Pickled Priest Mixtape: Our Favorite Songs of 1998
In 1998, I was well into my adult years (married, but no kids for another three years). My newfound DINK status afforded me a decent amount of liquid income to drop on records and concert tickets—I should've tied the knot years earlier! I'm sure any self-respecting financial analyst would endorse this investment strategy. Suffice it to say, my pile of records expanded at an epic pace during these halcyon days. If I confided with you and revealed the raw numbers you'd probably argue for Britney Spears' dad to take over as the conservator of my estate. But without that period, perhaps this nifty little mixtape two decades hence wouldn't have happened. And we couldn't have that now, could we?
26 PJ HARVEY / “A Perfect Day Elise”
I was first drawn to this song because it sounded like Morphine with female vocals. A heavy bass line provides an undulating rumble that simulates the sensation of being caught in the undertow as a large wave folds on top of you. Then, upon reading the lyrics, traces of a tragic storyline emerged, each line seemingly gasping for air. I admit that on my own, there’s no way I would’ve pieced the tale together, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful—it’s dark and mysterious just as it is, arguably even more so than something loaded with specific and revealing details. In reality, the song was inspired by J.D. Salinger’s short story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish, which I have never read, but by all accounts sounds like a real light-hearted summer beach read packed with themes of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide. A cheerful way to kick off our 1998 mixtape!
25 PULP / “A Little Soul"
I've come to grips with the fact that I have a dour side to my personality that has always lurked just beneath the surface veneer visible to others. But if any time-period was conducive to this personality trait, it was the angst-ridden alternative 90s. I was just like everybody else! I have also had a penchant for songs that sound pretty despite an inherent lyrical darkness. There’s something about the black and white/dark and light contrast that appeals to me. Jarvis Cocker, bless his cynical heart, catered to my predisposition, and it didn't hurt that we were the same age at the time he wrote the songs on This is Hardcore. While “A Little Soul” pre-dated the arrival of my first son by three years, I still identified with its sentiment, as a father begs his son, “Everybody’s telling me you look like me / But please don’t turn out like me.” Little did I know how poignant that revelation would be for me someday!
24 NASHVILLE PUSSY / “Go Motherfucker Go”
It took you long enough to get down here. As if I had to say it, subtlety wasn’t Nashville Pussy’s forte. The coed band’s in-your-face crassness was, in many ways, a trailer park version of Kiss’s overt and calculated commercialism. What seemed spontaneous during one live show was soon exposed as contrived if you happened to see them twice on the same tour. But if you name yourself after Ted Nugent stage banter and title a song “Go Motherfucker Go,” you’re not exactly trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes either. The risk is fan burnout, of course. If you live a sleazy, debauched lifestyle, it’s bound to catch up with you. At some point, someone is going to fall asleep, cigarette in hand, and set the kitchen couch on fire. But to dismiss their redneck strip club routine with impunity is to miss the fact that, at least for a short while, they could really torch a recording studio with a whiskey-fueled flamethrower and put on a wildly entertaining live show. Let Them East Pussy—no other titles were even considered—is one high-octane sprint down a funny-car drag strip, with one song plowing into the next without so much as a light tap on the brakes. Twenty years later, it surprisingly still holds up, political correctness a torched carcass in its rearview.
23 THE JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION / “Attack”
Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion has always been a junkyard jalopy—bleeding oil, belching smoke, and grinding gears as it rambles into town for tonight’s big carnival. But give Jon some credit—he always manages to get the old heap up and running again, and once it’s started it turns into a groove machine capable of ludicrous displays of shambolic magnificence. No wonder he spontaneously shouts “Blues Explosion!” on just about every song like some hybrid Elvis Presley/James Brown sideshow barker. He’s simply elated to be roaring down the highway with his best pals in the rumble seat once again. “Attack” is perhaps the best set-opening song ever written, with Jon doing his best Braveheart impression as he cajoles his army, “Blues Explosion…Attack!” And guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins don’t need to be told twice. Spencer might be driving the car, but they're the one who turbo charge the band's engine.
