Critical Mass

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

4. Ron Sexsmith, Whereabouts (Interscope) Just another quiet gem from the best singer-songwriter of the decade. Sexsmith's a soft-spoken schlub with no discernible charisma, but he effortlessly mines an empathy for the common man that more politicized songwriters claim to have but really don't. On Whereabouts, he reveals a newfound soul-man croon on "Right About Now" (a sure-fire hit in a better world than ours), explores lush new aural pastures and engages God in a moving dialogue about lost faith. It's a sad reality of the music biz that records like this one will be doomed to the scrap heap of 21st-century cultdom.

5. Sleater-Kinney, The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars) Not since the "Death or Glory" days of the Clash has rock this righteous also been so exciting to listen to. Not since the "Goo Goo Muck Muck" days of the Cramps has any band gotten so much mileage out of two guitars and a drum set. While Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker add some pretty intricacies to the relentless chording that fueled 1997's Dig Me Out ("Banned From the End of the World" sounds remarkably like early B-52's), they've hardly purged any of their legendary angst. To push the Clash comparison further, this album does for riot-grrrl what London Calling did for punk: prove that a band can outlive the movement it rode in on and expand its sound without sacrificing its integrity.

6. Fountains of Wayne, Utopia Parkway (Atlantic) The real Utopia Parkway may be a road in Queens, New York, but as reimagined by Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, it's a suburban paradise where AM-radio snatches of the Cars, the Steve Miller Band and the Eagles melt into one never-ending tune. This may be a radio album for radio formats that no longer exist, but it's also a cheeky commentary on the disposability of pop culture, loaded with references to everyone from Puff Daddy to Korn. Instant hummables like "Red Dragon Tattoo" and "Denise" make this the ultimate smart-ass's requiem for the pop dream.

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.

7. Built to Spill, Keep It Like a Secret (Warner Bros.) The fifth album from Boise, Idaho's finest isn't a major departure from the symphonic guitar wigouts of its past, but the pieces fit so beautifully here that it winds up feeling like some kind of breakthrough, a long-promised dream marriage of Pavement, Sebadoh and Bedhead. Even Doug Martsch's soft, wimpy voice is an asset here, taking the testosterone sting out of his six-string excursions. And what other underground hero would quote "Dust in the Wind" and "Another Brick in the Wall" in the space of a single song?

8. Macy Gray, On How Life Is (Epic) Since most rock critics have no respect for contemporary R&B, it's easy to see why so many scribes jumped on this L.A. boho's bandwagon: Her debut album sounds like a time-capsule soul classic from the Superfly era, with just enough hip-hop samples and scratches tossed in to avoid that rancid retro smell. Truth be told, the music here is serviceable, but what really elevates the album above pleasant pastiche is Gray herself. She's a helium rasper who's equal parts Billie Holiday and Betty Boop, a lovable ditz with the soul of a no-nonsense earth woman.

9. Fiona Apple, When the Pawn . . . (Clean Slate/Epic) Those who dismiss Apple as a second-rate Tori Amos overly enamored with her own misery will find considerable ammunition on this follow-up to her 1996 debut -- particularly with the nonsensical, 88-word album title, an act of stupid self-indulgence to rival Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. But Apple's prodigious talent shows real signs of ripening here, and the baroque funk she concocts with master producer Jon Brion lends the right touch of irony to her melodramatic anthems of self-loathing. One question: Would Maya Angelou approve of a kiss-off like, "It won't be long before you're lying limp in your own hands"?

10. Paul Westerberg, Suicaine Gratifaction (Capitol) Not quite the triumphant return to form proclaimed by Mats diehards, this folky confessional is nonetheless the first solid evidence that giving up booze and his old bandmates didn't kill Westy's muse for good. At long last, Westerberg sounds like he realizes he'll never be the big rock star he deserved to be, and that realization frees him up in a way that he hasn't been since 1987's Pleased to Meet Me. The old wit is in short supply (the Capra-esque title of the opening "It's a Wonderful Lie" is as clever as it gets) and the old go-for-broke panache is probably gone forever, but both have been replaced with a clear-eyed wisdom that only rarely succumbs to wimpiness.

David Simutis:

1. Wilco, Summerteeth (Warner Bros.) Summerteeth has the sound and feel of a band that has realized what it wants to be, reinventing itself and all but abandoning its Americana roots. Trading in pedal steel for Hammond organ, fiddles for vintage synthesizers -- but they are still a quintessential American band, full of hopes and dreams, tempered by grim realities. A rock record with a soul.

2. Wheat, Hope and Adams (Sugar Free) A brilliant mix of sad songs and quirky production, like American Music Club remixed by Tricky. The trio from Massachusetts created the best record from out of nowhere this year.

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