Critics' Awards 1999 - Rock: Cutely unthreatening - and that was just the rap

There were lots of excellent albums released this year and lots of albums which sold well. But there weren't lots of excellent albums that sold well. In fact, at the last count there was one: Macy Gray's On How Life Is. The other queens of the top 10 were glossily beautiful women who sang middle-of-the-road soft rock and soul-lite. Shania Twain, Jennifer Lopez, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey came across the Atlantic. The Corrs came from Ireland. Tragically, the UK's contribution was Martine McCutcheon.

This year's big development, though, was the resurgence of pre-teen pop. Where once there was Blur vs Oasis, in 1999 there was Geri Halliwell vs Emma Bunton. Pete Waterman, hitmaker for Kylie and Jason, kept making strides with Steps. Simon Fuller, the shadowy Svengali sacked by the Spice Girls, resurfaced with S Club 7. And not only did Boyzone resolutely refuse to break up, they spawned a junior edition: Westlife. It says a lot about pop today that the steamiest stars of the year were two teenage graduates of America's Mickey Mouse Club TV series, Britney Spears and Christine Aguilera.

Even rap was ruled by the cutely unthreatening Will Smith. And in the dance world, Basement Jaxx and the Chemical Brothers were eclipsed by simpler, lighter Ibiza club doodles. These forced Top of the Pops producers to wrestle with the problem of how to take a record made by an anonymous DJ and stage it live (answer: point cameras at dancers with hardly any clothes on).

This grave shortage of colourful personalities meant that even a pure pop fan couldn't count 1999 as a vintage year. No one looked as if they might be a new Madonna - or even a new Spice Girls or Take That. Only Ricky Martin stood out as a potential icon. A hip-swivelling caricature of the young Elvis, he cooked up "Livin' La Vida Loca" - definitely the fieriest example of 1999's Latin temperament.

What we should remember is that just because there weren't many great records in the charts, it doesn't follow that there were no great records in the shops. In fact, there were plenty - more than in 1998 or 1997. But what was missing was a coherent movement. One magazine predicted a Britpop revival at the start of the year, spearheaded by the ill-fated Gay Dad. Instead, the Verve split up, Oasis lost two founder members, Alan McGee left Creation Records and Jason Pierce sacked the rest of Spiritualised. Catatonia fluffed their shot at the top with their worst album so far; Blur, Suede Gomez, Supergrass and James all had disappointing sales, and Elastica, Kevin Rowland and the Happy Mondays competed to see who could make the most pathetically embarrassing comeback. Of their guitar- strumming peers, the only groups to lodge near the top of the album charts were Travis and the Stereophonics. What more evidence do you need that this was not a year for larger-than-life personalities?

If 1999 lacked a wave of groups which balanced innovation and integrity with commercial success, the closest thing to it was the increasingly important coterie of R&B producers. In a system reminiscent of the conveyor belt of girl groups of the 1960s, it's less the performers that matter than the people behind the scenes - or rather, behind the mixing desks. At the moment the leading names are Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs, Rodney Jerkins and the two members of the Fugees who are as bankable making records for other people as for themselves, Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean. But the leader of the pack must be Missy Elliot, not so much for her own album, Da Real World, as for the effect that she and her co-producer, Timbaland, have had on pop in general. You can hear her fingerprints on records by artists from Destiny's Child and 702 to Whitney Houston and Scary Spice - to say nothing of the records which have copied her without her involvement. And if that weren't proof enough of her influence, how about this: Damon Albarn named his daughter Missy in her honour.

Previous winners

1991 Primal Scream

1992 Nirvana

1993 Neil Young

1994 Blur

1995 Pulp

1996 Oasis

1997 Radiohead

1998 REM

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