Alongside the looming millennium, 1999 proved memorable for several entertainment-related reasons. This jaded reviewer recalls suffering through years of CGI-heavy Hollywood snooze-fests (“Armageddon” anyone?), only to be whipsawed by three fantastic films inside six months, Fight Club, The Matrix, and The Sixth Sense, which we consider one of cinema’s most innovative screenplay puzzles. Musically, this emancipated mood was also ascendant. Thanks to a rapidly expanding Internet and online retail pioneers like CDNow and Music Boulevard, music snobs everywhere left stale FM and college radio behind for obscure indie labels and rarefied inventory options we had only dreamed of.
In a rare confluence of creativity, five exceptional rock records shaped that influential year in particular. Some are better remembered than others. Yet, to this day, each of these albums still knocks my socks off with every listen. Perhaps the planets aligned, or Y2K’s impending mysticism turbocharged their inspiration? Whatever the catalyst, the result was gratified liberation from a wasteland of boy bands, lame R&B, and Britney Spears. Even more fleeting, this critic would argue that none of these artists ever reached such epic heights again. (Not even you, Mr. Grohl.)
The millennium comes along once every thousand years, but such a wonderful music bonanza may prove even less common. Here, I rank five of the most enduring guitar-rock records of the past 25 years – all from that singular annus magicae of 1999.
5. Deadwood Forest – Mellodramatic (Shroom Productions – 1999)
For classic progressive rock fans tired of overwrought neo-metal and dime-a-dozen Marillion wannabes, Deadwood Forest’s unheralded Mellodramatic was a godsend. Finally, a post-1970s art-rock band that actually got it right. And from Houston, of all places!
It’s amazing how many acts try to sound like Deadwood Forest only to fail miserably. From the moment “Pioneer” gets things going, with its plucked bass and sweeping Mellotron, other modern pretenders get left in the dust. None have recorded anything as lovely as the breezy keyboards and flute on “City in the Sea”, or as cerebrally intense as the spiraling “Dry”. Then there are the anachronistic instrumental interludes, a self-assured sign of songwriting maturity that can’t be faked. Let’s not overlook vocalist Ryan Guidry, whose kaleidoscopic vocals channel both Greg Lake and the Moody Blues’ John Lodge into a stream of ethereal otherworldliness. The entire record is like that, weaving revered influences into each song and doing them proud. With its soothing time shifts and haunting passages, Mellodramatic plays like a Wayback machine: Close your eyes, and it’s 1973 all over again, with a Yes/ELP/Genesis triple-bill on tap.
In 2000, the band told Liz Belile of the Houston Press that they were gearing up for big things. Unfortunately, beyond their uninspired eponymous debut, this lone obscure gem was all we got. Fans of competent orchestral rock (with a Mellotron!) know how hard it is to find, and Mellodramatic delivers as well as any album of the past half-century.
Meantime, please do me a favor. Pass the lysergic acid, will you?
4. Porcupine Tree – Stupid Dream (Kscope/Snapper – 6 April 1999)
Throughout the mid-1990s, Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree fiddled with various elements of post-punk, progressive rock, psychedelia, and straight-laced indie rock before delivering one of popular music’s great sub-genre mashups. Listening to Stupid Dream today, one is still awed by Wilson’s effortless mind-meld of gorgeous hooks, sophisticated orchestration, chilling serial-killer mentality, and neo-metal punch on tracks like “Even Less”, or the bleak, spot-on didacticism of “Piano Lessons”. The record’s highlight remains “Stranger by the Minute”, an epic asylum-level study of what old-school weirdos like myself stubbornly refer to as ‘normal’ personality.
Other Stupid Dream lyrics focus on the music industry’s grueling contradiction between ‘creativity’ and ‘marketing’. As quoted on Wikipedia, Wilson explains that when “the creative side is finished, you then have to go out and sell and market and promote… in a sense, ‘prostitute yourself’ to try and sell your music and your art.” This counter-intuitive life experience, a la “2001’s” HAL-9000, is deftly communicated throughout the album. Wilson’s vocals are also impossibly smooth, in the vein of David Gilmour or Alan Parsons’ Eric Woolfson, a sweetness not often encountered in contemporary neo-prog swamps. While his later work with Aviv Geffen in Blackfield is excellent, Stupid Dream is Wilson’s artistic pinnacle and main gift to posterity.
This reviewer was also privileged to see P-Tree on tour in 2010. Wilson seemed quite surprised by the love he received from our musically sterile Florida backwater, where disco never died. Chock this up to unalloyed desperation on the audience’s part, knowing full well we’d probably never catch him onstage again.
