Best of 1999: Jimmy Smith

In no order, not even alphabetical.

Beck, Midnite Vultures (Geffen)
The Artist of the Decade makes a soul’n’blips record that both your doddering Uncle Bud and your hipster kid brother can love (though one will not really get it). Music for dancing and belly-rubbing, and a sure sign that the real avant-garde doesn’t only work against corporations but with and for them as well.

Dixie Chicks, Fly
Smart, ferociously talented, and so charming that all the right people underestimate them — which means that they are the Beatles, circa ’65. Expect Revolver next year.

Volkswagen Cabrio commercial
In this one a carload of alt-rock-y young adults drive dark, haunted roads while Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” plays. They arrive at a party where all the other kids are having superficial, i.e. non-angst-riddled, fun (there are actual colored lights at the party house), so they cast existential glances at one another and leave without getting out. While VW probably intends us to read this as some kind of against-the-grain iconoclasm, it seems awfully doomy if you know your Nick: take care, kids.

Rage Against the Machine, The Battle of Los Angeles (Epic)
The Clash, From Here to Eternity (Epic)
Except maybe with “Train in Vain” and “Rock the Casbah,” the Clash neither courted doofus fratboy misreadings (but how many Kappa Alphas own Rage because they rock like Korn?) nor helpfully supplied bibliographies for their records a la Evil Empire. But still. The same band, done up for different decades; and will today’s politically earnest Rage fans weep in the night 20 years hence when they have settled down to car payments, nose-hair tweezing, and bad parenting?

Pearl Jam, “Last Kiss”
Eddie Vedder does penance for singing all those portentous LedZeppish songs. By now you have completely forgotten this summer gumdrop, which is a clue to its greatness: messianic rockstar essays American cheese, expunges memories of bombastitude. Cf. Springsteen’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” Patti Smith’s “You Light Up My Life,” U2’s “Everlasting Love.”

Ricky Martin, “Livin’ the Vida Loca”
The most insistently catchy thing you heard all year, hooks stolen gleefully from R.E.M., the Police, etc., and it’s a wonder the mere thought of it didn’t start more murder sprees than Marilyn Manson, first-person shooting games, and Natural Born Killers all put together. If Ricky Martin could only sing (which he can’t) this would have been Too Much. (By the way, I am copyrighting my joke about the 18½ minute remake of this — “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida-Loca” — right now.)

Beth Orton, Central Reservation (Arista)
Great voice, great tunes, needs a lyricist. Listen to this through a closed door and it’s nearly album of the year. (Which is not a bad way to listen to a lot of albums, actually.)

Sleater-Kinney, The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars)
When I walked into the New Clear Days record store, the owner looked up in a mixture of shock and — well, it was totally shock, maybe just a little fear. You see, he is certifiably cool (I think he does his hair with Kiwi Black) and had Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” cranked when I entered. What if his cool little friends saw him emoting along with Lou Gramm and the choir? Then he saw that I was this forty-one-year-old guy in Stride-Rite running shoes and Wrangler jeans, and he figured, “Jeez, this man would think that Kansas is cool,” so he calmed down and went back to eating some cheese fries and reading X-Men and listening to Foreigner. So I bought this one, which I was looking for anyway, but on vinyl to really show him how cool I am. And it did, and I am.

Moby, Play (V2)
My friend Andrea insists that I put this here. And, while everything else that you have heard about this record (i.e., it’s modern and downhome!) warrants its inclusion here, I’m giving the credit to her because otherwise it seems like the kind of beats + x-factor = album equation I’d have heard about via All Things Considered. And Play is too good for even NPR to suck the life from.

Five Golden Oldies That Will Get You Kicked Out of High School If You Sing Them

1. “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper
The threat of violence was always there — in Vince Furnier’s growl, in the pillaging kiddie chorus. And we could always see past the song’s satire (which is very funny indeed) to its sincerity. It didn’t take killing Principal Fonzie in Scream and the subsequent appearance of “School’s Out” on the soundtrack to let us know that this song meant trouble. When Bob Ezrin, the producer, virtually remade the song with Pink Floyd, the drooginess of the kids on “Another Brick in the Wall” was too obvious, too doomy, too unaware of the fun’n’games potential of schoolyard violence.

2. “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” by The Ramones
A swell reconfiguration of Sam Cooke’s “What a Wonderful World.” He didn’t know much about history because he was in love, and the Ramones didn’t care about it because they were stoopid and prone to acting out in inappropriate ways. NB: for the sake of this list and getting yourself kicked out of school, you must sing not the (great) singles version but the (merely good) album version with the added-on sound of a high school blowing up real good. When you get to the end of it, you have to make a sound like a building blowing up (KERRSH!!). You can also gesture explosively with both hands.

3. “I Don’t Like Mondays,” by the Boomtown Rats
Back in 1979 you could get a song written about you and all you had to do was kill one — that’s right, ONE — classmate. Kids, you want to talk about Back in the Days?

4. “Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun,” by Julie Brown
An incredibly prescient song (the homecoming queen’s rationale for wiping out the prom: she did it for the geeks) that, with terrible wit and witty terror, overcomes several dud jokes and ironic eighties production that, unfortunately, sounds exactly like sincere eighties production. Still, the beats that made this a cute dance novelty number back in ’84 continue serving the aerobics cause: while you’re listening to this, you may run around the room screaming and flapping your arms wildly over your head. Play this on the radio and get fired fast.

5. “Come Out and Play” by the Offspring
A lot of kids listened to this bubblegum punk novelty whirligig several years ago and some of them actually got some good out of it — you know, its anti-violence, anti-guns message. The smart guys in the Offspring (they’ve been to college, you know) sort of count on your paying attention. But, because the coaches patrolling the halls have no time to recognize subtlety in pop music, you can be pretty sure that you’ll get the boot (and, boy, you’ll’ve earned it too) if you go around the halls singing about “getting weapons with the greatest of ease.”