Arts: America saves the day

Rock & Pop

IF THE annual doom-mongers are to be believed, music is at an all time low. Certainly, British music has seen better days. In January 1999, Gay Dad were declared by the music press as the future of rock'n'roll, though they proved little more than a pale imitation of their forebears. We also failed to put an end to revivals: Blondie have flourished and, despite having floundered badly during their London show, the Happy Mondays were victorious in their native Manchester.

But there have been some remarkable debuts this year crossing all manner of musical boundaries. Ben & Jason's first full-length album Emoticons, saw them dubbed as righful scions of their heroes Nick Drake, Roy Harper and Jeff Buckley. All-Seeing I, a Sheffield band which comprises a series of part-timers including Jarvis Cocker, the Human League's Phil Oakey and Babybird's Stephen Jones, yielded one of the most eclectic and exciting LP's this year in Pickled Eggs & Sherbert, and Cousteau crept up on us unawares with a startlingly sophisticated debut album - a cross between Burt Bacharach and Nick Cave.

The dance scene may have spawned disappointing albums from Leftfield and Underworld, but the Chemical Brothers produced their best album yet, Surrender - the coruscating "Hey Boy Hey Girl" must rate as the dance single of the year. Moby successfully revisited his dance days with Play, an album that brings together warm soul and hip-hop rhythms and antique samples.

Basement Jaxx and Clinton (formerly Cornershop) also proved that there is still room for imagination and individuality in dance music.Jacques Lu Cont, the brains behind Les Rythmes Digitales, also showed that retro doesn't need to be bad, even when it's naff. His Darkdancer embraces the tinny drums, squeaky synth and gratuitously shallow lyrics that were the scourge of the Eighties. It's simply irresistable.

After years of Brit-pop's smug effrontery, American indie-rock outfits Smog, Will Oldham aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Wheat were the perfect antidote. All three reside at the lo-fi end of the genre and each have produced albums which, after only one listen, highlight the hideous inadequacies of corporate music. The Webb Brothers also released the brilliant Beyond The Biosphere, a languid, quasi-concept album full of warm psychedelic- style pop. And saving the best till last, The Flaming Lips returned with their masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin. Judging by this year, the future of music has got to be in America.

BEST OF 1999

Ben & Jason

All-Seeing I

Moby

Chemical Brothers

Wheat

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