Medium Cool 

2000 was a year of sometimes dubious, sometimes noteworthy achievements

2000 was a year of sometimes dubious, sometimes noteworthy achievements

By Ben Taylor

For the first year of a new century, things in the world of music were incredibly tame and unprogressive. The most amazing talent came from a white rapper who seemed bent on using it to offend everyone—which of course served to overshadow just how remarkable he was as an orator. Except for Radiohead and OutKast, few mainstream acts really pushed the artistic envelope. Everyone else seemed to just dip their toes in the water, not wanting to make too many waves and content to let the teens have their day. But as always, there were things to get excited about or at least take note of. Let’s hope that next year lives up to the splendor and wonder of the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name.

Best Middle Finger to Expectations: Radiohead, Kid A (Capitol) Joe Elliott of Def Leppard once explained that his lyrics were less concerned with meaning than with the sound of the words. Drawing a parallel between Def Leppard and Radiohead might seem a stretch, but it’s the best one I can come up with—because Radiohead’s follow-up to their smash OK Computer damns predictability in favor of an obsession with texture. In fact, it’s all right there on the cover, which depicts icy mountainous peaks with small explosions in the background. Each track is an austere exploration of where sound can go, with Thom Yorke bending and shaking his voice any way he can, while the hooks are buried in the mix as an afterthought. You may have no idea what he’s saying, but it still sounds incredible.

Best Comeback: RZA/Wu-Tang Clan After a bloated second Wu-Tang album and several dud solo projects, RZA rediscovered his muse with a vengeance. First came Ghostface Killah’s RZA-produced second record, Supreme Clientele, which was rife with stark soul samples. Then came the fantastic soundtrack to Ghost Dog , on which RZA explored dark, funky grooves. Then, to cap the year off, the Wu-Tang Clan redeemed themselves from Forever’s excesses with The W , a brilliant exercise in precision rhymes and beats. The Wu even seem to have wizened on tracks like “I Can’t Go to Sleep,” in which RZA and Ghostface Killah lament the caged paranoia of their gangsta lifestyle.

Best Rap Album: OutKast, Stankonia (Arista) As good as it was to hear RZA back in form, by far the best hip-hop release of 2000 was from Atlanta’s OutKast, if for no other reason than Stankonia defies all hip-hop trends and forges its own musical path. But it’s also a damned accomplished album, with an acute social conscience for a couple of 25-year-olds. Over the course of an hour, Big Boi and Dre 3000 examine familial responsibility (“Ms. Jackson”), braggadocio (“Snappin’ and Trappin’ ”), sexual courtesy (“I’ll Call Before I Come”), the dangers of vanity (“Red Velvet”), and teenage pregnancy (“Toilet Tisha”). And while many of their peers continue to call down women as bitches, they may be the first rappers to proclaim proudly, “We Love Deez Hoez.” OK, they’re not exactly celebrating the virtues of grrl power here, but it’s a step forward, as far as hip-hop is concerned.

Worst Rap Trend: Homophobia This year seemed to find a lot of rappers openly dissing gays: Common, Wu-Tang, and most prominently Eminem, who may be guilty more than anyone else for giving homophobia an unfortunate coolness factor. I support Em’s right to be as ignorant as he wants to be, and I realize there’s an attitude that homophobia is some sort of tradition in hip-hop, however ill-conceived. But just because the music started with a prejudiced strain doesn’t mean it should never grow out of it.

Worst Records Made in the Name of Band Democracy: Belle & Sebastian, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Matador); Pearl Jam, Binaural (Epic) Belle & Sebastian and Pearl Jam have both built their obsessive fan bases largely thanks to their frontmen, love them or hate them. B&S’s Stuart Murdoch has created a style of ironic wistfulness that’s kind of like the film Rushmore played out through an indie jangle. Brooding PJ frontman Eddie Vedder has a cathartic baritone that he uses to convey his detailed stories of oppression. But for this year’s releases, both handed over a large part of the songwriting duties to their bandmates. The outcome was two records lacking focus and at times coming off as somewhat parodic of each band’s signature style.

Worst All-Around: Limp Bizkit, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water (Interscope) This is just about as bad as it gets. There is truly not one redeeming quality to this record. The cover is a rather dark and unnecessarily literal translation of the record’s grotesquely scatological title. The music inside is about the same; the band rocks as blandly and as by-the-numbers as could be humanly possible. And from his unbearable rap-whine to his butter-knife-sharp wit, Fred Durst is the epitome of ambition succeeding over talent.

