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Rufus Wainwright makes; Paste - 30 Best Albums of 1998

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If you tuned into almost any rock or pop radio station in 1998, you might have lost hope in music. Maybe you'd be lucky enough to catch the tail end of the ‘90s Britpop invasion, Elliott Smith's out-of-nowhere hit "Miss Misery" or something off the ubiquitous Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. You were much more likely to find Celine Dion, 98 Degrees, Matchbox Twenty, Will Smith, Limp Bizkit, way-past-their-prime Aerosmith, or some other flaccid replica of better music that had been made a few years earlier. But there was so much great music bubbling beneath the behemoth Titanic soundtrack (which was the top selling album of the year). The end of the 20th century saw the debut albums by Bright Eyes, Jurassic 5, Rufus Wainwright, Death Cab for Cutie, Air, Gomez and Dropkick Murphys, and solo debuts from RZA and Lauryn Hill. Techno was invading the pop sphere overseas and indie labels were blooming at home. That's a big reason we launched Paste in December of that year-as a curated music store, writing about and selling albums by our favorite bands. There were new worlds of music just waiting to be discovered, including some of the albums we're celebrating here.

Elvis Costello collaborated with Burt Bacharach on the album Painted from Memory in 1998, but the year's best example of the sort of extravagantly ornate pop music that Bacharach and Hal David used to write for Dionne Warwick was Rufus Wainwright's debut album, which boasted the kind of expertly crafted, deceptively conversational, vividly dramatic and understated lyrics that David used to write for Bacharach's melodies. Wainwright may have grown up in Montreal with his mom and aunt, Kate & Anna McGarrigle; he may be the son of folk satirist Loudon Wainwright, but here he sounds more like an eccentric piano man in the Southern California tradition of Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks. Parks arranged three of the songs, fleshing out Wainwright's melodic hooks and unpredictable chord changes. The listener is kept off-balance by the unexpected harmonic detours but is rewarded with choruses of strange beauty and heartfelt conviction. -Geoffrey Himes