Flaming Lips, “The Soft Bulletin” (Warner Bros.)
A record that made me come running into the room when my husband first put it on. “What is this?” I demanded upon hearing the first track, “Race for the Prize,” a song about scientists that glides by on a floating pillow of strings. By the time I’d gotten to the staggeringly mournful second number, “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton,” my hair had miraculously arranged itself in a wild pre-Raphaelite tangle. This record, massive, dramatic, love-soaked and weird as all get-out, is that good.
Moby, “Play” (V2)
As a whole, elegant, hyperkinetic, transcendant, hypnotic: electronic music that’s so organic you can feel the dirt around its roots.
Pete Ham, “Golders Green” (Rykodisc)
Badfinger’s tragic prince walks among us again in this second collection of rough, majestic demos. (The first was “7 Park Avenue” in 1997.) Unvarnished and beautifully crafted, these songs speak more quiet truth than a Shaker chair — and that goes even for “Richard,” Ham’s ode to his penis.
Jack Logan, “Buzz Me In” (Capricorn)
Jack Logan has no idea what kind of singer and songwriter he wants to be: an outright pop guy, a country crooner, a sailor-adventurer-balladeer? It doesn’t matter, because Logan has no need for purity. His instincts are so good that all you have to do is put your little hand in his, and go. “Glorious World” is the most exhilarating pop song I’ve heard all year, and I love it both for its forthright and highly practical admission of how crappy the world really is and for its eminently more sensible dismissal of such practical considerations. A guy who knows heaven when he finds it should never be underestimated.
Sleater-Kinney, “The Hot Rock” (Kill Rock Stars)
Tyger, tyger burning bright, record after record, and each one so different. “The Hot Rock” is more expertly made, more ruminative, than any other Sleater-Kinney LP, and maybe runs deeper. Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss are, as they claim here, “the band from the end of the world,” and they didn’t get here a minute too soon.
Everything But the Girl, “Temperamental” (Atlantic)
When Tracey Thorne, who’s been one stellar half of Everything But the Girl for nearly 20 years now, sings “I just wanna love more,” you believe with every fiber of your being that even with all she’s given, she’s still got more lurking. Thorne and her husband Ben Watt reinvented themselves as a techno prince and princess a few years back, and they’ve found the fountain of youth in the process. “I’m not immune, I love this tune,” Thorne tells us, adamant. There’s always room for more love.
Kelly Willis, “What I Deserve” (Rykodisc); Mandy Barnett, “I’ve Got a Right to Cry” (Sire); The High Llamas, “Snow Bug” (V2); Tom Waits, “Mule Variations” (Epitaph); TLC, “Fanmail” (Arista).
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1. Everything But the Girl, “Temperamental” (Atlantic)
Seventeen years into their career, the British duo came up with their best album, a contemporary pop masterpiece. Inspired by the vitality of dance music and the particulars of city life, appalled by the stasis that has taken over their near-midlife contemporaries, Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn turned in a set of songs that are hard-edged, compassionate and acutely observed. Their triumph here is wedding the solitary reveries of romantic pop to the sonic atmospherics and communal sensuality of electronic dance music.
2. Sleater-Kinney, “The Hot Rock” (Kill Rock Stars)
Not as immediately ferocious as its predecessors, but with a deeper sense of the contingencies of everyday pain and betrayal. When Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss head into the wind on “Banned From the End of the World” with the taken-for-granted determination of the line “the future is here, it comes every year,” they don’t only seem like the greatest current rock band, but the most fearless.
3. Moby, “Play” (V2)
Ethnomusicology for the dance floor. Imagine the folk singers and misfits and oddballs discovered over the years by Alan Lomax and Harry Smith rising from the grooves of their scratchy old records, making their way to the dance clubs, and turning them into Chautauqua tents.
4. Beck, “Midnite Vultures” (Interscope)
Remember the kids who put, “If you can dream it, you can be it!” under their pictures in our high-school yearbooks? Beck must have read that and dreamed of being Barry White. Integrationist and egalitarian in spirit, funny and sexy in execution, this is vintage-shop blackface, a great, affectionate joke on how American pop culture becomes a marketplace of identity for its savviest shoppers.
5. Pet Shop Boys, “Nightlife” (Sire)
The huge, unstoppable beat of classic disco as the backdrop to a set of songs about mature romantic disappointment. Titled “Nightlife” but more about the bookends of going out for drinks and good times, the expectation of getting ready, the letdown of coming in afterward. In a nutshell: “Never been closer to Heaven/Never been farther away.”
