The best pop albums of 1999

The final year of the millennium has been a bad one for pop, or so runs the received wisdom. In fact, it's been another outstanding year but not, with honourable exceptions, for the major labels
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East River Pipe | The Gasoline Age Merge

East River Pipe | The Gasoline Age Merge

You Won't find this magnificent record numbered among many of the end-of-year summaries of even the better-informed music magazines, let alone the tabloid pap pushers - and indeed, how could you, given the distance between New Jersey's East River Pipe and the corporate culture whose ulterior motive is to persuade everyone to buy the same six mediocre albums and be happy with their lot? Where such as The Stereophonics and Puff Daddy can draw on huge multinational promotional armies to paper over their measly inadequacies, the Pipe's reclusive FM Cornog works alone, overdubbing everything - each intricate guitar line, synth feel, vocal harmony, and each individual drum - himself. But such dedicated isolation pays rich dividends in his case: I can honestly say that no other record this year has given me quite as much pleasure - or touched me as deeply - as The Gasoline Age , an album which cleverly revitalises rock's tired old car-song tradition, with songs like "Shiny, Shiny Pimpmobile", "Cybercar" and "Party Drive" employing driving as a metaphor through which to apprehend the American Condition, commenting subtly on the culture's underlying auto-motivations. The result is a striking blend of modes - imagine Will Oldham or Bill Callahan playing Brian Wilson songs in the style of Television - touched with bittersweet intelligence and marked by a yearning, epiphanic quality perfectly suited to the end of the American century. The best track of the year is surely the 10-minute "Atlantic City (Gonna Make A Million Tonight)", in which Cornog evokes the prospect of the casino town as sanctuary; it's a beautiful piece, aglow with expectation, its glittering guitar interplay resolved in a climax of chirping crickets, ratcheting one-armed bandits and casino sounds.

If you like this, you should also try: Bonnie "Prince" Billy's I See A Darkness (Domino), a masterpiece of deeply spiritual sadcore; Wheat's Hope and Adams (City Slang), gentle American guitar rock reminiscent of early REM; and Jim O'Rourke's Eureka (Domino), an uplifting exercise in multi-layered sensuosity. And no century would be complete without the following: Roots Manuva's Brand New Secondhand, Mos Def's Black On Both Sides, Rakim's The Master and, concluding on a festive note, Low's Christmas.

By Andy Gill

The Flaming Lips | The Soft Bulletin Warner

Singer Wayne Coyne's fevered experimentalism has, until now, consigned The Flaming Lips to the outer fringes of American indie-rock. But this, their 10th and most accessible LP to date, has seen them expanding upon their quietly fanatical cult following and welcomed into the mainstream. That is not to suggest that the band have lost any of their magical invention and wit - a childlike sense wonder at the world informs The Soft Bulletin, from the passing of time ("Slow Motion"), and falling in love ("What Is The Light?") to the innate generosity of the human spirit in "A Spoonful Weighs A Ton". And there are characteristically dramatic concerns: two scientists compete to find a cure for a disease which threatens humanity in "Race For The Prize," against a backdrop of sparkling string arrangements and restless drumming. Certainly, with such lost, willowy vocals, Coyne sounds as if the future of the word rests entirely on his shoulders.

For further F'Lips sounds refer to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Neil Young's After the Goldrush and Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs (V2).

By Fiona Sturges

Smog | Knock Knock Domino

Bill Callahan may have had a rotten childhood, even spending some of it in England, the poor love, but his sixth full length album of elegant misery is pure gold. The arrangements are minimal yet expansive, simple songs given life with detailing such as strings and even a children's choir, and the material is his finest yet. From the acoustic ode to juvenile introspection, "Teenage Spaceship", to the six-minute plus choogle with cellos of "Hit the Ground Running", every track succeeds perfectly, enhanced by Callahan's laconic drawl and frequently superb lyrics. "Cold Blooded Old Times" must be the most chilling dissection of dysfunctional family life ever written, while the gorgeous "River Guard", a warden's eye view of the prisoners recreation time, exemplifies his detached technique, again about a permanent outsider looking on. An astonishing record, this tragic, if knowing, collection is the musical equivalent of a Todd Solondz movie.

