Best of 1999: Justin Stranzl

1. Beck, Midnite Vultures (DGC/Interscope)
“Great party record,” “sexiest rock album since early Prince,” blah, blah, blah. Everyone keeps talking the album up, and while Midnite Vultures is both of these things and everything else people claim it to be, no one talks about how amazingly textured and diverse the album is, from the Stereolab-ish horns to the strings buried deep in the mix on several songs which give their decadent sexual narratives a haunting, “we’re going to pay for these sins” feel. There isn’t a bad track on the album, and while Midnite Vultures is absolutely the loud party record that it’s hyped up to be, it’s also at times chilling and one of the greatest headphone albums to be released in recent memory.

2. The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs (Merge)
Despite a ridiculous 69 newly-recorded tracks, Stephen Merritt has included less filler on his grandiose box set than some bands release on one EP. To release 69 songs based on the same theme and not have the subject matter become trite is quite an accomplishment; to write 69 songs and have practically all of them be exceptionally good is flat-out amazing. Disc one of the box set is so excellent it merits inclusion on any top 10 list by itself, and discs two and three of 69 Love Songs are nearly as great as the first. In a year when several bands released double albums that probably couldn’t be whittled down to even one solid LP (The Fragile, anyone?) Merritt’s sprawling new collection is as solid as most multiple-disc sets that cover bands’ entire careers.

3. Old 97’s, Fight Songs (Elektra)
Wilco and the Old 97’s released their latest albums at roughly the same time early this year; both albums saw the alt-country outfits showing off their pop smarts like never before, and the two records were often reviewed together. Wilco’s Summerteeth received higher praise, but Fight Songs was the better album. Summerteeth was often as gorgeous as its model, Pet Sounds, but where Wilco spent its time in the studio trying to flesh out an amazing sound, the Old 97’s spent their time piecing together brilliant songs. Fight Songs is undoubtedly a simpler and more modest effort than Summerteeth, but it is just as honest, much more refreshing, and, on its closer, “Valentine,” infinitely more poignant. Summerteeth will likely go down in history as one of 1999’s landmark albums, but Fight Songs is, without question, a far greater achievement.

4. Fountains of Wayne, Utopia Parkway (Atlantic/Scratchie)
Utopia Parkway isn’t just a tribute to soccer moms and suberbs, although it spends a considerable amount of time lovingly referencing both. It’s a splendid re-creation of every kid’s teenage years, when life seemed like such a struggle but in reality was far simpler than he or she could have realized at the time. It’s prom night, it’s a weekend benefit car wash, it’s a summer drive to the mall with girls and bullies and laser shows along the way. And it’s excellent, a sentimental pop record no one should be without.

5. The Promise Ring, Very Emergency (Jade Tree)
With smiles and shouts of “happiness is all the rage,” the Promise Ring shut up everyone who had ever mocked the group for its miserable, emo past and kicked off the upbeat pop-punk album that has Green Day kicking itself for not recording the thing first. Davey Von Bohlen may be shouting ” S.O.S.! Very emergency!”, but anyone who deens the Promise Ring’s new sound a crisis needs to have his or her head examined. Fast, punchy and fun, Very Emergency is the best punk album of the year.

6. Superchunk, Come Pick Me Up (Merge)
Jim O’Rourke records avant-garde jazz that at times can be unlistenable, but his production on Superchunk’s seventh album has guided the band to its most melodic, pleasing work to date. Mac McCaughan’s breathy singing is a drastic departure from his shouting on previous albums, but it gives Come Pick Me Up a sweet, mellow feel that’s as beautiful as anything the band has done in the past. A decade old, Superchunk is as good as ever, as their latest excellent album attests.

7. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, I See a Darkness (Palace)
Will Oldham has always been a miserable fuck, so it seems appropriate that as the world grows ridiculously excited over the ending millenium, he closes it out with an album solely about death. I See a Darkness is sparse, haunting and, at times, a guilt trip no one needs to bear and is, of course, brilliant just like practically everything Oldham has ever done.

8. Tom Waits, Mule Variations (Anti/Epitaph)
Tom Waits’ voice at times sounds like that of a man older than God. And his Mule Variations is proof that he deserves the deity tag that his fans have placed upon him. Mule Variations touches on every style Waits has dabbled in on his umpteen recordings and is a nearly flawless album from start to finish, and while his latest recordings can be as scary as ever (see “What’s He Building?” or “Eyeball Kid”), several of these latest songs — most notably “House Where Nobody Lives” — rank amongst the prettiest treasures of Waits’ large and distinguished body of work.

