Our Critics Sound Off On The Year's Best Music.
By Ron Bally, Dave McElfresh, Fred Mills, Stephen Seigel
JANUARY 3, 2000: Culling the year's best releases is, we've found, one of our critics' favorite writing activities, a way for those who have spent way too much time listening to music to show the rest of the world what they've learned.
We hope these lists inspire debate and introduce readers to an album or two they missed out on. Enjoy!
Fred Mills10. Midnight Vultures, by Beck (DGC) and Mule Variations, by Tom Waits (Epitaph). A pair of loons, one young and cocky, one old and, uh, cocky, who touched down upon the musical pond of 1999 and proceeded to walk on water. Beck actually did the funky chicken, while Waits did more of a crab-backed shuffle. In the end, they drained that pond and refilled it with electric Kool-Aid.
9. Whine de Lune, by Trailer Bride (Bloodshot). With songwriter/vocalist/slide guitarist Melissa Swingle doing her P.J. Harvey-on-moonshine thing, this N.C. combo forges a new breed of rural gothadelica: William Faulkner's car breaks down in Mayberry, and Southern Culture On The Skids is there manning the garage.
8. To The Center, by Nebula (Sub Pop). Some of the tuffest, most psychedelicized hard rock to motorvate down the pike in ages, steering Electric Ladyland across the Bridge Of Sighs and through a Fun House mirror.
7. Debt And Departure, by Those Bastard Souls (V2) and Nightlife, by Cobra Verde (Motel). Two albums that subliminally offer meditations upon what rock really means at the end of the millennium: growing older with dignity while still finding time to kick out the jams, and how we draw inspiration from our heroes' artistry then take that inspiration and craft our own unique artistic vision.
6. Live... With a Little Help From Our Friends, by Gov't Mule (Capricorn). Let's see... Who's Live At Leeds... Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!... Humble Pie's Rockin' The Fillmore... Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East... add this sprawling (2-CD or 4-CD, depending on which version you spring for) set to the list of the greatest live albums ever. In fact, the Mule's epic is close kin to the latter pair of LPs, an astonishing display of virtuoso free-form rock/jazz/blues fusion that wants to take you higher -- and does.
5. Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros (Hellcat) and From Here To Eternity Live, by The Clash (Epic). It would be criminal not to mention the stunning live retrospective from the most iconoclastic punk band ever. And with former Clash mainman Strummer picking up the dub/worldbeat groove that his old band dabbled in and adding his signature gruff, edgy vibe, you've got the most inspiring comeback of the year, and possibly of the decade.
4. Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP, by Godspeed, You Black Emperor! (Kranky). In a year where post-rock soundscaping hit a peak (courtesy Mogwai, Ganger, Tarwater, etc.), nobody reached further, and with more tactile vibrancy, than these Canadian sculptors of ambulatory grace and cinematic grandeur.
3. Moments From This Theatre, by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (Proper, UK). The Memphis songwriting legends performing live in the UK unplugged-style. They serve up utterly soulful renditions of some of their most enduring tunes, including "I'm Your Puppet," "Cry Like A Baby" and "At the Dark End of the Street."
2. The Battle of Los Angeles, by Rage Against The Machine (Epic). Putting the metal to the pedal in an Orwellian-styled masterstroke of righteous fury, Rage proved that there's a lot more at stake in rock 'n' roll than just worrying about gettin' paid or laid.
1. The Soft Bulletin, by The Flaming Lips (Warner Brothers). The moment we'd been waiting for: Pop music -- not the insipid mainstream fluff, like Mariah Carey, Jewel, Master P, Blink 182 or even Limp Bizkit, but the kind that engages all the sensory avenues and sparks the imagination -- finally crawled out its cul-de-sac this year. Acknowledging that there is life beyond the Beatles and the Pet Sounds boxed set, the Lips employed traditional studio wizardry to recast melody and rhythm as shapeshifting, psychedelic creatures that fully come alive once they enter the listener's mind.
Ron Bally10. Eatin' Dust, by Fu Manchu (Man's Ruin). Stoner rock gods who out duel Monster Magnet, the Melvins and Mudhoney in the Black Sabbath/Stooges ripped-off '70s monster-guitar riff sweepstakes. These ex-Kyuss members produce a sonic meltdown that could peel paint off a 1976 Chevy Econoline van from 50 yards away.
