1. Badly Drawn Boy, The Hour of Bewilderbeast (Twisted Nerve/XL)
Admittedly, a chaotic hodgepodge but a rousing, thoroughly enjoyable one. From beginning to end, and through all the myriad of detours along the way, Damon Gough’s much heralded debut is a championing of willowy pop music, filtered through the lens of troublesome relationship. From the bouncy rollick of “Once Around the Block”, to the soft, garbled hush of “This Song”, to the faux-veracity of “Disillusion”, Bewilderbeast covers all styles and emotions skillfully, boldly, and unabashedly. It’s a supreme example of evolving millennial songwriting, and the bar at which, at least for now, other contemporaries whom Boy has drawn from, like Beck and Elliot Smith, will strive to achieve.
2. Coldplay, Parachutes (Nettwerk America)
You can mull your Travis contentions and Radiohead comparisons all you want. Curse the grave of Jeff Buckley if you need to. Knock yourself out. While you’re doing that, I’ll be here enjoying one painfully gorgeous gem of an album. Similarities aside (try all you want to find any bands today void of any derivative roots), Parachutes is silky and effortless, like it literally rolled off some grand album making tongue. More mature, more likeable, more accomplished than The Man Who. And give me “Yellow” over the Charlie Brown anthem “Why Does It Always Rain on Me” any day of the week.
3. Clem Snide, Your Favorite Music (Sire)
If nothing else, Your Favorite Music is a reminder of how truly great guitar inspired American pop can be. Even in the form as it is here, enshrouded in the realm of “alt-country” (or “Y’allternative, choose your term), it still boils down to the same common denominators, things like simple licks, sweet melodies, evocative, personal songwriting, and a strong, earnest voice. You get all this and more, including a sardonic wit, from Snide boss man Eef Barzelay, on one of the most plaintive, warm, and intoxicating albums in recent memory. Each song feels like the soundtrack a memory long forgotten.
4. Radiohead, Kid A (Capitol)
What is there really left to say on this disc with even a hint of originality? It’s been labored and discoursed over more than the ridiculous escapade that was the Presidential Election, and still, like in that example, there is no common ground. So, so as not to sound superfluous, or redundant, here’s my take on the Lewinsky scandal of all music releases: I like it. It’s good.
5. The Doves, Lost Souls (Astralwerks)
Another in the mess of recent impressive British exports, Lost Souls is a grand, sweeping, multi-layered take on Oasis-style arena rock for grad students. When it’s good, like on cookie cutter spooge numbers like “Catch the Sun”, it’s a nice quick fix for the pop junkie. When it’s excellent, however, like on the epic “The Man Who Told Everything”, the Radioheady “Lost Souls”, and the fluttering “Sea Song”, it holds its own against the better Brit albums of the past decade.
6. Eels, Daisies of the Galaxy (Dreamworks)
Jagged pop from a demented songwriter, Daisies of the Galaxy is one of the more complete and consistent releases of the year. Filled with silly lyrics (which somehow seem profound), silly guitar licks (which somehow seem revolutionary), and an authenticity so sincere it’s frightening, the songs here are catchy, inviting, and occasionally wonderful. I like birds, too.
7. PJ Harvey, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (Island)
Powerful, raw, and provocative, PJ Harvey has made. . .well, an album with pretty much the same qualities she always does. Only difference is, this one’s really good. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is one of, if not her best work, reflective of a recent move to New York and its impact. Not only is it easily her most accessible effort yet, it actually, at times (“This is Love”, “You Said Something”), feels poppy. And (sorry riot grrrrls) that’s a good thing.
8. Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue, Vol II (Elektra)
If you can do something good once, why not do it again. More inventive, more ambitious, more expansive than its predecessor, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, is not quite as good, but still very rewarding. It’s Wilco’s contributions mainly that make Vol. II a success, from the opening barn stormer, “Airline to Heaven”, to the jaunty and juvenile “Joe Dimaggio Done it Again”. Considering the talents involved (Woody Guthrie, Bragg, Wilco), it’s hard to imagine a poor end result, and it certainly a far superior sequel then, say. . . Bat Out of Hell II. Good Lord.
9. Elliot Smith, Figure 8 (Dreamworks)
While not as poignant, moody, expository, or spare as X/O or Either/Or, Figure 8 is a solid album, cluttered and hindered only by its desire to succeed. Because Smith dabbled in the “magic” of the studio for his first Dreamworks release, the intimacy and honesty is somewhat muddled. Still, there’s no denying great songs like “Happiness”, “Son of Sam”, and “Everything Reminds Me of Her”, and as for genuine merit, Figure 8 measures up well against Smith’s earlier works.
10. Modest Mouse, The Moon and Antarctica (Epic)
On the list more as a concession than a full out endorsement since this effort (yes their first major label and blah blah blah) is less exciting or satisfying than previous ones, but for no external (Sony/Epic) reason. Simply put, The Moon and Antacrtica lacks the creative punch that makes Modest Mouse so scathingly enjoyable. But, put-downs aside, it’s by no means a flop, seeing as how “Third Planet” is one of the Mouse’s best songs committed to disc. Definitely a skip around disc, but one who’s quick, non-sequential rewards are. . .well, rewarding.
Most Egregiously Overlooked 1999 Gems, Based on Stupidity and Ignorance, Which Need Recognition to Maintain my Sanity and End My Year-Long Disgust for Not Including Them on Last Year’s List
1. Built to Spill, Keep it Like a Secret
2. Dismemberment Plan, Emergency and I
3. Old 97’s, Fight Songs
Best Band I Discovered This Past Year, Even Though They’ve Been Around for Several: Tie: Modest Mouse, Railroad Jerk
Most Perplexing, Yet Satisfying Use of a Good Song in a Bad Commercial: “The Shining”, Badly Drawn Boy, in GAP commercial
Worst Addiction: Napster
Biggest Letdown: Belle & Sebastian, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant
Most Painful Break-Up: Tie: Soul Coughing, Ben Folds Five, Pavement
Biggest Guilty Pleasure: Tie: “Rock DJ” by Robbie Williams and “Country Grammar” by Nelly