1998. Ten great records. Ten great wines. Both loosely grouped.
Three Great Rock Albums
Belle and Sebastian
Scotland's Belle and Sebastian released The Boy with the Arab Strap in the early fall. The album enjoyed an early spurt of recognition upon release. It garnered a few great reviews, politely bumped the sales chart and went away. Alas, it wasn't featured in any blockbuster Hollywood flick and thus didn't yield a hit single and a more substantial fan base. The record, however, is nothing short of a mod-pop masterwork. High-brow (for rock music, at least) with a melancholic, literary bent, Belle and Sebastian write songs about sad painters, failed novelists and pill-addled, love-lorn art school poets. The music is a surprisingly lush landscape of sixties-rooted orchestral pop and psychedelia, but always sharpened by the band's wry lyrics delivered in an absolutely gorgeous Scottish accent. Romantic hearts be still!
About the same time Belle and Sebastian released The Boy with the Arab Strap, North Carolina's Chan Marshall (she goes by the name Cat Power) released an album called Moon Pix. While Belle and Sebastian's pop was sunshine happy, a rainy-day sad Cat Power has an emotional palette filled with colors that are both richer and painted in lines more stark and emotionally urgent.
On Moon Pix, the background is sketched in the rough and loose guitar strums brushed by guitarist Mick Turner. Drummer Jim White (along with Turner, a member of Australia's Dirty Three) keeps the drumming subdued and low, skittering and brushing instead of banding and crashing. Floating above this atmospheric guitar/drum shimmer, Marshall's voice leads songs with a brusque whisper that's often multi-tracked to create quietly building crescendos. Remarkably paced, and at times both wonderfully emotional and scary, Moon Pix is as haunting and beautiful as a rock record can get.
Gotta say, Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series Vol 4, The Royal Albert Hall Concert was a late-season surprise. Out of the blue comes a monumental release of Dylan's pivotal 1966 concerts. At the time of the recording, Dylan was undergoing a sea-change in his music. The folk of his early career was falling away, revealing a rootsy, fitful and fully electric rock band. Needless to say, this move was not popular with Dylan's old-school fans. In fact, these small series of contentious performances were marked by boos, whistles and heckling. At one point, a former fan yells, "Judas!" to which Dylan replies, "I don't believe you." Dylan then instructs the band to, "play fuckin' loud!" It's a sizzling moment to an album that builds in drama from the first folksy openers to the rousing rock of the second disc. A crucial moment in the year's rock history.
Three Great White Wines
As diverse as the rock selections are, the white picks on this year's list are oddly similar. The Rochioli 1997 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc (perhaps my favorite wine of the year) could be the perfect sav blanc if it had the availability and the modest price tag of the other sav blanc on the list, Stoneleigh. That's to say, It'd be the world's greatest wine if it were cheaper and available everywhere. Juicy, tart, full of lemon and lime and best served icy cold, this sav blanc is mouthwatering. Deliciously tangy and bolstered by vivid fruit on the nose and tongue, Rochioli is so good they oughtta deliver it via keg and serve it in a frosty pint glass.
At about half the price of the Rochioli, the Stoneleigh 1997 Sauvignon Blanc doesn't skimp on the quality. More flinty, and with a size and shape that's more roughly hewn, the Stoneleigh is a New Zealand sav blanc that's brawny and muscular without resorting to oak. It's carved out of minerals, with plunges into grass fields and citrus groves. Assured, well-made and widely available, the Stoneleigh is an amazing value.
Even a great value like Stoneleigh, however, looks extravagant in comparison to the Alice White 1997 Chardonnay from South Eastern Australia. Stripped of all excess, the Alice White is a no-nonsense bottle of white that walks, talks and drinks like a bottle costing up to five times as much. That Alice White can be found everywhere for well under 10 bucks is a sign of intelligent life in this universe.
Four Great Jazz Albums
Jacky Terrason's jazz album, Alive!, is a standout based solely on the record's wired energy and hyper-responsive playing. Terrason, (a wine buff, we hear) is a youngish pianist blessed by one of the most gifted bands in all of jazz. Together they mix a wonderful whirl of mostly straightforward bop. But this is bop with a rare fire and an astonishing creativity. Terrason's piano stomping will remind you of Monk, and his band is as tuned and curious as Art Blakey. Together they blaze through a hot live set on disc that reaffirms the honesty of a jazz band that ain't afraid to sweat.
