Flak On Both Sides

Moby and Merritt Vs. Hitters and Cheerleaders in a Bad Year for Nerds

Granted, other funnymen also made our top 40—nasty Randy Newman, kindly John Prine, wiggy Handsome Boy Modeling School, buggy ODB, dirty Kid Rock, and dirtier Eminem constitute the usual quota or better. What's more serious is how many of the critics' favorite albums took up the burden of historical recapitulation. It would be nonsense to call this impulse millennial when it so obviously reflects rock and roll's ever-advancing maturity, which I mean not as stodgy compliment or veiled insult but neutral description. So our winner joyfully integrated rural feeling (not to mention rural hooks) into a "postmodern" "electronica" that has lost its next-big buzz—diehards voted for the Chem Bros. and Underworld the way earlier diehards stuck with Van Morrison, but the utopian rhetoric has faded away. Our runners-up, meanwhile, impassively stuffed an eccentric reading of 20th-century songwriting into slyly rudimentary postrock arrangements that sound like nothing you've ever heard except old Magnetic Fields. The same historiographic impulse touched off the repertory revivals of Prine and Ibrahim Ferrer, and imbues blues-and bluegrass-steeped Tom Waits and Steve Earle. Less familiarly and more pregnantly, it also puts across the pop-schooled orchestrations of Randy Newman (who invented this shit), Fiona Apple (thank you Jon Brion), XTC (West End boys after all), and—a thorny case—the Flaming Lips.

Newman, Apple, and XTC we grasp: sonically arresting showpieces deploying lots of traditional pop instruments, rock only by association that couldn't have happened without it. The Soft Bulletin, on the other hand, is rock period even though it drips with violin surrogates and trips over the beats of a drummer who's spent too much time in the practice room. It's the prime 1999 example of the species of contained adventure in which Megapop Inc. (especially Warners, which is still bravely trying to sell it) once invested with proud alacrity. People love it because it's neopsychedelic in such an American, wide-open-spacy way—generous by nature, jerry-built on principle, and hopeful beyond all reason. What puts me off is that Wayne Coyne evinces so much more sweetness than brain. What puts me off Nine Inch Nails' double-hoohah, on the other hand, is that Trent Reznor evinces neither, unless you think musical intelligence equals human intelligence, his con for years—always with music that says things like "dream job: emperor" and "more fun than death by injection." Handsome Boy Modeling School gives me better goof and better techno-obsessiveness than either attempted masterwork, plus I know they're not just wise guys because Prince Paul's concept-album-of-the-year had deeper politics than The Battle of Los Angeles. Why both finished below The Soft Bulletinand The Fragile(and The Battle of Los Angeles) is for me to know and you to figure out.

The difference between confronting history and leaching life from the tried-and-true often confounds our alt-country branch. Wilco fans believe Jeff Tweedy is turning into Brian Wilson, poor guy; I'm reminded more of Tom Petty and the dogged craft of Richard Thompson, auteur of the not-half-baddest effort on our list. Since good songs infused with the right compound of concept and conviction can signify in any style, Kelly Willis and the Old 97's are a different story. Only it's easier to hear the songs if you feel the style—others pump Robbie Williams and Everything but the Girl as thinking teenpop and techno feminism, whereas for me they're hip fop and pseudo Sade. I prefer the hip-schnook pseudopop of Fountains of Wayne, whose Utopia Parkwaypromises endless fun-fun-fun to those who can forget what's actually on the car radio and don't know that the real Utopia Parkway is a decaying residential thoroughfare in Queens. I'll also take Mary J. Blige's soulful indifference to class, which more than her stalwart songs is why I prefer her to Macy Gray, whose Billie-and-Dinah voice says Birdland and whose Shara-and-Dionne material (Nelson, Farris, remember?) says bank your advance. As someone who didn't think Me'shell Ndegéocello would come this far, however, I'm not giving up on Gray. Like Ndegéocello, she wants to do something big with her big gift. It's conceivable that someday either might come up with her own Play—or, what can you do, Soft Bulletin.

The hip hop that is regularly shortchanged in this poll is juiced as much by a similar sense of mission as by the new or undiminished musical ideas at its disposal. Figure a more involved and representative electorate would have boosted every rap title in our top 40 as well as elevating Mobb Deep (72nd) and late-December Jay-Z (68th, wait till next year) toward the printed chart. But note that the alt-pop split that has afflicted and energized rock since punk is taking hold in hip hop too. Because its market remains far more discerning than the dolts who assume it isn't, the Roots are genuine stars, and voter favorites like Mos Def and Prince Paul still outsell all but the biggest alt-rockers. But they don't represent the culture, just its Talented Tenth types. Although Prince Paul's very different tours de force make him artist of the year—quite a contrast to Dr. Dre, who edges Marilyn Manson and Celine Dion for shithead of the decade even if his grayboy Eminem has a lot better chance of turning Beastie than Limp Bizkit do—the Roots' soul jazz and Mos Def/Black Star's understated old-schoolisms don't transform enough history to suit me. Nor does flava-of-the-year Mannie Fresh agitate my azz, which never caught the Miami booty-boom either—the embarrassing fact is that I have more fun with the Brits in Basement Jaxx. In case you didn't know, however, I also don't represent the culture—I mean, not only am I down with Q-Tip's electrobeats, I still like the Canibus album. So I'll abide steadfastly until some forward-looking race man—not one of those hippy-dippy West Coast guys, and quite possibly Black Star itself—takes alt-rap all the way home.

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