Critical Mass

Year-end best-of lists are usually accompanied by depressing State of Music essays, the kind that take a sweeping view of significant happenings and industry trends and culminate with dire prognostications for the future. Inevitably, most of those things start to sound like a Chicken Little speech. If you tried to trace the condition of music just by looking at Rolling Stone covers, it might start to seem like the sky really was falling -- or that half-naked actresses were making a lot of records.

The truth is that no matter how bleak the state of commercial music gets -- and judging by what's on TV, radio and the charts, we're talking pretty bleak -- there will always be more than enough great records to keep discerning listeners going. So we decided to spare you the gloom and doom and just give you the goods: this year's critical mass.

Granted, almost all the records that made our Top 10s probably didn't even get within squinting distance of the Billboard 200, but they're out there; it just might take a little looking.

Personally, after reading through the thousands of heartfelt words praising their favorite discs, our critics have convinced me that 1999 wasn't such a bad year after all. -- Bob Mehr

Fred Mills:

1. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.) The moment we'd been waiting for: Pop music -- not the insipid mainstream fluff, like chart-toppers TLC or Blink 182, but the kind that engages all the sensory avenues and sparks the imagination -- finally crawled out of its cul-de-sac this year. Acknowledging that there is life beyond the Beatles and the Pet Sounds boxed set, the Lips employed traditional studio wizardry to recast melody and rhythm as shape-shifting, psychedelic creatures that fully come alive once they enter the listener's mind. And the band backed it up with a tour that, incredibly, lived up to the high expectations set by the album, with the three-man team utilizing samples, backing tapes and visuals while the headphone-equipped audience soaked in the miasmic/prismic Lips goo.

2. Rage Against the Machine, The Battle of Los Angeles (Epic) Putting the metal to the pedal in an Orwellian-styled masterstroke of righteous fury, Rage proved that there's a lot more at stake in rock 'n' roll than just worrying about gettin' paid or doin' it for the nookie. The sad thing about being a male fan of Limp Bizkit, Korn, Kid Rock, Slipknot, etc., is that your musical horizons are as limited as your adolescence is arrested; sadder still are the female fans who go along with the misogynistic, self-hating aimlessness of most rap-metal outfits simply because those bands' concerts are where the available pool of mating partners is located. Rage, on the other hand, aims to take you (us) to a different place, where brain stew trumps body spew; remember that it's "free your mind and your ass will follow," not the other way around. Whether you agree with their politics (and I do believe they're off base with their support of cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal), you can't deny that any band that puts consciousness-raising and social action first, and additionally crafts some of the most groove-heavy but structurally complex hard rock in the biz, will still be standing and making increasingly mature recordings well into the next century.

3. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Rock Art & the X-Ray Style (Hellcat) Former Clash main man Strummer picks up the dub/world beat groove that his old band specialized in circa Sandinista!. There's some biting, punk-bred garage rock present, too. Strummer adds his unmistakable gruff, edgy lead throat as signature while ruminating on everything from growing old gracefully to British politics to (believe it or not) his newfound appreciation of electronic music. But as with any great album, what counts is the sound in the (laser) grooves, and whether you want to come back to it. Rock Art is unbelievably catchy, and danceable, and doesn't seem unnecessarily tied to a particular era or place. In short, given that Strummer basically sat out the '90s, this is the most inspiring comeback of the year, and possibly of the decade.

4. Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, Moments From This Theatre (Proper, UK import) The Memphis songwriting legends playing live in November of '98 in the UK when they were touring as opening act for Nick Lowe. They do it unplugged-style: Penn on acoustic guitar and "fine emery vocals" (as journalist Alan Robinson says in the liner notes), Oldham's "magisterial presence" on Wurlitzer piano. They serve up utterly soulful renditions of some of their most enduring tunes, including "I'm Your Puppet," "Cry Like a Baby," "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and "At the Dark End of the Street." But more important, they reclaim and breathe new life into material that, as performed many times over the years by many great pop, soul and country artists, rightfully entered the realm of classic Americana.