If Jacky Terrason's piano is fire, Brad Mehldau's is ice. Mehldau is also a pianist and also works with a young, extremely gifted band. Like Terrason, Mehldau has a string of good albums on the resume. Also like Terrason, Brad Mehldau created a great jazz album. On Art of the Trio, Vol. 3., Mehldau pulses through abstractly romantic bits of jazz psychedelia and marries it to a post-mod cool -- even going so far as to cover Radiohead's "Exit Music" (for a film soundtrack) as a Bill Evan's tribute. Without a hint of "smooth," Mehldau has rediscovered why it was called "cool jazz" to begin with.
Medeski Martin and Wood
Medeski Martin and Wood are the most visible band connected to a newish jazz-rock hybrid that Mehldau only hints at. Mehldau may take a few passing glances at rock music, but Medeski Martin and Wood have their asses planted there. Their 1998 contribution is Combustication, a fully amped whomp-ass combination of wheezing B3 organ, loud drums and fully-funked bass. Also dig MMW's collaboration with guitarist John Scofield, Au Go Go! -- the two best loud albums of the year.
Ken Vandermark and Aaly Trio
For a jazz album, the collaboration between Chicago saxist Ken Vandermark and Sweden's Aaly Trio also had many loud and unruly moments. At times, this record creeps through the shadows like a soundtrack to a film noir thriller. Other times the record is convulsed by Vandermark's horn fits. A player of many moves -- clucking, coughing, roaring, shrieking, wheezing -- Vandermark is a player always on the edge, always full of surprise, and on Stumble, he delivers the year's best avant-garde jazz: bracing, funny and sharp.
Four Great Red Wines
I occasionally see a bottle of A. Rafanelli on a restaurant list, but I usually have to board a plane, rent a car, drive to the winery and pay for my bottles in cash. Thus, opening a bottle signifies a very biggish deal. I drank a bottle of this year's stash, the 1995 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley. It was fruity and soft but also hinting of licorice and perfect tannins. This zin is as good as anybody could ask. Sorry, it seems I'm gushing...
Most of Washington State's finest merlot producers -- and I'm thinking Leonetti, DeLille, Andrew Will -- all produce a very Euro-style juice. There's plenty of structure, lotsa oak and leather and not a lot of fruit. Matthew's Cellars produces a merlot of this style -- big, "sculpted" and very French. Usually I'm not all drawn to this style, but I'm certainly not inflexible -- not with a big glass of red already poured. Enjoyed a glass with the most succulent piece of rosemary lamb to ever land upon a plate. It was perfect. Lamb. Merlot. Perfect. If you see it, buy it.
At the beginning of '98, I resolved to stop being such a grouch and, you know, extend myself in an attempt to learn/appreciate something about French wine -- shockingly ambitious, I know. But was drinking French-style Washington State reds, you know, close enough? Guess not. As luck would have it, 1998 was a year of unprecedented lung-wind in regard to the tongue-rippin' greatness of French plonk. According to the experts, 1998 was our opportunity to scoop up wines from "A Truly Great Bordeaux Year in France" -- 1995.
And 1995 was not just your average "Truly Great Bordeaux Year." No way, Andre. According to the headlines, 1995 was the kind of year when even working types could slurp down fine French stuff without having to sell plasma downtown. You know, French stuff -- supposedly good French stuff -- was, attention shoppers, value-priced. I speak not a word of French, but value is an international language, and after all, I was willing to pay a small entry fee to, you know, expand my horizons and stuff. Off to the wine hut!
Walked in, gave the store kitty a couple of strokes and made a move toward the French section. The clerk approached. I opened my mouth and croaked something about "accessible, widely distributed, great value and representative of this so-called great French vintage."
I came away with a couple bottles: a 1995 Chateau LaGrange Clinet at a bargain price of $10 (LaGrange? Maybe named after that great old ZZ Top album? No, probably not the clerk informed me). The other bottle was Chateau Meyney Saint-Estephe, more pricy at about $30. Both were, if not two of the best bottles of the year, revelations. The LaGrange was soft and coy, introducing its tannins and "rustic" flavors rather gently. On the tongue, the wine opened up in stages: hay, dirt, a rounding into mineral and finally a rewarding hint of fruit on the finish.
The Meyney was a much beefier wine that demanded more elbow room. Opening first with mineral then into the tough-to-describe "terroir zone" and ending with flowers, the Meyney was reserved and high-brow, but friendly enough. The deal-breaker came when these wines were tasted with food. Suddenly, chasing down a piece of grilled something, both wines came alive, friendly, happy to accommodate me, the sipper. I have not begun taking after-work French lessons down at the community college because of this experience, but I'm at least willing to stroll the French aisle in the old wine shop more frequently now. As they say, one step at a time.