By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Not that Midnite Vultures is as wretched as The Fragile, or even bad at all, really. But there's no way taking a spin through South Central Los Angeles in Prince's little red Corvette is going to stand up alongside Mutations or Odelay. Beck deserves more praise for his contributions to the Gram Parsons and Skip Spence tributes (surprisingly, Spence came up with the Beatles and Johnny Cash references on "Halo of Gold," though it does fit Beck's cut-and-paste-and-cut-again M.O.), as well as his team-up with Willie Nelson on The Hi-Lo Country soundtrack.
Even though Beck was seemingly omnipresent this year, this wasn't his year or anyone else's. There were no new revolutions, just old ones spun around one last time before we all go to hell in a handbasket. Well, that's not exactly true: Korn and Limp Bizkit and their baggy-panted followers taught the world you could combine the worst parts of metal and hip-hop and be inexplicably successful, as long as you were pissed-off enough. Swear to God, if Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst can be a vice president at Interscope Records, top the pops every week of the year, and bang starlets like a low-rent Hugh Hefner without ever taking off that goddamned red baseball cap, we must be going to hell.
If nothing else, 1999 will be remembered as the year Carson Daly and every 14-year-old babysitter in America became the dual voices of MTV, unlikely and unfortunate spokespersons for a generation, and it's still a toss-up over which is more annoying. Daly might have the edge, because who out there doesn't think they could do his job? Of course, all the pimply Aimees and Tracis and their shrill declarations of undying devotion to the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync on Total Request Live have made Daly's job less desirable than a janitor at a chili cook-off, even if the perks include checking Jennifer Love Hewitt for plastic-surgery scars. If we're lucky, the world will end, if only because that seems like the easiest way out of all of this mess.
That said, here are a handful of records that made 1999 livable, discs that repeatedly found their way back into my CD player -- even Built to Spill's Keep It Like a Secret, no matter what Robert Wilonsky says. And yes, I listened to each and every one of them, whether you believe that or not.
...and you will know us by the trail of dead
At The Drive In
Without a doubt, ...and you will know us by the trail of dead's second outing is the most exhilarating, challenging record the Material Girl's name has been involved with since...hmmm...ever. That opinion holds true whether or not you even make it past the disc's first song, "Mistakes & Regrets," a torn-up love note hacked to pieces even further by guitars that sound like chainsaws that sound like someone screaming at the top of their lungs and from the bottom of their heart. Madonna has as much to do with raw talent as it does with pure emotion, a motion that's seconded by At The Drive In's Vaya, which doesn't just remind you that punk used to be important, it beats a confession out of you. You may not understand a word Cedric Bixler is screaming, even if you read the lyric sheet, but you know exactly how he feels.
Keep It Like a Secret
Built to Spill
Warner Bros. Records
Art-rock doesn't always mean pretentious, and here are exhibits A through Z. Doug Martsch looks at the world through kaleidoscope eyes and sings about it in a librarian's voice, treating classic rock with equal parts derision and delight, ridiculing and reveling in it at the same time. Dozens of guitar tracks are layered on top of one another until each bittersweet symphony collapses under the weight of its own expectations. Even when Martsch's words sound simple ("I was trying to help / But I guess I pushed too far," on "Carry the Zero"), his hands more than make up for it.
Emergency & I
The Dismemberment Plan
Pay no attention to the label on the back of Emergency & I; it may be on DeSoto Records, the label run by ex-Jawbox bassist Kim Coletta, but don't let that fool you into any recommended-if-you-like comparisons. Sure, that might be a starting point, but where you'll end up is so far away that you'll forget by the time you get there. It doesn't even begin to describe this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink record; try the Talking Heads at a carnival covering Fugazi using Devo's instruments, and you're circling in the right neighborhood but not yet ready to park. It's a disc that's so funky it shakes its own ass, and almost too angular to fit in a CD player. A hundred spins later, and I'm still not sure what it sounds like, but I know it doesn't sound like anyone else.
The Soft Bulletin
The Flaming Lips
Warner Bros. Records
The weirdest, most straightforward album Wayne Coyne and company have hit upon yet. The guitar effects are gone for the most part, replaced by strings, harps, gongs -- anything and everything you wouldn't expect from the Lips on their 10th album, and first since the some-assembly-required Zaireeka. Steven Drozd is the disc's MVP, playing guitar, keyboards, and piano, as well as resurrecting the drum sound that died along with John Bonham. Yet Coyne is the real star, crooning his sentimental stream-of-consciousness lyrics like a guy who can't sing but really wishes he could. The Soft Bulletin is the saddest, happiest record of this year, maybe of this decade, if only because of the inclusion of "Waitin' for a Superman." "Tell everybody waitin' for a Superman that they should try to hold on best they can," Coyne instructs, sounding as though he wants to believe what he's saying. "It's just too heavy for Superman to lift." No kidding, Wayne.