1999: The Recap

By shane

Hrm... starting my first column of the New Millennium (tm) by eating my own words. Not a good start, but it'll have to be done.

"So it comes out like this, as 1998 being an obvious transitional year. A transition into what, I havnt the slightest idea." Me, January 1999

"We're not in a slump -- we've just opened the book to a blank page. It's not a low point in music evolution -- it's the Dawn of a New Age." Me again, August 1998.

Oops. My bad.

If 1999 had one remarkable thing going for it, it's the fact that nothing was going for it at all. Instead of being a catalytic year for music, it brought us... RICKKKKKKKKY MARTIN! BRRRRRRITNEY SPEARS! GGGGGAY DAD!!!!!

In other words, 1999 pretty much sucked a little bit worse than 1998. The downfall of alternative music from the mainstream has created a cloud of indecisiveness over the world. The teenage boys have Korn... the teenage girls have the Backstreet Boys. The college boys have... Korn still. And the college girls... well, who knows what the hell they're listening to (it's not like I actually make it up into their ROOMS!)

But one's thing's the same: Music (and UK music, especially) is in one hell of a downswing right now. I still remain optimistic - it WILL get interesting again, folks, it ALWAYS does - but we are indeed starting to wonder just went things are gonna get funky again (Beck album withstanding.)

I'm going to stop calling it a transitional "year" and start calling it a transitional "era," that'll work for now.

But 1999 wasn't ALTOGETHER crap - a few gems DID shine bright in the mix, and the January column is the traditional time to honor that which exceeded the standards of the past year (which, quite frankly, must not have been much of a challenge.)

BEST THING ABOUT 1999: Unquestionably and undeniably without doubt... the Elephant Six Recording Company. This little microcosm of a family stepped to the plate this year and said, "Eh, wot? Music's gone a bit boring? Awwwright, I suppose we'll fix it, if we 'ave to!" (The fact that the voice I've chosen to represent the Elephant Six Recording Company is, in fact, Dodger from "Oliver!" should be ignored.) Seriously, though, this group of friends from Louisiana (now relocated to both Athens, GA, and Denver, CO) were about the only thing really stirring up creative juices this year.

WEIRDEST THING ABOUT 1999: The list below, and the fact that 10 out of the Top 25 Albums of the Year According to Shane are American artists. This hasn't happened since the 80's folks - no joke.

And now, without further adieu, I give you


#25 - LOOPER - Up A Tree

#24 - BEULAH - When Your Heartstrings Break

#23 - DRESSY BESSY - Pink Hearts, Yellow Moons

#22 - CLINT BOON EXPERIENCE - The Complete Guide to Pop Music and Space Travel

#21 - MAGNETIC FIELDS - 69 Love Songs

#20 - GOMEZ - Liquid Skin - And the battle STILL wages on... On the Excellent Online e-mail discussion list, there seem to be only two stances one can possible take towards Gomez - you're either in or out, you get it or you don't. Happily, I get it. Yes, there's enough misplaced hippie vibes in the band to make Phish fans drop their bongs and dance a jig to the nearest sun god, but the simple fact shines through: Gomez write really, really decent tunes. Granted, the lure of a shiny, expensive recording studio has taken away some of their "Pro duck' shun (n): the pushing of the 'record' button" DIY appeal of their earlier works, but the killer tracks remain... "Bring It On," "Hangover Girl," on and on. Hazy, lazy genius, and an immaculate triumph over the dreaded sophomore slump.

#19 -- LONGPIGS - Mobile Home - Can I get a show of hands for those who never expected to hear from these guys again? Anyone? Oh, yeah, EVERYONE. But instead of retreating to the B-list of Britpop has-beens, the Longpigs silently and without much ado released the album that U2's been trying to make for years, with a little bit of Radiohead progginess thrown in for good measure.

#18 - MOBY - Play - Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to ever find Moby in one of my own Best o' the Year lists. Quite simply, I hate the man. Flirting-with-straight-edge punker reborn as a tree-hugging, meat-is-murder, Christian-valued techno Uberlord - sorry, gang, I'm not particularly mad for it. But there's no denying the wonder of this record. Moby's usage of folk and gospel recordings for samples is just shy of divine greatness. And these aren't the sorts of samples one can find at your local Tower -- these are the real deal, recorded-in-the-jungles-on-a-wax-cylinder, can-only-find-at-the-Library-of-Congress sorts of samples. Throw in some shockingly "hip" big beat and house tracks, and blend the whole thing together with layered ambient soundscapes (the only thing Moby was any good at in the past.) One of the few breaths of fresh air to an otherwise stagnant world of electronic music this year - even if he IS a twat.