9. Love Hurts 10", by River City Rapists (Junk). Austin porno punks scream about sex, drugs, wanton debauchery and loads more sex. These debased screwballs make G.G. Allin sound like Richard Simmons.
8. Everything Is Possible: The Best Of Os Mutantes, by Os Mutantes (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.). A zany, ingenious compilation of '60s psychedelic pop masterpieces from this criminally underappreciated albeit trend-setting Brazilian rock trio. Femme fatale vocals, distorted wah-wah guitars and surrealistic lyrical imagery reconfirm the deserved "ahead-of-their time" tag.
7. Pucker Up Buttercup, by Paul Jones (Fat Possum). Gritty Delta blues never sounded this distorted, lascivious and potently stripped-down without losing anything in the translation from front porch to the recording studio. I'll bet Jon Spencer wishes he had the rhythmic balls to roar as loudly as Jones and the Tyrannosaurus Rex ferocity of his simple two-man band set-up. This is the mean, dirty, and obnoxiously loud slop-bucket blues that Fat Possum alone has patented.
6. Live 1981-82, by Birthday Party (4AD). Led by the mischievous venom-tongued devil, poet/singer Nick Cave, these Aussie goth-punk misfits attacked their music with the same ferocity as a bunch of starving hyenas. The Birthday Party delivered music that was noisy, bloodthirsty, cunning and downright vicious. Screw the wimps who thought the "Blair Witch Project" was scary. Here is real horror.
5. All Rise, by Naked Raygun (Quarterstick). This vastly underrated Chicago band who successfully bridged the gap between punk and hardcore are finally given some deserved recognition with this sonically enhanced reissue of this long forgotten 1986 gem. Piercing lead guitar, rumbling bass and super-catchy sing-along choruses from lead screamer Jeff Pezzatti still sounds fresher, angrier and more potent than a boatload of Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit wannabes.
4. Better Be Good, by Real Kids (Norton). Boston power pop delinquents fronted by terminal bad-boy John Felice uncork catchy, hook-filled melodies and trashy high-velocity guitar subterfuge on these ultra rare demos, alternate takes and blistering live beauties.
3. Died For Your Sins, by Avengers (Lookout). Scorching live and unreleased tracks from lead banshee Penelope Houston and the greatest punk band to emerge from the ashes of the Sex Pistols' 1978 meltdown in San Francisco. Three newly recorded songs eclipse the original blitzkrieg proving two decades later that the Avengers were more than a minor footnote in the punk rock history books.
2. Teenage Head, by Flamin' Groovies (Buddha). Originally released in '71, this barnstorming reissue (including seven kick-ass bonus cuts) betters the Stones' Sticky Fingers (released the same year) with an inspired melding of trashed-up garage-influenced R&B and frantic Little Richard-style rock 'n' roll.
1. Grow Fins, by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band (Revenant). An exhaustive 5-CD box set of rare, unreleased studio and live lunacy courtesy of the demented missing link between Howlin' Wolf and Zappa. Beefheart was no mere imitator. He was an artistic madman and the meticulous archivists at Revenant prove it by unleashing these never-before-heard skeletal recordings of a genius at the zenith of his career.
Dave McElfreshNARROWING DOWN THE choices a bit, here are nine great jazz albums and one superb R&B compilation:
10. Romance With The Unseen, by Don Byron (Blue Note Records). The clarinet is thought of as the instrument of high-school dweebs (a comment that once brought this writer some hate mail from a major jazz clarinetist), which makes the colorfully abstract approach of Byron all the more attractive. He and wacko guitarist Bill Frisell improvise on cuts as challenging as the Beatles' "I'll Follow The Sun," which works a lot better than it sounds like it would -- a defining element of good jazz.
9. Soul Grooves, by Paul Bollenback (Challenge Records). Guitarist Bollenback updates the soul-funk style mentioned below by tweaking material from the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye with regal, complex arrangements adding a third dimension to already hotshit composing. The balance between his heady arranging and greasy guitar improvising is occasionally astounding, as on his take of "Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay," the combination so thick here some listeners may not even recognize the song.
