The Most Memorable Albums of 1999 (Part 5)

Part five of the Most Memorable Albums of 1999 is highlighted by the political rock of Rage Against the Machine and Joe Strummer, as well as major league hip-hop from Mos Def, Pharoahe Monch, Q-Tip, and Jay-Z.

Mos Def – Black on Both Sides [Rawkus]


Released 12 October 1999

As the cornerstone of the once-mighty underground hip-hop empire that was Rawkus Records, Mos Def’s wildly diverse yet smoothly cohesive full-length debut truly lived up to the Brooklyn-born MC’s immense build-up in the hip-hop underground. Expectations ran high following his formidable cameos on tracks by Common, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest throughout the mid-’90s as a junior member of the legendary Native Tongues crew.

Released on the heels of his incredibly successful collaborative LP with longtime partner in rhyme Talib Kweli as Black Star, Black on Both Sides set out to prove not only Mos Def’s worth as one of the prolific and insightful MCs on the scene, but also as a top-notch producer who shows a depth of musical knowledge far beyond his own genre, and a talented multi-instrumentalist who can rock the bass, drums, congas, vibraphone, and keyboards as well as he does the microphone.

Elements of Roy Ayers-style soul jazz, Max Romeo-esque reggae, Maggot Brain-quoting funk, and even pummeling guitar licks a la Bad Brains are all factored into the sonic gumbo Mos Def cooked up, creating a masterpiece that signified the apex of hip-hop’s most productive and innovative decade, the 1990s. – Ron Hart

Handsome Boy Modeling School – So… How’s Your Girl? [Elektra]


Released 19 October 1999

Rock music — by which I mean all of the last half-century’s American pop music, including hip-hop — has always suffered from a severe case of self-seriousness. Both classic rock and hip-hop have fetishized “authenticity”, making it almost impossible for the likes of Bruce Springsteen or Kanye West to demonstrate humor or to play with the artistic pose of intelligent self-consciousness. Whimsy be damned.

Which is why De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising — hip hop that dared to be light, funny, tuneful, yet still artistically serious — made such a breezy impression in 1989. The producer, Prince Paul, would team up a decade later with producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura under the moniker Handsome Boy Modeling School to create a logical successor, So… How’s Your Girl?. This 1999 classic was outwardly nuts, loosely based on an episode of the short-lived Chris Eliot sitcom Get a Life in which Eliot’s idiot character gets duped into attending the bogus “Handsome Boy Modeling School”.

A first listen suggests that these two invincibly creative producers were out for a high-toned goof, sitting in the studio cooking up grooves from unlikely sources (jazz, drips of water, trumpeting elephants, new age), then interpolating opera, self-help tapes, and guest spots from across the musical spectrum (Mike D, DJ Shadow, Sean Lennon, even comedian Father Guido Sarducci). Paul and Dan “play” at being the proprietors of a modeling school, and their songs — kind of — tell the story of this miraculous/fraudulent enterprise. There is even a track consisting of Prince Paul calling up rapper Biz Markie and convincing him to “sing like the Bee Gees, ‘Night Fever'”, the whole thing backed by old-timey organ music.

A decade later, So… How’s Your Girl? seems more vital than ever. Hip-hop is more monochromatic today, having perfected a commercially successful (that is: endlessly repeatable) groove, and its sense of ebullient discovery — not to mention humor — is sagging. The “story” part of So… How’s Your Girl? never really mattered, but the ingenuity of its execution, the depth of its grooves, and its attitude of high-tone play remains triumphant. Handsome Boy Modeling School comes off today as a collection of hugely varied grooves, but each one deep as a canyon. The glorious variety of the rapping is articulate and literary, but not precious, with Del the Funkee Homosapien, Grand Puba, Trugoy, Sensational, and others locking into the beats with such joy that there is virtually no need for cheap sing-along choruses or other obvious devices.

Paul and Dan are not being presumptuous when they sample Beethoven (as Chris Eliot shrieks, “I’m a male model not a male prostitute!”). Hip-hop like this — dazzlingly assembled collages of sounds that resemble orchestral music in their complexity of texture, form, and reference, but with the sensuous groove of blues music — makes the case just as well as Pet Sounds or What’s Going On that American pop music is, for whatever it’s worth, its own kind of classicism. – Will Layman

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros – Rock Art and the X-Ray Style [Hellcat]


Released 19 October 1999

Joe Strummer, one of the most famous frontmen in the last 30 years of rock history, had disappeared from spotlights for ten years after his first solo album, Earthquake Weather, into a black hole of regret, self-doubt, and disgust with what he saw as the emptiness of rock ‘n’ roll fame. He called this period the “wilderness years”. He was not unproductive, writing for Mick Jones’ Big Audio Dynamite, producing the Pogues, composing and contributing to film soundtracks, and DJing (“London Calling” was the show), but he nevertheless lacked sustained purpose. Then in the mid-’90s, Strummer assembled a backing band of poly-instrumentalists dubbed the Mescaleros.

