The White Stripes – The White Stripes [Sympathy for the Record Industry]
Released 15 June 1999
Jack White saw the light, and it was blues. Lucky for us.
Before launching the White Stripes in the summer of 1997, Jack White played drums for Detroit cowpunk outfit Goober & the Peas. Contrary to what one might assume, the transition to the White Stripes was not such a violent shift. The low-fi blues-garage-rock-and-roll bomb that the White Stripes served up shared a proudly stripped-down honesty with its cowpunk predecessor. You probably couldn’t get more fundamental, honest rock music if you gave a rattle to a naked, wailing baby.
“Jimmy the Exploder”, the opening track, sets the tone. Those familiar with 1990s indie blues re-workings might immediately associate it with Jon Spencer, but then it quickly shifts to a reverb-heavy open chord riff reminiscent of “Gloria”, and all the while Meg White’s simple but competent percussion keeps a rocked-out tamborined time. A circumspect headbang becomes brisker, especially to Jack White’s war whoops and generally lilting vocals. This spare, catchy rocker fades with falsetto yelps. Wipe the sweat from your brow.
The lyrics share that patented simplicity with country and blues, early rock-and-roll, and pop in repetition and brevity. Take “Astro”: “Maybe Jasper does the astro / Maybe Jasper does the astro / Maybe Jasper does the astro, astro / Yeah”. Next verse: “Maybe Lilly does the astro… woah… eh”, and on for two more verses before the culmination of an honorary salute to one of their big influences: ” Maybe Tesla does the astro / Maybe Edison is AC/DC”. It’s a similar sequence for other songs on the album, such as “Little People”. “There’s a little girl who says, ‘bing, bing bomb.’ / Hello oh, oh… little boy with a spider in his hands… 25cents. Hello oh, oh”. The core is a little headbangable three chord riff. A guitar lets loose an intermittent background yawp like a seal in heat.
Compare that lyrical pattern to almost any traditional country, bluegrass, or blues, such as Son House’s “Country Farm”: “Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong / Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong / Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong / They’ll sure put you down on the country farm”. The Hawaiian-tinged blues twang associated with bluesmen like Son House is again showcased on songs like “Suzy Lee”, though only appearing in pure stripped-down form for a couple of measures before it morphs into a hard rock riff, returning a few measures down the line. This is what the White Stripes do so well.
The album also featured two carefully selected covers: one of blues giant Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breakin’ Down”, the other Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee”. Both provide honorable twists on the originals. The first, though great in its own right, is perhaps a tad too peppy for the lyrics’ own good. But the second’s howling coyote vocals channel a desolation that surely rivals the original. There are also a couple of especially rock-heavy morsels. “The Big Three Killed My Baby” is practically an arena rock, Zeppelinesque number reduced to two musicians. Blast this song on the stereo or headphones and AC/DC can eat crow. It gets in the bloodstream like good tequila. Like that? Take a hit of “Slicker Drips” — what you would get if Dr. Frankenstein put his helmet on Flat Duo Jets, Hasil Adkins, and Iggy Pop (on “I Wanna Be Your Dog”) and hit the power switch.
This is the way it all began. The White Stripes‘ fresh take on blues and rock-and-roll would destine them for the pantheon.
What came after? A media mystique — Jack and Meg’s simple variations on a red, white, and black self-presentation; the rumors or lies they generated about being siblings; the always lingering rumor of breakup; their iconic association with the Detroit garage rock revival. But ten years and six critically acclaimed studio albums later, The White Stripes still holds up as the most uncompromisingly stripped-down, honest, and arguably best album in their entire repertoire. – Jayson Harsin
The Art of Noise – The Seduction of Claude Debussy [ZTT/Universal]
Released 15 June 1999
On paper, The Seduction of Claude Debussy sounds like an inevitably disastrous collision of neo-classical pretension and that most troublesome of 20th-century progressive art forms, the concept album. This is, however, the Art of Noise, and as such, The Seduction of Claude Debussy is an improbable success. It’s an acquired taste, and for listeners who can’t open up to the idea of having operatic vocals, jungle rhythms, and, um, Rakim on the same release, it’s a lost avenue. But for the willing, the Art of Noise prove, as always, their ability to immerse, challenge, and reward listeners. That this record remains an overlooked and underrated chapter of the Art of Noise’s history is a shame and can be attributed mostly to the fact that, unlike the Art of Noise’s 1980s output, it didn’t reinvent the wheel with its production techniques.
“Il Pleure (At the Turn of the Century)”, perhaps the finest track on the release, starts things off with a maximal bang, throwing Debussy’s lovely, sparse piano compositions against snare rushes, string samples, opera vocals, and narration from actor John Hurt. Debussy, Hurt climactically explains, was a key figure in the genesis of the modern music period. It’s only appropriate, then, that the Art of Noise celebrate the dawning of a new century with an aural pastiche of various musical forms from the previous ones. Once again, suspension of disbelief is critical: it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at Hurt’s suggestion that the listener “imagine Debussy being born again”, but it’s a genuine plea. And, more importantly, Debussy is a painfully sincere tribute to its namesake and his spirit of progression and aesthetic ear.
