Just as 1999's record charts had a varied mix, from rap-metal
bombast to neo-country twang, so, too, do our lists of critics' faves.
A few people pop up more than once -- Macy Gray, Alison Krauss, Prince Paul, MeShell Ndegeocello -- but the lists are testament to a simple truth: Despite large amounts of pap in each genre, there are artists creating quality work worth seeking.
Richard Harrington's Top 10
1. Alison Krauss, "Forget About It" (Rounder). Melding newgrass, country and pop, this is a sterling showcase for the crystalline purity and emotional strength of Krauss' voice, as well as her great taste in covers, all served up with stark, simple acoustic grace.
2. MeShell NdegeOcello, "Bitter" (Maverick). Downplaying the funk, NdegeOcello also pares her sound to its brittle essentials as she cooly ruminates on matters of the heart, focusing on ache and emptiness.
3. Cassandra Wilson, "Traveling Miles" (Blue Note). An inspired vocal tribute to Miles Davis that's true to his questing spirit in its rethinking of associated materials and savvy appropriation of cool understatement.
4. Cherokee, "I Love You . . . Me" (BMG/RCA). Smooth jazz-funk excursion in the manner of Erykah Badu and Maxwell, but far more revealing in its lyrics about escaping a stifling marriage, regaining self-control and blooming late as both artist and woman.
5. Macy Gray, "On How Life Is" (Epic). A powerful debut that introduces a startling new singer (Betty Boop by way of Rod Stewart) and writer who gives post modern edge to vintage rock 'n' soul music.
6. Angie Stone, "Black Diamond" (Arista). Another neo-soul newcomer, Stone co-wrote "Brown Sugar" for former beau D'Angelo, who returns the favor on "Everyday," a standout in a collection of finely crafted, funky-cool R&B that Lauryn Hill fans should catch up to.
7. Terri Thornton, "I'll Be Easy to Find" (Verve). She wasn't, unfortunately: The jazz singer and pianist, critically acclaimed on her arrival 30 years ago as peer to Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald, disappeared into obscurity, then suddenly resurfaced winning the Monk Jazz Vocal Competition in 1998.
8. Mandy Barnett, "I've Got a Right to Cry" (Sire). More Patsy Cline than LeAnn Rimes, Barnett gave in to her countrypolitan instincts and teamed with Cline's producer Owen Bradley (this was his last project before passing away) for a classic country collection that somehow manages to feel modern.
9. Fiona Apple, "When the Pawn..." (Clean Slate/Epic). Apple's meditations on sexual politics are smart, sharply crafted and manage to be both confessional and confrontational.
10. Kim Richey, "Glimmer" (Mercury). Hailed in Nashville as a writer, but misunderstood as a singer, Richey turns the tables with a smart, sharply crafted set that's halfway between alt-country and alt-rock.
Concerts (a tie): From the star's fabulous (and numerous) costumes and wigs to skin-tight, over-the-top production numbers, Cher's concert July 11 at the Nissan Pavilion was not only grand spectacle, but great fun. For music that was alternately fiery and ethereal, and at all times astonishingly emotional, no concert beat the Buena Vista Social Club, Oct. 20 at Lisner, featuring the ageless Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer and pianist Ruben Gonzalez. Luckily, both return early next year: Buena Vista Social Club to Constitution Hall on Feb. 7, Cher (with mambo man Lou Bega) to MCI Center on Feb. 27.
Curt Fields' Top 10
1. Moby: "Play" (V2). Mixing techno and hip-hop sensibilities with field recordings from the early 1900s, this master of the musical change-up delivers soulful electronica and the best record of the year.
2. DJ Rap: "Learning Curve" (Sony/Columbia). DJ Rap (Charissa Saverio) savvily takes her break beat foundation and builds on it with a melange of mainstream sounds. Slick, yes. But undeniably captivating.
3. Tom Waits: "Mule Variations" (Epitaph). The master story-teller in his finest, most gimmick-free form in years. He ranges from Waitsian carnival ("Filipino Box Spring Hog") to heart-breakingly sweet ("Take It With Me").
4. Eminem: "The Slim Shady" (Interscope). The most hyped album of the year, and, amazingly, it lives up to it thanks to Dr. Dre's production talents. He hangs this tapestry of bad boy behavior on sonic hooks impossible to ignore. Don't believe? Listen to "My Name Is" then try to forget it.
5. Mos Def: "Black On Both Sides" (Rawkus). Using a variety of source material from Aretha Franklin to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mos Def gives stylistic props to the old school but never sounds dated. When he aims high, he offers "edutainment" at its best, touching on topics ranging from racism to defense spending. When he aims lower, he creates entertaining bits like "Ms. Fat Booty."
