The Best CDs of 1999

From a creative standpoint, the popular music industry has been on life support for some years, but I may well remember 1999 as the year when we finally pulled the sheet up over its head. There was a lot of fine music produced and released, but unless you had the time, energy, and determination to go hunting for it your chances of actually hearing anything meaningful were zip.

I hate to bitch, because I’m not somebody who believes that popularity and commercial success are automatically bad. I like the idea of massive record sales in principle, so long as those benefiting are talented artists whose work improves the audience in some way. But the system works that way rarely, and by happenstance instead of design, because people who genuinely care about music are rarely allowed in the same room with an important decision. Thanks to yet another mind-numbing round of bloodless corporate mega-mergers, the range of artists the average listener heard in 1999 was narrower than ever before.

The result was predictable. In Denver, where I live, we have three or four stations that pretend to play “alternative” in some form or another. At any given moment I can flip through the dial, knowing I have less than a 25% chance of finding anything listenable on any of them. I sometimes wind up listening to commercials because they’re less annoying than the crap being shoveled into the airwaves.

In a word, the mainstream rock & roll offerings in 1999 were mostly ordinary. Plain. Uninspired, homogenous, ho-hum. Helloooo, sports talk radio.

The bad news is I had to work even harder this year than before to keep myself plugged into meaningful new music. Of my top 10 releases, only one received significant airplay. A second got limited spin, and a third just got added this week.

The good news is that if you knew where to look you could find some absolutely remarkable music this year. I apologize in advance to those artists who belong here, and would probably be included if radio and the record industry didn’t suck. I mean, if you were trying to construct a music industry that kept innovative and interesting new artists from gaining an audience you’d have a hard time improving upon the corporate clusterfuck we have in place already.

The following list represents the best releases I heard from 1999, and also includes some 1998 releases that, for one reason or another, didn’t hit my radar screen until this year.

The Top 10

1. Godspeed You Black Emperor! – F#A#Infinity
This brilliant Canadian ensemble paints aural tapestries as lush as they are stark, infusing dark ambient instrumentals with powerful images of urban decay (in the form of found samples and spoken work interludes). The thematic predicament is a compelling one: “We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death.” F#A#Infinity is a soundtrack for the post-apocalypse, for a city where “the flags are all dead at the top of their poles.” If there’s anything else out there like GYBE’s “avant-classical”/space rock hybrid I haven’t heard it, but I can’t help thinking that this CD has the potential to exert substantial influence on other musicians. Here’s hoping I can look back in ten years and talk about the impact F#A#Infinity had on the course of popular music in the first decade of the new millennium.

2. The Pinetops – Above Ground and Vertical
The best band from the 1980s that never made it was a Winston-Salem, North Carolina outfit called The Right Profile. They signed with Arista, but the label’s insistence on pushing them in the wrong direction caused the band to eventually walk away from the deal rather than doing something they knew they’d regret for the rest of their careers. Frontman Jeffrey Dean Foster never gave up, though, and now his new band has released one of the finest debuts I’ve ever heard. Like the material Foster wrote for The Right Profile, Above Ground and Vertical is packed with country-tinged pop gems that lean toward the melancholy. They’re lyrically direct, but are rarely as simple as they appear. Imagine a darker, sweeter Wilco, if you will. I was especially gratified by the presence of one old RP track, “Linger.” Jeff, if you’re reading this, I’d love to hear “God’s Little Acre” and “Underneath the Window” on your next release. This disc is available online at CDNow.com and from the label at www.monolyth.com (this page will open in a new browser window).

3. Switchblade Symphony – The Three Calamities
When I saw San Francisco Goth darlings Switchblade Symphony live last year vocalist Tina Root was almost apologetic that the band wasn’t scarier. However, like many of the best artists associated with the current resurgence of Goth-Rock (“Darkwave” to some), SS has moved well past the self-conscious vampire-wannabe trappings of the ’80s and into areas that border on ambient and trip-hop. Alternately sweet and sad, theatrical and dreamy, this disc plays like a tour of a haunted dollhouse, and in some ways is a musical study of the tensions fueling the recent revitalization of Goth. Root possesses a wonderfully versatile voice that’s playful and girlishly spare one moment, ominous and richly foreshadowing the next, and Susan Wallace’s film scoring experience is in full evidence. She’s a remarkable songwriter who never loses sight of a particular song’s place in the context of the full CD, and the result is a deeply nuanced and mature portrait of what gets lost when we sell ourselves to our day jobs.

