Critical Mass

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

5. (tie) Tom Waits, Mule Variations (Epitaph) And if Beck's the young cock of the walk, Waits is the elder. Both touched down upon this year's musical pond to walk on water, with Beck doing the funky chicken and Waits the crab-backed shuffle. Something happened to Waits during the making of 1992's anarchic Bone Machine, and now, by fusing that record's adventurousness to his celebrated barfly balladeer style, he's emerged at the tail end of the century with a personal yet accessible document that's as sonically provocative as it is eminently replayable. "What's he building in there?" Oh, man -- you don't wanna know!

6. Gov't Mule, Live . . . With a Little Help From Our Friends (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 (two-CD or four-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 freeform rock/jazz/blues fusion that wants to take you higher -- and does.

7. (tie) Trailer Bride, Whine de Lune (Bloodshot) With songwriter/vocalist/slide guitarist Melissa Swingle doing her PJ Harvey-on-moonshine thing, this North Carolina 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. Sorry, but they don't accept American Express. And hearing the spooky, thereminlike sounds of a bowed wood saw in the context of a twangy/swampy roots-rock band is nothing short of mind-warping.

7. (tie) Julie Miller, Broken Things (Hightone) Miller began her career as a Christian singer-songwriter and later joined Emmylou Harris' touring band along with her guitar-whiz hubby Buddy (who played on and produced this record). She is a bit of a late bloomer -- but what a gorgeous lily has unfolded. Blessed with an oddly affecting set of pipes whose little-girl quality might seem at odds, on paper at least, with her forceful Linda Ronstadt-like delivery, Miller brings a substantial emotional heft to her brand of Celtic-flavored No Depression country-rock. And it's this kind of unforced, naked humility she offers (perhaps a byproduct of her faith?) that goes sorely lacking in Nashville's contemporary chick mill. I doubt she's the one who'll change the way the machine's gears turn, but as with her mentor Harris, she's gonna be around for a long time.

8. Godspeed, You Black Emperor!, Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada EP (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 (all nine of 'em) of ambulatory grace and cinematic grandeur; Godspeed instinctively grasps the power of the slow-building crescendo. Instrumental music such as this really does have the power to carry the listener to different dimensions, new plateaus, emotional thickets. The band additionally loops into its music bits of "found" recordings (such as a survivalist ranting, but cogently so, about his beef with the judicial system) that hearken directly back to the work of Byrne & Eno on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

9. (tie) Those Bastard Souls, Debt and Departure (V2) Along with Cobra Verde's album below, this record subliminally offers 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. Dave Shouse (of the on-hiatus Grifters) has turned into an amazingly gifted songwriter, and musically, his band has an ambitious grasp, one that is loose enough to embark on almost psychedelic flights of abandon but is also supple in touch, allowing Shouse's Springsteenlike nuancing to be fully felt.

9. (tie) Cobra Verde, Nightlife (Motel) John Petkovic, like Shouse, has become one of the American rock underground's most talented songwriters. Where Shouse may go for subtlety, Petkovic more often relies on crunching, glammy bombast (see: Bowie, Roxy Music) to get his points across. Yet his belief in the visual power of words and how rock 'n' roll should be about artistry, not literalism, echoes Shouse's conviction that music can make a lasting difference in our lives. And I'll never forget how perfectly Petkovic pegged what the problem is with the indie world these days when I interviewed him earlier this year: "Why does music nowadays have to be 'of this moment' or about abuse and being mistreated during childhood? Indie rock in particular is all this groveling about abstract nonsense; it has nothing to do with art or being above the rabble. To me, 'rock star' means 'poet with power.'" Amen, brother P.

10. (tie) Moby, Play (V2) With only a few exceptions, the once-vaunted electronica has collapsed in the mind of American consumers, leaving only a handful of artists such as the Chemical Brothers, DJ Spooky, and Moby to continually earn any real respect or kudos on these shores. What remains of the genre has become the domain of club-centric deejays who, while admittedly talented (Paul Oakenfold, Sasha, John Digweed, etc.), still earn their bread and butter remixing and spinning the works of others. Moby continues to mutate like some alien virus, and here, by taking old gospel and blues recordings and electronica-fying them, he's made another unexpected costume change. This is a record that can clearly appeal to just about anyone, and I don't mean in a dumbed-down way. I've observed firsthand the spectrum of humans who, when Play is on the CD store's stereo, get funny smiles on their faces, start tapping their feet, and eventually have to go up to the counter and find out what this insanely catchy music is.

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