The odd man out in the cast is Rakim, and it is initially odd to hear him rap about Baudelaire and being “aerodynamic in the evening air”. But if there’s one thing the Art of Noise — super-producer Trevor Horn, astute critic Paul Morley, and musician Anne Dudley — know, it’s how to make improbably brilliant art that refracts the culture of the moment. This is also the only flaw that’s revealed itself since Debussy was first issued: like most trends in electronic music, the drum-n-bass beats that sounded so much like the far-off future in the 1990s now sound like, well, the 1990s. At the same time, this clear datedness contributes to The Seduction of Claude Debussy as a reflective look back at the close of a century, merging the avant-garde of its beginning with that of its close. – David Abravanel
The Chemical Brothers – Surrender [Astralwerks]
Released 22 June 1999
With ten years’ hindsight, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Surrender was the high-water mark of late ’90s popular electronic music. Sure, many albums sold better — the Prodigy’s Fat of the Land, Moby’s Play, the Chems‘ own Dig Your Own Hole. And Surrender also had the misfortune of being released within a few weeks’ of Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other and the Backstreet Boys’ Millennium — placing the album squarely at odds with the dominant schizoid strains of pre-millennial bubblegum. The “electronica” revolution had passed, leaving little impact in its wake save for a ton of great, mostly unheralded music.
Nonetheless, Surrender still sounded like the Future (already receding), neatly encapsulating all the conflicting strains of ’90s dance music, bundling up acid house, techno, synthpop, and even the egregiously named “big beat” sound that made the duo famous, wrapping it all in one big shiny bow of blissed-out psychedelic perfection. At the time, it seemed like a revelation: it was forward-thinking music with an eye on history, sonically dense and subversively intellectual musique concrete, filtered through the lens of New Order, Mercury Rev, and — yes! — the Beatles. It was consciously retro, but considering how marvelously forward-thinking the Chems’ first two albums had been, the historical focus hardly seemed like a sin. It was the electronic music equivalent of the world’s most awesome covers album, a respectful nod in the direction of every fondly-remembered variety of ’90s electronic music — hip-hop, rock, house, and pop, it all got thrown in the pot to make the stanky, fertile bouillabaisse of ’90s dance.
But, unfortunately, the tide turned, and the Chemical Brothers’ utopian future never actually came to pass. Most of the acts who defined ’90s dance and electronic music either stumbled or fell entirely soon after the calendar turned. The Prodigy went into hibernation, Underworld lost a member and with him a great deal of their urgency, Orbital and Leftfield both split, and Aphex Twin decided he’d rather spend his time doing anything but making music. In the ensuing years, the Chemical Brothers have consistently released solid albums, but nothing quite so revelatory as their first three LPs. They can still be depended on for a handful of great tracks per disc, and a few sleeper deep cuts, but the perception of invincibility has long since faded.
There was a time — gather ’round, kiddies — when these two homely British dudes (with a passion for medieval history and Bob Dylan, of all things) were making the most exciting music on the planet, more powerful than any angry rap-rock, more debonair than a thousand teenyboppers, and just about the smartest stuff that ever made it onto MTV, Radiohead not excepted. Those were the days, and they seemed like they would last forever. They didn’t, but I still prefer this future to the one we actually got. – Tim O’Neil
Limp Bizkit – Significant Other [Interscope/MCA]
Released 22 June 1999
I’ve been a music obsessive for as long as I can remember, and when I was 13, in the summer of 1999, Rolling Stone was the Bible and Limp Bizkit were the prophets. I was the perfect audience for their debut record, 1997’s Three Dollar Bill Yall$, a rap-metal tirade that spoke to teenage angst like the Who staring angrily into a mirror. I found it puzzling at the time that my beloved Rolling Stone predicted such an engaging album as Significant Other would destroy the Bizkit, but it makes complete sense now. Skyrocketing to popularity destroyed Limp Bizkit’s appeal to the disaffected teens that made them.
But the honeymoon period was glorious, and for the summer of 1999, Limp Bizkit owned MTV. Veteran metal-loving VJ Matt Pinfield even offers his ecstatic endorsement at the close of the album, presenting Limp Bizkit as an antidote to boy bands. Much as its intro might declare the Bizkit to be “the worst”, Significant Other was the sound of rap-rock trading in its “underground” card for chart domination. There are two ballads (“Re-Arranged” and “No Sex”), and a straight-up hip-hop collaboration with Method Man and DJ Premier (“N 2 Gether Now”) with nary a guitar in sight. All of which makes Fred Durst’s puerile angst on tracks like “Nookie” and “Break Stuff” that much harder to see as sincere.
Marketing fake rebellion is as old as rock music itself, but the Bizkit couldn’t last long after releasing something as diverse as Significant Other. Quickly branded as shallow sell-outs, it didn’t help the Bizkit’s case when their single “Break Stuff” was plastered across TV screens as the reason for the rape and rioting that closed the disastrous Woodstock 99. Limp Bizkit had abandoned its sweaty nu-metal purism for a grab at mainstream success, only to have the mainstream ultimately decide that “return of rock” bands were the ticket to authenticity in the new millennium. That, and the follow-up album was named after hot dogs and anuses, but that’s another story. – David Abravanel
Missy Elliott – Da Real World [Elektra]
Released 22 June 1999
It took Missy Elliott two years to release the follow-up to her breakthrough debut, Supa Dupa Fly, but when hip-hop and R&B’s leading lady emerged with the futuristic masterpiece Da Real World after two months in the studio, it was clear that she hadn’t suffered from any sophomore slump. A natural extension of her singing and rhyming, her songwriting and producing prowess, the record solidified the unique artist’s stature as the most important hip-pop phenomenon on the planet.
