Dixie Chicks – Fly [Sony]
Released 31 August 1999
It’s hard to imagine, but the Dixie Chicks existed before the outspoken and dynamic Natalie Maines joined the group. Current bandmates and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison co-founded the ensemble back in 1989 with two others and became popular on the bluegrass circuit, putting three albums to wax between 1990 and 1993. During these years the group was already experimenting with the seeds of the contemporary country and bluegrass blend that became their patented signature, much to the displeasure of fellow founder Robin Lynn Macy who left the group. Enter Natalie Maines and stardom was just around the corner.
Maines added that charismatic frontperson that the band needed and her musical chops were the equal of the accomplished Maguire and Robison. Indeed, Dixie Chicks’ enduring importance may well be what they have done for the visibility of female instrumentalists in a highly male dominated field. Maines may be the one that gets the bulk of the press, but Maguire and Robison’s consummate playing is the foundation of the band and the image that it projects is perhaps more powerful than even Maines’ colorful personality. These “chicks” have never been pretty fronts for men, but are among the finest pickers in the biz. Maguire came in third at the 1989 national fiddle championships and Maines scored a full-tuition scholarship at the prestigious Berkelee College of Music.
And yet there was some doubt among the Nashville suits about the commercial viability of an all-woman group in country music. Someone either sniffed a gimmick here that would sell or, hopefully, was simply won over by the sheer excellence of their music because when they landed that deal, they hit big and fast, selling 12 million copies of 1998’s Wide Open Spaces and nabbing two Grammys in the process.
Fly followed quickly on Wide Open Spaces‘ heels, meant to maintain and build the artist’s momentum, something it succeeded at wildly as Fly is packed to the gills with stadium fillers. The album sold 10 million copies, won them two more Grammys and generated two #1 singles in “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “Without You”. Fly maintained elements of bluegrass style with its emphasis on virtuoso musicianship and layered harmony singing, while adding pop friendly guitars and attitude into the mix, as well as mainstream country staples like pedal steel guitar and songs about everyday lives.
Dixie Chicks managed the feat of sounding completely new — never easy to do — while upending Nashville traditions. It’s rare for artists to play their own backing on major label albums coming out of Music City. Even George Strait’s superb Ace in the Hole Band usually has to sit on the sidelines while the studio players step up to the recording mics. Dixie Chicks use some additional players to fill out their sound on recordings, but the bulk of the playing comes from the artists themselves, operating as a true team of equals and they went platinum doing it.
Fly was loaded with hits, from the Celtic influenced “Ready to Run”, the expansive classic country yearning of “Cowboy Take Me Away”, the risqué barnstormer “Sin Wagon”, and the Fried Green Tomatoes-esque “Goodbye Earl”. These songs explore love and longing, but with a real sense of empowerment and strength, never despair or victimhood. Popular culture and the music business badly needed such strong women back in 1999 and we still need them today. Thankfully, the Dixie Chicks are still growing strong 10 years on. – Sarah Zupko
Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs [Merge]
Released 7 September 1999
When 69 Love Songs was released in 1999, the buzz could not have been greater. In addition to winning over the college radio crowd, the album charmed the press, garnering glowing reviews and a rare “10” rating from SPIN. Its influence at the time was palpable, especially as 20-somethings were introduced to Nina Rota, Ferdinad de Saussure, and Pantone color charts. The album encouraged contemporary vocalists to gender-bend their lyrics and songwriters to take on any subject matter with innocence, genre experimentation, and even, in the case of “The Night You Can’t Remember”, heroic full rhymes.
A decade past the album’s release, its impact has only begun to be revealed. Unlike other indie bands that generate hype and then fade into nowhere or face a backlash, the Magnetic Fields held strong with 69 Love Songs. While the aforementioned over-hyped indie bands generally only influenced one another, it seems musicians everywhere were touched by 69 Love Songs. Among the artists covering the titular love songs are Mary Lou Lord, Peter Gabriel, and Kelly Hogan (whose version of “Papa Was a Rodeo” is perhaps the best Magnetic Fields cover yet). Moreover, Stephin Merritt has set a dazzling precedent for men working between theatrical and pop traditions, and he may well also be responsible for the dubious ukulele craze of the past few years. – Erin Lyndal Martin
Sloan – Between the Bridges [Murder]
Released 12 September 1999
Sloan was always way more popular in Canada than they ever were in the United States. But the power pop band released a string of excellent, critically adored albums in the ’90s that at least granted them the cult following they deserved. Arguments can be made in favor of each of these albums, but for my money, 1999’s Between the Bridges nudges out Navy Blues, One Chord to Another, and Twice Removed as their best. Between the Bridges flows together like a rock opera, as songs blend into each other and themes return throughout the course of the album — this despite the band having four distinct songwriters. If there is a concept behind the album, it’s autobiographical, as it charts the band’s beginning in Nova Scotia (“The N.S.”), their flirtation with American success and eventual failure (“So Beyond Me”, “Losing California”), and their return home to Canada (“Take Good Care of the Poor Boy”).