6. Fountains of Wayne, “Utopia Parkway” (Atlantic)
As an expression of longing to be cool (and fearing that you aren’t), the lines “Red dragon tattoo/Is just about on me/I got it for you/So now do you want me?” are just about unbeatable. It’s easy to imagine Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood singing them before combing their hair in a thousand ways, and winding up looking just the same.
7. Flaming Lips, “The Soft Bulletin” (Warner Bros.)
Like a sci-fi opera written by Brian Wilson, this Flaming Lips record is lush, weird, stately and haunted by the traces of genius about to go unrecognized. A gorgeously conceived and executed suite of oblique pop songs that pulsates with the out-of-time feel common to those brilliant albums destined to be discovered years later. Perfect for an autumn day or a trip to Mars.
8. Cecelia Bartoli and Bryn Terfel, Myung-Whun Chung and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecelia, “Duets” (Decca)
Every moment on this meeting of opera’s two great hams, the Italian mezzo-soprano and the Welsh bass-baritone, feels as if it had been conceived and sung with our pleasure in mind. This selection of Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti provides some of the same joy as listening to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sing operetta, but with a giddier, lighter air. By the time Bartoli and Terfel get to the “The Magic Flute,” opera has begun to sound like the highest form of vaudeville.
9. Tom Waits, “Mule Variations” (Epitaph)
The rantings of the neighborhood drunk or perhaps an unsung prophet, heard through a sonic murk that sounds as if a blues 78 had been dug out of the earth after being buried there for decades. At the start, the lurch of the music feels like that of a man on his last legs — by the end, he sounds as if he’s going to outlive us all.
10. Kruder and Dorfmeister, “The K&D Sessions” (!K7)
There were two other excellent electronica albums this year, Underworld’s “Beaucoup Fish” and Basement Jaxx’s “Remedy.” But the nod goes to these two discs of remixes from a pair of Viennese DJs, all-purpose hipster background music suitable for the bedroom or the runway.
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1. Magnetic Fields, “69 Love Songs” (Merge Records)
The cynic in me says that Stephin Merritt should have called his omnibus collection “40 Love Songs” and edited it down from three discs to two. That’s, of course, missing the point. Conceptually, the greatness of “69 Love Songs” is its excess, the creative audacity it takes to write dozens of numbers that expertly move through genre set pieces like choreographed dancers. But if that idea provides the outline, it’s the finer points — Merritt’s new voice, subverted clichis, the gender play — that make the songs sing.
2. Wilco, “Summer Teeth” (Warner Bros.) and Beulah, “When Your Heartstrings Break” (Sugar Free)
If consolidation and satellites have melted regional American music into a plastic lump of “Total Request Live,” it’s heartwarming to hear two bands with geography pressed into them like wax seals. Wilco is a Midwest band: hard-working, modest and genuine. Beulah is a California outfit, travelling from mining towns to Hollywood back lots with charmingly baroque bric-a-brac pop. Both look to music’s past for its future, but neither confuse historical reverence with destructive nostalgia.
3. Tom Waits, “Mule Variations” (Epitaph)
Spooky and hysterical, beautifully ugly, slack without a slack jaw. The paradox collection of the year.
4. Flaming Lips, “The Soft Bulletin” (Warner Bros.)
“And though they were sad, they rescued everyone/They lifted up the sun … the sound they made was love.”
5. Built to Spill, Live at Irving Plaza and “Keep It Like a Secret” (Warner Bros.)
Built to Spill shows can be disastrous. Without the glorious, twining overdubs and perfect segues that brighten “Keep It Like a Secret” and the other three Built to Spill records, the band can sound frightfully thin. And frontman guitarist Doug Martsch can be moody and indifferent to an audience: He often refuses to play his best songs, and I’ve personally seen him wank for 10 minutes on one song, then walk away and leave the roadie to finish the jam. But at Irving Plaza earlier this year, there were three television cameras on the band, and Built to Spill wasn’t going to look bad. Producer Phil Ek was behind the soundboard, two guitarists joined Martsch to fill out the band’s dense songs and the set list surfed the entire Built to Spill catalog.
6. Prince Paul, and The Handsome Boy Modeling School, “So … How’s Your Girl?” (Tommy Boy)
Hip-hop is a singles medium, which makes the total-package records like former De La Soul producer Prince Paul creates delightful anomalies. His first is a “hip-hopera” where the songs and jokes service a story that satirizes pipe-hittin’ rappers with funny pin-prick jabs. On his second, a project with Dan the Automator, the humor is ancillary to the songs, but the ace production, guest-star rhymes and out samples are essential.