Despite comparisons with Lou Reed, Callahan's real precursor is Leonard Cohen, whose deceptively simple ditties concealed serious depth. Of current artists, only Arab Strap's grumpy mumbler Aidan Moffat competes. Then again, Beck writes good lyrics, and sometimes they make sense.

By Steve Jelbert

Septeto Nacional | Mas Cuba Libres Network

It was Cuba's year, or rather a fantasy Cuba's. Fired up by screenings of Buena Vista Social Club and tours by the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, the entire northern hemisphere lapsed into nostalgia for a Havana that never was. Most of the old boys who ever were there dusted off their instruments and made a dash for the nearest studio, not all bringing with them the clout of the Septeto Nacional, which has been around since the Twenties. Happily it has kept renewing itself. The present version balances antiquity and youth, playing richly voiced arrangements in the traditional catchy rhythms with superior pace and energy. The singer Péo Leyva sounds as though he has lived hard for most of his 82 years, and recommends cigars and rum for long life - the album features two pages of cocktail recipes - but it's instrumental flair that puts the Septeto at the top of the list.

From, India, why not try Rasdhara (Navras). Two prolific and renowned artists, who made the beguiling combination of Hindustani flute and Kashmiri zither their own, strike sparks in a live London concert. And from Africa, try Alkibar (World Circuit Records) First solo issue by a protégé of the great Ali Farka Toure, recorded in their home village in Mali: strong on acoustic instruments, laid-back pulse, and intimate vocals with bite.

By Robert Maycock

Arab Strap | Elephant Shoe Go! Beat

Asked to explain their fourth album's title, the Falkirk-based miserabilists pointed out that if you mouth it, it looks like you're saying "I love you." Had they given up the booze ? Were they morphing into Mills & Boone? Not likely. Instead, Elephant Shoe's warts-and-all approach captured those aspects of love which Boyzone would rather ignore. Here were the arguments, the paranoid accusations, and the girlfriend-wearing-pyjamas-to-signal-unwillingness-to-have-sex scenario. Ouch. Musically, guitarist Malcolm Middleton shows more economy than on previous outings, and there are moments of real beauty in the album's Spartan soundscapes. "Cherubs", for example, is dusted with a wonderfully evocative sample from "Shikararete", a piece by the Japanese pianist Carmen Cavallaro.

Elephant Shoe is a highly-original record that doesn't act as a natural bridge to albums by other artists, but the spoken-word tracks on Iggy Pop's Avenue B have a similar honesty and intensity. In a sense, cinematic comparisons are more appropriate; if you like this, try Lynne Ramsay's poetic and moving film Ratcatcher.

By James McNair

Chemical Brothers | Surrender Freestyle Dust/Virgin

Anyone still expecting The Chemical Brothers to be churning out big-beat blockbusters like Exit Planet Dust needs to take the smiley face badge off their lapel and turn on the radio. The music here is far more complex and layered than previously and reflects a resolute ambition to pay homage to a medley of synthesized sounds. Surrender works ambient ("Underground Sunshine"), with corrosive techno ("Hey Boy, Hey Girl") and electro-pop ("Out of Control"), to a more listenable, ordered effect. Surrender will remain the best example of the underground dance genre re-invented, which makes it a perfect album for the Nineties.

If you like this you'll love Les Rhythmes Digitales' Darkdancer, Stereolab's Dots and Loops, Sabres of Paradise's Sceptic Cuts snd Orbital's Snivilisation.

By Jennifer Rodger

Eminem | The Slim Shady LP Interscope

It might seem a retrograde step to highlight the work of a dirty-mouthed white boy from Detroit in a hip-hop year offering such inspirational food for thought as the newly streetwise Whitney Houston rising like a phoenix from the ashes of Lauryn Hill's tax-return. But Marshall Bruce Mathers III's major label debut was the most inspirational transformation of alienation into art since Dostoevsky pondered the murder of his landlady. With a little help from gangsta rap avatar Dr Dre, The Slim Shady LP alchemised grinding poverty and emotional deprivation into a grand and irresistibly scabrous pop statement. The humour in such grotesquely compelling scenarios as "97 Bonnie & Clyde" is not black, it comes from a place beyond colour. The idea that such a place might exist in contemporary America is this record's most vital legacy.

