My list of reviews of music released in 1999.
1. Mr. Bungle: California (10/10)
Disco Volante is, for me, the greatest avant rock album in nearly three decades. (Or, at the very least, the greatest post-Zappa avant rock album in nearly three decades.) It’s as if Zappa kicked down the door and few people were willing to go through. And the album (and Bungle) has been surprisingly influential, now that whole horribly named “Rock against rock” thing has become a thing.
But if there was one criticism that could be leveled against Disco Volante, it was a lack of songs. Sure, there are some, but they are interspersed with “compositions” and all sorts of willfully difficult passages breaking those songs into sometimes incomprehensible pieces (or revealing that the songs are merely incomplete song fragments). Not so here.
Bungle take their musique concrete/Zappa razor and use it on pop music: on the Beach Boys, on lounge music, on Do-Wop, on Surf Music. Some of the usual influences appear (metal, world music, film music, etc.) but this time it’s as part of a record that is, at least in terms of Bungle (or the Mothers, for that matter), accessible. I don’t think there’s anything else like it.
And the interesting thing is, in our post genre world, where people borrow heavily from unrelated genres, and where so much commercial (and indie) pop music is cut and paste, this record has become oddly prescient. I doubt any of these current taste-makers have listened to this record, but somehow Bungle saw the future.
This is, in my humble and completely uninformed opinion, the greatest pop record of the 1990s. (This means nothing, as I don’t listen to ’90s pop.) An absolute masterpiece and an amazing way for them to go out.
2. Nigel Kennedy: The Kennedy Experience (10/10)
The problem with “classical” covers of pop and rock music is that they are usually boring orchestral versions of famous pop or rock songs, where the melody is played by the orchestra so we all know what it is.
The problem with jazz covers, if there is one, is the conservatism of the ensemble: jazz covers of pop or rock music are inevitably by piano-based groups.
“Classical” musician Nigel Kennedy avoids both these pratfalls: his covers are (usually) radical interpretations of Hendrix’s music – the kind of radicalism we might associate with jazz interpretations of popular music, if this ensemble weren’t so damn weird.
But weird it is: Kennedy has assembled a bizarre ensemble of guitars, cellos, winds and a bass, backing his violin.
I guess I can understand that some people don’t like Kennedy and I can imagine that, if I knew more about the man, he might rub me the wrong way. But we shouldn’t let that influence our opinions of this music.
And what music: crazy versions of Hendrix that often are unrecognizable (at least at first listen) – Hendrix is transported to another genre, one I don’t really recognize.
This is the kind of interpretative music we should celebrate: musicians taking risks inspired by earlier musicians taking risks. It’s just great stuff.
3. Wilco: Summerteeth (9/10)
I am a massive fan of Being There, but it’s with Summerteeth that Wilco really became perhaps the most vital of the American indie rock bands to emerge in the ’90s. (As the critics cliche goes, they’re “the American Radiohead” or something…) It’s a fundamental departure from their earlier sound, and so much more of a studio creation than anything they had previously attempted. Before this record, Wilco could still be considered (wrongly) Alt Country. Never again.
And it played a central role in the period of over a decade where they drastically redefined their sound on nearly every release (something that I miss from their last decade, I must say).
All of that ignores the songs, perhaps Tweedy’s best set (or among the very best) and among the better arguments for why he should be considered one of the major American songwriters of his generation, someone who is able to incorporate rather radical musical and lyrical ideas into songs that are catchy and accessible.
This is the album where Wilco became that band you had to listen to. (Again, as much as I love Being There, I’m not sure I could convince too many people of its importance to the ’90s zeitgeist.) It’s a classic.
4. Sigur Ros: Agaetis Byrjun (9/10)
Sigur Ros sketch out this weird place in: is this dream pop? indie rock? post rock? Their unique is made even more unique by their invented lyrics.
This record is, to my ears, the perfect distillation of their unique sound (which could really be called Rosian, or whatever). It’s their strongest set of songs and everything after sort of feels like it never quite reaches the heights of this album.
If you’re going to introduce yourself to Sigur Ros, this is the record to do it. But it’s probably as accessible a way into Post Rock as can be imagined, as well. It’s pretty much a classic.
5. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy: I See a Darkness (9/10)
I wrote the following in 2007, before hearing anything else he’s ever done:
There are some really great songs on here. This is my first exposure to Oldham (outside of a Cash cover) and I’m really impressed. The man can just plain write. The vibe of the whole thing (the production, the arrangements) helps too. Great record.
Oldham is a songwriter who is full of compelling melodies but not that many lyrics. Yet, with his sparse lyrics, he is often able to connect to basic human themes, themes which have been expressed in stories and songs since humans could pass them on, if not before. I don’t know what it is specifically about Oldham that works for me – I often find vagueness in lyrics to be a put off – but his songs resonate with me in ways other sparsely written songs often don’t. And, in my experience, this is the best set of them; the Will Oldham album you should listen to if you want to know what the big deal is.
6. John Paul Jones: Zooma (8/10)
This feels like it came out of nowhere as JPJ had been spending most of his post-Zeppelin career working for other musicians. It’s as good a summary of his talent (often underrated) as you’ll hear (though the sequel works as well) and, unlike the efforts of Page and Plant, it’s contemporary – it sounds like JPJ listens to and enjoys then modern music, something that cannot be said for Jimmy Page or Robert Plant. Moreover, he’s good at this modern-sounding instrumental rock music.
As instrumental rock albums go, this is right up there.
7. Fantomas (8/10)
There isn’t much precedence for Fantomas’ sound on their debut to my knowledge. It’s like a more purely metal/film score version of Bungle; with hindsight we can view it as the comic book/crime movie album. It’s certainly not for everyone but I think if you’re willing to keep an open mind, it’s a peculiar take on metal that no one else has really tried. It’s more thought-provoking than most metal (not what most want in metal, I know) and it has some pretty great moments.
8. The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin (8/10)
This is the moment when the old crazy Flaming Flips are gone forever. With the exception of Zaireeka, they had been getting increasingly poppy, and increasingly less “psychedelic” (at least in the psychedelic rock sense of the term) throughout the ’90s, but this is the decisive break. Even when they have fully indulged their weirdness in the years since, they have sounded like a different band, a band where samplers, keyboards, programming and orchestration replace electric guitar noise.
But as much as I want to bemoan this change – as much as it’s a change that I don’t love to the extent that so much of the rest of their fans appear to – I certainly respect the rather ballsy change of direction (though I believe that they were beat to it by Mercury Rev).
And though I prefer the sound of the older version of the band, I can’t deny that this is good. I mean, it’s quite good. It’s elaborate and creative and relatively unique.
9. Granelli: Music Has its Way with Me (8/10)
This is an audacious mixture of spoken word (posing as hip hop), turntabilism and jazz fusion. It’s certainly a brave thing for a drummer of Granelli’s age to “lead.” When I first heard it, it was the first thing I had heard of its kind and I was rather blown away. I know now that it isn’t quite as unique or forward thinking as I first thought, but it’s still unique enough, and they went down a road that not too many people (to my knowledge) have gone down.
10. Sleater-Kinney: The Hot Rock (8/10)
I like this slight change in style. Read the review of The Hot Rock.
11. Eminem: The Slim Shady LP (7?/10)
I have no idea what to do with this. Read the review of The Slim Shady LP.
12. The White Stripes (7/10)
They emerge fully formed: so much of what is distinctive about The White Stripes – and so much of what made them complete outliers in the late ’90s – is already here. But it’s less refined (perhaps that sounds odd, given the band, but it’s true) and White would grow as a songwriter. Coming at it from the future, so to speak, it’s easy to see what wasn’t quite working and what was.
Still, who made music like this in 1999? It’s refreshing, to say the least.
13. Built to Spill: Keep It Like a Secret (7/10)
Not my favourite of theirs, but still appealing. Read the review of Keep It Like a Secret.
14. Bela Fleck: The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2 (7/10)
This is a nice survey of bluegrass styles – covered by the originals and the covers – featuring many of the best contemporary players.
It’s all very pleasant and enjoyable. The playing is stellar. I guess just want more out of life. Something a little more radical or thought-provoking.
Very nice music but it won’t change your mind about bluegrass or anything else.