5. (tie) Beck, Midnight Vultures (DGC/Interscope) Earlier this year, the Emperor Norton label released the purported soundtrack to a long-lost 1970 blaxploitation flick titled Soul Ecstasy (original title: Die, Whitey, Die). It was, of course, a hoax, although, frankly, the album's funky-psych grooves are at least as cool to these ears as Gene Page's score for Blacula or Melvin Van Peebles' work on Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song. What does this have to do with everyone's (y)odelayin' loser? Well, with his end-of-millennium offering, Beck serves up the cold-sweatingest, pimp-slappin' horniest set of downtown R&B of 1999. No matter that the man's ghettocentricity is located closer to the Hollywood Hills than Harlem; Beck's got more raw street soul -- and he's a helluva lot funnier (skit) -- than a barrelful of No Limit or Death Row rappers, whose Amos & Andy in the Hood shtick long ago ran out of creative steam.

5. (tie) Tom Waits, Mule Variations (Epitaph) And if Beck's the young cock of the walk, Waits is the elder. Both touched down upon this year's musical pond to walk on water, with Beck doing the funky chicken and Waits the crab-backed shuffle. Something happened to Waits during the making of 1992's anarchic Bone Machine, and now, by fusing that record's adventurousness to his celebrated barfly balladeer style, he's emerged at the tail end of the century with a personal yet accessible document that's as sonically provocative as it is eminently replayable. "What's he building in there?" Oh, man -- you don't wanna know!

6. Gov't Mule, Live . . . With a Little Help From Our Friends (Capricorn) Let's see . . . Who's Live at Leeds . . . Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! . . . Humble Pie's Rockin' the Fillmore . . . Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East . . . add this sprawling (two-CD or four-CD, depending on which version you spring for) set to the list of the greatest live albums ever. In fact, the Mule's epic is close kin to the latter pair of LPs, an astonishing display of virtuoso freeform rock/jazz/blues fusion that wants to take you higher -- and does.

7. (tie) Trailer Bride, Whine de Lune (Bloodshot) With songwriter/vocalist/slide guitarist Melissa Swingle doing her PJ Harvey-on-moonshine thing, this North Carolina combo forges a new breed of rural gothadelica: William Faulkner's car breaks down in Mayberry, and Southern Culture on the Skids is there manning the garage. Sorry, but they don't accept American Express. And hearing the spooky, thereminlike sounds of a bowed wood saw in the context of a twangy/swampy roots-rock band is nothing short of mind-warping.

7. (tie) Julie Miller, Broken Things (Hightone) Miller began her career as a Christian singer-songwriter and later joined Emmylou Harris' touring band along with her guitar-whiz hubby Buddy (who played on and produced this record). She is a bit of a late bloomer -- but what a gorgeous lily has unfolded. Blessed with an oddly affecting set of pipes whose little-girl quality might seem at odds, on paper at least, with her forceful Linda Ronstadt-like delivery, Miller brings a substantial emotional heft to her brand of Celtic-flavored No Depression country-rock. And it's this kind of unforced, naked humility she offers (perhaps a byproduct of her faith?) that goes sorely lacking in Nashville's contemporary chick mill. I doubt she's the one who'll change the way the machine's gears turn, but as with her mentor Harris, she's gonna be around for a long time.

8. Godspeed, You Black Emperor!, Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada EP (Kranky) In a year where post-rock soundscaping hit a peak (courtesy Mogwai, Ganger, Tarwater, etc.), nobody reached further, and with more tactile vibrancy, than these Canadian sculptors (all nine of 'em) of ambulatory grace and cinematic grandeur; Godspeed instinctively grasps the power of the slow-building crescendo. Instrumental music such as this really does have the power to carry the listener to different dimensions, new plateaus, emotional thickets. The band additionally loops into its music bits of "found" recordings (such as a survivalist ranting, but cogently so, about his beef with the judicial system) that hearken directly back to the work of Byrne & Eno on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

9. (tie) Those Bastard Souls, Debt and Departure (V2) Along with Cobra Verde's album below, this record subliminally offers meditations upon what rock really means at the end of the millennium: growing older with dignity while still finding time to kick out the jams, and how we draw inspiration from our heroes' artistry, then take that inspiration and craft our own unique artistic vision. Dave Shouse (of the on-hiatus Grifters) has turned into an amazingly gifted songwriter, and musically, his band has an ambitious grasp, one that is loose enough to embark on almost psychedelic flights of abandon but is also supple in touch, allowing Shouse's Springsteenlike nuancing to be fully felt.

