Critical Mass

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

Best new discovery: Puerto Muerto, who recently relocated from St. Louis to Chicago, leaving our local music scene poorer and sadder as a result. We wish them well with the new CD they're finishing up, but we warn all other good local bands to stay put or face our wrath. (RSS)

The only major negative for jazz this past year was the untimely demise of radio station KZJZ on the AM dial. Led by Maria Keena and a group of music-savvy DJs, the station won the coveted National Association of Broadcasters' 1999 Marconi Radio Award as Best Jazz Station. Unfortunately, Keena had virtually no marketing budget to work with, and as a result, the station had a tough time gaining sponsors. But it was still the most interesting jazz station in town while it was here. (TP)

I'm glad that vinyl survives in the age of digital oppression, but I don't consider 12-inch records musical instruments. Therefore I conclude that 1999's worst trend is the way remix maestros, sampling wizards and, particularly, club DJs are worshiped like (as?) musicians. Sure, some of these cats know how to reheat and stir classic platters -- free samples, anyone? -- but their deification trivializes the importance of songwriters and players. I enjoy its best exemplars, but most programmed trip-hop, spaced-out dance dirges and diluted remixes blur together, making '80s synth-pop sound like Beethoven by comparison. (JO)

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.

Best Sample: Future Pilot A.K.A. is a guy who used to be in Brit Buzzcock ripoff band the Soup Dragons. He's ditched that gig and moved into the computer world, and on his debut double CD as the Future Pilot, he and remixer Suckmonster sneak into the Pharoah Sanders catalog and pull out the glorious "Japan" from Tauhid. The original is a beautiful meditation, and, believe it or not, the Future Pilot makes it more beautiful. The entirety of the Pilot's Vs. A Galaxy of Sound is great: soft and hard trip-hop and subtle electronica for the cerebral and the stoned. (RR)

History Lesson, Part 1: Carl Craig's Planet E label out of Detroit has been churning out techno and house revolutions every year for the past six or seven, and said revolutions are collected on Geology, a nearly perfect snapshot of their sound. (RR)

Best ways to kiss the 20th century goodbye: Freakwater's ragged and radiant, bleak and beautiful End Time and Sally Timms' prettily perverse Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos. (RSS)

Most unlikely elegy: "Carter" from Fifty Odd Dollars, Fred J. Eaglesmith. A Canadian singer/songwriter and rocker gets into the head of Ralph Stanley. He imagines what it's like to take the wheel of an Airstream bluegrass-tour bus and carry on for four decades after his brother, best friend and God's own singer, Carter Stanley, drank himself to death. It couldn't work, but it breaks your heart that it does. (RK)

The most promising development on the local jazz scene in 1999 was the growth of St. Louis-based jazz labels. Richard McDonnell's MAXJAZZ label gained national notice for its series of four vocal CDs -- two of which featured Christine Hitt and Asa Harris, who were mainstays on the St. Louis scene for years. The new Gaslight Records label was founded by Dan Warner of Webster Records, with a debut live recording of the Ralph Sutton Trio at the Jazz at the Bistro. And although the Catalyst label is based in Indiana, its first two releases have featured Willie Akins and Jeanne Trevor. (TP)

Best resurrection: Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer, Ibrahim Ferrer (World Circuit). On the back of the CD is a photo of this heretofore-unknown singer -- a male, Cuban reincarnation of Billie Holiday -- lost in a dream beneath a frozen clock. That's what this record is like. (RK)

Best reason to wish that critics who've made careers out of indiscriminately slogging mainstream country music will one day have a hard time finding their own asses with two hands, a mirror and a blowtorch: Under the Influence, Alan Jackson (Arista). With all due respect to the Waco Brothers, and despite what nearly every paper or magazine of record says, there's more to Nashville than the satanic mills that Garth and Shania built. Like no other country or alt-country artist to emerge in the '90s, Jackson knows how to sing a honky-tonk number. On this suite of familiar and obscure '50s and '70s country songs, his graceful phrasing, plangent tone and unassuming (and honest) working-class instincts are put to militant and moving purpose. When he takes on Gene Watson's "Farewell Party," one of the most transcendent songs in country-music history, you know what you're hearing -- even if you can't believe anyone would take such a risk and triumph so well. (RK)

Experience has taught me that I probably won't hear the best record of any given year until the year after, possibly later. Maybe I won't even find out about the real best-of-the-year release until I see it on someone else's list. Maybe I'll never hear it at all. Everyone's in the same predicament, of course, but most people who compile these lists don't care. They shrug off these neurotic concerns, figuring they've heard a lot -- maybe not everything, but a significant percentage -- and besides, nobody takes these things seriously anyway. (RSS)

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