4. Wendie Colter – Payday
Colter, the former frontwoman for Box the Walls, devotes a lot of time to the L.A. Power Pop underground scene, but her own work lies closer to Sarah McLachlan and Aimee Mann (both of whom she has surpassed with this release). While Payday finds Colter probing, in painful detail, the oft-invisible scars of a failed relationship, she does so without lapsing into self-indulgence. In fact, the whole CD is buoyed by an infectious optimism. Moody moments like “String of Pearls” and “Disappearing Man” are balanced by the pluck of “The Peephole Queen” and “7th Wave,” and in songs like “Lean Into the Light” we see a hope that can only rise from the experience of surviving the worst we can do to ourselves: “what will you bring to the world/This world that needs nothing from you/Oh, but if you sing to the world/This world will sing back to you.” 99 percent of the time a song like this mires down in saccharine sentimentality, but here it comes off as completely genuine, and I can’t help being amazed at the beauty of the emotion so purely expressed. Colter has apparently figured out that true strength doesn’t have to sacrifice the vulnerability that’s so critical to our ability to relate to others. A final observation: Colter’s voice is shimmeringly beautiful, nearly matching McLachlan’s for sheer beauty, and exceeding Mann’s in performative range.

5. Kent – Isola
Melancholy and brooding, Kent’s latest is a far cry from the Beatles-influenced Power Pop that seems to dominate Sweden’s musical landscape (at least the portion of it that reaches these shores). Instead, the ambitious Isola has more in common with recent releases by Radiohead and Unbelievable Truth, especially on songs like “If You Were Here” (which could be a Radiohead tune if it were whinier). Other tracks, displaying a more ambient sensibility, lean in the direction of dreampop, as I’ve concluded most of the best Brit and Euro indiepop does. It’s all held together by a seamless consistency of tone – early winter, late afternoon giving way to twilight, raining outside, she’s gone, and as you pull the covers against the fading light you know she’ll be waiting in your dreams. It’s like that. Isola is almost narcotic in the way it seduces you into repeated listenings….

6. Marvelous 3 – Hey! Album
I love the live clip I saw of M3, where frontman Butch Walker teases the audience with the interlude to “Freak Of The Week” – “tell me I sold out, tell me I sold out, go ahead” – which he intercuts with a coy nod of the head and a whispered “I did.” Wonderful stuff, it makes you want to dance and laugh all at the same time. There’s nothing pretentious anywhere with this CD – it’s a basic, fun-loving, straight-on rock & roll romp that further validates the Southern Power Pop movement that’s been under way without any real mainstream notice over the past few years (Owsley, Neilson Hubbard, Superdrag, etc.) “Freak” got some airplay, which is an encouraging sign. Of course, there are three or four other cuts on the CD that were born to be singles, and they got zero airplay, so let’s not get all giddy over the future of commercial radio….

7. Curve – Come Clean
Come Clean is the first full-length release from the London techno-rock duo in five years, and may be their best effort to date. If Garbage were a little less slick in the production department they’d sound a lot like Curve, and that’s as big a compliment for Butch Vig’s outfit as it is for Toni Halliday and Dean Garcia. Halliday’s hypnotic vocals weave through the haze and distortion with a teasing, almost sing-song quality, looping seamlessly in and out of a rhythmic range that runs the gamut from driving club beats to trancy trip-hop grooves to what I’m pretty sure is a massively processed sample of John Bonham’s drum line from “The Ocean.” It’s with bands like Curve that techno really finds its most compelling human expression. Sadly, American radio, even when it notices techno, fixates on sampling and remixing displays that are technically clever, but nothing more.

8. VAST – Visual Audio Sensory Theater
VAST is the only entry in my Top 10 this year to receive significant airplay, and radio’s acknowledgment of its existence is kind of surprising considering how little it sounds like Third Eye Blind and Marcy Playground and Sugar Ray and Cake and Smashmouth. Jon Crosby (who pretty much is the band) sifts elements we associate with everything from metal to techno to dark ambient into complex compositions that remind me structurally of Prog. The effect is impressive – Visual Audio Sensory Theater is accessible even in its more challenging moments.

9. Owsley – Owsley
Nashville is famous for country music, but the past few years have seen it produce a slew of outstanding Power Pop bands, none of which has enjoyed much commercial success. Owsley may become the first to actually break out, however, as I just heard one of the tracks on my local “alternative” station. Will Owsley recorded this, his debut release, over a four-year period in his living room, and like any Power Pop artist worth his salt, he attends to the forms – there’s some impossibly hooky up-tempo tracks with ringing guitars, some thoughtful mid-tempo introspection, and one or two mirror-ball slow dance songs, including the achingly pretty “Class Clown.” However, Owsley (a former bandmate of Ben Folds) isn’t captive to his influences like so many of his contemporaries. He may be working within a well-established tradition, but the CD is all his.

