1999- I was in the middle of a six-year stint living off the 3rd stop on the L train in Williamsburg, Brooklyn right before it completely blew up and became one of the main music hubs in the world in the new century. I was two years into my job at a record label and frantically acquiring all of the catalog cd’s I could get my hands on. In the mainstream music world, the promising alternative rock scene had basically fizzled out and been replaced by rap-rock by the likes of Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach, catchy but sanitized pop-punk of Blink-182 & Third Eye Blind and the mostly godawful teen pop of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera along with boy bands like Backstreet Boys & N Sync, which would continue to dominate radio & sales as well as much of the culture into the new millennium. Looking back at all of my purchases from that year I probably have a greater shared of mediocrities than in any other year- partially because of where I was at in my life and partially because of the year in music itself. ’99 was several years before the iTunes store and the massive buying of individual tracks. Labels were still charging upwards of $20 per cd in mainstream record stores and many of them really did contain only 1 or 2 great tracks. This is also right after Napster broke. Tons of college kids and techies were scooping up all of the free music they could, but a conscience and a dial up internet connection kept me away. Even in a bleak year there were several standout albums by the likes of the Flaming Lips and Built to Spill, great rap releases by Eminem, Dr. Dre & the Roots and thanks to research & individual track downloads I caught up on a bunch of great stuff I missed the first go round over the next decade plus. Great one of rap tracks from the dirty south, a few fantastic one hit wonders like Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” and some absolutely killer club and house music from all over the place.
As stated above the modern rock scene had really changed by the late 90’s. Grunge was so dead that even post-grunge was on its last legs, though bands like Creed & Nickelback were just ..ahem…getting started. Legendary indie groups like Pavement and Guided By Voices put out solid albums that year, but they were far from their best. Garage-rock was still very underground. The White Stripes debut hit in ’99 but it was only regional at the time and is still considered a pretty minor release in their discography. The great Brooklyn band Les Savy Fav released a few great singles and was paving the way for so much of the “return to rock” and dance punk heard all over the borough a few years later. But again they were only welkl known within their own scene. Out in the Pacific Northwest the great Sleater-Kinney was still carrying the riot grrrl/punk mantle. “The Hot Rock”, their 4th album was very good but seen now as a bridge between their lo-fi roots and their great 21st century releases. The two big indie-rock releases for me were Built To Spill’s “Keep It Like a Secret”, which I still consider their best & Washington D.C.’s Dismemberment Plan “Emergency & I”, which I didn’t get into until later. A sad thing as the bassist went to my college and I actually saw them in ’94 play a friend’s basement. I clearly underrated them and slept on them while they were becoming one of the most important new forces in indie-rock of the late 90’s. Though more musically nuanced and less heavy than Les Savy Fav they would also prove a huge influence on bringing the dance back to rock in the early oughts.
There was some high quality mainstream rock released in ’99 as well- just not much of it. The Red Hot Chili Peppers dominated the radio with their album “Californication”- I still hear four or five of its tracks regularly to this day. The Foo Fighters managed three singles from their solid third album. Both bands would absolutely dominate rock radio for the next ten years and would often be the only tolerable music you could find in between all of the rest of the sludgy mook-rock. One of the purveyors of rap metal, Rage Against the Machine, released their excellent third album “The Battle Of Los Angeles”, kicking the ass of all of their awful peers. Another unfortunate late 90’s trend was Emo-rock, but like most genres- even the bad ones have their great bands. Texas groups At The Drive-In and And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead released the “Vaya” EP and the “Madonna” LP respectively. Both would have their best recordings early on in the new millennium but they were on their way. The dominate U.K. 90’s rock sub-genre Britpop was also casting its dying embers. Blur released the sophisticated “13”, miles away from their mid 90’s sound. Supergrass released a solid third album but it didn’t quite measure up to their first two. The rest of the groups ceded control to mellower U2-lite groups like Coldplay & Travis. Despite a few lights in the darkness alternative rock music was due for a swift kick in the ass. Most of the music didn’t sound good then and has worn even less well. Check out some concert footage from “Woodstock ‘99” for backup.
Some of the other great nineties were moving away from heavy rock sounds and toward a heavily orchestrated psychedelic pop sound highly influenced by “Pet Sounds”/”Smile” era Beach Boys. The Flaming Lips “The Soft Bulletin” was THE full masterpiece of 1999 and one of the best albums of the decade. It’s an album of tear-jerking beauty. In Atlanta the Elephant Recording Company, a collective of highly creative underground musicians featuring bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, Beulah & Olivia Tremor Control was going strong. Olivia Tremor Control’s “Black Foliage: Volume One”, their 2nd full-length release, is a left of center gem though the band continues to live in the shadows of the great Neutral Milk Hotel. One of the biggest alt country bands, Wilco, who had already expanded their sound with their double album “Being There”, arguably bettered it with “Summer Teeth”- also one of the best albums of the year. It had more in common with the Beach Boys than Johnny Cash, emphasizing pop harmonies and noise-pop experiments over boogie and honky tonk. Though it went largely unheard until a year or two later Iceland’s Sigur Ros released their great debut “Agaetis Byrgun” in ’99. Its unintelligible lyrics were from a made up language and many of the “songs” went north of ten minutes but the album’s sheer beauty matched even that of the Lips.
