IN A year during which forward motion seemed for the most part stalled, bands continued to trawl through previous eras in search of inspiration, none more successfully than Mercury Rev. This was no simple Weller-style retro-rock appropriation, however. The heartbreakingly beautiful Deserter's Songs used half-remembered hints of old melodies or arrangements as poignant sepia-tint coloration for songs concerned, in part, with the very nature of recollection and reflection. It's an extraordinarily emotional record, somehow managing to sound both melancholic and euphoric, suggesting that for Mercury Rev the past is a much more complex, ambivalent territory than that encountered in, say, Oasis's cheery celebrations of old ways.
In this respect, Deserter's Songs is more representative of the current wave of American retro-rockers than of its British equivalent. For unlike the second-hand sound-stylists of Britpop, such bands as Sparklehorse, Lambchop and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and such solo artists as Beck and Gillian Welch, are all inspired as much by the pioneer nature of older music forms as they are by the music itself. The immediate result has been a succession of graceful, exploratory albums, whose appeal grows, rather than diminishes, with familiarity. Honourable mentions also go to Sparklehorse's Good Morning Spider (Parlophone) and Lambchop's What Another Man Spills (City Slang)
PERHAPS THIS year's most intriguing development has been the end of the assumption that musical innovation will automatically originate on the dance floor. Not that stadium behemoths will ever stop seeking vindication in the fairy dust of an over-priced remix, but an increasing volume of traffic is now moving the other way, as horny-handed beat-farmers come down from the hills in an urgent quest for old school rock charisma. It's a manor of which Beck is undisputed boss, and his Mutations - supposedly just a bit of fun with his touring band while gearing up for a "proper" next album - is a gleaming monument to its diverse possibilities. Owing as much to The Beatles' Revolver as The Beasties' Paul's Boutique, these are space-age bachelor-pad cowboy laments of transcendent and enduring quality. Honourable mentions to Air's Moon Safari (Virgin), and Glaswegian Arab Strap's rumbustious Philophobia (Chemikal Underground).
THE PRAISE heaped upon Air is as much a result of their repair job on French music as the fact that they have produced the most bewitching retro-futuristic album of the year. They have often been aligned with the clattering vibrations of their compatriots, Daft Punk, but, in truth, they couldn't be further apart. Moon Safari is an otherworldly foray into some of the more tender moments of the last three decades. "Kelly Watch the Stars" and "Sexy Boy" epitomise Air's sound: soothing Serge Gainsbourg- style vocals, processed through a vocoder and set against Seventies' funk- jazz and Eighties' synth pop soundscapes. Smart and fluffy, uplifting and melancholy.
If I had to choose an album to accompany a stroll on the moon, it would indeed be this one. For more smart retro-futurism and vocoder wizardry, listen to the Beastie Boys' Hello Nasty (Grand Royal) and Bran Van 300's chaotic, self-titled debut album (Capitol).
From The Choirgirl Hotel
THIS ONE threw us for a loop. The flame-haired temptress with a million voices in her head spoke in her own on Choirgirl, an unleashed, autobiographical affair. Cathartic release could be due to the fact that Tori's no longer a relationship-damaged waif, but a smugly happy wife. With that in the mix, a side we hadn't seen roared kaleidoscopically off the disc. Bashing her Bosendorfer alongside heavy bass and electric guitar, Tori went Led Zep. Elsewhere, we had references to Jackie Kennedy, David Cassidy, Pandora and Persephone - Amos was this year's chart-topping goddess.
Other contenders? Almost alone, Polly Harvey carried the flag for distaff distorto-grunge victims. Is This Desire? (Island) reached uncharted territory, so far west of Yeovil, it seemed located in America's desert badlands. Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury) took a more rural American route, her sweet folk voice telling us of the heat and dust, the beat-up and broken-down.
