We were livin’ la vida loca as there seemed to be an explosion of polished pop taking over once again – Christina Aguilera wanted us to rub her up the right way (at least it wasn’t as fucking awful a message to be sending out to kids as WAP) and Britney Spears told us we were driving her crazy. Dr Dre was still D.R.E – has anyone checked what his doctorate is in? – and Blink 182 wanted to check their age, again. Apparently we stole Len’s sunshine but it didn’t matter because everybody was free to wear sunscreen while finding it impossible to escape from Rob Thomas crooning about how ‘Smooth’ it all is over Santana’s guitar toss-offs – that’s right: it’s 1999! Prepare to party as this series does what I’ve never managed to do: say goodbye to the 90s.
With the new Millennium (or Willenium – I see what you did there, Big Will) approaching, music was in a weeeiiiird place, man. It felt like there was a real rush to shrug off the sound that had been so prevalent in the decades early stages and embrace all things gloss and Y2K – I point the cannon of blame firmly at MTV’s TRL era. There’s only so much Backstreet Boys and Britney guff the world can take before it starts to seep out…
Mark Sandman – bass player and singer for the fantastic Morphine – collapsed on stage in Italy in July. He was pronounced dead shortly after – a heart attack likely due to heavy stress and the heat had killed him at age 46. Morphine disbanded.
Gary Cherone said farewell to the Van Halen brothers and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (as he was then going by) filed a lawsuit against 9 websites for copyright and trademark infringement starting a pattern of strict and total control over the presence of his songs anywhere that would continue until his passing. Oh, and the music world said ‘alright, how’s it goin?’ to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival when the first event was held on October 9th – Tool, Beck, The Chemical Brothers, The Racist Prick Formerly Known As Morrissey and Rage Against The Machine all featured on the lineup.
So – leaving aside the pop tarts of the era, was anything decent released in 1999? Well…. it’ wasn’t a huge year but The Black Crowes kicked things off with a pretty good stab at it with By Your Side, produced by Kevin Shirley and sounding much like the Crowes of old with plenty of biting riffs and soul. Blondie released their first album in 17 years – No Exit shifted pretty well on the back of their hit ‘Maria’ and everybody’s favourite Anal Cunt released that album that everyone owns at least two copies of – It Just Keeps Getting Worse.
Sparklehorse’s second album Good Morning Spider was a real slice of the good stuff and Jimmy Eat World achieved a great album with Clarity – I hate the ’emo’ tag – with songs like ‘Lucky Denver Mint’, ‘Table for Glasses’, ‘Goodbye Sky Harbour’ and ‘Believe In What You Want’ it’s a real solid slab of alt-gold.
Silverchair released their third album Neon Ballroom which is one my wife wanted to add to the record shelves not too long ago and the first I’d really heard by them, it’s not shabby at all though still feeling more like a callback to those bands from a certain Pacific North West area of America that they loved.
Wilco dropped their third album Summerteeth and received praised from pretty much every critical outlet and The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin – featuring ‘Race for the Prize’ and ‘Waitin’ for a Superman’ – met an equally ecstatic reaction. At some point I remember watching one of the music channels and catching a video for ‘The Dolphin’s Cry’ and was so taken with it that I went out and got hold of Live’s The Distance To Here, the band’s fourth album. It’s got a real strong and cool vibe that I dig a lot though it wasn’t as successful for them as previous efforts like Throwing Copper.
On the post-rock front there were another pair of stone-cold classics released in 1999 – three if you count Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Slow Riot For Kanada EP – Mogwai released their fucking amazing second studio album Come On Die Young which featured a deliberately sparser sound to Young Team and still gets thrown into my cd player on a regular basis. Oh and a band from Iceland released their second album too: Sigur Rós’ Ágætis byrjun proved to be both their breakthrough and a benchmark for both the genre and the band – it’s just a thing of beauty:
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released Echo their last with Rick Rubin and bass player Howie Epstein who was absent from both many a session and the cover photo shoot. A much more sombre collection of tunes, it’s Petty’s ‘divorce’ album and one the band didn’t touch much live but it’s very much worth a listen and songs like ‘Room At The Top’ and ‘Free Girl Now’ always a joy to hear. Another Tom – Tom Waits released his thirteenth album, Mule Variations which was his first in six years.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, now featuring the return of John Frusciante, released the album that threw them into the megasphere: Californication. A massive success and loaded with singles like ‘Otherside’, ‘Scar Tissue’ and the title track, it gave the band another lease of life and success and its songs are still played on radio, it’s pretty good too.