Rock Art and the X-Ray Style was to be Strummer’s triumphal return from the wilderness. But return to what? In 1987’s Walker (a soundtrack to a film by the same name), everyone should’ve learned that Strummer had crossed the musical rubicon beyond the Clash‘s roots-infused punk. Earthquake Weather demonstrated the direction even better: rock ‘n’ roll met world music. Of course, that was already happening in Sandanista, where the Clash moved farther into reggae and even flirted with the burgeoning rap genre (“The Magnificent Seven”, for example). Rock Art and the X-Ray Style continued this trajectory, distancing Strummer from his more famous past efforts even further.

The album’s lyrics are a smattering of forlorn, existential, and socially critical fragments. And while it is a flawed album, at times forced and nearly baroque by spartan Clash comparisons, it also has a deeply human, even tender core that earns forgiveness for its transgressions. Some songs, such as “Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll”, are memorable, lyrically and instrumentally; others, such as “Nitcomb”, beg for a mnemonic device. Some songs are also more “worldly” than others. “Sandpaper Blues” is bongo and maracas-heavy, peppered with soaring synth noises, like jets leaping off the runway, and the “boing boing” of synthetic Jew’s harps. It’s not unpleasant. Others, like “Yalla, Yalla”, have a rhythm closer to Big Audio Dynamite’s dance beats with hints of reggae and dub. They are far from the rock-heavy days of “I Fought the Law” and “London Calling”

The album’s soft-of title track, “X-Ray Style”, a medium tempo, slightly islands-infused number, is practically a metaphor for Strummer’s own gaze on the world: “Down on the border they crawl all the way / To get a clip of living with a clean-all spray…. Can anybody feel the distance to the Nile / I wanna live and I wanna dance awhile”. “Tony Adams”, the name of a famous British footballer and posterchild for recovering alcoholics, is vintage Clash-like pop-reggae meets smooth jazz (the saxophone), for better or worse. “I’m waiting for the rays of the morning sun / Somebody tell me clearly, has the new world begun”, Strummer repeats in the chorus. “The whole city is a debris of broken heels and party hats / I’m standing on the corner that’s on a fold on the map / I lost my friends at the deportee station / I’ll take immigration into any nation”. It’s difficult not to take the metaphors of party debris and deportees as autobiography.

“Forbidden City” is another world beat, bongo-heavy number (David Byrne, you trailblazer!). The song gets less world-ish in the middle, on the verge of really turning the rock on high. Actually, several songs (e.g. “Techno D-Day”) are on that verge. But they stop short, like a retired athlete returned to the field, too anxious to go full tilt for fear of pulling a muscle and embarassing herself. To Strummer’s credit, rocking out was not his goal here.

Rock Art and the X-Ray Style is not a bad album, nor is it going to make the Top 100 albums of all time. While the album is required listening for Strummer-lovers, for many Clash fans the worst part of this release is that it’s not much like the Clash. The best part of the album is that it gives an x-ray of Strummer’s songwriting, and perhaps his psyche in evolution — if you can somehow stop thinking about the Clash. – Jayson Harsin

Pharoahe Monch – Internal Affairs [Rawkus/Priority]


Released 19 October 1999

Rarely cited, but proving to be highly influential in the wake that followed, Internal Affairs bobs and weaves through a collection of tracks that are impossible to define out of context. Held together, they form a hellish mosaic, a complex testament to the avenues a rapper can explore given a blank slate and the space to run free. “Rape”, the third track on the album, plays out like a courtroom investigation, with Monch as public enemy number one on the witness stand, playfully throwing out jabs left and right that he will “grab the drums by the waistline, snatch the kick, kick the snare, sodomize the baseline” or “turn on the 3000 stuck my dick where the disc go”.

“No Mercy”, which benefits in intensity from the constantly on-edge M.O.P., where Monch brags “they’ll bury me with my SP1200” is all high drama, leading right into the most downright scary track on the album, “Hell”, featuring Monch and Canibus as two damned sinners on a death race toward the fiery gates. The album suffers toward the middle during a suite of solo tracks that pop out with a few key lines, but ultimately deflate in the shadow of the collaborations — a unique paradox that has kept him respected but never gaining the commercial hits he surly deserves. His follow up work has never achieved the hungry bite of Internal Affairs, which has caused it become buried, destined to be rediscovered. – Craig Hubert

Incubus – Make Yourself [Sony]


Released 26 October 1999

The title of Incubus’s Make Yourself suggests the creation of a person in essentia, the blossoming and emergence of a complete self. Just as its title implies, this album was as much a creative forging as a personal one. This notion plays out in the band’s video for “Drive”, the song that broke them into mainstream radio and turned them into platinum-selling artists. The video shows a meta-drawing of lead singer Brandon Boyd drawing himself, starting with the outline of his hand and continuing to fill in his face. The juxtaposition between Boyd’s artistic self-rendering and his human self performing the song with the rest of the band perfectly captures the album’s theme of creating and manifesting the whole artistic self.