THIS YEAR saw the various genres of the UK dance scene in nostalgic mood. Such a climate even touched the future-obsessed drum'n'bass scene, most engagingly in the case of the breakbeat scientists, 4 Hero. In Two Pages they crafted an album which updates the classic soul of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Stevie Wonder's Innervisions with Detroit techno-inspired drum'n'bass. True, the album's inspirations are all drawn from the past, yet the duo rarely overdo the nostalgic reverie bit. They take their source material and contort it through a vibrant fusion of technology and imagination. Similarly inspiring were Jurassic 5 and Faithless. The former's brilliant eponymous album (Pan PIAS) combines the word play of old skool hip hop with new skool turntablism. Faithless fused classic UK house, the moodiness of Massive Attack and the energy of Motown to create the unique sound of their stunning second album, Sunday 8pm (Cheeky).
Step Inside This House
TEN YEARS ago this sort of thing was called New Country. New Country wore a cowboy hat, not with irony but with contingent pride; it cleaved to Country idioms but aligned itself intellectually with the world beyond Nashville's moral catchment; it was neat and tidy on the outside, but scruffy in its soul. Now it's a supporting leg of the coffee-table mainstream - not alt.country but art-country: currently white American pop's most sophisticated property.
Lovett will politely concede that, if nothing else, this double-length collection of other Texans' songs enables him to duck questions about whether he's still boiling his head over Julia. What we must concede is that this is the most playable length-and-line art-country record there's been, by a man. Texas sounds like a real place for once, inhabited by real people. You should also hear Emmylou Harris's elegant Spyboy (Grapevine) and Gillian Welch's grim Hell Among the Yearlings (Almo Sounds).
The Voice of the People
A SURVEY of the traditional music of these islands ought to be an impressive affair. It ought to be grave, monumental, desiccated, worthy, unlistenable; it should chafe in its unwearable work boots. In fact, Reg Hall and Tony Engle's epic, 20-volume Voice of the People "anthology" is a delight: it is monumental and to a large extent grave, for sure, but it is also moving, involving and enlightening, and, like all the best narratives, keeps you wanting to find out what happens next. Also, you don't have to fork out 300 fat ones for the privilege of owning the whole thing in a boxed set; you buy it piecemeal or you don't buy it at all.
This has been a good year for tradition-driven music, both here and in the States. Here, Eliza Carthy deservedly got on the Mercury shortlist for her imaginatively worldly Red Rice double album, while dad Martin made a splendid comeback of his own with Signs of Life. (No compensation, though, for the loss of Lal Waterson.)
The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions
THE IMPULSE! label is all-round jazz re-issue champ for 1998. It's given stylish new life to its Coltrane back catalogue and is now embarked on the noble project of revivifying the late-Sixties/ Seventies New Thing, as if it were indeed a new thing.
However, the label responsible for the single most impressive re-con job of the year is Sony's Columbia Legacy imprint. Their orgiastic slobber over Miles Davis's Bitches Brew sessions was profoundly worthy, not merely for its textured cardboard and aluminium finish, certainly not for the accompanying rubric, but for the complex loveliness of the music itself, which benefits hugely from being remastered to perfection and then laid out schematically over the length of four CDs as if it were, indeed, all part of the same musical continuum. Honourable mentions go to Coltrane's The Complete Classic Quartets (Impulse!) and Tina Brooks's heartbreaking Back to the Tracks (Blue Note).
The Woman Next Door
EVEN WHEN a musician goes into the studio and records his or her current live set, a context of sorts still emerges according to the dominant mood, texture or tempo of the event. But when the setting of the context precedes the recording, we can end up with an album as complete, as satisfying, and as profound as The Woman Next Door by the Italian pianist Rita Marcotulli. Inspired by the films of Francois Truffaut, Marcotulli has written a suite of tunes that relate to different themes or characters, and then cast them for various permutations of a large ensemble. The result is wide-ranging music held together by the central concept and recurring motifs. It works as a whole in a way that very few jazz albums ever manage to do.
Two other albums of governed mood: the American pianist Brad Mehldau's Songs (Warner Bros), and the veteran soul-jazz vocalist Terry Callier's Timepeace (Talkin' Loud/Verve).