#17 - SUEDE - Head Music - Is it the record to save Brett Anderson from mass public ridicule? Not quite. But, taken at face value, it's still a pretty catchy little bugger. Sure, it might have some of the most thoughtless lyrics of the year, and it might even have the gall to include phrases like, "when we all rock and roll into town." But let's just admit it - SueBde are plastic (at least since Bernard left.) And they know it, and they use it to their advantage. You don't listen to Suede to have your mind blown by socio-political savagery. Nope. You listen to Suede to hear Brett rhyme "mouse" with "house" in that dead sexy way... and STILL somehow manage to do it with untouchable flair. She's in fashion, sure... and so still is the band. Good to see old war horses still treading along with the style, sophistication, and glamour of yore - and still maintain an (albeit see-through) relevance.

#16 - CHEMICAL BROTHERS - Surrender - Wherein the Brothers work it out and trigger some kind of response. Trouble is, it's the same response I got from the last album. And the one before that. And the DJ albums to boot. The Chemmies are one trick ponies indeed, who I'm still convinced do NOTHING at their live gigs except stand about and try to look important. That said, WHY DO I LIKE THEIR ALBUMS AS MUCH AS I DO? Drives me up a friggin' wall. But I keep on playing 'em. This one's just like the others, except a little more trancey and a little less beaty, and has some top vocal contributions from Bernie Sumner and Noel Gallagher. In a year of fairly crap dance albums, this'll do just fine.

#15 - BIS - Social Dancing - A "coming of age" record, that's what it was touted as. Problem was, the age they chose to come of was apparantly the 80's. Cheeky synthesizers aplenty, on top of otherwise cheekier drum machines - the only thing that quite possibly "matured" on this record are the lyrics, which have gone from "This is Teen-C Power" to "This-is-quite-boring-being-in-your-early-20's-eh?" But the sheer oddity of the thing makes me like it even more. A lot of "critics" have difficulties putting stuff like this in a best-of list...you know, music that's simply fun with a mild social conscience sprinkled in here and there. The whole if-it's-not-making-a-statement-then-sod-it theory of music criticism goes right out the window with a release like this. Sure, it pretty much sucks by most measurable standards. But then why can't I get it out of my CD player? All I hope is that the band doesn't make it their swan song - there's much more fun to be had from Bis - if we let them.

#14 - FLAMING LIPS - The Soft Bulletin - I have some sort of vague recollection of the Flaming Lips playing my local college when I was in high school, and all my friends going, and me going, "Ugh. I hate that band." And now here it is, a decade or so later, and the Flaming Lips rule the earth with the album that most critics are putting in their top ten, if not at the #1 slot. And I have to admit, it's pretty doggone good. Drawing together about 30 years worth of psychedelic inspiration, this album should indeed prove to be the band's masterpiece (even if the lyrics are shit.)

#13 - BLUR - 13 - Sooo... now it gets interesting... as it usually does with Blur. What to make of a band who constantly change styles? Graham Coxon is a genius, I'll say that straight off, cause I'm pretty sure it's mostly HIS doing that Blur have managed to keep afloat for as long as they have. Sidestepping the critical backlash again and again, Blur have snuck through the quagmire of indie "scenes" and genres by chameleon-dashing across the sound spectrum. They're baggy... they're the Kinks... they're Britpop... they're lo-fi... and now they're... wait, what the hell ARE they now? Well, for starters, they're emotive. Regardless of your moral stance on 13's lyrical debacle, Damon's public airing of his and Justine's dirty laundry made for some of the most intriguing moments of the year ever captured on disc. And the music? Well, I'm not entirely sold on it - I think the band could've done a little better given a better producer and concept - but the whole Bowie meets Pavement meets Spiritualized thing is novel enough to keep them towards the top of my favorite band list. Are Blur original? Nope, never have been. But they're damn good at what they do.

#12 - SUPER FURRY ANIMALS - Guerrilla - First of all, it's impossible to not appreciate a record that includes the lines, "SFA OK, SFA OK, Supah Furray Ahn-ih-mals!" Nor was I able to ignore a record whose tracks auto-cycle through the core of my skull in most inappropriate moments for weeks on end. (Wanna get some weird looks from co-workers? Try accidentally humming, "I got mobile phone" over and over...) With "Guerrilla," the Super Fuzzy Wuzzies attempt to bring up a more commercial sound, which someone should tell them is simply impossible to do within the happy little world that they created. So instead we get a record best labeled "eccentric," where calypso beats meet reggae vibes meets techno twiddling meets God-knows-what. As good as their last one, "Radiator"? Nah, I don't think so. A good listen? Definitely, and a forewarning of AMAZING things to come.

