Music

The Edge of Change: The Most Memorable Albums of 1999

PopMatters is 20 and to celebrate we are looking back at the popular music that defined the year of our birth, 1999. [Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5]

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5]

In the relative safety of comfortable hindsight, think back to that moment of propulsion as our collective species hurtled towards one of time's ineluctable barriers. One of the most expansive and reflexive centuries in history was slamming to a close, and an equally mythologized future was careening toward us, promise and uncertainty reaching out to pull us forward. And that moment even came with its own pop soundtrack -- appropriately-ironically-enough written 17 years earlier -- as we danced the fin de siècle shuffle, partying because it was, at last, 1999.

That culturally impregnated year saw the birth of PopMatters, finding its nascent voice as an open-ended exploration of the cultural moment, and continuing in this vein for the first decade of the chrome-bright 21st century. As we celebrate our 10th birthday, it only seems fitting to explore the year we came to life, and doubly so given that 1999 was a year of inevitable weight. From the start, PopMatters loved music -- loved what music means in art, history, culture and society; loved what music means to people -- and it's only natural that we care about the music of the year we were born.

But the music of 1999 has more importance than a mere catalog history of chart positions and popular tunes suitable for cutsey birthday cards. As mildly embarrassing and forgettable as "Y2K" paranoia seems now, it's easy to forget that music was experiencing the same cultural moment as every other human endeavor: a preparation for passage. Nothing clearly marks the interconnectedness of the human race quite like the triumph of the Gregorian calendar, and the looming turn of a new century was a planetary phenomenon. Even the hazy confusion over the actual beginnings and endings of centuries is an attendant example of how this preparation for passage was marked with uncertainty and anxiety, and no small amount of anticipation.

Any number of genres scrabbled through the 1990s to be the ascendant king of the final days and/or first voice of the future. For a time, it seemed obvious that electronic dancescapes would be the champion of a brave new world. But hip-hop had already begun to assimilate the planet, and even traditional forms like Americana and country found new revivals. Jazz, punk, metal, Latin, world, indie, and pop -- the entire 20th century seems to be represented in 1999's plethora of releases. One peek at the exhaustive list of 1999 albums on Wikipedia reveals just how diverse human song was as we sung out the old cycle.

In sorting through the list of 1999 releases to select some of the most noteworthy, PopMatters sought out those releases that marked out 1999 in their own distinct ways. Whether or not you consider the success of Britney Spears and Blink 182 to be worthy or a stain, their impact on how we listened in 1999 is inescapable. Mainstream country gained massive crossover appeal in the Dixie Chicks' sophomore effort, and lost the same as it lost Garth Brooks to Chris Gaines. Whether the idyllic icon of the West Coast was won by the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Rage Against the Machine is still debated. Eve, Missy Elliot, TLC, and Macy Gray offered competing pop narratives for women, while the war of cool on the dancefloor was waged between Air and Basement Jaxx while old-timers the Underworld slipped in the back door.

Some of the artists herein made grand final statements in 1999 (XTC, Ben Folds Five), while others debuted to a mere glimmer of the success they'd achieve in the new century (The White Stripes, Eminem). Most are names that continue to influence and shape the discourse of popular music in 2009. And whether or not the artists remain vital in the present, these are the albums that shaped 1999, that expressed the electric trepidation and expectation on the edge of change, and helped to shape the future.

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