Da Real World was released to wide critical and popular acclaim, but it’s now commonly considered the weakest of Elliott’s early outings. This is faint praise for a work that in 1999 easily bested most of what hip-hop had to offer. It’s also an unfair assessment ten years in retrospect. Critics consider Da Real World darker and denser than either Elliott’s debut or her third and fourth albums, a mind-blowing party-starting one-two punch. By this they mean that Da Real World lacks international hits like “Get Ur Freak On”, “One Minute Man”, and “4 My People” (Miss E…So Addictive) or “Work It” (Under Construction).
But Misdemeanor has always been more than a singles artist, and the record welcomes listeners into a World that is defined by fascinating soundscapes and dense musical strata. The singles are all inventive and catchy: both “All N My Grill” and “Hot Boyz” showcase Elliott’s strength as a singer, while “She’s a Bitch” presages the Middle Eastern percussive rhythm of her prospective popular hits. Even lesser-known tracks like the ominous dancehall of “Mr. DJ” and the ballad “You Don’t Know” sound stronger now than most of the chart-topping hip-hop from 1999. Ten years on, Da Real World — along with Supa Dupa Fly and the two albums to follow — are must-haves for one of the most vital artists of our time. – Luke Fenchel
The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin [Warner Bros.]
Released 22 June 1999
When guitar whiz Ronald Jones abruptly left the Flaming Lips in 1996, he left the band in a creative lurch. Along with drummer Steven Drozd, Jones was responsible for the band’s second coming, the one that saw the Lips transition from classic rock punks to avant-garde pop pranksters. Jones’s eccentric style perfectly encapsulated the whimsical sound of the band captured on 1993’s Transmission from the Satellite Heart and 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic… and now they were left without a plan.
The Lips responded by being even more experimental, conducting the Parking Lot Experiments (a symphony of cars playing prerecorded tracks as concerts) and then releasing Zaireeka, an album consisting of four CDs to be played simultaneously. And, when the time came to make an album proper, they decided to forego replacing Jones in favor of having the all-around musical virtuoso Drozd step out from behind the drums to take over the keys and guitars.
The result was The Soft Bulletin, an album so different from the Lips’ previous albums that it sounded like the work of an entirely different band. Gone were the crunchy guitars, and in their place were layers of strings and textures. The Lips had dabbled in classic rock and punk, but now they were blending retro pop and progressive rock. If Phil Spector had produced ELP, he might have ended up with The Soft Bulletin.
The music, however, wasn’t the only drastic change. Previously content with singing about the absurd — aliens, waterbugs, giraffes — frontman Wayne Coyne suddenly tackled the big issues with a proximity and poetic eye previously unseen. “Waitin’ for a Superman” dared to ask if God were too feeble to save mankind, while “The Gash” encouraged everyone to push forward nonetheless, ultimately concluding that we have to make the change we desire. Yes, lyrical irony and detachment had ruled the decade, but Coyne dared to put on a suit and sing without hipster sarcasm, inspiring many others to follow. True, it’s impossible to pinpoint when ’90s lyrical distance transformed into unabashed emotionality, but Coyne definitely played a role. Coldplay, after all, are Lips devotees, and Chris Martin might benefit from some lyrical detachment.
And consider this: earlier in the decade, Butch Vig had to lure Kurt Cobain into double-tracking his vocals by telling him that John Lennon had done the same on Beatles albums — such was the disdain for studio wizardy. Not even a decade later, The Soft Bulletin made the studio a respectable instrument in itself. Combined with the panoramic spectacle of the Lips’ live show, the album proved that bands with relatively modest but loyal followings could dare to think grand. Rock, thankfully, has never recovered. – Michael Franco
Nobukazu Takemura – Scope [Thrill Jockey]
Released 22 June 1999
In the not-too-distant future, CD skips and fast-forward skims will be quaint fodder for textural dressing, just as warbled cassette tapes and vinyl scratches are today. The natural sounds of wear and imperfection are dissipating in the digital age (though I still hear the occasional MP3 burp every now and again), and there has been a markedly reactionary movement to reclaim them in the experimental ’00s from the early decade’s glitch to the latter portion’s hauntology.
Japanese sound wizard Nobukazu Takemura wasn’t the first to play confused lasers skipping on optical discs as his instrument (see the cut-ups of Markus Popp, Todd Edwards, et al.), but with Scope he harnessed the process into an act of jaw-dropping beauty by making gigantic longform ever-looping meditations with broken sound that gave Terry Riley a run for his mandala. His fragmented sounds (waveforms truncated abruptly and left with pops, clicks, warts and all) helped make the case for digital as a genuine competitor the analogue throne. A track like “Icefall” — which sounds like Tomita’s more ebullient but similarly-named “Snowflakes Are Dancing” remixed into zeroes and ones and beamed into space — exudes a warmth and emotional resonance that is undeniable.