#11 - STEREOPHONICS - Performance and Cocktails - Every year there has to be one record that makes my list that I wish didn't. Quite frankly, I don't understand the buzz around the Stereophonics. Are they really that good looking? I mean, I'm a boy, I don't notice things like that. But why else would they be EVERYWHERE in 1999? They're like the Backstreet Boys of indie - really, that's how much press this band has gotten this year. At heart, the Stereophonics are three guys who make stunning (albeit somewhat derivative) rock gems. Some idiotic year-end wrap in Rolling Stone called the 'Phonics "Nirvana Lite." Not even close, friend. It was the genius lyrical and musical mind of Kurt Cobain that made Nirvana what they were; Kelly and the boys of Stereophonics can't even come close. Sooo... they do the next best thing: find some genius hooks, make some pleasant rhymes, and rock the house. The first side of this record (single after single after single...) is inescapable - even if you want to declare them shit, you can't. It's that good. Damn.

#10 - BLINKER THE STAR - August Everywhere - I left this one 'til the very end cause I really don't have much to say about the record (mostly cause I know diddly-poo about the band,) other than it just won't leave my CD player. It really amazed me when I started seeing end of the year critics polls that weren't including this album. Foo Fighters? Fountains of Wayne? Kid's stuff. If you really want to hear the quintessential alterna-pop album of the year, it's right here. Cheers to my good pal Bill Douglas for tuning me onto this album. Bill fronts a band called Einstein's Sister who sound quite a bit like Blinker the Star, so I'll just turn my capsule review of this record into an ad for Bill's band (who release material on Oarfin and Yummypop Records, and can be heard on mp3.com among others.) You'll like 'em. If you like this. And you SHOULD like this. Cause it's good.

#9 - BETA BAND - Beta Band - The record dubbed "shit" by the band themselves ends up being one of the most refreshing things of the year. Wow, there's a few things I want to touch on about the Betas, but I can't figure out a way to nicely tie them all together, so I'll just start babbling. (1) They're looney. As bedbugs (but they don't bite.) There's a fine line between genius and insanity, and the Betas don't walk the line, they hop from one side to the other, track after track. Many of the songs just don't work, others gel together in the oddest of ways to make SOME kind of sense. But the point is: there are underlying ebbs of greatness floating about in the mix - it's now up to the band to piece those bits together into future efforts that could, quite honestly, change the face of music as we know it. I know they're capable of it - I saw them live this year, and it was the most incredible concert of recent history - there were so many instrument swaps onstage you didn't know what the hell was going on, but it sounded uncompromisingly brilliant. (2) "The Beta Band don't do drugs." "Hahahahahahaha." (3) The Beta Band say in interviews that the album's shit because it wasn't recorded "their way," which, it turns out, was to record each song in a different studio... on a different continent. For the sake of the vibe, you know. Non-biting bedbugs.

#8 - JAMES - Millionaires - Oh, to think I'd written this band off. Silly, silly Shane. With Millionaires, James are saved. After the one-two punch of "Laid" and its companion album "Wah Wah," James returned some time later with "Whiplash," one of the worst records of the 1990's. Eclectic folk/drone experimentalism turned into soulless and tuneless adult contemporary blandrock. But now they're back, with Brian Eno once again in tow for assistance. Millionaires isn't the perfect album by any stretch - the second side gets a little schlocky - but the first half of the record gives you a rejuvenated James, with opening track "Crash" perhaps the most potent thing they've ever recorded. The record sounds YOUNG, sounds MODERN, sounds everything that "Whiplash" was NOT. Barring the un-inspired "Just Like Fred Astaire" (the only thing on the record reminiscent of their past "this-would-sound-quite-nice-next-to-a-Jewel-song-on-the-radio" tedium,) "Millionaires" is the singles record of the year. Tim Booth, meanwhile, might not be able to flop-dance anymore, but he still maintains the seeing, feeling, sympathetic voice of the common man that made the group stand out in the early 90's. I'm erasing the line I crossed through their name as I speak.

