Century End Review 1999

 

The Best

What does it mean to be the best?  Originality.  Influence.  Popularity.  What are they worth?  If no one hears it, what does it matter if you make the most well-conceived, brilliant recording of all time?  On the other hand, selling 11 million albums doesn’t automatically make you great either (see MC Hammer).  To be the best, you need all of these things.  You need to be ground-breaking.  You need to affect the industry, the media, and the world.  And you need to reach people.  That makes you the best.

 

To celebrate the coming of the year 2000, I’ve decided to wrap things up this year with a look back not only at 1999, but also at the 90’s, as well as the 1900’s.  Music has developed from a part of local culture to a global multimedia phenomenon where its biggest stars are some of the world’s most important and influential people.  Starting with this year, let’s take a stroll back through time. 

 

The Best of 1999

This year most of the mainstream was dominated by bubblegum and latin pop, and I have to say, it was fun.  They’re cute, they can dance, they can even sing pretty well.  But if you want the real deal, check this shit out.  These are keepers, long after the “bairn-bairn-bairn-nair”’s have run dry.  A quick glance shows two trends.  It looks like the Year of the Woman to me.  We’ve been hearing a lot of that the past five years.  Ever since Alanis busted the floodgate of female singer-songwriters open by offering to give her man a Lewinsky in a movie theatre, there has seemed to be no shortage of Lilith’s Chick-of-the-Month Club.  Amidst the flood are some real gems, and they range from folky-pop to blue-eyed-soul to a piano girl gone mad.  But they all deliver.  The other noticeable trend is that, a few years after electronica busted out as the next big thing, there is some techno-geeks that continue to reinvent and blast away at the dance floor.   Dump in the ingredients and press blend.  It’s all good.

 

10. Robbie Williams – The Ego Has Landed

A by-product of the early boy-band craze across the pond in the early 90’s, this former member of Take That put together a sort of best-of from his first two British releases of stellar pop.  Some shining moments here bring up premonitions of the next Elton John mixed with a side of George Michael and a touch of Oasis thrown in for good measure.

 

9. Moby – Play

The techno master continues to reinvent himself and keep it interesting.  After tearing down the world on Animal Rights he builds it back up again on an incredibly original and surprisingly workable mixture of blues, gospel, and house.  Loses credibility points for giving “Body Rock” to Veronica’s Closet (???).

 

8. Beth Orton – Central Reservation / Dido – No Angel

These two ladies have a similar sound and both got their break in the business via rave-heads.  Beth started out working with William Orbit (Ray of Light producer) and the Chemical Brothers, and went on to release her startling hybrid of folk-electronica a few years back, Trailer Park.  I didn’t think she could get any better, but this may have done it.  Dido sang on Faithless (best known for “Insomnia” (I can’t get no sleeeeep….)) and now has gone and crafted a gripping collection of tales about love, loss, and identity in Generation Y2K.  You may have heard her on TV’s Roswell or Now and Then.

 

7. Chemical Brothers – Surrender

The boys have mixed it up again.  Just when Fatboy Slim helped big beat do the mambo all over your radio dial, the chems shift gears and go acid house on your ass.  

 

6. Lenny Kravitz – 5

Ok, technically this first showed up in 1998, but it was re-released in 1999 with Lenny’s kick-ass cover of “American Woman” included – and “Fly Away” helped this album blast off this year.  He changed gears on this to create a great fusion of rock, funk, and soul that is off the hook.  Maybe not the most original artist on the planet but this man knows how to dish it.

 

5. Macy Gray – On How Life Is

Bitch got pipes.  When this girl opens up her mouth, you sit yo ass down and listen.  Just nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy, this is one that slipped by MTV – it has heavy rotation written all over it.  When she exclaims “I’m the latest craze” you believe her.  The best loungin’ party disc I’ve heard in a long time. 

 

4. Basement Jazz – Remedy

Two dj’s from bloody old England fused house, latin soul, and disco to create the dance-floor album of the year.  That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

 

3. Meshell N’degeocello – Bitter

“That black chick who sang on Wild Nights with Mellencamp” went and made what could be the most astonishingly honest and open collection of tales about loyalty ever.  Turn off the lights, climb into bed, and let her sing to your broken-hearted soul.

 

2. Everything but the Girl – Temperamental

A few years back Ben Watt, half of this duo, almost died from an intestinal illness.  It transformed he and partner Tracy Thorn’s lives and they’ve emerged from it to become the coolest pop music couple on the planet.  This is the perfect blend of pop, house, and drum n’ bass.