10: Love Spirals Downwards – Flux
The CMJ Monthly earlier this year included LSD in a story about “Darkwave,” the neo-Goth renaissance I alluded to in my comments about Switchblade Symphony above. I was expecting something akin to the Sisters of Mercy but discovered a group that had more in common with Delerium, Portishead, or Hooverphonic, only with a rhythmic style closer to drum ‘n’ bass than trance. Suzanne Perry’s vocals make me think she’s a Cocteau Twins fan, not that this is a bad thing – with most of the songs here her voice is less about words than it is instrumentation, texture, and atmosphere. Good ambient rewards the attentive listener, and close attention to Flux reveals a subtlety and variety that’s rare for the genre.


Other Things Worth Mentioning:

Baby Lemonade – Exploring Music
AllMusic.com calls Baby Lemonade “one of the greatest hopes for Los Angeles rock & roll in recent memory….” That may be a touch on the enthusiastic side, but this is nonetheless one of the best Power Pop discs of the year.

Brian Wilson – Imagination
Easily Wilson’s best work since leaving the Beach Boys – songs like “Your Imagination” are nothing short of breathtaking.

Death in Vegas – The Contino Sessions
More consistent songwriting than on Dead Elvis (which was a great concept unevenly executed). The sinister “Aisha,” with vocals by Iggy Pop, is a must-hear.

Fiction 8 – Spirits
This Denver industrial/Goth band hates labels, especially ones like “industrial/Goth” (sorry, Mike). Probably not as strong as their debut, Dissonance Indifference, but still worthy of mention. They’re back in the studio as I write this, and we’ve been promised a new album in 2000.

Foo Fighters – There is Nothing Left to Lose
The Foo Fighters continue to crank out solid Power Pop in the mold of Cheap Trick.

Fountains of Wayne – Utopia Parkway
At first I was disappointed by Utopia Parkway, but after about three listens I started catching on. Top to bottom, this disc may be better than the band’s outstanding self-titled debut.

Heather Nova – Siren
There’s a part of me that keeps thinking I should dismiss Heather Nova on the grounds that she’s a little too corporate. But I just can’t – these are really nice songs and there’s a depth to them that belies the sheen of a very slick production job.

Lycia – Estrella
More dark ambient – reminds me of Love Spirals Downwards and Love is Colder Than Death, although a touch less nuanced.

Offspring – Americana
I’m a sucker for a mean sense of humor, especially when it comes from people who don’t take themselves too seriously.

Rick Springfield – Karma
Excellent comeback effort. If you’ve seen those “Where Are They Now” things on VH1 you probably know that RS has fought some battles since we last heard from him. The maturity shows on Karma, which is updated enough that nobody I have yet played it for realized who they were listening to.

Sarah McLachlan – Mirrorball
Solid live performances of her most popular tunes. I criticized Surfacing for lacking the bite that permeated her previous work, and was pleasantly surprised to hear a bit more edge in her renditions of the more recent songs.

Scar Tissue – Rebuild
I tripped across Scar Tissue by accident – I went to see Fiction 8 play and afterwards stuck around to see the band they were opening for. In a matter of days I owned two of their discs and now have all three. Dynamic industrial that settles into extended periods of trance/tribal rhythms – they’re a superb live band, too.

Seraphim Shock – Nightmares for the Vanished
Denver Goth/Metal from Hell – like their debut, Red Silk Vow, Nightmares works its way through a series of grinding, yet melodic musings on all the things that keep fundamentalists up at night. For what it’s worth, SS puts on one of the best live shows I’ve seen – for rock & roll theater in the tradition of Alice Cooper they simply cannot be beaten.

Starbelly – Lemonfresh
There’s not a clunker on the disc – one of the most consistently catchy Power Pop records of the past couple years.

Space Team Electra – Space Apple Deluxe
A new EP from the band that gave us the Lullaby Pit’s Best CD of 1998. Space Apple Deluxe resulted from a stopover at their producer’s house in Chicago while driving to a gig in Toronto. Basically they stayed up all night and recorded this “live in session” nugget. Of the eight or nine tracks three or four are serious (and wonderful) efforts (and some of the noodling is fun, too, as the band got a little punchy at times) and their cover of Zep’s “Tangerine” feels like one of those rarities you’re going to want to own in 20 years.

Tal Bachman – Tal Bachman
I still can’t get over the fact that this is Randy Bachman’s kid. Mrs. Bachman must be skinny, I guess. Anyway, Tal writes some awesome hooks, although his lyrics tend toward the trifling. Once he gets his heart stomped on by a mean woman his songwriting will develop some depth, I imagine. His best moments remind me a lot of Michael Penn….

UltraBabyFat – Silver Tones Smile
Veruca Salt meets Let’s Active? STS seems unusually low-fi for a Southern Power Pop band these days (they’d fit better in the L.A. scene), but who cares – great songs, and a ton of wit too boot.

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