Best of 1999: 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.