Sinéad O'Connor The Value of Ignorance/The Year of the Horse

Now that she's announced her retirement (again) to a chorus of rousing apathy, it's interesting to revisit a time period when she was the most exciting female voice in pop music: shaved head, army boots, Lennon glasses, the avenging angel for our post-adolescent angst, and blessed with that extremely rare ability to make the extremely personal into the universal. She was also Frank Sinatra's worst nightmare but for all the right reasons. The Year of the Horse captures her at the height of her powers and her popularity (1990) in front of a fawning yet attentive audience (unlike the shameful crowd I witnessed at Toronto's CNE on the same tour). She opens with a chilling version of "Feel So Different," where her vocal power and command — to say nothing of the song itself — is still awe-inspiring 14 years later. Likewise, only O'Connor could make such delicate material as "Three Babies" sound tough as nails. Most of the rock numbers fall flat, with bad guitar solos and embarrassing dancing, but the rising tension of "Last Day of Our Acquaintance" makes it impossible to hear the tepid album version ever again. Watching her, it's easy to spot the sins of her descendents. Sarah McLachlan, Ani DiFranco and Alanis Morissette are all guilty of overwrought vocal inflections, self-absorption, diary writing and bad dancing, but somehow O'Connor manages to transcend all of this, even at her worst. On 1988's The Value of Ignorance, we get to see, well, we get to see her head. In what is surely one of the silliest concert videos ever, the two cameras focus entirely on her upper torso, with no shots of the band. We only figure out that she's wearing a skirt about three quarters of the way through. There's no questioning her personal charisma, but this is way too much Sinead for anyone but stalkers. On top of that, all sorts of cheap-ass community access video effects are dropped carelessly throughout, making it look like some high school student art project. It's mildly interesting as a historical document, but not much else. Too bad The Year of the Horse wasn't instead packaged with a concert from her most underrated periods, circa 1997's Gospel Oak and 2000's Faith and Courage, neither of which were represented on her 2003 farewell live DVD. Mind you, if this retirement is the real thing, I'm sure we'll be seeing that material soon enough. (EMI)