Though none of these artists seem to fit together very well there were a handful of great singer songwriter albums in 1999. Tom Waits released the excellent “Mule Variations”, his first major release since 1992’s “Bone Machine”. Fiona Apple’s 2nd album “When the Pawn Strikes” didn’t sell like her 1996 debut, but it did announce her as a major artist as she remains today. “Pawn” still might be her best album. British singer Beth Orton had gained fame hitching her wagon to the Big Beat/Electronica scene. “Central Reservation” saw her pulling away a bit from that scene to very promising results. Unfortunately it remains by far her best album, as she was unable to follow up. Aimee Mann contributed a handful of fantastic tracks to the mind-blowing “Magnolia” motion picture. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, who had been recording under different guises throughout the 90’s released his true masterwork “I See a Darkness” in 1999 which was some strange hybrid between country, blues, Captain Beefheart and Appalachian Folk music. Prolific NYC musician Stephen Merritt under his moniker Magnetic Fields released his opus in ’99 as well- the 3 cd concept album of love songs called “69 Love Songs”. Though each cd did contain some filler, he is a master of the form. One of the most exciting nineties singer-songwriters Beck ended the decade and the millennium with his funk party “Midnight Vultures”- though it isn’t his best album it’s a worthy release.
The big techno story of the year was Moby’s “Play” album. The vegan DJ had been kicking around the scene since 1990 and was one of its stars but “Play” vaulted him into the stratosphere. It contained multiple radio hits and he licensed every single one of the tracks for various commercials- a practice that would become more and more commonplace in the ensuing years. It was unfortunately the last good album Moby would make. The Chemical Brothers third album “Surrender” saw them move away from the Big Beat scene they had helped start. Basement Jaxx released their debut album “Remedy” one of the better techno/club albums maybe ever- they would remain major players over the next half-decade or so. Other cool club music by the likes of Armand Van Helden and Cassius provided big hits to the club culture, which I am still catching up with today. Genius wizard Aphex Twin released one of his most memorable singles “Windowlicker”.
R&B had thankfully moved away from slow jams and boy bands to club bangers and girl groups. TLC and Destiny’s Child dominated the charts with smash singles. Timbaland and the Neptunes were the two hottest rap producers in the game in the late 90’s and their sound filtered down to much of the R&B. Even when it wasn’t produced by one of those two, it tended to sound like them. Above all rap was one of the dominant sounds of 1999 and it was really split into two factions- commercial rap and the underground backpacker rap. However the underground rap could be commercially successful as well. Groups like The Roots and artists like Mos Def had big crossover hits and sales. Def’s “Black On Both Sides” was his solo debut and The Roots “Things Fall Apart” still qualifies as the best record in their long, illustrious career. Other groups like Quannum MC’s and Blackalicious would lack sales but gained respect with hardcore hip hop heads and set the tone for big indie-rap labels in the coming years like NYC’s Def Jux. One of the biggest rap and music stories of the year was the emergence of Eminem. He was brought in as Dr. Dre’s protégé and Dre produced the album which quickly became a gargantuan hit. Em became one of the biggest commercial and artistic forces in rap over the next decade though his artistic fortunes, at least, have noticeable declined since the middle of last decade. Dr. Dre himself also released his long awaited follow up to “The Chronic” with “2001”. While not a true rap classic it’s a really good album. Both Eminem and Snoop Dogg appear on some of its best tracks. Jay-Z released “In My Lifetime Volume 3”, along with the immense single “Big Pimpin’” cementing his rising star status along rap’s elite. Guest stars on the track, Memphis’s UGK exemplified the increasing impact southern rappers had on the commercial landscape. Along with Atlanta’s Outkast & Goodie Mob (both idle in 1999), the New Orleans label No Limit was producing some of the highest selling music of the late 90’s. While a ton of it was total crap, at least to my ears, ’99 did see the release of Lil Wayne’s first album along with great singles like “Bling Bling” by BG and “We On Fire” by Hot Boy$. The Dirty South would continue to take away marketshare from New York & LA until it eventually became rap’s home base in the next decade.
WILCO- SUMMER TEETH
Buy Remedy – Basement Jaxx
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