In the title track, Boyd sings, “If I hadn’t made me / I would’ve been made somehow / If I hadn’t assembled myself / I’d have fallen apart by now”. This seems particularly apt when applied to Incubus’s sound up to this point in their discography. Their previous full length, S.C.I.E.N.C.E., was littered with sampled noises, cut-and-paste vocal sounds, abrupt tempo changes, and a generally unpolished finish. It was their first album with DJ Chris Kilmore, and the seams were still very raw where they tried to cut their tracks. Each song sounded chaotic — as if on the verge of falling apart. With Make Yourself, Incubus became one of the first bands played on modern rock radio to effectively integrate a DJ into their sound. Boyd discovered his singing voice, and the band reassembled itself around it. Tracks like “Stellar” and “The Warmth” encompassed all the elements of an Incubus song, from hauntingly beautiful melodies to atmospheric guitars.

I sometimes find myself digging out this album of my own volition just to hear some of my favorite tracks. While I now consider some of the lyrics cringe-worthy (“It feels like trading brains with an imbecile / For real”? For real.), the fundamental struggle for identity within these songs still strikes me with its relevance, and they never sound overproduced or self-indulgent. Make Yourself, then, is as much a command to the listener as it is the band’s manifesto. – Theresa Dougherty

Le Tigre – Le Tigre [Mr. Lady]


Released 26 October 1999

Finally, the punk rockers learned how to dance. Or is it the other way around — did the dancers become punks? Either way, it doesn’t matter: Le Tigre’s self-titled debut crossed all the right streams, and in the process reunited the realms of hardcore punk and electronic dance music.

It’s easy to forget that modern electronic dance music was created by a proverbial rainbow coalition of early ’80s New York, Chicago, and Detroit urban culture — black, white, Puerto Rican, straight, gay, punk, disco, salsa, techno. This was especially hard to remember back in 1999, when the plurality of dance music hitting the shelves during the “electronica” push was white (with some exceptions for jungle or trip-hop artists), British, and very, very hetero. Frankie Knuckles never hit the pop charts, so it’s easy to forget just how queer the whole dance thing actually was from the very beginning.

If “riot grrrl” punk was aimed at reminding girls and women that they had as much right to be angry, loud, and passionate as their male counterparts — and to play loud rock and roll with just as much abandon — Le Tigre (ostensibly fronted by Bikini Kill alumnus Kathleen Hanna) was formed with the express purpose of re-colonizing dance floors for grrrls everywhere and re-appropriating synthesizers from humorless white dudes. There was still a lot of punk in their swagger. It’s rough in places, but arguably that’s the point: punk at its purest was never about perfectly crafted artistic artifacts, and musical virtuosity (or lack thereof!) could never take precedence over purely felt emotional experience.

So, Le Tigre is kind of a mess — ramshackle, whip-lash inducing, but occasionally, absolutely brilliant. You’re not likely to find better examples of either punk or dance music than “Decepticon” or “Metro Card”. If left to its own devices, the patriarchy will move in and take over any old music scene that it happens to find unoccupied. Le Tigre stood up to remind all the superstar DJs that you don’t have to be a white, straight male to rock a party, and you certainly don’t need to check your politics at the door of the club. – Tim O’Neil

The Dismemberment Plan – Emergency & I [Desoto]


Released 26 October 1999

Emergency & I usually gives the impression of having been released in the 2000s. That isn’t just because the Dismemberment Plan didn’t break through until around 2002, when they floored concertgoers on a tour with Death Cab for Cutie, but also because the record seemed so far ahead of its era. It utilized the aesthetic of Weezer and the Breeders as a starter kit, but its Technicolor spazz-pop sounded like nothing else at the time and did more to move away from grunge clichés than any other rock record of the ’90s. It predated and, in a way, predicted monumental releases by Enon, Of Montreal, and Wolf Parade, easing many of us into those bands’ spasmodic tendencies, and offered us a fresh, forward-looking alternative to the nu-metal that was just beginning to dominate the airwaves. Though it may have only been in hindsight, Emergency & I painted a rosy picture of indie rock to come.

The songs rarely detoured from simple pop structures, but the Dismemberment Plan injected them with enough caffeine to knock out a bull elephant. Every instrument, from the guitar to the poor demolished keyboard, was consistently cranked to 11 and thrown into overdrive, even when the tempos weren’t very fast — rendered all the more vivid by eye-bulgingly clear production. At times, Emergency & I could simply be too much, its flurry of melodies often nearing combustion or teetering on the brink of collapse.

The figurative and actual voice of the Dismemberment Plan was singer/guitarist Travis Morrison, whose sometimes quavering, sometimes shouted vocals mirrored what his band was kicking up around him. Half ingratiating party animal, half nervous wreck, Morrison perfectly encapsulated the twenty-something’s insecurity thinly veiled by extroversion. We might say that he and the Plan were clairvoyant here too, in that they foresaw over-activity — not apathy — as the prevailing problem among 2000s youth. Yet their music was such damn fun that the heady subtext never repelled their listeners, and Emergency & I remains as bracing and immediate as the day it was released. – M. Newmark

Rage Against the Machine – The Battle of Los Angeles [Sony]


Released 2 November 1999

I bought The Battle of Los Angeles from the used bin at Tower Records when I was a high school freshman. My local rock station (now defunct) had the album’s singles in hourly rotation, unfairly grouping them with contemporaries like Limp Bizkit and Korn in the nascent ‘rap-rock’ movement. As anyone familiar with their earlier albums knew, Rage Against the Machine were an established entity altogether different from the rising nu-metal stars of the time. They communicated a blatantly political message with ferocious guitars and provocative lyrics. The immediacy of their songs made me a believer then, and I anticipated feeling that same fire when revisited the songs now.