But the clever sequencing wouldn’t matter if the songs didn’t hold up, and the album is chock-full of great ones. “So Beyond Me” is a gem, with tight harmonies and a soaring melody, and a bridge/outro that combines both. “Don’t You Believe a Word” is a big, beautiful slice of AM radio-style pop, with coy lyrics and singing from Jay Ferguson. “Sensory Deprivation” is possibly Andrew Scott’s most exciting hard rocker, with a big, meaty riff and huge vocals. “Losing California” has the album’s most infectious chorus and a kickass dual-guitar solo, while “The Marquee and the Moon” is a powerfully catchy piano-based song that uses its change-of-pace 6/8 time signature to great effect. In a more rock-friendly time for mainstream music, Between the Bridges could’ve been huge. But in the boy band pop and nu-metal dominated late ’90s, it never had a shot at showing up on the charts. – Chris Conaton
Gomez – Liquid Skin [Virgin]
Released 13 September 1999
Part two of the Merseyside indie band’s career overture, Liquid Skin shared the textural nuances of Gomez’s Mercury Prize-winning debut Bring It On. Indeed, the albums were almost twins, down to the implied diptych of their cover art — Liquid Skin even inherited Bring It On‘s discarded title track, a bluesy fugue that became a top-25 single in the UK. But it ultimately outstrips its older sibling in both ambition and in the polished grit of its neo-blues confabulations.
For certain, it features more glorious uvula-scraping sustained notes from Ben Ottewell’s burnt-copper pipes than any other Gomez release: the sitar-drenched “Hangover” begins with his potent entreaty to “be the light at my window”, “Blue Moon Rising” climaxes with explosive iterations of the title phrase, and “Rosalita” bears out his vocal dexterity for its entire length. The songwriting and production remains solid throughout (“Rhythm & Blues Alibi” could well be the band’s theme song), but it’s the rambling splendor of “California” and “Devil Will Ride” that sees Liquid Skin pull ahead of its well-laurelled predecessor. The latter in particular takes the cake, with its gobsmacking vocoder effects, marching-band horns, and Beatle-esque sing-along fadeout. “Even the Royal Mail / Can’t deliver us from what we got into”, Ian Ball sings. But on Liquid Skin, Gomez evades the sophomore jinx and convincingly delivers. – Ross Langager
Eve – Let There Be Eve… Ruff Ryders’ First Lady [Interscope]
Released 14 September 1999
Our nostalgic trip down memory lane would be incomplete without recognizing one of 1999’s brightest stars: Eve Jihan Jeffers. Carving out a space for herself in the male-dominated world of hip-hop, Eve achieved commercial success and critical acclaim with her debut, Let There Be Eve… Ruff Ryders’ First Lady. Sensual yet devoid of the hyper-sexuality that plagued the careers of more than a few of her female contemporaries, Eve appealed to young and old, female and male, the converted and the unconverted. Amazingly, in a black cultural universe increasingly fragmented along the lines of rhythm and bullshit (see: Mark Anthony Neal), neo-soul, commercial rap, and backpacker hip-hop, Eve possessed the rare ability to endear herself to disparate communities.
Nowhere was this more apparent than on her debut release. Unafraid to signify with and on her hip-hop brethren, Eve shares the mic with rap’s man of the hour, DMX, her Philly comrade Beanie Sigel, and fellow newcomer Drag-On. Certain to oblige the most rudimentary requirements of hip-hop, the talented rapper from the City of Brotherly Love states her claim as the baddest chick in the game (“Scenario”), pays homage to her hometown (“Philly, Philly”), and tackles the complex subject of relations between the sexes (“Let’s Talk About” and “Gotta Man”). To her credit, Eve gives voice to women struggling with issues of self-esteem and caught in abusive relationships. It seems only fitting in a milieu in which black music tilted toward a more conscious stance that Eve’s biggest single would address the issue of domestic violence. “Love Is Blind”, produced by Kasseem “Swizz Beats” Dean and featuring soulful vocals from Faith Evans, raced up the charts, due in no small part to its accompanying video.
Opening with “I don’t even know you and I hate you”, Eve told the story of the havoc domestic violence reeks on the lives of its victims and the communities they inhabit. On this track and others, Eve revealed a layer of black femininity that differed from that associated with neo-soul’s Earth Mamas. As cultural critic Greg Tate astutely noted, Eve put forth a vision of “inner-city sisterhood that may be understandably lost on folk all caught up in her platinum blond, butch haircut, pouty lips, and breast-stalking paw prints.” Coming out the same year as Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s masterful Bitter, Angie Stone’s underrated Diamonds, and Mary J. Blige’s beautiful Mary, Eve was one of many artists providing a thought-provoking take on the complexity of black womanhood at the turn of the 21st century. – Claudrena Harold
Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Nigga Please [Elektra]
Released 14 September 1999
There’s no questioning the late, great Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s place as the wild man of the hip-hop idiom. He was Rudy Ray Moore, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Fear of a Black Planet-era Flavor Flav all rolled up in a dusted Phillies blunt with the words “Big Baby Jesus” written across it with a bootleg Sharpie. Though the co-founding (and confounding) member of the Wu-Tang Clan was labeled an MC and a rapper by trade and association, his accidentally Dadaistic approach to the craft was exactly the eye jammie hip-hop needed to keep itself in check.
