My Favourite Releases of 1999
compiled 20 January 2000
At the time of compiling this list, there are a number of albums which I am
yet to hear. This is not the best albums of 1999 as decreed by me - these are
my favourites amongst those I did get the chance to hear.
Albums released 1999:
- Spiritual Bum (Stephen Cummings) -
Any Cummings release is likely to make my "best of the year" list just
because it's a Cummings album but this time, things were a little
different. Firstly, this is the first commercial release I've contributed
to (no, not musically) through creating the CDROM component of the
disc. Secondly, and most importantly, the album is nothing less than
wonderful. Calling it the best of his career might be going a little far
(although some didn't hesitate) but it was certainly there in the top 3.
- Driving to Damascus (Big Country) -
It was an interesting year for being a BC fan. The new album was preceded
by a single release that was ruled out of chart contention by the
powers-that-be because it came in a fold-out cardboard box. Apparently
this meant some people may have bought it so they could use the handy box
and find something else to put the CD in. That absurdity then gave way to a
botched album release, where the strategy of also releasing a limited version
with bonus tracks backfired due to a manufacturing defect in all pressings of
the "limited edition". Irate fans were then left high and dry by the BC
management, who have since faked a story about BC's lead singer "disappearing"
to save them embarrassment of cancelling some shows due to internal
The only saving grace from all this hoopla was the album itself, which
actually wasn't too bad. These guys are as predictable as they come
but I've always been sucker for big fat choruses and big power
chords, which are a key part of the BC approach. The surprise this time
around was their newfound subtlety on tracks like "Fragile Thing" and
"Your Spirit To Me". They don't have the ability to change the world with
their music but if you'd been hooked previously, this was no disappointment.
- I Am Shelby Lynne (Shelby Lynne) -
I was about to include Beth Orton's "Central Reservation" in my list but then
I heard this one. Where Beth painted insight with clever wordplay, Shelby cut
to the chase and did it in style, lots and lots of style. From the opening
drum volley seguing into the sweeping strings of "Your Lies" to the delicate
touch of "Black Light Blue", this was a grandiose celebration of 60s pop circa
1999 that was wholly bewitching. If it's taken her 6 albums to figure out who
she is, let's hope she doesn't forget it in a hurry.
- "Western Wall" (Linda Ronstadt/Emmylou Harris) -
Because of her "Wrecking Ball" album, Emmylou Harris can now do little wrong in
my book, even if she does nothing to reproduce the wonder of that album. This
album is basically a set of cover versions sung by Harris and friend Linda
Ronstadt, and when I heard it included songs written by Springsteen as well as
Patti Scialfa (his wife), I had to hear it. While his "Across The Border" works
nicely, the country arrangement of her "Valerie" pales in comparison to the
original. But the highlights of this disc come from other songs, such as the
haunting Andy Prieboy song that opens the disc and the ethereal vocals on
- 18 Tracks (Bruce Springsteen) -
Strictly speaking, I should exercise some restraint and keep this off my "best
of" list because my 1998 list included the full 4-CD "Tracks" box set. But this
one disc compilation included three new songs that re-affirmed just how good
Springsteen is, even when he's discarding songs. The track selection was
perplexing (where's "Roulette"? "Back In Your Arms"?) but there were enough of
the gems here. If you were curious what all the fuss was about with Tracks, try
- Mock Tudor (Richard Thompson) -
After hearing his name mentioned regularly for some time, in 1999 I took the
plunge and started delving into the work of Richard Thompson. While Mock Tudor
was not my first purchase, it's certainly the best of the handful of his albums
that I've acquired so far. The final track was perhaps the only clunker but
"Hard On Me" featured not one but two of the most exhilarating electric guitar
breaks I've heard since Edwyn Collins' "Gorgeous George". If only Clapton
still sounded this vital...
- Mule Variations (Tom Waits) -
7 years after his last proper solo album, the man returns with more of
the same gravel voice, offbeat arrangements and great songs. Few
songwriters write choruses that feature haunting lines like "Why wasn't
God watching/Why wasn't God listening/Why wasn't God there/For Georgia
Lee". The album may not have been as spectacular as "Bone Machine" but
this was impressive nonetheless.
Musical discovery of the year:
- Step Inside This House (Lyle Lovett, 1998) -
This one knocked me sideways. I bought it out of curiosity (what does Lyle
Lovett sound like?) with no real expectations and wound up completely
captivated. Few albums can claim this level of quality in every detail. Careful
production has resulted in immaculate arrangements and pristine sound quality.
The packaging is exemplary. Although none were written by Lyle himself, the
songs themselves are staggeringly good and Lyle's performances of them are
engaging and frequently touching. The double disc set is worth the price just
for the title track.
- Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band -
This was a tough call, especially when you consider that in 1999 year I
also saw Richard Thompson, Chris Whitley, Elvis Costello, Jewel, Paul
Kelly (twice) and Mr B. Springsteen (5 times), plus a number of others.
But this gig was a blast. An evening dripping in traditional country music may
sound a bit much to take but I wore a big grin throughout the show because,
goddammit, this was a great gig! I had a front row position to watch Steve
accompanied by a bunch of talented musicians working through some wonderful
songs. For more than 3 hours they stepped around the single microphone making
it all seem so completely effortless. An unbilled guest appearance by Emmylou
Harris was just the icing on the cake. Magic, magic and more magic.
- The Insider -
It's probably a film that no one will bother seeing as the marketing mob
can't tag it with simple but cool slogans like "Heads will Roll". With
this one the bad guy is Brown & Williamson tobacco company and the good
guy is an ex B&W research scientist played by an aged Russell Crowe. It's
not the usual material for thrillers but then, this isn't your usual
thriller. This is a movie that keeps your eyes glued to the screen
without messing with your intelligence, and it's certainly one of the
gutsier Hollywood offerings for a while. An astoundingly good film that
deserves whatever awards get thrown at it.
- The Sixth Sense - If you haven't see it yet, rectify that ASAP and
all will be explained. 'Nuff said.
- The Straight Story - G-rated, released by Disney Corporation,
directed by David Lynch. Much was made of that incongrous combination but
thankfully, just as much was made of the film itself. It's a touching and
gorgeously shot film about two elderly brothers, the ten year dispute that has kept them apart and the lawnmower that brought them together again. I had to
stay and watch the end credits just so I could compose myself and wipe away
some tears. It would be surreal if it wasn't done so beautifully.
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