3. Foo Fighters – There Is Nothing Left to Lose (RCA – 2 November 1999)
Newsflash: Music critique necessarily entails a hefty dose of snobbery. So, for a wildly popular artist like Nirvana‘s Dave Grohl to break through, he better bring the goods. Darn if he didn’t on 1999’s There Is Nothing Left to Lose, a guitar-rock archetype so exceptional, so timeless, and so much fun that no fair-minded critic can resist it. The fact that a textbook, late 1990s corporate rock band managed to record Nothing Left and won a Grammy for their trouble makes the feat even more astounding.
Here, on Foo Fighters‘ third proper release, Grohl forced the world to sit up and wonder whether he wasn’t the real talent behind Cobain all along. The album was recorded in a Virginia studio basement, sans any label presence; as Grohl told Larry Flick of Billboard, they just “played like all bets were off. No one was forcing us to be there, so it had to be fun – and the songs had to be the best we could possibly come up with.” “Learn to Fly” is an indispensable classic, beloved by just about everyone who hears it, including my Taylor-obsessed teens. But the excellence continues on tracks like “Live-In Skin” and the glass-shattering “Breakout”, which absolutely nails the rocking ‘headbanger’ sound so many post-grunge acts shoot for yet never seem to reach. The wistful ballad “Aurora” stands out as well, an unexpected treat given the album’s otherwise unapologetic hard edge.
Foo Fighters have produced some decent material in the decades since Nothing Left to Lose, particularly their 2005 In Your Honor acoustic set. But in this reviewer’s opinion, they never soared so close to rock immortality ever again.
2. Cast – Magic Hour (Polydor – 17 May 1999)
For many of us, 1990s Britpop was an initially satisfying fad that got old really fast. Acts like Oasis, Suede, and Blur certainly had their moments and sold plenty of records, fronting a sunnier antidote to dour American grunge. But in the end, glam swagger is only as enduring as the music behind it. By the century’s end, many of these bands either imploded in acrimony or couldn’t keep the quality going.
In the meantime, bassist John Power emerged from the ashes of the La’s (“There She Goes”) who chose a harder pop/rock route for Cast. Their 1995 debut All Change was stuffed with aboveboard yet energetic rock singles like “Alright”, “Finetime”, and especially the would-be supernatural theme song “Mankind”. Then, just when many of us had given up Britpop for good, Cast shocked music fans everywhere with one of the genre’s great all-time releases. Dreamy, edgy, marbled through with guitar brawn, Magic Hour boasts that rare ‘green curtain of Oz’ dimension: deceptively straightforward on the surface, yet with layer upon layer of rewarding complexity beneath. So plentiful are the hooks flying around Mr. Power’s head that they almost crash into each other from sheer abundance.
From the wiry guitar strains of “Compared to You”, to the pinging fretwork of “She Falls” and “Dreamer”, Magic Hour segues into the lavish orchestration of the waltz-like title track. The forthright rockers that follow (“Company Man” and “Higher” in particular) boast impeccably timed guitar holes, ready to explode AC/DC-style with all the latent wattage lurking just around the corner. For unqualified revelry, try “The Feeling Remains”: a brawling, leering, British pub singalong whose opening riff is all too happy to kick over your barstool and filch your pint. What a ride! Even a generation later, one cannot resist pumping the volume on Magic Hour until the neighbors complain or the disc expires.
1. Bike – Take in the Sun (Flying Nun / March – 26 October 1999, US)
Precise release dates conflict on this one, depending on where you look. But when guitarist Andrew Brough departed seminal rock outfit Straitjacket Fits in the mid-1990s, the New Zealand music scene gained a well-timed shot of adrenaline. Brough bested his former mates by proving beyond a doubt that the cream of their repertoire – songs like “Down In Splendour” and “Sparkle That Shines” – stemmed from his own glorious sense of melody, plus a knack for crafting layered, mind-blowing guitar assaults.
From the opening blitzkrieg of the riff-heavy title track, Take in The Sun shows Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound mavens how it’s done. Nearly every minute of this record is drenched in furious squalls of electric bedlam, transforming every song into a bracing whirlwind of exhilarating reverberation. This is music intended both for driving and for headphones, the latter being the sole means of appreciating Brough’s infinitely textured layers of guitars. Even on the ballads (“Sunrise”, “Slide on By”) that incredible sound merely bides its time, waiting patiently to show itself. It rarely waits long. Some sequences, like “Welcome to My World’s” glowing eldritch-backed solo, must derive from angels in heaven; having explored the raucous “Keeping You in Mine” for twenty-five years, we still haven’t found the song’s bottom. Also worth tracking down are the elusive EPs Bike and Circus Kids, which are finally available on Bandcamp.
Coda: Due to the looming COVID pandemic and his remote South Pacific locale, we had no idea Brough passed away on 2 February 2020 until several months later – leaving barely one-and-a-half albums of sensational solo material in his wake. Although his stint with Straitjacket Fits landed him in New Zealand’s Music Hall of Fame, Take in the Sun remains Brough’s unassailable masterpiece.