15. Fred Eaglesmith: 50-Odd Dollars (7/10)
This continues the obvious alternative rock influence that was all over the previous outing. Only this time it seems Eaglesmith is consciously trying to bring back some of his country roots to mediate that alternative rock thing. The fiddle, mandolin and pedal steel are all more prominent this time out.
It adds enough of a new-old element that we don’t mind so much that this isn’t his greatest set of songs.
16. Jim Hall and Pat Metheny (7/10)
I am not a fan of Metheny, though I’ve never really given him a chance beyond his debut. But I like Hall, now that I know him. And the two fit really well. Someone made a point about how the improvisations sound as “organized” as the standards and originals, and its kind of true. And that’s very impressive. And I like that Metheny keeps switching up his instrument so it keeps things from getting too monotonous, but they do anyway.
That’s the one criticism: despite their clearly distinct styles, the whole thing manages to sound rather blah over the course of the whole disc, with a few exceptions.
It’s exceptional playing, it’s just that I’m not sure they push each other enough. They’re almost too complimentary.
17. Nine Inch Nails: The Fragile (7/10)
18. Leo Kotke: One Guitar, No Vocals (7/10)
It feels weird to me to rave about a record that is probably just another Leo Kottke record, so I’ve tried to tone down my enthusiasm.
This is the only Kottke record I’ve ever heard but I generally love it. Sure, it is just a great guitar player playing well but there are a few rather great compositions throughout.
And if I’d get off my ass, I’d hear his early stuff and try to hear him for the first time.
19. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros: Rock Art and the X-Ray Style (6/10)
It’s kind of interesting that so many punks abandon punk once their music tastes expand as a result of being in the music industry for a long time (and hence being exposed to a lot of different music).
This is an interesting mix of different genres. I don’t really get the criticism that this isn’t punk. Should it be? And honestly, some of this does seem like a logical extension of Sandinista!, given time and space and the like.
But I have a bit of trouble excepting the length of some of the tracks. I’m not sure there’s enough to drag multiple track over six minutes, for example. It’s not anywhere near as insanely long as the followup, but it’s still a little too much of a good thing.
I think if the whole thing were a little more focused on styles I like rather than styles I appreciate, I would like it more.
Oh yeah, also the lyrics aren’t great.
20. Fly Pan Am (6/10)
So this is, for the most part, post-rock minimalism at its most extreme, which is significantly different – at least to my ears – than where they went later. (I have stupidly approached this band’s catalogue backwards.)
I get it. I respect it. It’s certainly better than lots of things. But it also belabors its point too much. And unlike other songs that feature excruciating tension, “Dans ses cheveux soixantes circuits” doesn’t go anywhere. I rarely give up on things but was I ever tempted with that track.
Art, definitely. Something I want to listen to regularly? No.
21. Stone Temple Pilots: No. 4 (6/10)
I first heard this a number of years ago (and apparently didn’t review it) and it’s funny because I don’t remember it at all. I listened to all their other ’90s albums at the time as well (excepting Core) and unfortunately I don’t remember those much either. So I have a hard time comparing this to anything but Core.
At times it is far more ambitious or at least diverse. At other times it seems to strive to be just flat out louder than their normal shtick And I guess that’s where the problem lies. It’s a little schizophrenic. It really does feel like it’s an attempt at going Soundgarden, but that band balanced the two things (the heaviness and the vaguely psychedelic) much better. They also had better songs.
I’m not trying to say this is bad. It’s still pretty solid. And given the climate that it came out in, it’s still remarkably free of obvious post-grunge polish. But it’s still very clear to me that these guys were always more potential than actual accomplishment.
22. Bill Frisell: Good Dog, Happy Man (6/10)
This feels like more of the same as Gone, Just like a Train. Only the band is bigger – which actually heightens the roots feel and diminishes the jazz feel – and so the palette is a little bigger too.
This is perhaps the least jazz-sounding I think I have heard Frisell. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I think it would be fine if the performances were a little less low-key, a little less jammy / “We’re just having a good time!” I sort of wish they would dig into this a little more; add a little more grit / oomph / something.
It’s very pleasant, but it’s basically just very well-performed background music.
