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.
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.
Do the Collapse
Guided By Voices
The record it always sounded like Robert Pollard wanted to make, back when he was fucking around with a four-track in his garage and drinking beer in almost heroic amounts. (Well, he still does the latter.) Meaning: The drums are no longer a well-kept secret, and the guitars match Pollard's mike-swinging bravado for a change. And if you think the move to solid production -- courtesy Ric Ocasek -- has softened Pollard's taste for bizarre lyrics, try telling that to the man who refers to himself as "a born-again boot-stomping witch-humper" (on "Liquid Indian"). The anthemic "Teenage FBI" might be the best song Pollard has ever written, vying with "Motor Away," "Tractor Rape Chain," and "The Official Ironmen Rally Song" for top honors. If nothing else, it's the best teen angst song ever written by a 42-year-old former elementary school teacher.
So...How's Your Girl?
Handsome Boy Modeling School
Tommy Boy Records
Black on Both Sides
The only two hip-hop records of the year that really matter -- sorry Q-Tip, Method Man, and Ol' Dirty Bastard. Handsome Boy Modeling School -- Chest Rockwell and Nathaniel Merriweather, better known as Prince Paul and Dan the Automator -- could claim that honor based only on "Holy Calamity (Bear Witness II)," a team-up with DJ Shadow and DJ Quest that would have Bob Dole doing the Cabbage Patch. Points are also awarded to Prince Paul and Dan the Automator for basing the entire disc around an episode of Chris Elliot's late, great TV series Get a Life. Of course, because of the eclectic guest list -- everyone from Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori and Atari Teenage Riot's Alec Empire to Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Grand Puba and Sadat X of Brand Nubian -- more than a few people wouldn't even consider So...How's Your Girl to be a hip-hop record; suckers. After listening to Black on Both Sides, you might not think it's a hip-hop record either, especially after catching Mos Def give a nod to Marvin Gaye and HR of Bad Brains on the Jekyll-and-Hyde "Rock N Roll." And in many ways, it's too intelligent, too ambitious to be tagged as anything. In the end, though, Black on Both Sides is a hip-hop record, and probably the most exciting one since The Wu-Tang Clan's debut. But pay attention: Mos Def just might be bringing hip-hop down from the inside.
69 Love Songs
Like the subject of all the songs on this three-disc marathon-manifesto, 69 Love Songs is strange, contradictory, and utterly charming. Stephin Merritt runs through every feeling that matters of the heart -- broken and otherwise -- produce, in an equally wide variety of genres. (And at least one too many: "World Love" has gotta go.) Everyone will find themselves in one of these songs, even if they're all written by a sardonic gay man with an impossibly, almost comically, deep voice.
Olivia Tremor Control
So what if Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss and the rest of this loose Athens, Georgia-based group stole their Smile from Brian Wilson? As long as someone is keeping Wilson's sweet insanity alive, no harm, no foul. But Black Foliage only swipes its between-song shenanigans and its ba-ba-backups from Wilson's unreleased (but often bootlegged) masterpiece. It's not as sophisticated, coming off more like a flea-market orchestra with found instruments recorded in bedrooms and on front porches. Which, for the most part, is exactly what it is. It's that rambling, shambling quality that makes you forget you've heard it all before.
The Promise Ring
Jade Tree Records
I'll believe that rock and roll is finally extinct when they pry this disc from my cold, dead hands. Very Emergency is where a good band gets better, simplifies without sounding simplistic. The group pares each song down to the only things that matter: loud guitars, melodies you already know by heart, and Von Bohlen's lyrics, which get more out of a few words ("Losing my voice just talking to you about talking to you," from "Living Around") than most writers can accomplish with entire albums. Capping off the disc, he asks the question that accompanies the hangover of heartbreak that comes with the end of a relationship on "All of My Everythings": "Why did ever we part and give back our hands?" You'll spend hours listening to Very Emergency trying to figure out the answer.
A guilty pleasure at first, but now I don't feel so guilty about it. Time to 'fess up: I stayed up late every night for a week hoping to catch the video on MTV until I finally cut out the middle man and got the album. There are other songs on Fanmail that come close, but none stick the landing quite as well as "No Scrubs," which turns the tables on the Supremes' "I Hear a Symphony" with turntables, and bumps that shit. Everyone needs a little TLC, even if it's just this song.
When Jeff Tweedy can't talk he sings, and if you're one of those who likes to read between the lines, you only think you know what he's singing about. Hell, you don't even have to read between the lines. Look at "Via Chicago": "I dreamed about killing you last night / And it felt all right to me." Pardon me, sir? But, no, while Tweedy may be a storyteller, he's not writing his autobiography. You may need these songs to be about infidelity and the problems with always being in love with someone you're not supposed to be in love with, but they aren't. Well, they are, but not from Tweedy's perspective. You only wonder how Tweedy and the band are going to try to top themselves next time, because as it stands, that might be impossible.