Some part of you has to be a little nervous about December 31, 1999not because of “Y2K” or apocalypse, but because it’s difficult to imagine actually living in the year 2000. Why are we so tense about it? The numbers that humankind assigned to the flow of time have significance only to humans, and the change from the 1000s to the 2000s should be no more exciting than watching your odometer roll over. But the human race loves to make setsto circle a group of numbers or items and give it a meaning.
So it is with music. No matter how much calculation is done by record companies, the steady release of new product lacks the comprehensible ebb and flow of the movie or television industries. Still, we music writers come to the end of each year, and we pretend that all the musicians picked up their instruments on Jan. 1 and started developing trends that peaked in the summer and culminated with the holidays. Things are rarely that neat.
Last year, I wrote that the prevailing trend of 1998 was the troubadour-like stylings of singer-songwriters. Was it? Or was it just that I had reached a point in my life where all I wanted to listen to was pretty voices and pretty guitars?
There are real trends in popular music, but critics who angle to be fresh (or who are bored with writing the same descriptive phrases every week) sometimes make insupportable generalizations. Hence “rock is dead,” “rap is dead,” “techno is dead,” and whatever other since-disproved theory that floated around in the past few years.
What I heard in 1999 was a lot of instrumental rock and imaginative power pop. Are these trends? Well, instrumental rock certainly is. About every third CD I received in the mail from indie record companies had some slight variation on the formula of odd guitar tunings and sudden tempo changes. Some of it is nice background music, but most of it is presumptuous and unlikable.
As for the power pop vein running through 1999, that might be something I sought out myselfmy own yearning for heroic chord progressions and bittersweet melodies. But there sure was a lot of good guitar pop this year, from the lush and futuristic (Flaming Lips, Wilco) to the stripped-down and classic (Old 97s, Fountains of Wayne, Sloan) to the retro-experimental (The Ladybug Transistor, Lilys). If this is a real trend, it’s a good onethe world should never tire of catchy ditties, especially when they express such distinctive worldviews.
About mainstream music, the less said the better. If anything disproves that the world loves good pop songs, it would be this year’s Top 40, which shifted from brainless, tuneless rap-metal to saccharine, shallow bubblegum.
A prediction for the next few years: Niche genres like metal and rap (and rap-metal) will fade, and pop stars will again be expected to be innovative and to command a broad palette of styles. Expect a lot of musical fusion and at least one truly important popular artist to emerge before 2005. Also, expect that it will take about one month into the year 2000 before some clever critic refers to a book, movie, or record as “the best of the millennium.”
Happy odometer rollover.
1. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.) Not just the most ingenious, original rock ’n’ roll record of the year, but also a surprisingly moving meditation on the limits of humans and superhumans.
2. Fountains of Wayne, Utopia Parkway (Atlantic) Using power pop as homage and as thematic statement, these suburban Jersey upstarts create a timeless rock ’n’ roll record about growing up listening to timeless rock ’n’ roll.
3. Ladybug Transistor, The Albemarle Sound (Merge) Harking back to pastoral ’60s pop without merely aping it, this charming, summery record strikes a specific nostalgic chord tinged with longing.
4. Old 97s, Fight Songs (Elektra) These Texas country-rockers come by their twang honestly, though lately they’ve been downplaying it in favor of a sweet blue croon, swift tempos, and shimmering guitars.
5. Three-way tie: Beck, Midnite Vultures (DGC); The Folk Implosion, One Part Lullaby (Interscope); and Luscious Jackson, Electric Honey (Capitol) All three of these records are deeply flawed (ideologically and/or tonally), but each provides fleeting, brilliant glimpses at the artistry and emotion of which dance music is capable.
6. Built to Spill, Keep It Like a Secret (Warner Bros.) Not the commercial breakthrough or musical revelation that some of us had hoped, but still a guitar lover’s dreamepic ax swinging looming over jagged songs about momentary consternation.
7. High Llamas, Snowbug (V2) Sean O’Hagan’s best record yet integrates his obsessionsSteely Dan, Brian Wilson, Brazilian music, dubinto one cohesive, rewarding travelogue.
8. Lilys, The 3 Way (Sire) In which the music from a typical episode of Shindig is fractured and bent unnaturally around brittle, non-linear short storiesretro-pop as found art.
9. Superchunk, Come Pick Me Up (Merge) A graceful, almost effortless collection of loud (but not noisy), fast (but not frenetic) pop-punk from veteran rockers unafraid to sweeten their music with strings and horns.
10. Three-way tie: American Analog Set, The Golden Band (Emperor Jones); Lullaby for the Working Class, Song (Bar None); and Matt Pond PA, Measure (-Esque) The antidote to the growing pile of pretty but dull instrumental rock is pretty and vibrant vocal rock, as practiced by these three acts, all of whom use hypnotic vamps to deepen their music.
11. Wilco, Summer Teeth (Warner Bros.) One of the year’s most ambitious rock records was often hampered by its elaborate production; Jeff Tweedy’s touching and morose folk-pop doesn’t need to work so hard to enchant.
12. Pavement, Terror Twilight (Matador) Still mired in mid-tempos, and still hobbled by Steve Malkmus’ “I could give a shit” vocals, but also still blessed by unexpected moments of beauty and Malkmus’ bewitching, maze-like lyrics.
13. Sloan, Between the Bridges and 4 Nights at the Palais Royale (Murderecords) Two new releases from these rockin’ Canadiansthe former a slightly pale sequel to last year’s essential Navy Blues, and the latter a two-CD live document that’s required listening for any fan of harmonies and power chords.
14. The Shazam, Godspeed the Shazam (Not Lame) Proof that the American music press is hopelessly starstruck: Matthew Sweet’s mediocre new album got excessive coverage and praise while this wonderfully assured Nashville guitar-pop act is waiting patiently for a well-deserved spotlight.
15. Tie: Bike Ride, Thirty-Seven Secrets I Only Told America (Hidden Agenda) and Of Montreal, The Gay Parade (Bar/None) Two whimsical homemade pop epicslabors of love for a couple of cracked romantics and every friend of theirs who can tote an instrument.
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