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Back Stories | My Favourite Albums of 1999

Revisiting Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, Verbena and the rest of the class of ’99.

I’ve never been very good at sifting through 1,000 album reviews and whittling them all down to a Top 10 list. So here, in typically haphazard form, are my 16 favourite discs of 1999. Click on the album cover to read the original review (if there is one — a few have slipped through the cracks over the years. I’ve never been that good at archiving either):

1 | Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
Grow Fins: Rarities (1965 – 1982)

Five CDs of unreleased dada blues, Venusian field hollers, lurching atonal skronk and ’60 garage psychosis from the visionary genius who put the zoom in Sun Zoom Spark. Sure, most of it is decades old. You find anything that still sounds this far ahead of its time, you let me know.

2 | Verbena
Into The Pink

Introducing the best album you probably never heard in 1999 — the smell of teen spirit in a heart-shaped box full of doll parts and violets. They said grunge was dead. This co-ed Yankee trio proves they were wrong. Shell out for the import.

3 | Tom Waits
Mule Variations

The prodigal hobo troubadour returns after six years in the wilderness. Coughing up phlegm, kicking up gravel, beating a steamer trunk with a hunk of lumber and baying at the moon, ol’ Tom cooks up a Filipino Box Spring Hog. Mmmm.

4 | The Clash
From Here To Eternity: Live

Magnificent, powerful, incendiary. Proof that live albums don’t have to suck. And more proof that punk legends The Clash really were the only band that mattered. And might still be.

5 | XTC
Apple Venus Vol. 1

A drop of water and a plucked violin flow into a River Of Orchids that carries you through an orch-pop wonderland of fruity horns, plum accents and sweet melodies — except for the brilliantly bitter pill of Your Dictionary. Get the Homespun demos disc to complete the set.


6 | Iggy Pop
Avenue B

Turning 50 isn’t nifty to the world’s forgotten boy. So Iggy Pop douses the lights, sweeps up the broken glass of his commitment-phobic, nihilistic existence and sits down to a sombre, winner-take-all staring contest with the Grim Reaper. I bet the Reaper blinks first.

7 | Beck
Midnite Vultures

Indie-rock’s biggest loser is still getting crazy with the Cheez Whiz. But now, the funk soul brother wants to freak you all night long on the shag carpet while the disco ball spins, the robot dancers pop and lock and Prince jams on the 8-track. This is what it sounds like when doves fry.

8 | Fountains Of Wayne
Utopia Parkway

From the writer of That Thing You Do! comes the concept album of the year: Pure, perfect pop about the pathetic lives of ’80s suburbanite teens in all their custom van-driving, laser show-watching, .38 Special-digging glory. If only actual adolescence were this cool.

9 | Fiona Apple
When The Pawn …

She’s still that freaky girl in the back of class with greasy hair, buggy eyes and a scribbler full of creepy, confessional pop-ballad poetry with a 90-word title. Once she starts to read it in that husky voice, though, you realize she’s the most talented kid in school — in a scary, Sybil sorta way.

10 | Nine Inch Nails
The Fragile

Mr. Sunshine Trent Reznor takes a 90-minute slide down an aggro-rock razor blade into industrial-strength solvent that cleans five years of toxic gunk from his veins. The motto: What doesn’t kill you makes your CD stronger. Brutal, uncompromising and uncommercial — like that’s a surprise.

11 | Flaming Lips
The Soft Bulletin

The sunshine supermen from Oklahoma toss out the rock ’n’ roll rules, going where the muse leads them with a sackful of orchestral manoeuvres, cosmic acid-pop soundscapes, choir-sized vocals and fuzz-tone guitars. Even Brian Wilson would go, “Wow, man!”

12 | The Olivia Tremor Control
Black Foliage: Animation Music

Picture yourself in a boat on a river … Now picture John, Paul and George battling Frank Zappa and Marc Bolan for the wheel. Then toss in an hour of cotton-candy harmonies, freak-out sonic experiments and elegantly surreal orch-pop. Sit back and enjoy the trip.

13 | Moby

Tapes of classic field hollers — the original samples — get sliced and diced into up-to-the-minute electronica by Herman Melville’s great-grandson. The point? Music is timeless and unites us all. But you don’t have to get it to groove to it.

14 | Guided By Voices
Do The Collapse

After a coupla dozen underground releases, indie-rock 500 winner Robert Pollard leaps to a major label. And his lo-fi British Invasion garage rock sounds — well, about the same, but clearer. So meet the new Bob — same as the old Bob.


15 | Magnetic Fields
69 Love Songs

“The Book Of Love is long and boring,” croons Stephan Merritt. He’s only half right. This literally titled set — 70-less-one bittersweet indie-pop ballads on three CDs — is not for the commitment-shy. But like true love itself, it’s worth the time invested.

16 | The Black Crowes
By Your Side

With a beatup Hammond B-3, a old Les Paul, a feather boa and Keith Richards’ leftover riffs, Atlanta’s bad boys come out of their dope-induced haze and return to rescue rock ’n’ roll from the rap-metalheads. It’s about friggin’ time.