#7 - SHACK - H.M.S. Fable - I was somewhat hesitant about Shack at first. The Shack story, which is essentially "heroin addict done good," was a little too media-perfect for my tastes. Then I heard the record, and all the hype went straight out the window. "H.M.S. Fable" is a record that doesn't give a shit about anyone or anything. It's not concerned with trends, fashion, flair, or genre. It's only concerned with being good. There's a timeless quality to this record that can be appreciated by anyone with a sense for a decent folky pop tune. Which is kinda fitting in a way - it's an album about surviving, a testament to shine through the haze of an overly-deluded and diluted world. When the chips eventually fall, years from now, THIS will be the record that gets pulled out of the racks more than probably any other in this list. Survival.

#6 - APPLES IN STEREO - Her Wallpaper Reverie EP - Most albums don't have as many solid tracks as this under-30-minutes EP. The Apples will be the band to break the Elephant 6 collective out of obscurity, I'm certain of it, as this record (which serves as a precursor and teaser to their next full-length album due in April) is the sound of a band on the verge of greatness. If you don't own Elephant 6 bands, you're just not hep, my friend, because the Little Indiekids Who Could are THE story of '99. Recorded, mixed, and distributed for about 1/10th the cost of your average MTV video, the Apples -- as well as the rest of the Elephant 6 posse -- are doing their damnedest to take the best bits of the psychedelic 60's, merge it with New Millennium pop sensibility, and produce it on equipment that you might find at your local Salvation Army. THIS is the real D.I.Y., folks. Experimental and artistic without the slightest compromise to some of the greatest pop melodies I've ever heard.

#5 - OF MONTREAL - The Gay Parade - Here's where the Elephant 6 bands really start to rule my charts for this year. (For the record, Of Montreal, while touring with and swapping members with E6 bands, are not officially associated with the E6 label.) Right now, I'm kicking myself for not placing this album higher in my poll, cause I got into yet another Of Montreal kick (I think that makes 4 this year) right after I filled out my poll. What's it sound like? "Sgt. Pepper" without George Martin, maybe. Horribly but quaintly underproduced, this is a record of countless pop gems, each song written about a different fictitious person (who are all represented on the album artwork.) Infectious like the plague. Not my favorite of the year, but easily the most listened-to and listenable record on this list.

#4 - PET SHOP BOYS - Nightlife - A record I was fully expecting to suck rocks. After the disaster that was "Bilingual," I had officially written the Pet Shop Boys out of the picture. Europop kings they indeed once were - but as time progressed, so too did the dance music that they helped forge. And it started to become painfully obvious that Neil and Chris weren't capable of keeping up, try as they might. "Disco 2" was the first painful revelation, where classic PSB tracks were given the remixed treatment akin to shattering a window with a bullet, then using one glass fragment to recreate a new song - when it was all done, it was a 100% soul-less affair. After that came the mess of "Bilingual," where the PSB tried desperately to remain relevant by using any gimmick possible (Latin, house, etc.) and the only result was more see-through posturing. But now comes "Nightlife," a return to the glorious discopop form of yesteryear, and it WORKS. Finally Neil and Chris have admitted and accepted their strength - over-the-top theatrical Europop - and that's what the new album returns to in fine form. And, though the record is steeped in the roots of their past, it still manages to sound fresh - the old sound mixed with new equipment makes you forget these are men losing almost all their hair. "'Rolling Stone' say we're the Grateful Dead of Europop," Tennant told the crowd at this year's Chicago Pet Shop Boys concert, "which makes all of you 'Petheads.'" And I, for one, am happy to be counted.

#3 - RENTALS - Seven More Minutes - If only this album had come out about three years ago, every UK critic would be touting it as the ultimate US/UK connection. Matt Sharp (the bespectacled ex-bassist of Weezer, for those uniniated) has created a Britpop masterpiece - sadly, it came out about two years after Britpop breathed its last. As a result of bad timing, this record has received less-than-stellar reviews from damn near everyone... and they're missing out on one of the greatest records of the year. A result of Sharp's extensive touring/hanging out overseas, the perfect pop of the Rentals is mixed here with a bevy of collaborations that runs the Britpop gamut - Damon Albarn, Donna Matthews, Tim Wheeler, Miki Berenyi, it goes on and on. It's a curious album that defies description; all you can say is "what a great pop record," and that's that. Not a bad track to be found.

