Best of 1999: Steve Lichtenstein

1. Ben Folds Five, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
I think I could listen to “Army” every day, all day on a continuous loop. That being said, it might be the weakest song on this, a brilliant opus of a concept album that is as musically ingenious as it is thoroughly thought provoking. You find yourself trying to come to terms with the narrative real man who was the first to scale Everest, and the fictitious one who graced the fake IDs of the band members while they were in college. At the same time, you lose yourself in the grand scope of truly powerful songs like “Narcolepsy” and “Regrets,” and the monumental wall of sound they put forth. It might sound at times like a mixed bag of Elton John, Queen, Rush, and Billy Joel, but it is distinctly a Ben Folds effort, and completely solidifies them as one of the most talented outfits of the decade.

2. Beck, Midnite Vultures (Geffen)
Sometimes, you almost want Beck to fail because he’s such a universally respected genius. Because of that, though, it’s doubtful he ever will, and this slice of funk/soul/rock is undeniably wonderful. Sure, he draws from Prince, and James Brown, and Parliament, but he also sounds a little like Steve Miller (“Milk and Honey”) and a little like heaven. And could Prince ever look himself in the mirror again after writing something like “I think we’re going crazy/Her left eye is lazy/She looks so Israeli/Nicotine and Gravy” and make it sound so good? One of the biggest joys in loving Beck as much as you should, aside from the irresistible beats, is the absurd lyrics. Sing along. Impress your friends and bring the house down.

3. Wilco, Summer Teeth
Easily the best rock band no one knows and everyone should, Wilco consistently (at least on their three exceptional records to date) redefines themselves. Drawing equally here from The Beach Boys and the Beatles, Jeff Tweedy solidifies himself as one of the best and most versatile songwriters working today. He can captivate you and touch your soul with deep ballads like “How to Fight Lonliness,” “We’re Just Friends,” and “Via Chicago,” and smear you with bubble gum pop like “Summer Teeth” and “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)” until you submit, happily. Flawless.

4. Gomez, Liquid Skin (Virgin)
If ever a modern band sounded like it was playing a tribute album of original songs, it’s Gomez. Drawing from unspecific American rock and blues influences, these Brits have banged out a stellar album for the second year in a row. Liquid Skin is full of allusions to music you like. You’ll swear you’ve heard “Devil Will Ride” before, but nothing is quite as solid. The real prize here is “Revolutionary Kind,” with its contagious riff and electronica skewing lyrics. Gomez are here to stay, in or out of the face of other worthy U.K. competition, and they’re gonna do it their way, with supremely constructed everyman rock sensibility. Thank God.

5. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.)
If The Beach Boys were ever going to sound cool in the indifferent, slacker cynicism of the ’90s, this is the album that would have made it so. Wayne Coyne and the rest of his seasoned Oklahoma weirdos have crafted one of the most delicate pop records in recent memory, complete with a stunning and enveloping wall of sound that makes one want to embrace the power of the studio. “Buggin'” is sure to infuriate Brian Wilson for not writing it first, and “The Spark That Bled” with its infectious “I stood up and I said Yeah!” is the feel-good DIY song of the year.

6. Pavement, Terror Twilight (Matador)
Picking up right where Brighten the Corners left off, Terror Twilight is the most pleasant sequel since the Jewel of the Nile. It grows better with every listen, and every realization that considering the band’s recent (un)official break-up, Terror Twilight might stand as the definitive album in their career — not because it may be their last, or best, but because it encapsulates the entire beauty and relevance of their music in one great collection of 11 songs. “…And Carrot Rope” is vintage Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and “Spit on a Stranger” and “Major Leagues” display why the band’s recent foray into more well crafted poetic rock is equally or more satisfying than their earlier indie-rock lo-fi hijinks. Call now: operators are standing by.

7. The Beta Band, The Beta Band (Astralwerks)
At times long-winded, at times exceptional, this U.K. export is delightfully Beck-ish in its alt-rock electronic folk dancebility. “Round the Bend” is a bizarre foot-stomping rollick, and “The Cow’s Wrong,” with its plaintive, soft vocal, is a mesmerizing ride that fits as well as the capper to a long night of drinking as it does as a poignant soundtrack to a twilight plane ride. It’s the ultimate headphone disc, a sweeping breeze of sound that penetrates your skin and makes you wait eagerly, contentedly for their next album.

8. Folk Implosion, One Part Lullaby
Sometimes you just wish Lou Barlow would forget about Sebadoh and focus all his creative time on Folk Implosion, his neglected side project. This year makes the point all the more obvious, with the weakness of The Sebadoh, and the sweet little euphoria of One Part Lullaby. The biggest complaint against Barlow in the past is his inconsistency, his cursed ability to weave five or six great songs into a whole of 11 more which make you want to puree your toes just to escape them. Here, finally, is a complete effort of drum looped pop songs with the elegance of Barlow’s nerdy soft guy lyrics and hollow, scratchy vocals. You might hate to admit it, but Barlow really might be the natural one.

9. Moby, Play (V2)
This Telly Savalas looking creature is simply a genius. Sure, Fatboy’s done it, and the Chemicals have done it, but there’s something special about Moby, something elegant in his funk. Maybe it’s that he actually uses his own voice on some songs, or that his beats are often better, or that he essentially started the whole movement. ** Whatever the reason, if there even is one, Play is a brilliant album, and even though no one in the mainstream may ever hear a song as good and stompalicious as “Run In,” but it’s good to know that it, and many more like it, exist.
** (Editor’s note: Techno actually started in the Detroit clubs and House got going in a few Chicago gay dance clubs. And of course, those guys learned everything they knew from Kraftwerk and James Brown.)

10. Foo Fighters, There’s Nothing Left to Lose Sure, this is an album void of any truly great songs. But, in an era of sub-par albums fueled by strong singles, it’s quite refreshing for an album to be this solid, this packed with songs that could be as easily overplayed on the radio as they could be well kept secrets. Dave Grohl and company have knocked the most complete and satisfying album of their short careers, and maybe There’s Nothing Left to Lose will even help Grohl further shake the Nirvana typecasting that hangs above his head. In a recent show, Foo covered Queen’s “Now I’m Here,” and that performance and song point as much to this record’s timeless feel as anything else. Listen to tunes like “Gimme Stitches,” “Aurora,” or “Ain’t It the Life,” and tell me if you don’t agree.

(Very) Honorable Mentions:
Macy Gray, On How Life Is
Chemical Brothers, Surrender
Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Californication