9. Prince Paul, A Prince Among Thieves (Tommy Boy)
A Prince Among Thieves may not be the catchiest hip-hop album of the year but it’s certainly the cleverest. On his first great full-length of 1999 (his Handsome Boy Modeling School album was fantastic too) Prince Paul has put together the first rap musical and his work as director, seamlessly tying together hilarious skits and great songs, is deserving of an award. Newcomer Breeze is great as the show’s star, Tariq, and guest appearances by De La Soul, who Paul used to produce, and Kool Keith are just as good. The whole thing, the tale of Tariq’s quest to go from the street to store shelves, flows wonderfully, and it’s proof that Paul is a producer without peer.

10. The Crown Royals, Funky-Do! (Estrus)
Ken Vandermark’s a rather prolific man. He’s got a zillion groups of his own (these Crown Royals and the Vandermark 5, to name two) and has contributed sax and clarinet to countless albums by other artists (including gems by Superchunk and Common Rider this year). He’s a hero in Chicago for his contributions to the city’s exploding avant-garde scene, and his music has earned him plenty of critical acclaim, including a 1999 MacArthur Foundation Genius grant. So it’s somewhat surprising that his best work this year might be Funky-Do!, 10 songs of sleazy all-instro soul. It’s not Vandermark’s trademark free jazz but rather Booker T.-tinged R&B driven by Pete Nathan’s dirty, raw work on guitar, with hints of swing that put todays interpreters of the genre (such as the similarly-named Royal Crown Revue) to shame. Vandermark may have been dubbed a “genius” for his free jazz, but the fun interpretations here of a couple standards and eight funky originals are nonetheless brilliant themselves.

Runners Up:
11. Guided By Voices, Do the Collapse (TVT)
12. The Roots, Things Fall Apart (MCA)
13. Wilco, Summerteeth (Reprise/Warner)
14. Moby, Play (V2)
15. Sparklehorse, Good Morning Spider (Capitol)
16. Super Furry Animals, Guerilla (Flydaddy)
17. Pavement, Terror Twilight (Matador)
18. Dirt Bike Annie, Hit the Rock! (Mutant Pop)
19. The Mr. T Experience, Alcatraz (Lookout!)
20. Asie Payton, Worried (Fat Possum/Epitaph)
21. Fiona Apple, When the Pawn (Clean Slate/Epic)
22. The Chemical Brothers, Surrender (Astralwerks/Virgin)
23. Eminem, The Slim Shady LP (Aftermath/Interscope)
24. Make Up, Save Yourself (K)
25. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.)
26. The Rentals, Seven More Minutes (Maverick)
27. Blur, 13 (Virgin)
28. The Donnas, Get Skin Tight (Lookout!)
29. Beulah, When Your Heartstrings Break (Sugar Free)
30. The Dismemberment Plan, Emergency & I (DeSoto)
31. The Folk Implosion, One Part Lullaby (Interscope)
32. Handsome Boy Modeling School, So…How’s Your Girl? (Tommy Boy)
33. Marine Research, Sounds from the Gulf Stream (K)
34. Built to Spill, Keep It Like a Secret (Warner Bros.)
35. Paul McCartney, Run Devil Run (Capitol)

Biggest Disappointments of the Year

1. Sleater-Kinney, The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars)
It’s absolutely amazing that after one of the greatest albums of the decade, Dig Me Out, the girls in Sleater-Kinney managed just ONE good song for their new album (“Get Up,” which still isn’t as good as the worst stuff on The Hot Rock‘s predecessor). A total disappointment, and one of the most boring albums of 1999.

2. Foo Fighters, There Is Nothing Left to Lose (RCA)
Tracks one and two are each as good as any Foo Fighters song, ever. Tracks three through 11 are more boring than a junior high study hall. Everyone says this album is too radio-friendly, but there’s no way any radio station is going to touch anything this drab. Dead people have recorded more interesting albums.

3. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.)
This really isn’t a bad album. It just was a lot better last year, when it was called Deserter’s Songs, and the band name on the album cover was Mercury Rev.

4. The Get Up Kids, Something to Write Home About (Vagrant)
Prime example of the most overdone trend of the year — unnecessary synthesizers cluttering up already-bad and utterly souless whiny rock. At least the band is cute.

5. Nine Inch Nails, The Fragile (Nothing/Interscope)
Completely terrible, but not as big a disappointment as the other four albums because what it follows, The Downward Spiral, is one of the most overrated albums of all time.

Cutest Boyband Members
1. Justin Timberlake, NSYNC
2. Nick Carter, Backstreet Boys
3. Sean Conlon, 5ive
4. Ronan Keating, Boyzone
5. Stephen Gately, Boyzone
6. Brad Fischetti, LFO
7. Drew Lachey, 98°
8. Rich Cronin, LFO
9. A.J. McLean, Backstreet Boys
10. Jeff Timmons, 98°