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The year's top 10, or 20, albums

Compiling a list of 1998's essential recordings is like telling people which foods they should eat. A disc, like a dish, is entirely a matter of taste.

If you've picked up a copy of any music magazine this month, or visited their respective Web sites, you may have been overwhelmed by the number of 1998 "Best of" or "essential music" lists. The January issue of Request magazine, for example, features top 10 lists from nearly 60 writers and critics at the publication.

As usual, the favored recordings of music professionals generally don't reflect what real human beings (translation: average Leonardo-loving teenagers with birthday money to spend) have fallen in love with this year.

To the dismay of music aficionados, the only really meaningful list at year's end is the one for album sales. According to the Billboard Top 200, the following are the 10 best-selling albums of 1998:

1. Titanic Soundtrack (Sony Classical)

2. Celine Dion: Let's Talk About Love (550 Music/Epic)

3. Garth Brooks: Sevens (Capitol)

4. Backstreet Boys: Backstreet Boys (Jive)

5. Shania Twain: Come On Over (Mercury)

6. Matchbox 20: Yourself or Someone Like You (Lava/Atlantic/AG)

7. City of Angels Soundtrack (Warner Sunset/Reprise/Warner Bros.)

8. Will Smith: Big Willie Style (Columbia)

9. Savage Garden: Savage Garden (Columbia)

10. Spice Girls: Spiceworld (Virgin)

Despite mass appeal, most of these albums do not rank as highly with reviewers, including the editors and writers of Billboard magazine, who have also posted their top ten lists on the Internet.

A chorus line of blanching critics comes with every purchase of My Heart Will Go On, and yet, Celine Dion's contribution to the Titanic soundtrack made it the best-selling album of the year, and the hottest soundtrack since The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston in 1992.

As the year's best-selling male soloist, Garth Brooks received lukewarm reviews for his album Sevens. Even less enthusiastic were the reviews for the Backstreet Boys, a male vocal quintet reminiscent of the New Kids on the Block a decade ago. Though regurgitated acts continue to sell albums, they chafe critical egos.

Below is a list of 10 "essential" albums of 1998 (at least, to the folks who critically acclaimed them.) In fairness to the Spice Girls and Celine, these recommendations also come with reservations _ mainly the crucial reasons why these albums were not torn from the shelves by wild throngs of music lovers upon their initial release:

1. Beastie Boys: Hello Nasty (Capitol) _ Hello, Beastie Boys! After a three-year hiatus, the Beasties returned with Hello Nasty, which is the highest charting album on this list (No. 13 on Billboard). A dizzying amalgamation of everything in the Beasties' Bag o' tricks _ sampling, rapping, scratching and Biz Markie! _ the album is one of the year's best.

2. Beck: Mutations (Geffen Records) _ He earned a following with his electronically arrayed Odelay, while the album that followed it, Mutations, earned little more than praise for being completely different. Mutations didn't come with a hit single, and it didn't sell big. It did, however, prove again Beck's versatility and refusal to get into a rut.

3. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury) _ A gritty, and sometimes painful country album, Car Wheels is one of the most honest and carefully crafted recordings of the year. It is an Ugly Duckling of an album, with songs that don't endear themselves with a cursory listen. Her tunes must be nurtured. They get better each with each play, more nuanced, and more beautiful.

4. Brad Mehldau: Songs: The Art of the Trio Volume Three (Warner Bros.) _ Okay, so this is a jazz album. Pianist Brad Mehldau, along with his drummer and bass player, has created some of the most bewitching jazz of the year. Elegant and deceptively simple, Mehldau's latest is a thrilling move forward in his "Art of the Trio" series.

5. Air: Moon Safari (Source/Caroline) _ Two words on the album cover sum up why you and probably even the cashier at your local record store haven't heard of Air: French Band. But their retro-packaged, infectious Moog melodies have a unique, ethereal soundscape, worth the price of a Euro or two. A bonus for mono-linguists: The album is mostly instrumental!

6. Billy Bragg and Wilco: Mermaid Avenue (Elektra) _ America's late, great folkie Woody Guthrie left behind a bunch of unrecorded song lyrics, set to music by the British Billy Bragg and the American roots rockers Wilco. Depending on one's interpretation, Mermaid Avenue is either country or alternative rock. Either way, the tunes are relevant and catchy.

7. Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Wainwright (Dreamworks) _ As the son of kooky songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus is entitled to some eccentricities. But his self-titled debut was unlike any recording released this year. Like a soundtrack to a tin-pan alley musical, Wainwright's ornate and intricate music garnered its own genre name: Popera.

8. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Roughhouse/Columbia) _ Her cover of Roberta Flack's Killing Me Softly with the Fugees proved that Lauryn Hill could sing, and her solo debut album proves that she can do everything else as well _ produce, arrange and write songs. Miseducation is what rap and hip hop should aspire to become, but then again, the Fresh Prince of Bel Air cornered that jig this year.

9. Marilyn Manson: Mechanical Animals (Nothing Records) _ So what if David Bowie discovered the androgyne look long before Marilyn Manson bought all the latex in Hollywood? Manson's latest album, primarily about drugs, sexual dysfunction and truth in beauty is everything the new Manson embodies.

10. Semisonic: Feeling Strangely Fine (MCA)- _There was great temptation to include one of the myriad swing bands in the last position; after all, 1998 was the year swing made its Lindy Hop to the mainstream. A number of triple-named bands (Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Brian Setzer Orchestra) introduced new albums this year. But connoisseurs will tell you that the real deal (Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway) are yet unsupplanted by this resurgence. Semisonic, however, is a mainstream alternative group that scored a hit with a catchy little ditty about getting kicked out of a bar. While the song has certainly gotten its share of airplay, the rest of the album has been pleasantly ignored by mainstream radio and has not fared the worse.

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