22 THE ORANGE HUMBLE BAND / “Can’t Get What You Want #1”
Power-pop aficionados (an odd breed) need no introduction to the members of the Orange Humble Band, a cult supergroup of sorts featuring Darryl Mather (co-leader of Australia’s short-lived, but revered, Someloves), Ken Stringfellow (of the Posies), and Mitch Easter (the legendary producer behind R.E.M.’s early records and Velvet Crush’s Teenage Symphonies to God, etc.). Mather’s Someloves cohort Dom Mariani wrote "Can't Get What You Want" while he was the leader of yet another beloved Aussie band, DM3, and a power-pop classic was born. A couple years later, the Orange Humble Band took a shot at re-recording his song and ended up with the definitive version in the process. The new improved version benefited from better production (thanks to Easter), a more powerful guitar punch, and stronger vocals. It's kind of a love song about a guy who is relegated to an understudy role in his dream girl's life. When her main squeeze leaves, he finally gets his turn in her spotlight, and predictably, it's not everything he hoped it would be. A bummer, yes, but at least it sounds fabulous!
21 MANIC STREET PREACHERS / “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”
This UK #1 hit is yet another in a long line of chart smashes inspired by Spanish Civil War propaganda. Hanging with the Preachers back in the day was never a rip-snorting good time (album titles included Generation Terrorists, The Holy Bible, and Everything Must Go). Instead, you had best prepare for some heady political conversation in the library, pipe and brandy optional but encouraged. You have to admire their ambition and the fact that, while sometimes a bit much, they were always a pretty compelling rock and roll band despite their noble intellectual pursuits. It’s not surprising then, that their biggest hit, from 1998’s This is My Truth Tell Me Yours, uses high drama to make a salient point; that passive tolerance in the present has the potential for far-reaching consequences in the future. While the song is inspired by specific events from 90 years ago, it's amazing how pertinent the message is today. History repeats as they say.
20 BILL FOX / “My Baby Crying”
Two years on from his career masterpiece, Shelter From the Smoke, enigmatic Cleveland songwriter Bill Fox returned in 1998 with his second album, Transit Byzantium, which featured exactly what newly converted Bill Fox fans wanted—more Bill Fox songs. Thankfully, that was his specialty. “My Baby Crying” captures exactly why people made such a fuss about this scruffy, boyish-voiced singer (think Steve Forbert if he grew up in the West Virginia, not Laurel, MS) who toted with him a satchel-full of instantly memorable yet highly delicate melodies (imagine a rural Elliott Smith). His songs seemed to arrive pre-coated with an antique patina from day one, infusing them with a timeless quality in the process. You could pass them off as from the 1920s or 1990s with nobody doubting either claim. “My Baby Crying” isn’t a simple love song even though it poses as one. There are poetic turns of phrase throughout that will simply crush the unsuspecting: “Sometimes I feel like a lover in vain / I failed to protect her from the forces of pain / That so silently pierce her tender heart.” Gulp. Deep breath. Repeat.
19 ROBBIE FULKS / “Let’s Kill Saturday Night”
Robbie and I both set up shop in Chicago in the 90s. The only difference is he moved here and I was born here. I was just beginning to live life on my own post-college and Robbie was also figuring out his next moves, too. For anyone who saw Robbie live back then, it was easy to tell why his stint as a Nashville songwriter for hire didn’t work out. He was more restless and subversive than other more conventional country songwriters. So, it’s no surprise he ended up working with Chicago alternative (or insurgent) country label, Bloodshot, a home for artists who shunned the cookie-cutter altogether. This song, from an album of the same name, revealed what fans of his club shows always knew. He had more than a little desire to be a rock star in his heart. Some didn’t love the major label production (his time with Geffen didn’t last long anyway), but this song does for Saturday night what Springsteen’s “Out in the Street” did for Friday night.
18 AIR / “Kelly Watch the Stars”
Ladies and gentleman, we are floating in space. If Spiritualized didn’t use that title a year prior it would’ve worked perfectly for Air’s debut album. But Moon Safari is also a fitting label for their celestial brand of electronic pop, too. “Kelly Watch the Stars” begins like we're watching a lonely spacecraft drifting through a distant constellation, only to discover a new galaxy at the 24-second mark that gets the exploration-fueled adrenalin pumping as the ship evades a meteor shower, jets down a black hole, and comes out on the other side of the universe.
17 LOVE AS LAUGHTER / “#1 U.S.A.”
For a rock band with a name seemingly pinched from a craft store throw pillow, LAL (as they, and I, prefer to use) were a frying-pan clanging, garbage-can banging, back-alley wailing rock and roll band that, at its best, captured the swagger of the Stones and the recklessness of Jon Spencer. “#1 U.S.A.” sounds like a set closer, with everyone, piano player included, pushing each other into the red zone. Raucous rock and roll never goes out of style.