8. Legends Of Acid Jazz, by Charles Kynard, Willis Jackson and Houston Person (Prestige Records). The Prestige label continues to release compilations of gritty players far more responsible for the funk element in jazz than Blue Note figures like Horace Silver who are given more credit. This Shaft-era style of jazz fell between the less accessible black consciousness jazz of Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, and the jazz-rock fusion of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. While both of those styles have been reissued to death, only now has there been a resurrection of the engaging funk of these dirty organists and tenormen.
7. Outhipped, by Barbara Dennerlein (Verve). The organist has put out a number of overlooked albums this past decade, most likely due to a style that is rhythmically more complex and thicker in arrangement than most funk organ material -- meaning that nobody's gonna shake their stuff to her intricate interplaying unless they've got schizo feet. She'll eventually have her day, though, as a result of an album as mean as this one.
6. Good Dog, Happy Man, by Bill Frisell (Nonesuch Records). Like Miles (see below), guitarist Frisell tends to similarly pare down the complexity of his playing as his career progresses. No chord changes on this album that a second-year guitar student couldn't play, but what Frisell and company (including Ry Cooder) do with them in a rural style of playing damn near crossbreeds post-fusion jazz with Appalachian music. His best album to date.
5. Traveling Miles, Cassandra Wilson (Blue Note). Wilson is that rare jazz vocalist who dares to veer from the beat-to-death catalog of standards, having previously reworked cuts by Van Morrison, Neil Young and bluesman Robert Johnson with great success. What's most impressive about this Miles Davis tribute is her refusal to wuss out with easy fare like "Bye Bye Blackbird" from the trumpeter's earlier days. Instead, she tackles material from Bitches Brew, ESP and Tutu. Betcha this will become a classic jazz vocal album.
4. The Melody At Night, With You, by Keith Jarrett (ECM). Two bars of Jarrett playing "I Loves You Porgy" and you forget all those nasty interviews that prove he pretty much hates everybody else. The pianist has spent most of the last decade working in trio format, which, though solid stuff, never sounds as intimate as when he's free of a rhythm section's confinements. Alone, he doesn't so much play music as breathe it.
3. Epiphany, by Vince Mendoza and the London Symphony Orchestra (Zebra Acoustic). Mendoza bravely writes his jazz with 75 percent string charts and only 25 percent improvising, perfectly pulling it off by creating orchestral interplay so gorgeously thick it feeds the listener as much musical fiber as when John Abercrombie, Kenny Wheeler, Michael Brecker and Joe Lovano step in. All the more impressive is how he avoids sentimentality while heavily milking the turn of the century Impressionists, who have elsewhere unfortunately inspired loads of musical goo not worthy of an elevator trip. One of the best orchestrated jazz projects ever.
2. The Sonic Language Of Myth, by Steve Coleman And Five Elements (RCA Victor/BMG). Coleman was one of the creators of the innovative M-Base jazz movement in the '80s, a mix of hip-hop, Ornette Coleman and downtown NYC influence. The saxophonist continues to stretch out, here with some impressive writing charted for big band ensembles of horns and strings. The rhythm section, saxophones and violins play against each other as much as they play together, with Coleman thriving on the aberration.
1. Malaco Records: The Last Soul Company, by Various Artists (Malaco). This Mississippi-based label's six-disc set pays tribute to its 30-year history as a one of the only hardcore rhythm and blues labels left. These roadhouse-bred screamers -- Ernie Johnson, Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Blue Bland and others -- are as gutbucket as they were 20 years back, making literally every current R&B radio figure sound like bleach pouring. Over 10 different R&B/soul labels have issued box sets, but this one comes from the only label that continues to record the real thing.
Stephen SeigelHonorable Mentions: Do the Collapse, by Guided By Voices (TVT); Good Morning Spider, by Sparklehorse (Capitol); Social Dancing, by Bis (Grand Royal); Thank You Easter Bunny, by How To Build a Rocketship (self-released); Pinback (Southern Records); So...How's Your Girl?, by Handsome Boy Modeling School (Tommy Boy); Apple Venus Volume One, by XTC (TVT); Signal to Snow Ratio EP, by Grandaddy (V2).
