Blur, 13 (Virgin) Once obsessed with Britain's class system and Brit-pop's chunky melodies, a more streamlined Blur scored in '97 with an American breakthrough ("Woo Hoo"). But front guy Damon Albarn then weathered a break-up with longtime girlfriend Justine Frischmann of Elastica and proceeded to write an album that's by turns ethereal, acrimonious, atmospheric, and pleading, with Madonna makeover man William Orbit behind the board. Overlooked, puzzling, and all over the map, but at the end of this maze lies a blessedly unified vision of music, truth, and love.
Ol' Dirty Bastard, N***A Please (Elektra) Between court appearances and rehab stays, this Wu-Tang wildman recorded an album that's either completely brilliant or a sure sign that we've lost Big Baby Jesus to the other side of reality. "Got Your Money" is the funkiest single in years, and ODB's cocksure flow makes him sound like a street corner preacher who's torn between notifying folks 'bout the apocalypse and chasing skirts. While the charts belonged to white suburban punk wannabes ripping off hip-hop, ODB made the most punk-rock record of the year. Praise Baby Jesus.
East River Pipe, The Gasoline Age (Merge) While everyone was busy praising Stephin Merritt for writing 69 love songs, F.M. Cornog quietly slipped in a concept album that's equally tuneful and much more accessible. A former city boy, this unsung singer-songwriter moved to Jersey, then wrote an album of songs about driving the roadways of the upper East Coast. It's funny, it's sad, it's musically savvy, and it's got the best one-and-a-half-minute pop song since the Beatles broke down, "Wholesale Lies."
Built To Spill, Keep It Like A Secret (Warner Bros.) Doug Martsch continued to chisel out his place in the rock canon, and people started to notice. This record debuted on the Billboard charts, and it offered a bounty of hooks, singalong choruses, and rousing guitar anthems always set just left of center. You won't find finer rock songs anywhere ("Center of the Universe," "Carry the Zero," "Sidewalk," "Time Trap"), and there's even a meta-musical romp through memorable rock lines of the past, "You Were Right."
Prince Paul, A Prince Among Thieves (Tommy Boy) An ace spoof of hip-hop's myths and truths carried out in music and skits, from the producer who brought you 3 Ft. High and Rising. Paul assigned friends like Biz Markie, Chubb Rock, De La Soul, and Everlast to act out parts in an imaginary film about two friends from the street—a dealer and a dreamer. Between and among the beats, a tragic tale unfolds, an amusingly portrayed (and funky) rumination on betrayal, false hopes, and the perils of trust.
The Promise Ring, Very Emergency (Jade Tree) Pigeonholed as the ringleaders of the growing emo sideshow, the members of Wisconsin's Promise Ring shrugged off the hype and recorded a catchy, punched-up pop record.
Moby, Play (V2) The controversial and sometimes tiresome urban-dwelling vegan punk DJ dipped into the well of American field recordings from the first part of the century, matched old gospel singing with modern beats, and voilà, a perfect dance record for the fin de siècle.
The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.) Some called it an American OK Computer, but it's basically the pretty sound of Okie pop scientist Wayne Coyne creating a compound out of mechanical beats, lush guitars, and romantic surrealist poetry.
Kreidler, Appearance and the Park (Mute) Twenty years after Kraftwerk, another German band finds a way to make cold electronic instrumentation hum with warmth.
The Charlatans UK, Us and Us Only (MCA) Brit-pop's finest see the world through Dylan's eyes, and freshly married frontman Tim Burgess crafts a Blonde on Blonde to Damon Albarn's Blood on the Tracks.
Honorable mention: Old 97's, Fight Songs (Elektra); The American Analog Set, The Golden Band (Emperor Jones); The Chemical Brothers, Surrender (Astralwerks); Luna, The Days of Our Nights (Jericho); Black Box Recorder, England Made Me (Jet Set); Bows, Blush (Too Pure/Beggars Banquet); Mogwai, Come On Die Young (Matador); The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs (Merge); Alex Gopher, You My Baby & I (V2); Wilco, Summer Teeth (Reprise); Jim O'Rourke, Eureka (Drag City)
Michaelangelo Matos' Top 10 Albums of 1999
Built to Spill, Keep It Like a Secret (Warner Bros) The most cathartic guitar album since My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, with Doug Martsch's bleeding heart and bleed-through guitar first laying his emotional cards on the table, then blowing 'em out of the room by shredding in ecstatic tongues.
Prince Paul, A Prince Among Thieves (Tommy Boy) The best blaxploitation soundtrack this side of Superfly didn't even come with a movie, though Chris Rock, who cameos here, is working on that. But even if it never gets made, this blueprint remains one of hip-hop's sharpest albums. And the songs stand up without the (excellent) plot.
Latin Playboys, Dose (Atlantic) Even more consistent than their classic, self-titled 1994 debut, this punningly titled gem comes replete with bent blues, scratchy childhood reminiscences, and lo-fi studio cunning that imagines dub had it been born in the LA barrio instead of Kingston's slums.