16 OUTKAST / “Rosa Parks”
Social change meets Funkadelic at a hip-hop concert in Atlanta and the rest is crunk history. OutKast’s Aquemini has the look, feel, and sound of a group fully at the controls of some new, pimped–out mothership and “Rosa Parks” is its calling card. Rosa appears in the chorus but that’s about it. The rest is a club banger from another planet that'll tear the roof off the sucker each and every time it plays.
15 MASSIVE ATTACK / “Inertia Creeps”
If this song reminds you of your current relationship, get the fuck out. Now. It starts like all relationships do, with everything fresh, everything daring, “Recollect me darling, raise me to your lips / Two undernourished egos, four rotating hips,” but from there, the energy dissipates and stasis sets in, “moving up slowly.” But nothing from Massive Attack, especially around the time of Mezzanine, sounds stagnant. You know that by now. Instead, it’s one of their most invigorating singles ever, gliding on a sound bed that discovers a jet stream of drum beats and wheezing organic electronics and never stops moving from there.
14 BECK / “Tropicalia”
Believe it or not, there was a time when we still didn’t know that Beck could do anything and everything. The follow up to Odelay, his career-altering smash, was the more understated Mutations, a different, but also excellent record, that included this little Brazilian samba that would’ve made Jobim go "ahhhhh" if played in a seaside cafe. The song’s playful lilt belies its crafty lyrics if you don't listen closely, so pay attention to ensure they’re not lost in the sweltering Sao Paulo heat. “You wouldn’t know what to say to yourself / Love is a poverty you couldn’t sell / Misery waits in vague hotels / To be evicted.” Classic Beck!
13 MONEY MARK / “Hand in Your Head”
Money Mark was the secret sauce on the Beastie Boys’ condiment shelf in the early-90s, but he ended the decade proving his worth as a stand-alone artist, albeit with predictably less commercial success. But if it grooves you want, grooves you will get on his first two albums, Mark’s Keyboard Repair and 1998’s Push the Button. “Hand in Your Head,” mysteriously buried thirteen songs into the album, is the record’s most infectious pop single. And if you’re looking for the perfect catchy lyrical hook to go along with the bouncy groove, we’ve got one for you, “I’ve got my hand in your head / And I’m pulling out all of your mind.” Thankfully, with a groove like this, a mind is optional anyway.
12 KOMEDA / “It’s Alright, Baby”
Sometimes an album comes out of left field and in this case left field is located in Sweden. What Makes It Go? still ranks among my favorite 90’s records because it really doesn’t sound like anything else from its time. It’s a fuzzy little foreigner of a record, full of slightly awkward pop creations that sound like a lounge act found a warehouse of old drink umbrellas, a crate of Mr. Bubble, and some discarded synthesizers from the 80s. The Swedes just have a way with an unabashed pop single and "It's Alright, Baby" lives up to that tradition.
11 AFGHAN WHIGS / “Citi Soleil”
Greg Dulli is one of the most underrated frontmen of his era in my opinion. His band perfectly mirrors who and what he is—a hedonistic snake who sold his soul at the crossroads in exchange for a triple helping of testosterone. Is there another band from the 90s that so fully conformed to the personality of its lead singer? Maybe a few, but not many. Another attribute: he can get away with things most lead singers cannot. Witness the bastard soul found on 1965, the band’s last masterpiece. “Citi Soleil” is the perfect example. It opens with some French dialogue then slithers out of an alley only to open up into a chorus that sounds like the alternative 90’s answer to the Five Stairsteps classic “O-o-h Child.”
10 MONSTER MAGNET / “Power Trip”
I love Monster Magnet because they rock bombastically while also holding onto a lusty sense of humor. Not easily done in the overly serious alternative 90s, I must say. Band frontman Dave Wyndorf summed it up best (no surprise) when he called his band "nothing more than a masturbatory indulgence.” Which is likely why listening to “Powertrip” (and the album of the same name) was such a euphoric release. Who isn’t going to get off singing “I’m never gonna work / Another day in my life!” as loudly as possible? I know I do. It's therapeutic at the very least. Hell, even if it isn’t going to ever happen, it’s still fun to ejaculate to a fantasy every once in a while. So get yourself off. Ease the tension.
