Critical Mass

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

6. Those Bastard Souls, Debt & Departure (V2) Grifter main man Jim Shouse comes up with the most remarkable album of his career, with a project that originally started as a solo affair. On this, the second Bastard Souls album, Shouse has expanded his musical collective to include the Dambuilders' Joan Wasserman and Kevin March, Red Red Meat bassist Matt Fields and former Jeff Buckley guitarist Michael Tighe. Musically, the group takes a crack at a variety of styles, from the Stonesy country blues of "Telegram" to up-tempo numbers like the hand-clap-powered "Has Anybody Seen Her." Debt & Departure finds Shouse's lyrics tackling all the big issues: crumbling relationships, sin, salvation -- you get the picture. A similar though more accessible companion to Tom Waits' Mule Variations.

7. Beulah, When Your Heartstrings Break (Sugar Free) Unlike fellow Elephant 6 peers Olivia Tremor Control or the oh-so-precious Elf Power, Beulah succeeds at crafting straightahead love songs that swoon along with pretty melodies and melancholy sentiment. When Your Heartstrings Break is the Frisco band's sophomore effort, and a fitting follow-up to 1997's considerably more strident Handsome Western States. Conversely, Heartstrings is full of the kind of lush, orchestral indie pop that makes you feel all warm and snuggly inside. And Beulah makes a pitch for best song title of the year with "If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart."

8. Robert Pollard with Doug Gillard, Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department (Rockathon) Although Pollard's Guided by Voices released their major-label, major-production opus Do the Collapse this year, it's this much more understated affair that earns the highest mark for a GBV-related release in 1999. The intimacy and familiarity of the four-track finds Pollard's sharp sense for surreal lyrics coming to the fore on cuts like "Frequent Weaver Who Burns" ("Pagan shutters described at shrine/Dark stems, large elephantine") while his always amazing penchant for melody is aided by GBV axman Gillard, one of modern rock's most underrated guitarists.

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.

9. Jim Lauderdale, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, I Feel Like Singing Today (Rebel) This record leapfrogged past Steve Earle's 1999 bluegrass bow, The Mountain, to get on the list. While Earle's record was unquestionably bluegrass in spirit, his distinctive growl was miles removed from the traditional high lonesome vocal style that is as much a part of the genre as a banjo or a fiddle. Lauderdale -- whose day job is penning hits for nauseating Nashville new country acts -- comes up with a handful of originals that sound as if they were pre-aged in mountain soul. He also works his way through a collection of well-chosen standards with a welcome assist from the greatest living practitioner of the genre, Ralph Stanley. The temporal pleasures of the album notwithstanding, Lauderdale has succeeded in creating a record that's a thrilling affirmation of bluegrass as a unique art form.

10. Fastbacks, The Day That Didn't Exist (spinArt) Kurt Bloch is the Pete Townshend of garage rock, meaning he does everything but sing. He leaves that to Kim Warnick, and her sneer is in fine form on this quirky collection of quick-riffed, sugary rock. The Day That Didn't Exist is a welcome return to form for the group after last year's disappointing Win, Lose or Both, and its most consistently engaging effort since 1993's Zucker. Bloch's intrinsic (and encyclopedic) understanding of the punk, pop and garage formats allows him to refine his approach on each successive outing. Logically, that sort of formulaic tinkering should result in redundancy, but the Fastbacks avoid that pitfall by adhering to a strict regimen of pop hooks and punk brevity that never seems to get old.

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