Personal Statements 

Critics' choices are always subjective, but that hardly makes them devoid of meaning

Critics' choices are always subjective, but that hardly makes them devoid of meaning

It’s easy to be cynical about “year ends,” the annual best-of lists that get critics’ panties all in a wad. At their innocuous best, these inventories reflect a writer’s preferences—those records he or she liked or listened to most during the year in question. In less benign but still harmless cases, they shine a light on a writer’s insecurities, his (and it’s always a guy) 11th-hour endorsement of records his peers raved about. At their worst, annual best-ofs bring out the elitist streak in critics. They become opportunities for writers to lord their “good taste” (read “obscurantism”) over a benighted public besotted with Counting Crows and Will Smith, a public that wouldn’t know Olivia Tremor Control from Olivia Newton-John.

This isn’t to say that all year-end lists are a sham, just that, as critics, we ought to acknowledge our biases when we impose our annual picks on readers. My list contains a few obscurities and is plenty self-reflexive, but I think it coheres around a certain affective logic: I want my hue and cry to signify. That doesn’t mean records that merely sound swell can’t fit into my critical scheme—at least one album that made my Top Ten this year did nothing but rock the body (and at times tickle the funny bone). But at the risk of sounding too sober, even self-important, for my own good, I gravitate toward records that sound great and say something.

In the past two years, there’s been no shortage of musically compelling albums that have spoken volumes. If 1998, the year of OutKast, Lucinda Williams, and Lauryn Hill, heralded the decline of irony, then 1999 saw everyone from rootsy singer-songwriter Julie Miller to hip-hop prophets the Roots openly searching for meaning, if not for some sort of transcendence. Such pursuits go on all the time and are perhaps the stock-in-trade of the artists I just mentioned. But substantive concerns were also writ large in albums that landed just outside my Top Ten, including those by Magnetic Fields, Prince Paul, Toshi Reagon, Beth Orton, and Rage Against the Machine. Perhaps due to millennial malaise, or just the gnawing awareness that our world remains profoundly out of joint, it seemed that everywhere you turned this year, you could find records full of sound and fury that signified plenty.

1. Julie Miller, Broken Things (HighTone) After years of spiritual and emotional unrest, Miller awakened from her dark night of the soul possessed of an immense capacity for empathy. In fact, the alt-country-identified singer-songwriter (and former contemporary Christian artist) is so attuned to the misery of others that even nature mirrors its presence. “I know why the river runs/To a place somewhere far away/And I know why the sky is cryin’/When there aren’t any words to say,” she sings in a voice both gauzy and piercing. Some have dismissed Miller’s adenoidal vocals as girlish, but the bloodletting intensity with which she delivers lines like these is positively cathartic. Few albums this decade have plumbed human suffering with such compassion and insight.

2. Moby, Play (V2) The pale one’s 1995 opus, Everything Is Wrong, was rife with feelings of estrangement born of the gulf between God and modern humanity. Here, however, Moby achieves a measure of redemption. Hitching his angelic choirs, throbbing grooves, and blissed-out synths to samples of old blues and gospel records—music that has always assumed suffering as its starting point—he creates techno in excelsis that hovers somewhere in the twilight that blurs the pleasures of Saturday night and the pieties of Sunday morning. I miss the accelerated beats-per-minute of his early work, but this is as sublime as music gets, reconciling sacred to profane, heaven to earth.

3. Ibrahim Ferrer, Buena Vista Social Club Presents (World Circuit) The solo debut of this 72-year-old Havana saloon singer proves Neil Young’s burn-out-or-rust quandary to be the false dilemma it’s always been. Ferrer’s relaxed, knowing vocals suggest he’s seen it all, and doubtless he has, judging by the rapture and sorrow, tenderness and lust embedded in the grooves of this Afro-Cuban dance record. Strings and horns add muted colors, touches as wondrously nuanced as the inflections in Ferrer’s loamy tenor, a voice so sweet and assured you’d lay odds its owner knows the secret of life.

4. Sleater-Kinney, The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars) The Hot Rock may be more polished than this trio’s previous LPs, but its newfound subtlety doesn’t come at the expense of Corin Tucker’s piercing, Poly Styrene-like wail, Carrie Brownstein’s stiletto guitar, or Janet Weiss’ inexorable kick. Working with more spacious arrangements and a broader sonic palette, the album stresses the melodic aspects of the group’s vocals and guitars—as well as their fundamental interconnectedness—as never before. In this sense, Sleater-Kinney’s evolution recalls that of another band of influential art-punks, Wire, which effected a similar transition on its first two albums.