9 R.E.M. / “At My Most Beautiful”
I wonder what Murmur-era Michael Stipe would’ve made of this song if you played it for him back in 1983. Surely, he’d be too self-conscious to get anywhere near such a straightforward love song. But thankfully, he finally got to a place where he could be comfortable with such an overt sentiment. Each and every time, the Beach Boys-esque background vocals get me right where I’m most vulnerable.
8 RUFUS WAINWRIGHT / “April Fools”
I wasn’t aware I needed a classic crooner back in 1998 until I came upon Rufus Wainwright and the glorious pop symphonies strewn throughout his debut record. He went on to take every tangent possible during his career when he could’ve just been the defining piano man of his generation. “April Fools” is just begging for a big Hollywood production treatment complete with a street full of dancers and artificial April rain falling from the sky. If only Fred Astaire had still been around in 98.
7 THE COUP / “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night”
The Coup’s catalog is perhaps one of the most underrated in all of music, not just hip hop. The band, and its “revolutionary” politics (mocking capitalism, advocating drug legalization, denouncing police brutality, etc.), was ahead of its time in many ways, on many controversial subjects, which surely contributed to their lack of mainstream recognition. But ignore Oakland’s finest at your peril. If you do, you’ll be missing some pretty powerful messages cleverly housed inside some incredible, often hilarious, lyrics in the process. The single “Me and Jesus…” came from 1998's Steal This Album (a nod to Abbie Hoffman’s 1971 counterculture classic, Steal This Book) and is a seven-minute story of a boy, his prostitute mother, and a pimp named Jesus. How did this not get radio play!?
6 LIZ PHAIR / “What Makes You Happy”
Liz Phair’s masterpiece may well be the critically beloved Exile in Guyville, but my most-played Liz Phair record by far is Whitechocolatespaceegg. It doesn’t get as much love because it isn’t as groundbreaking, but it confirmed Liz to be a wholly original songwriter, mixing offbeat subject matter, clever lyrics, and inventive sonic accents into very catchy and accessible pop songs. “What Makes You Happy,” thirteen songs into a very deep record, abruptly places us in the middle of a conversation with her mom over lunch, almost like you just sat at the next table and started eavesdropping mid-sentence, “But don’t worry, mom, I met him at a restaurant / And all this time, I’ve been getting to know him.” Of course, mom gets the final word, as moms always do. And if it wasn't a bit passive aggressive, I would've been disappointed.
5 NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL / “King of Carrot Flowers Part 1”
One of the strangest music “scenes” of the last quarter century or so was spawned by an unlikely group of musicians from Ruston, Louisiana, a town of less than 25,000 in the northern part of the state. The so-called Elephant Six Collective snowballed into a larger group of odd-minded home recording wizards eventually, but it was hatched by four chaps who went on to form influential psych-pop bands like Apples in Stereo, The Olivia Tremor Control, and Neutral Milk Hotel. The latter band, to this day, is revered with almost religious zealotry. Why? Because their album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, extended beyond the limited constraints of genre and managed to further push open the minds of even the most open-minded music fans, most of whom will now claim to have been on board from day one, but based on initial sales of the album, surely weren’t. I admit it took me a while to fully digest the band’s preternatural folk/pop music. I milled around the fringes for a while, casing the joint, but once inside their musical curiosity shop, I was hooked. No wonder the band’s legacy has graduated to folklore amongst a steadily growing congregation of converted disciples (would the Decemberists exist without them?), most not even born when the album was released. If there’s a “single” from the album, it’s “King of Carrot Flowers Part 1,” but even this, the most accessible moment on the record, is packed with lyrics you never would have dreamed you’d be singing aloud, but will. The band’s mastermind, singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum, was a troubled poet, seemingly not built for this world, and his songs are like scriptures, worth poring over for meaning and dissecting for hidden treasures. How many records do you really cherish and return to like it’s an artifact from a bygone era?
4 MYSTERIES OF LIFE / “Fingerprint”
There’s a congruity of song and band here that appeals to me on a purely aesthetic level. Seeking out the mysteries of life is one of the few Colombo-proof pursuits, but that doesn’t stop this Indiana band from trying their hand as some amateur sleuthing on “Fingerprint.” And the jangly melody propels them through some twists and turns along the way, but no easy resolution is in sight. Not every mystery has, or needs, a solution.
