In the decade I’ve been writing about music and popular culture in the
pages of Z, I can’t recall a year when the pop music mainstream seemed
more empty of soul and critical thought than in 1999. Commercially speaking,
this was a year dominated by a steady flow of cheap thrill rock and pop
acts such as the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Christina Aguil- ara,
Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, and Jennifer Lopez. The “comeback” of Carlos Santana,
with the hugely successful Supernatural, offered some relief from boy/girl
pap and male meathead bluster, but ultimately this trendy demographic-driven
concept album doesn’t compare to any of Santana’s great work of the last
Still, for those searching for music to subvert the personal and cultural
sensibility of the status quo, there were sounds resonating meaning and
emotions beyond the marketplace. Although here and there, some of this
music dented the airwaves and sales charts, most of the year’s more challenging
albums found only niche or semi-popular appeal with audiences of distinctly
“outsider” tastes. But for a believer (like me) in the power of music to
change the world, all these less accessible trends seem a source of hope.
Throughout the 20th century various strains of American popular music have
been able to soothe and entertain in ways that reinforce dominant social
relations. But because most of the nation’s popular music has been derived
from the most disenfranchised sectors of society, it has also mirrored
glaring social and economic contradictions in ways that raised questions
about the rightness and wrongness of the American social order.
The music of the century’s greatest artists (Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington,
Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams,
Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Monroe, Aretha Franklin,
Patsy Cline, Sam Cooke, Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder) upsets the easy
everyday consensus by demanding more of life than the system is willing
to give. It puts us in touch with feelings and perceptions that provoke
a reinterpretation of the world around us. On occasion, it is music of
explicitly stated protest and critique.
Because virtually all of the century’s music has been absorbed and translated
to suit the needs of a market driven culture, it is not easy to hear any
expression of the country’s popular music heritage as a threat to society.
Blues, jazz, country, folk, cajun, rock, and hip-hop, however, were all
born in cultures of the working class and poor and all were greeted with
some combination of derision and fear by elite and middle class society.
In the first half of the century, of course, all forms of black popular
music seemed “lewd,” “vulgar,” and “inferior” to white America. But respectable
mainstream musical tastes also maintained contempt for the “ignorant” folk
and country traditions of poor white southerners. While the early music
industry was willing to exploit these expressions to “race” and “hillbilly”
markets, color and class realities set the music apart from wholesome and
generic sounds acknowledging no social divisions.
With the growth of the mass media, most of America’s roots music has gradually
been welcomed into the big-time music market. Certainly in the second half
of the 20th century, traditional musical forms have provided the vitality
and edge to the nation’s most important pop music. Reflecting as it does
the voice of ordinary misfits and underdogs, this music has given us hidden
truths of how we think and feel and live. Unconstrained by requirements
of education, income, or social approval, outsiders from Bessie Smith and
Robert Johnson to Woody Guthrie, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Tupac, Sleater-
Kinney, and Rage Against The Machine have registered “people’s history”
reflecting a multiplicity of race, class, gender, and age realities that
mainstream media ignored or minimized.
Today a voracious and all pervasive corporate culture has the power to
absorb and defang almost any outsider voice in an instant. Nonetheless,
music industry bosses, for all their control over marketing, production,
and distribution, cannot invent musical creativity or audience response.
Though they may maximize trends and hits and deny visibility to all sounds
deemed uncommercial, corporate executives have a miserable record (roughly
90 percent of their products realize no profit) of forecasting next-big-thing
success. While throwing money at all kinds of acts that might possibly
turn a hit (but don’t), industry giants usually wind up chasing after styles
and performers that sound like some already existing chart topper. So it
is that strange and innovative music often lives outside the margins of
Breakthroughs, surprises, and radical shifts of taste do periodically open
the door of mainstream pop to new and challenging sounds. But in the dismal
year of 1999, with a few exceptions, the door remained closed. With that
in mind, here’s my list of some the year’s good ones. Comments are mostly
reserved for albums not previously reviewed.