9. (tie) Cobra Verde, Nightlife (Motel) John Petkovic, like Shouse, has become one of the American rock underground's most talented songwriters. Where Shouse may go for subtlety, Petkovic more often relies on crunching, glammy bombast (see: Bowie, Roxy Music) to get his points across. Yet his belief in the visual power of words and how rock 'n' roll should be about artistry, not literalism, echoes Shouse's conviction that music can make a lasting difference in our lives. And I'll never forget how perfectly Petkovic pegged what the problem is with the indie world these days when I interviewed him earlier this year: "Why does music nowadays have to be 'of this moment' or about abuse and being mistreated during childhood? Indie rock in particular is all this groveling about abstract nonsense; it has nothing to do with art or being above the rabble. To me, 'rock star' means 'poet with power.'" Amen, brother P.

10. (tie) Moby, Play (V2) With only a few exceptions, the once-vaunted electronica has collapsed in the mind of American consumers, leaving only a handful of artists such as the Chemical Brothers, DJ Spooky, and Moby to continually earn any real respect or kudos on these shores. What remains of the genre has become the domain of club-centric deejays who, while admittedly talented (Paul Oakenfold, Sasha, John Digweed, etc.), still earn their bread and butter remixing and spinning the works of others. Moby continues to mutate like some alien virus, and here, by taking old gospel and blues recordings and electronica-fying them, he's made another unexpected costume change. This is a record that can clearly appeal to just about anyone, and I don't mean in a dumbed-down way. I've observed firsthand the spectrum of humans who, when Play is on the CD store's stereo, get funny smiles on their faces, start tapping their feet, and eventually have to go up to the counter and find out what this insanely catchy music is.

10. (tie) Andrea Parker, Kiss My Arp (Mo' Wax/Beggars Banquet) Add British DJ Parker to the short list of visionaries. Like Moby's record, her full-length debut inspires listeners to stop what they're doing and investigate further. It's more ambient in tone and texture, certainly a darker set whose stealth rhythms and shifting soundscapes are more suitable for private sessions than for nightclubbing. But it's also sensual (her occasional vocals are sexy as hell), and it just might make a nice seduction disc, too, depending on how kinky you and your partner are feeling. Incidentally, there's an import-only version of Arp as well, an all-instrumental collection of remixes.

Single of the Year: Backstreet Boys, "I Want It That Way" (Jive) Yes, I am as smitten by this tune as I was last year by Jennifer Paige's "Crush." No, I haven't lost my mind. Yes, they are mainstream fluff. No, I don't think their albums have any substantial staying power. But songs make up an album, and this song is about as perfect as you could ask for, a timeless, elegant number that deserves an airing outside the realm of knee-jerk, stereotyped opinion. It's constructed on simple (not overproduced) five-part harmonies à la the Eagles, a catchy/chunky acoustic guitar riff nicked, likewise, from Frey, Henley & Co., and a sneaky, take-your-breath-away chorus-bridge-chorus segue. Even better, the lyrics speak plainly to matters of the heart, rhyming "fire" and "desire" for perhaps the first time in ages without making the listener cringe: "We are two worlds apart/I want you to know that/Deep down inside of me/You are my fire/The one desire." Hey, everyone needs a hug when they're suffering from a broken heart. This song wants to be your friend. What's wrong with that?

Reissue/Archival Item of the Year: The Clash, From Here to Eternity Live (Epic) An anthology spanning the '78 to '82 period of the "only band that matters," one that includes a hefty 17-song sampling of the "hits" and one that additionally is one of the best-sounding live albums to be released in ages. It puts all the Clash bootlegs to shame; c'mon, Sony, you're remastering the entire Clash catalogue for a January roll-out, how about issuing a few full concerts on disc, too? From raging body-slams like "Clash City Rockers" and "Know Your Rights" to serpentine dub workouts like "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" and "Armagideon Time," this record's the shit. And you gotta hear Joe Strummer's junkyard dog barking on the apocalyptic "London Calling" to believe it.