“Taw” and its slightly tedious, squirmy, granulized rhythmic noise crunches is not entirely dissimilar to what’s coming out of Editions Mego and Raster Norton these days, though with far less distortion. “On a Balloon” is a lush 22-minute odyssey that’s discordant like a jigsaw puzzle put together wrongly, but actually more pretty and more telling in its discontinuity. Scope‘s scope is vast and showcases that technology need not only plot our nightmares, it can digitize our dreams as well. – Timothy Gabriele
Slipknot – Slipknot [Roadrunner]
Released 29 June 1999
Slipknot’s sound. Rough detuned guitars; propulsive, skittering dual drummer action; a turntablist producing untutored, screeching noise like an anti-DJ Shadow; and, over it all, competing (and generally winning) in the mix: Corey Taylor’s voice. Guttural screaming to the end of destroying a perfectly decent microphone with acrid spittle is its dominant mode. Yet he sometimes whispers, sometimes moans, sometimes sounds almost tender. In other breakthrough popular music of 1999, Slipknot was closest to Eminem’s more witty articulation of this same outsider’s conflict.
The adolescent energy that pushes Taylor is also behind the band’s eclecticism and quirkiness — they even seem to channel some elements of the Prodigy in the way the programmed and live drums connect on “Eyeless”. Single “Spit It Out” has a jaunty garage-punk bounce despite its apparent angst. The eight-minute closer “Scissors” is percussively dense and seems genuinely, if amateurishly, experimental, while musical linchpin Joey Jordison’s obsessive love of thrash metal underscores the record as a whole.
Lyrically, a lot of the album is banal “fuck the world” angst, some psychotic/serial killer-inspired lines, and a reliance on a quiet-to-pulverizing loudness formula that is first draining, ultimately boring. In the midst of this, some great non sequiturs and humour stand out: “You can’t see California without Marlon Brando’s eyes” seems to me as surreal as early 1980s Mark E. Smith, just as “Fuck me, I’m all out of enemies” reflects funnily on the necessity of conflict for Taylor’s own attitude.
Slipknot’s breakthrough debut spawned imitators like the short lived Mudvayne, but these were few. Slipknot is certainly not an intensely analyzed canonical record, though it is well respected in the metal community. Boilersuits, pig masks, nods to Leatherface, and misogynistic, frat-boy antics were staples of their live shows, and these moves earned them notoriety in popular culture. This filled a void for those (generally teenage) listeners who somehow wished Slayer’s thrash ethic to be removed from historical context and fused with the pantomime metal villainy of Iron Maiden’s Eddie .
Will it be talked about in years to come? I think so, for two reasons. Slipknot stands as a culturally significant moment where a strange band broke through, helped by nu-metal’s predominance, and sold a very marketable image. It was also a popular counterpoint, sonically and visually, to the artsy noise-making theatrics of the likes of Lightning Bolt. – Kieran Curran
Macy Gray – On How Life Is [Epic]
Released 5 July 1999
“I get high when I smoke.
Try to walk away, but I stumble
Though I try to deny it, it’s clear.
I smoke up when you are not here.”
A petit montage:
In the video, Macy Gray is alone. She wanders around the city, not aimlessly, per se, but generally aimless in life. She pays no real attention to the spaces she inhabits, nor the people with whom she interacts. She’s alone, but not abandoned. Needed, but not loved. Her needs always accompany abandonment. The video reads like addiction, and the protagonist: ‘The Addicted’.
Macy Gray sunk 1999’s groove back into something mellow, and made pop into something smooth, like stout. Fair enough — The haze, craze, and fake lyrics like those above the petit montage served up Macy a Grammy for the tacky love-lost single “I Try”. Yet “Do Something” was the real beat with which hip-hop heads needed to reckon. “You and I got to do for you and I”. It sounds like something Obama would say. Imagine him jamming to Macy’s song on his branded portable digital music and video player, cruising abroad on Air Force One. Swoosh! Turbulence. Don’t drop it! It’s fragile and you won’t want to miss that beat.
Macy Gray’s On How Life Is really had pressing and relevant lyrics. Between the number of negros braggin’ ’bout dey hoes, let’s not forget to give praise to those soul stars who remained true to the game. The game? Truth telling. Witnessing & Testifying in that ole negro tradition. Witnessing & Testifying on how life is. Now, more and more people are seeing both its global roots & resonance. “Like ole girl growled: Get up. Get out & do something”. Even — and especially — if that means change. It’s all about mutuality and happiness.
Truth is, Barack is the coolest person that I do not know personally. Macy Gray is the second, yet for totally different, though oddly related, reasons in the larger picture. They both are unafraid to speak up and speak out. They both know how to run their mouths and do something. – Diepiriye Kuku
Mr. Bungle – California [Warner Bros.]
Released 13 July 1999
From the sounds of the seagulls and surf that open the album to the century-ending clang that closes it, Mr. Bungle’s California covers more ideas and images than most bands could cram into a career. Anyone who has fallen under Bungle’s uncanny spell can attest to the fact that when you hear one of their albums, it stays heard. This is music that takes you somewhere, including places you did not know existed. Mr. Bungle gets inside your mind and remains there.
Mr. Bungle only released three albums in the ’90s (in part because the various members kept busy with other projects, like Faith No More, Fantômas, and Secret Chiefs 3, all of whom made incredible and important recordings during that decade), and each successive album represented a considerable leap forward. The band’s self-titled 1991 debut was an ambitious, genre-splicing experiment that combined carnivalesque whimsy with occasionally disturbing subject matter: it was about what happened after the circus left town, metaphorically speaking.
Mr. Bungle endures as a psychedelic hall of mirrors that remains delightful and disorienting, no matter how many times you hear it. Their next release, 1995’s Disco Volante, upped the ante and managed somehow to be both weirder and (at times) more accessible than its predecessor. A song like “Desert Search for Techno Allah” (and before you even listen to it, think of the awesomely odd images that title conjures) defies description — it’s a techno mash-up with eye-popping musical proficiency. The band’s brand of weird science offers no quarter: this material affronts non-believers and turns adventurous listeners into fanatics.