7. The Mountain Goats, “Bitter Melon Farm” (Ajax)
Maybe it’s not a great record, maybe it was recorded on boomboxes, maybe the backing vocals are out of tune, maybe John Darnielle’s chord progressions are frightfully similar, maybe 27-track single and B-side collections are not a great idea. But the songs on “Bitter Melon Farm” are about love, and going, and reconciliation, and purple skies, and the way cranberries taste in your mouth. And it was the only record that made me cry.
8. Beck, “Midnite Vultures” (Interscope)
“Mixing business with leather.”
9. TLC, “Fanmail” (Arista)
The summer heat wave, as cool and precise as a snowflake.
10. Chemical Brothers live at Woodstock
Woodstock 99 was, in every way, a disaster. It’s hard to understand, if you weren’t there, just how disgusting it was. Imagine one of those documentary films of homeless people picking through the dumps outside Mexico City. It was that dirty. Listen to Limp Bizkit’s “Significant Other.” It sounded worse. And I left before the riots even started. But on Saturday night, Metallica drew the drunken thugs away from the smaller stage, and the Chemical Brothers had a massive sound system and a happy crowd of dancers all to themselves. Add to that a perfect set that tore apart their studio tracks without destroying them and a burst of warm rain at the end. For a few minutes, Woodstock 99 felt like the fable.
Also: Various Artists, “‘Rushmore’ Original Soundtrack,” (Atlantic); Various Artists, “‘Book of Life’ Original Soundtrack,” (Echostatic); Moby, “Honey”; Sleater-Kinney, “The End of You.”
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1. Roots Manuva, “Brand New Second Hand” (Ninjatune)
2. Baby Namboos, “Ancoats 2 Zambia” (Durban Poison/Palm Pictures)
3. Breakbeat Era/Roni Size, “Ultra Obscene” (XL/1500/A&M):
4. Various Artists “Warp Records 10+1, 10+2, 10+3″ (Matador)
5. Various Artists, “Geology: A Subjective History of Planet E, Volume One” (Planet E)
6. DJ Krush, “Kakusei” (Red Ink)
7. Mos Def, “Black on Both Sides” (Priority/Rawkus)
8. Dubtribe Sound System, “Bryant Street” (BMG/Jive/Novus)
9. Carl Craig’s Innerzone Orchestra, “Programmed” (Astralwerks)
10. Various Artists, “Om Lounge 2″ (Om)
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1. Tom Waits, live at the Paramount Theatre, Austin, Texas
I went to this year’s South by Southwest music conference as a fan, not a critic. As such, I waited in line at 9 a.m. to snag tickets to the Waits show, one of his first of the decade. I’ve never been so happy to wake up early on a Saturday.
2. Matthew Shipp Duo with William Parker, “DNA” (Thirsty Ear) and Matthew Shipp Trio, Live at Tonic, New York
William Parker is the most exciting bass player to emerge from New York’s free jazz scene, and Shipp, a slight, wonkish pianist, somehow manages to make cluster-filled, Cecil Taylor-style attacks sound sexy. Together, on “DNA,” the duo is mindbending in their innate musicality and remarkable emotional depth. Live, they somehow manage to be even more breathtaking.
3. Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, “The Mountain” (E Squared)
Texas misanthrope Earle and the Del McCoury Band team up for an album of “high risk, low tech” bluegrass. Earle says that means one mike and no shit. A sort of tribute album to bluegrass founder Bill Monroe — McCoury was one of Monroe’s original Bluegrass Boys — but so much more than a straight homage could ever be.
4. The Flaming Lips, “The Soft Bulletin” (Warner Bros.)
The Monkees meet David Bowie’s “Memory of a Free Festival” and Pink Floyd’s “Animals.” Brilliant and bombastic, ambitious and delicious.
5. Magnetic Fields, “69 Love Songs” (Merge Records)
Remember in high school, when you first had a really wicked crush and then found a song that described it perfectly, and so you walked around for days listening to the song on your Walkman, amazed the whole time that some rock star had read your mind? Well there are at least two dozen of those songs here.
6. Built to Spill, “Keep It Like a Secret” (Warner Bros.)
Doug Martsch could single-handedly make guitar wanking respectable again. With a voice that sounds like a bashful Neil Young, a guitar-style that makes noodling sound focused and fiery and pop songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on classic rock radio, Martsch’s Built to Spill is one of bands of my year — and of my decade.
