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Critical Mass

RFT music critics offer a cut-and-paste compendium of the year in music. Everyone's wrong. Everyone's right.

As anyone who's read Nick Hornby's High Fidelity knows, music critics -- especially that species known as Criticus hiparawkasauraus -- luv, luv, luv catalogs, lists, rankings of all kinds. Chained forever to futile whim and sterile subjectivity, they dream of science. At the end of the year, they number their opinions and chart their neuroses and believe, for a moment, that instead of telling one more solipsistic story, they're contributing to some definitive ordering of a year in the life. They fail, but it's not as if anyone had imagined it could be otherwise. The turn of a decade and a millennium only makes their empirical flusters all the more poignant or hilarious -- depending on your vantage point. (RK)

1999 surely must rank with 1961 and 1974 as nadirs in pop-music history. Beset on one side by simpering middle-school goo and on the other by charmless metal-rap, discerning ears everywhere were forced to face the fact that we are living in a dark, dark time. The year's best big hit -- Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" -- actually came out in 1998. Even acts that did something worthwhile toiled without honor; the forces of good taste are scattered and confused. (JT)

Some critics seem to be suspicious of pleasure, especially if that pleasure is at all aligned with the taste of the masses. My favorite albums in 1999 -- the Barkers' Burn Your Piano, Wilco's Summerteeth and the Continental Drifters' Vermillion -- received little notice by either the press or the public. However, this year found more great singles on the radio than I've heard in some time.

Beck: His Midnite Vultures is gloriously ridiculous and derivative.
Charlie Gross
Beck: His Midnite Vultures is gloriously ridiculous and derivative.
Macy Gray: The best songs on Macy Gray's debut sound like they're cribbed from Sly and the Family Stone or the Staple Singers.
Stephane Sednaoui
Macy Gray: The best songs on Macy Gray's debut sound like they're cribbed from Sly and the Family Stone or the Staple Singers.

The age-old themes of sex and dancing and bragging and begging and the experience of being alive were all over the airwaves. There was Kid Rock screaming his name at the top of his lungs before he rapped a litany of his own thrills in "Bawitdaba." There was Ricky Martin transferring power chords to his lungs on the hook-filled, Latin-rhythmed "Livin' La Vida Loca." There was Tal Bachman conjuring up the spirit of Todd Rundgren with the delightfully melodic "She's So High." (SP)

1999 was the year in which buying music once again became an overwhelming passion and navigating Web sites and record stores, debit card cocked, became totally exciting once again. Though there's no denying the glory of waltzing into a record store and discovering something in a rack, the online record store puts every single release out there available with a click -- a music geek's wet dream (or worst nightmare). Every order was a new revelation; every techno, blip-hop and hip-hop release created a new context; and, overall, the promise of computer-based music became an overwhelming reality. 1999 was the first year in my music-buying life in which the prominent instrument wasn't the guitar but the computer. And it's as exciting to be buying music as it was when I was 15 years old and snatching up punk 45s; the "here's three chords -- now go start a band" philosophy of punk has been overtaken by a new one: "Here's some software -- go crazy." So much amazing music out there, so many techniques, so much potential. (RR)

Electronica may be an apt sound for the turn of the century, but there's (we hope) a lot of future left. So when futuristic music becomes passé, what then? We're living in an era that's the musical equivalent of old science-fiction movies -- the ones that predicted a near-Jetsons environment by the year 2000. Or Disney World's Futureland, whose sloped, cliché-worn-structures sit rusting in obsolescence. When music is saddled with a makeshift futurism, not only does it become dated, there are no songs to remember later. Considering this, the millennium overchill makes me want to head for the genial hills of country music, among other fertile genres. (JO)

Nine hundred years ago, Hasan-i Sabbah, the founder of the mystical Assassins, claimed, "Nothing is true. Everything is permitted." Mr. Bungle seemingly created California to prove him right. They warp and weave the sticky tendrils of pop, noise and thrash-rock into a glistening mass of music that defies convention. If Burt Bacharach had gone to Woodstock and eaten the brown acid and then rewritten Pet Sounds as the soundtrack for a Jodorowsky sci-fi spy epic starring Christopher Walken as Barbarella, the resulting album would not be as spectacular as California is. Mr. Bungle unleash 10 songs that bear strange fruit and blossom into malodorous flowers of unearthly delights without the between-song skits and samples of their previous albums. Of the 10, "Pink Cigarette" stands out as the most fascinating. A love song, an empty threat, a suicide note -- whatever it is, "Pink Cigarette" captures the dark psychology of selfish devotion to another human being better than any excerpt from Monica's book or Jerry Springer's sideshow. (PF)

Best defiantly derivative sounds: Macy Gray's On How Life Is, Stereolab's Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, Wilco's Summerteeth, Mandy Barnett's I've Got a Right to Cry and April March's Chrominance Decoder. Sometimes you've got to wonder: Shouldn't I be listening to something cutting-edge and difficult, maybe some electronica or turntablism or freaky bleating free jazz, something that looks ahead to the 21st century, not backward? The records listed above shamelessly cannibalize pop's canon, ripping off hooks and chord progressions and daring you to care. (You don't.) You can hear E.L.O. and Cheap Trick riffs all over the Wilco record, enlivened by Pet Sounds-era production flourishes. Barnett's creamy voice sounds like Patsy Cline's -- and Owen Bradley's luscious production doesn't hinder the illusion. Serge Gainsbourg and other luminaries of French '60s pop inform March's and Stereolab's efforts, also studded with glacial vintage synths and ba-ba-da vocal parts. The best songs on the debut of deliciously croaky Macy Gray sound like they're cribbed from Sly and the Family Stone or the Staple Singers. So what? Didn't the 20th century teach us that originality is an outdated virtue promoted by uncool Romantics? Are we suckers? Possibly. (RSS)

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