Incredibly, after another four-year interval, California synthesized the band’s numerous compulsions (surf music, proto-funk, eastern rhythms, jazzy noodling, and ingenious yet oddball lyrics) into a cohesive whole. The confidence and focus displayed throughout their third album is on an entirely other level. On each of the ten tracks you might hear traces of Frank Zappa (both the comic and the composer), Captain Beefheart, Ennio Morricone, and the Ventures. The band cruises from one influence to the next with arresting ease, perfecting a sort of laid-back lunacy, a controlled hurricane of intensely opposite styles that inexplicably make complete sense.
Aside from being the Mr. Bungle masterpiece (Disco Volante boasts some of the band’s finest moments, but taken in its entirety it’s a tad too disjointed and self-indulgent; it’s a schizophrenic near-miss), California is the culmination of their cut-and-paste surrealism, marrying the stop-on-a-dime intensity with a kitchen sink sensibility that incorporates the entire universe into its vision. More so than any previous album, Mike Patton’s prodigious (and possibly unparalleled) vocal range is fully utilized, allowing him to explore everything from retro-crooning (“Vanity Fair”) to campy faux-lounge (“Pink Cigarette”) to relatively straightforward rock (“The Air-Conditioned Nightmare”) to the utterly unclassifiable (“Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy”). The band continuously weaves a west-coast vibe into the mix, winking and nodding with playful but heartfelt invocations of the Beach Boys, Hollywood, and (as always) surf music filtered through a distinctively postmodern heavy metal M.O.
California is not even a collection of songs so much as miniature sonic movies. Take “Ars Moriendi”, for instance. The opening seconds somehow blend a thrash guitar/drum riff with an accordion waltz (imagine hardcore gypsy music), then Patton enters with his operatic flourishes, singing lyrics like “All my bones are laughing / As you’re dancing on my grave”. The song navigates the incongruous edge between head-bang abandon and Turkish wedding music that makes you want to slamdance while doing a polka. Or consider “Goodbye Sober Day”, which is like “I Am the Walrus” on Peyote — think the outro of Syd Barrett’s “Bike” thrown into a blender with multi-tracked falsetto wails cut by one of Sun Ra’s stranger big band workouts. And that’s just the first 30 seconds. The song goes on to incorporate Gregorian chants (convincingly) and a Balinese monkey chant (seriously). All while the band slowly disintegrates into oblivion like the bad guys’ faces melting at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
There are also gems of calm and clarity, like “The Holy Filament”, which showcases Patton as choir boy, and “Sweet Charity”, which sounds like Phil Spector working with Brian Wilson. Then there is the track that epitomizes what worked best on the previous albums, “None of Them Knew They Were Robots”. Here is the Bungle aesthetic at full effect: Hawaiian music crashing into Carl Stalling cartoon territory — keyboards and horns and Trey Spruance’s quicksilver chord changes — with a brief but convincing Elvis impersonation serving as a sick cherry on top. Oh, and it somehow manages to swing. It’s a madcap laugh, to be certain, but it’s also absolute genius.
And so, it’s a shame that the boys couldn’t keep the party going after Y2K, but considering the subsequent gifts we have received from Secret Chiefs 3, Tomahawk, and Fantômas, it seems churlish to complain. Besides, if Bungle was going to go out on top, the third time was a charm — the project where all the disparate elements and obsessions came together. California is an album that sums up the 20th century while burning the bridge to the 21st, an eternal fin-de-siècle celebration. – Sean Murphy
µ-Ziq – Royal Astronomy [Astralwerks]
Released 27 July 1999
Given how prominent techno and electronic music in general was in 1999, it’s still not surprising that Mike Paradinas remains an obscure figure, although it is a shame. His early brutalist albums have held up surprisingly well (particularly 1997’s Lunatic Harness, which ought to be mentioned in any conversation about Aphex Twin’s peers), but the one that my friends and I stumbled upon in high school was his even more gonzo (and thus far, totally singular) Royal Astronomy album. In addition to encompassing a myriad of sounds and styles and having a very individualistic, defiantly cracked sense of sound design, Royal Astronomy stands as one of the very few proper LPs of what they used to call IDM that actually provides an interesting, intelligible listening experience today.
Paradinas and Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James collaborated in the ’90s, but nothing the latter did was weird in quite the same way that Royal Astronomy is. Paradinas toured with Björk and was sufficiently influenced by her live string section to started working with real and fake strings as well, even while he started in a relatively poppier direction, and also brought in hip-hop vocal samples. Sound like an unholy mess yet?
The range of Royal Astronomy is best summed up by its first two tracks. “Scaling” starts the record with strings and bells and odd little synthesizer fillips, and for four minutes it sounds unconcerned with any of the practical considerations that touch music made by humans. A timpani thuds away softly, the strings soar, the same little melodic figure calmly repeats — the result is sublime. Then “The Hwicci Song” dopplers into view with rapidly sawing strings and a more determined melody, only to be interrupted by turntable scratching (which does kind of sound like ‘hwicci’) and a sampled MC repeating “You want a fresh style / Let me show you” until it frays. There’s a beat poking under it rather than just some percussion, and it’s a fantastically busy one — Paradinas, like a lot of his peers, often suspended free-floating melodies above knotty, driving drum patterns, but does it so well he makes it fresh again.