Largely produced by the Neptunes with accompanying beats by the likes of the RZA and Irv Gotti, Dirty’s second solo album is indeed his absurdist masterpiece as he blurts, sings, chants, and rants his way through what can easily be considered the most non-linear mainstream rap album ever created. Nigga Please was released in September of 1999 in the midst of a personal tornado of chaos and bad publicity. It came in the wake of ODB’s full year of criminal mischief, which found Dirty hijacking the 1998 Grammys during the “Song of the Year” award announcement to proclaim that “Wu-Tang is for the children,” getting arrested in California after making “terrorist threats” against security at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, being kicked out of a hotel in Berlin, Germany for lounging in the nude on a balcony, getting pulled over in New York for driving with a suspended license and drug possession charges twice within a five-day span, and hiring OJ Simpson’s lawyer to represent him in court among other ill-fated instances.
Anchored by one hit song, the freaky club banger “Got Your Money”, featuring a memorable hook by a pre-“Milkshake” Kelis, Nigga Please zig zags from a faithful reading of Rick James’ “Cold Blooded” to sloppy-yet-entirely-endearing warble through the Billie Holiday classic “Good Morning Heartache” with one-time Timbaland protégé Lil’ Mo. Then there’s ODB doing what the Dirt Dog does best on “I Can’t Wait”, featuring a sample fashioned from the theme music to the William Shatner police drama TJ Hooker. Those who didn’t get it still can’t understand where ODB was coming from on this, the absolute oddest gem in the Wu-Tang Clan catalog. But for those in the know — Jesus, we still rollin’ wit you. – Ron Hart
Supergrass – Supergrass [Capitol]
Released 20 September 1999
This album was a crucial step for Supergrass. While their chart position has slunk down incrementally with almost every album they’ve released, their eponymous third album established them as a solid career band. While the Britney Spears and Eminem types manufacture carbon copy blockbuster releases on pure hype, the so-called “X-Ray” album saw the band’s early, unrefined alternative punk and ramshackle twee influences coalesce into a consistently understated and subtle record, commanding their destiny while maintaining their unpretentious spirit and sense of humor.
Their 1995 debut I Should Coco ended up at number one in the UK charts, garnering them a Mercury Prize nomination and best new artist awards from NME and Q. The lead single “Caught by the Fuzz” and the Ivor Novello-winning “Alright” saw them touching back on their formative teenage years, capturing the unchecked hope and energy of youth. In 1997, In It for the Money followed it up to number two in the UK with a more ambitious and sonically varied sound, and sold more worldwide than its predecessor. This direction continued for their eponymous 1999 release.
The band was all safely in their mid-twenties at that point, and the time for naive noodling had passed. The album announced Supergrass as a mature group of talented musicians, no longer dependent on, but not devoid of, spunk. It helped to opens doors to the US market thanks to the surprise summer hit “Pumping on Your Stereo” (which made the Road Trip soundtrack) and its now-legendary supporting Muppet video.
The core of the album was not in its flashy riffs, but emotionally its contemplative, composed tracks. Among these, “Eon” is a slow moving epic that builds to a drifting downtempo peak, and “Born Again” follows suit, from an orchestra-warming-up intro to an electric piano and string-laden groove penetrated by vocoder-dampened vocals. The album was bookended by “Moving”, a touring song documenting various attributes of life on the road, and “Mama & Papa”, which closes the album on the notion that, once the nest is empty, you never can go back home.
Granted, their third album was their last to gain platinum sales, so one may be inclined to assume this was where it all went wrong. To the contrary, I see this as the album where they finally became themselves, reaching the place where all of the promise from their debut took them. The consumer only concerned with the here and now would likely miss the progression the band took to get to this point, and it’s one they continued. 2002’s Life on Other Planets would be their first album on the Billboard 200, while Road to Rouen from 2005 and last year’s Diamond Hoo Ha reached 41 and 22 on Top Heatseekers charts respectively. Yet, although their earlier albums may have had more raw energy and their later works may be more refined, in my mind, Supergrass still holds up as their best. – Alan Ranta
Leftfield – Rhythm and Stealth [Sony]
Released 20 September 1999
They don’t make music like this anymore. It’s not so much a value judgment as a simple statement of fact. Few acts ever made dance music as powerful and pummeling as Leftfield, and even fewer acts were able to combine this kind of strength with such a keenly cerebral intelligence. At some point, dance music got small: what happened to the bass? What happened to the cathartic pulse of amniotic bass? When did everything get so damned hip and self-conscious? Where’s the passion?
