Critical Mass

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

7. Sparklehorse, Good Morning Spider (Capitol) Surreal, Southern-fried acid musings, replete with lo-fi sounds and sentiments. Sparklehorse is Mark Linkous, who wields a walking cane on his better days and a claustrophobic croon on his better songs, all because of a celebrated near-death visit to the center of his mind. He's damaged in body, soul and voice, but then, who isn't? An engaging art project backed by a major label, which may be the CD's most unusual element.

8. Walter Piston, Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Naxos) Aaron Copland may be the Ellis Island for those new to the world of classical music, but fellow American Walter Piston is in the same neighborhood. Piston, who won two Pulitzer Prizes and taught for years at Harvard, wrote music that soared through octaves with Coplandesque grandeur, yet with a touch of modern melancholy shadowed between the notes. Kudos to Naxos for yet another high-concept, low-budget release.

9. The Go, Watcha Doin' (Sub Pop) Echoes of the Stooges and the Flamin' Groovies abound on this exuberant celebration of noise so far removed from pop's current landscape that it sounds brand-new. The recording is beautifully muddled, which adds punch to the sneaky quick melodies, and songs like the thundering "Keep on Trash" and the boisterous "But You Don't Know" put smiles on all the right faces. An aluminum K.O. that shakes some action -- and then some.

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.

10. Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, The Mountain (E Squared) Mush-mouthed bad-boy Steve Earle has neither the restraint nor the high lonesome howl that bluegrass demands from its lead singers. But Earle does have the smarts to team with the McCoury band, which puts the smell of smoke and pines on Earle's tunes, some of which ("Harlan Man," "The Mountain") sound like they've been around for decades. Best song: "Carrie Brown," a killer cut in more ways than one.

Fave Single: Cher, "Believe." Sure, she's a caricature, and yeah, her voice is used as a prop for the song's Pet Shop Boys techno-pop. But it's a wonderful tune that's impossible to ignore.

Most Unsettling Moment: Witnessing with open jaw Nick Drake's eternally haunting "Pink Moon" used as the soundtrack to a Volkswagen commercial. That the ad treats the song with reverence only slightly lessens the nausea.

Fave Local Disc: Jimmy Eat World, Clarity (Capitol) Emo schmemo. The latest songs by these perennial upstarts are topnotch, especially "Lucky Denver Mint," one of the best tunes penned around these parts in years. Close second: Gas Giants, From Beyond the Back Burner (Atomic Pop) Cheap tricks and treats from ex-Gin Blossom Robin Wilson, who comes through with winners without leaning too hard on the Blossoms' back catalogue. Honorable Mention: The Scones, Do You Hear? (self-released) Polished pop for now-and-then people. Flashes of old New Wave reflect off the head of leader Martin Shears, who writes impressive songs and sings 'em with style.

Fave Local Song: Aside from Jimmy Eat World's aforementioned "Lucky Denver Mint": Jesus Chrysler Supercar's "Swampfoot," from Land Speed (Token Records). Muscle rock of slicker Meat Puppets/Supersuckers stock. Fave Local Song for 2000: Something from that new stuff Gloritone's been playing. More, please. Missing in Action: The Revenants. Wha'happened?

Gilbert Garcia:

1. Cibo Matto, Stereotype A (Warner Bros.) Giddy, goofy, tuneful, internationalist and beat-crazy. No other record so deftly captured all the futurist/retro possibilities of pop music at the dawn of a new millennium. These Japanese expatriates approach pop with the wide-eyed exuberance of musical tourists and make connections that wouldn't make sense to more coherent thinkers. They don't know that they're not supposed to leap from bossa nova to Latin balladry to hip-hop, and damned if they don't pull off the whole enchilada. Whether simply trying to survive the working week or searching for Obi-wan Kenobi in Union Square, they impart a sense of wonder absent from most of this year's releases.

2. Wilco, Summerteeth (Reprise) While the No Depression geeks cried betrayal, Jeff Tweedy emerged as the major artist his adherents had always claimed him to be. The reason is simple: As touching as his love for the Louvin Brothers and Gram Parsons were in his coal-miner wanna-be days, his soft spot for the Left Banke and the Kinks suits his droll voice and persona much better. Like its obvious model, Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom, Summerteeth uses upbeat melodicism to comment on dour lyrics ("Can't Stand It," "A Shot in the Arm") and turn their messages upside down. There can be no surer sign of Tweedy's creative confidence than the fact that he buries his catchiest song, the buoyant "Candy Floss," as a hidden track.

3. Olivia Tremor Control, Black Foliage: Volume One (Flydaddy) The kings of the much-hyped Elephant 6 collective justify the accolades by shaming all of this decade's four-track poseurs. In the hands of these guys, technical limitations only expand the sonic possibilities of recording. The result is the trippiest record of the '90s, a reminder that psychedelia isn't doing its job unless it scrambles your consciousness a bit. Alternating between pure-pop confections like "Hideway" and pure-noise collages like the four-second "The Sky Is a Harpsichord Canvas," this disjointed, acid test of an album never loses its way.

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