7. Tony Furtado & Dirk Powell, “Tony Furtado & Dirk Powell” (Rounder)
Tony Furtado is best known as a once-prodigal banjoist. Dirk Powell is an Americana musician steeped in Appalachian and Cajun music. Here they team up and for an album of duos (with a couple of trios and a solo or two thrown in for good measure), mixing up slide guitar, banjo, Dobro, piano and accordion. The result is calmly stunning, like waking up on Sunday mornings with the sun in your eyes.
8. Steve Bernstein, “Diaspora Soul” (Tzadik)
Not your grandmother’s Passover music. Lounge Lizard Steve Bernstein offers the year’s best selection from John Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture album series. Working off an Afro-Cuban, Gulf Coast groove, Bernstein takes well-traveled stones like “Manishtana” and “Shalom Bimramov” and creates airy, spacious gems, with bongos, clave, postizo drums and Wurlitzer electric piano laying the groundwork for Bernstein’s trumpet work; a quartet of saxophonists also assists. Cantorical transcriptions never sounded so much like Latin pianist Eddie Palmieri.
9. Mahmoud Ahmed, “Almaz” and “Eri Mela Mela” (“Ethiopiques, Volume 6-7″) (Buda Musique)
Delicious, grease-filled Ethiopian R&B.
10. Reissues: Meat Puppets, “II” (Rykodisc) and John Fahey, “Best of the Vanguard Years” (Vanguard)
Careful listeners would have noted that Nirvana covered three excellent songs from “II” on “MTV Unplugged.” The rest of “II” is just as good, and the seven new tracks make the original record seem like side one.
The Fahey collection, combining tracks from the cult acoustic guitarist’s “The Yellow Princess” and “Requia and Other Compositions for Guitar Solo” is not the best Fahey album, but it is the best Fahey album released this year.
Also rans: Johnny Cash, “Live at Folsom Prison” (Columbia/Legacy); Ibrahim Ferrer, “Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer” (Nonesuch); Bela Fleck and the All-Star Bluegrass Band, live at Town Hall, New York; Kool Keith, “Black Elvis/Lost in Space” (Red Ink); Sleater-Kinney, “The Hot Rock” (Kill Rock Stars).
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Bryan Ferry, “As Time Goes By” (Virgin)
The smoky ambiance says the night is thick around us, but Ferry’s rumpled composure reminds us that we’re only on reprieve between two harsh mornings-after. Dignified and compelling. Still, while Ferry’s casual treatment of these pop standards might seem authentic these days, they wouldn’t have cut any ice back in the ’30s. For that, we need jazz singer Diana Krall, whose poised performances on “When I Look In Your Eyes” (Impulse) would’ve made a sensation of her.
Amber, “Amber” (Tommy Boy)
That “Sexual (Li Da Di)” song has a great chorus. There’s a certain Europop playfulness to the vocals — a sort of thing that’s often radically overdone, as with the nerve-wracking Vengaboys — that’s tempered perfectly by a smooth European reserve. Still, the hipster contingent seems to shrug it all off as amped-up MOR, while dance purists prefer the wacked-out remixes.
Everything But the Girl, “Temperamental” (Atlantic)
To be realistic about it, amped-up MOR trailing a wake of wacked-out remixes.
Anything Box, “Elektrodelica” (Jarrett Records)
Anything Box scored a medium-grade dance hit a number of years ago with “Living in Oblivion.” Now they sound like Kraftwerk doing “Pet Sounds.” The apotheosis of synthpop — lush, intricate, organic and tuneful.
Backyard Babies, “Total 13″ (Scooch Pooch Records)
Ferocious Swedish punk from possibly the best heavy rock act in the world. “Total 13″ isn’t their most astounding release (their 1997 EP was a serious thing indeed), but it’s the only full-length album that’s available domestically. Sweden is, at this point, the rock ‘n’ roll capital of the world — and I’ve been trying to write something about that for years now, but nobody ever believes me.
Denmark, for its part, is good for Sorten Muld, whose “Mark II” (Northside) vamps up old Scandinavian ballads with electronic beat science. The vocals are a bit chilly for folk, the production a bit weak for the disco floor (it’s closer to Dead Can Dance than to dance music proper), but its lack of function somehow makes it all the more engaging. It’s like a sketch of a perfect art-pop record: It leaves you wishing you could see it in color.
