantic as some of the other tracks that follow it. It’s like a warm up for the joy and bliss that’s to come. It is simple and innocent, that aforementioned kitchen sink instrumentation and breathless and almost random lyrics are present here as well, evoking yellowed polaroids and long ago discarded toys and favourite blankets. It is the purity of first love set to an off-kilter accordion and what is better than that?


Check back next Thursday for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Sloan “Navy blues”
9. Cake “Prolonging the magic”
8. Embrace “The good will out”
7. Mojave 3 “Out of tune”
6. Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”
5. Manic Street Preachers “This is my truth now tell me yours”
4. Pulp “This is hardcore”

You can check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 1998: #4 Pulp “This is hardcore”

What do you get when you have a band, especially a talented and misunderstood frontman, that toils for years in obscurity, always hoping and striving for fame, finally reaches its goal with a couple of hit records and massive headline spots at top festivals, only to find out that the fame is not what he/they wanted in the end? You get an album like “This is hardcore”.

Indeed, Pulp’s previous record, their fifth, “Different class” had them out on top, almost two decades after a 15-year old Jarvis Cocker formed the band with his friend Peter Dalton. Pulp had seen multiple personnel changes over 1980s and they struggled mightily, releasing two albums to almost no impact on the music buying public. They started to gain traction with their third album, 1992’s “Separations”, and then, “His ‘n’ hers” truly broke the band in 1994. It’s sort of a chicken and the egg thing with Pulp and BritPop. Nevertheless, the scene’s wave carried the band with it to the pinnacles of fame and still, it seemed, Jarvis and company weren’t happy. The sixth album took a year to record and was a struggle from the beginning, perhaps this was partly due to the departure of long time member Russell Senior but the band persevered and the results were completely worth it.

When I first heard it, I was a bit thrown off as I’m sure a lot of people were. Of course, I was still young and looking for more of that glam rock to dance to and sing along with Cocker’s wry observations on love and sex and life in general. I wasn’t ready for all this jaded maturity and found the music too heavy on inaccessible side of the scale. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and with my own jaded maturity, I can now see “This is hardcore” for the masterpiece that it is. An album that is timeless and stands up to Pulp’s best work.

Sample, if you will, my three picks for you below and let me know your thoughts.


“A little soul”: Songs with titles like this are usually a bit more uplifting, soul or R&B pop tracks that shake it, suggesting that ‘little’ is an understatement. However, Cocker turns this idea on its head with a literal take on its theme. The narrative is of a man speaking to his son, likely not a direct conversation though, just one in his head, as he’s watching him from afar or looking at a photo of him. “You look like me but you’re not like me, I hope. I have run away from the one thing that I ever made.” It’s a tired sounding number, an end of the night ballad, a mellow blues band in an empty, echoing club, Cocker sounding sorrowful and full of regret and though he feels he doesn’t have any soul to share, there’s plenty here.

“Help the aged”: Another song here that’s a bit depressing. If you’re sensing a theme, you’re spot on. Amongst the screaming and searing guitars is Cocker eulogizing youthfulness and imploring the young to truly see seniors and not hide from their own mortality. “You can dye your hair but it’s the one thing you can’t change, can’t run away from yourself.” No, it’s not a charitable song, as its title suggests, but an introspective one. A midlife crisis in song form, rage and sadness in a four minute song rather than a red convertible.

“This is hardcore”: The title track is the epic, six and a half minute centrepiece of the album. The sound is very different from the synth glam of their previous record and Jarvis Cocker uses his usual lurid thematics here as an extended metaphor for how he sees the music industry. It’s a slow burning number, dark and seedy, likely something you might hear in a lower end strip joint while a disinterested performer moves to its crawling beat on the grimy stage. Cocker runs the gamut of hopes and dreams and foreplay to being spent and used in every way possible. ”Oh, this is hardcore. There is no way back for you.” This is a great band at peak form.


