Critical Mass

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

3. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.) Enormous songs with operatic complexities and orchestral melodies, in an Oklahoma rock sort of way. Bonus: "Superman" was the saddest song of '99.

4. Beth Orton, Central Reservation (Arista) Nick Drake as divined by a skinny six-footer who loves dance music.

5. Kool Keith, Black Elvis/Lost in Space (Columbia) Elvis has left the planet. The most eccentric rapper in the world, Keith builds his own worlds and characters with his albums.

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.

6. Matthew Sweet, In Reverse (Volcano) Pure AM gold, sing-along-in-the-car-on-the-way-to-the-swimming-pool-with-your-girlfriend rock.

7. Gomez, Liquid Skin (Virgin) Five young white boys from England who craft Southern country blues with the soul and fire of psychedelic/jam rock, the creativity of art rock, and an unselfconsciousness rare for their youth. They are, in short, a miracle and a treasure.

8. Beck, Midnite Vultures (DGC/Interscope) I know, I know, critics give him a free ride, but "Debra" is the funkiest, funniest song about getting your mack on in an attempt to woo sisters into a three-way ever.

9. Mogwai, Come on Die Young (Matador) I will bludgeon you to death, slowly and very quietly with weird time signatures, lots of improvisation, and wide swinging dynamics.

10. Handsome Boy Modeling School, So . . . How's Your Girl? (Tommy Boy) Prince Paul and Dan the Automator get down with more guests (Sean Lennon, DJ Shadow, Mike D. and more!) than Betty Crocker's got cakes and still deliver the goods. Hip-hop co-opts alt. rock singers and everybody wins.

Best Reissues: Gotta be the Dusty Springfield collection and Massive Attack singles box.

Serene Dominic:

1. (tie) The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.) The movie poster cover art is no empty conceit -- this sweeping album spits out so many audio-visualize and manipulates on so many emotional levels, it could sit comfortably atop many film critics' 10-best lists. Picture a thought-provoking science-fiction flick that frightens and saddens you one minute, then makes you want to run and hug the nearest human being the next. The Lips pull off what scores of prog-rock bands couldn't do even with the aid of narrators, librettos and Roman numeral movements: write an arresting song cycle about a dying planet that moves the heart like What's Going On without being in perfect pitch most of the time. Hearing "The Spiderbite Song" without knowing that the events it depicts (Flaming Lips drummer Steven Drozd gets bit on the arm by a spider and narrowly escapes it being amputated, then bassist Michael Ivins almost gets killed in a car crash) actually happened is compelling enough. But to hear Wayne Coyne's vulnerable declaration of love to his bandmates and friends "if it destroyed you, then it would destroy me" must be a pop first and a good sign that the Flaming Lips will outlast all the new one-hit wonders who keep rewriting "She Don't Use Jelly" with diminishing results.

1. (tie) Wilco, Summerteeth (Reprise) Because I first heard this while in a fit of purchasing mid-period Kinks reissues, Jeff Tweedy's resemblance to Ray Davies' lopsided grin delivery is more pronounced than ever before, but luckily it doesn't end there. Like X-Ray's best stuff, it's the things left unsaid that ring with the deepest resonance. What drives Tweedy to brag "I'm Always in Love" and my "heart's full of holes" in the same breath? Or the joyful way he sings "I live my life like I wasn't invited" on "Candyfloss" -- the happiest song I've heard all year. Rock's filled with plenty of "God is dead" rhetoric, but not since the Village Green's "Big Sky" has anybody intimated that not only is God alive but he's actually ignoring you. "No love's as random as God's love/I can't stand it!/I can't stand it" is a pretty scary sentiment, but like most of the darker themes of lost love and alienation on this album, it's served up with a bubblegum smile. This album is classic in every sense of the word. You hear the ghosts of many great bands in Wilco without ever feeling they're chained to them. And like great albums of yesteryear, Summerteeth's minor songs brilliantly set up the major ones and in time begin to take on equal significance. Consolidating all the strengths of 1996's Being There, Wilco arrives with a flawless album for an imperfect age.

2. Outrageous Cherry, Out There in the Dark (Del-Fi-2000) Who'd ever thought in 1999 we'd get an album that reads like a love letter to reverb, except for the occasional three-way with a phase shifter? There hasn't been a record with this high a reverb reading since Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy. Unlike that album's claustrophobic feel, Outrageous Cherry's use of reverb is all about expansion, standing you in pitch black night where you can feel the universe stretching out ahead. As he's also proved with this year's production duties on The Go's Whatcha Doin', Matthew Smith has an eerie knack for getting bygone studio sounds to where you're not sure if you're hearing a long-lost track from 1967 or 1970. It's easy to convince yourself that this album was recorded the same week as Surrealistic Pillow. But Smith's a superb songwriter, too, capturing the feel of 1966-67 garage rock at just the point where the naiveté was running out. It's no easy trick bashing out three-chord songs like "Tracy" or "It's Always Never" that not only sound new, but sound as if that strange new fourth chord is gonna actually take you somewhere else. I love the way every downbeat is accompanied by a loud tambourine; how it revives the tradition of ending an album full of short pop songs with an 11-minute excursion that has the nerve to call itself "There's No Escape From the Infinite." Out There in the Dark is the Outrageous Cherry-flavored antidote to the virus of dry, brittle, boring records out there. Take big tablespoons of it!

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