Critical Mass

Even with impending Willennium looming, 1999 proved to be a banner year for music

Year-end best-of lists are usually accompanied by depressing State of Music essays, the kind that take a sweeping view of significant happenings and industry trends and culminate with dire prognostications for the future. Inevitably, most of those things start to sound like a Chicken Little speech. If you tried to trace the condition of music just by looking at Rolling Stone covers, it might start to seem like the sky really was falling -- or that half-naked actresses were making a lot of records.

The truth is that no matter how bleak the state of commercial music gets -- and judging by what's on TV, radio and the charts, we're talking pretty bleak -- there will always be more than enough great records to keep discerning listeners going. So we decided to spare you the gloom and doom and just give you the goods: this year's critical mass.

Granted, almost all the records that made our Top 10s probably didn't even get within squinting distance of the Billboard 200, but they're out there; it just might take a little looking.

Wilco's Summerteeth: Themes of lost love and alienation served with a bubblegum smile.
Wilco's Summerteeth: Themes of lost love and alienation served with a bubblegum smile.

Personally, after reading through the thousands of heartfelt words praising their favorite discs, our critics have convinced me that 1999 wasn't such a bad year after all. -- Bob Mehr

Fred Mills:

1. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.) The moment we'd been waiting for: Pop music -- not the insipid mainstream fluff, like chart-toppers TLC or Blink 182, but the kind that engages all the sensory avenues and sparks the imagination -- finally crawled out of 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 shape-shifting, psychedelic creatures that fully come alive once they enter the listener's mind. And the band backed it up with a tour that, incredibly, lived up to the high expectations set by the album, with the three-man team utilizing samples, backing tapes and visuals while the headphone-equipped audience soaked in the miasmic/prismic Lips goo.

2. Rage Against the Machine, The Battle of Los Angeles (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 doin' it for the nookie. The sad thing about being a male fan of Limp Bizkit, Korn, Kid Rock, Slipknot, etc., is that your musical horizons are as limited as your adolescence is arrested; sadder still are the female fans who go along with the misogynistic, self-hating aimlessness of most rap-metal outfits simply because those bands' concerts are where the available pool of mating partners is located. Rage, on the other hand, aims to take you (us) to a different place, where brain stew trumps body spew; remember that it's "free your mind and your ass will follow," not the other way around. Whether you agree with their politics (and I do believe they're off base with their support of cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal), you can't deny that any band that puts consciousness-raising and social action first, and additionally crafts some of the most groove-heavy but structurally complex hard rock in the biz, will still be standing and making increasingly mature recordings well into the next century.

3. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Rock Art & the X-Ray Style (Hellcat) Former Clash main man Strummer picks up the dub/world beat groove that his old band specialized in circa Sandinista!. There's some biting, punk-bred garage rock present, too. Strummer adds his unmistakable gruff, edgy lead throat as signature while ruminating on everything from growing old gracefully to British politics to (believe it or not) his newfound appreciation of electronic music. But as with any great album, what counts is the sound in the (laser) grooves, and whether you want to come back to it. Rock Art is unbelievably catchy, and danceable, and doesn't seem unnecessarily tied to a particular era or place. In short, given that Strummer basically sat out the '90s, this is the most inspiring comeback of the year, and possibly of the decade.

4. Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, Moments From This Theatre (Proper, UK import) The Memphis songwriting legends playing live in November of '98 in the UK when they were touring as opening act for Nick Lowe. They do it unplugged-style: Penn on acoustic guitar and "fine emery vocals" (as journalist Alan Robinson says in the liner notes), Oldham's "magisterial presence" on Wurlitzer piano. They serve up utterly soulful renditions of some of their most enduring tunes, including "I'm Your Puppet," "Cry Like a Baby," "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and "At the Dark End of the Street." But more important, they reclaim and breathe new life into material that, as performed many times over the years by many great pop, soul and country artists, rightfully entered the realm of classic Americana.

5. (tie) Beck, Midnight Vultures (DGC/Interscope) Earlier this year, the Emperor Norton label released the purported soundtrack to a long-lost 1970 blaxploitation flick titled Soul Ecstasy (original title: Die, Whitey, Die). It was, of course, a hoax, although, frankly, the album's funky-psych grooves are at least as cool to these ears as Gene Page's score for Blacula or Melvin Van Peebles' work on Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song. What does this have to do with everyone's (y)odelayin' loser? Well, with his end-of-millennium offering, Beck serves up the cold-sweatingest, pimp-slappin' horniest set of downtown R&B of 1999. No matter that the man's ghettocentricity is located closer to the Hollywood Hills than Harlem; Beck's got more raw street soul -- and he's a helluva lot funnier (skit) -- than a barrelful of No Limit or Death Row rappers, whose Amos & Andy in the Hood shtick long ago ran out of creative steam.

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