Best of 1999: Sarah Zupko

Sarah Zupko

1. Travis, The Man Who (Independiente, UK)
Who know they had it in them? — a truly great, subtle album that digs its way slowly and almost insidiously into your subconscious. Travis, is after all, that bunch of lads who tried to out-Oasis the Gallagher boys with the anthemic stompers of 1997's Good Feeling — a record that reveled in purposely dumbed-down lyrics, remember "U16 Girls." Well, they're not trying to be Oasis anymore. A lyric from "Writing To Reach You" makes that clear, "what is a Wonderwall anyway." The Man Who snuck up on a lot of folks. Barely given the time of day upon release in the U.K., it gradually became one of those rare albums that becomes a soundtrack of a time and place, as it began yielding hit after hit as the year wore on. Rarely has a group made such an enormous developmental leap between their debut and sophomore albums (though Radiohead comes to mind). Trading in the stockroom Britpop of Good Feeling for a idiosyncratic, personal style of songwriting that draws as much from classic singer-songwriter music and country as pop ("Driftwood") and lots of Radiohead listening, Travis has made its masterpiece. And songs like "The Fear," "Driftwood," "As You Are," and "Why Does It Always Rain On Me?" are nothing short of classics-to-be.

2. DJ Spooky vs. the Freight Elevator Quartet, File Under Futurism (Caipirinha)
This one grew on me with every listen — revealing hidden layers of complexity every time I spun the wax. The intersection of experimental classical music and drum'n'bass/electronica is proving to be one of the most fruitful locations for musical innovation. Just as last year's plethora of jazz and electronica blends (i.e. Nils Petter Molvaer) pushed the envelope, DJ Spooky and his pals have blazed a trail many are sure to follow.

3. Shack, H.M.S. Fable (London/Laurel)
Is there a more underrated and underappreciated songwriter around than Michael Head? His seminal work with The Pale Fountains was roundly ignored and mainly appreciated by the relatively small indie pop underground. Head's work with Shack is every bit as good, adding a bit of Britpop swagger to the pristine pop of the Fountains. While the Pale Fountains were firmly in the chamber pop camp, Shack turns the chamber group into an orchestra with all the anthemic power that enables. Wistful and irresistible melodies back up lyrics detailing less-than-perfect lives. All in all, a rousing and tender reminder that good old-fashioned songwriting with heart will never go out of style and a wake up call to all music fans to start paying close attention to the work of Michael Head.

4. Olivia Tremor Control, Black Foliage: Animation Music By The Olivia Tremor Control (Flydaddy)
Either you find Black Foliage staggeringly ambitious or unbearably pretentious. There's very little middle ground on this meandering epic of psychedelic songs bookended by trippy electronic and symphonic bits. I'm firmly in the first camp, lauding a band with the guts to shoot for the moon like their heroes The Beatles. Few try that hard anymore in the age of slacker, indie cool. They may not reach the stratosphere of Sgt. Peppers, but I'm rewarding them for trying their damnedest and coming close.

5. The Uri Caine Ensemble, Gustav Mahler in Toblach (Winter & Winter)
Flat-out brilliant. Every jazz ensemble on the planet mines the Tin Pan Alley songbook, but it's a brave soul that tackles Mahler. And for a jazz group to attempt reinterpretations of one of the finest orchestral composers ever, without employing the monumental size and complexity of a Mahler/Wagner orchestra, is even more astounding. Caine's sublime band adds new levels of poignancy to the Kindertotenlieder, already one of the most heart-wrenching works within the classical repertoire. One of the very few recordings of the year that truly blew me away right from the get-go.

6. The Chemical Brothers, Surrender (Astralwerks)
The Chemical Brothers largely left the B-Boy stuff at home and totally indulged their love of '60s psychedelia, while trotting out more classic Moog sounds and Kraftwerk-inspired robot pop than ever before. "The Sunshine Underground" is a dead-on masterpiece of blissed-out, flower power electronica — all swarming layers of trippiness and ferocious beats. The Big Beat sound that the Chems and Fatboy Slim pioneered is toned down just enough to allow the boys to turn in their most well-rounded set of songs ever. Yes, "songs." The Chemical Brothers are a long way from churning out club fodder and computer-enhanced pastiches for the drunken punters.

