Best albums of 1998: The honourable mentions (aka #10 through #6)

Happy Thursday! And welcome to my Throwback Thursday (#tbt) best albums of the year series. I know. I know. I just finished my series on 2008 two weeks ago and here I am starting 1998.

Well, there’s a good reason for that. I came to the realization while writing up the last list that I might have started things off behind the eight ball last year when I instituted these series and I thought I would try playing catch up and do two years worth of these this year. We’ll see if I can keep this up. The odds aren’t in my favour, to be honest.

Anyway, 1998. After the great year for British Rock that was 1997, the following year felt a bit of a letdown. How could it not? So I found myself actively looking for great new music but not necessarily finding it and instead, just settled into the same music from the previous few years. Hence, the year 1998 started a cycle of two or three years of musical malaise for me that only came to an end with the indie rock resurgence in 2001.

On a personal note, the year started with my last few months of post-secondary education life and then, in the fall, I moved downtown and started working full-time at my previously part-time job. My employers at the time, Stephenson’s Rent-all, put me in their management training program and so started my adult life. My pay wasn’t great and my rent was high so it still felt like I was living the life of the starving student. As such, I couldn’t always afford to buy the few CDs that caught my fancy and given the Internet was still a number of years away from streaming, I didn’t even hear most of the albums on this list until later on.

All this aside, I did manage to cobble together a list of ten great albums from 1998 and below are the first five. If you don’t know the trick by now, I will be featuring the next five, an album each Thursday, over the next five weeks. Enjoy the nostalgia ride with me.


#10 Sloan “Navy blues”

I finally gave in and got into Sloan with their third record, “One chord to another”. I had really, really disliked “Underwhelmed”, the first single off their first record “Smeared”, but really dug everything I heard from them after that on the radio. And, of course, in 1990s Canada with the Can Con rules, they were played a lot. Unfortunately, due to the same reasons I mentioned above, I didn’t get around to listening to “Navy blues” until a number of years after its release, though I was definitely knee deep in its singles. A bit harder than their previous two records, this record still features plenty of harmonies, diverse songwriting, and Beatle-esque pop rock sensibilities.

Gateway tune: Money city maniacs


#9 Cake “Prolonging the magic”

Here is another album whose singles were all over alternative radio, at least in Toronto, in the late 1990s. It got so bad that every time the song below came on the radio at my workplace, or even those of us who worked with him even hinted at singing the chorus line, a colleague of mine would be driven to fits and rants. Cake’s sound is instantly recognizable with its heavy bass focus, regular use of horns, and frontman John McCrea’s deep sing speak vocals. And “Prolonging the magic”, Cake’s third album, was likely the one that firmly established the band in our collective consciousness. Like it or not, you can’t deny how much fun this music is.

Gateway tune: Sheep go to heaven


#8 Embrace “The good will out”

British band Embrace (not to be confused with the American hardcore punk band of the same name) released their debut a year or two too late, arriving tardy to the BritPop party. “The good will out” sold very well and was reviewed well enough by the British press but it wasn’t long before the backlash adhered to the flailing movement tarred them with a brush as coattail hangers. It’s unfortunate really because I truly liked the album – its rockers getting me sufficiently riled and its ballads appealing to my sappier side. The album and group bridged the gap between Britpop and post-Britpop and were at the vanguard of passionate pop bands that included the likes of Travis, Keane, and Coldplay, a factoid that might sway you to love or hate them.

Gateway tune: All you good good people


#7 Mojave 3 “Out of tune”

Mojave 3 was formed when Slowdive was dropped from Creation and Neil Halstead, Rachel Goswell, and Ian McCutcheon decided to switch gears and move towards a slightly folkier sound. After their lovely debut, 1996’s “Ask me tomorrow”, Simon Rowe (Chapterhouse) and Alan Forrester were added to fill out the sound and the result was this album, their sophomore. Though it’s not my favourite of their work, all of their albums are pretty consistently great. They rock in a more subtle way, Halstead’s soothing vocals is the butter on the fresh out of the oven croissants and the rest of the band follow his lead, adding plenty of lovely textures to unfold.

Gateway tune: Who do you love?


#6 Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”

The first time I heard Rufus Wainwright was one night when I took the subway downtown to visit my friend Mark, who had just moved into a new apartment in Little Italy with some roommates I had never met. When I got there, Mark and his roommates had already started in on the beers and this self-titled debut was playing. It was so jarring and different than pretty much everything I was listening to at the time but yet it appealed to me. I remember mentioning that it reminded me of early Tom Waits with some of the vocals of a young Lou Reed and I asked who it was. The name stuck with me because it wasn’t a common one. I didn’t learn until much later that he was the progeny of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III and the sibling of Martha (who appears on the album as well). Coincidentally, Rufus Wainwright appeared on some Canadian daytime talk show a few days later, further impressing me with his theatrics and obvious talent at the keys, and I promptly went out to buy the CD.