Leftfield were big, bigger than life, even if they themselves were almost comically anonymous. Just another couple of English blokes making house music — but not just that. Their brand of house music blew out sound systems across the continent. For their first trick they conjured up John Lydon and the era-defining “Open Up”, and subsequently dropped Leftism, still one of the most highly-esteemed dance LPs of all time. Rhythm & Stealth was their second album, and if it is sometimes overlooked in favor of their debut that’s no scratch on Rhythm & Stealth.
Only ten tracks, and not a bum in the joint: all killer, no filler — nothing but massive beats and monstrous, all-encompassing synths. Few tracks have ever kicked like “Afrika Shox” (with Afrika Bambaataa!); few dance ballads have ever felt as dangerous as “Swords”; precious few hard house tracks have ever swelled with the destructive fury of “6/8 War”. It was a phenomenally potent second act, and rather than tempt fate, Leftfield decided to call it a day soon after. It seemed like a shame at the time, but in hindsight perhaps it wasn’t such a bad idea. There are worse ideas than releasing two all-time classic albums and then fading gracefully into the night. – Tim O’Neil
Nine Inch Nails – The Fragile [Nothing]
Released 21 September 1999
Listening to The Fragile 10 years later is a lot like hearing a mash-up of last year’s two Nine Inch Nails albums, Ghosts I-IV and The Slip. There are some really great instrumentals and some great rock songs here, but there are also a few boring instrumentals and some truly uninspired rock songs. Theoretically, The Fragile was five years in the making, and Trent Reznor had so much material that his only choice was to go the double-disc, massive album route. But in practice, there really is about one full CD’s worth of strong music here. That was true when the album came out, and it’s still true today.
Age has not improved the more lackluster songs. What is striking about hearing The Fragile today is how much the guitars are turned up. We tend to think of Nine Inch Nails as having an electronic bedrock in which heavy, distorted guitars are used to fill out the sound — with certain rocking exceptions, of course (“Wish”, “March of the Pigs”). But the guitars throughout this album are huge, and they dominate just about every song they’re used in. Opener “Somewhat Damaged” illustrates this perfectly. A jagged riff kicks off the song and continues throughout, getting louder and more distorted as it goes. This riff ends up so thoroughly overwhelming the rest of the music that it renders the song inert.
The second track and first single, “The Day the World Went Away”, fares better with its apocalyptic lyrics and slow-and-heavy music. But it’s the third track “The Frail” that highlights the album’s other striking feature. A slow, piano-based instrumental, it has a quiet minor-key melody and is the first of several excellent instrumentals spaced throughout the album. These instrumentals expanded the sound of the band, pushing forward and exploring new territory, which would later bear fruit on the aforementioned Ghosts album and the excellent acoustic Still CD. But the rock songs, even when great, today sound pretty stagnant for Nine Inch Nails, rehashing a lot of what Reznor did on Broken and The Downward Spiral. – Chris Conaton
Stereolab – Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night [Elektra]
Released 21 September 1999
As the 1990s drew to a close, so did Stereolab’s ability to sound fresh, vital, and relevant. By this point in their career, the “groop” could play their particular brand of space age lounge-pop in their sleep. And indeed, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night found them going through the motions like never before, and still ranks as the worst record in their incredibly extensive catalogue. Properly speaking, nothing had changed. All of the elements were slotted into their expected places — every droning Farfisa organ, every vibraphone hit, every “ba-ba-ba” vocal tic and harmonized verse by Laetitia Sadier and backup singer Mary Hansen. Abetted by Jim O’Rourke and John McEntire’s aloof and thoroughly boring production, Stereolab effectively turned the music that had once galvanized the college rock underground with early classics like “Jenny Ondioline” and “Ping Pong” into predictable pop pabulum.
Cobra and Phases Group also coincided with the obsolescence (if not the outright death) of the ’90s Exotica movement, led by Mexican easy listening composer Juan García Esquivel, Stereolab’s major influence. (In a sad and poignant turn of events, the aging Esquivel would die only three years later.) But if the record justifiably represents Stereolab’s lowest descent into lifelessness, it also stands as the clear dividing line between their early- and late-career successes. Perhaps it took a blatantly autopilot album and the critical backlash that followed it to jolt the group out of their holding pattern. Even after Hansen was killed in a tragic biking accident in 2002, Stereolab would continue to recharge their batteries and produce the excellent Margarine Eclipse and last year’s fine Chemical Chords, which didn’t alter their formula so much as suffuse it with new, vivifying force. We all make mistakes, and the once do-no-wrong Stereolab wasn’t an exception. It’s what we do about those mistakes that really matters. – M. Newmark
The Get Up Kids – Something to Write Home About [Vagrant]
Released 21 September 1999
In the early to mid-’90s, Midwestern emo was still largely a jagged thing, an identifiable descendant of the “Revolution Summer” post-hardcore sound from which it drew inspiration. In the late ’90s, however, a new crop of bands decided to give the genre a more mainstream-friendly makeover. Leading the charge was Kansas City five-piece the Get Up Kids, who plugged emo’s boy-chases-girl lyrical tropes into a Weezer/Rentals-esque power-pop template. Needless to say, this softer-edged sound soon took roost, engendering the generation of Fall Out Boys and Girls that currently dominates the charts.