Best of all is “Carpet Muncher”, a beautiful little production that in three minutes shows off little bits of all of the facets Paradinas was working at, and is as close as this music can get to killer pop. Elsewhere, Paradinas throws nearly everything at the wall — the horror movie soundtrack of “Gruber’s Mandolin”, the terse spitting and crazed synth buzz of “The Motorbike Track”, the queasy synths of “World of Leather”, the reflective choirs of “56”, “Mentim”‘s far-off explosions, the peaceful-village-on-acid video game “Slice”, Japanese fan Kazumi’s expressive and amateurish singing on “The Fear” — and it all sticks.
Part of this is cunning sequencing: opening with a string of immediate and ingratiating tracks, rationing out the harder/longer tracks over the course of the album to give some balance and heft to proceedings, and throwing you just enough curves to keep you interested. But the songs on Royal Astronomy are varied and fresh enough to this day that they keep you coming back for more. Now if only anyone had heard of the damn record. – Ian Mathers
Destiny’s Child – The Writing’s on the Wall [Columbia]
Released 27 July 1999
Destiny’s Child might be remembered today for launching the pop juggernaut best known as Beyoncé. And that’s fair — while the group’s lineup was constantly in flux, Beyoncé was its irreplaceable core. The Writing’s on the Wall was the group’s breakthrough album and their biggest hit, going multi-platinum and cementing the quartet (soon to be a trio) as one of the sharpest, smartest girl groups around.
That’s not to say it spontaneous; Destiny’s Child was, after all, carefully assembled by producer (and padre) Mathew Knowles. But then again, so were the Sex Pistols. So were the Monkees. So were Girls Aloud (that might be a bad example). The point is that great pop music (because Destiny’s Child always were, at heart, a brilliant pop group) doesn’t have to share the indie obsession with authenticity. After all, Rihanna doesn’t write her own songs — but after “Disturbia”, do you really care? The Writing’s on the Wall never pretends to be homemade. It’s almost deliberately slick, as processed as its cover image. But it just sounds so good.
Standout track “Say My Name” goes beyond “guilty pleasure.” Propelled by Beyoncé’s commanding vocals and a hook that digs in so deep it might never come out, “Say My Name” became the group’s signature track for a reason. “Bug a Boo” is a sleek message of empowerment hidden beneath a glossy riff. It’s a rare thing: An album comprised almost entirely of singles. And even rarer, while slightly dated, The Writing’s on the Wall comes off just as funny, sharp, and well-crafted as it did ten whole years ago.
Personal confession: The Writing’s on the Wall was the first album I ever purchased, at the tender age of 12. While my indie pedigree might’ve progressed since then (goodbye Britney, hello Band of Horses), the message of The Writing’s on the Wall still remains. No, not that a guy ought to pay your bills, bills, bills, or that even if you’ve got a man, the club is still jumpin’, jumpin’. No, the true message behind this album — the one that’s endured throughout a decade of break-ups and reunions, through the Beyoncé legacy, and even through Obsessed — is that pop music, at its best, doesn’t owe allegiance to anything except the beat. – Emily Tartanella
Basement Jaxx – Remedy [XL]
Released 3 August 1999
At the time, Basement Jaxx seemed monstrously weird, and in all honesty, they’re still pretty weird. Considering the general seriousness of popular electronic music at the end of the decade, Remedy was a bizarre little curio from another planet, a disc of effusive Latin-flavored pop-house disco anthems that seemed like the bastard love child of Fatboy Slim and Armand Van Helden. Of course, the Jaxx didn’t rise up overnight: they’d released successful singles and remixes for years. But this was their first big push, and the universal acclaim from the likes of Spin and Rolling Stone — along with some actual MTV and radio play — made their sound instantly recognizable. And of course, the fact that they actually had songs as good as “Rendez-Vu”, “Red Alert”, and “Bingo Bango” was the best part. This was, and is, electrifying good stuff.
And the best part is that not merely was Remedy good, but it was no fluke. 2001’s Rooty was arguably even better, and subsequently 2003’s Kish Kash was one of the decade’s most acclaimed albums — not most acclaimed dance albums, but most acclaimed period. Considering how good they are at making awesome singles, it would be easy to forgive them for slapping together perfunctory albums. But they almost always come through with quality LPs — even if, truth be told, they’ve sometimes been too overstuffed, too jam-packed with awesome ideas for their own legibility. Remedy seems positively lean in comparison with Kish Kash or 2007’s Crazy Itch Radio, sleek and sexy almost to distraction.
The Jaxx may lack the intellectual bona fides of the Chemical Brothers of Underworld, or the crossover appeal of Moby, but for people who love — really love — dance music, a Jaxx single sounds like nothing so much as shaking up a cold, fizzy Coca-Cola on a hot summer’s day and swallowing it down with a mouth full of Pop Rocks. In other words: not to be missed. – Tim O’Neil
Guided by Voices – Do the Collapse [TVT]
Released 3 August 1999
In the mid-1990s, few acts were as beloved as Dayton, Ohio, indie rock band Guided by Voices. Their admirers weren’t mere fans; they were fanatics, worshipping a cult of DIY aesthetics that made the band seem accessible and relatable to every vinyl nerd with a garage sale guitar and a used four-track. From 1994’s Bee Thousand to 1996’s Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, the band were critical darlings, issuing near-perfect treatises on the power of great songwriting to not only transcend lo-fi production, but to be somehow enhanced by it.