10. Mule Variations, by Tom Waits (Epitaph). No, it didn't break any new ground, but when you're as unique as Waits is to begin with, you don't need to break new ground on every album. His first release in six years is, nonetheless, a fine showcase of everything Waits does right: oddball, off-kilter creepiness balanced with inspired balladry, both of which he does better than just about anyone else out there.
9. Play, by Moby (V2). While sampling from unlikely sources has become pretty commonplace in recent years, never has technology sounded so warm as on Play, wherein electronica auteur Moby loops Alan Lomax field recordings of gospel, spirituals and folk-blues with his own vocals and hypnotic, body-movin' grooves. Still, it's better suited for the home stereo than the clubs.
8. Everything Is Possible: The Best of Os Mutantes, by Os Mutantes (Luaka Bop). I've always made a point to keep reissues off of lists like these, but since I had never even heard of Os Mutantes before this year, I've made an exception. Brazilian bossa nova meets late '60s/early '70s bizarre psychedelic pop and takes you to a musical world you never knew existed -- even though it was created 30 years ago.
7. White Sky, by Archer Prewitt (Carrot Top). Prewitt, former Coctail and current member of Sea and Cake, creates a lovely and dynamic pop album that manages to merge melancholic guitar-based indie-pop with flawlessly arranged and wonderfully organic horn and string sections, disco-era grooves with same-era prog, and somehow make it flow. Recommended to those who liked the concept of Eric Matthews, but didn't like his records.
6. What Rhymes With Cars and Girls, by Tim Rogers & the Twin Set (rooArt, Australia). The solo debut from the leader of Australia's You Am I is a sublime collection of some of the finest heart-on-sleeve romantic songwriting of the year, in true singer/songwriter tradition. Paired with countrified arrangements that enhance, but never dwarf, the song, the end result sounds like a less-angsty, but no less literate Mark Eitzel fronting an alt-country band.
5. Midnite Vultures, by Beck (DGC). Beck has once again cut-and-pasted his way to glory, this time cast in the form of an updated '70s-style R&B joint: part homage, part satire, all the way reverential, and all the way funky. It's no accident that this one was released so late in the game; it's the default soundtrack album for any millennium party worth its salt.
4. Terror Twilight, by Pavement (Matador). Somewhat of a sleeper, Terror Twilight requires repeated listenings -- more than your average Pavement platter, anyway -- to reveal the fact that, these days, the band is more about witty romanticism than ironic distance.
3. X-Ray Style, by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros (Hellcat). Call it a comeback. After a decade of virtual silence (save soundtrack work) following his lackluster solo debut, the former Clash-man returns with a stunning globetrotter of an album that is utterly unique. Exotic rhythms, nods to house, and amazingly light-handed politics (harder than you think in '99) all find a way to drape the skeleton of Strummer's still-completely-intact songwriting. Easily the best post-Clash album from any of its former members, it's the realest deal we're gonna get short of a reunion.
(I'd be completely remiss here not to mention From Here to Eternity Live (Epic/Sony), the also recently released live disc of Clash performances from '78 to '82: a fine companion to Strummer's record, and a fine document for those of us who missed out on seeing 'em live while they were still around).
2. The Soft Bulletin, by The Flaming Lips (Warner Brothers). Continuing in the experimental vein of their boom box and car stereo symphonies and the made-to-be-played-simultaneously four-CD set Zaireeka (Warner Brothers), Wayne Coyne and Co. have finally found what they were reaching for: the Lips have crafted the most densely layered and complicated pop record in recent memory. Filled with loss and longing, but not regret, the result is downright uplifting.
1. Keep It Like a Secret, by Built to Spill (Warner Brothers). Indie-rock guitar heroes are supposed to be an inherent contradiction, but if you can manage to get past that fact, Doug Martch out-wanks J. Mascis any day. Just when you think another hook can't be pulled out of the tackle box, Martch finds the shimmeriest, most perfect lure: songs that start out catchy, then continue to build upon themselves a foot or two higher than you ever suspected they could go, five or so glorious riffs per song, all slippery, head-bobbing bliss.
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