Artist of the Year: Bruce Springsteen. This is the Boss. This is your brain on the Boss. Any questions? (See New Times, October 14 issue, for further details.)

Ted Simons:

1. Fountains of Wayne, Utopia Parkway (Atlantic) Glorious pop songcraft enhanced by lyrics that blend sarcasm and wit with a healthy, good-natured heart. Fountain-heads Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood profile life's losers and perpetual dreamers ("Red Dragon Tattoo," "Go, Hippie") as easily as the suburban young and hopeful ("Prom Theme," "The Senator's Daughter"), all with a knowing smile. A remarkable album from rock 'n' pop's best songwriting team of the moment. Super killer cut: "Troubled Times."

2. Built to Spill, Keep It Like a Secret (Warner Bros.) A decidedly major outing from one of the indie underground's best-kept secrets. Singer/songwriter Doug Martsch spray-paints clouds on his loopy melodies by double-tracking his wails and whines and pushing it all with unexpected tempo shifts. A sneaky good album that gets better every play. Killer cuts: "Sidewalk," "Time Trap" and "You Were Right." Killer line: "Just this side of love/Is where you'll find the confidence/Not to continue."

3. Branford Marsalis Quartet, Requiem (Columbia) Anyone who saw the Marsalis Quartet under the night sky at Scottsdale's Civic Center Mall last spring knows how dynamic this collection of compositions can be. That they sound even better on disc is at once a thumbs-up for prosperity and, sadly, an awareness that keyboard mainstay Kenny Kirkland died after most of the CD was recorded and before the tour got under way. Beautiful, evocative music.

4. Steve Reich, Reich Remixed (Nonesuch) Steve Reich's minimalist patterns are logical ancestors to the austerity and repetition of modern-day electronica, and letting loose the likes of DJ Spooky, Howie B and other American, European and Japanese DJs to remix Reich's oeuvre not only makes sense, it puts new bounce in the composer's heretofore familiar sounds. Indeed, Reich's material never sounded so good. Cool cuts: "Megamix," by Tranquility Bass, and Mantronik's take on "Drumming."

5. The Hang Ups, Second Story (BMG/Restless) Consider the village green preserved. The Hang-Ups, especially lead singer Brian Tighe, aren't shy in bringing back the better days of the Davies brothers, but this longtime Minneapolis group adds a U.S. indie-pop charm by way of the production team of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, who recorded R.E.M.'s first (and best) efforts. The results, most notably the drama-inducing title track, can be blissfully memorable in all the right ways.

6. The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs, Vol. 1-3 (MRG) A three-CD glimpse of boho love American style from Fields-boss Stephin Merritt, a diminutive man with a baritone voice and a pen that knows its way around words. Merritt's bare-boned pop songs are riddled with sharp needles for hooks and though he may not be the most blissful crooner on the block (see songs: "No One Will Ever Love You" and "How Fucking Romantic"), he knows the score of a very familiar game.

7. Sparklehorse, Good Morning Spider (Capitol) Surreal, Southern-fried acid musings, replete with lo-fi sounds and sentiments. Sparklehorse is Mark Linkous, who wields a walking cane on his better days and a claustrophobic croon on his better songs, all because of a celebrated near-death visit to the center of his mind. He's damaged in body, soul and voice, but then, who isn't? An engaging art project backed by a major label, which may be the CD's most unusual element.

8. Walter Piston, Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Naxos) Aaron Copland may be the Ellis Island for those new to the world of classical music, but fellow American Walter Piston is in the same neighborhood. Piston, who won two Pulitzer Prizes and taught for years at Harvard, wrote music that soared through octaves with Coplandesque grandeur, yet with a touch of modern melancholy shadowed between the notes. Kudos to Naxos for yet another high-concept, low-budget release.

