It's no wonder I'm gay—my mother named me for a character in a musical. Honest. There's a scene in the movie The Sound of Music where Julie Andrews is comforting all five von Trapp daughters during a thunderstorm. They're saying prayers, and Maria starts blessing the boys. But after checking Friedrich, she forgets who the other son is, and simply declares "God bless what's-his-name." My mom thought this episode was hilarious, and named me after "what's-his-name": Kurt.
I'm reminded of this story every January, when critics are compelled to assemble their Top 10 lists. I fret and fume, consumed with worry that if I overlook one record, or make a single misguided value judgement, some poor sap—most likely me—will be paying the consequences for years to come.
Casting 10 titles in stone proves impossible for me. I'm a Gemini, like Stevie Nicks and James Brown. We change our minds a lot. As the Zen koan says, "Perfection is an absolute state, and therefore contrary to nature." I'd be a freak if I could wholeheartedly commit to 10 records and 10 only.
Without further fanfare, the Top 10 records of 1998 I really, really like today (in no particular order) are:
Various artists, The Perfect Beats (Timber!/Tommy Boy)
These four volumes of "New York electro, hip-hop, and underground dance classics 1980-1985" proved a godsend to any DJ tuckered out from combing used-record bins for cuts like Man Parrish's "Hip Hop Be-Bop," Peech Boys' "Don't Make Me Wait," and "Moody" by ESG.
Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)
Imagine a young, gay Van Dyke Parks and you'll be halfway to grasping Wainwright's weird amalgamation of American art song and pop troubadour sensibility. Live, he added an irresistible mix of self-deprecation, raw honesty, and raunchy humor.
Propellerheads Decksandrumsand-rockandroll (DreamWorks)
After the barrage of po-faced Big Beat pummeled out by Fatboy Slim and Chemical Brothers, the sexy camp touches of Propellerheads' debut—including a cameo from Shirley Bassey ("History Repeating") and a driving cover of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"—provided a welcome antidote to dance music's swelling tide of testosterone.
Talvin Singh, O.K. (Omni/Island)
This tabla virtuoso/drum & bass producer's ambitious global mélange succeeds because, like Ryuichi Sakamoto, Singh finds the common thread between distinctive genres without compromising the unique cultural components of each.
Firewater, The Ponzi Scheme (Jet Set/Universal)
Swaggering cabaret post-rock with inflammatory lyrics like "going down like a pederast in a boys' school." A perfect soundtrack for late-night back-alley crawls or ex-boyfriend stalking.
Boards of Canada, Music Has the Right to Children (Matador/Warp/Skam)
If you heard an electronic-music fan use the words "Autechre" and "pretty" in the same sentence this year, they were probably describing the gentle, polychromatic premiere from this Scottish duo.
icu, Chotto Matte a Moment! (K)
The can-do spiritedness that distinguishes Olympia indie rock imparts this inventive drum-and-upright-bass offering with sufficient oomph to withstand repeated spins, revealing more modest charms with each rotation.
Diamanda Galas, Malediction and Prayer (Asphodel)
Even folks who normally recoil from the diva's apocalyptic operatics may be drawn in by her (relatively) restrained readings on this live anthology of songs about loss, isolation, and abandonment.
Various artists, The Best of Balihu Records: I Was a Disco Malcontent (Oxygen Music Works)
Take all the best bits of The Perfect Beats, add a generous handful of disco and a pinch of Tin Pan Alley. Welcome to the world of Daniel Wang, the underground genius behind Balihu, showcased here by 10 of his finest.
Deep Dish, Junk Science (DeConstruction/Arista)
Arguably the most consistent house album of the year, the long-awaited full-length from these DC mainstays features club staples like "Stranded" and "The Future of the Future (Stay Gold)," plus the sublime "Mohammed Is Jesus."