5. The Roots, Things Fall Apart (MCA) The title of The Roots’ fourth and best studio album isn’t without a certain irony. This Philadelphia septet’s float-like-a-butterfly, sting-like-a-bee weave couldn’t be more together, evincing an intuitive mastery and flow akin to that of the great beboppers. Yet as the white record exec on the album’s opening track explains, “Inevitably, hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable. They’re not maximized as product even, not to mention as art.” It’s an old story, one true not just of rap, but of most African-derived forms of cultural expression. The Roots are acutely aware of this: In the 1958 Chinua Achebe novel alluded to in their album’s title, European imperialists rob an African village of its soul.

6. Basement Jaxx, Remedy (XL/Astralwerks) Hands down the dance record of the year, this British duo’s full-length debut harks back both to the turn-of-the-decade house music of Brooklyn’s Todd Terry and to the transcontinental techno of groups like Snap and Dee-Lite. A tonic for the cerebral detachment of most across-the-pond electronica, Remedy is the stuff of sweaty bodies and elevated libidos—disco hedonism at its uninhibited best.

7. Continental Drifters, Vermilion (Razor & Tie) The Drifters, a Crescent City confederacy of onetime contenders from the likes of The Bangles and The dBs, seem almost anachronistic by today’s standards. Eschewing irony and post-whatever posturing, they wear their tattered-but-still throbbing hearts on their sleeves. The group’s odes to life’s not-so-little ups and downs may be private, but they’re far from insular. And they gain resonance from being rendered in everyday language, and in voices that go flat and sharp the way most people’s do. Sweetened by accordion and mandolin, the band’s hook-laden roots-rock is just as real—world-class, in fact.

8. Cassandra Wilson, Traveling Miles (Blue Note) “Here in this quiet place I own, worlds are born,” intones velvet-voiced conjure-woman Wilson as churning polyrhythms bubble up around her, as if from a steaming cauldron. Wilson wrote these lines for her vocal adaptation of “Run the Voodoo Down,” the closing track from Miles Davis’ smoldering Bitches Brew LP. And they’re a fitting tribute, as is this entire pop-wise album, to what Wilson dubs Davis’ female side—the side that proved that the spaces between notes can at times bear more than the notes themselves.

9. Sarah Dougher, Day One (K) This thirtysomething grrl-punk’s folk-rock-influenced solo debut could easily pass for a loose concept album about addiction and recovery. At a deeper level, though, Dougher’s record strikes at the heart of what feeds dependency and destroys relationships—keeping secrets, and the way that living with them precludes intimacy. A few of the songs here might have succumbed to didacticism were it not for her buttery, plainspoken alto—an instrument as honest as the committed relationships Dougher treasures.

10. James Talley, Songs of Woody Guthrie and My Oklahoma Home (Cimarron) Talley’s Guthrie record is no mere tribute album, but rather a case of one dustbowl child reaching across time and space to another. Witness “This Land Is Your Land,” in which Talley’s vocals betray none of the exuberance that made the song an anthem on the early-’60s hootenanny circuit. Instead, his ambivalent reading captures the dissonance, the commingled sense of possibility and loss, not only of the original, but of his own life and that of the Okie line from which he has descended. Billy Bragg and Wilco may have revivified Guthrie’s myth for the post-Nevermind set. But here, armed with the force of history and the machine that kills fascists, Talley makes Woody’s world his own.

The Next Ten

The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs (Merge); Prince Paul, A Prince Among Thieves (Tommy Boy); Toshi Reagon, The Righteous Ones (Razor & Tie); Beth Orton, Central Reservation (Arista); Rage Against the Machine, The Battle of Los Angeles (Epic); Macy Gray, On How Life Is (Epic); Johnny Dowd, Pictures From Life’s Other Side (Koch); Handsome Boy Modeling School, So...How’s Your Girl? (Tommy Boy); Mystik Journeymen, The Black Sounds ov Eternia (Outhouse/ Revenge); Tom Waits, Mule Variations (Epitaph).

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