Best of 1999: David Starkey

This was a good year to shuck off the armor of po-mo irony we all take for granted and re- embrace pure affect. Although serious pop music will always have its tongue somewhere in its cheek, in 1999 artists opened up an bled shamelessly. In fact, one of the easiest ways to separate Christina, Britney and the Boyz from the people who really count was to listen for that most reviled (because most rare) late-century human characteristic: sincerity. Which is reassuring, for although we’re right in using our minds to ward off sentimental crap as soon as we recognize it, ultimately music is still for the heart. So:

1. The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs (Merge)
Ambition and audaciousness score big points with me, and this record has both in plenty. For all its coy, precious moments and there are many of them 69 Love Songs reopens the possibilities of pop music. The album deserves comparisons with the Beatles’ White Album, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, though of course there are only slight musical resemblances, and, anyway, it’s much bigger than all of them. Songs like “I Don’t Want to Get Over You” and “I Think I Need a New Heart” make volume one alone one of the best records of the decade. Inspirational Lyric: “I’m the luckiest guy on the Lower East Side / Cause I’ve got wheels and you want to go for a ride.”

2. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.)
Why do I like this record so much better than Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, which it resembles? Maybe because the lyrics are sillier and more ambitious. Maybe because there’s no number on Deserter’s Songs as catchy as “Buggin’.” Maybe it’s because bio-babble deserves as many great rock albums as psycho-babble inspired, and this is a great start. More likely, it’s the ubiquitous hooks, the missing ingredient in far too much music. Inspirational lyric: “When you got that spiderbite on your hand / I thought we would have to break up the band.”

3. Moby, Play (V2)
The slow tempo numbers that finish off the album are pretty, but essentially mood music in a way that the first two-thirds of the CD isn’t. A show-stopper like “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” raises some interesting questions: Should the credit go to Moby, the mastermind, or the Shining Light Gospel Choir, the actual singers? Is the record pastiche, or is it art? If you’re moved by a synth loop, does it still count as emotion? One of the reasons Play has received so much press is that it’s the postmodern musical exemplum so many people have been waiting for. It makes concrete what before had only been theory in the same way that Emerson’s essay “The Poet” was just so much speculation until Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” In short, this is music to write by.

4. Tom Waits, Mule Variations (Epitaph)
Six years in the making, the album sounds as though Waits sat around listening to his sprawling catalogue, meticulously identifying his strengths and favorite themes, then went out and wrote new songs to recreate each of them: Film Noir: “Lowside of the Road.” Whiskey Ballad: “Take It With Me.” Mid-Tempo Sing-Along: “Hold On.” Heavy Sarcasm: “Chocolate Jesus.” Old School Blues: “Get Behind the Mule.” Salvation Army Band Rave: “Come on Up to the House.” Raucous Holler: “Big in Japan” and “Filipino Box Spring Hog.” Late-Nite Movie Spookiness: “What’s He Building?” Pure Weirdness: “Eyeball Kid.” And yet Mule Variations also sounds fresh and unforced, as though some anonymous hard-luck genius had just stepped into a by-the- hour recording studio straight out of the American imagination.

5. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Rock Art & X-Ray Style (Hellcat)
Bands like Rancid and Dropkick Murphys have kept alive the noise and rage of Give ‘Em Enough Rope-era Clash, so Strummer seems content to mine the mellower, more melodic World Beat prominent on Sandinista! and Combat Rock. After a ridiculously long hiatus, the former Clash singer shows up with an album of impassioned songs backed by a band, the Mescaleros, that can really play. Curiously, what sounded so ragged back in the long hot summer of 1977 turns out to be one of the classic vocal stylings in rock and roll, and no one can do it better than Strummer himself. Inspirational lyric: “Oh, let’s go down to Al Rashid’s / All the Aussie lagers are on me.”

6. Beck, Midnite Vultures (DGC/Interscope)
I’d seriously hesitate including this one if I didn’t listen to it so damned much. The reservations raised against Midnite Vultures aren’t without merit. Beck implicitly mocks black culture even when he’s not explicitly ripping it off. Sometimes the record is sexist. Sometimes it’s just plain dumb. But it’s also smart, funky, fun, and, ultimately, joyful — and joy is rare enough that you have to take it where you can find it. Inspirational lyric: “Thursday night, think I’m pregnant again.”

7. Aimee Mann, Magnolia (Warner Bros.)
Sure, the best song is a retread from another movie and even Paul Thomas Anderson can’t make two ancient Supertramp songs seem like anything but padding; still, the second best song, “Save Me,” is new, and Aimee Mann writes and sings like everything matters. Take the Neil Young of After the Goldrush, put him in a time machine and turn him into a woman, and you’ve got Magnolia. Favorite movie moment of the year: Jason Robards playing a dying man with tubes up his nose singing “Wise Up.” It’s not going to stop.

8. Randy Newman, Bad Love (Dreamworks)
Like Tom Waits, Randy Newman hasn’t changed much over the years, and in both cases this equilibrium ends up looking less like paralysis and more like artistic integrity. Instrumentally, Bad Love harks back to earlier records 12 Songs, Sail Away, Good Old Boys. The synthesizers and electric guitars of Born Again and Trouble in Paradise have been replaced by acoustic piano and orchestra. The exception is “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” about a rock star very much like the singer whose time has passed. Newman’s open secret is that corrosive cynicism is nothing more than the last defense mechanism of the hopeless idealist. Inspirational lyric: “Hide your wives and daughters / Hide the groceries, too / Great nations of Europe coming through.”

9. The Roots, Things Fall Apart (MCA)
Things Fall Apart begins with an excerpt from Spike Lee’s Mo Better Blues in which Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes are arguing about the value of black art to black people. The conversation segue ways into the voice of a white intellectual: “Inevitably, hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable. They’re not maximized as product even, you know, not to mention as art.” The rest of the CD attempts to respond to the challenge of making intellectual and entertaining rap, although ironically (inevitably?) the most positive response has come from white critics. The penultimate number (Memo to Everybody: Enough with the hidden tracks, already) is by poet Ursula Rucker, a gut-wrenching tale about the life and early death of her brother.

10. Little Steven, Born Again Savage (Pachyderm)
Every top ten list needs something heavy to anchor it at the bottom end. “This is the record I would have made in 1969 had I been capable,” Little Steven writes in the liner notes, but really it’s an album more likely to have been recorded in 1979. Sure, there are the Dylan-Stones- Hendrix lyrics, some Stooges sneering, and Jason Bonham batters the skins just like his daddy did. But Zepplin was basically a ’70s band, and there’s a quintessential ’70s cynicism here. If punk rock had never been invented and the members of Flipper and Black Flag had played with Judas Priest and Ted Nugent, this not The Spaghetti Incident would have been the result. Inspirational lyric: “Jesus never wore no South African gold.”