The Best Of 1999 Rock/Pop/Hip-Hop
Rage Against The Machine,
The Battle Of Los Angeles (Epic)
Tom Waits, Mule Variations
Meshell Ndegeocello, Bitter
On her first two albums, Ndegeocello used a tough blend of funk and R &
B to support spleen- venting tales describing race and sex pathologies.
The current gem is an acoustic-based slow-burn purge of the hurt and anger
surrounding romantic breakdown.
Sleater-Kinney, The Hot Rock
(Kill Rock Stars)
Moby, Play (V2)
Beck, Midnite Vultures (DGC)
Two great party records to bring in the new century. Wedding satire and
goofiness to a dense and spectacular soul-funk soundtrack, Beck pokes smarty
pants fun at a load of decadent U.S. fixations. Moby is more serious, using
his electronica expertise to fuse a century’s worth of popular music to
questions of faith and meaning.
Los Lobos, This Time
Latin Playboys, Dose (Atlantic)
Beth Orton, Central Reservation (Arista)
Ani Difranco, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up (Righteous Babe)
To the Teeth (Righteous Babe)
Ani Difranco and Utah Phillips,
Fellow Workers (Righteous Babe)
Three strong releases from the folksinger who could. While Difranco’s solo
albums continue to mix personal confessions with rants against power and
prejudice, her music keeps stretching toward jazz and funk. With Utah Phillips
she is mastering an appeal that links class struggle across generations.
The Roots, Things Fall Apart (MCA)
Mos Def, Black On Both Sides (Rawkus)
Two albums that maintain hardcore hip-hop creed without playing up the
glories of gangstaism. The Roots get close to live show power by balancing
angry street rhyme, funk and sweet soul (played on real instruments). Mos
Def (of the Brooklyn duo known as Black Star) holds to a low-keyed jazzy
flow while making cultural/political connections designed to wake-up struggle.
Ibrahim Ferrer, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer (World
Mary J. Blige, Mary (MCA)
Randy Newman, Bad Love (Dreamworks)
Mary J. Blige reigns in the world of hip-hop soul ballads. Like Aretha,
she reports the pains and lies of love without relinquishing strength and
resilience. Randy Newman made his rep delivering sly and bitter truths
that unraveled Americana myth. Bad Love is more of the same and his best
work in years. Ruminations from a grumpy old white male evoking foolishness,
despair, and compassion.
Steve Earle And The Del McCoury Band, The Mountain (E-Squared)
Tom Russell, The Man From God Knows Where (Hightone)
I’ve Got A Right To Cry (Sire)
John Prine, In Spite Of Ourselves (Oh Boy)
Through a series of casual duets with some of country’s finest female voices
(Melba Montgomery, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and
Iris Dement), John Prine sings a slew of Nashville hits rendering the miseries
of working class romance. Funny, sad, absurd, and true.
Dolly Parton, The Grass Is Green (Sugarhill)
Parton returns to her roots, recruits a band of great players, and turns
in one of the best bluegrass albums of the year.
Hank Williams III, Risin’ Outlaw (Curb)
Like his granddad, Hank III is reckless and blue. Time will tell.
Hankdogs, Bareback (Hannibal/Rykodisc)
English folk music in the vein of Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson,
and Nick Drake. One of the best debuts of the year.
Dave Moore, Breaking Down To 3 (Red House)
Guy Clark, Cold Dog Soup (Sugarhill
Quiet, contemplative albums wrestling with life’s meaning, losses, and
Various Artists, Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza (Acoustic Disc)
A double CD set displaying riches of the legacy of bluegrass mandolin.
Kelly Jo Phelps, Shine Eyed Mister Zen (Rykodisc)
With dark, smoky vocals and amazing finger and slide work on guitar, Phelps
has managed to create a singular and haunting sound steeped in the most
ancient forms of folk and blues. This one talks to the ghosts of Dock Boggs
and Leadbelly while searching out love and purpose in the here and now.
Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan, In Session (Stax)
A loose and inspired jam joining a great blues elder and a young up and
comer. For lovers of blues guitar, this one is a must.
Joe Louis Walker, Silvertone Blues (Verve)
Aside from being one of the finest singer-guitarists in contemporary blues,
Joe Louis Walker is surely the most versatile. Here, after covering a host
of urban styles, he digs into a collection of Delta rooted material with
his usual combination of grit and taste.
Various Artists, Tacoma Slide
Thirteen wonderful examples of traditional and modern slide guitar mastery
including Robert Pete Williams, Son House, Bukka White, Mike Bloomfield,
Leo Kottke, John Fahey, and Mike Auldridge.
Robert Cray, Take Your Shoes Off (Rykodisc)
John Lewis, Evolution (Atlantic)
Playing originals and standards Lewis’s piano genius illustrates brilliant
economic elegance and a century of jazz tradition.
Patricia Barber, Companion (Blue Note/Premonition)
With hip contemporary lyrics and unconventional material (“The Beat Goes
On” and “Black Magic Woman), pianist/singer/writer Patricia Barber is shaking
up the crustier side of the jazz world. But those with no interest in policing
the jazz border should find this live recording an enticing introduction
to a fresh and exciting talent.
Sam Rivers, Inspiration (RCA)
A thrilling big band work-out aptly named.
Abbey Lincoln, Wholly Earth (Verve)
The great writer/singer lays down another dazzling performance fueling
compassionate and hopeful humanity.
Chico O’Farrell, Heart Of A Legend (Milestone)
Not quite as stirring as 1995’s Pure Emotion, but O’Farrell’s latest Afro-Cuban
big band jazz is still loaded with awesome solo and ensemble play by masters
such as Cachao, Patato, Chocolate, and Paquito D’ Rivera. Another reminder
that Cuban music doesn’t begin or end with the Buena Vista Social Club.
Taj Mahal And Toumani Diabate, Kulanjan (Hannibal/Carthage)
Mali kora player Toumani Diabate and Afro-American singer/guitarist Taj
Mahal convened this session to celebrate the linkages between West African
music and the blues. The results are extraordinary.
Don Byron, Romance With The
Unseen (EMD/Blue Note)
Jazz clarinetist Don Byron is one of the most adventurous players in all
of modern jazz. Collaborating with equally free spirited players like guitarist
Bill Frissell, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and bassist Drew Grass, he pulls
out all the stops.
Various Artists, Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz In Los Angeles (1921-1956)
Blues, jazz, and R&B poured from the clubs and jukeboxes of LA’s Central
Avenue during the years documented on this 4-CD box set. And what an amazing
mix of styles and musicians: T-Bone Walker, Charles Brown, Hadda Brooks,
Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Big Jay McNeely, and Johnny Otis, to mention
a few. Central Avenue Sounds gives this rich, long underappreciated legacy
of black LA its due.
Various Artists, From Spirituals To Swing (Vanguard)
A marvelous repackaging of the legendary John Hammond produced concerts
that introduced 1930s white America to the blues, folk, jazz, and gospel
music of black America.
Woody Guthrie, Woody Guthrie: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1-4 (Smithsonian/Folkways)
Each disc of this 4-CD set can be bought separately and that’s probably
the way to go for less than die-hard Guthrie fans. But seriously devoted
listeners should find that the essays, pictures, and almost five hours
of music make this package essential.
Various Artists, The Last Soul Company (Malaco)
The classic soul sounds of legendary labels such as Chess, Stax, and Motown
began to fade in the late 1960s, but the Jackson, Mississippi-based Malaco
Records is still carrying the torch for old school soul. This 6-CD collection
of Malaco “hits” by Bobby Bland, Denise La Salle, Shirley Brown, Little
Milton, and a host of other lesser knowns shows how and why.
Sandy Carter is a regular contributor to Z Magazine.