6. Nine Inch Nails: "The Fragile" (Interscope). Trent Reznor continues his whisper-to-a-scream production style but there are a remarkable number of delicate moments amid the rock maelstrom. He's still intimate with despair, but now he's offering a bit of hope, too.
7. Macy Gray: "On How Life Is" (Epic). This bluesy, funky look at love, sex and even murder is the bomb-diggety. Gray wrote all the lyrics and her seductively rough voice keeps the sound organic, even when an occasional well-chosen sample drops into the mix.
8. Handsome Boy Modeling School: "So ... How's Your Girl?" (Tommy Boy). School is Prince Paul and Dan the Automator. They mix a hip-hop martini so dry it borders on arid, perfect for the chill out room. Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and, among others, members of Cibo Matto, the Beastie Boys, Brand Nubian and De La Soul do vocal guest shots, but it's the duo's vision and skills that keep it cohesive.
9. Armand Van Helden: "2 Future 4 U" (Armed). Difficult to believe something so cool can produce so much sweat but this groove-filled outing from longtime house music DJ and much sought-after remix artist will work your body. Highlights include the soul-flavored "U Don't Know Me" featuring Duane Harden on vocals.
10. Ruff Ryders: "Ryde or Die Vol. 1" (Ruff Ryders/Interscope). This assemblage of rap talent -- Jay-Z, DMX, Eve, the Lox, Big Pun and several others -- was the sound pouring from car windows earlier this year. Eve, Jay-Z and Parle are the standouts. Rude and crude, but as good as it gets when it comes to some of that hardcore gangsta ... well, you know.
Best concert: Robbie Fulks at Iota, July 8. Three parts country, one part blues, two parts rock 'n' roll and, on one number, a dash of Baptist hymnal style produced a highly energetic show that was perfect for Iota's intimate size. Fulks' rollicking barroom sound got the crowd's attention and his witty lyrics and engaging stage presence made them chuckle. And he did a cover of ABBA's "Dancing Queen" that was just too fine. But outshining the cleverness was the heart -- not to mention sweat -- Fulks puts into his music.
Geoffrey Himes' Top 10
1. Various artists: "Sacred Steel Live" (Arhoolie). This is the year's best album not because pedal and lap steel guitars in a black church service are such a novelty, but because these guitarists, including the Campbell Brothers and Willie Eason, provide 1999's freest soloing, most rocking rhythms and purest passion.
2. Julie Miller: "Broken Things" (Hightone). This is the year's best country-folk, singer-songwriter album because Miller sings about broken hearts and broken lives with a splintering in her voice as if playing back the crack-ups in slow motion.
3. Sam Rivers' Rivbea All-Star Orchestra: "Inspiration" (RCA Victor). After a decade of self-exile in Florida, Rivers claims his rightful place as a giant of jazz history with an album that sends his classically informed compositions diving into churning chaos and then pulls them back out with a cleansed grandeur.
4. Beth Orton: "Central Reservation" (Arista). Orton emerged from London's dance-music scene, but she's more of a singer-songwriter in the Joan Armatrading/Suzanne Vega mode; she uses her techno background to make her melodic confessions crackle and pop.
5. Randy Newman: "Bad Love" (Dreamworks). The best songwriter of the past three decades aims his Bertolt-Brecht-meets-Fats-Domino methodology at aging rock stars, rich baby boomers, European history and himself.
6. Bill Frisell: "Good Dog Happy Man" (Nonesuch). Here's a new kind of fusion music -- jazz and hillbilly music, with the harmonic and rhythmic sophistication of the one linked to the earthy, story-telling beauty of the other.
7. MeShell Ndegeocello: "Bitter" (Maverick). For years people have been expecting this funk bassist to go pop, but they never expected her to go pop like this -- with lush, hushed string arrangements wrapped around intensely intimate ballads.
8. Alison Krauss: "Forget About It" (Rounder). For years people have been expecting this bluegrass fiddler to go pop, but they never expected her to go pop like this -- with lush, hushed string arrangements wrapped around intensely intimate ballads.
9. Prince Paul: "A Prince Among Thieves" (Tommy Boy). You'd think that hip-hop, a genre that specializes in spoken-word vocals, would specialize in narrative, but never has a rapper seized the possibilities of storytelling as audaciously as Prince Paul does on this concept album about a naive street kid lured into crime and violence.
10. Smash Mouth: "Astro Lounge" (Interscope). One of the best reasons to venture into the desert of top-40 radio this year was this California pop-ska band that knows how to write infectious pop hooks and how to drive them home with unembarrassed glee.
Best Concert: Elvis Costello & Steve Nieve at the Pier Six Concert Pavilion, June 10. On a cold, rainy night in Baltimore, a scarf-wrapped Elvis Costello ranged from his punkish 1977 debut through his Beatlesque pop and rootsy Americana to his recent Burt Bacharach collaborations and made it sound all of a piece. Accompanied only by keyboardist Steve Nieve, Costello proved that the songs depended not on their arrangements but on their smart lyrics and sturdy melodies. The talkative singer forged such a bond with the audience that he did an hour of encores.