Ten years ago, Zack de la Rocha sang (or rapped) the words, “It has to start somewhere / It has to start some time / What better place than here? / What better time than now?” His words touched something deep in the American subconscious; this music was about more than nookie and Catholic school-girl uniforms. Shouting along with the chorus was not enough. Rage dared us to understand the words to their songs on a cerebral and emotional level, to research the causes they espoused, to form our own opinions and fight for what we believed was right.

An overwhelming sense of fatigue lingers when these songs play now. The world has been fighting for eight years. Between Iraq, Afghanistan, and major financial institutions, its supply of righteous anger is either spent or aimed in other directions. A Democrat is back in the White House, Mumia Abu-Jamal is still in jail, and the “vultures who thirst for blood and oil” have crushed the economy. We are in the same place we were when The Battle of Los Angeles came out. And while the world is certainly not the peaceful humanist utopia Rage Against the Machine envisioned, all the political messages bound inextricably to their music just seem exhausted.

I still nod and sing along to “Calm Like a Bomb” and get chills from the opening to “Born of a Broken Man”. But as the last squeal of “War Within a Breath” dies against my bedroom walls, I cannot help feeling relieved. I am too tired to be angry anymore. – Theresa Dougherty

Fiona Apple – When the Pawn… [Clean Slate/Epic]


Released 9 November 1999

The title is the tip-off. Commonly reduced down to When the Pawn…, the full title weighs in at a hefty 90 words, a capriciously scrawled poem that is at once combative, ambitious, pretentious, and a little crazy — just like the album it represents. As a shot across the bow, a statement of intent, it is bold and brilliant, the perfect complement to what is contained within — and yet it still does not really adequately prepare one for the stunning suite of songs that Fiona Apple unleashed on her audacious sophomore album.

A stuttered, muffled electronic beat throbs momentarily before the opening track, “On the Bound”, lurches to life, lumbering along on a harsh syncopated beat and pounded-out piano line like some sort of obscene monster dragged up from a grave. The brutal verses give way to jazzy, string-drenched lushness in the chorus (channeling the Lynchian cool of Angelo Badalamenti), the music paralleling and complementing the lyrical wavering between vengeful fury and needful desperation. The song then trundles through its back end as an instrumental, weighed down by all sorts of ornate, extraneous instrumentation, before finally sputtering out in exhaustion. Pugilistic, desperate, paranoid, cocksure, and brawny, it is simply a stunning opener, and formally it sets the stage for everything that follows.

Though Apple showed flashes of brilliance on her uneven debut album Tidal, I don’t think anyone expected such a severe and sharp uptick in quality — both in terms of songwriting and lyricism — as she displays on the 10 tracks of When the Pawn…. Disparate and even schizophrenic from song to song, and even within each track, there’s still a certain underlying uniformity to them all, a guiding intelligence that binds them all together, in exact sequence, by necessity. It all works perfectly and harmoniously when considered at a remove, even though at a ground level it always sounds like the album is going to simply fly apart.

Nowhere is this more evident than on standout “Fast as You Can”, a frantic blur of a song in which Apple’s vocals and piano continuously threaten to trip over themselves and collapse in hopeless entanglement. Racing and careening along manically, the song pulls up for a breather somewhere in the middle before charging through to a whirling end. It might be the most exciting thing she has ever recorded, and ended up being, understandably, the most popular single from the album.

From there, the album somehow ascends to an even higher peak with its closing three songs. Soaring up in a howl of spite and rage, “The Way Things Are” and “Get Gone” channel the old confessional/adolescent wounded-girl-on-piano clichés of Tidal into something profound and proud, hooks and lyrics honed to an excruciating venomous point that lays waste to everything in its path. And this makes the soothing closer, the smoky, jazzy torch song “I Know”, even more stunning when it drops. A tender ballad full of resignation and loss, it metes out acceptance without yielding to defeat, as defiant and strong as the fight put up in every other song on the album.