However, a decade later, it’s quite clear that the Get Up Kids didn’t just do it first — they also did it best. From the opening pick-scrape of “Holiday” to the hushed closing of “I’ll Catch You”, Something to Write Home About ably captures the excitement, uncertainty, and trepidation of young love without embracing misogyny or veering too far into the realm of slam book cliché. Conversations get heated, feelings get hurt, hearts get poured out over telephone lines — and all the while, the band maintains a bouncy exuberance, filtering the energy of punk rock through a tightly focused pop lens.
Growing up in the endless suburbs of the Midwest, I spent a lot of time going to punk rock shows at YMCAs, churches, and community centers. Occasionally, a savvy sound guy would play this album in between sets and the result was always the same: A roomful of self-conscious kids letting down their guard and shamelessly singing along. Ten years later, I still can’t listen to “Action and Action” without wanting to do the same. Something to write home about, indeed. – Mehan Jayasuriya
Tori Amos – To Venus and Back [Atlantic]
21 September 1999
Tori Amos released this double album just over a year after the impressive From the Choirgirl Hotel, where she brought more complex, electronic arrangements to a sound still governed by the piano. Venus: Orbiting was intended as a b-side release, but new song after new song found its way into the studio, and Amos scrapped the original plan. The results were mixed.
Whispy, flitting songs like the single “Concertina” mingled with gorgeous ballads like “Josephine” and “1000 Oceans”, halfway-theres like opener “Bliss”, the tentative “Lust”, and tropical storms like “Datura”. Sophisticated melodies were largely obscured by the singer’s efforts to atmospherically convey an imagined sojourn on the planet Venus.
The real star of the show is the second disc, Venus: Still Orbiting , a live collection from 1998’s Plugged tour, where a diverse sampling of Amos’ first decade really showcases her power and influence as a songwriter. A grown-up rendition of “Cornflake Girl” shares space with riveting versions of “Cloud on My Tongue” (both tracks from Under the Pink) and the orphan stunner “Cooling”.
The pairing of these bold, energetic performances with the nebulous outerspace meanderings of the first disc makes for a strange combination, with the profundity of tracks like “Bliss” sometimes entirely swept away by overbearing effects. Still, the creative juices were flowing at a rate fans haven’t seen since, and the creations themselves displayed Amos’s peerless ability as a composer and performer, even if her experimentation often served more as a distraction than as a sign of innovation. – Liz Colville
Creed – Human Clay [Wind-up]
Released 28 September 1999
The two biggest-selling rock acts of 1999, Limp Bizkit and Creed, are veritable punchlines in 2009, proponents of booming me-against-the-world post-grunge solipsism that appeals to an ever-narrowing, eternally receding arena-rock audience. Unlike the Bizkit, who raged in the name of locker-room profanity and locker-door profundity, Creed sought inspiration from a higher power. From the ecumenical name to the ersatz-Dali album art, Creed oozed a platitudinous spirituality, albeit one vague enough to gain massive radio play and move millions of units. In fact, Human Clay went on to sell 11 million albums, despite widespread critical drubbings.
Of course, what do critics know? In the case of Human Clay, it turns out quite a bit. Creed’s first album, 1997’s cheaply-produced My Own Prison, issued on the then independent upstart Wind-up Records, was an out-of-nowhere mega-hit. It had a couple of modestly gratifying, derivative but listenable cuts. But on Human Clay, the budget was upped, and so was the grandiosity. This album had to sound huge, gigantic, gargantuan — as gargantuan as the momentous supernal themes tackled in the lyrics. But the vocals are pompous and self-important, the music clumsy and over-engineered, and worst of all, the hooks non-existent.
Human Clay remains a dreadful listen — 56 interminable minutes of forced chest thumps and clenched fists. Scott Stapp spews his tenebrous passion plays like Mount St. Helens spewed lava. Every power chord, every guttural grunt, has to erupt with meaning, with depth, with substance. Whether addressing domestic abuse on “Wash Away Those Years”, praising his child on “With Arms Wide Open”, or attacking his critics on “What If”, he recites exhausted clichés as though the earth’s survival depends on them. His two-trick baritone, a flagrant oversimplification of the Vedder-Staley technique, does not sell his horrid lyrics — it importunes them. And while religious fervor motivates his pronouncements, God appears only indirectly, as a “faceless man” or “our maker”.
As with antecedents from U2 to Live to Collective Soul, Creed avoids direct Christianity in the name of marketability. Mark Tremonti, a semi-skilled guitarist, breaks up Stapp’s sermons with the occasional shredding solo, but more often obscures his virtuosic limitations behind the ProTools. As this is utterly sexless music, the rhythm section is utterly utilitarian: this is voice and guitar music with bottom added as a conventional measure only. The result is songs that progress like gaseous cramps shooting through the abdomen.
