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The Boston Phoenix Fringe Dividends

Pop -- the year in review

By Matt Ashare

JANUARY 3, 2000:  When you consider how fascinating the '90 have been from a pop-music standpoint -- the grunge explosion, the electronica hype, the women of Lilith -- it's hard not to see '99 as, well, an off year. To a certain extent that was to be expected: the Universal/PolyGram merger that started the year ensured a centralized, conservative music industry more focused on the bottom line than on developing top talent. Which didn't mean interesting things couldn't happen, only that they were less likely to. And though there were some promising big releases -- Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine, to name two -- I found myself looking more to the underground, to the fringes, to out-of-the-way places, for inspiration and entertainment. And, for the most part, I found it. Here's where:

1. Colin B. Morton & Chuck Death, Great Pop Things: TheReal History of Rock and Roll from Elvis to Oasis (Verse Chorus Verse). Colin B. Morton and Chuck Death (the latter a/k/a Mekons frontguy Jon Langford) had been publishing their satirical comic strip Great Pop Things in alternative weeklies for close to eight years when Verse Chorus Verse collected them and released this brilliant and hilarious volume in late '98. The book didn't really hit the cultural radar until early '99, when its so-wrong-that-it's-right approach to the history of rock made what turned out to be a slow first quarter bearable.

2. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style (Epitaph); The Clash, From Here to Eternity (Epic). As long overdue as the live Clash disc, if not quite as eagerly anticipated, Joe Strummer's first solo album in a decade proved it was possible to grow up without outgrowing your passion and conviction. And then From Here to Eternity arrived to remind us why we even cared to begin with.

3. The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs (Merge). If you were looking for grand statements in '99, there was The Fragile and The Battle of Los Angeles, both of which never really made that all-important emotional connection with me. And then there was Stephin Merritt's ridiculously comprehensive three-volume 69 Love Songs, a collection of, yes, 69 songs about love in all its various guises, encompassing a dizzying array of styles and making that all-important emotional connection.

4. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.) and the Music Against Brain Damage tour. If it hadn't been for the tour, which found Wayne Coyne and his Flaming Lips leading the amazing Cornelius, Sebadoh, and Robyn Hitchcock around the country on a multimedia indie-rock extravaganzatour, then I probably wouldn't have paid quite so much attention to The Soft Bulletin, which is just another smart and tuneful slice of top-notch experimental pop from the Lips. But anyone who can make indie-rock seem vital in a year when everything seemed to have lost its moorings in meaning has something special.

5. Folk Implosion, One Part Lullaby (Interscope). A casualty of the Universal/PolyGram merger, Lou Barlow and John Davis's Folk Implosion released their full-length, major-label debut on the newly merged Interscope and got no support for a disc full of radio-ready singles. Think of it as the other side of the rap-rock equation: two sensitive guys messing around in the beat science lab with hip-hop grooves and folky tunes, and coming up with a formula that's not all that different from Everlast's new one.

6. Bis, Social Dancing (Grand Royal). When all else fails, you can always try to make people dance, which is what this Scottish trio did on Social Dancing, a new-wave pop disc by a group of indie-punks whose call for "Action and Drama" is something I could relate to.

7. The Promise Ring, Very Emergency (Jade Tree). You know you're going to respect this CD, because they're just one of those bands who earn it, but you don't expect to like it enough to keep it in the car stereo for weeks on end. A great pop disc with punk undertones that may or may not be emo, depending upon how you define your terms.

8. Fugazi, Instrument (Dischord); Radiohead, Meeting People Is Easy (Capitol). Two similar on-the-road rockumentaries from two bands with similar-looking frontmen, viewed back to back in April. Turns out, Fugazi are a lot more fun than you'd think -- Ian even smiles from time to time. And Radiohead are every bit as miserable as they'd want you to believe, which is really too bad.

9. Rock, Rot & Rule (Stereolaffs). Working under an alias, Ronald Thomas Clontle, Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster goes on the NJ radio station WFMU to discuss a book of lists he's put together called Rock, Rot & Rule. What ensues is 47 minutes of some of the best radio farce since the Clarence Thomas hearings.

10. Soundtrack for a Century: Sony Music 100 Years (Sony/Legacy). A 26-CD set chronicling a full century of music, including Sousa marches, Broadway show tunes, jazz standards, and arena-rock hits. Ridiculous, really, but isn't that the point?

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