By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
You'll no doubt notice that many of the best-of lists that appear on the following few pages repeat the same names over and over: The Flaming Lips, the Magnetic Fields, Wilco, Beck, Moby, and on and on. You'll also probably catch on pretty quick that many of the aforementioned lists bear a striking similarity to the year-end rundowns in Spin or Rolling Stone or whatever your rock mag of choice happens to be. (While we're on the subject, no one is more frightened than I am that six of the 13 records I singled out this year also appear on Spin's list of the top 20 albums of the year. Not sure what that says.) It's almost as though every critic received a ballot that was already filled out, awaiting only a personal seal of approval and a few glib turns of phrase that prove the answers are their own.
Not that it really matters. Record-buyers already figured out whether they liked these discs a long time ago; they don't. You know who cares about all of this annual back-slapping? No one. Only the critics who participate in the yearly hey-we-still-matter-right? exercise, and maybe a few publicists eager to slap a "Best of 1999" sticker on some shrink-wrap give a half a shit which records end up on these lists. And that's probably the way it should be. Sure, I would have liked The Promise Ring's Very Emergency to hit like the Backstreet Boys' Millennium, but -- contrary to popular opinion -- I'm not a moron. Talent doesn't sell records anymore, unless you're referring to marketing departments.
Still, even though there was less to choose from, this year provides the rockcriterati with even more of an ego stroke than usual, as it falls to us to determine not only the best albums of 1999, but also of the decade, the century, and, God bless us, the millennium. In other words, people who weren't alive when either Pet Sounds or The White Album were released finally get their chance to confirm that, yes, those albums were pretty good. And any list that dresses itself up in end-of-the-millennium clothing might as well go find the changing room; try to find one that goes back past, say, 1963. Not that anyone should pretend that their list is the definitive work on the subject anyway. For instance, Jim DeRogatis -- in his rush to ante up his two cents on this decade's most influential discs, which appears later in these pages -- failed to realize that P.M. Dawn and Arrested Development both, um, suck. Sorry, Jim.
Fact is -- save for Moby's Lomax-to-the-max Play, ushered along by the inescapable "Bodyrock" -- most of the albums critics thought passed muster this year might as well have never made it into record stores. Writers vote with computers, consumers vote with dollars -- guess which matters most? This year, more than any other in recent memory, the critical favorites and the chart-toppers went their separate ways and never looked back. Try finding anything worth listening to out there when every label is dropping bands like Troy Aikman passes as it tries to find the next teen-pop sensation, resulting in too much unheard music and more than enough to avoid. Sure, Rolling Stone might agree that Britney Spears' debut, ...Baby One More Time was one of 1999's best, but hey, Rolling Stone hasn't been relevant since the Rolling Stones were.
There were very few, if any, discs that could match Nevermind's double-shot of rock-crit fellatio and cash-register acclaim. There wasn't another Odelay that could make critics and consumers feel cool, or some reasonable facsimile. Save for Rage Against the Machine's third stab at recording its debut, few records in 1999 made dollars for their label and sense to the critics. Not that I would include myself in the latter category; the main difference between The Battle of Los Angeles and a Limp Bizkit album is that Rage singer Zack de la Rocha can read.
Trent Reznor's return, The Fragile, was also supposed to deliver the same one-two punch. Yet not enough people were down with Nine Inch Nails' "new" sound, which was pretty much like the old one except, you know, worse, not to mention stale after five years. Critically, of course, it was a success: Reznor could record 80-plus minutes of himself farting through a megaphone, and critics would kill their own parents to be first in line to praise it. Which is pretty much what he did, and they did. The truth is, the only thing more unlistenable than The Fragile is a tape of your wife getting it on with your best friend while your parents cheer them on.
The problem is that countless discs end up on year-end countdowns even though most of the writers espousing their various virtues haven't even cracked the plastic on them. Look at Dallas Morning News pop-music critic Thor Christensen's best-of (or don't, actually) and try to imagine him shaking his ass to Handsome Boy Modeling School's So...How's Your Girl? Yet the album is on his list, along with every other critic's in the country. At least Handsome Boy Modeling School deserves the accolades. Beck's Midnite Vultures, on the other hand, doesn't even hold up less than a month after its release, but try to find a music critic who'll say as much. Good thing it came out in November, because the music press might have forgotten about Beck at the end of the year otherwise. Yeah, right.