The weak in rock
All I can remember of last year's personal top 10 was the inclusion of an acoustic Prince CD tacked on to the mail-order-only Crystal Ball. Smelled like hard-up then, reeks of it now -- haven't listened to the damned thing since December 22, 1998, and probably won't again till I try to decide whether or not to sell the boxed set on eBay. And so it goes -- thousands and thousands of albums released each year, and good luck trying to find 10 of them that made a lasting impression beyond five minutes ago. Maybe that's the difference between Important Albums and ones you merely like to listen to over and over again. I'm sure Rage Against the Machine's The Battle of Los Angeles -- otherwise known as Spin's second-best disc of 1999 -- is a majestic piece of rap-rock, but all I hear is the Judgment Night soundtrack over some half-assed sloganeering. (That's not entirely true, since I haven't actually listened to the record. But you know I'm right.)
As for Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile, well, Trent Reznor's magical static sounds like warmed-over fart-rock to me. There's no accounting for taste, especially when you have some. See, the rock-critic part of me so desperately wants to put Beck's gonna-funk-you-up Midnite Vultures on this list; everyone else is. But deep down I know it ain't nothing but a brilliant put-on -- a novelty record, where last year's Mutations contained...what's that word? Oh, yeah. Songs. Same goes for Built to Spill's Keep it Like a Secret: The list-keepers love this art-grunge gem from Doug Martsch, but life's too short to go looking for peanuts in a pile of crap. Look, there's a reason critics' favorites sell like pork sandwiches at a synagogue: The grown-ups may not like to get down, but the kids just wanna dance. Step to, or step off.
Haven't seen Smash Mouth's Astro Lounge on a single best-of list, which figures: It's too pop, too radio, for the tastemakers who keep insisting Ibrahim Ferrer's Buena Vista Social Club Presents disc is the Cuban import of the decade. Right, like any gringo can tell the difference; I'll buy when Castro starts writing record reviews. Till then, give me anything off Astro Lounge, especially "Diggin' Your Scene" and "Radio" and even "All Star"; the only thing that ruined the last one was when the Dallas Mavericks adopted it as their theme song, surely in cruel and ironic jest. Astro Lounge is the only disc released in 1999 that grabs you by the pants, snatches your keys, turns up the car stereo, and demands you drive it all around town with the windows down and the volume up to "piss off." So it doesn't fall into the categories of Important or Meaningful; it's got a beat, and you can dance to it, as Dick Clark first said somewhere around 1912.
Doesn't that still count for anything anymore -- the razzle and dazzle of rock and roll, the get-up-to-get-get-down the very best pop music has to offer? Probably not, since most rock critics are very short old men with one wooden leg and a constant ringing in their very hairy ears. Somewhere, there's a rock critic putting Chris Cornell's Euphoria Morning or Zap Mama's A Ma Zone or Korn's Issues or Prince's Rave un2 the Joy Fantastic or Public Enemy's There's a Poison Goin On or Cassandra Wilson's Miles-of-Muzak Traveling Miles on his or her list. Bet you 10 bucks they already sold all them bad boys back to the used CD shop around the corner, where they will sit ignored, waiting for next year's best albums.
He's old and cranky, which puts Newman over on most of his fat-and-happy contemporaries, who just got old. His first real disc in a decade is his best in two -- lots of songs about lechery ("Shame") and pain ("Every Time It Rains"), which go hand-in-hand once you figure out love's the middle ground. Like the song about how families talk at each other, not to; even better's the bit about how Newman misses his ex-wife, which must make the current Mrs. Newman very happy. When Bad Love isn't cracking a wry smile, it's breaking a pathetic heart, which has long been Newman's speciality, even if the public now thinks of him as nothing more than the guy who writes Disney scores. Could have titled it Broken Toy Story; then, it might have moved a few dozen copies.
On How Life Is
Macy Gray is what happens when Terence Trent D'Arby slices off the salami, hires on Fiona Apple's producer (Jon Brion), and writes murder ballads dolled up like do-me come-ons. "Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak" is the sexiest thing since Eartha Kitt greased into the Catwoman suit; "I've Committed Murder" could have been a Howlin' Wolf lost-and-found; and the rest of this slinky debut manages to find room for the Fat Boys, Outkast, and "Theme from Love Story." Someone needs a spanking.
