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Ten Things We Love About 1999

The Year in Music

By Lee Gardner, Eric Allen Hatch and John Lewis | Posted 12/15/1999

When the same group of City Paper music critics put their heads together this time last year to look back on 1998's best recorded music, all we could agree on was that we couldn't agree on much. Our four top-10 lists showed no consensus whatever‹40 different choices out of 40 possible selections. This year, Mos Def's hip-hop manifesto Black on Both Sides won the number-one spot on three out of four lists and came in second on the fourth. What kept Mos Def from an unprecedented CP top-of-the-Top-10 sweep? The Roots' omni hip-hop opus Things Fall Apart, which also won mentions on two of the three other lists. Hip-hop space oddity Kool Keith showed up on three lists, as did hip-hop producer/auteur Prince Paul, and hip-hop street poet Pharoahe Monch showed up on two.

Everyone knows hip-hop is now as much a part of mainstream American culture as malls, cable TV, and dot coms. But the stuff on which our critics lavished their doting almost exists in a different universe than the ruff-ryding, cash-money, hate-me-now commercial hip-hop mainstream. With the exception of Things Fall Apart's platinum-plus breakthrough sales/radio performance (which, great album that it is, owes good deal in sales to Erykah Badu's guest spot on the hot single "You Got Me"), our unified hip-hop picks are cult tastes at best.

Generally, these lists don't reflect current radio charts, sales figures, video rotations, or mainstream-media cachet anyway. If we went strictly by dollar figures and scream decibels, we'd have to consider the teen-pop explosion as an undeniable factor in any summing-up-the-year scenario. (I will say this: Is it just me or is Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" the best hot-and-horny bubblegum since Like a Virgin-era Madonna?) Anyone who's watched Limp Bizkit and Korn duke it out with the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears on MTV's democratically elected video show Total Request Live knows that the mainstreaming of hip-hop-informed hard rock represents a major, if unpredictable, taste shift. (I will say this: Budding idiot-mogul Fred Durst must be stopped, and I don't doubt that he will be--by his own hubris and lack of talent.) The alleged Latin-music boom, led by the success of Ricky Martin and underpinned by the ongoing craze among musical gourmands for all things Cuban, didn't find its way into our calculations either. (I will say this: If you just discovered Cuba and Puerto Rico, wait till you get a load of Brazil.)

Then again, it's hard to recall a year in which the pop mainstream was so wide and so shallow. Last year, we at least had Lauryn Hill to move mind, heart, and booty on the radio. This year, what? TLC's "No Scrubs" is a cute song, but it doesn't quite live up. The adolescent wallow of Limp Bizkit, Korn, and their cohorts can be cathartic, but these bands aren't saying anything Kurt Cobain didn't say better nearly a decade ago; what they've added is an underlying misogyny and brutality that emerged at Woodstock '99. House music made its comeback a year or two back, but it keeps on coming back and coming back some more. Basement Jaxx's kitchen-sink house opus Remedy is a wildly creative antidote to a stiff Saturday night, and sometimes that's plenty, but despite the hype, it's unlikely to cure anything more existential.

The following top-10 lists display the longstanding cult faves (Beck, Stereolab, Tom Waits) and obscurities (Nels Cline/Gregg Bendian? The Locust? Tony Allen?) one might expect from a quorum of critics at an alternaweekly. Our critics' atypical chorus of agreement on Mos Def, the Roots, Prince Paul, etc. likely has more to do with our love for well-crafted and heartfelt pop music than with the artists' hip-hop stripes.

Though Mos Def is relatively fresh on the scene (he made up one half of last year's highly praised indie hip-hop project Black Star), the Roots, Kool Keith, Prince Paul, and Pharoahe Monch have all been at this for most of the decade or longer. They have resisted the playalistic vibe that was so often rewarded with multiplatinum sales in the '90s and turned out consistently sharp, creative, intelligent, often brilliant music, only to "sell wood in the 'hood." Yet the Roots found a way for their love of hip-hop to sustain them through to their greatest success; Monch found a way to write and rap a ruffneck album that didn't come off like a cartoon or a death threat; Kool Keith fully embraced the cartoonish possibilities of hip-hop and took them light years beyond; Prince Paul took the same-old same-old story about a rapper caught up in the drug game and made it work on a whole 'nother level; and Mos Def seemed to simply open his mouth and let you into his world and his head with consummate confidence and ease. Now that's what you might call keeping it real.