Best Reissues: Fela Kuti (MCA) If we rate the voracity of our pop stars on a Behind the Music scale these days, then Fela Kuti was once the reigning king. Any sex? Well, Kuti at one point had 28 wives and reportedly had sex up to three times a day. Drugs? Kuti perfected a secret blend of specially cured marijuana that supposedly could leave you high for days. Musical innovation? He practically created the Afrobeat genre, a stunningly infectious blend of rock, jazz, funk, African polyrhythms, and call-and-response chanting. Political insurrection? Kuti criticized the corrupt Nigerian government of his homeland in song so often that he was repeatedly jailed and beaten. Tragic death? Kuti’s sexual proclivities finally caught up with him, and he died of AIDS in 1997. This year MCA reissued a mere 20 albums on 10 CDs from his amazing career, which consisted of probably hundreds of albums. Start with The Best Best of Fela Kuti, and then reward yourself by working your way through every reissue. You won’t be sorry.

“Who Stole the Soul?” Award: Shelby Lynne, I Am Shelby Lynne (Island); The Twilight Singers, Twilight as Played by the Twilight Singers (Columbia); Lambchop, Nixon (Merge) While most black artists continued to mine gangsta materialism or croon dramatic paeans to butt-floss undergarments, a handful of Anglos reached into the heritage of ’60s and early-’70s soul to come up with the year’s best releases. Shelby Lynne left Tennessee and the country music industry behind, channeled Dusty Springfield, and found the right string arrangements to complement her beautifully achy voice. Greg Dulli went the dark path as usual, but without his beloved Afghan Whigs. Hooking up with British technophiles Fila Brazillia, he found the common ground between Marvin Gaye and Prince and may have ended up making the defining album of his career. And then there’s the umpteen-piece local oddballs Lambchop. With great strings that finally gave their at-times airy arrangements a concrete feel, Nixon was a perfect, thick wet slab of alt-indie-soul that constantly rewarded repeated listens. After a while, Kurt Wagner’s ruminations on random things like honey mustard start to take on a Michael Stipean charm that will leave your head bobbing contemplatively, even if you have no idea what he’s talking about.

Best Covered Ground: Neil Young, Silver and Gold (Reprise); Madonna, Music (Warner Bros.); Dwight Yoakam, Tomorrow’s Sounds Today (Warner Bros.); PJ Harvey, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island); Björk, Selmasongs (Elektra) All of the above were top-shelf records from artists who’ve remained enjoyably consistent, even when they aren’t breaking any new ground. Oh sure, the PJ record’s a lot more chipper than anything else she’s done, and Björk discovered new uses for everyday clanging sounds, and yes, Madonna worked with yet another producer. But the most enjoyable thing about all these records was their reliability. From Neil’s carefully crafted words to Dwight’s expansive country, these records represented artists relying on their best and most dependable strengths. They may not blow you away on first listen, but they’ll all bring more guaranteed pleasure in the long run.

Best Punk Rock Albums: Sleater-Kinney, All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars); Rancid , self-titled (HellCat) With the advent of Blink-182 as the face of punk at its most generic, we can truly say punk is dead and gone. Just don’t tell Sleater-Kinney or Rancid. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker forged a compromise between Dig Me Out’s histrionics and The Hot Rock’s meticulous arrangements to come up with the rockinginest and most infectious pop record of the year. Meanwhile, Rancid finally found themselves, so to speak, and made a ferocious 22-song punk declaration that sounded like a band still trying break through on the club circuit.

Worst Comeback: Juliana Hatfield, Beautiful Creature (Rounder); Juliana’s Pony, Total System Failure (Rounder) Hatfield sought to reclaim her long-lost status among alt-rock divas by simultaneously releasing two widely different records. One proved that she perhaps had missed the memo that Lilith Fair was over. The other rocked with all the self-confidence and authority of an 8-year-old whining to her parents.