Armand Van Helden, 2 Future 4 U (Armed) Sticking to what he does better than anyone, and doing it to better effect than ever, Van Helden's freaky, kinetic house throwdowns practically turn you into Tony Manero upon contact: If you can't, as one song demands, "get down" to this, honey, you're already dead.
Moby, Play (V2) Beats slowed to a crawl, simpler-than-ever melodies foregrounded, screaming divas replaced by folk-blues crooners, this album feels at first like a retreat, as if Moby is relinquishing the intensity that has always been his trademark. Then you tune into those melodies and get swept away. Neither his most ambitious album nor his most perfect—just the most deeply felt.
Tom Scharpling and Ronald Thomas Clontle, Rock, Rot & Rule (Stereolaffs) A historian so inept he thinks Madness invented ska, Clontle's catch is that he's also the pseudonym of Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, and that the whole thing is a joke. A really great joke, one so convincing that you believe every dumbfounding word of this now-legendary 1997 interview with WFMU radio DJ Scharpling.
John Prine, In Spite of Ourselves (Oh Boy) A sidesplitting, heartbreaking catalogue of love, rural American-style, rendered by the best New Dylan of them all. His nine duet partners are heaven-sent, too, especially Iris DeMent, who plays wacked-out Tammy Wynette to his goofball George Jones.
The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros) Their melodic smarts and sonic wizardry have never been more elaborate, yet the Lips' grandiosity never overwhelms their sense of emotion. What Radiohead wishes O.K. Computer had been.
Luna, The Days of Our Nights (Jericho) The sexiest-sounding rock band in America whisper more sweet nothings in your ear, from the points-of-view of a stalker ("Dear Diary"), a paranoid ("Math Wiz"), and, um, Axl Rose (the jaw-dropping "Sweet Child o' Mine").
DJ DB, Shades of Technology: A Drum and Bass Journey (F-111/Higher Education) The most (OK, the only) convincing argument I've come across that drum-and-bass is still as exciting as it used to be, Shades is made even more remarkable by the fact that it bypasses both Shy FX's "Bambaataa" and Adam F's "Brand New Funk"—and still sounds definitive.
Honorable mention: Various Artists, The Real Hip-Hop: Best of D&D Studios Vol. 1 (Cold Front); Tom Waits, Mule Variations (Epitaph); Aphrodite, Aphrodite (V2); Spring Heel Jack, Treader (Tugboat import); Basement Jaxx, Remedy (Astralwerks); Le Tigre, Le Tigre (Mr. Lady); Randy Newman, Bad Love (Dreamworks); Various Artists, 10 Years of Strictly Rhythm—Mixed by "Little Louie" Vega (Strictly Rhythm); Sleater-Kinney, The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars); Dr. Dooom, First Come, First Served (Funky Ass)
Mark D. Fefer's Top Five Jazz Albums of 1999
William Cepeda Afrorican Jazz, My Roots and Beyond (Blue Jackel) Trombonist Cepeda blows some new life into the sagging Latin-jazz bag with this ecstatic large band session. Celeb- rity soloists Paquito D'Rivera, Slide Hampton, and Yomo Toro help roar through Cepeda's suite-like compositions, which lay the rural rhythms of his Puerto Rican youth under a Brooklyn jazz whirl.
Mike Melillo, Bopcentric (Red) Everyone's getting into Herbie Nichols again, and nobody is truer to the spirit of the '50s jazz iconoclast than Philadelphia pianist Melillo, who devotes half this CD to Nichols' tunes and the second half to Monk, seamlessly evoking the pair's kinship. Backed by a serviceable Italian rhythm duo, Melillo tears up these tunes in a flurry of passion, bringing out Nichols' half-mumbled melodies with new clarity.
Andy Milne's Cosmic Dapp Theory, The New Age of Aquarius (Contrology) With his groove sensibility and good looks, keyboardist Andy Milne could easily be making a killing on the smooth jazz circuit. Instead, the former M-base activist is taking late-'80s acid jazz into a new universe, producing angular funk in every time-signature but the ones you understand. Rapper/vocalist Kokayi makes the usually phony "hip-hop/bebop" connection real, while Gregoire Maret rescues the harmonica from irrelevance.
Palmetto All-Stars, The Other Side of Ellington (Palmetto) This was Ellington's year, of course—his 100th—unleashing a torrent of tributes and reissues. Just when the legacy of greatness began to seem a tad oppressive, drummer Matt Wilson and several other optimistic young New Yorkers released this bracing date that finds inspiration in Ellington without being undone by him.
Don Byron, Romance with the Unseen (Blue Note) Instead of the mannered and self-conscious "project" albums that Byron has been cutting over the last decade (with uneven results), this time we get a full-on blowing session in which he displays his astounding mastery of the clarinet and gets some equally brilliant backing from Bill Frisell and Jack DeJohnette.
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