The Church, “Box Of Birds”; “Magician Among The Spirits” (Thirsty Ear); “Under The Milky Way” (BMG/Buddha)
Cover albums can be a wonderful tonic for a fraying aesthetic. On theirs, Australian quartet the Church’s versions of Ultravox’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s “The Faith Healer” show us a great rock band — perhaps the last great all-around rock band — in the prime of their musicianship and the nadir of their popular appeal. “Magician Among the Spirits,” released in an edition of about three copies in 1996, and re-released with some small fanfare this year, shows us a songwriting ensemble that’s painted itself into a fairly tight corner. The title track is a slightly drum ‘n’ bassy rewrite of “Terra Nova Cain,” but with a grandiloquent sweep. Ultimately, it all seems rather forced. But nobody in the world can duplicate that unique musky, dust-blown feel that’s become their signature. A good sampling of their stuff, from the early Rickenbackers-and-paisley period through their mature phase, is now available on the third record.
Clash, “From Here To Eternity” (Epic)
“Long-awaited,” I guess is the term. No news here, but if you’ve experienced the live Clash chiefly on muffly bootleg, and in piecemeal fashion in the film “Rude Boy,” there’s something to be said for closure.
Tindersticks, “Simple Pleasure” (Island), Various Artists “Skins ‘n’ Pins” (GMM Records); Beth Orton, “Central Reservation” (Arista); Ebba Grvn, “Box Set” (Simply for the fact that a box set exists for the greatest Swedish punk band) (Label unknown); XTC, “Apple Venus Vol. 1″ (TVT).
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Ani DiFranco, “To the Teeth” (Righteous Babe)
The constant deluge of soulless, mediocre albums, each adorned with all kinds of hype, is enough to make one temporarily forget what it is to really love an album. More than any other album this year, “To the Teeth” reminded me how a new record can jolt you out of a rut and reframe your whole life. DiFranco’s an expert at melding the personal and political, and here she proves equally brilliant at fusing folk, hip-hop, funk and jazz. But it’s the lyrics that are truly devastating. If an anti-choice president is elected in November, I bet we’ll be playing “Hello Birmingham” on the barricades.
Dot Allison, “Afterglow” (Arista)
The former lead singer of the band One Dove, Allison’s “Afterglow” is like the angel child of Portishead and Hooverphonic. Her gossamer lullabies are a womblike sonic refuge from everything harsh and discordant in life.
Le Tigre, “Le Tigre” (Mr. Lady)
Because Kathleen Hanna is even more punk rock now that she’s making dance music, because the band namechecks Gertrude Stein and way-underground video artist Valie Export, and because “What’s Yr Take on Cassavetes,” is the smartest dissection of the gender wars all year.
Macy Gray, On How Life Is” (Epic)
She’s Lauryn Hill without the God complex, making music that’s empowering and empathetic. “I’ve Committed Murder” is the most delicious celebration of economic-justice homicide since “9 to 5.”
Luscious Jackson, “Electric Honey” (Grand Royal)
Like Bust magazine, Luscious Jackson always manages to be both comforting and fabulous — the band makes regular-girl life seem glamorous and exhilarating. It’s a clichi, but if my 1999 was a movie, “Nervous Breakthrough” would be the title track.
Breakbeat Era, “Ultra Obscene” (Interscope)
At a time when drum ‘n’ bass has become dystopian Muzak, a cheap signifier of urban edginess and grit used to sell Volkswagens, Breakbeat Era recaptured jungle’s old insurgence. Roni Size’s latest project features the fierce, raw vocals of Bristol diva Lennie Laws right up front. Sounding like a plague victim screaming from inside quarantine, she hisses and screams the words to songs like “Rancid” and “Our Disease,” creating apocalyptic funk that will never be used to move units. Breakbeat Era situates drum ‘n’ bass where it began, on the side of chaos, not complacency.
Kristin Hersh, “Sky Motel” (4AD)
The album where Kristin Hersh started going sane, “Sky Motel” is full of tension and drama where once there was only indie Ophelia release. Hersh’s best work since the Muses “The Real Ramona,” “Sky Motel” is also her most technically complex, aglow with feedback cascades, pulsing drum loops and sampled nature sounds that suggest a vast, empty night.
Bryan Ferry, “As Time Goes By” (Virgin)
I don’t care if Greil Marcus thinks Ferry’s gorgeous album of ’30s standards is the most boring record of the year — I think it’s the sexiest. An antidote to the sophomoric brutality, simpering sentimentality and hollow, self-referential irony that’s choking the life out of pop, it has the soigni crooner seeming more vulnerable than he ever has.