If you like that you'll love these: Elvis Presley's Sun Sessions, The Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks, The Beastie Boys' Licensed To Ill, Dr Dre's The Chronic, but most of all 1999's other unforgettable statement of white blue collar angst, Music Fron And Inspired By The Motion Picture South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, including the generation-uniting anthem "Blame Canada" ("They're not even a real country anyway").

By Ben Thompson

Arto Lindsay | Prize Rykodisc

1999 was a good year for live music, from Orquestra Mahatma to Helen Chadwick, to Hal Willner's amazing Harry Smith evening for Meltdown. Some of the best composed music - Regular Music II, the Shout and Gogmagogs, for instance - could only be heard in concert. But Arto Lindsay delivered great gigs and a fine album: Prize is a generous sprawl of sound, the latest in a string of albums that are invariably greater than the sum of their parts - seductive, elegant, adventurous, tuneful. Lindsay combines a sensibility to the gritty terrain of our brave new digital world with the mood of such Brazilian originators as Jobim, Veloso and Vinicius Cantuária (who also contributes to Prize). The delicate melodies and chords of songs such as "Pode Ficar" and "E Aí Esqueço" are skilfully projected by the musicianly team of Andres Levin and Melvin Gibbs. Prize is the sonic equivalent of one of those juice bars where they pulp fruit and vegetables and ginger and all sorts, yet what comes out is sweet, refreshing - unexpectedly delicious. Plus there's the fun of the way the ingredients are chopped up and mixed together, and that's all part of Lindsay's art.

By John L Walters

Death In Vegas | The Continuo Sessions Concrete

With an all star guest list including Iggy Pop, Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie, Jim "Jesus and Mary Chain" Reid and Dot Allison, you could be forgiven for expecting The Contino Sessions to be an Unkle-sized, ego-fuelled disaster. Thankfully Richard Fearless and Tim Holmes construct an unholy alliance between the gonzo rock of Funhouse-era Stooges, the lysergic hypnotism of Spaceman 3, the mashed up dub of King Tubby and the electronic trickery of Andrew Weatheral to equal the very best in their collaborators. It may be a little gothic at times, but this walk on the dark side is nothing if not utterly refreshing.

Also recommended: The Stooges Funhouse (Elektra) - freeform buzzsaw guitars, scorched dissonance, viral feedback and Iggy Pop's psychotic vocals. Echoboy echoboy (Pointblank) - Primal Scream, PIL and Can conjuring the spirit of King Tubby in Kraftwerk's basement. Primal Scream Kowalski (Creation) - slow melting post-smack, head-music.

By Martin James

Cassandra Wilson | Traveling Miles Blue Note

Since Cassandra Wilson signed with Blue Note six years ago, she has been busy reinventing music from a range of sources eclectic enough to include both country blues legend Robert Johnson and the Monkees. All scorched voice and odd instrumentation, it's been impressive stuff from the start. But who would have thought that the most effective tribute to Miles Davis since his death in 1991 would come from her too? Traveling Miles captures a plethora of Davis's different musical personalities without ever simply aping his records. From creepy, Bitches Brew-era jazz-rock, through the sentimentalised pop of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" and the enigmatic asceticism of "ESP", the essential "Milesness" is there, but summoned up with the aid of marimba, classical guitar, electric mandolin, bazouki and other instruments not commonly associated with jazz's Prince of Darkness. She has the loveliest voice, too.

If you like this, you might like to try Miles Davis's pop jazz classic, Tutu. Recorded in 1986 and marking the trumpeter's move to the Warner label, it was a surprisingly controversial and unfairly maligned collection that left the purists apoplectic. A dozen years later it sounds more haunting than ever; and it's interesting to compare its gorgeous, tender title track with Wilson's reworking.

