Moby, Sigur Rós, and Orbital
1 June 1999
Moby’s hugely successful Play was famous in its time for being the first CD to have every one of its tracks licensed for television commercials, TV shows, and movies. If you’ve never heard the album, you might assume, accordingly, that it’s a poppy, ephemeral, lightweight piece of work, yet it’s anything but.
In fact, there’s a much better reason why Play is famous: Moby’s seamless interweaving of his own electronic music with old recordings of gospel, folk, and blues songs, many of them field recordings rescued from oblivion by the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. The combination is stunningly successful. There’s a monumental quality to the music that makes it sound as if the melodies have always been with us—which, in a sense, they have.
Moby supposedly licensed Play‘s tracks out of frustration with radio’s unwillingness to play his songs, but he was able to do this so successfully and ubiquitously only because the quality of the album is so consistently high. Not only are there hardly any weak tracks on this album (a few rap samples aside), there are hardly any that aren’t memorable.
As such, it’s difficult to single out the best tracks, but “Natural Blues”, built around the song “Trouble So Hard” by the late folksinger Vera Hall, is a true beauty. “Porcelain” and “Run On” are also great—you may not recognize the titles, but you’ll instantly recognize the songs themselves, and if that’s because you first encountered them on television or in a movie, well, why exactly is that bad?
The question of whether Moby “sold out” is, like the issue of whether Play “stands up” after 10 years, beside the point. In its combination of the antique and the electronic, and in the exquisite care with which both halves of the equation were placed into a universal context, Play achieves timelessness. Michael Antman
1 June 1999
Now that Iceland’s second-most-famous musical exports have been uplifting indie-rock for a decade, it’s worth re-summoning the thick fog of mystery that attended the band as this astonishing album was first being discovered by listeners beyond the rocky volcanic shores of its birth. In a global culture made increasingly interconnected and credulous by the Internet, Ágætis Byrjun was an ephemeral whisper of myth and magic. “Have you heard of this band?” someone might say to a cherished friend. “They’re kind of like Radiohead, only they’re from Iceland. And they sound like elves or something.”
For all we knew, these stunning soundscapes of ethereal beauty could have been made by a mischievous collective of latter-day Lokis, or else by winsome gnomes and mountain sprites, pining for the fjords like ex-pats from the background of Peer Gynt. How were we to know? It was 1999, and Ricky Martin was a star; no one could deny that stranger things had happened in pop music. Three albums of similarly magnificent compositions have caused that fog to disintegrate, but the sublime recording that introduced Sigur Rós to the wider world retains its moving transcendence. The band may have later reached higher, but they haven’t since pierced us so deeply. This is music momentous in its patience, and patient in its momentousness. “A good beginning,” indeed. Ross Langager
8 June 1999
Middle of Nowhere
Orbital were large from the start. The genius behind the Hartnoll brothers’ tunes was just how massive everything was, seemingly designed to rock a wide-open and well-lit space. The grandness reached its climax with 1996’s In Sides, which saw the duo’s cinematic ambitions reach a peak with the half-hour single “The Box” (and accompanying short film), not to mention soundtracking The Saint and Event Horizon around the same time.
1999, then, was an odd time to be Orbital. The advent of more advanced computer programs was ushering in the era of the laptop performer, making Orbital’s racks of live gear look curiously archaic. Rather than scale things back or make concessions to the glitch, minimal, or jungle music that had taken over popularity at the time, however, Orbital took the pure road and delivered Middle of Nowhere, another sprawling maximal journey. Opener “Way Out” immediately produces the kitchen sink, with horns, strings, and ethereal female vocalizations rotating in a binaural salad—it’s worth noting here that Nowhere is an excellent headphones record.
Nowhere proudly betrays its creators’ gearslut tendencies, down to single “Style”, built largely out of the Stylophone novelty pocket synthesizer. Frequent collaborator Alison Goldfrapp (who in 1999 was busy enough with her debut solo album) stops by to offer some unintelligible (yet no less entrancing) singing on the two-part “Nothing Left”. For many artists on this list, 1999 was a “weird” year in which, perhaps owing to a case of the pre-millennium whatevers, things got looser than listeners could (or should) handle. That Orbital stayed their course while still managing to drop another excellent release only illustrates just how forward-thinking they were in the early ‘90s. This album has aged quite well, still sounding exciting and fresh, and given Orbital’s recent regrouping, perhaps its time to get back to the middle of nowhere. David Abravanel
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times.