Critical Mass

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

10. (tie) Andrea Parker, Kiss My Arp (Mo' Wax/Beggars Banquet) Add British DJ Parker to the short list of visionaries. Like Moby's record, her full-length debut inspires listeners to stop what they're doing and investigate further. It's more ambient in tone and texture, certainly a darker set whose stealth rhythms and shifting soundscapes are more suitable for private sessions than for nightclubbing. But it's also sensual (her occasional vocals are sexy as hell), and it just might make a nice seduction disc, too, depending on how kinky you and your partner are feeling. Incidentally, there's an import-only version of Arp as well, an all-instrumental collection of remixes.

Single of the Year: Backstreet Boys, "I Want It That Way" (Jive) Yes, I am as smitten by this tune as I was last year by Jennifer Paige's "Crush." No, I haven't lost my mind. Yes, they are mainstream fluff. No, I don't think their albums have any substantial staying power. But songs make up an album, and this song is about as perfect as you could ask for, a timeless, elegant number that deserves an airing outside the realm of knee-jerk, stereotyped opinion. It's constructed on simple (not overproduced) five-part harmonies à la the Eagles, a catchy/chunky acoustic guitar riff nicked, likewise, from Frey, Henley & Co., and a sneaky, take-your-breath-away chorus-bridge-chorus segue. Even better, the lyrics speak plainly to matters of the heart, rhyming "fire" and "desire" for perhaps the first time in ages without making the listener cringe: "We are two worlds apart/I want you to know that/Deep down inside of me/You are my fire/The one desire." Hey, everyone needs a hug when they're suffering from a broken heart. This song wants to be your friend. What's wrong with that?

Reissue/Archival Item of the Year: The Clash, From Here to Eternity Live (Epic) An anthology spanning the '78 to '82 period of the "only band that matters," one that includes a hefty 17-song sampling of the "hits" and one that additionally is one of the best-sounding live albums to be released in ages. It puts all the Clash bootlegs to shame; c'mon, Sony, you're remastering the entire Clash catalogue for a January roll-out, how about issuing a few full concerts on disc, too? From raging body-slams like "Clash City Rockers" and "Know Your Rights" to serpentine dub workouts like "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" and "Armagideon Time," this record's the shit. And you gotta hear Joe Strummer's junkyard dog barking on the apocalyptic "London Calling" to believe it.

Artist of the Year: Bruce Springsteen. This is the Boss. This is your brain on the Boss. Any questions? (See New Times, October 14 issue, for further details.)

Ted Simons:

1. Fountains of Wayne, Utopia Parkway (Atlantic) Glorious pop songcraft enhanced by lyrics that blend sarcasm and wit with a healthy, good-natured heart. Fountain-heads Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood profile life's losers and perpetual dreamers ("Red Dragon Tattoo," "Go, Hippie") as easily as the suburban young and hopeful ("Prom Theme," "The Senator's Daughter"), all with a knowing smile. A remarkable album from rock 'n' pop's best songwriting team of the moment. Super killer cut: "Troubled Times."

2. Built to Spill, Keep It Like a Secret (Warner Bros.) A decidedly major outing from one of the indie underground's best-kept secrets. Singer/songwriter Doug Martsch spray-paints clouds on his loopy melodies by double-tracking his wails and whines and pushing it all with unexpected tempo shifts. A sneaky good album that gets better every play. Killer cuts: "Sidewalk," "Time Trap" and "You Were Right." Killer line: "Just this side of love/Is where you'll find the confidence/Not to continue."

3. Branford Marsalis Quartet, Requiem (Columbia) Anyone who saw the Marsalis Quartet under the night sky at Scottsdale's Civic Center Mall last spring knows how dynamic this collection of compositions can be. That they sound even better on disc is at once a thumbs-up for prosperity and, sadly, an awareness that keyboard mainstay Kenny Kirkland died after most of the CD was recorded and before the tour got under way. Beautiful, evocative music.

4. Steve Reich, Reich Remixed (Nonesuch) Steve Reich's minimalist patterns are logical ancestors to the austerity and repetition of modern-day electronica, and letting loose the likes of DJ Spooky, Howie B and other American, European and Japanese DJs to remix Reich's oeuvre not only makes sense, it puts new bounce in the composer's heretofore familiar sounds. Indeed, Reich's material never sounded so good. Cool cuts: "Megamix," by Tranquility Bass, and Mantronik's take on "Drumming."

5. The Hang Ups, Second Story (BMG/Restless) Consider the village green preserved. The Hang-Ups, especially lead singer Brian Tighe, aren't shy in bringing back the better days of the Davies brothers, but this longtime Minneapolis group adds a U.S. indie-pop charm by way of the production team of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, who recorded R.E.M.'s first (and best) efforts. The results, most notably the drama-inducing title track, can be blissfully memorable in all the right ways.

6. The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs, Vol. 1-3 (MRG) A three-CD glimpse of boho love American style from Fields-boss Stephin Merritt, a diminutive man with a baritone voice and a pen that knows its way around words. Merritt's bare-boned pop songs are riddled with sharp needles for hooks and though he may not be the most blissful crooner on the block (see songs: "No One Will Ever Love You" and "How Fucking Romantic"), he knows the score of a very familiar game.

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