 

1. Fiona Apple – When the Pawn…

This freak on a leash emerged from the pool of women in rock a few years back with a gripping debut of your everyday piano sing-along tunes.  Not exactly.  With her deer-in-the-headlights presence, she overcame stagefright to explode into a scathing, ranting, sometimes rabid artist who has silenced all of her critics and sophomore-slump predictors.  This is an instant classic that sounds like nothing else coming out these days, and how could it?  It’s a direct reflection of one of the most interesting, fascinating, and frightening songwriters of our generation.

 

The Best of the 90’s

How many trends did we see this decade in music?  From rap to hip-hop to grunge to electronica to jump-jive-and-wail to bubblegum pop to the loca latin explosion, we’ve had our fair share of them.  In a melting pot of a nation, we’ve got a trend for every color, flavor, size and shape.  They’ve all produced some classic keepers as well as many Where are they Now? specials-in-the-making.  This is a look at what really tore the house down in the 90’s.

 

10. Massive Attack – Blue Lines

Blue Lines invented.  You couldn’t call it any one thing – a soul album, a hip-hop album, a raggae album or any of the other labels.  It created its own label: trip-hop.  Hip-hop music gone trippy.  And it inspired countless off-shoots and some of the best music of the decade – Portishead, Tricky, The Sneaker Pimps, even Ray of Light – none of it would exist if it wasn’t for the boys from Bristol getting together and laying it down.

 

9. Sarah McLachlan – Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

Alanis sold a bucketload more albums, but I’d argue that Sarah has had a bigger influence over the past 5 years.  This album sprung up from a loyal fan base she had begun in the early 90’s to spread via word-of-mouth buzz that doesn’t come from record exec hype or buzz-clip nauseau.  The success of this album helped her prepare the gorgeous Surfacing and launch the Lilith Fair, which was dismissed by ‘those who know’ because you can’t have a successful tour of women in music.  It went on to become the most successful tour of the past few years and launch heaps of critical and commercial female stars.

 

8. REM – Automatic for the People

While the rest of the country was overcome with grunge fever, REM holed up and created some of the most beautiful songs on record.  Almost a decade later, these gems still sound fresh and direct, as anyone who’s seen the trailer for “Man on the Moon” can tell you.  Michael Stipe cleared much of the verbal fog he usually delivers and for once they made sense.  Not as much fun as Monster, but a timeless classic.

 

7. Dr. Dre – The Chronic

After “Nevermind”, the most influential album of the decade.  Dre brought gangsta-rap up out of the underground and into white middle-class suburbia.  He brought along with him Snoop Doggy Dogg, and the rest of the 90’s have been flooded with imitators that are still picking our pockets.

 

6. Pearl Jam – Ten

Despite everyone lumping Pearl Jam and Nirvana together in grunge, their styles varied greatly.  Ten had that enormous arena-rock feel, and inspired millions of teenagers to learn to play the guitar.  It also spoke to a youth that wasn’t down with Kris Kross or The Bodyguard soundtrack.  “Alive” is probably the most classic drunk bar-buddy sing-a-long in history, but we won’t hold that against them.

 

5. Moby – Everything is Wrong

The first DJ to bring techno from the rave to our living rooms, Moby continues to reinvent and make us move.  This was the first real techno album to get to the mainstream, and along with the Chemical Brothers, he allowed the industry to be open to the idea that you can speak to the masses without a verse-chorus-verse song structure.  

 

4. U2 – Achtung Baby

After their spiritual journey across America in Rattle and Hum, U2 went and dreamed it all up again.  This was a courageous, exciting new sound that gave them new life, new appeal, and new ideas.  Big props to any band who can go out on a limb to change their music and make it sound so damned cool.

 

3. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Did Lauryn Hill save hip-hop?  She just may have.  While The Chronic brought rap out of the underground and all the gangsta-rap clones over the course of the decade, Lauryn dug up some soul and doo-wop roots in an accessible yet astounding style that reached every ghetto and every city of America.  The real impact of this album remains to be seen, but let’s hope it brings on a throw-back to putting some real flava in the mix.

 

2. Sinead O’Connor – I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got

Here I am.  Look at me.  I’m not a pop star.  I’m a real person with real pain and I want to let you into my world.  With an unprecedented in-your-face look into the soul of today’s woman (through song and her startling video for “Nothing Compares 2 U”), Sinead made us take notice.  She challenged gender roles, spirituality, catholicism, politics, and inner beauty all at once, and we’ll never recover.  Thank God.