7. Super Furry Animals, Guerrilla (Flydaddy)
Wacky Welsh popsters Super Furry Animals scored two U.S. releases this year — though, Radiator actually came out in the U.K. in 1997. Guerrilla is the more idiosyncratic record, leisurely meandering through all sorts of unpredictable pop hooks, far-out lyrics, and the sort of beats that betray their former incarnation as a techno group. Thoroughly eccentric, eclectic, and essential.

8. The Shazam, Godspeed the Shazam (Not Lame)
One of America's best kept secrets, the Shazam are perhaps today's finest Stateside power pop band. Godspeed the Shazam serves up more melodic rock that echoes both classic Cheap Trick and the Swedish crunch pop of This Perfect Day. All hail the power of good ol' fashioned rock 'n' roll.

9. Basement Jaxx, Remedy (XL/Astralwerks)
Basement Jaxx have been toiling on the London dance scene for years, but 1999 was the year their patented blend of house, hip hop and reggae (dubbed "punk garage") came blasting onto the charts. Remedy is a fresh musical melting stew highlighting that world music is every bit as intriguing a partner for electronica as jazz and classical. These Brixton lads scored two of the most addicting songs of the year too, with "Rendez-vu" and "Red Alert."

10. µ-Ziq, Royal Astronomy (Astralwerks)
µ-Ziq has been accused of making inaccessible records. Whether that's true or not, it can never be applied to Royal Astronomy. Like DJ Spooky, µ-Ziq has dipped into the classical canon and found a rich source of musical inspiration, vastly advancing the development of his sound through the study of traditional orchestration techniques. Like any really good album, Royal Astronomy reveals more of itself on every listen.

11. Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs (Merge)
12. The Essex Green, Everything Is Green (Kindercore)
13. Various Artists, Microscopic Sound (Caipirinha)
14. Groupo Afro Boricua, Bombazo (Blue Jackel)
15. Underworld, Beaucoup Fish (V2)
16. Fluid Ounces, In The New Old Fashioned Way (Spongebath)
17. Michael Carpenter, Baby (Not Lame)
18. Orbital, The Middle of Nowhere (ffrr/London)
19. Leftfield, Rhythm and Stealth (Hard Hands/Higher Ground/Columbia)
20. The Delgados, Peloton (Beggars Banquet)
21. Bikeride, Thirty-Seven Secrets I Only Told America (Hidden Agenda)
22. Blur, 13 (Virgin)
23. The Gourds, Ghosts Of Hallelujah (Munich)
24. Guy Clark, Cold Duck Soup (Sugar Hill)
25. The Lilac Time, Looking For a Day In the Night (spinART)
26. Gene, Revelations (Polydor, UK)
27. Moby, Play (V2)
28. Stereophonics, Performance and Cocktails (V2)
29. Death In Vegas, The Contino Sessions (Time Bomb)
30. Saturnine, American Kestrel (Motorcoat/VictoriaLand)
31. The Charlatans, Us and Us Only (MCA)
32. Calliope, (in)organica (Thick)
33. Prolapse, Ghosts of Dead Aeroplanes (Jetset)
34. Gomez, Liquid Skin (Virgin)
35. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.)


Benny Goodman, At Carnegie Hall - 1938 (Columbia/Legacy)
The greatest concert ever recorded has finally been remastered and issued in its complete form. This album is essential for anyone who claims to like music.

Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Wild, Cool & Swingin' (Capitol)
The most enjoyable record of the year bar none — it barely ever left my CD changer. No one conveyed such an irrepressible joy in performing as Louis Prima. It shows on every brilliant, toe-tapping, smile-inducing, swing-fest of a song.

The Clash, From Here to Eternity (Epic)
To say this album was long-anticipated is a ridiculous understatement. The Clash were the finest live rock 'n' roll band ever and it's bizarre, to say the least, that it took this long to get an official Clash live album. Of course, Clash fanatics have been busy snapping up the bootlegs for years, but it's about time we can finally appreciate the band's machine gun power though good studio sound.

Bill Fox, Shelter From The Smoke (spinART)
The former leader of Cleveland's The Mice is one of America's finest singer-songwriters. This re-release of his first solo effort spotlights Fox's ongoing McCartney fixation, but shows him broadening out his sound in rootsier directions with a strong dose of Bob Dylan and Doc Watson.

Belle & Sebastian, Tigermilk (Matador)
Long available only as a ridiculously priced LP due to its limited pressing of 1,000 copies, Belle & Sebastian's first recorded project finally saw the light of day on CD.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.