Critical Mass

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

Best overall achievement: The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs. This sprawling, sordid three-CD spectacle aims high and doesn't disappoint, dissecting loves unrequited, loves defeated, loves virtual and real -- love as a language, all the glittering fraud and AM-radio poetry of it. Who but Stephin Merritt would care enough to indulge in the exercise 69 times? Who else could reference Ferdinand de Saussure and Holland-Dozier-Holland in the same song? (RSS)

There were the retro-rock stylings of Lenny Kravitz on "Fly Away," and Counting Crows with "Hangin' Around." There were the classic, pump-up-your-fist-as-if-we-never-went-away riffs and hooks of Def Leppard's "Promises." There was the soaring melody of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Scar Tissue." There was the hard-rock/'80s dance blend of Orgy's cover of New Order's "Blue Monday." There was the ultimate bounce of Jay-Z's "Can I Get A ..." There was the lighthearted, wispy "Kiss Me" by Sixpence None the Richer (the same wispiness that failed them on their cover of the La's "There She Goes"). (SP)

Most exquisite genre blur: "Time After Time" from Traveling Miles, Cassandra Wilson (Blue Note). In his late performances, Miles Davis frequently offered up a version of Cindy Lauper's ubiquitous hit. Wilson is the only singer alive who can do with her voice what Davis did with his horn: In the deepest secret of a hushed lyricism, pop and blues and country and soul and jazz really are one. (RK)

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.

Most persuasive argument for the existence of God: Speaking in Tongues, David Murray (Justin Time). Murray has worked with St. Louis R&B and gospel legend Fontella Bass before: Her voice graces the World Saxophone Quartet's funkiest album, Breath of Life. Here, Murray and Bass collaborate more fully, finding the occult and holy place where contemporary gospel and free jazz speak a single, irresistible language. (RK)

No one could match the power and intensity of Rage Against the Machine's The Battle of Los Angeles, my fave of the year by a large margin. Coming the closest, though, were the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin and Moby's Play. Equally great in a far different direction were Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band's The Mountain and George Jones' Cold Hard Truth. On the dance tip, Basement Jaxx led the way with the ridiculously catchy Remedy. Rounding out my Top 10 are Fountains of Wayne's Utopia Parkway, Wilco's Summerteeth, Tom Waits' Mule Variations, and Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate's Kulanjan, a beautiful journey of American blues back to its African roots. (DD)

Matthew Smith was in an underrated country-rock band called the Volebeats. This year his own group, Outrageous Cherry, pushed the pop envelope with Out There in the Dark. Murky, feedback-laced and catchy, the album filters White Light/White Heat through Rubber Soul. It's not a masterpiece, but it is good cutting-edge pop. So is Matthew Sweet's In Reverse, though it will do little to make people forget Girlfriend, an album with which Sweet has been unable to break up, artistically or critically. (JO)

Best teenage-sex songs: local phenom Sullen's "Cracked Code" and hussy-of-the-moment Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle." Interesting fact: Both these songs are performed by very blond young women barely out of their teens. Aguilera is a former Mouseketeer with a lot of smoky charcoal eyeliner and a winning way of jerking her pudendum as she sings lines such as "Oh! My body's sayin' let's go, go ... but my heart's sayin' no, no." She grunts and undulates, bosses and exclaims. I don't blame 11-year-old girls for worshiping her. Who wouldn't? Shanna Kiel of Sullen plays great filthy, fuzzed-out guitar on the Breeders-meets-Nirvana confection "Cracked Code," all the while squealing adorably about the many orgasms she plans to have: "I'm fueled on sex and Vaseline!" Swagger on, sisters! (RSS)

Most appalling record of the year, if not the decade: Andre Williams and the Sadies' Red Dirt (Bloodshot). When your most memorable hook is "She's all that and a bag of potato chips," you know you're in trouble. And country and funk should never be played by a barely competent instrumental surf band. (RK)

The tired old punk and ska scenes rallied to produce a few records of lasting merit. The Strike delivered a solid, moving hard-pop LP with Shots Heard 'Round The World, although it doesn't quite match their debut of a few years ago. The addition of horns was a nice touch, though, and the left-wing lyrics are as stirring as the revolutionary cover artwork. Another socialist band, the Adjusters, gave us a cracker of an album called Before the Revolution, ably mixing the best organic dance genres of the past 40 years. They manage to play ska, soul, reggae and Latin without sounding like a crappy cover band. Best of all was Dillinger Four's This Shit Is Genius, a collection of their singles that shows the kids where to go next with the hard-fast-loud blueprint.

So, 1999 -- a year in which the best records were made by socialists. It just goes to show you: When capitalism is killing music and even one revolution per minute would help, turn left. You have nothing to lose but your Spears. (JT)

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