Various Artists, “‘Best Laid Plans’” Soundtrack (Virgin)
Didn’t see the movie, but the score by Scottish composer Craig Armstrong — a frequent Massive Attack collaborator who combines orchestral string arrangements with ominous trip-hop beats — is haunting. If Armstrong worked on better films, he’d be known as the Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann of his generation. Also, in addition to music by Mazzy Star, Gomez, Patsy Cline and Massive Attack themselves, “Best Laid Plans” features a devastating new song by Neneh Cherry.
Blur, “13″ (Virgin)
Combing the structures of electronic music and the lyrical passion that is rock’s greatest trump, “13″ was a huge leap for the boys once content to catalogue the social structures of Merry Old England. “Bugman” is like early Iggy Pop as remixed by DJ Spooky. If rock has a future, this is it.
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(In no particular order.)
Various Artists, “‘Rushmore’ Original Soundtrack” (Atlantic)
Most soundtracks don’t stray from the proven formula, either “Big Chill”-nostalgia or alternastar throwaways. But director Wes Anderson and Randall Poster understand how to make a movie sing. “Rushmore’s” soundtrack — packed with lesser known songs from the Kinks, the Who and Creation — is as naughty and brilliant as the brat wonder at the center of the film.
Benny Goodman, “Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall — 1938: Complete” (Columbia/Legacy)
Delayed for more than a year, Legacy’s improved version of the great concert includes several minutes of restored jam and a pair of previously unreleased songs. Benny’s bogus stage announcements, recorded 12 years after the show, are stuffed at the end. Best of all, the murky, noise-reduced mix of the first-generation CD is gone.
Gary Cherone exits Van Halen
The set-up is as obvious as Diamond Dave’s weave: Clinton got the Mac for his victory dance; President Bradley gets the original Van Halen.
Dusty Springfield, “Dusty in Memphis” (Rhino)
Coffin cash-in or just coincidence, I’m glad Rhino delivered “Memphis” and Polydor put out six of Springfield’s ’60s albums to remind us just who we had been ignoring for the past 25 years.
George Carlin,“You Are All Diseased” (Atlantic)
Ever try and listen to an old comedy record, say that Bob Newhart or Steve Martin record that was all the rage, and wondered what the fuss was all about? Carlin’s one of the few stand-ups whose act has actually aged well. That’s because he’s gotten meaner. His who-cares-about-the-world routine might be schtick, but Carlin backs his dirty talk with intellectual musings on religion, sex and language like no other comic.
William Shatner with Ben Folds on “Conan O’Brien”
Piano-player Ben Folds coaxed T.J. Hooker out of retirement. The significance of Shatner’s guest appearance on the Folds side project Fear of Pop should be obvious to those familiar with Captain Kirk’s 1968 talking album, “The Transformed Man.” On “Conan,” the girthy thespian delivered each line like the ghost of Olivier.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk, “Left Hook, Right Cross” (32 Jazz)
A highlight of 32 Jazz’s campaign to reissue important material deemed less marketable than Miles, Mingus, Monk or Coltrane by the increasingly Starbuckian record company elite. As always, 32 Jazz packs the discs with music and sells them for less.
Flat Duo Jets, at Humble Pie restaurant in Raleigh, N.C.,
Dexter Romweber, weirdo punkabilly king, strides on stage in his best Rodney Dangerfield golf shirt, plugs in and plays two hours without saying a single word to the audience. It feels more like therapy than a gig, the electric guitar delivering a shot into Romweber sharper than any junkie’s needle.
Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, “Rock Art and the X-Ray Style” (Epitaph)
Virtually ignored by new punks and overshadowed by the live Clash record, Strummer is doing everything he should have been doing for the last 15 years: punk, dub, funk and that croaky rebel voice. If only a few Blink 182 fans would stop grabbing teenage mosh booty long enough to discover the original anarchist.
Beach Boys bungling
It should have been the year Capitol reissued the B-Boys’ ’70s catalog. Instead, we got two more greatest hits volumes and a Wilsonless fight over the table scraps. Carl and Dennis are dead, Brian’s getting produced by a former professional wrestler and the year ends with Brother Records, the band’s corporation, suing Al Jardine for using the Beach Boys name. Don’t fear — Brother did license Mike Love’s touring sham.