Aesthetic failings aside, Human Clay was a hit, though a largely forgotten one. Like many messianic rockers (Fred Durst included), Stapp’s massive ego eventually swallowed up his fame, and Creed folded after one more even worse multi-platinum album. Tremonti pressed on with the equally unoriginal Alter Bridge, Stapp released a flop solo album and a much-lampooned sex tape, and once their dwindling notoriety mattered more their personal differences, they announced a 2009 reunion. Yet it’s hard to imagine this music triggering the boundless nostalgia of bafflingly beloved artistic lepers like Bon Jovi or Def Leppard. For one, Creed’s music is too self-serious to be fun, and too hackneyed to be inspirational. Many of the rock radio stations that put Human Clay‘s four singles into heavy rotation have folded into livelier formats, and as ratings sag, rock playlists have become more stagnant and homogeneous.
Creed’s once ubiquitous singles have evaporated from the public consciousness: they’re seldom played alongside the neo-cock-rockers (Hinder, Saving Abel) and almost classic rockers (Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains) that currently rule the rock radio roost. DJs mock Creed incessantly, and bartenders are known to cue up Human Clay to clear the joint at closing time. Unless revisionism resurrects it in another decade’s time (think Slippery When Wet revived in 2006 versus 1996), Human Clay is destined for history’s cut-out bin, which is where many critics rightfully thought it belonged ten years ago. – Charles Hohman
Garth Brooks – In the Life of Chris Gaines [Capitol]
28 September 1999
“Why the hell is Garth Brooks dressed up like Ben Stiller with a soul patch, or a lost member of the Backstreet Boys?” This was probably what countless fans said after catching a glimpse of the cover of In the Life of Chris Gaines, featuring Brooks dolled up as his rock star alter ego. The album was originally intended to be a musical prequel to a film developed by Brooks entitled The Lamb, a greatest hits package chronicling the musical evolution of the fictional (and Australian!) singer/songwriter Chris Gaines. The Lamb never came to fruition, and while the character never had his life story fleshed out on celluloid, the world got to witness Garth playing dress-up in both a literal and figurative sense.
By 1999, Garth Brooks had accomplished nearly every feat in the world of country music, almost single-handedly reviving the genre and bringing it unprecedented mainstream attention. In spite of the numerous NBC specials and countless music-industry accolades, Brooks had contemplated retirement. When you’ve conquered your domain of choice, what else is there to do? The Chris Gaines project offered him a new creative avenue.
Produced by R&B mainstay Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Don Was, In the Life of Chris Gaines pulled from a variety of musical styles, very few of which resembled country. The album’s single, “Lost in You” (which hit #5 on the Billboard Hot 100), as well as “Driftin’ Away” were loaded with vocal harmonies and slow, acoustic guitar — staples of Babyface’s repertoire. Singing in a high falsetto, through Gaines, Brooks finally got his shot to trot out the sort of vocal tremolo that would be employed by scores of American Idol contestants in years to come. Gaines shot to a decidedly less mellow end of the spectrum on the funked-out, bass-heavy “Way of the Girl”, complete with Hendrix-like riffs and nary a trace of Garth’s country roots, before doing yet another 180 with a slice of ’90s pop-alternative radio rock on “Unsigned Letter”. He even managed to squeeze in a pseudo-cover with “Right Now”, rapping his way through social hypothesis while incorporating the chorus of the Youngbloods’ folk classic “Get Together”.
Great pains were taken to create the Chris Gaines character — right down to the liner notes featuring Gaines’s prefabricated discography (and era-specific hairstyles depicted on each album cover mock-up). Hell, actual bands putting out greatest hit comps in 1999 didn’t go through half the trouble that Garth Brooks did in piecing together the past of his alter ego. The scary thing is, it’s all very believable. If you didn’t know better, it would be hard to guess that the myriad of musical compositions contributing to this sonic jigsaw were attributed to Garth Brooks (who didn’t write the songs, but rather convincingly performed them in his genre-hopping persona).
In spite of the promotional effort put behind In the Life of Chris Gaines, (including a VH1 Behind the Music mockumentary special), Brooks’ risky retrospective of an illusory character tanked. Fans didn’t get it, nor did they take kindly to the country crooner pulling an Andy Kaufman with the creation of his own, much more emo Tony Clifton.
While Garth Brooks had made country palatable to a mainstream audience in the ’90s, In the Life of Chris Gaines was his foray into reverse crossover appeal. Brooks’ experiment didn’t work very well, but artists in years to come would invert his formula to achieve greater success. The likes of Jessica Simpson and Hootie and the Blowfish’s Darius Rucker have used country as a platform to boost lagging pop record sales and revive their careers.
