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The Best of 1999/Pop CDs

Friday, December 31, 1999

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

It was the year of livin' la vida loca, the year a mosh-pit-friendly blend of rap and metal challenged boy groups, Britney Spears and Wexford's own Christina Aguilera for the youth vote while parents were off getting high on the Stones, a year that, in the end, belonged to Cher as much as any other artist. Her "Believe" was the top-selling single of 1999, a year whose coolest moment may, in fact, have been the single Prince recorded back in 1982 if it weren't for the little-known fact that a handful of artists whose posters are practically guaranteed to not be hanging with 'N Sync above a young girl's bed were releasing the following albums, the best of a year that made it hard to pick just 20 standouts.

Critical Mass

Picks by other PG Music writers:

Scott Mervis

1. Rage against the Machine
"The Battle of Los Angeles"

2. Beth Orton
"Central Reservation"

3. Steve Eerle
"The Mountain"

4. Fiona Apple
"When the Pawn ..."

5. Wilco

6. The Clash
"Live - From Here to Eternity"

7. Tom Waits
"Mule Variations"

8. Nanci Griffith
"Dust Bowl Symphony"

9. The Frampton Brothers
"File Under F (for Failure)"

10. Foo Fighters
"There Is Nothing Left To Lose"

Tracy Collins

1. Sting
"Brand New Day"

2. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

3. Countng Crows
"This Desert Life"

4. Carlos Santana

5. The Dixie Chicks

6. Wilco

7. Fiona Apple
"When the Pawn ..."

8. Bruce Cockburn
"Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu"

9. Beth Orton
"Central Reservation"

10. Marshall Crenshaw


1. Blur, "13"

(Virgin) A dark, chaotic masterpiece, "13" is an album of delicate melodies rising half-asleep from a bed of distorted guitars to draw you in to Damon Albarn's dark night of the broken-hearted soul. On "1992," a tune that starts out sparse and builds itself a wall of transcendent guitar noise worthy of My Bloody Valentine, the singer is haunted by thoughts of a woman he's sure would love his bed if she hadn't insisted on crawling into someone else's. For all the pain he appears to be suffering, Albarn never really goes for the jugular, though. He's more at home wishing the heartbreaker well, as he does on the album's emotional centerpiece, "No Distance Left to Run," a heartbreaking ballad that finds him singing, "It's over/You don't need to tell me/I hope you're with someone who makes you feel safe in your sleep." It's one of many gorgeous moments to be found amidst the clatter here. In places, the noise is as likely to grate on the listener's nerves as a sample of Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music." Unlike Reed, though, these guys blow your hair back with a white-noise squall then turn around and treat your ears to the whisper of nothings as sweet as the chorus of "Coffee & TV" (which, by the way, is the only contender for video of the decade).

2. Built to Spill, "Keep It Like A Secret"

(Warner Bros.) A guitar-hero album for people who don't necessarily cotton to counting the number of notes a guitarist can play in the course of a second, "Keep It Like A Secret" soars in ways that music rarely every soars. It's euphoric, an epic of seemingly effortless grace and emotional resonance hanging on structures as complex, as sprawling, as all but the wankiest prog-rock, with wave after wave of guitar washing over the mix. When he isn't constructing the perfect guitar passage, Doug Martsch is spilling out lyrics as cryptic as any in Dylan's back pages. In the album's most endearing lyrical triumph, "You Were Right," he strings together lyrics cribbed from Hendrix, Dylan, Zeppelin, Floyd, the Stones, even Seger and Kansas, in a song that's nothing less than devastating, even as it makes you smile.

3. Tom Waits, "Mule Variations"

(Epitaph) The genius of Waits is all in the way he can spit out a tale as demented as "What's He Building?," as goofy as "Big in Japan" or as creepy as "Black Market Baby" then tug at your heartstrings with something as poignant as "Georgia Lee" or "House Where Nobody Lives." This indie-label effort proved the highest-charting album of a refreshingly anti-careerist career that stretches back as far as 1973. And it did so without any help from anyone in any way connected to the men of Matchbox 20.

4. Flaming Lips, "The Soft Bulletin"

(Warner Bros.) If you haven't heard the album, imagine a singer whose voice is as high and as thin and as likely to irritate those who fail to see its charm as the creakiest, reediest note in Neil Young's range engaged in cryptic odes to scientists and bugs. Now, imagine ethereal melodies floating high above a lush, orchestral bed of gorgeous pop. But most of all, imagine hooks and eccentricity coming together in perfect harmony on a record that never strains to be the "Pet Sounds" of the '90s that it more than likely is.