 

1. Nirvana – Nevermind 

This album came out of nowhere to start an entire musical (and fashion) revolution in “grunge”, the decade’s biggest musical moment.  There were lots of great “grunge” albums before this one, but this one busted the decade wide open.  Combined with a killer video and a raging live show, Nirvana swept the country with something different to cling to, something that side of us that existed outside the mainstream could somehow relate to.  Kurt Cobain’s cowardly suicide when he couldn’t deal with the fame guaranteed his place on the rock-God mantle, and this album’s tag as the one that put Seattle on the world map.

 

 

The Best of the 1900’s

Looking back over this century, we’ve seen so many different styles of music, it’s almost impossible to come up with a list of the best.  But this is an attempt to identify ten albums that people can point to and say, that’s one that represents the 20th century.  In that light, this list tries to span the entire century, and not just focus on the rock and roll era.  Having the disadvantage of not actually living through the entire century, I’m sure I’m overlooking some of the best early works, but here’s a shot.

 

10. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Harking back to the sounds of Aretha, Lauryn doesn’t fit today’s ‘diva’ image.  She doesn’t have Whitney’s pipes or Mariah’s body, but she writes, sings, raps, harmonizes, and produces.  And she’s brilliant.  Let’s hope she’s got some more in her bag of tricks.

 

9. Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack

The disco era was the music world’s whore.  While it was hot people loved it, and then it was tossed aside like a cheap slut.  Disco is not dead, though, and it keeps flashing back from time to time in all of its fabulous over-the-top excess.  More than twenty years later “Staying Alive” is still getting heavy rotation at cheesy nightclubs across America, and it still sounds fantastic.

 

8. Guns n’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction

These bad boys emerged as the real deal when white-trash metal was everywhere you turned.  Axl and Slash fronted what was the most bad-ass rock band you couldn’t help but love.  Singing about sex, drugs, and rock and roll never sounded so good.  As the story typically goes, they fell apart as the years went on.

 

7. Madonna – Like a Virgin

Not necessarily her strongest work, this one was the one that helped her explode into the mainstream and set her on her way to becoming the Queen of Pop.  In the mid-80’s, how many 13 year old girls did not want to be her?  Not many.  She’s always been one step ahead of everyone else.  Fake moles, voguing, cone-shaped boobies, videos too naughty for MTV – where would we be without her???  She’s the ultimate entertainer.

 

6. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

One of the originators of the jazz sound of the first half the century, this man could make sounds that would melt you like butter.  This is beautiful and timeless music that calls on the blues, and represents a sophisticated sound admired by true musicians around the globe.

 

5. Nirvana – Nevermind

The band that blew pop music out of the water with a song and a video starring cheerleaders.  They rocked hard and they rocked fast, and (somewhat appropriately) they didn’t rock for long.  But their impact will live forever.

 

4. The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s

A lot of people think the Beatles are the best band of the century, and I’d have to say it’s hard to find another who could top them in terms of influence, ingenuity, and just damned good songs.  This one was the first real concept album, and that alone is reason enough to listen.  The songs are the other.

 

3. Marvin Gaye – What’s Goin’ On

He epitomized the Motown sound by combining a smooth blend of soul and R&B.  This one will forever be echoed by the likes of Prince, Maxwell, D’angelo, and all the R. Kelly’s and Brian McKnight’s out there.

 

2. U2 – The Joshua Tree

As 80’s pop and Reaganomics were crashing down around us, U2 came along with a staggering, intense look into our hearts, minds, and souls that spoke to people like nothing else ever has or may ever again.  Diving headfirst into poignant topics such as apartheid, spirituality, self-discovery, and lust, on this album Bono is featured at his peak of balancing a burning passion with literate honesty.  Along with The Unforgettable Fire, Rattle and Hum, and Achtung Baby, this completes what is the best string of 4 albums from a band ever.

 

1. Michael Jackson – Thriller 

He was the king of the world.  After the huge success of his years with his brothers and his own Off the Wall album, he topped it all with a phenomenal pop masterpiece.  Everybody’s brother, sister, and even mother wanted this one.  And the reason is because it was the biggest, freshest, most slammin’ piece of pop music ever made.  Almost 20 years later this shit still tears out of your speakers – and it’s not only “Billie Jean” and “Wanna be Startin’ Somethin’”, but even smaller hits like “PYT” sound phat.  He knew how to sing and how to move – hell, he even invented his own dance that millions of people can still identify.  Before his out-of-this-world fame transformed him into an alien, he was the King of Pop.  His magic may be gone, but we’ve got a snapshot to relish forever.

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