Deserving mention, but not written about because every other Top 10 lists will include:
Beck, “Midnite Vultures” (Interscope); Magnetic Fields, “69 Love Songs” (Merge Records); The Clash, “From Here to Eternity Live” (Epic).
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1. Magnetic Fields, “69 Love Songs” (Merge Records)
Ecstasy and irony side by side on a piano keyboard tickled by a drolly swooning gay cynic moaning his way through a three-hour torch song at the end of time. Goodbye 20th century! The folks who coined the word countrypolitan didn’t have genderfucks like “Papa Was a Rodeo” in mind. Cole Porter never flipped rhymes like those in “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure.” And I’m pretty sure Stephen Merritt could write synth-pop nuggets like “I Don’t Want To Get Over You” until he’s 75, even if he never learns how to sing ‘em in tune. Mix me another martini and hit me over the head with a shovel honey, I think I’m in love.
2. John Prine, “In Spite of Ourselves” (Oh Boy Records)
Folk music’s great dystopian sentimentalist returns from a tussle with neck cancer for a relaxed, tender set of duets with 35 years worth of the most memorable female voices in roots music: Melba Montgomery, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Iris DeMent. Nothin’ too groundbreaking. Just heaven.
3. Prince Paul, “A Prince Among Thieves” (Tommy Boy)
The best American opera since H|sker D|’s “Zen Arcade.”
4. Sleater-Kinney, “The Hot Rock” (Kill Rock Stars)
Depth replaces speed, textures replace jags, voices soar and converse where they used to yowl, and the band we all pull for follows up their first two shots to the heart — “Call the Doctor” and “Dig Me Out” — with one of the most exhilarating couch sessions in punk history.
5. Krust, featuring Saul Williams, “Coded Language” (Talkin Loud)
If jungle lover Roni Size is the vaunted Reprazent crew’s great communicator, his pal Krust is its great incinerator. And this single is two-step nihilism at its most apocalyptically cathartic. Krust machine guns the “um-Bash!/um-Bash” boogie while N.Y. shit-talker Saul Williams drops a laundry list of heroes, villains, bad history, Baudrillardian bullshit and brutal beat theories. You realize you’re listening to drum ‘n’ bass’ “We Didn’t Start the Fire” recast as “Blow That Motherfucker Sky High!”
6. Randy Newman, “Bad Love” (Dreamworks)
Older, meaner, tighter, more direct, and more touching than anything he’s done in 25 years. Proof that two decades of variations-on-a-theme Reaganomics and a waning dick will do wonders for an embittered liberal’s misanthropy.
7. Various Artists, “The Funky Precedent” (Loose Groove)
The indie rap revolution produced some thrilling critique in 1999, but while the meta-hop militants were arguing ideology, the cross-cultural communalists on this West Coast hippie-hop sampler were stoking a whole new cosmology. The incredible Jurassic 5 dropped playground pastoralism; Cut Chemist spun out turntablism; Ozomatli delivered cumbia-funkism; and a slew of new schoolers dropped half a dozen hazy shades of futurism. You’ve heard of the Dirty South? Welcome to the Furry West.
8. The Grateful Dead, “So Many Roads 1965-1995″ (Arista)
They couldn’t sing their way out of the shower. They couldn’t play. They were soppy and dippy. Yes, yes, yes. Heard it all before. But I love the Dead for the same reason I love punk rock, and like punk-rock heroes from the Clash to Mary J. Blige, the Dead made beautiful music by working against, through and with their limitations. That’s why they chose interplay over virtuosity, that’s why they seemed like such sweet people and that’s why discs 2 through 5 of this live box contain some of nicest organic soundscaping you’ll ever hear.
9. Basement Jaxx, “Red Alert”; Super Collider, “Darn (Cold Way O’ Lovin’)”; Brenda Fassie “Vuli Ndlela”
Three singles and three ways of looking at the international house music renascence. “Red Alert” was disco-house at its most evangelically euphoric and universally humanistic, the height of mainstream dance music. (Sorry, Cher.) The yin to the Jaxx yang, big beaters Super Collider are the absurdist mutants every cultural moment needs to keep it looking over its shoulder. And in a dancehall far, far away we have sweet little Brenda Fassie rebuilding the house from the dusty dancefloor up. Her “Vuli Ndlela” spreads a rhapsodic mbaqanga harmony thick like butta over a township-jiving hip-house groove, rocking out ’90s disco the way third world countries have been rocking appropriated first world trends for decades. (See also Arthur’s “Oy! Oy!,” also on “South African Rhythm Riot: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto Volume 6.”)