Special mention must be made here of Jon Brion’s brilliant production. He’s the centripetal yin to Apple’s centrifugal yang, holding the whole thing together even as it strains to pull itself apart. Weaving the songs together with musical embellishments, flourishes, and curlicues, directing the instrumentation to envelop and lift the songs to heights beyond what they were perhaps intended to reach, the rococo, carnivalesque soundscape that underpins everything is as much to his credit as it is to Apple’s. Not to discredit Apple at all — this is her album, defiantly so — but Brion’s production is so essential and totally integral to When the Pawn…‘s success that the album announced the arrival of his genius as much as it did Apple’s. – Jake Meaney

Ani DiFranco – To the Teeth [Righteous Babe]


Released 16 November 1999

Ani DiFranco’s To the Teeth marked a time I now remember not as false innocence, but as false jadedness. Released the year I finished high school, To the Teeth was a challenge set forth for me and many others who’d come of age in the time of Righteous Babe. The idealism of my youth plus the spirit of potential fostered by the Clinton years paradoxically drew awareness to problems the United States faced, problems that now seem smaller in the face of recessions and secret prisons and torture and Patriot Acts.

The album’s title track, with its orgiastic litany of gun-happy politicians, felt like — pardon the expression — a call to arms. “Hello Birmingham” had the same effect; I listened and vowed to change the reproductive-rights landscape of the places that seemed to be standing still while the rest of the country moved forward. At the time, I had no idea that five years later, I’d be living just south of Birmingham and know it as the most progressive place for miles. I also didn’t know that these never-ending domestic issues would almost be luxury causes.

While To the Teeth has personal resonance for the paradoxical innocence it now conjures, it functions in DiFranco’s canon as a testament to her own loss of musical innocence. Her music didn’t need to retain its sparse, acoustic sound in order to be compelling — Little Plastic Castle proves that — but sacrificing vulnerability for experimentation did little to improve DiFranco’s career. Rather, songs like “Swing” (with Corey Parker’s silly rapping) and the carnivalesque, annoying, and bland “Freakshow” posited her as someone who could, yes, put aside her tears and her girl-with-guitar act, but also as someone who’d become famous for that music with good reason. Fortunately, another unknown at the was that DiFranco would be back to recording solo albums by 2004’s Educated Guess, and that her return to vulnerability would be strong medicine in a time of war. – Erin Lyndal Martin

Dr. Dre – 2001 [Aftermath/Interscope]


Released 16 November 1999

The disappointment that I feel after re-listening to Dr. Dre’s 2001 is the result of the disconnect between the album’s opening line and the nearly 70 minutes that follow. 2001 appeared a full seven years after Dre’s groundbreaking solo debut The Chronic, which fails to place it in Chinese Democracy territory, but which did qualify it as “highly anticipated” nonetheless. Seven years is an eternity in the world of pop culture, and the album was a prime opportunity for the man who helped create gangsta rap to reflect upon its growing pains.

And, judging by that opening line, he was tempted to do so: “Things just ain’t the same for gangstas”, he raps in that first song, “The Watcher”. In it, he assumes the point of view of a man whose beard is both greyer and longer than his alleged peers, and the wisdom of his years has made him reconsider his previous ways: “How would you feel if niggas wanted you killed?” he asks. “You’d probably move to a new house on a new hill / And choose a new spot if niggas wanted you shot / I ain’t a thug, how much Tupac in you, you got?” However, he also makes it clear that, if threatened, he’s never too far outta Compton, and he’s doubly dangerous now that he has so much to protect: “Nigga, if you really want to take it there we can / Just remember that you’re fucking with a family man”.

“The Watcher” fascinates as it juxtaposes Dre’s edge with his vulnerability. Rarely do artists — rarer still, rap artists — let their guard down, and in featuring this song at the top, 2001 promised to reinvent the game yet again, a promise that lasted all the way to the next song, the elegantly titled “Fuck You”. “I just want fuck bad bitches / All them nights I never had bad bitches / Now I’m all up in that ass bitches”, he says. And away we go….

It’s worth pausing here to remind ourselves that, though 2001 is widely considered a sequel of sorts to The Chronic, Dre’s name did appear on an album in the interim, the ill-fated Dr. Dre Presents the Aftermath (1996), a compilation that featured a stable of artists from his newly launched Aftermath Records. The mushroom cloud that graces the album’s cover is appropriate, because it’s a disaster. Of the 16 tracks, only “East Coast/West Coast Killaz”, by a rap supergroup that goes by the name of “Group Therapy”, and Dre’s own “Been There, Done That” have any kind of staying power. The rest is utterly forgettable. (Anyone pick up the new Nowl album? Or the latest by Who’z Who?)

Dre usually gets a pass on this record, but he had a hand in producing nearly half of the album’s songs, which is more than he produced on Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP, a record for which he receives much of the credit. In retrospect, even the video for “Been There, Done That”, — in which Dre, tuxed-out, actually tangos — seems like a miscalculation.

But the point here is not to beat up on Dre for putting out a shitty album; rather, the point is that 2001‘s immediate predecessor was a failure rather than a success, which makes it more of a comeback album than a sequel — which in turn explains a song like “Fuck You” or any of the other lyrically-undercooked tunes that permeate the record. Though he claims to be torn between the “old me” and the new, Dre spends most of his time insisting that, like Ralph Malph, he’s still got it.