By Linton Chiswick

Richard Thompson | Mock Tudor Capitol

The peerless Mr Thompson is not well known outside the genuflecting circles of critics, which means too many people are missing a trick. There's much to discover. Thompson has never been lazy; since his days as a teenage guitar prodigy and damn-near inventor of folk-rock, he's sharpened his skills and wits to chuck out a string of classic albums, and Mock Tudor sees him workin' it in top form. By turns vicious, tender and ironic, the record's a love song to London, dappled with urban myth and legend-type twists: antiheroes include mafia hard men, but they fall for women called Sibella or Bathsheba, be-jeaned backstreet sirens who weave callous spells. There's instrumental voodoo in sinister drums and beauteous guitar flourishes that turn malevolent and unhinged. Articulate, intriguing, if this is where indigenous English music is going, then Irish, Scottish, Welsh and all the rest better work to keep up.

If you like this... Hard to match, but try mid-period Talking Heads and early John Martyn and, latterly, Kate Rusby.

By Glyn Brown

Dann Penn And Spooner Oldham | Moments from this Theatre Proper Records

Penn plays guitar and sings in a deep Alabama baritone while Oldham coaxes wobbly electric piano noises out of an old Wurlitzer, occasionally venturing the odd off-key vocal harmony. Other than that it's just the songs and nothing but, recorded live on a tour of England and Ireland last year. To call them just songs, however, amounts to damning with faint praise. A series of two- or three-minute psychodramas with a country sensibility, but written mainly for Southern soul acts in the Sixties, the likes of "I'm Your Puppet", "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and "The Dark End of the Street" are journeyman song-writing raised to a high art.

If you liked that, try the Southern soul ballads on Aretha Franklin's Queen of Soul: the Best of (Rhino Atlantic) including her sublime reading of "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man". The hillbilly roots of the form can be felt in almost anything by Hank Williams and the gospel at the heart of it all pulsates throughout the work of sanctified artists like Rance Allen, the Barrett Sisters and the O'Neal Twins.

By Phil Johnson

Macy Gray | On How Life Is Epic

Macy Gray has one of those rare voices that stops you in your tracks: sometimes measured and disarmigly intimate, others like she's been gargling petrol so raspy and explosive is its timbre. But this isn't empty posturing, soul as a synonym for baroque vocal meanderings, anodyne mating ritual clichés and sterile, sexless rhythm sections (you know who you are). Instead, this is a vibrant, honest and intelligent collision of hip hop, soul, funk and rock, totally contemporary yet underpinned by the skills of seasoned veterans such as Tower of Power percussionist Lenny Castro and Funkadelic guitarist Blackbird McKnight. In "I Try", the current single, the disparate influences coalesce into the most exuberant song of the year: never has parting sounded so good.

Few artists have welded so many influences to such effect, but Neneh Cherry's Raw Like Sushi (Circa, 1989) achieves it with verve. Sassy, hip-hop informed, political, brimming with New York attitood and Cockney cheek, this was a debut to reckon with.

By Mark Wilson

All Seeing Eye | Pickled Eggs and Sherbet ffrr

"Maria has set up home up with a man who's half my age/ A half-wit in a leotard stands on my stage." (The opening lines to Tony Christie's "Walk Like A Panther".) Mystics or paranoids, All Seeing Eye have produced this year's Revolver - an eccentric piece of pop-exotica passed over quickly on release but reveals its secrets in time. From the sub-garage ecstasy of "Sweet Music", to "Mary", an electronic dirge of "Mary Had A Little Lamb", the album unfolds as a sequence of pop hallucinations: a Sheffield concept album with the singing talent of Philip Oakey on "First Man in Space" and Baby Bird on "Plastic Diamond"; the Warpish electronica of "Big Pecker"; and Tony Christie's northern lounge of "Happy Birthday Nicola" and "Stars On Sunday" both of which demonstrate songwriter Jarvis Cocker's incomparable facility to conceive pop's sublime, by generating the extraordinary from the ordinary.

If you liked "And The Beat Goes On" from Pickled Eggs, try the Buddy Rich original on Blow Up a Go-Go. Or check out the Finnish groove of Super Sound by Pepe Deluxe, the epic Play by Moby and Kruder Dorfmeister's The K&D Sessions.

By John O'Reilly