There was a trio of great third albums too in 1999 – Rage Against The Machine’s third and final album Battle of Los Angeles was another slab of their fiery great stuff (to be honest, they had a pretty perfect run in the studio album department so it’s not surprising they don’t want to taint it by pushing for more) and Dave Grohl and his mates figured There Was Nothing Left To Lose which went bonkers thanks to hits like ‘Learn to Fly’ and ‘ Generator’. It’s got a real different vibe to most everything else in their catalogue – a bit softer, almost Police-like at times – and is a real highlight. Oh and Counting Crows’ This Desert Life arrived just two years after their second. It’s another fine effort from the band though not as strong as Recovering The Satellites with songs like ‘Mrs Potter’s Lullaby’, ‘I Wish I Was A Girl’ and ‘Colorblind’ standing out for me.
For me, the album of 1999 goes to:
Built to Spill – Keep It Like A Secret
Built to Spill often feel like a secret in themselves, I honestly don’t think they get the audience they deserver (or that their major label Warner Bros would like) but they remain one of the finest purveyors of guitar-driven ‘alt’ out there and have a massively strong back catalogue of albums which include Keep It Like A Secret and its predecessor Perfect From Now On both of which are oft-heralded by those list-compilers as essential.
Perfect From Now On is was the band’s first on a major label and in a move that surprised everyone, and showed Warner’s faith in them, the shortest song on it was still over five minutes long – it’s a song of long, experimental tunes with philosophical lyrics all hinged on Doug Martsch’s guitar playing. No doubt knackered after crafting such an epic, Keep It Like A Secret is a deliberate direction, Martsch made a concerted effort to create shorter, more concise tunes – most of which were born during a week of jamming. Maybe they looked around, saw how quickly the majors could cast aside bands and decided to tighten things up.
Well – to an extent. What I love about this album is that, yes, it’s more concise and accessible but even here Built To Spill wouldn’t be constrained – the songs start out like streamlined, massively catchy indie tunes but then Martsch still manages to shake loose and throw in bundles of guitar histrionics, twists and turns while maintaining a tightness and directness that keep them rooted in tighter time frames – even with the glorious time signature changes.
The lyrics are more immediate and catchy too and I’ve got a real love for the humour on this album, perhaps most evident in the cliche-mocking ‘You Were Right’ which borrows lines from the ‘classic rock’ school that the indie-rock scene at the time was so keen to distances itself from and not even approach ironically: “You were right when you said all that glitters isn’t gold, You were right when you said all we are is dust in the wind, you were right when you said we are all just bricks in the wall.”
That’s the other thing I love about Built To Spill both in general and on this album – they manage to keep their music open and breathing as openly as bands like Pavement and other ‘indie rock’ bands that sites like Pitchfork used to fawn over. BUT they’re not afraid to simply fucking have it when it comes to amazing guitar solos and playing – classic rock elements and executions in an alt-rock sound. Doug Martsch clearly knows how to make people like me go “ooooohhhh BABY!” It’s the sort of stuff that I think Thurston Moore would love to do but doesn’t quite have Martsch’s guitar chops.
See: aside from how little an audience this band has compared to what they deserve – Doug Martsch is a massively underrated guitar player. Throughout Built To Spill’s career (I can no longer refer to them as BTS anymore as that throws up an all together different band on Google), which is still going and still on a major label, Martsch is not only the only mainstay of a band but the lineup and sound is built around his guitar playing in a way that makes me think of a less fuzz-buried J Mascis. Whereas it feels like J can just plug in and rip out a riff into a song and Martsch deliberates a lot more over structures (hence the increasing gap between studio albums), there’s plenty of similarities and I’d hold them both up as the genre’s greatest players.
I’d happily dig into any Built To Spill album and lose myself in it but Keep It Like A Secret is like the most perfect encapsulation of their sound and easily its classic lineup and manages to be what’s got to be the decade’s last great 90s album.
Unfortunately I guess Warner Bros. has a strange relationship with the streaming service beginning with an S and this is one of the band’s albums not available on it. However: