Critical Mass

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

Honorable Mention: The Very Best of Robbie Fulks (Bloodshot) Garth Brooks could learn a thing or two about putting out a phony greatest hits from ol' Bobbay. Who needs Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines' Fornicoppia when you've got fake album titles like I Loathe My Fans, Adultery for Beginners and Insurgent Country, Volume 6?

Bob Mehr:

1. Wilco, Summerteeth (Reprise) This album basically shatters any lingering doubt that Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy is still the innocent pop naif who was always considered the "lighter" half of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo. That should have happened after Wilco's sprawling 1996 double disc Being There -- a loosely conceptual offering about a rock 'n' roll fuck-up -- but some reputations are hard to shake. The bulk of the tracks on Summerteeth prove that a life of seeming domestic bliss -- wife, kid, successful career -- doesn't quell the nagging, impenetrable questions that come to us in our darkest moments. When Tweedy drops a lyric like "My feelings hid/She begs me not to hit her" at the end of "She's a Jar," or opens the album's standout track, "Via Chicago," with the lines "I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me," it seems less about shock value than genuine psychosis, which makes it all the more compelling and disturbing. Throughout the album, Tweedy and Co. continually double back on themselves musically, lyrically and thematically, creating a record that details home-front confusion and catharsis better than anything since Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom.

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.

2. The Go, Whatcha Doin' (Sub Pop) Produced with muddy, garagey glee by Outrageous Cherry mastermind Matt Smith (see #3), The Go seem like they were snatched out of the Grande Ballroom in 1967, cryogenically frozen and thawed out just in time to swoop in and snatch the mantle of rock 'n' roll from being handed to matchbox 20. It's so rare to see a band actually attempt this kind of sound without coming off like an unimaginative facsimile. Those who usually try -- like L.A.'s overly hyped Streetwalkin' Cheetahs -- are so studied and mechanical in their effort that it doesn't even come up to the level of mimicry; it's usually stuck at simple parroting. Gladly, that is not the case here. This group of Detroit twentysomethings takes and fully digests their influences (Stooges, MC5, Pretty Things, Rationals) to make an almost perfect record of proto-punk and garage R&B. The singer shouts, seduces and testifies. The guitars play like a refresher course in the simplicity and beauty of rock 'n' roll. And the rhythm section swaggers and thumps. Twelve songs that sound like they could be at home on the Nuggets boxed set or the next Pebbles album.

3. Outrageous Cherry, Out There in the Dark (Del-Fi 2000) In a year full of frighteningly overproduced, underwritten teen pop and the bloodless chunk of rap/metal guitars, an album of Spectorian sonic depth would seem out of place, right? Well, the answer is yes. Thankfully, this record is out of place and out of time, in the best way possible. Matt Smith's songwriting and production complement each other beautifully as he takes the scenic route to pop brilliance, stopping in Brian Wilson's bedroom for inspiration before heading off to Andy Warhol's Factory to jam with the Velvet Underground. Out There in the Dark captures the Beach Boys/Velvets mélange impressively, as Smith seamlessly alters between the warmth of the sun ("Where Do I Go When You Dream?," "Corruptible") and a garage/psych amphetamine-fueled haze ("Easy Come, Uneasy Glow," "It's Always Never"). Echo never sounded so good.

4. Maryanne, Your First, Your Last, Your Everything (Contingency) As the liner notes attest, this is the "posthumous pop" record that former Sidewinders front man David Slutes and guitarist Robin Johnson (Pills, Gentlemen Afterdark) set out to make and release before the band was derailed by Johnson's imprisonment. Slutes' crisp rasp is richer than usual on this 10-song set that resurrects the ghost of forgotten power poppers like the Shoes, the Scruffs, and the Pezband (not so coincidentally, we also get a version of the 20/20 cult classic "Yellow Pills"). Fittingly, the album ends with a humorous and touching (especially if you're a vinyl geek) ode called "Record Collection." Any band that can come up with a verse like "I got Echo and the Bunnymen, Queen and Prince and the Kingston Trio/I got some Sabbath but no Dio" is Top 5 material in my book.

5. Various artists, More Oar: A Tribute to Alexander ³Skip² Spence (Birdman Records) In a year that saw arguably the worst tribute album ever -- the unforgivable Clash slaughter London's Burning, featuring the likes of Third Eye Blind and the Indigo Girls -- we also got two of the best. Along with the Gram Parsons salute Return of the Grievous Angel comes this even more compelling homage to the former Moby Grape guitarist who recorded just one solo album, 1969's psychedelic/folk classic Oar, before disappearing into a life of mental illness ending with his death earlier this year. With a cast of players including Tom Waits, Robyn Hitchcock and the Minus 5 interpreting the material, Spence's bizarre, acid-charred songs are in safe and loving hands. Especially notable is Beck's rendition of "Halo of Gold," where the '90s Great White Wonder earns all those accolades critics heap on him unsparingly, while Robert Plant's acoustic "Little Hands" finds the former Zep screamer getting at the heart of Spence's rural hippie melancholia.

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