#2 - OLIVIA TREMOR CONTROL - Black Foliage: Animation Music Vol. 1 - The highest ranked of the Elephant 6 collective for 1999, and the pinnacle of a brilliant couple of years for all involved. Part Beach Boys meets the Boo Radleys hooks and harmonies, part Brian-Eno-only-wishes-he-was-this-weird ambient soundscapes. The whole album is loosely based around the same 15 second stretch of music that's woven back into every track on the record, which is admittedly one of the silliest concepts I've ever heard of. But as you listen to the record, you forget. You're simply swept into a cloudy haze of instruments played and produced by essentially novices - tubas and glockenspiels and horns, oh my. And just as you're ready to dismiss the Olivias as pointless experimentalists who've spent far too much time at the ol' mushroom bar, a song comes in from nowhere that's so good, so perfectly put together, so dynamic that you hold your breath so as not to miss a nanosecond. Three minutes later, the song unravels messily back into atmospheric weirdness, and the cycle repeats time and again. A maddening, difficult, majestic, breath-taking, ground-breaking work... and to think it's made by a bunch of kids in their bedroom (essentially.) Not perfect, but about as close as you'd want.

#1 - ULTRASOUND - Everything Picture - Ultrasound, on the other hand, have never strived for perfection. Their essence, the mark they leave behind, stems from the ugly, brutal way they soar to heights eventually gorgeous. And now it's all over. They've already gone and split on us, leaving just this one album in their wake. But I can't use the word "just" in that last sentence, because there's more to this one album than most bands have in their entire catalog. Unquestionably THE most confident debut record since "Definitely Maybe," this 2-cd outing explodes to grandeur at least 3 or 4 times per track. It's sort of like listening to a youthful David Bowie as produced by Steve Albini. EACH and EVERY song an epic. I've never wanted to use phrases like "a celebration of rock and roll," but that's the vibe this album puts out - there's joy, there's power, there's intensity, there's introspection, there's optimism. At times it sounds like the most cohesive record you've heard all year; at other spots, you're struck by the fact that the singer can't sing without cracking, the guitars are wobbly, the bass is muddy, the drums peaking out the mix... but it WORKS. The on/off shambolic nature of this beast makes it all the more exciting. The whole thing hits you as a cacophony of every collective nuance that makes you want to BELIEVE in the future of music. It sounds corny as hell, but it's true. It's almost as if the power in this ONE album is thus that the band simply burned out, used all their energies on this one joyous creation. For these few moments committed to disc, Ultrasound pass themselves off as THE most important band in the world... and it's hard not to think otherwise while it's blazing in your brain. And some other nifty categories for yo azz:


1. Ultrasound - Floodlit World
2. James - Crash
3. Olivia Tremor Control - I Have Been Floated
4. Blur - Tender
5. Rentals - Barcelona
6. Ben Folds Five - Army
7. Shack - Lend Some Dough
8. James - I Know What I'm Here For
9. Ultrasound - Aire and Calder
10. Ocean Colour Scene - Profit in Peace


1. Various Artists - Prodigy Present the Dirtchamber Sessions Volume 1
2. Minders - Dead Ends and Cul-de-Sacs
3. Cocteau Twins - BBC Sessions
4. Divine Comedy - A Secret History
5. The Moon and the Melodies


1. The Boo Radleys and Ultrasound packing it in
2. The Charlatans - "Us and Us Only"
3. Gene - "Revelations"
4. Gay Dad - "Leisure Noise"
5. Alan McGee
6. Kula Shaker - "Peasants, Pigs, and Astronauts"
7. Orbital - "Middle of Nowhere"
8. Godspeed You Black Emperor! - "Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada"
9. Gentle Waves - "Green Fields of Foreverland"
10. The fact that so many things sucked this year that I had to mention more than five


I have several plans. First off, I'm whole-heartedly going to live out my dream of becoming a redneck this year, methinks. To commemorate, I've just bought me my very first POLICE SCANNER (one of them nifty ones that picks up cell phones and such,) and I've already heard my first bout of local folk having phone sex. Yessirreeee... maybe I don't NEED any more plans after all....

Here's to a good dreams of 2000. Here's to the Bluetones putting out a great record. Here's to Oasis putting out something better than the scattered mp3's I've heard so far. Here's to Mark & Loz' post-Ride exploits in Animal House. Here's to continued mind-blowing activities from Moose, the little band that could. Here's to the Elephant Six team dreaming up even better soundscapes on the soon-to-be-released new ones from the Minders and the Apples in Stereo. Here's to Belle and Sebastian breaking up. Here's to the future. Go have a pint on me, and thanks as always for supporting our humble little neck of cyberspace. Cheers.

"Wheels turning 'round/Into alien grounds/Pass through different times/Leave them all behind." - Ride

"If you've got a blacklist/I wanna be on it/Waiting for the great leap forwards." - Billy Bragg