When his claims take the form of good ol’ fashioned boasting, they’re amusing enough. For example, from “Forgot About Dre”: “I told ’em all / All them little gangstas / Who you think helped mold ’em all? / Now you wanna run around and talk about guns / Like I ain’t got none / What you think I sold ’em all?” But when he falls back on the tried (tired?) and true combo of sex and drugs to prove that he’s still the undisputed champion, the results are less convincing. Would the champ really write, “Yeah, I just took some ecstasy / Ain’t no telling what the side effects could be / All those fine bitches equal sex to me / Plus I got this bad bitch layin’ next to me / No doubt, sit back on the couch / Pants down, rubber on, set to turn that ass out / Laid the bitch out, then I put it in her mouth / Pulled out, nutted on a towel and passed out”? Unfortunately, all this does is serve as a reminder that, for all of the brilliance of side one of Efil4zaggin, side two is absolute shit.

To be fair, in addition to “The Watcher”, there are other moving moments on the album. The last song, for example, “The Message”, which is about Dre’s dead brother, never quite reaches the level of poetry that, say, Ice Cube does in “Dead Homiez”, but it is equally affecting by virtue of its subject being more specific. Equally so are the references to Eazy-E, dead for four years by the album’s release from HIV-related complications. From “What’s the Difference”, an otherwise jaunty club song: “Eazy I’m still wit you / Fuck the beef, nigga I miss you / And that’s just being real wit you”.

In fact, this idea of “being real” is probably more responsible for my disappointment than anything else. I like those moments. I like when he’s real — about getting older, about losing friends, family. The problem is that when he is real, if only fleetingly so, he only accentuates the fact that the rest is posturing. Not that there’s anything wrong with playing a role, but, well, like he says, been there, done that.

I suspect that Dre would say this is less about posturing and more about giving the people what they want. The bitches and ho’s. The pop-a-cap-in-they-ass. The smoke-a-pound-of-weed-every-day. And maybe it is. But ten years after the fact, this sure feels like pandering, too. – Kirby Fields

Sonic Youth – SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century [SYR]


Released 16 November 1999

In an interview with Adam Begley, Don DiLillo speaks of the desire to control the meaning of language and sound and harness meaning at the end of the 20th century, when information seemed to be simultaneously coming towards us and running away:

“You want to exercise your will, bend the language your way, bend the world your way. You want to control the flow of impulses, images, words, faces, ideas. But there’s a higher place, a secret aspiration. You want to let go. You want to lose yourself in language, become a carrier or messenger. The best moments involve a loss of control. It’s a kind of rapture, and it can happen with words and phrases fairly often — completely surprising combinations that make a higher kind of sense, that come to you out of nowhere.”

Within the sonic waves of Sonic Youth’s SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century is a similar search for meaning at the end of the century. Sonic Youth creates sound as language to demonstrate the spinning of a million of bites of information throughout our world. For Sonic Youth, SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century is a final nod to those 20th Century avant-garde musicians that influenced them.

Sonic Youth chooses to argue that although language permeates our daily existence, the sound of those millions of voices serves as an ominous take on the previous century and highlights the fear of the next. The band casts towards the previous century (as well as the next) a noise-rich, minimalistic double album that captures the essential yowl of civilization prepared to take the blind leap of faith into the void of Y2K and the eventual chaos of 9/11.

Interpretations of John Cage’s “Six” and James Tenney’s “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion” drive an album short on the punk and pop mainstays, but littered with a density of ambient, introspective compositions. Sonic Youth pressed an album filled with silent pops and oddly noised rifts, such that one could believe they are secretly involved in creating the music for a Don DiLillo novel. And it could be argued that SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century is not just a direct call for the end of the 20th century, but for the end of the post-modern existence that finally crashed around the noise and pollution of 9/11. Not your elemental Sonic Youth album by a long shot. However, an album that deserves one hypnotic listen. – Michael Elder

Unida – Coping with the Urban Coyote [Man’s Ruin]


Released 16 November 1999

Kyuss didn’t last long enough to reap the benefits of the stoner rock movement they helped create, but their 1995 breakup only signaled an even brighter future for ex-members. Queens of the Stone Age was one byproduct, releasing a classic 1998 debut and some worthy (though lesser) follow-ups en route to commercial success.

If the first QotSA album brought a melodic sensibility to stoner rock, then Unida — featuring ex-Kyuss growler John Garcia — was the broadside that put the stoner movement on notice that it had better do more than fix the smashed Camaro’s dent. Debuting on a split EP with still-extant Dozer in 1999, Unida was power: the truck-motor, near-funk rhythms of bassist Dave Dinsmore and drummer Miguel Cancino overlaid with the metal-toned, punk-styled riffing of guitarist Arthur Seay.

And, of course, there was also Garcia, who had gone from cutting through sheets of desert fuzz in Kyuss and the short-lived Slo Burn (one great 1996 EP, Amusing the Amazing) like a jousting conquistador to a strong-armed Southwestern sheriff holding a chained rottweiler in Unida. Here, Garcia’s snarl stirred the drink and made it burn as it went down your throat.