A few tributes before we get to the lists: Auf Weidersehen to cabaret singer Agnes Bernelle. A tip of the tam to the late Junior Braithwaite of the Wailers, reggae crooner Dennis Brown, and dubmaster Augustus Pablo. A soulful farewell to Gwen "Ain't Nothin' Going on but the Rent" Guthrie and Roger "Zapp" Troutman. The angels sing for Charles Brown, Mel Tormé, and Joe Williams. The bandstand in jazz heaven welcomes Lester Bowie, Jaki Byard, Art Farmer, Fred Hopkins, Milt Jackson, Michel Petrucciani, Horace Tapscott, and Leon Thomas. Soweto weeps for mbaqanga groaner Mahlathin, while the streets of Manhattan remember Louis "Moondog" Hardin. Play the blues one time for Lowell Fulson. Safe travels to Bryn Jones, aka Muslimgauze, and drum 'n' bass DJ Kemistry. Goodnight to '60s casualties Skip Spence, Love's Bryan McLean, and the Band's Rick Danko. Adieu to zydeco man Beau Jocque. Let's have a moment of silence for Dusty Springfield. And so long to Marylanders Mary Pat Hughes, Geno Capitol, Gerardo Moylan, Vince Loving, and Charlie Byrd.

-- LEE GARDNER


LEE GARDNER

1. Mos Def, Black on Both Sides(Rawkus) Mos Def's solo debut plays like a first novel with beats as he lays down his takes on hip-hop, love, his home borough of Brooklyn, and the circumstances that make late-90s America a hard place to be a young black man. But it sounds as though he wouldn't trade places with anybody, and that makes all the difference.

2. The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs(Merge) Some of Stephin Merritt's 69 poppy, dinky, witty, literate, affecting paeans to l'amour are quite dispensable. The rest are anything but.

3. The Roots, Things Fall Apart(MCA) The Roots focus, lock down their musical sprawl, and learn important lessons: Keep the beats tight and no issue or emotion is too complex.

4. Nels Cline/Gregg Bendian, Interstellar Space Revisited: The Music of John Coltrane(Atavistic) Guitarist Cline and percussionist Bendian update Coltrane's cosmic free-jazz soul search with poise and fire--and an invaluable assist from Cline's galaxy of sonic tricks.

5. Randy Newman, Bad Love(Warner Bros.) There's nothing even remotely jiggy about Newman, but he wrote a fistful of the most essential pop songs of 1999. "Every Time It Rains" and "Big Hat, No Cattle" detail midlife failure as only an honest man can, "Great Nations of Europe" and "The World Isn't Fair" cast a hairy eyeball on realpolitik, and "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)" torpedoes aging rockers who keep on though they can't keep up. No such worries here.

6. The Dismemberment Plan, Emergency & I(DeSoto) There's no shortage of sensitive young rock bands these days, but only the Washington, D.C.-based Plan channels these sorts of innovative riffs, quirky beats, squelchy sounds, and killer hooks. Songs such as "What Do You Want Me to Say?" and "You Are Invited" are so beautifully sappy and compulsively catchy that you'll blush every single time as you listen to them, over and over and over.

7. Beck, Midnite Vultures(DGC) I'll bet that a decade from now, this insanely detailed homage to post-Sly Stone R&B will still make it to the car stereo from time to time while the Slim Shady LP, Devil Without a Cause, and Significant Other keep the gum wrappers and lost quarters under the front seat company.

8. Pole, CD1(Matador) In an year dominated by hyperactive modern-music types such as Basement Jaxx, this stunning, spectral glitch-dub opus slipped in under the radar like Augustus Pablo at absolute zero.

9. Carlinhos Brown, Omelete Man(Blue Note) Afro-Brazilian Brown's latest solo effort combines Bahian beats, bossa nova balladry, and the Beatles ("Soul By Soul") for a sunny, smart, booty-movin' album of tropical pop.

10. Prince Paul, A Prince Among Thieves(Tommy Boy) Prince Paul, inventor of the hip-hop skit, perfects the hip-hopera. Funnier, sadder, truer, craftier, and phatter than anything else like it.

'90s favorites: Slint, Spiderland (Touch & Go); Junior Kimbrough, Sad Days, Lonely Nights (Fat Possum); PJ Harvey, Rid of Me (UNI/Polygram); A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (Jive); My Bloody Valentine, Loveless (Sire); Nuyorican Soul, Nuyorican Soul (Giant Steps/UNI/GRP); Tortoise, Millions Now Living Will Never Die (Thrill Jockey); Radiohead, OK Computer (Capitol); Oval, Systemisch (Thrill Jockey); Pavement, Slanted and Enchanted (Matador).

ERIC ALLEN HATCH

1. Mos Def, Black on Both Sides(Rawkus) It says something positive that there's industry support for an MC as genuine and imaginative as Mos Def. Full of sounds that will please every hip-hop fan, Black on Both Sides peaks with the DJ Premier- produced "Mathematics," a sobering wake-up call for our times.