10. Pavement “Spit on a Stranger”
A personal fave. Singer/guitarist Steve Malkmus could 4-track his grandma taking a dump and I’d think it was “Rubber Soul.” Here, on his best anthem since “Summer Babe” he takes his politics of personal division straight to the chapel of love, where we he and his slacker-cynic sweetie pie do the electric snide ’til the broad daylight. Very moving.
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Jim O’Rourke “Eureka” (Drag City)
1. You should have seen O’Rourke’s googily eyes when, during an interview, I told him that one of his album’s sax parts sounds like the closing music on “Saturday Night Live.” He couldn’t have been happier. But he’s an earnest ironist, and while his in-jokes have their grounding in heady music theory, they’re rendered too deliciously to be restrained by their deconstructive duties. In another time, “Eureka” could have been as big as Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors.”
2. Olivia Tremor Control “Black Foliage: Animation Music, Volume One” (Flydaddy)
This psychedelic troupe from Athens, Ga., wields an influence out of proportion with its devoted but modest following. They wrote the manifesto for indie-rock’s appropriation of Brian Wilson’s “pocket symphonies,” and their ’60s-indebted but proprietary vocal style even floated its way onto Beck’s “Midnite Vultures.” (They toured with the guy on the West Coast.) Their second album, “Black Foliage,” showed the Olivias soaring well beyond their means. A home-constructed epic poem to sound, the record spins its way out of an electronic frogs’ bog and into the center of a bubblegum parade.
3. TLC, “Fanmail” (Arista)
My irrational crush on Left Eye aside, TLC’s “Fanmail” out misdemeanor-ed Missy Elliott’s own “Da Real World.” Which was no small feat. Convincingly futuristic with its fingersnap-and-neck-snaking front in the face of progress, “Fanmail” secured TLC’s place as true diva-haters’ divas.
4. Boredoms, live at CBGB’s, New York
Japan’s finest export despite stiff competition from wasabi and Pokemon, the Boredoms pushed out CBGB’s 20 years of punk history with sheer, cigarette-filters-in-your-ears volume. The noise-smiths pounded out a staggering sound with three drummers and the supremely possessed vocalist Yamatsuka Eye, who reached for the sun and pulled it down with his screams.
5. Eminem “The Slim Shady LP” (Aftermath)
Plying English like it’s his and his only, Eminem deserves an O. Henry Award for creating Slim Shady, one of the year’s best-articulated characters. The record is full of excessively tasteless comedy, which doesn’t come much better than the line about getting dope-addled and hitting trees “harder than Sonny Bono … oh no.” It’s like Mr. Bill hanging himself on a news peg.
6. Cooper-Moore, “The Hokey Pokey,” live at the Vision Festival, New York
One of New York’s most effusive but reclusive musical geniuses, Cooper-Moore tossed off a fractured piano version of this song at the Vision jazz festival that drove home the fact that sometimes the hokiest, pokiest songs can be the most affecting. Cooper-Moore was a one-man New Orleans jazz funeral flailing like the Grambling State marching band across a vaudeville stage.
7. Authechre, “EP7″ (Warp)
The most agile of electro-architects, Britain’s Autechre draft rhythmic blueprints that are filled in by their measured ways with nuance. “EP7″ is like a Bauhaus home that’s warm and cozy despite itself.
8. Music Tapes, “1ST Imaginary Symphony for Nomad” (Merge Records)
The Roald Dahl of the celebrated Elephant 6 indie enclave, Music Tapes’ Julien Koster created a world where TVs conspire against Earth, saws sing and bouncing balls serve as percussion. Captured partly on an 1897 Thomas Edison wax-cylinder recorder and 1940s radio wire, this “Imaginary Symphony” is a roughly hewn fable patched together by an angelic charmer who plays with sound like a kid in a sandbox — and builds flying buttresses with all the grains.
9. Aluminum Group “Pedals” (Drag City)
Thanks in part to producer Jim O’Rourke’s handiness with ’70s-AOR atmosphere, the Aluminum Group took pedestrian pop songcraft and wrapped it in comely red velvet. “Pedals” showed that something good could come of the lounge revival by leaving novelty home to nurse its cocktail.
10. Magnetic Fields “69 Love Songs” (Merge Records)
Someone forgot to tell Stephin Merritt that Cole Porter and Irving Berlin are dead, and the notion of the timeless love song is all the better for it. Funny and fleeting while dark and ponderous, this three-CD set amounts to a torrid affair with love itself.