The initial EP delivered the message with an ironically titled punisher called “Flower Girl” and three others, but the ensuing debut album upped the stakes even higher. As great as the EP was, Coping with the Urban Coyote had even better material, ranging from fast raging riffs like “Thorn” and “Plastic” to (pardon the expression) slow burners such as “If Only Two” and “You Wish”, where Garcia lays back and sings a little more. Coping not only set a higher standard for stoner rock, it was heavier than any of the corporate metal being pawned off in ’99.

It should have been the first chapter of a long run. But thanks to signing to a major (American Records) and an unfortunate story too long to detail here (short version: majors are run by idiots), their killer 2001 follow-up, The Great Divide, never saw legitimate release — though pirate copies have leaked onto the Internet. Almost as tragically, Man’s Ruin went belly up in 2002, leaving Coping with the Urban Coyote to lapse out of print and fall into “collector’s item” status on eBay.

Unida made a compilation appearance in 2004 and was seen on an LA marquee as late as 2008, but basically the band has been in a holding pattern since the corporate snafu. But like Kyuss, it’s spawned further excellence: part of the band formed House of Broken Promises, which has a single and EP to date, while Garcia has made four solid albums with Hermano. Even so, one can only hope that ex-members’ future plans have room for more Unida. – Doug Sheppard

Beck – Midnite Vultures [Interscope]


Released 23 November 1999

Beck’s weird folk pastiche progressed in both scope and focus from 1993’s Golden Feelings through 1998’s introspective Mutations. But those who suspected they could plot his career slope were utterly thrown by Midnite Vultures, an album-long boast covering a deeply strange brew of unexpected musical styles that would form a discordant disaster if not so flawlessly executed. Everything on the album works, from the banjo-tinged up-tempo funk of “Sexx Laws” to the proto-electroclash of “Get Real Paid” to the slow hip-pop bounce of “Hollywood Freaks”.

Midnite Vultures finds Beck at the height of his imagination, filtering his Dadaist lyrics through a playboy who wants to “be your chauffeur on a midnight drive”. The tongue in cheek absurdity would wear thin if not for the fantastic performance and production chops of everyone assembled for the recording. It took a lot of players to execute Beck’s all-or-nothing vision, and the album transcends novelty because it also functions as a successful (if smirking) exercise in blue-eyed soul.

The swanky, sweaty mood hits an apex with “Debra”, the audacity of which still astounds. Lyrically (“Lady, step inside my Hyundai”) and vocally (a commanding falsetto), it is as precious a gem as Beck has ever produced. The song’s protagonist is totally committed to the seduction of characters Jenny and her sister Debra, and his confidence convinces us that no pickup line is too absurd if the delivery is smooth enough. Today, such against-all-odds white boy bravado is ubiquitous, from Robin Thicke to Superbad to the Lonely Island, but forerunner Midnite Vultures reigns supreme.

Even the traditionally staid Recording Academy recognized the quality of Beck’s work at the time, nominating it for Album of the Year alongside Radiohead’s Kid A, in a particularly adventurous year for that Grammy Awards category. Unfortunately, Beck’s recent releases lack both the songwriting inspiration and wiseacre humor that give Midnite Vultures lasting power. While it would almost certainly be a mistake for him to try to recreate the album’s specific atmosphere, listeners would likely welcome a return to the unbridled joy of expression he conjured so effectively ten years ago. – Thomas Britt

Q-Tip – Amplified [Arista]


Released 23 November 1999

In 1999, hip-hop was at a major life cycle. There were definitely big time moguls of the art form, and although there was a quality underground led by the Roots and Mos Def, the majority of hip-hop at the end of the 20th century suggested that the art form was slowly degenerating into needless posturing and over-hyped artistry. By the end of 1999, the quality of hip-hop had distilled itself to an orgy of poor lyricism and failed promotion by those intending on telling us about their brilliance instead of actually showing it on a full release. Dr. Dre’s 2001 was the ruler of 1999, and his production of Eminem’s Slim Shady outlined the most popular of radio hip-hop. And although there’s quality there, I would argue that each was sustained by an out of control hype machine.

Q-Tip is as good a symbol to understand the strangeness of 1999 hip-hop as any. Q-Tip’s former band, A Tribe Called Quest, was an essential act with each release. Fresh lyricism and Q-Tip’s saxophone call reminded me how important hip-hop could be in re-creating the world of early ’60s jazz like Davis, Coltrane, and Coleman; an art filled with freshness and experimentation. When A Tribe Called Quest disbanded, many hip-hop fans mourned the loss of one of the most vital bands to the early creation of hip-hop. The immense pressure to create a seminal solo album greeted Q-Tip’s first album sans Tribe, and thus we get Amplified.

If any album underscored the concern for where hip-hop was headed, I would argue that Amplified stood as reason number one. A brilliant poet and rapper, Q-Tip was known for developing rhymes and beats that demonstrated insight into modern life while creating engaging looping. Amplified became the same syrup of most popular rap in 1999: booty, simple beats, and more booty. Reused tropes of the past 4 years of hip-hop demonstrated a declination for a once proud and creative music source. Plus: Korn. Yep. Korn and the ever-present rapper of the ’90s, Busta Rhymes. Amplified became a sad and poor first effort from one of hip-hop’s greatest talents.