Best Arguments for the Return of Guitar Gods: J. Mascis + the Fog, More Light (Artemis Records); Rage Against the Machine, Renegades (Epic); Van Halen reissues (Warner Bros.) With synthetic teen pop dominating the airwaves this year, several releases reminded us how guitar-based rock could still invigorate and inspire: After slogging through the ’90s with records that felt halfhearted, J. Mascis reappeared with a record that, yes, sounded just like Dinosaur Jr., but found him running the fretboard with a startlingly new sense of purpose. Rage’s Tom Morello cemented his stature in the rock history books with The Battle for Los Angeles, while Renegades gives us radically reworked versions of songs by everyone from Cypress Hill to Bob Dylan, proving that Morello’s ambition may eventually push the band in new directions. Finally, Warner Bros. reissued remastered versions of Van Halen’s Diamond Dave years. The biggest revelation might be that when you compare these records to the Hagar years, it seems that while Eddie was the talent, Dave may well have been the brains behind the operation.

Most Curiously Muted Musical Genre: Electronica The year 2000 arrived, and the future was here. Oddly enough, the music of the future maintained a very low profile this year. There were no big-profile achievements like last year’s Basement Jaxx or Moby records, not even an across-the-board sensation like Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank.” In fact, the increasingly oppressive omnipresence of Moby’s Play might end up proving the theory that electronica is, at best, just soundtrack music. Thievery Corporation put out some great techno-lounge with The Mirror Conspiracy ; Roni Size and Photek did an admirable job of updating drum-and-bass a little; and Armand Van Helden made a fascinatingly schizophrenic and unapologetically fun record with Killing Puritans. Nothing blew everything else away, though. Oh well, perhaps Britain’s current Two-Step Garage sensation will be the rage over here next year.

Aging Gracefully for Better or Worse: Yo La Tengo, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (Matador); Sonic Youth, NYC Ghosts & Flowers (Geffen) Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo have always been what you’d call egghead rockers. Their works are as carefully thought out as they are inspired. This might sound dull, but it has allowed each to continue making relevant rock ’n’ roll without starting to look silly. The Youth (who are all in their 40s) hooked up with Jim O’Rourke to make some of the most delicately noisy guitarscapes they’ve made in years. Complaints about their Beat poetry lyrics are somewhat valid, but if you’ve been tuning into Sonic Youth for their lyrical acumen, you missed the point a long, long time ago. Yo La Tengo, on the other hand, are quite handy with both words and mesmerizing soundscapes. Inside-Out may not feel as warm and inviting as I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One —Ira and Georgia’s incessant examination of their relationship is starting to feel a little too insular—but with a song as audacious and lovely as “Night Falls on Hoboken,” the album still offers fantastic kicks.

Aging Disgracefully and Quickly: Everclear, Songs From an American Movie Vol. One: Learning to Smile (Capitol) Art Alexakis, on the other hand, continued to look more and more like a desperate aging hipster. Sounding like Nirvana as produced by whoever does N’Sync, this painfully bad album finds him shamelessly dabbling in trends. And why he thought it necessary to cover “Brown Eyed Girl,” the most overplayed song known to man, is beyond comprehension.

Most Obviously Bruised Egos: Smashing Pumpkins, MACHINA/The Machines of God (Virgin); U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Interscope) After ambitious high-profile flops, Smashing Pumpkins and U2 tried their damnedest to woo back their audience—and their commercial success. The Pumpkins’ return to fuzzy rock was a good idea after the woefully pretentious Adore . But even with master skinsman Jimmy Chamberlain back in the fold, MACHINA felt canned and predictable, and it wasn’t helped by Corgan’s megalomaniacal bitching. The group announced their breakup shortly after the record’s release and went out with an air of complete insignificance. U2 might have made one of the ’90s’ best and most brilliant mainstream records with Achtung Baby , but All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a contrived and disingenuous return to the anthemic heartfelt rock of their ’80s years—as if to say to the VH1 market, “Hey everybody, we still love the children.” Technically, it’s a more consistent record than their last album, Pop , but only because it’s dishearteningly safe and unchallenging.

Best Single: Mystikal, “Shake Ya Ass” (Jive) No more genuinely passionate or romantic declaration was made in pop music this year than, “Shake ya ass! Show me what you’re working with!” Finally, a hip-hop artist who thought, “Forget about sampling James. Let’s just sound like him.”

Most Shameful Guilty Pleasure: Bon Jovi, “It’s My Life” (Island)

Every morning as I brush my teeth, I unconsciously find myself tapping my toes to the “woah woah” voicebox guitar at the beginning of this song, although it might have something to do with the fact that VH1 plays the video like clockwork. This song is terrible, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that after repeated exposure, I find myself anticipating its arrival with glee as I apply the Colgate. Having listened to it this much, I think I can say that the tune is a defensive apology for Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora’s awful mod hairdos.

