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Astronomy Will Have to Be Revised
The Best of 1999
The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs
Surely Stephin Merritt didn't say to himself, one day, "I wonder what the history of popular music would have sounded like if we were all born into cluttered apartments and never mustered the temerity to leave them", but this brief, endless solipsist hymnal is either the most ambitious underachievement ever or the most encyclopedic accident, an agoraphobic census-taker's uncanny invented biographies for a route he's too terrified to walk, or a basement Lego-replica Great Wall, or a catalog of never-tested theories for bettered lives, or of rueful anthems for a century of discarded souls.
Low: Secret Name
If you turn the sky inside out, clinging to the other side you'll find a million tiny, exhausted creatures, glimmering desperately. Secret Name is their sighing, bowed-glass lullaby, at once forgiveness for collapse and a promise that for however long they need to rest, we will hold up the darkness with fading body heat and exhaled fluorescence. Low play like they've finally transcended metabolism and mass, finally learned how to defer to moonlight and still air, finally detached serenity from peace and resilience from hope. This, and not cataclysmic cacophony or fusillading trumpets, is how the Rapture sounds, not triumph or redemption but the accumulated weight of our lingering doubts and discharged aspirations hanging suspended over the chasm of the end.
Tori Amos: to venus and back
The greatest throwaway album ever made. In any lesser universe, this would be a life's work, but in Tori's it's nearly disposable, bookkeeping left over from the aftermath of from the choirgirl hotel. Tori now votes my well-being, more control than I ever intended to grant a stranger. The next album could turn me into an assassin, or a monk, or a mountain. A single song could disassemble every system I've painstakingly constructed, a single note could undo everything I've thought of as progress. Not yet, though, not until after she gives me this gift, one more dizzy year on the precipice of willing annihilation.
Big Country: Driving to Damascus
But maybe I underestimate myself. Staring into the future, transfixed, I forget how tenacious old loves are, how reluctant what might be the past is to recede. The glare from a couple pealing guitars reveals, circling protectively around me, the walls of every bedroom I've ever inhabited, and shields made of LP jackets, and the contours of every dream that once seemed flawless. At each moment, you are wiser than you yet know. When Big Country, my childhood heroes, return with a record that owes as much to Peace in Our Time's delicacy as to Steeltown's fervor, I insist my love is less a function of indulged nostalgia than of verified prescience.
Emm Gryner: Science Fair
I risk disappearing into all this music, into all this dumbfounded reverence. It's a source of strength, but so too a drain, pushing me to expend ever more energy adoring the things I understand most incompletely, and am thus least prepared to resist. The simple records are integral parts of survival. I can't make a record like Emm's yet, but I can imagine being able to. Magic, performed this way, requires so few parts, how difficult can it be? Science Fair doesn't make me want to start a religion, it just makes me want to hear every song recorded on this planet, including the great ones I might someday write myself. We need cathedrals, but we also need rooms to live in.
Rick Springfield: Karma
Roxette: Have a Nice Day
It hurts to hate the world. The debilitating part of the problem isn't pervasive idiocy, it's the strain of resenting it so much. Let loathing consume you, and you will forget that bad decisions only matter because the people who make them are real. If you hate everything ordinary, you've given up. So these two albums are profound reassurance, unapologetically mainstream music that makes me deliriously happy. Rick and Per and Marie aren't the centrists they once were, but that's the center's fault, not theirs. If I can come around to adore Roxette's glitterball dance-ballads, then somewhere it will always be the early Nineties; if I can swoon to Rick Springfield's ardent, burnished studio rock, then somewhere it will always be the late Eighties. And by extension, somewhere it will always be now, and I will sign treaties that today seem unthinkable, so perhaps I should stop stalling.
bis: Social Dancing
Two years ago, I thought I was falling in love with a whole new generation of British bands just discovering where the membranes between chirpy punk and grand pop were permeable. The specific bands I thought would lead the revolution mostly haven't, but bis seems to have picked up the banner intact, so maybe I was just impatient. The difference between betrayal and revelation is subjective, of course, but few things excite me more than watching someone discover the power of taking themselves just the tiniest bit more seriously.
Ultrasound: Everything Picture
I've resolved to never again give my Best New Artist award to a band that broke up before the year ended, otherwise it would have been Ultrasound, whose unholy mess of a debut double-album is clumsy, pretentious, strident, supercilious, belabored, bleating and woefully misguided, and makes Genesis sound like the Little River Band and Pere Ubu sound like Dave Matthews, but it takes no effort of will for me to remember when those were all the things I most feverishly wanted rock to be, and this ghastly clamor sounds as breathtakingly wonderful, to me, as any monumental excess you care to name.
Lincolnville: Black Box
Cody: Rounder
In a year dense with EPs and short albums, these two (eleven songs and just over fifty minutes between them), at least in my house, most effortlessly compensated for brevity with repetition. Lincolnville's resonant, muted hum has little to do with Cody's jittery synthesis of New Wave drama, Sarah Records poignancy and brittle techno impatience, but the records share the great and rare virtue of perfect coherency. For twenty or thirty minutes, they are precisely and luminously themselves. Many records affect my mood, but for these two I'm willing to adjust it in advance, myself, so that no note will go astray that without me would not have.
The Bonaduces: The Democracy of Sleep
What sounds, on casual inspection, like merely a snarly punk-pop record with my favorite guitar tone of a David-Lester-less year, turns out to conceal some of the most haunting and compassionate stories about death and caring that I've ever heard howled over a headlong sprint or otherwise.
Savage Garden: "Affirmation" (from Affirmation)
I detested more silly bubblegum pop songs that I can count, this year. And then one atoned for them all.