Gateway tune: April fools


Check back next Thursday for album #5 on this list. In the meantime, you can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best tunes of 1991: #5 The Lowest of the Low “Bleed a little while tonight”

<< #6    |    #4 >>

If and when I get around to counting down my favourite albums of 1991, you know this album’ll definitely be high up on the list. Indeed, “Shakespeare my butt”, The Lowest of the Low’s debut album, is right up there with my favourite albums of all time. Another great track from it appeared just six songs ago at number eleven (“Rosy and grey”) and if this top thirty was a top one hundred instead, I’d say a good deal more of the album would be on here. Already I’m wishing I’d squeezed on one or two more songs from it. It’s criminal that this Toronto indie band never broke it bigger but in a way, it was their own doing.

“Shakespeare my butt” with its folk punk roots, literate and honest lyrics, great guitar hooks, and melodic harmonies won lots of fans and sold lots of copies for an independent release back then. Some of its songs even found their way on to commercial pop radio. Its infamy only grew after they broke up, but mostly in southern Ontario and just across the US border into Buffalo. It’s an album that didn’t reach far but on those it did touch, it left an indelible mark. And if you asked any LOTL fan to name their favourite song, there’s a good chance that they might point to “Bleed a little while tonight”.

Like many of Ron Hawkins’ tunes, it’s a song that ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells’ its story and it’s a story that feels very real and one with which most of us can identify. Here, it’s a love (or perhaps lust) that is unreturned. A universal subject for sure but Hawkins comes by it honestly.

“And I’d forget about you if I could dare but
I just want to make love to you in some dark, rainy street somewhere.”

Its five minutes is a mix of acoustic strumming and careening electric guitars and uneven and crashing drums, the mood rough and passionate and messy, reflecting that of the song’s protagonist. It might almost fall apart if it weren’t held tightly together by the call and response vocals by Stephen Stanley and Hawkins that appear at the bridge and return to close out the song, lines any of us fans can sing along with and drum up all sorts of memories.

“Well, my heart is aching
Damn Damn the circumstance
And my room is spinning
Damn, damn the circumstance
It’s grey without you in it”

Yup. That’s the one.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.

Live music galleries: Spirit of the West with the NAC orchestra [2007]

(I got the idea for this series while sifting through the ‘piles’ of digital photos on my laptop. It occurred to me to share some of these great pics from some of my favourite concert sets from time to time. Like my ‘Vinyl love’ series, these posts will be more photos than words but that doesn’t mean I won’t welcome your thoughts and comments. And of course, until I get around to the next one, I invite you to peruse my ever-growing list of concerts of page.)

Spirit of the West with the NAC Orchestra, July 2007

Artist: Spirit of the West performing with the NAC orchestra
When: July 21st, 2007
Where: Orchestras in the park series, Lebreton Flats Park, Ottawa
Context: For the longest time, Spirit of the West was the band I had seen the most times live (that mark recently was surpassed by Stars), not just because they were a Canadian band that toured its own country frequently but more because they have long been one of my favourite bands. The second time I saw them live is also quite memorable because it marked the night Victoria and I got together and the rest of the times I saw them after that, we saw them as a couple. But I’m now talking about the final time we saw Spirit of the West and it was all the more special because they were performing a free show with the NAC orchestra as part of their Orchestras in the park series. The much loved Canadian Celtic folk rock band had released its final album, “Star trails”, three years before and was one year removed from releasing a career retrospective collection called “Spirituality”. That night, though, the majority of the set came from 1996’s “Open heart symphony”, an album they had recorded with Vancouver’s symphony orchestra, because, as they said, they didn’t often get the chance to perform those songs live as they were meant to be heard. However, they did perform a handful of their hits as ‘encore’, like “Home for a rest” and the song referenced below, “And if Venice is sinking”. As a special bonus, if you click on that link below, you can actually watch the performance of it from this very show through the magic of YouTube. Enjoy.
Point of reference song: And if venice is sinking

Hugh McMillan, Vince Ditrich, and John Mann of Spirit of the West
Geoffrey Kelly and Tobin Frank of Spirit of the West
Vince Ditrich, John Mann, and Geoffrey Kelly of Spirit of the West
Vince Ditrich and Tobin Frank of Spirit of the West – “That’s amore!”
John Mann of Spirit of the West

(P.S. For those of you living in Toronto or within striking distance, I strongly recommend you consider a tribute show being held a week from today at the Phoenix Concert Theatre, in the name of lead singer John Mann, whom many of you know is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. Last I checked, tickets are still available here. I would love to go myself, unfortunately, it’s just not feasible.)