69 Love Songs
"I'm sorry I love you / It's just a phase I'm going through" -- just about says it all on a record that says everything about matters of the (broken) heart. Three discs, and not a second wasted; listen to the trifecta in its entirety, and you'll feel as though you've loved and lost a dozen times over. There's emotion enough here for even the heartless among us -- hushed ballads, turbulent toss-offs, even the smallest moment writ enormous and devastating. Turns out Stephin Merritt (part Bacharach-David fetishist, part Casio composer) is worse than the hopeless romantic, because he's a hopeful one -- meaning, he keeps setting himself up after he gets knocked down, convinced love conquers all. For better or worse.
The literalists assumed these songs were about a crumbling marriage, wedding vows written on a set list to be tossed at the end of the night. Frontman Jeff Tweedy, though, insisted otherwise. He explained that songs such as "I'm Always in Love" ("Why, I wonder, is my heart full of holes") and "We're Just Friends" ("Forget the implications / Infatuations and / If love's so easy, why is it hard?") and "Via Chicago" ("I dreamed about killing you again last night / And it felt all right to me") were but the product of too much reading and so much loving. Either way, the results were thrilling and chilling -- one man's heart beating to perfect, polished pet sounds.
The Chemical Brothers
Now that techno's been absorbed by a pop culture that turns every revolution into a Volkswagen commercial, the leaders of the new school pause long enough to look backward even while sprinting ahead. Moby's use of field recordings and other eclectic errata made the grave-robbing Play the best old new record of the year; turns out there's still a little life left in the cut-out cemetery after all. And the Chems' third full-length disc subs out the block-rockin' for some head-noddin'. "Let Forever Be" provides the best Oasis single of the year; "Out of Control" is the best New Order sampler ever released; and the rest of the disc actually feels warm to the touch. See, kids, it's still all about the songs.
The Hot Rock
Kill Rock Stars
I said I'd put it on my list at the end of last year, so here it is -- though, truth be told, I'd rather listen to Dig Me Out, which has better songs (e.g., "Words and Guitars"). Or maybe it's just a matter of avoiding the issue: Where its predecessor was catchy and kinda cute, The Hot Rock's a real fucking mess -- a cry for help by three women who wouldn't take it if you offered. It's like stepping on broken glass for 41 minutes and 32 seconds.
Another cagey vet suits up years after the farewell press conference and finds himself at the top of the game; no singles here, baby, just triples and homers. Especially "Georgia Lee," in which Waits recalls a dead girl even God forgot; and the elegiac "Take it With Me," which does indeed feel like the old days. This is what you call a brand-new best-of, even when Waits stoops a little to sing about the "Eyeball Kid."
Us and Us Only
"Tender," the leadoff track from 13, posits pop as pure religion; its gospel choir alone could convert any nonbeliever. Same goes for "Impossible," the finest track on the Charlatans' finest album (imagine Oasis covering Wilco doing Dylan, if you go for that sort of thing). Both contain those tangible, imperceptible moments that transform music into emotion -- that create tears of joy, if only because you forgot all about the power of pop. You can feel those songs as they work their way from the head to the heart, their uplift so contagious all you can do is smile, nod, and repeat over and over again.
Return of the Grievous Angel
The only two tributes that matter, if only because nobody involved felt it necessary to play down to the material -- or, for that matter, lay claim to it. The Gram Parsons disc, Return of the Grievous Angel, contains the best Cowboys Junkies performance since Trinity Sessions ("Ooh Las Vegas") and the best Sheryl Crow performance since, well, ever ("Juanita," her duet with Emmylou Harris). Elvis Costello, Wilco, the Pretenders, and Lucinda Williams bring it all back home, and Beck's turn with Emmylou on "Sin City" (of course) reminds you of how deep the dude can get when he isn't playing shtick-'em-up on his own funkin'-witcha discs. Same goes for his "Halo of Gold" on the Skip Spence record, which is part Beatles, part Johnny Cash, and all heart. That Beck (or Tom Waits, or Mark Lanegan, or Jay Farrar) isn't even the best part of More Oar -- that honor would go to lead-off man Robert Plant, kept in check for the first time in years -- is the highest compliment.
Magnolia: Music from the Motion Picture
Movie's a piece of shit, a real waste of three hours and eight minutes. So let's just sum it up: Be nice to people, blah blah blah. There, done. You're better off with the soundtrack, which inspired Paul Thomas Anderson's whole sordid affair anyway; don't hold Aimee Mann (nine of the disc's 12 tracks) responsible for a filmmaker's spastic colon. The titles give it all away: "Deathly," "Nothing is Good Enough," the wrenching "Wise Up," all followed by the no-shit "Save Me." Mann still writes like Elvis Costello, only she replaces clever with direct; with her, there's no such thing as useless beauty.
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