2. Mr. Bungle, California(Warner Bros.) Whether you worship speed-metal gods, arcane-soundtrack aficionados, avant-jazz snobs, or art-rock nerds, Mr. Bungle gave you a reason to bow down in the 1990s. The group closes the decade with this divinely puzzling CD, structured around doo-wop melodies.

3. Prince Paul, A Prince Among Thieves (Tommy Boy) A moralizing rap opera with wit, wisdom, and an all-star cast--not to mention the first collaboration between Prince Paul and De La Soul since 1993's Buhloone Mind State.

4. The Locust, The Locust(Gold Standard Laboratories) A bombastic and bold debut CD from this San Diego outfit rooted in hardcore tempos and politics. Amazing chops, impressive dynamics.

5. Pharoahe Monch, Internal Affairs(Rawkus) A solo debut from one-half of Organized Konfusion that's full of personality and dense, forceful production. Hardcore rap for the thinking person.

6. Arab on Radar, Rough Day at the Orifice(Op pop pop) A spastic recombinant of hardcore and no-wave music that flirts with senseless violence and confrontational performance art. So calculated in its sloppiness that it's unmatchably tight.

7. Fantomas, Fantomas( Ipecac) The project Mike Patton assembled in the wake of Faith No More's breakup turns out to be a dark, energetic ode to an Italian spy with superpowers, as Patton's inhuman array of nonverbal vocal effects tightly interlock with bass, guitar, and drums.

8. Le Tigre, Le Tigre(Mr. Lady) Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, videomaker Sadie Benning, and zine writer Johanna Fateman debut a sound that's smart, unapologetically feminist, and irrepressibly entertaining, using samples and electronic beats to augment songs that recall Sleater-Kinney, Devo, and the Pixies.

9. Stereolab, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night(Warner/ADA) Since the group delivers sophisticated, sugary pop of the highest order, each Stereolab CD probably belongs on the top-10 list for its year of release. And the band releases records every year.

10. Big'n/Oxes, Big'n/Oxes(Box Factory) Chicago's Big'n is a fine band, but Charm City's own Oxes are the reason this CD made this list. The group's complicated and raw mathematical no wave, teetering excitedly on the edge of too much attitude, is the most interesting thing happening locally in 1999.

'90s favorites: Gang Starr, Step in the Arena (Chrysalis); Boredoms, Pop Tatari (Reprise); Nation of Ulysses, Plays Pretty for Baby (Dischord); Dog Faced Hermans, Those Deep Buds (Alternative Tentacles); Scissor Girls, From: the scissor girls to:The Imaginary Layer on Skeletons (The Making of Americans); Mr. Bungle, Disco Volante (Warner Bros.); Dr. Octagon, Dr. Octagonecologyst (Dreamworks); De La Soul, Stakes Is High (Tommy Boy); Company Flow, Funcrusher Plus (Rawkus); Beastie Boys, Hello Nasty (Grand Royal).

JOHN LEWIS

1. Mos Def, Black on Both Sides(Rawkus) On his first solo venture, Black Star's Mos Def crafts an ambitious celebration of hip-hop culture. From anthemic head-bobbers such as "Hip-Hop" and "Do It Now" to introspective meditations such as "Love" and "Umi Says," Black on Both Sides is a history lesson you can feel, one that seems capable of both sharpening minds and softening hearts.

2. Innerzone Orchestra, Programmed(Planet E/Astralwerks) Billed as Detroit techno meets jazz, Programmed teams Carl Craig with former Sun Ra percussionist Francisco Mora and James Carter organist Craig Taborn to stretch electronic music around a corner that used to be occupied by Miles Davis, and they unexpectedly create the best jazz record of the year.

3. Kool Keith, Black Elvis/Lost in Space(Red Ink) The George Clinton of hip-hop, Kool Keith navigates through alternative sonic worlds with his own musical lexicon and various personae. Equal parts rock superstar and ghetto hero, Keith's Black Elvis vibes on a twisted brand of futuristic funk that's much fresher than thugged-out commercial hip-hop fodder.

4. Jon Hassell, Fascinoma(Water Lily Acoustics) A strange and wonderful recording that filters Hassell's cerebral trumpet musings through Ry Cooder's Big Muddy sensibilities. The results are both murky and mysterious.

5. Me'shell Ndegéocello, Bitter(Warner Bros.) A great postfunk record, Bitter is Ndegéocello's most direct and satisfying effort to date. With hints of Joni Mitchell and Sly Stone in the mix, it simmers with soulful grooves, smoldering sexuality, and pop melodicism. "Loyalty" should have been one of the summer's biggest hits.