9. The Go, Watcha Doin' (Sub Pop) Echoes of the Stooges and the Flamin' Groovies abound on this exuberant celebration of noise so far removed from pop's current landscape that it sounds brand-new. The recording is beautifully muddled, which adds punch to the sneaky quick melodies, and songs like the thundering "Keep on Trash" and the boisterous "But You Don't Know" put smiles on all the right faces. An aluminum K.O. that shakes some action -- and then some.

10. Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, The Mountain (E Squared) Mush-mouthed bad-boy Steve Earle has neither the restraint nor the high lonesome howl that bluegrass demands from its lead singers. But Earle does have the smarts to team with the McCoury band, which puts the smell of smoke and pines on Earle's tunes, some of which ("Harlan Man," "The Mountain") sound like they've been around for decades. Best song: "Carrie Brown," a killer cut in more ways than one.

Fave Single: Cher, "Believe." Sure, she's a caricature, and yeah, her voice is used as a prop for the song's Pet Shop Boys techno-pop. But it's a wonderful tune that's impossible to ignore.

Most Unsettling Moment: Witnessing with open jaw Nick Drake's eternally haunting "Pink Moon" used as the soundtrack to a Volkswagen commercial. That the ad treats the song with reverence only slightly lessens the nausea.

Fave Local Disc: Jimmy Eat World, Clarity (Capitol) Emo schmemo. The latest songs by these perennial upstarts are topnotch, especially "Lucky Denver Mint," one of the best tunes penned around these parts in years. Close second: Gas Giants, From Beyond the Back Burner (Atomic Pop) Cheap tricks and treats from ex-Gin Blossom Robin Wilson, who comes through with winners without leaning too hard on the Blossoms' back catalogue. Honorable Mention: The Scones, Do You Hear? (self-released) Polished pop for now-and-then people. Flashes of old New Wave reflect off the head of leader Martin Shears, who writes impressive songs and sings 'em with style.

Fave Local Song: Aside from Jimmy Eat World's aforementioned "Lucky Denver Mint": Jesus Chrysler Supercar's "Swampfoot," from Land Speed (Token Records). Muscle rock of slicker Meat Puppets/Supersuckers stock. Fave Local Song for 2000: Something from that new stuff Gloritone's been playing. More, please. Missing in Action: The Revenants. Wha'happened?

Gilbert Garcia:

1. Cibo Matto, Stereotype A (Warner Bros.) Giddy, goofy, tuneful, internationalist and beat-crazy. No other record so deftly captured all the futurist/retro possibilities of pop music at the dawn of a new millennium. These Japanese expatriates approach pop with the wide-eyed exuberance of musical tourists and make connections that wouldn't make sense to more coherent thinkers. They don't know that they're not supposed to leap from bossa nova to Latin balladry to hip-hop, and damned if they don't pull off the whole enchilada. Whether simply trying to survive the working week or searching for Obi-wan Kenobi in Union Square, they impart a sense of wonder absent from most of this year's releases.

2. Wilco, Summerteeth (Reprise) While the No Depression geeks cried betrayal, Jeff Tweedy emerged as the major artist his adherents had always claimed him to be. The reason is simple: As touching as his love for the Louvin Brothers and Gram Parsons were in his coal-miner wanna-be days, his soft spot for the Left Banke and the Kinks suits his droll voice and persona much better. Like its obvious model, Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom, Summerteeth uses upbeat melodicism to comment on dour lyrics ("Can't Stand It," "A Shot in the Arm") and turn their messages upside down. There can be no surer sign of Tweedy's creative confidence than the fact that he buries his catchiest song, the buoyant "Candy Floss," as a hidden track.

3. Olivia Tremor Control, Black Foliage: Volume One (Flydaddy) The kings of the much-hyped Elephant 6 collective justify the accolades by shaming all of this decade's four-track poseurs. In the hands of these guys, technical limitations only expand the sonic possibilities of recording. The result is the trippiest record of the '90s, a reminder that psychedelia isn't doing its job unless it scrambles your consciousness a bit. Alternating between pure-pop confections like "Hideway" and pure-noise collages like the four-second "The Sky Is a Harpsichord Canvas," this disjointed, acid test of an album never loses its way.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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