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POP MUSIC

Words for the Wise

Despite the proliferation of hip-hop and novelty rock, singer-songwriters proved to be among the most vital new artists in 1998.

November 29, 1998|ROBERT HILBURN

Whatever happened to quality singer-songwriters?

The answer to one of the most frequently asked pop questions of the '90s isn't that they have stopped making records. It's that their records are mostly sitting unopened in record store bins.

There is so little space on the radio in this age of hip-hop, diva pop and novelty rock that record company executives sometimes feel guilty for even signing the kind of singer-songwriters that were in vogue in the '70s--the era of Carole King's "Tapestry," Jackson Browne's "Late for the Sky" and Joni Mitchell's "Blue." They know the odds against the move making economic sense are often immense.

Yet introspective singer-songwriters continue to arrive--and this year gave us some especially promising ones.

Because she operates in the commercially red-hot hip-hop world, Lauryn Hill was rewarded with sales of more than 2 million for her commanding "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill." But other artists with roughly the same writing skills must be satisfied with the knowledge they made exceptional collections. However, these artists, from Sinead Lohan to Rufus Wainwright, are among the most valuable members of the 1998 freshman class--consisting of performers who made their solo or major-label debuts or whose career stepped to a dramatic new level.

Despite their varying commercial standing, all 10 artists reflected the passion and craft that enlivened the pop landscape during 1998. The list is alphabetical.

Canibus

OK, so 23-year-old Germaine "Canibus" Williams didn't fully back up all the braggadocio of his sensational "Second Round K.O." single in his "Can-I-Bus" album. But that may have had as much to do with co-producer Wyclef Jean's pop-minded (and mass appeal-directed) advice than Canibus' own musical instincts. As he showed on the combative single, Canibus, one of rap's most charismatic figures, has both the deep vocabulary and the knack for verbal gymnastics to push him to the forefront of the contemporary rap pack, if he only gets his sound together. Here's betting that he will.

Everlast

In his solo album, "Whitey Ford Sings the Blues," House of Pain's Eric "Everlast" Schrody refuses to be intimidated by being a white rapper, even drawing attention to the issue in the playful opening track by having a female singer chant "the white boy is back." And he backs up the taunt with a collection of songs--from the downbeat alt-rock hit "What It's Like" to the mocking "Get Down"--that carry the wide-ranging commentary and observation that you'd expect from a contemporary folk singer, complete with a noticeable acoustic guitar in between the hard beats. Everlast had an earlier solo album ("Forever Everlast" in 1990), but it went virtually ignored. Not this time.

Lauryn Hill

After making the Freshman Class two years ago as a member of the Fugees, Hill earns a place on this year's list as both a writer-producer (Aretha Franklin's stylish "A Rose Is Still a Rose" single) and as an artist (the blockbuster "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" album). In the album's best moments, Hill combines the kind of musical self-assurance and range, and thematic sense of commentary and community, that remind you of Stevie Wonder's "Innervisions" period. Highlight: "To Zion," a remarkably poignant account of Hill's decision as an unmarried mother to give birth to her child despite warnings that the move could interfere with her career.

Sinead Lohan

Because of the problems with getting radio exposure for singer-songwriters, Interscope Records executives said in August it may take six months for "No Mermaid," this Irish singer's U.S. debut, to build enough of an audience for the album to make it onto the Top 200 sales chart. Let's hope they don't give up on promoting this still largely undiscovered gem--even if it takes another six months. The songs have the sensitivity and craft that remind you of the material Judy Collins recorded in the '60s and '70s, which means they can hold their own against tunes by Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.

Ozomatli

This engaging band has caused such a stir in Los Angeles clubs that you'd think that the energy alone would propel it onto the national scene. Though its self-titled debut album captures much of its live vitality, Ozomatli has remained something of a SoCal secret. The band's sound draws from lots of places, including hip-hop, but it's the Latin textures that make it such an inviting attraction. There's not the exquisite songwriting you find in Los Lobos, but you do get much of the same warm, uplifting spirit.

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