Critical Mass

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

3. Various artists, Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons, (Almo) Exhibit A, B and C if you ever need proof that the dreaded tribute album needn't be the grave-pissing contests they've become synonymous with. No one here sounds like he had to be faxed a bio to know who Gram Parsons was. There are people here who actually lived and recorded with him, and those who didn't probably collected his records or have already recorded his songs. Best of all, no one invited Dishwalla.

4. Jimmy Eat World, Clarity (Capitol) Mesa's Jimmy Eat World put out an extraordinary album that didn't deserve the Capitol punishment. Their label's hand was forced to release a record it had been sitting on when L.A.'s KROQ started playing "Lucky Denver Mint" and Clarity built up momentum on its own. That's the sort of thing record companies used to look forward to, but the folks at the label were probably too busy assembling Chris Gaines standup displays to go the extra mile. Maybe Jimmy Eat bit off much more of the hand that feeds with "Your New Aesthetic," the most caustic criticism of radio's sheepish aims since Elvis Costello spit all over it. Lumping Jimmy Eat World into the horrid emo category sells this record short. Clarity has hooks that any pop band would sever its right and left arms for. And even that doesn't prepare you for the stunning 16-minute trance-inducing finale that somehow doesn't seem excessive.

5. Beulah, When Your Heartstrings Break (Sugar Free) San Francisco's Beulah makes the kind of bubbly space pop that you can easily imagine those grinning idiots test-driving in car commercials listening to. These guys sound like the Cyrkle after discovering the morning sun they thought was a red rubber ball is "just painted on a backdrop somewhere downtown," but they still dig it. Even with cynical lines like "all you need is a gun and car/A country song if you don't have the heart," this album is one instant cheer pill, a frivolous Popsicle that sucks on you. Best Smile facsimile for 1999: "Calm Go the Wild Seas." Best song title this year: "If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart."

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. Beck, Midnight Vultures (DGC) The only 1999 record I heard during in-store play that didn't propel me screaming out of the establishment. Like Oscar winners two years after the fact, critics are treating Beck like last year's model twice removed, but he still delivers the goods and then some. This is his most fun record yet, offering zero introspection and mucho laughable non sequiturs like "peaches and cream, you make a garbage man scream" and "Thursday night and I'm pregnant again." Beck sounds as much at home with the R&B horns sound as he does with the antiquated Moog sounds that seem lifted from In the News and Like Flies on Sherbert. Beck proves on falsetto flights of fancy like "Peaches and Cream" and "Debra" that he's the artist formerly known as Prince. Midnite Vultures is the bizarro pop record you hoped the Purple One would've been making by 1999.

7. Guided by Voices, Do the Collapse (TVT) After years of lo-fi and self-production, Guided by Voices finally submits to a name producer (Ric Ocasek) and big studio production values. The result of all this newfound clarity? We find out that Bob Pollard sounds like Gerry with a hyperactive Pacemaker! Here he's made a GBV album mall rats can listen to without constantly adjusting the equalizer on their receivers but with just enough murk to keep the ham radio enthusiasts happy. The diehard fans who've collected everything but Pollard's phone messages have grumbled, but even seasoned hacks who've heard 20-plus years of music still can't tell where these songs are gonna go. Not their best, but everyone else's.

8. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Rock Art & the X-Ray Style (Hellcat) What latter-day punks and bad Clash tribute album participants failed to realize was the secret ingredient that made them "The Only Band That Matters" was the guy who sang like it was the only thing that mattered. What a joy it is to hear that voice again. People may come away disappointed that it doesn't rock like the new Clash live set From Here to Eternity. But those who remember "The Street Parade" and "Straight to Hell" as being some of the best highlights in the mighty Clash catalogue will enjoy hearing Strummer in formidable world beat grooves, feeling comfortable with his age and his new compatriots without being encumbered by meaningless political rhetoric.

9. Tom Waits, Mule Variations (Epitaph) Each year, hundreds of schools across the country slash their budgets and the first thing they sever are the funds for music classes. Somebody oughta hip the Board of Education to Tom Waits and maybe then they'll figure out a way to combine music appreciation and shop class. Except everyone will be fighting over who gets to play the crank pulley first.

10. Dido, No Angel (Arista) Take the "L" out of dildo and it's . . . electronica's sexy yet subdued diva Dido, lead singer of Failure on her successful first solo outing. This album may not be perfect, but her always assured voice is. Even in the throes of breakup woes, it's the last voice you want to hear before you bid the bad days goodnight. A mood record to be sure, but one of the few that I can tolerate on a long and lonely drive home.

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