By 1999, though, Guided by Voices leader Robert Pollard had jettisoned the act’s “classic lineup”, abandoned hip indie label Matador for TVT, and taken on former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek as producer. The resulting album, Do the Collapse, is predictably slicker, more polished, and bigger sounding that any prior Guided by Voices release. These factors alone were enough to engender disappointed fans and tepid reviews.
However, seen from another perspective, Pollard was aiming for a wider swath of the music-buying public, and he delivered the goods. Do the Collapse‘s sharper production meant it could be easily appreciated by the casual alternative radio listener. If you’d survived the ’90s on a steady diet of Flaming Lips, Smashing Pumpkins, Sugar, and Beck, then this was the Guided by Voices album for you. Opening track “Teenage FBI” ranks among the group’s very best, with its chugging rhythm blooming into the chorus’s delicious power-pop chords. “Things I Will Keep”, with its fuzz guitars and keening melody, is another of the record’s best tracks. Also in this category are buzzing rocker “Surgical Focus” and, with its heavenly refrain, “Liquid Indian”.
Then there are the slow songs. The warm, strummy “Dragons Awake” is flat-out lovely, while “Hold on Hope” is the gorgeous power ballad that has rankled the hardcore lo-fi lovers the most. Perhaps a bit syrupy, it’s the band’s “Everybody Hurts”. It’s also kinda great, pairing sweeping strings with the typically oddball and unsentimental line, “There hides the cowboy”. Do the Collapse is the Guided by Voices album that’s not for the fans, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, ten years later, it sounds pretty darn good. – Michael Keefe
Kool Keith – Black Elvis/Lost in Space [Ruffhouse/Columbia]
Released 10 August 1999
Kool Keith was at an interesting crossroads in 1999. The success of his album Dr. Octagonecologyst endeared him to the burgeoning scene of “backpacker hip-hop”, an indie spin on the ’90s hip-hop underground. Kool Keith was the funky sci-fi freak of the moment, successor in spirit to George Clinton — except it was the intellectuals, not the party people, who were celebrating. Never one to censor himself, Keith bluntly declared independence from Dr. Octagon by having his supervillain persona, Dr. Dooom, kill him on the first track of First Come, First Served. With that out of the way, Keith was free to drop his masterpiece of bouncy sci-funk.
Black Elvis/Lost in Space introduced us to the persona of the title, one who brought Keith’s neo-Clinton potential home. The album chronicles the life of an intergalactic eccentric celebrity over tweaked-out beats full of booming bass drums and synthesizers galore. At the time, it was thought that this would be the record to launch Keith to another level of popularity, and it’s easy to see why: Black Elvis/Lost in Space was filled with hooks, and buttressed by some of Keith’s best rhymes to date. “Master of the Game”, featuring one of the final recorded performances from talk box king Roger Troutman, sees Keith busting out a fast rap that evokes the old school and space girl titties, while singles “Livin’ Astro” and “I’m Seein’ Robots” are both infectious celebrations of Black Elvis’s neon-colored lifestyle.
Unfortunately, Black Elvis/Lost in Space failed to make Keith huge, and he’s spent the past decade back in the underground (save for a subpar “return” of Dr. Octagon, who was then promptly killed — again — by Dr. Dooom). On the other hand, maybe it’s better for Keith’s crazy genius to flow free of major-label expectations. Regardless, Black Elvis/Lost in Space remains the most accessible distillation of Keith’s obsessions with sex and sci-fi. – David Abravanel
Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire – Oh! The Grandeur [Rykodisc]
Released 24 August 1999
Back in 1999, no one could have predicted that the man responsible for this 15-song excursion into American pop and jazz from the Roaring ’20s would ultimately grow to be the public radio indie rock juggernaut that Andrew Bird is today. If you listen closely enough, Oh! The Grandeur reveals hints and clues to the high-wire act Bird would ultimately embrace, but mostly it sounds more like an especially adept Squirrel Nut Zippers side-project.
And in some senses, that’s what it is. It wasn’t until Bird’s next album, The Swimming Hour, that he began synthesizing the genre exercises that fascinated him, transforming a budding musicologist into a brilliant composer. Oh! The Grandeur is weighted down by songs that sound doubly dated. “Candy Shop” sounds like Django Reinhardt filtered through the swinging ’90s. “Vidalia” is a nostalgic trip to a Yiddish Vaudeville stage, and many other tracks sound like studies in Weil and Brecht rather than the product of a matured singer and songwriter, more cabaret than chamber pop. Even “Tea and Thorazine” and “Wait”, which weave a playful web of words and thus recall Bird’s later work, are notably missing his trademark whistle.
A virtuoso on violin and guitar, Bird may be best known for his whistling prowess: he is able to emit a sound that evokes the Theremin in pitch and vibrato. But for all of his multi-tasking and warbling, Bird’s true talent lies in the ability to craft albums that are unrivaled in scope and depth, some of the most sophisticated music in contemporary pop. That said, Oh! The Grandeur sounds like an artist wading through an archive of musical history, and the album feels more like an artifact of interest to collectors than an engaging work of art.