23. The Tea Party: Triptych (6/10)
24. Silverchair: Neon Ballroom (6/10)
A number of years ago, the most talented musician I have ever had a conversation with (as opposed to met) told me this was perhaps the best “modern rock” album of the late ’90s. I was shocked. I didn’t know they still existed at the time.
25. Type O Negative: World Coming Down (6/10)
I feel like World Coming Down by Type O Negative is sort of a cross between the goth rock of the ’80s, the sort of post-No Wave of bands like Swans, and metal. And, unsurprisingly, it sort of sounds like it was recorded then. I can’t really understand why they’d do that, but they did.
I feel like on a number of these tracks these guys were like “Swans are awesome but they’re just not catchy.”
But there’s some neat stuff here: especially the influence of choral music. It is frankly too all over the place and too uneven for me to admire it as a fusion of three reasonably disparate genres.
Rather it feels like a bit of a mess, though it is a reasonably entertaining mess.
I would rate it higher except that Beatles medley is just terrible.
26. Sugar Ray: 14:59 (5/10)
At least one track on this record is surprisingly funny. Unfortunately, they cannot decide whether they’re a comedy band or serious. Read the review of 14:59.
27. Britney Spears: …Baby One More Time (5/10)
Not nearly as bad as I imagined. Read the review of Britney Spears’ debut.
28. Marilyn Manson: The Last Tour on Earth (4/10)
Not Ranked: Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Joel McNeely: The Twilight Zone by Bernard Herrmann (10/10)
Though not the composer of The Twilight Zone‘s most iconic theme, Herrmann composed music for both the overall show and individual episodes. This album collects the scores for seven of those episodes and includes a couple other pieces Herrmann did for the show.
Not ranked: Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: The Mirror Man Sessions (9/10)
Aka It Comes to You in a Plain Brown Wrapper, the first try.
Note: I have not heard the original, 1971 version of this album.
Not ranked: Vladimir Ashkenazy: Chopin: Piano Sonatas; 24 Etudes (9/10)
Not ranked: Oliver Knussen: Higglety Pigglety Pop! (9/10)
This is the kind of “children’s music” more children should be exposed to. This is the kind of music that will offend musical conservatives but will delight (and possibly scare) children because they don’t know any better. Oh to have heard something like this when I was a kid in the 80s. It would have changed my life.
As an opera, I doubt it’s really one of the great ones of its era, but I quite like it; it’s got moments that stick with you despite the relatively radical nature of the music.
Not ranked: Skinny Puppy: The Singles Collect (8/10)
I can’t say that I like this particular style of music. It’s like a far more accessible than Throbbing Gristle, and I’ve always only appreciated Throbbing Gristle (especially as a practical joke) rather than liked anything about them. I get it, it’s art. But it’s not my thing.
And so I must feel the same way about a band that sounds awfully indebted to TG and all those other “proto-industrial” (for lack of a better term) “bands” (again, for lack of a better term). But I can’t deny that what they were up to is art: it’s provocative, it’s sometimes clever, it’s certainly relatively unique, especially given the era when they were putting out these singles.
And perhaps that’s the key word; these are singles. I know that in this case it’s merely a matter of format but at one point a single was something designed to get radio play. Gotta admire a band that issues such deliberately unfriendly and inaccessible music as singles.
So I can appreciate this as art, but I can’t say I’m in a rush to listen to it much.
Not Ranked: Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Convent Gardens conducted by Bonynge et al.: Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti (8/10)
A 1972 recording re-issued. Read the review.
Not Ranked: Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Choir conducted by William T. Stromberg: The Egyptian by Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman (7/10)
This is a weird one.
Not an actual collaboration between two film composers, this is actually, essentially, two separate scores to the same movie, and one scene is scored by one man, another by the other.
Not ranked: Sublime: Greatest Hits (5/10)
It’s impossible to judge a band by a compilation, especially something like a clearly arbitrary “greatest hits” comp, but even worse when the arbitrary comp is this short (it is unbelievably short). That being said, I will do it anyway.
Not Ranked: Sir Douglas Quintet: Mendocino (3/10)
Throughout the history of recorded music, there have always been these silly little labels who try to profit off loopholes in music contract regulations, by releasing records or compilations of music that is somehow exempt from copyright protection. This is one of those releases. And I fell for it.