5. Smog, "Knock Knock"

(Drag City) An album that quietly invades your space like nothing I can think of since the first John Lennon record, the latest from Smog is an intimate work of low-key melancholia. While you wouldn't want to spend a lot of time in a car with a man who could dream up a vision as bleak and depressing as "Cold Blooded Old Times," the album itself is a fascinating journey through "the type of memories that turn your bones to glass."

6. Wilco, "Summerteeth"

(Reprise) And speaking of downers, the mood of the latest from Wilco is one of grown-up, late-night desolation fueled by grief, remorse and emptiness. As brutal as the lyric is, it comes as no surprise when, nine songs in, Jeff Tweedy starts a song by telling the woman he's left behind, "I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me." It's just the kind of album he's been having. At times, the pain in Tweedy's voice is set against an arrangement that's practically cheery. And it works. But "Summerteeth" is at its best when the tempo is crawling along in the dark. It says a lot about Tweedy's emotional state at the moment that the sweetest song on "Summerteeth" is the saddest, a sleepy yet Turtle-esque lullaby for the child of a broken relationship. Like all the greatest moments here, it's all the more gorgeous for the heartache.

7. Dr. Frank, "Show Business is My Life"

(Lookout!) On this, the year's most smile-inducing treasure, Dr. Frank, the poet laureate of Lookout! Records, puts the Mr. T Experience on standby only to crank out an album of even more songs about girls. But oh, what songs they are. Like "Alcatraz," the Mr. T album that hit the streets a few months later, "Show Business" finds the doctor stretching out beyond the well-defined parameters of pop-punk. From the stark acoustic balladry of "Suicide Watch" to the low-key Beatlesque indie-pop charm of "Population: Us" to the primal garage-rock abandon of "I'm In Love With What's-Her-Name," it's hard to say what makes a stronger case for the man as the under-appreciated genius of his generation, the hooks or the lyrics that never fail to find the humor in the most pathetic situations.

8. Macy Gray, "On How Life Is"

(Epic) The Sunday Times of London's pick for album of the year, "On How Life Is" retooled the soul of old-school R&B for the '90s, sampling Outkast on an Al Green-worthy ballad. It also gave the world a chance to meet the freshest voice in R&B since only Prince knows when. And what a voice it is, a soulful Billie Holiday-in-pigtails rasp, as at home on the NC-17 smut of "Caligula" as it is in the throes of what can only be described as extreme spirituality on "I Can't Wait To Meetchu," in which she tells the Lord "I'm lookin' forward to the day I die." From "I've Committed Murder" to "I Try," the world view is strictly Macy Gray, who wrote the words to all 10 cuts. At first, I heard the album as a welcome throwback to the golden age of soul. But it's actually better than that.

9. Los Straitjackets, "The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets"

(Cavalcade) The men in the Mexican wrestling masks return with a 12-song collection of tunes that never allow the astonishing musical chops of the players to stomp on the buzz of the music. The hooks are inventive, insistent and sometimes even funny. The drumming is everything you could ask of a surf-rock drummer and then some. But the thing that really won me over was their reinvention of the love theme from "Titanic" as a new surf classic. Ingenious.

10. Sparklehorse, "Good Morning Spider"

(Capitol) Floorboard-creaking atmospherics combine with a penchant for bringing the noise in loud, abrasive shards to underscore a hazy, early-morning sleepwalk through the mind of Appalachian basement eccentric Mark Linkous, whose favorite emotional colors -- melancholy, paranoia, alienation and dread -- have resulted in miles (OK, kilometers) of newsprint comparing the music to Radiohead. But the demons are real. And the music is all the more haunting because of it.

Honorable mention:

11. Add N to (X), "Avant Hard"

12. The Mr. T Experience, "Alcatraz"

13. Black Crowes, "By Your Side"

14. Steve Earle and Del McCoury, "The Mountain"

15. The Muffs, "Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow"

16. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "Echo"

17. Lo Fidelity AllStars, "How To Operate With A Blown Mind"

18. "Rushmore" Soundtrack

19. Operation Re-Information, "Universal Standard 84000"

20. The London Suede, "Head Music"

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