6. Ali Farka Toure, Niafunke(Hannibal) A West African rice farmer with a hellhound on his trail, Farka Toure wrings stinging blue notes and crippled chords from a guitar that functions like some sort of divining rod to the spirit world.

7. The Roots, Things Fall Apart(MCA) With help from Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, Mos Def, Common, and DJ Jazzy Jeff, Philly's finest make waves in the marketplace and finally shed its cult status. A recently released live disc reinforces the notion that the Roots are perhaps the finest collective in contemporary hip-hop.

8. Tom Waits, Mule Variations(Epitaph) Waits' Howlin' Wolf voice still shakes rust off the blues; this time around he pleases old fans by throwing in a few piano ditties that hearken back to his Asylum days. The guy's a national treasure.

9. Tony Allen, Black Voices(Comet) As Fela's longtime drummer, Allen pulsed with creative rhythms. Full of strange juju, this disc deconstructs Afro-pop and mixes its various elements with '70s funk and analog electronica. The title cut could be James Brown jamming with DJ Spooky.

10. Music Tapes, 1st Imaginary Symphony for Nomad(Merge) One of the strangest records of this or any other year, this cycle of songs by Neutral Milk Hotel's Julian Koster suggests that sound collage is a viable alternative to psychotherapy for some folks. Like a fey Captain Beefheart, Koster uses lo-fi tape splicing, clanging percussion, and Beatlesque melodies to exorcise dysfunctional family demons.

'90s favorites: Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Toure, Talking Timbuktu (Hannibal); Elliott Smith, Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars); Henryk Gorecki, Symphony No. 3 (Elektra Nonesuch); Latin Playboys, Latin Playboys (Warner Bros.); Junior Kimbrough, Sad Days, Lonely Nights (Fat Possum); Beck, Odelay (DGC); Massive Attack, Blue Lines (Virgin); Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Polygram); Mos Def, Black on Both Sides (Rawkus); The Tinklers, Crash (Shimmy Disc).

VINCENT WILLIAMS

1. The Roots, Things Fall Apart(MCA) Everything came together on the Philly hip-hop band's fourth album. Buttressed by their silky hit, "You Got Me," the Roots made the smartest hip-hop album in a year chock full of the stuff.

2. Mos Def, Black on Both Sides(Rawkus) Mos Def's combination of ragamuffin delivery, nationalism, and sheer love for the craft of hip-hop delivered on the promise set forth by Black Star.

3. Me'shell Ndegéocello, Bitter(Warner Bros.) On Ndegéocello's third album, she infuses songs of pain and sorrow with so much emotion and intimacy that listening almost feels like eavesdropping.

4. Kool Keith, Black Elvis/Lost in Space(Red Ink) The intergalactic traveler disguised as an MC stopped by long enough to give the planet a disc full of rap commentary, hieroglyphic lyrics, and general wackiness.

5. Prince Paul, A Prince Among Thieves(Tommy Boy) An honest to goodness rap opera. With the aid of talented MCs such as De La Soul, Everlast, and Kool Keith, Prince Paul succeeds in pushing the boundaries of hip-hop.

6. Raekwon, Immobilarity(Columbia) The Wu-Tang Clan's sharpest sword, the Chef delivers another plate of lyrical loveliness, and once again proves he's the best storytelling MC since Slick Rick.

7. Ol' Dirty Bastard, N***a Please(Elektra) Insane. Ignorant. Funny. Outrageous. Whether any of those adjectives apply, one thing remains--the Dirty One is damned talented.

8. Jazzyfatnastees, Theonceandfuture(MCA) After years of singing hooks for groups such as De La Soul, the Roots, and A Tribe Called Quest, the duo's debut album reminded the listener that girl groups used to be able to sing.

9. Pharoahe Monch, Internal Affairs(Rawkus) From the legendary Organized Konfusion, Pharoahe Monch's solo debut wove words and twisted metaphors but still managed to keep asses moving.

10. Cassandra Wilson, Traveling Miles(Blue Note) The fact that her personality comes through while interpreting some of Miles Davis' masterpieces is a feat in itself. The fact that Wilson's husky voice and unique arrangements add to them is sublime.

'90s favorites: A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (Jive); Dr. Dre, The Chronic (Death Row); Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (RCA); Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Sony); Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Blood on the Fields (Columbia); Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die (Bad Boy); D'Angelo, Brown Sugar (EMD/Capitol); Massive Attack, Protection (Virgin); Various Artists, Stolen Moments: Red, Hot + Cool (GRP); Portishead, Dummy (Polygram).

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