The question was asked: How can one man have so much to say before, and so little to say now? Did Q-Tip just sell out? Was Q-Tip not as brilliant as we were led to be? The answer became a cautious “maybe”. But the story has a happy ending. The release of 2008’s Renaissance brought Q-Tip away from the ordinary hip- hop motifs to re-create and re-invent the hip-hop album again. – Michael Elder

Aimee Mann – Magnolia [Reprise]


Released 7 December 1999

After a decade of record-label neglect and scant output, Aimee Mann, the onetime blond-braided lead singer of ‘Til Tuesday, was ready to blossom as the new millennium dawned in 1999. The MP3 era would suit Mann well, too, as she was one of the first musicians to successfully use the Internet to independently release her music her way — labels and record stores be damned.

Mann’s full flowering began with the 1999 release of the soundtrack to Magnolia, which provided listeners and critics alike with a reminder of what they had been missing since Mann split from her Boston-based bandmates in 1989. Many of Mann’s nine songs on the soundtrack (which also features two by Supertramp, one by ’90s one-hit wonder Gabrielle, and a snippet of producer Jon Brion’s soundtrack) actually predate the writing of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar-nominated script for the film. And according to the wunderkind director and longtime friend of Mann’s, the songs were a major influence on his sprawling, Altman-like L.A. story, which culminates, famously, in a hail of raining frogs.

The vibe on many of Mann’s tracks is definitely a California one, beginning with her spot-on cover of L.A. legend Harry Nilsson’s haunting classic “One”, a smash hit for Three Dog Night in 1969. Like the film, Mann’s take is a perfect slice of gloomy/sunny SoCal pop (a la Grizzly Bear) with overt nods to (who else?) Brian Wilson and Phil Spector.

The ornate production and power pop of the Beatles are also touchstones here, but it’s Mann’s caustic/clever lyrics (“You look like the perfect fit / For a girl in need of a tourniquet”), coupled with her angelic-yet-vulnerable voice, that really steal the show, especially when couched in producer Brion’s lush arrangements, at times complete with horns and strings. But while Mann’s softer, folkier side provides some of the album’s most arresting moments — “Build That Wall” and “Save Me”, in particular — the power ballads “Deathly” and “Driving Sideways” prove Mann still knows how to rock.

Magnolia is that rare soundtrack album that actually influenced a movie before it was even written. It’s also that rare soundtrack that doubles as a comeback album — and a clear signal that Aimee Mann’s voice was still “carrying” some 15 years after she first burst on the scene. – Mike Garrett

The Notorious B.I.G. – Born Again [Bad Boy]


Released 7 December 1999

Puff Daddy’s (excuse me, Diddy’s) pilfering of his star pupil’s catalog began with the Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous release Born Again. Despite the fact that you’ll want to shake your head at the exploitation factor, this album remains an essential buy for a couple of reasons. One, the album mostly consists of early Biggie rhymes that had been unearthed. Never mind the fact that then-current rappers have been added to the songs, “Dead Wrong” (featuring a then brand spankin’ new Eminem) and the good-natured “Can I Get Witcha” (feat. protégé Lil Cease) are worthy additions to every B.I.G. catalog.

Two, several underground B.I.G. classics that had never seen the light of day on an album release are here, most notably the Sadat X duet “Come on Motherfucker” (which teams one of hip-hop history’s best rhymers with one of its most underrated) and the classic b-side “Who Shot Ya?” (which is even more chilling in light of B.I.G.’s tragic murder). Despite the fact that a chunk of the album features unnecessary revisions of previously released material with new musical backing and an all-star collection of guest emcees (Method Man, Nas, and Snoop Dogg are among the luminaries making appearances), Born Again is by far the best of Biggie’s post-mortem catalog, and probably the only posthumous hip-hop album worth owning. – Mike Heyliger

Jay-Z – Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter [Roc-a-Fella]


Released 28 December 1999

Jay-Z is hip-hop’s unlikely hero. Coming at a dire time in the history of the genre, following the dual deaths of its reigning heroes, he broke into the musical landscape like a man on a mission. After barely making a dent with his first two albums, the single “Hard Knock Life” burst on to the scene, one foot in the street and one in the charts, the best of both worlds. That album pretty much cemented Jay’s status as force to be reckoned with, as well as ensuring a hefty amount of pressure to follow up with something even more genre defining.

Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter, billed initially as his return to street music after some of the blatantly commercial tracks that littered his previous album, ended up being known as, somewhat, completely the opposite. “Big Pimpin'” is the track that everybody remembers, a bold summer jam that can still be heard at block parties, but it’s the obscure, downright experimental tracks that stand out listening to it now. Minimalist tracks such as “Do It Again (Put Your Hands Up)” and “It’s Hot (Some Like It Hot)” simmer with fragile intensity, while “Snoopy Track”, featuring hot MC of the moment Juvenile, practically emits smoke from its backing track. – Craig Hubert

[ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 ]

This article was originally published on 25 June 2009.