Check back next Thursday for album #3. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Sloan “Navy blues”
9. Cake “Prolonging the magic”
8. Embrace “The good will out”
7. Mojave 3 “Out of tune”
6. Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”
5. Manic Street Preachers “This is my truth now tell me yours”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 1998: #5 Manic Street Preachers “This is my truth now tell me yours”

At the time that the Manic Street Preachers released their fifth studio album, I really only knew them for a couple of cover songs that I had on compilation CDs. And I don’t actually know why I didn’t search them out sooner because I really liked their renditions of “Suicide is painless” and “Raindrops keep falling on my head”. Nonetheless, the year after “This is my truth now tell me yours” was released, my roommate at the time, Ryan, had picked up a copy and was listening to it all the time. I made a copy of it on cassette eventually (or did he burn me a copy to CD, I honestly can’t remember) and I grew to love it over the years. So much so that I now have a copy of it in my vinyl collection.

The album is the band’s first without a shred of input from Richey Edwards, one of the band’s original guitarists and lyricists. He had disappeared three years earlier in 1995 and to this day, has never been found, though he has been declared dead since 2008. His disappearance had really shaken the band to its core and they had briefly considered disbanding. Even still, they never replaced him, carrying on as a three-piece and as I understand it, they continue to set up a microphone for him at all their live shows. For the first album after he went missing, 1996’s “Everything must go”, the band used his lyrics for a handful of songs but for “This is my truth”, all the songs’ words were written by the band’s other lyricist, Nicky Wire. This album also represented a change in sound for the band, softening its harder elements and experimenting with different instrumentation and sounds.

“This is my truth now tell me yours” was a huge hit for the Manics, carrying on from the ground broken with its predecessor. It debuted at number one on the UK charts, had the band cleaning up at the NME and Brit awards, garnered them a Mercury Prize nomination, and broke them with an international audiences. It’s a big album that is both personal and aware of the ills of the world. It is melodic guitar rock with a conscience, James Dean Bradfield’s earnest voice speaking to our deepest selves.

The album is pretty darned solid from end to end and earned the band five very successful singles and it is from these that I present my three picks for you below.


”You stole the sun from my heart”: You’ve heard the term ‘Frenemy’? Well, I think that’s an apt term to describe this first song. A sampled electronic drum loop set against the quiet versus loud phenomenon. Sunshine and technicolour animals set against the deluge, love versus hate. “You have broken through my armour and I don’t have an answer. I love you all the same.” Nicky Wire has said he wrote the words about the band’s feelings towards touring but it could just as easily describe an unhealthy relationship. That’s the beauty of the Manics.

”Tsunami”: Electric sitar forms the basis of this, the fourth single released off the album. It lends a mystical and mysterious edge to an otherwise accessible sounding pop song. It tells the story of the Gibbons twin sisters who held a pact with one another not to speak to another living soul unless one of them should die. The title describes the feeling the surviving twin must have felt when the other actually did die (under mysterious circumstances) in 1993. “Tsunami, tsunami, came washing over me. Can’t speak. Can’t think. Won’t talk. Won’t walk.” Meanwhile, that electric sitar continues to dance along our spines.

”If you tolerate this your children will be next”: This is easily my favourite track by the band, a song so beautiful and moving, not just in words but in sound and passion, that has been known to bring a tear to my ear. It takes for its subject matter the Spanish civil war, the title is a tagline used by the Republican army to try enlist the help of likeminded folks from other countries to their cause. So many great lines in the song but I think the ones that ring true the most are these: “Gravity keeps my head down. Or is it maybe shame at being so young and being so vain.” Hits deep at my own heart and gets me wondering if I would have had the courage in the face of a world war or something like it. Again, there’s so much passion, incredulity, and outrage imbued in this track and yet, singing along with it brings such release. Very nice indeed.


Check back next Thursday for album #4. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Sloan “Navy blues”
9. Cake “Prolonging the magic”
8. Embrace “The good will out”
7. Mojave 3 “Out of tune”
6. Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.