Mark Jenkins's Top 10
1. Burning Airlines, "Mission: Control!" (DeSoto). Post-hardcore at its knottiest, this D.C. trio's debut avoids obvious melodic payoffs, but the excitement generated by the music's zigs and zags surpasses traditional tunesmithery.
2. Fountains of Wayne, "Utopia Parkway" (Atlantic). Both the jokes and the melodies sparkle on this Northeast Corridor power-pop quartet's second album, but the sad songs are even better than the funny ones.
3. Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, "Spanish Dance Troupe" (Mantra/Beggar's Banquet). The sixth album by this Welsh neopsychedelic folk-rock quintet is its quietest and least antic, but also its loveliest and most consistent.
4. Joi, "One and One Is One" (Realworld/ Astralwerks). Indian music is seldom acknowledged as one of the principal sources of drum 'n' bass, and many of the year's best Anglo-Indian albums weren't even released in the states, but this celebration of drone, chant and techno-tabla can stand for all of them.
5. Oliver Mtzukudzi "Tuku Music" (Putamayo). The U.S. debut of a longtime Zimbabwean star offers infectious syncopation and songs whose outgoing spirit suits their messages of understanding and brotherhood.
6. Rage Against the Machine, "The Battle of Los Angeles" (Epic). Zack de la Rocha's increasingly poetic rhetoric has finally caught up with the power of this L.A. band, the only metal-hop group to deliver on the sonic promise of Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back."
7. Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma "Sampradaya" (Realworld). The year's most thrilling rave-ups came on an album of classical ragas played on the santoor, a 116-string Indo-Persian cousin of the hammered dulcimer.
8. Super Furry Animals, "Guerrilla" (Flydaddy). On its most eclectic album yet, this Welsh quintet combines electro chants and punk romps, Tex-mex vamps and calypso beats. It's a gorilla action for global absurdism.
9. Underworld, "Beaucoup Fish" (Junior Boy's Own/ V2). One of the few art-disco acts that can sustain a full album, this British trio drives Karl Hyde's cut-up urban observations and classic Giorgio Moroder grooves to the level of incantation.
10. XTC, "Apple Venus Volume 1" (Idea/TVT). After a seven-year feud with its former label, this British duo works out its resentment with a remarkably sanguine album of lush, tuneful "orchoustic" songs about country life and new love.
Best Concert: Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, June 24, 9:30 Club. In their first local show since 1991, the two former Go-Betweens revealed the folk-rock virtues of their back catalogue, notably urbane lyrics and pretty melodies. But in strumming their acoustic guitars so hard, they reminded that the Go-Betweens were as much a punk band as a folk-rock one.
Mike Joyce's Top 10
1. Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate "Kulanjan" (Hannibal). Roots music that bridges continents, generations and genres with an entrancing weave of guitar and kora.
2. Richard Thompson "Mock Tudor" (Capitol). London calling: Although Thompson views the city and his youth from a distance, his songwriting and guitar work are as sharp as ever.
3. Dolly Parton "The Grass Is Blue" (Sugar Hill). Back to where she once belonged, amid bluegrass's high spirits and harmonies, not to mention a stellar string band.
4. Michael Brecker "Time Is of the Essence" (Verve). It's a groove thing, though not without ample evidence of the jazz tenor saxophonist's harmonic ingenuity.
5. John Prine "In Spite of Ourselves" (Oh Boy). Along with a flock of country thrushes, including Melba Montgomery, Connie Smith and Iris DeMent, Prine revisits a prime collection of honky tonk tales.
6. Randy Newman "Bad Love" (Dreamworks). Older, wiser and refusing to mellow, Newman still revels in love's miseries and illusions.
7. Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer (Nonesuch). Haunting and heartbreaking music from a master Cuban vocalist and an extraordinary band.
8. Steve Earle and The Del McCoury Band "The Mountain" (E-Squared). An inspired pairing, as Earle's reckless spirit and rough-hewn vocals add grit to the McCoury band's seasoned and soulful sound.
9. Lester Young "The Complete Lester Young On Verve" (Verve). Who wrote the "Book of Cool"? This eight-CD box set showcases Young's insinuating tenor sax tone in a series of frequently inspired and star-studded settings.
10. Pretenders "Viva El Amor" (Warner Bros.). "Human," "Popstar," "From the Heart Down" -- the album's opening tracks rank with the band's best work, and there isn't a significant drop in quality lurking around the bend.
Best Concert: Bruce Springsteen at the MCI Center Aug. 30-Sept. 2. Perhaps the E Street band's last tour and hurrah, it recalled the glory days with undiminished passion and stamina.