All things considered, it’s a shame Brooks’s turn as Chris Gaines didn’t get its due for the sheer creativity and multi-faceted finesse in crafting an above-board pop album from an unlikely source — and doing it better than some of pop’s “real” chart toppers of the ’90s. – Lana Cooper
Method Man and Redman – Blackout! [Def Jam]
Released 28 September 1999
Outside of the odd posse cut, in the late ’90s it was rare to see cross-pollination of rival rap crews. Def Squad and Wu-Tang were the twin towers of hip-hop at the time — with all due respect to the mighty Boot Camp Clik — and both crews were bursting at the seams with MCs to rhyme with, but a fortuitous collaboration on a Tupac track brought long-time friends Redman and Method Man together in the studio and planted the seed for a duo release. Ever the rap mavericks, and bonded by blunts, blocks, and beats, Redman and Meth threw a bale of weed on the fire and set to spitting some of the best party rhymes you’ll ever hear.
Redman and Method Man both had solo deals with Def Jam at the time. Lyor Cohen and Russell Rush not being two gents to would pass up an opportunity to make a buck, Blackout! was made a priority, and eventually sold over a million copies. “Da Rockwilder” was the lead-off single, whereon Red and Meth drop lyrical interplay unheard since the heyday of EPMD. Erick Sermon looms large here. His funky swagger informs most of the album, producing the lion’s share of the tracks and keeping them funky and live. Meth and Red are party guys and party tracks are the way of the walk, with very little of the Wu-Tang grittiness of the average RZA track. And throughout, the two swap lines and cadences like so many blunts.
The uninitiated would do well to get yourself a neck brace before throwing Blackout! on, as it is virtually impossible to listen to the tracks without rocking your head like a Paris Hilton bobblehead. The shout-outs to Bill Clinton and Shirley Chisholm are a bit dated, but everything else about Blackout! has staying power that trumps most of today’s hip-hop. – Rob Browning
Muse – Showbiz [Maverick]
Released 4 October 1999
The band that would later become “the best live band in the world” released their debut album Showbiz in 1999, achieving only minor success largely because there were only some minor songs on the album. None of the band’s best work appears here, but they laid a solid foundation for where they would go on later albums. Vocalist/guitarist/pianist Matt Bellamy begins to grow out of his obsession with Thom Yorke, and despite their similar vocal ranges and falsetto, Bellamy proves the more energetic performer on songs like “Sunburn” and slow burner “Showbiz”. “Cave” hints at the band’s sweeping, orchestral possibilities that “Citizen Erased” would later fully expand upon.
Still, songs like “Escape” and “Muscle Museum” proved that the band had some growing up to do, struggling to find their own voice. Chris Wolstenholme never manages to impress with the catchy basslines found in later hits “Hysteria” and “Time Is Running Out”. Bellamy does not fully exploit his piano talent, like he will later in “Butterflies and Hurricanes” and “Hoodoo”. The entire album is missing that technicality in composition that impresses audiences worldwide. Yet, while profiling a young band still struggling to discover and exploit their strengths, Showbiz remains one of the most important albums of 1999 because of the foundations it laid for the future. – Tyler Fisher
Paul McCartney – Run Devil Run [Capitol]
Released 4 October 1999
Paul McCartney’s release Run Devil Run shoots a wistful wink to the Brylcreme boys of the slick-backed ’50s. This album was long overdue. A man who’s been knighted, blighted (oops, ex-wife Heather), and ignited (a working-class fire-fighter is something to be), and having been hailed by Yale (honorary degree program) and bailed on (sorry, Heather) deserves to “give grease a chance” and retrofit those tunes that defined and revolutionized his youth.
Paul James McCartney was not only the doe-eyed darling of the fab ’60s Beatles, he fronted the group Wings with his 30-year marriage partner, Linda. He received the MBE from the Queen, has composed countless classical works — including oratorios — and besides the bass, Macca plays lead and rhythm guitar, keys, and drums. Not to mention his bastion of original tunes. But besides that hullabaloo, what’s the whoop about Run Devil Run?
Well, there’s the unabashed party mood resonating throughout this album, for one. The fact that in December of ’99, McCartney played a promotional set at Liverpool’s Cavern Club — the club where the Beatles first channeled their chops — leads us to believe he was indeed pining for a more innocent time. Only a year after losing his wife Linda, it made sense that he would recall those early rock ‘n’ roll tracks that kept his left-handed bass plugged in and shimmied his shimmering, oft scratchy vocals.
It’s not surprising, but cunningly original, that McCartney named this kitschy keepsake after an herbal medicine shop in Atlanta. Having always had a penchant for lyrical examination of unsung and ordinary places (take “Penny Lane”, in which he and Lennon chronicle barbers and firemen who bustle in suburbia) McCartney illustrates in fine detail the drama inherent in ordinary life. And when holding that working-class prism against an everyman, he turns each one into a hero.
But here, aside from penning three original songs — “Run Devil Run”, “Try Not to Cry”, and “What It Is” — McCartney moves aside and lets a long-gone era speak raucously and defiantly for itself. It’s a confident McCartney who bellows “Blue Jean Bop” (Gene Vincent/Morris Levy), and though his song-writing partner of yore exclaimed that they were “bigger than Jesus,” Macca comes full circle by proving he’s bigger than Elvis. Hence, his interpretation of “All Shook Up” (Larry Williams). So can a post-mop–top trump a pompadour with side-burns? Hell, yeah.