Runrig: "The Message" (from In Search of Angels)
If you won't go to Skye, it will come to you.
Trembling Blue Stars: "Dark Eyes" (from Dark Eyes EP)
The Lucksmiths: "Untidy Towns" (from Happy Secret)
If I hadn't been single for so long, maybe these two plaintive tributes to helpless romantic paralysis wouldn't seem like the most perfect possible love songs. I'm not sure what that's an argument for.
Bandits: "Catch Me" (from Bandits soundtrack)
If I have to be shot by cheerless SWAT snipers, after days of fugitive terror, on the tarmac of a German cargo port, I too will insist on playing a one-song rooftop rock-concert first.
Brian: "Under the Floorboards/Cabaret Band" (from Turn Your Lights On single)
Geneva: "Dollars in the Heavens" (single)
My wavering faith in Brit-pop was both buoyed and bracketed by two roaring b-sides left over from last year's Brian album and the blustery advance single from next year's Geneva album, both of which remember the heady days before OK Computer, before anybody thought elegiac melancholy precluded surging guitars.
Veda Hille: "Wrong" (from You Do Not Live in This World Alone)
Emily Bezar: "Four Walls Bending" (from Four Walls Bending)
Some of my favorite anthems try valiantly to deny their natures. Veda's evasive dirge shudders and groans, but can't avoid lapsing into clanging catharsis; Emily's intricate, trilling piano rhapsody touches off guitar flare with the grace of an arsonist ballet.
Marine Research: "Hopefulness to Hopelessness" (from Sounds From the Gulf Stream)
By the time I discovered Heavenly, they were no more, but here's hope that I didn't miss the best part.
Marillion: "Tumble Down the Years" (from marillion.com)
The year's best Crowded House song.
Melanie C: "If That Were Me" (from Northern Star)
If you argue that she doesn't really know what she's doing, I don't have a prepared defense, but if fragile, harrowingly naïve little songs as unselfconsciously sincere and endearingly artless as this one can be devised using a combination of the I Ching and 3d8, I guess that's fine with me.
Julia Darling: "Bulletproof Belief" (from figure 8)
The song every pretty twenty-two-year-old signed to be the next Alanis has been trying to write.
New Artist
If there were four of me, and we knew how to generate and play giddily geeky pop songs, and we couldn't resolve the argument about whether it was cooler to be Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark or Too Much Joy, this is what our band would sound like.
Live Albums
The Alarm: King Biscuit
Inept and riveting.
Talk Talk: London 1986
Lush foreshadowing of the most remarkable transformation in the history of music.
Patty Larkin: À Gogo
Finally we get to hear how these songs really sound.
Remixes & Remakes
Nanci Griffith: The Dust Bowl Symphony
I would never have expected it, but this is my favorite pop-songs-redone-with-symphony album of all time. (Also, admittedly, the only one I don't hate, but I'm not sure whether that makes the distinction less impressive, or more.)
Cover Songs
Blondie: "Out in the Streets" (The Shangri-Las; from No Exit)
Life on Mars: "Twelve-Thirty" (The Mamas & the Papas; from Life on Mars)
Selfless public services: if the originals had been recorded today, this is exactly what I hope they would have sounded like.
Nina Persson & Nathan Larson: "The Bluest Eyes in Texas" (Restless Heart; from Boys Don't Cry soundtrack)
The lethargic karaoke performance from early in the movie joins my short list of tragic soundtrack omissions (along with the rooftop version of Coyote Shivers' "Sugarhigh" at the end of Empire Records and the accompaniment-less studio vocal take of "God Give Me Strength" in Grace of My Heart), but Cardigans singer Nina Persson and Shudder to Think guitarist Nathan Larsson's understated credits version followed me out of the theater, calm and self-contained in the very way Brandon Teena's life wasn't allowed to be.
Various-Artist Compilation
Christmas Two (Kindercore Records)
The call for Christmas songs by obscure indie-pop bands (I'd heard of only two of these twenty-four a year ago, and only fifteen even after my long immersion) elicited almost exclusively non-Christmas music with Christmas-related lyrics, but for some reason it also produced one of the best surveys of the indie-pop scene I've found, and the first non-Boston compilation in years that I've liked enough to play repeatedly.
Compilations & Reissues
The Field Mice: Where'd You Learn to Kiss That Way?
Belle & Sebastian: Tigermilk
The whole unbelievable cohort of new records notwithstanding, the story of my year, musically, was a decade I lived through, but suddenly realized I'd almost missed. When 1999 began, "Sarah Records" meant nothing to me. I heard a Field Mice song on January 4, and since then my universe has been fundamentally and permanently altered, and possibly also my self-image. Shinkansen's sprawling Field Mice retrospective remains the single definitive Sarah document, to me, not comprehensive in any literal sense, but evocative of every exquisite, heartbreaking, unflinching vulnerability that made Sarah remarkable. Belle & Sebastian were too late to be on Sarah, but Tigermilk, their re-released debut, represents the aesthetic nearly as well, at a quarter the length. I've tried to imagine, as I devoured connection after connection, what it would have been like to find out about these hundreds of records one by one, but it's a difficult thought experiment. If I'd known about this music when I was twenty-one, I might be a very different person today. Sadder or stronger, though, I don't know. All this eloquent pathos might have been far too seductive. Maybe the last thing I needed, at twenty-one, was a canon for rationalizing insularity. Maybe it's the last thing I need now. But it's late. You're asleep, and I'm not going to meet anybody tonight, and it's a long way to dawn.
For the original reviews of releases cited in these lists, see:
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