Bird had an unconventional but auspicious beginning for a pop musician: he studied the Suzuki piano method at an early age. But if that method is notable for its formally rigid approach to music, Bird balanced it with a supple and adept ear for — in his words — “harvesting” the sounds around him. Ten years on, Oh! The Grandeur sounds like a collection of song styles, and might be more aptly titled Andrew Bird’s Anthology of American Music. – Luke Fenchel
Christina Aguilera – Christina Aguilera [RCA]
Released 24 August 1999
Some albums don’t date well, sounding less like art than artifacts, and some are timeless, continuing to sound fresh years after they were released. Christina Aguilera’s self-titled debut lands somewhere in between. On the one hand, the record is a time capsule from a long forgotten era when lumbering record companies ruled the Earth and pretty-faced alumni of the G-rated genre ruled the record companies. On the other hand, the 12 pieces of bubblegum on Aguilera’s first release mirror the current over-sexed landscape of popular music so well that it wouldn’t be surprising to see a bizarro Aguilera fabricated by hit-makers this autumn.
Aguilera was the third in a Disney dynasty whose late ’90s releases reaped profits that lined the pockets of executives, and whose products filled minds with the sonic equivalent of soft taffy: sugar-sweet, sexy, slick, and not too good for you. Although the last of the late ’90s Big Three (co-Mouseketeers Britney and Justin topped the charts first), Aguilera came to the table armed with the biggest voice, the fewest hang-ups, and the most malleable image. Christina Aguilera is chock full of strong singles: “Genie in a Bottle”, “What a Girl Wants”, and “Come on Over (All I Want is You)” — all of which sound appropriately bouncy, and the last one was even co-written by Aguilera herself (even if she shared songwriting credit with five other people and one hit-making trio). Further, two of the tracks (the chart-topping “I Turn to You” and the retro “Somebody’s Somebody”) were penned by legendary pop scribe Diane Warren.
Though she would later complain about the tribulations of celebrity, following her debut with a few missteps and attempts at alleged authenticity and creative control, Christina Aguilera rubbed audiences the right way, and made its maker a pop star in the process. – Luke Fenchel
Meshell Ndegeocello – Bitter [Maverick]
Released 24 August 1999
Bitter was the taste in Meshell Ndegeocello’s mouth after a failed relationship, the feeling in her soul as its twists and turns gave way to months of emptiness and even more questions. Always somewhat challenging anyhow, the German-born R&B siren and bass prodigy quietly shut the door on her pop self and recorded what was to become her darkest and most pained release.
Bitter allowed Ndegeocello a vast space to explore a range of difficult emotions, from confusion to resignation to loneliness, which she verbalized with startling candor — there’s no real poeticism in a line like “You have no interest in anything that I have to say”, yet it devastates all the same. Her funk-laden bass — an instrument for the best of times — took a well-advised back seat to Lisa Coleman’s piano, which shed tears with each stark note, and strings that recalled 4hero’s Two Pages stunned and slowed to a sad crawl. It straight up hurt to hear her in this state, which may have been the reason the album won critical adoration but flopped commercially (it peaked at only #105 on the Billboard Top 200). The great irony of Bitter is that “bitte” means “please” in German, highlighting the pathos in Ndegeocello’s struggle to separate that wrenches the heart so. – M. Newmark
P.O.D. – The Fundamental Elements of Southtown [Atlantic]
Released 24 August 1999
1999 was a bad year to be a metal fan. Though the genre provided many true metal bands an opportunity to deliver good albums — like those of Opeth, Children of Bodom, and Dimmu Borgir — mainstream radio was overwhelmed by a strange new music hybrid known as nu-metal. The nu-metal sound was basically hard rock with dashes of turntablism, funk, hip-hop, and grunge, but definitely not as strong as any of its parts. And no band represented this weak attempt at heavy metal as visibly as Southern California’s P.O.D..
Payable on Death (P.O.D.) was a Christian nu-metal band who grew up in the poorer sections of San Diego (pejoratively known as Southtown), yielding experiences that formed the basis for much of their lyrics. Listening to their third album, The Fundamental Elements of Southtown, it’s easy to see why this record became their first mainstream success. The group was part of a scene that thrived on the rap-rock fusion, and you can tell that the music would have fit in along with other popular bands at that time — Limp Bizkit, Korn, Deftones, etc.
Retrospectively, though, I am ashamed to say how much I liked most of that music, because listening to The Fundamental Elements now, I am alarmed at how badly this record has aged. Don’t get me wrong, P.O.D. was a good band and could produce some angry, socially-relevant lyrics. But as a whole, this album is a weak effort from a band where each member is trying to replicate other musicians’ sounds. Lead singer Sonny Sandoval tries to rhyme like pro-Jesus rockers DC Talk, but sounds like a contestant on VH1’s White Rapper Show. And guitarist Marcos Curiel and drummer Wuv Bernardo try and emulate Tom Morello and Brad Wilk, respectively, of Rage Against the Machine, but with little success. The notable exceptions are bassist Traa Daniels, who fairly succeeds at channeling a funky, thick bass sound a la Faith No More, and guest performer DJ Circa, who lays down exquisite scratching.
In the end, what are The Fundamental Elements of Southtown? Two radio-friendly singles, “Southtown” and “Rock the Party (Off the Hook)”, an atrocious nu-metallic emo cover of U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky”, more references to “Jah” than in a Peter Tosh record, and a band that tries to make Christianity ROCK, but with little effect. – Shyam Sriram
This article was originally published on 23 June 2009.