McCartney zones in on Chuck Barry’s electro-twang, reverb-flavored “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, and we’re doin’ the duck walk on sprinkled Zydeco crumbs. He sports lavish vocals in “Coquette”, and in “Party” there are traces of early Beatle covers like “Long Tall Sally”. Rockabilly abounds in “I Got Stung”, and “Shake a Hand” pumps up McCartney’s flaming falsetto. Sweet. Imagine you’re holding an ocean’s shell up to your ear and you’ll hear hints of Roy Orbison and Little Richard in the vocals.
“No Other Baby” heralds a maple-syrup tinge, while “What It Is” reeks of post-rock. “You can buy a dream or two to last you through the year”, he croons in “Lonesome Town”, and then persuasively purges, “I want to enjoy being alive / Don’t want to leave before I arrive” when incarnating “Try Not to Cry”. Rocker ecstasy abounds in “She Said Yeah”, where you delight in McCartney’s primitive, escalating bass. Those were the days…
When Run Devil Run was released it garnered rave reviews, heading up the charts to #12 in the UK and #27 in the US. Sounds like the fans appreciated McCartney’s boyish resurgence and foray into a fun concept album. The 14 songs get you moving, distract you from the car notes, and veer away from any subject deeper than unrequited love. Unlike McCartney’s work before and after, there are no protest songs or retrospectives about inner angst. Don’t expect disappointing gurus or lovely meter maids. Do expect to twist through time travel.
So, for those who consider roller-skating babes, drive-in movies, and root beer floats the bomb, this is it. It’s like a happy shining Norman Rockwell painting put to vinyl, and how bad can that be? It definitely deserves the trophy on the mantel for one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most happy moments. – Lisa Torem
The Bloodhound Gang – Hooray for Boobies [Interscope]
Released 4 October 1999
Not quite rap, not quite rock, and certainly not nu-metal, the Bloodhound Gang were in a class all by themselves. “Class”, however, doesn’t exactly apply to the band that gave the world Hooray for Boobies — which saw a 1999 release in Europe, but was delayed in the US until early 2000 — arguably their best and most controversial album.
Beyond the title, the Bloodhound Gang ran into several roadblocks delaying the release of their third offering. Legal issues arising from the group’s inclusion of a parody of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” cropped up on the song “Right Turn Clyde”, and the band battled with their label, Geffen, over the inclusion of a cover of “Along Comes Mary”. The Pink Floyd debacle was resolved, thus allowing Bloodhound Gang to include the lyrics “All in all you’re just another / Dick with no balls” on “Clyde”, but they caved to label pressure and agreed to release “Along Comes Mary”.
Minor artistic squabbles aside, the band earned serious MTV rotation with the disc’s quirky single, “The Bad Touch”. Better known for its über-catchy chorus, (“You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals / So let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel”), the song catapulted the band from its fringe status to the mainstream. Prior to this, they’d scored a minor hit with “Fire Water Burn” off of their previous album, and minor cult status with “You’re Pretty When I’m Drunk” from their first disc.
The real beauty of Hooray for Boobies, however, lies within lead singer/lyricist Jimmy Pop’s rapid-fire delivery of pop culture barbs that manage to be both clever and surprisingly intellectual. Lyrically, Bloodhoung Gang sounds like “Weird” Al Yankovic’s pervert savant younger brother if he wrote all-original music. “Three Point One Four” references a double-entendre on the decimal figure known as “pi” and features Jimmy Pop belting out a falsetto coda comprised of a single word: “Va-gi-i-na! / Va-gi-i-na!” — each syllable ascending note-by-note on a musical scale with Freddie Mercury-worthy bombast. The references to female anatomy keep coming with a two-and-a-half minute tribute to adult film star Chasey Lain (who, incidentally, makes a cameo on the album to address the creepy, fan-letter style of the song, all in good fun).
Lest it appear that the Bloodhound Gang are singularly minded, other songs on the album tackle subjects of a deep philosophical and spiritual nature. Take, “Hell Yeah” for instance, in which Pop muses about the nature of God. He ponders, “Would I be a good messiah with my low self esteem? / If I don’t believe in myself / Would that be blasphemy?”, while petitioning to add a “book of Flavor Flav to the Bible”. From tongue-in-cheek proselytizing, the Gang goes all-out grindcore with “I Hope You Die”, perhaps the funniest fantasy ever to depict an elaborate vision of an enemy’s demise, culminating in said enemy’s realization that “‘fist’ can be a verb”.
Over a decade later, the Bloodhound Gang’s unique blend of techno, hip-hop, and metal-tinted guitar rock could easily fit on the current musical landscape. Even more amazingly, most of the wisely-chosen pop culture references contained on Hooray for Boobies are still relevant and funny. Thanks for the mammaries, Bloodhound Gang! – Lana Cooper
[ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 ]
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This article was originally published on 24 June 2009.