Best Comedy Album: Jeff Bridges, Be Here Soon (Ramp Records)

There’s a growing tradition of records by actors who enter the studio thinking they’re making something of quality, while the result is unintended hilarity. If you’ve never heard them, you should really check out the collected works of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Joe Pesci. This album from talented actor Jeff Bridges has an edge over those, as it’s much in the vein of Bruce Willis’ ’80s crapterpiece The Return of Bruno. For rather than desecrating other people’s songs, Bridges has made the ill-advised decision of putting pen to paper. That way, we get timeless observations such as, “We got a sexual President / We watch our leading ladies / Who are shadows on the wall / We all are born as babies / Who hate the change birth brings.” Or even better, “Out of my hat at magic time / Feel orgasm on my spine / All these things I find and do / Don’t give me or you a clue.” Well, you really are right about one thing, Jeff: You do not have a clue. And to think Michael McDonald took time out of his busy schedule to help produce this.

2000 Andy Kaufman Award: Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP (Interscope) Is he for real? Is he joking? Who knows, and that may be the point. Like Kaufman in his pro-wrestling heyday, Dr. Dre’s hyper-verbal protégé seemed dead-set on either playing a joke on his audience or at least utterly confounding them. It’s tough to describe accurately the experience of The Marshall Mathers LP, except to say that it catches you off guard on every level. You’ll find your jaw drop at Eminem’s level of talent, the things he’s willing to do with that talent, and his frighteningly brutal unwillingness to wrap it up nicely and say, “Just kidding!” For all Em’s boasts and hate-mongering, though, one comes away with the feeling that the person Marshall Mathers is most uncomfortable with is himself. But being able to make any sense of this record is difficult at best. The current Spin has Em on the cover dressed up like Alex the droog from A Clockwork Orange. It’s an apt comparison. Much like Alex, Eminem is very bright, charming, scary, and possibly sociopathic. Let’s hope that, unlike Kubrick’s dark ending to that film, Marshall Mathers will find enlightenment on his own, and that it will stay with him.

Best Arguments for the Return of Guitar Gods: J. Mascis + the Fog, More Light (Artemis Records); Rage Against the Machine, Renegades (Epic); Van Halen reissues (Warner Bros.) With synthetic teen pop dominating the airwaves this year, several releases reminded us how guitar-based rock could still invigorate and inspire: After slogging through the ’90s with records that felt halfhearted, J. Mascis reappeared with a record that, yes, sounded just like Dinosaur Jr., but found him running the fretboard with a startlingly new sense of purpose. Rage’s Tom Morello cemented his stature in the rock history books with The Battle for Los Angeles, while Renegades gives us radically reworked versions of songs by everyone from Cypress Hill to Bob Dylan, proving that Morello’s ambition may eventually push the band in new directions. Finally, Warner Bros. reissued remastered versions of Van Halen’s Diamond Dave years. The biggest revelation might be that when you compare these records to the Hagar years, it seems that while Eddie was the talent, Dave may well have been the brains behind the operation.

Most Curiously Muted Musical Genre: Electronica The year 2000 arrived, and the future was here. Oddly enough, the music of the future maintained a very low profile this year. There were no big-profile achievements like last year’s Basement Jaxx or Moby records, not even an across-the-board sensation like Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank.” In fact, the increasingly oppressive omnipresence of Moby’s Play might end up proving the theory that electronica is, at best, just soundtrack music. Thievery Corporation put out some great techno-lounge with The Mirror Conspiracy ; Roni Size and Photek did an admirable job of updating drum-and-bass a little; and Armand Van Helden made a fascinatingly schizophrenic and unapologetically fun record with Killing Puritans. Nothing blew everything else away, though. Oh well, perhaps Britain’s current Two-Step Garage sensation will be the rage over here next year.

Aging Gracefully for Better or Worse: Yo La Tengo, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (Matador); Sonic Youth, NYC Ghosts & Flowers (Geffen) Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo have always been what you’d call egghead rockers. Their works are as carefully thought out as they are inspired. This might sound dull, but it has allowed each to continue making relevant rock ’n’ roll without starting to look silly. The Youth (who are all in their 40s) hooked up with Jim O’Rourke to make some of the most delicately noisy guitarscapes they’ve made in years. Complaints about their Beat poetry lyrics are somewhat valid, but if you’ve been tuning into Sonic Youth for their lyrical acumen, you missed the point a long, long time ago. Yo La Tengo, on the other hand, are quite handy with both words and mesmerizing soundscapes. Inside-Out may not feel as warm and inviting as I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One —Ira and Georgia’s incessant examination of their relationship is starting to feel a little too insular—but with a song as audacious and lovely as “Night Falls on Hoboken,” the album still offers fantastic kicks.