3 ELLIOTT SMITH / “Waltz #2 (XO)”
I’ve always been torn between trying to understand the real inspiration for Elliott Smith’s songs and letting the songs just be what I interpret them to be. In truth, I want both, and for the most part, get both. “Waltz #2,” one of Elliott’s most personal songs and inarguably one of his masterpieces, is just such a song. It’s well known now that it’s about his mother and stepfather, but like every Elliott Smith song, there’s always a more universal truth tucked inside his lyrics. I’m almost sad to say how many of his lyrics cut close to the bone with me. He was born with a natural ear for melody, which makes even the saddest of songs seem strangely appealing to the ear. He had a gift and a way to express his deepest feelings and even that wasn’t enough for him in the end. What hope have I got then?
2 LUCINDA WILLIAMS / “Drunken Angel”
Lucy’s tribute to perpetually drunken troubadour Blaze Foley (memorialized in the excellent 2018 biopic Blaze) is the song that represents one of the best albums of the 1990s, check that, one of the best albums ever, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. A placeholder, if you will. And it’s a gut-wrenching tale of a man overwhelmed by his demons. How can a song so beautiful also be so gut-wrenchingly sad? I guess the same way an extremely talented musician could throw his life away for something so meaningless as a bottle. I'm starting to notice a pattern in my favorite songs of this year. Hopefully, I can find a song to rattle my cage a little bit soon. Perhaps in the next entry.
1 THE MAKERS / “(Are You on the Inside or the Outside of Your) Pants?"
Prior to 1998, Spokane's the Makers were one the best kept secrets in garage-punk. Their early records were snotty and raw, with attitude and image valued more than recording quality. They looked like they stepped right out of the 1960's underground, complete with skinny ties, thin-lapeled blazers, mock turtlenecks, and Ray Ban sunglasses—all jet black, of course (for period reference, look up old photos of ? and the Mysterians). To complement their retro, stylized appearance, they famously traveled from gig to gig in a 1965 Pontiac Bonneville hearse, which only added further intrigue (seeing it parked in front of a club was very cool). They inherently knew the value of crafting a memorable image and were not afraid of adding a gimmick or two, but they also had the coveted but elusive x-factor lacking in so many similar, but ultimately unsuccessful, garage bands. On top of that, their wild live shows (one of which doubled as my "bachelor party") were simply incendiary (I know, a critically overused adjective, but the only one that works here) and word quickly spread in certain circles that appreciate this kind of debauchery. When they released Hunger in 1997, they ratcheted up the sound quality dramatically to great effect and finally found a way to approximate their live power on record. A song lasting longer than two-minutes was a major outlier still, but they seemed poised to broaden their fan base beyond a loyal cadre of garage-punk loyalists who worshipped at the altar of famed trash-rock label, Estrus Records (whose HQ was in Bellingham in the band's home state of Washington). This is a long intro to the band's 1998 masterpiece, Psychopathia Sexualis, but it's essential backstory nonetheless. Psychopathia introduced a different side of the Makers without losing anything that made them so great in the first place. This time, their nasty, snarling sound absolutely jumped out of the speakers and the songs were way more substantial as well, often exceeding a previously unheard-of three-minutes in length! Lead singer Mike Maker, basically Prince fronting a garage band, and I had a conversation at the bar of the Empty Bottle in Chicago after the record came out and he told me, proudly, that they took a full four days to record the album! In garage rock, that's Dark Side of the Moon territory! Some bristled that the record was a little glam-leaning with it's hyper-sexual subject matter and patterned blouses, but I felt they benefitted not only from literally "fleshing" out the songs more but also due to the fact that they updated their look from 1960's mod to 1970's New York in the process. Now that's progress! The result, and I put no reservations on this statement, was the finest garage-punk record of the last 25 years. It was an audio molotov cocktail, mixing strutting vocals, frenetic guitar, chest-caving bass, and cracking drums into a frantic, pulsating, frenzifying whole. They were so good you needed to make up new words to describe the experience. And they were fucking tight, too. Head-snapping tight. And speaking of tight, the album's most whiplash-inducing single was the parenthetically heavy "(Are You on the Inside of the Outside of Your) Pants?" A tale of a one-sided laundromat lust-affair between Mike Maker and an exotic, quarter-packing, detergent using, beauty with something "bigger than God" in her possession And by that we mean, of course, incredibly, tantalizingly, impossibly tight pants. Hence, the titular question begs for a reply.
Well, that didn't take long now, did it? The next mixtape will be here in February, year to be determined. Until then, get on the outside of your pants once in a while. It'll be good for you.