Aging Disgracefully and Quickly: Everclear, Songs From an American Movie Vol. One: Learning to Smile (Capitol) Art Alexakis, on the other hand, continued to look more and more like a desperate aging hipster. Sounding like Nirvana as produced by whoever does N’Sync, this painfully bad album finds him shamelessly dabbling in trends. And why he thought it necessary to cover “Brown Eyed Girl,” the most overplayed song known to man, is beyond comprehension.

Most Obviously Bruised Egos: Smashing Pumpkins, MACHINA/The Machines of God (Virgin); U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Interscope) After ambitious high-profile flops, Smashing Pumpkins and U2 tried their damnedest to woo back their audience—and their commercial success. The Pumpkins’ return to fuzzy rock was a good idea after the woefully pretentious Adore . But even with master skinsman Jimmy Chamberlain back in the fold, MACHINA felt canned and predictable, and it wasn’t helped by Corgan’s megalomaniacal bitching. The group announced their breakup shortly after the record’s release and went out with an air of complete insignificance. U2 might have made one of the ’90s’ best and most brilliant mainstream records with Achtung Baby , but All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a contrived and disingenuous return to the anthemic heartfelt rock of their ’80s years—as if to say to the VH1 market, “Hey everybody, we still love the children.” Technically, it’s a more consistent record than their last album, Pop , but only because it’s dishearteningly safe and unchallenging.

Best Single: Mystikal, “Shake Ya Ass” (Jive) No more genuinely passionate or romantic declaration was made in pop music this year than, “Shake ya ass! Show me what you’re working with!” Finally, a hip-hop artist who thought, “Forget about sampling James. Let’s just sound like him.”

Most Shameful Guilty Pleasure: Bon Jovi, “It’s My Life” (Island)

Every morning as I brush my teeth, I unconsciously find myself tapping my toes to the “woah woah” voicebox guitar at the beginning of this song, although it might have something to do with the fact that VH1 plays the video like clockwork. This song is terrible, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that after repeated exposure, I find myself anticipating its arrival with glee as I apply the Colgate. Having listened to it this much, I think I can say that the tune is a defensive apology for Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora’s awful mod hairdos.

Best Comedy Album: Jeff Bridges, Be Here Soon (Ramp Records)

There’s a growing tradition of records by actors who enter the studio thinking they’re making something of quality, while the result is unintended hilarity. If you’ve never heard them, you should really check out the collected works of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Joe Pesci. This album from talented actor Jeff Bridges has an edge over those, as it’s much in the vein of Bruce Willis’ ’80s crapterpiece The Return of Bruno. For rather than desecrating other people’s songs, Bridges has made the ill-advised decision of putting pen to paper. That way, we get timeless observations such as, “We got a sexual President / We watch our leading ladies / Who are shadows on the wall / We all are born as babies / Who hate the change birth brings.” Or even better, “Out of my hat at magic time / Feel orgasm on my spine / All these things I find and do / Don’t give me or you a clue.” Well, you really are right about one thing, Jeff: You do not have a clue. And to think Michael McDonald took time out of his busy schedule to help produce this.

2000 Andy Kaufman Award: Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP (Interscope) Is he for real? Is he joking? Who knows, and that may be the point. Like Kaufman in his pro-wrestling heyday, Dr. Dre’s hyper-verbal protégé seemed dead-set on either playing a joke on his audience or at least utterly confounding them. It’s tough to describe accurately the experience of The Marshall Mathers LP, except to say that it catches you off guard on every level. You’ll find your jaw drop at Eminem’s level of talent, the things he’s willing to do with that talent, and his frighteningly brutal unwillingness to wrap it up nicely and say, “Just kidding!” For all Em’s boasts and hate-mongering, though, one comes away with the feeling that the person Marshall Mathers is most uncomfortable with is himself. But being able to make any sense of this record is difficult at best. The current Spin has Em on the cover dressed up like Alex the droog from A Clockwork Orange. It’s an apt comparison. Much like Alex, Eminem is very bright, charming, scary, and possibly sociopathic. Let’s hope that, unlike Kubrick’s dark ending to that film, Marshall Mathers will find enlightenment on his own, and that it will stay with him.

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